HL Deb 20 October 2000 vol 617 cc1301-18

11.6 a.m.

Baroness Fookes

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

I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce a Bill which will increase the protection afforded to animals as this has been a lifelong interest of mine. Indeed, at this point I should perhaps declare an interest, although not a financial interest, as I am a vice-president of the RSPCA. Although I am told that it had no hand in drafting the Bill, clearly it has an interest in its safe passage through this House.

However, it is not the only body which welcomes the Bill. I am delighted to say that the National Farmers Union, the Farm Animal Welfare Council, the British Veterinary Association and, indeed, MAFF welcome the provisions in the Bill. It is modest in scope, as befits a Private Member's Bill, but it is useful in plugging a gap in the current welfare provisions. I shall explain the background before I turn to the provisions of the Bill.

The main Act dealing with animals is the Protection of Animals Act 1911. Under Section 1 of that Act it is possible to bring a prosecution for cruelty or neglect of any animal. A prosecution can be brought by the various public bodies that engage in prosecutions or, indeed, by any private individual. However, one of the snags is that court proceedings can take a long time, usually longer than weeks. They may last for months and may even extend beyond a year. What happens to the animals which are the subject of a case in the meantime?

It is possible under the 1911 Act for the police to take away the animals for safekeeping. However, I am sure noble Lords will appreciate that with all the pressures upon the police at the present time, and, indeed, for many years past, this is in many cases not a practical proposition for the police to undertake. Sometimes organisations such as the RSPCA and other welfare bodies will step in at their own expense to look after the animals, perhaps for a considerable period. Occasionally the owner may give up ownership of the animals, in which case action can be taken. However, I am sure noble Lords will appreciate that this is a highly unsatisfactory position.

Perhaps I can illustrate the position more clearly by mentioning one or two cases. One elderly Welsh farmer in his seventies suffering from arthritis had no fewer than 1,400 sheep on nine different sites. He was looking after them on his own and travelling around by bicycle. He covered about 100 miles of road to tend to the sheep. It will not surprise noble Lords to hear that he did not do the job well. Sheep scab was a serious problem. The farmer had difficulties in providing the sheep with water. Sometimes sheep which were dying were given no care. It was difficult to persuade him—although he was finally persuadeel—to hand over part of the responsibility for the animals to a younger relative. But how much better it would have been had the sheep been removed from his care at a much earlier stage before the matter was finally concluded—in this case out of court.

An even worse case—in that it is persistent— occurred in the West Country. I am ashamed to say that as I have close connections with the West Country. The case concerned Roger Baker of Truro. I name him because of his persistent offences. It is a most shocking series of cases. It appears that between 1994 and 1999 MAFF made no fewer than 70 visits. I understand that other welfare organisations such as the RSPCA were also involved. Despite several bans on keeping animals and several prison sentences having been imposed, the man continued to buy or obtain more animals and ill-treat them. It would have been much better if the local authority had been able to remove the animals, sell them and thus not incur astronomical costs.

Even when such animals are cared for by a third party, because of the length of time that it takes for courts to decide cases there must be a disincentive for animal welfare organisations, or even kindly neighbours, to pick up the bill. I refer to one case where 14 horses were boarded for 10 months until a case was concluded. In that time costs of no less than £87,000 were incurred. That was in part on boarding the animals and in part on veterinary fees. If the animals could have been sold at an early stage, many of those difficulties would have been resolved.

I turn to the provisions of the Bill which seek to address these problems. The core feature of the Bill is the introduction of what one might describe as care orders whereby authorised bodies or individuals can apply to a magistrates' court for an order to deal with the animals. This, however, is subject to two conditions. First, there must be a current prosecution for cruelty under Section 1 of the 1911 Act and the animals must be kept for commercial purposes. For example, a pet animal, a companion animal, kept in someone's home would not be covered by the provisions of the Bill.

"Commercial purposes" is a wide-ranging phrase. It has not been defined in the Bill for what I believe are good reasons. It is extraordinarily difficult either for a private Member or even, I suspect, government departments to provide definitions which are all-embracing and stand the test of time. It therefore seems to me better that the term "for commercial purposes" should be left without further definition in the Bill. I am not a lawyer but I believe that the term is well understood in legal circles and that it would be for a court to decide whether an animal was kept for commercial purposes under the Bill. That would not simply include farm animals but might embrace circus animals, guard dogs, sniffer dogs and animals kept in pet shops for sale. However, the Bill does not deal with experimental animals which are dealt with under the Animals (Scientific Prodecures) Act.

