Increased punishments for animal abuse would be welcome in Scotland but law changes should also include powers to ban serious offenders from owning pets, MSPs have been told.
Holyrood’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee has heard evidence from animal and legal experts about plans to increase penalties for the worst animal welfare offences, including proposals to protect police dogs and horses.
The proposed bill would raise the maximum punishment for crimes including the maltreatment of animals, attacks on service animals, poaching and causing harm to wild birds.
During an evidence session at the bill’s first stage, animal welfare law expert Mike Radford from the University of Aberdeen explained: “Particular offences, where there are a large number of animals involved or unnecessary suffering has been caused for money or for pleasure, there has long been the argument that these are more-serious offences and the current maximum is inappropriate.”
Generally welcoming the government’s plans, he added: “What this legislation does is it makes the system more flexible at both ends.
“It increases the maximum sentences for the most-serious offences, but at the other end the proposal to introduce fixed penalty notice would allow a sanction short of prosecution where there’s a failure to comply with a care notice.”
The bill’s lack of any provision for judges to be able to ban the worst offenders from owning animals was criticised by several witnesses.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the issue of disqualification orders does not appear in the bill,” Mr Radford said, adding they could be used to protect animals from cruel or neglectful individuals.
In response to a question from Finlay Carson MSP about whether those convicted of serious crimes involving animals should be automatically disqualified from animal ownership, Mr Radford suggested compulsory bans may be considered “disproportionate”.
But he said there needed to be “a strong presumption at the very least” for cruel people to be banned from owning animals.
Scott Blair, an advocate at the Centre for Animal Law, also voiced disappointment that disqualification orders were not included in the proposed legislation.
“I certainly think there is scope for having a system of automatic ban to reflect society’s view that some things are simply beyond the pale”, Mr Blair said.
He added he believed the measures would be “broadly supported by most members of society”.
The Dogs Trust’s deputy veterinary director Runa Hanaghan also supported the inclusion of disqualification orders.
She said: “There are people who may not learn or be empathetic to animals at all.”
Witnesses expressed broad support for the introduction of a Scottish version of Finn’s Law to protect police dogs and for it to be extended to all service animals – possibly including support animals such as guide dogs.
As part of a discussion about whether the increased possible sentences would act as a deterrent to animal abuse, Gillian Mawdsley from the Law Society of Scotland said there needed to be “education, training and awareness” for both the judiciary and public, as well as clear sentencing guidelines for judges to encourage consistency across the country.