[Relevant document: Fourth Special Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, “Animal Welfare in England: domestic pets: Government response to the Committee’s Third Report, HC 1003.]
I beg to move,
That this House notes that current penalties for animal welfare offences in England are among the lowest in Europe; believes that while the Government's plans for a new licensing regime for dogs in England is welcome the Government should consider a ban on the third party sale of dogs; and calls on the Government to increase the maximum penalty for animal welfare offences to five years, as recommended in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s Third Report, Animal welfare in England: domestic pets, HC 117.
It is a great pleasure to introduce the debate. The report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, published in November last year, was the result of a long inquiry into aspects of animal welfare involving domestic pets such as dogs and cats, as well as horses. We took evidence from animal welfare charities, local government, the National Police Chiefs Council, industry representatives, veterinarians, academics and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to name but a few. We visited Battersea Dogs & Cats Home to learn about its work and also visited a commercial breeder and an animal rescue centre in Wales.
The Committee was unanimous on animal cruelty sentences: the current penalties for animal welfare offences in England are far too low. The maximum sentence for animal cruelty is six months in prison and an unlimited fine.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention, and he is absolutely right. I just feel that if we have a stronger sentence and there is more flexibility in the courts, the magistrate will be able to impose that sentence for the very worst of cases. My right hon. Friend is right, but sometimes the current sentence of six months is just not long enough.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He mentioned the Committee being unanimous. Will he also acknowledge that many constituents across the UK have emailed their MPs and asked them to come here today because they agree with the Committee?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point: I believe that there is huge public support for stronger sentencing, and I hope that the Government are listening. Given the number of people in our prisons, I accept that we do not want huge sentences for every crime, but those who beat dogs, cats and other animals to death and plead guilty get an automatic 30% reduction in their sentence; they get four months. I do not believe any of us think that that is long enough.
I commend my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and I wholeheartedly support him, while of course declaring my interest of having a dog as part of my family. Our sanctions against people who commit these horrendous crimes compare poorly globally; will he comment on that?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Our sentences are lower than those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, too, so there is far stiffer sentencing even in our own countries of the United Kingdom. We should also consider the message that it sends if the sentence for beating to death a sentient being that relies entirely on human care is less than that for, perhaps, stealing a computer; it really is not on. I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister is listening carefully; I know he is very keen on animal welfare. It is probably not always his remit to increase sentencing, but we must get this message out, loud and clear.
To reinforce the hon. Gentleman’s point, 1.2 million people have contacted the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals about animal cruelty. Importantly, the legislation is extremely weak and I support him in what he is trying to achieve.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and agree entirely. Many aspects of animal cruelty are reported, but others are not. Having stronger sentencing would be a deterrent; we want to prevent the cruelty from happening in the first place. Having a sentence of at least five years would send the right message. Then it would be up to the courts to decide what sentence they dish out in the end.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that it is much more important to prevent cruelty in the first place, and therefore changing the legislation on air guns is vital? Cats and dogs are often the targets for people using those weapons. Legislation has been changed by the devolved Administrations for their countries, and it is about time that it was changed in England, too.
The hon. Lady raises a good point. The use of air guns against cats and dogs can have terrible consequences. Lead pellets often cause a lot of injury and subsequent pain.
To make a broader point, we need to do much more in schools and the education system to make sure people know how to look after an animal. Most people do know how to look after animals. Unfortunately, animal cruelty is going on in some families, and perhaps the children do not know of anything else but what is happening at home. We must try to tackle that.
I declare my interest as someone who not only cares about the welfare of animals, but has prosecuted cases in the courts under animal cruelty legislation. Does my hon. Friend agree that the matter goes a little further than simply sentencing, however? A number of Members have referred to deterrents. Although the offences of those who have been convicted are recorded on the police national computer, that is not very accessible, and a national register, which is easier to consult, would go quite some way towards ensuring that people who have mistreated animals on one occasion and been convicted cannot then do so again.
My hon. Friend makes a good point: a national register would be good. I would like to see this go further, too. In the United States, a lot of work is done on linking animal cruelty to human cruelty within the home, and I think the two need to be linked much more. It often does not take long to go from treating an animal cruelly—especially beating an animal to death—to starting to beat people up; we have to wake up to that.
I applaud my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He touches on a pertinent point: there are stark statistics proving that people who abuse animals often go on to abuse humans—and indeed it can happen at the same time, of course. A register would therefore be very beneficial in helping tackle what is a much bigger social problem.
I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for that intervention; she is an excellent Select Committee member. She makes the point about getting that link; when finding cruelty to animals we should make much more of a link to investigating what is happening in the home, to see whether there is much more going on than just the cruelty to the animal. We must open our eyes to what is happening. Most people look after animals very well, but of course those who do not can be incredibly cruel, and we need to tackle that.
I was surprised and disappointed that the Government rejected the recommendation for a higher maximum sentence of five years, and I again ask the Minister to go back to the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to see whether we can get it increased, because six months is too low.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has also had a conversation with the Government Whips, because on 24 February we considered the Second Reading of my Animal Cruelty (Sentencing) Bill, which would have increased the sentencing period to five years, but unfortunately it was objected to by the Government Whips. I hope he is putting pressure on them as well.
I certainly talk to Whips, but whether they listen is another matter, of course—although I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) listens to every word I say. The hon. Lady makes a serious point, however; it is not good to talk out such Bills, as there is a legitimate reason for increasing the sentence. If we took a straw poll of all MPs, irrespective of their party, I am sure the vast majority would agree that the sentencing is too low at present; we have to find a method of increasing that. I accept that the Government wanted to come back with some other ideas, and I would be very happy to listen to them, but the sentencing period must be much more than the current six months.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that we also need to make sure that children understand in school about the impacts of and problems with treating animals badly?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. It is absolutely right to consider what our schools can do to teach young people not to treat animals cruelly.
I have been told that I have only 15 minutes and that I ought to get on with my speech, so I shall try to make a little progress. DEFRA has said that average sentences for animal cruelty are relatively stable, but I fear that that is a cop-out. Judges should have the flexibility to give higher sentences for the worst examples of animal cruelty, both as a well-deserved punishment and as a deterrent to other potential animal abusers.
Anyone who can seriously injure a sentient being such as a dog or a cat can do the same to a human. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting a link between the abuse of animals and violence against people. In the USA, the FBI has begun tracking incidents of animal abuse as part of its national incident-based reporting system, which collects data on crime. As part of our report on animal welfare, the EFRA Committee has recommended that a new abuse register should be established for those convicted of animal abuse offences, that those convicted of cruelty should never be allowed to keep animals again, and that the police should have access to those files in light of the link between animal and human abuse.
In addition to discussing sentencing for cruelty, the Committee went on to consider third-party sales of puppies. I believe that a ban on third-party sales will improve the condition of dogs sold in the UK. Unscrupulous dealers currently go to some lengths to pose as responsible breeders in order to sell animals to unsuspecting buyers. Buyers must see the puppy with its mother. Many dealers set up a false home, as a reassurance to potential buyers, which is then vacated so that they cannot be traced. The sad reality is that anyone who is selling a puppy indirectly, through a licensed pet shop, has no regard for the welfare of their puppies. A responsible breeder would never sell through a pet shop licence holder, because it has a negative impact on the welfare of puppies.
By allowing third-party sales, the Government are contradicting their own advice. They advise buyers to ensure that they see the puppy with its mother, yet buying from a third-party seller does not allow this. By banning third-party sales, the public would have to buy directly from breeders. This would allow buyers to assess the premises for themselves, which would drive up animal welfare standards. The Committee visited a puppy farm in Wales, and the conditions there were not good, to say the least. If buyers had to go there to get their puppies, I feel sure that something would be done about that. Also, the people producing those puppies were getting about £200 each for them, whereas the dealers in Birmingham were selling them for £700 to £800, and sometimes as much as £1,000. There is a real problem there, and I am extremely disappointed that the Government have rejected our recommendation for a ban on third-party sales. Since the EFRA Committee published its report, many more animal organisations have come out in favour of a ban on such sales. Pup Aid has always been a vocal supporter of a ban, and the RSPCA has recently changed its mind on the issue.
In February, the Government announced tougher new breeding licensing rules. These include making it completely illegal to sell puppies younger than eight weeks old, and requiring anyone breeding and selling three or more litters of puppies a year to apply for a formal licence. That is a good start, but it does not go far enough. In addition to increasing maximum sentences and banning third-party sales, the Government should consider a reduction in the threshold for licensing a breeder from three litters a year to two litters a year, and the introduction of a new national inspectorate to assist local authorities and give the new regulations a powerful enforcer. It is too easy for unscrupulous dealers to fall outside the regulatory regime. As I have stated, a new abuse register should also be established for those convicted of animal abuse offences. I also believe that the Government should look not only at dog breeders but at cat breeders, who are not currently licensed at all. Britain is a nation of animal lovers, and our pets deserve nothing less than the very highest animal welfare standards. I look forward to hearing the strong representations of my colleagues throughout the debate, especially those who have intervened on me.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should like to inform Members that if they speak for no more than eight minutes, everyone will get in. That would allow everyone to speak for eight minutes in the next debate as well. So if we could all stick to an informal limit of eight minutes, that would be fantastic.
I am pleased to be able to contribute to the debate and I hope to be able to abide by your eight-minute rule, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who chairs our Select Committee with distinction. Obviously his time spent in the European Parliament was not a wasted apprenticeship; he demonstrates his skills every time we meet.
The motion raises three issues: penalties for animal welfare offences; a ban on third-party sales; and the Committee’s report on the underlying question of prosecutions. I wish to register my appreciation for the briefings I have received in preparation for the debate from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the RSPCA, Cats Protection, the Dogs Trust, Blue Cross, the Kennel Club and, of course, the House of Commons Library.
My hon. Friend’s good point reinforces the contribution from the Chair of the Select Committee. I shall say more about licensing in a moment, but it is certainly a key element of the Committee’s report to which we hope the Government will respond positively.
I am always heartened that constituents contact me about a whole range of animal welfare issues because that shows that, while they articulate many concerns, animal welfare matters to them a great deal. Hon. and right hon. Members will receive emails and the occasional letter about the same animal-related issues as I do, including bees, badgers, domestic pets, circus animals, wild animals and dog fighting. It is good to see how much people care, but it is obviously disappointing, and indeed distressing, that these activities and abuses continue.