First, when applying for one of these orders from a magistrates' court it would be a prerequisite before an order could be given that evidence should be received from a veterinary surgeon. This would preclude, therefore, people making malicious, vexatious or frivolous claims which waste a court's time. Secondly, the courts would need to take account of all the circumstances, including the interest of the owner, before coming to a decision. Under the Bill, they would have various options open to them which I hope would deal with those cases I have drawn to your Lordships' attention. For example, if suitable, it would be possible to care for the animals on the premises where they are found. They could be removed to a place of safety to be looked after. They could be sold at a fair price with the proceeds going to the owner; or they could be disposed of in another way—for example, by gift—if that proved more appropriate.

Finally, arrangements could be made for the slaughter of animals if that were the right thing to do—and it might well be in the case of farm animals where there is an optimum moment at which they might be marketed and sold.

Puppies, too, have an optimum moment for sale. After that such value as they have declines sharply. Therefore it is appropriate that sale should be one of the options open to the courts. But they have to take account of all the circumstances and the evidence of a veterinary surgeon in deciding whether to grant the order to the prosecutor.

I turn now to who may seek such orders. Under the Bill there are what I call the usual categories from the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Crown prosecutors, local authorities, MAFF or any other suitable government organisation. But there is an additional feature. It is not unique but interesting in the context of the Bill. I refer to persons—that can legally include organisations—who at the request of MAFF or (in Wales) the Assembly may be authorised to prosecute. They would do so under a written agreement with MAFF which would set out the criteria on which such a body or person might be chosen. I am not a member of the Government but I understand that, in the event of the Bill becoming law, MAFF would seek to consult widely in order to ensure that there was widespread agreement on the criteria giving that power to another body or person. The RSPCA might be considered a suitable body but I would not rule out any other organisation which wished to do that. I have not consulted with them, but I have in mind that a body such as the National Canine Defence League might be willing to deal with dogs, or the Cats Protection League, which has a special interest in cats. There may be other organisations which deal with exotic species. The Bill would make it possible for them to do so. Any individual or person can bring a prosecution under Section 1 of the 1911 Act. However, in the Bill the care order would be restricted to the bodies I have outlined.

I turn to the remainder of the Bill. There are powers of entry. Those are obvious since if there is no power of entry one cannot get to the animals concerned. But that will not extend to a person's home. I think that the technical term is dwelling place. That will be excluded. But once an order has been obtained, in other homes entry can be carried out by the prosecutor using the terms of the order. They may remove the animals; they may wish to use equipment at the place where the animals exist. For example, the milking parlour might need to be used to milk cows.

There is an additional power in the Bill which might cause some concern. Where there is an intention to seek an order of the court, but before it is made—the court having been notified—entry can be gained for marking animals. That may be important in practical terms for deciding which animals are the subject of a prosecution or it may be important for various regulations, particularly farming regulations, when great clarity is needed about which animals are meant.

There is also the normal proviso that any prosecutor seeking to enter must have documents that identify him as that person and a written document explaining why the entry has been sought. That guards against malicious or fraudulent attempts at entry.

I explained earlier that if animals were sold, any money made would go to the owner, but any costs incurred by the prosecutor could be deducted from the sale proceeds.

The Bill applies to England and Wales only, although I believe that moves are afoot in other parts of the United Kingdom to introduce a similar measure. I hope that I have given a fair summary of the provisions. I shall happily deal with any questions or requests for clarification during the debate.

I mentioned earlier that various reputable bodies had given their support to the Bill. I shall quote an unsolicited letter of support from the British Veterinary Association. It said: We therefore fully support the amendment bill and the additional powers it contains not only because it meets a real need but also because it strikes just the right balance. Our members, not least those in the State Veterinary Service, are confident that this legislation will provide a significant improvement in their ongoing endeavours to improve the welfare of animals kept for commercial purposes". I very much agree with those sentiments and I hope that your Lordships will also agree.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Fookes.)

11.22 a.m.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, has introduced the Bill so admirably and thoroughly that, although I am only the second speaker in the debate, I shall repeat some of her comments. I make no apology for that; they are points that need to be emphasised.

I support the principles behind the Bill, but the House should reflect with care on some elements. It is perhaps of concern that a Bill which, among other things, gives powers of entry to private, albeit commercial, premises should be presented as a Private Member's Bill in the other place, with the lack of scrutiny that sometimes results from that. The Pet Care Trust, which is closely involved with the measures relating t o puppy farming that we passed last year, has kindly briefed me and expresses some concerns.

