New laws to protect our animals
The final report on the review of the implementation of the Welfare of Animals Act 2011 is about ensuring that animals are protected, offenders are appropriately punished and the public have confidence in the animal welfare service provided by each of the enforcement bodies.
The legislation, introduced in 2011, provided three bodies with enforcement powers: DARD (in respect of farmed animals); councils (in respect of non-farmed animals), and the PSNI (in respect of wild animals, or where other criminal activity is involved).
I initiated this review to ensure the legislation was working as intended. The final report has 68 recommendations, many of which relate to enhancing communication between the enforcement bodies, improving processes and highlighting the animal welfare service in the public arena.
But it is sentencing that I believe will attract most attention.
The final report recommends increasing penalties for the most serious offences. I am particularly pleased that David Ford, Minister of Justice, agreed to include the required legislative changes in a Bill he is taking forward.
That means in a few weeks we will have the toughest penalties available for animal welfare offences anywhere on these islands.
The final report also recommends that the most serious offences are included in the unduly lenient sentencing (ULS) scheme.
This will be enshrined in legislation within a few weeks and will allow the Director of Public Prosecutions to refer animal welfare cases to the Court of Appeal where the sentence handed down, in cases heard by the Crown Court, is considered to be unduly lenient.
Following on from the report, a new animal welfare web presence has been established. This will be a single source of information from all the enforcement bodies.
I hope it will be a useful resource to assist the public and ensure they know who to contact if they are concerned about the welfare of an animal.
The final report is a significant piece of work and runs to more than 120 pages. I am determined, however, that all 68 of its recommendations are actioned and that it will not be left on a shelf to gather dust.
Michelle O'Neill is Agriculture Minister