Along with others, I have backed the campaign instigated by Battersea Dogs & Cats Home that calls for tougher punishments for people who abuse and neglect animals. I was pleased to attend the launch of the campaign here in Westminster, and along with others I pledged my support for increasing sentences for animal abusers. It is unacceptable that people can abuse and neglect animals yet get away with such a small penalty. Battersea’s research shows that England and Wales has the lowest sentences for cruelty across 100 countries and states worldwide. Six months in prison is neither a punishment nor a deterrent when it comes to some of the most serious offences.
Further background information for the debate comes from the EFRA Committee’s third report of this Session. Animal welfare is mentioned in the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton—I nearly called him my hon. Friend, but we do this so often that it is almost passé. The report makes a number of recommendations, including on a timetable for the 10-yearly review of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. I am sure that the Minister will respond to that point in due course. It also recommends a ban on third-party puppy sales and that local government should be responsible for enforcing the 2006 Act.
The report goes on to discuss the role of the RSPCA, which has historically undertaken the overwhelming majority of animal welfare investigations and prosecutions. The Select Committee recommended:
“the RSPCA should continue its important work investigating animal welfare cases…It should, however, withdraw from acting as a prosecutor of first resort where there are statutory bodies with a duty to carry out this role.”
A number of us said at the time that it was not for the Select Committee to require the RSPCA to withdraw in that way, because it will always have the right to raise private prosecutions in the courts, in the same way as any other citizen does. The real question was about the word “duty” in relation to other bodies, and the report considered which statutory bodies should be responsible in such circumstances.
The vast majority of our Committee’s work is done by consensus, as is the case for most Select Committees. This was one of the few issues that split the Committee. I voted against the majority view, not as a matter of principle but on the practicalities. In my view, and with no disrespect to those who voted for this recommendation, the expectation that the Crown Prosecution Service or local authorities will step in as prosecutors is pure fantasy. However, after rethinking the matter and considering what happens in Scotland—the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan), who represents the Scottish National party on the Committee, made a number of important points in this regard—I have been persuaded of one thing. If society is serious about animal welfare, it should accept its responsibilities. It is unfair that the RSPCA has to do society’s work, and it is carrying out that duty because the CPS and local authorities are not. We should send a message that society should prosecute through the CPS and the police—we should not have to rely on the RSPCA—but that is not going to happen any time soon. Regardless of what the Committee says, the RSPCA will have to continue its work, because that is the only option—no one else is going to do it.
I thank my hon. Friend from across the divide for giving way. When the Committee took evidence, we found out that the system works particularly well in Scotland. It is not often that I praise how the Scottish National party runs Scottish affairs, but that system works well. Why cannot we do things as well on this side of the border?
With my classic cockney accent, I hope that I will be forgiven if I do not join the hon. Gentleman in praising the Scottish National party. I think the policy predates the SNP taking over the Scottish Government, but it has continued since. Indeed, the Procurator Fiscal Service carries out that policy, and the CPS should do so here, but my point is that the CPS is not doing it, is not going to do it, and does not have the resources to do it. If it were not for the RSPCA, the work would not get done, so I support its ability to continue. Until such time as the Government give the CPS and local authorities the wherewithal to do the job, it will not get done unless the RSPCA does it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing the debate. I want to give a bad example from my constituency, which has quite a few animal welfare issues. In this instance, a young fox had a habit of going to a large supermarket every night to hunt for food. A gang of boys got hold of the fox by the tail and hurled it round and round, smashing its head against a wall several times, and then stamped on its head. The punishment for that—well, it was hardly a punishment at all. It is absolutely necessary to increase the penalties for people who inflict that kind of cruelty on animals.
My right hon. Friend makes the point emphatically that the penalty does not fit the crime. As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton mentioned, such penalties need urgent review.
I apologise that I will go over my eight minutes, Madam Deputy Speaker, but hopefully by only one and a half minutes. Given that the RSPCA cruelty helpline receives 1 million calls, 15% of which are investigated, there is too much work to expect the prosecutorial authorities to accept responsibility.
The issue of third-party sales split not only the Committee, but the animal welfare organisations. Dogs Trust and Blue Cross were against a ban, preferring a stronger enforced licensing regime, but the Kennel Club supported it. There is no disagreement about the objective, only about the tools that should be used to better protect animals and purchasers. I look forward to hearing the views of the Minister and the shadow Minister about that difference of opinion on the proposed ban, and about how the Government expect to make progress on dealing with concerns about this important issue.
The Minister knows that he is held in high regard by members of the EFRA Committee and by animal welfare organisations. Even though animal welfare is not his primary responsibility, he answers to the Commons on that topic. There is no disagreement about wanting better animal welfare; the key challenge is how to deliver it. I am confident that the Minister and his colleagues, encouraged by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) on the Opposition Front Bench, will continue to be as effective as possible in this matter. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to say my few words.
What a relief it is that we are discussing something other than our leaving the European Union. I am absolutely sick to death of hearing about it—and we have another two years to go.
The standard by which I judge civilisation is how we treat animals and animal welfare more generally. I have been involved in animal welfare matters ever since I entered the House, so I have heard many of the arguments before. Indeed, when David Mellor was a Member of this place, I recall serving on the Standing Committee that considered a Bill to amend the Protection of Animals Act 1911.
Looking back at the different things that we have done—I managed to get two pieces of legislation on to the statute book—by and large this country has a good record on animal welfare. However, the incident that the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) shared with the House was absolutely awful—no words can describe how horrible it was. I think we are going to have a debate in which we all agree; I doubt whether anyone will stand up and say, “Let’s be cruel to animals.”
I gently say to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who opened the debate, that I have seen many reports produced by this place—some gather dust; some are acted on; and some are completely ignored. Parliaments change and new Members enter, so it can be as if we are raising these issues for the first time, but one or two things have changed. My hon. Friend is entirely right that we need tougher sentences, but can our prisons take the people? Do we need, as my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) mentioned earlier, more publicity when people are sentenced? I absolutely agree that we need tougher sentences.
There is politics in everything, and there is certainly politics in the animal world. I have received all sorts of emails asking me to mention an organisation or to praise this person or that person, and I am not sure that we are all singing the same song, so I am going to praise just two ladies. The first is Lorraine Platt, who runs an animal welfare organisation that I support and has done a fantastic job as far as I am concerned. The second is the Countess of Stockton, who is a trustee of the RSPCA. I will leave it to other Members to decide which organisation they want to praise.
The main thing that has changed is online sales, which are a new challenge and a big issue. As we have heard, it is wrong for someone to buy a puppy without seeing where it comes from and how it is being looked after. Anne Widdecombe bought a black labrador for my youngest child, and I am delighted to say that it had been owned by the grandson of Rab Butler, so it certainly had a good pedigree and gave us 14 years of joy. It is important that people know where a puppy comes from. As we all know, while small things will look cute and cuddly, there is an awful lot of responsibility in looking after a pet when they grow up.
My hon. Friend is right. The situation is lamentable, but I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton that I am unsure how we put that right. We just have to keep on and on with the same message.
As part of Project Capone, Hindesight has been monitoring the sales of animals on sites such as Gumtree. Its findings demonstrate the clear need for legislation to address the problem. Despite the figures I am about to quote, I stress that Gumtree should be lauded for doing more than any other site to monitor online sales and comply with Pet Advertising Advisory Group minimum standards. Gumtree UK adverts were monitored over a 12-month period ending in February this year, and 400,000 adverts related to the sale of animals were tracked, 58% of which related to dogs. Estimates suggest that as many as 88% of puppies born in Great Britain are bred by unlicensed breeders, which is totally unacceptable. The EFRA report, which I have of course read, states at paragraph 95 that Gumtree listings for pets for sale has decreased from 50,000 to 15,000, which should be welcomed.
I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that—my goodness—I have seen all sorts of people as Ministers. Some do the job brilliantly, but with some we need a little bit of convincing about their dedication to animal welfare. I am convinced that this particular Minister is absolutely genuine on this issue and that he will react positively to the report.
We need websites to commit to following at least the minimum PAAG standards, and it is important that all adverts display the age of the animal advertised. Although the vast majority of the public state that they would not buy a puppy from a commercially driven breeder, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) is absolutely right about the small number who see a puppy with its mother.
I welcome DEFRA’s announcement that it will be a legal requirement for sellers to display their licence number on all adverts, but there are also problems with ensuring that licences are properly granted and that local authorities have adequate resources to assess applicants for a licence. Local authorities are currently in charge of licensing, but it is extremely difficult for them to tackle illegal trading on such a scale because they lack the resources to monitor the enormous volume of online sales. Indeed, local authorities are unable to monitor the trade offline, or to provide qualified individuals to assess welfare needs.
Along with a stricter licensing regime, we need professionals who are able adequately to determine whether a licence should be granted. Unfortunately, local authority officials who inspect places where animals are sold are not necessarily trained specifically in detecting animal welfare issues. Another important point is that individuals who buy such animals are not aware that the seller should be licensed.
The message from this House should be that transparency and public education are incredibly important. Sometime in July we are holding a responsible pet ownership competition on the green at the other end of the building, and I hope that all hon. Members who are interested will join us in celebrating responsible pet ownership.
Income from online sales is rarely declared, so I remind the Minister that a lot of money is being lost in income tax, which should be of significant concern to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Apparently the single most expensive dog advertised—just last month by a London-based seller—was a French bulldog for £30,000, which is big money.
Research from Blue Cross shows that even when inspections are carried out, the quality of investigations varies massively from local authority to local authority. Standardised inspection criteria should help to ensure that basic animal welfare is met across the country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton and his hard-working Committee on producing the report. I hope that it will not gather dust, but that it will be acted on.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and all the EFRA Committee on securing this debate and on their excellent report. I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to speak about increasing sentences for animal cruelty because, as I have already mentioned, my private Member’s Bill specifically addressed that issue. I was disappointed not to have a debate on Second Reading on 24 February and that the Conservative Whips objected to the Bill in the dying seconds. I will now make the speech that I would have made on Second Reading.
We in this place owe a change in the law to those that cannot speak, that cannot defend themselves and that suffer abuse, violence and cruelty by the hands that are meant to feed them, care for them, protect them and love them. I introduced my Bill on behalf of Baby the bulldog and Scamp the dog.
Baby the bulldog was held aloft by Andrew Frankish at the top of a flight of wooden stairs before he repeatedly threw her down them as he laughed. Baby’s neck was stamped on. She was thrown to the floor with force, over and over. Her small chest was jumped on with the full body weight of one of the Frankish brothers. The younger man said, “See if we can make it scream any more. We should throw it down the stairs by its ears,” before he picked her up against the wall, head-butted her twice and then threw her down the stairs again.
Baby was tortured and beaten by those who were supposed to care for her. The whole horrible ordeal seemed to be for the brothers’ entertainment—for fun—as they filmed themselves laughing on a mobile phone. Baby should not have had to suffer such horrific abuse, but she did and was put down shortly afterwards.
