Animal Welfare Bill
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Animal Welfare Bill Gets Broad Welcome

The Draft Animal Welfare Bill [pdf] published by the government this week and introducing among other things a duty of care, restrictions on the sale of animals and a new definition of cruelty, has been given a broad welcome by political parties and by most sectors of the pet industry.

If and when it comes into force, the new Bill will replace existing animal welfare legislation including almost the whole of the 1911 Protection Of Animals Act, all of its amendments and various minor Acts such as: the Pet Animals Act, the Cockfighting Act and the Protection Against Cruel Tethering Act.

In her forword to the Bill, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Margaret Beckett describes existing legislation as outmoded and inadequate for today's society, she says:

"It was the United Kingdom which introduced the first parliamentary legislation for animal welfare in the world and our laws have a long history of protecting animals from cruelty. However, much of the key legislation currently relating to non-farmed animals was drafted in the nineteenth century and, despite a number of subsequent amendments, fails to provide animals with standards of welfare appropriate for our time."

Duty of care

The Bill provides a new and clear definition of cruelty and encompasses the concept of a 'duty of care' which is to be imposed on owners and keepers of animals. The duty of care tips the scales. Now, the offence of ill-treatment of an animal becomes an offence of failing to prevent the ill-treatment of an animal.

Under the Bill, all animal keepers would have to provide adequate accommodation, nutrition, treatment and care. It would be possible to intervene to ensure that non-farmed animals, although not currently suffering, are kept in such a way that avoids likely suffering - for example intervening to prevent suffering of dogs or horses that are tethered unsupervised.

Additionally any keeper of an animal would now commit an offence if he permits another person, such as a child, to cause that animal to suffer.

Sale of animals

The age at which a child can buy an animal will rise to 16. It will also be illegal to offer animals (such as goldfish) as prizes - since it is unlikely that the new keeper will have the facilities in place to provide proper care.

Powers of entry

Powers of entry to seize animals will be extended to allow inspectors to enter none domestic premises without a warrant where they have reasonable belief that an animal is suffering or is even likely to suffer in the future.

Tail docking

Annexed to the Bill and related to the offence of 'mutilation', is a proposal to ban or restrict the docking of dogs’ tails and in the long term, to breed out characteristics that make a dog or cat more prone to suffering. The proposal suggests that these measures would have some effect on the incomes of both veterinary surgeons and specialist breeders

Licensing

The Bill also addresses the issuing of licences proposing that local authorities should licence the organisers of pet fairs (bird fairs, reptile fairs) in similar manner to existing pet shop licences.

This would require fairs to provide similar standards of welfare to those of pet shops and would inevitably lead to additional costs to the organisers.

Some smaller sanctuaries, rescues and unregulated livery yards - which will now also be subject to licensing, have expressed concern that the costs of meeting new regulations might put them out of business.

Horse And Hound magazine reports British Horse Society, (BHS) spokeswoman Christine Doran's comment:

"I would say that a licensing scheme would be very well received both by livery yards and by potential clients.

"There will be extra costs involved, but at the moment, it is very hard to say what the impact will be on livery establishments."

Responses

Welcoming the publication, Tim Greet, President, British Veterinary Association, (BVA) said:

"By the very nature of our work, with our scientific and practical expertise, vets are in the front line of animal welfare. Indeed at present successful prosecution relies almost entirely on evidence from a vet. For this reason we particularly welcome the imposition of a 'duty of care' on the keeper of any animal and the decision to modernise and re-define the offence of cruelty. No vet should ever again need to stand in the witness box trying to define concepts such as 'cruelty' or 'suffering'.

"We also welcome the decision to impose a ban on mutilations, but will need to see just what limited exceptions the Government has in mind with regard to tail docking of dogs.

"It has often been said that owning an animal is a privilege, not a right. With the publication of this bill, and the recent launch of the animal health and welfare strategy, the Government has provided the opportunity for society to make this a fact."

The Kennel Club, (KC) gave a more guarded welcome:

"The draft Animal Welfare Bill includes the very good news that DEFRA has heeded the Kennel Cub's view that the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals is essentially flawed and needs to be overhauled before it could became a basis for legislation. In addition the draft states that the Government wishes to encourage voluntary schemes, through the Kennel Club, to ensure the long term health of particular breeds.

"The Kennel Club is disappointed to note the proposal to ban or restrict the docking of dogs tails, but is pleased that DEFRA will be considering dispensation for certain working dogs. On this matter the Kennel Club will push for dispensation for the working Gundog breeds".

Dogs Trust called the Bill the most important piece of animal welfare legislation since 1911.

Dogs Trust Chief Executive, Clarissa Baldwin, said:

"As the UK's largest dog welfare charity we have high hopes that the Animal Welfare Bill will actually make a difference to the lives of all animals, including the 6.1 million dogs in the UK.

"The most important part of this draft Bill is the "Duty of Care" section which makes responsible ownership a legal entity - something animal welfare charities have been calling on for decades."

Steve Goody, Director of Companion Animal Welfare at The Blue Cross said:

"A new law is needed which reflects modern traits of animal ownership, and meets the changing needs and concerns of organisations such as ours. We are pleased that such calls have been met with a positive response, but are equally anxious to ensure that this opportunity is not squandered - it may be another 100 years before we get an opportunity to update the law again.

"One of our biggest concerns is the need to prevent animal welfare being compromised in the first place. Under current law, an animal has to be shown to have suffered before any mandatory steps can be taken to treat it. The new law would impose a 'duty of care' on pet owners. At present, staff at our re-homing centers and hospitals can offer expert and informed advice to pet owners but they may simply not act on it. The new law would mean that anyone who owns or is responsible for an animal is legally obliged to look after its welfare."

The Federation of British Herpetologists, (FBH) has also welcomed the Bill, accepting tighter regulation on its reptile fairs. Currently many local authorities do not allow pet fairs to take place within their jurisdiction. The FBH believes the new licensing system will legitimise these events.

Caution

Whilst many breeders and sanctuaries welcomed the Bill, some have also sounded a note of caution. The extended rights of entry granted to inspectors, (read RSPCA), combined with the 'duty of care' emphasising 'failure to prevent ill-treatment' has left some feeling vulnerable. Much will depend on how the new law will be interpreted on the ground.