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Animal Charities: Covid-19

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

It is no exaggeration to say that since this Adjournment debate was announced, I have been engulfed by all sorts of animal charities wishing me to raise their plight in what is a very short debate. It is not possible to mention them all, but their excellent Members of Parliament will certainly do that. My hon. Friends the Members for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) and for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) would like to catch your eye for a minute each, Madam Deputy Speaker, although they understand that the point of these debates is to allow the Minister some time to respond to the point that is being made.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) is very concerned about animal charities in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) has Adventure Island in his constituency, and there is a wonderful charity there. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) has some animal welfare interests in her constituency; she is very concerned. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) has Acres Way in her constituency, and she is very concerned about animal charities too.

The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly changed all our lives. In the long list of businesses, individuals and organisations that have been negatively affected by coronavirus, charities can often be overlooked—especially animal welfare charities. Charities in Southend and the rest of the country work tirelessly throughout the year to provide essential support to those who are most vulnerable and are often unable to help themselves. Animal charities do much of the same work, but instead care for animals that are unable to help themselves. It is up to Members of Parliament to seize the opportunity to speak for them. It is those types of charities that this debate will focus on.

Animal charities have been somewhat ignored during the coronavirus pandemic, and as a result they have suffered greatly, and so have the animals in their care. Animal rescue and care teams are being stretched to their absolute limits. As an industry, animal charities care for all animals, not just cats and dogs. Farm animal sanctuaries and equine charities, for example, are as important as the charities that focus on caring for more traditional pets. No charity should be discriminated against when it comes to financial support because of its size or the animals it cares for.

Animals, and especially pets, have become very important during the coronavirus pandemic. There has been a surge in the number of households with pets. Many who purchased a puppy during the pandemic agree that their dog was a lifeline in the lockdown. Although having a pet in the house during the lockdown is an attractive idea to many, as it can inject a new sense of life and optimism into the home, not everyone knows what looking after an animal entails. When households rush into buying an animal, and subsequently fail to look after it properly, it is the animals that suffer. According to a survey undertaken by the Kennel Club between March and June last year, 38% of breed rescue organisations saw zero dogs come into their organisations. That could be because dog owners were apprehensive about going to a breed rescue because of lockdown rules.

Many households may not be reporting animal cruelty as much because lockdown prevents them from witnessing it, and they may not be returning pets because they cannot leave their homes, but that does not that mean that animal cruelty is not happening. As such, it is very important that lockdown restrictions allow people to relinquish their pets if they cannot meet their welfare needs.

Does my hon. Friend remember, some years ago, jointly opening with me the Dogs Trust Essex rehoming centre at Nevendon? It was a multimillion pound investment, and its sole purpose is to rehome those dogs who, unfortunately, have not been cared for as they should have been. Does he commend the Dogs Trust and everything it does?

I absolutely do. The wonderful Dogs Trust provided us with two rescued pugs. While I think of those good old days in Basildon, we also have the horse rescue centre there. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) in his place. I am sure he has interests in animal welfare in his constituency as well.

The main problems for the animal charities as a result of coronavirus can be broken down into two main categories: they have less income and they have fewer employees. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates the financial loss across the animal welfare sector last year to be £101.4 million. Those charities have seen significantly reduced income due to Government restrictions to curb the spread of coronavirus resulting in shops being forced to close and face-to-face fundraising events not being allowed. While individual givers remain eager to provide whatever support they can, personal finance worries have affected how much they can afford to donate. While this problem has affected all animal charities, the smaller ones—that is what I am really speaking about—are particularly worried as, more often than not, they do not have access to reserve funds or a big organisation behind them.

Despite the charities’ reduction in income, the number of animals needing care and attention has not decreased and, as they experience a reduction in income, they are forced to make difficult, heart-breaking cost-saving decisions. I have spoken to many animal charities, all of which have been appreciative of the coronavirus job retention scheme and have tried to furlough their employees instead of letting them go permanently. However, I say to my hon. Friend the excellent Minister responding to the debate that, unfortunately, they have lost much of the voluntary force they rely on so heavily for support.

That, however, is just the negative effects of coronavirus on the charities’ business side. The coronavirus pandemic has also introduced massive problems for animals as a result of the charities’ loss in income and staff, but unfortunately the virus’s effect on animals has been largely forgotten. It is important to remember that animals are dying as a result of a lack of care caused by the pandemic. Because of a lack of income, charities that care for sick or injured animals with the aim of rehoming them or supplying subsidised veterinary care have not been able to purchase as much food or medicine as normal or house as many animals. More animals are therefore left to fend for themselves without access to the essential care they would have had before the pandemic.