When the evidence was found, by chance, two years later on a mobile phone card dropped on a supermarket floor, we might have expected Baby finally to have justice. Thanks to the hard work of the police, the RSPCA and all those who gave evidence, the brothers were convicted of causing unnecessary suffering to her under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, but she was let down once again by the law. The two brothers received a suspended sentence, six months’ tagged curfew and £300 in costs. No one can feel that the justice system did its job that day.
On researching how the two brothers could have received such an impossibly lenient sentence for a vicious and premeditated assault, I was astonished to find that the maximum sentence for any form of animal abuse is just six months’ custody. Incredibly, the maximum sentence has not changed since the Protection of Animals Act 1911, which was essentially introduced to make it an offence to overload or override animals pulling loads on the street or in pits. The law is lagging a century behind.
Under the last Labour Government, the issue was meant to be addressed by the 2006 Act, which made provision to increase sentencing to imprisonment of up to 51 weeks but, incredibly, the provision was never enacted, so people can inflict any degree of cruelty on animals and still receive a maximum of only six months’ imprisonment. The public rightly find that hard to understand or accept as appropriate.
After the incident of the Frankish brothers came to my attention, I decided to try to amend the law to ensure that sentences fit the crime in such cases and was pleased to present my Animal Cruelty (Sentencing) Bill. But during the progress of that Bill, there was another horrific incident in my constituency that has made the case for a change in the law even more pressing. A small dog named Scamp was found buried alive in woods near Redcar on 19 October, with a nail hammered into its head.
On 22 February, 59-year-old Michael Heathcock and 60-year-old Richard Finch, both from Redcar, pleaded guilty to offences under the 2006 Act, but they were sentenced to just four months. They will probably serve just eight weeks in prison, which is not enough time for reflection, punishment or rehabilitation.
The people of my constituency have been horrified by those cases, and it is important that I pay tribute to their response. After hearing of the Frankish brothers incident and that of Scamp, they held vigils for the animals, with hundreds of people coming to lay flowers and light candles. They sent their message loudly and defiantly. There are also plans to build a dog park to the animals’ memory.
The perpetrators do not represent our community. People in Redcar are decent and kind. I know many passionate animal lovers, and I meet wonderful dog owners as I walk my dog on the beach or in the Eston hills. But my constituents are angry. They feel that the criminal justice system is letting them down, which is why I am speaking here today.
On researching my Bill, I was shocked by the number of horrific cases I came across. I read of a dismembered cat left on a war memorial, of 20 ducks strangled with cable around their necks, of boiling liquid poured on a puppy and of a mutilated Shetland pony. Surrey police recently instituted Operation Takahe to try to find the person believed to be behind the theft and mutilation of more than 200 cats. The list of horrific attacks goes on and on.
The RSPCA receives and investigates thousands of complaints about cruelty to animals each year. It received 143,000 complaints in 2015, and 1,781 people were successfully prosecuted, yet only one in 10 convictions presently results in a prison sentence. We do not treat such crimes with the weight they warrant. I urge those who think that the crime of abusing defenceless animals is worth less serious attention than the abuse of people to look at the evidence, predominantly from the United States, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton mentioned earlier. The evidence reveals a startling propensity for offenders charged with crimes against animals to commit other violent offences against human victims. It finds that pet abuse is concurrent in 88% of families under supervision for the physical abuse of their children.
In the UK, a new academic study—the first of its kind in Europe—by researchers at Teesside University has also identified a link between animal abuse and domestic violence. The study of young people in eastern Europe found that violence breeds violence. Adolescent males who have experienced domestic violence either show displaced aggression against animals or progress to committing violence against family members. Because abusers target the powerless and lack the ability to feel empathy with their victims, crimes against animals, spouses, children and the elderly often go hand in hand. Children who abuse animals may be repeating a lesson learned at home. Like their parents, they are reacting to anger or frustration with violence. Their violence is directed at the only individual more vulnerable than they are: an animal.
The findings point towards a worrying cycle of abuse in society if violence is not addressed or properly challenged, and increased sentencing is just one tool we need to break that cycle.
We would be forgiven for thinking that, as a nation of animal lovers, we should expect to be leading the way on these issues, but I am afraid to say that we are in fact lagging behind many other countries. The Northern Ireland Assembly recently increased the maximum penalty from two years to five years, and it should also be noted that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where more serious animal welfare offences can be tried in a Crown court. The Scottish Government recently committed to reviewing penalties under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. If we look around the world, we see that the maximum penalty for animal cruelty in Australia is five years, and in Germany it is three years. A maximum of six months here in England and Wales, decided by a magistrates court rather than a Crown court, seems derisory.
Such woefully inadequate sentences must be addressed if the punishments are to fit the cruelty inflicted on animals. My Bill sought to increase the custodial sentence for animal cruelty from six months to five years, and if we are to continue declaring ourselves a nation of animal lovers, it is about time we showed it by sending out the message that we take animal cruelty seriously.
I wish to thank the RSPCA, Dogs Trust, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and the League Against Cruel Sports for their support for Bill. I also wish to thank my community in Redcar and Teesside, who have shown their compassion and their love for animals in the way they have responded to these terrible acts and in their support for my efforts to change the law. I also pay tribute to the EFRA Committee for its work on this and on today’s debate.
Finally, I want to say a word about Baby the bulldog and the dog named Scamp, because it is in their name that I seek to change the law. We will probably never know the full cruelty and torture these silent and defenceless animals endured. We can only begin to imagine the pain they experienced and the fear they felt. We cannot undo the suffering done to them, but we can show one another that this kind of cruelty has no place in our communities and that such depraved behaviour will face the punishment that it deserves. I welcome today’s debate and urge the Government to put right the injustice by changing the law on animal cruelty sentencing.
I wish to thank the Backbench Business Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and the EFRA Committee for putting animal welfare on the agenda in Parliament today. I have found it distressing to listen to the brutal examples of animal cruelty we have heard about, particularly those detailed in the speech by the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley). I emphasise that animal welfare and action to prevent animal cruelty is a very high priority for many of my constituents, who contact me regularly about this. I warmly and strongly support the campaign for stiffer maximum sentences for those who abuse animals, act with unnecessary cruelty or otherwise fail to comply with our animal welfare rules in this country.
In the few minutes I hope to detain the House, I wish to focus on the welfare of farm animals, because I feel strongly that all of us who take animal welfare matters seriously should focus on the billions of animals used in agriculture across the world. If we want to ensure that, as a civilised society, we maintain high standards of animal welfare, it is vital that we extend this to farm animals. I thank Peter Stevenson of Compassion in World Farming for providing me with some help in preparing for this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said that he was sick of talking about Brexit, but Brexit does have relevance today, because about 80% of our animal welfare rules are currently part of EU law. Leaving the EU will give us back control over many policy decisions on animal welfare and farming. As I said when I had the opportunity to raise this matter during Prime Minister’s questions, we should use Brexit to reaffirm our support for the highest standards of animal welfare. We should also use it as an opportunity to see how we can strengthen protection for animals.
Food and farming is one of the most important parts of our economy, supporting many thousands of jobs. I welcome the fact that last October the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that high standards of animal welfare should be one of the unique selling points of UK-produced food in the post-Brexit era. If that is to be a reality in post-Brexit farming, we need to ensure that animal welfare is at the heart of our new system of farm payment support. It is crucial that we maintain that financial support for agriculture if we are to ensure that food produced in accordance with high welfare standards is not priced out of the market by cheaper, less compassionate, alternatives. In future trade talks, we should be prepared to ask those countries that wish to sell into our market to commit to acceptable standards of animal welfare, as was emphasised in the Conservative manifesto. It is my understanding that World Trade Organisation case law does allow us to do that, so long as we apply the same rules across different countries.
The compassionate treatment of animals should be at the heart of the UK’s post-Brexit brand for food and farming. We should recognise the efforts made by UK farmers already, as the majority take animal welfare very seriously. Our new system of farm support should reward farmers who adopt higher welfare standards, for example, through compliance with recognised schemes such as those run by RSPCA Assured or the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association. We need to provide incentives to move away from industrial livestock production towards free-range systems.
In particular, we should aim for an end to the zero grazing of dairy cows. Industrial systems that keep cattle indoors all year round are not capable of delivering high animal welfare standards, no matter how well-managed. I welcome the acknowledgement the Minister gave in responding to my Westminster Hall debate on this issue, when he said that
“any farmer who has turned cattle out to grass in April and watched their reaction knows that cattle prefer grazing, all other things being equal.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2017; Vol. 620, c. 95WH.]
As part of our efforts to end the practice of zero grazing, I hope that the Government will consider measures to enable consumers to make informed choices on the milk they buy. At present, most milk, other than organic milk, is pooled together, making it impossible to distinguish intensively produced from pasture-based milk. We need to consider separation, to enable farmers using good practices and pasture-based grazing to advertise this fact to consumers in the way free-range egg producers have for many years.
Both are good ideas, and I hope the Minister will respond to them when he sums up.
A further very important reason why we should discourage intensive farming methods is antimicrobial resistance, a matter the Select Committee has examined carefully. Industrial-style farming can lead to the overuse of antibiotics to fend off diseases and infection caused by keeping animals in unnatural and crowded conditions that compromise their health and their immune responses. Antimicrobials are often given to whole herds or flocks of intensively farmed animals via feed and water. Unless we draw a halt to the trend that antibiotics are gradually becoming less and less able to protect us, we could face the risk of a return to the situation of previous centuries where such matters as childbirth, non-serious injuries and routine operations frequently gave rise to a risk of death. This is a very serious risk faced by our society, and many will no doubt have listened to the harrowing Radio 4 drama, “Resistance”, which was based on one of the worst-case scenarios feared by scientists. So it is necessary to find ways to reduce overall antibiotic use in farming, and our goal should be higher-welfare farming where animals are kept healthy through good husbandry practices rather than routine antibiotic use.
As we scrutinise the great repeal Bill and associated legislation, we will need to ensure that the enforcement powers currently vested in EU bodies are transferred to domestic alternatives. Here I wish to echo a point made by a number of hon. Members: enforcement is crucial. There is no point in having rules on our statute book that are not properly enforced. This has been a long-standing concern in relation to EU rules; I recall working with my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton when we were both in the European Parliament to try to improve enforcement. This debate is a good opportunity to emphasise that the proper enforcement of rules on animal welfare and preventing animal cruelty is vital for our constituents, who care so much about this matter. Analysis by the Food Standards Agency indicates that between July 2014 and June 2016 there were more than 4,000 serious breaches of animal welfare legislation relating to slaughter and transport to slaughter. We need to do better.
