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Greyhound Welfare

Volume 589: debated on Wednesday 17 December 2014

Because the previous debate ended early, the final debate of the day may continue for up to 41 minutes, so we have until 5.23 pm.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.

Coming from a family of bookmakers, and having worked in the industry, I feel that I have been around horses and dogs all my life. Indeed, after setting up the betting shop with the race cards and newspapers, and after writing the “off slips” that signify the start of the races, my day would officially start with a piercing bell signifying that the 11 am greyhound race from Romford or Walthamstow was about to begin. Each Christmas, our work outing would be a night of dog racing just down the M4 at Swindon’s race track.

I make it clear that, when it is well regulated, greyhound racing can be a fun pastime. Even though it was a bit before my time, I can still remember the names of Ballyregan Bob and Scurlogue Champ from when the races were shown on that staple of Wednesday nights, “Sportsnight” on the BBC. Over the years I have known a few greyhound owners and trainers. In the main, they are dog lovers who treat their animals well.

Greyhound racing supports in excess of 7,000 jobs in the UK, and it is sustained by more than 4,000 owners. Additionally, the industry generates more than £55 million in taxation. However, there are two major problems with greyhound racing that are having a serious impact on the dogs themselves: prize money and welfare. The betting industry is inextricably linked with the sport of greyhound racing. As a betting product, greyhound racing has never been more popular. Some £2.5 billion is staked on the outcome of greyhound races each year. William Hill owns and operates two tracks, one at Sunderland and another at Newcastle. I welcome the fact that William Hill voluntarily pays more than £2 million to the British greyhound racing fund, which is an example that many betting companies making profits from the industry should follow. However, that is simply not the case with many online operators, including betting exchanges, which do not contribute a penny to the industry.

Whereas horse racing is subject to the Horserace Betting Levy Board, which collects a statutory levy from the horse racing business of bookmakers to be distributed for the improvement of horse racing and the breeds of horses, and for the advancement of veterinary science and education, greyhound racing could be termed a poor cousin. Greyhound racing has only a voluntary levy that is not enshrined in law and that sees a percentage of off-course betting turnover—currently 0.6%—returned to the sport. The levy amounts to approximately £12 million a year and is used to finance welfare and integrity work, the promotion of the sport and commercial activities.

Greyhound racing provides a core betting sport. Unlike horse racing, which is thriving, attendance at many greyhound tracks is dwindling. The independent Greyhound Board of Great Britain regulates the sport and maintains its integrity and well-being. I commend the board on its decision to ensure that all greyhounds are looked after, and microchipping the animals means that owners are always traceable. I have argued in the past that all dogs, regardless of breed, whether they are a working dog or a family pet, should be microchipped. In the summer my own dog went walkabout and would have been lost for good had I not microchipped him as a pup. To see the industry lead the way can only be a good thing.

However, low prize winnings put pressure on breeders, trainers and race tracks, who have to put on more races to make greyhound racing pay. More races mean more pups and more retired greyhounds that are sadly abandoned after their racing days are over. I again make it clear that it is no good tarring everyone with the same brush. In the main, trainers, dog owners and race track owners are people who love dogs and love greyhound racing, but a small minority are causing problems.

In 2004, a greyhound had to be put down when it was found in an extremely distressed state by a member of the public on a mountainside between Fochriw and Bargoed in the Rhymney valley—I do not represent those two villages, but I represent the lower part of Rhymney valley, which is in the Islwyn constituency. The dog had been shot with a nail gun and its ears, which were probably tattooed, had been cut off to stop identification. I have read that that is common practice in Ireland, although I appreciate that the Minister does not have jurisdiction there.

In 2010, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs adopted a system of self-regulation. When the system was instigated we were promised an end to the abuses of the past such as the one reported by The Sunday Times in 2006. The report found that, over 15 years, more than 10,000 healthy but unwanted greyhounds had been shot with a bolt gun and buried in a garden. That unofficial abattoir and graveyard was servicing licensed greyhound trainers. The practice was part and parcel of the greyhound racing industry. The chairman of the Greyhound Board of Great Britain admitted that it was “very plausible” for there to be similar operations that had not yet been uncovered.

