HC Deb 27 November 1959 vol 614 cc802-11

Order for Second Reading read.

2.17 p.m.

Mr. J. Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I hope that as a result of the shortness of my own speech and those of other hon. Members who wish to intervene in the debate I may be able to pass on the fruits of the self-denying ordinance which hon. Members have imposed upon themselves since the House met today.

The first essential point about a Bill is the need for it. I should like to say something about that later. First, I want to explain shortly to the House the law as it stands today about the abandonment of animals and the possible cruelty which may result therefrom. The Act of Parliament at present in force is the Protection of Animals Act, 1911, which was slightly amended, in a way I will explain later, in 1954. The 1911 Act reads: If any person … shall … by omitting to do any act, or causing or procuring the commission or omission of any act, cause any unnecessary suffering … It then states that this shall be an offence.

Under that Act, if at a time after the commission of such an act, after the abandonment of an animal, a kind person, whether an R.S.P.C.A. inspector or anybody else, intervenes to prevent "any unnecessary suffering" being caused to that animal, it automatically expunges any offence in respect of the commission of the act by the person first responsible.

If I may refer to the need for the Bill, there are, surprisingly, on the records of the R.S.P.A.C.A. and other organisations, year in and year out, cases in which people literally abandon animals to their own devices. Some hon. Members probably know of these cases from their own experience. It is not fair to say that an animal should look after itself, because the animals about which I am talking are those which have been domesticated for many years and by our actions have been deprived of the ability which they once had to fend for themselves.

The Bill seeks to prevent three main classes of abandonment. First, it is concerned with people who go away for their holidays and leave their animals without any apparent care. They may look after them for 50 weeks of the year and be good, kind owners to their pets, but for the other two weeks they cause hardship, possibly unwittingly, to their animals, unless someone intervenes.

Secondly, it concerns those people who move from one part of the country, or from one home to another and who, being unable to take their animals with them, leave them behind.

Thirdly, possibly the most callous case that takes place—and I have records of it—is that of people who, by motor cycle or motor car, transport an animal to some place and dump it to look after itself.

The Bill has one operative Clause. It says that to abandon an animal shall be an offence. That is a slight extension of the 1911 Act, which says that to abandon an animal is not an offence and it is an offence only when actual suffering has been caused.

The second point in the Clause is the penalty of £50. I have put down a penalty of £50 for this reason: in 1911, the penalty for the previous offence was £25, and in 1954 the House made it £50. I have kept the amount at £50, in line with that.

As to the definition of "abandon", that word has for many years had different meanings in different types of litigation. The word "abandon" as it refers to children is quite different from what it is when it refers to an action in the Admiralty court. The word "abandon" so far as children are concerned has always been left to the courts.

I have tried to put in the Bill a definition which, I think, covers no more than the House would wish to see covered. In the later stages of the Bill—and I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading—I shall not stand firm on any particular part or sentence in it. All I want to do is to stop a practice which is all too common in our society and one which I am sure the House would condemn.

2.23 p.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

I beg to second the Motion.

I am very pleased to be associated with my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Langford-Holt) in presenting the Bill. I hope to be as brief as other speakers today, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) is anxious to introduce another Bill.

I think that the whole House will be very happy to support this little Bill in principle because a great deal of attention has been drawn in certain newspapers recently to the treatment of animals by some members of the public, very often due entirely to ignorance and sometimes because of the desire to make private profit. Out of the publicity given to the treatment of animals by one national newspaper there has arisen recently evidence of abandonment of certain domestic pets in very cruel circumstances.

I think that the time has come when this should be checked and I believe that the Bill provides opportunities for checking the wanton cruelty when domesticated animals are deliberately abandoned, often far from the surroundings and homes which they know and where they have been cared for.

In many cases where animals have been left unattended when people go away on holiday, and fail to provide them with proper food, a great deal of cruelty which would otherwise be inflicted on the animal has been mitigated by the action of members of the public. Neighbours have notified the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals and others. Their officers have often broken into houses in which animals have been locked away and ensured that they were properly fed and cared for.

This, of course, has entailed a considerable amount of trouble for the organisations and the moment their officers have entered a place in which an animal has been kept, released it and cared for it there is no possibility whatever of the police taking action against the owner, because it cannot be proved that there was long and acute suffering. Therefore, organisations such as the N.S.P.C.A. and the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals and, I believe, the veterinary associations, will welcome this Measure.