In conclusion, I urge the Minister to consider an end to the export of live animals for slaughter overseas. I believe that this trade would have been banned years ago if the decision had rested with Westminster rather than Brussels. The referendum vote means that very soon this House will have control over this decision once again, and I hope the Government will press ahead with a ban to end this cruel trade.
I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for his extensive speech, as well as the Backbench Business Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for their work in bringing this debate to the House.
I feel extremely strongly about animal welfare—I have had rescue dogs in my family since childhood—and it has overwhelming support from the public throughout the UK, as well as from MPs; one has only to go to the Westminster dog of the year awards to see just how important animal welfare, particularly for puppies and dogs, is to MPs. I was pleased to come fourth last year with my dog, Rossi, who is a rescue dog. We hope to top that this year and move up the leadership board.
I thank the organisations that got in touch with me regarding this debate, including the League Against Cruel Sports, the Kennel Club, the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Marc the Vet, Pup Aid and Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. That is just a few of the organisations that work in this field. In my speech, I wish to touch briefly on several issues, including third-party puppy sales and animal cruelty sentencing.
For the public, the most visible way of selling dogs is when puppies are sold in pet shops, which is a real issue. The sale of dogs in pet shops gives the impression that they are commodities and does not afford them their status as man’s best friend. It does not send the clear message to the public that we should send, which is that a dog is for life. Pet-shop puppies are often removed from their mothers too early: they are separated after just a few weeks, despite the regulations. Many may have been reared in puppy farms, which notable reports have exposed as having unacceptable animal welfare conditions. Puppy farms do not foster good care, socialisation or attachment with mothers, and those issues contribute to poor temperament in dogs and an increased likelihood of illness and disease. That is not good for puppies, and it is certainly not good for the public.
The high street is not the place to buy a puppy. The sale of puppies on the high street fosters puppy farming and puppy trafficking. It also leads to impulse purchases by people whose household may not be best suited to the dog, nor the dog best suited to the household. That is a poor start for all involved. Polling indicates that 90% of the public do not wish to buy a puppy that has been reared on a puppy farm, but people often do so unknowingly when they buy on the high street or from third-party breeders.
Numerous recent reports on puppy farming indicate an overwhelming lack of care and concern for basic animal welfare. Mothers are used excessively as breeding machines for profit and then discarded, or even killed, when they are no longer of any use. They are kept for their whole lives in cramped, unhygienic and often horrendous conditions. That simply is not acceptable to the UK public.
A puppy’s journey should be tracked from birth, through a system of registration and microchipping. Disreputable breeders ignore the guidelines, but often go unpunished, which only reinforces their behaviour. Guidelines indicate that dogs should breed no more than six times in their lifetime, and the Kennel Club’s recommendation is no more than four times. The Kennel Club reports that one in five pups bought in a pet shop needs veterinary care or dies before they are five months old. That is simply not acceptable for the welfare of the puppies involved or the right of the public to buy puppies who have been looked after properly and appropriately.
Will the Minister consider the need for a public awareness campaign, co-ordinated with the devolved Governments throughout the United Kingdom? Such a campaign could outline how to recognise best practice in dog breeding and provide the public with guidelines on how and where to buy puppies reputably. We are looking for Government leadership on this issue. As other Members have said, currently a third of people do not see the mother when they buy a puppy.
We must tackle the sale and trafficking of illegally imported puppies. Key agencies will require regular shared intelligence from across the EU and beyond, along with a published strategy that is monitored, enforced and reviewed. Visual checks should be routine for dogs entering the UK. Such checks are necessary on grounds not only of welfare but of public health. What procedures will be put in place for collaboration after Brexit? How will we make sure that systems are strengthened to ensure animal welfare?
We have heard some disturbing accounts of animal cruelty and the far too lenient sentences imposed. Such sentences are not a deterrent because the industry is lucrative, which is why people engage in it. Those involved have no regard for animal welfare. Research indicates, and I know from my work in psychology, that there is a link between cruelty to animals, and psychopathy and cruelty to humans, including children. That must be taken seriously, not only with regard to animal welfare standards, but because of the impact on other victims of cruelty. The individuals involved practise cruelty to animals and then transfer it to humans. The Government must act and sentences must be increased, because they are currently not a deterrent. It is a lucrative industry and fines are simply not enough. Small fines are not much punishment for people who are making large sums of money.
The Government must act on third-party sales to improve animal welfare for puppies, and they must act on sentencing and ensure that there are deterrents for those involved in animal cruelty. I have had numerous emails and letters from constituents who feel we just are not doing enough and that the problem has to be tackled, so I urge the Minister to look into it. I also urge him to consider awareness campaigns. It is extremely important that the public make good, informed decisions when they buy puppies, so that they can enjoy the puppy and the puppy can enjoy a good life.
I, too, thank the various members of the public and numerous organisations that provided evidence to the Select Committee with such conviction and passion. Animal welfare is an emotive issue, but Committee members were extremely grateful for the help we got in reaching our conclusions.
I shall touch briefly on three areas of interest. First, our inquiry revealed that this was about a lot more than just puppy farming. On canine welfare, we learned a lot about the dangers of a wider form of neglect when, in some cases, people are simply unable to look after animals to the standard we expect. To be blunt about it, there is cruelty by kindness. We learned an important lesson about how education is almost as vital as prosecution.
We were also concerned about issues such as breeding disorders, and how it seems to be acceptable, in certain areas of canine ownership, almost to deliberately breed abnormalities into canines. That is an act of considerable cruelty that does not seem to be taken care of by the law. The responsibility must lie with breed societies and show organisers. If nothing else, I hope this debate sends them a small warning that, as society moves on, we will probably close in on the deliberate breeding of dogs to have bizarre physical deficiencies purely for reasons of fashion.
Our conclusion was that we should be more proactive and less reactive on some of the issues. In other words, prosecution is not always the answer and, increasingly, education probably is. If we get that right, the pressure on the puppy-farming network to deliver will be reduced.
Secondly, on puppy farms and the related market, opinions were probably as divided as any and emotions ran as high as any. With a lot of welfare legislation, I am suspicious that a total ban—a populist and eye-catching expression that we occasionally use in Parliament—is not always the answer to a welfare problem. Nevertheless, I confess to changing my mind on this issue as a result of the visits we made, the vets we spoke to, the expertise to which we were exposed, and the visits to pet shops and other establishments. All that led us to the conclusion that however hard people tried, the basic minimum standards that we all expect could never really be met.
The Committee was also not persuaded by the claim that public demand must be met, and that the only way of meeting it is through this mass production route. We were convinced by the fact that ethical, effective and commercial alternatives do exist. Indeed, in my own part of west Wales, there is an ethical puppy farm, which has large numbers of breeding bitches and which sells large numbers of puppies to the public, but it does so in a way that enables the buyer to meet the mother and the father, have a cup of coffee and do all the those things that we would like to encourage, and yet it is perfectly capable of running a commercially successful enterprise in the process.
The Committee also learned that demand is not a dirty word. As colleagues know, I am interested in working dogs, and gun dogs in particular. I want to bring on a new gun dog as we speak, but I expect to have to pay money for it and to travel to find exactly the animal that I am looking for, and that is absolutely how it should be. I should not be able to buy one by going online, popping down to the pet shop, or going to some dealer whom I have never met before. I need to research the purchase and understand everything that there is about veterinary records, breeding and the like in order to do so. I do not see why that practice should be restricted only to working dogs. If we get that bit right, there are only moral, welfare, and economic and commercial upsides.
My third point relates to prosecutions, which was raised by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). Despite what the press may have said, prosecutions featured fairly low in the Committee’s conclusions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been a little bit of misrepresentation in the media. The Committee never did, nor could it, recommend that the RSPCA be stripped of its prosecuting powers, because it does not have any such powers over and above those that we all have as private citizens in the UK—not in Scotland—which is the right to take out a private prosecution. The conclusion that we reached was based on the very compelling evidence that was offered by the SSPCA. It was just a more nuanced approach that avoids the accusations of a conflict of interest. We were also not persuaded by the argument that, in the absence of the RSPCA, no one would do this work. I have with me a schedule of animal welfare prosecutions, more than half of which have been carried out by local authorities and the police.
Does my hon. Friend also recognise that it is very important that there is as much publicity as possible about how people misuse animals? It might be helpful if “The Archers”, of which I am a very strong advocate, were to run a storyline about animals that are being badly treated and badly harmed.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I need to listen to “The Archers” a bit more often. From what I gather, the programme is covering quite a lot of contemporary issues at the moment, but he makes a good point.
In conclusion, let me bring to the attention of the House the letter written by the Attorney General’s Office in the name of the Solicitor General to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) who raised the question about whether the Crown Prosecution Service ever refuses to proceed with prosecutions on the basis of resource. The answer stated:
“Resources are never the only bar to prosecution because as you know, the Code of Crown Prosecutors sets out the two stages of the Full Code Test”.
In answer to the question, “Does the Crown Prosecution Service ever refuse to proceed on the basis of a lack of expert knowledge in the subject area in question?” the Solicitor General said:
“No, but a distinction should be drawn between expert knowledge provided by expert witnesses and specialist legal knowledge.”
I made reference to the wording of a recommendation, which I have reflected on significantly. It says that the RSPCA
“should, however, withdraw from acting”.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I agree that the CPS should be acting, but does he really think that the CPS will do it if the RSPCA takes a step back?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The Wooler report, which has been much talked about and which has helped us to reach our conclusions, raises exactly the point that he makes. There is a transitional period, but it is fair to say that concerns have been expressed—not by people such as me who might be accused of having a partisan view, but by more arm’s-length organisations—about potential conflicts of interest between organisations such as investigators, prosecutors, campaigners and fundraisers. The Royal Commission inquiry in 1983 recommended that the CPS was created so that the police would not be accused of that kind of conflict. My view was that if it was good enough for the police to have an arm’s-length prosecuting process, it is probably good enough for the country’s second biggest prosecutor to be subject to the same criteria.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I see you hastening me to a conclusion. Thank you.
I begin by expressing my thanks to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for initiating this debate? I was keen to speak because, probably like everyone else in this Chamber, I believe that the welfare of animals is extremely important. Certainly, my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran have been writing to me in large numbers asking me to voice their support for stronger sentences for animal cruelty. This debate has a particular focus on puppy farming and that is something of deep concern to all of us. Although puppy farming has been banned since the 1970s, there are still those who overproduce puppies. We must all be vigilant and consider the ethical sourcing of pets.