Progress has been made, and I commend the efforts of the greyhound racing industry. However, according to the Society of Greyhound Veterinarians, the dimensions of the track and the all-weather conditions in which greyhounds are forced to race lead to high injury rates. Greyhounds suffer bone fractures, skin trauma, lacerations and a host of other problems, many requiring euthanasia. Most damning of all, each and every year, thousands of healthy greyhounds that could be re-homed and lead happy and long lives are needlessly and horribly put to sleep.

The all-party group on animal welfare estimates that a minimum of 4,728 racing greyhounds are unaccounted for each year—the majority are destroyed. The APGAW’s report states that the figure is

“likely to be a significant underestimation of the true scale of the problem of unwanted dogs being destroyed.”

We are now four years into self-regulation, and the racing industry’s problems are still prevalent, and it is not as if Ministers do not know. The APGAW, Lord Donoughue—who was commissioned by the industry—the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Greyhound Rescue Wales and the League Against Cruel Sports have all shown time and again that some greyhounds lead a life of abuse, neglect and early death.

In a wide-ranging and comprehensive report, “The state of greyhound racing in Great Britain—a mandate for change”, the League Against Cruel Sports outlined how a new regulatory system might work. Such a system could improve the lives of greyhounds and make the sport fulfil its obligations to racing dogs. However, any new system must be based on evidence, transparency and the public interest. DEFRA’s five-year review of the statutory instrument must be open to the public. I invite the Minster to make that commitment. Once the full facts are in the open, action must be taken to ensure the welfare of greyhounds.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. Does he agree that more statistics are needed on the fate of greyhounds? Does he welcome the moves by charities to start doing that on a basis that the industry itself does not seem to want?

Yes, I welcome those moves. It is worrying that so many greyhounds have gone missing. We must look at how their lives begin and end. When the greyhound was found on the side of a mountain in my part of the world, we could only conclude that his ears were cut of so he could not be identified. It was a terrible incident.

Once all the facts are in the open, there must be six changes. I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s thoughts on each of them. First, we must create an independent welfare regulatory body to oversee all greyhound racing—both licensed and independent—and it must include representatives from animal welfare organisations. Secondly, there must be full transparency. Those involved in greyhound racing must be required by law to disclose welfare information at the national and track level to the regulatory body each quarter. Thirdly, the use of substances such as testosterone and anabolic steroids on greyhounds must be prohibited. Fourthly, we must introduce greyhound passports so the welfare regulator is able to track every dog from birth, which will end the enigma of the thousands of greyhounds that go missing each year. Fifthly, there must be a statutory requirement on tracks, trainers and owners to re-home all racing greyhounds. Sixthly, we must introduce breeding controls, set up a licensing regime for British breeders and create joint initiatives with DEFRA and the devolved nations to tackle over-breeding.

Ministers could make those simple changes this side of the election if they wished. The Minister must tell us why the Government are allowing this sorry state of affairs to continue. The Government must step up to the plate, and I urge the Minister to do so today.

Although I believe that the betting industry has been unfairly criticised over the years, that does not stop me, as somebody who worked in it, being a critical friend. We should introduce a measure for greyhound racing similar to the horseracing levy. Those who make money out of racing should give something back, in much the same way as William Hill does. The levy should be statutory, rather than voluntary, otherwise the betting companies will simply not play ball. The choice is simple: either we have an independent welfare regulation system backed up by legislation and funded by a greyhound levy, or racing greyhounds will continue to face the horrible conditions that they do now. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this timely debate. As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.

I am a greyhound owner. I love greyhounds, and I take great exception to people who know little about this wonderful sport classifying me as a “terrorist in sport” because I want to raise those wonderful animals. I co-chair the all-party group on greyhounds, and I have had lots of e-mails from people across Europe telling me that I am a bad individual for supporting this great sport.

