HC Deb 21 July 2000 vol 354 cc721-8
Mr. Maclean

I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 3, line 9, at end insert— 'and the prosecutor shall be under a duty to maximise the proceeds of any such disposal in each case.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 8, in page 3, line 12, at end insert— '(2A)Where an order has been made under section 2 and the owner successfully defends the proceedings under section 1 of the 1911 Act, the court shall have power (in addition to the power to award costs) to require the prosecutors to recompense the owner a fair value for the loss (including economic loss) he has suffered as a result of the exercise of the powers conferred upon the prosecutor by virtue of the order. (2B)Any amount for which the owner is entitled to be reimbursed or compensated for under subsection (2A) may be recovered by him from the prosecutor summarily as a civil debt.'.

Mr. Maclean

I shall speak briefly, without recycling the amendments, as the Minister has had a chance to consider them. They put an obligation on the prosecutor to maximise the proceeds of any disposal or sale of the animals. Amendment No. 8 would further ensure that if the prosecutor fails to bring a prosecution or does not bring a prosecution successfully, he should compensate the owner whose animals he has confiscated at a fair value for the loss, including the economic loss.

Just as clause 4 perfectly legitimately entitles the prosecutor to recover his costs and expenses from the person who owns or controls the animals, if the prosecutor gets it wrong and fails to win his case, it seems fair that the person who owns the animals and from whom they were confiscated should get full compensation.

Mr. Morley

The topic generated some discussion in Committee, and I understand the concerns that were raised about owners who may be acquitted and what they may get back if the animals are sold. I have consulted in detail and I shall try to respond in detail.

With reference to the provision allowing the defendants when acquitted to recover any costs suffered, the application for a care order and a subsequent trial are separate procedures, as the right hon. Gentleman will recognise. The care order provides urgent protection for animal welfare at the time that information is laid before the court. The test for a care order is different from and less stringent than the test applied for a subsequent trial.

That ensures that the process of securing a care order does not pre-judge the trial. No attempt to establish a defendants's guilt or innocence will be attempted when a care order is sought. In deciding when to grant a care order, the court must consider the welfare of the animal, as well as the interests of the owner. Whether it is beyond reasonable doubt that an offence of cruelty has been committed is not an issue at that stage. That would have implications for human rights legislation and would impose an unnecessarily demanding test before action could be taken to protect animal welfare. The object to take action quickly to ensure that the welfare of animals is not compromised.

Acquittal in a subsequent trial does not mean, therefore, that the care order should not have been granted. There is no connection between that and the trial. The process is reinforced at each stage by safeguards to prevent malicious prosecutions resulting in care orders, and to protect the interests of the owner. The prosecutor must decide whether to bring a prosecution and must apply for a care order under the Protection of Animals Act 1911, which contains safeguards, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. On application, the court will consider whether a care order was required for the good of the animals. If so, action must be proportionate, and the owner's interests will be considered in court.

A further stage-by-stage safeguard deals with the point about the expenses that are incurred by prosecutors, who subsequently try to recover them, and whether those expenses can be limited to reasonable amounts. The safeguard involves a calculation, when applicable, of the difference between the amount of the reasonable expenses and any proceeds from sale or slaughter. The approved prosecutor recovers reasonable expenses after deducting the proceeds of any sale, or the owner recovers the net proceeds. The court decides whether the steps taken and the costs incurred were reasonable. The court can also take into account whether the price of any sale was fair. That double checks the process that takes place during the application for a care order under clause 2(3).

The court's authorisation of the order must take into account any avoidance of increased costs. Each part of the invoice can be scrutinised to ascertain whether that has happened. In the event of an acquittal, I am advised that it would be legitimate for the defendant to ask the court to take the acquittal into account when assessing reasonable costs. Whether the owner has been acquitted or not, he has recourse to appeal if he is not satisfied with the result. On that basis, I invite the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Maclean

The points that the Minister made are entirely reasonable. When the debate is over and the Bill progresses, and representatives of the Pet Care Trust—or any other organisation that has anxieties—visit the Minister, and he has the opportunity to explain matters to them, they will probably be satisfied. As the Minister has satisfied me today, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Dismore

I beg to move amendment No. 21, in page 3, line 16, after "owner", insert "or keeper".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 22, in page 3, line 21, after "owner", insert "or keeper".

No. 23, in page 3, line 23, after "owner", insert "or keeper".

No. 24, in page 3, line 26, after "owner", insert "or keeper".

No. 25, in page 3, line 36, at end insert— 'and "keeper" means the person against whom the proceedings were brought with care and control of the animal'.

Mr. Dismore

I shall speak briefly because the amendments make the same point. I am worried about the absentee landlord. What happens if it is difficult to track down the owners of the animals when they are being looked after by someone else? It is easy to envisage circumstances in which someone might say, "Well, they're not mine; they belong X or Y." Similar problems can occur with motoring legislation; measures sometimes refer to the "owner or keeper" of a vehicle. Such problems have also arisen with licensing legislation, and some measures consider who looks after a shop rather than who owns it. People can use all sorts of devices to avoid responsibility if legislation refers simply to "the owner". I have tabled the amendment to probe the Government's views and ascertain the way in which the lacuna can be tackled.

