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Puppy Farming

Volume 164: debated on Thursday 21 December 1989

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10.15 am

It is difficult to convince people that something as soft-sounding as puppy farming could be a screen behind which there is so much cruelty. Most members of the public associate puppy farming with the little bundle of fluff that they see in a pet shop window. They do not realise that all too often the pet shop window is the end of a callous, cruel, greed-ridden and deliberately dishonest trail that can frequently be traced back to farms in my own part of the country, Wales. However, similar problems arise in Scotland, Cornwall and other parts of the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, the examples to which I shall refer are in south-west Wales.

This is an appropriate time of the year to discuss the matter, although it might have been better to discuss it a week or two earlier. However, parliamentary time did not permit such a debate to take place then. Christmas is the time of peak sales of puppies, although it is becoming increasingly an all-year-round business. Even more important, it is becoming very big business. There are many caring and well-intentioned breeders and dealers, but far too many of them are neither caring nor genuine. They are out purely for maximum financial gain.

The popular myth is that most puppies are given to children, particularly at Christmas. Subsequently, however, many of them are abandoned as the children lose interest in them. The Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals and others have discovered, however, that a very large proportion of the puppy trade is dominated by people in their thirties and forties who buy puppies not for children but for elderly parents, in the hope that the puppies will provide them with comfort and even security. They do not seem to realise that the minimum part of the cost of a dog is its purchase price, even though that sometimes can be high. The RSPCA and others calculate that it costs about £4,000 to keep a dog over its average 11-year life. When one gives such a gift to a pensioner or a child, one is imposing on the family or pensioner an £8 a week cost for keeping the dog during the next decade. People ought, therefore, to consider that aspect when deciding whether to give puppies as presents.

That is not, however, the subject of the debate. I want to talk about a trade that is often sordid and cruel and, above all, is epitomised by sheer greed. I have already referred to the fact that most of my examples will come from south-west Wales. Most of them are to be found some distance to the west of my constituency, in a belt between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen.

I became involved in the issue two months ago—I must admit, by accident. While I was stuck in one of London's traffic jams on 12 October, I was listening to "Face the Facts" on my car radio when I heard a John Waite report that horrified me and convinced me that if the House were aware of all the circumstances action would be taken. The programme introduced what was described as a new cash crop. I should like to read some excerpts because I do not want colleagues to think that this is just one Member's view of what this trade represents. I want them to realise when they look at the Official Report that these are the views of outsiders who had no preconceptions. On the "Face the Facts" programme, the dogs were described as
"a new and lucrative cash crop for local farmers and smallholders many of whom would rather you did not know about some of the conditions in which those thousands of cuddly little Christmas presents are being bred."
That is certainly true. Those people would far prefer that no one knew about those conditions.

Mr. Alan Coxon, who with his wife and friends set up an organisation called Puppy Watch Wales to monitor what was happening and draw attention to the scandal, said:
"when you walk round the back of what could be a pleasant farm, you find a long shed with bitches three or four to a pen in darkness all the time, horrrendous noise, horrendous stench and the poor animals know no other way of life. Once they have been used for breeding for six or seven years, twice a year producing litters and making pots and pots of money for their owners, they are simply discarded because they are no use any more and they are either shot or dumped."
The lucky ones are shot. I visited one animal sanctuary where the lady who had taken over the premises found dogs and pups in the septic tank that were surplus to needs. They had not been killed in any decent manner but had simply been dumped. Mr. Coxon and his friends presented me with a petition containing more than 5,000 signatures of people, most of whom came fom the Carmarthen area, who were protesting about the horrors on the puppy farming "industry", for it has indeed become an industry.

