HL Deb 23 May 1988 vol 497 cc706-12

7.25 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

It is purely a coincidence that I have the honour to introduce the Bill in the middle of the Government's morality drive, which is rapidly gaining momentum. I hope that as the movement continues for a higher standard of ethical conduct and religious belief we shall hear something about the relations between people and the animal kingdom and their pets, and about cruelty. I think that there are other sins against the light than those which relate wholly to human beings.

It is not without relevance that we read of a testator who left £7 million to three cat charities. Together with the large bequest made to the RSPCA recently, that is an indication that those with large sums of money to leave think about animals as well as their relatives and others to whom something may normally be left.

This Bill was introduced in another place by Mr. John Brown, Member of Parliament for Winchester, who was successful in the ballot and introduced what I should describe as a model Private Member's Bill.

It is short, non-controversial, and deals with a fairly narrow issue but one of some importance. I believe that the Bill has government support, because it implements undertakings given by the Home Secretary to the RSPCA on representations made by them about inadequacies or gaps in the law.

Clause 1 strengthens the powers of the courts to disqualify a person from holding any kind of animal after conviction on grounds of cruelty under the Protection of Animals Act 1911. As it stands at present, the law does not enable a court to disqualify a person from keeping an animal (unless it is a dog) until a subsequent conviction. It can never do so on the first conviction. In some cases of dreadful cruelty it seems ridiculous that the offender cannot be disqualified from owning any kind of animal for a period determined by the courts. Clause 1 deals with that situation. Disqualification may now be imposed by the courts on the first conviction.

Clause 2 deals with the penalties under earlier Acts of Parliament relating to fighting between animals. Such fights have been a curse and a blot upon our society for many years. Acts of Parliament of 1839 and 1847 imposed very small penalties for offences in connection with promoting animal fights and making animals fight each other. Clause 2 updates the amount of fines that may be imposed from the present maximum of £50 to a maximum of £1,000. Those penalties are referred to in Clause 2(1).

Clause 2(2) deals with a gap which has been discovered in the provisions relating to the prosecution of persons in connection with setting up fights between animals. Hitherto the law has dealt only partially with those who take part in such fights. It deals with those who organise them, but it does not deal with those who go to look at them. The spectator can plead that he had nothing to do with what was happening; he was there simply as a spectator. Apparently no charge can be made against him.

Clause 2(2) deals with attendance at animal fights. It states: A person who, without reasonable excuse, is present when animals are placed together for the purpose of their fighting each other shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale". Level 4 is £1,000. That might keep some people away, especially if they expected to be raided and spectators could be grabbed and held equally with those who were promoting the fights.

Clause 2(3) deals with Scotland. It introduces into the Scottish law the proviso to which I have just referred. It will be made under the Protection of Animals (Scotland) Act 1911, which is the Act that corresponds to the 1912 Act for England and Wales. The offence of being present at an animal fight, carrying a maximum fine of £1,000, shall also apply to Scotland. The Short Title, repeals, commencement and extent are dealt with in Clause 3.

There is only one other matter arising on this Bill to which I need refer at the moment and that is the question of forfeiture. On conviction for certain types of animal abuse, misuse and so on, an order can be made to forfeit the equipment that may be used in an unlawful operation. I think in particular of badger baiting or any such activity in which equipment that contributes to the cruelty of the occasion may be forfeited. There was a great deal of debate on this issue during the discussions on the Wildlife and Countryside Act several years ago, when it was debated whether one could confiscate lorries, motor cars and such vehicles as well as other equipment.

Forfeiture is dealt with under the Criminal Justice Bill which has been to your Lordships' House once, if not twice, and is now awaiting Report stage in another place before making its final journey to this Chamber. Clause 68 of that Bill deals with forfeiture. In that connection some animal welfare people have been considering the question of property—that is the term used—which may be seized from an offender and which was in his possession or under his control at the time that he was apprehended for the offence. Those are the words used in the Bill. Does the term "property" include animals? If someone is discovered digging for badgers and that person has a Jack Russell dog which he is using in order to get badgers out of the set, is the dog the offender's "property"? In other words, is an animal the offender's property and in those circumstances can the dog be seized and forfeited?

When this Bill was under discussion in another place the Minister dealt with this matter up to a point. He thought first of all that forfeiture would be dealt with in the Criminal Justice Bill in general; that it would deal with forfeiture not only in relation to this particular offence but other offences for which forfeiture may be a part of the penalty imposed on an offender. Would that include animals? Apparently there is some doubt. I informed the Minister about this matter in case he had some comment to make on Second Reading, but the House may care to bear in mind when we reach the Committee stage of the Bill whether anything further need be done. I think that the question of forfeiture remains in doubt. I am not sure even when the matter is debated that it will be made very clear whether an animal can be seized and, if so, what should happen to it. However, in some circumstances when people are caught doing a particularly dirty job it may be that the only thing to do is to seize their animals as well as their equipment.

