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Exotic Pets Trade

Volume 603: debated on Wednesday 9 December 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the exotic pets trade.

I pay tribute to a number of organisations that have been active on this agenda: the Born Free Foundation, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Blue Cross and the British Veterinary Association. The other day I was fortunate enough to attend with a number of colleagues an excellent drop-in event in the House organised by Born Free as it launched its campaign to raise awareness of the problem of the trade in exotic pets. It also came up with some recommendations. I have several questions to ask. Is there a problem with the trade and the keeping of exotic pets? Is the current law adequate? What can be done?

An exotic pet is a rare or unusual animal that is generally thought of as a wild species and is not typically kept as a pet in a domestic context. According to the animal welfare charity OneKind, 1,000 different species of mammals, birds, invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians, and more than 150 different fish species, are kept as pets. There are many examples that colleagues will know about, including boa constrictors, numerous amphibians, primates, anacondas and African pygmy hedgehogs. The list goes on and on.

The Pet Food Manufacturers Association estimates that the exotic pet population in the UK, including fish, now totals 42 million, which is absolutely staggering; the number of reptiles and amphibians alone kept in this country is now anywhere between 2 million and 7 million. A lot of the huge increase in the numbers has been brought about by the phenomenon of internet sales, which I will come on to in a moment. First, I want to consider welfare concerns. Exotic animals have not undergone the same process of domestication that dogs, cats and many other conventional pets have.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene so early in his remarks. Does he agree that a lot of people purchase exotic pets without proper research and with no understanding of their complex needs, and that those pets are then abandoned because people cannot cope with them?

One of the problems is that the potential buyers’ expectations are often completely unrealistic. They often buy small animals that become very big animals.

There has been a staggering 24% increase in the number of abandoned pets in the past five years. Does my hon. Friend think that might be related to the buying of exotic pets online, because people subsequently find that they are unsuitable for their homes and do not know how to look after them?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I am going to talk about abandoned pets in a moment, because that is one of the really big problems; I am also going to talk about biodiversity.

Two examples were brought to my attention by Born Free. A badly neglected African pygmy hedgehog was disposed like rubbish in a wet cardboard box somewhere in London and had to be rescued and taken to an animal hospital. There is also the case of the two bearded dragons found abandoned in a London cemetery. What often happens is that the pets—they are perhaps given for Christmas, and the children are very excited—become difficult to manage and are, inexcusably, abandoned. I ask the Minister what more can be done to ensure that officials in local authorities and other organisations are properly trained to deal with abandoned pets.

The welfare concerns need to be examined in more detail. We have to remember that the needs of such pets are challenging. Some of their needs are linked to certain environmental conditions that can be difficult to replicate in a domestic environment. Many animals need larger enclosures, a carefully controlled environment and specific levels of heat, light and ultraviolet light; otherwise, they might become ill. They also need to be allowed to exhibit natural behaviours such as burrowing, climbing and basking. Often, if they are not able to follow those natural instincts, they become aggressive and might even pick up diseases.

Does my hon. Friend agree that some species, such as primates, have specific dietary requirements and can develop diseases such as diabetes and bone conditions if they are not fed the correct diet?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable about primates; I understand that there is a reserve for abandoned primates in her constituency. I agree with her 100%. I will talk about primates, which often have small bodies but large brains, in a moment; they are, by definition, highly intelligent animals.

There has been a big increase in the number of complaints about welfare issues regarding exotic pets.

I, too, went to the launch that my hon. Friend attended. We were told that some of the animals can pass on diseases to human beings—it is called zoonosis. That is a real danger, and it has all happened since the legislation was introduced in the 1950s. Everything has changed, and we are not covered for it. The situation presents something of a danger.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some 70 pet-linked human diseases have been identified by various medical organisations, which is obviously a serious worry that I hope the Minister will comment on in his winding-up speech.

The ease of availability is closely linked to welfare concerns. Those of us who have children know that if someone goes to a pet shop such as Pets At Home—my son, who is now 16, used to go there to buy goldfish, hamsters and other things—they are given a great deal of advice about what to do. On occasion, my son was not allowed to go away with a goldfish or a hamster because the staff were not convinced that we had the right facilities at home. It is concerning that only 5% of the trade in puppies—I know that they are not exotic, but this is an indication of how the trade that goes through pet shops has declined—is now channelled through licensed pet shops.

If someone goes into a pet shop they can get all the advice they could possibly want, but buying on the internet is a very different matter. The Born Free Foundation carried out a survey called “One Click Away”, which looked at nearly 2,000 adverts from six different websites over a number of months. At any one moment, across those six websites, the total number of adverts selling exotic animals was thought to be about 25,000. The majority—about 52%—of the adverts were for reptiles, but 21% were for primates, many of which, as my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) pointed out, are not suitable for a home environment. And so it goes on.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate on a subject that has not received the attention it deserves. He has come to a crucial part of his discourse. He is talking about internet transactions, which are escalating exponentially. Does he agree that we need to track down the sources from which people can very quickly —one click away—get primates and other exotic animals with very little information about how to look after them if and when they are successful in purchasing them?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that excellent intervention. He is absolutely right. Rather than commenting myself, I ask the Minister to address those points.

I asked Born Free to look at my home county of Norfolk to see what might be available online, and it discovered an internet advert stating

“bearded dragon no tank needed gone tonight”

with a price of £10. A bearded dragon is quite small, but down the road a female yellow anaconda was for sale with a “final reduction” price of £100. This anaconda is 7 feet long and would require a serious amount of space and care, and yet, as the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) points out, there is no screening or checking on the internet to see whether the buyer is first time or potentially unsuitable. Again in Norfolk, not very far away, a 6½-foot orange corn snake was for sale “in good health” and priced at £60 with a 4-foot fish tank. I do not know about the Minister, but I find that the idea of a 6½-foot corn snake living in a 4-foot tank is challenging. Perhaps he could comment on that. There are plenty of other examples of pets for sale—vast numbers.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) pointed out, primates can be highly intelligent and have much larger brains than most animals of the same size. They have complex language skills, show advanced learning, numerical ability and planning, and perform tactical social interactions. They are much more likely to suffer severely, both physically and psychologically, if they are not properly looked after. After all, they are used to social groups and having their natural needs attended to in the wild. In captivity, however, unless the owner has an exceptional amount of knowledge of the species, there can be many welfare issues, including, as my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall pointed out, bone disease, diabetes and psychological problems. I am not saying that we should put more emphasis on primates than other animals, but they must be considered carefully by the Minister, the shadow Minister and other colleagues.