We really should pay attention to banning the third-party sale of dogs right across the UK. Dogs should be available only from licensed, regulated breeders or approved rehoming organisations, and that should apply right across the UK. Anyone breeding two litters or more a year should be licensed as a breeder, and that is two litters fewer than under Scots law at the moment.
Animal welfare is, of course, devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but I have called for sentences to be stronger both inside this place and outside it. Wilful cruelty to animals is simply unacceptable in a civilised society. Indeed, the Scottish Government will continue to legislate to improve animal welfare. A consultation on offences and penalties under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 will be held before too much longer. Despite the fact that there are different laws in England, Scotland and Wales, there are areas on which there is a huge amount of common ground.
The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is unique among animal welfare charities in the UK, because it is a reporting agency to the Crown Office, which means that its investigators are authorised to enforce the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. Last year, the SSPCA helpline received 241,403 calls and its inspectors and animal rescue officers attended a record 80,944 incidents.
The Scottish Government do not publish the number of people convicted of animal cruelty, but a Freedom of Information request from February 2016 shows that in 2013-14, 284 charges were brought by the Procurator Fiscal, and that in 2014-15 the figure was 184.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Like her, I, too, have an extremely large mailbag, with letters from constituents who are very concerned about this issue. We have heard an awful lot today about puppy farming, but not much about organised dog fighting. Does she share my concern that there are organised dog-fighting gangs in operation throughout the United Kingdom and does she agree that penalties and sanctions against these people should be much stronger and much harsher than they currently are?
Absolutely. In fact, we had a debate in Westminster Hall on that very issue. Like general animal welfare issues, it is a subject on which all people in all parties can unite. This is a despicable act, an horrific example of cruelty, that is conducted purely for the purposes of making money.
We all know that the popularity of programmes such as “Animal SOS”, “The Dog Rescuers”, “Pet Rescue” and “Animal 999” has raised public awareness of the animal cruelty and neglect taking place in our communities, but we must continue to be mindful of the crime of animal cruelty. It is a serious crime in our own neighbourhoods. Governments must lead by example, and I am proud that the Scottish Government have confirmed a host of new measures to improve and protect animal welfare. I am talking about tough new regulations on the use of electronic training collars; the prohibition of electric pulse, sonic and spray collars unless used under the guidance of a vet or another trained professional; a ban on wild animals in travelling circuses; and tough action on dog fighting and on irresponsible dog ownership.
When we see neglect, we must continue to ensure that the laws protect animals from such treatment, and that these laws are always fit for purpose. Sadly, there are too many cases, as reported by the SSPCA, of people who simply do not know how to look after an animal properly. It seems that quite a significant number of well-intentioned people welcome pets into their homes, but are simply unequal to the task of giving them the care that they need. That tells us that a job of public education and information needs to be undertaken so that potential pet owners are well acquainted with the full responsibility that having a pet places on their shoulders.
Where we find wilful cruelty—unfortunately, we find it too often—we must take it extremely seriously. As we have heard today, there is a connection between the wilful mistreatment of animals, and violence and mistreatment of fellow citizens. That, as well as protecting animals, should give us pause for thought. I am ashamed to say that the SSPCA has reported cases of “unimaginable cruelty”, and I honestly do not believe that a life ban on owning a pet is sufficient censure for such behaviour towards a helpless animal. There is plenty of evidence that such cruelty is a precursor to, and has a clear link with, violence against other people.
Fines or community service orders do not offer much of a punishment or deterrence against such behaviour. Cases such as deliberately starving an animal to death, knowingly locking an animal in the boot of a car in soaring temperatures in the full knowledge and understanding that it will not survive such treatment, and other horrible examples that we have heard today must surely be eligible for a custodial sentence. However, we must all be vigilant when it comes to preventing cruelty to animals. We are the eyes and ears of the agencies who seek to prevent cruelty to animals and challenge it where it takes place. We all have a responsibility to report cruelty or neglect wherever we find it. The courts across the United Kingdom must send out a clear signal that wilful cruelty to animals will not be tolerated and will be taken extremely seriously.
Before I end, there is something that is of concern to us all: the need to be mindful of animal welfare standards in farming post-Brexit. Brexit poses a challenge to animal welfare because EU law is at the heart of animal welfare legislation, which protects animal health, consumers and, of course, the environment. The EU sets down minimum standards. National Governments may adopt more stringent rules, but the UK Government have been resistant to gold-plating EU regulations in the past over fears that this would weaken UK competitiveness. As well as answering all the points that have been raised, I would like the Minister to reassure the House that there will be no diminution in our animal welfare standards as we seek to work towards unilateral treaties outside Europe.
May I join my fellow colleagues on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and other hon. Members here in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for bringing this debate forward? It is always a pleasure to serve under his chairmanship on the Select Committee.
I will try to touch on a few points that have not been made in the Committee’s excellent report, but I must start by joining everybody else in talking about third-party sales and puppy breeding. I will be truthful: I went into the start of the Select Committee inquiry thinking that it was a bad idea to ban third-party sales. However, my opinion changed after looking at, listening to and reading the evidence, and seeing things with my own eyes while visiting a puppy farm in west Wales. There must have been 60 to 80 dogs when we looked around that puppy farm. They were all in tiny enclosures with 3 feet high walls, so they could not see out or see their neighbours. They could not be dogs. It was quite distressing because, although I could not look back and say that they were skinny, maltreated or in danger of needing relief and veterinary care, they just could not be dogs. Having had dogs all my life, I found that very disturbing and that visit made me change my mind.
Something that has sadly not been touched on today is the fact that there are many responsible dog breeders. We went to look for a dog only last year. I wanted a labrador and my wife wanted a whippet and, as is typical in our family—I have a wife and two young daughters—we ended up with a whippet, and a female whippet at that. We went to look at the bitch and the puppy down in the Vale of Glamorgan, where we had the choice of the litter. My children had to be there with us, and it was clear to me that we were being interviewed and interrogated by the dog breeder. If she had not thought us suitable, we would not have been going back a month or so later to pick up our puppy. That is what we should be aiming for. So far, we have all said what is wrong. We have all said that the law is wrong, but what we need is education and like-minded people to do the job of breeding dogs.
Something else that was clear when the Committee took evidence—I was quite surprised about this—was that even with the puppy farming here that we do not like, the country does not breed enough puppies to sustain demand. Hence, we have to bring in dogs from Ireland or mainland Europe. The situation really needs to be tackled. We need to look at how we can supply the demand in this country without these unfortunate practices. It is clear that many puppies coming here from abroad, wherever that may be, sadly leave their mother and do not even live to get to mainland Britain. That is a tragedy.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that part of the issue with demand is about changing public attitudes? Cats and dogs homes are full of puppies that have been discarded. They might not be pedigrees, but they make extremely good pets and should be offered the opportunity of a good home.
I could not agree more. Because of that, I was surprised that organisations such as the RSPCA, the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals and Battersea Dogs & Cats Home were not keen on banning third-party sales. I am glad that they have now changed their minds. People now have a great choice in going to catteries and dog kennels to get an animal.
The British Veterinary Association has not been mentioned today, but it has come out with an excellent paper and it gave excellent information to the inquiry. It is a highly respected organisation, which says that
“irresponsible dog breeding and the practice of puppy farming must be tackled as quickly as possible.”
All of us, including the Minister, agree with this excellent organisation. We must listen to such organisations, which have so much to offer and carry out a lot of the work on our behalf.
The BVA also came out with an interesting point about having a framework of animal welfare because we do not seem to have one. We have heard the “B” word all week with Brexit, but the “D” word is devolution. More and more powers are going to various parts of the country, but these various forms of devolution—Parliaments and organisations—are coming up with their own laws, making life difficult for veterinary surgeons, RSPCA officers and so on. For example, electrical pulse collars are now banned in Wales, but they can be used in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. There are parts of my constituency with fields and commons where those collars would be illegal on one side and not on the other. Dog licences are required in Northern Ireland, but nowhere else on mainland Britain. There is separate legislation on control of horses in England and Wales, but none in Northern Ireland and Scotland. It really is getting terribly complicated for anybody who wants to comply with and enforce the law, so we need to think about a framework at some point.
I have owned horses all my life. Clearly, as the evidence shows and as we all agree, equine identification and traceability must be made simpler. There are over 60 passport-issuing organisations out there; the report recommends one single organisation. The national equine database closed in 2012, making this impossible to enforce. I ask the Minister where we are with this, because equines are vitally important, whether for leisure, work, or purely pleasure. They are great animals to have—I strongly recommend them—and we should certainly have the right system in place for them.
In closing, I am afraid that I must touch on the RSPCA. The report contains a very worthwhile set of points that should be looked at very seriously. Fund-raising, campaigning, investigation and prosecution do not fit together. As I said earlier, our friends from Scotland lead by example. The Attorney General has clearly said that there is capacity within his Department for us to look at this, and I strongly urge all Ministers that we should do so.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on setting the scene so well and his hard work as Chair of the EFRA Committee. We all deeply appreciate not only his efforts, but the knowledge of the subject matter that he regularly brings to this Chamber whenever we debate farming issues. We all look forward to his contributions, whether on milking or, as in this case, on dogs and animal welfare.
I have received a substantial number of emails about puppy farms, and it is incumbent on me to put forward a plea on behalf of many of my constituents. We are often referred to as a nation of animal lovers. I believe that we are, by and large, but when we see examples of animal cruelty by individuals, whatever the reasons for that might be, we realise that there are some nasty and evil people out there.
I should declare an interest. My wife is an active volunteer with Assisi, which is an animal charity that looks after cats and dogs. When I married her, I realised that I was marrying all the cats as well, so I became a cat lover, which I never was before.
The recently published plans to improve the licensing of animal breeding establishments are most welcome, but it is disheartening that it appears that, despite the calls from the EFRA Committee and numerous leading charities, a ban on third-party puppy sales is not being implemented. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to our concerns—he knows that I hold him in high esteem, as we all do in this Chamber. It is clear that while licensing and microchipping are necessary and good, that in itself will not address the problem of the puppy trade. In the words of my constituents,
“it will not stop the cruel puppy trade.”
There is something despicable and wrong about a puppy farmer continually and regularly breeding from a dog for the purpose of selling their pups, to the detriment of the dog’s health.
I have had dogs about me for all my life, whether Pomeranians, when I was very young, or Jack Russells in later years. They say, “You don’t own a Jack Russell terrier, the Jack Russell owns you.” I am not sure how true that it is, but I know that the ones I had owned me. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) referred to working dogs, of which I have a number—springer spaniels and cocker spaniels. Whenever we sold dogs when the mother had pups, we always made sure that the person who got that dog was suitable—the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) referred to that. It was nothing to do with money; it was do with finding good homes. We wanted a good home for the dog, and we want legislation to ensure that that happens.
