[Relevant documents: Seventh report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, on dog control and welfare, HC 575, and the Government response, HC 1092]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the e-petition relating to the sale of young puppies and kittens; notes that puppies produced at large-scale commercial breeding establishments, known as puppy farms, and irresponsibly-bred kittens are separated from their mothers too early and often transported long distances, and as a result often suffer serious life-threatening problems including impaired immune systems, poor socialisation, infectious diseases and shorter life spans; calls on the Government to review existing legislation to ensure that it is consistent with its own guidance that prospective owners should always see the puppy or kitten with its mother, and to ban the sale of puppies and kittens from retail centres such as pet shops, garden centres or puppy supermarkets; further notes the support of the Blue Cross, Dog Rescue Federation, Dogs Advisory Council, Dogs Trust, The Kennel Club, RSPCA and others for such a ban; and further calls on the Government and welfare organisations to work together to raise awareness among the public about choosing a dog responsibly from only ethical breeders or by adoption from legitimate rescue organisations, and to consider further steps to end the cruel practice of irresponsible and unethical breeding of puppies and kittens in the UK.
I am delighted to initiate today’s debate on an issue that the British public feel very strongly about. More than 110,000 people have called for a ban on the sale of young puppies and kittens without their mother being present, and although I cannot cover all the many issues surrounding this topic—I wish to leave some for colleagues on both sides of the Chamber—I hope at least to explain why so many people believe this issue to be so important.
I thank everybody involved in the Pup Aid campaign, in particular Marc “The Vet” Abraham, Stuart Vernon, Rebecca Weller, the team at Bellenden, Julia Carr at Canine Action UK, Tim Wass, Nicola Howell in my office, CARIAD and Diesel. I am also grateful for the backing of Blue Cross, Dog Rescue Federation, the Dog Advisory Council, Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, Wood Green Animal Shelter, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. [Interruption.] I hear mutters from the Benches beside me at the mention of the word “Diesel”, but—I think this illustrates the issue—until I actually saw the problem for myself, I was oblivious to it. That lies at the heart of the issue: people are caring, considerate, loving individuals, but unfortunately they are oblivious to the problem.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in the first instance if someone wants to get a dog they should seek a rescue animal? If they really want to get a puppy, they should not go to a pet shop but should seek advice on reputable dealers with puppies.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as I can now delete exactly that line from my speech. I could not have put it any better because that is exactly how I put it in my speech.
Several hon. Members
I will work from left to right.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that the rise of the internet has led us to people buying puppies and kittens online, which are certainly being transported around the country? That is where the problem lies, and we need greater regulation.
I do not think that is the only problem. As I will go on to say, that is one of the problems, but not one I am seeking to address today.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate and for his long-standing contribution to animal welfare in the United Kingdom and throughout the world. Does he agree that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs needs to do far more than it currently does to get together local authorities, pet shop owners, the Dogs Trust and all the charities that he mentioned, so that we can have a collaborative, credible, realistic and achievable outcome to what he wants, rather than just more words from DEFRA?
Indeed, we do not just want warm words from DEFRA; we need some action.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. The motion calls for a toughening of Government laws in this area. Does he agree that we need publicity to be aimed at those looking to get a puppy or a kitten, to link to responsible breeders? For my dog we approached the head of Standard Poodle Rescue, which is based in my constituency in Rossendale. She interviewed me and my wife three times before she would let us walk out with a puppy. Working with responsible breeders must be publicised, as well as the Government tightening legislation.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because, absolutely, this is about ensuring not only that the dog is suitable for the family, but that the family is suitable for the dog. That is important.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman, who of course is from Staffordshire, has secured this debate. It might seem an odd comparison, but we have been very conscious recently of baby Ashya’s separation from his parents in Spain. Is not the crux of this issue the separation of young puppies and kittens from their parents at such an early age? Is not that the cruel element?
It is certainly one of the cruel elements, but as I will elaborate, there are many other cruel elements.
It is extremely important after this debate that we get it right, but I am concerned that good people whose bitches have puppies are not demonised like those who exploit puppy trading and abuse the good nature of people who want a dog. Going to a reputable person is probably where the problem lies.
Going to a reputable person is actually part of the solution. To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), a responsible, decent breeder who wants to ensure that the right person gets the dog will have invested a lot of time and money into raising those puppies, and they are being undercut by unscrupulous breeders who care nothing for the animals.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this issue to the House. It matters greatly to the huge number of my constituents who have written in about it. As mentioned, local authorities have powers that they are often reluctant to use and which perhaps they do not even know they have, but this is not just about extending the licensing regime. The regime itself must be flawed, given that there are plenty of breeders whose standards do not meet even the first rung of the ladder, but who nevertheless have licences. The quality of the standard itself also needs to be addressed.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point very well.
Several hon. Members
I will not take any more interventions for a moment. I want to make some progress—I am only on the second page of my speech—but I will take further interventions later.
We consider ourselves a nation of animal lovers, where a dog is a man’s best friend and a pet cat or dog is part of the family, but every day puppies and kittens are bought from pet shops and garden centres, become ill and all too frequently die as a result of the supply chain from irresponsible breeder to pet shop. I cannot think that a nation of animal lovers would allow this to continue. Are we at risk of becoming a nation of disposable pets?
Those behind today’s campaign want to end the cruel and unnecessary practice of puppy farming. We want to work with the Government to find a solution that improves the welfare of puppies and kittens as well as protecting the animals’ mothers and, importantly, their prospective owners. Tackling the supply side is difficult, but we can tackle the demand side by looking at where the animals are sold—the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) touched on this. There are three main routes: the internet, the private dealer and retail outlets.
In time, we need to address the first two, which will be hard, but there is already strong agreement on tackling the third route—high street premises and pet shops, garden centres and dog supermarkets, such as the one in Salford. Puppies and kittens are housed and sold without their mothers, and the presence of such retail outlets encourages impulsive buying, irresponsible breeding and the commoditisation of animals, as well as too often leaving prospective owners with the burden of the life-threatening health and behavioural problems associated with pet shop puppies. The Government could have an immediate effect, without excessive enforcement costs, by banning the sale of puppies and kittens on high street premises.
Puppy farming, from which third party dealers get most of their puppies and kittens, is the mass, commercial production of puppies for profit and is almost always done without thought for the health, welfare or quality of life of the puppy and its parents—I will refer a lot to puppies, but I mean puppies and kittens. I am doing it for brevity. Very often, puppies are separated from their mothers before the puppy is even four weeks old, usually unvaccinated and insufficiently socialised, and sent long distances across the country, and increasingly across the continent, before being sold.
Despite the Dogs Trust survey showing that 95% of the British public say they would never buy from a puppy farmer, it is clear that many thousands of people have done exactly that each year, without realising it. They simply do not know where the third-party dealer gets the stock from. The breeding dogs are often kept in horrific conditions, with insufficient time given to heal between litters. They are rarely screened for genetic conditions so can pass on problems such as the agonising hip dysplasia or heart disease. Indeed, it is hardly in the interest of these volume breeders to produce animals that will live long lives. When the bitch is no longer able to breed, she is either killed or abandoned, and it is only the lucky ones that find themselves in rehoming animal rescue centres.
This issue is not just about animal welfare, important though that is. Failing to tackle the sale of puppies from third-party dealers leaves potential dog owners exposed. They will be unaware of the puppy’s background and unable to see the puppy interacting with its mother. This interaction is vital, as it can help assess the mother’s temperament and what it might indicate about the puppy, including the risk of aggressive behaviour and serious temperament problems in later life, as well as the health ramifications of the environment in which the puppy was bred. The owners are left to foot the bill, with treatments for the often fatal parvovirus, for example, which is found in at least one in five dogs bought from a pet shop, costing up to £3,000 to treat. Ethical breeders that fulfil their responsibilities will have invested money and effort, and want to ensure that all their puppies are sold to appropriate homes.
The hon. Gentleman is gracious in giving way and I congratulate him on getting the agreement of the Backbench Business Committee for today’s debate. He talks about licensing, and I wholeheartedly support the spirit behind the motion, but MPs should be made aware of the great work done by local councils, such as my South Derbyshire district council, as licensing authorities. They are very good at checking and publicising enforcement issues so that they are well known locally. As MPs, we can all do more to help our local councils with their enforcement powers.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. There are indeed some very good local authorities, but even with the best local authorities, a high street pet shop is not the place to buy a puppy.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. On his point about animals being used purely to farm puppies, I am sure he will have been to establishments such as Battersea dogs home. It is worth while people visiting this home to see bitches that have been over-puppified and the enormous suffering they go through, with hugely expanded nipples. This ongoing suffering graphically brings home what it means for the mother dog as well as for the puppies.
The hon. Gentleman is right that the treatment of these breeding bitches is unbelievably cruel. It is the lucky ones who get themselves to places such as Battersea.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I congratulate, too, Marc the Vet who comes from my home city of Brighton and Hove and has done so much on this agenda. Local authorities do very good work, but they are under enormous pressure in respect of their budgets. Does that not make it even more important to ensure that we take national action on the issue? The Government’s own advice is that people should not buy a pup without seeing the mother. If that is their advice, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that they should now act on it?
In a word, yes.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate and for the clear terms in which he is putting his argument. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) made a good point in her intervention. Is it not important that local authorities are given not only the powers to regulate this trade properly, but the resources to ensure that they are able to do so?
Resources are absolutely an issue for local authorities, but the strategy I am outlining will help without requiring additional resources—it simply says that a high street pet shop cannot sell kittens or puppies.
Hundreds of my constituents are grateful for today’s debate, so I thank my hon. Friend for securing it. He mentioned the temperaments of puppies and their mothers. Many breeders, particularly of Staffordshire Bull-type dogs, will deliberately remove the puppies sooner in order to instil in them a temperament to suit the purpose they have for them. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is abhorrent?
This shows the danger in trying to make a very short speech, because a speech on this issue could easily cover several hours. However, my hon. Friend makes an extremely good point.
I will come to the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman); I am working my way round to him.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. Many constituents have contacted me about this issue. I would like to see more regulation, but I was struck by one thing when listening to him: is one problem the fact that we are just not getting the information out to people so that they can understand what the situation is and we can prevent this from happening in the first place?
Information is important, but someone may have the best information in the world and yet happen to be buying a container of goldfish food from the local pet shop with their family and see a cute puppy or a cute kitten—that is when a problem arises and there is an impulse purchase. However, my hon. Friend makes a good point. I will now take the intervention by the hon. Member for Hexham, but I am not going to take further interventions for a short while after that so that I can make some progress.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I congratulate him on securing this debate and support the motion, on behalf of the many constituents who have contacted me. May I make a simple point? The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has gone through the process of traceability for cattle, sheep and other animals, so surely the way forward must ultimately be a register of and traceability for cats and dogs.
I would certainly like to see more work done on the compulsory microchipping that is going to come in; I would like us to have a proper database rather than just something that floats out into the ether, never gets updated and will just continue to grow and not be used properly. I am hoping that the Minister is listening carefully and will take the message back to DEFRA that the chip is a good thing but the database behind it is the important one.
Let me return to the issue of high street pet shops. The only place most of them can source their puppies and kittens from has to be breeders that put minimal effort into breeding and rearing; there is a “pile ’em high” mentality. In addition to domestic operations, there is a rapidly growing trend of selling puppies brought into the UK from overseas breeders. We hear of breeders in the Irish Republic with 1,000 breeding bitches, which dwarfs the figure for even some of the Welsh breeders—I am sad to say that as I am sitting alongside my Welsh colleagues—who have more than 300. Although regulations are in place to address the import of cats and dogs, I know from my own experience this summer how very easily the pets passport system can be evaded.
I also know from meeting Eurotunnel and ferry companies that they are concerned about the situation and are unhappy that they are, in effect, policing something they do not have the training for and that this is not properly resourced. It simply does not work. Ultimately, the retail end of this chain drives it, with up to 100 high street pet shops in England licensed to sell puppies or kittens on their premises. That is responsible for the pain and misery of thousands of animals. Although the number of pet shops selling puppies and kittens in the UK is relatively small, there are no signs of a downward trend. My intention, with this motion, is not to vilify pet shops per se, but in almost every case where they sell puppies and kittens they simply cannot meet the specific needs required in this developmental golden period for puppies, in which puppies learn their future emotional template, in order to exhibit normal behaviour patterns and safely adjust to family life. In addition, there are all the health implications to consider.
