Monday 21 May 2018
[Ian Austin in the Chair]
Sale of Puppies
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 213451 relating to the sale of puppies by pet shops and commercial third-party dealers.
The proposed ban is known as Lucy’s law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin, in this immensely popular debate on a petition that collected more than 100,000 signatures in its first 13 days. It now has almost 150,000 signatures, with four months still remaining, making it probably the most popular dog welfare petition that the Government have seen in all time. I congratulate all involved in the writing of the petition and its promotion, including its creator, Beverley Cuddy, who is in the Public Gallery today. The petition is popular not just with the electorate, our constituents, but with Members, almost 100 of whom from all parties—when I last checked—had signed early-day motion 695 on Lucy’s law, and all proudly support the call for an immediate ban on puppies being sold by commercial dealers and pet shops.
Lucy’s law was launched in December 2007 at a Commons reception hosted by vet and campaigner, Marc Abraham, founder of Pup Aid—who is also in the Public Gallery—and supported by the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). Lucy was a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, a victim of the puppy farm system, used for breeding for many years with no regard for her health or welfare.
Media and celebrity support for Lucy’s law has been quite staggering, with titles such as The Mirror, The Sun, the Daily Mail and The Guardian all backing the campaign, as well as mainstream TV shows, such as “The One Show”, ITV’s “Good Morning Britain” and “This Morning”, and “The Wright Stuff”, and Sky News, Channel 4, and Channel 5 all giving support. Popular figures behind the campaign—it is not just politicians and constituents, but many celebrities—include Ricky Gervais, Brian May, Peter Egan, Sue Perkins, Clare Balding, Rachel Riley, Sarah Millican, Eamonn Holmes, Kay Burley, Gail Porter, Deborah Meaden, Jon Richardson, Victoria Stilwell and many others. The campaign is receiving a huge amount of attention.
Significantly, the next generation of social media influencers has also embraced Lucy’s law, with support from the UK’s top vloggers such as Zoella and online giant UNILAD, which has even made its own documentary about the campaign.
I strongly support a ban on third-party puppy and kitten sales. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be very useful for those people getting a dog for the first time to have a basic information pamphlet, pointing to where they can get help? That would do a lot to promote animal welfare.
That is a very worthwhile suggestion. No one should rush into getting a dog or any pet; it should be something people think about in detail. Equally, when they make that decision, they should not make an impulse purchase of any dog from any source.
A ban on third-party sales has also gained much support from the most well-respected animal welfare organisations in the UK and beyond—the list is impressive.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his introduction to the debate. With others, I very much support the campaign behind ensuring a ban on third-party puppy sales. Cats Protection has made the point that such a ban should apply to kittens as well. Does he agree with that?
I was wondering how to find a link to mention my cat Porridge in the debate—the hon. Gentleman has provided it. I think there should be such a ban. Interestingly, the Government consultation was on puppies and kittens, while the petition is clearly about puppies. There is a broader issue there and I support him on that.
The organisations supporting the ban include the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Battersea, the Kennel Club—
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his introduction to this important debate. Will he confirm that there has been some misunderstanding out there that this petition would actually prevent charities from helping to move on dogs? That is not the case at all; it would strengthen their hand.
I shall come to that point in my speech, but that is exactly the position as I see it too. I cannot see how rehoming can be confused with illicit dog sales. They are simply not compatible.
To continue the list of organisations, it also includes IFAW—the International Fund for Animal Welfare—Cats Protection, as was mentioned, Mayhew, the Humane Society International, the National Animal Welfare Trust, All Dogs Matter, Pup Aid, CARIAD, or Care and Respect Includes All Dogs, Canine Action UK, the Karlton Index and so on. Lucy’s law is pretty widely supported by just about every relevant organisation.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the debate and everyone on their work in getting all those signatures. Does he agree that one reason for the policy’s popularity is that it not only makes good sense from an animal protection point of view, but it is much easier to enforce than the existing situation? In other words, far more people would be there to enforce a ban—not just the local councils, but the RSPCA, the police and trading standards—so it would be much easier to do so.
I agree with the hon. Lady. She makes a good point, which I shall come on to in my speech. It seems so obvious that enforcing a ban is far easier and cheaper than a licensing system with more bureaucracy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for introducing the debate. In addition to the worthy organisations that he has just read out, a group of MPs came to the same conclusion back in 2016, when the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs unanimously supported a report—
Not everyone agreed.
I am sure that the hon. Lady agrees that we should have reached a conclusion, and I am sure she has changed her mind since.
Yes, I was intrigued to see the EFRA Committee report. We are covering a lot of old ground, but progress has been made and I welcome the work of the Committee in the early stages.
The hon. Gentleman is being extremely generous with his time. I support the ban, but does he agree that the objection that is sometimes made to it—that the trade would go underground—is wholly bogus? The idea that prospective loving pet owners would suddenly start trawling the dark web is wholly far-fetched and a specious objection.
Indeed. I shall make a similar point later. We cannot compare the seeking out and purchasing of a puppy or any family pet to love with the purchasing of arms, ammunition or drugs on the dark net, as some do. It is a completely different ball game.
A ban was in fact recommended to the Government in a 2014 e-petition debate, by the EFRA Committee in 2016, as we heard, and more recently by the manifesto of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation. Sadly, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ignored all three calls and favoured a licensing regime instead. Notably, however, a Lucy’s law is also supported by the Institute of Licensing.
For the record, about four or five members of the EFRA Committee voted against those particular recommendations of the 2016 report. As everyone knows, we need an ethical marketplace for the breeding and sale of puppies. Demand far outstrips supply in the UK. Surely, if any such measure were to work—it would be a dramatic measure—it would need to be underpinned by the proper regulation of rehoming organisations and by fully transparent registration and licensing of all organisations that breed or sell dogs. That is not what we have at the moment.
I thank the hon. Lady for her clarification. I shall come on to many of those points as my speech develops, addressing them in turn.
One of the reasons why a number of people on the EFRA Committee chose not to back the overall recommendations of the 2016 report was the position that was then taken by the RSPCA, one of the country’s great animal welfare organisations. It has, however, since changed its position, and it now supports Lucy’s law, largely as a consequence of campaigning by people such as Marc Abraham and his team. I want to put that on the record—the reasons for the rejection have since gone, and the RSPCA is now very much on board, as I understand it.
That point is not included in my speech, so I am grateful for the additional clarification.
Lucy’s law calls for an immediate ban on all commercial third-party sales of dogs. Commercial means sales as part of a business—for profit, not rescue. Third-party sellers are dealers; they have not bred the dogs themselves and they operate as middlemen between breeders and the buying public. Currently, the Pet Animals Act 1951 requires third-party sellers to be licensed as a pet shop, irrespective of the type of trading premises they sell from.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem with third- party sellers is that they create a fog around transparency and accountability? Does he also agree that banning third-party sellers would increase the financial gain for legitimate breeders and reassure dog owners of the legitimate provenance of their pets?
Indeed, it would. What is the problem with third-party sales? The sale of puppies through commercial third-party dealers both sustains and is dependent upon the existence of puppy farms, where puppies are bred for maximum profit and with minimal regard for animal welfare. Currently, around 74 pet shop licences permit the sale of puppies in the UK, although very few high street pet shops sell puppies. But the third-party trade remains significant, with dealers operating from a diverse array of premises including private homes and puppy superstores. It is estimated that some 80,000 puppies may be sold by licensed third-party sellers each year. That legal, licensed puppy trade depends upon a fast transition through the point of sale. The incentives for a rapid turnover encourage purchasers to make impulsive decisions based upon an emotional response.
Puppies are sourced from breeding establishments in the UK and Europe—commonly, Wales, Ireland, Lithuania and Hungary—where output volume is often prioritised over welfare. That has a hugely detrimental impact upon the physical and mental wellbeing of the breeding dogs and their puppies, which are destined to become people’s family pets. The absence of any contract between breeders and the final owner helps to eliminate accountability, results in a dereliction of responsibility and provides no incentive for improvement.
The legitimate market for puppies bred in situations where welfare is a minor consideration contributes to the existence of establishments that fail to meet even the basic needs of abused breeding dogs such as Lucy. Overwhelming scientific research, together with evidence obtained from owners, conclusively demonstrates that this activity seriously harms animal welfare, through the trauma of transportation, the increased risk of exposure to disease, behavioural problems resulting from premature separation from the mother and lack of appropriate socialisation.
Puppies may be born with debilitating inherited diseases that are life limiting or require lifelong medication, and are at a high risk of catching life-threatening canine diseases, such as parvovirus. That often costs buyers hundreds of thousands of pounds in veterinary treatment. It is not uncommon for puppies to die within days or weeks. A sad litany of such examples was highlighted in the personal experiences of those who responded to and commented on Parliament’s digital engagement before this debate.
There are alternatives. My sister purchased her dog 14 years ago through a reputable breeder who had connections with the Kennel Club, and saw the mother in situation. The dog is very happy; it was at the Sunday family dinner last night and is doing well. Everybody needs that kind of family commitment.
Was it at the table?
No, but it is trained, which the breeder does not necessarily do and owners have to do themselves.
Poor hygiene standards throughout the chain frequently mean that many puppies are infected with bacteria, viruses and parasites that in some cases can be transmitted to humans, for example rabies in inappropriately vaccinated imported pups. Puppies may exhibit significant behavioural issues such as separation anxiety, house soiling and nervous aggression. It is not known how many puppies die before they are even sold.
The puppy market is very lucrative, which means there are big financial incentives for breeders and sellers to minimise costs to maximise profits. Incredibly, and despite all that, the number of links in the chain means that often it is impossible to determine where the specific problem originated, and therefore extremely rare for any formal action to be taken against breeders or sellers.
