Worst animal abusers could face five years in prison under plan for tougher punishments

The draft Animal Welfare Bill was put out to consultation in December.
The draft Animal Welfare Bill was put out to consultation in December.

Maximum jail sentences for the worst animal abusers in England are to be increased from six months to five years.

The move comes after strong support from animal welfare groups and the public to proposals for tougher sentences from Environment Secretary Michael Gove.

Separate measures will also ensure that the principle of animal sentience is enshrined in domestic law following Britain's departure from the EU.

Proposals for tougher punishments for animal abusers followed a number of cases in which courts said they would have handed down longer sentences if they were available, said Mr Gove's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

These include a case last year in which a man trained dogs to torture other animals, including by trapping a fox and a terrier dog in a cage together.

The change was welcomed by Claire Horton, chief executive of the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, which has campaigned for tougher sentencing.

"Battersea welcomes the results of today's consultation as they confirm the nation is no longer prepared to put up with a six-month sentence for shocking cases of cruelty to animals," said Ms Horton.

"We believe a five-year maximum sentence is far more appropriate and, to the credit of the Government, they have listened. We look forward to seeing the Bill laid before Parliament this year."

The draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill was put out to consultation in December.

Measures relating to sentencing are now expected to be brought before Parliament later this year, in order to allow courts to take on their new powers as soon as possible.

Defra said it would continue to work with animal welfare groups on the issue of sentience, to ensure it is reflected in legislation following Brexit.

Animal Welfare Minister Lord Gardiner said: "This Government is making good on our commitment to make the UK a world leader in the care and protection of animals as we leave the EU.

"Our proposals to raise maximum sentences for animal abusers attracted strong support. We will now legislate so courts have the power to punish offenders properly.

"We will also continue to work with welfare organisations to ensure that animal sentience is properly recognised in our legislation once we have left the EU."

Widespread concerns were raised during debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill last year that Brexit might weaken protections for animals, after an amendment requiring the UK to recognise them as sentient was rejected.

However, Mr Gove insisted at the time that this was a "misconception", and that Britain would remain a world leader in the protection of animals following withdrawal.