As the MP for a rural constituency, I care deeply about the welfare of animals and I share the concern about animal cruelty. I am pleased that we have a robust legal framework to tackle this vicious behaviour in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal.
The courts must decide what the penalty should be for each individual case, taking into account its circumstances and the guidelines laid down by the Sentencing Council. There has recently been a public consultation into sentencing guidelines for these crimes, which resulted in the Council confirming the removal of the cap on the financial element of the penalty, and clarifying a range of relevant factors that would indicate a more serious offence. Currently, in addition to the maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine, the courts can also disqualify offenders from keeping animals for as long as they consider appropriate. Though I was not able to attend the debate on this issue on 30 March, I was encouraged to hear George Eustice MP confirm that the Sentencing Council’s revised guidance on this will be effective from May. The revisions will also give magistrates more flexibility when imposing penalties towards the upper end of the current scale and I think this is a positive step.
I do sympathise with the desire for a change to the sentencing guidelines and if any such legislation was introduced by the Government, I would be minded to support it. Unfortunately however, there has been no suggestion from the courts that they are finding the sentencing powers inadequate, and so it is not necessarily the case that changing the maximum sentence would make a difference to the rulings issued in the courts. However, this issue is kept under review and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is in regular contact with the Ministry of Justice in relation to sentencing policy for animal welfare offences.