I think that that is all I need to say on Second Reading. This is a small spearhead of attack upon the large volume of animal cruelty and misuse. On all animal legislation one must be content with a step-by-step approach. Sometimes it may be a very small step, and this is one of them. At any rate, with dog fighting in particular on the increase it is very important to plug the gaps. In fact, the general rise in offences of cruelty must lead us to want to strengthen the penalties in the hands of the courts. So the first clause of the Bill which deals with disqualification on first conviction is an important provision. Some dreadful acts take place and the court is told that the accused had no previous record of delinquency or cruelty and that he could not understand how it had happened and so on and so forth. In whatever way things happen, if they are particularly serious it should be possible to disqualify persons from having an animal, bird, or other living creature for some time to come. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Houghton of Sowerby.)

7.36 p.m.

Lord Somers

My Lords, I apologise to the House for not putting my name on the list of speakers, but as that list is not a very lengthy one I hope that I shall be forgiven.

I agree with everything that the noble Lord has said. I do not think that there can be much doubt about an animal being its owner's property. He has paid for it and is responsible for its upkeep. Therefore, it seems to me that it is his property and as such its proper upkeep is his responsibilty.

Some people snigger somewhat at the idea of protecting animals or on issues of anti-cruelty, as it were, but cruelty is nothing to laugh about. After all, one of the first moral principles is that one should not unnecessarily do harm to those who are unable to protect themselves. This is a very good instance of that principle. Dog fights which have taken place in Epsom have been very nasty affairs. I only hope that the police will be given some weapon with which they can attack the perpetrators of such "sport", if it can be called that, and so enable those concerned to receive their due punishment.

7.37 p.m.

Lord Northfield

My Lords, I too apologise because I did not put down my name on the list of speakers. I can only plead the expected shortness of the debate. There is only one issue about which I wish to speak and that concerns the forfeiture of dogs. I do not know whether my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby is aware of it, but when the Deer Acts were reformed by legislation which I introduced earlier in this decade, there was a similar problem to consider: if there is forfeiture of dogs, what is to happen to them? That is how the noble Lord put the question.

It is worth making the point that in the course of the passage of that legislation we reached agreement with, I think it was, the Canine Defence League that if any dogs were forfeited they would take them and find them a good home. In other words, it would avoid, as the only alternative, the necesssity of their being put down.

The issue of forfeiture should not be judged on what happens to the dogs. We have taken care of that generally. We tried at that time to get the Home Office to send a circular to magistrates drawing attention to the fact that, because we had reached this agreement, they should not be deterred from ordering the forfeiture of dogs by fear of what might happen to them. I do not know whether that became widely enough known. It ought to be, because the forfeiture of the animal is a good punishment, and, in the case of poaching of deer, the forfeiture of lurcher dogs is a very good deterrent indeed. I would therefore hope that this issue will not be ducked. I hope that some way will be found of including possible forfeiture of the dogs, and that the agreement we reached in the case of the Deer Bill will be happily stretched to include any dogs forfeited under this Bill.

7.40 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Houghton has presented and explained this Bill very well and very clearly. I do not think that there is anything to add in that regard. Obviously, any legislation that improves the lot of animals in this country is welcome; and this Bill certainly does that.

I regret the need for this Bill. It is a very sad comment on our times that although we are thought to be a nation of great animal lovers, in fact animal cruelty is growing. My noble friend Lord Houghton has given some examples. I am appalled that according to an RSPCA leaflet the latest figures for 1986 show that in the two preceding years animal cruelty had increased by more than 75 per cent. The greatest increase in animal cruelty was in the South-East where cautions and convictions had increased by 1778 per cent. I find these figures very alarming indeed.

We know that dog fights are organised in very great secrecy. That is one of the problems in dealing with them. It is therefore very important that the message from this Bill is that there is to be a greater deterrent. There are stiffer penalties for those organising and attending these dreadful fights. Perhaps this will be a way of bringing them to an end.

My noble friends have spoken about the new forfeiture powers. I hope that the Minister will respond to the points that they made on this important issue.

I am sure that this Bill will greatly improve the ability of the RSPCA and other organisations, and ordinary citizens, to bring prosecutions, by creating an offence of attendance at animal fights under the Protection of Animals Act 1911. This is a most important part of the Bill. As my noble friend said, the Bill will extend to Scotland the offence of attending animal fights. The maximum penalty will be a fine of £1,000.

I fear that these measures are needed. The figures of increases in both dog fights and in animal cruelty generally warrant them. It has been said many times that one of the tests of a civilised society is the way in which it treats its animals. I fear that all the signs are that our society is not as civilised as we would wish, judged by this test alone. I believe therefore that the changes included in the legislation will be welcomed by all those who are truly concerned for the welfare of animals. I congratulate both the mover in another place and my noble friend for introducing this Bill. I wish it a safe passage to the Statute Book.

