[Relevant document: Third Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of Session 2016-17, Animal welfare in England: domestic pets, HC 117, and the Government response, HC 1003.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of puppy smuggling.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce the debate. I extend my thanks to the many organisations and bodies that have been campaigning on the issue for a long time, not least the Dogs Trust. It has one of the country’s largest rehoming centres in my constituency and it is a pleasure to work with it.
This is the second time that I have introduced a debate on the topic, and I am pleased to be joined again by hon. Members from across the House. That is hardly surprising, given that there are 9 million dogs in the UK—probably more; we do not know exactly—and many more dog lovers. I also have here a book that contains the pledges of 137 Members of Parliament who are committed to stopping puppy smuggling. I hope that that conveys to the Minister how deeply concerned we are about puppy smuggling. I am not the only person in the House who has concerns about the issue being raised by a significant number of our constituents.
In the previous debate on the topic, I told the Chamber that puppy smuggling was a multimillion-pound underground—
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of puppy smuggling.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Once again, I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate today. I also extend my thanks to the many organisations and bodies that have campaigned on this issue for many years, in particular the Dogs Trust, which has one of the country’s largest rehoming centres in my constituency. It is a pleasure to work with it.
This is the second time that I have secured a debate on this topic, and I am pleased to be joined again by so many colleagues of different parties from across the House. That is not surprising, as there are 9 million dogs in the UK and many more dog lovers.
I also have with me today a book containing the pledges of more than 137 MPs, and I think more MPs will be signing today, showing that they are committed to stopping puppy smuggling. I hope that that conveys to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), just how deeply concerned we are about puppy smuggling, and I know that I am not the only Member of Parliament who will say that this issue is also of great concern to my constituents.
In the previous debate that I secured on this subject, I told the House how puppy smuggling was a multi-million pound industry—an illegal trade. Hundreds of puppies are intercepted at our ports and borders each and every year. I will come on to some of the issues surrounding security at our borders a little later, but it is likely that thousands more puppies slip through the net and remain unidentified.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and also for securing this really important debate. He talked about measures being put in place at the borders. However, does he agree that it is not only important for us to put measures in place in the UK but that we need international co-operation as well, to stamp out this horrendous practice?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I will come to some of the recommendations later on. Although much of the focus of my recommendations will be on what the UK Government can do, we also need to lobby internationally to ensure that there is fair treatment and awareness across countries.
On that specific point, there is a particular issue with the Irish border; it is estimated that about 30,000 puppies cross it every year. So, although we can secure the borders of the United Kingdom, we also need to co-operate with other countries, including the Republic of Ireland, to see what can be done to ensure that the likes of that land border, which is very difficult to put checks along, can still have checks in operation, and it is also particularly important to have checks at ports in the Republic of Ireland as well.
The hon. Lady is making another very important point. Of course, there are particular sensitivities around the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland that we are all aware of. Her point is very important, and it deserves very careful consideration, so I thank her again for raising it.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point; indeed, I am just about to come on to it. I think we are suffering from the unintended consequences of some changes in schemes and programmes.
Of course, puppy smuggling at heart is an industry perpetrated by people who are motivated purely by money. They can make up to an incredible £35,000 per week by illegally transporting puppies through our borders, to be sold to unsuspecting dog lovers in the UK. The root cause of puppy smuggling seems, indeed, to be the ease with which gangs can abuse the pet travel scheme that operates across Europe, which is otherwise known as PETS.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he rightly identifies the large sums of money that can be made either by individuals or by organised crime gangs. These criminals appear to make a very fine cost-benefit calculation, which reinforces the need, expressed by a number of animal charities, to increase the penalties for maltreating animals. There should also be confiscation of vehicles, so that this business is no longer a paying business.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. Indeed, many and various recommendations have come out of this debate, and of course disincentivising this really despicable trade in every way we can is very important. Penalties, fixed fines and indeed criminal sanctions are, of course, the things that we all need to consider.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Is it not also the case that as well as increasing penalties, which I strongly agree with, it is important that those penalties are available against a wide range of offences? There has been some argument that the specified offences in the current draft of the Act are not wide enough to cover all the offences that will be committed in the process of smuggling puppies.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that point; I am sure that the Minister is listening to it and to other points, and will respond to them. As I have said, there are many things we need to focus on. Of course, changes in the law are being considered. For example, the animal cruelty sentences will not just be specifically for puppy smuggling; they will cover a wider range of offences, and we need to make sure that the range is as broad as possible.
I had said that there were some unintended consequences to PETS. In an effort to harmonise travel between European countries, PETS was relaxed in 2012. Among the changes were the removal of the requirement for a puppy to have had a rabies blood test and a lowering of the minimum age for travel from 10 months to just 15 weeks. Since the relaxation of the PETS rules, there has been a considerable rise in the number of puppies entering the UK. In 2011, just 85,000 puppies legally entered Great Britain, but by 2017 that figure had more than trebled.
