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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 9, 2019


Animal Welfare

The next item of business is a statement by Mairi Gougeon on improving animal welfare. The minister will take questions at the end of her statement.


The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Mairi Gougeon)

I want to update the Parliament on the Scottish Government’s work to improve animal welfare.

The Scottish Government is absolutely committed to the highest possible standards of welfare for all our animals, whether they are domesticated, farmed or wild. Since becoming the minister with responsibility for animal health and welfare, I have met a range of key organisations and individuals, and I am heartened and impressed by their commitment to that. On a personal level, I care passionately about the issue.

That is why we invest £20 million annually in supporting animal health and welfare and employ a highly skilled and qualified workforce, led by Scotland’s chief veterinary officer. Our work is supported by expert independent advice on farmed animals through the United Kingdom Farm Animal Welfare Committee.

We recognise the need for similar independent, impartial expert advice on issues relating to domestic and wild animal welfare, which is why we committed in the programme for government to establish a Scottish animal welfare commission. Work is now under way to establish that commission. It is necessary that secondary legislation be developed to describe the precise remit and function of the new body. While that work is on-going, we will soon begin a process to recruit members to an interim commission, given the need and importance of that expert advice.

We will shortly launch a consultation on a bill to amend our overarching legislation for animals under human control: the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. Our proposals for amendment will include increasing the maximum available penalties for the most serious animal cruelty offences, including offences against police and other service animals, which quite rightly attract public concern. That is also known as Finn’s law, which I know that Liam Kerr has raised previously. That would allow for imprisonment of up to five years rather than the maximum 12 months that is currently available. We will also create fixed-penalty notices for lesser offences in future secondary legislation, which will free local authority inspectors’ time to focus on the most serious cases.

We will consult on permitting inspection bodies to rehome or sell on animals that they have taken into their possession to protect their welfare much more quickly and efficiently than they are able to at present. That would allow them to make the best use of their resources and avoid animals being held in limbo while the outcomes of court cases are awaited. Such cases can often last for many months. I know that that is a very significant problem for local authorities and the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which discourages them from using their power to take animals into their possession. That was one of the key new features of the 2006 act and it is crucial that they are able to use that power effectively.

Although 86 per cent of abattoirs already deploy closed-circuit television in some form to record the treatment of live animals and in excess of 99 per cent of all animals slaughtered in 2016-17 were covered by some configuration of CCTV, we want to explore the potential to make that mandatory. I am publishing today the responses to our consultation, which show that 94.9 per cent of respondents support moving to mandatory CCTV recording and more than 90 per cent support the retention of CCTV images for 90 days, with unrestricted access to be given to properly authorised officers. Those majorities were supported by abattoir operators, vets and the livestock industry. I can confirm that, this year, we will introduce legislation to aid those enforcing welfare legislation that will require that CCTV records all areas of slaughterhouses where live animals are present.

In 2017, research that we commissioned indicated how we could alert potential buyers to the serious animal welfare and health problems associated with illegally sourced puppies. Last year, we funded an innovative and hard-hitting public awareness campaign on social media, cinema screens and local radio to reach potential buyers who we know are difficult to reach by other media platforms and channels. We worked closely with all the main dog welfare charities in designing the campaign, which aimed to direct anyone thinking about buying a puppy to a website hosted by the Scottish SPCA for more detailed advice.

The campaign attracted wide coverage in the run-up to the Christmas holiday period. Further data on the success of the campaign will be made available after it has been collected, but we already know that it has been highly effective in increasing the number of visits to the Scottish SPCA website and increasing calls to its helpline by 130 per cent. Because of the success of the campaign so far, we are already making plans for a follow-up campaign later this year to reinforce the message even further, and we expect that to have a significant effect on changing the behaviour of buyers that drives the illegal trade. I take this opportunity to thank Emma Harper MSP for her tireless work in campaigning on the issue.