Abandoned pets, as has already been mentioned in an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), are another issue. People often make impulse purchases, particularly given the ease of buying on the internet, and have completely unrealistic expectations about how easy it will be to manage an animal. Animals often get bigger and may develop psychological problems and become more aggressive, and thus more dangerous.

I referred to two cases of animal abandonment a moment ago—the pygmy hedgehog and the two bearded dragons—but abandonment and animal welfare are not the only concerns: there is also the possible impact on the local habitat. Coming from a rural farming background, the Minister will be well aware of several invasive species, ranging from non-native crayfish to muntjac deer to the mandarin duck, that have caused big challenges in this country. According to the British Veterinary Association, there are at least 51 types of released reptiles and amphibians in the London area alone. Those species could easily harbour a whole suite of novel pathogens that could impact on livestock and pet health—or indeed on human health, as my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane mentioned. The BVA has already identified 70 pet-linked human diseases.

We should also consider the impact of such animals being traded and captured on the local wild populations in other countries, some of which may be poor, developing nations that do not have the capacity to control or regulate the trade. There are already several examples of species being depleted, and far more research needs to be done on the origin of exotic pets to find ways of following the supply chain as they leave their countries and are traded into the developed world.

On that point, something else has come to light on which it would be interesting to get the Minister’s view. I do not believe that quarantine procedures are in place for many exotic species, so they can be brought in without controls by pet shops or internet providers to distribute here. They do not have to stay anywhere to be checked for diseases and all the rest of it.

That neatly leads me on to my next point. Is the law adequate? Let us first look at what the law says now. The overarching legislation is the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which imposes a legal responsibility on all pet owners to provide for their animal’s basic needs. With the vast numbers of animals around, however, how can the Act be policed except through whistleblowing or an inspector’s concerns about a particular family, perhaps based on information from neighbours? It is a good Act, but it needs to be complemented by other legislation. The selling by pet shops of exotic animals is regulated by the Pet Animals Act 1951, and I believe that sufficient controls are in place for how animals are looked after in pet shops. Mortality during transportation is a big issue, however.

Most pet shops, particularly stores such as Pets at Home, really pride themselves on finding out all the details of where pets originate from. For pets traded on the internet, however, there are no such constraints—it is basically a complete free-for-all. The 1951 Act regulates and controls licensed premises, but there are no controls for those who set up online as individuals trading perhaps one or two animals. If they do it on a regular basis, they can be asked to go through the licensing process, but that does not happen often.

What my hon. Friend is saying is very interesting and I thank him for giving way again. Many big stores such as Pets at Home have wonderful systems in place for licensing pets and giving advice, but many smaller ones have a different array of licences, so there is no evenness across the table. That needs to be looked at, as I think the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who is also on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, would probably agree.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point.

We have the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, which deal with a small percentage of the total number of animals that we are discussing. There is also the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which gives protection to some native species that might once have been considered for keeping as exotic pets and prohibits the release of exotic species into the wild. The UK is also part of the Bern convention on the conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats and other similar EU statutes. A legislative framework is therefore in place, but are the Acts and conventions being properly implemented and adhered to? Will the Minister urgently review and update the Pet Animals Act 1951, which completely predates the large-scale sale of animals over the internet?

I understand that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has announced a review of all animal licensing to take place next year, so will the Minister consider the 1951 Act and the other legislation as part of that process? This is a big opportunity for the Government to get a grip on the matter, to seize the initiative and to get on the front foot and show that DEFRA, the lead Department, will work with other Departments to try to make a difference, because the law is out of date. I am certainly not part of the nanny-state tendency and do not want excessive regulation, but there is an argument for updating and making the existing legislation fit for purpose. I also ask the Minister to look at the training and capacity of local authority licensing officers to check whether they have the right processes in place.

We will be hearing from the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), but will the Minister work with the devolved Administrations to ensure an overall look at the issue throughout the UK? If the same review that is to take place under DEFRA also took place in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, that would be helpful.

There is cross-party support for and the momentum to get behind a DEFRA initiative, but it has to be the right initiative. We have seen a steady increase in the trade in exotic pets and a real decline in the standards of welfare in a minority of cases—the vast majority of pet and exotic pet owners look after their pets well and have high standards, but many do not. Given all the problems that flow from poor welfare, pet abandonment and everything to do with biodiversity and the impacts on habitats and human health, the time has come for the Government to act—and they would have the House’s support.

As always, Mr Owen, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. May I apologise in advance for being slightly under the weather and say that I might not be as energetic or as enthusiastic as normal?

I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) on securing the debate. His knowledge of the topic is impressive and he gave us a tour de force this morning. He set out clearly the scale and nature of the trade in exotic pets. As he pointed out, more than 1,000 species of animal are involved in the pet trade, with the evidence suggesting that more than 50% of pet shops sell exotic species of some sort, with 25% selling exotic amphibians, 25% selling exotic birds, mainly parrots, and 17% selling exotic mammals, such as raccoons and hedgehogs, as has been pointed out. Even worse, some 42% of pet shops sell exotic reptiles such as alligators, cobras, chameleons or endangered tortoises. It is also estimated, however, that a staggering 20% of calls to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals about reptiles are made because they are no longer wanted by their owner.

I want to provide some local context. In South Yorkshire we have 66 licensed pet shops. Recent research by Blue Cross and the Born Free Foundation shows that 25% of them sell reptiles of some sort, with many not even displaying information on what kind is being sold—which underlines perfectly the point made earlier. That is an important point, because if a shop does not know the species, it will not know how the pet should be looked after and will certainly not be able to tell the customer how to care for it.

Thirty per cent of pet shops in South Yorkshire also sell exotic birds, usually labelled simply as “parrots”. Even worse, one in five of the shops in South Yorkshire sells exotic mammals of some sort, with one even selling meerkats. Under no circumstances should meerkats ever be kept as pets, but that example typifies one of the major drivers at play in the trade, which is the role of fad and fashion in governing the decision to buy. To be frank, those individuals who want a meerkat should stick to collecting the stuffed toys on offer from Compare The Market and steer clear of the real thing.

What, in turn, drives buyers’ trends in the pet market? I suggest that one of the drivers is that people far too often see exotics as cute and cuddly. Most people, however, do not have the knowledge of the specialist requirements attached to looking after such animals, and the animals suffer as a result.

