I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 229004 relating to the identification of pets.
The petition calls for compulsory scanning of the microchips of all cats that are injured or have died in road traffic accidents and are collected by councils at roadsides, on paths and in all other locations. Dog owners have also supported the petition because it has implications for all pets found deceased on council roads and paths.
The Gizmo’s Legacy petition has met its target because we are a nation of animal lovers. Forty-nine per cent. of UK adults own a pet, with 11.1 million pet cats and 8.9 million pet dogs across the UK. This debate is about the human suffering caused by a family pet going missing. Pet owners suffer terribly when their cat or dog goes missing. Everyone knows someone whose cat or dog has disappeared, and the frantic searching that ensues. Everyone has seen attached to lampposts the desperate posters that often offer a reward, the photos in shop windows, or the social media posts on community pages from cat owners pleading with everyone to check their sheds and garages for a beloved missing cat. I get a little anxious when my fellow goes out in the summer and does not come home at night, which he does a few nights a year. So far, he has always eventually returned home.
Pet owners never give up searching when there is hope. Sadly, their time and money are often wasted chasing a lost cause because their council has no clear policy. Some councils are better than others, but there is no consistency between them, and on occasion there is even variance within a single council. This debate is about how council staff following a few simple procedures can halt years of searching and heartache for pet owners, who live in hope of a miracle that will never happen. Often, the not knowing hurts the most for those pet owners—if only owners of a missing pet had a crystal ball to find out whether their cat or dog is still alive and well. We do not have crystal balls, but we do have microchips, and much more could be done to make use of them.
The Gizmo’s Legacy petition was created by Helena Abrahams, who is sitting in the Public Gallery. She is a cat owner, cat-sitter and volunteer who scans microchips and has reunited hundreds of deceased cats with their owners every year. Not all pets are microchipped, so she photographs each pet she finds. It is a heartbreaking task, but Helena knows that if she does not do it, there is a risk that the pet will simply end up in landfill and the owner will have no chance even to collect the body to bury or cremate it.
The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling opening speech, which will resonate well beyond this Chamber. I put on the record my admiration for the determination and passion shown by Helena and her team of volunteers. At its heart, their argument is about our compassion at the worst moment for a pet owner or parent—for all intents and purposes, pets are family members. We are asking for standard and consistent practice across the country that is supported by law—a Government looking for a legacy could implement that now—to ensure that a cat that has been involved in a traffic accident or killed in some other way is returned to his or her mum or dad through scanning. It is a simple process and many local authorities are already picking such animals up.
Pets should not end up in landfill but be returned to the arms of their mum and dad. Otherwise, even in this time of austerity, we risk having councils with all the parts but no heart. I hope that the attention and support shown by the 100,000-plus signatures collected by my constituent Helena and her team set a trend of expectation of changes in law to end that practice quickly and reunite parents with their cats.
It is a good job Sir Nicholas Winterton is not in the Chair. I ought to explain to hon. Members that Mr Frith very kindly and courteously indicated that he has to be in two places at once. I am not normally quite so relaxed about interventions, but on this occasion, it was fair for him to make his point.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Bury North (James Frith) for his intervention—he made some fantastic points with which I agree entirely. I join him in praising his constituent Helena Abrahams for the absolutely fantastic work she does.
As part of sharing so many lost and found cats on social media, Helena set up the first deceased cat group on Facebook, “Deceased Cats UK and Ireland”, after she lost her beloved cat Gizmo, who was chipped but was not scanned and was disposed of in the most horrific way. Through that group, it came to light that so many cats throughout the UK were being disposed of like trash, without councils scanning them for microchips. The general public witnessed councils throwing cats in the back of refuse trucks and caged vans. Helena realised that for the sake of her other cats and all cats nationwide, she needed to take action, so she set up the Gizmo’s Legacy petition. Within six months, it had over 107,000 signatures, which is a tremendous effort.
Helena joined forces with It’s All About The Animals, Pet Theft Awareness, Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance, Animals Lost and Found in Kent, Vets Get Scanning, Harvey’s Army, DogLost, and Cats Protection. These organisations all recognise that no unified procedure is in place for when dead pets are recovered under council jurisdiction. Gizmo’s Legacy has been campaigning since 2016. The founding members include Wendy Andrew, Angela Hoy, Beryl Beckwith, Geoff Sharp, June Jeffrey, and Valerie Peachey. They have tirelessly raised awareness about the issue and the devastating impact on owners and their families. The mental health implications for owners who never get the closure of knowing what happened to their beloved pet cannot be overestimated.
We already scan dead pets found on the motorway and on the strategic road network—a positive move following the work of Harvey’s Army, which secured Harvey’s Law. Harvey was a miniature poodle who went missing in November 2013; he was microchipped and wore a collar and tag. Just 21 minutes after he went missing, his body was recovered; it was stored and then cremated, yet no contact was made with his owners, who, with friends, searched for 13 weeks before discovering what happened to him. Harvey’s Army is a registered charity and has grown to include more than 300 volunteers across England, Scotland and Wales, who are active in trying to identify and connect families with their lost pets.
Following a parliamentary debate in 2015, the Government committed to requiring Highways England to scan all pets found and, if a microchip is found, to inform the owners. Similarly, Transport Scotland has been mandated to scan pets collected on its strategic road network. However, most cats are killed on minor roads, and what to do remains at the discretion of local authorities. Gizmo’s Legacy calls for the same model to be implemented on council roads, paths and all locations that councils collect from, to ensure the same empathy and respect for cats and dogs wherever they are found.
Some councils already have a procedure in place, but it varies from council to council; “best practice” is followed very loosely and often ignored, or it relies on animal-loving council staff with an understanding of how they would feel if their own pet were found dead. Some councils, such as Leeds Council, do not even scan.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having secured this debate. I am an owner of several cats. My first cat was killed before my eyes when I was aged about six; he jumped in front of a lorry, and I knew what had happened to him.
In the past two years, we have lost three cats. The only way that we could discover what had happened to them was by producing posters and the children in my family going door to door, asking people in the area if they knew what had happened to those cats. We discovered that each of them had been knocked down by a car. The council in the area in which we live has a policy of reporting cats that are chipped to the owner when their cat is killed, but the council did not report on any of those three occasions. I congratulate those who are attempting to get a firm policy throughout the country that is not dependent on someone’s postal code, because the loss of a cat is almost the same for a family as the loss of a human being.
I thank the hon. Lady for that wonderful personal example, which highlights the problem exactly: councils have policies but may not follow them. The distress caused by people having to search—going to great lengths and incurring expense—amounts to an inhuman way of treating our own citizens.
Many will know that I have a cat called Porridge who is very much part of my family in West Lothian where, I am delighted to say, the council recently reviewed its practice and will implement a revised policy from July. It will ensure that pets killed on roads are collected, checked for identification chips and reported to Petsearch, which will contact the owners. The council will store pets in a freezer for up to seven days to allow for notification and collection, with unclaimed pets then being cremated. That is a good example of best practice, and I am glad it is coming in. We should encourage more such practice around the country.
Let me read an account in Helena Abrahams’s own words:
“I was asked to go and retrieve a deceased cat in Bolton. When I arrived unfortunately I witnessed the council cage van already attending. The council worker proceeded to throw the dead cat in the back with the rubbish while laughing quite openly with the driver of the van.
I was absolutely infuriated by what I witnessed and was determined to somehow rescue the body of the cat from them. When I composed myself I followed the van to where they were now emptying the street bins and approached the men never mentioning what I had witnessed but asking if they had collected a cat recently as I believed I knew the owner.