If anything, Mr. Coxon's description was a serious understatment of the magnitude of the problem. The "Face the Facts" team was soon shown the reality, when Inspector Anderson of the RSPCA took the team to several farms. Referring to one farm, a reporter said:
"The smallholder led us around to the back of the building where we discovered breeding was carried out in a disused and dilapidated railway goods wagon. Inside dogs shivering with cold"—
this was during one of the mildest Octobers on record, so one can imagine the conditions during the past couple of weeks—
"were living on a sparse bed of straw heavily matted with excrement and sodden with urine and rain water. Though we saw five bitches, a Shih Tzu, a poodle, and three Yorkshire Terriers and then later a heavily pregnant King Charles spaniel, the owner insisted only two were kept for breeding."
As the team went around the farm, the situation deteriorated rapidly. The team came across a terrier, and Inspector Anderson said:
"It's got a broken jaw."
The bones were sticking out, and there are more gruesome details which I will not go into. The smallholder said:
"You might be right, but she's old, isn't she?"
Inspector Anderson prevailed on the owner to allow the team to take the poor creature to a vet. The reporter said:
"We set off for Carmarthen and the vet. The forlorn creature that shared the journey huddled whimpering in the back, her useless lower jaw hanging limp. On closer inspection we saw dried food caked around and in her eyes. Evidently the bitch's only method of feeding had been to push her face in whatever food was available in the hope that some would go down her throat."
The vet put that poor creature down, which was perhaps the kindest thing that could happen. One of the anomalies of the cases which I am describing is shown by the fact that, despite the dog's condition, Inspector Anderson could take it away only with the owner's permission. He could not have done so if the owner had objected.

I know that the Minister and his officials have looked at the transcript and that some of them have listened to a tape of the programme. After hearing the programme, I immediately contacted John Waite and his producer, Guy Smith. They kindly came to the House of Commons and gave me a lot of background information. They told me that, 10 months earlier, HTV had produced two programmes which went out late in the evening on the same subject. I visited them in Cardiff and they kindly provided videos of the programmes. They were still angry—so angry that, a year later, they were preparing a third programme. They were so committed that HTV had gladly said that it would waive all copyright conditions on the stills from the videos because it wanted to publicise what was happening.

I have a couple of photographs with me. They are horrible and horrifying. On several farms, I saw abandoned cars and vans that were used as pens for these poor creatures. The animals were locked in and left for long periods. The vans and cars were full of weeks of excrement in which the animals were living. There is a photograph of a Doberman that had been living in its excrement for so long that its hindquarters were so ulcerated that it could neither sit nor stand properly—it had to be put down. Up until the time of its death, it had been used for breeding.

One of the most horrible photographs was of three King Charles spaniels which had virtually no fur. The other pens were occupied and they had been left without food for so long that they had lost their coats and were sleeping on concrete. They died of hypothermia. These are the sort of conditions that exist in this kind and cuddly trade.

Most people would find it beyond belief that some people could be so stupid as well as so cruel. After all, as the pups sell for so much money, one would think that at least the owners would see the bitches as assets and take care of them, but it is cheaper for these people to replace the bitch than incur the costs of providing proper food and shelter and veterinary care. It is a measure of the inadequacy of our protection for these animals that the owner of the farm on which the Doberman and three dead animals were found was taken to court, fined and banned from breeding dogs for 10 years but on appeal had the ban lifted. She laughed all the way to Cumbria because she needed to sell only a couple of pups to cover the cost of the fine. She set up business again in Cumbria, where the RSPCA again traced her.

The reason why this problem is so widespread in this area is a quirk of economic history which, in fairness, is not within the control of the people who live there. They were the victims of the EEC change in the milk quota system. Many small farmers found that their incomes had gone. The Agricultural Development and Advisory Service told them that they should consider diversifying into such occupations as dog breeding. I have seen a letter from ADAS about a farm that I visited saying that the premises were suitable for adaptation. In fairness to ADAS, they may have been suitable for adaptation, but the farmer had no intention of paying for it. So it became a puppy farm. When I was there, dozens of the animals were in the house itself and some were in outhouses sleeping on the bare concrete. No attempt has been made to do anything to protect the animals.

