I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of puppy smuggling.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate. I know that many Members, as well as my constituents, have deep concerns about this important issue. I thank all the individuals and bodies that sent me information relating to the debate, especially Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club, Battersea dogs home, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the British Veterinary Association and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
It is difficult to get an accurate picture of the scale of the problem, but Dogs Trust research suggests that the illegal import and sale of puppies is an underground issue worth tens of millions of pounds—perhaps up to £100 million—per year. Hundreds of puppies are intercepted at our ports each year, and that is just the tip of the iceberg; thousands more must slip through the net. Britain is a particularly attractive target for puppy smugglers because of the relatively high prices that many breeds command; breeds such as pugs, dachshunds and bulldogs fetch up to £1,500 each in the UK. Puppy smuggling gangs can make up to £35,000 a week from the trade. This industry is supported by people motivated entirely by money with a callous indifference to animal welfare.
Puppies as young as four weeks old are taken from their mothers in Hungary, Poland, Lithuania and elsewhere, and transported hundreds of miles in terrible conditions to British ports, often with little food and water. They are often transported using false pet passports, and they are frequently too young to have had the proper vaccinations. At ports, their false documents all too often are believed, and not enough border officials are trained to be able accurately to assess the age of a young puppy—if they are visually checked at all. Those young puppies are then sold on to often well-meaning but unsuspecting families, who of course fall in love with them the first time they set eyes on them. Only later, when the puppies succumb to the stress of their arduous journeys or are taken to a vet who ascertains their true age, do those families realise the problem. The puppies are sent on to quarantine, where they receive appropriate medical attention. That can cost families hundreds if not thousands of pounds before they can finally take the puppies home.
Rather than being sent back or put to sleep, as happened in the recent past, many puppies that are intercepted by officials at the border are taken under the wing of the Dogs Trust puppy pilot scheme, where they are quarantined and provided with appropriate medical treatment, paid for by Dogs Trust. We all appreciate that. Many of those puppies then find homes with families via the Dogs Trust network of rehoming and rescue centres, including a large one in my constituency. Despite the hundreds of interceptions, there are just a handful of prosecutions each year for puppy smuggling, which illustrates the challenges with bringing cases to court and the need for alternative deterrents, such as on-the-spot fines, which I shall come on to.
My hon. Friend raises prosecutions. A £500 fine was recently handed out in my constituency, yet huge amounts of money are made out of this industry. Under Operation Delphin, which has been operating at the port of Cairnryan in my constituency, more than 500 puppies have been seized and returned to puppy farms in southern Ireland in the past year. Does he welcome that huge success, and the fact that that operation has been extended for another year? He commended a long list of people—Dogs Trust and others—but we should also commend the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has led that enormously successful operation.
My hon. Friend raises very important points. Everyone acting on puppy welfare deserves a great deal of credit. He gave some fantastic examples, which we can learn from and should expand. He also mentioned Ireland, which is a particular problem. I have been contacted in the past week by many people who have highlighted border control between Ireland and Northern Ireland as an acute problem.
Clearly, no one wanted this situation to arise; it came about as an unintended consequence of the relaxation of the pet travel scheme in 2012, when changes were introduced to try to harmonise pet travel across Europe. Those included reducing the minimum age of entry from 10 months to just 15 weeks, which produced challenges, because it is difficult for anyone other than a trained vet accurately to ascertain the age of a very young puppy. The pet travel scheme was further amended in 2014, but the number of dogs entering the UK trebled between 2011 and 2016.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s support for the work that Dogs Trust has done, especially with the puppy pilot scheme, but does he share my view that if it is easier for people to move puppies, we need stronger penalties to ensure that there is a genuine deterrent to them doing so?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. Indeed, we should focus on on-the-spot fines and penalties. This trade is perpetrated for the purpose of making money, and we need to hit perpetrators in their wallets. I agree completely.
Since 2014, Dogs Trust has investigated the extent to which puppy dealers use the pet travel scheme as cover to illegally import puppies into the UK for sale. In July 2017, Dogs Trust completed its third undercover investigation of the trade, which was carried out in Lithuania and revealed some sobering findings. Dogs Trust found breeders openly supplying puppies under the legal age of 15 weeks, vets willing to falsify data on pet passports or sedate puppies for their journey through the border, and transporters willing to take under-age puppies into Britain. Dogs Trust obtained alarming footage of one such journey, in a van that carried four puppies for 29 hours in pet carriers stacked among other packages, with no food or ventilation. Those puppies were given water only twice. Dogs Trust also found Lithuanian breeders advertising puppies online for sale in the UK, and one case study showed a breeder who had advertised 40 puppies for sale.
