Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am conscious of the huge privilege of having the opportunity to introduce a private Member’s Bill given my relatively short time in the House. I must express my surprise at having that opportunity today, because I did not expect it.
I thank the Bill’s cross-party sponsors and all those on both sides of the House who have shown support. I also thank those who have signed my early-day motion 592 on electric shock training devices. I especially thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who tabled amendments to the Animal Welfare Act 2006 along the lines of the measures set out in the Bill. I also thank the Kennel Club which, along with other charities, has worked tirelessly on this issue and which has helped me to introduce the Bill. At this point, I also want to pay tribute to the Government for all the good work that has been done for animal welfare, including the 2006 Act, which came into force on 1 April. However, it does not go far enough on electric shock training devices.
There is a lot of support for the Bill, not just in the House but across the country more widely. I have received far more messages in support of it than I have received in opposition to it. I have also received a petition in support of it.
I was not aware of electric shock training devices until I was alerted to them by the Kennel Club last year, and I was horrified. The most well known of the devices is the electric shock collar, which in my view and the view of many others is cruel and unnecessary. For those who are not familiar with the concept, let me explain that the mechanics of the collar depend on the particular device chosen, but they are usually battery operated and the dog is subject to an electric current when she or he misbehaves. The idea is that that should be done to discourage negative behaviour.
I contend that there is an inherent and needless cruelty in that approach to training, and it is entirely unnecessary when there are plenty of positive training methods on the market. While some may say that a short sharp shock is worth it for an improvement in behaviour, I would argue that the shock is not short but repetitive, that it is not sharp but painful, that it does not always result in improved behaviour, and that there are alternative, painless methods to achieve that improved behaviour.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her excellent Bill, which I support as far as it goes. I also supported her early-day motion.
Will the hon. Lady add to her list of problems with those devices the fact that they can be used on animals not just for training purposes but in an abusive manner? That happens all too often, and is yet another reason why we should ban them.
I agree. The potential for misuse of the collars worries me greatly, and I think that it adds to the weight of the argument against them.
Electric shock collars teach an animal to respond out of fear rather than an actual willingness to obey. They do not address underlying behavioural problems, and may leave the causes of barking or aggression suppressed. Training a dog on the basis of fear poses the risk that at some time in the future it may turn on its owner or, God forbid, on an innocent child.
There are a number of positive alternatives that allow dogs to be trained more quickly and reliably, without the potential for abuse or ill-treatment. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) referred to misuse, and indeed the potential for misuse is great. I have heard of some dreadful instances in which those devices have been deliberately misused to cause harm or discomfort to animals. There is even anecdotal evidence from the United States of a parent using one on a child.
Of course there is potential for misuse in anything, and it would not be practical to ban everything that could possibly be misused. I know that the new duty of care provided by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 should prevent deliberate misuse of those devices. In my view, however, those arguments hold only if there is a positive benefit in using the devices in the first place. I would argue not only that there is no positive benefit, but that there is not even a neutral position. Those devices cause harm.
That is not the experience of my wife’s cousin, who had a dog that would persistently jump up at people. She was at her wits’ end: in fact, she was on the verge of getting rid of the dog. She tried one of these collars, and within about a week the dog stopped its behaviour, which was not only dangerous to small children but, in muddy weather, caused her deep embarrassment when other people’s clothes were soiled. She has not needed to have recourse to the collar again.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but it seems a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Are we really saying that it is acceptable to administer an electric shock to an animal to prevent one’s clothes from getting muddy? I do not buy that argument.
The hon. Lady may have mentioned this already. If she has, I apologise. Does she own a dog, and if so what kind?
I do own a dog. It is the Heinz 57 variety—a good old-fashioned mongrel. It is typical of such dogs—there are all sorts of problems with it—but I would not dream of using an electronic training device to deal with some of those problems, such as jumping up at people. Owning a dog requires a huge time commitment if it is to be trained to behave properly. The problem I have with those devices is that people may think they are a quick and easy way of training a dog. “Let us just zap it with an electric shock,” they may say. “Then we need not take the time to train it properly.”
I should point out at this stage that my Bill contains a special exemption for electric proximity fences following representations from farmers and others in the rural community. I am more than happy to accommodate that exemption, as the fences work on a different principle in deterring an animal from leaving a fenced-off area. In the case of shock collars and other such devices, it is not possible for the animal to escape the restraint. However, I am not persuaded by the argument sometimes advanced in the rural community that the devices can be used to train dogs to stop them chasing sheep.
It is virtually impossible to use an electric shock collar to train a dog not to chase sheep. The theory is that the dog will believe that the sheep gave it an electric shock, and will not chase sheep again. However, it is impossible to know at which level the collar should be set when the dog is near sheep. For the dog to think that the sheep had shocked it, the trainer would have to wait until the dog was very near the sheep, or the dog might think that the shock had come from something else in the vicinity. Moreover, under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, dogs being exercised near livestock must be kept on leads or under close control. Similarly, dogs in urban environments do not need shock collars to stop them from running on the road; they merely need to be kept on a lead.