Does the hon. Lady agree that any revised legislative framework should place responsibility not only on people selling pets, but on people buying them? People should be responsible enough to find out what an animal needs before they take it on.

I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Lady’s point, and I will say something about the role of education later in my speech.

We need to remember that many animals could be suffering from the trade, far more than we estimate. We are uncertain about the scale of the trade, so it is not even easy to estimate the degree of the problem.

Another concern highlighted by research is how little some local authorities are aware of the issue. One authority in South Yorkshire stated that it had no pet shops licensed to sell exotics, yet Blue Cross and Born Free found at least three pet shops in its area selling exotic birds, amphibians and reptiles. Under-resourced local authorities clearly face a considerable challenge when enforcing legislation on exotic pets.

Licensed pet shops are only the tip of the iceberg—a point powerfully made by the hon. Member for North West Norfolk. In South Yorkshire, as in other areas, the online trade is the growing forum for selling a wide variety of exotic pets, often unlicensed and illegally. For example, one advertisement was seen to be selling cornflakes. [Interruption.] I mean corn snakes—sorry, I said I wasn’t feeling well. Other ads were for royal pythons and, believe it or not, for a marmoset. Perhaps most shockingly, one advert in South Yorkshire was offering for sale two African grey parrots, exotic birds from the Congo region of central Africa that are designated as vulnerable by the IUCN—the International Union for Conservation of Nature—and should only be kept in captivity by experts and never as pets.

This debate is important and highlights an important and growing issue. If the Minister could address a few points in his response, that would be appreciated. First, does he agree that the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 should be extended to cover pet shops? A seller of an exotic animal needing a licence would then have to state such a requirement to any buyer. Secondly, will he consider—this is the principal point made by the hon. Member for North West Norfolk—conducting a full review of the exotic pet trade, similar to the one promised by the Scottish Government? I know that a general review of animal licensing is on the way, but I wonder whether it is worth separating out the issue of exotic pets for special attention. Furthermore, does the Minister agree, thirdly, that part of that full review should consider the outdated Pet Animals Act 1951?

Fourthly, as I have highlighted, local authorities do not have the time, resources or guidance necessary to curb the sale of exotic animals. This is a problem that goes all the way across the licensing of animals for breeding and sale, including dogs and cats. Does the Minister agree, therefore, that local authorities should be given the resources to properly license and inspect pet shops to ensure compliance with existing legislation? Fifthly, does he agree—this is another point made earlier—that more needs to be done to educate the public about the husbandry needs of such animals, which can be difficult and expensive to satisfy in a home environment?

On more being done to educate wider society, does the hon. Lady agree that part of the problem is the novelty factor, which parents often inculcate in their children? They do not want to have just a goldfish, dog or cat; they want an increasingly outrageously exotic animal as a pet, which might be discarded in a matter of weeks.

I totally agree, and that is the point I made about the role of fad and fashion. I made the point about meerkats and tried to deal with it light-heartedly, but it is a serious point. Meerkats are not cuddly animals that can be kept easily in a home environment, but we see a growing trend for that kind of pet ownership, which is totally unacceptable. On a personal level—this is not a party political line—I think it is unacceptable that a wide range of exotic animals sold in pet shops should be sold to be kept in domestic environments. I do not understand why anyone would want to keep a pet snake or a pet spider.

I want to back up what the hon. Lady is saying. Something like half of all pets sold through pet shops are venomous snakes, alligators and crocodiles. That is frightening, so I urge the Minister to look at the law.

I totally agree. I am pleased that a review of legislation on the licensing of the breeding and sale of animals is on the way, but that aspect of the trade needs to be looked at carefully. Public safety ramifications that go beyond the Animal Welfare Act need to be looked at as well and given a bit of separate attention.

Pets are not a fashion accessory and should not be exposed to the throwaway culture of modern fashion. Some animals should not be kept as pets at all. Blue Cross and Born Free, in their “One Click Away” campaign, want to see a ban on keeping primates as pets. This is a bit of an old chestnut, but does the Minister agree that primates should not be kept as household pets?

Pet shops sell exotic animals to meet a demand and because of the high profits to be had by so doing. There is nothing wrong with making money, but we must be careful and make sure that animal welfare is not compromised in the process of making a living. In many cases, animals may not be dangerous or endangered. It is not illegal to own exotic pets, but even if it is not illegal, in some cases the trade drives habitat destruction and the extinction of animals in the wild. That cannot be right or good for the species involved, nor is it possible to meet the welfare needs of exotic pets in a domestic environment.

I thank Blue Cross and Born Free for their campaigning work, which has been invaluable and should be commended. I for one appreciate all they do in highlighting this and many other animal welfare issues. I know that the Minister is a reasonable man and he is very competent, so I look forward to a full and thorough response to the points raised in the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on securing the debate. He is on urgent Council of Europe business this morning, but I will tell him that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) ably moved the motion in his place.

I do not mean to chastise my hon. Friend, but throughout my time in Parliament I have consistently raised issues concerning animal welfare. Therefore, if anyone has any time to spare, they will see in Hansard that everything that has been said this morning I have said before. Indeed, in 2002, together with Ann Widdecombe—I am still a Member of this place; Ann Widdecombe is appearing in pantomime in Windsor and doing a good job, but she is here with me in spirit—I introduced a Bill to protect endangered species. Indeed, we got Brigitte Bardot involved in the campaign, but even that did not do any good.

I therefore say to the Minister that there is no point in having debates where we feel good at the end but nothing happens. I want a slightly better answer from him, in terms of how his civil servants brief him, than the one I got from my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who was the Minister in 2012 and doing a splendid job. I am very much in favour of Ministers saying, “Yes, we can do this,” and standing up to the advice they are given.

None of these issues is original. The dramatic change is the power of the internet. We have all just fought general election campaigns, where we go canvassing. When I knocked on one door, I saw a cat with spots and thought, “My goodness—now they are keeping leopards.” Over the years, the Amess household has kept all sorts of animals—we have drawn the line at giraffes because we do not have ceilings high enough for them—but my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) will be aware that, in September, I inaugurated the Westminster responsible pet ownership competition. The point of that was that owning a pet is a big responsibility. I understand how the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) feels on this issue.

