Monday 2 March 2015
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the e-petition relating to Harvey’s law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for finding time for this important debate. It is good to see that its Chair is here and will take part in the debate.
A lot of people around the country will be following this important debate. We are a country of dog lovers and animal lovers, so a lot of people are interested in it. I am grateful to my constituent, Mrs Pauline Krause, and her fellow campaigners—in particular, Nina Blackburn, who has been leading the campaign—for their help and guidance, which has enabled me to raise this issue in Parliament. They have shown great energy and enthusiasm in setting up the petition and travelling around the country lobbying various MPs, some of whom are here today. It is a great example of democracy in action and how it can work—a constituent goes to see their MP and raises the issue, other members of the public raise it with their MPs and we end up with a debate here. Hopefully, the Minister will go one further and complete the democratic process by agreeing to what is being asked for today. We will hear from him later.
I do not own a pet and have never owned one, but I know from family members, friends and colleagues about the love and care that so many owners have for their pets. As I said, we are a country of animal lovers. Pets can become important parts of families, and deep attachments are commonplace. The loss of a much-loved pet is traumatic for all concerned, and for many families it can lead to a lot of grieving. The fact that more than 100,000 people have signed the e-petition shows the extent of the concern about this issue, and many people are interested in the outcome of the debate. Many families have pet dogs, cats and other animals. The campaigners tell me that about 24% of households in England own a dog, which is a remarkable figure. I imagine that the figure is similar for cats, although I do not know it off the top of my head.
The first I heard about Harvey’s law was when my constituent, Mrs Pauline Krause, came to my surgery in July 2014. Who would have guessed then that I would end up leading a debate on the issue? Pauline explained Harvey’s story. We are here today because of what happened to Harvey, so I will relate that story and give one or two other examples.
Harvey was a beloved pet of Jude Devine and Shaun Robertson, who are from Sheffield but were visiting friends in Rainhill, which, by coincidence, is next door to my constituency. Harvey bolted through an open door on 23 November 2013 at about 10 pm. He was killed on the M62, which was just 21 minutes away. Harvey was chipped and was wearing an identification badge. His owners contacted all the relevant bodies, including the Highways Agency, on an almost daily basis, and they were always told that no dogs had been collected from the road. Harvey’s owners, along with many others, searched for him for nearly 13 weeks, believing that he was still alive. They spent thousands of pounds during the search on flyers, banners, newspaper adverts and articles, in the hope that he would be found.
On that point, people spend a lot of time phoning up the Highways Agency, the local authority and local vets, and it costs those agencies money to deal with the phone calls. This debate is about not only grieving pet owners but public money, and the measures that we want to be introduced will save money for the public purse.
As usual, my hon. Friend makes an important point. There is a cost to the owners of the pets, but the cost to the public purse can be also be substantial, because it takes time to contact the individuals and chase them up. That is not a good use of public time. If the law we are debating today were introduced, the situation would be much better.
Harvey’s case was tragic, and I want to give a few more examples, because the tragedy can be unbelievable for some families.
My hon. Friend rightly paid tribute to his constituent, who raised this issue with him. Will he commend the efforts of my constituent, Teresa Hughes, who has worked hard on this campaign and brought it not only to my attention but to the attention of many other people? She has raised the issue in the local media and ensured that it has had a much higher profile in Dudley, the black country and the west midlands.
I absolutely will. It has been a team effort, and many of the people concerned are here today listening to the debate. Their energy and drive brought us to where we are today. My hon. Friend makes a very important point.
I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating all the campaigners who raised this issue, which is very important to pet lovers. For most of my life, I have had a pet. Sadly, two of them got run over close to our house, and we found them not very well or dead. However, it would have been much worse if we had not known what had happened. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would not be difficult for the highways authorities in local government or the Highways Agency to do what we are asking? It is regrettable that the Highways Agency’s procedures are being changed.
I agree. I am sorry for the hon. Gentleman’s loss of two pets, which is difficult for any family. His point is well made, and it is why we are here today. We want the procedures of the Highways Agency to be changed back, and we want some legislation to ensure that they will not change again. I will come to that point later.
I will give two more examples, which will put into perspective the tragedy that people face. The first is Shiver’s story. Shiver bolted away from his owner during a thunderstorm and was killed on the M60. Shiver was chipped and was wearing an identification tag. His owners contacted the Highways Agency daily for information, but they were constantly told that no dogs had been retrieved from the highways. They continued to search for him for 19 days. They persisted, and a temporary staff member of the Highways Agency confirmed that Shiver was in cold storage. His owners were given two hours to collect his body before he was cremated. They rushed to the depot and were made to go through two freezers full of dead dogs to retrieve Shiver’s body. Shiver was in a plastic bag with an identification tag still attached. He also had a cannula in his leg, indicating that he had been with a vet.
The second example is Jester’s story. Jester went missing while out on a walk with his owner in 2005, and he was killed on the A1. As no procedure was in place, no one scanned Jester for a chip or took details from the tag he was wearing. No one alerted other authorities or logged the incident, so Jester’s owner was not notified of his fate. Jester’s body was removed and sent straight to a rendering plant. His flesh was stripped to make fuel for energy plants and his bones were crushed to make garden compound. His owner’s desperation for closure was so powerful that she collected blood from the A1 and sent it and a toy belonging to Jester to California for a DNA test. The test confirmed that it was indeed Jester who had been killed on the road that day. Distraught by the way Jester had been treated, Nikki campaigned tirelessly until the Highways Agency agreed to introduce area management memo 67/05, to which I will return. That procedure is set out in chapter 7.17 of the Highways Agency’s network management manual. As I said, those are terrible stories.
That story perfectly demonstrates that this problem is not about stray dogs, but about loved pets who are cared for by responsible owners who have done the right thing by having them chipped and tagged. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential that we show the same compassion and commitment to those owners as they showed to their pets?
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point, and I think everybody would agree with it.
Let me return to Harvey’s case. By chance, an employee of the contractor used by the Highways Agency saw one of the fliers that had been distributed about Harvey. She contacted the owners via a message on Facebook and said that she had collected Harvey’s body on the M62. It was only by chance that the owners were given that information.
In 2010, the Highways Agency took the decision to withdraw the routine scanning of domestic pets from highways so that their owner could be identified and notified. Area management memo 67/05, which is being phased out—this is what we have been talking about—states that highways contractors are supposed to scan a domestic pet for a chip, check for other details and contact the owner if possible. They should complete a log with all the details and notify the relevant authorities. The animal should also be kept in cold storage for a period of seven days or until the freezer is emptied, whichever comes first.
There is an odd situation, therefore, in that the Highways Agency is changing that practice, whereas the Government—rightly so—are implementing a policy of compulsory microchipping for dogs from April 2016. One Department is rightly ensuring that there is a legal requirement to have a dog microchipped, whereas the Department for Transport is taking a different view that does not really sit with that policy. It is quite bizarre.
