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Cat Welfare

Volume 651: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered cat welfare.

I am grateful to you, Mr Hollobone, and I am grateful that the Minister is in his place. This debate about cat welfare is linked to a private Member’s Bill that I presented to the House in July 2018, after speaking to a fantastic local charity in my constituency, Animals Lost and Found in Kent. To be frank, I was not aware of its great work until we were looking at the national volunteers charity day and my wonderful staff member Finlay, who is sitting in the Gallery behind me, said, “This is a list of charities in the constituency. Which one would you like to go and visit?” So I said, “Animals Lost and Found in Grange Road, Gillingham. Let’s go and see the great work they do.”

Meeting Natasha and Dee was inspirational. They are two individuals who do not have a lot of money, but they do have an amazing heart in wanting to do the right thing and ensuring that animals that have been abandoned, lost or injured get the support they need. I went to the back of their house and I saw a number of cats who had been neglected, injured or abandoned. I said to Natasha and Dee, “What can I do to help you?” They said that the legislation needed to be looked at.

There are 11.1 million cats in our country, who are part of our everyday families. They bring immense happiness to each and every one of us.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend secured the debate. Is he aware that in 2016 the press reported 202 cats as having been shot in the United Kingdom, with 90% shot in either England or Wales, where we have more lax laws on air rifles? Does he agree that we should look at tightening up the law on the possession and ownership of airguns?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that important information from 2016. I was made aware of specific points about firearms, banning electric training aids and the control of airguns by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals—the wonderful charity that does great work in this area—but I was not aware of his specific point. It is absolutely right that we do everything we can on the regulation of those firearms to prevent that kind of completely unacceptable behaviour and to ensure that the welfare of animals is protected at every level.

The amazing joy that these wonderful animals bring to our lives also means that we have a responsibility to do everything we possibly can to ensure that their welfare is protected.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Stapeley Grange Cattery in my constituency, which does an amazing job at looking after and re-homing cats. I also pay tribute to my own cat, Pudding, who is a remarkable addition to our family.

I, too, pay tribute to the work of that cattery and congratulate the hon. Lady on the new member of her family. I am sure that her cat will be treated like a member of the family, as cats are throughout the country.

I could look at several cat welfare issues, including the public education campaign, cat breeding legislation, the control and regulation of airguns, which was raised earlier, and fireworks.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. As a cat lover, I am very lucky that Trixie the cat came to me as a stray, and that, growing up, we had Tippy the cat, who came from the Cats Protection League. The Cats Protection League’s 2022 agenda encapsulates a lot of the issues that he has talked about, from microchipping to reducing violence against cats. It is really important that we get behind that campaign.

I am so glad that I gave way, because the hon. Lady talked about Cats Protection, which I have met with and which has written to other Members and me. I was delighted to attend its Christmas parliamentary reception, along with other colleagues here. It does amazing work, and it is important that we work with it to ensure that we get the right kind of framework.

I was making the point that we could look at several cat welfare issues, but I will focus on two: the compulsory microchipping of all cats and reporting after an accident.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. When I got married some 32 years ago, my wife loved cats but I perhaps did not. However, as I continued to love my wife, I continued to love her cats as well. That is how life is. She is a volunteer and worker at the Assisi Animal Sanctuary, which does excellent work for cats and dogs. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that charities such as Assisi do a phenomenal job in caring for stray cats and in providing sterilisation and other deterrents that he referred to? No matter how good a job it does, we in the House must do ours, and to an equally high standard. Unfortunately, I believe that thus far we are not achieving that.

I completely agree. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has done some brilliant work, but we have an immense amount more to do. I also agree on the first point. The hon. Gentleman has an amazing wife, who made him become a cat lover and animal lover. I am not married yet, but if I get married, I will need somebody who likes cats, so that we can get a cat. Coming in and out of London, I do not have time to have a cat; we are talking about animal welfare, and cats must be given time. That is key. His point about supporting and doing the right thing as parliamentarians—not simply talking about something but pushing for the right framework to be put in place—is absolutely right.