He proceeded to get the cat’s body for me and I quickly left the area and scanned it for a chip. He was not chipped but I left him with a local vet and used his photos to locate his owner on Facebook. Bolton council failed on more than one occasion and definitely don’t scan.”
That backs up the story we just heard from the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) about her council. It also illustrates the fact that council staff do not have a set policy to follow. The cat’s body could so easily have been placed into a separate bag, labelled up and handed to a designated staff member trained to use the simple scanner. That is another sign that not all councils take the collection of dead pets seriously. Bear in mind that all councils are required to scan dogs, so they have the equipment. There is absolutely no excuse for scanning not to happen.
Another message sent to Gizmo’s Legacy reveals more evidence that council staff are failing pet owners. This incident happened to Wendy Andrew in Oldham:
“A while back I went to pick up a deceased cat that had been reported via our Facebook group ‘Deceased cats UK and Ireland’, on Shaw road, Oldham. As I arrived at the location I saw a small road sweeper driving up and down the road and I parked my car and was looking for the cat. As the sweeper passed me he made conversation and asked me was I ok. I said, ‘I’m looking for a deceased cat reported in this area.’ and he then said, ‘Oh the big road sweeper just came and swept it up. That is what we are told to do.’ He then said there would be ‘nothing left of the cat now as the sweeper just sucks them up and annihilates them.’
I said, ‘Do you not pick them up and check them for chips?’ He said, ‘No they just go back to the depot and empty their loads on to the local tip.’ I did say, ‘That’s disgraceful. That was someone’s much loved baby,’ but he replied, ‘That’s what we are told to do.’”
All too often, that is what many council refuse people are told to do. From an operational point of view, I can understand it, but it is not humane and there is better practice that they could follow for very little extra effort.
In that incident we again see a lack of council policy, of respect and of empathy. All of that results in an owner still searching, knocking on doors, spending money on unnecessary posters and leaflets, and searching the internet for a cat they will never find. Perhaps a distressed family is not able to sleep at night with the worry that their cat is trapped, has been stolen or is being cruelly mistreated. We all know that pet owners never give up searching. The owner of that cat would surely rather know the truth.
I ask everyone to think for a moment how they would feel if they found out that their pet had been thrown into the back of a wagon and tipped into a landfill site like rubbish. To those who signed the petition, the idea of their family member becoming rubbish is simply abhorrent. A pet’s body cannot be brought back to life but the body is the owner’s property, and the owner deserves the right to choose what happens to it. Many councils are ignoring that.
The Gizmo’s Legacy team have had several high-profile names and organisations supporting them or helping to achieve the target that triggered this debate. Special thanks must go to “Emmerdale” actress Samantha Giles, BBC News, “North West Tonight”, “Granada Reports”, Eamonn Holmes, Ruth Langsford, the lost and found groups on Facebook, Dr Daniel Allen, Richard Jordan, Debbie Matthews, Deborah Meaden, the hon. Member for Bury North, Dermot O’Leary, Rachel Riley, the actress who plays Harriet Finch, Peter Egan, TV vet and campaigner Marc Abraham, DogLost, the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance, Cats Protection and Harvey’s Army.
Those organisations and individuals recognise the importance of pets in our lives and all share posts from the Gizmo’s Legacy Twitter and Facebook accounts calling for Gizmo’s law. In addition, the team thank the many radio stations that did interviews, all the newspapers that published articles and, of course, members of the public who worked tirelessly distributing posters to help get the signatures. All those people are animal lovers and understand that pets are valued companions to many folk—their pet is more than a family member and is often their best friend.
The way in which the country supported this petition has been heartfelt. It shows the passion people feel for the need for Gizmo’s law. Obviously, the general public were unaware of the practice of many councils, but are grateful to have had it brought to their attention and to have the opportunity to press the Government to amend it. Cats as well as dogs are part of the family. They are not a commodity to be disposed of on rubbish heaps.
For people to lose their cat or dog to a road traffic accident and never have the opportunity to say goodbye rips the heart out of families and wrecks lives. Why have their beloved pet chipped just to be disregarded and thrown away as trash? It takes seconds to scan a microchip, to get the details and to inform the owner. Given that we encourage microchipping as best practice, we need to follow up to make it worth while for people to do it.
To follow up on the hon. Gentleman’s point, this is about joining up policy. The policy and the legislation are there, and there is evidence of good practice, so this is about joining it up. For the policy not to stand in isolation, we have to apply the empathy. His point is well made. We can turn things around the moment we ask those same people to envisage that happening to their pet—to all intents and purposes, pet owners view pets as family. Underpin it by legislative change, yes, but this is about empathy, otherwise the policy stands in isolation, detached from people’s experiences. To give a worst-case scenario, when I met Helena and her team, we talked of an early-morning drive home from holiday and seeing a dead cat on the road. I, too, felt a sense of empathy—the idea that such animals end up not being returned to their families. That is at the heart of this, is it not?
There is no question about the success of the compulsory microchipping of dogs. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that basing the need for the microchipping of cats on the risk that the animals pose to the public simply ignores the welfare of the animals in question?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. This is not about the safety of the public. It is about the family’s wellbeing and knowing what has happened to their beloved pet.
The process of scanning can be done in minutes and is not a complex procedure. Councils that have a policy to scan deceased pets often leave the onus on the owner to contact the council within seven days, which is a pointless exercise if an owner is not notified or if the pet is disposed of without the owner being given the chance to collect the body, to bury or cremate it, and to deal with their grief. During the holiday period, people might be away for longer than one week, so seven days is just unrealistic.
Too often, there is a disparity between council policy and actual practice. We know that from various cases evidenced by witnesses and council workers. One such worker, who wished to remain anonymous, told Gizmo’s Legacy:
“Oh, we don’t scan them, we are told not to. We take them to the local tip, where they are thrown in a freezer until full then put into the refuse.”
Des Kane is a volunteer chip scanner with Harvey’s Army. He regularly pops by his local council’s storage facility in Coatbridge in North Lanarkshire, to check whether any pets in the freezer can be identified. He finds the council’s approach to pets found on the road to be very hit and miss:
“I find that the only real documenting of any such unfortunate deceased pet is the label attached to the bag in which they are placed. This label states the following: animal type, colour, where and when picked up from, and any distinguishing markings.
To my knowledge that is as far as it goes with documentation and I’m not aware of any other efforts made by the council to find a potential owner, i.e. posting on their website or social media. They do have an animal welfare officer who they call to scan animals when they’ve been lifted or they call me when he’s not available.
I’ve found the council staff at the facility very accommodating and helpful but I feel the council policy, as it stands, could be a bit more thorough in trying to contact a possible owner, although I know they are more proactive than some other authorities.”
Such volunteers do a tremendous job around the country uniting people with their deceased pets, but it should not be left to them or to the random lottery of what each local council chooses to do.
Cat owner Anita Short, a resident of Sunderland City Council, learned from a neighbour that her cat Toby had been collected by cleansing services. She then contacted the council and was invited to Sunderland council’s depot to see if Toby was in its freezer. Anita recognised her cat from his collar. She asked why her cat had not been scanned and the excuse she was given was that they did not have a scanner on them. Why does the council state that its workers will scan animals they pick up? As I said, they should all have scanners, given the requirement for dogs. The council was not following its own policy. Anita Short would have never known that her cat had been collected and was in a council freezer if it was not for her neighbour. Relying on best practice is meaningless if policies are not strictly followed, which is why Gizmo’s law needs to be implemented.
