Further uncertainty for critical animal welfare commitments
The Government must put animal welfare back on the legislative table.
At the end of May, the Government announced it would be shelving the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. After over 18 months of unexplained inaction the move was not unexpected, despite a carryover motion at the last prorogation of Parliament. However, it was still hugely disappointing for Battersea and many other organisations in the animal welfare sector, and the Bill’s disappearance will have a real impact on the uncertain future of tens of thousands of animals.
Most frustratingly perhaps, for several months the Government had continued to promise that the Bill would be brought back ‘as soon as parliamentary time allowed’, stringing out the process and giving false hope that we would see progress towards the Bill becoming law. For a Bill which former Environment Secretary George Eustice, who had first introduced it to Parliament, claimed needed as little as five hours of time to pass – it is hard to see that the required time could not have been found.
The legislation would have introduced tougher restrictions on the importation of dogs and cats, tougher measures on the import of animals with cruel and unnecessary mutilations such as ear cropped dogs, and introduced a new offence for pet abduction.
The demise of the legislation inevitably calls into question the Government’s wider commitment to delivering other aspects of the Action Plan for Animal Welfare, launched in May 2021. This is a pragmatic, forward-thinking strategy for animal welfare intended to be delivered over the lifetime of the Parliament, which is starting to run short.
Looking at the Action Plan, the Government has made progress in some important areas. In March it was announced that compulsory cat microchipping will be introduced in early 2024, a move that will help rescues like Battersea reunite cats separated from their owners quicker and more often.
In April, it was announced that remote controlled shock collars for dogs will be banned in England from 2024 onwards, a long called for move to stop the use of these cruel and ineffective devices. These regulations will need to clear the Commons before the King’s Speech.
And the new Renters Reform Bill introduced into Parliament in May, which includes provisions to prevent landlords from unreasonably refusing pet requests from tenants, is a further welcome step towards supporting more people to experience the many physical and mental health benefits of pet ownership.
The Government should be taking confidence from how warmly these announcements have been received, and recommitting to delivering other aspects of the Action Plan too.
There’s good political capital to be made from being able to demonstrate delivery on these matters, which a year or so out from an expected General Election, all parties would be sensible to be mindful of.
At a debate in the Commons in June, the Government outlined its plans to bring back elements of the Kept Animals Bill through a series of Private Members’ Bills later in the year. However political history would tell us to expect the Private Members’ Bill route to be littered with obstacles, and typically much slower, than Government-introduced and led legislation.
We still don’t know which parts of the Kept Animals Bill will definitely return, how many Bills the replacement legislation could be divided between, and how the Government can guarantee through the Private Members’ Bill ballot that it will have enough supportive members willing to take them on.
There’s also the not insignificant speed bump of a General Election on the horizon, meaning that any new Government offering following the King’s Speech in November is likely to be even more slimmed down and focused on a small range of public-friendly offers designed to secure votes at the ballot box.
Whilst animal welfare issues tick the vote-winning box, the experience of the Kept Animals Bill denies animal welfare advocates confidence that the Government will find a better time than it has right now to get things done.
This is all also assuming an election date in the autumn next year. We could potentially still see an election as early as next May, further limiting the time available to finish what Ministers have started. That would mean heading into another Governmental cycle with time lost, and in the meantime thousands of animals continuing to suffer, entirely avoidably.
For a nation of animal lovers, the Government must strive for better.
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