Clear patterns have been established between early experiences and the development of aggression in dogs. A US study, for example, found that puppies obtained from pet shops were three times more likely to display aggression directed at their owner, and almost twice as likely to show aggression to other dogs they did not know, compared with dogs obtained from a small responsible breeder. By tackling the sale of puppies and kittens in pet shops we can remove the most impulsive means of purchasing, giving prospective owners the chance to research ownership and everything that goes with it. We can protect these prospective owners from the health and behavioural problems associated with pet shop puppies and kittens. We can also take a big step towards curbing irresponsible breeding practices and over-production of puppies and kittens.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. As he will know, since the very sad death of Jade Lomas Anderson in my constituency I have done a great deal of work on this issue. Does he agree that we have to continue to talk about the 200,000 people who are seriously injured each year, the 6,000 who are hospitalised and the number of people who are dying because we are not looking after dogs from birth and through their training? Dog welfare is indeed at the heart of this, but it is also about protecting our communities.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention and commend her for the work she has done on the issue. As ever, my thoughts are with the families of all those who have been affected by aggressive dogs, but, as surveys show, people buying from a pet shop are much more at risk. Do not take that risk.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution in securing the debate and for everything that he has said. I fully support the regulation of the supply chain in the way he has described, but we as Members of Parliament can help to educate the purchasing public to be aware of the questions to ask in stores. If the demand were not there and people were buying from reputable breeders, the issue would disappear.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We want action to be taken, but if we can send one message from today’s debate, it is: always ask, “Where’s mum?”
Further to the previous intervention, one role that Members of Parliament can play is to promote cat and dog rescue institutions in their constituencies, so that people know they do not have to go to pet shops. Voluntary organisations will provide perfectly good and loving pets for most people.
My hon. Friend makes his point and I will just say again, yes, I agree. It could not be simpler: all prospective dog owners should first consider adopting from a reputable rescue shelter. If they specifically want a puppy, it should be sourced from a responsible breeder where puppy and mother will always be seen interacting together.
We believe that powers are already in place to tackle the issue but such is the volume of often old legislation that there is a need for clarification to ensure that loopholes cannot be exploited. The Pet Animals Act 1951 does not require pet shop owners to highlight the provenance of their animals and states only that the local authority “may” inspect a premises. In financially constrained times, it is hardly surprising that such inspections are not a priority.
The Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999 requires third-party dealers selling puppies from licensed breeders to sell them with identification badges or tags, but because the 1999 Act does not form part of the pet shop licence conditions, it is generally not enforced. The 1999 Act enables breeders to sell puppies younger than eight weeks to a third-party dealer. That is beneficial for the breeder, who does not incur the costs of inoculating or caring for the animal, and for the dealer, who pays less for the dog. It certainly is not in the interests of the animal or its potential owner. The Act even provides a bit of a get out of jail free card, saying that as long as reasonable precautions are taken, an offence is not committed.
The Animal Welfare Act 2006 largely has not been used, nor has the secondary legislation in place to make it effective. Section 14 of the Act refers to codes of practice and guidance, but there is no liability if they are not observed. I will come back to the Act, which was enabling legislation. Again, we want the Government to “switch it on”—to make it work. The entire system desperately needs overhauling, but in the meantime one clear route to market for the puppy farms can be shut down. We can take a big step towards that today.
The 1951 Act states that a local authority shall have
“discretion to withhold a licence on other grounds”.
The former Minister of State at DEFRA, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), stated in a written answer:
“Conditions can be placed on individual pet shop licences restricting the animals that can be sold.” —[Official Report, 2 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 121W.]
That point, however, is contested. We would like the current Minister to clarify on the record what the situation is, given that Pup Aid’s own research shows that over half of local authorities are unaware that they are empowered to act to amend licensing conditions and to stop the sale of puppies and kittens.
It is the unanimous position of leading animal welfare organisations that the sale of puppies and kittens from retail premises should be banned. This regulatory change would inflict no additional burden on local authorities and match their own desire to clamp down on irresponsible breeding practices. Indeed, it is consistent with DEFRA’s own advice to prospective owners that
“if you are buying a puppy or kitten, you should ask to see it with its mother and the rest of the litter”,
and be satisfied that it is really the mother and not just a dog that has been brought in for show purposes.
At a recent meeting I had with the Friends of Wyndham Square in Stonehouse, I heard about the number of people on benefits who end up breeding dogs to try to make some cash. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that should be looked at, too?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Not only do I think it should be looked at, but I wrote to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions, and their response was very disappointing. Both of them wrote back and basically said, “Well, if you know of specific cases, report them; otherwise, we won’t do anything.” I think we need to see proper, from-the-top policy having a go through HMRC at those who are not paying tax and through the DWP at those who are not declaring it for other purposes. Let us have a national campaign on that.
Let me reiterate what I would like to hear from the Government today. Will the Minister confirm that local authorities are already empowered to amend licensing conditions and ban outright the sale of puppies and kittens in pet shops? Will he require local authorities to tackle this issue using those existing powers? If those powers are in doubt, then given that section 13 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 on licensing of activities involving animals was explicitly designed to amend the Pet Animals Act 1951, will the Government use those powers to bring forward secondary legislation to address this issue?
Every day, hundreds of healthy, adorable cats and dogs are destroyed while at the same time hundreds of kittens and puppies are born in squalid pain and despair to satisfy the high street shops. Today is the first step of a campaign to show we are a nation of animal lovers. This evil trade must end. Today the Minister can be bold and begin the end of this trade. Thousands of animals’ lives are at stake. Minister, take that step with us, and make that change happen today.
Several hon. Members
Order. I remind the House that there is a five-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, as there is high demand among Members to take part in this important debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing this timely debate.
I refer Members to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report on dog control and welfare and the Government response to it, and in welcoming the Minister, my hon. Friend for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), to his position, may I add that I hope his views have not changed too much since he contributed to that report? I also support the comment of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South that a review of existing legislation is needed.
In the limited time available, I want to make some brief points. The hon. Gentleman highlighted the role of self-regulation, but I am slightly confused as to why he put so much emphasis on pet shops, because my understanding is that they are the one part of the trade that is pretty much regulated; the evidence we received in our report, which was published together with our recommendations, suggests that the Pet Animals Act 1951 pretty much covers that. Perhaps the Minister will say whether he has had any representations that the Act should be improved or reviewed.
I would also like the Minister to update us on the Government’s response to our report: are the Government working with the Pet Advertising Advisory Group on the issue of sales of pets online, and, in particular, are they supporting the work to develop a voluntary code of practice? If the voluntary code is to succeed, it must have good animal welfare at its heart.
The message from the House today should be that there is a role for self-regulation. Any responsible potential dog or cat owner should not be buying puppies or kittens where the mother is not present. That is so self-evident that I wonder whether we need not to legislate on it but simply to go out and educate the public.
I congratulate all the charities involved. They briefed the Select Committee in the context of our report, and it is important to recognise their work, although the following is not an exhaustive list: Blue Cross in my constituency; Battersea Dogs & Cats Home; the Dogs Trust; the Dog Rescue Federation; the wonderfully and aptly named Four Paws. I also want to pay tribute to those who fund these charities. In doing so, they are taking many stray dogs and cats off our streets.
I am asking the Minister today to tackle the rogue backstreet breeders and the rogue importers who import animals from puppy farms across the European Union. I hope that he will take this opportunity to update the House on internet advertising and on the voluntary code. Each and every one of us must do everything possible to discourage irresponsible dog breeders, and we need to set a lower threshold for licensing breeders.
I would also like to ask the Minister whether his views have changed since he made his positive and welcome contribution to our discussions when adopting our report on dog control and welfare. Does he, for example, still hold to the view that, under the legislation, five litters a year should be the maximum, because a bitch would not be in a good enough state to have any more? That was his personal view at that time, and we benefited from his sterling contribution to our report. Has his view changed since he was with us on the Committee? I remind the House that the Committee’s conclusion was that five litters a year was too many. We recommended that a requirement to breed no more than two litters a year should be written on the face of the licence. Also, we would like to support better publicity for puppy contracts. I commend our report and recommendations to the House—
Order. The hon. Lady’s time is up.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to take part in the debate. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing it and on his excellent speech, in which he covered many of the issues. Many of my constituents have urged me to support the debate and to take part in it.
Many of us are here because of the weight of opinion that our constituents give to this matter, but does my hon. Friend agree that it feels as though we have been here before? I am thinking about the proposals for wild animals in circuses, on which action has still not been forthcoming, and about the badger cull, on which the will of the House has been clearly expressed. Will she urge the Government not only to listen to the debate but to take it seriously, to pay heed to the weight of opinion being expressed by our constituents and to follow this up with some action?
My hon. Friend’s early intervention leads me to my next point.
Over the summer, we have rightly been concerned to hear about the terrible human tragedies that are taking place around the world—in the middle east, in Ukraine and in parts of Africa—and some people might ask why animal welfare should have such a high priority and be regarded as so important when so much else is going on in the world. My response is to remind them of William Wilberforce, one of the great humanitarians and a great MP. Coincidentally, I was born 200 years to the day after he was.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will finish my point.
William Wilberforce had his eyes fixed not only on ending slavery and the slave trade but on animal welfare. Along with a number of other people, including MPs, he was a founder of what was then the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It subsequently became the RSPCA, which has been such a force for good in animal welfare. We should never have to choose one or the other. A civilised society respects not only human welfare and rights but the rights of animals, and we should therefore support the motion today.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I want to make some progress.
The issue that brings us here today is that of the profits and money involved in the sale of puppies and kittens. Many of us get our pets from animal welfare organisations or from family, friends or colleagues. That is certainly true of my family. Our current two cats, Polly and Lucy—who will no doubt be delighted to find themselves in Hansard—came from Cats Protection. We went through a fairly rigorous process to get them. We had a visit to our home, and we then had to follow the proper processes to ensure their subsequent welfare. That is normal procedure, but it is very different when people buy animals.
The hon. Lady has shown amazing ingenuity in bringing Iraq, Ukraine and the slave trade into a debate on puppy farming. I entirely support the thrust of her argument. Importantly, we have not yet mentioned rescue dogs and cats; the debate has been all about puppies. I was brought up in a household in which we almost always took on rescue dogs, and we need more people to look at that option rather than simply buying a nice fluffy puppy from a shop.
The hon. Gentleman cannot have heard that point being raised by other hon. Members on both sides of the House, but they have indeed done so. Some of us have always been motivated to go to those organisations first. Indeed, those organisations also have puppies and kittens. I have visited the RSPCA centre in Sheffield, which is housed in a fabulous building and looks after its animals well. It also takes seriously its responsibility for proper aftercare by ensuring that people who take on animals as pets understand what is involved, and it is available to offer advice and support.
I entirely agree that that is a good way to find a pet, but of course not everyone goes down that route, so my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has been right to secure this debate so that we can discuss the options when money and profit enter the equation. We must always be conscious that, when the profit motive is present, there will be unscrupulous people who work in a different way. As the legislation changes and tries to keep up with the trade, those people will find ever more clever ways of getting round it in order to make a profit.
We need to do a number of things. Raising awareness is enormously important, and this debate will put this story into people’s minds. It will appear in newspapers and on the internet, and people will learn what they might unwittingly be involved in when they buy an animal from a pet shop or even from a dealer. They will then be empowered to understand the questions they should ask, and be clearer about what they need to know before they take on the important role of looking after a pet. The Government also need to work harder in this area; I agree with hon. Members who have said that they need to do more. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has set out how that can be done quickly, and I urge the Government to take this matter forward.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye in this important and well-attended cross-party debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) for having secured it, and I agree with many of the points he made. I also pay tribute to my constituent, Carol Fowler, who has been campaigning on this issue for many years. Her campaign led to the television documentary “Pedigree Dogs Exposed”, which raised such disturbing issues on dog breeding that the BBC temporarily suspended its coverage of Crufts the following year.
First, let me start with puppy farms. We need the Government to introduce strategies for improving conditions on those farms. I pay tribute to the Dog Advisory Council and to Professor Sheila Crispin, who runs it. The council has made recommendations on regulation and legislation to address the issues and to reduce red tape in relation to the farms. There are poor conditions on puppy farms, and they need to be addressed by the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which places a duty of care on the person responsible for pet animals. That duty of care must be enforced.