I hope that it goes without saying that I welcome any measures that will alleviate the suffering of animals, particularly when they are held in inhumane conditions. I believe that my concerns deserve close consideration and I hope that your Lordships will forgive me for raising some negative aspects of the Bill.

The Bill provides that its main provisions apply only in relation to an animal that the owner keeps or has kept for commercial purposes. Unfortunately, "commercial purposes" are not defined in the Bill. Despite what the noble Baroness said, I am concerned that that will lead to a grey area and an unintentionally wide application of the provisions to animals. I understand that the expression is intended to encompass, for example, circus animals, animals kept for commercial breeding, animals kept for sale in pet shops, guard and sniffer dogs and others. However, uncertainty and confusion may arise in some circumstances. Does an animal bred at home and subsequently given to a pet shop for commercial sale count as an animal kept for commercial purposes? The Bill gives prosecutors wide powers of access to premises where animals have been bred with no intention of their being used for commercial purposes. When such powers are granted to individuals, albeit through an order of the court, it should he clear what premises they apply to.

The Bill would allow the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the National Assembly for Wales to enter into contractual arrangements with corporate bodies to act as prosecutors under the Bill. It is envisaged that the RSPCA, for example, will be appointed to that role. I am concerned that not enough control will be exercised on the appointment of the individual officers by such bodies. Would it not be more sensible for the appointments to be made directly by the Ministry from a panel of appropriately qualified and vetted individuals? Given the nature of the important powers conferred on these people by the Bill, it is important that their objectivity is guaranteed and that their performance is carefully monitored and reported on to the Ministry.

There is also cause for concern about the powers of entry conferred by Clause 3. While the Bill provides that an order to confiscate animals can be granted only when proceedings are already under way for an offence under the Protection of Animals Act 1911, it will allow individuals who have simply notified the court that they intend to apply for an order under the Bill—irrespective of the fact that it might not be granted—to enter premises for the purpose of identifying and marking animals about which they are concerned.

It is also worrying that a person entering the premises under those powers is required only to produce a document showing that he is an authorised person and to state in writing his reasons for entering. There is no requirement for him to produce a copy of the order or a notice that he has applied for such an order, which would seem to be a minimum requirement. There is some doubt about the legality of those provisions, which appear to convey wide powers of entry to private property, under the Human Rights Act 1998. I feel sure that my noble friend the Minister will give us some reassurance on that.

A further point of concern is that the owners of animals subject to a care and disposal order should have the opportunity to make a full case in response to an application for such an order. Once again, in view of the nature of the powers sought, it is surely of fundamental importance that those who are subject to such interference with their property should have the right to reply at the time that the order is applied for and to produce evidence, if necessary from a vet, in order to resist such an order being made against them.

My final point, which was also raised in another place, is whether the Bill can provide adequate compensation for owners who have had their livestock removed and possibly sold or destroyed but who are subsequently acquitted in proceedings under the 1911 Act. That is unclear. Although the court has to have regard to the owner's interest in the value of the animals and in avoiding increasing the costs when making an order, what happens if it transpires that an entirely innocent party has suffered what could be a serious financial loss as a direct result of the exercise of those powers?

The Bill requires closer scrutiny in a number of respects, but I hope that my noble friend will be able to give assurances that these matters will be addressed, because the Bill cannot be delayed. Amendments would only wreck it.

11.29 a.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, the Green Party is in favour of legislation that reduces the amount of cruelty imposed on animals by men. I imagine that it is therefore in line with all the other parties represented in your Lordships' House.

I am not an animal rights man. That is a phrase without much philosophical or legal justification. I am a human duties man. I have a scale of priorities for how we should address our human duties. The control of animals in the wild is a complex issue that we shall doubtless deal with in extreme form in the next year or two.

Much higher on my list than, for example, fox hunting is the welfare of animals which are already under human control. As your Lordships know, issues such as battery hens, the welfare of pigs and broiler fowl have been a constant concern of mine during my entire time in this House. For that reason, I give the Bill my hearty support and give great thanks to those in another place and in this House—particularly, of course, the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes—who have supported the Bill thus far.

On the whole, the Bill seems to me to be in an admirable state. I listened with care to what the noble Viscount said. No doubt, the matters which he raised will be addressed by the noble Baroness when she replies. However, there did not appear to be anything in what he said that would deny our duty to give the Bill a speedy passage. I hope that the Government—I look forward to hearing the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, who knows a great deal about these matters—will not be slow to activate it once it has passed into law.