In November, we consulted on the registration and licensing of animal sanctuaries and rehoming agencies, and we now intend to introduce legislation on that. It will introduce a modern licensing scheme to protect animals that will also benefit those caring for them, some of whom might unfortunately take on too many animals to be able to provide the right care. As with other animal-related activities, local authorities will be the licensing authority for premises in their areas. However, we recognise the additional burden that that will place on them, so we will seek to reduce the burden by establishing a role for independent inspection and accreditation from nationally recognised bodies.

The public consultation on dog, cat and rabbit breeding closed at the end of November and I can tell Parliament that the responses will be published by the end of this month. As with the regulation of animal sanctuaries, we aim to reduce the burden on the regulators and find a role for independently accredited bodies in inspection, and we hope to introduce legislation later this year. We will also use that legislation to discourage the breeding of dogs, cats and rabbits with a predisposition for genetic conditions that lead to health complications and poor on-going welfare. I would also like to mention Jeremy Balfour MSP’s proposed member’s bill on improving the licensing of pet shops. We are committed to giving effect to his proposals in this parliamentary session and I thank him for his work to date on the matter, which we will build on as we develop our detailed proposals.

On fox hunting, we consulted on Lord Bonomy’s recommendations last year and published the independent consultation analysis report before the summer recess. Since then, I have made it a priority to not only make sure that I am familiar with all aspects of this complex issue, but have spoken to all the key stakeholders on all sides of the debate. Consequently, despite the ban on hunting introduced by the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002, it is clear to me that there remains considerable public concern about fox hunting in Scotland and doubts about the operability of the legislation as it currently stands. I believe that Parliament should therefore be given the opportunity to consider reform of the 2002 act in the interests of furthering the welfare of wild mammals. I plan to bring forward a bill to deal with that and other wildlife welfare issues during the course of the current parliamentary session.

In addition to progressing the majority of Lord Bonomy’s recommendations, the bill will, as has already happened in England and Wales, seek to limit to two the number of dogs that can be deployed against wild mammals. It is important that we do not undermine the need for legitimate pest control, particularly in upland areas, so I intend to explore the possibility of a new licensing scheme that could enable the use of more than two dogs where that is deemed necessary.

The bill will also contain provision to discourage the establishment in Scotland of the practice known as trail hunting, as that poses significant risks for wild mammals. Even with the best of intentions, there appears to be too high a risk that hounds following a trail will be diverted by the scent of a live fox and will pursue and possibly kill that animal.

We will, of course, consult on the draft bill in due course. I am aware that many members across the chamber take a keen interest in the matter and have campaigned strongly on it, raising it a number of times in the chamber, including Colin Smyth, Christine Grahame and Alison Johnstone, who is, I know, working on a member’s bill in relation to fox hunting. We stand ready to co-operate and work constructively on that important issue.

In the meantime, for those recommendations from the Bonomy review that do not require primary legislation, members will wish to be aware that we intend to press forward with the code of practice on hunting and the hunt-monitoring arrangements that were proposed by Lord Bonomy, and to introduce those measures as soon as we can. We have already agreed a code of practice with stakeholders. It is important that we assure the public that we are doing everything that we can to ensure the highest standards of animal welfare and adherence to the law.

There is, rightly, always strong cross-party interest and public concern about animal welfare matters. I reassure members that I take this aspect of my portfolio interests seriously. They are issues I care deeply about, and I am determined that we will continue not only to maintain but to improve animal welfare standards.

I have set out this Government’s commitment to a range of measures, including updating existing legislation and introducing new legislation where it is needed. That will ensure that we provide strong foundations and clear and serious powers and responsibilities regarding all who breed, keep and care for animals.

I look forward to engaging with members and parties across the chamber and to listening to different perspectives to help shape and frame legislative proposals that command confidence and achieve consensus, where it can be found. We have a strong track record in Scotland of caring for animals that we keep in all circumstances, and of caring for our wild fauna too, but where there is more to do to challenge and change attitudes and behaviour we must do that.

