Sugden maintains fight for register of banned animal owners

An East Londonderry MLA has backed the USPCA chief executive in a fight for the creation of a comprehensive register of people banned from owning animals.

Claire Sugden described the reasons given by the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for not establishing such a register as “unconvincing”.

Ms Sugden said such a register would be “easy to create and prevent future abuse” of both pets and livestock.

The East Londonderry MLA, who sits on Stormont’s All Party Group for Animal Welfare, commented: “I have asked several assembly questions to the minister regarding the creation of this register.

“The minister called the proposal ‘untenable’, in part due to data protection and cost issues, but also because he claims there is no evidence as to its need.

“Registers of banning orders exist for other types of crime and work – all are far better than having nothing and give necessary weight to the ban.”

DAERA is responsible for dealing with reports of cruelty and abuse relating to livestock and other farm animals, while local councils handle domestic animals.

“The minister has confirmed that many local councils already have lists of those who have been banned from keeping domestic animals,” Ms Sugden continued.

“It would require little cost or effort to add to these lists those people who have abused farm animals and the GDRP implications would be the same.

“Having two separate bodies responsible for effectively the same law may not be the best way to deal with animal cruelty, but having one register could go some way to making sure dealing with it is done in a more joined-up way.

“I have sought in my questions to establish the current legal responsibilities of DAERA and local councils regarding the enforcement of these bans, and the mechanisms for doing so. Sadly, the minister did not respond to this.

“Laws, especially those involving bans, are only ever as effective as the level of their enforcement. It is, therefore, vital we ensure each body is doing what it is supposed to.

“The vast majority of those convicted for animal cruelty offences also escape prison, so added to the glaring inadequacies of the ban system, the deterrents in all sorts of ways are just not there. In 2020 there were 4,181 breaches of the Welfare of Animals Act. Only seven resulted in custodial sentences.”

USPCA chief executive, Brendan Mullen, said Minister Poots’ quoted reoffending figure of 3.35 per cent was “misleading”, and called for more unannounced visits by officials to offenders to ensure compliance with bans.

“With regard scale, 3.35 per cent of known re-offenders begs the question: how many are not known?” Mr Mullen stated. “The reality is that compliance with bans is not checked and, therefore, the true scale is unknown.

“There should be a legal duty on those banned to keep their address up-to-date on the register, and for the relevant statutory agency to have a legal responsibility to make unannounced visits, at least annually, to the offender’s registered address to ensure animals are not being kept and abused.

“This approach would be much more effective in meeting the objective of stopping those banned from keeping animals of re-offending.”

Regarding the creation of a comprehensive list, Mr Mullen said it would become a register “of all those convicted of animal cruelty offences. It could be accessed directly by the statutory agencies with enforcement responsibility – DAERA, councils and the PSNI”.