The issues relating to puppy farms have already been rehearsed in this debate, but they are so shocking that they need repeating. There is often a failure to provide veterinary care, including vaccinations and simple health checks. Puppies suffer from lack of exercise, stimulation and socialisation. Breeding establishments are generally unsuitable and not fit for purpose. If puppies do not have suitable exercise, they are much more likely to suffer from problem behaviour.
Puppies are often prematurely taken away from their mothers, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) said, the mother is often then expected to produce another litter and is left exhausted from repeated breeding.
I also have a number of constituents who have been campaigning very hard on this issue. Hopefully, they can find common cause with my hon. Friend’s constituents. Does he agree that the role of pet shops is crucial, as they should be putting more pressure on the relevant agencies and other bodies?
I agree, but as the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), said, legislation on pet shops is already in place. The thrust of this debate is on new legislation, but I say to the Minister that we should better enforce existing legislation, because then we might all get on a lot better.
Poor puppy farms are responsible for many health problems, including infectious diseases such as parvovirus, internal and external parasites and a range of breed-related and inherited diseases such as heart disease, epilepsy and glaucoma. It is crucial that puppy farms are not only properly licensed, but properly scrutinised—the powers are there to scrutinise them—so that we can root out the ones that operate with inappropriate conditions. As I have said, we need to enforce existing legislation better.
Secondly, the breeding of dogs for specific desirable traits can lead to serious genetic health problems as a result of inbreeding and closed gene pools. The body shape of some dog breeds can also cause immense suffering. Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is illegal to beat a dog with a stick, but there is nothing to stop a breeder mating dogs to produce offspring that will then suffer from health problems.
Thirdly, I recommend that all breeders adopt puppy contracts, which are produced by the RSPCA, the British Veterinary Association and the Animal Welfare Foundation. Too often, buyers are not aware of the possible genetic problems related to poor welfare and breeding conditions.
Fourthly, the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England, which was set up by this Government, could be in a perfect position to assist with the welfare of dogs. However, its performance to date has not met the desired level. The board should take a more active interest in the welfare of dogs, which it does not do at the moment. I urge the Government to give it a role in devising light-touch regulation, ideally based on the Dog Advisory Council’s recommendations on regulations under the Animal Welfare Act so that we can see active improvement in the welfare of dogs.
The Dog Advisory Council, under Professor Sheila Crispin’s chairmanship, was funded entirely through the generosity of patrons, principally the Dogs Trust, the RSPCA, the Blue Cross and the PDSA. It operates with a budget of only £25,000, yet the Government give £225,000 to the Farm Animal Welfare Council. There seems to be a slight imbalance within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the treatment of farm animals and companion animals. I hope that the Minister will take those facts back to his Department. If nothing else, we are a nation of animal lovers, and we need to take more seriously the welfare of companion animals such as dogs and cats.
Obviously, it is welcome that micro-chipping will be mandatory from April 2016, but I urge the Minister to bring the date forward. We need a comprehensive list of registered dogs as soon as possible, and I see no reason to delay this for another two years. Currently, more than 100,000 dogs are stolen, abandoned or lost each year. If lost, the owner can suffer huge emotional turmoil. If a dog is abandoned, it is a crime. The urgent introduction of micro-chipping will help us to reduce dramatically the numbers of stray dogs on our streets.
I thank my hon. Friend for so generously giving way. I know that time is running short, but I hope that he will get an extra minute as recompense. I agree with him that this is about the enforcement of existing laws. Is not one of the key issues inspection? What we need are random inspections and a zero-tolerance approach where there are clear breaches of the standards already in place.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. We should enforce existing legislation with random inspections so that the owners and operators of puppy farms do not know when the inspectors are coming. That will hopefully ginger them up to improve their standards.
The Minister will also need to address an amendment made to the Deregulation Bill in Committee which seeks to remove the requirement under the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973 for local authorities, when deciding whether to grant a dog breeding licence, to have regard to the need for dog breeding records to be kept in a prescribed form and to specify licence conditions to secure that objective. The Dog Advisory Council has written to the Cabinet Office and DEFRA Ministers asking them to reconsider the decision to repeal the relevant provisions as a matter of urgency, as not to do so would further undermine the effectiveness of the existing legislation.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you have been generous with the time. This is an important debate. I hope the Minister will take away with him the fact that we are a nation of dog lovers. We need to enforce the existing legislation. There is too much cruelty in the dog world in this country.
I am extremely grateful to have this opportunity to speak in this important debate. As my inbox attests, it is an extremely important issue for many of my constituents. It is also important to me, as I am the owner of a lovely springer spaniel called Leo. My family adopted him when he was seven months old, and he is now nearly nine.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) and his colleagues for securing this debate and for introducing it so well. I also pay tribute to the members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for their report on dog control and welfare.
As any dog lover would agree, the crux of this matter is that we simply cannot see dogs or kittens as commodities. They are not an asset or a piece of capital from which a producer seeks to extract as much financial gain as possible. They are future members of our families, future best friends for our children and future companions for us when our children flee the nest. They are sentient beings, with similar feelings and reactions to us. We would not stand for our children being mistreated in the way that some domestic animals are at birth, as they are ripped apart from their mother and the nurture that she instinctively provides. We would not stand for that because we know how that kind of trauma affects them later in life, whether it is to their personality, their health or both. We all want to encourage more responsible dog ownership. I cannot think of any responsible dog owner who would be happy in the knowledge that their new puppy or kitten, which they thought had been bought from a reputable breeder or at least from a pet shop that deals exclusively with responsible breeders, had actually had such a traumatic start in life.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that often the people who purchase these animals do not realise the animal’s background or where they have come from. A report by the RSPCA said that breeders in eastern Europe and Ireland were selling so-called handbag dogs—little Chihuahuas that the likes of Paris Hilton carry around in their handbags. The breeders were only charging about £25 each for them, but they were then being sold on for between £800 and £1,500. Obviously, the people who are paying £1,500 for such a dog think they are getting a top-of-the market dog that has been very well looked after, but that is not the case.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Often those dogs go on to have terrible health conditions, which then cost the loving owner a fortune in vets’ fees, as they have to mitigate some of those terrible breeding practices that the poor pup suffered in its early life.
Obviously, the breeding and sale of puppies and other animals provides a living, and in some cases a good living. The vast majority of breeders have chosen that as a way of life because they love animals and love the joy that they can bring to the families to whom they go. Many are very particular about ensuring that their puppies go to a good and loving home. I do not want to see the lives of those breeders made more difficult by any change in the law. None the less, I am sure that they would be the first to agree that we must ensure that the law is strong enough to be able to stamp out the minority of breeders in the country who do not share their high standards of care.
My constituents are particularly concerned when they see puppies for sale in pet shops without their mothers present. I understand that that practice persists in a very small minority of pet shops in the UK—about 2% according to Pet Care Trust. None the less, I agree with my constituents that that practice should be ended completely. It has been pointed out that some councils have successfully eradicated this practice in their areas through their licensing requirements, but, like buying a car, buying a pet involves the kind of purchase that people are prepared to go further afield to make. Indeed, my dog Leo is an Essex boy, and we travelled all the way there to adopt him. Although such actions are welcome, they mean little if all the surrounding councils do not feel able to follow suit. I therefore think it is worth looking at what more can be done at a central Government level to spread best practice across the country.
I do not know what the right balance is in securing regulations that are enforceable and effective but that do not represent an onerous duty on local authorities or other agencies or place unnecessary restrictions on the many good, responsible and caring breeders, but it is clear that we are not striking that balance at the moment.
I am very interested in the hon. Lady’s point about regulation. Although there is a role for central Government, does she agree that much more can be done by organisations such as the Local Government Association? The local government sector can collaborate to spread around best practice, which some councils have and others do not. As she rightly observes, this is an issue that runs across the country and it is important that we have the best possible knowledge for sometimes quite hard-pressed local authority enforcement arms.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right and has some expertise in this area. There are councils that have great best practice and it is important that we disseminate and share that.
The other thing I want to mention is public awareness. Often the public are not aware that these issues exist and think when they buy a kitten or puppy, wherever they buy it from, that it will have been taken care of, nurtured and loved in the right way. We need the public to be made more aware of the welfare standards and of the legislation, as that would mean that they could have confidence in the system and could demand that puppies were bred in a fair and just way.
I wholeheartedly support the calls in the motion for a review of the legislation on breeding and sale. I am pleased that my Front-Bench colleagues are committed to undertaking such a review if we form the next Government, but given that the election is eight months away and countless puppies and kittens will be born and sold between now and then, I hope that the Government will listen to the cross-party calls we have heard today and to the thousands of people who signed the petition and will announce that they will instigate a review forthwith.
I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) for bringing this issue to the attention of the House. It has certainly created a huge amount of interest across the country.
As I understand it, the purpose of the debate is to aim to encourage the Government to consider legislation that will make it illegal to sell puppies and kittens in pet shops. Local authorities already have the power to do that if the conditions of the retail outlet are poor, but this would involve an outright ban. I have considerable sympathy for that and urge the Government to consider it.
Such is the demand for cheap pedigree puppies and kittens—and, indeed, for all puppies and kittens—as presents for young people and children that unscrupulous breeders and dealers of pets can make large amounts of money without any consideration for the welfare of the animals. It is said that many of the so-called puppy farms are based in Cardigan and Carmarthenshire, and I know that the Welsh Assembly Government and local authorities in that area are working hard to bring in regulations to ensure that the conditions are suitable for the breeding of animals. It is important that we use cross-border co-operation in dealing with these issues, because many of the animals bred in Wales end up being sold in parts of England.
The subject of today’s debate, of course, is puppies and kittens, but yesterday the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs took evidence on the problem of horse welfare. The same concerns were raised about the indiscriminate breeding of horses and ponies, which are expensive to keep and often abandoned when the first enthusiasm to own them disappears and the cost becomes more apparent.
The organisations promoting today’s debate make the very good point that conditions for neonatal animals are very important in ensuring that they stay healthy and have sufficient time with their mothers before weaning. Early weaning, which allows the bitches to be bred from again, means that many pups suffer from undernourishment and poor nutrition. I had a case in my constituency of an owner of Great Danes who was not breeding them indiscriminately but with careful consideration for the genetic well-being of the animals and their sale afterwards. Nevertheless, the challenges of maintaining these large animals with a litter of 12 rapidly growing pups proved too much for their management skills and the pups suffered from a number of complaints related to unhygienic conditions. In the end, the RSPCA intervened and removed the pups, which were then kept at considerable cost to the owner. I must emphasise that these were considerate and responsible owners who were not merely interested in money making, but we can imagine the conditions that persist in some puppy farms.
Does my hon. Friend’s point not emphasise that local authorities not only have an important role to play but must ensure that they inspect puppy and kitten farms?
I absolutely accept my hon. Friend’s point. Another point that we should make, however, is that there are considerable limitations on the amount of resources local authorities can use for these purposes.
In Wales, compulsory microchipping is being introduced for dogs from March 2015 and I believe that the same regulations will apply in England in 2016. If we made it compulsory to microchip pups within the first few weeks of their lives, if anything happened to those pups they could be traced back to where they were bred and action could be taken against any breeders who were found to be operating in conditions that were not suitable for those pups. Any pups showing signs of malnutrition or disease could be traced to their place of birth.
I recently attended an event held by the Dogs Trust in the Royal Welsh agricultural show site in Llanelwedd in my constituency, where there was a massive dog show attracting dogs from around the country. The Dogs Trust made the point that microchipping can be done at no cost and I think that, before it becomes compulsory, all responsible dog owners should have their dogs microchipped.
Buying a pup is a very serious business that should not be undertaken lightly. If someone buys a horse, for instance, they employ a vet to examine the animal and ensure that it is fit and healthy. It would be very good if that were replicated during the purchasing of puppies and kittens. I do not want to make pet ownership too over-burdened with regulation and bureaucracy, but, nevertheless, people should be educated about the responsibilities of making such purchases. Pets are very demanding in terms of the time that is necessary to look after them properly, and feeding them and maintaining their health through veterinary care is very expensive. I get a lot of letters from constituents who are very concerned about the costs of veterinary treatment. Tightening up the regulation on the breeding and sale of puppies and kittens is very important and I support that, but I also commend the work that charities do in emphasising the importance of taking decisions on pet ownership very seriously.
I wish to associate myself with the comments made by hon. Members from all parts of the House, deploring the barbaric treatment of kittens and puppies that are mass-produced in so-called “farms.” Regrettably, there have been many cases in my home county of Carmarthenshire.
