I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I have not had an opportunity publicly to wish Deputy Ó Cuív well in his new portfolio. I look forward to constructive, and at times critical, contributions from the Deputy, particularly over the next eight or nine months when we face crucial issues for Irish agriculture arising from the Common Agricultural Policy and another difficult budget.
Today we discuss the Animal Health and Welfare Bill 2012 which has been in gestation for a long time and which I introduced in the Seanad. We had a constructive debate in the Seanad when all parties contributed in a helpful way. I hope I have made appropriate changes as a result of that debate.
The Bill represents a significant step forward in the area of animal health and welfare law and is a priority for me. It will lead to a consolidation and modernisation of much of the primary legislation in this area, such as the Diseases of Animals Act 1966. Some of this legislation is over 100 years old, such as the Protection of Animals Act 1911. While in the past animal welfare and health may have been seen as distinct, they are closely related and synergy is to be gained by bringing them together under one legislative roof. In the past, the focus was on outlawing animal cruelty rather than the fuller measure of welfare which this Bill provides for.
This Government has shown that it has a strong commitment to improving animal welfare legislation. The Welfare of Greyhounds Act 2011 was the first Act signed into law by President Michael D. Higgins. This paved the way for the commencement of the Dog Breeding Establishments Act 2010 by my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. In 2011 I introduced a code of practice for welfare organisations as part of the ex gratia payments arrangements which placed particular emphasis on the issues of re-homing abandoned animals. The Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Council and the associated early warning system continue to work well. This latter arrangement has seen my Department officials working in conjunction with farmers and welfare groups to head off welfare problems. I launched a free telephone number, based in my Department, for people who have animal welfare concerns, and funding for animal welfare organisations was enhanced in last year's budget, despite the difficult economic constraints we are facing. We have also acted on equine welfare by introducing equine passports and microchipping and recording the location of horses for the enforcement of existing and new regulations.
The Animal Health and Welfare Bill continues this agenda and will ultimately provide a framework within which we may significantly improve and safeguard the welfare of animals. Ireland has been successful in dealing with, avoiding and minimising animal health problems. The Animal Health and Welfare Bill will build upon this success. The risks of animal disease have grown significantly since the Diseases of Animals Act was enacted in 1966. There is far greater movement of animals, animal products and people. Ireland needs to ensure it has robust biosecurity procedures in order that the State can act not just when there is a disease outbreak but in a preventative way, focused on risk and reducing risk.
In terms of animal health, this legislation is important for Ireland not only nationally but globally from the perspective of a food producing island. The proposed legislation will play a key role in protecting Ireland's image as a country which not only respects the welfare of its animals but also accords critical importance to its high animal health status. The ability to increase our exports of food products will play a vital role in ensuring improvement in Ireland's economic well-being. We have agreed a very ambitious set of targets to this effect in the Food Harvest 2020 strategy, which was originally put together by the previous Government. Food Harvest 2020 has given the sector a vision of the future and clear targets for the next decade. I am determined to lead the drive towards achieving our export target of €12 billion per annum by 2020. To do this, the sector will need to minimise the losses from animal health issues.
This issue is a concern for all, not just those who earn their livelihoods from animals. As should be clear, the Animal Health and Welfare Bill is not only about farming or rural areas but is of concern to the whole country. While animals may be less central to urban life, ownership, involvement with and interest in animals is hugely important to many urban dwellers. Furthermore, while not the direct focus of the Bill, animal health can have implications for human health. Almost 60% of human infectious diseases can be contracted from animals, whether domestic or wild, and 75% of emerging human diseases have their sources in animals. Controlling animal disease is an important factor in ensuring human health.
This Bill applies across the board, both to rural and urban areas, and to all animals whether they be commercial, domestic, sport, show or for other purposes, and whatever species they may be. The owners of all animals are required to provide feed for their animals, to provide adequate and safe housing and to provide veterinary care and protection. There is a set of principles in animal welfare, known as the five freedoms, which forms the basis for most modern animal welfare legislation, and that was taken into account when putting this Bill together.
