As my petition has now topped 10,000, signatures as of today, 10th May 2016, I am, as promised, setting out, in this special one-off blog post, a much more detailed explanation of my reasons for starting the petition, and what I hope to achieve by it.
Perhaps the best place to begin is with the text of the petition itself, as it currently appears on the HM Government petitions web site.
Create a new offence of "animal murder" with a minimum of 5 years on conviction.
Our animal welfare legislation dates from times when deliberate killing of pets & other animals was a rarity, and is too often interpreted leniently by judges. This new offence, plus a lifetime ban on keeping animals, plus entry on a new animal offenders' register, would be a significant deterrent.
The number of high-profile cases of animals being deliberately killed, seemingly just for "fun", highlights the way the current legislation is simply not acting as a deterrent to the sort of people likely to carry out these acts. A new offence of "Animal Murder" with a minimum sentence of 5 years in prison on conviction, no remission or parole, backed up by placement on a new "animal offenders' register" and a lifetime ban on keeping animals, should redress the balance, once available to the CPS
One of the shortcomings of the government petitions web site is that it only allows you a very few words to explain what it is you are petitioning for, and what you are trying to achieve. Those two paragraphs above represent the maximum wordage you are allowed on the site when setting up a petition, and obviously they go nowhere near the amount of detail which is necessary to explain such a complicated concept as animal welfare.
My decision to start the petition is one that has been at the back of my mind for some months, if not years, as I have seen, and been critical of, instance after instance of lenient sentences being handed down by the judiciary and magistracy to people who have deliberately injured and killed animals “for a laugh”. The actual trigger that made me put pen to paper (or, more accurately, finger to keyboard) arose out of the incident of Missy the Bus-Stop cat, which was a cat that used to make a habit on sleeping at a specific bus-shelter in Leigh Park near Havant, where it had become a regular fixture and was greeted, and petted by many travellers and commuters. Sadly, at the beginning of February 2016, it was discovered in a badly-injured state and had to be put to sleep. The presumption was, at the time, that yobboes were responsible, although there is now also a theory that she may have been struck by a passing car.
I was angry when I read about it. Especially if it was the yobboes who did it. I make no apologies for calling them yobboes, in fact, I have called them much worse, but out of respect for the mixed nature of my readership, we’ll stick at yobboes. I’m talking about the sort of people that – a while ago now – burned down the stables of Barnsley Riding for the Disabled; the people who set fire to Manchester Dogs’ Home; the dog-fighting rings; the people who think it’s funny to chuck hedgehogs out of tower block windows. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to label my proposed law “Missy’s Law”, though others have done so, because sadly there are many thousands of “Missys”, and not just cats – dogs, horses, farm animals, small mammals and rodents, all of which suffer mindless and needless cruelty at the hands of idiots.
At the moment, under the Animal Welfare Act, the maximum sentence that can be handed down in cases of extreme cruelty and causing the death of an animal deliberately is a 26 week custodial sentence. All too often, however, this is lessened to community service and/or a fine. This is no deterrent. Part of the problem is that the existing laws are rooted in outdated 19th century attitudes to animal welfare, in an era when life generally was brutish and nasty and animal life didn’t really matter except insofar as it affected economic factors – the loss of a working dog or a horse, for instance. In the last 150 years we have made great strides in legislature concerning human welfare, but animal welfare legislation is still stuck in the era of the steam train and the public hanging.
A cat, for instance, is regarded as merely a chattel, from the legal point of view of its ownership in law, and a dog is not much better. The only reason that you have to stop and find out who the owner is, if you run over a dog, is that you have potentially done them some economic harm, if it was a working animal. This sort of outmoded approach to framing the law needs to be fast-forwarded. So I started an official government petition (link here) to put a new offence on the statute book, of animal murder, which brings with it, on conviction, a minimum jail term of five years with no remission or parole, automatic entry on a new “animal offenders’ register” along the same lines as the existing sex offenders’ register, and a lifetime ban on keeping animals or partaking in any employment connected with animals.
Because people have been sharing it on Facebook and Twitter, inevitably people have asked me questions and raised points about it, and, rather than try and get round them all individually, especially given the limitations of Twitter for long conversations, I thought if the petition did reach 10,000 signatures, and I posted some of my reasoning here, it might help with the frequently asked questions and to provide some background. Plus, in future, I can just link to this blog when someone asks a question I know is already answered here.
Obviously, in an ideal world, I would like to correspond with, and thank, each and every one of the 10,000 people who has signed thus far, but the detail of who has signed a government petition is not available to the petitioner. And please accept my thanks if you are reading this and you have already signed the petition.
So, as I said above, firstly, the existing animal welfare legislation is rooted in Victorian times, where attitudes to animals were completely different. True, a horse might expect to be worked to death, or a pit pony would spend its life underground and never see daylight, but the idea of deliberately killing an animal “just for fun” was relegated to a hard core of psychopaths. So we have a situation where successive laws have come down, and been amended through the years, based, for instance, on the principle that a dog is essentially a working animal, and a cat is nothing more, in law, than a household chattel.