We all know that small animals are cute. Puppies are cute and a little alligator, 6 inches long, looks cute, but then it grows. The level of irresponsibility of the people buying these pets is absolutely ridiculous. That is why, over the years and with other colleagues who have been consistently interested in animal welfare issues, I have tried to change things.

My hon. Friend will know better than anyone that the capacity of rehoming centres is at its limits, so the problem of exotic pet abandonment must be limited through legislation. Otherwise, it will continue and we will reach crisis point.

My hon. Friend is entirely right. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall and I recently returned from a trip to Cyprus, where my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and I were presented with two common tortoises called Fama and Gusta. However, because of certain issues, those two tortoises, which we wanted to rescue, are still on the beautiful island of Cyprus and, under the arrangements in place, we would have had to get a mortgage out on the Palace of Westminster to bring them back. I have contacted the Minister for Tourism in Cyprus to see if some kind carrier could do us a favour, so that at least my hon. Friend could have a happy Christmas with his family by rescuing the two tortoises.

I have proposed and supported many early-day motions concerning animal welfare legislation. Indeed, the Protection against Cruel Tethering Act 1988, which was in my name, was on the statute book. I have tried to do something about the Pet Animals Act 1951, dogs Acts and other matters.

Recently, Southend Cats Protection came to my surgery and drew my attention to exotic cats. I was informed that over recent years ownership of new, exotic cats has become popular, including bengals, savannahs and chausie ocicats, which have become widely available on the internet —I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk that the power of the internet has changed things—and while many come from registered, reputable breeders, many others put profit before the animal’s welfare and, on the cat’s looks, sell them, with no checks made, to unsuspecting buyers who are unaware of the high maintenance involved.

Those breeds are demanding and require much human interaction. They need a lot of daily exercise and a large territory, including places for vertical climbing. I assume they do not just go up curtains—perhaps they try to walk on the ceiling. They often like to play with water, so they must be in their element at the moment. They have a high prey drive and, while many will get on well with dogs, they are often cat-aggressive and will actively seek out neighbouring cats to hurt to maintain their territory. My constituent explained how the cats can become destructive through boredom and can respond aggressively to being disciplined or handled. There are common reasons for those cats to be relinquished and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) said, rescue charities are increasingly being asked to take them. Given the traits of these cats, however, charities cannot accept them, because they cannot meet their needs. These cats are very expensive to maintain.

Over the years, I have kept many birds—of the feathered variety. Many people keep birds—budgerigars, canaries and a number of common parrots—in captivity as companion animals, and I am very comfortable with that. However, the majority of birds imported through Heathrow airport come from places such as South Africa, South America, Singapore and the Czech Republic. It is absolutely ridiculous to bring back humming birds, given the cruelty involved in netting them. A large range of species, including macaws, lovebirds, toucans and birds of prey, are kept. The number of species is estimated to approach 1,000. Many of those species are now kept in the UK, and that is very cruel—these birds are taken out of their natural habitat, and they are not well looked after in captivity.

The RSPCA does a splendid job—I might be slightly critical of its ever-changing management, but its ordinary members do a splendid job. However, it certainly supports my concerns about the keeping of exotic birds. It recently reported that 80 dead exotic birds were found at the bottom of a cage they shared with a boa constrictor—a boa constrictor for goodness’ sake! Many of the other birds in the cage were on the verge of death. Of the 80 dead birds, two were zebra finches—I know they are fairly common—and one was a bronze-winged mannikin, which had died as a result of head trauma after attempting to escape from the snake. The snake was curled up in the water bowl, so the birds were traumatised because they could not get anything to drink. During the inspection, budgerigars were also found to be suffering from skin complaints and a mite infestation.

I have touched on the ten-minute rule Bill I sought leave to introduce in 2002. In 2012, I asked the then Minister what plans he had to amend legislation such as the Pet Animals Act 1951. I think the civil service told him to say there was no requirement to change the legislation, but that is ridiculous—that is not a good enough answer. In 1983, when I was first elected to this place, and David Mellor was the lead Home Office Minister on this issue, we served on a Committee looking at a Bill—the first such Bill since 1911—to amend animal legislation. Furthermore, given what my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk said about the power of the internet in this regard, we need to get up to speed.

I welcome the debate, but it should not just be a talking shop; we should change the legislation and make sure that any new legislation is actually enforced. It is Christmas, with the nativity and all of that, and this should be a happy season for not just human beings, but animals as well.

Order. Before I call Dr Lisa Cameron, I should remind those who are indicating that they want to speak that I will call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 10.30 am.

It is an absolute delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on securing the debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) on his detailed and thorough speech.

It appears that exotic pets have been a feature in the UK since as early as the 13th century, with records from the time reportedly documenting that reptiles were kept in the Tower of London menagerie. However, over recent years the popularity of exotic pets has grown, and the range of species kept as pets has significantly increased. Animal charities have reported that the variety of exotic pets available outnumbers that of more traditional domesticated species, such as cats and dogs. Approximately 1,000 species of mammals, birds, invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians, and hundreds of fish species, are involved in the pet trade. The RSPCA has also highlighted the fact that trends in purchases of exotic pets are often associated with current crazes. For example, the increased demand for terrapins arose out of the popularity of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”.

Many animal charities and professional bodies, such as the British Veterinary Association, have highlighted a number of concerns regarding the ownership of, and trade in, exotic pets. That has led to calls at EU level for new approaches. In Scotland, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment, Richard Lochhead, has committed to a review of the trade in, and importation of, exotic animals for the pet trade in Scotland.

A key concern about the exotic pet trade relates to the animals’ welfare. These animals can be difficult to look after, and they can live for a long time and need extra, specialist care. Although many exotic pet owners are very experienced, knowledgeable and skilled in providing appropriate habitats and attending to their pets’ needs, animal charities highlight the fact that the increased availability of these animals on the internet and in pet shops means it is now easy for inexperienced people with little knowledge of an animal’s specific needs to purchase one as a pet.

In fact, the “One Click Away” investigation by Blue Cross and the Born Free Foundation found that, when these animals are purchased on the internet, the seller often provides little or no welfare information at the point of sale. It is also reported that high-quality care information can be hard to find. That impacts on the animals’ welfare and can lead to serious health concerns or even death. The specialist care required by these animals also means that vets often do not have the skills to deal with them when they become ill.