The third-party trade via dealers and pet shops is regarded worldwide as a significant welfare issue, with an impact on breeding dogs, puppies and their new owners. Consumers are universally advised to see a puppy interacting with its mother in the place the puppy was born as the most fundamental step towards responsible pet ownership. This advice—rightly promoted by the current Government—is clearly in direct conflict with the ongoing legality of motherless third-party sales.
Today’s main question is, why is a ban necessary? Quite simply, a ban on third-party puppy selling removes the legitimacy of a source where adequate welfare cannot be ensured. That is imperative to assist purchasers to make an informed choice and to encourage responsible buying decisions. As mentioned, it ensures consistency with the Government’s own advice that purchasers should always see puppies with their mother; it aligns with the Government’s objective of improving dog breeding welfare; and it helps to tackle puppy dealing and trafficking.
A ban is vital to incentivise welfare improvements in high-risk commercial dog breeding establishments, through ensuring transparency, accountability and even increased financial gain for breeders. A ban will prevent the sale of puppies who have not been bred to welfare standards recognised by the national and devolved Administrations, and will remove the legitimate market for puppies who are bred in European countries where dog breeding welfare may be inadequately regulated. Ultimately, that will improve consumer confidence in the industry, and transactions would benefit the UK rather than breeders based abroad.
A ban removes the need for transportation from the breeding establishment, eliminates risks posed by exposure to pathogens in vehicles and the sale environment and prevents the transmission of disease between animals originating from different sources. A ban will improve the overall health of the UK dog population, by compelling and incentivising all UK breeders to adopt more responsible breeding practices and by reducing the risk of outbreaks of disease. There may also be a reduction in incidents of dog aggression arising from poor breeding and inadequate socialisation. A ban would reduce the regulatory burden on local authorities.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that, in addition to discussing the merits of banning third-party sales, the Government should also place a statutory duty on local authorities to enforce the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and give councils sufficient resources to enforce the regulations under it?
I have no problem in supporting that call. It is about a measure of packages; the Lucy’s law ban is the single biggest step towards animal welfare, but other things have to be done, too.
Enforcement action against illegal sellers can be undertaken and shared by various agencies. Illegal activity can be more efficiently tackled at a regional and national level.
What are the consequences? We have discussed many of the positive outcomes for animal welfare that a ban would achieve, so I hope hon. Members will find it helpful for me to address some of the concerns about potential consequences. First, let us deal with enforcement, which has been mentioned a few times. Enforcement is demonstrably more effective against illegal traders. Illegal trading is easier to prove and enables a more definitive and conclusive result, as evidenced by successful past prosecutions against illegal puppy dealers.
A partial ban on third-party puppy sales already exists, because the activity is illegal unless the seller holds a pet shop licence. If a seller is operating illegally, enforcement agencies have a mandate to investigate and prosecute. Licensing, on the other hand, effectively protects sellers if they appear to meet licence conditions, which are basic minimum standards, irrespective of additional welfare issues.
Does the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that the recently reviewed licensing regulations represent a really serious attempt to significantly improve sale licensing standards? The sector has been grappling for years with enforcement problems by local authorities and the police. Resources are at the heart of the matter. Without resources, any new law will be meaningless.
The hon. Lady makes a good point about resources. I am not disputing all the good work that has been put into licensing. However, a ban is simply much more effective and more cost-effective to introduce and police.
One of the points raised was about driving the trade underground. Trade can survive underground only if it has a sufficient market. But, unlike sellers of drugs and guns, commercial third-party sales of puppies are wholly dependent upon advertising to attract its customers. Although we commonly see and hear images and videos of puppies being smuggled and trafficked illegally, their route to market must be easily detectable if the ordinary member of the public is able to obtain the product overground, and it must be legal for them to be sold.
If third-party sellers are unable to utilise mainstream advertising channels, puppy buyers would continue to purchase from the most obvious and accessible sources, rather than deliberately seeking out illegal suppliers. The easier it becomes for people to buy puppies responsibly, the more likely they are to follow that path. Research has shown that prospective purchasers almost always aspire to making ethical and responsible choices. As they would have access to puppies from legitimate breeders, they would have no need to seek out illegally operating dealers. By comparison, if third-party sellers continued to be legitimate and licensed, there may be no means for buyers to discriminate between adverts placed by breeders and those placed by dealers. The continued existence of a legal third-party sector would also mask and provide a framework for the illegal trade.
It is worth noting that, if a ban were in place, online purchases from puppy sellers would always have to involve a final transaction, at which the pup must be seen with its mum in the place it was born. True online sales involve a delivery—that is, a third-party sale. As I mentioned, selling animals as a business is already illegal without a pet shop licence, so there is no “gaping loophole” through which a dealer could pose as a rehoming or rescue centre. Under a ban or a licensing regime, concealing commercial activity would be fraud and tax evasion as well as an animal welfare concern, so it would be far easier to police.
It has been suggested that there are too few responsible breeders in the UK to meet the demand for puppies. One of the primary requirements of a good breeder is that they enable puppies to be seen with their mother. There is no evidence to suggest that too few breeders meet that basic requirement. Furthermore, the suggestion that any deficit in supply would inevitably be met by unscrupulous breeders and sellers—either legal or illegal— is not pragmatic. That is a defeatist approach and an acceptance that the law cannot protect dogs in the commercial trade. I do not think we want to see that.
What owners really demand is a physically and mentally healthy puppy, not just any puppy. Banning the third-party sale of dogs may be a catalyst for changing expectations, so that buyers are able to buy a responsibly bred puppy from a legitimate breeder rather than having a huge range of puppies available to purchase immediately from indiscriminate sources.
The apparently inflated demand for certain fashionable breeds, such as the French bulldog, may be artificial. Puppies are being purchased simply because they are available for sale. A market that is saturated with cheap, readily available puppies by third-party dealers is likely to encourage impulse purchasing and significantly reduce demand for more responsibly bred puppies. Removing competition from irresponsible breeders and sellers would increase the market for responsible breeders, so a ban most likely would increase the number of responsibly bred puppies. Even breeders who previously sold through third parties would meet the baseline criterion for a responsible breeder—that puppies can be seen with their mum in the place they were born. I have said that a few times, and it is fundamental to the debate.
Requiring all dog breeders to sell their puppies directly would result in more responsible breeding and purchasing behaviour, as there would be no chain to confuse or cloud the process. Third-party sellers are only a distribution channel, which prevents buyers from witnessing breeding dogs and their conditions, so a ban would not need to affect the number of puppies that are bred. Lucy’s law is vital to any attempt to reform dog breeding and improve welfare. It is clear that if no attempt is made to restrict the legal market for puppies to responsible breeders, measures to improve dog welfare—those to do with genetic and breed-related health, breeding, rearing and selling practices—are unlikely to succeed.
That brings me to the question of why robust licensing is not an alternative. It is impossible to ensure the welfare of puppies sold through third parties by imposing robust licensing that still permits the activity to take place. As I explained, the process of puppies being sold by third parties is inherently damaging, so the aim of protecting animals from harm by licensing could not be met even if licence conditions were adhered to. If the welfare of animals sold under the licensing regime were little better than those sold illegally, regulation of the trade would not offer any real benefits.
Licensing third-party sellers would also fail to tackle welfare problems prior to sale, including in breeding establishments. A sufficiently robust regime of licensing and inspection would probably deter unscrupulous sellers from applying for a licence, so it would not prevent that part of the trade from going underground. It is considered possible that third-party dealers may attempt to masquerade as rescue centres under a ban. That would be equally possible under a robust licensing regime.
There is no evidence to suggest that a robust regime of licensing and inspection would be any easier or cheaper to implement than a ban. Enforcement of a ban would involve only detecting illegal activity and implementing sanctions against those engaged in it. Enforcement of a robust licensing regime would in addition involve monitoring businesses’ compliance, which would require highly trained inspectors and multiple site visits. The Government’s objective is to reduce rather than increase the regulatory burden for small businesses and local authorities. That does not fit comfortably with imposing and enforcing detailed, mandatory model conditions.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is completely and utterly unrealistic to expect cash-strapped and time-stretched councils to tackle businesses with full-time staff who will do their best to hide any criminality and frustrate any enforcement action that is taken?
I thank the hon. Lady for making that point, which has been made a few times already and cannot be stressed enough. That is another reason why a ban would be far easier and more cost-effective.
The well-documented suffering that arises during puppy dealing by third parties demonstrates that those engaged in the trade have little regard for the wellbeing of the animals in their care. Without consistent monitoring and severe penalties for breaches, it is unlikely that demanding licence regulations would be complied with. The resources that would be needed to exert any sort of control are disproportionate to the small welfare improvements that may result from the process. There is no evidence that third-party sellers would be less likely to comply with a ban than with a licensing requirement, or that the number of illegal third-party sellers would increase if a ban were introduced.
Let me finish by considering the implications of a ban not being introduced immediately. Continuing to license the third-party puppy trade would legitimise and endorse animal suffering and leave consumers vulnerable to significant emotional and financial consequences. As long as third-party sellers create demand for a large number of cheap, intensively bred puppies, welfare problems will remain in high-risk breeding establishments. The regulation of breeding establishments cannot be improved where the incentives for substandard practice exceed the penalties.
Permitting the sale of puppies bred in Europe, both legally and illegally, under low welfare conditions and with little thought for genetic and physical health may deter breeders in England and the rest of the UK from having regard to those things. Continued competitive pressure from sellers who supply cheaper puppies without the constraint of having to adhere to demanding regulatory requirements may result in some responsible UK breeders reducing or even ceasing breeding activity. It may even reduce demand for responsibly bred puppies and increase the market for irresponsible dealers and third-party traders.