The hon. Lady has clearly stated that she opposes the use of electric shock collars for training. She has also referred to the duty on dog owners to train them properly. Does she approve of the idea of imposing additional duties on breeders and people who sell dogs, and on those who buy them, to ensure that steps are taken so that the dogs are properly trained, are not a liability to others, and are safe among people and when they are out in public?
That is an important point. One of the problems, particularly in the case of dangerous dogs, is that people take on dogs with absolutely no appreciation of the time and commitment that will be required, and of what it takes to own a dog. If breeders and anyone who sells a dog made that clear when the dog is sold, or given in the case of rescue dogs, it would make people understand what they are taking on.
It has been argued that the devices are a method of last resort for dogs that do not respond to any other form of training. Indeed, I have received a letter from someone who assures me that without the use of an electric shock collar her dog would have had to be destroyed, as nothing else worked. But are we really saying that it is appropriate to torture animals to get them to do what we want them to do?
I have heard of many examples of so-called untrainable dogs being trained through intensive therapy with an animal behaviourist. I admit that such methods take a great deal of time and commitment—much more than zapping with the remote control of an electronic device—but, as we have all agreed, owning a pet involves a great deal of time, commitment and responsibility. What worries me is that because of the way in which the devices are marketed and because they are freely available, many responsible dog owners are led to believe they are a normal way of training an animal.
The problem with the argument that the devices are a method of last resort is that that is how they started out in the USA. Now they are routinely marketed as training devices for all dogs and puppies, and their use has grown exponentially. At present sales of electronic shock collars in this country are still relatively low, but they are growing. That makes it all the more important to ban them now, before they become the “normal” way of training a dog. They are not a normal way of training a dog, and they are unnecessary. Dogs are highly reactive to learning experiences and have a strong bond with humans, so it is possible to utilise their natural instincts to train them easily.
While the hon. Lady has been speaking, I have been thinking about the training methods used by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. I think it relevant that certain breeds are much more susceptible and co-operative than others. It is notable that guide dogs tend to be retrievers and Labradors. It is also notable that when puppies that have been selected as being suitable are being walked, they always keep all four feet on the ground at the same time and do not jump up. Clearly there is a way of training them not to do so at a very young age. People, too, must be taught to bend down when they want to speak to a dog or pet it, so that the dog does not need to jump up. Lessons could be learnt from those methods.
Exactly. It is also important to note that the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association is not in favour of using electric shock devices to train dogs. There are numerous examples of dogs being trained in other ways to achieve the benefits that the hon. Lady has described.
All animals, ourselves included, learn through experience. If an action brings a positive outcome it will be repeated, as it is beneficial. However, dogs also have a natural, in-built “fight or flight” response when put in a situation that causes pain or fear. As a dog will have no idea what has caused the pain, it is far more likely to associate it with something in its immediate environment than to connect it with its own behaviour at the time. That something could be an area, an object, another dog, the owner or even a child, and the dog could become afraid or even act aggressively as a result.
Some people believe that it is okay if the collar is used only at a low-current setting. The difficulty with that approach is that the shock level may be too low to influence behaviour, thus the owner would have to increase it. The problem is that the dog can become accustomed to the gradually increasing discomfort. Carolyn Menteith, who is a dog trainer affiliated to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, has said:
“An electric shock collar hurts. It has to. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t work.”
There are a number of models to choose from; there are a number of anti-bark shock collars, which emit an electric shock of about 6 V to 9 V every time that the dog tries to bark while wearing one. By way of comparison, I should say that a Black and Decker drill also requires a 6 V battery. For about £270, one can get a remote control shock collar, which delivers a shock of about 3 V to 9 V via an owner-operated remote control. Incidentally, some of those devices do not come with instructions unless one pays extra.
I deliberately used the term “devices” in my Bill, because not just collars are available now—other such remote control devices exist. Electric shock leads are designed to stop a dog pulling on the lead; the level of shock increases in line with the amount of pressure that the dog puts on the lead. The most horrifying of all are electric shock mats, also known as wireless crates, which are designed to keep a dog in one place at home. They detect a dog’s weight and emit electric shocks, via a collar, to the dog when it is within a 6 ft radius of the crate and until it returns. One can imagine the scenario involving a dog left unattended, possibly while the owner is at work. Should the owner misjudge the distance, the dog would be unable to go out to the toilet or to get to its food without receiving an electric shock.