There is another matter to which I think attention should be drawn in these days. Whether the Bill will provide an opportunity for action or not, it is as well at all possible and relevant times, with the tremendous growth of traffic, to make it clear to the general public that if they have domesticated animals, particularly dogs, in an area where there is a heavy density of traffic, it is their liability and responsibility to ensure that not only in the interests of the dog itself, but in the interest of motorists and others, the dog is kept properly under control.

If a dog is allowed to pursue its absolute freedom—I read a few days ago of a blind dog which was abandoned and running in and out of traffic at great risk to itself and the people using the highway—the person responsible for that should, in my view, be liable to very severe penalties, because the possibility of death or injury to people using the highway in an attempt to avoid the animal is very serious.

One or two of my hon. Friends who are fully in favour of the Bill in principle, are concerned lest, as a result of it, in circumstances in which the owner may have no control, a person owning an animal might find himself brought before the court, if the present wording of the Bill is allowed to go through.

One of my hon. Friends gave as an example a person who might be thrown from his horse in the hunting field and injured quite severely. He might feel that the animal, unhurt, was responsible for it and that his first thought was to attend to his own bruises. The animal might then come within the category of having been abandoned. To meet such cases—and there may be other objections from other hon. Members—I am sure that it is not beyond the wit of man to devise some alternative wording during the Committee stage to ensure that the Bill does not interfere with the liberty of the subject under set circumstances but takes care of what is intended by the Bill.

Some people think that possibly a fine of £50 is too high. We are living in circumstances today when a £50 fine is not particularly high, if it is recognised and realised that it is the maximum and that, obviously, the courts will inflict the maximum penalty only when the circumstances of the case warrant and justify it. I hope, therefore, that this admirable little Bill will receive a Second Reading this afternoon.

2.31 p.m.

Major W. Hicks Beach (Cheltenham)

As one who has been a member of the R.S.P.C.A. for many years, although there have been occasions when I have disagreed with it on certain aspects of policy, I welcome the object of the Bill. I certainly would not consider opposing it on Second Reading. However, its wording and drafting require very careful consideration when it reaches the Committee stage, as I hope that it will.

One problem occurs to me immediately, and it would be fair to mention it to the promoters. Friends of mine in prewar days were driving through Gloucestershire. They found a young badger. A badger is one of the most attractive animals in the countryside. This badger had obviously been left by its mother in the road. My friends picked it up and took it home and reared it on the bottle as a pet.

For a year and a half that badger made the most charming pet. Although badgers make most delightful companions, the trouble is that, when they reach a certain size, they become very strong and get rather beyond what the average person wants as a pet in the house. This badger acquired the habit of coming along and nipping one's leg just for fun when one was reading a Sunday paper comfortably on Sunday afternoons; and a two or three year old badger nips extremely strongly.

Having had the badger as a very charming pet for all that time, my friends were faced with an awkward problem. They had young children. They obviously could not keep the badger as a pet. What were they to do? Were they to have the badger destroyed, or was it kinder to turn it out in some neighbouring woods where it could resume its natural life? They consulted me. I advised that the best course to adopt was to turn it out in some neighbouring woods and hope that it returned to nature. This was done.

Having studied the Bill, I regret to say that I think that they would have been committing an offence under this Bill and would have been liable to a fine of £50. It may be said that that is far-fetched, but that is what happened in practice. I hope that the vast organisation which is supporting my hon. Friends in presenting the Bill will pay a little more attention to the word "abandon," because I do not think that from a legal point of view they have it right.

Mr. Langford Holt

It would be an offence under the present law if, as a result of turning the badger out into the woods, it suffered.

Major Hicks Beach

I do not think so. My hon. Friend is confusing the issue with the law relating to dogs. Although I may be wrong in that, I am putting forward a practical point.

Mr. Burden

Will not my hon. and gallant Friend agree that the courts, in examining all cases which may be brought before them, would show in a case relating to the Bill, as they do to most others, the judgment and common sense which we have come to expect of our courts? The maximum fine is £50. I suggest that in circumstances such as my hon. Friend has indicated the courts would have the common sense to see that this was the practical and the proper course to take.

Major Hicks Beach

I hope that my hon. Friend is right. However, we want the Bill to be in proper form. Hon. Members should not forget that I am supporting the Bill, but I do not think that as drawn it is quite right.

Finding the best legislation to deal with abandonment of pets is a much larger issue. We want more education of children about how pets should be looked after. The organisation sponsoring the Bill, to which I happen to belong, would be much better advised to promote Bills which will be enforceable. The argument which has been put to me that it will at any rate, be a deterrent on the Statute Book is bad. This organisation would be spending its funds to much more advantage if it produced pamphlets for distribution or gave lectures at schools or produced lecturers to go round the schools teaching how pets should be looked after. Abandonment of pets arises almost entirely from ignorance of how pets, which we all want to see cared for, should be looked after.

