Policy and Politics: RSPCA's work on welfare law pays off

More than a decade of struggle lies behind Animal Welfare Bill, writes Indira Das-Gupta.

The announcement in last year's Queen's Speech that the Government was to introduce a new Animal Welfare Bill signalled a huge triumph for the RSPCA.

But it hasn't been a quick or easy process, despite appearances. "We have been working up to this for at least the past 10 or 15 years, but things have only just started to kick off in the past four," says Claire Robinson, the RSPCA's parliamentary officer. "For any government, issues such as health, education and crime will always be top of the agenda, so we knew animal welfare would take time."

The role of RSPCA inspectors is restricted under the existing Protection of Animals Act 1911, because they must walk away from situations in which an animal's welfare is compromised unless there is concrete evidence of suffering. They can offer advice, but this is not legally binding. The charity was convinced that the law was outdated by frustrated officers who make repeat visits to the same individuals but do not see improvements.

The Bill would introduce a "duty of care" for all pet and animal owners so that where conditions are found to be inadequate and advice on raising welfare standards is ignored, criminal proceedings could be taken. A welfare offence would carry a lesser penalty than a cruelty offence.

The RSPCA campaign focused on persuading as many MPs as possible. A reception was held at the Commons in 2000 and parliamentary officers attended all the party conferences. Robinson explains: "It helps if you do your homework and approach MPs who have listed animals in the register of interests or have attended debates on the subject."

The RSPCA's first breakthrough came when the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs set up a public consultation. Every department of the charity worked on an extensive report that was submitted to Defra, but Robinson believes securing the public's support made the real difference.

She says: "It's important to prove to MPs that their constituents are concerned about an issue before you can get them to do anything. We have collected nearly 85,000 signatures for our petition and try to get people to text their support.

"We ask people to include their postcodes so we can tell MPs if there is a lot of support for the Bill in their constituencies. Some MPs have initiated their own surveys of constituents."

In the meantime, Labour MP Tony Banks sponsored another Commons reception, and tabled an early day motion for the charity.

In the past year, the charity has stepped up the campaign, touring the UK with a roadshow. Robinson says: "We soon realised we had identified an issue that was really important to people and which the Government could no longer ignore."

KEY POINTS

If passed into law, the Animal Welfare Bill would also prohibit:

- Training an animal for the purpose of fighting, recording a fight, possessing equipment used for fighting and betting on a fight

- Tail docking of dogs for cosmetic reasons or without an anaesthetic

- Animals in circuses

- Tethering of animals where it is likely to cause unnecessary suffering.

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