An immediate ban on the sale of puppies by pet shops and other third-party commercial dealers would be a major step forward in putting an end to unnecessary animal cruelty and would help to eradicate irresponsible forms of dog breeding and selling such as puppy farming, smuggling and trafficking. There can be no doubt that Lucy’s law would help to protect breeding dogs, puppies and owners by making all breeders accountable and transparent, and ensuring consistent adherence to the Government’s advice that purchasers should see the puppies they intend to buy interacting with their mother in the place they were born. A ban on dealing puppies for profit could only raise welfare standards, and one is needed now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for introducing the debate following the fantastic public response to the e-petition. I will keep my speech as short as possible, because several Members want to speak about this important issue.
It must be said that the leadership on animal welfare by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been nothing short of remarkable. The Government are doing great things to tackle the scourge of plastic, deliver cleaner air and water, impose one of the toughest ivory bans in the world, and raise animal welfare standards by introducing mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses. I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Government on their commitment to animal welfare and the environment, and I hope that they lead the way on this issue, too.
As an animal rights campaigner, a vegetarian and a passionate dog lover and owner, I was proud to see that 229 of my constituents had added their names to the petition. I am pleased that so many of them feel so strongly about the important issue of puppy farming, which I first became aware of back in 2015, a few months after I was elected. That year, I co-hosted an event in Parliament with Marc Abraham of Pup Aid, at which we screened a film about the horrors of the industry.
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Marc Abraham—Marc the vet—who has done so much to get a united voice on what needs to be done and to encourage our residents to engage positively to support us in pushing the Government in this important area?
My hon. Friend stole what I was going to say. I am sure every Member in the Chamber pays tribute to Marc. His passion has been second to none, so I thank him for all of his hard work.
After an initial meeting with Pup Aid, I discovered to my horror that my own dog, Godiva, was probably born on a puppy farm in Lincolnshire. The pet outlet in Lincolnshire where I purchased her looked clean and sanitary, and everything seemed in order. However, who knows what conditions Godiva’s mother was kept in? That is the problem with the current legislation. Many of us have an idea of what constitutes animal cruelty—beatings, abuse and dog fighting—and we now see that as wrong. We have, correctly, legislated to stop such inhumane practices, to protect dogs and other animals from being abused by their owners. Without a doubt, we as a society have come far on animal welfare. However, there is still much more to be done.
Does my hon. Friend agree that by animal cruelty we mean not just beatings, thumpings and all the other terrible things that go on, but pure ignorance? People sometimes get hold of dogs, horses or animals generally and do not know how to look after them. Not long ago, I visited many residences with the RSPCA and saw people who were unable to look after their animals.
I agree. I, too, have been out on the beat, so to speak, with our local RSPCA and have seen the conditions in which some poor animals live. My hon. Friend is right: education can do a lot to help tackle that.
Lucy, the Cavalier King Charles spaniel, endured a miserable start to her life. Her poor body had been ravaged after cruel puppy farmers, eager to sell as many young as they could in the pursuit of profit and greed, forced her to go through an obscene number of pregnancies. Vets advise that dogs should have only four litters in their lifetime and reproduce no more than once every year, but by the time Lucy had become useless to her breeders at the age of five, she would have had up to 10 litters, with her puppies ripped from her at four weeks—half the time recommend by vets. After having spent so much time pregnant in a tiny cage, Lucy could barely walk. Her hair was missing in patches and matted beyond repair, while her balding skin was raw from the ammonia burns she suffered from living continuously in her own urine and faeces.
Lucy’s law seeks a ban on the sale of puppies by pet shops and all third-party dealers, and states that all puppies should be seen with their mum when they are bought, in order for the transaction to be legal. It also seeks a ban on third-party or commercial sellers who remove puppies from their mother before they are sold, and transparency in the system to protect puppies from illegal farming and prevent mothers from being overbred. I fully support all of those measures, as some puppy breeders and dealers clearly do not have the dog’s welfare at heart.
I believe that Godiva has previously won Westminster dog of the year, along with her friend, so it is good to have an update on her. Does the hon. Lady agree that one particular problem is that people are not aware of where popular dogs, such as French bulldogs, are coming from? They are paying huge amounts of money, assuming—because of the cost—that their dog will have been well treated. People going for those popular, fashionable dogs need to be particularly vigilant.
I wholeheartedly agree. As I said, when I bought Godiva, I made that mistake: having paid £550 for her, I thought she would have been from a decent, legitimate organisation, but clearly that was not the case.
Lucy died in December 2016, and I am happy to say that her later years were happier than her beginnings. We must do more to save countless other animals from suffering similar horrors to Lucy. Pup Aid has been campaigning on overbreeding of females since 2009, and I would like to take this opportunity to again congratulate Marc Abraham on his hard work on the campaign, as well as Lisa Garner, who is present and who rescued Lucy and ensured that she had a good end to her life.
As the hon. Lady has said, the public clearly remain naive to the horrors of the puppy farming trade, and that is why legislation is necessary to protect not just the puppies but their mothers as well as the public from facilitating this abhorrent trade.
A number of people have talked to me about how they were taken in by the sob stories of families in a flat who could no longer take a puppy so they had to give it away, with children roped into a farce and deception. We all need to be aware of the lengths to which people will go to exploit not only the animal but the person they are selling to, but the Government really need to legislate to give us the teeth so that we can keep them all safe.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I remind everyone that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) has said, education is key to moving forward and ensuring that we save as many animals as possible.
I am pleased to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), who presented the situation clearly, including the various options and actions already being taken as well as those that are promised. I am pleased to say that the three Members of Parliament for my local authority, Rhondda Cynon Taf—my hon. Friends the Members for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), and me—have all signed the early-day motion.
My local authority has done something that I am very pleased about. At the end of February, a motion was put before the whole council to back Lucy’s law and support a ban on the third-party selling of dogs, and it was passed unanimously. There are not many Conservatives on my local authority, but various other parties are represented and everyone supported it. That is good news, because it is one of the largest local authorities in Wales. We have every hope that the Welsh Assembly—this is a devolved matter—will also support Lucy’s law.
As a fellow Welsh MP, albeit from a different party—our constituencies nigh-on border—does the right hon. Lady agree that puppy farming has been a stain on animal welfare in Wales and that, sadly, certain parts of Wales are known for puppy farming, which is a great embarrassment to both of us, to all parties and to Wales?
That is a good point. I was the Member of the European Parliament for the hon. Gentleman’s area at one time, so I am aware of the issues.
I think that Rhondda Cynon Taf is the first council not just in Wales but in the whole of the UK to stand up and be counted. We are proud of that locally. As I said, I have had support from my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda and for Pontypridd.
There are brilliant local campaigners in every area. Mine is called Eileen Jones, who sets up and co-ordinates rescue and action for Friends of Animals Wales. She sent me a message explaining how she feels. She says that in 14 years of the organisation’s work of taking in ex-puppy farm breeding stock that are no longer profitable because of age or illness, and sick, damaged puppies that cannot be sold, the people of Cynon Taf have provided emotional and physical support by volunteering, as well as financial support through donations and support for events and appeals. Many of the dogs have found local homes where, following rehabilitation and veterinary care, they have gone on to have wonderful lives; without the support provided by the local people, hundreds would have died in squalor.
Eileen describes how many sick puppies have been handed in, when the puppy farmers could not palm them off on dealers. Thousands of pounds raised by volunteers are spent on surgery. She gives the examples of Trigger, born with no anus or penis, who underwent two operations in a Bristol specialist hospital, but sadly died, and Rodney, a Westie pup with no back paws; £10,000 was raised to have him fitted with prosthetic feet. One little one, handed in two weeks ago, was diagnosed with a liver disorder, but after four days’ intensive care he died. That is a small example of the heart-breaking cases of puppies handed in by puppy farmers.
As the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk mentioned, ex-breeding bitches and dogs are given up when they can no longer produce puppies. Eileen says that many are very sick and some are just worn out from producing litter after litter, and that basic treatment for each one, including spaying, dental treatment and attention to their ears and coat, is expected to cost an average of £2,500; and if they need specialist care the cost rockets. The financial burden is huge and a recent intake from one farmer has already cost more than £6,000.
The hardest part, Eileen says, is the emotional toll from caring for sick and traumatised dogs. Sometimes it takes months, and on occasion it takes over a year, to gain their trust and for them to be well enough to go to a home. She gives the example of four Bichons that had to be shaved to the skin; two had huge tumours that were removed. Another dog, Erica, is dying. Eileen says that she had kidney failure so advanced when she was given to Friends of Animals a month ago that they have been able only to keep her comfortable and free of pain for whatever time she has. An end to third-party puppy dealing would shut down the ability to sell to dealers who come to Wales to buy litters to sell on in England, which leads to families buying sick pups and facing heartbreak and financial distress trying to find the money to pay vet bills.
“Whilst we carry on talking, debating and procrastinating dogs are suffering every minute of every day. How much longer must they wait for us to end this barbaric third party puppy dealing? Every single day is one too many. I support #Lucyslaw and if you really care you will too.”
I must say that I am a cat owner. I have a very old cat called Alfie, who has several offspring, I am sorry to say. He was in the finals of the Westminster cat of the year and always thinks he was robbed, so he will be putting in for it next time round. He is 14, and I know how much animals mean to people and comfort them, and what companions they are. I have always been an animal lover, and I think that the proposal is a sensible way to proceed.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on bringing this important debate to us today.