This debate, of course, takes place thanks to the 112,000 members of the public who signed an e-petition setting out their concerns. E-petitions were one of the positive reforms introduced in 2011 and offer the public a direct means of engaging with what is discussed in the House. I am glad that we are holding this debate today and hope that Ministers will act on what is said.
As a lover of animals myself, and one who cohabits with a cat, a dog, two rabbits and a fish—not to mention the five horses that my wife owns—I was particularly horrified to learn that puppies and kittens bred in such farms are almost always separated from their mothers too early, are held in appalling conditions and are sold on an unregulated market. Prospective owners are often duped into believing that the mother has been kept with the kittens or puppies, when in fact those selling the animals use fake mothers to pose with the little ones in cages to mask the neglect that those animals have gone through. As a result of the poor conditions in which they are bred, the animals are likely to suffer from a weakened immune system and a shorter lifespan, and to develop behavioural issues that stem from a lack of trust in their owners.
The UK Government’s response to the e-petition to date has been a statement by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which claims that the existing laws and regulations contained in the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999, the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973, the Breeding of Dogs Act 1991 and the Animal Welfare Act 2006 are robust enough to deal with the problem—citing the law that requires dog breeders to obtain licences from the local authority, and stating that it is against the law for “hobby breeders” to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal. It is, however, evident that the current system is not working, and that animals are being exposed to needless suffering.
In Wales, animal welfare is devolved and a matter for the National Assembly and the Welsh Government. In August 2013, the Welsh Government launched a consultation that centred on dog breeding legislation, which asked whether changes should be made to dog-to-staff ratios in kennels—specifically, whether one full-time attendant should be required for every 20 adult dogs, or one part-time attendant for every 10 adult dogs.
The proposed draft Animal Welfare (Breeding of Dogs)(Wales) Regulations 2013 were brought forward under section 13 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and sought to repeal the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973 in relation to Wales. The regulations, as drafted, would be enforceable by Welsh local authorities. Under the provisions, local authorities would have to be satisfied, prior to granting a licence, that dogs and their puppies would be kept in acceptable conditions. Those seeking to breed dogs would need to show that they would be providing adequate nutrition, bedding and exercise facilities. The regulations also specifically make mention of the welfare of puppies and provide for a socialisation programme, aimed at ensuring that puppies bred in approved premises are able to socialise with other animals and people, so that they do not go on to develop behavioural problems.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that although a lot of the onus of enforcing these regulations and carrying out inspections falls on local authorities, and although trading standards have brought some successful prosecutions, both local authorities and trading standards, especially in my area, are really under pressure? They are really stretched and they do not have the resources to carry out such work. How can we address that?
That is an extremely fair point. Local authorities in Wales are looking at a 4% cut in their budget next year, according to the Welsh Local Government Minister. In Carmarthenshire, my home county, we have a major issue. If we are passing on those added responsibilities, resources need to come to match those responsibilities.
Finally, the regulations stipulate that puppies cannot be sold until they are at least eight weeks old and have been microchipped, as my colleague, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), said. In December 2013, the Welsh Government brought forward draft legislation and laid out their intention to proceed with the proposed staff-to-adult-dog ratio of 1:20. The Minister said that the introduction of regulations was scheduled for February 2014, although I am not sure what progress has been made since the announcement. Indeed, I would welcome any comments from the UK Government Minister as to what, if any, discussions have taken place with representatives from the devolved Administrations on bringing forward changes to regulations concerning the breeding and farming of animals intended as domestic pets.
Evidently, members of the public feel very strongly about this issue, and I empathise with their concerns. Those who signed the e-petition called for the Government to introduce regulations whereby the selling of kittens and puppies was banned unless their mothers were present. Puppy and kitten farming is an abhorrent practice, which must be stopped. I urge both the Welsh and UK Governments to listen to the public and act on their concerns.
As a dog lover, I shall focus my comments today on dogs. Dogs have a unique bond with us humans. Our two dogs, Boris and Maggie, have a loyalty, a love and a calming nature—and of course there is the comfort that a dog can give you.
My dogs don’t love me.
That does not surprise me.
When people’s dogs or animals need medical attention, they worry about them as they would any other member of the family. Probably for the first and last time, I can say in the House that Boris’s bad behaviour improved immensely when I had him castrated. In seriousness, I raise that point because he did have a castration operation when he was younger, and that night he got constant attention because pets are like a member of the family and it is natural to give them that care. When the public buy animals, they should be able to expect that those animals have had a healthy start in life and have been well looked after, and they should have an understanding of where they have come from.
In hindsight, my wife believes that our dog Maggie came from a puppy farm background. When we got her she had health problems and, in the first period of her life, some behavioural problems. We sorted out the health problems with the vet’s help and she is very healthy now. Now, at some two years old, her behaviour is very good; she is a very loving and caring animal, but it has taken a lot of love and care and attention from my wife and me to allow her to feel secure, comfortable and not threatened.
How many families would be willing to put that level of love and care into an animal?
Why cannot Conservative Back Benchers be given this same love and care?
I think that depends which side of the House they are on.
May I just say for the record that I and my office have received more e-mails and letters on this issue than any other in the past few weeks? I hope that my hon. Friend agrees on the strength of feeling that exists on this issue among our constituents.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because he highlights the reason that we have all had so much communication on this issue. It comes back to my point that puppies, kittens and other animals that we bring into our lives become part of our families. As the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) said, we would not tolerate any harmful behaviour towards a human being in our family; many people feel the same bond with their animals and want to ensure that they are properly looked after.
As I said earlier to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), if one visits Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, or the Dogs Trust in my constituency, and sees some of the consequences of bad behaviour and terrible care, one cannot help being moved. The Dogs Trust in my constituency does outstanding work but its resources are limited. How many families who were faced with the situation that my wife and I were faced with with our dog Maggie would give up and give their dog away to the Dogs Trust or elsewhere? But let us be under no illusions: the chances are that on many occasions, that dog will be killed—“to put down” or “to destroy” does not have the same impact as “the animal will be killed.” That is why we need to ensure that families offering love and care do not find themselves in a position where they simply cannot care for the animal.
Many constituents have raised this issue with me, but they specifically raised an issue about a pet supermarket in Leeds called Dogs4Us. Petitions have been submitted to Leeds city council, asking it to remove the pet supermarket’s licence, and the city council has looked into the matter. I went further and did the research and looked at the Dogs4Us website, on which it makes reference to an internet campaign and refutes the allegations. The truth will lie somewhere in the middle. I have no primary evidence that these activities are going on, but I do have a lot of secondary evidence.
That points to a bigger picture: what the public are looking for is faith in the inspection regime and licensing system. If that faith existed, people would believe that local authorities would be able to track down and stop what was going on in puppy farming. I urge the Minister to consider closely the suggestions that the licensing and inspection system be renewed, refreshed and redefined so that the public have faith that poor practices, criminality and downright cruelty can be eradicated.
A dog is loyal, rewarding and life-saving; it promotes a healthy lifestyle through exercise and becomes an integral member of the family. As a dog lover, I have focused on dogs, but I know that cat lovers would say the same about their pets. We must do all we can to eradicate the cruelty and harm that can kill puppies and kittens, and to prevent loving and caring families who go out expecting to bring in a new member of their family ultimately experiencing heartbreak, because of a con at the beginning.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), a fellow West Ham United supporter. I congratulate all the colleagues who lobbied for the debate, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), whom I also congratulate on an excellent speech. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to have this debate, and the dozens of constituents who e-mailed asking me to participate in the debate, particularly Peter and Annie Walker, who I know are following the debate this afternoon. I thank all the animal welfare groups listed in the motion, especially the Dogs Trust, on whose briefing I will rely heavily in my remarks.
I hope to be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker, in view of the number of Members who wish to speak. I have some points to make and a few questions to ask, all of which have, I think, pretty much been raised already. What struck me among the briefings from all the different groups was the similarity and consistency of the points raised. They spoke about the conditions of puppies in breeding establishments; restrictions on the number of litters; consistency of inspectors’ visits; easier and clearer enforcement of legislation by local authorities; the publication of the Welsh Government’s draft breeding regulations; the use of microchips to track puppies to breeders; the updating of sales legislation to take in the internet; and enforcement and implementation of the pet travel scheme regulations, particularly in relation to illegal imports.
On that last point, does my hon. Friend think that the changes to the scheme due to come into force later this year are sufficient, or should we take a closer look at this European trade? Is it not one European trade we could do without?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, which I was going to comment on later. The Minister kindly afforded a meeting to me and colleagues, as well as animal welfare groups, to discuss that very issue. We pressed him on the matter; he is clearly concerned about it and the officials were very much on the case. I hope he can give us an update today. DEFRA clearly recognises that there is a problem and has been working on it and making progress, and I seek an assurance from the Minister that that work will continue.
The argument for a ban on pet shop sales was strongly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, and I am sure the Minister will respond to that case, but will he also comment on enforcement by local authorities? The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) said that her local authority is very good, but it will be interesting to hear from the Minister whether enforcement is consistent across the piece—it seems to have been suggested that some local authorities are better than others—and what DEFRA and DCLG are doing to make it more consistent. Could the information supplied to breeders be made clearer?
Several of the briefings I received mentioned the Welsh draft breeding regulations. Does DEFRA regard those as helpful? Does it intend to replicate them, or will the Department wait to see whether they are passed in Wales? How helpful will microchipping be? Concern about the database has been registered. Will the Minister respond to questions about unscrupulous or even illegal advertising of puppies and kittens? I understand that DEFRA supported the voluntary scheme from the Pet Advertising Advisory Group; does the Department intend to go further and make that a regulatory requirement?
Finally in this section of my speech, I wanted to ask about illegal imports and the efforts of DEFRA and the Home Office in that regard.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am very happy to give way to another West Ham United supporter. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”]
I am delighted that we have three in one debate. May I reinforce the hon. Gentleman’s point about illegal imports? The problem has affected constituents and indeed a member of my family, who rescued a dog that had been illegally imported. This is a real problem, and there is concern that even well-intentioned local authorities cannot cope with the abuse in their enforcement. We need to tackle it at national level.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point very well. I hope the Minister will comment in his closing remarks.
Colleagues scoff about the number of West Ham United supporters who are in the Chamber today. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire is also a West Ham supporter, as is the hon. Gentleman. We are only missing my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), or we would all be here this afternoon.
The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) mentioned the EFRA Committee report published in February 2013. Recommendations 19, 20 and 21 covered questions of the number of litters, enforcement, internet sales and illegal adverts. Those matters continue to be raised.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to a supporter of fantastic Gillingham football club. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about the Kennel Club’s finding that in Kent 18% of individuals bought a pet either via the internet or from an unscrupulous pet shop? Does he agree that more work is needed on the internet angle?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. As I said, I hope the Minister responds regarding the internet and the voluntary agreement led by the PAAG. Over the years, I have got two dogs from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home; one came second in the Westminster dog of the year competition and one came first. I hope that today’s debate will raise the profile of the excellent rescue organisations across the country that will be delighted to hear from constituents of ours who want to look after dogs that have had to be abandoned for some reason, or have not been looked after from the start.
This is an issue of great concern to the animal-loving public, as evidenced by the number of colleagues here and the interest shown by those outside. I look forward to hearing the responses from the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), and from the Minister.
Several hon. Members
I call the Gentleman in the Dogs Trust tie, Mr Simon Kirby.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am a long-time supporter of Pup Aid and I pay tribute to the work carried out by Marc Abraham and many others outside this place to bring the issue of puppy farms to the attention of the House. I should declare that I am a lover of both dogs and cats, having a large German pointer, two Chihuahuas and a ginger cat called Mango.
Can we imagine what it is like to be a pup born in a filthy and unsanitary puppy farm? Can we imagine being separated too early from mum and brothers and sisters to travel to a pet shop hundreds of miles away, sold en masse and treated as a commodity with little regard to our welfare? Can we imagine what it is like to be four times more likely to be affected by canine parvovirus? Canine parvovirus is a disease that attacks the puppy’s nervous system. It causes vomiting and diarrhoea, and can cost thousands of pounds to treat.
As we are imagining what it is like in those conditions, can we imagine a human child being separated from its mother at six weeks?
My hon. Friend draws a good parallel. It is important to note that cats and dogs have no voice. Here today, perhaps, we can give them a voice. Dogs and cats are loving creatures, and they need their parents and siblings to interact with.
I think that all of us here today can imagine what these terrible things are like. Hundreds of thousands of people up and down the country can imagine the horrific conditions and the pain they cause. That is why we are here to debate the situation and, I hope, to move nearer to bringing it to an end.
