HOLYROOD has backed tougher penalties for animal welfare crimes.

MSPs last night agreed unanimously to support the general principles of the Animal and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill at the Stage One vote.

The new legislation will stiffen penalties for those committing the worst crimes against animals to five years and a possible unlimited fine.

It also increases the penalties for 58 other wildlife offences, allows enforcement agencies to transfer animals without a court order and brings in Finn’s Law - aimed at protecting service animals such as police dogs.

Rural affairs minister Mairi Gougeon said: “Although these extreme cases are rare, as a society and as a government we need to send a strong message that any animal cruelty or wildlife crime will not be tolerated.

“I hope the publicity around this Bill will start the necessary behaviour changes to banish that cruelty from our society.

“These often traumatic and sadistic offences rightly attract considerable public concern and we’re also concerned about links to serious organised crime, particularly around the illegal trade in puppies.

“We believe, and others agree, that the current maximum penalties are simply not high enough to allow the courts to deal appropriately with such cases.”

Gillian Martin, the convener of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee - which unanimously supported the Bill in its recent report - said: “It has been said that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.

“I certainly agree with that sentiment.

“Disregarding the health and welfare of animals can make it easier for us to disregard the health and welfare of our fellow humans.

“It can limit our capacity for empathy, and there are often links between animal abuse and other crimes.

“It is right that the government seeks to increase penalties in line with the grave nature of many of the crimes committed against animals.”

Tory MSP Finlay Carson said the Bill as “long overdue”, adding: “We need to introduce new penalties for those who continue to cause pain and suffering to animals and wildlife.”

Scottish Green MSP Mark Ruskell called for more powers for the Scottish SPCA to go after wildlife crime, which he claims the charity has been offering to do for several years.

Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur questioned whether the Bill could use alternatives to custodial sentences, such as community payback orders as punishments.

He said: “At a time when our prisons are full to bursting, when all the evidence tells us that short prison sentences are more ineffective in reducing rates of reoffending than community-based measures.

“This seems to be an area ripe for making use of alternative and more effective approaches.”