NORTHERN Ireland’s 26 local councils are seeking legal advice on new legislation that imposes statutory animal welfare obligations on them.
The outcome could be a stern challenge to the new Animal Welfare Bill which went through the Assembly in February – one of 25 bills passed into law since January.
The Department of Agriculture & Rural Development [DARD] also stands accused of using misleading figures to calculate the financial package to fund councils in taking over responsibility for animal welfare.
Councils are outraged that the new bill went through the Assembly in February before they had a chance to consult with Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew on March 1.
Cllr Bert Wilson chairs the Agriculture Committee of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association [NILGA]. He told the Detail: “I object to the fact that this was imposed without consultation.”
But according to NILGA chief executive Derek McCallan there’s a bigger problem concerning what outgoing DARD Minister Michelle Gildernew referred to as the “permissive” aspects of the legislation.
This first emerged in a letter she wrote to the Agriculture Committee of NILGA in which she stated:
“I think it is also important to highlight that whilst the Bill will place a statutory obligation on Councils to enforce the provisions in respect of non-farmed animals, the powers are permissive in that councils will have discretion as to how they implement these powers within the available resources.
“Whilst I appreciate there may be an expectation by members of the public that all animal welfare complaints will be fully investigated, and in an ideal world this would be the case, in the current financial climate it is unrealistic to expect unlimited funding for animal welfare, therefore everyone will have to accept that cases will have to be prioritised.
The USPCA believes the legislation is flawed because of the “permissive” nature.
The society’s chief executive Stephen Philpott told the Detail: “DARD have fluffed their lines. Instead of moving us forward, they have moved us backwards.
“Because of private agendas, budget protection and all the other things that go in government we have a situation now because of the discretionary power that anyone can walk away from this situation. Now that is a disgrace. It’s the only place in Europe that you can actually do that.”
Derek McCallan told the Detail: “We are seeking legal advice particularly on the discretionary and permissive aspects of the bill.
“Permissive for councils may mean they become involved in a punitive action if they have a mandatory function which is not being carried out. We need clarity. We need legal advice and we need resource planning as an essential part of our preparations.”
Asked if the councils were ready to take over animal welfare, Bert Wilson said: “We are not. Up to now the USPCA and the PSNI had this role and the USPCA had three accommodation places in Northern Ireland.
“They also got £1million per year in donations which was… really good, and nobody is going to come forward and give donations to a local council. I tthey’re making their will they’re not going to leave their local council a thousand pounds.”
What the councils have been offered by DARD is an annual payment of £760,000 guaranteed for four years.
But they say the figures don’t add up – especially after hearing Michelle Gildernew’s explanation for introducing the new bill four years after similar legislation was introduced in England.
When asked by the Detail to explain the delay, Ms Gildernew said: “It’s similar legislation. It’s not an exact read across. We needed legislation that fitted in with our own particular circumstances here.”
Yet strangely, according to our local councils, the Minister went out of her way to ignore local facts and figures.
In putting forward the new Animal Welfare Bill here, the Minister opted to quote to the councils figures taken from the RSPCA in England.
Derek McCallan told the Detail: “The Minister took figures from the RSPCA in England which showed somewhere in the region of 4,600 cases a year to be followed up.
“But when we spoke to the USPCA we found a different set of figures which indicated 7,000 cases a month – although that includes everything like phone calls seeking advice for example.
“Whatever way you look at it, there is a major discrepancy between 4,600 a year and 84,000 which has to be addressed. That’s why we must engage in serious negotiations to ensure the end user gets a proper service – not just the animals but those who seek our welfare services.”
The Detail has obtained a letter sent by the Minister to NILGA in January this year in which she acknowledges the figures provided by the USPCA.
She notes that the USPCA say 65% of the calls were ‘rubbish/mischief making’ calls and that 7% required action.
The Minister went on to state: “While there is some uncertainty about the future volume of work that may rest with Councils in respect of non-farmed animals, I believe the figure of 4,600 cases based on the RSPCA’s figures for England and Wales provides a good estimate and is in line with the USPCA’s figure of 5,000 which includes cases in respect of wild animals, farmed animals which will not be the responsibility of Councils.”
Alan Burke sits on NILGA’s Agriculture Committee. He questioned the Minister’s methodology when he told the Detail: “It appears DARD for some reason chose to use RSPCA research figures and not the information that was available from the USPCA,
“It seems the Department did not want to discuss these issues with people on the ground here.”
There’s little disguising the fact that there has been a breakdown in the relationship between the USPCA and DARD, almost certainly dating back three years to a television programme highlighting the case of a family convicted several times of cruelty to farm animals but who managed to keep running a pig farm in County Down.
The family should not have had any animals in their care. But most damaging for DARD was the revelation that a Department vet had visited the farm on official business a matter of days before the USPCA arrived and closed down the farm.
Their vet gave the farm a clean bill of health. This was in spite of the fact that the farmer was a convicted animal abuser who was at the time banned from keeping animals because of previous cruelty conviction.
DARD was unhappy when the USPCA revealed these facts in the documentary.
But Alan Burke believes there’s another possible explanation for DARD looking at the RSPCA figures for England. The figures form the basis of working out the financial costs of running a welfare service.
Mr Burke said: “The effect of DARD using UK figures was to reduce the financial costs associated with the animal welfare business plan. In other words DARD came up with a business plan at a cost to central government of £760,000 – the amount being offered annually for four years to the councils and based on the RSPCA figures. But the USPCA estimate that the figure for here would be double that at almost £1.5million.”
So the difference between 6,400 calls for help from the RSPCA in England and 84,000 contacts with the USPCA in Northern Ireland has an important financial impact. NILGA are keen to discuss this in more detail.
As yet, nothing is cast in stone.
Under the new Animal Welfare Bill, councils have been given a 12 month transition period to determine how they will implement their statutory obligations for animal welfare.
However, the councils intend to use that time to make DARD do now what it should have done before – discuss, debate and negotiate.
Derek McCallan said the spirit of anger has not dissipated and was clearly evident at last Friday’s full members meeting in Armagh.
He told the Detail: “The meeting showed the councils are corporately aligned in this. The attitude is that this will not be done to us but will only be done with us.”
Whoever takes on the mantle of DARD Minister after the Assembly election faces tough negotiations with the councils trying to overturn the deal presently on offer.
Derek McCallan concluded: “It is hugely important to use this transitional year to find a solution rather than confrontation. Local Government will as always put their shoulder to the wheel but we need to be sure that is reciprocated.”