The reasons for the problems are clear and have been outlined very well by other speakers. We should listen to Pup Aid, which has said that everyone should ask, “Where’s mum?”, insist on seeing a puppy or kitten interacting with its mother, and be aware that the absence of the mother is likely to indicate that the puppy has been bred commercially and is being sold on by a third party.
We should tackle this important issue, as it is supported by the majority of animal charities, welfare organisations and veterinary professionals. There is no justification for selling puppies or kittens in retail outlets. Puppy buyers, who are often unaware of these issues, need to get wise, asking where puppy farmers sell their pups and being aware that corners are often cut. We must urge dog lovers and cat lovers to do their own research before buying, and preferably go to a rescue home or a breeder they know and know they can trust.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful point about the importance of the potential buyer seeing the mother of puppies or kittens. Does he agree that the age of the puppy or kitten is important too, and that ideally it should be eight weeks old before being separated from its mother?
Absolutely—I agree entirely. We heard earlier that some puppies are separated when as young as four weeks. Puppies need a chance to grow and develop into the characters they will be in later life, and to learn all they can from their mother and interact with their siblings. It is totally unacceptable that they should be separated at that young age.
As well as the points made by Pup Aid and the requirement to see the mother, we should make sure that local authorities continue to be extremely thorough in their checks on breeding establishments. They should not grant licences where breeding establishments even remotely resemble a puppy farm.
The hon. Gentleman will have heard an earlier intervention about the problems of local authority funding. Does he agree that there must be sufficient public officials to examine how these breeding establishments operate, because without that, this travesty of justice for the animals will continue?
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point on board. There are a number of issues involved. I hope that today we are sending a message to the public to be wise and careful and to think before they shop, and sending a message to the Government to ask, “Can we look again at the legislation? It’s not good enough for it to lie on the statute book—it has to be used to stop the trade that we see today.” Local authorities have their responsibilities as well, and they have to make difficult decisions, but I would argue that this is an important thing for them to check and keep a grip on.
I would like us, as a House, to send these clear messages: first, we cannot support the sale of puppies and kittens in circumstances where it is not possible for the mother to be with the rest of her litter; secondly, we are aware of the serious and life-threatening animal welfare, public health and financial problems associated with pet shops and retail outlets; thirdly, we confirm that local authorities are already empowered to amend licensing conditions or to ban outright the sale of puppies and kittens in pet shops if they choose to do so; and, fourthly, we encourage local authorities to tackle this issue using their existing powers. Those messages would help animal charities and welfare organisations to put their weight behind a public awareness campaign aimed at better educating owners.
It is clear that all our constituents want the Government to act. Let us speak up for the puppies and kittens who have no voice. Let us stop this cruel and unnecessary practice and improve animal welfare. Let us educate people to think before they buy puppies and kittens, and let us all ask, “Where’s mum?”
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing this excellent debate. I will be the third Welsh Member to contribute from across the parties, showing the strong consensus and feeling that there is about this in Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) mentioned the measures in Wales, which have caused a lot of detailed examination of the issue. I hope that the Minister will take that up and look at it.
Like many others, I am an animal lover. I have had dogs from different sources all my life. I first remember that, long before the internet, my father purchased a puppy from Exchange and Mart that came from a long way away in a cardboard box. That was the method that many used. It came on the train and we met it at the station. That dog lived for many, many years and was a healthy dog, and we were very lucky to have it. More recently, for some 12 years I had a sheepdog from the RSPCA. I pay tribute to the RSPCA for the work it does on welfare. I have also recently had a springer spaniel from a rescue centre. Rescue centres do a brilliant job, because if people cannot look after their dog they can take them there. The welfare and traceability of that dog are taken care of from the minute it enters the rescue centre, and that is very important.
A minority of people breed dogs in terrible circumstances. They are still a minority, but the number is growing and it needs to be dealt with. Far too many of these puppy farms are in Wales, I have to say, and that is why Wales is ahead of the game in looking at legislation on how to deal with them. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South eloquently put the case about shops and high street sales, but I want to talk about the puppy farms themselves. Several hon. Members on both sides of the House have asked how we can use legislation and give local authorities the necessary resources. That is a difficult issue and we need to look at it sensibly. We need the Welsh Government, alongside the UK Government, to put forward legislation.
What stage are the draft Welsh regulations at? Are they out for consultation, are they being introduced, are they expected, or have they only just been published?
I will refer to that. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) mentioned the issues that are already being dealt with through the legislation. The draft regulations that I am talking about are the Animal Welfare (Breeding of Dogs) (Wales) Regulations 2014, which were begun by the previous Environment Minister in Wales, who is unfortunately no longer in post. They have been published. A consultation and an environmental impact assessment have taken place, and we need to move forward.
In the short time I have, it would be useful if I outlined some of those measures. Like every Member in this House, I am sure, I want all parts of the United Kingdom to have proper regulations and resources in place. I do not want puppy or kitten sales close to the border to be subject to different regulations. We need a UK-wide approach, although I respect the fact that the issues are devolved to different UK Administrations.
Under the Welsh Government’s proposed regulations, dog breeders would have to have a licence, which would be regulated by local authorities, although I know there is an issue with resources. This would replace section 1 of the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973 in Wales, and I hope it could also be applied across the United Kingdom. If a breeder was found not to have the required licence, they could face a custodial sentence, so this is as much about having a deterrent as it is about having actual regulations. Dog breeders are defined as those who have a minimum of three breeding bitches on their premises and who breed three or more litters of puppies over 12 months. All adverts for puppies for sale should be done properly. Those types of regulations would open up transparency so that people would know what they were purchasing. Under the proposals, in order to get a licence the premises must be inspected by the local authority. Resources are needed for that, but it would ensure high standards from the beginning.
This House discusses a lot of issues, and animal welfare is very important. I am very proud of the fact that we introduced the Animal Welfare Act 2006, but it does not go far enough. This debate has given the whole House of Commons an opportunity to come together and listen to what people out there really care about—they care about animal welfare as well as other issues—and to act. I am proud of many of the Backbench Business Committee debates we have had over the past three or four years. It is important that the Government listen to what Members relay on behalf of their constituents, and this excellent debate has raised such issues. We want to find a solution to stop the unethical way in which dogs are being bred, because we all care about our animals.
Finally, a number of TV programmes help raise awareness, which is important, because the British public care. The British Parliament must relay their views and we have done so sufficiently today. I hope the Minister will take them on board and look at the Welsh measures to which I have referred.
I start by echoing the remarks of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen): this has been a very good debate that has highlighted an issue that so many of our constituents feel so strongly about. I have been overwhelmed by the number of constituents who were determined to make sure I attended this debate; I know that the same is true of other hon. Members, as demonstrated by their presence and contributions.
I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) for his opening remarks and for securing the debate. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee. Like other hon. Members, I am a pet owner. I have a fantastic dog called Indy, who is a Labrador-collie cross: he has the brains of a collie and the appetite of a Labrador, which I am sure hon. Members will agree is a fatal combination. He is also currently courting votes, because he is standing in the Kennel Club election for parliamentary dog of the year—that is the only canvassing I will do on his behalf during this debate.
This debate is really important, because it is about giving the Government an opportunity to set out what they are already doing and to respond to hon. Members’ calls on behalf of their constituents to do more. More can be done within the purview of existing legislation and regulation to make a difference to the lives of puppies and kittens and how they are treated, and to ensure that the public are better informed and able to make better judgments when buying a dog or pet in order to themselves ensure that those animals are being raised to the highest welfare standards. If we were having a discussion about farm animals, we would not tolerate the sorts of things that puppies and kittens often have to put up with as a consequence of the gaps in our regulations.
There can be no justification for the retailing of puppies and kittens through pet shops. Over the years many of my constituents have felt aggrieved that there have not been sufficient powers to deal with such inappropriate sales and the way in which they provide a channel for disreputable dealers to sell their product, as it were. I say “product” because that is how they see it—this is about the commodification of something the public love so much. Surely that needs to be addressed through the licensing system, and I hope the Minister will say what the Government are minded to do to ensure that local authorities are aware of the latitude they have when setting licence conditions for pet shops. Other hon. Members have been right to highlight that, and I am sure that the Government, along with the Local Government Association, could do much more. It is a concern that these dealers and breeders remain in the shadows, unchecked and unregulated, while using shops to retail these pets.
As has been mentioned, the wild west of the internet is being used by unscrupulous breeders and dealers to prey on the public’s love of cats and dogs, and to peddle sick and poorly treated puppies and kittens. I hope the Minister will tell us what further steps he intends to take to collaborate with the body responsible for the voluntary arrangements for advertising in this area, in order to satisfy him, hon. Members and our constituents that the code of practice is being followed. If it is not being followed, what further steps could be taken to ensure that the issue is properly addressed?
The Government should be praised for their determination to introduce compulsory chipping, but it will be useful only if it provides for proper traceability in the long run. I hope the Minister will tell us more about that.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an important point about chipping. Of course, the more dogs that are chipped and the more veterinary surgeries that do it, the more people will get it done and the cheaper it will be. Cost and the economies of scale is an issue for some people. Traceability is very important and having licensed puppy farms would enable a trace right back to the source.
That is absolutely right and I hope that when the Minister responds he will tell us more about how the scheme will be rolled out and how those economies of scale will make it not only a blessing for owners, but a way of properly policing unscrupulous breeders.
Finally, I endorse the strong comments made by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the value of choosing to adopt a rescue dog. It is absolutely the right thing to do. My dog Indy is a re-homed dog who was quite a handful when he arrived. He is a reformed character now, but none the less he does still go for the occasional bit of picnic snaffling in the park. There are some fantastic charities that make adoption possible. We need to make sure that they are better known and that the public choose to support them more often.
I hope the Government will weigh carefully the representations made by hon. Members. I do not think that the status quo is acceptable; it is certainly not acceptable to many of my constituents when it comes to the welfare of pets. It is essential that the Government take this opportunity to set out their determination to ensure that there are the very highest standards of welfare and protection for pets, particularly puppies and kittens.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) for securing this debate, and the 125,000 people who signed the petition. If nothing else, it has enabled MPs to get up and demonstrate how many dogs, cats and goldfish they own, and also to put their names on the historic record—a valuable contribution to our civilisation.
Early in 2009, a network of puppy farms in Wales was exposed. It was horrendous and showed the barbaric treatment of animals. I tabled an early-day motion, which was signed by 75 hon. Members and called for a review of the legislation to ensure that it was effective. At the time and since, we were given various assurances that the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999 and the Animal Welfare Act 2006 were appropriate. I am grateful for the work done by the Select Committee and various campaigning organisations to demonstrate that, although that legislation laid the foundations—I welcomed the 2006 Act and thought it was quite comprehensive—a lot more detail needs to be addressed.
I fully support a number of the proposals that have been made today. I think that reducing the number of litters allowed each year under the licensing regime to two is critical. Beyond that, breeding becomes an industry, and that is the point at which abuses start. Importation is critical. The threshold of five animals per individual is too high, because it enables a large number of animals to be introduced into the country, almost subverting the current legislation. The third issue raised today was the removal of puppies from their mothers after only two, three or four weeks, and I take a fairly strong line on that. I would have a limit of 12 weeks, rather than the proposed eight weeks. I want a harder regime, and I want it to be encompassed in legislation so that it is clear-cut.
Too often in this House we will the objectives without willing the means to achieve them. As has been said a number of times, local authorities do not have the resources invested in this to enable them to undertake the kind of enforcement regime that we expect. It would be wrong simply to castigate those authorities, because in many areas they are struggling to protect children and elderly people with the resources they have. Their resources are stretched. I think that it behoves us now to review in detail the resources available to individual local authorities.
Earlier in the debate an hon. Member talked about the need to inculcate best practice across local authorities, and I agree, but best practice still relies on expert professionals being able to undertake inspections, work with the RSPCA and the voluntary sector, advise owners— some of this is about advising those involved in the industry on how to raise their standards—and, ultimately, ensure that there is enforcement. Having talked with other Members and local authorities in my area and elsewhere, I understand that those resources are not available.