Greyhound racing is widely watched and loved by millions of people—not just here in the UK, but across the globe. I really take exception to anybody who suggests that I do not look after my dogs. I have had hundreds of greyhounds: fast ones, slow ones, ones that have never made the track and ones that have reached five years of age. I have looked after every one of the animals I have had or been associated with from the day they came into my ownership to they day they sadly passed on.

The vast majority of owners do the responsible thing, but of course I accept that some people out there do not. Greyhound racing is a great sport, but it is tarnished by a secret few and a murky past. My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn mentioned the event in Seaham a few years ago, when up to 10,000 dogs—most, but not all, were greyhounds—were found to have been killed by an individual. It brought tears to not only my eyes, but the eyes of anybody who has anything to do with the sport. It took the sport back 30 or 40 years—it was an outrage.

We have moved on since then. We have all heard the great tales of people stopping dogs running with pork pies and by putting elastic bands around their feet, and of people painting greyhounds to look like different dogs. If only a few of those tales were true, it would be half-amusing. People who try to besmirch this brilliant sport continue to perpetuate those myths because they are great tales to tell.

In the past, there were many instances of greyhounds, lurchers and other dogs of that type of breed being found on hillsides, like the dog that my hon. Friend spoke about. It is an outrage and brings tears to everybody’s eyes. Every time a single greyhound is left like that, it takes the sport back 10 years. We need to move forward.

Of course, there is a massive problem with welfare. The statistics show that. But we should not be looking to ban the sport, because it is a fantastic sport that is enjoyed by many people across the globe, from owners to spectators. We have 30 tracks or more in the UK. We have got to address the welfare problem, because every time there is a positive story about greyhound racing, such as the Towcester track, which opened two weeks ago—its official opening was on Saturday night, and it was a great event—it is tarnished by the welfare issue. We can take massive positive steps, but they are always tarnished by welfare. We should not turn our backs on the welfare issue because it is extremely important.

We need more transparency in the sport, as my hon. Friend suggested. Today, if somebody buys a greyhound, they get a passport with it. Every time the greyhound runs, its passport is marked. Since the Welfare of Racing Greyhounds Regulations 2010 and the Donoughue review, every greyhound is now microchipped, so there is a complete trail of ownership and the details of the individual greyhound are stored. Dogs are no longer allowed to run unless they are microchipped. That shining example of protecting welfare can be applied to all types of animal, but greyhound racing has been a leading light. Every track is now required to have a vet present during racing time.

Order. Mr Lavery, you have had more than six minutes. Another Member wishes to speak and the Minister must respond. Could you wind up?

Thank you very much, Ms Dorries. I thank the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn for allowing me to speak.

We must work with the trainers, the owners, the Greyhound Board of Great Britain, the Greyhound Trainers Association, the Dogs Trust and the Retired Greyhound Trust. Everybody must pull together to tackle the welfare issue and put greyhound racing on a firm footing for the future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important issue. I also thank the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), with whom I co-chair the all-party group on greyhounds.

I come from Romford, which is a greyhound racing town. There is a greyhound stadium in my constituency, where I have always lived. Therefore, for me it is very important that we get this issue right. We support greyhound racing, but as the hon. Members for Islwyn and for Wansbeck said, it is important that we uphold the welfare of the animals. I will focus on welfare in my brief remarks today.

The greyhound is, of course, a remarkable athlete. It is one of the oldest canine breeds; it is mentioned in the Bible, in Chaucer and in Shakespeare. Greyhounds have often been owned by members of the royal family.

In the UK, the greyhound industry is thriving, and it is an exciting industry. It not only brings in £55 million in taxation per annum but supports more than 7,000 jobs, which are linked to the 30 or so greyhound racing tracks around the country. Greyhound racing is a traditional British pastime and many people around the UK spend a lot of their life involved in it. It is very important that we do not take it away from them.

