Sue Hayman on the government’s ongoing failure to deliver on animal welfare promises
It’s more than three years since the government promised to increase maximum sentences for animal cruelty, but we are still waiting for ministers to act.
Indeed, the government has failed even to bring forward the promised Animal Welfare Sentencing Bill – legislation that was set to include extending the maximum penalty to five years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. At present, the maximum sentence is six months – but even that is not being consistently enforced. In some places, it is not being enforced at all.
All animals, domestic or wild, need proper protection from abuse and harm, and today in the Lords I will ask ministers how they plan to improve enforcement rates. Back in September 2017, there was strong support across the political spectrum for the government’s proposals. Now there is growing frustration in the country about the delays, and wide concern at the lack of convictions around existing laws.
Most recent animal welfare legislation is designed to be enforced at local authority level. But a Freedom of Information request from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home has revealed that some councils are currently lacking an animal welfare function. Some contract it out, some refer cases to the RSPCA, and some only deal with dog issues and licensing. Some don’t carry it out at all.
Overstretched and underfunded local government is being left to enforce complex legislation with little or no central government support, and limited training. Even the most active council animal welfare teams are struggling.
Reports of wildlife crime are increasing but the number of convictions remains very low. The RSPB reports 85 confirmed killings of birds of prey in 2019 with just the one conviction. Illegal hare coursing and badger baiting and trapping continue to cause terrible suffering, as well as damage to the countryside and farming.
Nowhere, however, is the need for tougher laws and better enforcement more apparent than with fox hunting, where there is now overwhelming evidence to suggest the law is regularly ignored or exploited by hunts. We must tighten up the Hunting Act and introduce a ‘recklessness’ clause to prevent trail hunting being used as a cover for illegal activity.
The government ignores these issues when it should be seeking to enforce and strengthen the law. Responsibility is left with our overstretched police forces, who simply do not have enough specialist knowledge and training (let alone the funding and resources) to do the job effectively.
Extraordinarily, there is also no system to record wildlife crimes in the UK, so the police can’t track activity and share intelligence. Many such crimes are not recordable or notifiable offences, which means information isn’t collected – even when they have been investigated. So, valuable detail about trends in crime and intelligence is lost rather than being used to increase the allocation of resources. It also means less pressure on the government to actually do something.
The Law Commission’s 2015 report on wildlife law, commissioned by the government, considered current legislation to be a complex patchwork of overlapping and sometimes conflicting provisions. It recommended reforming the law in England and Wales but, once again, the government has failed to act.
Better legislation on animal welfare and wildlife crime is vital, along with a greater understanding of how existing laws are applied in practice – and why they are not being fully enforced. At the very least, ministers must act to ensure more effective reporting and assessment of crimes, the improved targeting of resources, and rigorous identification, prosecution and sentencing of criminals.
Baroness Sue Hayman of Ullock is a member of the Shadow Defra Team in the House of Lords
Published 12th January 2020