I congratulate the hon. Member on securing his second debate on this vital issue. My constituency is home to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, which is incredibly concerned about this particular issue. Does he agree that, rather than a reduction in the market, there needs to be a wholesale ban on the smuggling of all puppies?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention; indeed, I also pay tribute to the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, for what it has done. And she makes a very valid point. All of these options need to be carefully considered.
Hundreds of puppies are intercepted at our ports each year, and although we cannot accurately assess the scale of the puppy smuggling trade—it is, after all, illegal and therefore difficult to assess fully—it is likely that the true number of puppies being smuggled into the UK reaches into the thousands and not just the hundreds.
The most recent report into puppy smuggling by the Dogs Trust has also uncovered an alarming new trend of puppies from non- EU countries, such as Serbia, being taken to EU member states, given fraudulent EU pet passports and then smuggled to the UK from there.
I recently spoke to a constituent who had driven 200 miles to pick up a French bulldog puppy. It was meant to be the perfect family pet, but after its first check it emerged that it had both heart and kidney problems, as a result of bad breeding practices at what turned out to be a puppy-farming operation. I wholeheartedly support the hon. Gentleman’s call for better regulation of puppies entering the UK.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point and I will be coming on to that issue in a moment.
Through good will and because they want to enjoy and care for an animal, families are sometimes led into doing something that is not appropriate for the animal. The animals’ circumstances can be horrible and they are not always in a great condition, which is extremely alarming.
I am grateful to my hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this debate. I know that he is desperately trying not to mention the “B word” in this debate; I think we can all appreciate that. However, does he agree that one of the advantages of leaving the European Union will be that it will offer an opportunity to introduce far-reaching animal welfare regulations that go beyond the existing framework, including the reintroduction of tests for rabies?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention; indeed, one of the recommendations that I will come to in a moment is to introduce a test for rabies. We cannot do so at the moment, because we are in the EU, but that is an opportunity that we could take once we have left the EU. I also thank her for raising the “B word”.
Puppies should be at least seven months old before travelling to an EU member state from a third country, but the Dogs Trust found that in Serbia puppies as young as 10 weeks were given fake documentation, so that they could gain entry to the UK.
It is worth reflecting on the truly awful conditions that some of these poor animals have to endure. To evade detection, puppies are sometimes squashed into the hollow of backseats or covered in blankets and bundled under a front seat. They are often sedated to prevent them from making any noise or moving around. The Dogs Trust has told me that it has intercepted at the border puppies that have been given such heavy doses of sedative that it has taken them several days to come to. Travelling to the UK by car from countries such as Lithuania, Latvia and Serbia can take up to 30 hours, during which time puppies are given no toilet breaks, no time to exercise and very little, if any, food and water.
One case that exemplifies just how awful the trade is, is that of Lola, a French bulldog who was transported hundreds of miles from Lithuania, with temperatures in the van she was smuggled in reaching more than 40° C. She was heavily pregnant and it is illegal for a travelling pet to be pregnant. Shortly after being taken in by the Dogs Trust, she gave birth to four puppies, but it was such a difficult birth and she had been through such a traumatic experience that two of them were stillborn.
Lola has since had a number of health issues, ranging from infections to respiratory diseases, with some requiring surgery, but the Dogs Trust has managed to arrange treatment and she has been successfully rehomed. However, had Lola not been detected at the border, she and her puppies would have been advertised online and sold to an unsuspecting family who had no knowledge of the state of their health. Imagine someone bringing a new puppy home to their family, to very excited children, only to discover that it was unwell, possibly diseased and requiring treatment that could cost thousands of pounds.
The trauma of the journeys these puppies are forced to endure often leads them to develop behavioural issues and some, unfortunately, do not recover from their health issues and end up being put down. After rescuing 39 puppies from one commercial dealer, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found that six needed to be put down immediately and two thirds had congenital defects. The RSPCA has also cited an investigation that found that about 20% of puppies bought on the internet died within six months.
What can be done to put an end to this trade? There have been many suggestions and, as has been mentioned, some of the changes can be made once we have left the EU. I wish to acknowledge and show my appreciation for the fact that the Government take animal safety and welfare seriously—for example, all the work that they have done on the banning of ivory sales and third-party sales of puppies. But they could, and should, go further. For instance, I urge them to bring before Parliament as soon as possible the already promised increase to five years of the maximum sentence for animal cruelty. That would apply to puppy smuggling.
I also ask the Government to consider introducing on-the-spot fines for those caught illegally importing dogs, and I encourage them to improve the presence of border officials at our ports, to carry out more visual checks at all hours of the day, every day of the week. The current disparity in the border presence between office hours and weekend and evening slots can all too easily be exploited by smugglers.
Post-Brexit, the Government could reintroduce a requirement for dogs to have a rabies blood test and set a restriction on how soon after the test they could travel. That could increase the age at which dogs could legally enter the country to six months, say. The benefits of that in tackling puppy smuggling are twofold: it is much easier for officials to assess accurately the age of puppies once they have reached six months, and the incentive to smuggle puppies in the first place would be reduced because they are less desirable to the public once they are that bit older.
