People who abuse animals could face up to five years in prison after the Environment Secretary Michael Gove introduced a new Bill to Parliament yesterday which increases the maximum sentence from the current 6 months.

This, says the government, would be one of the toughest sanctions in Europe, strengthening the country's claim to be a global leader on animal welfare.

The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill comes after a public consultation held last year which found that more than 70% of people supported proposals for tougher prison sentences. It will allow the courts to take a tougher stance on things like dog fighting, puppy and kitten abuse, and neglect of farm animals.

The new Bill has been welcomed by animal welfare charities.

Chief Executive for the RSPCA, Chris Sherwood, said: "This reform is long overdue. Those responsible for extreme cruelty towards animals or those criminal gangs involved in organised animal crime will now face the tough justice they deserve.

"We need to better protect our animals and the RSPCA hopes that this new Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill will give courts the powers they need to punish those responsible for the most unimaginable cruelty to animals.

"We also believe this will act as a much stronger deterrent to others and help us stamp out animal cruelty once and for all."

James Yeates, Cats Protection’s Chief Executive said: "We very much welcome this announcement which is an important step in ensuring the UK is one of the world leaders on animal welfare issues.

Claire Horton, Chief Executive of Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, said: "The introduction of this bill is a landmark achievement, which will make a profound difference to dogs and cats in England and Wales."

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