Stormont ministers team up to tackle thugs who mistreat animals
The Belfast Telegraph is backing moves within the Assembly to ensure tougher court sentences for anyone convicted of animal cruelty.
Two Executive Ministers have joined forces to ensure harsher punishments for people found guilty of animal cruelty become a reality.
The joint action by Justice Minster David Ford and Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Michelle O'Neill, comes after it was revealed by the Belfast Telegraph that in one year 4,000 incidents reported to councils resulted in only one person being taken to court.
Mrs O'Neill of Sinn Fein told the Assembly there are now proposals to double the maximum prison sentence available from six months to a year, with maximum fines going up from £5,000 to £20,000.
In cases of unnecessary suffering and animal fighting mrs O'Neill said she was proposing to increase the current penalties on summary conviction to 12 months and/or a fine of £20,000.
At Question Time Chris Lyttle of Alliance said it was an example of two Executive ministers working together to respond to an issue of serious public concern.
Mrs O'Neill said she welcomed the partnership approach with Mr Ford, who is leader of the Alliance Party.
"It has worked out very well for us in being able to respond to the public concern and public angst that was there," she said.
Two years ago this newspaper revealed only two prosecutions were made between April 2, 2012 and April 2, 2013 after councils took over responsibility for enforcing laws aimed at protecting the welfare of pets and horses.
The disclosure prompted criticisms from animal welfare charities who levelled charges of apathy, a lack of knowledge and a lack of interest in making prosecutions.
The USPCA said: "We would like to see more people brought before the courts - we would like to see people banned from keeping animals."
In the Assembly, the DUP's Trevor Clarke referred to the case of a woman in Antrim who, he said, was given a very lenient sentence despite letting her dog hang to death on the ropes of her curtains.
"I think that the public have got behind this because of that appalling case," he said.
In February an interim report was published recommending penalties for animal welfare offences to be tougher than any available in Britain or the Republic, with substantial support shown during a public consultation. But primary legislation was needed to amend the existing laws and Mrs O'Neill's department did not have any suitable primary legislation available in the current mandate of the Assembly.
Given the high level of public support for the recommendation, she wrote to Mr Ford to see if it could be encompassed in the new Justice Bill.
Mrs O'Neill said: "Justice Minister Ford is content to include the necessary provisions in the Justice (No. 2) Bill, and my officials are working with officials in his Department to progress the Bill."
Case 1: Dog doused in fuel and set on fire
Natalie Agnew's family pet dog Cody, was set alight and burned so badly she had to be put down.
The man convicted of hurting Cody, Andrew Stewart, received a 20-month sentence. He had to serve 10 months in custody and the remaining 10 on licence. Since then the Maghaberry woman has been campaigning for tougher jail terms for animal cruelty and longer term monitoring of culprits.
Case 2: Cat kicked around like football
Crumlin woman Lynne Campbell was left devastated after teenagers kicked her beloved black cat Tom, around like a football and left him to die.
The cat made it home but was left with serious internal injuries and died a short time later.
Welcoming the move for tougher penalties, Lynne said: "It's just disgusting and even if people do get caught and go to court, what do they get? Just a slap on the wrists."