The country as a whole owes great gratitude to those who bring forward this type of legislation. It reduces the immense amount of cruelty towards animals which has been carried out in the past, sometimes wittingly and sometimes unwittingly. Such cruelty is seen to a lesser extent now, and we hope that it will be inflicted to an even lesser extent in the future. I wish the Bill well.

11.31 a.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, I am pleased to support the Bill and my noble friend Lady Fookes, who has introduced it this morning.

Over the years, the Protection of Animals Act 1911 has been the cornerstone of legislation dealing with cruelty to animals. The original Act is, to my mind, remarkably comprehensive. It has been amended in various areas in order to deal with issues as they have arisen; for example, performing animals, the need for anaesthetics during animal operations, the use of cruel poisons, and others. However, overall it has served this country well over almost 100 years since it was put on the statute book.

The concern of the United Kingdom for animal welfare is well known and well accepted in this country and elsewhere. Indeed, animal welfare concerns predate those of the welfare of children. The RSPCA was established in 1824, some 60 years ahead of what was then the National Society for the Protection of Children. The Cruelty to Animals Act 1876, which my noble friend Lady Fookes mentioned, similarly was a forward-looking piece of legislation to regulate the use of animals in scientific experiments. Of course, as has been mentioned, this amendment of the 1911 Act does not apply to such animals.

Therefore, it is curious that, while the original Act dealt with the disposal of animals by depriving the convicted person of ownership of the animal or by ordering its destruction, there is nothing in the Act to protect the welfare of animals during the course of the proceedings for cruelty or neglect between the time of indictment and the time of trial. As has been stated, that period can be lengthy, passing into weeks or months. In one or two cases, the process has lasted for more than a year.

This amending Bill reduces the lacuna in the original Act. It extends those who may conduct prosecutions from the police constable in the original Act to a list of individuals or bodies. They are the approved prosecutors. The Bill gives the prosecutor the authority—having been granted permission by a magistrates' court, thus providing a great safeguard—to enter premises other than a private dwelling for the purposes of identifying and marking animals subject to prosecution. I hope that advice may be given that microchipping is probably the preferred and more effective method of identification and that which is least subject to falsification.

As my noble friend said, the Bill has the support of the National Farmers Union, the RSPCA, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the British Veterinary Association. I believe that we have probably all received the documentation from the Pet Care Trust, to which the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, referred.

Baroness Fookes

My Lords, everyone except me—the sponsor of the Bill.

Lord Soulsby of Swafibam Prior

My Lords, that was most remiss of the Pet Care Trust. However, having read the documentation and having listened to the noble Viscount make the case for the concerns of the Pet Care Trust, I do not believe that they override the importance of this amending Bill. I believe that adequate safeguards are built into the Bill to answer the concerns of the Pet Care Trust.

As part of that concern, Clause 2 places on veterinary surgeons the onus of making decisions about the welfare of animals whose owners are under consideration for malfeasance. Of course I must declare that, as Members of the House will be aware, I am myself a veterinary surgeon. However, I believe that that part of the clause is most helpful and useful.

This is a Private Member's Bill which emanates from another place. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the welfare of commercial animals, it is an important Bill. I sincerely hope that it is not subject to amendment which may lead to its demise. Indeed, I believe that it would be most unfortunate were it to fail as a result of the vagaries of the Private Member's Bill procedures in another place. To my mind, it is too important to fail in that way.

11.38 a.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, the whole House owes a debt of gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, for bringing forward this Bill. I believe that it is almost the perfect type of Private Member's Bill because it takes on a modest objective and deals with it in bite-size portions. We shall not choke in our attempt to get the Bill through.

In addition, if something is universally praised, one knows that something must be wrong with it. I believe that the doubts that have been raised are technical in nature. Because they are technical, I believe that good practice, with a little sensitivity, will solve most of them. Unfortunately, there may be an occasion where case law comes in, but we must expect that in virtually all legislation. No matter how well we do, if we do not implement the Bill properly, we shall not get the best from it.

The basic premise behind the Bill is that, if cruelty to animals is identified which the law already states should not happen and should be dealt with, then delay in dealing with the problem should not occur. That is surely a premise which we all embrace. If there are technical problems with the Bill but they not of a fundamental nature and cannot be addressed directly by legislation, effectively we should press forward and deal with them as they occur.

