A new bill to enable longer sentences for those found guilty of the worst cases of animal abuse is being considered by the U.K. Parliament.

If passed, it would allow the courts to take a tougher approach with those guilty of gross neglect of farm animals, dog fighting and abuse of kittens and puppies, and hand down sentences of up to five years in prison, up from the current U.K. maximum of six months.

The U.K. was the first country in the world to implement laws protecting animals, starting with the 1822 Act to Prevent Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle. The body of welfare legislation has gradually grown since then, yet, over recent years, there have been a number of cases in which the country’s courts have said that they would have handed down longer sentences had they been available.

Commenting on the new bill, Environment Secretary Michael Gove said he wanted to make sure that those who abuse animal would be met with the full force of the law, adding that the five-year sentence would be one of the toughest in Europe.

The bill has been welcomed by charity The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which last year alone, received one call every 27 seconds to its cruelty hotline.

If U.K. courts have found their current sentencing powers inadequate, then tougher sentences are to be welcomed, however, accusations of cruelty should never be confused with modern farming practices, and these sometimes elicit the same responses from accusers as does cruelty. For the lay person, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two.

Allegations of poultry cruelty

The announcement has come in the same week that farm animal advocacy group Animal Equality revealed findings from investigations on three farms supplying one of the UK’s largest poultry companies, and alleged “extreme suffering”.

The group says that chickens were suffering from severe leg injuries, with some unable to stand, that carcasses were left to rot for days among flocks and that chicks were struggling to breathe. None of this is what anyone wants, but it also noted that sheds were “gigantic” and “double decker,” calling its report "High-Rise of Hell."

If the reports of unaddressed cruelty are correct, then exposure is to be welcomed, but given planning complexities in the U.K., and the common public resistance to rural development, I would doubt very much that the size of these gigantic buildings breaks any rules.

The findings, Animal Equality says, were drawn from visits to poultry farms made earlier this year and have been passed to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the originators of the new welfare bill, and to Red Tractor, a UK quality assurance scheme.

A number of supermarkets have expressed their concern and the company which takes birds from these producers has commented that it has zero tolerance for anything that jeopardizes the health and welfare of birds and that it would be investigating the allegations.

For its part, Red Tractor, which has tightened its standards this month, noted that it was aware of the breaches on the three farms and that at one, issues had been resolved, while on the other two, managers were within a 28 day corrective period to retain their certification.

Prior to publishing The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill consultation was carried out and more than 70% of respondents supported tougher sentencing. Had I been asked, I probably would have been one of that 70%, but only in cases where the law had been broken, and cruelty clearly defined and understood. And it’s worth remembering that no assurance scheme, public or private, no matter how good, can be omnipresent. There will always be failings. What matters is that once issues are recognized, they are resolved as quickly as quickly as possible and steps put in place to ensure that they don’t happen again.