The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill 2019–21 is a private member’s bill introduced in the House of Commons by Chris Loder (Conservative MP for West Dorset) and sponsored in the House of Lords by Lord Randall of Uxbridge (Conservative). The bill would increase the maximum penalty in England and Wales for certain offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The bill has completed its House of Commons stages and is due to have its second reading in the House of Lords on 16 April 2021.
The bill is supported by the Government. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has produced explanatory notes for the bill. The text of the bill is identical to previous government bills introduced in the 2017–19 and the October–November 2019 parliamentary sessions, both of which failed to complete their stages.
The bill would amend the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which created a range of offences related to causing unnecessary harm to animals. The maximum penalty for the most serious offences is currently six months’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. The bill would increase the maximum penalty to five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.
There have been a number of recent cases related to these offences in which judges have expressed a desire to impose a higher penalty than that currently provided for under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. There is a particular desire to increase the penalties available in the case of crimes that relate to deliberate, calculating and sadistic behaviour.
In 2016, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee produced a report on the welfare of domestic pets. It recommended that maximum sentences available under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 should be increased to five years.
In 2017, Theresa May’s Conservative Government published the draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill for consultation. Of the respondents, 70% supported the Government’s proposal to increase the maximum sentence to five years for the most serious animal cruelty cases. The Government said it would proceed with a bill to increase sentences separately to an animal sentience bill “in order to ensure the higher maximum penalty is available to the courts as soon as possible”. In February 2021, the Government said it would introduce legislation on animal sentience “when parliamentary time allows”.
A bill to increase maximum sentences, identical to the current bill, was introduced in both the 2017–19 session and the short 2019 session. A summary of the debates during the parliamentary stages of the previous bills can be found in the House of Commons Library briefing for the current bill.
Animal charities have supported the current bill and expressed disappointment that previous versions failed to reach the statute book. The RSPCA has campaigned for tougher sentences for animal cruelty. Its chief executive, Chris Sherwood, said in a government press release on the bill in February 2020:
We see horrendous acts of cruelty perpetrated on animals and have long campaigned for the current maximum six-month jail term to be increased to five years. The bill has come so close to being enacted in the past—let’s not allow this important change to animal cruelty sentencing to slip through our hands.
Animal welfare is a devolved matter. The bill will extend to England and Wales, so is subject to the legislative consent process in Wales. The Welsh Government laid a legislative consent memorandum for the bill before the Senedd on 17 February 2021. At the time of writing, the Senedd had not yet given its consent. The maximum penalty for animal cruelty offenses in Northern Ireland and in Scotland has already been increased to five years’ imprisonment.
The bill consists of two clauses. Clause 1 would amend section 32 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. This section sets out the maximum sentence available for those convicted of offences in the following sections of the act:
- causing unnecessary suffering to an animal (section 4);
- carrying out a non-exempted mutilation (section 5);
- docking the tail of a dog except where permitted (sections 6(1) and 6(2));
- administering a poison to an animal (section 7); and
- involvement in an animal fight (section 8).
The maximum sentence for the above offences is currently 51 weeks’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. The bill’s explanatory notes state that, in practice, “this results in a maximum penalty of six months” and/or an unlimited fine. Clause 1 of the bill would increase the maximum sentence to five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.
Clause 2 provides for the bill to apply to England and Wales only, and for it to enter into force two months after receiving royal assent.
What happened during the bill’s Commons stages?
There was broad cross-party support for the bill during its Commons stages.
The bill’s second reading debate took place on 23 October 2020. Introducing the bill, Chris Loder said:
With this bill, we will lead the way in Europe on animal sentencing, where the average custodial sentence for animal welfare offences is currently just two years. It is a simple, yet vital measure that will ensure perpetrators who harm an animal by, for example, causing unnecessary suffering, mutilation, or poisoning, face the full force of the law.
Daniel Zeichner, Shadow Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that although the opposition supported the bill, they would try to improve it at committee stage. He raised concerns about the scope of the bill, including the fact that it would not cover cruelty to wild animals because they were not defined as “protected animals” in section 2 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
Mr Zeichner also raised concerns about whether there would be time for the bill to complete its stages before the end of the parliamentary session. He said that a coalition of 11 animal charities had written to the secretary of state in July 2020, stating that their “confidence in the Government’s commitment to deliver the bill is starting to diminish”.
Victoria Prentis, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said:
This bill has the full support of the Government, and we will do all we can to support its swift passage without amendment through the Commons and the Lords as soon as possible.
At committee stage on 3 February 2021, opposition parties tabled two amendments to the bill, but they did not push them to a division and neither amendment was made to the bill.
Luke Pollard, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, moved amendment 1. This sought to make offences covered by the bill more serious for sentencing purposes if the offender had filmed themselves committing the offence or posted a video of the offence online. Mr Pollard said:
In a digital age, we see more and more cases of people filming abuse of animals, partly for their own perverse enjoyment, partly because they want to share the film on social media, and partly because they fail to recognise that in so doing they encourage others to do the same.
Victoria Prentis said that although she agreed with the sentiment of the amendment, the Government did not support it. She said there were existing sanctions for those who posted animal cruelty images online and that aggravating factors for offences should generally be dealt with in sentencing guidelines, not within the legislation. Luke Pollard withdrew the amendment.
Daniel Zeichner moved new clause 1, which would have required the Government to publish a report on the bill’s effectiveness two years after coming into force. The report would also have to include the Government’s assessment of sentences for offences of cruelty to wild animals. Mr Zeichner expressed concern that the bill “creates a two-tier system for penalties for cruelty against domestic and wild animals”.
Victoria Prentis said the Government did not support the amendment. She said that penalties for wildlife crime were “already enshrined in separate legislation” and it was “generally standard procedure to review a bill three years after it is brought into force”. Mr Zeichner subsequently withdrew the new clause.
The bill completed its committee stage and was reported without amendment. It was passed at third reading on 12 March 2021 without debate.
- Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, ‘Another step forward: five-year sentences for animal cruelty’, 12 March 2021
- Mikey Smith and Oliver Milne, ‘Animal cruelty bill passed by MPs despite Tories “talking out” for two hours’, Mirror, 12 March 2021
- Kate Proctor, ‘The Government may not deliver its pledge to bring in tougher prison sentences for those convicted of cruelty to animals’, Politics Home, 2 December 2020
Cover image by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay.