New bill to deliver tougher stance on animal welfare offences

A new bill introduced to Parliament this week could mean that animal abusers in England and Wales could face up to five years in prison – a significant increase from the current maximum sentence of six months.

This will make it one of the toughest sanctions in Europe, strengthening the UK’s position as a global leader on animal welfare.

The Bill follows a public consultation last year, in which more than 70% of people supported the proposals for tougher prison sentences. It means the courts will be able to take a tougher approach to cases such as dog fighting, abuse of puppies and kittens, or gross neglect of farm animals.

Tougher sentences – including up to five year’s imprisonment for the most severe cases – are already in place in Northern Ireland, having been passed by the Assembly in 2016.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove said: “There is no place in this country for animal cruelty. That is why I want to make sure that those who abuse animals are met with the full force of the law.

Our new Bill sends a clear message that this behaviour will not be tolerated, with the maximum five-year sentence one of the toughest punishments in Europe.

“I am committed to making our country the best place in the world for the care and protection of animals.”

There have been a number of cases in the last few years in which the courts said they would have handed down longer sentences had they had the power to do so.

Last year, the RSPCA received almost 1.2 million calls to its 24-hour cruelty hotline – a call every 27 seconds.

It also comes just weeks after six teenagers were arrested in Hampshire on suspicion of animal cruelty. Several sheep (pictured top) were seriously injured after large stones were thrown at them.

Animal Welfare Minister David Rutley said: “These increased maximum sentences will act as a serious deterrent against cruelty and neglect in the future. This step builds on recent positive action we have taken to protect animals, including plans to ban third-party puppy and kitten sales and banning the use of wild animals in circuses.”

The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill will be introduced into the House of Commons, before moving through to the House of Lords. If passed, it will come into effect in two months after it receives Royal Assent.

‘CPS must take the lead in welfare prosecutions’

The Countryside Alliance was among those to welcome the Bill but added that it had concerns other recommendations from the EFRA Committee have not been implemented – including the recommendation that the RSPCA should refrain from acting as a prosecutor of first resort.

The EFRA Committee concluded that the RSPCA should “withdraw from acting as a prosecutor of first resort” where there are statutory bodies with a duty to carry out this role.

Countryside Alliance chief executive Tim Bonner said: “It is right that the worse cases of animal cruelty receive custodial sentences and we fully support the increase in the maximum sentence from six months to five years.

“Increased sentences mean that the power and authority of those who enforce and prosecute animal welfare offences will be significantly strengthened. It is therefore even more important that there is proper accountability and transparency in all prosecutions.

It is generally accepted that there should be a separation between the investigation of offences and the decision to prosecute.

“The EFRA Committee found that the situation of the RSPCA bringing private prosecutions alongside its investigative, campaigning and fundraising functions does not provide the necessary separation to ensure that there is no conflict of interest.

“While the RSPCA has an invaluable role in investigating allegations of animal mistreatment, the increase in sentencing should come with clear guidance from the Government that animal welfare offences should be prosecuted by statutory authorities, except in exceptional circumstances.”