HC Deb 21 July 2000 vol 354 cc716-9
Mr. Dismore

I beg to move amendment No. 13, in page 2, line 4, leave out "may" and insert "shall".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 14, in page 2, line 12, after "(d)", insert— 'or if (a), (b) or (c) are not practicable'. No. 3, in page 2, line 13, at end insert— '(2A) The court shall not make an order under this section until it has heard the evidence of the owner of the animal in question or the prosecutor has presented evidence to the court that the owner has been properly notified of the intended application and the opportunity to present evidence and has declined to do so.'. No. 15, in page 2, line 15, after "including", insert— 'the extent of the animals' suffering'.

Mr. Dismore

I shall be relatively brief. Amendment No. 13 embodies a criticism that I have frequently made in the House. As we have said on many previous occasions, the word "may" is somewhat ambiguous. If, under clause 2, a court believes that the evidence exists about which it is necessary to do something, it should do something about it. It should not operate on the basis that it thinks that something should be done without its doing anything. I would substitute the word "may" with "shall" so that a court acts if the evidence exists.

Amendment No. 14 considers the remedies that are available to the court under clause 2(2)(a) to (d). The option in paragraph (d) is obviously the last one that should be considered, but it is not ranked in that way. The clause is phrased in such a way that the options appear on an equal footing. If the animals are to be slaughtered, that should be the last resort. Under the amendment, that option would be available only if the other alternatives are not practicable. A court should not take the easy option of slaughtering the animals when the other options might take a little longer, might be a little more inconvenient or troublesome, but would be far more appropriate. The other three options should be considered before slaughter. If the animals are slaughtered and a case is ultimately decided in favour of the owner, the damage will already have been done.

Amendment No. 15 would alter clause 2(3), which lists the factors that the court should take into account, including the owner's interests in the animals' value and the costs that he must bear. There should be a balancing provision, as the Bill is about the protection of animals and it is rather surprising that the factors that a court should take into account do not include a reference to animals' suffering. As we are looking at the protection of animals, I believe that their suffering should be paramount in such a list, and should certainly be taken into account. With those few brief words, I commend the amendments to the House.

Mr. Forth

My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and I tabled amendment No. 3, which illustrates the extent of anxiety in some quarters about the possible ramifications of the Bill's provisions. I hope that the Minister will tell me that its wording is otiose, and will reassure me that, in all conceivable circumstances, what the amendment proposes will happen anyway. The amendment is probing, and is designed to record anxiety about the process it describes not taking place. Hopefully, it will enable the Minister to put on the record the reassurance that, in every case, the owner will be given a proper opportunity and evidence will be properly heard. The amendment is tabled in that spirit and, if the Minister can easily reassure the House on the matter, I shall not press it.

Mr. Maclean

May I support my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) in what he said about our amendment?

At the moment, there is no requirement for the owner of the animals to have the right to plead his or her case at the time a court order for possession is sought. There is a worry that that might offend against natural justice and infringe civil liberties. Of course, I have read the Minister's statement that the Bill complies with the Human Rights Act 1998. However, an animal organisation has told me that a case might just come to court some months after an order is made to take possession of the animals. The difficulty is that it is possible that specialist breeders of reptiles, snakes, alligators and other funny specialised things may have more knowledge of the needs and care of those animals than those making the order.

I am not sure whether I have passed those representations on to the Minister, although I hope that I have. In those specialist cases, is the Minister satisfied that there is no need for a right of reply at this stage or for the people affected to be notified, go to court and make representations? Is the matter already taken care of?

Mr. Morley

I understand the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) made about "may" and "shall". When considering legislation, the point about replacing "may" with "shall" is often made. People think that "may" is some kind of weasel word that people can use to escape a commitment. I assure my hon. Friend that although, in theory, the amendment would remove discretion and make the matter mandatory in all cases, it would also restrict the court's discretion to an unacceptable extent. There is therefore a problem.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

My hon. Friend the Minister is quite right. I do not know whether he was a Member of Parliament in 1984, when the Bill that became the Water (Fluoridation) Act 1985 went through Parliament. The Act contains a section stating that, after consultation and so on, water companies may intervene to put fluoride into public water supplies. It does not say "shall" and, although there was no debate about that wording, water utilities and their lawyers have been hiding behind the provision for years. We are still unable to get fluoride into public water supplies where consultation has taken place under the Act and permission has been sought.

Mr. Morley

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. I imagine that, at the time, that was done deliberately to allow local people to decide. I understand the sound science of that action in those circumstances. That issue should have been dealt with, depending on how people felt about it, when the Bill was under consideration.

In this case, the use of the word "may" is a standard legislative term that allows discretion and flexibility, which are important for the operation of the Bill. It is not used so that people can get out of their responsibility to take action. I give my hon. Friend that reassurance. I also want to emphasise that this Bill is all about the welfare of animals.

I understand the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon made about not slaughtering animals as a last resort. However, discretion is needed here, too, because it depends on how the word "practical" is interpreted. It might be too inflexible. In some cases, such as farm animals, there is an optimal time in which animals must be slaughtered. That applies to pigs and to cattle with the over-30-months scheme. There are also weight penalties. Slaughtering for commercial purposes sometimes has to be carried out fast, so I do not want to remove that flexibility from the Bill.

On amendment No. 3, I assure the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) that animal owners involved in these circumstances already have an opportunity to present to court any relevant evidence. That covers the point about specialist breeders, who may be willing to do that. Amendments of this kind simply provide scope for delaying tactics on the part of owners seeking to avoid care orders. The whole point of care orders is to take action quickly to deal with animals in need of food, care or veterinary attention. If the amendment were accepted, any owner who did not want an order to be applied simply would not turn up at court, and nothing could happen until he or she did so. It would therefore fatally weaken the Bill.

On that basis, I would argue against the amendment, but assure hon. Members that anyone affected has the right to attend court and present his or her side of the case.

Mr. Dismore

In view of the assurances given by the Minister, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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