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge the role that cats play in the social fabric of our society, particularly for the elderly or vulnerable? They play a vital role in providing the comfort and companionship that those people are looking for.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will have seen the PDSA’s PAW report, which talked about cats’ five welfare needs, one of which is companionship. We talk about loneliness and the Government doing the right thing and people having the required environment to be happy, and what cats and animals do is absolutely amazing, so he makes a valid point.

My first point is about the compulsory microchipping of cats. I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 25 October. He said that the proposals in my presentation Bill on the compulsory microchipping of cats and ensuring that car accidents involving cats are reported, as they are when dogs are involved, were very reasonable, and that he would ask his civil servants to look into the matter. I take the Secretary of State at his word, and if he says that the proposals are very reasonable, it therefore means that to do the opposite would be very unreasonable.

In the light of the Secretary of State’s commitment and his saying that the proposals are very reasonable, I ask the Minister: are cats less important than dogs? A statutory instrument requiring dogs to be compulsorily microchipped was introduced in 2015, so there does not need to be primary legislation; such a change could be done through a statutory instrument. At the time it was said that such a change would be done with dogs first to see how the process worked, and that extending it further would then be looked at. That was in 2015. I know that the Government and Parliament work slowly, but three years to see how a system works is long enough.

I know the Minister. He and I have been here for the same amount of time—eight years. He is a wonderful man who cares passionately about animal welfare and doing the right thing, and he listens to what people have to say. A petition on, “Help me to change the law for Cats involved in RTA’s”, received 377,000 signatures. A parliamentary petition about microchipping had 33,413 signatures. A petition to introduce compulsory microchip scanning for vets, rescues and authorities had 70,800 signatures. That demonstrates that people out there want Parliament to do the right thing, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) says is our duty. Ministers can see the public interest in this area through the petitions put forward and the contributions of Members today and in previous debates.

My hon. Friend mentioned microchip legislation. It is also true that the Road Traffic Act 1988 could be amended. Section 170 requires motorists to stop and report accidents involving animals, including horses, cattle, mules, sheep, pigs and dogs, but not cats. Does he agree that it is time to amend that legislation?

My hon. Friend knows a lot about this because she chairs the all-party parliamentary group on cats and has done amazing work on this issue. She is absolutely right. We were told that legislation does not cover cats is because they are free-roaming. I say to everyone, “Let’s get away from technicality. Let’s do the right thing and let’s look at what counterparts around the world do on this issue.”

I am grateful to Mandy at CatsMatter. She gave me a copy of a piece of legislation, which I have with me today. It is article 26 of the agriculture and markets law from the State of New York Department of Agriculture and Markets. Rather than using the RTA, we could have a specific section in animal welfare provision. Section 601 in that document is entitled “Leaving scene of injury to certain animals without reporting”. It states:

“Any person operating a motor vehicle which shall strike and injure any horse, dog, cat or animal classified as cattle shall stop and endeavor to locate the owner or custodian of such animal”.

If the free-roaming issue is the reason why we cannot amend the legislation here—the RTA—I point out that cats are also free roaming in the United States, but there the issue has been addressed through separate animal welfare legislation.

I was going to come later to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), but I shall come to it now. It is absolutely at the heart of this. If an individual is going along at night and knowingly hits a cat, is there a moral obligation on them? Many people would already act, but I make to the Minister the same point that I made earlier: are cats less important than dogs? We have legislation, but we argue over a technicality. I have read Hansard for when the matter was debated previously in the other place: “Well, the issue is free roaming and we would define ‘free roaming’ this way.” Let us avoid the RTA and go with animal welfare legislation and do that because it is the right thing to do.

If someone knowingly strikes a cat, they should do the same thing as they would if they struck a dog. They would try to find the owner. If they could not find the owner, they would report the accident. This point was made to me when I asked people to clarify the matter. They said, “Should one then report it to the police? That might be onerous for the police in terms of resources.” I say, “Well, we do it for dogs, but if you don’t have to report the accident to the police, you could report it to a vet or to the local authority. You could do a number of different things.” Technicality can be avoided. This is about doing the right thing in the first place. I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That was the second part of my speech; I am grateful that it has now become the first part.