As other Members have said, it is thought that if the middlemen are eliminated, the dog-loving public will instead need to source their puppies from legitimate breeders or rescue centres, which will lead to a massive improvement in welfare standards for dogs. However, I must lay down a marker to the Minister in relation to labradors and alsatians—dogs that are prone to dysplasia. We need to do something about the fact that dogs and pups are often sold without the veterinary approval to say that they are free from potential physical disablement. I join with others who have called on the Government to put in place a ban on the sale of puppies without their mothers being present.
I again refer the Minister to legislation from the Northern Ireland Assembly. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire talked about the differences across all the regions of the United Kingdom. I think that we in Northern Ireland, if I may say so—we have to blow our own trumpet sometimes—have particularly good legislation. What discussions has the Minister had with representatives in Northern Ireland?
Animal cruelty sentences here are designed in such a way that if the defendant pleads guilty, their sentence is reduced, meaning that no matter how despicable the act of cruelty was, the sentence will be four months. That situation needs to change drastically. After having had a similar sentencing scheme in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Assembly took steps to alter it, voting to change the law as part of the new justice Act. The amendment means that the maximum sentence handed down in the Crown court for animal cruelty crimes increases from two years to five years. That is justice that fits the crime, and that is how the legislation should be across the whole United Kingdom.
There have been some instances of dog fighting in my constituency. Nothing grieves me as much as to say that, because it a despicable act. We have a very active police force in Northern Ireland, with a specific wildlife officer set with the task of dealing with this. I happen to know the police officer responsible, because I have known her father for a long time. The police in Northern Ireland have been very active in trying to catch these people. Someone found guilty of causing unnecessary suffering to animals, or causing and attending an animal fight, will face up to 12 months’ imprisonment instead of six months, and the maximum fine for a conviction will rise from £5,000 to £20,000. That is the sort of legislative change and action that we need.
New powers are to be handed to Northern Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions to enable the appeal of animal cruelty sentences on the grounds of undue leniency. In the past, I have referred cases to the DPP for review, after which a stronger sentence has been handed down, as it should have been. That has happened not though my actions alone but those of many others. That, at the very least, must be replicated on the UK mainland. I sincerely urge the Minister to make contact with the Northern Ireland Assembly so that he can learn from the legislation and strategy that we have in place now. What discussions has he had with the Republic of Ireland, where the same legislation is not necessarily in place? What are we doing about the movement of puppies and puppy farms across the border and directly to the mainland?
The current system on the mainland does not even come close to ensuring that people understand the abhorrence of animal cruelty. A tough sentence must be available for offenders who persist in showing horrific cruelty to animals. I call on Minister—I know that he will respond positively—to take the time to ensure that steps are taken urgently to deal with the current failures on sentencing and puppy farming.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I very much commend my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) not only for securing the debate, but for chairing the EFRA Committee, and producing this report about animal welfare and how we should take better care of animals. I congratulate the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) on telling in no uncertain terms her heart-wrenching stories about how some people end up abusing animals. I come back to the point that I made in an intervention: it is important that we better educate children so that they understand the value and importance of looking after animals.
I will not pretend for one moment that I have ever lived in a family with lots of dogs and cats, and things like that—[Interruption.] I can tell the stories about hedgehogs in a moment. However, the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) made about animals on farms is incredibly important.
It is important that we consider how to safeguard the animals of people with dementia. I am doing a lot of work with Professor Ian Sherriff of Plymouth University, who runs a dementia taskforce in the Yealm valley in Devon. The work is difficult. It found some people looking after a couple with dementia, but their animals were not being fed properly and there were problems to do with the drinking of water. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton and the Minister might want to look at that—indeed, the EFRA Committee may wish to carry out an inquiry into this important issue.
I make no apologies for saying that the Government need to look at the whole issue of protected species and to be much more flexible. I have spent a lot of time in this place talking about our wonderful friends the hedgehogs, the number of which has declined by 30% over the past 10 to 15 years. I launched an online petition that ended up with 50,000 signatures, while another 12,000 people signed paper petitions. I will present those petitions with colleagues who participated alongside me, and we will try to make sure that the issue is addressed.
Flexibility is important, because there are some places where not only hedgehogs but seagulls—the other big issue that I have been taking up—are in decline. We need more flexibility. Hedgehogs are in decline partially because of the decking of properties and the taking away of the wildlife and grassland that they go into. Occasionally the problem arises because people put down poisonous slug pellets; the hedgehogs eat slugs that have been contaminated and then end up dying. The Government need to look at that. They also need to look closely at the traps that are being introduced against stoats and so on. I have written about that to DEFRA—not to my hon. Friend the Minister, but to his colleague—and would be helpful if we could have a proper debate about it.
Seagulls represent a big difficulty in constituencies such as mine. We need not to cull them, but to find a way to control them better. That might involve putting in dummy eggs or injecting the eggs, especially at this time of year.
We also need to ensure that we pay attention to our ecology by looking after bees. A number of people have been critical of my interest in this issue, but if there is a decline in this country’s animal species, we will be ruining our ecology and what happens elsewhere. We need to take that very seriously. I receive more letters on issues to do with hedgehogs, seagulls and so on than on anything else in relation to my work in this place. The British public are very keen on the issue. They want us to protect animals in the same way as they quite rightly want social justice for people.
I, too, commend the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, of which I am proud to be a member, for securing the debate. The report is another example of the very good work that the Committee is doing. I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I gather that you are something of a Dr Dolittle, with a number of pets under your wing.
We truly are a nation of dog lovers and animal lovers. I was brought up on a farm with dogs, and a dog was my best friend. As a moody teenager, I turned to the dog more than anyone else to pour my heart out to. I, too, take part in the wonderful Westminster dog of the year competition. I actually borrow a dog from the Dogs Trust, just to highlight all the good work it does in promoting dog ownership.
It is not cheating; I try to do a useful education job. We have talked so much about education—[Interruption.] There is a lot of mithering going on behind me, but it is not cheating; it is all about education and getting the right messages to people about animal ownership.
I will touch on a couple of the report’s themes, namely sentencing and licensing, which have been addressed by many other colleagues. Puppy farming is a massive business in the UK. It is worth an estimated £300 million, so it is not small. To put it simply, demand outstrips supply, as we have heard, which leaves space for unscrupulous breeders to come in and operate. The report aims to address that.
Members on both sides of the House agree that the UK has very high animal welfare standards. We pride ourselves on that, which is why it is strange and puzzling that our sentences for offenders are so low. The maximum sentence, as we have heard, is six months’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine. To put that in context, Northern Ireland, Latvia and Montenegro have maximum prison sentences of five years, which makes me think that we need to look at the issue.
We have the lowest sentences for animal abuse crimes in the developed world. As has been said—I am sure that the Minister knows this, but I want to highlight it again—there is a very strong link between animal cruelty and domestic violence. One study found that in 88% of homes where child abuse had been discovered, there had also been incidents of animal abuse. Another study found that up to 83% of women who enter domestic violence shelters report that their abusers have also been abusing the family pet. That very worrying and strong link shows why we should take the issue so seriously.
People can get five years for fly-tipping—that is a serious offence, so we should not backtrack on such sentences—but if someone burns their pet or carries out gross abuse such as that described by Opposition Members, they might get only six months. That is absolutely unbelievable. Clearly we do not want to overload our prisons, but we need to have another look at the issue and not be coy about very serious cases.
An example that recently arose in my constituency involved not a dog or a cat, but a dairy farm. The dairy farmer is in the top group for animal welfare standards among dairy farmers, but unbeknown to him, a lad he had taken on as an apprentice—this was secretly filmed by Animal Equality—was going in and kicking the nursing cows in the face, kicking the calves, pressing them up against metal gates, and slamming the gates on them and abusing them verbally. It was absolutely horrific. The dairy farmer had no idea that that was happening until he was shown the video, which hon. Members can see online. The lad’s sentence is being considered at the moment, but it will probably not fit the crime.
I will quickly touch on internet sales, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) spoke eloquently. Many illegal puppy sales take place on the internet, and I am pleased that the Government are looking at the matter. I welcome the fact that breeders now require a numbered licence to sell puppies online. Many people want the Government to introduce a centralised register, as has been touched on. My daughter is always sending me pictures of cutesy little puppies in handbags or in chocolate boxes that she has seen online. She says, “Mummy, why don’t we get one of these?” but I know for a fact that lots of those puppies have been illegally bred and imported, and they have probably been subject to some of the horrible things that we heard about in detail from my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies).
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. Many colleagues will often see dogs locked in homes for hours on end when we are out canvassing. Many of those dogs now suffer psychological problems, and I gather that vets are giving some of them Valium to calm them down. There are loads of welfare issues that we have to deal with.
The Committee’s report called for the breeders of puppies to be required to apply for a formal licence if they breed three litters a year—that is definitely a step in the right direction. There are calls for the number to be reduced to two litters, to take account of any accidental litters, which often occur. And please do not forget cats—as a lover of Mr Tips and Raffa, my family’s two cats at home, I know that we must not forget cats. I applaud our Committee’s recommendation that the breeders of cats who have two litters or more a year should also be licensed and subject to the relevant welfare conditions.
Education has been mentioned, and I wonder whether there is any way we can give our local authorities—they are often the ones who have to police these things, and they are often under pressure—a bit more education in this area. I am not necessarily saying that we should throw money at them, but education and additional support might help councils to clamp down on offenders.
I am coming to the end of my speech, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I want to make a final point about our animal welfare standards in general as we exit the EU. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) touched on this. If the UK is to set itself up as an animal welfare exemplar for domestic pets and livestock—I believe that the Minister has that very much in mind—it is crucial that our regulatory framework is fit for purpose, and that framework should cover the use of antibiotics, which has been referred to, as well as how animals are kept and managed. That is essential if we are to build a British brand on this platform. We know what countries in the EU do, but we also need to know exactly what our global partners do, because we have to trade with them on equal welfare terms. I urge the Minister to consider that; it is something that the all-party group on animal welfare, which I chair, could have a look at.
I applaud the Select Committee report. There is still much to do on welfare, but we have taken many steps in the right direction and I know that the Minister is listening. The overall aim of all the work that is being done is to give our pets the happy, healthy and lovely life that they all deserve.
I want to make a brief contribution to the debate on the need to increase courts’ flexibility to sentence offenders for up to five years. As it stands, the maximum sentence is six months, and that has been the case since 1911. All Members have experienced considerable pressure from constituents about the issue. Constituents have contacted me to say that they simply cannot believe that the law has stayed in place for so long without being changed.