The easy availability of exotic pets to inexperienced owners can result in animals being given up or abandoned when they become difficult to look after, and there have been several such cases in Scotland. In one case, bearded dragons were discovered in supermarket toilets; in another case, a snake found its way into a legal office in Clydebank. Animal charities such as the Blue Cross and the RSPCA report that they are receiving an increased number of exotic pets into their care. However, that creates issues, as those organisations do not have adequate facilities to deal with exotic animals’ specialist needs at the scale that is now required.

Concerns have been raised about the lack of responsible sourcing in relation to these animals, and issues have been highlighted regarding the trade in reptiles and amphibians from the wild. The British Veterinary Association and the British Veterinary Zoological Society have reported that sourcing these animals from the wild can lead to a decline in their population; negative impacts on the ecosystem; stress for the animals as a result of being captured; poor acclimatisation; and high numbers of animal deaths due to the processes used during transportation.

Once in the UK, exotic animals also pose a potential threat to native species, habitats and the public if they escape or are deliberately released by their owners. It is reported that a number of exotic reptiles and amphibians have become established in other countries as invasive species, which has had significant impacts on native species and ecosystems. In addition, trade in wild-caught amphibians has spread diseases around the world, with devastating effects on amphibian populations. It is also highlighted that exotic pets can carry diseases that can be passed to humans.

Among the wide variety of exotic species for sale online, the “One Click Away” study found a number of potentially dangerous or venomous animals. When I worked in community mental health services, I went to the houses of a number of patients who were deemed to lack capacity and who required daily support, and I found that they had purchased snakes, lizards or various other animals, without any apparent knowledge or understanding of the specialist care those animals required or the capacity to provide it. Our team therefore had to rehome many exotic animals when patients were detained back into hospital. I am speaking from personal experience in urging the Minister to consider legislating on licensing.

Many owners of exotic pets are experienced, knowledgeable and skilled, as I have said, providing their pets with appropriate habitats and attending to their needs. There are groups of exotic pet enthusiasts and owners, such as the Reptile and Exotic Pet Trade Association and the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association, which are concerned about the impact that reviews of the legislation could have on their hobby. They appear to be opposed to the introduction of bans. For those owners, the welfare of exotic animals is a paramount consideration. I accept that they are skilled in keeping exotic animals as pets.

It has been argued by members of the reptile industry that policies on the pet trade should be based on clear, robust science, and not on speculation, assumptions or prejudices; they have queried the reliability and quality of some research and views quoted by animal welfare groups and professional bodies. However, they have also quoted contradictory research such as undergraduate dissertations where there is not clarity as to the outcome, and where the views appear to be slanted or one-sided. Much more research—quantitative as well as qualitative—is needed, and the area in question would be a good starting point.

The legislation on the trade and importation of exotic animals as pets is currently being reviewed by the Scottish Government. It has been suggested that the UK Government’s recent announcement that they will review all animal licensing provides a good opportunity to consider issues relating to exotic pets in the UK, and I urge the Minister to take that forward. In doing so, it may be useful to consult relevant animal welfare groups, professional bodies and owner groups to ensure that all issues are fully considered. It is important that the legislative framework should be fit for purpose and capable of providing the best protection to the animals that are being bred, traded, imported and kept in the UK.

I have some concerns about public safety, particularly in relation to venomous snakes or other dangerous exotic pets that may be left, or lost down toilets. There are potential public safety issues, so it is essential that the existing Act be implemented. However, new legislation should also deal directly with the online sale of exotic pets, pet advertising and business registration and licensing. The Pet Animals Act 1951 should be reviewed. It was not configured to reflect increased interest in keeping exotic pets domestically. Extension or amendment of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 should also be considered. Owners of exotic pets should meet licensing criteria, which could be species-specific; work should be done on that.

I urge colleagues in the Scottish Government to ensure that their review is undertaken, and that stipulated guidelines will be enforced as a result. We want animal welfare provision across the UK. I would not like a situation in which legislation was implemented in one part of the UK but not in another, so that people who might not have animals’ best interests at heart would take them across the border.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) in particular for securing the debate. I have heard many good contributions on various topics, including from the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). I do not want to repeat what they have said, so I will concentrate on the subject of primates.

In 2010 I adopted a monkey named Donkey from the Wild Futures monkey sanctuary near Looe in my constituency. Donkey lives in the monkey sanctuary with other Barbary macaques like him. Unfortunately, he spent the start of his life as a circus performer after being taken from his family in the wild, in Morocco. He has very poor social skills and is underdeveloped for his age. Luckily for Donkey, charities such as Wild Futures exist to rehome animals like him that are not fit for domestic life.

In January 2012 I introduced a Bill to the House under the ten-minute rule, to prohibit the keeping of primates as pets in the United Kingdom. In my speech, I told the stories of three different monkeys, Joey, King Julien and Mikey, who between them had suffered fractures, hypothermia and disabilities owing to lack of sunlight and nutrition. Wild Futures monkey sanctuary is currently appealing for funds to build a rescue facility for marmosets, with the hope of building a £60,000 facility that will include indoor and outdoor enclosures large enough to accommodate marmosets in social groups. The charity has recently brought two marmosets to the establishment. One of them, Speedy, was left in a small empty birdcage while his owner worked overseas. He had a scrap of cloth to sleep on and his only diet was banana custard, which led to him developing hyperglycaemia.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that between 2,500 and 7,500 primates are kept as pets in the UK. Others suggest the number could be as high as 20,000. Because of the lack of registered breeders it is very difficult to come up with an exact figure. Sales of exotic animals on the internet are unregulated. Monkeys are being sold without any information on how to care for them and often with no information on the exact species. A person buying a pet without seeing it first is almost sure to put it up for sale or leave it abandoned. That is a huge strain on charities such as the Born Free Foundation and Blue Cross, which treat animals and species that some vets may never see, let alone treat. Veterinary help for monkeys is very hard to come by. They are more complex in their needs than domesticated animals such as cats and dogs, and require specialists. Often, the owners find the process too expensive or the monkeys do not make it to the arrival of the specialist—if a specialist is available.

Wild Futures monkey sanctuary currently houses 39 monkeys, most of which were purchased as exotic pets, but the number is growing constantly. Monkeys are quickly becoming a fashion accessory and we should not stand for that. I support the Born Free Foundation and Blue Cross in their call for a review of the Pet Animals Act 1951, but the legislation must take account of internet sales. I hope that the Act will be looked at during next year’s review by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of all mammal licensing.