Those devices are readily available via mail order and over the internet—they often come with poor instruction manuals—to people who have little or no idea of how best to use them. A quick Google search pulls up devices that have a range of 1 mile, four days’ continuous use facility, an option for up to three dogs to be controlled individually from one handset, with a selection of three different modes, and a timer-controlled charging dock. Another website features a model that can deliver 16 levels of shock stimulation intensity. It makes one wonder to whom the devices are designed to appeal. Who needs the facility to zap three dogs from the same device?
To return to the point that the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) was making, some of the best trained dogs, including assistance dogs, are not trained using electric shock training devices. The police and the armed forces have banned the use of electric dog collars for training, and the collars are also condemned by the German Shepherd Club, the Kennel Club and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
As long ago as 2000, the Association of Chief Police Officers urged police forces not to use electric shock collars after it had heard evidence from the RSPCA and other animal welfare groups. Furthermore, the armed forces dog unit has also prohibited the use of electric shock collars. If we can train dogs to a high enough calibre to be used in our police and armed forces without resorting to electric shock training, why should we need to use such devices on household pets?
The primary purpose of any training programme should be to improve the relationship and communication between a dog and its owner through compassionate, reward-based training. The best way to have a well trained pet is by teaching one’s dog to respond because it wants to respond, not because one has successfully managed to scare it half to death.
I should like to quote from correspondence received by the Kennel Club from people who have had bad experiences with these devices. A gundog trainer from Worcestershire noted:
“I had the misfortune to see a dog, which due to a fairly minor training problem, received the electric shock collar treatment, from a ‘professional’ gundog trainer. The shock treatment did not solve the problem and turned a reasonably biddable dog into an aggressive, non-compliant animal that is no longer able to obey any command...and distrusts most human beings”.
The owner of a bearded collie reported the following:
“I know of two bearded collies (brothers) that lived happily together for more than three years. The owner had a problem with one who was a ‘barker’ and was advised to buy an electric shock anti-bark collar. However, when the dog received a shock, it turned on its mate, as it did not know where the shock had come from. On the third day his mate turned on him and a fight took place. The owner took the collar off but every time the dog which had worn the collar barked his mate turned on him and fights continued to occur”.
The collars can also have a damaging long-term effect on a dog’s well-being, as has been documented in the August-September 2006 newsletter of the UK Leonberger Association.
The hon. Lady may not be aware that I have bred bearded collies. They are most exuberant and very intelligent dogs. The way to train them is through love and care, by trusting them and by building trust and a relationship with the dog, as with other dogs. This weekend, I shall be going to see Daisyfield Jessie, a racing greyhound, at Romford. She may retire at some stage, and when that happens, I hope to take her over. There is no more loving animal or no more easy pet to have than an ex-racing greyhound. They are wonderful dogs. We do not need to use electric shock devices to train these wonderful animals. Some people seek a short cut and an easy way, and that is symptomatic of society today. Everyone wants to find an easy way.
Order. That is rather lengthy for an intervention.
I accept that. I think that the hon. Lady gets my point.
I certainly do. The love that people have for their dogs comes through; genuine responsible dog owners are horrified by the thought that anyone would use these devices.
I return to the newsletter of the UK Leonberger Association, which stated:
“At a recent event one of the participants put an electric shock collar (anti-bark collar) on a dog to stop it barking. The dog screamed in agony and panic. As the collar was noise activated, the more she screamed, the more the collar administered shocks. Within a few days the dog had lost all the fur from her neck.”
My final case study is a very sad case that was reported in the The Argus, a Brighton evening newspaper, a few years ago. A woman used an electric shock collar on her dogs, but the first time she did so it was by mistake when a small dog was walking past. For ever after, her dogs associated the shocks with small dogs and became afraid of them. One day when she was out with her dogs, an old lady walked past with a little shih tzu and her dogs became scared and attacked the little dog. It was taken to the vet but had to be put down. Her dogs had not shown aggressive behaviour before, and she was convinced that her dogs connected the pain of the electric shock with little dogs and that that had driven their uncharacteristic behaviour.
I am aware that those case studies are anecdotal, but considerable scientific research has been done on this. During the passage of the Animal Welfare Bill, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would not consider a ban on electric shock collars, partly because it had not commissioned its own research and partly because of concerns regarding the validity of some of the existing research. When this was followed up, it transpired that just one particular study was causing concern, and on investigation, it was found that the concern was down only to how the research had been written up.
The research was referred to Dr. Stephen Wickens from the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, who, after clarifying the research, was able to address these concerns. He then re-evaluted the findings and concluded:
“I certainly feel a lot happier that the conclusions of Dr Schilder’s paper are justified”.
Those conclusions stated:
“Shocks received during training are not only unpleasant but also painful and frightening.”
