Animal welfare takes a huge leap forward with new laws – but old anomalies remain

Landmark legislation unveiled yesterday puts a duty of care on anyone keeping pets and other creatures to prevent their ill-treatment
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The Independent Online

SHOULD CHILDREN be able to buy snakes in a pet shop? Should putting your dog in a risky situation, such as a locked car on a hot day, be an offence from the moment you do it? We may be a national of animal lovers but we need a new legal code for animal welfare, the Government announced yesterday, unveiling proposals to recast nearly a century of animal protection and cruelty law.

Should children be able to buy snakes in a pet shop? Should putting your dog in a risky situation, such as a locked car on a hot day, be an offence from the moment you do it? We may be a national of animal lovers but we need a new legal code for animal welfare, the Government announced yesterday, unveiling proposals to recast nearly a century of animal protection and cruelty law.

A plan to give animal welfare a whole new legal framework will echo the rapidly changing feelings of recent years on what constitutes appropriate animal treatment in all areas, from pets and circuses to sport and farming Elliot Morley, The Animal Welfare minister, announced that no fewer than ten separate Acts of Parliament would be updated and consolidated in a new measure, ranging from the Protection of Animals Act, 1911, through the Cockfighting Act, 1952, to the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act, 1999.

The new law will be sweeping and will account for welfare of all domestic, farmed, wild or exotic animals in captivity, although it will not protect zoo or laboratory animals or place new restrictions on hunting, fishing or shooting.

At its heart will be a new duty of care on anyone who keeps an animal: if you have one, you will be legally obliged to look after it properly. That is a big change. Under present legislation, harm has to be proved to have occurred before action can be taken. Thus, if you beat your dog black and blue you will (with luck) be prosecuted, but if you merely keep it chained up all day for weeks at a time in its own filth with inadequate food, water and shelter, there is not a thing anyone can do until the moment comes when actual physical suffering can be proved.

The new duty of care will act to prevent ill-treatment rather than punish those who ill-treat (although ill-treatment will still be punished), and yesterday it was warmly welcomed by the RSPCA, which said it would do more to prevent cruelty than any other piece of legislation in history.

"The 1911 Protection of Animals Act has served us well, but it only covers physical suffering and gives no assistance in preventing cruelty," said John Rolls, RSPCA director of communications. "For animal welfare, this initiative is a massive step forward."

Mr Morley said that a chance to modernise the law "could not be missed". He went on: "The 1911 Act set the pace for animal welfare in the 20th century. We now intend to set the pace for the 21st century.

"The British are generally animals lovers, but that does not stop some horrific offences taking place. We want to stop cruelty, encourage good welfare and yet avoid the trap of excessive legislation. We recognise few people are intentionally cruel to animals, but rather more neglect welfare by failing to understand animals' needs."

Among the specific measures hinted at by the Government yesterday were raising the age at which children can buy pets unaccompanied from 12 to 16; the licensing of animal sanctuaries; a ban on the use of electric prods in zoos; more protection for pheasants bred for shooting; the end of cosmetic tail docking of dogs; and the regulation of the treatment of all animals involved in sport and entertainment.

The announcement will considerably burnish the Government's reputation on animal welfare, which Labour has taken more seriously in recent years than any other party. Tony Banks MP, often a critic of the Government for its tardiness over bringing in legislation banning fox hunting, said it was "a quantum leap forward".

But the Bill will not be introduced before "2004 at the earliest" and it does not mean everything in the garden is rosy. The Labour Government arrived in 1997 with a very ambitious animal welfare programme but many people say its delivery has not matched its aspirations.

There have been one or two unmistakable advances. In 2000, the Government banned fur farming, against intense Tory backbench opposition, and the dismal cages once housing thousands of wild animals with wide territorial needs such as mink and Arctic foxes have gone; from 1 January next year it will be a criminal offence to keep an animal for its fur.

The Government has also quietly but steadfastly maintained its opposition to commercial whaling, a stance of great diplomatic importance given increasing efforts by the Japanese to buy votes in the International Whaling Commission and do away with the 20-year-old whaling moratorium.

But, in other areas, campaigners are disappointed. The Government voted against a Europe-wide sales ban on new cosmetics that have been tested on animals, and has brought in neither the dog registration scheme nor the Royal Commission "to review the effectiveness and justification of animal experiments in laboratories and examine the alternatives," both of which were promised by a Labour Party leaflet in 1997.

But it is in farm animal welfare that most concerns remain and, in particular, with chickens. The British egg industry still relies on battery hens, and the EU directive banning their cramped cages does not take effect until 2012. There is no sign yet the Government will act unilaterally and ban battery cages ahead of time, as the previous Tory government did both with veal crates and close-confinement stalls for sows.

In the case of broilers, chickens bred for meat, the position is even worse, with millions of birds dying every year because of the cramped conditions, 10 years after a law was called for by the Farm Animal Welfare Council. A new set of guidelines for keeping broilers, brought in during the summer, is neither legally binding on the broiler industry, nor sufficiently tough in welfare terms, animal campaigners feel.

Dr Martin Potter, head of the RSPCA's Farm Animals Department, declared yesterday: "I think the Government's ministers are committed to animal welfare but the real test of their record will be whether they can do something pro- actively about chickens, which endure dreadful conditions, and there's no sign of it yet."

Prevention A new 'duty of care' on all animal owners is intended to prevent cruelty to any animals, and stop cases of gross malnourishment and neglect, rather than just punishing the perpetrators

Owners The law may raise the age at which children can buy pets on their own ­ from the present 12 years old to 16 years old. Pet owners will be expected to act responsibly.

Circus The law may ban wild animals such as lions, tigers and bears from being used in circuses and, for the first time, may insist on the licensing of circus winter quarters

Failure For all their ambition, the measures do nothing yet to protect broiler chickens, millions of which die from overcrowding every year

Legislation in Europe

Romania

Packs of stray dogs wandering the streets of Bucharest provide a stark example of the country's dismal record on the treatment of animals. Organised dog fights and beatings of domestic pets go unpunished in the absence of animal welfare legislation.

Spain

Standards of animal welfare in Spain are governed by each federal state and vary across the country. The southern region of Andalucia is of greatest concern to animal rights groups because it has no laws prohibiting cruelty to domestic animals. The Canary Islands, where bullfighting is banned, are kindest to pets. Farm animals are protected from acts of cruelty under European Union law.

Hungary

Hungary is arguably the most advanced former Eastern bloc country. Anti-cruelty legislation was introduced in 1999 and includes a ban on tail-docking and unlicensed sanctuaries and shelters. There are still doubts about enforcement of the law.

Germany

Germany's constitutional court has passed a law to guarantee the rights of animals but the significance has yet to be tested in the courts. Meanwhile a "duty of care" remains at the centre of anti-cruelty legislation. Germany has also led the way by outlawing tail-docking and the sale of any vertebrates to under-16s. The Government has also pledged to outlaw battery hen cages by 2007, five years before Britain.

Sweden

One of the most progressive European countries. Domestic animals are protected by a "duty of care" that demands retailers and owners ensure they are properly fed, watered and housed. The law is meant as a preventive and does not rely on proof of suffering. The RSPCA compares Swedish legislation to that in the pet-friendly Netherlands.