[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered animal rescue centres.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Having lost two thirds of my first minute, I am pleased that my speech will go on for only 12 minutes, so I should be able to accommodate one or two colleagues who have indicated that they might wish to intervene. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue. I thank the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Dogs Trust, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and Blue Cross for their briefings, and Richard Mitchell in my office for pulling them all together. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place.
This is a relatively simple issue: animal cruelty is wrong, we recognise that in our laws, and there are penalties for those who break those laws. But there is an ongoing debate in Government about whether those laws need strengthening. There seems to be a consensus across most animal welfare organisations, which have long campaigned for increased sentences for animal cruelty and are working to change legislation, to increase the maximum sentence from six months to five years’ imprisonment. Some 250,000 pets who have been badly treated, abused or abandoned enter their centres every year, yet the custodial penalty of six months on conviction is the lowest custodial penalty in 100 jurisdictions across four continents.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the consensus on the need for change reaches this side of the House too? Does he agree that there is a good case for setting up an animal abuse register, so that those who abuse animals can be tracked down and prevented from keeping animals in future?
I very much take the right hon. Gentleman’s point that this is not a party political issue. Indeed, most of my comments do not attack the Government but commend them for the comments and proposals they have made. However, we need to move on. He makes an interesting suggestion, and perhaps the Minister will respond to it.
Animal cruelty offenders are five times more likely to have a violent crime record. Welfare organisations were pleased when the Government issued the draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill in December 2018. Those organisations have long argued that several of the activities covered by the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018 were in serious need of review.
I am sure that my hon. Friend shares my concern that there is no statutory regulation of animal rescue centres in the UK. Since local authorities do not collect that information, I submitted a freedom of information request to every local authority in England and found that only 18% of rescue homes are regulated, through their membership of the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes. Does he agree that is extremely concerning, and does he welcome the efforts of the RSPCA, Dogs Trust and others to implement statutory regulations?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing forward a good issue for us to debate in Westminster Hall, as he always does. I told him earlier that my wife is a volunteer at Assisi Animal Sanctuary. There are many organisations across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that do exceptional work and are regularly monitored. Assisi is one of those, as is the RSPCA, PAWS and Dogs Trust—there are some good examples. Does he think that the Government should perhaps look at the good examples when bringing together the legislation?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman’s wife on her work. I mentioned four of the main organisations, but there are many across the country working in this field and I pay tribute to them all; they do fantastic work and we appreciate it.
The 2018 regulations refresh the licensing regime for: selling animals as pets; dog breeding; boarding kennels; boarding for cats; home boarding for dogs; day care for dogs—regulated for the first time—hiring horses; and keeping animals for exhibition.
Next week I will visit Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, as I do nearly every Christmas, to look at the fantastic work it does. Does my hon. Friend agree that there should be an onus on breeders? When dogs have breeding problems, often the rescue centres or the adopting families have to sort them out. Once the breeders have sold the dogs, the unscrupulous ones will forget about that dog even if it has a breeding problem. Does my hon. Friend believe that breeders have a responsibility?
My hon. Friend makes a relevant and eloquent point. I can add to his criticism of unscrupulous breeders. That problem needs to be addressed.
The 2018 regulations do not address the regulation of rescue centres. The RSPCA has issued a position statement on licensing animal rescue and rehoming centres. It believes that the Government should introduce licensing of animal rescue and rehoming centres under the 2018 regulations. It feels that would close a legal loophole as well as drive up standards and allow for enforcement. Usefully, there are standards already in existence that would assist with licensing and reduce the burden on local authorities.
It is important to get the definition of an animal sanctuary or rescue or rehoming centre right, to ensure the correct establishments are captured by any new law. Blue Cross comments that there is a growing trend for the establishment of “rescue centres” to import dogs from abroad to sell on to members of the public—not genuine rescue centres as we would understand them.
The hon. Gentleman is a former colleague from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, where we have raised this issue many times. Northern Ireland has different legislation—we toughened our legislation over the past few years. Does he agree that stiffer penalties need to be introduced for those found using dogs for dog fighting and gambling?
The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point. The Select Committee on which we served—he is still a distinguished member—has looked at the issue, which is troubling for welfare organisations and needs Government attention.
The RSPCA believes that all rescue and rehoming centres and sanctuaries should be licensed under the animal regulations, first, to close the loophole in the third-party ban on sales and prevent third-party sellers from setting up as animal rescue centres. Secondly, it would improve the welfare of animals kept in such establishments by creating a legislative structure that drives improvements and standards of keeping and allows the enforcement of such standards. Thirdly, standards already exist that would assist licensing to reduce the burden on local authorities.