As we have heard in various interventions and seen in the information that we have all received, the death of a pet is traumatic and deeply upsetting for an owner in any case, but when an owner does not know its fate—when the pet has gone missing—the situation is made much worse by not knowing whether their pet is alive or dead. They spend time looking, which, as we have heard from case studies today, can turn out to be wasted. That is obviously very costly, and it also makes the situation all the more unbearable for the families and owners concerned.
Hundreds of pets—probably thousands—are killed on our roads each year. Apparently, the figure is more than 300 for Highways Agency-managed roads, although I think that is an underestimate. As a result of my discussion with Pauline Krause, I wrote to the Minister to raise concerns about the Highways Agency’s stance on notifying owners about the change in policy. The Minister wrote back, saying:
“The Agency is currently phasing out contracts which include the Area Management Memo 67/05 to which your constituent Ms Krause refers. More recent contracts no longer mandate Agency contractors to scan or record pet identification details, or to contact the owners and the pet identification organisations. I know this current position will be hugely disappointing for all those involved with Harvey’s Law e-petition.
Increased investment in the Strategic Road Network brings the opportunity to focus more on the service we deliver for our customers. This could include a review of our current policy around this issue so potentially there may be an opportunity to change contractual arrangements in the future.”
I will come back to this point, but I hope that the Minister will change those arrangements now. When he talks about “delivering for our customers”, I think pet owners can be put in that category.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case. Does he not agree that it seems contradictory for the Government to be mandating that pets should be microchipped—something that I very much support—but also instructing the Highways Agency that it is no longer a requirement for its contractors to notify the responsible authorities? If the Highways Agency does not have the scanners needed, it is easy to contact the local authority’s local dog warden service, which almost certainly will.
Again, I cannot disagree, but as I will come on to point out, the Highways Agency does actually have a lot of equipment. However, my hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I know that he takes a particular interest in this issue.
If the Government require dog owners to have dogs chipped, responsible dog owners have their dogs chipped. It is surely not beyond the wit of man or the Highways Agency to locate the owners of dogs without there being a great increase in work load or cost. It is ridiculous; are we really saying that this Government is now becoming one which does not care about pets and their loving owners? It is outrageous.
I know that my hon. Friend feels passionately about this subject. She makes an important point about costs. We really are talking about a very small amount of money, but I shall come back to that later.
Going back to the petition, I want to draw the House’s attention to the response that it received when it reached 10,000 signatures. That response that it got from the Highways Agency was unfortunate, and let me relate to hon. Members what was said subsequently. In a letter to Ms Blackburn, the Highways Agency stated:
“The statement in response to Harvey’s Law e-petition when reaching 10,000 signatures was provided by the Highways Agency. Our response was unclear as it did not accurately reflect the Agency’s changing approach and was taken from the policy of older contracts which are being phased out nationally. I am sorry that the statement in response to the e-petition didn’t clearly explain the changing situation. I am investigating whether this clarification can be issued as an update on the e-petition website.”
That is pretty appalling. E-petitions are part of our democratic process and have been embraced by large portions of the population, who should not have to put up with a situation such as that one, in which incorrect information was given. As has been pointed out to me, the clarification was a bit late in that day. It left a number of unanswered questions, such as how many more signatures the e-petition would have gained if the original response had not been put on the website. That is conjecture, but we just do not know.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), I lost a dog on the road when I was a child—a Great Dane called Max. I have never forgotten him, but at least we knew within 24 hours or less, which saved a lot of additional heartache. I know my right hon. Friend the Minister to be a man with a huge regard for family, and I want to re-emphasise the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) that pets, especially dogs and cats, are part of the family. That is the most important reason to get this matter rectified with the national Highways Agency and other relevant authorities.
I agree with the hon. Lady. Her passion about this issue comes through, and I thank her for making that point.
Going back to the information I was talking about, the other question that needs to be asked is whether something would have been done to address the issue sooner if the facts originally given had been correct and not so misleading.
What do we want to see happen? We want to see the compulsory scanning of all domestic animals retrieved from the highways, and a log report filed and circulated to both the police and dog warden, which goes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). We also want to see photographs of the deceased being held with the log report to be used for identification purposes.
The desired outcome is clearly legislation to make that activity compulsory, but we would see the alternative outcome of simply adding scanning back into the Highways Agency’s procedures as a good start and a positive move forward. However, that could leave the system open to abuse, and it could fall foul of any cuts or savings that any future Government want to make. That is why enshrining the requirements in law is important, but reintegrating the scanning procedure would be a step forward.
If the Minister does not say today that legislation will be introduced, but does say, as we hope, that the procedure will be changed back, some questions will still need to be asked, and he may want to consider them. If there is no legislation, how will the issue be policed and regulated? Who will inspect whether the procedures are being adhered to and how frequently? Who will train the staff to scan correctly? That is an important point, because the entire body needs to be scanned, not just the neck area, as chips can migrate in an animal’s body. The whole procedure takes only a matter of seconds; it is not something that will cause a lot of problems.
I am also informed by Harvey’s law campaigners that legislation is fully supported by a significant number of high-profile organisations, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Pet Industry Federation, Agria Pet Insurance, Vetsonline, Lostbox and so on, as well as a whole host of pet publications, including Life With Pets and Dogs Today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and thank everybody who has lobbied me in support. As a pet owner, I am delighted to be here supporting the e-petition today. I visited Battersea Dogs and Cats home recently, and the staff impressed on me just how important this issue is. Similarly, when I visit Freshfields animal rescue centre in my constituency, the staff there make the same point. We heard from the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) about the importance to humans of pets, but I think many people misunderstand how strong the emotional ties are and just how much bereavement people go through. I take this opportunity to impress on the Minister that the debate is probably more about the emotional well-being of people, and their attachment to their pets, than anything else. My hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) has made the case for why that is so important, and I hope that the Minister will respond in that vein.
I thank my hon. Friend. He brings passion to the debate, and I know from previous conversations how desperate he was to ensure that he could be here today. He makes the point about the impact on the well-being of pet owners of a loss that is made worse by the tragic circumstances that we are discussing.
Costs are a bit difficult to pin down, but clearly the Highways Agency already holds much of the relevant equipment, so there really cannot be a massive extra cost for it. Unfortunately, it will still have to remove pets from the road, take them away and deal with them as it would normally.
If it comes down to a question of cost, it is important to remember that the vast majority of pet owners are taxpayers.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct about that, but, as I said, I fail to see how there can be a great cost, because of the equipment that the Highways Agency currently holds and because it will have to remove the body, take it away and deal with it anyway. Harvey’s law campaigners believe that most of the additional cost would be in paperwork. The campaign has done a lot of work on the matter and estimates that that might be in the region of £15,500. Even so, that is a small amount of money given the size of the overall problem, but I stress that it has been difficult to pin down costs. At the end of the day, all the work needs to be done anyway, so I find it difficult to understand why the change has been made on the basis of a cut. That does not seem to add up, and I think that the Minister needs to have a look at that.