I grew up with animals of all sorts, in an old farmhouse, and am the proud owner of three fairly noisy but lovely dogs. I was involved in various television series in the 1990s, and because of that I got involved in breaking up a puppy farming ring in Wales. It is a shame we had to do that, but it taught me a lesson. I went with a journalist and we posed as a youngish couple looking for a puppy. We insisted on seeing the dam. We wanted to see the mother of the puppies. A Cavalier King Charles was brought out—and not in the best of health. The little puppy that came along, which ultimately we named Pixie, was pretty poorly as well. We went through the process of buying the puppy because we wanted to tell the story to the world, and expose it. The atmosphere at the farm up in the hills of Wales was intimidating. The people in question wanted us to meet at a petrol station on the M4 and exchange the puppies there. They did not really want us to come to the farm, but we insisted and they wanted to do the deal, so we went to the farm. We were not allowed to see much of the farm, apart from the entrance and the room in which we were locked while they went to get the puppy and her dam.
The good news is that the coverage we got from that visit to the Welsh hill farm was enough to close down the operation in question. Because of that experience, I know something about the dreadful conditions into which puppies can be born. Those conditions should shame us all. It is wrong that unscrupulous dealers are breeding for profit and selling on through third parties with little regard for the animals’ welfare. It is about profit, and we should recognise that the practice has a serious impact on the animals themselves, through their lives. They have behavioural and physical difficulties. As we have heard, some are born without paws, and so on, and they have shorter lifespans. We need to do something about that. One of my dogs is an 18-year-old Jack Russell—bless her cotton socks. She had three litters very early on, and we managed to rescue her. She has had a happy life and continues to do so. We call her Hopalong Minnie. I shall of course support Lucy’s law, and we must move towards the objective of freeing the animals in question from terrible conditions.
The Government introduced a raft of measures to crack down on unscrupulous puppy breeders, which I support and welcome. I also fully support the Government’s call for evidence on a possible ban on third-party sales. The sooner we get the ban, the better. Otherwise, as the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) said, every day is a wasted day. We must get on top of the problem. A ban on third-party sales is the only response to the situation, and it would, as we have heard, be warmly welcomed by the RSPCA, the Kennel Club and many other important organisations in the sector. It would, of course, delight the people who signed the petition. I gather that the number of signatures went up extremely quickly—from zero to suddenly more than 100,000. It is fantastic to hear that. I ask the Minister to bear in mind the view of the RSPCA that the ban must be introduced alongside the measures the Government have already introduced. As its deputy chief executive Chris Wainwright put it:
“Together, these moves will offer better protection to puppies and their parents and reduce the number of families duped by rogue traders in this illegal multi-million-pound trade.”
Experts are clear that if we are to deal effectively with the issue, we need to ban third-party sales while implementing the measures to crack down on unscrupulous puppy breeders. Those two things cannot be separated. I ask that Lucy’s law be introduced without delay.
I believe we should recognise that many people who pick up a dog do not understand or appreciate what it means to own a dog. I raised the point about education and ignorance earlier; it is not deliberate cruelty. That was demonstrated effectively to me recently, when I was out with a fantastic local RSPCA chief inspector, Samantha Garvey, who deserves all the plaudits we could give her. We went from dwelling to dwelling, visiting several sites where dogs and some other animals were in awful conditions, and in the end we ended up rescuing a German Shepherd that was close to death. She had sores all over her body and could hardly walk. As the law stands in this country animals cannot just be seized; the owners have to be told: “This animal will die unless something is done about it now.” The people who work for the RSPCA and go into those terrible conditions are amazing. We persuaded the owners to let us have the dog, and I am pleased to report that Tee is now doing rather well and has recovered.
To conclude, I ask the Minister to bear in mind the strength of public feeling. The Government must consider their response to the call for evidence. Let us get Lucy’s law enacted as soon as we possibly can.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin, and a great pleasure to speak in the debate. That might sound like an odd word to use in this context; I do not mean that I take any pleasure in the subject, but we are often called a nation of animal lovers, and anyone who came in and listened to the debate would be in no doubt that that is true. It is an important debate, not least because this issue has created a vast amount of correspondence to my office since I was elected a year ago. That is reflected in the number of constituents from Edinburgh West, 177, who have signed the petition. We can be in no doubt that the public not only care about this subject, but care that we are taking the time to speak about it today, so I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for doing so.
Sales from legally reared and licensed puppies in this country are an enormous market; the latest figures I have show them in the tens of millions of pounds, which is why the demand for puppies opens a gateway to unscrupulous dealers. Last year, sales from illegal sources of puppies are estimated to have topped £13 million. That is an enormous amount of money, but also an enormous amount of misery, and not just for the animals that are the victims in this—the puppies born with horrible deformities, as we have heard.
Imagine for a moment the small child who is told they are going to get their first pet, the puppy they have nagged their parents for incessantly—believe me, I have been there. They go, they fall in love with that puppy and they take it home, only to discover that it might not survive, and if it does survive, it has been so horribly abused that it may never be sociable or properly house-trained and they may never be able to enjoy it. That child has fallen in love with that puppy and will do anything they can to protect it. While we all agree that we must do something to protect the animals, we must also think about the customers, the children and their parents, who often shell out a lot of cash, and the torment and pain they go through over having purchased a puppy that has been abused.
As the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk said, it can be so different. This weekend, my own puppy celebrated his 13th birthday. He is not a highly bred Labrador or one of the new fashionable breeds; he is a Labrador-collie cross. When we bought him we drove all the way to the borders, to just outside Peebles, where a chap with a farm had decided to breed gun dogs from his gun dog bitch. She was probably not the best behaved gun dog bitch in some senses, since she escaped in the night and, before he knew it, she had a litter of puppies crossed with his shepherd’s border collie.
When we went to see those puppies, the care they had been treated with was obvious. The mother was with her puppies and came out to greet us with the puppies. My daughter, who was then—I do not want to do the arithmetic—about eight, got to play with the puppies, interact with them and see how they behaved. I remember as a child being taken by my parents to get our first dog and doing the same thing. Part of what we must do is to ensure that parents know, before they give in to the pressure or indulge their child in the sort of pleasure they had with a pet, what they should be looking for. Education, as some hon. Members have said, will be vital.
The hon. Lady has spoken passionately about the consumer, but there is one group that she might have missed out: vulnerable people, particularly the elderly, who take those dogs in for companionship and are so badly let down. Does she agree that that is something we must also tackle?
Absolutely; that is a good point. We hear all the time that pets are not just a pleasure, but can be therapeutic. Increasingly, they say that teenagers suffering from stress should be around happy dogs, puppies or cats. As the hon. Gentleman says, people who are vulnerable need protection as well.
I do not think any of us would disagree that Lucy’s law must be enacted, and enacted fully. We need better enforcement of existing animal welfare laws. It is intolerable that any animal should be born and live in poor or unsanitary conditions, particularly for profit. We need mandatory licences for dog breeding to ensure that when a breeder is found to be mistreating animals, their licence is removed. I know that some people will say, “What about the hobby, or the person who has a dog and thinks it would be nice to have a puppy?” We have to ensure that is controlled as well, and that that puppy is entitled to the same protection.
We will need legal identification for all sales, to crack down on unlicensed sellers. When people go to buy a pet, it is a huge investment—several hundreds of pounds—and often that price tag reassures people that they are buying a puppy that has been brought up well, but no. We need proper licensing and standards, so that we know they are being enforced. Legislation must be updated to include online sales. Buying a puppy advertised in a newspaper has been established over years, although we must be careful that they, too, are licensed, but online is different. It is difficult if a child sees a puppy online and wants to buy it. We need protection there.
Protection is the key word in all this: protection for the animals that will be victims of the puppy farmers who will use them to have litters, protection for the puppies that will be born in horrible conditions and be maimed all their lives, and protection for the children, the families, the elderly and the vulnerable who will buy those puppies, hoping to give them a happy life, only to find from the beginning that they cannot. All those things must be done.
I leave hon. Members with one thought. The person who sells us the puppy, or sells us on the idea of the puppy, is not always the person we expect. We had a dog who died when she was about six and my daughter was four. My daughter started school and the headmistress said to her, “Ah, Mhairi Macdonald, I see you out with your mum every day walking the dog. I haven’t seen you for a wee while.” Mhairi looked at the headmistress and said, “The dog died,” and quick as a flash the headmistress responded, “Well, don’t worry, mummy and daddy will buy you a new one.” And we did. Sometimes we need protection from all sorts of sources.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing this important debate, and the members of the audience who have turned out today—members such as Marc Abraham, Beverley Cuddy and Lisa Garner—on having run and raised awareness of the campaign, and on having taken the issue up the public agenda; all power to your elbow. Although I cannot wear my rosette, I hope my tie is suitable for the debate.
Lucy, a gorgeous, beautiful Cavalier King Charles spaniel, was a victim of the third-party selling of puppies. Raised on a puppy farm, she had a horrific and miserable life. Thankfully, Lucy was rescued by Lisa Garner in 2013 and became part of the loving home that she should always have been a part of. Sadly, Lucy died prematurely in 2016 as a result of her start on that very puppy farm. However, she has become a symbol of the movement towards greater animal welfare standards.
It will be no surprise to Members to hear that, having campaigned for a ban on electric shock dog collars, I fully support the introduction of Lucy’s law and a ban on the third-party sale of puppies. There are heartbreaking stories of puppies and kittens being separated from their mothers, kept in awful conditions and often transported for long distances before being sold. This practice is abhorrent, and I want to do all that I can to eradicate it, both in Scotland and across the rest of the UK.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has estimated that there is a demand for 700,000 puppies per year, which is significant. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) said, the third-party selling of puppies flows from that huge demand. Someone acts as a middleman between a puppy breeder and a buyer. Commercial third-party dealers who buy their stock from puppy farms—both here at home as well as abroad—are often the route to market for puppies from puppy farmers, who simply look for a quick profit with no regard whatsoever for the welfare of the animal.
