In a landmark victory for animal welfare in the UK, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill officially comes into force today, 29 June. This Bill increases the maximum custodial sentences for animal cruelty tenfold in England and Wales, bringing them in line with the current penalties in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
An extremely popular Bill supported by MPs across the political spectrum, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill may seem a very easy one to pass into law – but extraordinary circumstances delayed it, time and time again, just before the finish line.
England and Wales’ maximum custodial sentence of only six months for the most appalling cases of animal cruelty meant that very few spent any time in prison at all; what sentences were handed down would often be suspended, and even the worst acts of cruelty seemed to be punished with a rare slap on the wrist – a few weeks, or a few months at most, behind bars.
It’s no wonder, then, that seeing the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill pass its final reading in the House of Lords on 28 April – and receive the Royal Assent the very next day – was such a relief for animal lovers across the UK.
The Bill will increase maximum sentences for the worst cases of animal cruelty tenfold, from only six months to five years. With the maximum now set to five years, campaigners can hope that animal abusers will finally get stiff sentences that will truly act as a deterrent.
As well as a prison sentence, offenders can receive unlimited fines.
A Defra statement reads, “The new maximum penalty will enable courts to take a firmer approach to cases such as dog fighting, abuse of puppies and kittens, illegally cropping a dog’s ears and gross neglect of farm animals.
“The more stringent sentences will be some of the toughest in Europe. The Act will help ensure courts are able to enforce extended penalties for those who cruelly mistreat any animal, sending a clear message that animal cruelty will not be tolerated.”
Today we celebrate, but getting here has been a long road…
- February 2017: Battersea Dogs and Cats Home launches its #NotFunny campaign asking for tougher sentences. With a maximum custodial sentence of six months for the worst cases of animal cruelty, the lowest across much of Europe and North America, England and Wales’ penalties are branded “an unfunny joke”.
- September 2017: Michael Gove MP, at the time Secretary of State for Defra, announces that the Government will increase the maximum sentence for animal cruelty to five years.
- December 2017: Michael Gove announces a new draft Bill; in the same month, Sir Oliver Heald MP lays a 10-Minute Rule Bill called The Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill – or Finn’s Law. Named after former police dog Finn, who was severely injured in a knife attack in October 2016 along with his handler PC David Wardell, the Bill increases punishment for attacking police dogs and horses – an act that is only treated as “criminal damage” at the time.
- June 2019: the Government’s Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill is laid in the House of Commons.
- September 2019: the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill falls after PM Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament.
- October 2019: the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill is published by the Scottish Government. The Bill aims to raise the maximum custodial sentence for animal cruelty in Scotland from 12 months to five years.
- December 2019: the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill falls a second time when a General Election is called.
- February 2020: Chris Loder MP brings forward the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill as a Private Member’s Bill. However, the second reading is delayed by several months and takes place in October 2020.
- July 2020: the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill passes its third reading and receives the Royal Assent, bringing the maximum custodial sentences for animal cruelty in Scotland to five years – in line with Northern Ireland.
- March 2021: the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill clears its final stage at the House of Commons and moves on to the House of Lords. At this point, the Welsh Parliament has indicated they intend to pass a legislative consent motion to implement the law in Wales as well – an act that would make cruelty against animals punishable with up to five years in prison across all of the United Kingdom.
- 28 April 2021: the Bill clears the House of Lords.
- 29 April 2021: the Bill receives the Royal Assent.
- 29 June 2021: the new law comes into force.