Most people respect and value animals in their homes and businesses and in the wild. I want to do all that I can, with members’ support, to ensure that the expectations on people are clear and, where necessary, enforceable. My aim is for everyone to uphold the highest possible standards of welfare for all animals.

We move now to questions.

Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank the minister for early sight of her statement. The Scottish Conservatives are committed to the highest standards of animal welfare and I welcome the substantive points made in the statement. We are committed to protecting animals and clear that those who abuse and inflict cruelty on animals should be punished in accordance with the law.

As the minister recognised in her statement, Scottish Conservative MSPs have worked tirelessly to promote animal welfare through actions such as the introduction of Finn’s law, increasing sentences for the worst forms of animal cruelty to five years, improving the licensing of pet shops and the compulsory use of CCTV in abattoirs.

We are pleased that the Scottish Government has agreed to implement those Scottish Conservative proposals and will work with the Government to ensure they are delivered. We will continue to campaign in areas on which we wish the Scottish Government to go further, such as introducing an effective ban on the use of electric shock collars for dogs.

Will the minister commit to producing an implementation plan for the proposals outlined in her statement by Easter recess, so that our animals receive the protection that they deserve as soon as possible?

Mairi Gougeon

I thank Maurice Golden for his comments. I am keen to work with him, as well as with other parties across the chamber, because I see the issues as being about animal welfare, not party politics, and I am keen to implement the proposals. I outlined a number of measures today, many of which we hope to implement this year. I do not know whether there are specific proposals that the member would like to see in an implementation plan.

Our introduction of legislation is heavily dependent on the outcome of Brexit. As many members in the chamber will know, particularly those who sit on the environment and rural economy committees, those two areas in particular are heavily affected by Brexit legislation, and of course we have to deal with that. That is why I cannot give definitive timescales, but I hope to introduce a lot of the legislation this year.

I would be more than happy to arrange a meeting with the member, in which we could discuss the matter in more detail.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank Mairi Gougeon for advance sight of her statement. I refer members to the voluntary part of my entry in the register of members’ interests, which says that I am a member of the League Against Cruel Sports.

There is much in Mairi Gougeon’s statement that Labour warmly welcomes, from the intention to press ahead with tougher sentencing for animal cruelty offences to the proposed proper regulation of pet shops, animal sanctuaries and rehoming agencies.

On the specific issue of fox hunting, however, it is clear that there are loopholes in the existing legislation and hunts have gone out of their way to ride roughshod over the law in both spirit and letter. The measures to progress Lord Bonomy’s recommendations that the Government prevents trail hunting from being established and limits to two the number of dogs that can be deployed against wild animals are therefore a welcome step forward. However, we must not license cruelty, so I would be concerned about any proposal to introduce a licensing scheme that would enable more than two dogs to be used in hunting, and I am concerned about the lack of proposals on the use of mounted hunts.

Does the minister agree that, three years after the Bonomy review was announced, it is time for the Government to get on with consigning the barbaric practice of fox hunting to the history books once and for all by introducing legislation that ensures that the boxing day hunt in 2018 was the last one that we will ever see?

Mairi Gougeon

On the timescales, as I outlined in my answer to the previous question, I realise how important the issue is, which is why I specifically took the time to consider it carefully, so that we make sure that we get the proposals right when they are introduced. The pieces of legislation will all be vital and I want to introduce them as soon as is practically possible. Given where we are with Brexit, I cannot give a definitive timescale yet, but the matter is a priority for me and I want it to be addressed.

The member mentioned mounted hunts in particular. The issue is not about whether someone who takes part in hunting activities is on a horse, because we are concerned with the welfare of the hunted species. In any event, a ban on the use of horses during hunts would be likely to raise European convention on human rights issues.

The member also raised concerns about potential loopholes, inferring that licensing could be a loophole. I categorically assure everyone that the reason why we have produced the proposals is that we are specifically trying to tackle any potential loopholes that are perceived in the current legislation. On the introduction of the two-dog limit, we have seen how that has been implemented in England and Wales and what has happened as a result with the growth of trail hunting, and that is why we are proposing the actions that I mentioned in my statement. We want to close any potential loopholes.