Mr. Morley

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point, and the Government have no objection to the main thrust of his argument. There is a slight drafting problem with the definition of "keeper" in amendment No. 25. It could be confusing and is therefore unacceptable. There is nothing wrong with the principle, which is a matter for the promoter. However, parliamentary time is limited and the amendment would not add a great deal to the Bill, although there is nothing wrong with my hon. Friend's suggestion.

The Bill places an obligation on registered keepers to produce the relevant documents. If they do not, they are committing an offence. If someone was trying to be obstructive, the court would take action against that person. If we had more time, we could consider amendment No. 21 favourably. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) would be sympathetic to it. However, given the pressures of time, and the fact that the amendment is not vital, I suggest that it be withdrawn.

Mr. Dismore

I am grateful for that assurance. As my hon. Friend the Minister accepts the principle but questions the wording of the amendment, it might be picked up in another place. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third Reading read.

2.14 pm
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

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

I am delighted and relieved that hon. Members from all parties have decided to support the Bill. I thank all hon. Members who have been actively involved in all stages and have engaged, through discussion and in writing, with officers and servants of the House, the general public and animal welfare organisations. They have also been kind enough to provide advice and extensive support to me.

My Bill is a sensible development of existing animal welfare legislation. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) said that the purpose of a private Member's Bill was to fill loopholes in existing law. That is precisely what I am seeking to do.

My Bill will fill a loophole in the Protection of Animals Act 1911. It will allow those prosecuting cases of cruelty under the Act to apply to a court for a care order to protect the animals concerned. That is important. At the moment, animals that are the subject of cruelty or neglect proceedings can be left to suffer while the law takes its course.

I recognise that there are limited powers in the 1911 Act to allow police constables to intervene in such cases, but, as hon. Members recognised during earlier stages of our discussions, such an arrangement is hardly suitable for the 21st century. So my Bill will put right that anomaly and ensure that, where necessary, it is possible to act much more quickly in the interests of animals.

My Bill will provide proper, much needed protection for animals. In promoting it, I am conscious of the fact that for some 200 years the House has concerned itself with providing legislative protection for animals. It is right that we maintain that responsibility by continuing to improve and update the legislation.

Of course hon. Members have, properly, been concerned about the rights of individuals. I am very much aware of the need to ensure that the rights of the owners of animals are protected, and my Bill is carefully crafted to reflect that. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said, the Bill balances the need to improve the protection afforded to animals in the 1911 Act with our obligation to respect the rights of individuals, particularly in the context of the European convention on human rights.

I do not want to detain the House unduly, but I wish to make one final point. I have received representations—indeed, we have heard this point during the discussions on amendments—that we need new law to cover not just animals kept for a commercial purpose, but pets kept in people's homes.

I recognise that there are huge numbers of pet animals in this country, and I am sure that although the vast majority are properly looked after by caring owners, welfare problems may arise. My Bill, however, is not the vehicle to address that issue.

On Second Reading, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) was kind enough to describe the Bill as important, but modest in scope…the ideal formulation for privateMember's Bill".—[OfficialReport,19May2000;Vol.350,c.625] I am so sorry that the right hon. Gentleman is not in his place to hear these words. His contribution has been greatly illuminating and very helpful.

I am well aware of the need to ensure that my Bill remains closely targeted. To amend it to cover the keeping of pets would vastly extend its scope, and would raise serious questions about the impact that that would have on the individual rights of owners.

I am therefore clear that the wider issue needs to be addressed another day. The very specific amendment that I wish to make to the 1911 Act is the limit of my ambition, and will address the significant concerns of animal welfare organisations and the millions of people in this country, and the thousands of people in my constituency, who care passionately about the welfare and well-being of animals.

2.18 pm
Mr. Maclean

I congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on getting the Bill to this stage. I hope that it will receive a Third Reading and proceed to another place. I caution Labour Members against asking for amendments in another place. That would not be wise if the hon. Lady's Bill is to be successful.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) sends his apologies. He will be back in the Chamber in a few minutes. He has been in his place for almost exactly five hours, and I think that at this moment he is giving commercial business to Mr. Heinz and his beans—on toast. My right hon. Friend is a modest eater.

My right hon. Friend was right to say that this is a perfect measure for a private Member's Bill. It is modest in scope, but it makes an important change. The hon. Lady is to be congratulated on the way in which she has piloted it through the House. I also congratulate the Minister on the style that he has adopted at the Dispatch Box today. We did not have much time, but we dealt with the important issues. I am grateful to him for having a word with me beforehand on the amendments that I passed to him for consideration.