DogLost.co.uk is the country’s leading lost-and-found pets service—despite the name, it also deals with cats. It has a national network of volunteers. Its service is free but it relies on donations. Hon. Members have probably seen its posters attached to lamp posts or in shop windows with details of missing pets. Since the launch of DogLost UK in 2003, more than 105,000 dogs and cats have been registered as missing or stolen. Thankfully, nearly three-quarters of pets have been found. DogLost informs us that, in 2018, 9,029 pets were reported missing. At the start of this month, 24,201 pets were still missing, which means that many families are still searching. How many of those dogs and cats will have been recovered from council roads and paths but never scanned? We will never know how many of those dogs and cats have ended up in landfill because of lax record keeping.
Of course, not all animals are microchipped, so to be fair to councils it is sometimes not possible to find owners even when they scan. What we do know is that two councils admitted to collecting bodies of cats and putting them in the freezer, but failing to scan or keep any records. On questioning, they admitted remembering the description of two cats: that happened to Michelle Morton’s cat Cookie, which was in the hands of Blackpool Council, and Janette Barton’s cat Benji under Wigan Council. Both those cats were microchipped, but it appears that neither council bothered to scan, because they do not have to—it is only best practice. Councils make their own policies and do not even need to bother to stick to the rules that they have set themselves. Is it too much to ask that they take a few minutes to scan for a chip, keep some records that can be easily accessed and contact owners to let them know the bad news, to give them the chance to collect their pet for burial or cremation?
Janette told us that she still cries over losing her cat. The emotional connection between humans and pets cannot be emphasised enough. This debate is about human suffering, not the lost pet that has caused the human suffering. There are so many heart-breaking examples of families who have lost their pets. Gizmo’s Legacy detailed a broad range of them in the pack it sends to members, which highlights that there is a lack of scanning all over the United Kingdom.
The last example I will give is that of Wendy Turner and her cat Merlin, who was neutered and microchipped. After spending a day looking for him, she posted on Facebook and, following a last sighting of him, discovered he had been taken by the council. After contacting the council, Wendy was told that they would be in touch after they had scanned the cat, but that did not happen. She was then given the runaround, being passed on to different departments and being told that Merlin would be added to the list of deceased animals in a day or so. It was to be several weeks later before a vague description of a cat found in the area where Merlin was picked up appeared on the deceased animal list. Wendy says that
“it is two years since I lost Merlin and even now I feel that there is no closure. The thought of his precious remains being tossed away with rubbish or thrown into a furnace with no regard to him or his family I find very hard to accept. I only wanted to bring my boy home. This was the reason why I invested in a microchip. If it was not for the reply to my Facebook post I would still be searching for Merlin.”
People are spending real money to get their cats microchipped, so that when something does go wrong they can be reunited with them, whether alive or unfortunately deceased.
What can be done? Recommendations of good practice clearly do not work for everyone, which suggests that legislation for the UK’s 408 councils may be required. Local authorities are devolved, so we may need legislation in the devolved nations as well as in this Parliament. It takes minutes to scan a pet, log details and contact an owner—a small price to pay considering the human misery that searching for a pet generates. It is important that contact is made where microchips exist, and that there be a system to view photos of deceased pets where no microchip is found.
Our pets need improved protection. Gizmo’s law would mean that all councils would have to start scanning all animals they collect on all their roads, paths and locations and contacting their owners to give them closure. If the animals are not chipped, they should send images to organisations such as Deceased Cats UK and Ireland or DogLost, which will happily share them to help to trace owners. Councils could even set up a web page or social media site. It is not too much to ask to keep all cats and dogs for at least seven days. If local authorities do not have freezers, they can use a local vets. The petitioners are not asking for anything that is not easily attainable, and given the attendance in the debate, it seems they have broad cross-party support.
We need Gizmo’s law to help to protect the basic rights of pet owners: the right to not have a family member thrown into a landfill, and the right to know whether their pet has been found and identified so they can collect the body and start the grieving process. Pets are part of the family. It is unacceptable for councils to treat pets as throwaway rubbish. Now is the time to do away with the postcode lottery of random policies and often uncaring practices that are described by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as best practice. Campaigners and pet owners all hope that the Minister will do the right thing: make Gizmo’s law a reality.
I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for introducing the debate and explaining the real pain when a cat goes missing and no one knows what has happened to it. More than 800 people across the three Plymouth constituencies signed Helena’s petition. So many of them have shared stories of their own missing animals to stress how important this issue is—a fairly simple legislative tweak could make a powerful difference to those families. A total of 320 people in the patch that I represent signed the petition. It is clear that British people are asking us to demand an animal welfare agenda that is consistent in its application across the country.
Last year, 230,000 cats were killed in road traffic accidents. That is more than 600 every day. Since this debate started, roughly 12 cats will have died. Each of those incidents will mean a family will not see their moggy come home. Young children will ask where their cat is and everyone will be worried about them. We need to create a regulatory environment where, as much as possible, we value animals and their relationships with families. That is not too much to ask. Every animal matters and, importantly, every cat matters to its family.
As always before I speak in these kinds of debates, I reached out to people on social media. It will be no surprise that many people wanted to share the story of their lost cat—whether it came home, was found or is still missing in action somewhere and the owners do not know what happened. My own cat, the fantastically named Bumblesnarf—after Bumblebee from “Transformers” and Snarf from “ThunderCats”, obviously—went missing and, sadly, was found much later. I know the worry of not knowing where a cat is. We all know that cats have a mind of their own and will not do as they are told—unlike dogs, they will do as they please. Sometimes, they might just want to go out and have a play, but when they go missing there is so much heartache, worry and stress. Emma told me on social media that she was pleased that MPs are pushing for this debate. She talked about the cats that she has lost in road traffic accidents and the importance of microchipping. Others shared similar stories.
The petition calls for councils to have the same respect for cats as they have for dogs. I am proud to say that Labour-run Plymouth City Council treats cats the same as dogs in road traffic accidents. That is really important. We need to engineer out of our system the postcode lottery that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk spoke about. We must also ensure that councils apply the rules consistently, especially where there are multi-tier councils or borough boundaries. As politicians, we recognise borough boundaries—some of us even recognise the boundaries between wards or polling districts—but for the vast majority of people, they just live in a community.
I agree entirely. That is why it is important that the rules are applied similarly by every council.
As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), there is no statutory obligation to scan microchipped cats when they are found. However, I am proud that Plymouth City Council follows best practice and scans both cats and dogs that are found on roads. If, sadly, the animal did not survive the accident, it is kept for a further two weeks, so there is plenty of time for the owner to be notified and for the pet to be returned to its owner for a proper goodbye.
The law is only paper if it is not enforced, so we need to ensure that the regulatory framework is in place, that councils understand it, and that the people who work on the frontline, who sometimes get a tough time—those who collect the bins and clean our streets, for example—receive training and understand how important that framework is. Because of the level of cuts, we are asking them to clean more streets, or collect more bins, more quickly. Pausing to collect a cat adds extra work to their day, but it is important that they recognise the value of doing so; that empathy and connection—the thought that it could be their cat—is so important.
I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point. That is why it is really important not only that the regulatory framework is tightened but that training is provided so everyone who works on the frontline in our public services, from local councils upwards, understands the value of enforcing that framework and giving proper care to those cats.
Almost one in five households in Britain has a cat, making cats the second most popular pet after dogs. Many people assume that if their pet is microchipped, they will be alerted if something happens. However, we know from the stories we heard earlier and from our own communities that that does not happen in every situation. Under the Road Traffic Act 1988, road users are required to stop and report an accident involving horses, cattle, mules, sheep, pigs, goats or dogs. I think that list partly reflects the very different role of animals in society. The social contract for how animals are used changes every day—we see that in greater demands for protection of animals—so we must ensure that that list is updated to reflect our changing views.