Third-party traders operate in an environment that depends on low welfare standards and high-volume dog breeding, treating puppies like a conveyor belt factory product. Scientific research and evidence is conclusive: puppies sold by third parties experience a hugely detrimental impact on their physical and mental wellbeing. That can result in chronic medical problems, as well as severe behavioural problems, such as anxiety and aggression.
It could not be clearer that this practice is wrong, and it must stop. I wholeheartedly and warmly welcome the UK Government’s openness towards a ban on the sale of puppies by commercial third-party dealers. I welcome the consultation launched on 8 February calling for evidence on a ban in England. Introducing a ban would be consistent with the Government’s current advice—that purchasers should see puppies with their mother. A ban would remove the legitimate market for puppies bred in eastern Europe, from where vanloads of sickly puppies from puppy farms arrive in the UK. A ban would incentivise welfare improvements and would increase transparency. A ban could potentially improve the overall health of the UK dog population and reduce the incidence of dog aggression arising from poor breeding and inadequate socialisation. A ban would end the abhorrent practice of puppies being sold in high street pet shops, garden centres and pet superstores.
Animal welfare is devolved to Scotland, and recent investigations have found that puppies are being mistreated by unscrupulous dealers north of the border too. For example, in Aberdeenshire, around 900 animals were taken from a puppy farm near Fyvie after a Scottish SPCA raid, as part of Operation Dolphin. The current UK Government action does not apply in Scotland. However, the Scottish Government are thus far supporting a Scottish SPCA initiative to regulate third-party commercial dog dealers, but not outlaw them entirely. I welcome that. It is important that the Scottish Government act to keep Scotland’s puppy welfare protections up to speed with the rest of the UK. Scotland must not fall behind.
To date, I welcome all the numerous actions the Government have taken to improve animal welfare. I know that the Minister cares about this and that it is high on his agenda. A failure to bring forward a ban would be a serious setback to improving the standard of animal welfare in the UK. We must take action to stamp out this barbaric practice. Lucy’s law can become the most transformational and significant change to animal welfare that we can make, so let us do it. We owe it to Lucy, and we owe it to all puppies trapped on these horrific farms.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for introducing it and for presenting his case so well. Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I obviously support Lucy’s law. I will comment on the situation in Northern Ireland, because some stats that have come through today will be helpful in backing up the debate.
I believe that the debate being secured through the petition mechanism demonstrates the will of the people. The people out there have clearly said that the issue should be debated in Westminster and that we should raise awareness of it. It means that we in this place can determine how better we can safeguard animals—dogs, in this instance—during the sale process. More than that, we are morally obliged to address it.
I do not remember ever not having a dog. I had one from the very early years of my life, whether Pomeranians, corgis, collies or Jack Russell terriers. They say that no one ever actually owns a Jack Russell terrier—it owns them. That is probably true. We now have springer spaniels, because we use them for hunting. I have never not had a dog.
When my wife and I first got married, I was not keen on cats, to be truthful, but she was, and therefore my life changed. That was the way it was. We now have four cats in the house, and one dog. The cats gather around the dinner table when we have our Sunday lunch and they all sit and look at us as if they are ravenous for whatever is on the menu. Every one of those cats was a stray that came to stay with us and never left, because they were well looked after.
The dog that Sandra had was badly abused and badly beaten. She became passionate about it and brought it home. It is now clearly over its fears—it does not run when we speak to it. It was probably a hunting dog at one time, and my wife lets me take it hunting now and again. She says it is not a hunting dog, but if I am free on a Saturday afternoon I usually take it over the fields for a run. It does not always listen, but that is just the way some dogs are. The point I am trying to make is that people can take dogs and the dog will always show them affection and love. All they have to do is show the same to it. When our dog is shown affection and love, it all of a sudden responds very positively.
Back home, I have heard on too many occasions of heartbroken children having their animals removed because they did not fulfil the injection and visa requirements for pets brought into Northern Ireland. The parents are left out of pocket and the children are devastated, but the person whose responsibility it was that those requirements were met often gets away scot-free. They do not care. They are just about making money. This scenario must stop.
With the surge in designer dog breeds, more and more people are trying their hand at breeding and selling. The conditions that these animals live in is not always healthy, and at times is simply inhumane. Many of us will know of examples of just that. With the rise of sales from houses, it is clear that we must regulate for the sake of the dog and her puppies, but also for the family who pay big money for what is probably their dream dog, only to have the dog be ill or aggressive as a result of bad treatment.
Last week I met a member of the Dogs Trust team to discuss this debate and what they felt was needed. My wife Sandra volunteers at the local Assisi Animal Sanctuary, looking after cats and dogs; it is something she has always loved and wanted to do. That is where our cats came from, and ultimately they took over. She has also made it very clear that Assisi—in the charity sector—thinks that things need to change, and quickly.
The Dogs Trust has stated:
“We want to see an end to third party sales and the sale of puppies in pet shops as part of a package of coordinated measures. There are some crucial steps that the government must take to make a ban, and Lucy’s Law, effective and avoid unintended consequences.”
On priorities, it states:
“The licensing and inspection of anyone breeding or selling puppies must be robust and consistent”.
There has been a flurry in my area of dogs being stolen to be used for breeding. It is worth putting on the record that Lucy’s law would deal with that in some way, through its knock-on effects. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I do. Too often, a dog is stolen or goes missing. We see the adverts in our local papers back home when a springer spaniel, corgi, Jack Russell or whatever has gone missing. It is a family pet, but also much more than a pet. That is true for all of us as well as for those outside the Chamber. I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The hope is that Lucy’s law could tighten up the legislation and make it much more effective.
The quotation from the Dogs Trust continues:
“Before this can happen, inspectors must have the full support of both the government and their local authority to enforce the right standards.”
I wholeheartedly support that as a basic measure—as a start. If a person is prepared to allow people into their home to buy a dog, it follows that they would allow someone into their home to assess whether the dogs are healthy and happy while being bred and, indeed, afterwards.
The Assisi charity group for which my wife works, the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the RSPCA and many other charities have now adopted a new criterion, which is that before they will rehome a dog, they visit the home—my wife does this for cats as well, by the way—and it is only right that they should do so, because the home of the person who wants the dog or cat should really want the dog or cat; taking it into their home should be their full intention. I believe that home visits are one method of making progress. The Minister, who we know is very responsive to the debate on this issue, will probably take that on board. I would like to hear his thoughts on introducing Lucy’s law as well.
The Dogs Trust has further said:
“We want governments across the UK to regulate rehoming organisations and sanctuaries and we will continue to campaign against this gaping loophole…If a ban was introduced, the options for getting a dog would either be directly from the breeder or from a rehoming organisation.”
That would be with the criteria that those charitable organisations have set down. They are good, strict criteria that work. If a person wants to give a home to a dog or cat—this debate is specifically about dogs—we should ensure that that is being done for the right reason.
The Dogs Trust continues:
“As rehoming organisations are not regulated, and anyone can set themselves up as one, we are deeply concerned this would be exploited by puppy traders.”
Again, I believe that the point made is sensible and that what is advocated is only right and proper. Although we must not prevent those who have a heart to care for animals from being able to set up as a rehoming organisation, we must be able to stop people abusing that to circumvent the system. There are genuine people out there, and they would not fear regulation.
My hon. Friend is raising a number of issues that touch on devolution and the cross-jurisdictional nature of the issue; it would be easy for the Minister to say, “We can deal only with England.” I well remember working with the former hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway, Richard Arkless, in relation to the puppy trades that existed in the Republic of Ireland, came through Northern Ireland and abused the ferry systems going to Scotland and the rest of mainland GB, so may I, through my hon. Friend, encourage the Minister to think not only of the devolution issues that exist in the United Kingdom, but of co-operation and collaboration with those other jurisdictions that feed into a drastic trade that affects our country but starts in or emanates from others?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That point needs to be put to the Minister. We all have concerns about puppy farming in the Republic of Ireland. Puppies can come through Northern Ireland and across on the ferry, but they can also come straight across from the Republic into Wales, so we may need to be doing things at that stage as well. I thank my hon. Friend for his wise words.
I believe that there must be an introduction of registration and licensing for all breeding and rehoming establishments, to create full transparency and traceability in the system. I support the calls that anyone breeding or selling litters of puppies should be registered.
Today’s Belfast Telegraph has some statistics on what is happening in Northern Ireland. It states that
“councils in Northern Ireland destroyed more than 300 animals in eight months.”
It says that 166 unclaimed and 144 unwanted animals were destroyed, and cites David Wilson from the USPCA:
“The volume of dogs abandoned to their fate by heartless owners remains a major…welfare concern”.
We need to put this on the record. Mr Wilson went on:
“There are still too many dogs being farmed for profit by callous individuals, many of whom flout the requirement for breeder registration…The availability of pets via the internet is entirely unregulated and contributes to the problem by encouraging impulse purchasing.”
I ask the Minister also to respond to that point.
The reason Assisi and other charities do home visits is that they want to see whether someone is truly enthusiastic about giving the dog or cat a home; they want to ensure that the enthusiasm has not worn off after a time. The report cites Mr Wilson saying that any would-be owners should
“‘purchase using their head as well as their heart’.
With lifestyle and financial implications…‘the only guarantee awaiting the unwary is often one of heartache and expense’.”
He urged people to “contact the USPCA”, or RSPCA,
“or visit a local shelter to adopt ‘a deserving animal in need of a home, as 1,500 others did in the period covered by these statistics’.