When a Bill has almost reached Report stage, there is always some organisation that suddenly discovers something about it that it wants to change, but by then it is often too late. My appeal to organisations such as the RSPCA and other single-issue pressure groups is, for goodness' sake, consult the other organisations. I am not sure whether the RSPCA consulted the Pet Care Trust or the International League for the Protection of Horses, which wrote to me, but it is my experience that it has tended not to do so. It takes the view, "We're the RSPCA, we'll do what we like and draft the whole Bill, and tough luck on all the small fry."

Sometimes the other organisations have legitimate points, and I am glad that the Minister promised that he would meet them and try to reassure them. If we took on board their concerns today, we would wreck the Bill. Perhaps the Bill needs some improvement, but it does not deserve to be wrecked, because it will do good. I appeal to those who may be involved in private Members' Bills in future: please, please consult all the other organisations and try to get them on board. It makes life easier and avoids the position whereby we cannot take a valid point on board because, by the nature of our procedures, we would end up destroying the Bill.

I congratulate the hon. Lady once again, and I wish the Bill well in another place.

2.21 pm
Maria Eagle

I have a long-standing interest in animal welfare and have braved the storms that can fly around when a Bill is high enough in the ballot to get time in the House. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), my Merseyside neighbour, on the way in which she has stuck to her task. She did not have an especially propitious place on the list, being about 20th, so it is even more remarkable, and perhaps lucky, that she has managed to have the Bill considered fully, if succinctly, by the House.

I have followed the proceedings carefully, and I know that my hon. Friend has fully taken on board issues raised by right hon. and hon. Members of all parties and by outside organisations. I offer my good wishes to the Minister, too. I had some contact with him in relation to the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill, and I know how carefully he and his officials consider these matters, trying to help in every way possible.

It is certainly an achievement for my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby, having been so low on the ballot, to be the promoter of what may be the last Bill to be considered this Session under the private Member's Bill procedure, as we are running out of time. Anyone who manages to close a loophole that has existed since 1911 has something to be proud of.

I hope and trust that the other place will take note of the consensus here that this is a worthy Bill that will enable those who deal with the animals owned by commercial organisations that are prosecuted for cruelty to ensure either that they are safe and sound or that they are disposed of and their suffering is ended before the court case is over.

I commend the Bill to the House.

2.24 pm
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on her luck in the ballot, on rising to this position and on coming through in the final minutes. The Bill closes a loophole in the 1911 Act in a very useful manner. I am thinking in particular, given the other pressures in the countryside, of people looking after ponies and horses who find that they are not profitable, and mistreat them not through malice but through sheer ignorance, because they lack the skills to look after them. I hope that the Bill will work as intended.

2.25 pm
Mr. Morley

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on her hard work on the Bill. I have been involved in many private Members' Bills since being elected in 1987, and few reach Third Reading. The Bill is a tribute to all those hon. Members on both sides of the House who have worked hard and supported my hon. Friend. We have had the opportunity to deal with the Bill in detail, and interested organisations have been reassured. As with many matters, some organisations and individuals think that such measures should go further, and others are concerned about the provisions as they stand. That is the balance that we always seek to achieve.

I have looked forward to such a measure ever since I became a Minister in 1997. Its importance has been brought home to me, because for the past three years I have had an annual opportunity to attend some of the training courses for the dedicated people in the state veterinary service. Vets have made it clear that some cases involve difficult problems. I am glad that cases of animals being abandoned, abused or not cared for are not that common.

There are many reasons why such abuse takes place. It is sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental. Sometimes the reasons are to do with health and sometimes they are commercial. Nevertheless, the common factor in every case is that animals are not being cared for and are suffering. In some cases, organisations such as the RSPCA, local authorities, our own vets and, indeed, adjacent farmers—concerned people—have stepped in to feed and care for the animals concerned, but no finances or other resources have been available to assist them. Technically, there was never any right to step in and care for animals.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby rightly said, the Bill will plug the loophole in the Protection of Animals Act 1911. I am sure that all those concerned with animals will warmly welcome the Bill. Some groups said that the measure should go wider than applying only to commercial animals. As my hon. Friend said with reference to pets, that is a very big issue. Perhaps powers to take care of mistreated pets, beyond those that are already available under various Acts, should be considered. That matter is outside the scope of the Bill, but other hon. Members may like to raise it with the relevant Departments in future.

The Bill has received the support of both sides of the House and has had proper scrutiny. I have tried to explain the mechanics and details of how the measure will be applied, how the value of animals will be taken into account and how people's rights will be recognised under human rights legislation. We have increasingly to take account of how such legislation is applied, to ensure that people are not disadvantaged and that their individual rights are protected, but the welfare of the animal must take precedence.

I am delighted that the Bill has been supported by so many hon. Members with a long-standing interest in animal welfare who have been involved in other animal welfare Bills, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle). They have tried to ensure that the Bill will achieve the results that are so important to them. For all those reasons, I thank all those who have contributed.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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