The Minister is no doubt aware of a number of policy asks by bodies such as Dogs Trust. Although he has said previously that the UK carries out more pet checks at borders than many other EU nations, the fact remains that an increasing number of illegal puppies pass through the UK border undetected.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. Indeed, several recommendations can really be carried out only if and when—or rather when—we leave the EU, because at the moment we have to abide by certain conditions. Indeed, leaving the EU may enable us to be a little more active in this area. I will make a couple more points about that later.
If Government agencies could provide an enhanced presence at our ports, make more checks outside normal office hours and introduce mandatory visual checks at the border, we would both increase the likelihood of intercepting smuggled puppies and, I hope, disincentivise breeders from transporting puppies that are visibly under age. Visual checks are not always carried out. That was proved by Dogs Trust, which was able to smuggle a child’s toy dog through the British border on not one but two occasions without anyone noticing that it was not a real dog.
Other suggested changes include introducing on-the-spot fines, as Members have mentioned, perhaps to the value of the puppies seized, which may be more than £500—it may be £1,500 or more. Big fines would better reflect the seriousness of the crime.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important debate. I hear what he says about the various actions that can and should be taken, but does he agree that there is an onus on owners, too, to ensure that puppies come from a legitimate source?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and has stolen the end of my speech in some ways. This is the key point. One of the purposes of the debate is not only to make policy recommendations but to help educate the public, who are innocently buying puppies without full knowledge of where they came from. The onus is on them as well to take action, and I will make a couple of suggestions for changes in a moment.
As well as on-the-spot fines, other areas for changes could include such things as further co-ordination and co-operation between UK and eastern and central European law enforcement, Government agencies and Departments and of course veterinary bodies, and especially a crackdown on those vets who supply fake passports for pets. The all-party parliamentary group for animal welfare identified that puppies are at their most desirable between the ages of about two and three months, so by raising the minimum age to, say, six months, we could reduce the incentive to import young puppies. Raising that minimum age would also make it easier for border agents to assess the age of puppies more accurately.
Some wish to go further and ban the third-party sale of puppies altogether. There are some valid arguments for that. That would allow purchases to be made only through responsible breeders and official rehoming centres, effectively banning the sale of puppies through pet shops, for example. The Government have already committed to introducing new regulations for dog breeding. I hope they will consider all options—another option suggested by many is formal recognition of the Kennel Club’s assured breeder scheme.
We must seek to avoid the unintended consequences that further regulation could bring, such as encouraging an underground market or increasing the burden on those who are fairly, legally and professionally breeding in the UK.
Indeed—another important point, which is often overlooked. When I ask the Minister to look at all options, that is precisely the kind of thing I hope he will consider, and I know he is considering. As was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), one of the key purposes of the debate is to raise the awareness of the onus that is on those considering purchasing a puppy.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that, in calling the debate, he is highlighting the explosive growth in social media platforms, which have driven demand where people are looking at dogs as fashion accessories? I hope he will touch on dealing with that as well, because that is undoubtedly driving this despicable trade.
My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. There are 8.5 million dog owners in the UK today, and that number is growing. The reasons why people wish to purchase dogs, and very young puppies in particular, are many and varied. The vast majority have perfectly honourable reasons, but some people view them as fashion accessories. I think we all question that kind of motivation.
However, anyone looking to buy a puppy needs to ask certain key questions. Where did the puppy come from? Does it have a passport? Has it had appropriate vaccinations? Of course, one of the most obvious things is: can we see the puppy’s parents? That immediately gives an indication as to whether the puppy was born locally. That does not mean that everyone is questionable, but it is a very strong indication.
I very much support what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he agree that there is also the issue of adequate resources being allocated to both the Border and Immigration Agency and local authorities to ensure that regulations are properly enforced? That is an issue that we cannot get away from.
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair and valid comment about prioritising resources. It is the responsibility of all of us in politics to consider that carefully every single day. We also need to recognise other bodies, including the likes of Dogs Trust, which finance some of the solutions. We should applaud that. The Government need to play a role, but so do many other bodies and groups as well as individuals.
I am aware that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) mentioned, some of the suggestions are reliant on changes in the law that we may or may not be able to make until we leave the EU. I am sure the Minister will comment on some of those later. There are some things we can do now, and there are some things that we may not be able to do for a couple of years, but I hope we can pay attention to all of them and plan for the future now, not just when it occurs.
I know the Government are aware of all the issues I and others have raised today and I appreciate, and am proud of the fact, that they have made many changes and raised issues around animal welfare recently. That is to be applauded. I respectfully request, therefore, that the Minister and his colleagues carefully consider the various suggestions and actions that will come out of the debate. I look forward to hearing his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing this important debate on puppy smuggling. It is a subject close to my heart; indeed, I sponsored a debate on puppy farming in the previous parliamentary Session. I am therefore pleased in one sense that this debate is happening, but in another sense I am displeased that it has to happen. However, I congratulate him on making it happen.
