The maximum prison sentence for people convicted of animal cruelty offences should be increased tenfold to five years behind bars, charities have said.
The current six-month maximum custodial term for the worst criminal cases was described as “shocking” and “laughable” by rights groups who want the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) updated with harsher penalties.
Battersea Dogs & Cats Home (BDCH) has launched a campaign today saying England and Wales lag behind many other western nations in penalising abusers.
The RSPCA and the League Against Cruel Sports also called for increased prison terms ahead of a parliamentary debate on the subject on Friday. Raising the maximum sanction to five years in prison would put England and Wales on a par with Northern Ireland and Ireland. In Scotland the current maximum is a year.
Government figures show the average prison term for someone convicted of animal cruelty is 3.3 months.
BDCH chief executive Claire Horton said: “It isn’t acceptable that our courts are unable to hand out tougher sentences in such extreme animal cruelty cases, yet the likes of fly-tipping can result in prison sentences of up to five years.
“So let’s get this into proportion and let the punishment for abusing animals truly fit the crime.” BDCH said England and Wales’ six-month maximum sentence puts England and Wales on a par with Belgium, Macedonia and the US states Idaho and Mississippi. But the BDCH says it lags behind countries like Latvia (five years) and Finland (four years), Connecticut and Louisiana (both 10 years) and Queensland (seven years). In Germany and France the maximum sentence is two and three years respectively.
The campaign launch comes ahead of a debate in Parliament on the subject. The discussion of a Private Member’s Bill by Anna Turley, the Labour MP for Redcar, will take place on February 24.
In January the Sentencing Council introduced new guidelines designed to “ensure that the most serious cases lead to prison sentences, and that these sentences are of an appropriate length”.
From April, magistrates can take into account additional aggravating factors including the “use of technology to publicise or promote cruelty” and “animal being used in public service or as an assistance dog”.
Defra figures show 936 people were sentenced for offences relating to animal cruelty under the AWA in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
Of those, 91 received an immediate custodial sentence, with the average length 3.3 months. A further 202 offenders got a suspended sentence and 341 received a community sentence. Some 177 offenders were punished with a fine, with the average being £244.
A report in November by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on animal welfare recommended increasing the maximum prison sentence to five years.
Defra, responding to the committee in January, said: “Current sentencing practice for offences of animal cruelty in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 does not suggest that the courts are finding current sentencing powers inadequate.”
The RSPCA said its own polling showed that there was public support for stronger sentences.
Chief executive Jeremy Cooper said: “The strength of feeling behind a move to toughen up these sentences is huge - but at the moment the courts are limited by the law.
“The new sentencing guidelines are a step in the right direction but are confined by the sentencing ceiling in the Act.”
League Against Cruel Sports chief executive Eduardo Goncalves added: “I spend a lot of my time looking at horrific dog fighting footage as the League is working hard to stamp this out in the UK, but I know in the back of my mind that if we catch a dog fighter, the most they will get is six months in prison - and probably much less.
“That’s utterly inadequate and would be laughable if it wasn’t so shocking.”
MP Ms Turley said: “By the standards of other countries and even nations within the UK, we are falling short and my bill will address that.”