The Director of City Services advised the Committee of a recent decision taken by DAERA to withdraw funding with immediate effect in respect of the Council’s provision of Animal Welfare Services.
The Director reported that Councils in Northern Ireland currently enforced the requirements of the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 for non-farmed animals.
Since April 2012, a Northern Ireland wide Animal Welfare Service delivery model had been operating, with a five sub-regional model linking to the Regional Lead Council Fermanagh and Omagh District Council (FODC) and to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA). Staff were employed by the sub-regional lead Councils to operate across all regions with provision for 10 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) Animal Welfare Officers (AWO), 2 of whom were based in Belfast City Council. There was currently only 7 FTE due to a pause in recruitment until funding issues had been resolved. This was putting significant strain on the 7 officers who were covering the whole of Northern Ireland.
The Director advised that, over the past 10 years, DAERA had funded the Councils’ Animal Welfare Service with an allocation of £1.25m in the year 2022-23. The funding was made available to Councils to fulfil the statutory enforcement obligations arising from the Welfare of Animals (Northern Ireland) Act 2011 and FODC as Lead Council for Animal Welfare managed this resource funding. On 23rd August 2023, The Permanent Secretary, DAERA wrote to advise “that the Department was unable to provide funding to support Councils in the delivery of their statutory responsibilities for non-farmed animal Welfare”.
The Director advised that there was obviously a considerable amount of uncertainty in relation to the operation of the Animal Welfare Service, therefore, it was imperative that Belfast City Council continued to work in collaboration with the other Councils to ensure that to the best of its ability the statutory requirements were met and the Committee was asked to agree to support the existing Council arrangements to ensure that the Animal Welfare Service continued until 31st March 2024. It was noted that, if the Committee agreed, this funding would come from the specified reserve established by the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee in June 2023 to deal with any potential Central Government Reductions.
The Committee was advised that the Animal Welfare Strategic Project Board, of which the Council was a member, was currently reviewing potential delivery models and associated costs for providing the Animal Welfare function from 1st April 2024 and it hoped to provide SOLACE with an update by December 2023. In addition, SOLACE was considering the local government position and taking legal advice via the Council.
It was estimated that it would cost the Council in the region of £153k annually to operate its own Animal Welfare Service. Officers were preparing a Growth Proposal for the rate setting process for consideration, however, this would be dependent on any formal action taken via SOLACE on the current DAERA position.
A Member noted the necessity for the Animal Welfare Service and expressed his concern at the withdrawal of this essential funding. He also highlighted that this was a worrying situation for staff who were faced with this uncertainly and welcomed the fact that the Council was continuing to support the arrangements whilst the current position adopted by DAERA was being further considered.
The Committee noted the update and agreed to support existing arrangements until 31st March 2024, to be funded from the specified reserve set up by the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee in June 2023 to deal with any potential Central Government Reductions.