Let me state, as chairman of the all-party group on greyhounds, that whatever we feel about greyhound racing, the important thing is that we never forget about the welfare of the 8,000 dogs that enter and leave the sport every year. The sport itself must be supported, but only on the basis that the dogs are properly looked after during their racing days and when they finish racing.

I am pleased that much progress has made by the industry since the introduction of the Welfare of Racing Greyhounds Regulations 2010. The Greyhound Board of Great Britain has maintained the standards that afford it accreditation by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service. All racing greyhounds are microchipped and, under the GBGB rules of racing, owners are responsible for their greyhounds when the dogs’ racing days come to an end. In addition, the GBGB conducts a vigorous anti-doping regime, taking more than 9,000 samples a year. Of these, well over 99% are negative.

Charities such as the Retired Greyhound Trust, of which I am a trustee and a proud vice-president, serve to further the welfare of greyhounds when their racing days are over. The RGT is the largest single-breed re-homing charity in Britain and last year it found homes for 3,742 greyhounds. Unfortunately, the RGT and other charities are simply unable to help all the dogs that leave racing, and I welcome any assistance the sport is able to give these charities in that respect. The hon. Member for Islwyn emphasised the importance of that.

However, the recent report into greyhound racing in the UK by the League Against Cruel Sports has raised many concerns. While it is important for the sport to be held to account, it is my opinion that this report does not necessarily represent all the facts as they truly are, and in some cases it uses data that are simply not correct. For instance, the report claims:

“Most racing greyhounds spend 95% of their time confined in a kennel”,

when the truth is that they spend 95% of their time at a kennel, because quite simply that is where they reside and where they have access to paddocks, runs and walks on a daily basis. I do not believe that twisting the facts in that manner helps the debate and we should be careful not to take information at face value, rather than checking whether it is based on fact or just hearsay.

The GBGB is working with the Greyhound Forum to improve transparency on the information about injuries and trackside euthanasia rates, which means that this information is now available to many animal welfare organisations. However, I know that many of these organisations would like to see this transparency increased and for the GBGB to improve outside understanding of the injuries that greyhounds sustain and of the remedies that are used.

It is also regarded as important that the GBGB shares information about the number of greyhounds that retire each year, and about exactly where these dogs go. Perhaps that is one area where the industry could work more closely with the Greyhound Forum.

The greyhound industry and the GBGB are insistent on their commitment to the welfare of the animals with which they work. To retain the public’s support for greyhound racing, and the support of all those who care about the well-being of the animals, I strongly urge the industry and the GBGB to continue along the path of greater transparency.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on raising this issue. I was interested to hear about his background in and experience of greyhounds, as well as the direct experience of greyhounds of the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery). I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) has a long-standing record of championing animal welfare issues; he has clearly followed this issue particularly closely.

The treatment of racing greyhounds, both during and after their racing lives, is also a matter of concern for the public. This debate is very timely, because I will be able to say a few words about what the Government will be doing on greyhound racing during the coming months, and in particular about our plans to review the current regulations early next year.

Earlier this year, I took my constituent Trudy Baker, who is a prominent member of the Greyt Exploitations charity, to see Lord De Mauley, who is a Minister. On 1 April, Lord De Mauley wrote to me promising the setting up of a review group to assess the 2010 regulations. Has that group been set up? If so, when will it report?

I was going to come on to say that the original legislation envisaged a review in 2015. Work towards that review has already begun with officials, and the intention—as I was going to say later on—is that we shall shortly have a discussion with stakeholders and those involved in greyhound racing, before going to a wider public consultation. I myself have had the opportunity to talk to Lord De Mauley, who leads on this particular issue in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I know that he has visited greyhound racetracks and has already met many stakeholders to discuss these particular issues.