I would like the Minister to engage in dialogue with local authorities and perhaps survey them on what resources are being devoted to the issue already and how they need to be strengthened. He could then bring the report back to the House so that we can properly undertake our role, which is to set objectives and ensure that a systematic process is in place and that we devote the resources for tackling the problem. That way, I think that we can manage to find a way forward. If we cannot do that, all the pious words and eloquent speeches we have heard will be irrelevant, and we will be back here in another four of five years to talk about more scandals and an excellent legislative regime that is not being implemented at the grass roots, where resources and implementation are vital.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow such a powerful speech, which drew on a long track record on this important issue. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), as other Members have done, for bringing forward such an incredibly important campaign. It has united Members across the Chamber. This has been one of the most positive and constructive debates I have taken part in. I am delighted that the campaign was highlighted in the Swindon Advertiser, in which the hon. Gentleman featured. We have all been contacted on social media by a great number of people. Interestingly, my Facebook page with the article on the campaign attracted over 60,000 views and 534 shares, which is 10 times more than for anything I have done before. That is no surprise, as 13 million households in this country have pets.
As Members have been naming their pets, I am delighted to say that my wife champions rescuing dogs—I have almost had to put in place a limit. Susie, our 11-year-old rescue dog, which we found on the Golden Oldies website, recently came second in the Lydiard park best rescue dog competition, which means international fame for her.
The mass commercial production of puppies purely for profit and without care for their welfare or happiness is a serious issue.
I sometimes feel that we do not fully understand who the people are who run those places. There is at least one puppy farm in my constituency, and the people who run it are linked to organised crime. Whether it is the exploiting of people or animals, drugs, or crash for cash, those people are willing to exploit anything, including the most vulnerable animals.
I thank the hon. Lady for that important intervention. The evidence shows that 95% of people would not wish to buy from puppy farmers, but over 900,000 people a year inadvertently do so. It is a hidden crime.
We have heard many important speeches on puppy farms, but I hope that it will also be acknowledged that it equally affects kittens, as the motion states. Having been a cat owner all my life—my current cat is called Naughty Cat—I hope that we can also ask for the regulation to be reviewed to take account of the impact on kittens and that owners are made suitably aware of the issue when seeking to buy a new cat.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important intervention—my cats, Monty and Maggie, will have cheered. They are very proud that they came from properly licensed breeders.
Despite the obvious concerns about animal cruelty, horrific breeding conditions, malnourishment, lack of socialisation, lack of immunisation and de-worming, contracting infectious diseases and puppies being separated from their mothers too early, people unknowingly support puppy farming by purchasing pups from unlicensed breeders, thereby fuelling the puppy farming industry and putting themselves at risk of spending thousands of pounds on a puppy that is doomed to die soon after reaching his or her new home.
We know that one in three purchased pets come through pet shops online, particularly sites such as Gumtree, which was very slow to react to improve standards, or via newspaper adverts. Credit is due to the Pup Aid campaign, set up by Marc Abraham—Marc the vet from television, who is a celebrity—with great support from the Kennel Club, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the Blue Cross, Cats Protection, Dogs Rescue Protection and the RSPCA. All the heavyweights from the animal welfare world support this incredibly important campaign.
In summary, we want to see mandatory regulation and licensing for all dog breeders in the UK, rather than just those who breed four or more litters a year, and a ban on pet shops selling puppies. The majority of pet shop puppies come from farms, and there is no reason to allow that to continue. There should be stricter adherence to the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973, which demands that no person may keep a breeding establishment for dogs without a licence granted by the proper authority. The granting of a licence requires inspections of breeding practices and premises by a veterinary surgeon or practitioner and an officer of the authority, giving consumers confidence, as supported by 95% of the British public.
We must also ensure that enforcement is consistent, good and happens everywhere, because all too often it is patchy at best. There needs to be strict adherence to the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which Pup Aid believes requires secondary legislation. I would not normally call for regulation, but on a matter of such importance, and with great support from the public, I think that this is one of those times when we can push for it. It would repeal any outdated legislation and could be introduced to prohibit the licensing of pet shops or retail outlets that sell puppies or kittens where the mother is not present. However, regulation alone is inadequate. We also need to ensure that enforcement officers are well trained and supported so that there are more frequent and tighter inspections for breeders, giving consumers confidence that they are getting what they believe they are getting.
In conclusion, we need to end the free-for-all of mass breeding of puppies and kittens that prioritises profit over welfare. The public want action and I and other Members across the House fully support that.
I am pleased to be taking part in this debate. Like other Members, I would like first to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello). He and the colleagues who have supported him so well have taken us into a most important debate. Clearly this matter strikes a chord across the country. If I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) correctly, about 125,000 people have now put their names to the e-petition. I am very pleased to say that my family’s names are proudly inscribed on it. We are a house of dog lovers. We can boast three Great Danes and a disgracefully overfed Labrador—well, a fat Labrador, which might not be uncommon in other Members’ households. My wife has gone to the trouble of rescuing three donkeys—now five—from various distressed situations in Britain and Europe. Their only function seems to be to ensure that we keep a very organic way of gardening under way at home. There are many humorous stories that we could all tell about our experiences of the pets in our families. A love of animals is deep in the psyche of the British people. We would do well to respect that and, more importantly, to respond to it in any way that we can.
I think that we can all agree that pre-eminent among the 125,000 people is Marc Abraham. His Pup Aid programme has touched the consciences of many people throughout our constituencies. One such person in my constituency is Joy Yeates, who has written to me unremittingly on this topic and who wanted to ensure that I was here today to contribute. I am conscious of the time, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I just want to read a short excerpt from the letter that she sent me most recently:
“Puppies need more than a cage, food and drink, as their emotional needs cannot possibly be met in this crucial period of development.”
I am sure that we all utterly agree with that. She continued:
“For that reason, Pup Aid is seeking a ban on the sale of puppies in pet shops where the mother is not present.”
I just want the hon. Gentleman to know that many people in Wokingham entirely echo his sentiments and those of his constituent. She has put it extremely well.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is very welcome, coming as it does from such a distinguished intellectual quarter of the Conservative party. It was up to his usual high intellectual standard.
Joy Yeates then urged me to attend this debate. I am pleased to be here and to give the point of view of those who want practical steps to be taken.
Although he is not present, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) has been foremost in saying that a huge strength of organisations are in support of us here. There have been a string of legislative attempts to tackle different aspects of the problem. Those have all been made with the best of intentions. Those of us who took part in the debates on the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 know that. I am pleased to say that I had a role in that. It is not easy to legislate in this area, and I caution against early legislation—certainly primary legislation. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who will speak for the Opposition today—although there is no party divide on this issue—agrees with me about that entirely.
There is a lot that we could do by looking at the series of legislation and guidance, and at the responsibilities as they are currently defined within local government. We could bring together and simplify the plethora of different and sometimes not wholly complementary sets of guidance and regulations to ensure that we know who is responsible for pursuing each aspect of the problem.
I do not expect the Minister to be able to say much about my next point. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South insisted that he did not want to get distracted by the internet, but we have to face the fact that if we succeed in bringing breeding under control, the internet will become the problem. My experience, in both north Wales and Clacton, was that the breeders were very responsible. Twelve weeks was the minimum period for which the puppies stayed with their mothers, so those were very good breeders. However, if we manage to do all that we are setting out to do, the internet will still be there and it will become ever more attractive as the other sources of puppies and so on are stopped. If the internet is as viral as I expect, in the sense that it attracts so much attention and demand—I hope that it will not be—we will have to find ways of dealing with it. That might mean having some mandatory restrictions on websites. I will leave that with the Minister, as well as the other problems.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister a coherent, clear-cut set of proposals that have been worked on, which will deal with the problem in a practical and sensible way, with minimal additional fuss and bother in terms of paperwork from the Government. I am very pleased to have taken part. Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Obviously, this is an emotive and emotional debate, especially for those of us who have welcomed dogs and cats into our homes and included them almost as members of our family. I will not talk about my own dog because it would be too emotional. Sadly, he has just passed away. However, I will talk about the dog of the former Member for Birmingham Sparkbrook, Lord Hattersley. He has written eloquently of his love for his departed dog, Buster. We all have similar stories to tell. It seems to me that dogs have many of the virtues that us politicians lack—particularly silence and loyalty.
Our sympathy for these animals reflects the comfort and companionship that they provide, particularly for elderly people, in our increasingly atomised society. Therefore, everybody who has spoken believes that we have a duty of care to these creatures and it is no surprise that so many of our constituents have written to us. They rightly feel strongly about the cruelties that puppies and kittens are forced to undergo in puppy farms, especially being separated far too early from their mothers.
The point that I want to make in this debate is that an extraordinarily wide scope of legislation is available to local authorities and Ministers already. We should be proud of that legacy of legislation in our country, which goes back well over 100 years. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1824 by a group of zealous reformers, including such illustrious Members of this House as William Wilberforce and Richard Martin—both of whom were, incidentally, good high Tories. In its first year, the society managed to bring more than 60 offences to the courts. It was awarded royal patronage by Queen Victoria in 1840. We all know of the vital work of the RSPCA, so it does not need to be underlined. There is already much legislation on the statute book. To name a few, we have the Pet Animals Act 1951, the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973, the Breeding of Dogs Act 1991 and the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999.
No one can deny the inhumane conditions that exist in puppy farms—they have been well listed today—and nobody can deny that more should be done to eliminate them from existence. Through their licensing of pet sellers, local authorities have all the inspection powers they need. When they are not satisfied that suitable welfare conditions exist, they can refuse operating licences.
I am listening to the thrust of my hon. Friend’s speech. He has named the different pieces of legislation. Does he agree that what is needed is a tidying up of the legislation, so that we have specific legislation that can be implemented efficiently and effectively?
That is a fair point and it leads directly to the last point that I need to make. All too often in this place, when we see abuses continuing, we fly to the temptation to create new legislation. What we need to do is to enforce the existing legislation better and ensure that it is modernised and updated, because it is in place.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the legislation being in place. Does he agree that consumer behaviour is the key to this issue? For example, parents who go with young children to look at puppies will often find themselves in a difficult place emotionally if they decide not to take the puppy that their children want, even if they do so because it is unsuitable, it is too young or there is no mother there. Does he agree that consumer behaviour is one of the things that we need to change?
That point is absolutely right.
We have to resist the temptation to legislate. I say gently to my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) that I am not sure that it would be wise to stop pet shops selling puppies through legislation in this place. That might be too heavy-handed. We have to be careful that we do not, because of our concern and emotion about these subjects, bring in more legislation that might be unenforceable. We must remember that enormous numbers of puppies are brought in from without the jurisdiction and from where we have very little control.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) makes an important point. First, we need to enforce the legislation that we already have. Local authorities have the powers. Secondly, we need to proclaim the message that the key to this problem—all the organisations and charities that are involved in this matter agree with him about this—is to inform the consumer. It is the consumer who must make the informed choice, as we did, to go to the dog breeders to see the puppy with the mother. They should not buy a puppy in some halfway location or go to a pet shop. They should do their research and work out whether they have the resources to look after what is a living creature. I hope that we can send that message from the debate, rather than calling for more and more legislation.
Would my hon. Friend like to explain how he would expect consumers to divine hidden illnesses among puppies and kittens that they are trying to buy?
That is a fair point, but we can send out the message that if people go to a responsible dog breeder rather than buy a puppy off the internet, they are far more likely to acquire a dog that will not have behavioural problems in the future and will have been raised with its mother in a healthy and proper way.
We need to explore how better to enforce existing legislation rather than add to the already deep panoply of laws and regulations. The Government are committed to not increasing regulation unless absolutely necessary. They should consider how they can better help local authorities to work against puppy farms, and Members of all parties, working together, must ensure that we create safe and humane conditions for animals throughout the United Kingdom.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on his persistent campaigning for stronger regulation of the sale of puppies and kittens. As many hon. Members have said, puppy farming is a horrendous business. Dogs are kept for their whole lives in often small, dark and filthy kennels, and they are used essentially as breeding machines. They have no chance to express their normal behaviours, and many suffer from untreated illnesses. Such farms really are factory farms for dogs. We need to grasp the opportunity to put an end to the barbaric practice of puppy and kitten farming once and for all.
We know that there are some key measures that we could decide to take that would make significant steps towards achieving that. That is why I want to add my voice to the many others asking the Government to take what steps they can today. I add my strong support for the measures set out in the motion, and I want to pay my own tribute to someone a number of hon. Members have mentioned, who has been a real driving force behind the campaign: the Pup Aid founder and Brighton-based vet Marc Abraham. His contribution to ending puppy farming and to animal welfare more generally is hugely impressive, and he has helped to assemble a formidable coalition, about which we have already heard a lot, including Blue Cross, the Dog Rescue Federation, the Dog Advisory Council, the Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club and the RSPCA. Added to that, as we know, the latest figure for the number of people who have signed the petition is about 125,000, so the strength of feeling across the country that we should be doing more to act is clear.
