A worrying lack of animal welfare officers employed by councils across England has been highlighted in a just-published report, which warns of a deepening crisis unless local enforcement is improved.
A new report published today by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Animal Welfare reveals that almost half of councils in England do not have a single animal welfare officer dedicated to dealing with animal welfare issues.
It called for an end to a “postcode lottery” of animal welfare services across England.
The group believes that cost-of-living pressures could lead to the suffering of countless animals unless action to improve enforcement is taken. It wants all councils in England to use dedicated animal welfare officers.
The group also wants to see the UK Government help facilitate better collaboration between agencies working on the ground.
Local authorities are responsible for enforcing swathes of animal welfare legislation, including dealing with stray dogs, the fly-grazing of horses, licensing establishments, compulsory microchipping of dogs and horses, welfare at markets, and more. Further powers are set to come into force in the coming years.
The report, Improving the Effectiveness of Animal Welfare Enforcement, concludes that a “real lack of consistency in enforcement of animal welfare” exists in England, and that the local government structure in the country can make enforcement fragmented. It says a lack of understanding and a failure to share knowledge is a persistent problem.
The report and its findings are backed by the RSPCA, the National Equine Welfare Council, World Horse Welfare, and the Local Government Animal Welfare Group.
Member of Parliament Giles Watling, who co-chairs the parliamentary group, said: “This landmark report suggests there’s a real postcode lottery in terms of animal welfare enforcement services across England – with nearly half having no dedicated officers at all. We are in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis – and that could have big consequences for animals, and enforcement bodies trying to protect them.
“There is loads that can be done to ensure better collaboration from better understanding the responsibilities of different agencies, to establishing regional animal welfare forums to encourage councils to work with the RSPCA, police and other bodies in their community.”
The group’s policy adviser, Marisa Heath, said there is a real picture of inconsistency across England in terms of what services people can rely on locally from their council for enforcing animal welfare.
“We believe councils across England need to be supported to use dedicated, well-trained animal welfare officers, enforcing the plethora of legislation impacting animals that is the responsibility of local authorities.
“It is vital that UK Government and others take note of this report, and work with us to ensure we have more consistent, reliable, well-resourced statutory enforcement bodies ready to collaborate with others.”
World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers called for a major rethink on enforcement. “Although there’s still a way to go, real progress is being made with improving legislation around animal welfare and its impact on horses, but it will be wasted if not enforced.
“To be effective, enforcement needs a major rethink and will require both well-trained, dedicated, officers who could be shared across local authority boundaries to limit the costs, and welfare charities to provide the necessary training and support. Only with a collaborative approach will we see real, tangible benefits for animal welfare.”
The report details that 47% of councils in England have no dedicated animal welfare officers, while 22% have one officer, 14% have two officers, 16% have between three and five officers, and 1% have more.
In addition, these officers may not meet the proposed definition of “dedicated” in the report, as it is unclear whether most of their time is spent on enforcing or ensuring compliance with animal welfare legislation. Some may be focused on farm animals or dogs only.
The parliamentary group wants all English local authorities to use dedicated officers to enforce animal welfare. It is also calling for a better understanding of the different responsibilities between upper tier and lower tier authorities in England.
It wants regional animal welfare forums to be established, where dedicated animal welfare officers can meet with RSPCA inspectors, the police and others, to encourage collaboration, including the sharing of information and intelligence.
The group proposes the formal establishment of a stand-alone National Animal Welfare Board and says consideration should be given to a focused central fund that enables the National Animal Welfare Board to bid for resources to target large-scale animal welfare breaches in a collaborative manner.
In addition, it wants better training for dedicated animal welfare officers, and suggests that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) collects enforcement activity statistics across all areas of England.
The parliamentary group said it had noticed during its investigations how varied enforcement was across England, with evidence of different standards and approaches being applied to enforcement.
“There is also recognition that animal health and welfare are intrinsically linked and yet legislative requirements are disconnected with different authorities holding different responsibilities.
“Ultimately there has been a real lack of consistency in enforcement of animal welfare.”
It noted that the majority of local authorities are appointing inspectors only for licensing purposes and not for enforcing animal welfare in its entirety.
It said the changes proposed would help to remove the opaqueness of the current way of working, and would ensure society starts to recognise that animal welfare offences sit within the wider issues that affect society, such as domestic violence, child neglect, mental health problems and tax evasion.
“Delivering transparency around animal welfare is important in reducing offences and showing that it is recognised as a valid social issue.”