I shall first set out the current legislative framework covering the welfare of greyhounds in England. This matter is, of course, a devolved one. However, it is a reality that the majority of greyhound tracks in Britain—some 30 out of 34 tracks—are in England. There are a further three tracks in Scotland and one in Wales. The majority of those 30 tracks in England—24 in total—are currently affiliated to the Greyhound Board of Great Britain. Following the 2007 report on greyhound racing that was led by Lord Donoughue, the GBGB has been the main governing body of the sport since January 2009. However, there are a further six tracks that are currently not affiliated to the GBGB: these are the so-called independent tracks, which tend to be smaller. They race independently of the GBGB.

Just to clarify that point, does the Minister mean that those independent tracks are not licensed by the GBGB, rather than “not affiliated to” it?

That is right. My understanding is that if tracks are affiliated to the GBGB, they are licensed by it. The independent tracks, which tend to be the smaller ones, are directly licensed by the relevant local authority.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that welfare standards for all racing greyhounds in England are covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Welfare of Racing Greyhounds Regulations 2010. The 2006 Act is wide ranging, but it allows action to be taken where there is evidence of cruelty to an animal or of a failure to provide for an animal’s welfare needs. This includes, for instance, when greyhounds are kept away from the track, such as at a trainer’s kennels, which is often flagged as a point of concern by some animal welfare groups.

Further to the general provisions under the 2006 Act, which apply everywhere, the welfare standards at all greyhound racing tracks in England are specifically covered by the Welfare of Racing Greyhounds Regulations 2010. Introduced in April 2010, these regulations require that all tracks must do the following: first, they must have a vet present at all races, race trials and sales trials, with all greyhounds inspected by the vet before they are allowed to run; secondly, the tracks must provide suitable kennelling; thirdly, all greyhounds be microchipped and earmarked before they can race or trial; and finally, each track must keep records of all dogs that are raced or trialled at that track, and of any dogs injured during a race, trial or sales trial.

These standards are regulated either by the track’s local authority—that is the case for independent tracks, as I have pointed out—or, as in the majority of cases, by the GBGB, which regulates 24 tracks. However, the GBGB is only allowed to regulate these standards on the basis that it is accredited by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service for the audit of greyhound tracks against the standards required by the 2010 regulations.

At this point, it might help the House if I briefly discussed what we mean by the term “self-regulation”. The hon. Member for Islwyn said that this is still very much self-regulated. However, I do not think it is quite as simple as that, because the position is firmer than simply having a voluntary code.

Prior to the introduction of the regulations in 2010, the industry was self-regulated in the way that most people would understand the term. There were no specific statutory requirements for greyhound racing tracks, the industry set its own welfare rules of racing and there was no independent external scrutiny of how the National Greyhound Racing Club, which was the main industry regulator at the time, enforced its own rules. However, following the 2007 Donoughue report and the subsequent introduction of the Welfare of Racing Greyhounds Regulations 2010, the minimum conditions required for all greyhound tracks in England are now set down by Parliament. Apart from local authorities, if any organisation wishes to regulate the standards themselves, it must have UKAS accreditation to do so. The GBGB is currently the only body certified in this way by UKAS and ensures that there is now external independent oversight of the enforcement work that the GBGB carries out.

While the current situation is often described as self-regulation, clearly 2010 marked a break with what had gone before. What we have is a statutory form of regulation that is enforced by an industry body that is then itself audited by an independent body established within Government.

It might be worth while my saying a little more about UKAS accreditation. UKAS is recognised by the Government as the sole UK organisation for the accreditation of certification, testing and inspection bodies to internationally agreed standards. UKAS accreditation provides an assurance of the competence, impartiality and integrity of assessment bodies. As UKAS accredits the GBGB as a certification body, I think that the Government can have confidence that the GBGB is effectively monitoring and verifying welfare standards as defined within the rules of racing and within the 2010 regulations.

