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Baroness Fookes: My Lords, everyone except me--the sponsor of the Bill.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham 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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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We shall also monitor the way in which those operating under written agreements use their 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 I 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

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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

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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.

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