7.45 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I should first like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, on taking up this Bill and bringing it forward for the consideration of your Lordships' House. We are therefore obviously very pleased to have this opportunity to make clear the Government's wholehearted support for this important Bill. Such support is a clear indication of the Government's continuing commitment to improve the welfare of animals in our society and to protect them against mistreatment.

We believe that the courts must be able to punish and deter those who might engage in acts of cruelty by inflicting deliberate suffering on animals. This Bill contains several improvements in their ability to do so. First, it aims to allow courts to disqualify a person from having custody of an animal following conviction for an offence of cruelty under the Protection of Animals Act 1911 or the Protection of Animals (Scotland) Act 1912. At present, under the Protection of Animals (Amendment) Act 1954, the power of disqualification is available to courts only on a second or subsequent conviction, except in the case of cruelty to a dog when disqualification may be imposed on a first conviction. This position seems muddled and unhelpful to the courts. Although there have been reservations in the past, we now see no reason why the courts should not be able to disqualify a person from having custody of any animal on first or subsequent conviction for an offence of cruelty against animals.

The second change which this Bill proposes concerns penalties for attendance at animal fights. It raises the maximum penalty available for this offence in England and Wales from a fine not exceeding level 1 on the standard scale (currently £50) to a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale (currently £1,000). It also reintroduces into Scotland the offence of attendance at an animal fight and provides for the maximum penalty to be the same as in England and Wales, that is a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale.

It is right and in keeping with the abhorrence with which animal fighting is viewed for those who attend these barbaric activities, as well as those who are involved in their organisation, to receive a substantial punishment. This Bill will provide for that.

Then the Bill aims to facilitate the prosecution of those who unlawfully attend animal fights. At present in England and Wales only the police may do so as the offence is contained in various local police Acts. By the introduction of the offence into the Protection of Animals Act 1911, however, it will be possible for any individual or group to institute proceedings against spectators. This is surely right. It is often the case that other agencies or persons in addition to the police are involved in the investigation of these evil practices. In this context the invaluable and continuing work of the RSPCA is particularly to be applauded. It is clearly in the best interests of all concerned therefore (except the perpetrators of animal fights) to enable the RSPCA or any other body or person to bring to justice all of those who organise or unlawfully attend these activities.

The noble Lords, Lord Houghton and Lord Northfield, have both mentioned the subject of forfeiture. As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has said, Section 68 of the Criminal Justice Bill extends the general powers of the courts to order the forfeiture of property used or intended for use in the commission of offences to all offences, including offences of animal fighting. It has been questioned whether the term "property" in this context will apply to an animal used, or intended for use, in the commission of an offence. The Government's firm advice is that animals are so included.The Government's view therefore is that no special provision needs to be made, or should be made, in this Bill to provide for the forfeiture of property, animals or otherwise, used or intended for use in the commission of animal fight offences.

Finally, the Government welcome the changes proposed in the Bill. We consider the Bill as now presented to be a valuable and important measure which deserves the full support of your Lordships' House. I sincerely hope, therefore, that your Lordships will concur with this view.

Lord Somers

My Lords, apropos what the noble Earl has said, what is the position with regard to private guard dogs at someone's house?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I shall need notice of that question. I shall be in touch with the noble Lord before the next stage of the Bill and, if necessary, the matter can always be brought up at the Committee stage.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. What my noble friend Lord Northfield said is of great interest. In another place the Home Office Minister said that the department would consider including in a future Home Office circular, when the Criminal Justice Bill became law, an indication to those concerned that the word "property" included animals.

I am grateful to the noble Earl whose emphatic style on this subject I find most attractive. One can easily waffle on about animals, but up to now (and I am sure it will continue) what he has said he said as if he believed it and carried conviction at all times. That is very pleasing in the kind of semi cynical atmosphere of political activity that we meet so frequently. May I, with profound respect and warm thanks, say how I appreciate what the noble Earl has said.

Concerning forfeiture of animals, I see the point that if we include in the Bill a reference to the effect that property includes animals, it might be inferred that if the Criminal Justice Bill remains as it is animals will not be included in that legislation. We want to be sure that if property includes animals, it includes animals in other senses besides cruelty to animals. I believe we can give consideration to this matter before the next stage.

I am sure that the sponsor of the Bill—who was at the Bar until he was called away to a Division—was observing our proceedings with satisfaction. I am sure he will be pleased with the reception given to the Bill and that it is well on its way to the Statute Book. Together with the police, who deal with these terrible activities—and they are terrible—we shall consider the societies concerned. One should never overlook the extent and the depth of original sin. It really comes out in many cases when one is dealing with animals. I am grateful to the House and to the Minister for accepting the Bill.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.25 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.53 until 8.25 p.m.]