I know that the Minister is familiar with the issues we have raised; he and I have had many conversations in the past. Colleagues wish to bring up many other points, so I will finish my speech. I know that the Minister will listen carefully, and I look forward to his response.
The debate can last until 5.40 pm. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 5.17 pm, and the guideline limits are five minutes for the SNP, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister, and then Nigel Huddleston will have a few minutes to sum up the debate. Until 5.17 pm, it is Back-Bench time, and nine Members are seeking to contribute. I want everyone to be able to do so, so I am afraid there will have to be a time limit of two and a half minutes to ensure that everyone can get in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on calling this very important debate. I will not go through the detail he laid before us.
It is clear that puppy smuggling is a problem that has grown significantly in the past few years. Let us be clear that the pet travel scheme—PETS—has been a great boon to many pet owners, enabling them to take their much-loved pets around the continent without the need for quarantine. I think there is broad consensus that the 2012 relaxation and harmonisation of the rules governing the scheme made it even easier to take pets across borders. However, in a country such as the UK, where for many years demand for puppies has outstripped supply, that was always going to increase the risk of smuggling activity on the part of unscrupulous dealers ready to make cheap money out of a grossly unethical and cruel trade.
Illegal puppy smuggling involves poor breeding practices and sometimes appalling conditions, with many of the puppies suffering disease. The hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire laid out the detail on that very well. Many puppies are not properly vaccinated and false certification of the animals as they are sold on to unsuspecting individuals here in the UK is a key part of the illegal trade.
If we are serious about animal welfare and committed to preventing the suffering of such animals, immediate action is needed to improve enforcement of the pet travel scheme. It is clear that we need tougher penalties for those caught illegally importing dogs. We have waited a long time for the Bill that would allow for five-year sentences for animal cruelty offences and my key question to the Minister is: when will we see that Bill? If the Government do not publish it and have its First Reading, they should let a Member do it via a private Member’s Bill. We can do it quickly—in a day—if we have the will. The focus on enforcement must also be shifted away from the ferry companies and Eurotunnel to Government agencies, with visual checks of dogs entering the country.
I will leave it at that. I do not have much time and others want to speak. I want to hear the Minister’s view, particularly on those animal cruelty sentencing powers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I care a great deal about this issue, as do many of my constituents. I am a dog lover, and the proud owner of two rescue dogs, Phoebe and Herbie, who give me such joy. I want to speak about this matter and, like the many constituents who have written to me, to call for more action.
Our exit from the EU affords us an opportunity to improve on what is already a good regime. I am delighted that my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), has secured this debate and laid out in his comments all the actions that need to be taken. I do not, therefore, need to add much more, but will just touch on some brief points.
Three areas need to be looked at: our efforts at the border; our internal regulations; and the international engagement we pursue. As hon. Members have mentioned, central and eastern European countries—Hungary, Poland and Romania in particular—most often provide the supply of puppies, which feeds a growing demand for fashionable dogs. Given the rise in the demand for fighting dogs too, other nations are becoming involved, including the USA; it is worth noting that some 13 American bulldogs have been intercepted at the border in the past year. However, the issue is predominantly a European one, and the EU pet travel scheme is routinely abused, allowing puppies to cross our borders to feed the growing demand. Forged documents, corrupt vets and an absence of border checks in the Schengen area all contribute to that environment.
Although we are leaving the European Union, we are not leaving Europe or this problem behind, so we have to keep working with the states that are most heavily involved. Lithuania, for example, has introduced legislation that means that pet passports can be issued only by a vet from the state veterinary service. Figures from the Animal and Plant Health Agency show a huge reduction in the number of illegally landed dogs, from 106 in 2016 to just three in 2018. However, more countries need to act. Many countries are involved, and we need to co-operate with them all.
Many of the steps that have been outlined are not new, but they would bring the regulations back up to a more robust level and deter criminals from smuggling puppies into the UK. I pay tribute to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and the Dogs Trust. I was delighted to go with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire to Downing Street to present the petition, and I thank everyone for their efforts in clamping down on the trade.
I am delighted to speak in this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for securing it.
We know that puppy smuggling is increasing, but the scale of the problem is, by its nature, difficult to assess. Puppy smuggling now represents the third most frequent organised criminal activity to emerge from the RSPCA’s intelligence gathering, with only animal fighting and illegal hunting more frequent. The challenge is that the deterrents against that type of criminal behaviour are simply not robust enough: the fortunes that can be made far outweigh the punishments meted out, and that has to change. The real way to stop this barbaric trade is to enhance public awareness of the issue by highlighting the consequences of this vile illegal trade for dogs and for families.