Finally, constituents have asked me to raise the issue of cats as well—some of my hon. Friends who are in the Chamber are cat owners. Although there is no legislation in place for the compulsory microchipping of cats—the onus is on the pet owners—they should be afforded the same dignity as dogs in the procedure for scanning their deceased bodies, with every effort made to contact the owner.
To conclude, what we are asking for is both reasonable and morally the right thing to do. It is not unreasonable or ridiculous.
I apologise for missing the start of the hon. Gentleman’s speech—I was detained elsewhere in the House. If we go for legislation, does he have any idea how long that will take? I have had letters from people saying, “Isn’t it better to get a promise from the Government to do something?” To wait for legislation might mean that the wait is too long.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but he might have missed the part of my speech where I referred to that. We want the procedures put back in place, so that scanning takes place and can be done pretty quickly.
Exactly, very quickly indeed, but we also want legislation. We can do both those things, which is what I urge the Minister to do today. As I said, that does not appear to be overly expensive. By allowing the change in the procedure, we could appear heartless. There is no need for that, or for causing massive additional anguish and grief to those who have lost their beloved pets in such tragic circumstances. Although I am not a pet owner, when I speak to pet owners who have lost their pets I find it difficult to understand the anguish that they have gone through. It is palpable, and we should keep that in mind.
I hope that the Minister will listen to the strong case that the campaigners have made and that Members will make today in the debate. I was disappointed by the reply that I received from him by letter, but previously he has always been helpful and gone out of his way to try to help, particularly on constituency issues. On this wider issue, which is of national interest, I am sure he will be equally interested to try to do his best. I hope that he will do that and that we will get some good news.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) on securing the debate on this important issue.
I do not think that anyone—at least anyone with a heart—could fail to be moved by the sad story of Harvey. It is made only worse by the knowledge that what happened to Harvey happens far too often. For those of us who have brought pets into our homes and made them a part of the family—I am of course talking here about many of us—it is simply inconceivable that, in death, killed on a road, they can simply be chucked to one side because the Highways Agency cannot be bothered to do the decent thing and report that, as its guidelines currently require.
Now there are suggestions that the guidelines might get changed later this year so that it will no longer be necessary for the death of identifiable animals on the roads to be reported to owners. I certainly hope that those remain just suggestions. It is bad enough that the guidelines get ignored while they still exist, but it would be intolerable to turn that practice into the norm. Instead, I believe that the guidelines should be beefed up, so that the Highways Agency is obliged by law to do the right thing and ensure that deaths are reported to owners when and where the animal’s ownership can be identified.
I frequently get tweets from constituents whose pets have gone missing, asking me to retweet the pets’ photos and the details of where they were last seen. I am always happy to do so when I can, because I know just how painful and miserable it is to lose a pet and wonder what on earth has happened to it. Most people would prefer to know—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
It is quite enough to lose a pet, but the real cruelty is in just not knowing.
Indeed. The hon. Gentleman caught me mid-sentence, just about to make that point. I was about to say that most people would prefer to know the worst, so at least they could come to terms with that, rather than worrying, with the most appalling imaginings, about what might have happened.
I remember when my dog went missing in Hyde park. I called her Tuppence after I rescued her from Battersea dogs home. She went to the park every day with a friend who looked after her while I worked at LBC radio. Only one day when I came home she was not there. Instead there was a tearful message on my voicemail to say she had run off as soon as the cannons were fired in the park to practise for a forthcoming royal birthday celebration. I went straight back out with a friend to drive round where I could in Hyde park to no avail. I then spent a truly horrendous night worrying about where she might be and what was happening to her. I worried that she was miserable, cold, wet and frightened; then, worse, that she was being teased and tortured by a gang of youths who had found her somewhere. I did not sleep a wink.
Eventually, late the next afternoon, my friend rang to say that she had been found. I will not go into the complicated story—believe me, it is quite complicated—but it seems that a family who had found her and rather wanted to keep her had decided to take her for a check-over at their local vet who also happened to be Tuppence’s local vet. He said, “Ah, you’ve brought Tuppence Bray in. We’ve been looking for her.” I was lucky, as was Tuppence, but the point I wanted to make was that the agony of not knowing was truly awful and there would have been a point when I would rather have been told that she had been found dead than never to know at all what happened to her. That would have stayed with me and continued to haunt me.
It must be borne in mind that those who choose to share our family life with a pet are making a pretty big investment. Obviously, there is the financial cost of food, heating, vet fees and perhaps insurance, but there is also a major emotional investment for most of us, too, just as there is in all family members. I always assumed that that investment was properly recognised, which is why it has always been considered incumbent on organisations such as the Highways Agency to do the decent thing and report a pet’s death to its owner, wherever possible. Not to do so is not only a poor indication of the attitude of officialdom towards us all, but it smacks of carelessness and diminishes the quality of service that we should be able to rely on. Moreover, we should not forget that there is already a legal obligation on us all, as citizens: if we unfortunately kill a dog on the road, we should report that to the police so that they can inform the owner where identification is possible. We must not loosen that requirement—often traumatic but, nevertheless, essential—on ourselves either. We must all play our part.
There is even less excuse now for failing to inform owners than there has been in the past. As many hon. Members have said, we are all being encouraged, and in some cases required, to take advantage of technology and to microchip our pets—certainly our dogs—so that they and their owners can be more readily identified. I thoroughly support that, but when we are using modern technology to make identification easier, it would seem strange to decide that we cannot be bothered to use it for the most basic civility. We most certainly should expect publicly funded agencies such as the police and the Highways Agency to do what is right.
Some people regard us animal lovers as a bit strange, and doubtless some people do go a bit overboard about their beloved pets. I have always believed, however, that the ability to love animals, empathise with them and give them a happy and secure life is an important part of building our kinder, gentler nature. That should be respected, as should all our other relationships. When our pets are tragically killed on our roads, our agencies—in this instance, the Highways Agency—absolutely should show proper respect by having the decency to inform us. There should be no avoiding that, if identification can be made. I can hardly believe that there should be attempts to wriggle out of that public duty, but if there are, I would support making it a legal obligation.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) on raising this issue and the Backbench Business Committee on recommending the subject for debate. My hon. Friend put the case with characteristic understatement but with the forensic skill that we all know him to possess, and I praise him for doing so.
Earlier today, I had a conversation with a good friend and constituent in Knowsley, in which we talked about this issue and the fact that I would be speaking about it later today. I know my constituent to be a responsible and caring dog owner, but she made the point that in her lifetime of owning dogs, on three occasions the dogs concerned—different animals—had gone missing for one reason or another. In none of the cases could that be put down to neglect on the part of the owner; it was simply a result of the circumstances. Happily, the outcome in each case was favourable and the dog was found, not least because the owner put a great deal of effort into trying to find it. That emphasises the point that, as we are discussing, even responsible dog owners who have taken every precaution that could reasonably be expected of them find that their animals go missing. It is important that we understand that.
