10th July 2024

Paying the price for poor legislation

Current animal welfare legislation is an obstacle to effective enforcement — and animals are suffering as a result, according to a new CTSI report

By Richard Young
There are just so many barriers in place at the moment that we need a real review and an overhaul of the legislation

Within Trading Standards’ portfolio of responsibilities, animal health and welfare is among those that really tug at the heartstrings. Cases of cruelty and neglect are all too common, and the details of such cases can be harrowing. Alongside the suffering, there are also significant public health and economic consequences that can stem from poor animal husbandry, with disease outbreaks having the potential to cause widespread disruption and harm.

Despite the importance of the issue however, the tools available for animal health and welfare enforcement are simply not up to scratch, according to CTSI’s new policy paper, ‘(Tackling) Animal Harm’. Because of problems with the wording of the current legislation, court backlogs and funding shortfalls, CTSI argues that there is an urgent need for review and reform of the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

CTSI Lead Officer for Animal Health and Welfare, Stephanie Young, and Georgie Cottell, Policy and Public Affairs Associate at CTSI, worked together on the paper. According to Young, “There are just so many barriers in place at the moment that we need a real review and an overhaul of the legislation. Animals are suffering and they will continue to do so because of these barriers.”

Under Section 18 of the Animal Welfare Act, local authorities have powers to take animals into their possession to prevent suffering, illness and the spread of disease. Section 20 of the Act enables a court to make an order for the subsequent treatment, rehoming or disposal of the animal.

The costs associated with this can be astronomical however, often in excess of £100,000. In several current cases costs are expected to exceed £200,000, and one ongoing case has already cost more than £1.5m. Delays in the courts can lead to protracted, time-consuming and costly gaps between the implementation of Section 18 and Section 20, with no guarantee of reduced animal suffering at the end.

Research by CTSI has found that for 84% of local authorities, cost is the most significant barrier to enforcement of animal health and welfare. More than a third (39%) said the duration of the court process is another substantial barrier to enforcement action.

Because of this, many local authorities are unwilling to take animals into their care at all. They are able to do this as a result of the wording of the Animal Welfare Act, which states that a local authority ‘may’ appoint inspectors — not that it must. As a result, there is no statutory obligation on the local authority to enforce the legislation.

Even when animals are taken into the possession of a local authority there are further hurdles; in addition to the eye-watering costs, appropriate facilities have to be found for their care, staffed by people with the willingness and expertise to deal with complex health and welfare problems — no easy feat.

“We don’t go out with the expectation that we need to take animals — it’s a rarity, it’s not the norm,” says Young. “We’re having to jump through hoops to make sure we comply with the law, and there are only a few individuals around the country who will actually assist us in dealing with this type of work.”

And even when these individuals have stepped in to help out, there is the likelihood that an offender — whether they be a farmer, a livestock trader or an unlicensed dog breeder — will restock with more animals while awaiting trial.

At times the experience of frontline Animal Health Officers can feel sisyphean. According to Young, “It’s really frustrating when you come across a severe animal welfare case, you take intervention to stop that individual from having animals, you remove animals from the environment they’re in, and you can’t stop that individual from going out the next day and buying more animals.”

“The fact that we can’t stop farmers restocking when Trading Standards has taken possession is just insane,” Cottell adds. “The fact that you can have Officers going in because there’s a serious compromise of welfare, taking animals away, and within a week they’ve restocked their entire farm, means you’re just funnelling money into something that could be dealt with so much earlier.”

Call to action
Among CTSI’s calls for reform (see below) is a change to how animal health and welfare cases are funded. As Young points out, “no money has ever been given to local authorities to fund animal welfare cases. Local authorities cannot afford to absorb these costs and the Secretary of State has a responsibility to ensure resources are available.

“Court delays do not assist in matters,” Young adds. “When I first joined the local authority 25 years ago, we had eight courts and we’re now down to two. The level of offending hasn’t changed but the level of funding has declined over those years.”

While it is clearly a major stumbling block, funding isn’t the only problem though. “When you look at what this is costing local authorities, a lot of that is down to issues with the legislation,” says Cottell. “Although funding is definitely needed, if we were to fix the legislation, it would cut down on those costs tremendously, which would be a real benefit to local authorities.”

Key among these fixes would be banning people whose animals have been removed under Section 18 of the Act from keeping animals again — at present, disqualification cannot be enforced until after conviction, which may take years. “Disqualification is at the discretion of the courts post-conviction, and courts don’t necessarily always give the disqualification,” Young says. “Even if they give a disqualification, the individuals then will typically get another family member to take the animals for them. You get the same problems all over again, but a different family member’s name is on the paperwork.

“As local authority inspectors we don’t have the resources to keep going back onto the same premises time after time after time. Where you’ve got serious offending, particularly when it’s quite clear it’s cruelty, there should be an automatic ban. If you were found guilty of drink-driving, they’d take your license away straight away, and you’d have an interim ban — we need a similar approach to animal welfare cases.”

In terms of what happens next, Cottell says CTSI has developed good relationships across the political spectrum. “Having spoken to different Trading Standards Officers and other local authority staff, we have collated all of the issues, laid out what the problem is, and offered some solutions,” Cottell says. “Our engagement with politicians has been really productive; it’s obviously a topic that is really emotive, it’s a public health issue as well, and it’s costing local authorities more than it should — all because of inefficient legislation.”

CTSI is calling for:

  • The introduction of pre-conviction sanctions and an interim disqualification of offenders in cases where animals are taken into possession
  • Devolved governments, rather than local authorities, to fund complex animal welfare cases where animals are taken into possession
  • Provision for the voluntary surrender of an animal
  • A duty on the Courts to hear Section 20 hearings within 21 days
  • Valuations of confiscated animals to be carried out by an independent third party
  • Clarification on powers on entry in Scotland
  • An amendment to strengthen disqualification from keeping animals
  • England and Wales to mirror provisions in Scotland concerning the seizure of animals in the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020

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