As the problem is so widespread over that belt of Wales, why is it allowed to continue? After all, the RSPCA inspector, Mr. Peter Anderson, and the radio team from "Face the Facts" have investigated the matter. However, Mr. Anderson is hampered by the very law that the House introduced to protect animals—the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973. Under that well-intentioned Act, anyone with more than two bitches for breeding had to register and be licensed and could be subject to inspection. The same law means that anyone not registered or licensed is free from inspection. Therefore, the environmental health departments and the RSPCA are in a Catch-22. If the farm owner says that he has only one or two dogs, they have no right of access and it is impossible to collect the information and evidence on which to prove that the farm owner is in breach of the law. Therefore, the standard reaction from the breeders is to say, "We have only one animal."

The "Face the Facts" team watched pups being loaded into the back of a van belonging to a local dealer, Mr. Yeoman. They approached eight or nine of the people producing the pups and selling them to Mr. Yeoman. Each one came up with the standard answer, "We have only one animal that we use for breeding." That ensured that they were immune from Mr. Anderson's inspection and attention.

I visited a couple of unlicensed farms in the area and saw 30, 40 or 50 bitches penned up in inadequate accommodation, sometimes even in the house. There are a range of people involved, some with just one dog and others with over 50. As one can imagine, that means that they are deriving an enormous income.

Because of my concern and because of what the programme said, I asked to see the Home Secretary. In fairness, I was seen rapidly by the previous Home Secretary—the present Foreign Secretary—and the Under-Secretary of State on 23 October. I took with me the videos and a tape. I told them on what I was basing my representations. To his credit, the Home Secretary was able to point to a transcript similar to the one that I have been using this morning. In anticipation of my visit, he had already taken the trouble to establish the nature of the case. I had a positive reception not just at that meeting but at the subsequent meeting that I had with the Under-Secretary after I had made a series of fact-finding visits to south west Wales. I want to place on record that the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State recognised the genuineness of the problem.

It is clear that there is a crucial loophole in the existing law—the limitation on the right to inspect. However, one has to be realistic and recognise the problem. I am sure that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) has come across similar problems and is aware or what I am describing. Even with an increase in the right to inspect, the councils would still be hamstrung by the limitations on the manpower available to cover the whole range of activities that come within the remit of the environmental health department.

The problem is so widespread now that it is difficult to see how inspection alone will meet the need. In the belt of Wales to which I am referring, there are about 200 licensed breeders but there are probably at least as many—and possibly more—unlicensed. Increasingly, those who previously took the trouble to be licensed are no longer doing so, partly because they resent others getting away with being unlicensed, partly because they want to save costs but more importantly because they have discovered that it is a way to evade the rules.

I am convinced that the key to the problem is the dealer. The dealer is the only link between the local small distant farm and the real markets. Those markets are not just in the cities of Swansea and Cardiff—that is minimal—but in London, Birmingham, Manchester and even abroad in Common Market countries. The local markets are saturated. One cannot sell many pups there as everyone already has an ample supply and they are trying to find ways of getting rid of them. Some dealers even farm out the bitches within the area so that other people incur the cost of feeding and raising them. The dealers then collect the litters and reap the profits.

Those dealers deal not in tens or hundreds but in thousands of young pups, some of which are barely six weeks old and should not even be parted from their mother. HTV estimated that one dealer had a probable turnover of about £500,000 a year. We are talking about a substantial, highly lucrative and profitable business. How much goes through ledgers? The VAT inspectors would probably have a wonderful time in south-west Wales and they might find it a highly profitable area for investigation, as would the Revenue and the Department of Social Security.

To illustrate the international nature of the market, "Face the Facts" found that 30 crates of animals were being offloaded at Heathrow on their way to Milan. It is a big business in which the public are being ripped off by dealers who have no fear of the fines because they are derisory in relation to the profits. Their only fear would be if they were to be banned from buying from unlicensed breeders, because their livelihoods would then be at risk. They would then become self-policing and might do the things that the environmental health department is unable to do in severing the unlicensed breeders from the marketplace.

We now find that the market is becoming larger and more sophisticated. It is not just the old pet shops. Pet supermarkets are emerging and are buying thousands of pups a year. One sees advertisements, repetitive addresses and telephone numbers in magazines such as Loot—a free advertising magazine—Exchange & Mart and in the local press. Dog agencies are now emerging also and the RSPCA told me yesterday that it was looking into a case where, in response to an advertisement, a gentleman paid£175 for a Yorkshire terrier of dubious origin and another couple paid the same person £270 for two pups of equally dubious origin. The so-called pedigree would be meaningless.