The RSPCA also believes there is a risk that third-party sellers could become rescue centres, to evade the ban on third-party sales, so it would welcome the licensing of rescue centres and sanctuaries. Indeed, some pet shops already have a charitable arm, such as Pets at Home, which has the Support Adoption for Pets operation that sells animals that have been abandoned and rescued, such as rabbits, to rescue organisations or gives them back to Pets at Home.
The RSPCA stresses that if a charity’s aims are generic and those aims are—on the face of it—being followed, the Charity Commission could be limited in the actions it could take, even if the organisation is a front that was set up to avoid the third-party ban. It argues that licensing rescue centres would close that loophole. Specialist knowledge is required to operate an animal sanctuary or rescue or rehoming centre, in terms of management and administrative skills as well as expertise in caring for animals. All sanctuaries should be required to obtain a licence to carry on such activities. The RSPCA does not believe that there should be a size or animal number threshold below which establishments should be excluded from licensing. Organisations and individuals operating as rescue centres can, despite their laudable original aims, become overwhelmed and struggle to meet welfare standards.
The RSPCA undertakes around 85% of enforcement action deriving from the Animal Welfare Act 2006. As well as the standards coming into force as part of the 2018 regulations, ADCH, which my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Jo Platt) mentioned, has a code of practice, which sets standards of animal care. That may be a good basis for the licensing of rescue and rehoming centres, and may aid local authorities to enforce any licensing regime.
ADCH has 132 members in eight countries. The majority—more than 80—are located in England. ADCH, which is 33 years old, has had enforceable standards since 2015. Those standards, which are both self-audited and externally audited, cover the management and governance of a centre, as well as the health and welfare of the cats and dogs in it and transported to it. However, membership of ADCH is voluntary, so rehoming organisations and animal sanctuaries are not required to adhere to the code of practice unless they choose to become a member and meet those requirements.
Although self-regulation is an important step in the right direction, formal regulation is required to ensure that all establishments, as opposed to just those that want to, meet suitable levels of animal welfare. One possibility is for ADCH members that apply and are audited against the ADCH standards to be defined as low risk in a licensing regime.
The RSPCA understands that discussions are under way in Scotland and Wales about improving standards in sanctuaries and in rescue and rehoming centres, and, in Scotland, about introducing a licensing system. In Wales, a definition of places called “animal welfare establishments” has been proposed for the Government to consider, based on discussions with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The Dogs Trust has also weighed in. It points out that there is currently no legislation in place, so anyone can set themselves up as a rehoming organisation or sanctuary. Furthermore, there is little proactively to safeguard the animals involved, as local authorities are not required to inspect those premises, so they do not do so. It adds that poor welfare can have a knock-on effect when an animal is rehomed.
My hon. Friend is making an impassioned speech about why we need better regulation. The Hope sanctuary in Llanharan is in my constituency, where the local authority simply does not have the money or the capacity to check licences. That is part of a wider cuts agenda in local government. Does he agree that, in some cases, these services are there to try to support local government because it no longer has the capacity to protect animals?
My hon. Friend has much better knowledge of his local centre than I do, and the fact that he is concerned about it concerns me. I am glad that he called my speech impassioned—I am actually hastening to try to get through it, having taken a number of interventions. I hope to get to the end, and I hope the Minister understands that I may run over by a few minutes.
Dogs Trust calls on the Government to address the lack of regulation of the rehoming sector as a means of protecting our nation’s animals and creating transparency in the industry. It wants the Government to regulate all rehoming organisations and animal sanctuaries through a system of registration and licensing. It also recommends that the Government should develop an independent, centrally accessible team of appropriately trained inspectors that can be utilised by all local authorities to inspect animal establishments—not only rehoming centres and sanctuaries, but those involved in activities such as boarding, breeding and selling.
The Pet Advertising Advisory Group, which is chaired by Dogs Trust, also operates a system of self-regulation for online adverts offering pets for sale. Owing to its voluntary nature, PAAG has reached a plateau in the progress it can achieve, as some websites are unwilling to engage and apply the group’s minimum standards for online adverts. With no obligation on those who do not want to engage to improve, self-regulation will always be limited to those who want to do more to protect animal welfare.
In late 2017, the Scottish Government consulted on introducing a registration and licensing system for animal sanctuaries and rehoming activities in Scotland, following the discovery of bad practice at Ayrshire Ark and the subsequent “Sort Our Shelters” campaign by The Scottish Sun. The Scottish Government published a summary of responses and are now drafting regulations. The RSPCA recently conducted multiple operations, which Dogs Trust supported to ensure that there was sufficient capacity to house all the animals seized. In 2013, six members of staff at Crunchy’s animal rescue centre in Oxfordshire were convicted of nearly 100 counts of animal cruelty.