The Dogs Trust and others have warned that damaging changes to the pet travel scheme in 2012 have resulted in an influx of puppies being illegally imported from central and eastern Europe into the UK for sale, with corrupt breeders abusing the system. Such mistakes must not be compounded inadvertently, but must be comprehensively addressed. An important aspect of tackling that abuse is cross-border co-operation with our European neighbours, and I hope—to mention the “B” word—that any form of Brexit, should it happen, does not prevent such co-operation between the UK and Europe. The European Parliament called last year for new resolutions to end the illegal trafficking of pets, and is working towards them. Whether we are in or out of Europe, we in the United Kingdom need to be part of those efforts.
I urge the Minister to work with our European partners to ensure that the microchipping of pets across the member states of the EU is more harmonised, as that would enable a more compatible database. We know that criminal gangs have taken advantage of the lack of harmonisation of ID, registration and database requirements to circumvent the pet travel scheme and use it as cover for the mass illegal smuggling of puppies. Harmonisation would strike a significant blow to the heart of this barbaric, illegal trade. We are nations of animal lovers, and we cannot delay any longer.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on introducing this debate, but we have discussed this issue so many times and now we need action. I rather agree with the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), in that I look to my hon. Friend the Minister to do something about this issue.
I have had two rescued pugs—a difficult breed. At the moment, we have a French bulldog; my daughter has it at the weekends, and my wife and I have it during the week, so we have the best of both worlds. Of course, puppies are very cute, but looking after them is a huge responsibility.
As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire, an unintended consequence of the pet travel scheme and the relaxation of EU legislation has been an increase of smuggled puppies into the UK. It appears that those smugglers have easily been able to falsify pet passports and vaccine documentation, because enforcement at the borders is simply not good enough. It would be wonderful if my hon. Friend the Minister could explain how he and the Department intend to deal with the issues we face at those borders.
In 2012, when the rules were relaxed, the number of dogs entering the UK under PETS increased by 61%, and the age at which they could be imported was reduced from about 10 months to just 15 weeks. That has made it easier for smugglers to flout the rules and bring in unvaccinated puppies who are too young to travel.
As we have already heard, we are a nation of animal lovers; let us prove it. Through a simple Bill, we could change the way in which puppies are treated, and dealing with the wicked online behaviour of these crooks and criminals is key to that. We need to hear a strong message from the Minister.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on having set the scene, and thank him for giving us a chance to speak on this issue. With a wife who is as dedicated to her volunteer work at Assisi as I am to this House, it is little wonder that I stand to speak today. I am also an animal lover, and a dog lover in particular, so I wanted to weigh in during this important debate. I thank the charities that work in this area, such as the RSCPA, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Dogs Trust and Assisi, as well as the World Dog Alliance, which campaigns against dog meat as food; I look to the Minister to give a quick update about where we are on that issue, if he can. That charity has been very involved in educating people to be aware of exactly where their puppy has come from.
My parliamentary assistant recently bought a dog, and I will tell Members what she did, because it is what we should all be doing. She asked to see the mother and the father of the dog; she checked with a registered vet as to how many litters the mother had; she went to the home of the owners for a second visit to see mums and babies; and she asked for the papers of the parents. She was as thorough in doing that as she is in her work with me. She also told me that before I spoke in the last debate on puppy smuggling, she would never have done that. That is what we should all be doing, and that was a plus for her.
This will probably be the fastest speech that you have heard, Mr Hollobone. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have heard a lot about puppy farming, but that if we were talking about cattle, horses or sheep, there would be a bigger noise about it and something would be done?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and he is absolutely right. That is the focus that we want to put into this debate.
Official figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show an increase in the number of dogs brought into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In the first year, 2011, the number was 85,000; in the most recent year, 2016, the number was 275,000. If that does not disturb Members, it should. It is time that we made more people aware of what they could be getting, and how these little dogs come here.
I ask for four things. First, we should increase the maximum penalties for those caught illegally importing dogs, and introduce punitive fixed penalty notices. Secondly, we should shift the focus in enforcement of pet travel legislation away from the carriers—that is, the ferries and Eurotunnel. Thirdly, we should introduce a centrally accessible database to log pets’ microchip numbers and their date of entry into Great Britain. Fourthly, we need intelligence-led enforcement to identify dealers and traders who are regularly importing multiple puppies.
This is a matter for people in the street who care that the animal they bring into their homes to become a part of their family is an animal that has been cared for. I support making life impossible for those who are flouting the rules with no regard for welfare, and that is why I am here today to support the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire, as is everybody else present.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for securing this debate, because it is good to keep our concentration on the issue of puppy smuggling. I am also delighted to see the Minister here; we are expecting great things from him, because as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said, it is time for action, not just words.
The statistics show that there are between 9 and 11 million dogs in the country. If a dog has an average life of 10 or 12 years, we can work out that we probably need somewhere between three quarters of a million and a million puppies every year. From the statistics on what we breed in this country and what is bred in Ireland, we know that there is a huge shortage of puppies, which is being filled by illegal gangs. It is relatively easy to falsify veterinary certificates and all sorts to get puppies through the border. When a person comes to the border, it is largely the paper trail that is checked, rather than someone looking into the vans and vehicles and finding where those puppies are. We need to be much stronger. It is not just about a paper trail; we have to actually get into the vans and find out what is happening.