I heard the hon. Gentleman say that having a cat microchipped is no guarantee that it will be scanned if something happens to it. Does he therefore agree that it is not enough just to ask people to microchip their cats? To make any policy coherent, we must legally compel them to do so, as we do with dogs. Local authorities will then step up to that policy and fulfil their duties so that, when something happens to a cat, it is scanned and its owner finds out what happened to it.
One thing I have discovered since being elected two years ago is that the public really want proper rules for animal welfare that are properly enforced and properly funded. In that respect, the hon. Lady’s point is well put.
Sadly, despite being valued members of households—part of the family—cats are not afforded the same duty of care we afford to cattle, horses, mules and dogs. The life of a cat should be worth no less than that of any other animal, because of the emotional connection that animal brings to the family and its important role in a household. That needs to be addressed.
Unfortunately, road traffic accidents involving cats happen frequently. As we know, cats sometimes misjudge the distance and speed of oncoming vehicles and can be blinded by headlights at night. The law requires people to stop and report the accident if they run over a dog. That helps to save the lives of hundreds of dogs every year. We have spoken so far about reporting in the event that an animal dies, but it can help save the lives of dogs and other animals if people know they are required to stop and report that an animal has been involved in an accident. We should think not just about what happens at the end of an animal’s life but about how we prevent needless deaths along the way.
Petplan estimates that a quarter of road accidents involving cats are fatal. That means there is a good chance that a cat will survive if it gets the urgent care it needs, but that can happen only if there is a requirement for road users to report accidents involving cats. I would like the legislative proposals for compulsory microchipping of cats to be tightened, and I would like to see compulsory reporting where a cat is injured or involved in an accident.
Although the debate is about accidents involving pets rather than their owners, I want to take a moment to talk about the importance of drivers and other road users recognising the role of animals in communities. I represent an urban area, but Plymouth is surrounded by beautiful countryside, with many weird and varied country lanes. In such fantastic rural areas, accidents may involve different animals—a cow coming over a high fence, for example. Having the driving skills to understand what anticipatory action to take is really important both on country lanes and on major roads, so part of this debate should be about the need to teach and inform drivers, not just in their driving test and their theory test but throughout their lives, about the importance of looking out for and recognising not only pedestrians but animals on pavements and in other settings. We need to ensure that the structures on our roads are engineered to better protect animals, and we need to make our roads safer. I hope that is not lost on the Minister.
Councils across the UK should be required to follow best practice on scanning cats involved in road traffic accidents, which, as we have heard, a number of councils already do. Families deserve to know what happened to their pet if it goes missing. We need more action from the Government to make tweaks in this area. I say to the Minister, with whom I work in a number of areas, that at a time when the Government’s legislative agenda is not as full as it might be, there is space for doing things that have genuine cross-party support. I know that, regardless of what happens with Brexit, nearly all my constituents would want us to act to protect our animals. I think a tweak to the rules to extend compulsory microchipping to cats and to require a uniform approach from every council, no matter which political party runs it, would be well supported.
I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for bringing forward the debate and setting the scene so well, and I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for his contribution.
I am well known as a dog lover. I cannot remember not having had a dog as a pet since I was very young, many years ago in Ballywalter. My wife has volunteered at Assisi Animal Sanctuary for many years and often sees the effects of unwanted and abandoned pets. It breaks her heart and brings a lump to her throat—and perhaps even to mine—to tell me some of those stories. My wife has had cats nearly all her life. I never had a cat until we married. My dogs and her cats came together as she and I came together. I am not sure whether that is why we did so, but that is the way it happened. As a result, we have always had a love for cats.
We live on a farm. Because we own the land, whenever our animals or pets have passed away, we have been able to bury them on the farm, but that is not the case for everyone. I believe that when we are able to bury our dogs and cats on the farm, they may still roam the fields—not physically, but perhaps in their afterlife, wherever that may be.
Microchipping has helped with the abandonment of animals on some scale, but certainly more needs to be done to ensure that those who keep animals are able to do so. I have heard a few people say that homing an animal is as difficult as adopting a child. That is said tongue in cheek—let us be honest—but I am glad that it means the decision to house a pet is measured and well thought out. Assisi, where my wife volunteers, does not allocate a pet—a dog or a cat—to any home without first doing a home visit to ensure that the person is ready to give a home to a dog or cat, is in the frame of mind to do so and, let us be honest, has a home that can give the pet the freedom it needs. For many elderly people, pets can be companions, but it would not be fair for someone disabled or elderly to have a springer spaniel—a very energetic dog—that would run them off their feet. Therefore, pets must be allocated. My wife does home visits, so she knows how important they are.
Some 140 of my constituents signed the petition, which is the reason I am here today, but I am confident that I represent many more people who did not sign the petition but agree with its sentiments. Many people want to see the issue addressed appropriately. Although the law says that people do not need to report hitting an animal with a car, the reality is that that leaves a family heartbroken, not knowing what has happened to their beloved pet.
Many years ago, I was out doing deliveries for the business that I used to have and I came up the Darragh Road in Comber. A cat had been killed that morning and the woman was standing at the side of the road in tears. She asked me whether I would scoop it up and put it in a bag, which I was happy to do. The problem was that, as I was doing that, people thought that I had run it down, which I obviously had not. I was trying to be a good Samaritan and respond to that lady. I understood how heartbroken she was, however, because that was her pet—her cat, her love and her companion.
The petition provides a simple solution. If an animal is found, an effort should be made to find the family and allow them to deal with it. To do that, we need to push for people to get their cat microchipped to ensure that any new regulations are worth it. I am glad that Cats Protection in Northern Ireland has a scheme that enables cats to be neutered for £5—many other schemes across Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom are run by volunteers and charitable groups. The offer is open to owners who are receiving state benefits, who are on a low income, who are students or pensioners and who live in Northern Ireland. Microchipping is also available under the campaign at some participating veterinary practices, which may incur a small additional £5 fee. Assisi, the charity that my wife works for, also has a policy of neutering all cats, so there is some control. We cannot ignore the good work that charity groups do across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Those who microchip their cat obviously care for the animal and deserve a modicum of care in response from their council. I have written to my local council—Ards and North Down Borough Council—to ask whether it will co-ordinate the effort put forward by Cats Protection. I served on the old Ards Borough Council for 26 years and came off it when I was elected to this place in 2010. To be fair to the council, when it is asked by the general public to call out and collect a dead dog or cat, it does so without any coercion as part of its commitment to local pet owners, not because there is a written rule, but because it wants to respond to the general public. I congratulate it on being so responsive and community-based on the matter.
In our house, we have three cats and one dog, which all came from charities. The dog came from a bad relationship and had been abused as a pup. It was nervous when it came to us, but it is now very confident and sees the house as its house, rather than anyone else’s. The cats were all strays or from charities. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport referred to the name of his cat earlier. Ours are called Nicholas—I am not sure why; it sounds very royal—Muffins and Podge. The three cats are totally different and have different personalities. Two of them stay in the house all day while the other one hunts all day. Living on a farm, I get quite annoyed when the cat brings home some of its trophies, and my wife hates it more than anybody, but that is their nature—they hunt.
There are heartbreaking posts on Facebook, in the local papers, in the provincial papers and in shop windows that ask, “Have you seen this cat?” The children get so upset, but something can be done. That is why I am happy to speak in the debate and add my voice, along with the hon. Members who have spoken and those who will speak, to the 107,062 signatories of the petition. I ask the Minister to begin the work that needs to be done to ensure that the petition’s calls are answered and that people know their loved ones have been respectfully put to rest and are not lying in a dump somewhere.