Currently the Animal Welfare Act allows for 26 weeks as the maximum custodial sentence in cases of the severest, intentional cruelty, with malice aforethought. However, all too frequently we see cases of people who have inflicted wilful violent cruelty on animals either walking free from court, or with the most minimal punishments. Magistrates have told me that one of the reasons they don’t go for the severe end of the punishment scale, is that it will just be overturned on appeal, which is to my mind another symptom that the whole attitude towards animal welfare and deliberate animal abuse needs revising and strengthening. It leads me to question “why is the original tough sentence seen as unjust?” and the only answer I can come up with is that our existing laws have led us to accept the insidious assumption that animal life is somehow not worthy of protection. Ultimately, that is what has to change, but at least if the CPS have a tough new deterrent to use in the very worst cases of premeditated cruelty, leading to the death of an animal with malice aforethought, then this is a step down that road.
I am not anticipating that, if this ever did reach the statute book, it would become the de facto legislation for prosecuting all cases of animal abuse. I see it as rather like a nuclear deterrent, something you hope will be rarely, if ever used. Maybe once or twice a year, for high-profile cases. I want it to be sitting there on the statute book in the hope that the next time a gang of yobboes thinks its funny to kick a dog or cat to death, or to set fire to an animal sanctuary for a laugh, they might just think twice, and think again.
As to the length of the sentence, I could have said, a life for a life, or 10 years minimum or an even longer sentence, but that would have limited the chance of large numbers of people signing it. I may well agree with you that more draconian measures would be preferable. I have written before, that one possible just punishment would be to do to the abuser whatever it was that they did to the animal they killed, and that once you had set fire to a few yobboes and thrown them off the car park roof, cases of deliberate animal cruelty would decline appreciably. In that respect, I share the views of the late Alfred Wainwright, as well as a similar physique, and broadly agreeing with his take on the Lake District. However, such remedies aren’t available to us, so I have tried to go for a term which would still be seen as a deterrent, commensurate with the suffering caused, but reasonable enough that people would sign in large numbers. I imagine anyway that if it ever did get close to becoming law, there would be several attempts to dilute the penalty, by vested interests, before it received Royal assent.
I would like to examine here a few of those vested interests and I will take this opportunity, while I am at it, to nail my colours to the mast regarding my own attitude to them.
Fox hunting is already illegal at the moment, although the law is not enforced with anything like the rigour of the enforcement of the law on, say, secondary picketing. Because of the laxity of the interpretation of the existing law, acts of cruelty towards foxes often go unpunished and are brushed off as “regrettable mistakes”. Hunting has powerful backing, a lobby made up of rich landowners and has the tacit support of some members of the Royal Family. I have said before, and I believe this to be true, that if fox-hunting had been a working class sport, it would have been outlawed 150 years ago. Anyway, I see no conflict between what I propose, and the existing anti-fox-hunting legislation. In fact, the presence of an additional offence which an errant terrierman or “careless” hunter could be charged with, should concentrate the minds of all concerned and help to ensure that hunting stays within the law.
I had imagined that various lobbies would seek exemptions from the legislation, including laboratories that routinely test products on animals. Without wishing to rehearse the entire debate here about animal experiments, briefly, my own view is that they are largely useless, they only take place because the money and the funding insists on them, by ancient tradition, because nobody wants to rock the boat and ask why that should be so, and that they often cause great suffering and pain to animals, needlessly. However, although the pain is needlessly caused, it is not recklessly caused, nor are the animals tortured over and above the normal torture they endure as a matter of course in their experimental use. This is a fine distinction which is probably lost on the animal, which still suffers anyway, but I expect the vested interests of the pharmaceutical industry to object that it threatens their cosy little merry-go-round of funding, research, nice, well-paid jobs and houses in the leafy suburbs of Oxford or Cambridge. Again as with hunting, the very least that this legislation can do is to remind them to stick to the absolute letter of the law and ensure that any animal suffering is minimised. Meanwhile, I hope the separate, but linked fight to end all useless animal experiments will continue on another front.
Clearly, millions of animals every day are killed simply to satisfy the human desire for meat in the diet, and this proposed legislation was never intended to deliberately target each and every instance of this. There are legally-binding rules for animal welfare in abattoirs and the meat processing industry, and indeed in animal husbandry generally, and people can already be punished for ignoring these. If my proposed new law again acts as a deterrent, and makes it less likely that meat industry workers, animal transporters, and the like will be cavalier and reckless about the welfare of the animals in their charge, so much the better. For the avoidance of any doubt, I have been a vegetarian for the last 38 years, and more or less vegan for the last seven or so, so you can take it as read that I am against all animal slaughter for meat, on health grounds, on the grounds of animal cruelty, and on the grounds that eating meat is environmentally unsustainable.
I am on record as saying that the badger cull is a useless, costly, and ineffective way of dealing with the complex issues of bovine TB, a sop thrown to the farming industry by a government anxious to be seen to be doing something, even if that something is the wrong thing. Following the foot and mouth debacle in 2001, the then Labour environment minister wrote into the revised animal health act the power to order contiguous culls and kill pets and farm animals in defined zones more or less at will in the name of preventing disease, thus neatly legalising (after the event) all the various illegal acts carried out by DEFRA and its Scots and Welsh counterparts during the contiguous culls. We now have a similar situation, where my proposed law would conflict with what is perceived as “the national interest”, defined in this case as being needlessly and expensively shooting badgers in selected areas. If my law makes the “lampers” think twice before opening fire, then so much the better. Given the long lead times necessary to bring legislation before parliament anyway, it is probable that the culls, and the government that instituted them, will have been discredited before any law such as my proposed one gets anywhere near the statute book.
In conclusion, I hope the above has clarified my position on several key points. Thank you for reading it, and if you have not already signed my petition, and feel able to do so, I would welcome your support. If you have already signed, please consider asking your friends to do so, as well.