‘By doing so you will have played your part in addressing a problem that shames society,’ he added.”
Time has beaten me. There are many other issues that I would urge the Minister to consider, such as the Government and the animal welfare sector working together to facilitate a marketplace dominated by ethical breeders. The message must be sent loud and clear that prospective owners should always see a puppy interacting with its mum and littermates. The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) illustrated that with the example of a Labrador: the mother and littermates were there; the family were very closely associated and playing a part. If that happened in every place, that would be the place to be.
There must be a co-ordinated package of measures to ensure that a ban on third-party sales is successful, and we must carefully consider the implications of legislation to prevent it from being exploited as other attempts thus far have been. There is much to be done. I urge the Minister to work with knowledgeable charities—the Dogs Trust, among others—to ensure that the legislation passed is the best that it can be and that it stops bad treatment of dogs as well as the heartbreak of children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on introducing the debate. Let me give some background about myself. I am from a family of dog lovers. Our first pet was from the Scottish SPCA. We had that little fellow for 17 years; he grew up with my daughters. He was much loved by the neighbours, but he was a romantic wee dog and at certain times of the season he was not very popular with some of the neighbours. But he had a joyous 17 years in our family. When his time came and we lost him, I have to say that despite being a senior fire officer and, as I thought, a robust individual, I cried for 30 or 40 minutes—I really missed him. That is my background as a dog lover, and I am not ashamed at shedding a tear over losing a best friend.
I am pleased that this Government, with the help of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, have made animal welfare one of their top priorities, and the issue of commercial puppy breeding and sales is no exception. All pet owners would wish their dog to have the best possible start in life. That is especially important when thousands of animals are being bred every year by irresponsible breeders—the money makers—who separate them from their litters far too early and place them in wholly inappropriate and often traumatising conditions. As I am sure others will agree, that practice must end, to protect the puppy and the parents.
I welcome this petition and the common-sense approach that the Government are taking to ensure that our high standards of animal welfare apply to puppy breeders. The UK Government’s proposals are entirely sensible and necessary, and I hope they will satisfy the almost 150,000 signatories to the petition across the United Kingdom.
It is right that we ban the sale of puppies under the age of eight weeks and that we require licensed breeders to show a puppy alongside its mother before a sale is agreed or concluded. Those steps will help to ensure that puppies are not separated from their mothers or sold at an inappropriately early stage. In this world of internet shopping, it is vital that we clamp down on online sales where the buyer has not actually seen the puppy that they are buying. To ignore that expanding sales area would create an unacceptable loophole that unscrupulous breeders would surely exploit. I am pleased that the Government are working to ensure that that risk is addressed. It is also important that we have compulsory licensing for anyone in the business of breeding and selling dogs, and require that licensed breeders only sell puppies that they themselves have bred.
Those tighter restrictions on the industry will help to establish the clear accountability that we must have if we are to maintain the best possible standards of canine welfare. I am sure that trusted breeders will support those actions. I understand that the Government are currently examining evidence relating to the possibility of a ban on third-party sales of both puppies and kittens in England, and that a call for evidence closed earlier this month. I would welcome a ban as the outcome.
Much of the law relating to animal welfare in Scotland is devolved and it falls to the Scottish Parliament to protect puppies from unscrupulous breeders. I am sure they will do so, given the opportunity. We need action in Scotland. An investigation by OneKind, the animal welfare charity, recently revealed that some puppies in Scottish puppy farms are being kept in horrendous conditions. Although I welcome the Say No to Puppy Dealers campaign, it is clear that more must be done to clamp down on unscrupulous breeders throughout the United Kingdom.
I congratulate the Government on the work they are doing. I hope that the Scottish and UK Governments, and the devolved institutions, will work together—the movement throughout these islands was mentioned—and bring an end to unscrupulous puppy breeding and sales in the United Kingdom. Regardless of any changes made by Governments, I ask prospective purchasers to give due consideration to who they purchase their puppy from. Happy and healthy puppies should be our objective. We owe it to our best friends.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for bringing the e-petition to Parliament and speaking in such a detailed manner. He outlined the case for Lucy’s law in a thorough way, with best practice and evidence at the forefront of everything he said.
Lucy’s law was launched in December 2017 at a House of Commons reception hosted by myself with vet and campaigner Marc Abraham of Pup Aid, who is here today. It was supported by the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group, which I chair. It is a pleasure to chair that group, which is entirely cross-party. Animal welfare—dog welfare in particular—knows no party lines. There are animal and dog lovers right across the House of Commons, our countries and the United Kingdom. We speak together on our love for animals, dogs and animal welfare issues.
The voices against Lucy’s law have gone—they have paled into insignificance. We are speaking with one voice today and I hope that the Minister heeds that. Across party lines, there is universal support for Lucy’s law. Now is the time to prevent further suffering. Now is the time for Lucy’s law. To those organisations that say, “We’d like a ban, but not now,” I say, “Why not now?” As the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) said, if we wait a minute longer, more dogs like Lucy will suffer absolutely appalling consequences.
I am glad that my hon. Friend is putting on record the Scottish National party’s support for Lucy’s law. We will have to work with our colleagues in the Scottish Government to ensure that happens there, too. Given that this is a devolved matter, there is a golden opportunity in this debate for England to show leadership in the UK and take the initiative. If the Minister went further and faster, he would create a situation whereby the devolved Administrations would swiftly fall into line. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be good if the Minister gave an unequivocal statement in his summation?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, we do not want to start a competition in relation to Lucy’s law, but if the Minister could make an unequivocal statement, that would be fantastic. I would be reduced to tears of joy if that happened. If the Minister wants to make an SNP MP cry, he should tell us that Lucy’s law will happen now.
I do want change in the Scottish Parliament. The matter is out to consultation, and it is extremely important to me. The First Minister and the Scottish Government are absolutely aware of my perspective. I am particularly dogmatic—forgive the pun!—when it comes to Lucy’s law.
Lucy was a beautiful Cavalier King Charles spaniel. She was a casualty of the legal, licensed third-party puppy trade, and was exploited within an inch of her life with absolutely no regard to her health or welfare. Lucy was rescued and adopted by Lisa Garner—who is here—in 2013. Despite Lucy’s horrific and miserable past as a breeding slave, she still had it in her enormous heart to love people. She made so many people think about all the other poor mums, the invisible victims living their lonely, loveless lives to produce litter after litter. Lucy has become a mascot for all the abused breeding dogs. Lucy sadly died all too soon in December 2016 and Lucy’s law is named in her honour.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk stated in his opening speech, the concept of Lucy’s law has resonated with our constituents and with parliamentarians. A recent survey of nearly 2,000 readers of Dogs Today Magazine showed that 96% wanted a ban on pet shops and third parties selling pups. Lucy’s law continues to receive support from celebrities, the media and Members of Parliament. In Scotland, Lucy’s law has gained support from our own dog celebrity, the Wee Ginger Dug, as we fondly call him. In a newspaper only the other week, he gave his support for Lucy’s law. I believe that the Wee Ginger Dug was himself a rescued, abandoned dog, so he and his owner know only too well why it is so important to have Lucy’s law.
Lucy’s law calls for the immediate ban on puppies sold by commercial third parties, for example pet shops, but does third-party selling of pups always give rise to harm? It simply does and here are some reasons. Young puppies are transported huge distances, making them stressed and sickly, giving rise to behavioural issues from the anxiety of early separation and poor socialisation. Transportation invites premature exposure to disease. Exploited breeding bitches like Lucy live in terrible conditions and are hidden from sellers. Their stressed pups are at an increased risk of deadly diseases when transported legally or illegally. Commercial dealers facilitate impulse purchases, which is a common cause of pet abandonment, and rarely offer after-sales advice. In essence, puppies and their mothers are often irreversibly damaged before they reach the seller, whether the seller is licensed or not.
Other hon. Members have mentioned their dogs. My dog Rossi is a French bulldog and was, I believe, puppy farmed. We went to get Rossi from the local dog centre. He is an integral part of our family. He was also a contestant in Westminster Dog of the Year, alongside the dog of the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns). Rossi was runner-up on that occasion, but he is never runner-up in our home—he is always a winner.
There are not many high street pet shops, so why are dealers an even bigger problem? The sale of puppies by dealers without a shop is increasing. Most of them are selling out of normal houses in busy residential areas. Most pet buyers would know to be concerned about the provenance of pet-shop pups. The new breed of licensed dealers, using exactly the same pet-shop licence, to buy and sell pups, is not so obviously commercial and must be stopped to ensure protection of puppies, their mothers and our public.
Would Lucy’s law prohibit ghastly eastern European puppy trafficking? We believe it would. Van loads of sickly, puppy-farmed pups are currently arriving and can legally be sold only if the seller holds a pet shop licence. Lucy’s law would remove the legal reason for importing all these poor puppies, so all those vans could be turned back. Production in these despicable puppy farms would drastically reduce if the UK stopped being such a lucrative market for immoral traders. In the future, the condition of all puppies would be regulated by the UK standards of animal welfare, importantly removing the legal trade for smuggled pups, which would also help to remove the framework for illegal activity.
If Lucy’s law is so simple, why do we not already have a ban on third-party puppy sales? In the last few years, there have been many significant attempts in Parliament to end them. In September 2014, there was an e-petition; in November 2016, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended a ban, as we have heard; and in 2016, I led a debate on puppy farming. Another significant call for Lucy’s law has come from the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation’s manifesto, which has not yet been mentioned by other hon. Members, but I will mention it.
You are their conscience.
I am their conscience, indeed.