Puppy smuggling is enabled—even encouraged—by third-party sellers such as pet shops and puppy dealers, which are vessels for the irresponsible, low-welfare commercial dog breeding, in the UK and abroad, commonly described as puppy farming. Endorsing any commercial puppy movement from abroad to the UK conveniently hands responsibility for any animal welfare standards designed to protect breeding dogs on puppy farms, and laws on puppy transportation, to the country of origin—well out of our control. This is clearly unacceptable, and can only encourage an even greater lack of breeder traceability, transparency and accountability than is found in legal puppy farming in the UK.
Putting an end to the legal sale of puppies through third-party agents licensed by the Government as pet shops—anyone in the business of commercially buying and selling puppies without their mums—and not just from high street premises, will go a long way towards eradicating the unacceptable activity of puppy smuggling. Little improvement can be made while this “legitimate” outlet—the market—exists.
The hon. Lady makes an extremely good point and pre-empts a point that I was going to mention later. I thank her for that excellent contribution.
The decision to implement a wholesale ban now rests with the Government, but despite the ongoing efforts of many wonderful parliamentarians, some on the Minister’s own party’s Benches, who have, for years, repeatedly raised this issue, the Government stubbornly continue to resist a ban. As recently as 17 October, the Minister told the House:
“We do not believe that a ban on third-party sellers is necessary”—[Official Report, 17 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 820.]
That brief dismissal is unacceptable. It shows complete disregard for the suffering of the dogs and puppies, and for the emotional—and often financial—impact that has on owners. I would like to see the Minister tell those owners whose puppies die within a few days of purchase that banning the trade is not necessary, or visiting a licenced commercial breeding establishment, here or abroad, that sells smuggled or legally puppy-farmed puppies without their mums through pet shops and dealers and then saying honestly that it is necessary for those poor dogs to lead that kind of half-life. It is not necessary.
There is no possible justification for this appalling industry that sells pups from puppy farms, whether they are transported from abroad or bred in the UK. We cannot allow that to continue to be legally acceptable, because it cannot be done without causing some degree of harm. We all know that the Government know that, too. Moments after reassuring the Commons that a ban was not necessary and that it was better to aim for more robust licensing, the Minister effectively revealed that the Government already knew that that was not enough. Furthermore, he told the House not only that a ban was not necessary, but that
“that view is shared by many stakeholders.” —[Official Report, 17 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 820.]
Only two—Dogs Trust and Blue Cross—have made their views known and continue to refuse to support a ban on puppies sold in pet shops. Will the Minister reveal who the “many stakeholders” are who do not believe a ban on third-party sales is necessary?
If an activity is licensed, it is supposed to be safe. The licence is supposed to reassure the public that the trader is to be trusted. To the public, it is an official legal stamp of approval. Yet the Government have no confidence that so-called robust licensing for third-party sellers will offer effective protection. By continuing to advise purchasers to buy only from reputable breeders, and to see the puppy with its mother in the place where it was born, the Government are essentially contradicting themselves and telling purchasers not to buy from those “robustly” licensed third-party sellers.
It takes an incredible amount of willpower to walk away when confronted by the reality of a puppy that seems to be in an unsatisfactory situation. The Minister said that consumer pressure would drive down the sale of puppies from third parties such as pet shops, but it is completely unrealistic to expect puppy buyers to separate the wheat from the chaff at the moment of purchase, nor should that burden rest with them. They will inevitably think of the puppy first and the consequences later. The British public should not have to try to make sense of the fact that Government guidance recommends seeing a puppy with its mother, while the Government are content to permit puppies to be sold without their mothers by third-party sellers in licensed pet shops.
The Government’s priority is to protect people by protecting puppies. Today, let us all send out a strong cross-party message that there is no justification for the existence of puppy smuggling, farming or trafficking—whatever hon. Members want to label it—and that removing their primary market is the first step toward eliminating that horrendous trade. Dogs and their people deserve better. I urge the Minister to please do the right thing. It would be a timely move, with the Christmas rush for puppies about to rear its ugly head. I urge him to commit to banning the third-party trade in puppies and removing the legal market for smuggled pups.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing the debate.
I will be honest: when my wife first suggested it, I was not a particular fan of having a puppy come into my family; I could think of all the problems of having a brand-new puppy around the house. But my wife is a determined woman, and six years later we are very proud to have Murphy the Dalmatian, an integral part of our family. I mention Krystle and Murphy because I wanted to get them both on to the official record of the House of Commons at some point, and today’s debate has allowed me to do that.
While many of us celebrate and enjoy having a puppy, and in later years a dog, as part of our family, unfortunately many have a very difficult experience because of the problems we have heard about today. Of those puppies intercepted by the Dogs Trust’s puppy pilot, 469 have been cared for in quarantine, and 5.2% died while in quarantine. Those statistics shed a light on the problems that hon. Members have mentioned.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire that the problem has arisen out of something that was supposed to be good. The pet travel scheme was introduced in 2012 to allow people to travel around Europe with their dogs—to take them on holiday, rather than having to worry about leaving them at home—but there have been unintended consequences. Dogs Trust is on its third report on the issue, and there are still serious problems.
