The maximum prison sentence for animal abuse is to increase from six months to five years, while work in still under way on legal recognition of animal sentience.

Plans for tougher sentences, as part of a draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill, were put out for consultation last December.

This also included proposals to “ensure animal sentience is reflected in domestic law when we leave the EU”, but while work on this will continue, the sentencing is to become the subject of a new bill, which will be introduced in parliament separately as soon as time allows.

The government says this move, in line with recommendations made by the environment, food and rural affairs committee this year, will “send a clear sign there is no place for animal cruelty in England”.

“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,” animal welfare minister Lord Gardiner said.

“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.”

Lord Gardiner said the proposals came about after a number of “shocking” cases, in which courts said they would have given out tougher sentences had these been available.

RSPCA head of public affairs David Bowles said the charity had stated that sentience and sentencing should be the subjects of separate bills: “We are pleased Defra has agreed,” he added.

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“We welcome the proposed bill to increase sentencing for animal cruelty and neglect by amending Section 32 of the Animal Welfare Act, as well as the introduction of a separate sentience bill.

“However, as there are less than eight months to go before we leave the EU, we are concerned that time is running out for the sentience bill to be introduced and agreed before Brexit.”

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