The only major distinction the Bill draws is between those animals classed as "protected", which are any animals under the ownership of individuals as opposed to animals in a wild state. Protected animals are accorded greater protection than animals living in the wild as there is an obligation placed on the owner or person in charge to ensure a protected animal is fed, sheltered and so on. However, all animals are protected in so far as cruel acts are forbidden. The term "protected animal" is also used in the equivalent Northern Ireland legislation.
I will now move on from the reasons and general principles behind the Animal Health and Welfare Bill to some of its content. Current legislation requires modernisation because it focuses only on cruelty whereas the Animal Health and Welfare Bill will make improvements in what is legally required of owners to ensure their animals are fed and watered, provided with adequate shelter and have their welfare protected. These are basic common sense requirements. In the case of intensive units there is a need for greater checks as temperature controls and mechanical feeding and watering systems have to be more carefully monitored. This provision in section 19 reflects obligations in place through the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes Act 1984 which is being subsumed into this legislation.
To combat the threats posed by serious disease outbreaks, as witnessed during foot and mouth disease outbreak, and to deal with welfare compromised animals, authorised officers must have adequate powers with appropriate checks and balances. Much care and attention has gone into ensuring the powers of authorised officers are appropriate, balanced and proportionate. Officers cannot come and enter premises as they wish. There must be sound reason to do so and the courts will demand that officers justify their actions in the event that prosecutions follow. The powers given to authorised officers are appropriate and balanced and necessary to prevent the small minority of people who would damage our food industry by introducing disease or by fraudulently claiming to have disease. We either take the necessary action to prevent disease threatening the viability of our industry or we fail to do our job.
In the Animal Health and Welfare Bill, gardaí and customs officers are automatically considered authorised officers. Officers of my Department and other appropriate personnel in local authorities may be appointed as authorised officers. Others, such as temporary veterinary inspectors, may be authorised for limited purposes such as carrying out meat factory checks, as is currently the case.
I have been keen to ensure penalties are strengthened for abuses under the Bill and have made sure that all the significant offences under the Bill, meaning those where animals are injured or where disease problems are spread intentionally, attract the severest penalties. For major cases taken on indictment the maximum penalty has been raised from €100,000 to €250,000 with a maximum custodial sentence of five years' imprisonment. In recent weeks those campaigning for animal welfare have claimed the Government is doing nothing in this area to increase penalties for deliberate cruelty. They should look at this legislation and the debate that took place in the Seanad.
Over the years judges who have heard some of the unpleasant animal cruelty cases have asked for powers to restrict the ownership of animals by those convicted of animal cruelty, particularly repeat offenders.
Such powers must be used carefully and only where an individual has been convicted of repeated or more serious animal welfare offences. Not only could such an individual be potentially prevented from owning animals, he may also be prevented from working with them under sections 58 to 60, inclusive. In some instances of abuse of animals, the owners themselves may be suffering their own mental difficulties rather than who are doing it out of malice. In taking account of this, these powers can limit the ownership of animals. Caring for animals can be therapeutic for some individuals and, therefore, it may be appropriate that they be allowed care for one or two but not a large number that may be beyond their capacity. I remind Deputies that while these powers exist, their use cannot be invoked without appropriate procedures and that the courts will provide oversight and review, particularly in regard to the latter issue.
The Bill will also improve animal health provisions and there will be a greater emphasis on biosecurity. Many of the existing powers of authorised officers are focused on where a disease outbreak has occurred but the legislation also allows for appropriate action to be taken to reduce the risk or the spread of disease generally. It provides, for the first time, a specific provision relating to the payment of compensation in respect of particular types of diseases and provides a proper legal framework in this area. These arrangements are consistent with the Constitution and case law.