There have been positive developments. I welcome the advances made in Lithuania in 2015. Now, to get a passport, any dogs must be signed off by an official state vet, but that has not solved the problem completely and there are still issues with Poland, Lithuania and others. I welcome the fact that there is some movement, but it is not enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Jack) mentioned punishments. The latest report by Dogs Trust gives an example of a breeder in Poland with potentially 20 breeding bulldog bitches. The bitches have four puppies in their litter each year, resulting in potentially 80 puppies coming to the UK. Each pup can be sold for £1,500. The breeder’s turnover, from one puppy farm in one country, could therefore be £120,000, yet the punishment is a couple of hundred pounds. That does not send out the right message. I also welcome my hon. Friend’s point about the agencies. The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is doing great work in Scotland, but there is a lot more we can do.
I realise that time is short. I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate, and I am interested to hear the experiences of others. Many hon. Members here, on both sides of the House, competed in the Westminster dog of the year competition just last week. Unfortunately, Murphy and I could not take part because it is 584 miles from Elgin to London, and I would not put my dog through that, yet people buy farmed puppies that travel across Europe, for potentially 30 hours and over thousands of miles, followed by an onward journey in the UK. That is a message that we must get across. There is a message for Ministers, for the puppy breeders and for some of the people who buy these puppies.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I declare an interest as the proud owner of Rocky the wonder dog, Westminster dog of the year 2017. I also put on record that, as Rocky is a handsome chocolate Labrador with a fine pedigree, we wanted a mini-me and, on a number of occasions, we introduced him to female Labradors in the hope that we could breed from him. Sadly, after four encounters with the opposite sex, we realised that he is too much of a romantic, as he just kept licking their faces, so we put that hope to one side.
More seriously, it is both shocking and disappointing that West Yorkshire is one of the worst places to be a dog. It is the worst county outside London for animal cruelty, with the second-highest number of complaints to the authorities—7,920, beaten only by London with 11,812. Puppy farming is part of that larger picture of cruelty to animals. On top of the home-grown, unlicensed UK trade, an extra 40,000 dogs per year come into the country from Ireland through Holyhead and Fishguard. Puppies from further afield in Europe, usually coming through Dover and the channel tunnel, are stored in pods until buyers are found, and then placed in fake homes to appear legitimate. Fake papers are then arranged to reassure buyers that the dog is genuine. Sadly, nearly 50% of people who bought a puppy last year did not even see it with its mother or in its breeding environment.
We know, do we not, that puppy farmers are not dog lovers? They do not care about puppies’ welfare. Why should they, when profits through the unlicensed trade can exceed £2 million per year? Without proper guidelines, that can only get worse. With high profits and a low chance of being caught or prosecuted, there is an even greater incentive. The RSPCA estimates in its puppy report “Sold a pup?” that 430,000 puppies come from unlicensed UK breeders each year. The desire for designer and handbag dogs has fuelled that rise, with only 70,000 puppies—10% of those sold annually in Britain—entering the market through legitimate breeders.
The cruelty with which these poor animals are handled is truly heart-breaking: four-week-old puppies, with umbilical cords still attached, subjected to a 30-hour journey; puppies sedated to smuggle them across the border without documentation, put into baskets with cling film over the top and only a small hole to breathe through; puppies observed vomiting or eating their own faeces during a packed minibus journey from Lithuania. While I am sure that all parties welcome the recent tightening of the law on irresponsible and criminal breeders by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the number of prosecutions is far too low and the lack of visual checks at ferry ports and borders is unacceptable. We can go still further to protect these innocent animals.
I draw to the hon. Lady’s attention the fact that the problem is not just in Europe or Lithuania, but very much in southern Ireland. Only this summer, a father and son drowned off the coast of Galloway with a boat full of puppies, smuggling them across the Irish sea. Does she acknowledge that we must pay attention to southern Ireland and the puppy farms? Those farms operate on an agricultural basis, with bitches stored in cages and fed with automated machines, and puppies coming by boat and by car, 40 in a van. As we said earlier, 40 in a van can bring in £40,000. Yet the fine is £500.
I could not agree more—it is despicable. They are taking that risk and are prepared to go to sea because the profits are so great. We have to stop that. We have to ensure that all puppies are microchipped. If people see anything suspicious, they must have the opportunity and the wherewithal to report it, and Dogs Trust has an excellent website where that can be done.
We need, as a Parliament, to work with our European partners, including border and veterinary authorities. We also need to think about signing the RSPCA’s “puppy contract” between buyer and seller, which states that they have met or will meet their obligations to puppy welfare. As we know, Christmas is around the corner, and I urge anybody wanting a puppy to be vigilant. No one wants to bring a beautiful puppy into a family, only for that puppy to fall ill or even die because it has been bred by unscrupulous breeders who care only for profit. I encourage the Government to think again about further tightening the legislation and banning third-party puppy sales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for bringing this important debate to the Chamber.
