Sir Oliver Heald is Member of Parliament for North East Hertfordshire.
Britain prides itself on being a nation of animal lovers. We were the first country in the world to introduce legislation on animal welfare, as long ago as 1822, when we criminalised the unnecessary suffering of some domesticated animals. Skip forward to the modern day, currently an estimated 12 million households – that’s 44 per cent of us – are pet owners.
The British public has time and time again shown outrage at the poor treatment of animals, with mass movements against cruelty at home and abroad, not least with the latest protests against commercial whaling resuming in Japan.
As a strong supporter of animal welfare Boris Johnson, the new Prime Minister, has a duty to respond to the national interest by maintaining and enhancing our record on animal welfare, while continuing to encourage our global partners to also do more.
Conservatives have long been effective guardians of animal welfare. From introducing mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses to banning the cruel use of electric shock collars, ending third-party sales of puppies and kittens to committing to banning the use of wild animals in circuses, it was a Conservative Government that led the charge to increase these protections for animals. Theresa May repeatedly called animal welfare “a priority”, while Michael Gove cemented his position as a most effective minister for the environment with real attention to animal protections.
The issue of animal cruelty has a particular resonance for me. I was struck by the story of my constituent, PC Dave Wardell, and Finn the police dog. Finn had been injured in a horrific knife attack, resulting in four hours of surgery that just saved his life, and although he had risked his life to save his handler, his case was treated like criminal damage in the legal system; like he was a piece of equipment instead of a living being.
A change in the law was crucial – these brave creatures deserve justice too. So I was delighted when my Private Member’s Bill calling for legal recognition of service animals was championed by Members from across the House and adopted by the Government.
During the passage of Finn’s Law, it became clear that the same punishment should also apply to offences against any animal. Essential work is now progressing to change the law. Although Britain has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, our maximum penalties for animal abusers are still among the lowest, at just six months’ maximum imprisonment. This meant that regardless of the extreme brutality of the action, even to man’s best friend, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Judges in several instances expressed a desire for the increase, following horrific cases with instances of cruelty that should never be repeated.
However, the Government has recognised this needs to change. A new Bill, which received its Second Reading recently, will extend the maximum penalty to five years’ imprisonment, making it one of the toughest penalties in the world. This is exactly the stance we need to be taking, and it appropriately reflects that those who inflict cruelty on animals will be subject to the full force of the law.
The UK should also be proud of its global efforts to protect animals. The 2018 Ivory Act, backed by Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, is one of the world’s toughest bans on ivory sales, while last October, London hosted a global conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) to drive greater change. This is the sort of action we need to see: stringent regulations, the use of diplomatic links to discuss corruption and exploitation, and giving animal abuse and trafficking the gravitas of a serious global issue that also acknowledges its potential to fund transnational organised crime.
Building on this record, we can be strong international advocates for further closures of markets for other species under threat, such as pushing for an end to tiger farming.
Going further, the banning of imports of so-called ‘trophies’ would indicate the severity of the issue and help reduce both supply and demand. While the sale of ivory is banned in the UK, imports of ‘trophies’, hunting momentos which are often in the form of the body parts of endangered species, are allowed back into the UK with a special permit. If the UK wants to be a world leader on these issues, then it must stand firm against this behaviour, and I’m delighted that Michael Gove pledged his support for this campaign as one of his last acts as Environment Secretary.
As the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson must send a signal of zero tolerance for animal abuse and exploitation and use our global influence to drive further action.
Globally, Britain already has some of the highest animal welfare standards, but we must do more. Post-Brexit we can be even more ambitious. With 81 per cent of the British public preferring animal welfare laws to be maintained or extended after Brexit, stronger enforcement of these standards must inform decision-making and can be integral in the upcoming Environment Bill and Agriculture Bill. Actions like banning imports of foie gras, ending live animal exports, and introducing more effective labelling of products would embrace these ambitions and lead us towards a Green Brexit.
Our new Environment Secretary, Theresa Villiers, has long been a champion for animals, and campaigned on many of these causes. I look forward to seeing her in action after recess, when the Animal Welfare Sentencing Bill will be one of the first Bills back in the House.
We must live up to our reputation as not only a nation of animal lovers, but as a world leader in protecting and enhancing their welfare. It is up to the new Prime Minister and Environment Secretary to lead us there.