The Minister has always been responsive to our proposals. Our personal discussions with him, and the discussions of others, have indicated that he will probably give us the response that we wish for, which I look forward to. I support the petition’s calls and look forward to hearing how the Government intend to respond positively and definitively to make them happen, and to let all those 107,062 signatories of the petition know that the Government work for them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Strangely, I used to have a cat called Muffin as well, which was sadly knocked over at the age of one. It was in the days before microchips, but because it happened in our street, the cat was handed to me and we were able to bury her in the garden, plant a little tree on top and say goodbye to her. I know how important it is for people to be able to do that and to know what has happened to their beloved pet.
Muffin was followed by two ginger cats—I decided to get two cats after that, so if one was knocked over, I would have one left—which lived to be 19 and 21. When they shuffled off this mortal coil, after a long and happy life, I decided that life was getting slightly complicated and it was too difficult to fit cats into a politician’s lifestyle. I admire hon. Members who have pets. I would find it impossible because of living in two places at once. Deep down, however, I am a cat owner. I am very fond of cats and, given the choice, I would have one as a pet. At the moment, it is totally incompatible with this lifestyle.
The other reason I wanted to speak in the debate is that, of anywhere in the country, the petition gathered most support from my constituency. Heywood and Middleton topped the table with 634 signatures, so I feel duty bound to speak on behalf of those constituents who cared enough to sign it. The sad story of Gizmo also happened in my neighbouring constituency of Bury North.
I fully support the aim of the petition, which hon. Members have described as a tweak in the law—that is all. Simply, the petition’s aim is that deceased or injured cats be required by law to be scanned in the same way that dogs are, and that efforts be made to track down their owners. Despite cats being popular pets, the law does not require motorists to report running a cat over, nor is it compulsory for cats to be microchipped, although many owners do that voluntarily. According to Cats Protection, 68% of domestic cats are microchipped. Those cat owners have done that for a reason: their hope is that, if their cat goes missing, somebody will scan the chip and the cat will be returned to them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) referred to the Road Traffic Act 1988, which states that collisions causing death or injury to dogs, horses, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, donkeys and mules, but not cats, must be reported to the police. The Government’s guidelines state that there is no requirement to report a collision involving an animal smaller than a dog, although I wonder what size of dog the Government are referring to. That guideline seems deliberately vague. The point is that the law could easily be extended to include cats.
The natural consequence of this petition is to extend compulsory microchipping to cats, to change the law to require motorists to report all accidents in which an animal is injured, and to make it a duty for local authorities to scan deceased and injured cats for microchips. I am pleased to say that my local authority—Labour-run Rochdale Borough Council—already has a policy to check deceased cats for microchips, and it makes every effort to identify pet owners. If the cat has a chip, a member of the environmental management team will contact the owner to break the sad news and arrange for the pet to be either collected or incinerated by the council—whatever the owner decides to do. If the pet does not have a chip, it is stored for up to four weeks in case it fits a description from concerned owners. Unclaimed pets are incinerated after four weeks.
My local authority’s response seems sensible and humane, and all councils should adopt it. Handheld scanners are inexpensive and take only a few minutes to use. The point has been well made that councils are already in possession of scanners because of the laws relating to dogs. It would save so much heartache if all councils adopted that practice. It would allow the pet to be buried or cremated with dignity, and would give their owners the chance to say goodbye and get closure.
The charity Cats Protection supports the compulsory microchipping of cats, which is one of its 2022 agenda priorities. It says that “cats are not political”, although some cats, such as Larry the No. 10 cat, might dispute that. Larry frequently comments on the political issues of the day via his Twitter feed, which may have just a hint of human assistance. At the moment, Larry is extremely concerned about whether the next incumbent of No. 10 has a cat allergy. I wish that was all we had to worry about.
Cats Protection is seeking cross-party support for its 2022 agenda. Compulsory microchipping for owned cats would allow more pets to be reunited with their owners and would enable owners to be contacted if their cat is involved in a road traffic accident. It also stresses the importance of keeping microchip details up to date if the owner moves house, for example. Those proposals are supported by the Labour party’s animal welfare plan, which calls for mandatory microchipping for cats, and a requirement for motorists to report all accidents in which an animal had been injured or killed. The natural consequence of that would be that all councils put in place a policy on scanning cats as well as dogs—a simple step that would save so much heartache.
There are many good reasons to bring about this change in the law, and not one reason why we should not. It is clear that it has cross-party support, so let’s just do it.
Like everybody else who has contributed, I am delighted to participate in this debate. I thank the Petitions Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for his well-informed and comprehensive speech to kick off the debate.
Like everybody else in the Chamber, I am hugely fond of animals. We all appreciate the importance of family pets. I may completely divide public opinion across the UK, but I wish to confess on the record that I am a cat lover and have had pet cats in the past. I had a cat call Kitty and a stray cat who my family took in at my behest. We called her Misty because she had a misty past and we did not know where she came from, but she was very keen to stay with us. Like the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), I suffer from the lack of a cat at the moment, not having sufficient time to look after and care for one in the way that cats demand. I declare an interest: I am a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on cats. A number of hon. Members in the Chamber confessed to me that they did not know that there was such a group. They are all very welcome to come along.
If, as the petition calls for, all cats are scanned for a microchip when they are lost, injured or killed, it makes nothing but logical sense that all cats ought to be required by law to be microchipped if this policy is to have any real coherence. Family pets add so much value to our lives and help us to maintain better mental health, whatever our age. They play a significant role in combating loneliness, especially, but not exclusively, for older people.
Everyone understands that the compulsory microchipping of dogs has been very positive, so why is the same not the case for cats? As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said, every animal—every cat—matters. A cat’s life is worth the same as any dog’s life. Dogs are required to be microchipped, and drivers are required to report if they are involved in an accident with them.
In an ideal world, we would all make every effort to have our cats microchipped, because there are significant benefits to cats and cat owners in doing so. The SNP Government in Scotland have long recommended the microchipping of cats as best practice in their code of practice for the welfare of cats. Responsible cat owners want to do what is best for their cat’s welfare, and it is important that they are able to avail themselves of this option. It is always better to encourage people to do something, rather than force them. If all owners were fully informed of the benefits of microchipping their cats, I am sure that the vast majority—many more than currently do so—would be keen to take up that offer. Many cat owners do not think about losing their cat or about their cat having an accident until it happens, so they do not prioritise microchipping, and by the time they do, it is too late. If the law right across the UK required all cats to be microchipped, and councils by necessity played their part, it would save a lot of distress to cat owners and cats themselves, and in the event of loss or injury, it could save a cat’s life.
The Scottish and UK Governments have yet to be persuaded of the merits of compulsory microchipping for cats. I do not really understand why, as we already have compulsory microchipping for dogs. Those of us who believe that it is a good idea therefore need to continue to make the case to persuade them that it is the right thing to do. I believe that it is the right thing to do for cats and cat owners, and it is the right thing to do from an animal welfare perspective, from any angle we choose to look at it. If chipping is compulsory, local authorities will of necessity scan all cats that are lost, killed or injured. Given that dogs are already microchipped, this is not such a great leap from current practice, as the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton said. Clearly, some cat owners will not microchip their cat unless it is an absolute requirement, so in the end animal welfare requires us to make this a legislative matter.
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady. I want to work with her and colleagues to ensure that the law is changed, both across Scotland and in the rest of the UK. Does she agree that, if we secure compulsory microchipping and scanning, it would be beneficial to have one centralised database, so that when a missing cat or dog is found it is really easy to get the data from the database and reunite the pet with its owner? At the moment, it is far too complex. The Government really need to look at having one centralised database.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. A centralised database is particularly important for cats, rather than perhaps dogs, because cats, as we know, often wander extremely far from home, and may wander into a completely different part of the country. A centralised database would make a lot of sense. I will press the Scottish Government on compulsory microchipping for cats. The matter is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and I hope that MPs representing constituencies in England will likewise press the UK Government and the Minister, who I am sure is listening carefully.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk rightly pointed out that local authorities across the UK have a confused and patchy policy on scanning for microchips. It is clear that the reason for such patchy and inconsistent practices across local authorities is because there is no compulsory microchipping. If we sort that out—local authorities will do their duty and follow the law if it is changed—it will reconcile thousands of lost, killed and injured cats with their grateful owners.