A series of platitudes springs to mind about excellence being the enemy of the good and so on. I probably have that wrong and I am absolutely sure that every noble Lord who speaks after me will correct me in relation to that.

We must deal with this problem now. Animals are suffering because the legal system has become clogged up. If this Bill will reduce that suffering, it must be welcomed. I give my support and that of my noble friends on these Benches to the Bill. I hope that it will pass through all its stages as quickly as possible.

11.40 a.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Addington, shot from his seat like a bullet from a gun. He moved so quickly that the gap hardly existed. I hope that the House will allow me to say a few words.

I congratulate my noble friend Lady Fookes on picking up this Bill from another place and explaining it to us so clearly. I have absolutely no doubt from the speeches we have heard that it fills a major gap in animal protection legislation.

However, my noble friend invited questions and I am afraid that I have one for her. I welcome the Explanatory Notes to the Bill. They are a rare piece of parliamentary explanation and I hope that we see many similar examples accompanying Private Member's Bills in the future.

Both my noble friend and the exemplary Explanatory Notes make a point of saying that although Clause 3 allows very necessary powers of entry, those powers do not extend to private dwelling houses. Why not?

As your Lordships well know, I run a small family business. What your Lordships, however, may not know is that my office is in my house. That business is not, but might well be, a breeding kennel or a breeding cattery. In that case, it would be more than possible that an animal to which this Bill applies might be found in the office. If the Bill prevents responsible people entering that office, that is obviously a new gap to be found in this extremely important addition to animal protection legislation.

11.42 a.m.

Lord Luke

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Fookes for sponsoring this Bill and bringing it before the House. We welcome the purpose of the Bill, which will remove the current loophole in the Protection of Animals Act 1911 and help to improve animal welfare in the United Kingdom.

My noble friend introduced the Bill in her usual robust and succinct manner and I agree with virtually everything that she said. Among other things, she read out a list of the august bodies which support the Bill. Of course, my noble friend Lord Soulsby emphasised the strong support of the British Veterinary Association and others. So the Bill comes before us in an extremely strong position.

However, for all the Bill's good intentions, I am concerned that some of its provisions might be vulnerable to adverse interpretations. It is on those provisions that we seek some reassurance.

There is a need for further clarification of some of the wording of the Bill, without which its intended coverage may be radically altered. For example, the issue of the exact definition of what is a commercial animal has been raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Simon. That matter was raised too in the other place. But I am still slightly puzzled by that because I believe that we should be quite sure where the boundaries are when passing legislation of this kind which impinges on what might be described as human rights.

In that regard, I diverge from the views of my noble friend. She said that a loose definition subject to decision by the court concerned is preferred. I am rather worried about that as it may lead to disputes and doubts which will not help the effectiveness of the Bill to fulfil its purposes. I wait to hear with interest what the Minister has to say about that.

For example, sometimes animals other than farm animals which are involved in commercial activity appear to be covered by the Bill; at others, it seems that the same species of animals are exempt from the provisions of the Bill, such as those in catteries or kennels, circuses or zoos. What about puppy farms? I dislike puppy farms very much indeed and I hope that one day they will be abolished.

I have no objection to the provision of appropriate powers for reputable and responsible organisations, other than the statutory bodies, to be involved in prosecutions. However, it is extremely important that the use of such powers by all such bodies must always be subject to the closest scrutiny.

It appears that the filters provided by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food which will prevent vexatious prosecutions by those with direct authorisations to proceed are probably effective. But how does the Minister propose to deal with possible abuses of the powers of entry by those with delegated authority?

In that context, I am extremely glad to hear that MAFF will consult widely before delegating authority to prosecute to other bodies.

I ask the Minister to consider also those owners who are prosecuted and then subsequently acquitted of the charges made against them. Under Clause 4, the prosecutor is entitled to be reimbursed for any reasonable expenses incurred by him in the care or removal by him of the animals in question. That is a correct and necessary provision. However, there do not seem to be corresponding provisions for the owner who has been acquitted and has sustained real financial damage to his business which cannot be redressed under the Bill as it stands. I do not believe that that can be right. I refer in particular to transport costs which would not have been incurred without the prosecution taking place. Again, I hope the Minister will tell us how he proposes to deal with that.

We are well aware that to be made law in this Session this Bill must not be delayed nor, indeed, amended; and, of course, I agree with that. We shall not delay the Bill. We welcome it and wish it a fair wind and a speedy passage.