The principle of the Bill has my full support. A number of matters will want attending to in Committee. I hope very much that the organisation supporting the Bill will give serious consideration to more education on the care of pets rather than trying to overcome the difficulties we face by passing legislation which will be largely unenforceable.

2.38 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Peart (Workington)

I agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks Beach) that this raises a much larger issue and is a matter for education, but it should be viewed in its proper perspective. In Britain, we treat our animals better than any other country in the world. I am certain that that is not being jingoistic or narrowly patriotic. Having had experience abroad, I believe that in Britain we have a very good record in the way we look after our pets.

There are defects. I sympathise with the hon. and gallant Member's doubts about the wording. Regarding the badger, the question is not whether that person when before the courts could be treated leniently, or whether there could be a liberal interpretation of the law. The hon. and gallant Member does not wish that person to go before a court and that is why he wishes to improve the wording of the Bill.

I am speaking purely for myself, although I have been asked to look after the Bill, presumably because I am involved now in agriculture and as a lay member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons I have sympathies. The wording should certainly be looked at in Committee, but my right hon. and hon. Friends and I agree in principle and compliment the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Langford-Holt) on introducing the Bill. It is a good Bill in principle, and we approve of it. It coincides with a recent debate in another place. I cannot refer to that in detail, but it was emphasised there how stray dogs and other stray animals are a very important factor in road accidents. Many accidents could be avoided if owners looked after their pets properly.

I welcome the Bill and approve of it. I agree with the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) that there is too much wanton cruelty in the treatment of animals. The Bill seeks to provide a deterrent. I cannot understand how any person can abandon an animal, whether it be a cat, dog or any other pet. The hon. Member mentioned how people take dogs and cats by car and abandon them in distant localities. To me, that is fantastic.

When, after a long day in the House of Commons, in this rarified political atmosphere, my little Lakeland terrier greets me at home with a wag of the tail I feel a much better man. I cannot understand how anyone can be so cruel as to abandon an animal that has been a pet for a long time. However, it does happen, and that demonstrates the need for education in this sphere.

Legislation will certainly not cure the practice. It is important to accept the Bill in principle but, in the end, the whole approach is far better made by those bodies connected with the work. They now do a lot of valuable educational work, not only on radio and T.V. but in the schools, and that work must continue.

I do not know what the Government will do, but I think that we should give the Bill a Second Reading and deal with it in detail in Committee. It is a good Bill, designed for a worthy object. It seeks to remove cruelty, and even though the cruelty is, in this case, limited to animal life that is a good thing. I hope that the Government will give the Measure the sympathetic reception that it deserves.

2.41 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dennis Vosper)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Langford-Holt) on his success in the Ballot and on his wisdom in choosing today for the Second Reading of this Bill. I also congratulate him on choosing a subject that appeals, I think, to all right hon. and hon. Members, and one which appears to be reasonably non-controversial. Anything to do with animals always appeals to hon. Members. They feel strongly on the subject.

The Government—and this is the answer to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart)—certainly would not wish to raise any objection in principle to the Bill. As my hon. Friend has said, it is a Measure for which there is a genuine need, and provided that it can be enforced without undue harshness or restriction, it should, I think, become an Act of Parliament.

Speaking for the Home Office, I may say that we have not had brought to notice any particular evidence of need. I say that because, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) will know, Ministers at the Home Office do get a great deal of correspondence from Members and the public about animals. However, I have not been able to trace any very great pressure in regard to this aspect. On the other hand, I am aware that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has evidence of this practice, and, of course, I accept from my hon. Friend, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) that there are cases of this sort.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury has expounded the existing law. As I understand it, the Bill seeks to go one stage further and to make it an offence to abandon an animal before the suffering has occurred. That is the important extension to the existing law, and I think that it is a reasonable extension. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham spoke of penalties. The penalties are in line with the 1911 Act, as amended in 1954, and are not, I think, unreasonable in the circumstances.

Apart from need, of which I have no evidence, the two questions that the House must consider are whether the Bill is workable and whether we are justified in creating a new criminal offence. As far as I can see at the moment, it is workable—though I agree that it must be examined in Committee—and I nave reason to believe that it is capable of enforcement. It is for the House to judge, and to weigh against the offence which hon. Members see being committed at present, whether or not a new criminal offence should be created.

I think the opinion of the House is that it is justified to create this offence in order to prevent the practice developing. Therefore, if the House decides to give this Bill its Second Reading the Govern- ment will give my hon. Friend their support and help in its further stages.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).