Licensing will potentially be considered where there is a legitimate pest control issue. We are at the very early stages and we do not know what that scheme might look like, but I know that there are specific issues, particularly in the uplands of Scotland. However, I emphasise again that this is about closing loopholes and not about creating any new ones.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I declare an interest as an honorary member of the British Veterinary Association.

There is much to welcome in the statement and it shows that the Government has learned from the debacle over tail docking. It is clear that the Government has listened to the Greens and other members of this Parliament in deciding to bring forward primary legislation. However, there are gaps in the statement. In particular, I refer to the licensing of performance animals, the poor conditions that we see in both the horse racing and greyhound racing industries, the need to update farm animal welfare codes and the urgent need for a new definition of animal sentience. Is the Government open to dealing with those issues as part of what could be a landmark piece of primary legislation if we get it right?

Mairi Gougeon

Absolutely. I give that assurance to Mark Ruskell. Given the scale and incredible number of the issues that I have had to look at and deal with since I assumed my portfolio, I hope that he and other members will appreciate and understand that I have wanted to take the time to make sure that I do that as well as I possibly can and to properly inform myself on all the issues, because that is vital, too.

As I have said a number of times in the chamber, I am more than happy to work with any member on any of our proposals, because this is not about party politics; it is about doing the right thing and improving animal welfare. Wherever such issues come up, I am more than happy to discuss them with Mr Ruskell and any member of this Parliament.

The Liberal Democrats want to see a ban on the third-party sale of dogs and a ban on the sale of dogs under eight weeks of age. Will those measures be included in the forthcoming legislation?

Mairi Gougeon

I recently held a meeting with vet Marc Abraham, who has been leading the campaign for a ban on third-party sale of puppies—also known as Lucy’s law. I am aware that such a proposal is being considered elsewhere in the UK.

I am looking at the issue here, too. My officials recently contacted all local authorities in Scotland to ascertain how big an issue it is for us and to find out how many licences have been issued for the sale of animals in this regard; two thirds of local authorities responded, and none reported having issued licences. I do not think that this is as big an issue for us as it might be across the rest of the UK. However, I do not want Mr Rumbles or any other member to think that I am not actively considering the issue as one on which we could take action; I assure Mr Rumbles that I am doing that.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I welcome the minister’s announcement on introducing legislation on fox hunting and I acknowledge the minister’s point that action on fox hunting should not undermine legitimate pest control. Will the minister expand a bit on that?

Mairi Gougeon

I want to emphasise the point that I made in my response to Colin Smyth. This is not about creating a loophole; rather, it is about the possibility of regulating an exemption. Through the new code of practice on hunting, in tandem with the hunt monitoring arrangements, we aim to ensure compliance and encourage transparency.

It is important to say that licensing might prove to be an important protection, to ensure that legitimate pest control is not inadvertently caught by legal restrictions. That, we recognise, is important to farmers, particularly in the upland areas of Scotland, and is a matter that we will potentially consider, because there are particular circumstances in that regard. As I said, licensing is about not creating a loophole but tightening up our legislation in Scotland and ensuring that there are no loopholes in it.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

I welcome the minister’s announcement that current legislation will be amended, in particular to increase maximum sentences and to permit inspection bodies to rehome and sell on animals.

We recognise the need to get the Scottish animal welfare commission right, but will the minister assure the Parliament that its establishment will not prolong the process of introducing much-needed legislation?

In relation to livestock worrying, in particular, will the minister urgently look at how current legislative powers could be used to reduce the alarming rate of sheep worrying?

Mairi Gougeon

Livestock worrying is being carefully considered by Emma Harper, who is considering introducing a member’s bill on the matter. It is an important issue, on which the Government is looking to launch a survey in the coming months.