Let me quote from the wonderful charity Animals Lost and Found in Kent on the issue of compulsory microchipping:

“Our main job at Animals Lost and Found in Kent Ltd is to reunite animals, our job is extremely hard as 5 cats out of 10 are chipped, the other 5 we can’t get home and end up going through the rescue centres, that isn’t fair or the best for the cat’s welfare as the cat gets confused, upset, stressed and can shut down. Stress in cats can be very dangerous for them and can lead to big problems like a blocked bladder, urinary tract infections and urine crystals which can lead to death if not treated. Stress also brings out more sinister problems in cats like the flu. But if the cat was chipped, we could get the cat home where they belong.”

That quote is from the points given to me by Animals Lost and Found in Kent.

The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) talked about Cats Protection. I am grateful for the comments and notes given to me by Cats Protection on this matter. It says:

“In England a survey conducted for Cats Protection showed that 27% of owned cats are not microchipped. Compulsory microchipping of dogs is already in force across the whole of the UK…In the last 12 months 62% of the cats taken in by Cats Protection’s UK Adoption Centres were not microchipped. Unlike collars, microchips don’t come off, or put cats at risk of collar-related injuries.”

I say to the Minister that it would not be difficult to introduce the legislation that we are calling for. That could be done. Why is it so important? Cats Protection says:

“Failure to microchip a cat can result in the following problems:

Difficulty reuniting a cat that goes missing with its owner

Cats are needlessly rehomed because they are believed to be strays

Worry about a pet cat in the event of an accident

Vets are unable to contact cat owners in any case of emergency

Ownership disputes are difficult to resolve

Detection of cat theft may be difficult”.

Are those not good enough reasons to say that we have to act swiftly?

I have had representations from CatsMatter, Cats Protection, the PDSA and Blue Cross, which I will refer to shortly. If I send the Minister those representations, will he be kind enough to respond to all the points that they have made? In addition, will the Minister be kind enough to meet me and representatives of all the charities that I have mentioned, which have been supporting and making this case, along with my wonderful hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, who chairs the APPG?

I am looking at the time and will mention just two other points. First, the Blue Cross animal hospitals do amazing work. I am grateful to Blue Cross for allowing me to visit one of its centres and see its great work. On microchipping, it says that in 2017, 24% of cats admitted to Blue Cross were considered to be strays, but it is not uncommon for owned animals to be presented as strays because they are not microchipped or do not have updated details on their chip. I agree with those who say, “There’s no point in microchipping if you don’t ensure that the details are correct.” That has to be addressed. The other point is, where will the money come from? Charities such as Blue Cross already do the work voluntarily. The cost is not significant; it can be done. If the issue is cost, I say to the Minister: it is not that expensive; it can be done. Ways and avenues can be found, because it is the right thing to do. Blue Cross says that out of a total of 5,057 cats admitted to Blue Cross for rehoming in 2017, a staggering 80% were not microchipped. If the legislation were amended and compulsory microchipping rules brought into play, that would address a number of those points.

My second point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes has already brought to the fore, is about reporting after an accident. I say this to the Minister: if a jurisdiction in the United States addresses the issue of free roaming by covering it under animal welfare provisions, I think we should move away from amending the Road Traffic Act. That is why the presentation Bill that I put forward is called the Cats Bill. It does not talk specifically about the Road Traffic Act, because the matter can be addressed the other way round.

What I am calling for is the right thing to do. It ties in with what the Government are already trying to do. They have done a brilliant job on animal welfare, but a lot more needs to be done. I have seen the joy that cats bring. In October, for my 40th, I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, with my good friend French Hill. He is a Congressman down there and he has cats called JJ and Timber. I was not there long, but in the short time I was there, I became attached to them—I would see them when I came back after a day out. Cats are amazing creatures. They bring a lot of happiness, and I just think that if they bring us happiness, we have a moral obligation to support them—to make sure that they get the right support.