I do not think that my second point strays too far from the subject, and it must be taken into account. Man’s relationship with animals stretches back a very long way, and the love of animals is deeply ingrained in our culture. Every Member of the House will be aware of the fact that we probably get more letters on animal welfare than on almost any other subject. We are not talking about something sentimental, however; the relationship goes back a long way. According to a report in one of the newspapers over the weekend, which I am sure that others have seen, our relationship with dogs in Europe is thought to date back to the time when the Neanderthals walked the earth. Tamed wolves—dogs, as we now know them—were used for hunting, which gave the human race the advantage over the Neanderthals, who had fairly rudimentary weapons. That gave us a real competitive edge. I say that simply to underline the fact the relationship between man and dog is of long standing.
The right hon. Gentleman is looking back to the Neanderthals, but does he accept that in our modern society a lot of people purchase dogs and cats to teach their children responsibility for looking after animals and to teach them about the life cycle?
I agree, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman was not suggesting that I am a Neanderthal for having raised that historical fact. I will come on shortly to the point that he raises.
Given the nature and history of our culture, pet owners in this country have close, caring and responsible relationships with their pets, and we should celebrate that fact. Against that background, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton put his case very well. The hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) is quite right to say that that those relationships offer young people a way of learning, within their family, the responsibilities that go with pet ownership—and, indeed, the responsibilities that we all have to take on in life as we become adults. In addition, many people who live alone find their dog or cat to be an enormously important part of their lives.
Against the intensity of the relationship between man and pet, Harvey’s law, which my hon. Friend the Member for Halton is promoting, is incredibly important. He explained the measures most adequately, so I will not go over the ground that he has already covered. Harvey’s law would be a small step, but one that might have a great impact on the lives of people and their pets. I hope that the Minister, in summing up the debate, will be able to give us the good news that he is prepared to take the matter on board and do something about it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) on securing the debate. I knew that it would be well attended after I saw that the Harvey’s law petition now has well over 122,000 signatures, which shows the strength of feeling that exists on this emotional and important subject.
I thank my constituent Linda, from Bolster Moor near Huddersfield, for getting me on board with the campaign. We are a nation of animal lovers, and we must put a stop to the extra heartache, frustration and distress caused when a much-loved family pet is tragically killed on our roads. As we have heard, Harvey’s law contains three simple and straightforward requests: for the Highways Agency to implement compulsory scanning of all domestic animals retrieved from the highways; for a log report to be passed to local police and dog wardens; and for photographs to be held for identification purposes. Those measures are straightforward and low cost, and, most importantly, humane and the right thing to do. From April 2016, all dogs will be compulsorily microchipped. Given that the technology will be there, it seems straightforward and reasonable to use it to give pet owners the peace of mind that comes from knowing that if a tragedy occurs, they will be informed as soon as possible, leaving no uncertainty and compassionately respecting their rights.
Over the past few months, I have submitted a series of written parliamentary questions to the Secretary of State for Transport, and I thank the Minister for his replies. I was told that
“the Highways Agency is currently assessing the potential merits of amending contracts to understand the implications of including mandatory identification and recording of domestic animals found on the strategic road network, including contacting pet owners where possible and advising relevant registration organisations.”
I look forward to an update from the Minister on those assessments. I was informed that
“The Highways Agency Network Management Manual (2009) sets out procedures for notifying owners of canines that are killed on the strategic road network for a number of Highways Agency area maintenance contracts. These contracts are due to be phased out which will result in a different approach in dealing with canine fatalities across the strategic road network as the replacement contracts no longer mandate that canine fatalities are scanned, identified or the owners contacted… the Highways Agency is currently assessing the potential merits of amending contracts to understand the implications of including mandatory identification and recording of domestic animals found on the strategic road network, including contacting pet owners where possible and advising relevant registration organisations.”
Again, I look forward to an update on those assessments.
Finally, I asked the Minister whether there were any planned changes to the system for notifying the owners of pets killed on the strategic road network after the microchipping law comes into force in 2016.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that checks have been completely phased out in the west midlands? None of my constituents’ pets will be scanned in the event of such a tragedy, but checks are still taking place in other parts of the country such as Cornwall and Devon. Does he agree with Opposition Members that those checks should be mandatory across the country? We need to do this for everybody.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I am a member of the Select Committee on Transport, and I have spent a lot of time examining Highways Agency contracts, particularly in Yorkshire for the managed motorway scheme on the M1 and M62, so I am aware of the number of new contracts for our strategic road network. I hope that the Minister will answer our questions shortly.
In answer to my written question on planned changes to the notification system, the Minister said:
“The Highways Agency is aware that the Animal Welfare Act will be amended to reflect the change to compulsory microchipping of dogs by April 2016.
In advance of this change, the Highways Agency is currently assessing the potential merits of amending contracts to understand the implications of including mandatory identification and recording of domestic animals found on the strategic road network, including contacting pet owners where possible and advising relevant registration organisations.”
The Animal Welfare Act 2006 will be amended to reflect the change to compulsory microchipping of dogs by April 2016.
I thank the Minister for his answers to my questions and for saying that assessments are ongoing. I hope that he is able to update all Members present on those assessments, and I hope that he can put many loving pet owners’ minds at rest by accepting and implementing Harvey’s law. I am proud that we are a nation of animal lovers, so let us do the right and humane thing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) on securing this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for ensuring that time was found to debate this important issue. From talking to him in our usual place on the back row of the Opposition Benches—the noisy row—I knew that he intended to apply for a debate on Harvey’s law, and I was delighted when he told me that his request had been successful. He is not a pet owner, but he set out the case for Harvey’s law with real understanding. I am grateful for the considered way in which he put to the Minister the case for a change of heart.
The strength of feeling on this issue is clear from the sheer tide of people who signed the e-petition and the many people who contacted right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. Today’s contributions make it clear that there is great cross-party consensus on this issue. Many of my colleagues back the measure, and many Government Members back it, too.
Harvey’s law means a lot to all of us, and to our constituents. I will expand on that point shortly, but I will first declare an interest, albeit in a rather more benign way than many hon. Members did in the recent debate on second jobs. My wife, Allison, is a regular volunteer at the new Dogs Trust rehoming centre for Greater Manchester, which is in Denton in my constituency. The centre has been open for some four months, and I congratulate the Dogs Trust, its dedicated staff and volunteers on making such a success of it. Remarkably, the centre rehomed its 100th dog within a month of opening. The centre received 3,500 visitors in the same time frame, which shows that we cannot stand between Mancunians and their dogs, and I should know because I am a keen animal lover and pet owner. I currently have one Chihuahua, two cats—we had three, and I will come on to that shortly—and several chickens, but I blame my wife for those; they have completely trashed my back garden.
I am not a newcomer to the sorts of issues we are debating today, and I am therefore fully aware that the onus is not simply on those who look after motorways and roads. We dog owners must ensure that our animals are chipped and that the details on the database are up to date, which is not difficult. The Dogs Trust offers to update the database as a free service, by appointment, at all its rehoming centres, including the one in Denton. Across the UK, the trust chipped a remarkable 270,000 dogs in 2014 alone, which demonstrates that dog owners are doing their bit. We are upholding our side of the bargain, so we are now well within our rights to demand that local authorities and the Highways Agency does its bit when animals are killed on the nation’s roads.