Work that we do on that will not be affected by the establishment of the animal welfare commission. I completely understand the need for urgency, and the Scottish Government is keen to establish the commission as soon as is feasible. That is why we want to consider setting up an interim commission, while we wait for changes to be made to secondary legislation. It is vital that we have independent expert advice to hand when it comes to issues to do with domestic and wild animals.

I emphasise that we also seek and rely on advice from the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, which operates across the UK. We do not want to duplicate the advice that it offers; we would want what we create in Scotland to supplement it. There is a need for expert, independent advice, so we are keen to establish the commission as soon as possible.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

I thank the minister for this very welcome statement. I note from the “Introduction of Compulsory Closed Circuit TV Recording of Slaughter at Abattoirs in Scotland: Summary Report” that veterinary and animal welfare groups see the use of CCTV as being additional to having vets on site, while some abattoirs would find such regulation quite restrictive. That will get worse after Brexit, given that so many vets are European Union nationals. Would it be possible for the CCTV to be used to allow vets to monitor proceedings remotely instead of having to be physically present, to enable more premises to stay open and so reduce the distances that animals have to travel?

Mairi Gougeon

Gail Ross’s question highlights a very particular problem that we could well face if there is a problem with regard to EU citizens’ rights to live and work in Scotland in light of Brexit. That issue would be particularly acute when it comes to the vets who work in our abattoirs, because 98 per cent of them are EU citizens, so we could face a huge problem. The Scottish Government is taking as much action as it can. We welcome EU citizens to live and work here.

On the impact that CCTV would have, we would not want it to be seen as meaning that we do not need vets in abattoirs or as replacing their role. We want it to be something that improves animal welfare and supplements the presence of vets on site; we would see it as being complementary to current physical monitoring and controls. However, we will keep the matter under review.

Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab)

Although the statement is welcome, will the minister tell the chamber what the Scottish Government intends to do about consulting on banning snaring, hare culls and trophy hunting, as well as shock collars? Also, following on from the previous question, how will the Scottish Government ensure that there are more abattoir facilities and assist CCTV installation in micro-abattoirs?

Mairi Gougeon

There were quite a few questions within that question. If I miss answering any of them, I would be happy to write to Claudia Beamish with more information or to arrange a meeting with her to discuss the issues in more detail.

The issue of mountain hares is subject to the grouse moor management review, which is due to report in the spring, so we will see the outcome of that in the coming few months.

I have not looked at the issue of snaring as part of this statement; we have had a lot of issues to look at within the portfolio and I wanted to update the chamber on those today, so I have not considered snaring so far. However, there is a review of snaring every five years, as required under section 11F of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and the most recent Scottish Natural Heritage review confirmed that the legislative changes made to snaring in 2011 have reduced the number of reported snaring-related offences and the administration procedure seems to be working satisfactorily.

If there are more issues, I would be more than happy to engage with the member on those.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

I welcome the commitment to consult on the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. Will the minister consider proposals that would open up the possibility of retrospectively considering new evidence, irrespective of the length of time that has lapsed since a crime was committed, as was asked for in the Greenock Telegraph justice for pets petition submitted in 2015?

I thank Stuart McMillan for that question and I would be happy to consider the matter, discuss it with my officials and keep Mr McMillan informed.

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests, as a farmer.

I welcome the introduction of mandatory CCTV coverage in abattoirs. Many slaughterhouses already have some CCTV coverage, but is it the minister’s expectation that it will need to be more extensive and cover more areas within abattoirs in future? Given that we on the Conservative benches have supported mobile abattoirs for the islands, will the minister advise whether the Government will provide any financial support for the installation of CCTV in micro and mobile abattoirs?

Mairi Gougeon

I thank Peter Chapman for that question. He is right that we have encouraged abattoirs to install CCTV voluntarily and that 86 per cent currently have it installed. As I also said in my statement, in 2016-17, the slaughter of 99 per cent of animals was covered by some sort of CCTV; that shows that we are almost there.