I admire what the Dogs Trust has been doing. The evidence it has given the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs shows that puppy smuggling is a real problem. Our Committee released its “Animal welfare in England: domestic pets” report back in 2016-17, and one of our recommendations was that the Government ban third-party puppy sales. At the time, the Government were not sure whether they wanted to do so, but since then the Secretary of State has looked into the issue and announced a ban. If we could bring that about, we would at least be able to work out exactly where puppies come from. They would be with their owners, and we would buy them from those owners and from proper breeders. It would be more difficult for people to smuggle puppies in and pretend that they have come from wherever. We will never stamp out all puppy smuggling, but we can stamp out a lot of it.
I ask the Minister to please take action, because this cannot go on. This is not only about the misery caused to individuals, but about diseases potentially being brought into the country. These puppies are far too young and not properly socialised, so I look forward to the Minister’s actions.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, and to follow the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). I was a member of his Committee for three years, and I spent a long time following him, so this is not a novel experience. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on having secured this debate.
Suffice it to say, the illegal transportation of puppies is a serious issue. Underage and unvaccinated animals are being smuggled from mainland Europe for sale in the UK, causing suffering to those puppies and endangering the health of animals here. Concerns about the illegal transportation of puppies include underage puppies being removed from their mothers too young and fears that some vets are falsifying data on pet passports for the pet travel scheme, including falsely declaring that puppies are more than eight weeks of age. Illegal importation is putting pressure on animal rescue centres, particularly in the south-east of England, and controls at border inspection posts are few and ineffective. It is still unclear how those will operate as Britain leaves the EU. There are also concerns about consumer protection and the risk to human health.
The RSPCA believes that the market for the puppy trade in Britain is anywhere from 700,000 to 1.9 million pups annually. Poor breeding, dealing and trading practices can have a long-term impact on animal welfare, leading to chronic health and behaviour problems and disappointed consumers, who find their new puppies falling ill or dying not long after purchase. Many would like to see the reintroduction of the requirement for a rabies blood test, which would reduce the risk of disease spreading, and the introduction of a wait period. Will the Minister comment on that?
Puppy smuggling is a shameful practice that causes trauma to innocent dogs and can lead to the spread of diseases to other dogs and humans in the UK. Puppies ought to be protected from that treatment, and consumers ought to be prevented from unwittingly purchasing an animal that may be unhealthy and badly behaved. It is time to raise sentences, bring in more rigorous border checks and increase consumer understanding to ensure that this immoral trade is stamped out and that animals are kept free from harm. I thank Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Dogs Trust and the RSPCA for their briefings.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on bringing forward this important debate. Puppy smuggling is an abhorrent crime, carried out with no regard for the welfare of puppies trapped in unimaginable conditions for days at a time. Like everyone else, I want to do everything I can to bring it to an end.
Those involved in the puppy smuggling trade rely on low animal welfare standards and high-volume breeding, treating these beautiful animals like products on a production line that runs from puppy farms in eastern Europe to homes in the UK. There is no doubt that puppies raised and sold through the industry suffer life-long physical and mental impacts, leading to chronic health conditions and often severe behavioural problems.
It is clear that the Government cannot eradicate the problem alone. We all have to take responsibility for ensuring that puppies are not sourced through third parties. Guidelines and advice from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the buying of puppies and dogs have not gone far enough in ensuring that those wishing to purchase puppies know the harm that third-party selling and puppy smuggling can cause. Demand and supply go hand in hand, and the scourge of puppy smuggling cannot be eradicated unless both are addressed and preventive measures are upheld to deter and stop those at both ends of this cruel supply chain.
I am sure all Members welcomed, as I did, the Government’s announcement that they intended to bring forward stricter punishments for animal cruelty offences. Tougher custodial sentences are long overdue for those who inflict harm on animals, such as the barbaric and unscrupulous criminals who facilitate puppy smuggling. I remain concerned, however, that the Government have not laid legislation to that effect before Parliament.
Brexit presents us with an opportunity to improve and tighten the rules and regulations on animal welfare. It is incredibly clear that the Government must take action to protect animal welfare and end puppy smuggling for good. We cannot delay any longer. We risk falling behind on the issue, and to do so would be to fail every one of the puppies trapped in this barbaric trade.
I thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on calling this important debate. I am a dog lover. I lost my Labrador 18 months ago, and I still think about him every day, as sad as that might sound. [Hon. Members: “Aw.”] I have the sympathy of the audience, which is always a good move.
The issue goes beyond DEFRA. There should be cross-Department, joined-up thinking. Each element of the debate about puppy smuggling touches on three major Departments. It is estimated that more than 80,000 puppies a year come from places such as Ireland, Romania, Hungary and Lithuania. As we heard from the hon. Gentleman, criminal gangs can earn more than £2 million annually from the puppy trade. A ring of puppy dealers in Manchester was found to be earning £35,000 a week, with puppies being sold for anything between £550 and £1,000, depending on the breed, despite being purchased for only around £200 each from a puppy farm in Ireland. The trade costs the Treasury millions in lost tax revenue. The issue should be addressed by the Treasury.