As a rescue dog owner myself—I got that dog from a wonderful RSPCA centre in Brighton—I want to add my voice to those of the many Brighton residents who have taken the time to write to share their concerns about puppy farming, and often to share their photographs, too.
I want to mention a vet whom I have been speaking to. It concerned me that she said that in her experience, the problem is actually becoming significantly worse. In her view, it will not change without some kind of intervention or regulation.
I share the hon. Lady’s concern about puppy farming. Banning puppy sales is one way of tackling the problem, but is that not just the tip of the iceberg? We need to consider the issue of supply, at the core of which is transportation from other jurisdictions. Should we not look at proper enforcement against the cruel transportation of puppies?
I certainly agree that we need to do that. My slight concern is that although some hon. Members are asking us to examine other issues, which we certainly should, that should not be at the expense of doing what we can here today. I completely take on board, for example, what the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said about animals coming from other jurisdictions or via the internet, which may be a harder nut to crack right now. However, that should not mean that we do not act now to take action on pet shops, garden centres and so on. I agree that that will not be a panacea or a silver bullet, but we can do it relatively straightforwardly. We should do it, because we can do it and it will make a difference.
I was speaking about the vet who had raised with me her concerns about pedigree puppy farming in particular, which can result in particularly grim conditions. Genetic problems range from serious breathing difficulties to chronic, lifelong skin allergies to crippling joint problems. The real concern is that some of those problems, such as obstructive airway syndrome, are seen as normal by those who are willing to put looks and fashion before animal welfare. A price tag of more than £1,000 is not uncommon for breeds such as pugs and bulldogs, and the inevitable outcome is more breeding to meet more demand.
That vet explained to me that in some breeds of bulldogs, the majority of bitches cannot give birth naturally and need a caesarean to deliver puppies. She explained that she had come across breeders who were so willing to put their dogs under repeat surgeries, so that they could keep breeding them for as long as it was profitable, that they literally bred the dogs to death.
Of course, some of the responsibility should stop with the consumers who are willing to pay to purchase dogs from puppy farms and bad breeders. That is why I welcome the fact that the motion mentions the importance of raising awareness. However, I believe that many people are simply not aware of the issue. They do not know that if they buy a puppy from a pet shop, it could have come from the type of grim background that we have described, so raising awareness is massively important.
The role of local authorities is also massively important, and I underline again the importance of ensuring that they are properly resourced to carry out the welfare checks that they have the right to do. However, that does not take away from the fact that the Government need to act as well. The vet that I have been referring to says that she does not believe the problem is
“likely to go away anytime soon without some kind of intervention or regulation.”
I believe that there is a case for overwhelming action today. The fact that we cannot do everything does not mean that we should not do anything. I very much hope that the Government will listen to the strength of feeling throughout the House and the country and swiftly take the measures that are within their power.
I will keep my remarks brief. I am concerned that a number of people no longer think that owning a dog, or indeed any pet, is a serious long-term commitment. That is shown by one statistic on dog ownership in the UK, which is that according to the RSPCA, one fifth of those who have bought a puppy within the last two years no longer own that dog. The definition of a commodity is
“a marketable item produced to satisfy consumer wants or needs”,
but puppy farmers consider only the wants or needs of the consumer. The wants or needs of their marketable item are irrelevant.
Britain is known across the world as a nation of pet lovers, but allowing the battery farming of puppies is cruel to the bitches involved and to their puppies. They are too frequently taken away from their litters far too early, unsocialised, traumatised and have health and temperament problems. With such a poor start in life, it is little wonder that they do not always settle easily into the families who buy them with such great hopes.
Allowing puppies who should become much loved family members to be traded as a commodity means that it is not only the dogs that lose out. People have also lost money, but many will also have lost their faith in dogs. The RSPCA, the Dogs Trust and smaller dog rescue charities such as Friends of the Animals and Bracken’s Dog Rescue on the Isle of Wight, pick up the pieces. All those excellent charities know only too well that puppy farms add to the problems. Too many dogs, many of whom are still young, need good, loving homes, which are harder and harder to find. We should therefore look carefully at reducing the number of litters. Many people think that two a year, rather than five, is the appropriate number to license. Local authorities should prosecute every time they find bad practice in licensed breeding premises.
Sentencing guidelines should make clear that practices typically associated with puppy farming are a serious criminal offence. Someone convicted of cruelty or poor dog breeding should be barred from holding a licence or working in any dog breeding establishment. Only then will we be able properly to tackle the cruel practices and horrible repercussions of puppy farming.
As a member of the Backbench Business Committee I am pleased that we are debating this subject, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on his speech. I agreed with every word.
In this country we have a wonderful record in animal welfare, in contrast with a number of other countries. If the Minister responds in a positive fashion to what he has heard this afternoon, and to the huge number of representations made by constituents throughout the country, I think our stock will grow further. Before this debate, behind the scenes, I tried to do something about this issue, and I had a meeting with the splendid Lord de Mauley. He listened carefully to everything I said, and at the end of the meeting he suggested that I write a letter. I say to the Minister, in a kind way, that I want him to be brave this afternoon. I want him to tear up the speech drafted for him by civil servants, and—unlike my colleagues who feel that we do not need legislation—I want him to respond in a positive fashion to what he has heard. We all know that on occasion civil servants will say, “No, Minister.”
I had the privilege of serving on the Bill Committee for the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which amended the Protection of Animals Act 1911. The 1986 Act was groundbreaking at the time and dealt with a huge range of cruelty that was meted out to animals in this country. Since that time there have been many other attempts, and in my rather ham-fisted way I tried to promote the Dogs Bill in 1989, and the Pet Animals (Amendment) Bill in 1990. I therefore say to my colleagues that although I agree that we as Conservatives are against legislation, we need to do a tidying-up exercise.
I want to praise Clarissa Baldwin of the Dogs Trust, Rosemary Smart of the Kennel Club, the wonderful vet Marc Abraham, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan). All those people are judges in the Westminster dog of the year show, and I will be entering—yet again—my two rescued pugs, Botox and Lily. They are somewhat depressed after parading before the judges, year after year, and getting absolutely nowhere. I have now got them into an arranged marriage, so I think the least that they could be awarded would be the prize for best married dogs in the show. I will not mention kittens because I will leave that to my good friend Ann Widdecombe.
I congratulate all organisations that have worked so hard on this issue. The provisions in the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999 are inadequate. The wording of the Act is confusing and leaves too much space for individual interpretation. Producing five litters every year is absolutely ridiculous—two is quite enough. I hope the Minister will respond positively to that.
My hon. Friend and I came to the House on the same day, and he will recall that since the late Nicholas Ridley abolished the dog licence, there has been resistance by successive Governments to the establishment of a “Swansea for dogs”. The fact of the matter is—the Minister needs to understand this—that unless and until every animal sold is properly registered, vaccinated and documented, and there are proper controls over the breeding and sale of not just dogs but cats as well, the problem will not be solved. The time has come for legislation.
I agree with my hon. Friend. We have stood shoulder to shoulder for more than 30 years, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), and I hope that the Minister will forget his brief and respond positively to all the remarks made this afternoon.
When pressing the Minister, will my hon. Friend bear in mind that it is all very well our hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) saying that an amount of self-regulation can be involved—such as insisting on seeing the mother of the animal—but that does not take into account the emotional side and what people feel when they see a puppy? Therefore stronger legislation and restrictions need to be in place.
I agree with my hon. Friend, although I am not sure about his earlier remarks about the castration of his dog. It is crucial that puppies are exposed to extensive social interaction and stimuli during the first 12 to 14 weeks of their lives, but that is more than commercial farmers are willing to provide. As a result, dogs coming from commercial puppy farms are undoubtedly more aggressive, less responsive, and less trainable. Current legislation regulating the operation of pet shops dates back to 1951—a very long time ago. We need to change the legislation, particularly to reflect the impact of the internet, which is the issue that has brought so many colleagues to the House this afternoon. The Pet Animals Act 1951 appears only to address the physical requirements that pet shops need to meet. It takes no account of the mental well-being of a pet being sold, or of dogs that need physical exercise. Clear guidance needs to be provided to local authorities.
I have also been made aware of the growing problem of illegal dog importation to the United Kingdom, and I urge the Secretary of State to examine how the influx of puppies from rabies-endemic eastern European countries can be addressed. I say again to the Minister: be bold, tear up the speech, and do something to stop puppy and kitten farming.
It is a privilege to speak at the end of this debate, because it has been a good debate and all parties have come together. I have the great pleasure of chairing the all-party group on animal welfare, and I believe this is an issue that we all care strongly about.
There are more than 11 million cats in this country, and Blue Cross and Cats Protection take in between 4,000 and 5,000 stray cats and kittens a month. That shows the scale of the problem with not only puppies but kittens. If kittens are taken too early from their mother, not only is that bad for their welfare, but most will probably depart this world for health reasons. We must be clear about that.
It is more important than ever to ensure that we can enforce whatever legislation is in place—I am sure that is what the Minister will speak about this afternoon. It is no good having legislation that we cannot enforce. This is not just an animal welfare problem. When someone chooses a puppy, they are bringing an animal into their household. They may have young children, and that puppy is potentially dangerous and could grow into a dangerous dog. If people do not see the mother of that puppy and the environment in which it has been raised, they will not know what could happen in their family with that puppy.
With the internet, it is becoming much easier to access a puppy, and if someone goes to buy one and their child picks it up and loves it, it is difficult for them to say they are not going to buy it. Not only will the puppy be difficult from a welfare and behavioural point of view, it may be suffering from many diseases. It probably will not have had proper inoculations or been dealt with properly, whether it has come from a badly managed puppy farm or from eastern European countries where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) mentioned, rabies and other diseases are a problem. We must act on all those issues to protect people from buying the wrong type of puppy or kitten.
I am not against designer dogs such as Cockapoos or Labradoodles, but they are expensive. People decide they want this type of dog, they look on the internet and they see a puppy that is half or a third of the normal price of a Cockapoo or Labradoodle. Naturally, people buy the cheaper puppy, which has probably come in from central or eastern Europe. Therein lies the problem.
I welcome the Government’s introduction of microchipping, but we have to make sure that it happens. Will those who breed puppies in their backyards and should not be breeding puppies be the sort of people who will microchip them? No, they will not.
My hon. Friend is making such a superb speech that I think we need to hear an extra minute, so may I ask him if he is aware of the work of wonderful charities such as Woofability in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope)? Such charities train dogs beautifully to do tremendous work for disabled people, such as pulling their socks off, taking the washing out of the washing machine and all sorts of tasks that able-bodied people think nothing of doing, but which are of huge assistance to someone confined to a wheelchair?
My hon. Friend highlights not only that dogs can help people with certain tasks that they are unable to do themselves, but that a dog is a part of the family and an individual’s life. For many elderly people, their dog becomes their life, so if they lose a dog and then buy the wrong type of puppy—it might be diseased or have huge behavioural problems—that becomes a serious social issue as well. It is imperative, therefore, that we deal with the situation.
The Minister has many weapons in his armoury already, but there is not enough enforcement. Are we tracking vans coming through the ports of Dover and elsewhere with illegal puppies? Are we checking them? Do we know what is coming in? Are we checking the microchips already in dogs? According to Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and Blue Cross, only a third of the microchips they see in puppies and dogs are accurate. Not only do puppies need to be properly microchipped, but we need a national database to trace where dogs have come from.
If we ignore this situation, I fear it will get worse. People have got so used to buying clothes, shoes or whatever on the internet that unfortunately they think they can do the same with puppies. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have strongly made the argument that, for goodness sake, when someone buys a puppy, they should make sure they know where it has come from, have seen its mother, have seen where it has been bred and know how the mother behaved, so that they know what they are bringing into their home and can have a successful and loving pet. That is what people in this country believe in. The vast majority of people do a good job, but we have to stamp down hard on the rogues in our society.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate about the sale of puppies and kittens and the related issues of puppy farming and so on. Before I make my contribution, however, may I, like every other speaker, pay tribute to the Pup Aid campaign and especially to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), who has led the way in Parliament on this issue and has clearly illustrated today the problems we face in relation to the trade in the breeding and sale of puppies and kittens?