One thing we have not fully taken on board during the debate is supply and demand. We are clearly not breeding enough puppies in this country to fulfil the required demand, which is sad. I am a former member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and we held an inquiry just last year that I will come on to in a second. I was very much against puppy farming. We have just heard a very eloquent description of puppy farming and the reasons why we should be against it.
I have been a dog lover all my life, and I declare that I, too, am a dog owner. Travelling from Wales is not quite as far as from Scotland, but my wife would not let me bring it; she is the boss, as is the wife of my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) in his house, I am sure. As a dog lover, I was appalled to see a puppy farm. What struck me was that the dogs could not be dogs. Living in the countryside, we have always allowed our dogs to run freely—under strict supervision—where there is no stock around. That is for another day, but it was a sad experience. I have changed. I am all for banning third-party sales. One of the biggest problems is not just puppy farming but the importing of puppies. I think we are all saddened because we realise that this is big business. It is a massive business out there, and we need to tackle it as quickly as we can.
During the previous Session, when I sat on that Committee, we published a report on animal welfare, which looked into this matter in great detail. I have a lot to say, but I will not be able to get it out in my remaining three or four minutes. However, I will just pick out a couple of the report’s conclusions. They were primarily on the failures that allowed puppies entry into the UK—enforcement checks at ports and intelligence sharing between agencies. This is a massive issue, but it is easily remedied; that is the sad thing. The Government need to pay a little more attention to this matter. The pet travel scheme—PETS—has been mentioned already. Under PETS, the minimum age for entry into the UK is 15 weeks, with vaccination not before 12 weeks followed by a three-week incubation period. However, as Dogs Trust told us during that inquiry, the data on passports were being falsified to evade contravening PETS.
In a former life, before coming to this place, I spent a few years running a veterinary group. It was always distressing to see children and dog owners leaving after their dogs, including puppies, had been put down, through no fault of their own. They had paid a lot of money and taken on what was a fashionable breed and, sadly, they left the veterinary surgery without that dog, because it had died through an illness it had picked up on the way to this country. That is not acceptable. People may think they have found a very good deal or possibly a bargain for the dog of their lives, but unless the Government put the proper controls in place, we will sadly see a great disservice being done to the people of this country.
The British Veterinary Association—I declare at this point that I am an honorary associate—has scrupulous enforcement procedures here, but it was not the vets in this country that allowed those animals to come in; it was vets from outside, from southern Ireland or on the continent. I ask the Minister to look at that when he responds, not just today but in future. I understand that time is against us, so I will leave it there. Once again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire for introducing the debate. It is really important that people in this place fully take this on board.
It is a pleasure to speak on this subject. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on bringing the debate to the Chamber. I have had dogs probably all my life; from a very early age, I cannot remember not having a puppy or a dog alongside me. I use springer spaniels for hunting purposes; way back in other days, it was either collies or Jack Russell terriers. I was recently telling a friend that I remember having a Jack Russell terrier that slept at the end of the bed before I got married. When I got married, I came home and the wee dog trotted down to the bedroom, and I said, “Not tonight, mate; you’re up in the kitchen. Sandra’s in the bedroom now.” Things change, and the wee dog had to realise that life was not the same as it used to be. Dogs were very much part of the family; that is how it was in my house.
I have been contacted by a number of constituents regarding this sensitive issue. I agree that there must be more regulation. I am glad to see the Minister in his place; I know he is a man who understands these issues. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that we will all be heartened to hear his reply. It will hopefully mean more legislation or looking at more regulation. I believe there needs to be regulation to protect these puppies from people who have not thought of the puppies’ welfare but only of lining their pockets, as other Members have said. We have strong legislation in Northern Ireland. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs—the agricultural body in Northern Ireland—operates a statutory scheme for dog-breeding establishments and continues to work with all key stakeholders to promote safe breeding at all times.
DAERA also shares information with the environment Department in Dublin, which has responsibility for this, as well as enforcement bodies on the UK mainland. There needs to be better information sharing, especially pertaining to sales from Scotland to Northern Ireland and vice versa. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Jack), who has just left the Chamber, referred to one case of which I am personally very aware. Dogs Trust, the RSPCA and other bodies have suggested that puppies entering the UK via puppy smuggling from abroad simply should not be sold if the legal third-party trade—without the mum and away from the location it was bred—is banned, thus simply removing the market for them. I say to the Minister, very gently and honestly, that there are methods that could be put in place very quickly. It has been suggested that there must be a dedicated campaign aimed at the public to educate them on the signs.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. People see the cuddly wee dog and just want to hold it in their arms and be friends with it. It wants to be friends with them; the great thing about a dog is that it will always wag its tail and want to be friends, no matter what happens. So yes, we need to be educated on that. It has also been suggested that there must be a dedicated campaign to educate the public so that they can anonymously report to the authorities, in an attempt to cease this illegal trade. It is important that we do that as well. Only policing by consent—public scrutiny, with prospective puppy buyers visiting the breeders and insisting on seeing the pup interacting with its mum and littermates—supported by new, improved legislation can ever make the impact necessary to improve welfare standards, traceability, transparency and, importantly, accountability. We really need that in place.