11.47 a.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I am delighted to be able to respond for the Government to this very important Bill, introduced so ably by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes. At the outset, I should declare at least a former interest as a director of a farming company.

This is an important measure. It has been examined thoroughly in another place and comes from there unamended. As the noble Baroness made clear in her excellent speech, the Bill is a simple one, of the type ideally suited to the Private Member's procedure. I congratulate her, and the sponsor of the Bill in another place, on their efforts.

The Government are pleased to lend their support to the Bill. We are acutely aware of the plight in which animals can find themselves—not always through wilful cruelty, but perhaps through simple neglect where owners are just unable to cope.

We all agree that it cannot be right in this day and age that animals are left to suffer while the law runs its course. We acknowledge that Section 12 of the 1911 Act provides the opportunity for a police constable to ensure animals at risk are removed to a place of safety. But this was a provision conceived at a time when the responsibilities of the police were very different from those they face today. Moreover, the 1911 Act contains no provision for animals at risk to be cared for by others in situ. Very often, this is the ideal solution. Nor can it be right that those organisations or individuals that intervene to ensure welfare is not compromised do so at potentially enormous costs to themselves. We had an example of that from the noble Baroness.

As regards the welfare of animals, we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, some appalling practical examples and her explanation of how this Bill would have helped had its measures been available. I do not want to add to those examples but I can say that members of the State Veterinary Service are regularly encountering similar instances on farms, although I emphasise that that relates only to a very small number of livestock farms.

But this is not a measure aimed specifically at the farming community, the vast majority of whom have the welfare of their stock as a top priority. It is also sadly the case—and, again, we have heard practical examples—that non-farm species are currently exposed to exactly the same risks. We must act to address that and, again, I congratulate the noble Baroness on her efforts to do so.

Although this is a Private Member's measure, I have made it clear that it is one that the Government will administer should it become law. In particular, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and colleagues in the National Assembly for Wales agriculture department will assume administrative responsibility.

I shall attempt to address the points that have been raised in the debate and deal with any concerns of noble Lords. I hope I can offer some reassurances. As always, if time does not allow me to deal with all the issues, I shall ensure that every noble Lord receives a letter from me.

We have heard that the Bill would plug an important gap in the 1911 Protection of Animals Act by allowing a court to make an order relating to the care, disposal or slaughter of animals kept for commercial purposes which are the subject of a prosecution brought by an "approved prosecutor" under the 1911 Act. However, the Bill would not provide carte blanche for prosecutors—far from it. Let me make clear that the Bill will not make it any easier than it is now for anyone to bring prosecutions under the Protection of Animals Act.

There has been legitimate concern about whether the rights of entry for which the Bill provides are appropriate. In fact, there would be no new powers of entry except to discharge the terms of a court order, or in the limited, but essential, context of enabling an "approved" prosecutor who has indicated to the court his intention of applying for a court order and is therefore bringing a prosecution under the existing provisions of the 1911 Act to identify the animals which are the subject of the prosecution.

The Bill defines those who may have recourse to its provisions as the Crown Prosecution Service, government departments and local authorities, but it also extends to any persons or bodies concluding written agreements with MAFF or the National Assembly for Wales agriculture department. I refuse to use the acronym NAWAD.

The Government are well aware of the need to ensure that any organisation operating under the provisions of one of those written agreements is properly equipped in terms of its expertise, financial standing and track record on animal welfare law. So we shall devise written agreements that are transparent and rigorous, and we shall seek views from stakeholders on the terms of a model agreement. There will also be full consultation on such agreements before they come into force.

The criteria that we plan to employ to decide whether to enter into written agreements with prosecutors will reflect several factors. First, we need to cover whether the person or body will have adequate resources to provide care for the animals concerned. That would include the facilities available for care; the ability to provide adequate food, water and veterinary treatment. Secondly, it will reflect the financial resources available to the applicant and, thirdly, where appropriate, whether or not the person or body has a proven track record in securing convictions under the 1911 Act. If a person or body has a poor "strike rate" of convictions—for example, they have taken a string of unsuccessful prosecutions—we would be unlikely to request that they enter into a written agreement.

We shall also monitor the way in which those operating under written agreements use then powers. Any that give cause for concern face losing their authority. We shall ensure that the model written agreement features a clause allowing revocation.