If we are talking about puppies being smuggled in, the Home Office has to look at controls at border inspection posts. They are few and far between and are often ineffective, meaning that more puppies are allowed to be smuggled into the UK. It is unclear how that will operate post-Brexit. Checks that do take place are insufficiently intelligence-led, meaning that information sharing needs to be improved between agencies, carriers, customs officials and vets. That issue should be addressed by the Home Office.
We have the DEFRA Minister here, and there is one thing he can do. I want to join other voices in paying tribute to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and the Dogs Trust for their campaign to increase animal cruelty sentences from six months to five years. I cannot tell the Chamber how important that would be in tackling puppy smuggling. It has to be introduced right now. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield—
Sorry. I know my hon. Friend is a Sheffield Wednesday supporter. If the change cannot be brought in by Government, they should at least provide time for a private Member’s Bill so we can introduce it forthwith. The change has been promised for a long time, and the issue is ongoing. Action needs to be taken now.
That is fine, Mr Hollobone. I will make three points very quickly in a minute. First, I live 15 miles from Dover. I use the cross-Channel ferries about 16 times a year. I am subjected to regular checks. The police are searching for firearms, drugs and terrorists. I cannot believe they cannot find puppies too.
Secondly, this is about money. We have to kill the trade, and the way we do that is by taking away the vehicle and crushing it in front of the owner on the quayside at Dover.
Thirdly, my son is a vet in a small animal practice. He picks up the bits of this trade time after time. It is miserable. The people who buy the puppies face considerable distress. The short answer is public education: if it is cheap, it is probably also nasty.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing yet another important debate on puppy smuggling almost 17 months to the day since he last brought the same matter to the attention of the House. He has spoken in detail again and outlined all the issues extremely well. I also congratulate all Members who took part in the debate. This issue has support across the House. Although I do not have enough time to cover all the points that were raised, I thank everyone for their contributions and I support their points.
I am proud to say that I stand here representing two groups that have appeared to make significant progress on the issue in the 17 months since the last debate. First, as primary sponsor of the hugely popular Lucy’s law campaign to ban third-party sales of puppies, which will finally remove the market for smuggled pups, I commend the UK Government for confirming that historic change to the legislation, which I believe is imminent—
I will come to that. That historic change to the legislation will be the first major legislative step to help tackle not only illegal puppy smuggling and selling from abroad, but legal licensed puppy farm cruelty in this country.
Secondly, I am chair of the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group, APDAWG. The group has successful meetings on this subject and well-attended members’ events. APDAWG—backed by a well-supported early-day motion and an e-petition, which secured over 100,000 signatures in just 13 days, and supported by the RSPCA, the Kennel Club and almost every other welfare organisation in the UK—was instrumental in the success of Lucy’s law. I commend all the work done to bring that forward.
Since I am the owner of a rescue dog, Rossi—a French bulldog, which is one of the most popular breeds for smugglers—it is not surprising that puppy smuggling is a subject close to my heart. It is also close to the hearts of my constituents in Scotland, where it is not uncommon for puppies to be smuggled in from Ireland and sold on via third-party dealers. The smuggling of puppies into the UK mainland for resale has been ongoing for many years and has repeatedly been raised by organisations such as Dogs Trust, which I commend for its work.
Welfare issues in pups and adult dogs include the conditions at breeding establishments where puppies are born and reared; the age at which puppies are separated from their mothers; the conditions under which puppies are transported; the length of travel time; the low standards of hygiene and increased risk of disease in undernourished, stressed young animals; the risk to public health and the health of the resident pet population from non-endemic and potentially zoonotic diseases entering the UK; and false documentation, fraud and tax evasion. That is by no means a complete list, but it gives some idea of the serious nature of the issue and how it affects both animals and humans.
The commercial sale of puppies through licensed third-party dealers provides a legitimate market for puppies imported from outside the UK. The existence of that market has significantly facilitated the lucrative legal and illegal puppy trade. Illegal dealers have been able to advertise and trade alongside licensed sellers because, under the outdated and recently repealed Pet Animals Act 1951, it has been perfectly legal for puppies to be sold on a commercial basis by persons other than the breeder, away from where they were born and without being seen alongside their mothers.
The Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018, which were introduced in October, have considerably tightened up the licensing requirements for dog breeding and selling. As we have heard, in December 2018 the Government committed to banning third-party sales of puppies and kittens in England in a measure known as Lucy’s law. That will be a significant development in the fight against puppy smuggling, so will the Minister give us a date for bringing it to fruition?
It is hoped that Wales and Scotland will also ban commercial third-party puppy sales to ensure that legislation is consistent across the UK and that anyone who sells a puppy on the UK mainland is totally traceable and accountable. Both legislatures have consultations under way on the issue.