There is a possibility that some underestimate the level of puppy smuggling. I agree that there are people out there who do not really understand it in its entirety, but I believe that those here in the Chamber, and to be fair, perhaps many who are not, understand it very well. I put on the record, for the purposes of Hansard, RSPCA figures that suggest there could be at least 700,000, and as many as 1.9 million, animals illegally sold annually. The RSPCA further highlights that poor breeding, dealing and trading practices can have a significant, long-term impact on animal welfare, not just for the young being sold but their parents, resulting in animals having chronic health and behaviour problems and dissatisfied consumers seeing their newly bought puppy suffer from illness and, in some cases, even dying soon after purchase.
The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) referred to Labradors. As someone who has had hunting dogs all his life, and still has them, I am aware of a malady within Labradors—especially the hunting variety—called hip dysplasia. It is a hereditary thing. If somebody really knew their business, they would check for that beforehand to make sure that a Labrador was not affected. In the past three years, the British puppy market has changed, with the number of imported puppies increasing. More than 60,000 puppies a year come from places such as the Republic of Ireland, Lithuania and Hungary, leading to increased disease risks and criminal gangs earning up to £2 billion.
I received an email from a vet who expressed the opinion that implementing much stricter rules would make impulse purchasing more difficult, as people would be unable to see a cute puppy online and buy on a whim. That would be hugely beneficial. My wife Sandra has been a volunteer in the local Assisi shelter for many years—I think it is 11 years. She often tells me horror stories of young dogs that are no longer puppy-like and have lost their appeal, which is when people abandon them and hand them in. This should not be allowed to happen. That is why I, along with others, ask the Minister to implement changes soon and make a difference.
I will keep my speech short, to allow other Members to speak. I merely want to highlight the issue of social media driving an unprecedented demand for young puppies, which are viewed by some people as accessories.
We need to get a message across to the public. I highlighted a statistic in my intervention earlier. It is also the case that one in five people spend no time at all researching the origin of the puppy they buy, having seen it on Instagram or another social media platform. Some pups are purchased in 20 minutes or less. How on earth can someone ascertain the origin of a puppy on that basis? Statistics also show that almost one in six puppies purchased in 20 minutes or less experience illness or ongoing veterinary treatment.
The level of public awareness is clearly not what it needs to be at the moment, despite the wonderful efforts of the Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club and other organisations. The Government need to act to address this issue. We can all make these points in the Chamber, but it needs to be backed up by action. Bringing in extra fines will enable us to better resource enforcement facilities, in order to protect these puppies. I very much welcome the points that have been made and hope the Government will look at strengthening the law.
I hope Members will forgive me for putting on record the name of my own wonderful rescue dog, Phoebe, who is a Jack Russell cross—I could not let this moment go by without mentioning her. She was a worthy competitor against the dog of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), although Phoebe was more interested in stealing the bacon sandwiches from the table than in competing like the hon. Lady’s lovely dog. I congratulate her on her win. That competition was a great opportunity for us all to highlight this issue.
I am glad to be able to make a contribution to the debate, and I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for securing it.
The overproduction of puppies and the smuggling of them from abroad raises serious and disturbing questions. It is incumbent on all of us to give due consideration to the ethical sourcing of all pets, as was so eloquently set out by the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean). Sadly, where there is demand and money to be made, there are always unscrupulous elements waiting to meet that demand, who will find ways around the law to import animals illegally from breeders in other countries. It is essential that awareness is raised of the risks involved.
As the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) pointed out, the money that can be made relative to the punishments levied demonstrates that we need greater deterrence for offenders. There is a real risk to puppies’ health. How a puppy is bred and reared, especially in its early weeks, influences its health, welfare and socialisation throughout its life. That is why the standard and quality of breeding practices matter so much. As we have heard, smuggling often involves long-distance transportation at a very young age. That can give rise to severe anxiety, stress and fear, which can have a huge impact on the quality of the rest of the dog’s life.
Sadly, far too many commercial breeders, back-street breeders and imported puppy sellers are driven purely by profit, and the health and welfare of the animals is not a priority. We must work towards an end to third-party dealers, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) and others have said. That would help to stop unscrupulous breeders. The legislation must also be drafted properly. We heard of the damaging changes to the pet travel scheme in 2012 that resulted in an influx of puppies being illegally imported into the UK for sale from central and eastern Europe, as well as Ireland, as corrupt breeders abused the system. Such mistakes must not be inadvertently compounded; they must be comprehensively addressed.