I understand that DEFRA still believes that we require further research on this, but when a call went out last summer asking for universities to undertake this research, only one response was received. It could not be followed up, because it was a proposal for a study that would not have involved actually testing shock collars on dogs. On looking into the reasons for the poor response rate, it transpired that, in many cases, this type of study would not have got past the given university’s ethics committee because it considered there to be enough research to prove that electric shock collars were cruel.
Rachel Casey and Emily Blackwell, who are both from the department of clinical veterinary science at the university of Bristol, have stated:
“Given the wealth of peer reviewed research currently available on the physiological and behavioural effects of aversive stimuli, such as electrical shocks, on a range of different species, as well as the peer reviewed work done on dogs by Schilder et al, Beerda et al and Christiansen et al, we feel that there is a sufficiently robust scientific argument for the banning of the use of electronic shock collars in dog training.
We would reiterate that we are unable to conduct a direct experimental study on the effects of shock collars on dogs, as such a study would not be viewed positively by the University ethics committee. In addition, such a study would require us to obtain a Home Office Licence, which is contrary to the ethos of the welfare charities that fund the majority of our research”.
Another call has recently gone out, and it has elicited one response. That has got past the ethics committee, because the research is on dogs that are already used to these collars. I am struggling to see how this research can be valid. These dogs may already be conditioned, so surely there would need to be a control group. But of course that would not get past the ethics committee, so we have a Catch-22 situation. Meanwhile, the devices continue to be available for sale. The time scale envisaged for that further research is also very long: it is at least two years, during which time I am concerned that we will see an exponential growth in the use of such devices in this country.
Leaving all that aside, there is a precedent for banning a cruel and unnecessary practice on animals without needing extensive scientific research. I refer to tail docking, which the House voted to ban with no exemptions and for which there was far less scientific evidence to support a ban than is available for shock collars.
We have another precedent in that both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament propose to start consultation later this year on banning electric shock training devices, without needing any further scientific research. The Scottish Minister for Environment and Rural Development, Ross Finnie, said in response to a recent parliamentary question that the Executive favoured banning the collars in principle and would launch a consultation on that later this year. The Minister for Environment, Planning and the Countryside in the Welsh Assembly, Carwyn Jones, announced in December last year that he intends to introduce legislation to ban electric dog collars and associated restraints.
I know that my Government are committed to animal welfare, and I am sure that the Minister does not want to inflict unnecessary pain on dogs. I understand the need for a sound evidence base, but I hope that he will take on board my arguments against the need for further research and heed the example set by our devolved institutions. I know that there is little chance that the Bill will succeed, but I ask him to undertake to follow Scotland and Wales and to start a consultation process with a view to bringing in secondary legislation under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to ban those cruel and unnecessary devices.
I am happy to tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I shall be rather briefer than I was at this stage last week. It is a peculiarity of this place that I came prepared to make speeches on two Bills—the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) and the Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean)—and have ended up making a speech on an entirely different Bill. However, I am happy to do so. I have been reinstated on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench temporarily for that purpose.
I give my support and that of my party to the Bill. I congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) on her success in the ballot. There is no doubt that this matter needs to be dealt with. It is disappointing that it was not dealt with in the otherwise helpful Animal Welfare Bill, which displayed foresight, which is now law. During the discussions on it, I represented my party, and I served on the Committee with the Minister who is present.
I wrote to the Minister on 27 July 2005 following representations that I had received about electric shock collars:
“The use of electric shock collars to train dogs is a very unpleasant and unnecessary practice. On top of causing stress to the dog through an unpleasant stimulus, I suspect that it does not build up the sort of trainer-dog relationship of trust that is desirable.
Electric shock collars train dogs to respond out of fear of further punishment rather than a natural willingness to obey. Both myself and the Kennel Club believe that positive behaviour by dogs is best encouraged by the use of positive training methods. Furthermore, it is of great concern that these devices are readily available to anybody, regardless of their experience in training dogs. This then increases the scope for their misuse, either through ignorance by owners untrained to use them, or through malice by those intent on deliberate cruelty.”
I also expressed concern and disappointment that the Animal Welfare Bill, as it then was, did not outlaw the use of electric shock collars. I can tell the hon. Lady that I, and others, raised that during the Committee stage.
The Minister cares about these issues—I have no doubt about that. He demonstrated that in Committee, so it is disappointing that the issue has had to take the private Member's Bill route to be raised again. I hope that when he responds he will say that on reflection, having considered the matter and seen the strong views expressed across the House—Members from three parties so far have supported the measure—he will be inclined to give the Bill a fair wind. After all, the Government gave a fair wind to a Bill to exempt MPs from expenses. Surely they can give a fair wind to a Bill to stop torture and pain caused by humans to animals.
How do shock collars work? They work only by inflicting pain on animals, causing them distress and such a traumatic experience that they will avoid a particular form of behaviour in future. If they did not cause pain and trauma, they would not work. By definition, the shock collars have that effect on the animals.