Although the regulations do not cover rescue centres, the Government have committed to banning third-party sales of puppies and kittens under six months of age, with an exemption for rescue centres. It is essential that regulation of rescue centres is delivered hand in hand with that ban to prevent damaging unintended consequences, which may include such places being prevented from rehoming puppies and kittens legally and third-party dealers passing themselves off as rescue centres to circumvent the ban. I welcome the news that the Government are minded to make that change.
Currently, any person, organisation or animal welfare establishment that regularly receives vulnerable animals with a view to rehoming them, rehabilitating them or providing them with long-term care can do so across the UK without licensing or regulation. The only organisation that provides mentorship to smaller rescue centres and actively works to raise standards is ADCH, which is run by Battersea and has already been mentioned.
Another example of worst practice was highlighted at Capricorn Animal Rescue in Mold, north Wales. The Charity Commission had been investigating governance issues, but RSPCA Cymru had to step in following a request for support. In the past couple of years, Capricorn has been subject to protests and petitions by former volunteers concerned about its animal welfare standards. Those issues have been raised locally with my right hon. Friends the Members for Delyn (David Hanson) and for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), and they are on the case.
The most senior animal welfare charities are very concerned about the vacuum in this area of animal protection. The Government have made reassuring noises on the issue—their consultation indicated that they are minded to provide stiffer sentences and to look at the absence of regulation—and Scotland and Wales are moving on it, too. As I said, this is not an attack on the Government. I welcome what they have said, and I would be grateful if the Minister reassured us about what action he plans to take and the expected timeframe for that action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on bringing forward this debate about animal rescue homes, which do a vital job looking after unwanted animals. He made his case with characteristic clarity and enthusiasm. No doubt he drew on his time as a respected Minister of State at DEFRA between 2009 and 2010. I am grateful for the tone he struck, and for the energy he put into his speech.
I acknowledge the valuable work that animal rescue homes up and down the country do to rescue and rehome thousands of sick, abandoned and stray animals each year. The wife of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) obviously does important work in that regard, as do many volunteers, and we should thank them for that. The work of rescue homes is taken for granted by too many. We should remember that most people working in those homes are volunteers, who are incredibly dedicated to the welfare of the animals in their care.
The RSPCA, Dogs Trust, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and Blue Cross are well known to us and do fantastic work rescuing, caring for and rehoming animals in their care. We can be confident that animals in those organisations are looked after to the highest welfare standards, but we should not forget the smaller and nationally less well-known rescue homes that also work non-stop to care for unwanted and stray animals in our local communities.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) for raising that issue. I heard what he said in his remarks earlier. The records of people convicted of animal welfare offences are recorded on the police national computer. I will gladly pick that issue up with him separately to explore this further, if he would like to do so.
Improving and ensuring the welfare of animals is at the heart of our recent welfare reforms. We have introduced regulations which came into force in October, including a requirement that licensed breeders should show puppies with their mothers. Local authorities also have more powers to inspect and enforce regulations. The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), who is no longer in his seat, talked about the need to keep focused on welfare standards with breeders. Our actions do not stop there. The Government will also increase the maximum penalty for animal cruelty offences. It was announced last year that the custodial maximum penalty for animal cruelty will increase from six months’ imprisonment to five years. That remains the Government’s commitment and we will introduce it as soon as parliamentary time allows.
It is clearly an issue that I need to take more time to look at. As a relatively new animal welfare Minister, I will follow up with officials about this, based on the hon. Gentleman’s comments.
We are absolutely committed to taking this legislation through, when parliamentary time allows. We have also been looking to raise our welfare standards even higher; in February, we published a consultation on a potential ban on third-party sales. Third-party sales of puppies are those that are not sold directly by breeders. Sales are often linked to so-called puppy farms, which many of us have real concerns about. We know that there are concerns that third-party sales of puppies and kittens can lead to poorer standards of welfare than when puppies and cats are purchased directly from a breeder. We have heard other reports about that during the debate. A ban would mean that puppies and kittens, younger than six months old, could only be sold by the breeder directly or adopted through rescue and rehoming centres.
Our recently published regulatory triage assessment—a mini impact assessment—on the impact of a proposed ban on third-party sales estimates that 5% of puppy sales are by third-party sellers, which amounts to 40,000 puppies per annum. The RSPCA estimates that some dealers were individually earning over £2 million annually from the trade, and in many cases those revenues were not declared to HMRC. Our view is that the demand for puppies can and should be met by changes to the practices of existing breeders in order to breed more puppies, and by selling directly to the consumer. That will further improve the welfare of puppies.