I hope that I have suggested what the issues today are. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As other hon. Members have done, I thank the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for securing this debate and for keeping up the pressure to get this terrible activity banned. We need to keep up that pressure if we are to make progress.
There is huge public appetite for robust action to improve the lives of animals and strengthen the animal protections in our laws. We are a nation of animal lovers, and we want all our animals to be well loved and given the opportunity to live happy and stable lives. Puppy smuggling is just one of many serious animal welfare issues that all Members read about in our postbags. Since last year’s debate on the matter, I have been proud to launch the Labour party’s animal plan, which pledges to take increased measures to tackle puppy smuggling. It has received an excellent response and we are working on the next version, which I hope to be able to share with hon. Members shortly.
It is obvious that the humane treatment of animals should be a benchmark for a civilised society. As parliamentarians, we must send out a strong message that the illegal importation of puppies is a cruel practice that must stop; there has been extraordinary consensus on that today, just as there was last year. The Animal and Plant Health Agency and many animal welfare charities such as the Dogs Trust, the RSPCA and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home have done a lot of crucial and very welcome work to tackle puppy smuggling.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) said, it really is time for the Government to act. I know that their commitment to banning the third-party sale of puppies and kittens through Lucy’s law, which the Minister announced in December, has been welcomed by Cats Protection and many dog charities—it is indeed welcome, but we need to see results as soon as possible. The pledge to increase sentences is also welcome, but the legislation needs to be introduced as soon as possible so that we can debate it, scrutinise it and get it on the statute book; I hope that the Minister will give us some idea of when that will happen. In the meantime, Government agencies need the resources to tackle puppy smuggling by enforcing the current legislation. We need to ensure that we have sufficient border guards, with greater international co-operation between police forces to crack down on the problem properly.
As we have heard, dogs should be available only from licensed and regulated breeders or from approved rehoming organisations. Unfortunately, the current legislation does not protect the welfare of all dogs or the interests of all consumers, so the only solution is to ban third-party sales entirely. We have heard about the terrible treatment of smuggled dogs and the terrible diseases and health problems that they can suffer, as in the really sad story that the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire told. As long as there is a market for cheap, intensively bred puppies, such welfare problems will persist, because the incentives for non-compliance far exceed the penalties.
Availability may artificially inflate demand, so unless we reduce the supply of cheap, poorly bred puppies from dealers and smugglers, we will never bring a more responsible buying culture into society. Ministers have said that prospective buyers should always insist on seeing a puppy interacting with its mother in the place where it was born, but that advice is inconsistent with the ongoing legality of third-party sales, because it concedes that neither animals nor consumers can be protected by the regulations imposed on the industry. We therefore need a third-party sales ban as soon as possible.
I do not think that it is too ambitious to want to move on now, or to ask the Government to do more to enable that. Animal welfare must not be swept under the carpet or undercut, so I ask the Minister again for a commitment that he will continue to show that he understands the need for this legislation and that he will do everything he can to stamp out this appalling trade.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair again, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing the debate. It is a testament to the hard work of my hon. Friend and many other Members, and to public concern, that so many are present. I am grateful for his work and his active communication.
Since my appointment as Minister, it has become increasingly clear to me that we need to tackle the abhorrent puppy smuggling trade from end to end by looking at both supply and demand. I have spent a lot of time working with officials on the issue. Like all other hon. Members who have spoken, I have zero tolerance for the unscrupulous dealers and breeders who are simply abusing the pet travel scheme—we need to put an end to that.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend—no, my hon. Friend; I am elevating him before his time, but I am sure that his time will come—for highlighting such an abhorrent case, which brought home just how awful and how illegal puppy smuggling activities are. We need to do everything we can to protect animals, their potential owners and other humans who may suffer from the health risks. We must tackle the issue as best we can and with real urgency.
Along with 137 other Members of Parliament, I have pledged to be part of the Dogs Trust’s campaign to end puppy smuggling. I stand by that commitment fully, and I am very grateful to the trust for its hard work on this really important issue. We must also respect the important work that the RSPCA and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home do to shine a spotlight on the issue.
DEFRA’s overall comprehensive approach to tackling puppy smuggling encompasses international engagement, enforcement, tighter regulations and public communications. We have been doing a great deal of work on all those fronts since the last Westminster Hall debate in 2017.
The Government continue to raise the issue of puppy smuggling at an international level. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, raised that issue today. International engagement is particularly important in the wake of intelligence such as that mentioned by my hon. Friend, which suggests that puppies from non-EU countries such as Serbia are being illegally imported into the UK with EU passports and microchips, to make them appear EU-bred. Our chief veterinary officer has written to Serbia and Hungary, which is one of the potential receiving countries, to highlight our concerns.
I have raised this point before. At the moment, people can bring in five puppies legally. I do not think that anyone needs five puppies for their own need. Will the Minister look at that? I mention the word “Brexit”, and leaving the EU under whatever system and circumstance. Can we reduce the allowance to two puppies? I really do not think anyone needs five puppies; it is just open to abuse from criminal gangs.