In this day and age we should be finding more humane ways of training dogs. More humane ways exist, as the hon. Lady clearly set out. Some people say that there are people who can use shock collars responsibly, but that fails to take into account the fact that many people will buy those collars without proper training and use them irresponsibly. However we look at this matter, the Bill has highlighted an issue that deserves the support of the House.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and to speak in support of the Bill introduced by my friend and hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry). She ended her excellent contribution by saying that she doubted whether her Bill would have success. Even if it does not, the points that she raised may come back in another form of legislation that the House will approve. It is important that the points that she raised be given a proper airing.
May I say, by way of introduction and in case there is an intervention to ask this question, that I do not own a dog. I never have.
I am asked whether I have owned a cat, and I have, for many years.
The points that I seek to make have been raised with me by constituents who own dogs, by those who do not own dogs, and also by experts. They have raised some important points, which have been echoed in the contributions by the hon. Member for Lewes and by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North. Some of these points are worthy of being heard on the Floor of the House. It is worth remembering that, for a country that is known to love dogs and pets, we do not have the best track record in passing legislation concerning dogs. We all remember the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and some of the repercussions of that.
Some of the points that have been raised by animal welfare groups such as the RSPCA, the Dogs Trust and the Kennel Club, have been referred to by my hon. Friend, are worthy of being given a proper outing. Some important points have been raised about why the Bill should be passed.
As someone who in a previous career spent his time interpreting legislation, I applaud the fact that the Bill has only nine clauses. If only all the Bills that we discussed in this place had nine clauses, life would be a lot more bearable for many of us.
The arguments in favour of banning electric shock collars are ample. There is pressure to ban. It is mostly directed at operator-controlled devices, on the ground that the dog has no means of escaping the stimulus. As has been said, they operate by inflicting fear and pain. There are more positive ways of training animals successfully. Those devices are capable of misuse, whether deliberate or unintentional. If used inappropriately, they can do more harm than good to the animal by, for example, provoking an aggressive reaction. Like any automated device, the collars can malfunction and inflict burns on dogs.
I have to confess that it seems that none of the people who work in my office owns a dog. I will need to ensure when I recruit next time that that is one of the questions that I ask interviewees. When I was preparing my speech on the Bill and I mentioned that I was coming to discuss electric shock training devices, they could not believe that such devices existed. That is one of the reasons why I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. She has made people aware that there are in existence things that one can buy lawfully, whereby dogs have electric shock collars placed on them and their owners, who claim to be dog lovers, use the button to elicit pain and control their pet. It is worth reminding ourselves—the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) raised the point—that the use of those devices can lead to laziness. Rather than training their dog and showing them compassion, people can be lazy, press the button and inflict pain.
The fact that the USA and some of our European partners allow the use of electric shock collars is not a reason for us not to outlaw them. They are of course banned in Denmark, Slovenia and Sweden, and there are restrictions on their availability and use in most Australian states. Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland have better legislation on this issue than we do, and Austria and Italy are considering introducing bans.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the phenomenon whereby children in other countries have been known to get hold of these devices and torment animals with them?
I suspect that that is so. We all know that children imitate the behaviour of adults. If they see someone whom they love—their mother, father, uncle, auntie, grandmother or carer—using these devices on pets, what message does that send to them? It concerns me that adults—people in positions of influence, power and control—are using these devices on pets in the sight of their children.
I know that animal welfare is a core and passionate belief of my hon. Friend the Minister, as was demonstrated by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which is now law. We have a track record of which we can be really proud, and I am pleased that his Department is making sure that proper research is undertaken; we may well end up with legislation based on evidence, rather than simply on the anecdotal experiences described to us by experts and constituents. The issues being raised today are extremely important not just because they were first raised by constituents and experts, but because they demonstrate our commitment to the welfare of the huge number of pets that are owned in this country.
The 2006 Act provides for the introduction of secondary legislation once proper research has been undertaken. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has been listening thoughtfully to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North and the hon. Member for Lewes, and those made in the excellent interventions of other colleagues. It is really important that such research be undertaken as soon as possible, and that if the evidence shows the Minister—as we suspect it will—that electric shock training devices are an oxymoron, and cause much more harm than good, he will swiftly introduce secondary legislation to outlaw such collars.
The Government have a good track record on animal welfare, and I know that they are committed to ensuring that all such legislation is evidence-based, and that they take seriously the recommendations and research of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The Companion Animal Welfare Council is a very important advisory body that carries out independent studies of the use of training devices, and I am sure that it will help DEFRA to form policy, and that such studies will complement any separate research that DEFRA might commission. However, will my hon. Friend the Minister also examine overseas research, and consider the rationale behind the reasons why the countries that I mentioned earlier decided to ban electric shock training devices? It is worth looking at that evidence.