I am not a particularly prolific user of social media; I tend to post whatever I want to post and then log off. However, almost every time I log on to social media, like the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) I see posts from worried pet owners—overwhelmingly cat owners—who are desperately worried about their family pet, who has wandered off and seems to be lost or worse.
Having been a pet owner myself, I completely understand, as I am sure everyone in the Chamber does, how worrying it is when a beloved pet cat does not come home, and the owner does not know whether it is lost or in distress, whether it is trapped somewhere and cannot get back home, or whether it has even met with some terrible accident. Not knowing whether we will ever see a beloved pet again is extremely distressing.
We have heard that it cannot be overestimated just how much a part of the family our pets become. It is a really distressing experience for any pet owner to go through. If a cat seems to be lost, and if it is microchipped and microchipping is enshrined by law, it is extremely likely that when it is found it will be returned to its owner, as their details will be contained in the microchip that will be scanned by the local authorities. I honestly cannot see any downside to that idea.
Compulsory microchipping and local authorities scanning microchips are inherently intertwined. The patchy and inconsistent scanning that we have heard about today cannot continue in all good conscience. We have heard from the UK Government and the Scottish Government that it is best practice to microchip a cat. If that is the case, then it must be better practice, by definition, for all cats to be microchipped—by law, if necessary. It must be even better practice for local authorities to fulfil what would become a legal duty to scan cats that are lost, injured or killed, so that owners can be informed.
I have heard some people argue that this is not necessary because a cat can wear a collar with the owner’s contact details, and that works just as well. Although that is better than nothing, it is not as secure a safeguard as a microchip; collars can become loose and untangled, and be lost. There are no such worries with a microchip.
Battersea Dogs & Cats Home is unequivocal in its view that microchipping is the most effective way of ensuring that a cat can be safely reunited with its owner quickly, together with recording its medical and domestic history. In 2018, it was able to reunite 333 lost cats with their owners because they were microchipped. We can increase that number with compulsory microchipping, which will, of necessity, mean compulsory scanning by local authorities.
As we have heard, drivers are required by law to stop and report incidents of hitting a
“horse, cattle, ass, mule, sheep, pig, goat or dog”,
but not a cat. This seems an odd omission that must be addressed. I know several people who have found a poor dead cat at the side of a road, after it has been hit by a vehicle as it tried to cross the road. That is deeply distressing and makes the loss of a beloved pet all the more difficult to come to terms with. It is as if the poor cat, who was like a member of its own family, was discarded in a way that suggests it simply did not matter. To all of us who consider ourselves animal lovers, that cannot be right. Research has shown that over 60% of people in the UK believe that the law should be changed and that drivers who knock down a cat should have to report that as well. Why should cats continue to be excluded?
When a driver hits a dog with their car and fails to report it to the police, they can be fined up to £5,000. The fact that they are under no obligation to make a report when they hit a cat is deeply unfair. We understand that dogs are more likely to inflict damage; there is insurance and liability to consider, and dogs are supposed to be on leads on the highway, so perhaps their owners have been negligent. Despite that, the current situation continues to be deeply unfair and distressing to cats and their owners, as the hon. Member for Strangford and others indicated.
Every year, countless cats are left to die alone, sometimes slowly and in pain, before being dumped in landfill, when they could perhaps have been saved with treatment or their grieving owners could have been given the opportunity to say a proper goodbye. If drivers knock down a dog—or even an ass—they cannot flee the scene without reporting it to the police. Cats must not be seen as less worthy or less important to their owners. If it were illegal for a driver to fail to report the knocking down of a cat, a compulsory microchip in the cat would mean the owner would be notified in the appropriate way by the local authority, instead of being left to wonder what happened to their beloved family pet, perhaps for years.
Many local councils might argue that they do not have the resources to purchase scanning machines for microchipped cats. I pay tribute to Cats Protection, which has worked with local authorities across the UK for some time, donating scanning machines to those that struggle to afford or prioritise providing them. A number of local authorities have been able to commit to adhering to a scanning policy, as a direct result of those efforts. That is important as it is believed that of approximately 11 million pet cats in the UK, over 230,000 die on our roads each year. Charities such as CatsMatter believe this figure could be higher, due to under-reporting. For fear of banging on, if the law were changed to ensure compulsory microchipping, local authorities would prioritise purchasing scanning machines to comply with that law.
I pay tribute to North Ayrshire Cats Protection; it does sterling work and has some really dedicated volunteers whom I met shortly after I was elected. I had the good fortune and pleasure of meeting Fonzie the cat, with whom I was quite taken.
We have heard voices in the Chamber calling for cats to be microchipped and for improvements in scanning procedures in the event of misadventure, so that cats can be returned to their owners. For me, it follows that all cats ought to be microchipped for the same reason. Where we cannot persuade—and we have not persuaded everybody—we have to compel owners; it is the right thing to do. I support this petition and would go further, as I have set out. We need a coherent, joined-up policy, and I urge the Minister to consider compulsory microchipping, which will also deliver routine scanning by local authorities of cats who are lost or injured.
Make no mistake: I will pursue the Scottish Government about this matter. I ask the Minister to set about correcting the matter for cats in England, as I will seek to address it for the cats in Scotland.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I know that if you were not in the Chair you would be speaking in the debate, but unfortunately you have to keep mum. I hope we have done enough, and that you feel our representations have fully covered the matter.
The issue has been covered well, with excellent speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), and a number of interventions, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Frith), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). I should expect nothing else, as a fellow cat lover. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is as expert on this subject as on everything else, also contributed, and there were interventions from the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson). I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for introducing the debate. He covered nearly all the issues, and what he did not cover was dealt with comprehensively by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), so I am left with an unenviable task: there is nothing for me to say because it has all been said. However, I want to give some personal witness, and to make an offer to the Minister.
I shall start with the offer. As has been said, the change in question is a small amendment to the Road Traffic Act 1988. I thank Battersea, Blue Cross and Cats Protection for giving us full briefings. The amendment would insert the word “cat” into the list of animals in section 170(8) of the 1988 Act. On behalf of the Opposition, I make the offer to the Government to help them in doing that. We will play no politics in any way, and will just get the amendment in place. I do not know whether the change could be made by statutory instrument. That would be good, but we are willing to work with the Government. It would be a minor change, but an important one, which is why we are here.
The petition was signed by more than 100,000 people. For those who have had the experiences we have heard about, it is emotional. To give personal witness, I have had three cats that were knocked down: Wolfie, Tiggy and Darcy. The first and third I had to go and find myself, and the second was found and taken to the local vet. All my cats are microchipped. We were able to bury Tiggy’s ashes in the garden after he was incinerated. It is a very emotional thing. At any one time I have five cats using the catflaps in my house, and I think there are more, as we are generous with the amount of food we put out. I am a cat lover. To declare an interest, I am secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on cats—it is good to see my fellow member, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran, here. The group is not necessarily very political, but in one respect the issue is political, because we are asking the Government to change the law. The change we seek would be limited, but we hope that, if nothing else, it will mean that people can say goodbye to their animal if it is knocked over and dies. Alternatively, if an animal is injured, hopefully something might be done to save its life.