When we look at the cases that we deal with in our constituencies, as well as the cases reported in the newspapers, we can clearly see that courts need the flexibility to deal with those offenders much more severely than they can at present. Making this change would not compel the courts to sentence somebody for five years—it would not compel them to do anything—but, as the Minister knows, it would send a message to the courts that they have that power and they can use it if necessary.
I support the Committee’s recommendation, and I add the voices of my constituents in Gedling, and of many others from across the country, to those who ask the Government to review the matter as quickly as possible and change the maximum sentence from six months to five years. I hope that the Minister will take that on board and make the change as soon as possible.
The inquiry we are debating was conducted by a Sub-Committee of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and I was very pleased to participate as a member of it. We ordered our detailed report to be published on 2 November 2016, following scrutiny of 256 items of published evidence, seven evidence-gathering sessions and three site visits. I am very grateful to a number of organisations, including Pup Aid and the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for the briefings they have provided for today’s debate.
I should say at the outset that the inquiry caused me, and I believe other members of the Committee, significant distress from listening to accounts of serious animal cruelty and, indeed, viewing at first hand animals in recovery shelters and those held in horrific conditions in puppy farms. The treatment and the plight of many of the animals we saw is simply unacceptable. As other hon. Members have done, I want to focus on two aspects of the inquiry: first, the recommendation that an immediate ban be placed on the third-party sale of dogs; and secondly, the recommendation that the maximum penalty for animal welfare offences in England be increased to five years in prison.
This inquiry learned that dogs are bred, sold and traded every single day. While the scale of the market for puppies in England is largely unknown, estimates suggest that somewhere between 700,000 and 1.9 million dogs are traded each year, with a street value of somewhere between £100 million and £300 million per annum. The public purchase puppies from a variety of sources, including unlicensed breeders and back-street traders, commercial licensed breeders and pet shops, illegal importers, Kennel Club registered breeders and excellent rescue organisations. Unlicensed breeders, commercial licensed breeders and illegal importers are the sources that caused us concern. We identified a significant variation in the quality of puppies, their viability and the welfare problems experienced by dogs from these sources.
The Breeding of Dogs Act 1973 and the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999 set out the licensing regime under which local authorities license dog breeding establishments in England. The legislation states that anyone carrying on the business of breeding and selling puppies must have a licence irrespective of the number of litters. However, owing to a lack of clarity, many local authorities in England have interpreted the legislation to mean that a licence is required only for those breeding five or more litters during a 12-month period. As a consequence, a large number of breeders are considered to fall outside the current licensing regime, which means there is no record of the dogs being born and no enforcement of welfare standards.
DEFRA’s recent consultation on its review of animal licensing establishments noted that there was confusion about the threshold and about how it should be used in practice. DEFRA has proposed clarifying the threshold at which a breeding establishment requires to be licensed, suggesting that in the future the requirement for a licence would be applied to
“(a) anyone in the business of breeding and selling dogs; or (b) anyone producing three or more litters from their dogs in a 12-month period.”
Witnesses told us that they want a lower threshold. In fact, experts in animal welfare argued that anyone breeding two or more litters per year should be required to register as a breeder. The view is that while one litter might be unintended, anyone producing more than one litter a year is clearly running a business breeding dogs for sale, and I agree with that opinion. Witnesses also told us that those falling below this threshold should be registered with their local authority. For example, the National Companion Animal Focus Group told us that a registration scheme would
“ensure licensing authorities are aware of breeding dogs in their area, and can monitor when they fall into the definitions of commercial breeding”.
I also agree with that opinion. It is vital to bring transparency to ensuring that appropriate welfare standards are in place. For that reason, the Committee recommended that anyone breeding two litters or more per year should be licensed as a breeder, and that those falling below the threshold of a licensed breeder should be registered with their local authority.
Turning to commercial breeders, current requirements dictate that anyone who carries on a business of breeding dogs for sale must hold a licence from their local authority and meet certain conditions, such as providing suitable accommodation, food, water and bedding. Dog breeders are supposed to keep records to show compliance with those requirements. Puppies bred at licensed commercial breeding establishments are required to be sold at those premises or at a licensed pet shop. This is where the problems arise. Undoubtedly there are very good commercial breeders, but in evidence we encountered far too many examples of those requirements being ignored, with puppies being bred in substandard conditions on an industrial scale. Some of those establishments house as many as 200 breeding bitches. The cruelty and lack of care and attention was self-evident. In evidence, the Minister acknowledged that enforcement of the licensing regime was a “mixed picture”, with local authorities placing different levels of emphasis on it. That is an understatement.
We call for improvements in two areas in particular: the current legislation and licensing conditions, and the enforcement of the licensing regime. The current enforcement of the licensing regime is simply unsatisfactory. While some local authorities have developed expertise in animal welfare, the overwhelming majority of English local authorities lack any suitably qualified inspectors. We believe that a national inspectorate, which local authorities could call upon, would enable expertise to develop, bring consistency to the licensing process and support local authorities in enforcing the licensing regime, undertaking inspections and dealing with complaints.
In respect of illegal importers, we found that puppies are being imported for commercial purposes under the non-commercial trade rules that were set up to allow the free movement of people’s pets through the pet travel scheme. Witnesses told us that loopholes originating in the UK mean that the pet travel scheme is abused by unscrupulous dealers and traders. Puppies are being moved as pets and then traded commercially at the final destination. Between the introduction of PETS in 2011 and 2015, there was an 850% increase in the number of dogs entering the UK from Lithuania alone. From Hungary the increase was 761% and from Romania it was 2,055%. As hon. Members have noted, puppies imported in that way are routinely bred in horrific conditions, are taken from their mother when too young and endure long journeys of over 1,000 miles. The welfare of those animals is severely compromised and many do not survive the journey.
During our inquiry, witnesses identified three areas of concern: the age at which puppies were allowed into the UK; a lack of enforcement checks by Border Force; and poor intelligence sharing between UK enforcement agencies. When buying a puppy, members of the public want to buy a happy, healthy animal from a reputable source; however, disreputable dealers are selling animals for huge profits without regard for their health and wellbeing, and leaving families with congenitally unviable, sick animals.
Witnesses told us that the Pet Animals Act 1951 was “thoroughly outdated” and that there is lack of clarity about what is and is not licensable activity. They had differing opinions on how to deal with current problems around the sale of animals. Some called for increased regulation, while others called for a ban on third party sales. On that point the RSPCA bizarrely changed its position several times within the period of the inquiry. The charities Dogs Trust and Blue Cross lobbied Ministers directly in ways that appeared to promote their narrow business interests rather than animal welfare, and disappointingly have chosen not to answer my subsequent correspondence seeking clarity on their position.
On this issue there is no excuse or room for implausible arguments. The Committee’s recommendation to ban third-party sales is essential if unlicensed breeding, commercial breeding and illegal importation are to be brought to an abrupt end. Removing the opportunity to sell abused animals would address the issue. The advice to the public is simple: never buy a puppy that is not with its mother. Those ignoring that advice are supporting horrific puppy farming and regimes of cruelty that are of epic proportions.
I am coming on to my conclusion, Mr Deputy Speaker. Turning to sentencing policy, the sub-committee found that England and Wales has the lowest maximum custodial sentences for animal cruelty in Europe. Scotland currently has a maximum sentence double that of England and Wales, and Northern Ireland is to be applauded for recently increasing its maximum limit to five years. Our witnesses expressed grave concern that sentencing powers under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 are too low, neither recognising the seriousness of the offence nor acting as a significant deterrent.
The Association of Lawyers for Animal Welfare noted that sentencing powers in England under the Animal Welfare Act are some of the weakest within the international community. The RSPCA noted increasing inconsistency in sentences available in differing animal legislation in England. For example, the Law Commission recently recommended the imprisonment for up to two years for cruelty to wildlife. Under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, a person can be sentenced to three years if their dog injures a guide dog, but for only six months if they beat their dog to death with a baseball bat in front of their children in their living room. If the same individual then dumped the corpse illegally, they could be sentenced to five years for fly tipping. If they stole the baseball bat, they could receive a sentence of seven years for shoplifting. This is ridiculous and unacceptable.
DEFRA responded to the inquiry report on 27 January 2017. The response began:
“We have the best animal welfare in the world and we are a nation of animal lovers.”
I say to the Minister that in fact England has some of the poorest animal welfare in the world. I have seen it. If he really wants to show respect to animal lovers in England, of whom there are very many, he must implement the Select Committee’s recommendations.
I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for bringing this debate to the Chamber, and for his continued chairmanship of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. We have had excellent contributions from both sides of the House, including many from members of the Select Committee.
I would like to speak broadly in favour of the Committee’s recommendations. It is an excellent and thorough report, and I recommend that everyone read it. Having seen the RSPCA’s response to the report, I concur with its assessment of the recommendations and urge the Government to pay heed to them.
It has been said that Britain has the best animal welfare in the world. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 was a landmark piece of legislation and we in the Labour party are very proud of it. Acting upon the report’s recommendations would cement our position as world leader and ensure that our high standard of animal welfare is maintained. I would like to touch on two main points from the report, areas that have been admirably covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick).
First, I agree with the Committee and the RSPCA that the Government should ban the third-party sale of dogs. Dogs should be available only from licensed, regulated breeders or approved re-homing organisations. The Pet Animals Act 1951 requires third-party sellers of dogs to hold a pet shop licence. However, this licensing is not protecting the welfare of all dogs or the interests of consumers, so the current situation is no longer fit for purpose. Licensing must be considered appropriate for third-party sales only if it meets the welfare needs of puppies. It serves no purpose if it does not mitigate risks or prevent harm. The only solution to protect the welfare of puppies is to ban third-party sales entirely.
International studies have found that puppies obtained from pet shops are more likely to be aggressive towards people, fearful, prone to separation anxiety, and infected with parasites and pathogens to a significant level. Behavioural problems are the most common cause of euthanasia in dogs under two years old, with the most common cause of fear and aggression being a lack of socialisation during the critical period up to 16 weeks old. Responsible breeders, by definition, will not sell puppies through third parties.
The third-party licensed pet shop market depends on and sustains low welfare breeding. As long as there is a market for cheap, intensively bred puppies, welfare problems will persist because the incentives for non-compliance far exceed the potential penalties.
We heard about online sales from the hon. Members for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). Demand has also been mentioned, and we need to look at that as well. Availability may artificially inflate demand, so reducing the supply of cheap, poorly bred puppies from dealers will promote a more responsible buying culture. A ban is vital to protect the welfare of puppies, and to serve as an essential first step in the improvement of standards in high-risk breeding establishments.