The eradication of tuberculosis, TB, is an important policy aim and significant progress has been made in recent years. Ensuring cases of disease are reported and tackled requires the continuing confidence of the farming community that it will be treated fairly and, therefore, compensation for destruction is an important plank. The Bill will make no change to the current administrative approach for such compensation schemes. The disease eradication, ERAD, scheme operates without a legal requirement on the Government to pay compensation. Nevertheless the Government pays, and will continue to pay, fair compensation. There is no reason for a move away from the current approach under the scheme. I promised our Seanad colleagues that I would revert with an appropriate amendment, which will allow greater flexibility in the appeal process. We are working on it and we can discuss it on Committee Stage.
However, the importance of animal health for the State as a whole needs to be protected. This means that we cannot be overly prescriptive in the legislation, as it will be legally applied in all situations. The procedures for dealing with cases of an endemic disease such as TB are not those we would want to apply in the case of outbreaks of rare exotic or imported diseases such as foot and mouth disease or rabies.
The laws relating to animal baiting and dog fighting under section 15 are being strengthened. These practices cannot be tolerated any longer and must be stamped out. Under current legislation, it has been difficult to take a case against those involved in dogfighting. In the most significant case taken in recent years, many of those convicted succeeded on appeal after claiming that they had not been involved in organising the fight but had merely been present. I would like to send a strong signal that I intend to ensure anybody involved in organising or breeding for dogfighting or attending a dog fight will face the courts and the Garda will be able to secure convictions against them. I am amending the law in this area to give the Garda more powers to take a case against somebody who organises, or breeds an animal for, a dog fight and to charge those in attendance at a dog fight if they raid a premises. We will not continue with the farcical scenario that currently prevails where if a dog fight is raided, everybody scatters in all directions and nobody takes responsibility for the dogs and the Garda cannot secure a conviction. I hope to ensure the Garda will make an example of those engaged in this activity at an early stage following the enactment of the legislation in order that we can demonstrate that we are serious. Dogfighting is a barbaric practice, as is the industry built around breeding dogs for the purposes of ripping each other apart. I am confident we will stamp it out through this legislation.
There was concern that this section, which also outlaws a number of other types of performance with animals, as currently worded, could mean that farmers might be taken to court for breaking bulls, for example, or preparing them for shows and so on but that is not our intention. While I consider this possibility remote, as the use of the term "performance" makes it unlikely that activity occurring on a farm would be challenged, I will table an amendment on Committee Stage to confirm that this normal farming practice is acceptable and is not under any threat, unlike dog fighting. The issue of serious cruelty such as mutilation is of significant concern to many people and such practices are also expressly forbidden under the Bill. The penalties for such acts will be significantly increased. Unfortunately, in a number of cities, we have witnessed examples of unacceptable cruelty in recent years.
The Bill also provides for codes of practice. I reassure Members that this approach has worked well in other jurisdictions and my Department has experience using such codes, which have worked remarkably well. They allow, through agreement with the sector as a whole, detailed guidelines to be set out for specific animals. Such codes, adopted under the overall legal powers of this new Bill, are a better way of spelling out detailed best practice rather than over burdening the Bill itself. We have not been overly prescriptive in the legislation regarding how certain practices should be conducted because that would be rigid and inflexible. Instead, the Minister of the day has been given the power to introduce codes of practice through consultation with the relevant sector and, over time, those codes can be amended, updated and modernised, as appropriate, which is the best way to do this. Instead of detailing how much food an animal needs to be fed or what type of accommodation it should have, this can be done through codes of practice and updated as necessary without touching the principal Act, a process that would waste the House's time. We have seen the result of that type of thinking.