I will go on to my hobby-horse—although not for long—about what happens when someone knocks an animal over. Accidents happen, but most are preventable. It is purely bad driving. People drive far too fast and therefore they are responsible. My view of driving has always been that it is a privilege rather than a right. This is nothing to do with cats, but it is pertinent. There are a number of commons in my constituency, and every year cows and horses are put on to them. The Minister will know the reason for that: it is the only way to keep the grass down and maintain the quality of biodiversity on very important commons. Every year 10 to 12 cattle or horses are knocked down. If someone hits one of those animals it will not do a lot of good to their vehicle, let alone to them, but it is because they have been driving too fast. The other day at dusk I was going at about 15 to 20 mph, because it was difficult to see. Two idiots went past me doing at least 40 mph or 50 mph. They would not have had a chance of avoiding a cow or horse. It makes you think, “What planet are these people on?” Sadly, the owner of such an animal has to deal with the carcase, as it is usually dead. It is even worse if it is dying, as a vet has to be got to euthanise the animal painlessly. I do not understand why people do not see that it is their responsibility if they knock over an animal. I would widen that view to include wild animals, given the number of badgers, foxes and so on that get killed. If someone hits an animal, it is dangerous to them as well as the animal. A lot of road accidents are caused by people driving far too fast and then hitting something.
We are talking about cats. Most are somebody’s pet and really important to that person. People know when they have hit something. I am sorry, but it is not explicable by saying “Oh, I didn’t realise I hit it.” People should always stop and think, “Maybe they did run out. Maybe I had no chance. I hit them, and I therefore at least have to do something about it.” It is a criminal offence if someone hits a dog and does not report it. If their number is taken, they can be dealt with. We have put that into law. I ask the Minister, with the best of intentions: can we just include cats? Cats are, next to dogs, probably the second most popular pet. There are also many feral cats, which probably increase the numbers dramatically. That is why I am in favour of neutering, and have always done things in the past to encourage those campaigns. Certainly, Cats Protection will always neuter cats, usually for free, if people bring them along. That is why I also believe in microchipping. I support the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran in her view that microchipping should be compulsory, because we want to control cat numbers. That is right and appropriate.
We recognise that people who have a pet have a responsibility, but so do others who, perhaps in a genuine accident, knock an animal over. They should report it and ensure that the person who has undergone that loss can at least know what happened to the animal. The worst thing possible is when someone’s animal has gone missing and they do not know for days, or sometimes weeks, what has happened. There have been good cases when animals have been lost for 10 years or more and suddenly returned, although those involve very strange circumstances.
I ask the Minister in good faith whether we can make the proposed change. It may not be easy, but I hope that it could be done through secondary legislation. If it is put on the agenda, we will genuinely support it. I make that commitment. There will not be any funny games: we will not suddenly say, “We’re going to include other animals.” Let us keep it to cats. That is what the petition is about. That is what people want us to do.
I hope that the Minister will say some good things. At the moment, the Government have not committed to microchipping, as they should, for the reasons I have given, or to including cats in the list of animals that should be reportable if knocked over. It is not much to ask. Most people are horrified if they knock an animal over. Sadly, there are those who seem rather indifferent, but they should not be driving anyway, in my opinion, because they are a danger. It could be a child—that is the repercussion. We know how dangerously some people drive, and I am always mystified by how few people are banned at any one time, given how many people I see when I cycle around who seem to drive incredibly badly, and to be indifferent. We have to deal with that issue, but the debate today is on a narrower issue and we are talking about cats. If someone knocks a cat over, they should have to report it. They should deal with it, because that is the right and humane thing to do.
Sir Roger, I know that you have a real and sincere interest in this subject, so it must be difficult for you to sit in the Chair during the debate, but we know that you are with us in spirit and want to improvements to be made in this area.
This has been an important and fascinating debate. I have learned more about the names of hon. Members’ cats than I ever thought I needed to; we have heard of Muffins, Misty and Porridge, but the name that takes the biscuit, and definitely the creativity award, is Bumblesnarf. It is good to hear that we have a good posse of cat lovers here among us.
It is true that cats are cherished members of our families, bringing joy to homes up and down the country, so I understand the distress caused when they become lost or injured, or get hit by a vehicle. We have heard some harrowing stories today about the sense of loss and the need for closure from the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), who gave a fantastic speech to open the debate. The hon. Member—I should say the omnipresent Member—for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about how sad it is to see lost cat posters around and families trying to find their lost ones. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) spoke of the need to take care of the needs of families and not just the animals.
I thank the Petitions Committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss the important subject of cat welfare, specifically the scanning of cats killed in road accidents. As I said, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk did an excellent job opening the debate. I too will take the opportunity to thank Cats Protection, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, Blue Cross and the scores of other organisations that provide care for cats in all circumstances. These organisations, with the help of dedicated volunteers, do everything they can to reunite and rehome cats in need.
I commend the petitioners, Helena Abrahams and the others who have been so involved with the petition, as the hon. Member for Bury North (James Frith) set out in his early interventions—or perhaps I should say contributions—to the debate, on drawing attention to the importance of the scanning of cats and through that the importance of cats being microchipped. Like many Members of this House, I am sure, I was particularly taken with the examples from the Gizmo’s Legacy team and the terrible accounts of cats killed in road accidents or lost for one reason or another. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) talked about the strong support for the petition in her constituency, and of course, north Manchester is not far from Macclesfield, where I live.
In many cases, owners have been unable to discover the fate of their beloved pet, and I understand that that serves to compound their distress. I agree that local councils and their contractors should do everything they can to identify the dead pets that they come across and, where possible, notify their owners so that they are not left in a sorry state of suspense—or worse.
The issues raised in the petition on cats and road vehicles have been the subject of several recent debates in this House, not least the debate in December brought by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), whose work championing the cause of cats I wholeheartedly commend. He was also able to raise the subject at Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs oral questions on 28 March when the Secretary of State—a cat owner himself—said very clearly, in relation to my hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill, which we have just discussed, “Bring it on.” Some people might call that making policy on the paw—
—but I agree with him. We must do all we can to improve cat welfare. The benefits of microchipping are well known; that is why I am planning to issue, when I can, a call for evidence on making cat microchipping compulsory. It will be an important step forward for much-loved cats across the country. I hope that the petitioners and hon. Members here—not least the hon. Member for the beautiful constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who made a compelling speech, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and the ever-present hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew)—will recognise it as an important step that we must take.
Over 107,000 people have signed the petition, which is a reminder of just how well loved our pets are in this country and of how important their welfare is to us. I am pleased to explain the Government’s response to key aspects raised by the petition in more detail. While the petition itself does not specifically call for compulsory microchipping of cats, in common with many animal welfare charities we recognise that microchipping is the key method for identifying a pet and linking it to its owner. On that basis, the Government recommend that any owner should microchip their cat to increase the chances of its being reunited with them if it gets lost. That is also strongly advocated by Cats Protection and other welfare organisations.
In April 2018, we updated the statutory cat welfare code with the welcome collaboration of Cats Protection and others. The code now emphasises the benefits of microchipping cats specifically, and I encourage cat owners everywhere to consider the benefits of microchipping, which can be obtained for a modest fee. In fact, microchipping can even be obtained free of charge: Blue Cross provides free microchipping services at its animal rehoming centres, hospitals and clinics, and other welfare charities do likewise. The hon. Member for Strangford, who often contributes to debates on animal welfare, talked about the Assisi Animal Sanctuary in Northern Ireland, where microchipping is provided free in certain circumstances. That is an important step.