When we bought our family dog, a lovely chocolate labrador called Max, we knew how to find him—we knew who to buy from: we knew where to find a responsible breeder—but not everyone knows how to do that. We need to protect consumers from irresponsible breeders, and help them to make responsible purchases. We must ensure that animal welfare comes before profit. The Government must place a statutory duty on local authorities to enforce the Animal Welfare Act so that it has proper teeth, and then give local authorities adequate resources with which to enforce the regulations made under the Act.
The Committee recommended an increase in the maximum penalty for animal welfare offences to five years. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) has done a huge amount of work on that with Battersea Dogs & Cats Home; I am grateful for her contribution today, and I am proud to support her campaign. Labour’s Animal Welfare Act created and amended a number of offences—for instance, causing deliberate harm or any unnecessary suffering to an animal, and wilful neglect. Such offences carry a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment or an unlimited fine: the penalty was raised in 2015 from a maximum fine of £20,000. The Act also includes a provision to increase sentences to 51 weeks under the “custody plus” system, consisting of a combination of community service and imprisonment. Current sentencing guidance issued by the independent Sentencing Council states that the starting point for attempting to kill, torture or cause prolonged neglect to an animal and the permitting of fighting is an 18-week custodial sentence, with a range of between 12 and 26 weeks in custody.
Unfortunately, the Government have yet to make any significant changes to ensure that the punishment for animal cruelty reflects the gravity of the crime. They should consider increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers, and providing for the most serious cases of abuse to be heard in the Crown court. Groups such as the League Against Cruel Sports, the RSPCA, and Battersea Dogs & Cats Home have expressed concern about the sentences for animal cruelty, which do not always appear to match the abuse suffered by the animals, especially in the case of extreme cruelty such as dog fighting. Sentences—which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker)— must reflect the seriousness of such crimes.
The Labour manifesto of 2015 committed us to improving protection for cats and dogs. We support the call by the League Against Cruel Sports for the implementation of its dog fighting action plan, which would include the holding by statutory agencies of a national register of individuals banned from keeping dogs. The RSPCA has run campaigns calling on the Government to undertake a review of sentencing for animal cruelty under the Animal Welfare Act, and to amend it to allow tougher sentencing for offences such as animal fighting. Of the 752 people who were found guilty of causing, permitting or failing to prevent unnecessary suffering to animals in 2014, only 76 received a sentence involving immediate custody, and only about half that number received custodial sentences of more than three months.
Finally, I have a couple of Brexit-related questions for the Minister. First, will he commit himself to maintaining all existing animal welfare legislation post-Brexit? Secondly—this was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers)—does he agree that any trade deals struck post-Brexit must respect the high animal welfare standards of the UK, and must not undermine the ability of British farmers to compete at home?
I look forward to the Minister’s response, and hope that he will take on board the many excellent recommendations in the Committee’s report.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate on a matter that affects so many of us, and thank him for his Select Committee reports into animal welfare in England that we are debating today.
Last month my Department published proposals to overhaul the laws on a number of animal-related licensing schemes, such as the regulations on pet vending, animal boarding, riding schools and dog breeding. The main aim of our proposed changes is to improve animal welfare and to make the licensing schemes easier to enforce.
I want to begin by talking about the issue of dog breeding, which a number of Members have raised. As my hon. Friend will recall from the time when I was on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I have long argued that we should reduce the threshold before which people have to be licensed by the local authority to breed dogs. I have argued that for some six months, and it is a pleasure to remain in a position in DEFRA for long enough to actually see through something I have argued for for so long. Included, therefore, in our proposals is that anyone breeding and selling more than two litters in a 12-month period will need to be licensed by their local authority. This will have the effect of increasing substantially the number of dog breeders needing to be licensed by about 5,000 per year.
We have also, crucially, proposed that statutory conditions will be applied to all licensed establishments. In relation to dog breeding, that will mean that basic standards taken from the model licence conditions and guidance for dog breeding establishments 2014, published by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, will be applied directly to all licensed breeders.
We had in our consultation initially proposed that there could be an exemption from requiring a licence for breeders who signed up to United Kingdom Accreditation Service-accredited schemes. The Committee and others expressed concerns about going that far, so we listened and have modified that proposal to enable local authorities to recognise risk and to recognise people who sign up to accreditation schemes without removing entirely the need for a licence.
On the question of a ban on selling dogs by third parties, which a number of hon. Members have raised, I understand the desire to try and help potential buyers realise that puppies should be seen with their mothers before they are purchased. Indeed, DEFRA makes such a recommendation. However, I think the specific proposal for an outright ban on all third-party sales is more problematic.
First, we have to consider who would enforce it and how they would do so. Local authorities have to balance their local priorities, and trying to establish whether a particular online advertiser of puppies is located in their area would require the commitment of considerable resources. As I have said, we have already increased the burden on local authorities by taking the number of people required to be licensed from 600 to some 5,000. The demand for dogs is also such that in our view there is a significant risk that an outright ban on third-party sales would simply drive the market underground.
We have therefore decided to address the problem in a different way, through a tougher approach to licensing provisions and to enforcement of the provisions in the Pet Animals Act 1951. First, we are placing beyond any doubt that online commercial sellers need to have a licence. It is not a pet shop licence; it is now a licence for animal sellers, and we will make that absolutely clear in revisions to the licensing conditions. Secondly, as with dog breeders, we propose that statutory conditions should be applied to all licensed pet sellers, whether online or a shop. These will again be based on the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health model conditions for pet vending licensing of 2013. Thirdly, we have also made it clear that, as a condition of having such a licence, if breeders advertise online they will in future need to state their licence number. That will be particularly important in helping with enforcement. I believe that these steps to strengthen the licensing regime currently set out under the 1951 Act go a long way towards addressing the concerns raised.
A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), raised the issue of puppies being brought through ports. I know there are concerns about the import of puppies for sale, and this is an area where we take action. It is a condition of approval that the transport company checks 100% of all those pets declared to them for compliance with the current EU pet travel scheme. Stringent penalties are in place for those who breach the law by smuggling pet animals or using false documentation.
The Animal and Plant Health Agency has been conducting random audit checks on pet animals arriving in Great Britain. Since December 2015, the agency has been working with Kent County Council, Dover police and the Dogs Trust to identify underage dogs, and in that time, 489 puppies have been seized and placed in quarantine kennels. The majority of them were judged to be younger than the age given on their passports. We have taken action, through our chief veterinary officer, to escalate our concerns to the authorities in the relevant countries from which the dogs came. We take this issue very seriously.
I shall turn now to the crucial part of the debate: the issue of maximum penalties for animal welfare offences. The hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) gave the House some touching examples of cases that she had seen in her constituency. I know that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) have both recently introduced private Members’ Bills to address this question, and the hon. Lady expressed her frustration at the Whips having objected to her Bill. I can tell her that she joins a large and illustrious club of hon. Members who have faced such a fate—myself included, some years ago—so she should not take it personally.
This is fundamentally a matter for the Ministry of Justice, but my Department obviously works closely with the Ministry. At present, the maximum penalty for such offences is six months’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. The unlimited fine was raised from £20,000 only in 2015. In addition, offenders can be disqualified not only from owning an animal but from having influence over the way in which an animal is kept, for as long as the court sees fit. This is an important point because it covers not only owning an animal but issues such as arranging transport.
My noble Friend Lord Gardiner is in regular contact with the Ministry of Justice to discuss the question of maximum sentences. Current sentencing practice for such offences does not suggest that the courts are finding their sentencing powers inadequate. That is to say that changing the maximum sentence would not make a difference if the courts consider a lower sentence appropriate. However, the Sentencing Council has recently reviewed the magistrates court sentencing guidelines, including those relating to animal cruelty. The revised guidance, which is published on the Sentencing Council’s website and which will be effective from May, will allow magistrates more flexibility when imposing penalties towards the upper end of the scale. In addition, I will ensure that hon. Members’ representations for a change in the legislation to allow for higher maximum penalties are relayed to colleagues in Government.
I want to turn now to some of the other points that have been raised in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton raised the question of an animal abuse register. I know that the police are considering how they can improve access to the register that they already have. The police national computer provides a searchable single source of locally held police operational information, and there is existing functionality for a police officer to apply a person marker, which can also deal with this issue. My hon. Friend also raised the question of enforcement. We are in discussions with the National Companion Animal Focus Group to try to develop standards of competency and to raise all local authorities to the level of the best.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) raised the issue of the Pet Advertising Advisory Group. I would like to pay tribute to the six website groups—Gumtree, Pets4Homes, ePupz, Preloved, Viva Street and the Hut Group—that have signed up to this. In many cases, those organisations automatically email guidance on keeping pets to people who make a particular search. Organisations including Gumtree immediately take down adverts posted by people who are making repeat sales and high volume sales. It is through working with such organisations that I believe we can make good progress.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) and the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) raised the issue of farm animal welfare, which I know we have covered before. As I have explained, we have a manifesto commitment to reflect farm animal welfare in our future farm policy. My hon. Friends the Members for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) talked about education. We are, through our consultation, planning to introduce a requirement for pet sellers to give guidance to people on certain pets, particularly exotic pets. Guidance relating to pet animals also exists in the current school curriculum.
In chairing the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I am fortunate to have great members who are supportive and good at attending, and five of them really contributed to today’s debate. I thank everybody on both sides of the House for their contributions. We have been a united force in wanting stiffer sentencing, and many have called for a ban on third-party puppy sales. We also want to ensure that we stop the importation of puppies through our ports, so that illegal puppies are not brought into this country. I thank the Minister for his support, but I want more from the Government on stronger sentencing. We want action. I also thank the shadow Minister for her support. We have had a really good debate, and I thank all Members for supporting the report. We need action now. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 is 10 years old and needs a lot of tightening up. We are a nation that loves animals, but unfortunately there are people out there who do not, and they must be dealt with strongly. All Members across the House have made that point clear this afternoon.
Finally, I thank the Kennel Club, the BVA, the all-party parliamentary group for animal welfare, the RSPCA, the SSPCA, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, Dogs Trust and the staff of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for helping to put the report together and for giving evidence. Following our report, I look forward to the Government taking even greater action than they already have.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes that current penalties for animal welfare offences in England are among the lowest in Europe; believes that while the Government’s plans for a new licensing regime for dogs in England is welcome the Government should consider a ban on the third party sale of dogs; and calls on the Government to increase the maximum penalty for animal welfare offences to five years, as recommended in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s Third Report, Animal welfare in England: domestic pets, HC 117.