My hon. Friend has been very consistent on this point in Committee and in other meetings, and that is something that we will be able to look at. We have sympathy with the point that he, and many others, make.
To highlight the international dimension of the issue, I note that it is not just us who are concerned about the illegal puppy trade. At a recent international forum, Austrian, Dutch, German, French, Italian and Danish representatives all highlighted the increase in the trade.
Many hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson), and the hon. Members for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) have talked about the need to increase 10-fold the maximum sentence for animal cruelty, from six months to five years. We are absolutely committed to that, and I am very keen to bring that to the House—
And we will do it very shortly. This is a huge priority for us. Obviously, it requires primary legislation. I hope that hon. Members can see that I am as committed as they are to bringing this forward as soon as we can, but it requires other parts of the Government to work with us. We will push it through. I know that the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) will cut me a little bit of slack, because she knows that I am keen to move the matter forward.
The hon. Member for Workington raised resources. We have increased resources at major UK ports by one third since 2017, specifically to detect smuggled puppies. That has helped us to intercept tragic cases such as that of Lola, the heavily pregnant French bulldog, who has already been mentioned today. Last year, we also launched our new dog importation intelligence steering group. It consists of national enforcement agencies such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, Border Force, the police and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who are forming a collaborative partnership with the Animal and Plant Health Agency to disrupt puppy smuggling. I know that my right hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and for Ashford (Damian Green) are concerned about that issue.
Our collaborative relationship with Border Force continues, and last year Border Force established a special point of contact at Dover, who is specifically in post to share information and intelligence on suspected puppy smuggling. DEFRA and APHA officials have been working in partnership with the Dogs Trust since 2015 on the Dover puppy pilot, which aims to tackle the illegal importation of puppies by providing additional resource to seize and quarantine smuggled puppies, as well as to ensure that they are placed in secure, caring homes afterwards.
APHA continues to be fully engaged at the border, and last year we saw a downturn in the number of non-compliant puppies seized. It is, however, too early to draw any conclusions from that single result, but we will continue to monitor the situation and to shine a spotlight on the issue.
Based on what we have seen so far, there is limited overall evidence of concealed smuggling, with the exception of one case last year in which Border Force collaborated with APHA to intercept 10 heavily sedated and concealed puppies. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire mentioned that case in his opening remarks. I will be discussing the issue in more detail with the Minister for Immigration when I meet her later this month to further our continued collaboration on puppy smuggling, which is one of the requests that has been made. We need a joined-up approach.
Improving and ensuring the welfare of animals is at the heart of our recent welfare reforms. In December last year, we announced that we were going to ban the third-party selling of puppies and kittens. I was proud to be able to do that. Third-party sales are often linked to so-called puppy farms and to shocking welfare conditions, which many of us have seen on video or TV footage. It is absolutely abhorrent, and a ban will mean that puppies and kittens younger than six months can only be sold by the breeder directly or adopted through rescue and rehoming centres.
When the selling of puppies is restricted to licensed breeders, that will also help to deter people from attempting to bring puppies into the country to be sold here. The ban will help to tackle puppy smuggling as well as to address welfare issues here in England. I know that hon. Members are interested to know when that secondary legislation will be laid, and I can tell them that that will be later this spring—so, very soon.
We are getting on with it. As many hon. Members have said, we need to look at the effectiveness of on-the-spot fines. We will look at that and will review the effectiveness of mandating carriers to conduct 100% visual checks of all dogs travelling. For example, Eurotunnel has a pet checking reception, built in 2015, which gives it the capacity to visually check many dogs, and we will be exploring the positive impacts of that in tackling puppy smuggling.
We need to do more on communications with the public to help them to understand the commitments they are making at the point of purchase, and to help them think about where the puppy that they are so keen to buy has been sourced from.
Coming back to the “B” word, which a few hon. Members have mentioned, we will be considering our future approach to regulation in the context of the negotiations on our future relationship with the EU. We are open to actively exploring future options and opportunities for our pet travel scheme, and will look at each of the recommendations from the Dogs Trust and the British Veterinary Association as a part of that. I hope that that gives some reassurance to my hon. Friends the Members for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and for Mid Worcestershire that we are committed to taking further action, and that we will continue to ensure that there are robust controls on disease and animal welfare after we leave the EU.
My time is just about up and I hear some shouts outside, which I hope are not about this particular subject. I and the Government are committed to working collaboratively with colleagues to take further action on this vitally important issue.
I just briefly say a very big thank you to so many colleagues, from all nations and all parts of the UK, who have contributed to the debate and have made so many compelling arguments and constructive recommendations in so many different policy areas where we can take action. I also thank the Minister for the content and the tone of his response. I do not doubt for one minute his sincerity. I have trust and faith that we will see action from him, but we wish to be very clear that there is a sense of urgency. There is a bit of impatience, but we will trust the Government that they will take action. We are a nation of dog lovers and animal lovers. Let us take some more action so that we can really show that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of puppy smuggling.