Some stakeholders raised concerns that any proposed ban could be circumvented by unscrupulous centres presenting themselves as a legitimate rescue or rehoming centre. That is why we have been looking at licensing rehoming centres, as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned, as well as the hon. Member for Leigh (Jo Platt), who has worked hard on the freedom of information requests she is taking forward. I will look at that more forensically in slower time, but I thank the hon. Member for raising that.
Sadly, there are some rescue homes that, for whatever reason, fall short of the acceptable standard of welfare. As with any keeper of animals, an animal rescue home must provide for the welfare needs of animals, as required by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, but they are not licensed in the same way as dog breeders or pet shops. In response to a call for evidence on a proposal to ban the commercial third-party sale of puppies and kittens in February, many stakeholders pointed out that we should also consider closer regulation of rescue homes. Their argument was that we need to address concerns about animal welfare standards in some unscrupulous rescue homes.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I recognise that votes may have taken hon. Members’ interest away from this debate, but for those of us who are here, and particularly for the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, we will continue to address the important concerns that he has expressed.
I was saying that it is argued that we need to address concerns about animal welfare standards in some unscrupulous rescue homes, and to do so partly to address concerns that third-party sellers would simply set up as rescues to avoid the proposed ban. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government share the concerns completely. Therefore, as part of our consultation on a third-party sale ban, which we launched in August, we asked specifically whether the public thought that animal rescue and rehoming centres should be licensed.
The consultation closed in September and attracted nearly 7,000 responses. We are in the process of analysing the consultation responses and will publish a summary document shortly. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be interested to see that. To bring in licensing of animal rescue homes, we would need to be clear about the benefits and the potential impacts. About 150 rescue homes are members of the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes, to which he referred. As he set out in his well-informed speech, the ADCH has set standards for its members to ensure that good welfare standards are met.
One member of the ADCH is the RSPCA. That charity says that in the past eight years it has investigated some 11 individuals and obtained 80 convictions against five people involved in animal rescue; a further two people received a caution. Those cases involved a total of more than 150 animals of different species, including dogs, cats, horses, farm animals and birds. That is despite all the hard work and the ongoing assistance that the RSPCA is willing to give and provides to failing establishments to ensure that they meet the standards and the needs of the animals in their care.
Regulation could benefit the sector and, importantly, the welfare of the animals involved, but we must remember the work and contributions of smaller rescue centres, which we have referred to and which in the vast majority of cases do all they can to promote the welfare of animals in their care. Many are not members of the ADCH, and there may be hundreds out there. DEFRA is working with those organisations and other animal welfare groups to build a better understanding of what the issues are for smaller organisations. We want to work with them to ensure that the appropriate welfare standards are put in place so that those who are operating genuinely, with the best intentions, can do so. The ADCH standards are well regarded and we will further consider them as part of our further work. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is concerned to hear about that as well.
I think that more needs to be done, following on from the Dogs Trust reception today, to tackle puppy smuggling. That, too, will help well-intentioned rehoming centres. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that much more targeted action is needed to tackle puppy smuggling from end to end—both supply and demand. We have zero tolerance for unscrupulous dealers and breeders abusing the pet travel scheme in order to traffic under-age puppies into the UK. Those puppies have to endure very long journeys and they are not effectively protected against very serious diseases, including rabies and tapeworm. That poses a risk not only to their health, but to the health of other animals and people in this country.
The puppies spend many of their early weeks of life living in completely unacceptable welfare and health conditions. We must stop that in its tracks. We will be working hard to do that. We shall also be taking forward campaigns that will focus on changing the opinion and behaviour of the public, so that they have a better understanding of what is required in order to purchase a puppy responsibly, and that will, at the same time, raise awareness of the scourge of puppy smuggling. Doing that will put greater focus on proper breeders and the valid work of rehoming centres.
The Government have made it clear that we take animal welfare very seriously. We have a clear and positive action plan and have followed that up with a series of announcements, including those about updating and improving the laws on the licensing of certain animal-related activities and about increasing the maximum penalties for animal cruelty. We have consulted on banning third-party sales of puppies and kittens and are looking very actively at licensing rehoming centres to ensure that all rescue homes meet the appropriate standards of animal welfare. Hon. Members can therefore be assured that the Government are not afraid to take action that is needed, and will go on doing so in support of Members across the House who want to see action taken.
I again thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse for his very thoughtful and considered contribution today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered animal rescue centres.