"Pebble Mill" saw the dealer in the marketplace. People were rushing from their cars with pups plucked from their car boots and handing them over to him. He was stuffing bits of paper—the so-called certificates of pedigree—in his pocket. Heaven knows how he ever related them to the individual pups because when the people from "Pebble Mill" loked into the van, they estimated that there were between 70 and 80 pups already there. When they went back to the dealer's house as he was returning, the cars were lined up waiting to deliver more pups to him.

The pedigrees are virtually meaningless. A pedigree cannot be meaningful until it is registered for that pup with the Kennel Club. Most people do not realise that or do not register the pedigree for some other reason. Only people who intend to breed or show bother to register. Dealers rip off the public by charging top prices for "pedigree" pups which have no genuine pedigree.

The position has become so bad that there have been complaints not just in Britain but from overseas about the trade from south-west Wales. The Swiss received so many complaints about ill and deformed pups that they investigated the matter. In the process they found that not only were they faced with the problem of the callous dealers, but some dealers supplied dogs to the continent with false rabies certificates, with all the potential horrific repercussions of that.

There are many genuine and good breeders and dealers in the trade but far too many who deal callously and cruelly. They are utterly motivated by profit without regard for the animals. The greed is generating more and more uncaring breeders. I submit that, while the dog may be man's best friend, sadly, man is certainly not the dog's best friend.

10.41 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I am particularly pleased to respond to the concerns of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) about puppy farming. They are concerns which I share with him. As he told the House, we have had a number of meetings in which he expressed these concerns persuasively and we discussed how they might be tackled.

The right hon. Member and I stand largely on common ground. There can be no dispute that some unlicensed dog breeding establishments are horrific and a shameful example of animal neglect and selfish exploitation for, as the right hon. Gentleman referred to it, a lucrative cash crop.

From the evidence that the House has heard today, it is clear that the conditions in some of these establishments are utterly deplorable. Dogs are kept in old cars, old sheds and old vans. They often have inadequate water, light and heat. It is a miserable existence and a shameful way to treat animals. It cast a shadow over the large majority of dog breeders who, as he said, care deeply for the welfare of their animals.

The breeding of dogs is controlled by the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973. In many respects, this is an effective piece of legislation. It empowers local authorities to license establishments where dogs are bred and to inspect these thoroughly to ensure that they comply and conform to a good and reasonable standard of care. It is a detailed Act, setting out at some length the considerations which should apply to the properly run breeding kennel. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with that part of the legislation. Nor are we aware of any general problems in its application by local authorities, although one recognises that in remote country districts enforcement is often more difficult and there is greater scope for evasion.

However, I accept that it may well be highly desirable for local authority inspectors to be able to gain access to establishments that they have reasonable grounds for feeling were breeding dogs but had not sought a licence and so had not brought themselves under the controls of the Act. There are precedents either way for this. It is often unnecessary for such powers to exist; if, for instance, the public has a general right of access, there is no need to grant special rights to officials of one kind or another.

But, in the case of some dog breeding establishments, I accept that that can no longer be said to be the case and, providing that there are proper safeguards on the privacy of individuals and constraints on the exercise of the powers that local authority officials may have, there can be no objection to such a right of access being granted in order properly to enforce licensing requirements.

Perhaps it is worth spelling that point out a little further. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 sets out the strict conditions under which, for instance, the police can gain access in the investigation of crime. Broadly, access cannot be granted to private premises unless they are investigating a serious arrestable offence which might attract a sentence of five years or more. It is an important part of the safeguards that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 provides that right of access is not granted in the pursuit of less serious offences. But that is a wholly different matter from considering a right of access in order to enforce licensing requirements. Such a right is given in a number of cases and in some instances it may make nonsense of licensing requirements if they can be evaded, as the right hon. Gentleman said, simply by refusing access to enforcement officials, People may simply say that they have only one dog. That is why I have no difficulty in going along with the right hon. Gentleman. I agree that an extension of the powers currently available to local authority officials would not merely make a lot of sense, but has become a necessity.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to discuss the problems of indiscriminate breeding and controlling the sale of puppies and whether one might be able to confine such sales to registered breeders or pet shops. He has kindly raised these matters with me before and we have considered them with some care.

