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New Clause 9

Improvement Notices

'(1)   If an inspector is of the opinion that a person is failing to comply with section 8(1), he may serve on the person a notice which—

(a)   states that he is of that opinion,

(b)   specifies the respects in which he considers the person is failing to comply with that provision,

(c)   specifies the steps he considers need to be taken in order to comply with the provision,

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(d)   specifies a period for the taking of those steps, and

(e)   explains the effect of subsections (2) and (3).

(2)   Where a notice under subsection (1) ("an improvement notice") is served, no proceedings for an offence under section 8(1) may be instituted before the end of the period specified for the purposes of subsection (1)(d) ("the compliance period") in respect of—

(a)   the non-compliance which gave rise to the notice, or

(b)   any continuation of that non-compliance.

(3)   If the steps specified in an improvement notice are taken at any time before the end of the compliance period, no proceedings for an offence under section 8(1) may be instituted in respect of—

(a)   the non-compliance which gave rise to the notice, or

(b)   any continuation of that non-compliance prior to the taking of the steps specified in the notice.

(4)   An inspector may extend, or further extend, the compliance period specified in an improvement notice.'.—[Mr. Bradshaw.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Bradshaw: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment (a) to new clause 9, in line 2, leave out 'may' and insert 'must'.

New clause 3—Improvement notices—

'(1)   Where an inspector considers that animals are being kept in a way which is likely to cause unnecessary pain, suffering or injury he may serve a notice on the person appearing to be in charge of the animals requiring that person, within the period stated in that notice, to take action that the inspector considers to be reasonably necessary.

(2)   An inspector serving a notice under subsection (1) shall give his reasons for requiring that action to be taken.

(3)   It is an offence to fail to comply with an improvement notice.'.

New clause 4—Appeals against improvement notices—

'(1)   Any person who is aggrieved by an improvement notice served under section [Improvement notices] may appeal to a magistrates' court.

(2)   The procedure on an appeal to a magistrates' court under subsection (1) shall be by way of complaint, and the Magistrates' Court Act 1980 shall apply to the proceedings.

(3)   The period within which an appeal shall be brought shall be two weeks, or the period specified in the improvement notice, whichever ends the earlier.

(4)   A court may suspend an improvement notice pending an appeal.'.

New clause 5—Powers of a court on appeal—

Mr. Bradshaw: This amendment to the Bill reflects—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We now have to get on with the next new clause. Will Members who are leaving do so quietly and, if possible, not all together, so that we can get on with the business of the House?
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Mr. Bradshaw: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

This amendment to the Bill reflects my agreement in Committee to consider further a new clause proposed by the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). His proposition was that those accused of an offence should be told in a statutory improvement notice how they were breaking the law and what they needed to do to avoid being taken to court. I have taken that on board and that is what the new clause achieves.

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, however, we have not sought to replicate the approach taken in existing farm animal legislation, which makes it an offence not to comply with an improvement notice, but since the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998 may require an appeal process—a point that he acknowledges with his new clause 4. However, we believe that appeals are impractical because the period of an improvement notice is frequently short—for example, 24 hours—when dealing with the provision of water and feed. Appeals are also resource-intensive, as prosecutors may have to go to magistrates once for the appeal hearing and again for the prosecution, and the appeal process is easily abused by those who deliberately want to be obstructive and frustrate the inspectors.

Under new clause 9, we propose instead that someone who complies with an improvement notice will not be prosecuted. That is more straightforward, does not raise questions about appeals and is a clear incentive to someone to comply. Only inspectors, as defined in clause 46, will be able to issue those notices. I do not consider it appropriate that those who are not publicly accountable should be able to issue notices with formal legal authority.

8 pm

We do not agree with the Gentleman that an inspector should be obliged to issue a notice, although I note that he has proposed amendment (a) to new clause 9, which would do just that, but new clauses 3, 4, and 5, which he also tabled, would not do so. Compulsory notices would enable the serial offender to comply with each notice and then repeat the offence, safe in the knowledge that the worst that an inspector could do was issue another notice. In such circumstances, as in particularly serious cases that involve borderline cruelty, the inspector must be able to proceed directly to prosecution if he or she thinks that that is the best course, particularly if a disqualification order would be appropriate. In most cases, we would expect inspectors to issue a notice, but they should have the discretion to proceed directly to prosecution where that is warranted, particularly when private prosecutors are free to do so.

Finally, new clause 9 relates only to alleged offences under clause 8—the welfare offence—but new clause 3 would also include the power to issue notices for alleged cruelty violations under clause 4. I am sure that most hon. Members would agree that for most offences where actual cruelty has occurred, inspectors ought to proceed straight to prosecution, rather than issuing notices. On that basis, I commend new clause 9 and urge the hon. Gentleman not to press amendment (a) or new clauses 3, 4 or 5 to a vote.
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Bill Wiggin: I have fought for the inclusion of the improvement notice in the Bill, and I am pleased that the Government have wrestled with the very difficult task of proposing such an amendment. New clause 9 will serve as a statutory provision that represents an intermediate step before prosecution and will operate as an independent measure that will help to improve animal welfare standards.

The principle of issuing warnings—or, in footballing terms, yellow cards—with a statutory requirement before pursuing prosecutions will not only save time and money, but help to focus resources elsewhere, on the most serious cruelty crimes. However, although I can see that the Minister's officials have done a good job in drafting the new clause, I am disappointed that it does not include a mandatory mechanism to ensure that suspected offenders are issued with an improvement notice before any prosecution can commence, and I have tabled a "one-word" amendment accordingly.

The offences under clause 8, for which the improvement notice will apply, relate to the raft of codes of practice that the Minister plans to introduce under clause 12. Given that many owners may not have read a copy of the draft cat code and may not have read it carefully enough to know whether their cat happens to be too fat or too slim or is receiving sufficient mental stimulation, it is only right that we give them the opportunity to alter for the better the way that they care for their animals.

The vast majority of animal owners would be prepared to do the right thing if they knew what it was. Of the 257 improvement notices issues in the RSPCA's eastern region, only 17 were ignored. Let us just think of the court time saved and how beneficial it would be to inspectors to be empowered in that sensible and practical way, which would improve animal welfare. It is those 17 people whom we are after. That is the path to cruelty, so they are the people whom we want to prosecute, and we want to do so in the spirit of the Bill, before their animals have suffered cruelty; we do not want to prosecute people who are willing to change.

Furthermore, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which considered a draft version of the Animal Welfare Bill more than a year ago, recommended that provisions for improvement notices should be included in the Bill. So if we fail to amend the Bill to give law enforcers the power to issue improvement notices, we will open the floodgates to prosecution.

The RSPCA has pointed out that some clarity on those notices would be helpful, and I am sure that there will be opportunities in another place to clarify how we deal with people who abuse this important merciful intervention. We can overcome the technical difficulties associated with people who hide behind the time frame, or who repeatedly fail for different reasons.

We know that such orders work, so let us give them the full backing of Parliament by ensuring that they are issued on a mandatory basis before all prosecutions under clause 8(1). Amendment (a), which I tabled to new clause 9, would serve that purpose, as would new
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clauses 3, 4 and 5, which I also tabled. However, it was the Minister's wish that I should not press that amendment or those new clauses to a vote. I shall happily take his advice on the new clauses, but I intend to seek a vote on amendment (a), which would make Government new clause 9 mandatory.

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