On the issue of any support that would be available, we are investigating that at the moment, but it will be compulsory for all abattoirs to have CCTV coverage. The issue of mobile abattoirs has been raised a number of times in the chamber, for example when we discussed live animal exportation and the opportunities that could exist in relation to that. There could well be opportunities there, and that is something that could be explored.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

I thank the minister for all her work in this area. I particularly welcome the increased sentencing options for those who abuse animals. The minister may have seen footage from an infamous boxing day hunt of a huntsman abusing his own horse. Does she agree with me that the authorities should be vigilant? Anyone who takes pleasure or sees sport in the torture of an animal is for the watching—such abusive behaviour might not be confined to one species.

Mairi Gougeon

The Scottish Government is grateful for the animal welfare work carried out by local authority and Scottish SPCA inspectors under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 and, of course, by Police Scotland. I emphasise that all forms of animal abuse are wrong. I encourage anyone who witnesses any torture or abuse of an animal to report it to the relevant authorities.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

I remain convinced that we should have a ban on electric shock collars for dogs and other animals and I welcome the minister’s statement in that regard. What level of priority does the minister intend to give that issue? I press her on that, because her answer in response to Maurice Golden was a little bit vague.

Mairi Gougeon

On the timing of the proposals that I mentioned in my statement, as I have mentioned in previous responses, Brexit is the overhanging issue; it has a huge impact on this portfolio and will affect the timing of any legislation that we plan to introduce. However, these issues are my job—animal health and welfare are part of my portfolio and, as I said in my statement, I care deeply and passionately about them. I want all the measures that I have talked about today to be implemented as soon as possible, but a lot of that will depend on what happens over the next months and how big an impact we see in Scotland from Brexit.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

There is much to welcome in the statement and I know that the minister means what she says about animal welfare. However, on fox hunting, she referred to

“pest control”


“the use of more than two dogs”.

Will the minister advise the chamber whether she considers the Buccleuch hunt to be one of the vestiges of a privileged class pursuing a cruel sport or an example of a voluntary pest control organisation that may apply for a pest control licence?

Mairi Gougeon

I simply reiterate what I have already talked about: this is not about creating potential loopholes. I am willing to work with anybody, across the chamber, to ensure that we get the proposals right and that we have a law in Scotland that is strong and tightens up what we already have. The Bonomy review made a number of recommendations and we intend to implement the vast majority of them, which would see the strengthening and tightening of the laws that we have.

As I said in response to a previous question, we have seen what has happened in England and Wales and the measures that have been introduced there. We plan to go further than the legislation that exists across the UK. As I said, this is not about creating loopholes.

I am delighted to hear the minister confirm that Finn’s law is progressing. Can she give me any firm indication of the timescales? It is vital to get that on the statute book without delay.

Mairi Gougeon

I know that the member has campaigned on that issue and that it is very important to him; it is, of course, important to the Government, too.

We will be launching a consultation over the coming weeks on Finn’s law and the amendments that we propose to make to the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. I imagine that the consultation will have been published by the end of this month; we will aim to progress from there. Again, I cannot disclose definite timescales at this time.

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I welcome the minister’s intention to improve the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 and I look forward to working with her to deliver a real ban on fox hunting in Scotland. Will she consider the removal of the multiple exceptions to the offence, which provide opportunities for exploitation for those who continually and deliberately offend, as noted in the Bonomy review?

I appreciate the minister’s comments about the grouse management review, but does she agree that the legislation could provide much-needed protection for Scotland’s mountain hares and brown hares?

Mairi Gougeon

I will really have to wait and see what comes out of the grouse moor management review before I can make any further comment on that. We are absolutely committed to implementing the vast majority of the recommendations that Lord Bonomy made. I know that Alison Johnstone has done a lot of work on preparing her member’s bill on fox hunting and I fully intend to work closely with her and others across the chamber. If we are going to have a piece of legislation, I want us to do it right and to put in place proposals that will strengthen and improve animal welfare legislation in Scotland.