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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 July, 2004, 12:35 GMT 13:35 UK
Overhaul for animal welfare laws
Parrot in a pet shop
Children will have to be aged 16 and above to buy pets
The biggest crackdown on animal cruelty for nearly a century has been unveiled by the UK government.

It will allow RSPCA inspectors to intervene earlier when there is a risk of cruelty and raise maximum sentences for such offences.

Funfairs will no longer be able to give animals, including goldfish, as prizes, the draft Animal Welfare Bill states.

Children under 16 will be banned from buying a pet, and cosmetic docking of dogs' tails will be outlawed.

Announcing the shake-up, junior environment minister Ben Bradshaw denied reports that the law included garden pests and invertebrates.

"What this Bill does not do - and I am someone who regularly empties his slug trap - is fine people 30,000 for stepping on a snail or for killing a slug.

"It applies to vertebrates only, not to animals in the wild and only to animals kept by people."


The RSPCA's Gareth Carpenter said the organisation was "generally very pleased" with the draft Bill.

Up to now laws on animal cruelty, dating back to 1911, have said evidence that a pet has experienced physical suffering must be gained before legal action can be taken.

Under the new law, owners will be given a "duty of care".

This means the RSPCA can intervene when an animal is being kept in conditions likely to lead to suffering, closing what many see as a serious loophole.

A lot of goldfish that are won at fairs end up on the compost heap
Ben Bradshaw
Junior environment minister
Becky Hawkes, from the RSPCA, said: "Getting the duty of care offence on the statute books has been our primary objective for many years.

"There has been a huge shift in society's understanding of animals - in 1911 most animals were considered as tools."

The draft Bill obliges the keeper of an animal to ensure its welfare by:

  • Providing a suitable environment

  • Providing adequate food and water

  • Allowing it to exhibit normal behaviour

  • Allowing it to be housed with/apart from its own or other species

  • Allowing appropriate protection from and diagnosis and treatment of pain, injury and disease.

The RSPCA also welcomed the raising of the existing penalties for the most serious animal cruelty offences - those relating to organised animal fighting such as dog fighting.

Maximum penalties will be increased from a six-month jail term and a 5,000 fine to a 51-week prison sentence and a 20,000 fine.

The banning of goldfish as prizes "sends a message that buying a pet or owning a pet is an act of responsibility", said Mr Bradshaw.

"You might not have a tank and also a lot of goldfish that are won at fairs end up on the compost heap."

Tail docking

On the tail docking ban, the RSPCA said it was still studying the details of the Bill but was pleased it addressed the issue.

"However, the secretary of state is still to introduce exceptions to this so we will be watching closely," said Mr Carpenter.

The dogs' tails can get caught and easily damaged, especially gun dogs which have long tails
Sara Ward, Kennel Club
The charity believes having a tail is part of an "animal's right of self-expression".

Mr Bradshaw said docking of working animals' tails would only be allowed where there was a risk of tail injury.

The Kennel Club's stance is that docking is a matter of choice for the owner, in consultation with a vet.

"We are hoping to work with Defra on the subject of working dogs, so that hopefully none of them will be affected by the docking ban," said the club's Sara Ward.

The Bill also allows the environment secretary to make regulations relating to the welfare of animals used in entertainment.

The RSPCA hopes these provisions will be used to ban the use of animals in circuses which "due to their transient nature, cannot guarantee an ongoing high standard of care".

The charity also backs an obligation on magistrates to disqualify from owning pets those convicted of cruelty, unless the reasons are given in open court.

The BBC's Tom Heap
"The law has not changed since 1911... we now have more pets and there is more suffering"

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