The hon. Gentleman referred earlier to gratuitous acts of cruelty to animals, and I am sure that he is aware that RSPCA statistics show that the number of incidents of such cruelty, particularly by children, is rising alarmingly. The RSPCA is not sure why, or what effect that might be having on other forms of violence in our communities; however, the idea that shock collars could be part of that syndrome is extremely worrying, so he is right to raise the issue.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. There is clear evidence that when people torture and harm their children, it can lead to their children torturing and harming others when they become adults. We must also consider the important issue of the imitation of behaviour.
The gratuitous abuse of animals is clearly to be abhorred, but we know that many dog and other pet owners do behave responsibly. A trial is taking place this week that has highlighted the issues that have been raised. One concern that colleagues have mentioned—it led to the 2006 Act, which comes into force this month—is the lack of prosecutions hitherto. That is one reason why my hon. Friend the Minister, who has an excellent track record on this issue, consolidated the 20 various pieces of such legislation reaching back to 1911. The Protection of Animals Act 1911 makes it clear that to cause unnecessary suffering to a domestic or captive animal is unlawful. However, this legislation, which is now almost 100 years old, has not led, so far as I am aware, to any prosecutions of pet owners for the misuse of electric shock training devices. I am surprised not by the lack of prosecutions for their use, but by the lack of prosecutions for their misuse. I am pleased that the 2006 Act provides for the introduction, if necessary, of secondary legislation in England and Wales regulating equipment harmful to animal welfare. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister has listened to the points that have been made and will take them seriously.
As has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North, Wales and Scotland are ahead of England in this area, as is often the case. Wales’s Minister for Environment, Planning and the Countryside has said that he proposes to undertake a public consultation on banning the use of electric shock training collars for dogs in Wales, under the 2006 Act. The excellent Scottish Executive coalition, which will continue to exist after the elections on 3 May, will make an order banning these devices under the 2006 Act, which was enacted on 6 October last year. They are committed to undertaking a public consultation on banning the general use of certain types of electric shock collars.
I am looking to my hon. Friend the Minister to give in his response the same commitment, and to show the same compassion. I want him to show that the welfare of dogs and other animals is at the heart of what DEFRA does, and to ensure that if this Bill does not reach the statute book—although I still live in hope that it will—he will use the spirit and sentiment of it, taking into account the issues that have been raised today, to ensure that research on this issue is expedited. I hope that if those who carry out that research recommend a ban, he will come back to this place as soon as possible with secondary legislation to outlaw this outrageous behaviour.
I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) had to say, and I agree with him entirely that any legislation on this matter should be based on scientific evidence. We are open to evidence the Minister might bring forward at a later stage. It is nice that a cat owner and a dog owner should agree, because traditionally they have somewhat differing views of life in general and of animal welfare in particular. However, I have a confession to make to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), whom I congratulate on introducing this Bill: I am not a dog owner, although I was until my dog was put down just before Christmas. She had had a good life, and I am afraid that it was necessary for her own welfare.
I was particularly impressed by the hon. Lady’s speech. She and I are on entirely common ground on the need for responsible dog ownership. On this issue, it is irresponsible dog ownership and the welfare of dogs that concern me more than anything else, which is why I believe that, to a certain extent, this Bill somewhat misses the mark. On Merseyside not so long ago, a child was killed by an irresponsibly owned dog, if I might put it that way. There was a not dissimilar incident in Leicester last summer when a child was savaged and I believe killed—it did not happen in my constituency—by two rottweilers that were guarding a pub. That concerns me much more than this issue.
Electric shock training devices issue an electric shock to a dog’s neck and are used for training and protection purposes. They have different strength settings, depending on the size of the dog. I would contend that there are occasions when the use of such devices is beneficial to an animal’s welfare. The hon. Lady mentioned sheep worrying. I own and live on a farm, and sheep worrying is a real concern. Her arguments against using these devices in cases of sheep worrying were not necessarily scientifically based. Dogs may not mean to be malicious, but the sheep are worried by them and run away. A quick burst of electric shock will stop a dog chasing the sheep. Farmers can, rightly, shoot dogs to stop them worrying sheep, so if the device restrains a dog from doing so, or from running out on to a road, it can be argued to be beneficial to its welfare.
The hon. Lady has exempted proximity fences from the Bill, although I would point out gently that that is illogical. Either it is cruel to give an animal an electric shock or it is not. If the dog does not realise that it is running up to sheep that causes the electric shock, why will it realise that it will get a shock from a fence? To answer that requires scientific experiment, instead of relying on our feelings about it.