The Minister visited Wild Futures with me in the summer and he knows that the feeling there is that a ban is the answer to the problem of keeping primates as pets. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs produced a report on primates as pets in the previous Parliament, and one thing that we accepted was that if people have primates as pets now, the introduction of an immediate ban could exacerbate the problem. Perhaps the Minister would kindly consider the introduction of a ban and a licensing system, with a sunset clause, so that someone who has been keeping a primate responsibly can continue to do so, but so that eventually we will put an end to a trade that leads to primates being kept in unsuitable conditions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and to speak on behalf of the Scottish National party. I thank the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) for securing the debate.

We know that this might not seem such a big issue for some people, given what is going on in the wider world at the moment. Indeed, on a separate animal matter, I have been contacted by a constituent who was unhappy to read that Scottish soldiers and money were being utilised to protect elephants abroad, which illustrates that there is sometimes a bit of misunderstanding. Members have spoken powerfully today about the trade of exotic animals and the issue of keeping them as pets. For me, this subject feeds directly into the whole matter of protecting the earth and its inhabitants.

There is clearly cross-party support on this issue, certainly within the Chamber. I pay tribute to the contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), the hon. Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), and the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), who made it clear he has long been an advocate on this issue. I pay tribute to the work he has done over the years.

Over the years, the world has become a smaller place, given that it is much cheaper to travel now. We have much greater linkage with various countries abroad. As we have heard, the internet allows greater connectivity and what is perceived to be an understanding of the wider world. Those two issues combined have allowed the growth of the exotic pet trade. Given those circumstances, it is logical to review existing legislation and the whole exotic pet trade.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow said, it is good to see the Scottish Government taking a lead on this issue. The Environment Secretary, Richard Lochhead, commissioned a review in February this year into the import of exotic pets. As the hon. Member for North West Norfolk said, the devolved Administrations and the UK Government can work together on this issue. I certainly look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to that and the other questions put to him.

I pay tribute to the people who campaign tirelessly on these matters and to organisations such as OneKind in Edinburgh. We heard about the Born Free Foundation and the Blue Cross, which are behind the “One Click Away” campaign. I agree with what some hon. Members said about the internet. One of the purposes of and problems with the internet is that people can make impulse purchases. We heard how films and fashion drive behaviours. Given what we have heard about horror purchases on the internet, there could also be a campaign called “Four Beers and One Click Away”, because we know it is too easy for someone on a Saturday night to get an idea, go on the internet and—lo and behold—purchase almost anything they want.

On a more serious matter, the main issues with keeping exotic pets are welfare and environmental concerns. While many animals might be covered under the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora, any exotic animals taken from the wild can impact on conservation. Human behaviour often drives people to desire to be ever more exclusive, and to do that, they crave even more exotic animals. I think it is fair to say that even the legal exotic pet trade can help to drive the illegal trade, as people seek to go one better and become more exclusive. That, of course, further endangers at-risk species.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow picked up on, we know that the removal of one species from the general food chain in the wild or their reduction within it has a direct impact on the environment they are native to, which leads to changes in the wider ecosystem of which those animals are a part. I recommend to hon. Members an excellent book I read over the summer, “Feral”, which illustrates very well how one animal can massively change the entire ecosystem.

We heard of the risk of transfer of disease and pathogens in general posed by the import of exotic animals, as well as the risk that those animals might be released into the wild. There is legislation that deals with the abandonment or release of non-native species, but it is none the less clear that a thriving exotic pet trade increases the risk of either accidental escapes or deliberate abandonment. Any escape risks local conservation measures and obviously has a possible impact on native flora and fauna. There have certainly been plenty of examples over the years of both flora and fauna non-native invasive species biding in the UK.

Abandonment poses potential dangers for the public, depending on which animal is abandoned. I would certainly not like to have been working in the legal office in Clydebank that a snake came into. It might also have put me off my shopping if I had gone to the shop’s toilet and found a bearded dragon. Other examples of escape or abandonment highlighted by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals include five corn snakes, a 6-foot boa constrictor and a Chinese water dragon—that is just in the past year alone.

Another spin-off of the exotic pet trade discovered in Scotland was someone breeding rats for sale to snake owners. That unscrupulous rat breeder was keeping hundreds of rats in what was effectively a rabbit hutch. The rats were discovered because they were allowed to escape—another example that illustrates the wider public health issues that derive from the exotic pet trade either directly or indirectly.

As we have heard, animal husbandry is another concern. We know that exotic pets need to be suitably looked after in terms of their living conditions and food. In terms of these purchases being one click away, people can be tempted to buy unsuitable pets without having the skills and knowledge to look after them, and they certainly might not provide the right living conditions, in terms of cages or other equipment, to give the animals the lifestyle they need. We know that unscrupulous dealers unfortunately might not provide the same specialist advice as responsible pet shops, and nor are they likely to check the suitability of prospective owners, meaning animals are sold to people who should not have them and are then not looked after. Animal welfare is a key issue. When the prime motivation of the sale of animals is to make money, welfare might not be the No. 1 consideration, which leads to a spiral of decline in animal welfare.

In summary, we know that existing legislation can, in theory, cover many of the issues highlighted today. However, given that the Pet Animals Act in particular is more than 50 years old, as other Members have said, it is time for a review; I would like to hear the Minister’s response to that. As the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) said, we must ensure that buyers, as well as sellers, understand their responsibility.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) on opening this important debate. With the Government announcing the review of all animal licensing to take place next year, this debate is certainly timely. We have heard some interesting points, and I hope to add a little value to the debate, in which consensus has certainly broken out.

The hon. Gentleman made a strong and persuasive case that I am sure will go some way to convincing the Minister that more can, should and must be done to regulate the sale and keeping of exotic pets here in the UK. Like others, I would welcome the Minister’s confirmation that the Pet Animals Act 1951 will be included in the review, to bring the legislation into the 21st century.

As other Members have rightly highlighted, there is a growing trade in exotic animals, with traders knowing little, and buyers even less. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) told of the huge range of exotic pets on sale in south Yorkshire, where shopkeepers have no knowledge of or information about them. That example, in itself, surely makes the case for change. The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) mentioned a number of horror stories. He made me jealous when he told us he had worked with Brigitte Bardot, but even she could not change things as far as legislation in this area is concerned. I am sure the Minister agrees that we do not need any more glamour to achieve change.