As most colleagues have done today, I also pay tribute to Marc Abraham, the television vet, who has been tireless in his campaigning. I have worked with him closely over the past two years or so and can confirm that he has made a great contribution to this debate. It is impossible to be anything other than impressed by his commitment to the cause of animal welfare. Pup Aid has run a successful campaign, with over 100,000 signatures secured for its e-petition—hence the debate today. This itself is a testimony to the success of the campaign and the importance of the issues it raises, as is the number of right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed this afternoon. We have learned a great deal about colleagues’ opinions—and about their pets as well.
The Government’s record on the issue is disappointing, but I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to correct that situation and do as the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) suggested and give us some positive movement. Puppy farming is widely perceived to be more and more of a problem, while the importation of puppies has increased massively in recent years. For example, in 2012 the importation of dogs from Hungary increased on the previous year by more than 450%, and from Romania by more than 1,150%. Coupled with these rises, the number of online sales of puppies and kittens has increased significantly, which must be a major concern to anybody who thinks that animal welfare is important, yet we have seen little response from the Government to this wide range of issues, which includes, of course, the sale of puppies and kittens in retail outlets.
It is worse than that, however, because the Government have also failed properly to get to grips with wider dog welfare issues relating to dog control and responsible ownership. And although measures such as the prosecution of owners whose dogs attack on private property are welcome—indeed, we pressed for them—it has to be said that the Government dragged their feet and took far too long to get these measures on the statute book.
If we are to respond effectively to problems with the breeding and sale of puppies and kittens, we need to take a comprehensive approach, because the challenges raised by the sale of puppies and kittens in pet shops represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of concerns about animal welfare standards. As I have made clear, we need to look not just at the issue in the motion, but more broadly at breeding practices, the growing trade in online sales and issues arising out of the misuse of the pet travel scheme—PETS—by commercial puppy breeding interests.
We are committed to doing just that and to working with animal welfare organisations and other stakeholders to review the trade in the breeding and sale of puppies and kittens, as my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) said. The Animal Welfare Act 2006, introduced by the last Labour Government, sets a useful benchmark for such a review, and Labour remains proud of what it achieved with this legislation. Importantly, for the first time it embedded in statute clear standards relating to the welfare of domestic animals. The five tests set out in the Act are now taken as a practical template for animal welfare assessment, and we will use this legislation as the starting point for our review.
Today’s debate has given a necessary airing to the growing problem of the irresponsible breeding and sale of puppies and kittens, and many Members have made excellent contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) talked about problems with the importation of commercially bred dogs under PETS, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who also talked about the relationship between the puppy and the mother and the need for the mother to be present at the point of sale. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) talked about the emotional needs of puppies and my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) talked about the measures being taken by the Welsh Assembly. We look forward to hearing more about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) talked about the trade in the breeding and sale of puppies and kittens and the need for the highest welfare standards.
I want to conclude my remarks by paying tribute to the wider animal welfare movement, which has worked tirelessly to highlight the issues raised today, and indeed has attempted in some instances to establish creative responses to them. The RSPCA, for instance, has campaigned vigorously to draw attention to the abuse of the pets travel scheme, and has also worked hard to establish the case for a review of the current status of the standards applying to the breeding and sale of puppies and kittens. The Dogs Trust has led the way with its campaign for compulsory microchipping, and has played a key role within the Pet Advertising Advisory Group to establish new, higher standards for adverts on websites. May I also take this opportunity to mark, on the record, the outstanding contribution to dog welfare made by Clarissa Baldwin, the outgoing and long-serving—very long-serving—chief executive of the Dogs Trust?
Finally, I pay tribute to the Kennel Club, which 10 years ago developed an assured breeder scheme that now has 8,000 members. The case for a comprehensive review of standards in the breeding and sale of puppies and kittens is clear—it must be a review that will have at its heart the welfare of these animals. They deserve nothing less, and as a society that prides itself on our attitudes towards animal welfare, we must not let them down.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), who I know has been a long-standing campaigner on these issues. I am sure he will recall, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) said, that I pursued these issues when I was a member of the Select Committee. It would be remiss of me of not to mention Mono, my now deceased pet dog. He was a rescue dog from the RSPCA who, like many others, was a wonderfully dedicated friend, albeit with some behavioural issues.
Let me deal first with some of the issues on which the Government have made progress—tackling irresponsible owners, for example. We have increased the penalty for serious dog attacks and have made it an offence to have a dog attack on private land. We have tightened the law, too, when it comes to dog attacks on guide dogs, and we have introduced compulsory chipping. I recognise, however, that today’s theme has been about a different issue—the welfare of puppies. I have always been clear that we must look after the welfare of puppies and ensure that they are properly socialised. As many hon. Members have mentioned, that is crucial for the behaviour of the dogs as they grow up and mature.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) asked me to tear up my script and speak from the heart. I can confirm that I never asked for a script in the first place. I scribbled some notes of what Members said, and I want to use the available time to deal with as many points as I can.
On pet passports, I can confirm that a new EU regulation is tightening the rules of the EU pet passport scheme. From December this year, it will no longer be possible for a dog under 12 weeks to be vaccinated prior to transportation under the scheme. There is then a three-week period throughout which the puppy must remain in residence before it can be moved. In practice, that means that from December this year, no puppy or dog can be lawfully transported to this country under the pet passport scheme unless it is at least 15 weeks old.
Many hon. Members rightly raised the issue of the internet. The biggest concerns put to us by the animal welfare charities related not so much to the problem of puppy farms as to that of backstreet breeders that are completely unregulated and unlicensed. In many cases, the people involved are not the right people to be breeding dogs at all, and in the worst cases, they maltreat the puppies deliberately to make them violent by giving them violent traits—the so-called “status dogs”. That is a major concern, which is why at the end of last year, my noble Fried Lord de Mauley brought together a group in connection with the Pet Advertising Advisory Group to put in place a voluntary code, which has been running since the beginning of the year. I can tell hon. Members today that, since that code was put in place, 100,000 adverts have been removed from the internet. I pay tribute to the work done by the internet companies that acted so responsibly and by all the volunteers who took part in monitoring the internet for that purpose. Given the scale of the problem, I hope hon. Members will understand that making further progress on the internet continues to be our main priority.
Let me touch on the contentious issue of the five-litter threshold, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She is right. When I sat on the Committee, we highlighted some concerns about the five-litter threshold being too high. Hon. Members who follow what has happened will know that the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999 states that anyone carrying on a business of breeding and selling puppies must have a licence, irrespective of the number of litters. However, a second clause, always intended as an anti-avoidance clause, said that irrespective of who owns the puppies on a particular premise, a licence is compulsory if there are more than five litters. That was to prevent people from claiming that some of dogs belonged to their brothers, sisters, father or whoever.
Over the last few years, however, or since the legislation was introduced, it has been apparent that local authorities have taken the five-litter threshold to be the one to work towards. It became something of a mystery, which we managed to solve last night. The reason is that in 1999 when the Act was put in place under the last Government, the Home Office sent out a circular indicating for local authorities that in most situations five litters should be taken as the threshold to use.
Will the Minister give way?
Let me finish the point. Since that time, it would be fair to say—from all the representations made during today’s debate and from the recommendations of the Select Committee—that this is the wrong way to interpret the legislation. Those carrying on a business of breeding and selling dogs should be required to have a licence. I can confirm that we will write to local authorities to provide new clarity through new guidance so that they can interpret the Act in the spirit intended by the House today.
Pet shops are a key item of today’s debate. It is important to recognise that only about 2% of pet shops sell cats and dogs—around 70 in total—and they are already regulated and licensed. They are regulated under the Pet Animals Act 1951. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South asked me to clarify whether local authorities have the additional power to place restrictions on which animals can be sold at a licensed pet shop establishment. I can confirm that they do have the power to restrict the number of animals that can be sold. He asked, too, about the issue of ambiguity and contestability in that context. Let me clarify that the intention of the provision is for local authorities to judge on a case-by-case basis whether a particular premise is suitable for a particular animal to be sold. It is not necessary for local authorities to change the law; it is for them to have considerable discretion in making a judgment about whether it is appropriate for certain animals to be sold on the authority’s premises.
The hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) made the important point that much can be done within the existing regulations. I agree. In January this year, along with the RSPCA, the Dogs Trust and many other charities and organisations, we contributed to some model licence conditions that were made available to all local authorities and were published by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. These included 50 pages of recommendations about the sorts of conditions that should be included in a licence for dog-breeding premises. There were strict provisions on the need for social interaction with humans, which should apply for the whole day if the buyers were present all the time.
In addition, in September 2013 we published the model conditions for pet vending, which also set out strict conditions for pet shops about the need for interaction with staff and humans. It is specifically recommended that at least four times a day a human should spend at least 20 minutes with the puppies on sale. We have already put in place important guidance on these issues.
I would like to conclude by saying that we have had a really important debate. I, too, have received many hundreds of letters on the issue and it is clearly of great importance to the country. We have 8 million dogs in this country and we are a nation of animal lovers.
Before the Minister concludes, will he respond on the issue of local authority resources, which was raised by several Members?
All I can say on that issue is that the internet will make it easier for some local authorities to identify where they have a problem. One thing we have done in the new code, agreed with the Pet Advertising Advisory Group, is provide that where a licence is held it must be advertised, and where it is not held contact details should be advertised. That gives local authorities a ready way to identify where they have the most serious problems.
In conclusion, we have had a good and important debate. The Government are committed to improving animal welfare, as I am personally. I hope that my comments today will help reassure the House that the Government are doing a considerable amount to move this item forward.
First, I congratulate all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in today’s debate on the important contribution they have made to moving this issue forward. I hope that the weight of feeling we have heard expressed in this Chamber sends a clear message—I think the Minister has heard it—that more needs to be done now. I welcome the clarification that local authorities can act where they feel it is inappropriate for pet shops to sell puppies and kittens. If I heard correctly, they can use the powers under the 1951 Act, if they decide to do so, to stop that. May I urge him to write to those local authorities, perhaps in conjunction with the Department for Communities and Local Government, to point out to them that they have that ability?
Let me use the 1951 Act to highlight something. A number of right hon. and hon. Members have said that the legislation is fine and that this is just a matter of enforcement, but the legislation is not fine. The 1951 Act does not talk about socialisation—the guidance might, but the Act does not require socialisation. It also does not make provision in respect of emotional needs, although the guidance mentions a total of 80 minutes a day. The Act does not talk about those things, and it does not deal with puppies and kittens being taken from their mums at four weeks—certainly earlier than eight weeks—or with the question, “Where’s mum?” One message I want to get across is, “If that genuinely is not the mum of the litter of kittens or puppies, do not touch it with a bargepole. Think very carefully about where you are doing your shopping.”
The debate has covered a wide spectrum of issues: irresponsible breeders, microchipping, the internet, foreign imports, the requirements of legislation and the requirements of enforcement. I know from my conversations with Labour’s Front-Bench team, and with a host of the charities that have been talked about today, that there is a willingness to work with the Government and alongside DEFRA to get this right and get it sorted.
Finally, may I close by paying tribute to the fantastic work done by Marc and Pup Aid and to all the charities that have been cited today? This is the start; this is the foot in the door. We need to do a lot more for the sake of all the puppies and kittens—and their mothers—that are leading horrendous lives and being raised in the most cruel conditions. Although this is just the start and there is much more to do, I thank everyone for today’s debate and I thank the Backbench Business Committee. I look forward to pestering it in future for yet more debates on this issue, although I hope I will not need them because the Minister will hear what we have said and make sure that we work further together.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the e-petition relating to the sale of young puppies and kittens; notes that puppies produced at large-scale commercial breeding establishments, known as puppy farms, and irresponsibly-bred kittens are separated from their mothers too early and often transported long distances, and as a result often suffer serious life-threatening problems including impaired immune systems, poor socialisation, infectious diseases and shorter life spans; calls on the Government to review existing legislation to ensure that it is consistent with its own guidance that prospective owners should always see the puppy or kitten with its mother, and to ban the sale of puppies and kittens from retail centres such as pet shops, garden centres or puppy supermarkets; further notes the support of the Blue Cross, Dog Rescue Federation, Dogs Advisory Council, Dogs Trust, The Kennel Club, RSPCA and others for such a ban; and further calls on the Government and welfare organisations to work together to raise awareness among the public about choosing a dog responsibly from only ethical breeders or by adoption from legitimate rescue organisations, and to consider further steps to end the cruel practice of irresponsible and unethical breeding of puppies and kittens in the UK.