Changes will make our laws tougher than those in Britain or the South
The Welfare of Animals Act 2011 introduced a duty of care in respect of all protected animals and provided new enforcement powers to allow action to be taken to prevent animals suffering, rather than the previous position whereby action could only be taken after suffering had occurred.
Since the legislation came into operation, the number of convictions for animal welfare-related offences have risen year on year. Since 2012/13 councils have successfully taken 33 prosecutions for offences against non-farmed animals, while my department has successfully taken 20 separate prosecution cases for offences against farmed animals. There is currently a substantial number of other cases being prepared for prosecution.
It is important to note that prosecutions are not the only enforcement measure available. The 2011 Act gave inspectors the power to issue legally binding Improvement Notices on owners or keepers of animals to improve the conditions in which animals are kept.
Despite the use of these new enforcement measures, there has been a public perception that sentencing in animal welfare cases is, at times, lenient. Following a private members' motion in the Assembly in March 2014, I initiated a review of the implementation of the 2011 Act.
One of the recommendations from that review, is that the maximum sentences available to the courts for animal welfare offences be increased. This received broad support during consultation on the Review's interim report. I am keen to introduce this change as quickly as possible.
As my department does not have any primary legislation which could carry these amendments within this mandate, the Justice Minister has agreed to include amendments in the DOJ's Justice (No. 2) Bill to increase:
• The maximum prison sentence from six months to 12 months, and the maximum fine from £5,000 to £20,000 for the more serious summary offences;
• The maximum prison sentence from two years to five years for offences tried in the Crown Court.
I hope that these changes will be introduced within this mandate. They will mean that the penalties available to the courts here for animal welfare offences are as tough, or tougher than, any that are available in the South or in Britain.
- Michelle O'Neill is Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development