Microchipping technology has greatly improved the chances of lost pets being reunited with their owners. For a relatively small, one-off cost of around £25—or, as I have mentioned, in some cases free of charge—people can have confidence that their beloved pet could be identified if it were lost. As the head of cattery at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, Lindsey Quinlan, said, while the microchipping procedures are short and simple,
“the return on their value is immeasurable”.
The Government’s statutory cat welfare code therefore promotes microchipping on two grounds. First, micro- chipping gives cats the best chance of being identified when lost; secondly, and just as important, a lost cat that has a microchip is more likely to receive prompt veterinary treatment. In this way, microchipping ensures that cats are protected 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. DEFRA officials remain engaged and are seeking additional opportunities to promote the benefits of cat microchipping. I intend to work closely with Cats Protection on this, which is why I met the organisation in January to explore how the Government can support this important work. Working with Cats Protection and the wider sector through the Canine and Feline Sector Group, the Government will further strengthen and protect the welfare of cats in this country.
It is because of success stories such as those we have heard today that I am so delighted that the proportion of cats that are microchipped has grown in recent years. Recent figures from the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals show that 68% of cats are now microchipped, up from 46% in 2011. However, a saddening statistic from a recent survey by Cats Protection suggests that the majority of the cats taken to their adoption centres in the past three years were not microchipped.
Compulsory dog microchipping was introduced in England through secondary legislation in 2016, due to the public safety risk posed by stray dogs as well as the propensity for dogs to stray or get lost. Compulsory microchipping for dogs has been a real success, with a recognised reduction in stray and lost pets as a result, as the Dog’s Trust’s annual “Stray Dog Survey” can attest. That does not mean that cat welfare is less important than dog welfare; as I mentioned, I plan to issue a call for evidence on compulsory cat microchipping as soon as possible and to encourage its uptake even further.
Turning to the key aspect of the petition, the question of compulsory scanning, I recognise how painful it is to lose a pet and not to know what has happened. Under the Road Traffic Act 1988, there is a requirement for drivers to stop and report accidents involving certain working animals, as has already been discussed, including cattle, horses and dogs. As I understand it, adding cats would require primary legislation, which would be the primary responsibility of the Department for Transport, which is the lead Department. However, the highway code requires drivers to report accidents involving any animal to the police, which can help many owners to be notified if their cats are killed on roads. The Blue Cross briefing for this debate clarifies the case for cats well:
“Dogs are required by law to be kept under control i.e. on a lead, therefore, RTAs involving dogs can be investigated by the police to determine whether the owner has broken the law. As cats are legally allowed to roam freely, the owner is not committing an offence.”
There are additional responsibilities for dog owners:
“Legally speaking, dogs are also considered more likely to cause damage to a vehicle, requiring the driver to report the details to the police to establish liability.”
There are differences between cats and dogs and their behaviours. Nevertheless, 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. That is often included as a requirement in street cleaning contracts, as it should be. However, I realise from the information provided by the petitioners and champions of Gizmo’s Legacy that some councils may not be following this established good practice, so I will take this up with the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak). We need to agree how to encourage local authorities to work together, to promote best practice in this area, and to ensure that dead cats are scanned so that owners can be informed of their tragic loss. I will also write to the Local Government Association to set out my concerns and to seek assurances on increased adherence to the guidance.
Cats Protection found, through freedom of information requests, that 80% of respondent councils in England scan animals involved in road traffic accidents for a microchip. However, given the debate we have had, I think it is important that we have a more consistent appreciation of and approach towards this. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd)—[Interruption.] I always get that one wrong; Hansard will correct it. However, what I do not get wrong is my recognition of her absolute commitment to cat welfare, and animal welfare more generally. I hope she realises that we want to take action in this area and make further progress.
Highways England has clear guidelines for contractors to follow when they find a deceased cat or dog on the national road network. This process is designed with owners in mind, giving them the best chance of being informed that the incident has occurred, and is laid out in the network management manual. I am delighted to say that, in 2015, the necessary arrangements were made in all Highways England contracts for cats and dogs killed on the strategic road network to be collected and identified and for their owners to be contacted, including retrofitting the network management manual so that both cat and dog fatalities are collected and identified where possible. This area is the responsibility of the Department for Transport, so following the debate, I will work with the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), to explore what more the Government will do to ensure that guidance is being followed and what more can be done to help owners to know the fate of their beloved cats.
The hon. Member for Stroud makes a really important point: there is a huge responsibility on all of us who drive cars to consider our speed, because of the danger excessive speed poses not only to other humans but to animals. That point was incredibly well made. A centralised database was also mentioned. We already have a broadly unified microchipping system in the UK: there are 12 databases that meet the requirements of separate regulations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and we already have working systems that operate together and talk to each other. We can explore that more, but I wanted to reassure colleagues that there are databases that serve the function that we are concerned about today.
I think we all agree that we have had a truly interesting debate. There is clearly considerable sadness when a family pet is killed, and I understand that owners simply want to know what has happened, so that they are not haunted by the possibility that a missing pet might one day return. It is right that we do all we can to encourage local authorities and others to scan the fallen pets that they find, and I will work with colleagues across Government to see what more we can do to promote and encourage good practice in this area.
I made inquiries on the basis of the points that the hon. Gentleman and others made during the debate. I understand it would need to be through primary legislation; I made the point about adding cats to that Act.
Compulsory microchipping has also been highlighted, and I am taking the first steps forward on that with a call for evidence. I hope that hon. Members, despite their broader concerns, see that we are committed to taking action here. That will be a hugely important step forward, showing our intentions and sending a clear signal to local authorities that more needs to be done, not least in Scotland; if I was in the Scottish Government I would be trembling in my boots waiting for the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran to intervene and take further action there. However, we will take these actions forward, as I discussed.
The Government’s record on animal welfare is strong, and we will continue in that vein. We have a strong commitment to introduce increased maximum penalties for animal cruelty—I am working at the highest levels to move that further forward—and to look closely at the regulation of animal rescue and rehoming centres. As always in the debates we have had over recent months, I recognise the degree of cross-party support for the action being taken. It is because of that that we are able to take much of this legislation forward, and as the hon. Member for Stroud will agree, there is more to do.
We have already introduced stronger animal welfare controls on dog breeding and the sale of pets, including on the breeding and commercial sale of cats. The implementation of Lucy’s law, which bans the third-party sale of puppies and kittens, followed hot on the heels of Government support for Finn’s law, which protects service animals. The Government are committed to protecting and enhancing the welfare of animals, including cats, and we will continue to build on our progress in the coming months and years, hopefully on a cross-party basis like we have seen in recent months.
It has been a pleasure to take part in today’s debate. We have had a broad range of speakers from across the House, all showing a consensual approach—a very important point to emphasise. The request from the petitioners is for a simple legislative change, moving good practice on scanning into law, and it would be readily achievable. I welcome very much the comments that the Minister made and the commitment to move forward on microchipping, but I hope that he can make progress with the Minister responsible for local government on the scanning issue, too. I will be supporting my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) in pushing for Scotland to do that as well. There is a lot of positive work there.
Much has been said about microchipping. We heard from a number of organisations before today’s debate that of the cats being presented for rehoming, between 61% and 80% have not been chipped and many others have chip details that are out of date, so there is a lot of work that we need to do. The Minister’s comments will help us to move in the right direction, and I am very grateful for that; this really needs to be done.
I had a look at the DogLost site and saw a cat that was the spitting image of mine—albeit in a completely different area—so it would be easy to mistake one cat for another, but chipping removes the uncertainty. Blue Cross has given us details of a very positive case, and I have spoken about a lot of death today, so I would like to end on a positive note. Blue Cross says that Harry the cat was reunited with his family, after being missing for 10 years, because he had a microchip. That shows that it really does pay to get one.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 229004 relating to the identification of pets.