Its patron, the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), is present. All calls for a ban in the last few years have been ignored, so it is unsurprising that worrying levels of unscrupulous breeding and selling activities, such as puppy farming, dealing and smuggling, which are all facilitated by third-party sales, do not show any sign of decreasing.
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
The arguments against Lucy’s law are dead in the water. On the first—that licensing commercial sales would be better and easier to enforce—we know that that cannot be the case. A licence takes much more policing and enforcement compared with an outright ban. We only have to look at what happened with banning smoking cigarettes in pubs, and the issues that would have arisen if it could have happened in some situations and not others—it would have only confused the public. Regulating something that is licensed would also obviously require more resources than a ban. If there is a ban, the public can alert the authorities very quickly, so there will be no dubiety.
Dubiety is regularly seen in action with the alcohol licensing regime. The public will report underage sales, but it is difficult for the police to determine where underage drinking is happening, if it is in a place where both underage and overage drinking are happening. It is much more difficult to regulate and to respond to.
If some third-party puppy sales are licensed and legitimate and some are not, the participating members of the public are unlikely to whistleblow, but it is important that we enable the public to do that. As we have heard, people do not want to go to the black market to buy a puppy—that is just not something people do. They are good people who want to give a puppy a loving home, so let us make it as straightforward as possible.
Current Government advice contradicts itself: third-party breeding can be licensed, but they also want people to see the puppy with the mum. Let us get it all in line by ensuring that we have Lucy’s law and a ban, so that everyone sees the puppy with the mum because that is how puppies are purchased in the UK.
I finish by thanking all hon. Members who have taken part. All the speeches have shown how important this issue is, not just to constituents but to hon. Members. We are all here for the same reason: we want Lucy’s law to be enacted now. To prevent any more suffering, it is clear that the time for Lucy’s law is now. Waiting a minute longer would mean another minute of puppy farm cruelty endured by thousands of dogs and their pups. I and every dog lover in the UK look forward to the Minister’s response.
I am delighted to serve under your chairing, Sir Roger, even though you would rather be on this side of the room talking in the debate. I know you feel passionately about it, as does Mr Austin, who was in the Chair before you. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), who carefully introduced the debate. We have also heard contributions from the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), and the hon. Members for Clacton (Giles Watling), for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), and the SNP spokesperson—I will try and get her constituency name right—the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). I am pleased to see the Minister in his place.
This is a debate in which we largely agree, so I will not take up time agreeing with hon. Members who made passionate contributions on what is—let us be honest—heinous animal cruelty, and one of the worst, because it is about making money. It is in no way about trying to provide a supply of animals for which there is a demand.
I was shocked by the figure of how many registered providers there are—only 12%, and about 70% of what is provided—so the vast majority of people get their pets through fairly dodgy provision, and the simple fact is that, unless the Minister can tell us, we do not know how many people are out there operating. That is an awful thing to say, and it is because many of them do not operate in this country at all. As has been said, they operate through the south of Ireland and eastern Europe, so the animals get here after the most perilous of journeys. One presumes that many do not get here at all because they suffer in transit.
I agree with what has been said. I will not go through some of the more gory stories, but we have to recognise that they are there and take them up. I hope the Minister will take away from the debate the need for action. Most of us agree on the need for a ban. Regulation is always called for, but a complete ban seems to be the way forward in this case. Labour would support that as part of an animal welfare Act, which could likewise deal with other evils out there. As always, I am aware that it could become a Christmas tree Bill, which we stick on things to ban—we all have our favourites—but that would be appropriate in this case because people feel passionately about it.
I thank those who introduced the petition and who support Lucy’s law. The message is that the Government need to act quickly and comprehensively, because this is a trade that should not be allowed to continue in the way that it has. Puppy smuggling is one of those animal welfare issues about which one thinks, “Why does anyone do it?” As I say, they do it purely because they want to make money. There is no other reason why the trade continues.
The Animal and Plant Health Agency has done some sterling work, alongside the Dog’s Trust. I thank the Dog’s Trust, Battersea Dogs Home, Cats Protection, various other organisations and other private contributors, who have given me lots of information, which I do not intend to impart. We all know that this is a well-trailed area. It is known exactly what is going on and what should be going on.
Sadly, where the Government have acted—for instance, with the pet travel scheme—there is evidence that it has not helped, because people have perhaps used that as a device to bring in animals where other means would not have been allowed. Of course, we would strongly argue that we need additional border guards. Whatever one’s view on Brexit—no doubt the Minister and I will debate Brexit again—we need to patrol and maintain our borders, because this unacceptable trade goes on daily. Whatever we feel about a ban, we could do more to crack down on what is coming through, because it is clearly unacceptable. I hope the Minister will say something about that. Surely we must have a means to deal with that, notwithstanding the need for a ban on the third-party provision of puppies, as well as cats and other animals, as has been said. It is not just puppies; we could get into rabbits, guinea pigs and so on. Sadly, these animals are being abused, because they are being bred purely for the worst of reasons.
International studies have shown that puppies obtained from pet shops have, as has been said, a lower life expectancy than other puppies and suffer much more from disease. That is made worse if they come here from other parts of the world, as they have already faced the problems of transit. Labour would support banning third-party sales, and we hope we can get on with it. It is no good just promising it; people now expect us to take action through Parliament, so we cannot allow a delay, and obviously this is also about welfare standards, traceability, transparency and accountability.
What does my hon. Friend think would be the right sanction for those who broke a ban? Does he feel that they should face a custodial sentence or a fine? I want to ask the Minister the same question when he speaks, but I would like to hear from the shadow Minister first.
I could have done with advance warning. That is a bit unfair; we are supposed to be on the same side. I think we should have strong sanctions in this area. It is not just a question of banning people from taking part in this trade; we should have the toughest sanctions. This is about animal cruelty. This is as bad as dogfighting or some of the cruelties inflicted on horses left in the worst possible conditions through the winter. It is awful and, as a nation of animal lovers, we should feel strongly about it, so I hope there will be the possibility of criminal sanctions, because these people are acting criminally. This is not some minor trade; people make serious money out of it, so they should be dealt with by the full force of the law, because of how these animals are bred and how they are kept, in the worst of conditions.
The sad thing is that these are often the animals that are bought as pets but end up in the shelters or rescue centres because of their health problems and other problems. Many of the wonderful voluntary organisations in this sector are full to bursting, because of these animals that have been discarded. Again, it would seem sensible to investigate further where those animals come from before they arrive in our shelters, because that is a serious worry. Whenever staff from the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home come here and talk to us, they say that they cannot take any more animals. They are forever having to make difficult decisions about how many animals they can keep, because they are inundated with people who think it is fun to have a pet for three or four months, but then realise that they cannot look after it and so dispose of it. Hon. Members have said this, but we need to think about the education process—“A dog isn’t just for Christmas, it’s for life”. People need to understand that it is a lifetime commitment.
This is also about resources, and I totally agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who asked where the resources are. It is no good having a ban if we do not enforce it or follow it up with prosecutions and so on.
I will make a final couple of points. As for this idea that people should take an animal only if it is with its mother and has clearly been bred through that particular animal, it is difficult to tell that, but registered and properly run breeders would pride themselves on providing that information, and they would be able to prove it. In a sense, they would have to be able to license themselves, by showing that a puppy was the offspring of the mother. That is where the care and the proper breeding process could be seen in its entirety.
As I have said, we are not talking about Brexit today, but it would be interesting to know whether we could go ahead and introduce a ban without having to go through all the EU regulations, because clearly elements of this are subject to EU oversight.
To conclude, I hope the Minister will say that this is something we all agree on. There is a consultation, but one hopes that everyone is saying that a ban is appropriate and can be progressed, and so we just need to get on with this, rather than waiting. We would prefer a ban as part of an overall animal welfare Bill, but it might be something we could introduce because of the level of agreement that exists, because of the harm being done and because of the duplicity involved. People end up with these pets, thinking they are doing something good for themselves and their children, when all they are really doing is fuelling this terrible trade. If we could get some clarity on where the Government are going on this, we will give our support in terms of any time that is necessary, but a ban is right, a ban is appropriate and a ban is needed.
I am sure that even if this had been a contentious and divisive debate, you would have been impeccably neutral, Sir Roger, but may I take this opportunity to acknowledge the work that you have done in this area? You will be pleased to know that there was a strong degree of consensus throughout the discussion of this issue.
In addition, I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on the way that he introduced the debate and on being so generous with the number of interventions that he took from some Members who were obviously unable to stay for the full duration of the debate.
Finally, I congratulate the supporters of this e-petition, which has secured so many signatures in such a short time and attracted so many Members to Westminster Hall today to speak passionately on this important issue.
As several hon. Members will know, I have championed improved animal welfare when it comes to puppies and dog-breeding establishments for a number of years; in fact, since I was a Back Bencher. I advocated a reduction in the threshold before puppy breeders required a licence. The background to this debate, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, is that the way that we treat puppies in the first few months of their life is, just as it is with a human child, incredibly important to their development.
The welfare charities in this sector can give many tragic examples of young dogs or puppies that come into their care and that they are simply unable to rehome because it is not safe to place them with a family. That is due to the abusive and neglectful way that they were raised in the first few months of their life. For me, therefore, tackling the way that we regulate and license dog breeders is particularly important.
The second issue that has long needed addressing is the introduction of new regulations to tackle the growth of internet or online trading. Some very good work has been done by the Pet Advertising Advisory Group and I commend all those organisations that have signed up to the group’s code. It is a robust code and the group has done well to draw it up.
One of the things we have done, which I will come on to, is strengthen the rules around online trading and the way that we license those who trade online, because there had been some doubt regarding the previous pets legislation, which dated back to the 1950s, about whether online traders were caught or covered by it. However, we have now clarified that matter.