Again, I have no difficulty in agreeing that the idea of controlling outlets for puppies is fundamentally sensible. In particular, it would be highly desirable to be able not only to outlaw breeders who are trying to evade the controls and requirements of the law, but to close the outlets through which they trade. But I have to tell the House that I can see no way in which this could be done without wholly unacceptable side effects. It would clearly not be right to restrict the freedom of individuals to sell the offspring of their pets. It would clearly be unacceptable to require such people to be licensed by the local authority; and, possibly most persuasive of all, to seek to go down this route might divert our energies towards a system which was wholly impossible to enforce.

I regret to tell the rigth hon. Gentleman that I have, therefore, concluded that there is no future in trying to bring this about.

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. I am grateful for the remarks that he made in the first part of his reply. They were positive and helpful. I ask him at least to consider the second point although I know that he cannot say more today. The additional cost of licensing for anyone who wants to sell pups is relatively small, if one wishes to introduce proper controls. The advantage is that what the Minister posed as the disadvantage would be overcome. Dealers would be so restricted that they would be in a straitjacket which did not allow them to buy from people who were not licensed. They would police myriad individual breeders. They would buy only from licensed breeders and either squeeze the others out of the market or force them to come within the scope of the system and become licensed.

I sympathise with what the right hon. Gentleman wishes to do. He will recognise that the law must treat everyone equally. To apply the licensing provisions only to those who breed regularly for gain and distinguish them from those who have one dog that occasionally has a litter of pups which they wish to sell to a friend would be extremely difficult. Yet if one could not distinguish effectively one could not outlaw the unlicensed regular commercial breeder.

That is precisely my point. One must recognise that the price of achieving the sort of controls and safeguards that we want is for everyone to be treated the same. If one wants to sell pedigree pups at the premium prices which go with a pedigree, one should have to be licensed.

If the right hon. Gentleman will set out in detail how that would work, as he has done with previous arguments that he has brought to me, I shall look at it carefully. We have thought hard about how to construct an effective law. The right hon. Gentleman is saying that a law would be effective only if applied to everyone, including private individuals whose dog produces a litter, one of which is sold to an acquaintance or friend—

To dealers. These things move along. .An individual may sell a puppy to a puppy farm. I am willing to consider what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but we must ensure that any change in the law results in good, effective law that can be applied.

If one could ensure by granting increased rights of access by local authority officials that all establishments breeding dogs on a commercial scale were properly regulated and controlled, it would go a long way towards controlling the evil that the right hon. Gentleman has described today. We should be able to have confidence that that was sufficient in itself and that additional constraints on the onward sale of puppies were superfluous and unnecessary. I am willing to hear the right hon. Gentleman's detailed programme on how a law may be constructed to deal with that additional point.

I remind the House that the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973 is underpinned by the Protection of Animals Act 1911. It is a major piece of legislation which has served us well and continues to do so. Anyone who is convicted of an offence under the 1911 Act can be banned from keeping animals in future. That is the greatest safeguard that animals can have. The licensing provisions of the Breeding of Dogs Act ensure that acceptable, clean and proper standards are observed in all kennels that are registered. The Protection of Animals Act ensures that, when animals are maltreated, effective sanctions are available to punish the offenders and prevent them from being able to take charge of animals again.

I welcome the opportunity that the right hon. Gentleman has given the House to discuss these issues today. I welcome the passionate restraint with which he has debated the thoroughly disgraceful conditions in which some dogs are bred and kept. I am glad to have this opportunity to confirm that we are happy to help the right hon. Gentleman a long way down the track to remedy this evil.

Sitting suspended at 10.52 am.

On resuming—

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted proceedings pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sittings).