UKAS’s accreditation process determines the technical competence and integrity of organisations acting as assessment bodies. Before UKAS accredits any organisation, the organisation will be subject to intensive audit to ensure compliance with the international standard for certification bodies, including witnessing the organisation’s own assessment activities. Accredited organisations are subject to annual surveillance visits and full reassessment after four years.

Organisations found not to be acting in accordance with their accreditation can have that suspended or even withdrawn. Should the GBGB ever lose its accreditation, the 2010 regulations would automatically remove its powers to regulate the standards set out in those regulations, and all GBGB tracks in England would then require a licence from their local authority.

If anyone has any concerns about how the GBGB is applying welfare standards as defined within the rules of the 2010 regulations, they can report them to UKAS. UKAS has powers to investigate any such concerns reported to it. The GBGB was accredited by UKAS in March 2010 and DEFRA officials have been told that since then UKAS has received no complaints about the efficacy with which the GBGB has approached its duties.

I want to say a little about the five-year review, which was touched on in an intervention. When the regulations were introduced in 2010, Ministers in the last Government committed to reviewing them after they had been in force for five years. As the House is aware, all new regulations now come with statutory five-year review clauses anyway, but it was always the intention—even under the previous Government, and even before the statutory requirement to review regulations every five years was in place—to review these particular regulations after five years.

The review is due in April 2015, but work on it has already begun. We aim to go out to key stakeholders early in the new year, to collect the evidence that we need to assess the effectiveness of the regulations. Once we have independently collected and considered that evidence, DEFRA will go out to a wider public consultation, which will most likely commence after the election, given that we will quickly be at the end of March and into a purdah period.

Given the strength of views on these issues, it is important that we do not have a quick consultation that gets lost in the run-up to the general election. This is an important issue, and we do not need to rush it. Provided we have started the engagement with stakeholders before the general election, we should allow plenty of time for people to respond to a public consultation after it.

That review will consider how effective the regulations have been. It can look at the self-regulatory elements of the regulations and how the current approach adopted by the GBGB is working and at the requirement to collect injury statistics and how those can be used. It can also look at the traceability of greyhounds after they have left the sport, because one of the biggest concerns that is often raised about the current situation—the hon. Member for Islwyn highlighted this—is that nobody is sure where between 2,000 and 4,000 greyhounds a year, by some estimates, end up. We know that many excellent charities help to re-home greyhounds that have left racing, but there is concern about some of the others.

The hon. Member for Islwyn mentioned a number of issues that he would like to be addressed in that review, and I think that all of them could indeed be covered. For instance, he highlighted the importance of independent welfare oversight and asked whether other welfare charities could be involved, and I see no reason why that could not be explored through the review. It is exactly the kind of thing that we should do.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the importance of transparency on statistics. We know that the regulations now require the GBGB to require all its tracks to record instances of injuries. Many say that those injuries should be submitted to the GBGB and perhaps published, so that there is transparency in that regard. Again, these are all valid points that can be addressed through the review.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romford highlighted the issue of doping and the use of drugs. This is a good point. We should recognise that the use of doping and drugs in this context would already be a breach of the Gambling Act 2005, which, as my hon. Friend will know, given his background in this, sets out many provisions in this regard. We should also recognise that the GBGB has done some good work in this area. It has taken it quite seriously, spending more than £640,000 a year on drug sampling and research to ensure that it is able to detect substances, as my hon. Friend said.

Finally, the hon. Member for Islwyn mentioned over-breeding. This is an issue with many breeds—the greyhound is not the only example—and the Kennel Club has started to become alert to this problem and to do work on it, including the dangers and welfare impacts. I am sure that when we have that review, organisations like the Kennel Club and other animal welfare organisations, which have themselves done good work in this connection, may want to contribute to it.

In conclusion, we have had a good, well-informed debate with hon. Members who have a lot of experience of this issue. I am sure that many of the points that have been raised will be pertinent to the review that we are about to commence, first with stakeholders and then with the wider public during the next six months. I again congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and hon. Members on their important contributions.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.