The point about electric shock devices is that they are not designed to be cruel. If animals suffer cruelty as the result of their use, it is the fault of the owner, rather than the device itself. We have discussed other methods of discipline. I am appalled by the way in which people ill-treat animals, both domestic and wild. Dogs are starved, flogged to within an inch of their lives or have burning items tied to their tails. One does not need an electric shock collar, which actually costs a lot of money, to ill-treat a dog. That is where the Bill misses the point slightly.
Last year we had the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which already makes provision for acts of cruelty and unnecessary suffering. I was not on the Committee that considered the Bill, but I suspect that this issue was discussed. I further understand that the Minister has agreed to look into the matter and commission further scientific research, so the Bill may not be very timely. Section 4 of the Act states:
“A person commits an offence if…an act of his…causes an animal to suffer”.
So the animal is already protected from unnecessary suffering, as is right and proper.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point, but it is not entirely clear whether someone could be prosecuted for cruelty to animals for using the device if it was legally available, as that would constitute a sensible defence.
That is a valid point, which is why the issue needs further examination and discussion, rather than the feeling that it seems cruel to use an electric shock on an animal. Others might argue that it can be beneficial to the animal’s welfare.
Section 4 of the Act also has regard to whether
“the conduct concerned was in all the circumstances that of a reasonably competent and humane person.”
The hon. Gentleman’s point has validity there also. In the wider context of the treatment of animals, minor electric shocks—and they are minor—are not necessarily that cruel. With my last dog, I used to run through a field that had an electric fence in it and she would run joyously along it until she came into contact with it. That did seem to be cruel, and she did not like going through that field. However, the siting of the fence was reasonable, and as the hon. Lady might argue, I should have perhaps kept my dog on a lead so that she did not come into contact with the fence.
We rightly allow the castrating and neutering of many domestic and farm animals. If we did not castrate bulls, the problems would be huge. It is not pleasant, but I have seen it done and the young bull calf did not seem to be in terrible discomfort, although I cannot say so definitively as I have never—I am glad to say—been a young bull calf.
Where it can be proven that those using electric shock devices are abusing animals and where the balance is not weighted in favour of animal welfare benefits, it is clearly already an offence. It would therefore be premature to impose a blanket ban. We could also say that smacking a dog should be illegal, and many people might. I would argue that that is taking anthropomorphism too far. I loved both my dogs and I am very keen on animal welfare, but I smacked them from time to time and it improved their behaviour. They are not human beings—although smacking children also improves their behaviour, in my opinion. However, I shall not pursue that line of argument—
Oh, go on.
I could, believe me.
The greater concerns are dangerous dogs and irresponsible dog ownership. Anything that improves responsible dog ownership should be applauded. However, by banning the use of a training device, this measure could further restrict the ability of dog owners to act responsibly and train their dogs well. I am not generally well disposed towards the Bill, therefore, but I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) on her Bill and on the way in which she has approached the issue. We have had several detailed and civilised conversations about it, and she has had discussions with my officials. I also congratulate the other hon. Members on both sides of the House who have contributed to this welcome debate.
I completely understand and sympathise with the motives behind the Bill. I appreciate that the issue arouses strong feelings in people, as I know from my postbag and the lengthy debates that we had on the subject during the passage of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. I am also grateful that hon. Members have recognised that Act as a major step forward for animal welfare. Indeed, it is probably the most important such step for nearly a century. I am also grateful for their recognition of my commitment to improving animal welfare. I was proud to be able to take over responsibility for that legislation from my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley).
While we have much sympathy for the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North raises, we do not believe that primary legislation on this issue is appropriate or timely. We need a stronger evidence base and more research before we consider further the request that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) have made to take action against the devices through secondary legislation. She is right to say that many animal welfare organisations are concerned about the use—and indeed misuse—of the devices. Any misuse would already be covered by the welfare and cruelty offences in the Act. It will always be difficult, whether one is talking about the use of such devices, a stick or even the hand of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), for courts to determine whether a cruelty offence has been committed, but that is why we have the Act. As with all legislation, the Act will have to be tested in the courts, but I am confident—as was discussed at some length during its passage—that it will give the courts powers to come down hard on people who can be shown to be abusing such equipment.
Does the Minister accept, however, that if the devices were banned there would be far fewer opportunities for their abuse or misuse?
Of course, but the implication of the hon. Gentleman’s question is that we should ban devices that many responsible dog owners—who love their animals no less than he and other Members love their dogs—have told me they find useful as a last resort. The use of such a device prevents their dog from causing accidents and distress to other people, and also stops the dog behaving in a way that could lead to far greater suffering for itself, because it could be shot by a farmer or injured by running in front of a car.
I was given a couple of examples of such use by loving, decent, kind animal owners who live near my constituency, in the Devon countryside where, as the hon. Member for Blaby pointed out, there are many sheep. In one case, the problem was that the animal chased sheep, even though the owner had taken it to dog training classes and dog clubs. In the end a friend recommended that she try an electric shock collar. She used it only once, but the dog never again chased sheep. If she had not used the device, the likelihood was either that her dog would have been shot or that she would have had to have it put down.