I have noted the concern about the type of animals to which the Bill would apply, as expressed by my noble friend Lord Simon and the noble Lord, Lord Luke. Here, too, I hope 1 can provide clarification. The Bill applies only to animals kept for a commercial purpose. It would cover, for example, farm animals, animals kept for sale in pet shops, and guard and sniffer dogs, but it would not apply to pets.

I know that there is some concern that the term "commercial" in the Bill should be more precisely defined. However, I recognise the difficulties that the noble Baroness and the sponsor in another place have no doubt encountered in attempting to produce a definition. The fact is that to do so would risk going considerably beyond the scope of a Private Member's Bill. Any attempts to produce a tighter definition may lead to loopholes and/or omissions. While other legislation attempts to create a strict and comprehensive definition of the term, those definitions apply only in specific and limited situations.

I suggest that the term "commercial" is well understood. The Explanatory Notes, which the courts can use as an aid to interpretation where there is genuine doubt as to the meaning of the provision, expand on the point. They cite, at paragraph 8, examples—although the list is not exhaustive —of the type of animals that would be covered.

The Government plan further guidance—again we shall consult on its content—in which we can, if appropriate, add a further gloss to the types of circumstance in which we see the Bill applying. Ultimately it is for the courts, and for the prosecution in particular, to prove that the animal in question is or was kept for a commercial purpose.

Noble Lords have asked why there is no appeals procedure for the owner. That is not quite the case. The Bill does not seek to duplicate the existing legislative framework. There are already provisions in Section 111 of the Magistrates' Court Act allowing owners to "appeal" to the Divisional Court on a point of law or jurisdiction. But, to protect the welfare of the animals, an order made would normally remain in force pending the conclusion of the Divisional Court.

In any event, the rights of individuals are fully covered by requiring the court to take into account the interests of the owner, including his financial interests, when deciding whether to award a care order and owners would have the opportunity to present their case to the court.

Noble Lords were also concerned that an application to the court for a care order might prejudice the owner's position in any subsequent trial. However, I believe that Clause 1(2) of the Bill is drafted carefully to ensure that that is not the case. First, a court will apply a different level of test in deciding whether to grant an application for care to that applied in a subsequent trial. It need only appear to the court from evidence given by a veterinary surgeon that a care order is in the interest of the animals. That test is deliberately less demanding that that of being "satisfied beyond reasonable doubt", which would apply in a prosecution.

Secondly, a care order must be, in the interest of the animals". That concept is deliberately wider than the specific charges someone may face under the 1911 Act where cruelty or unnecessary suffering would have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

That allows us to be sure—as we must be—that the human rights of owners are adequately protected. Indeed, there are a number of provisions in the Bill to ensure that that is the case. I am advised that the Bill is indeed compliant with the Human Rights Act. First, an application for a care order is possible only where a prosecution has been brought under the 1911 Act. Secondly, MAFF or the National Assembly for Wales agriculture department will have to enter a written agreement with any private body or organisation wishing to make applications for care orders. The terms of such an agreement will be subject to wide consultation. Finally, the decision on whether to grant an application for care is one for the court, to whom the owner would, of course, have the right to put his case. The court is required to take into account the desirability of protecting the owner's interest in the value of the animals and avoiding increasing his costs and can grant an order only when it appears necessary in the interests of the welfare of the animals.

It is difficult to be precise on the likely level of usage of the new procedure. We accept that the RSPCA is likely to want to enter into the appropriate written agreements and to seek care orders where appropriate. The extent to which public sector prosecutors will wish to seek care orders is difficult to judge. It is likely that that will be determined in the context of individual cases.

It may interest noble Lords to know that the current level of prosecutions under the Act, according to the criminal statistics, was some 1,100 in 1997 (the last available year). RSPCA figures show that in the same year the society secured around 870 convictions. That is a figure inside the 1,100. An important point is that most of those related to non-commercial animals, and would therefore not be subject to this Bill.

The remaining 200-odd cases will have been taken by other private bodies and by central or local government. Only a small minority of those could possibly be cases in which the prosecutor would want to use the proposed new procedure, the majority being non-commercial operations, or cases where intervention to protect the animals' welfare, an action that is justifiable only in cases of extreme cruelty or neglect, would not be contemplated.

As we have heard, the Bill would apply in England and Wales. The position in Scotland and Northern Ireland is different. The 1911 Protection of Animals Act does not apply in those areas. However, we understand that both Scotland and Northern Ireland plan to introduce parallel legislation.