Scanning microchips does not take a lot of time or effort, so for the sake of the peace of mind of worried dog owners, or owners of any other animals, particularly cats, which are also at risk on the roads, it is difficult to see how any reasonable opposition to Harvey’s law could be invented. Indeed, as we have heard in many contributions, it would be a little contradictory for the Government to force all dog owners to microchip their animals but not to introduce all reasonable measures to derive benefits directly from such a vast microchipping campaign. The only possible reason not to introduce the measure, as far as I can see, would be the cost to local authorities and the Highways Agency. Personally, I can think of few better uses for the fines that are to be levied on dog owners who do not microchip their dogs—I think the fine will be £500 a pop—so it should not be too long before the Highways Agency is able to buy a few scanners, if it needs them. My hon. Friend the Member for Halton said that the Highways Agency already has the scanners, which suggests that purchasing further scanners should not be necessary.
I have seen the freedom of information request from the Harvey’s law campaign, which suggests that each area covered by the Highways Agency, as my hon. Friend said, already has the necessary scanners, so the marginal capital costs would be negligible. Even if that were a problem, as we have already discussed, why not have a joined-up, cross-Government, cross-local government resolution? All local authority dog warden services have the scanners, so it is within the wit of the good folk at the Highways Agency, when an animal is found, to ask the relevant local authority to scan on their behalf if they do not have the technology. That point is particularly stark when we consider that until a few years ago, as we have heard, the Highways Agency had to scan all deceased pets found on the nation’s strategic highway network.
On the other side of the issue, we should consider the many wasted thousands of pounds and hundreds of hours that owners can put into searching for missing pets, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) said so eloquently. The emotional and pecuniary cost of a missing pet can be huge.
At the start of my contribution, I mentioned that until recently, I had three cats, not two. Last year we lost a cat to the road. Delilah was a lovely, friendly, gorgeous animal. She was a bit like a shadow: wherever we were, she was not far behind. Sadly, a car clipped her on a local road. It was heartbreaking. She was missing for 24 hours. It happened on a Thursday, and my wife was distraught when I got home after the long train journey from Westminster. I sat up all night, and every time the cat flap went, I hoped it was Delilah, but it was the other two cats; Delilah was, unfortunately, dead.
Pets are part of a family. My children were distraught, my wife was distraught and, to be honest, I was distraught, which is why I stayed up all night in the hope that she would come home. We were reunited with our pet only thanks to a local resident who picked up Delilah, put her in a box and called the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which did a microchip test and contacted us to say that Delilah’s carcase was just around the corner from where we lived. That is important for closure, if nothing else. The same is true of the cases that my hon. Friend the Member for Halton described, which were tragic, particularly the one involving a dog that was stripped of its fur and used for all kinds of things that do not bear thinking about in relation to a missing pet.
It is still the responsibility of the Highways Agency to remove such animals from the nation’s roads. That, not the scanning, is the major cost incurred. We could save a lot of heartache for hundreds of families, arguably at negligible cost, if any cost, to the public purse. One avoidable cost that I do not think has been mentioned is that of removing from street furniture the posters alerting the local community to a missing pet. I do not condone fly-posting, but in that situation I can understand why many of my constituents, and no doubt many constituents of right hon. and hon. Members here, do it. However, it costs local authorities to remove those posters from lamp posts and trees.
Ministers have failed to manage the Highways Agency on this issue with any real effectiveness. I do not speak from a position of neutrality; I have had my fair share of local run-ins with the Highways Agency as Member of Parliament for Denton and Reddish, not least over its complete failure to keep the central reservations, hard shoulders and embankments of the M60 and M67 motorways free from litter. I perpetually table questions to the Minister on that issue. Sometimes the Highways Agency stretches my patience, and this is one area in which it could do better and should be expected to do so. I am perfectly happy to give credit where the Highways Agency deserves it. If it reintroduces routine scanning of every dog, I am prepared to stand up in the House of Commons and thank the Highways Agency for it, but the fact that it is even considering removing a fairly simple obligation is scandalous.
I note the consequences of the fire at Manchester dogs home, which is about 6 miles away from my constituency. The fire resulted in the death of more than 60 animals, one fifth of the number of dogs killed on our roads each year. Those dogs had no owners, but a campaign to rebuild the centre raised a remarkable £1.5 million through an online page. A cynic need only read some of the comments that people left with their donations to see the strength of feeling there. I would go so far as to say that the relationship between Brits and their dogs is almost unique in the world. That is no bad thing at all.
I am proud to be one of those dog owners, as well as a cat owner. I note that the Minister, a pet owner and the Minister responsible for the Highways Agency, has said that he would like the agency to start scanning again. Let us have some Government support for Harvey’s law. It is plain common sense. I urge him to go back to his Department and bash heads together at the Highways Agency. Let us get this done once and for all.
I will briefly add my support for this campaign. I have been contacted by numerous constituents about the need for a change in the law, including one who said in an e-mail to me:
“What is the point in compulsory microchipping and identification if they’re not going to be checked by the relevant authorities when an animal is found?”
I could not agree more with my constituent. I hope that the people’s Minister, who is a pet owner himself, will respond to the voices of the people and consider the issue sympathetically.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) on securing this debate, and the more than 100,000 people who have so far signed the petition calling for Harvey’s law. As my hon. Friend said, it shows that democracy can work and can have an impact, and that people power can get concerns heard in this place. To that extent, congratulations are also due to the Backbench Business Committee for organising this debate; it is good to see the Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), here.
I am winding up this debate on behalf of two important bodies: one is the official Opposition, and the other is Charlie, my cat, who has given me special dispensation to be here. Normally he complains a lot when I leave on a Monday, but today he said, “Get yourself down there.” Charlie is a survivor of a road collision. He came in looking very much the worse for wear, but it could have been a lot worse. He made a full recovery, at least physically; he has been a lot more clingy since then. All of us who are pet owners know what it feels like when a pet is involved in a road incident or, worse, as we have heard in this debate, when a pet does not come home and we do not know what has happened to it.
If I have done my figures right, we have heard from 16 hon. Members from across the House who have been united. It is rare to find such a degree of unanimity in this place. Everybody spoke with great feeling, and often from personal experience of having a pet and knowing how it becomes an integral part of the family, and of what it is like not knowing what has happened to it. I was also interested in the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), who gave us the historical perspective. I have to say that until I heard his speech I was not aware that the relationship between humans and animals, particularly dogs, played a role in the progression from the Neanderthal race to the human race. I am glad that I now know it, and it should certainly give the UK Independence party something to think about in the period ahead.
I do not think that any scientists would take issue with the fact that there was a progression from the Neanderthals to the human race, because I do not think that dogs are the missing link.