We need new resolution and determination to end the illegal trafficking of pets—something the European Parliament called for only last year. As we have heard, that involves microchipping pets across member states of the EU, because harmonising the databases will make it much easier. We know that criminal gangs take advantage of the lack of harmonisation, so that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Disturbingly, puppies are the third most valuable illegally traded commodity in the EU after drugs and arms. That should give us pause for thought. It is increasingly important that we work with our European partners to prevent the illegal trade in puppies. It is a concern that Brexit may put a bureaucratic strain on or barriers against such co-operation. If that happens, the puppy smugglers will win. We need to strike a blow at the very heart of this cruel and vile trade. As we have heard today, the political will for that exists across the House. I urge the Minister not to delay and to work with Members across the House for a resolution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. This is a really important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing it. We have had important contributions from Members on both sides of the Chamber. I would like to specifically congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on Rocky winning the Westminster dog of the year show. I was there, and he was absolutely fabulous. I congratulate all Members who brought their dogs along.
It has been said that Britain has the best animal welfare in the world. The last Labour Government’s Animal Welfare Act 2006 was undoubtedly a landmark piece of legislation, but if we want to maintain our position as the world leader when it comes to animal health and welfare, we need to build on the foundations laid by that Act. As any MP will tell you, animal welfare is the single biggest issue that comes into our postbags, by a long way. There is a huge public appetite for robust action to improve the lives of animals and to strengthen animal protections in our laws. We are a nation of animal lovers and we want to see the animals here well loved and living happy lives. Puppy smuggling is just one of many serious animal welfare issues we read about in our postbags, and I have received hundreds of emails about it.
It is obvious that the humane treatment of animals should be a benchmark for a civilised society, and we as parliamentarians must send out a strong message that the illegal importation of puppies is a cruel practice that must stop. The animal and plant health agency, alongside the Dogs Trust, has done a lot of crucial work to tackle the smuggling of puppies, and that is to be welcomed.
That is an incredibly important point. One good thing about the Westminster dog of the year show was that there were dogs there for rehoming. That was very important.
It is time for the Government to act on this. We need to look at how to drive up standards for online advertising and raise awareness of rogue pet dealers among the general public. We also need to ensure we have a robust pet travel scheme in operation. I am a dog owner, and I have long believed that we must do more to block wholesale puppy imports that abuse the pet travel scheme and ensure that all puppies have legitimate documentation. One thing that came out of the Dogs Trust’s work was that chips were being put in collars and then reused. We need to be very clear about the tricks being played.
Government agencies need the resources to tackle puppy smuggling by enforcing the current legislation. We need to ensure we have sufficient border guards, and there needs to be greater international co-operation between police forces, to crack down on this problem internationally. I also would like to see the Government commit to banning the third-party sale of dogs, which would help to drive down demand for smuggled puppies. Dogs should be available only from licensed, regulated breeders or approved rehoming organisations. Unfortunately, the current legislation does not protect the welfare of all dogs or the interests of all consumers, so the only solution to protect the welfare of puppies is to ban third-party sales entirely.
International studies have shown 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. As we know, puppies continue to be bred in large numbers in central and eastern Europe and in Ireland, sometimes in horrific conditions. Responsible breeders do not sell puppies through third parties. The third-party licensed pet shop market depends on and sustains that 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, as we have heard, far exceed the penalties. Availability may artificially inflate demand, so reducing the supply of cheap, poorly bred puppies from dealers and smugglers will promote a more responsible buying culture.
When we bought our dog, Max, another chocolate labrador, we knew how to find a responsible breeder, but not everyone does. It is critical that we protect the public from irresponsible breeders and help people to make responsible purchases, because animal welfare must come before profit. Last week, the Minister said that prospective puppy buyers should always insist on seeing the puppy interacting with its mum in the place where it was born. That advice is inconsistent with the ongoing legality of third-party sales, as it concedes that neither animals nor consumers can be protected by the regulations imposed on the industry.
I do not think it too ambitious to want to move on and to ask the Government to do more. Animal welfare must not be swept under the carpet or undercut, so I ask the Minister to commit today to continuing to show his understanding of the needs of puppies and do everything he can to stamp out this appalling trade.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing the debate. I know, based on the number of hon. Members present, that people care deeply about this issue. Hon. Members who have attended similar debates in recent years will know that, both as a Back Bencher and as the Minister responsible for companion animals, I have championed this cause and tried to make improvements, particularly to the legislation on the breeding of puppies —an issue to which I shall return.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire pointed out, puppy smuggling is an abhorrent practice and is partly driven by demand for certain breeds in this country. We need to ensure greater public awareness of these things. If a person is told that someone wants to meet them at a motorway service station to sell them a puppy, that should set alarm bells ringing that something is not right. Everyone has a role to play in solving this problem, but in the time I have, I shall restrict my comments to what the Government are trying to do to improve things.