I was asked about the costs of acquittal. The powers in the Bill do not become available until the prosecution is in train. Then and only then may the magistrates grant an order in the interests of the welfare of the animals. In doing so they must take account of the veterinary evidence. In determining what to authorise, they must have regard to all the circumstances, including the desirability of protecting the owner's interest in the value of the animals and avoiding increasing his costs". The subsequent acquittal of a defendant at trial is a point entirely separate from the welfare of the animals at the outset. In any event, the Bill protects the financial position of owners by requiring magistrates to take it into account when deciding upon the type of order to grant.

The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, asked about rights of entry. I understand that the exclusion of a dwellinghouse reflects Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which relates to the right to respect the home and private life.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, perhaps I can intervene to follow up on that point. I well understand the dangers and opportunities which have been given to us from the patriation of the human rights legislation. But surely it would be possible to frame some sort of legal clause to encompass the case I illustrated whereby the office is in a private dwellinghouse. After all, the office may not contain the animals in question but may well contain comprehensive records which would be useful to the court in the exercise of this particular duty.

Lord Carter

My Lords, that is a point that goes wider than this Bill. Indeed, if we attempted to amend this Bill, as we know it would not become law. The easiest way to deal with this—I accept it is a complex point—is for me to write to the noble Lord with a fuller explanation.

This is not a complicated measure. It is a modest but long overdue change to the 1911 Act. For the most part the Act has stood the test of time, though the history we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, was fascinating. I believe he said that there was protection of animals in law before there was protection of children. However, the Act remains a cornerstone of the legislative protection we provide to animals though there is within it an increasingly obvious gap.

We have heard how the measure is supported by all the key players. The veterinary service, both within and outside government, industry and the NFU recognise the need for the measure. We have heard how the Bill has long been sought by welfare organisations engaged in the day-to-day job of protecting animals and, as I made clear, the Government are pleased to pledge their support.

This House has a long history of recognising the need to protect in law the welfare of animals. This is a sorely needed addition to the framework of law we have in place and I commend the Bill to the House.

12.3 p.m.

Baroness Fookes

My Lords, I am delighted with the warm reception for the Bill. I thank particularly the noble Lords, Lord Beaumont and Lord Addington, my noble friend Lord Soulsby, and the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for their support. I had the support, with reservations, of the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, and my noble friend Lord Luke.

In welcoming that support perhaps I can add a personal note. Lady Wharton—Ziki as we all knew her—is, sadly, no longer in the House but she would have been here today to support the Bill. She was a splendid friend of the animals and worked extraordinarily hard for them. I know she would have been one of the warmest supporters of the Bill and I pay my own tribute to a lady who had become a very good friend and whom I sorely miss, as I am sure do many other noble Lords.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness Fookes

My Lords, certain reservations were expressed about terms in the Bill, mostly dealt with admirably by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. Perhaps I can add one or two brief comments. We shall have to agree to differ on the words, "for commercial purposes". I believe that it is a strength of the Bill that that phrase is not defined; other noble Lords disagree. I should like to point out to my noble friend Lord Luke that the key issue in that regard is not the species of the animal, it is the use to which the animal is put.

The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, was anxious that individuals rather than bodies should be named as prosecutors under the special terms of this Bill. However, that would probably be impractical and it is better that it remains with an organisation. However, one can make certain that the written agreement is tightly drawn. If it was proved under the terms of the agreement that any individual was unsatisfactory, they could certainly be written out of any further agreements. It was said that it could put at risk the organisation itself. I feel that that is not likely and I hope that that explanation satisfies the noble Viscount's concern.

The noble Viscount also raised the question of the need for a copy of the order to accompany the power of entry. My guess is that, in practice, any prosecutor would carry such a copy with him. However, it is a matter which can be considered when MAFF draws up the agreement and consults on whether or not it should be written in. Again, I hope that satisfies the anxiety of the noble Viscount.

The point raised by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale in relation to human rights procedure was dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I operate on a much lower level. I know that if that provision had been included in the Bill, it would have been very controversial. As a Private Member's Bill, without the might of the government machine behind it, it would probably have faltered before even reaching this House. That was my practical reason for not wishing for it to be included, although I agree that in an ideal world it would be better to have it in.

I am not sure that I need to deal with any further points raised; most were dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, in his winding-up speech. It remains for me to ask your Lordships to give this Bill a fair wind, bearing in mind that the time-scale is extremely tight. If this Bill, as everyone hopes, is to become law, it will need a speedy passage through this House. On that note, I commend the Bill to the House.

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