I therefore say to the Minister, who is a good man, from the bottom of my heart: can we please not just say today, “We will look to address this at some point in the future”? Short term, medium term, long term—what is the timescale now for getting this provision on to the statute book and putting it into practice?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on securing the debate. I do need to correct him on one thing, having been raised in the county town of East Sussex—Lewes. It is pronounced “Lewis”, not “Looze”, otherwise, a certain Member here will be quite angry—but we have set that straight.

I am very keen to confirm to my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who have turned up for the debate—I am pleased to see so many—that of course I will be more than willing to meet him and the various welfare groups that he has talked about to respond to their concerns expressed in writing, and to see how we can best move this matter further forward. There are also other things that I want to do on the back of my hon. Friend’s very well argued speech. That may not satisfy all his demands, but we will move forward on this agenda. Of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) will be more than welcome at that meeting as well.

I do think it is time that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham bought his own cat. He has made such a compelling case. He has shown how it can help people in their political affairs and to find their ideal partner. You never know: it might be the right thing for him to do in his own life.

Yes. It is great to see so many hon. Members with such deep personal experience with cats and involvement with welfare charities. Cats are cherished members of the family for many people. They bring great joy in homes across the country, and we need to recognise that. We also need to understand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham pointed out in his excellent speech, the distress and concern it causes when a cat gets lost and people want to find out where it might be.

I join Members in their comments praising various groups. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) is no longer in her place, but she mentioned Stapeley Grange. The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) praised the excellent work of Cats Protection. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talks about his wife’s committed work in animal welfare in various debates, and I am pleased that that work also extends to cats.

In Suffolk, we have a very dedicated individual in Kathleen Lusted. She is now approaching 100 and has given almost her whole life to looking after and protecting cats that have gone missing and providing them with new homes. She has almost single-handedly set up a Cats Protection League branch in Framlingham and Saxmundham. Will the Minister join me in thanking her and congratulating her on her life’s work protecting and looking after cats in east Suffolk?

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating his constituent on her work in Framlingham and thanking her for it. If he will provide details, I will not only put my thanks to her on the record, but I will write to her, too, given that it has been her life’s work. I appreciate the contribution that my hon. Friend has made in putting that before us.

There are so many good causes and good welfare groups that take the cause further forward, whether that is Cats Protection, the RSPCA, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home or Blue Cross. They are absolutely committed to the welfare of cats and various other animals. Through their dedicated volunteers, they ensure that in many cases cats that have been lost can be reunited with their owners. They also rehome cats.

Before I get on to the substantive point of the debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) raised an important point about air weapons. I know his interest in these matters and I recognise, along with many others, the widespread concern about the shooting of cats with air weapons. Anyone who does that is liable to prosecution for causing unnecessary suffering to an animal. The maximum sentence is currently six months in prison, but that could be extended with new legislation that we are looking to put to the House in due course. A review of air weapons regulation was announced in October 2017. We are now considering what needs to happen with the licensing system and will announce the outcome shortly. That will help address some of his concerns.

I am most grateful to the Minister for that response. While he is reflecting on the matter, will he look at what has happened in Northern Ireland, which has a system of licensing for airguns? The number of cats reported in the press as being shot has dropped.

I must confess that I was not aware of that. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising what goes on in Northern Ireland with me. I am sure that the hon. Member for Strangford is aware of that, too. I will follow up with officials and see what we can learn.

On that point, yes, but then I had better move on to microchipping, otherwise I will be held to account.

Last year, the RSPCA reported that it had reached a five-year high for the level of airgun attacks on pets. The vast majority of pets attacked were cats. Will the review that the Minister is engaged in also look at where airguns can be advertised and sold? We had an incident in Norbury recently in which a pawnbroker’s shop turned itself into an airgun centre and had a big display of what looked like semi-automatic rifles, but were airguns, in the shop window on a high street right here in south London?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing that to our attention. I am not the Minister responsible for the matter, so I do not want to tread beyond where I should, but I have seen similar incidents and reports in my constituency. I will follow up on the very important point he raises and get back to him on how wide the review will go. I hope it will address such issues, but I will confirm that with him in due course.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham talked about his private Member’s Bill, which takes forward a serious issue. He also highlighted how the subject has been raised in numerous petitions. The sheer number of people who have signed the petitions highlights that the Members in the Chamber are not alone; many people are very concerned about the issue. The Government recommend that any owner should microchip their cat to increase the chance of being reunited with it if it gets lost. In April this year, we updated the statutory cat welfare code with the welcome collaboration of Cats Protection and others. The code now more strongly emphasises the benefits of microchipping cats.