I will try to think of a witty response to that, but for the moment it is failing me.
It is really important that hon. Members have spoken up on behalf of not only the human race’s best friends, but pet owners. As the debate has shown, the public care deeply about pets and are concerned about their well-being. I understand that about 9 million households in the UK own a dog, and the House certainly has a responsibility to be concerned for the well-being of all those dogs, as we do for animal welfare more generally. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) recently set out Labour’s intent to lead the way on animal welfare with six important commitments, from ending the badger cull to reviewing the rules on the breeding and selling of dogs and cats. It is with that last commitment in mind that the Opposition approach this debate, which has rightly included important and passionate contributions from Members from all parts of the House.
The Minister has already been asked a number of questions by hon. Members. I hope that he will be able to answer them; we are all looking forward to hearing his response. I may add a couple of questions myself. We have heard about Harvey’s sad death and the 13 weeks of suffering endured by his owners, Judith Devine and Shaun Robertson, because the Highways Agency guidance, as set out in the network management manual, just was not followed. I remind hon. Members that that guidance was published in 2009, and it sets out procedures for a number of Highways Agency area maintenance contractors when animals are found on the roads. It specifies that identification information must be collected and a search made for a collar and disc, and that owners must be notified as soon as possible. Where no collar or disc is found, the entire body of the animal must be scanned for microchips and ears checked for tattoos, and the appropriate authorities must be notified, whether that be the police or the local authority dog warden. If none of this information can be found but the animal is clearly a dog, it will be kept and as much information as possible must be passed on to the local police or dog warden.
This guidance just could not have been followed in Harvey’s case, and we have heard of other cases where it has not been followed. In 2013-14, 189 dogs and 213 cats were reported dead on the Highways Agency network. The Harvey’s Army campaign has told us in its e-mails and other approaches that numerous pets were killed on the roadside and disposed of without their owners being informed; we have also heard examples of that today.
Judith and Shaun wrote to the shadow transport team about this issue last year, and we raised a number of parliamentary questions that clearly showed that there is no standardised procedure for identifying, recording and managing animal fatalities on the road network.
We believe that people who have had their dog microchipped deserve to be treated with consideration and respect. It is also important that there is consistency across the Highways Agency, its contractors, local authorities and the police in how canine fatalities are handled, to ensure that both animals and their owners are treated with the respect they deserve. The point about the importance of a joined-up approach was made forcefully by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). Against that background, I was pleased to see in yesterday’s press that the Minister will agree with that point today. I hope that if new guidance is issued, it will provide pet owners with confidence that a consistent procedure will be followed. What we have seen and heard today is that that is not the case at the moment. However, there is another problem; the Government’s decision to scrap mandatory procedures for animal identification in maintenance and management contracts for the strategic road network is part of the picture.
I understand that the Highways Agency has been awarding these new contracts, which do not have a mandatory scanning policy, as a result of decisions made in 2010. The Highways Agency has denied that the change in contract had any part in the failure to identify Harvey, and says that contractors “may” still continue to scan for a chip when an animal is found and would
“attempt to reunite the owner with the animal whenever possible”.
However, that just does not ring true. If procedures are made voluntary, rather than mandatory, of course it is less likely that they will be followed. Even if they are followed in a number of cases, the frequency with which they are followed will decline. I hope that the Minister can tell us today why the decision to remove mandatory scanning was taken, who called for it and what the rationale behind it was. Also, if that decision was about saving money, how much money is it estimated to save?
Talking about savings, perhaps if the Highways Agency stopped putting up big signs along all the roads of Britain saying “Highways Agency”, it could afford to implement Harvey’s law.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. All I would say in response now is: please do not get me started on broader issues concerning the Highways Agency. The Minister and I had numerous discussions about the Highways Agency during consideration of the Infrastructure Bill recently, and I fear that I would be stretching your patience too far, Mr Rosindell, if I got on to some of those points now.
On the issue of compulsory microchipping, the Highways Agency states that scanning “may” still occur. Presumably, most contractors will have the necessary equipment; if such scanning “may” still occur, the assumption must be that most of them have the equipment required. Surely, therefore, the duty cannot be particularly burdensome.
The decision to end mandatory scanning seems even more misguided given that the Government have just passed regulations that will require all dog owners to microchip their dog by April 2016. The Government have said that microchipping is a welfare measure that will increase traceability and allow lost dogs to be reunited with their owners more quickly—and amen to that. However, that will not necessarily happen if the procedures that authorities are meant to follow in order to identify pets and inform their owners are being watered down at the same time. It just is not right that the Government are introducing obligations on dog owners but removing them from their own agencies, or indeed their own companies, given that the Highways Agency, as a result of the Infrastructure Bill, has recently become a Government-owned company called Highways England.
As the British Veterinary Association has said:
“Responsible owners who have had their dogs microchipped and kept their details up to date should have a reasonable expectation that steps will be taken by the authorities to contact them if their dog is lost, injured or, sadly, found dead. As the UK moves towards compulsory microchipping of all dogs, the Government should be taking the opportunity to espouse the benefits of microchipping rather than eroding them.”
The Opposition agree with that, and we support mandatory identification procedures for the Highways Agency to follow.
Harvey’s law proposes a simple solution: that the procedures for scanning, identification and recording set out in the Highways Agency’s network management manual be not only kept in place but strengthened by legislation. Many others, such as the Dogs Trust, support that obligation too, and are calling for mandatory scanning of dogs on the roads and railways. However, we are rather confused about what the Government’s policy is in this regard, and I hope that the Minister will clear that up when responding to the debate.
I understand that, previously, the stated position was that the Government had no plans to enforce mandatory scanning through legislation, but from yesterday’s press we understand that the Minister has asked the Highways Agency to review the scanning policy. Likewise, the Highways Agency recently stated that it is currently assessing the
“potential merits of amending contracts”
to include mandatory identification, recording and notification for owners. I think everybody here today could identify the benefits pretty quickly; we would not need a big review to do that. They are: rapid identification; less distress to owners; and quicker reunification of dogs and owners.
We need a bit more clarity on these reviews and assessments to ensure that the issue is being taken seriously quickly in the Department for Transport. I hope that today the Minister will provide us with more details of what these reviews will consist of; what their terms of reference are; when conclusions are expected; and when a decision is expected on the basis of those conclusions.
Although I like the Minister a great deal, so far we have had a jumble of different statements from the Government and the Highways Agency, and that has not given Harvey’s Army, or the millions of other dog owners in the UK, the confidence they need and deserve that the pets they will have an obligation to microchip will be treated with the consideration, compassion and respect that they are calling for. Sadly, it just seems to be another indication of muddle.
From Labour’s point of view, getting this sorted out is part of the same approach to animal welfare that underlines our position on the badger cull, and our wish not to see the ban on hunting with dogs watered down or removed. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) has said:
“Our Labour values tell us that we have a moral duty to treat the animals we share our planet with in a humane and compassionate way.”
