MSPs have voted to support the general principles of a Bill on animal welfare reform.
The Animal and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill was passed at stage one on Thursday unanimously by MSPs.
The new legislation will stiffen penalties for those committing the worst crimes against animals to five years and a possible unlimited fine, as well as increasing the penalties for 58 other wildlife offences, allows enforcement agencies to transfer animals without a court order and brings in Finn’s Law – aimed at protecting service animals.
Rural affairs minister Mairi Gougeon said the legislation would “modernise and strengthen the implementation of existing legislation, impacting on animal welfare”.
She continued: “Although these extreme cases are rare, as a society and as a government we need to send a strong message that any animal cruelty or wildlife crime will not be tolerated and I hope the publicity around this Bill will start the necessary behaviour changes to banish that cruelty from our society.
“These often traumatic and sadistic offences rightly attract considerable public concern and we’re also concerned about links to serious organised crime, particularly around the illegal trade in puppies.
“We believe, and others agree, that the current maximum penalties are simply not high enough to allow the courts to deal appropriately with such cases.”
Gillian Martin, the convener of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee – which unanimously supported the Bill in its recent report – said: “It has been said that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
“I certainly agree with that sentiment.
“Disregarding the health and welfare of animals can make it easier for us to disregard the health and welfare of our fellow humans.
“It can limit our capacity for empathy, and there are often links between animal abuse and other crimes.
“It is right that the government seeks to increase penalties in line with the grave nature of many of the crimes committed against animals.”
Conservative MSP Finlay Carson described the Bill as “long overdue”, adding: “We need to introduce new penalties for those who continue to cause pain and suffering to animals and wildlife.”
Scottish Green MSP Mark Ruskell called for more powers for the Scottish SPCA to go after wildlife crime, which he claims the charity has been offering to do for several years.
Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur questioned whether the Bill could use alternatives to custodial sentences, such as community payback orders as punishments.
He said: “At a time when our prisons are full to bursting, when all the evidence tells us that short prison sentences are more ineffective in reducing rates of reoffending than community-based measures.
“This seems to be an area ripe for making use of alternative and more effective approaches.”