Microchipping technology has vastly improved the chances that lost pets will be reunited with their owners. For a relatively small, one-off cost of about £25, people can have greater confidence that their beloved cat can be identified. Why would someone not want to do that? As the head of cattery at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Lindsey Quinlan, has said, while the microchipping procedure is short and simple,

“the return on their value is immeasurable”.

It is therefore good to see that the proportion of cats that are microchipped has grown in recent years.

My hon. Friend highlighted the good report by the PDSA showing that 68% of cats are microchipped. However, a recent survey by Cats Protection found that the majority of the cats taken to its adoption centres in the past 12 months were not microchipped. It is heartbreaking to think that some of those cats may not have been reunited with their families simply because of the lack of a microchip. That is why I strongly endorse Cats Protection’s campaign to promote cat microchipping. The Government will work with Cats Protection and other animal welfare charities so that the proportion of cats that are microchipped continues to grow.

In England, compulsory microchipping of dogs was introduced through secondary legislation due to the public safety risk posed by stray dogs. That does not mean that cat welfare is any less important than dog welfare; it is just that there is not the same risk associated with cats from a safety perspective. For that reason, the microchipping of cats is not compulsory, but we strongly encourage owners and breeders to do it. That is why the Government’s cat welfare code promotes microchipping on two grounds. First, as I have already mentioned, microchipping gives cats the best chance of being identified when lost. Secondly and just as importantly, a lost cat that has a microchip is more likely to receive prompt veterinary treatment when needed. In that way, micro- chipping helps to protect more cats from pain, suffering, injury and disease, as required by the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

I am grateful to Cats Protection for its support in developing the cat welfare code. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials remain engaged with the issue. I commit to meeting Cats Protection in January, whether as part of the roundtable or separately, to take forward this important agenda.

In the limited time available, it is important to highlight some other actions I would like to take in response to this important debate. As has been said, under the Road Traffic Act 1988, drivers are required to stop and report accidents involving certain working animals, including cattle, horses and dogs. That does not currently extend to cats. However, the Highway Code advises drivers to report accidents involving any animal to the police. That should lead to many owners being notified when their cats are killed on roads. I am pleased that it is established good practice for local authorities to scan any dog or cat found on the streets so that the owner can be informed.

Following today’s debate, I will meet the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) to discuss how we can work together to further promote best practice. Highways England has clear guidelines for contractors to follow when they find a deceased dog. That process is designed with owners in mind, giving them the best chance of being informed of the incident that has occurred. The process laid out in the network management manual currently applies only to dogs. I would like to see what could be done to extend it to cats, and I hope other Members agree. The area is the responsibility of the Department for Transport. Following today’s debate, I will work with the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) to explore what the Government can do in this area.

To conclude, I would like to say how important it has been to have this debate today. It has brought the issue very much to my attention as a relatively new Minister for Animal Welfare. I am extremely grateful for that. I would like to highlight how important animal welfare is to the Government and to DEFRA.

The Minister has made a general point about looking to what further can be done. Rather than amending the 1988 Act, can we not put post-accident reporting for cats in animal welfare legislation, like in the United States? Will he go away and ensure we can look at compulsory microchipping, as well as the animal welfare perspective post-accident?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comment. Of course I will go away and look at his points. He has made a compelling case. I, and the Government, feel some sympathy with what he says. There are practical differences between dogs and cats in terms of public safety, but notwithstanding that, there is more we want to do to promote these issues. I will gladly meet him and take forward the actions and meetings I have talked about already.

Question put and agreed to.