That is why Labour has committed to ensuring that it is mandatory for the Highways Agency to carry out these identification procedures. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher), the shadow Transport Secretary, has said, these are simple procedures but they make a big difference to people. We do not think that mandating Government agencies and authorities to follow these procedures—making it compulsory—is too much to ask. That should be done quickly. I hope that the Minister agrees with me. I look forward to his response.
It is a delight to serve under your stewardship, Mr Rosindell, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) on securing the debate. I think that I am right in saying that it was 10 years ago this month, Mr Rosindell, that the late Lady Thatcher visited Romford and met Buster, your beloved dog, in his St George’s cross coat. What more fitting time to serve under your chairmanship than in this important debate?
Affection takes many forms. Homes are bound by ties, and the love that in families dwells is, in my judgment, enhanced and embellished—no, more that that: deepened—by the affection felt for domestic animals. The atmosphere engendered by pets in any home and the mood they generate changes families and changes life. They teach us to regard what God made in a different way; they challenge our certainties; they oblige sensitivity in all but the most inane; and they soften all but the hardest of hearts. As all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate have said, it a matter of uncertainty whether we own them or they own us. One of my favourite poets, T. S. Eliot, said:
“When a cat adopts you there is nothing to be done about it except put up with it until the wind changes.”
When we are adopted by our pets, we understand that affection—that deepening love.
It is in that context that we come to this debate, which was stimulated by the response of the Backbench Business Committee to a campaign that was being run on the basis of the loss of a much loved pet. I am delighted that so many hon. Members have contributed to the debate and that others from that campaign are here to witness it.
People’s distress after the loss of a pet has been made absolutely clear in contributions from throughout the Chamber, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), said, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) and others.
It is important that I pay due regard to those contributions by setting out the circumstances that have led to the debate and underpin what has happened so far. As the Opposition spokesman said, the Highways Agency network management manual of 2009 sets out procedures for notifying owners of dogs that are killed on the strategic road network for a number of Highways Agency contracts in various parts of the country. Those contracts are being phased out and replaced with asset support contracts, which are underpinned by a new type of technical requirement: the asset maintenance and operational requirements. The document relating to those requirements details certain points to which our regional asset support contract service providers must adhere.
Requirements are outcome-based as far as possible and require the service providers to take risk-based, intelligence-led approaches to optimise their delivery. That has led to a change in the approach to dealing with canine fatalities across the strategic road network, as the replacement contract maximises efficiency. As has been made clear, new contracts no longer mandate that canine fatalities are scanned or identified, or that the owners are contacted. I know that the current position must be hugely disappointing for all animal lovers and pet owners alike.
I should like to clarify details of the statement made in response to the Harvey’s law e-petition upon its reaching 10,000 signatures, which described the standards set out in the network management manual. In my judgment that response was unclear, because it did not accurately reflect the Highways Agency’s changing approach to dealing with these fatalities. As soon as I heard about that, I asked for an urgent review. It is regrettable that that was not properly explained. So, I should like to clarify that the new contract was in operation in the area where Harvey the dog was collected. With regard to that sad occurrence, I understand that Harvey escaped when staying with the owners’ friends, which must have been heartbreaking for all involved.
Although the agency’s previous mandatory policy for dealing with canine fatalities is as I have described, it is still the contractor’s responsibility to follow their own processes and procedures. In this case, the contractor collected Harvey’s remains and transported them to a depot. A dog collar was located, but no tags were attached that could have enabled contact to be made with the owner. A scanner was used to attempt to locate a microchip, but sadly this was unsuccessful. The north-west motorway police group was asked whether any dogs had been reported as missing, but a negative response was received. Harvey was cremated and the ashes scattered in the cemetery.
Some weeks later, a Highways Agency traffic officer involved in collecting a dog from the carriageway came across a missing dog poster at a motorway service area and kindly contacted the owner to inform them of what had happened.
Not only are Highways Agency staff put at risk when trying to retrieve animals to reunite them with their owners, but any animal that escapes on to the network is a problem for drivers, who will take evasive action, which may result in a traffic collision involving potential casualties. It is important to note that due to the high speeds on the strategic road network, there is always a risk that a disc, microchip or other identifying mark will be lost in an incident. Because of the severity of accidents and the speeds involved, it is impossible to guarantee that remains can be fully identified in all cases.
The priority of Highways Agency traffic officers is to ensure safe journeys for road users. Nevertheless, when officers attend incidents involving stray or carried animals involved in collisions, they must deal with such incidents humanely and with compassion. Such incidents are distressing for all concerned. With the agency’s forthcoming transformation to Highways England and the surety of the funding and increased investment detailed in the roads investment strategy, there is an opportunity to focus more on the service that the agency delivers to its customers.
All we are asking for is that anyone who finds a dead animal passes the scanner over it to see whether it is chipped. It is a straightforward procedure; there is nothing complicated about it. The Minister is making it sound like it is enormously complicated, but it is not.
I am coming to my exciting peroration, and the hon. Lady will, I hope, be pleased with what I have to say. Although it is not possible to identify all animals or pets that are very badly injured or killed in high-speed accidents, it is absolutely essential that every possible and practical measure is taken to identify them and to contact their owners whenever and wherever possible. That involves working with relevant pet registration organisations, including the Kennel Club, and using any means by which the animal might be identified. As the hon. Member for Halton said, that aligns well with the amendment to the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which will make it compulsory to microchip all dogs from April 2016. As he argued, it would be ironic and contradictory not to rethink the practice highlighted by the campaign that followed Harvey’s death. I have therefore asked the Highways Agency to ensure that it collects and identifies every animal that is killed and to contact the owners by whatever practicable means, but I want to go further than that.
I have listened carefully to the Minister, and it could be my hearing aid and my inability to hear clearly, but I thought I heard him say that he would “ask” the Highways Agency to do that work. I think most people want to hear him say that he will require the agency to do it.
The hon. Lady has known me for a number of years, and we have worked together on a number of campaigns. She knows that when I say “ask”, I mean “order”. I have told the Highways Agency that I expect it to do this work. It will be a requirement; it is what will happen. That is how I operate as a Minister, as she knows. I am surprised she doubted me, given our long-standing friendship. [Interruption.] I agree that it is important to put that on the record.
The shadow Minister was right to ask whether the process will be mandatory. I will tell him exactly what it will be; mandatory requirements for identifying and recording domestic animals will be included in the documents for the tenders for new contracts. That applies to Cornwall and Devon, Kent, Surrey, East Sussex, West Sussex, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, parts of Warwickshire, Rutland, parts of Oxfordshire, Yorkshire and Humberside, Cumbria and parts of Lancashire, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, Durham and North Yorkshire. Most of those tenders were issued at the end of February or will be issued in March. Some of the tenders will be issued a little later, as the contracts expire.
I want to go further, however. For those contracts that have already been issued—in Somerset, Avon, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Berkshire, Surrey, Dorset, Wiltshire, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, parts of Suffolk, the west midlands, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, parts of Gloucestershire, Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and parts of Lancashire—I have asked for urgent investigation to retrofit mandatory requirements on identifying and recording domestic animals found on the strategic road network. We will commence that process immediately this spring and bring it into operation as soon as we can, following the re-discussion of those contracts. I want the identification and recording to be mandatory, and it will be.
