Animal Welfare Bill

PaulConnaughton-2-150x150

Dáil Éireann, 20 September 2012

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. The programme for Government contained a commitment to strengthen legislation on animal welfare. The Bill before the House fulfils that commitment. It updates existing legislation, ensures the protection and welfare of animals and provides for stiffer penalties for offenders.
Another major focus of the Bill is disease eradication, in which respect I welcome the Bill’s robust measures. In particular, the Bill gives extra power to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in terms of the eradication of existing and potential diseases, makes animal mutilation a specific offence and specifies standards relating to the slaughtering of animals.
A number of important provisions in the Bill relate to the obligations imposed on farmers and other holders of animals to ensure their animals do not stray. This requirement extends to ensuring that all buildings, fences and structures are maintained in a way that reduces the chances of diseases spreading. These provisions must be properly communicated to farmers, especially as the relevant fines can extend up to €5,000.
One particularly welcome aspect of the Bill is the power given to the authorities to take pre-emptive action where they suspect incidents of animal cruelty are about to take place. Currently, the law prohibits cruelty to animals, but there is a gap when it comes to taking preventative action. The Bill provides greater safeguards for what are termed “protected animals”.
Some farmers will have concerns about the powers granted to authorised officers to inspect premises with animals or animal related products and take samples. The Bill provides for greater powers to search a premises, but can only be used where there is a genuine risk of the spread of disease or where an offence has taken place. We all remember only too well the foot and mouth outbreak in Ireland and the necessity for swift action to ensure the disease did not spread. Thus, most farmers will see the necessity of such powers when there is an outbreak of disease.
Much of the Bill’s focus is on the prohibition of animal cruelty. I welcome the fact that this prohibition applies to all animals, not just those defined as protected animals. It prohibits general cruelty but also provides examples of cruelty, such as baiting, kicking, overworking and mutilation. Apart from penalties imposed by the court, those found guilty of cruelty can also be ordered to contribute towards the cost of veterinary treatment and the care of the animal.
Another of the Bill’s elements that must be communicated properly to all animal owners is that the Bill places obligations not just on the person in possession or control of the animal but also on the owner of the animal if he or she is a different person. The owner of an animal can be found guilty of an offence unless he or she can prove that he or she took all reasonable steps to ensure the animal was fed properly.
Balance is an important element of any legislation and I am glad to note the Bill sets out detailed arrangements for compensation to apply where animals are slaughtered to control a specific disease outbreak. This includes a process of expert valuation and arbitration to apply in law in a manner consistent with the Constitution and case law.
Another particularly welcome provision is the extension of the prohibition on animal fighting to include dog fighting, cock fighting, animal baiting and any other activity that may cause suffering to an animal.
The animal welfare notice is another facet of the legislation that must be welcomed, as it gives animal owners due notice that their animals may not be cared for properly, gives all involved time to comply with requirements, and in many cases should see the problems rectified to the satisfaction of all involved.
Protecting animal health has knock-on consequences for human health. Some 60% of infectious diseases in humans can be contracted from animals, whether wild or domestic, and 75% of emerging human diseases have their source in animals. Thus, the control of animal disease is an important factor in protecting human health.
Tackling animal cruelty in all its facets is at the heart of this legislation and is to be welcomed by all those who have an interest in correct animal husbandry. Farmers and animal owners across the country will welcome the commonsensical provisions of this Bill, but it is important that proper steps be taken to make all owners and keepers of animals aware of the Bill’s provisions and the penalties that result in cases of non-compliance.
I wish to address three matters, one of which was raised by Deputy Ann Phelan, that being the culture surrounding dog fighting. I doubt that many of the Deputies present would follow American football, but a famous American footballer was caught and prosecuted three years ago for setting up a dog fighting ring. He was sent to prison and received many fines. The greatest concern that resulted from the case was the fact that he took up dog fighting as a child, everyone around him participated and it became natural. While they knew they were doing something wrong, it was simply a part of life. Part of his penalty was to visit schools to tell children of the wrongs and ills of dog fighting. Although we have penalties to punish anyone caught dog fighting, there needs to be an educational element to show it is not normal behaviour and that treating animals so cruelly is unnatural.
Coming from a farming background, I wish to raise the issue of the control of TB. That we seem to have brought Ireland’s brucellosis problem under control in recent years is welcome, as is the decreasing incidence of TB. In recent months, TB regulations have been tightened. Will the Minister ensure common sense is applied as much as possible? Given my background, I know only too well the financial and other hardships that can be caused if a herd of cattle contracts TB. One’s herd and year are disturbed. Under the new regulations, it can even have knock-on effects on neighbours. In the west, many farms are fragmented. A farmer could have a field here and there and three or four neighbours. If one or two of the farmer’s animals come down with TB, the response should be contained to that farm alone. Unless there is a genuine concern about an outbreak in the area, it is not right for a single farmer to lock up as many as ten other farmers.
From the suckler perspective, farmers can only take weanlings to market at certain times of the year. Although TB testing has become more accurate, concerns remain that farmers with supposedly diseased cattle will bring their animals to a factory for slaughter only to find that the animals never had TB. While there will always be changes in medical research and it will approach the point of being an exact science, it is not exact now. Where a farmer has one or two animals that have contracted TB or are considered high reactors, it is not proper that he or she has the potential to lock up neighbouring farmers as well. At a time when farmers throughout the country are under great financial strain, it would be a pity if their ability to go to market would be upset for a number of weeks for retesting even though their farms were not diseased.
Deputy Ann Phelan covered another issue that the Minister might clarify for me. In respect of animal cruelty, special provision will be given to gardaí, Customs and Excise officials and animal welfare officers to enter farms. Inspections are the bane of farmers’ lives, although they occur for good reason. For example, if they are receiving money from the Government or Europe, we want to ensure the money is well spent and that farmers are doing what they signed up to do. I have no issue in this regard. Rather, I am concerned about the potential for these people to walk onto farms and conduct inspections of farmers’ activities at any time. The majority of farmers are only interested in the best of animal husbandry. From time to time, however, an animal will become sick or get injured in a shed. It is a part of the farming life and the animal may need to be put down. If so, the animal will be lying in a field or the corner of a shed for a number of hours because it cannot be put down by the farmer. A person could walk onto the farm during that waiting period and view what has happened as cruelty to animals. While I welcome the new role afforded the people in question, will they have an expertise in farming, will they understand what the farming business involves and will the local vet have any role?
It is important that these people, if they are to walk onto a farm, understand the practices and what the farmer is doing in order to put the farmer’s mind at ease. They should understand the business and ensure that before any prosecutions or procedures are put in train, we get a very clear picture of what has happened. The last thing I would like to see is farmers who are doing their job being affected by an incident that could happen on any given day where it could be considered as cruelty to animals.
I welcome the Bill before the House and commend the Minister on the work done on it. Perhaps when he is wrapping up the discussion he could cover those issues.