First, I shall explain a bit about what is required now. Under our current regulations, predominantly shaped by EU law, any dogs imported for commercial reasons—
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the Government’s brave and right decision to increase sentences for animal cruelty, which will certainly help to deal with the scourge of puppy smuggling. Secondly, may I encourage him to use the opportunities of Brexit to bring about reform of the 2012 legislation, to which he has just referred, so that we can clamp down more firmly on puppy smuggling? Thirdly, may I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) and encourage the Minister to encourage other people to take on rescue dogs? I have seen in my own family how even very difficult dogs can become wonderful pets with the right family.
My hon. Friend and I have worked together on European issues in the past, so we come from a similar position on that. A number of hon. Members have mentioned their dogs. I had a pet dog called Mono, a particularly erratic border collie, which came from the RSPCA, and I would always recommend that as the first choice for people.
As I was saying, under the existing regulations, we have something called the Balai directive, under which all commercial dogs are supposed to come in. There has been growth in the number of dogs coming in under those commercial provisions, but also, following changes to PETS—commonly called the pet passport scheme—in 2012, we have seen significant growth in the number of dogs and puppies coming in under that pet travel scheme.
There are really three potential problems of which we need to be aware. First, are there people who are flouting the system altogether, not having any kind of passport or documentation and simply smuggling puppies in in the most literal sense? I have asked that question many times and I can give hon. Members some reassurance. Border Force obviously carries out lots of checks at the border for people who are people trafficking, for drugs, and for customs issues. Whenever they come across dogs that are hidden and do not have the documentation, they alert the local trading standards officers so that they can take action, but we do not get many of those cases. In the last 10 months, there has been one case of people coming in with no documentation at all.
The second issue is whether there are people bringing puppies into the UK on the PETS travel scheme, which is supposed to be for people’s pets, with the intention of selling them commercially. That is where there is greater concern and where our efforts have been focused.
The final issue is whether the existing commercial arrangements go far enough, because the truth is that checks under the Balai directive are more thorough than under the PETS travel scheme, but the difference is not that great, and applying that may not achieve very much.
I want to let hon. Members know that we have been working with Dogs Trust and the Animal and Plant Health Agency in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Two years ago, following a similar debate to this, I asked them to get involved to toughen our approach at the border, and I can say that where we have come across examples of fraudulent vets, predominantly in east European countries, issuing fake documentation, we have taken action. For instance, the chief veterinary officer has written to authorities in Hungary, Latvia, Poland and Slovakia to highlight in particular the problem of under-age puppies. In January 2017, the Hungarian authorities wrote to advise us that they had responded to our letter and taken action, including police investigations of the veterinary practices and transporters involved. In July 2015, the Lithuanian authorities introduced legislation meaning that passports can now be issued only by a vet from their state veterinary service. Where we have seen problems, we have acted, which has led to change in some of these countries.
As I said, we are working with Dogs Trust to carry out more physical checks at our borders and particularly at the port of Dover. I thank Dogs Trust for the work that it has done in helping us to put the puppies that are seized into quarantine and, hopefully, find homes for them. Following that work, which started in December 2015—two years ago—in response to a similar debate to this, we have seized 649 non-compliant animals. The Animal and Plant Health Agency has played a leading role in that by helping to age the puppies involved. In most cases, the people are single, one-time offenders. I have asked whether we have a small number of repeat offenders. That appears not to be the case, but we are taking action on that front.
A number of hon. Members mentioned third-party sales. When I was the Minister responsible for companion animals, we took action on that. We have completed a consultation. We are bringing forward regulations that will ensure that anyone selling pets, whether online or in a pet shop, will need a licence, and they will have to abide by a statutory animal welfare code for dogs. We have introduced in that some provision to have “earned recognition” for groups such as the Kennel Club that run their own schemes.
The changes that we have made, both to the threshold before which people need a licence to breed puppies in the first place and to put it beyond doubt that anyone selling a puppy needs a licence and must comply with the dog welfare code, will deal with this problem. We should also recognise the work done by groups such as the Pet Advertising Advisory Group, to prevent people from going on and selling if they have high-velocity sales. A lot of progress has been made there.
I want to touch on the options that we will have when we leave the European Union. There is obviously a chance to look at these things afresh. We could, for instance, review the approach that we take on commercial animals so that we tighten the restrictions for those coming in—tighten the requirements. We could introduce more checks and restrict the ability of pets to travel from other European countries. If we think that a European country has weak authorities, we could address that by putting a particular restriction on it. It will be open to us to start to consider these things once we leave the European Union, but while we are in the EU, we must focus on doing the work we are doing to tackle this problem at the border and seize these under-age puppies.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of puppy smuggling.