I assume that the Minister will be bringing in the legislation shortly, but let us be clear: we are about to have a general election, when Parliament will be dissolved. In asking for this process to be done, has he set a time limit?
I have said that the process will begin straight away, but it is helpful that the hon. Gentleman posed that question, because I am more than happy, following this debate, to write to all the Members who have contributed—I should perhaps put a copy of the letter in the Library of the House—setting out a timetable for the implementation of the commitment I have made today. That would be a fair and reasonable thing to do in response to the debate, to assure those who have been waging this campaign of the absolute certainty of the commitments I have offered. Notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman’s integrity, of which I have no doubt, it is important that I do that before the general election, because I am currently the Minister responsible for this area, and elections are funny old things. We will ensure that the measure is set in stone.
The even better news for those of us who are cat owners is that I want to ensure that where cats are involved in accidents, owners can be confident that we will endeavour to ensure that they are identified. Cats often have means of identification, so where a cat can reasonably be identified, its owner should be contacted in the same way. That is made more complicated—I do not want to be insensitive—by the fact that cats sometimes suffer in high-speed accidents the kind of injury that makes it difficult to identify them, but that will not stop us. We will use every possible endeavour and every practical means to identify cat owners.
Having lost one to the road, I thank the Minister for extending the commitment beyond dogs to cats. Will he recognise that although it is not compulsory—nor will it be compulsory—many responsible cat owners microchip their pets?
Yes, that is true, and it should make the commitment I have given easier to deliver. We will ensure that facilities are in place across the country to scan animals that are unhappily in the circumstances I have set out.
The Government take this matter extremely seriously. As soon as I heard about the case, I realised that the circumstance in which Harvey died was just not acceptable, for the reasons I gave at the outset. If we are made more human by the love of a pet, we need to understand that when a pet is lost and its fate is uncertain—my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) made this point wonderfully—that eats at the hearts of all those involved. To paraphrase Dickens, what greater gift can there be than the love of a cat or dog?
I am not going to try to match the Minister’s quotations, but, for the benefit of those following the debate, I want to get absolutely clear the commitments that have been given. Would I be right in thinking that there are three? First, that new contracts will make scanning mandatory, with no delay, and so will not be preceded by a review—
That is already happening.
Secondly, that a review will apply to existing contracts and the Minister will write to all Members present with a timetable, which will be placed in the House of Commons Library; and thirdly, that the requirements will be extended to cats. Will the Minister give some idea of the timetable for that final commitment?
I could not have summarised my own argument better than the shadow Minister has just done. Those are indeed the commitments. In the note that I will circulate on the contracts, it would be helpful for me to say a word about cats and the practicable means of contacting owners. I take the point that cats are often microchipped. As I was saying, that helps because of the availability of scanners and the fact that, as has been said in the debate, the straightforward business of locating and collecting animals in places where they can be scanned should mean that owners can be contacted wherever possible.
I am grateful to the Minister for his constructive approach to the debate. Is his argument that legislation is unnecessary because his ministerial scope enables him to make the necessary changes through the contracts? Would it be more effective to ensure the mandate that he is giving by putting it into statute?
The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of the House. He will know that a mandatory contract is what it says it is: mandatory. We must act immediately; I want no further delay. As the shadow Minister said, there is no need for a protracted review. The matter is straightforward, and the last thing I want is to have to wait for a legislative vehicle so that we can amend the law. We have an election coming and would have to wait for the Queen’s Speech; the right hon. Member for Knowsley will know, as will other experienced Members, that that business could become protracted, even for such a relatively straightforward measure. I just want to get on with it. The shadow Minister asked, perfectly properly, whether the changes would be mandatory, and the answer is yes.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister responding so positively to everything that has been said this afternoon. He will be aware that some of us who represent London constituencies might have to discuss the issue with City Hall, because, rather than the Highways Agency, Transport for London is responsible for some of the main roads that go through the capital. Has my right hon. Friend had any discussions with Transport for London? Are there useful discussions to be had about the Government’s approach to the issue? What does he recommend that those of us who represent London constituencies do to ensure that pets and owners are treated with the respect that they deserve?
With her usual perspicacity, my hon. Friend anticipates the final commitment that I wish to offer. The Highways Agency is of course responsible for large roads—the key arterial routes—but it is my estimation that the majority of fatalities among cats and dogs are on local roads. The Highways Agency looks after our motorways and major trunk roads, but I believe that we can go further. Following this debate, I intend not only to communicate with Transport for London but to write to all local highways authorities throughout the country to draw their attention to the Government’s position and invite them to reflect on their own local policy. That would not only take us back to where we were in respect of the mandatory obligation to collect, record and notify owners; it would take us further than we have ever been if we were able to bring about a circumstance whereby we were doing the right thing on roads throughout the country.
I was describing Dickens’ claim that there is no greater love than the love of a cat or dog, which brings me, finally, to Hemingway. He is not one of my favourite writers—that might be for political reasons—but he did sum up what I said at the start of this debate about why animals have the effect on us that they do. He was speaking of cats, but he might well have been speaking of dogs too, when he said:
“A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not”,
and dogs do not either. Today, Members have not hidden their feelings, and neither should they have. I am a Minister who never hides my feelings.
It is my great misfortune to have missed most of this debate, but I need not fear, because Mr Derek Twigg is going to sum it all up in the next few minutes.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I shall try to live up to your expectations.
It has been an excellent debate, without one bad speech or intervention. Everything has been superb, with all the issues that have been raised and the degree of emotion brought into the debate—but controlled emotion, based on facts and on listening to constituents, which has been an important part of things. A number of hon. Members have been clear that they had listened to constituents.
This is a great example of democracy in action. Constituents contacted their Members of Parliament; we got together and managed to secure a debate, with the approval of the Backbench Business Committee—it is great that its Chair is here—and, finally, there has been a massive step forward today. We heard positively not only from our Labour Front Bencher, but from the Minister.
To sum up, the closeness of the relationship that people have with their pets—dogs and cats, in particular—is profound and has a massive emotional impact. Many Members have related to that today. Many members of the Harvey’s Army campaign are present in the Public Gallery. Everything goes back to them, because they decided to campaign and raise the issue with Members of Parliament, the community and the national and local media. It is so much down to them that we got here today.
I am reassured about the mandatory nature of what the Minister has proposed, but I point out to him that we have to be careful to keep a watchful eye on things, because we will need to legislate if there are any problems. We should not rule out legislation and we should keep an open mind about it. I am grateful to both Front Benchers, and it is great that the Minister has reconsidered after the representations made to him.
I again thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for the debate and all those Members who have participated. Of course, I also thank all Harvey’s Army and the campaigners for the work that they have put in to get us to where we are today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the e-petition relating to Harvey’s law.