The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) talked about the pressures that can be put on families through such things as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, which can drive the demand for a particular species without people thinking about the animal’s needs. Children would be horrified if they realised that the pet that they are keeping is suffering, when actually, it is an illustration of their heroes. It is important that children understand a little more about that.

The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) said that the best way to have an interest in an exotic animal was by sponsoring one in a sanctuary. She also raised the issue of specialist vets not being available to deal with such animals when they become ill.

Regrettably, although the keeping of dangerous wild animals as pets is regulated by the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 and the selling by pet shops of exotic animals as pets is regulated by the Pet Animals Act 1951, there are no detailed controls on the keeping of non-dangerous exotic animals as pets. Partially as a result of that regulatory uncertainty, the range of exotic animals and birds being kept as pets has expanded substantially in recent years, with increasing numbers of people choosing to buy lesser known species that are deemed more desirable, and maybe even more fashionable, which is a point that was raised earlier. Unfortunately, from a welfare perspective at least, that includes some species that are simply unsuitable for that purpose.

Reptiles are a case in point. The hon. Member for North West Norfolk told us of the Born Free and Blue Cross report, “One Click Away”, which suggested that up to 7 million reptiles and amphibians are now being kept in the UK. We also heard of a sample studied by Born Free and Blue Cross, which discovered at least 53 different species of reptile, along with 37 types of exotic bird, 28 types of exotic mammal and seven types of amphibians advertised for sale over a three-month period and across several general selling websites.

Often, however, the decisions by the buyers are made on the hoof, perhaps at the behest of a child, with little consideration for the long-term implications of owning an exotic pet for which the novelty can soon wear off. At a recent Blue Cross event, I raised the need for education, which again, was raised my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge. I was talking about the need for children to understand in school what owning an exotic pet actually means. Children really do care and I think that if they understood a little more, perhaps the demand for exotic pets would be that little bit lower.

With many of these species having not undergone the same process of domestication as more familiar companion animals, such as dogs and cats, meeting their highly specialised welfare needs in a domestic environment can be very difficult. That is an important point. Domesticated livestock and companion animals are fundamentally different from their wild predecessors. The welfare needs of many exotic animals are extremely complicated. They often have specific requirements in terms of space, diet and environment, and very often those are difficult and expensive to meet within a home environment. The same holds true for the complex social, physical and behavioural needs of many exotic animals.

We have heard this morning that the unfortunate result is that many such impulse purchases end up being kept in poor conditions, contrary to the duties imposed by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 on owners to provide for an animal’s basic needs. I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on how those regulations can be better enforced.

It is important to recognise that, when an exotic animal’s captive environment is unsuitable, a host of serious health problems can result, and we have heard many examples of those this morning. The 7 million reptiles that I mentioned just a moment ago, for instance, are known to suffer from a range of illnesses in captivity, including rickets, metabolic bone disease and digestive problems. With the advent—not to mention the rapid growth—of online selling, the internet has quickly become a hive of activity through which breeders, dealers and traders alike can advertise and sell a staggering array of pet animals with consummate ease.

Sadly, the ease of availability opens the door to many inexperienced owners, who can purchase exotic animals without being aware of their specific needs. That, ultimately, can feed into a cycle of maltreatment, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s plans to ensure that this marketplace is properly and thoroughly regulated to minimise any such instances.

I am, indeed, aware that the Government have started to look at that area and have endorsed the Pet Advertising Advisory Group standards for online adverts. That move is certainly to be welcomed and represents an important step. There has been some success in improving online advertising standards among those signing up to the voluntary standards. However, critically, those standards are wholly voluntary and markedly less success has been had with the sites that are not signing up. Furthermore, compliance is, as a result, difficult to enforce.

The “One Click Away” report, which I referred to, illustrates that perfectly. By looking at a sample of almost 1,800 online classified adverts, animals considered particularly vulnerable to welfare problems in captivity, such as chameleons and iguanas, were found advertised for sale. The investigation also found that unsuitable animals, including potentially dangerous ones, were widely available for sale to the general public.

Worryingly, even primates featured on the list of species encountered. Between January 2008 and October 2012, monitoring by Born Free found 57 species of exotic mammals for sale, including 11 species of primates. The “One Click Away” report found 21 adverts selling primates, and I want to touch on that specific issue. Several animal welfare organisations are particularly concerned about that matter, and I share those worries. The RSPCA, for instance, has voiced its belief that primates are never suitable pets and tend to suffer disproportionately in a domestic environment. Blue Cross and Born Free would also support a ban on their keeping as pets.

Let us not forget that primates are highly intelligent mammals, with a range of complex needs. Many demonstrate complex language skills, use tools, show advanced learning, numerical ability and planning, as well as performing tactical social interactions. Some are also capable of human-like emotion, which adds another sensitive dimension to those considerations. However, that enhanced capacity for intelligence and awareness means that primates are also more disposed to suffer in captivity than many other animals. To maintain high welfare standards, both physical and psychological health must be safeguarded, entailing being kept in social groups in specially designed indoor and outdoor facilities, yet I understand that the RSPCA commonly finds primates kept as pets in birdcages, on their own, in people’s living rooms. Owners, worryingly, lack even the basic knowledge and understanding of the species that they own. Clearly, that can have serious welfare implications and can lead to such conditions as bone diseases and diabetes, not to mention psychological symptoms such as self-mutilation, depression and hair plucking.

Speakers this morning have given the Minister much to think about, and I look forward to his explaining to us how we can achieve higher standards and better enforcement.

May I begin by drawing Members’ attention to my declaration of ministerial interest, Mr Owen? The World Parrot Trust—a fabulous charity that does work in 40 countries around the world, particularly targeting the illegal pet trade and the illegal trapping of exotic birds—is based in my constituency, and I have always supported their work.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) for introducing this debate on what is clearly an important topic. We have had many informed contributions to the debate.

I want to start by saying a bit about the scale of the issue. Although no precise figures are available and estimates vary, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, about 1.3 million amphibians and reptiles are being kept as pets in the UK today. That is made up of about 400,000 lizards, 400,000 snakes, 300,000 tortoises and turtles, 100,000 frogs and toads and 100,000 newts and salamanders. There are other estimates, which some hon. Members have alluded to, that put the numbers of reptiles and amphibians in this country at up to 7 million. However, of those amphibians and reptiles, it is estimated that about 70% are made up of only six species: the bearded dragon, the crested gecko, the leopard gecko, the corn snake, the royal python and Hermann’s tortoise.