The current proposed approach whereby general requirements are laid down, which can, if necessary, be fleshed out via codes of practice is the best way to provide adequate detail and information, suitable protection for animals and minimise bureaucracy for both individuals and the State. The issue of reducing bureaucracy has been important in drafting the Bill. One development in line with this approach is the provision for on-the-spot penalties for minor offences. These are akin to parking tickets and they have advantages for both the individual and the State, as they avoid the time and costs of court proceedings. I emphasise that there is recourse to the courts for individuals who do not wish to pay an on-the-spot penalty and who wish to contest the charge. This provision works well in other areas and has become commonplace in our legal system.
I sought a balance between the differing demands being made upon me during the drafting of the Bill. Views between differing interest groups on the legislation vary and resolving these presents a difficult balancing act. My key objectives in this process have been to bring about a legislative framework that offers greater protection for the welfare of animals while also reducing the risks posed by animal diseases in terms of biosecurity.
I refer to the provisions of the Bill. There are 75 sections spread over 14 Parts. Part 1 largely comprises standard form provisions relating to expenses, costs and laying of documents. It also sets out the purpose and definitions within the Bill and the provision for commencement.
Part 2 contains some key biosecurity measures. Section 8 prohibits farm animals straying and requires that fences and farm buildings be kept secure. I note Deputy Ó Cuív has raised a particular issue in this respect regarding commonage, whereby animals essentially may be roaming free in pretty large areas that are shared by multiple owners. This will be considered in some detail on Committee Stage and if it is necessary to introduce an amendment to provide clarity in this respect, I certainly will do that. Animals mingling present a serious risk of disease spread if a proper management system is not in place. The requirements of this provision are not greater than what the vast majority would consider to be basic good farming practice. Section 9 provides for disease eradication areas. The provisions of section 10 outlaw deliberately interfering with a test or giving a disease deliberately to an animal, presumably to gain compensation.
Part 3 provides for general provisions, which cover all animals, and a greater level of protection to animals which are owned or under the control of a person. An individual is not allowed to harm any animal and furthermore, any animal that an individual owns or is in control of must be provided with adequate food and water and appropriate shelter and its general welfare must be protected. Cruelty is expressly forbidden in Section 12. This includes any unnecessary suffering, whether caused by direct physical abuse, recklessness or negligence. This is to a large extent based on the existing legislation that is in place but in some cases is outdated. For the sake of clarity, this section does not apply to activity occurring during the normal course of hunting, fishing or coursing. However, the cruelty provisions may apply if an animal is hunted after being released when exhausted, mutilated or injured or if a hare is coursed without at least a reasonable chance of escape.
Section 13 provides that keepers must provide protected animals with adequate quantities of suitable food. It obviously would not be possible to provide detailed and precise measures of food and other requirements for all animals and nor would it be desirable to lay down such detail in primary legislation. Therefore, greater detail can be laid down through the codes of practice and secondary legislation to which I referred earlier. Section 16 bans operations resulting in the mutilation of animals such as castration, disbudding or tail docking except where there is a good reason to allow them. In the latter case, I may consider making regulations under the Bill that will allow the procedure. My intention is not to interfere with normal commercial farming, as in the farming context these activities generally are performed for reasons of health and safety of the animal and are done properly at the appropriate age and with significant control of pain and so on. When such conditions are met, as is the case in normal farming practice, there will be no change in such practice.
I do not believe farming organisations need to be concerned in respect of this element of the Bill. Part 3 also bans the sale of animals to minors and requires that animals be inspected by their keepers at regular intervals to ensure their well-being. It also requires the use of anaesthetics when an animal is operated on, protects animals from poison and gives emergency powers for authorised officers and veterinarians, who encounter animals in distress or suffering injuries and requiring immediate destruction, to so do on humane grounds. This section also provides for emergency killing of an animal by an owner or on his or her behalf, for example, by knackery personnel who are properly qualified to so do.
As for Part 4, while common internationally, including at EU level, codes of practice on a legislative basis are relatively new to Ireland. Their primary purpose is to educate and assist the person involved in the various activities relating to keeping animals. A breach of a code of practice is not of itself an offence but a relevant code may be considered by a judge as a form of best practice and may indicate in more detail where an offence has occurred.