The second example is similar, but relates to perimeter fences—although I realise that the Bill has an exemption covering them. The loving owners of the dogs discovered that the only way they could prevent the dogs from escaping from the garden and chasing sheep was by erecting a perimeter fence. Such fences can be modified so that after one initial shock, a whistle sounds on subsequent occasions, which prevents the dog from running away. After installing the fence, those owners, too, never again had a problem with their dogs running away.
We are keen to understand more, however, and to find out about practice in other countries. When I met my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North a few weeks ago, I undertook to ask the chief vet to write to her counterparts in every other EU member state, and we are starting to receive replies. The situation is quite patchy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting pointed out, one or two countries have banned the devices but the majority have not, although they regulate them. Like us, they have animal welfare legislation that prevents the misuse of such devices. We are still waiting for information, but so far the majority view in the EU seems to be that Governments have concluded that the best thing is to regulate the sale and use of the devices rather than to ban them.
In New Zealand, which my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North and I discussed when she came to see me, the devices are not banned, but their use is covered by a dog code. We shall continue to examine what other countries do and learn from their experience. When Governments are considering legislation, it is important that they consider best practice in other countries, and I have tried to introduce that principle in my Department since I became a Minister. We can often learn both from how other countries draw up legislation—so that we avoid making mistakes—and by adopting their good practice.
My hon. Friend drew attention to the research that has been carried out in other countries, and we shall look at it. To respond to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting, we recently set up the Companion Animal Welfare Council, which is the companion animal equivalent to the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which has provided us with extremely valuable independent research on animal welfare issues. We have asked the Companion Animal Welfare Council to carry out an audit of research and practice in other countries and make a report. In addition, we are actively commissioning our own further research, which we hope to begin later this year and which could supply the evidence base for us to proceed down the secondary legislative route—as my hon. Friend would like us to do.
I shall outline why we think secondary legislation is more appropriate than spending time in the Chamber passing primary legislation. The Animal Welfare Act is an enabling measure, as I repeatedly pointed out during its passage, not least in discussions with the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The Act is an umbrella piece of legislation, which guarantees for the first time that the welfare needs of animals must be met—its most advanced step forward. However, we have made it clear, before, during and since the passage of the measure, that most of the nitty-gritty, such as electronic training devices or the other contentious issues discussed—circuses or the welfare of greyhounds, for example—would in time be dealt with through regulation and secondary legislation. There will be consultation on those issues and they will be discussed by Members in the House.
To pick bits out of the Act and give them special primary legislative treatment would not be a sensible approach and could open the floodgates to every interest group. Different groups have more enthusiasm for certain elements of animal welfare. The hon. Member for Lewes will remember that in Committee I said that the Government were under great pressure to introduce secondary legislation quickly after the passage of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Some organisations are pushing us urgently to legislate on greyhounds, and others on circuses, pet fairs and so on.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North will accept that we are genuine when we say that primary legislation is not the appropriate route for bringing in a ban or restriction on electronic devices, but that we are committed to deal with the devices through secondary legislation, should the evidence emerge and should parliamentary and public consultation point to that route.
There are one or two technical problems with the Bill. As my hon. Friend acknowledges, it exempts perimeter fences, but the advice from our lawyers is that it could catch other electronic devices such as ordinary electric fences at the margins of fields, to which the hon. Member for Blaby referred, as well as the electric goads used—for example, in slaughter houses—to prevent worse animal welfare problems, because the animal might hurt itself or thrash about in panic.
I hope that my brief response has satisfied my hon. Friend that we are committed to further examination of the issue, because we need to listen not just to the animal welfare organisations that have been campaigning for a considerable time for a ban on the devices. I completely accept what she says about some of the new devices that are coming on to the market, particularly the so-called cat mats, or animal training mats. I am not aware that they are yet on sale in the UK, but if that were to be the case I should have strong concerns.
Although I can understand the arguments made by some owners that electronic training devices are useful as a last resort to prevent animals from straying or worrying sheep, I cannot for the life of me understand why anybody would require an electronic mat in their home that delivered a shock to a cat or any other animal that moved off it. That would seem to me to have absolutely no justification whatever. I am aware that Members are concerned about a number of other devices—citronella sprays, for example, which, although they do not deliver a shock, could be regarded as just as unpleasant in respect of the smell offence that they give to animals that have a far higher sense of smell than humans.
We are committed to spending a considerable sum on further research. As far as possible, we want to base our decisions on good evidence and we will continue to examine the issue very closely. On the basis of what I have said, I am afraid that the Government cannot support the Bill.
Question put and negatived.