We can compare those numbers to those of more familiar pets: we have around 8.5 million cats and dogs, 40 million fish, 1 million rabbits and 1 million caged birds. Whether it is 1.3 million or 7 million, the issue is clearly important and I am aware of the many concerns that have been raised with me.

A number of hon. Members have pointed out that some of these animals can be dangerous to people and our native wildlife if not kept or controlled appropriately, and that they can carry diseases sometimes transmissible to humans.

An important element of this debate is responsible ownership. Responsible owners will take care to understand what is needed to look after their animals before they purchase them, and find out where best to source their animals and what restrictions may apply to their keeping. The veterinary profession is particularly well placed to educate owners. They see animals that might show signs that the environment or enclosure they are kept in are inappropriate. Vets can also help in educating owners about the best way of keeping their pets or rehoming them if they do not have the correct facilities. Pet shop owners also have a role in educating owners and advising on suitable pets for the buyer. Some exotic species need specialist care, as hon. Members have pointed out, and pet shop owners should ensure that such animals are sold only to those able to look after them properly.

We have made some progress. Just last week, with the assistance and support of DEFRA, the Companion Animal Sector Council—a group of organisations representing businesses and keepers—met other interested parties, including the veterinary profession and key NGOs, to discuss how to improve the sale and welfare standards of kept companion animals, including exotics. Among the recommendations from the meeting was the need to educate owners and prospective owners, as well as others, on the keeping of these animals, particularly exotic species. To help to address that, the meeting also agreed to formalise care sheets to be available on all the organisations’ websites.

Earlier this year, various trade associations and veterinary experts came together to produce new and up-to-date good practice guidelines for the welfare of privately kept reptiles and amphibians with advisory care sheets for the six most commonly kept reptile species. I will return to those care sheets and codes.

A number of hon. Members have referred to the internet, which is a vital issue. On one level, we could say that it is just a modern way of classifieds. We have always had classified ads in newspapers and we now have them online. However, the internet has made such issues far more challenging. That is why, a couple of years ago, we established a code with the Pet Advertising Advisory Group. I met the group just two weeks ago for an update on progress.

The code contains 18 requirements. There are automated checks for blacklisted words so if bad owners advertise dogs for dog fighting and so on the ads are automatically removed and banned. It requires a photo of the animal being sold. There is a three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule, and if people put up inappropriate ads they are blocked altogether from advertising on those sites. When a licence is required, they must have it and print the details in the advert. There is a ban on the sale of invertebrates and advertising them for sale through the post. Believe it or not, although it was not mentioned today, that was happening. Specific to primates, there is an outright ban on advertising them under the code.

I am grateful to the Minister for covering that point, and the oversight of people who sell on the internet. What will he do about welfare during transportation and delivery of exotic animals that have been sold online—anaconda, corn snake, and reptiles and so on—so that when they are sold and a contract is struck, transportation is safe and secure for the animal and meets high standards? What will be done to sort that out and to police it?

We must draw a distinction. Internet providers can deal only with the type of advert being posted and there is a ban on advertising transport through the post. A range of EU and domestic regulations are in place covering transportation and the Animal Welfare Act 2006 has a role in that.

I want to move on because of the time. The six organisations that have signed up are Epupz, Friday-Ad, Gumtree, Pets for Homes, Preloved and Vivastreet. Good progress has been made since we launched this initiative with the help of volunteers from NGOs, and 130,000 inappropriate adverts have been removed. At the meeting with some of the advertisers last week, Gumtree, for example, reported that the number of pets advertised on its website has gone down by 80% over three years. That is a significant change. When there are high-velocity sales with people advertising puppies and pets, they are automatically blocked and the advertiser’s details are forwarded to the advisory group so that other enforcement action can be taken. Both Preloved and Gumtree now send people automatic notification—Gumtree by email and Preloved on its website—with information about responsible ownership and responsible buying. Some good progress has been made.

Licensing is crucial and a number of hon. Members alluded to that. There is a need to review all animal establishment licensing. We have a hotchpotch of different laws, most of which date from the 1950s and 1960s, covering a range of options. We are working on a review of that and I hope to go to consultation imminently. Many hon. Members asked whether it will include a review of the Pet Animals Act 1951. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said that I should stand up to officials. I always feel sorry for officials because they do not have voice at the Dispatch Box, so let me say that I am ably supported in this by some very talented officials behind me. The review will include that Act because although it has stood the test of time, it was designed in an era when the internet did not exist and it is important to review it to make sure it is clear. The law is already clear in that anyone trading on the internet must have a pet shop licence whether or not they have a pet shop in the high street.

The areas we want to cover include enforcement. I am keen to see whether we can make greater use of the UK accreditation scheme so that people who are registered with, for example, the Kennel Club, do not necessarily need a separate local authority licence. We should let local authorities focus on those who are outside a system at the moment. I am also keen to look at resource sharing. It would be possible, for example, for one or two local authorities to develop a specialism in exotic pets and to provide help to other local authorities. There are greater prospects for joint working.

Specifically on exotics, we are considering making it a requirement of having a licence that care sheets and information sheets are provided to owners before they are allowed to purchase pets. That would be a big step forward because, through the licensing and legislative process, there would be a requirement for that information to be given. We are also considering whether we can have a more risk-based approach.

Next year, we will review the code for primates. I had a delightful visit to Wild Futures in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray). It does fantastic work. Our view is that it would already be a clear breach of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 for anyone to have a primate in a domestic setting. There are private keepers who can provide the needs of primates, and I am open to looking further into some of the points she made.

My final point relates to the legislation on importing and exporting. Exotic animals imported into the UK are subject to import controls to prevent the introduction of disease to this country. Imported reptiles and snakes do not need to be accompanied by a health certificate, but a certificate must be completed by the competent authority of the exporting country for exotic birds. What is crucial is that all animals imported to the UK from a third country must be presented at a border inspection post and subjected to a veterinary and documentary check by the Animal and Plant Health Agency. Additional controls for many exotic species are provided through CITES—the convention on international trade in endangered species—and include around 35,000 species.

In conclusion, we have had a very good debate. I hope that hon. Members with a clear interest in the matter will contribute to the consultation when we launch it, hopefully in the new year. The matter is vital. I am passionate about it and want to sort it out. I believe we can improve the licensing system both in the way we approach the laws of licensing and in the way they are enforced.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the exotic pets trade.