Part 5 is based on the Bovine Diseases (Levies) Acts 1979 and 1996. There is provision to allow the charging of animal health levies on a wider range of species and diseases than at present, where levies are only paid in respect of cattle and milk and are for control of tuberculosis and brucellosis. Farmers make an important contribution, through the levy system, towards the compensation regime operated through the ERAD scheme. However, I wish to reassure both Deputies and farm organisations that I have no intention of introducing a new raft of animal disease levies. Anything my Department does in this area will be in consultation with the sector and will be on the basis of mutual consent in respect of everyone's best interests.
Part 6 deals with the slaughter of animals for disease control purposes and compensation with the overall aim of making the compensation provisions more explicit. There is an independent valuation and arbitration system to ensure that where this is done, owners are treated fairly. While this area has attracted some discussion in some cases, this has been based on a misreading of the current legal position. In any case, I wish to reassure Deputies this system will be fair, equitable and in line with the Constitution and case law in this area. Clear grounds for the reduction of compensation are given. Instances in which such compensation can be reduced or refused include where animals were illegally imported, where correct information has not been provided or if an animal is destroyed due to offences under the Animal Remedies Act 1993. In other words, farmers will receive full compensation for their animals under a destruction scheme, if that must happen. However, if someone deliberately infects his or her animals and this is discovered or if people have illegally imported animals without the necessary identification and so on - in other words if the animals were stolen - and if it was necessary subsequently to destroy the aforementioned animals for reasons of disease control, it is not reasonable that full compensation would be paid. In other words, I am trying to get this tricky area right but Members can tease through it again on Committee Stage if they so wish.
Under Part 7, the Bill sets out in Schedule 3 the various activities in respect of which secondary legislation may be introduced, key among which are the prevention of the risk of spread of disease, the control or eradication of disease, matters relating to animal welfare, animal transport and animal identification, as well as to give effect to the acts and institutions of the EU. The extensive list of detailed issues for which regulations can be made is set out in Schedule 3.
Part 8 provides the necessary powers for authorised officers and for a system of notices. Without officers to enforce the Bill, it becomes pointless. The powers of officers are limited and even more so where they are delegated. The powers of prosecution remain with the Minister and cannot be delegated. Furthermore, as I have a skilled cadre of staff members who are familiar with and located in rural areas, the real shortfall in skills and resources on the animal welfare front is in the urban and non-farming sectors. Consequently, the Department is considering the possibility of creating authorised officers who are qualified and have experience working with NGOs and so on.
As I have run out of time, I make the point that this is progressive legislation. It has been debated and discussed for nearly five years when the process was started by the previous Government. The present Government has amended and improved it. I brought the Bill before the Seanad, where approximately five hours of debate took place on it and on foot of which some changes have been made to it. The farming community has nothing to fear from this legislation and I suggest it is members of the aforementioned community, as well as commercial animal owners in general who understand animal welfare better than anyone, including NGOs.
The purpose of the Bill is to put in place modern legislation that is appropriate to a country such as Ireland which has responsibility to protect and care for animals by reflecting best practice in other parts of the world. There has been considerable broad consultation from many sources in preparing the Bill. We have tried to get the balance right between not being overbearing in introducing new laws and regulations while at the same time stamping out totally unacceptable practices such as cockfighting, dogfighting and the mutilation of animals about which we read on a far too regular basis. We are also introducing modern legislation to allow us to intervene at an early stage to prevent disease outbreak or disease spread given the devastating impact that diseases like foot and mouth or BSE would have had on the agrifood sector in the past. I believe we have struck a pretty good balance, but I am happy to listen to people's views, opinions and criticisms, which we will try to take on board. Ultimately, this is about trying to improve the legislation through the debate in the Dáil and in Committee. From that point of view I look forward to hearing what people have to say.