The culmination of this process, during which I and others raised several points over a number of years, was a consultation on these matters to strengthen the pet licensing regime. I am very pleased to say that the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018 passed on to the statute book earlier this year, and those regulations provide statutory minimum welfare standards that all licensed dog breeders and vendors of pet animals must meet. This is the first time that licensed breeders and sellers of dogs will be required to meet statutory minimum welfare standards.
Previously, those statutory standards were set out only in guidance but now they are a requirement before a licence can be obtained, which brings greater consistency. We have developed the new standards with the welcome involvement of the Canine and Feline Sector Group, which represents a broad range of vets, local authorities, the pet industry and welfare charities.
The new regulations and the new statutory code that goes with them achieve a number of things. First, there are clear regulatory requirements for licensed breeders and sellers to protect the welfare of the animals. Secondly, we have lowered the threshold for the number of puppy litters that someone is allowed to breed in a year so that more breeders can be brought into a licensing regime. That means that anyone in the business of both breeding and selling dogs will need a licence and, irrespective of whether they claim to be in the business of breeding, they will need a licence if they breed three or more litters a year. Thirdly, anyone selling pets commercially will need a licence, whether they are trading online or they are a pet shop. That addresses the point that the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) raised. Licensed breeders must show puppies alongside their mother before a sale is made and they can sell only their own puppies.
In addition, pet advertisements will now require the seller’s licence number and country of origin and the residence of the pet to be included. The sale of puppies and kittens under the age of eight weeks is now banned, which closes a loophole that existed for some pet shops regarding some pets. Licensed sellers must also show puppies to the purchaser before a sale is completed, an intervention we have made to try to curtail the growth of online trading and, finally, a new licence condition applies to dog breeders to prevent the breeding of dogs with harmful genetic disorders, which addresses the point raised by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) about the tragedy of pets often having defects and health problems because they have not been properly bred or cared for.
The 2018 regulations come into force on 1 October and, taken together, represent a significant improvement in pet animal welfare legislation in this country.
What the Minister has outlined is very good as far as it goes, but it deals only with the more respectable end of the market, tightening up regulation there. Does he have any figures on how many puppies are bought and sold on the streets of the UK through the illegal trade—illegally imported, trafficked—as opposed to coming through breeders who are likely to abide by the regulations?
I was going to come on to that point and to the specific issue of the debate. The measures in the new regulations substantially tighten up areas where there were weaknesses in the law. In particular, bringing greater clarity to the fact that online traders must have a licence, and lowering the threshold of the number of puppies someone can breed before they require a licence, are significant steps forward. However, I am aware that for some years now several people have been calling for third-party sales to be dealt with and for there to be a ban on such sales—for puppies in particular and, called for by a number of others, for kittens.
It is fair to say that although the petition was launched only on 1 March, the public reaction has been rapid. It has already attracted more than 140,000 signatures, which shows the strength of feeling people in this country have for the welfare of dogs. However, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, even before that, the Government had made it clear that it was their intention to consider the issue. On 8 February, we announced a call for evidence to consider a ban on third-party sales of puppies and kittens. Such a ban means that pet shops, pet dealers and other outlets and licensed sellers of puppies and kittens would be unable to sell them unless they themselves had bred them. The implication is that anyone seeking to acquire a puppy or kitten would have to look to either an authorised breeder or an animal rescue or rehoming organisation.
It has been suggested to us that a ban could achieve several things. First, it could ensure consistency with Government advice that purchasers should seek to see puppies or kittens with their mother, which goes beyond the new regulations for licensed breeders and applies the condition to everyone. It could also assist purchasers to make informed choices based on seeing a puppy or kitten with its mother, and encourage responsible buying decisions. It could incentivise welfare improvements in high-risk commercial dog-breeding establishments by ensuring transparency, accountability and appropriate remuneration for breeders. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it could prevent the sale of puppies that had not been bred to recognised standards of welfare in this country. The Government, therefore, consider there to be merit in exploring that further. I am aware that there are consistent, though difficult-to-quantify, concerns about puppies that are bred overseas, smuggled illegally into the UK and then sold out of the boots of cars at service stations, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling).
At the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs we have been involved since 2015 in an operation to tackle the scourge of underage puppies being smuggled into the UK, something I feel strongly about. When I was responsible for this part of the brief in 2015, although we were doing work to strengthen regulations, I was concerned about the reports of large numbers of puppies being smuggled, particularly from the Irish Republic and east European countries, to be sold in the UK. Since 2015, our vets from the Animal and Plant Health Agency have been stationed at a number of ports and in just three years we have seized more than 700 puppies that were considered to be under 12 weeks old, the minimum before which they are able to be transported. That evidence of underage puppies being smuggled into the country suggests there could be a problem there that we ought to address, which is why we have run a call for evidence.
The call for evidence ran from 8 February to 2 May and we received about 350 responses, which we are currently analysing. The next step would, of course, be to consult on specific options. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) invited me to make her cry by making an announcement today. I will not be doing so today; I will stop just short of it, but hon. Members will be pleased to know that we anticipate being likely to introduce a consultation based on the early feedback from the call for evidence. They will, however, have to wait a little longer to see further details.
I want now to address a few wider issues, in particular regarding sentencing, because the pet licensing measures are only part of our work. We are also taking action to improve animal welfare in other areas. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced last September that we will increase the maximum penalty for animal cruelty offences from six months to five years in prison. There was an intervention earlier on the shadow Minister regarding likely sentences. That would obviously be a matter for the consultation, but any such step would be likely to be taken within the framework of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The current sentencing guidelines refer to an unlimited fine or a maximum custodial sentence of six months and, as I say, we have made it clear that we want to raise that maximum sentence. It will always be important for an individual judge on an individual case to be able to reach an appropriate sentence based on the particular circumstances.
The Minister mentioned that 90 puppies, I think, had been seized while being illegally imported. What happened to the people who were responsible for that illegal trafficking? Were they fined or jailed? Do we have any idea what happened to them?
There were prosecutions. Actually, some 700 puppies were seized in the course of three years for being under the age of 12 weeks. When we were looking at the issue around a year ago, I asked officials whether there was a pattern of it being a small number of individuals, but generally speaking it was a diverse range of individuals often doing one-off trades rather than high-velocity trades. Others are using different people to bring animals in. It is difficult to discern a pattern of it being, for example, a small number of people who are very difficult to challenge. There have been prosecutions in the past, including through Operation Bloodhound a couple of years ago. I understand there have also been prosecutions related to some of the interventions.
The Minister might be aware that we increased the sentencing powers for judges two to three years ago in Northern Ireland. Will he undertake to examine the roll-out and the effectiveness of that change in Northern Ireland and so consider whether he should increase sentences across the UK?
We have made it clear that our intention is to raise the maximum penalty for animal cruelty offences—the most sickening offences that take place—to five years. As part of our work on that, we will of course want to look at the approach taken by other parts of the UK and any lessons we might be able to learn from that.
We published a draft Bill in December. It will allow the courts to set realistic sentences for the extreme cases of animal cruelty that I know sicken all right-minded people, including every Member participating in this debate. We will seek an appropriate opportunity to bring forward the legislation to make that change.
I want to touch briefly on another contentious issue, which is the use of electronic training collars for dogs and cats. This is another area where we have been doing some work. We have recently completed a public consultation on a proposal to ban the use of such devices. It closed on 27 April, and we received around 7,500 responses, which we are analysing. There was a very high response rate, and the consultation sparked passionate views on both sides of the containment fence. We will consider those representations and announce further steps in due course.
A number of Members talked about education. Will DEFRA launch an education programme to explain to the public that they should buy puppies only through licensed breeders? I know it is a very small part of the overall supply of puppies, but that would be a simple thing for DEFRA to do, although it may cost money. Will the Minister say whether that is something it will do?
We publicise any way we can the existing regulations, including the guidance that people should see puppies with their mother before purchasing them. That is long-standing DEFRA guidance. About two years ago, I had a discussion with some of the pet food manufacturers to try to persuade them that they should add this guidance to some of their packaging so that people who were considering buying pets would be reminded of it. I could not get the manufacturers to take up my suggestion, but it was worth a try. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. If we introduced a change in the law, we would ensure we did everything we could to publicise that.
Finally on enforcement—a number of Members raised the issue—we have provided in our new licensing conditions for local authorities to be able to go for full cost recovery to fund their work in this area. While the internet provides many challenges, it also provides a relatively easy way to identify people selling pets in the UK who are not legally entitled to do so.
I thank the Minister for his response to the debate. A great many charities do excellent work on animal welfare. We know who they are; they have been mentioned. Is it his intention to correspond with those charitable organisations to gauge their opinion on how animal welfare laws can move forward? I think it is important we have their input in the process. Have they been part of it?
We work very closely with all the animal welfare charities. As was pointed out earlier, a number of the charities had some reservations about going for a third-party ban. They felt there were other more significant things we could do to tackle the problem of online trading. Now we have done those things, there is a growing consensus that extending the ban might be worth considering. I do not think we should hold it against those animal charities that had some concerns about the measure, but just to reassure the hon. Gentleman, we regularly engage with a whole range of animal welfare charities on that and other issues, and they have all contributed considerably to the consultations we have run.
It was a privilege to open today’s e-petition debate. I am grateful to all the Back-Bench and Front-Bench Members who have taken part in what has been a consensual debate. I was happy with many of the Minister’s comments, particularly that there was merit in exploring the issue further. I look forward to the consultation in due course. I genuinely feel that Lucy’s law would be the single biggest step towards ending unnecessary animal cruelty and reforming dog breeding welfare.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 213451 relating to the sale of puppies by pet shops and commercial third-party dealers.