As a result of having fewer staff, charities have had to limit the help they can give to animals and alter the way in which they care for them. The RSPCA, which is a wonderful organisation, and Lady Stockton is a wonderful trustee, had to switch to emergency calls only, and it stopped its 24-hour inspectorate cover. That again meant that charities had less range and scope to deal with new cases, and many animals were left unattended without help. With the sudden rise in demand for pets, and unfortunately the increase in the number of households unable to properly care for their pets, there is extra pressure on animal charities. These charities have had to do a lot of damage limitation that they had not previously needed to do on such a large scale and in such a short time. That has meant that these charities have had to reduce the amount of work they can do on new cases of animal abuse.

The development of behaviour problems in pets and animals as a result of the pandemic is not as widely reported, but can have long-lasting health impacts on animals’ lives. According to the RSPCA, owners who reported that their quality of life was poorer also had dogs with a lower quality of life. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford mentioned the Dogs Trust; it similarly reported that many owners found increased incidents of clinginess and attention-seeking behaviours, as well as behaviour associated with fear or frustration.

With many dog trainers unable to operate because of the coronavirus restrictions and facing many financial hardships, the behavioural issues that dogs have begun to exhibit cannot be quickly dealt with. One in five respondents to the Kennel Club survey are worried about the lack of training for their puppies, which they have not received due to lockdown restrictions, and a quarter are concerned about future behavioural problems, such as aggression with other dogs once we return to normal. That could potentially result in an increase in the number of dogs surrendered to animal rescue charities following the pandemic, due to behavioural issues, and increase the strain on animal charities further in the long run.

The voluntary sector and animal charities are in a constant state of financial uncertainty. I am very grateful for the Government support that has relieved some of the financial pressure and enabled charities to continue to carry out essential work. However, as always, more needs to be done. The pandemic has financially ruined those charities for close to a year now, and it will have a long-lasting negative effect on animal welfare issues in the future. Too many animal welfare organisations were not eligible for support by the frontline charities relief fund in April 2019, and have therefore received no direct support other than that available through a wider scheme. One consequence of that was that a parliamentary petition, e-petition No. 314968—“Include animal charities in emergency funding due to the coronavirus pandemic”—was launched. The Government responded in July, acknowledging that the animal welfare sector had faced serious challenges, and stated that they were exploring how those challenges could be alleviated.

I say this to my hon. Friend the Minister: I do hope that the Government act on their statement and are ready to quickly implement support packages to alleviate animal charities’ financial worries and enable them to continue to carefully care for animals. There should be support packages targeted at specific charities within the animal charity sector. That is particularly important for equine charities because, as the RSPCA revealed, 79% of equine organisations only had funds for six months or did not know how long those funds would last. Battersea plans to publish a second report in 2021, which will look at the longer-term financial and social impact of the pandemic on animal welfare and the organisations that exist to protect animals. I truly hope that the Government co-operate with those charities and implement their suggestions.

As a patron of the wonderful Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, I believe that Ministers and the Department need to work with the animal welfare sector to help prevent a significant increase in demand for rescue services this year. Part of the work should cover issues such as puppy farming, puppy smuggling and the unscrupulous selling of puppies and kittens by third parties, which are increasingly relevant given the sudden increase in demand for pets.

Zoos are also a crucial part of animal welfare in this country. I was privileged to visit Chester zoo not so long ago and see the wonderful work that they are doing there; of course, we see their wonderful programmes on TV. Zoos undertake charitable work and have extensive welfare and treatment programmes for sicker injured animals. Throughout last year, zoos and animal sanctuaries were closed and then told that they could reopen and then forced to close again. That is a terrible challenge for them. Opening a zoo on such a large scale, only to have to close again, uses a lot of money, time and resources that could be better targeted at directly caring for animals. I also think of our zoo in Colchester. In an already suffering industry, zoos need governmental support to make up for lost ticket revenue. The charity Four Paws was hit especially hard when it had to close its animal sanctuaries worldwide. Without the ability to fundraise on a large scale, essential welfare services will inevitably decrease and so will the level of care that the animals receive. Many zoos and animal sanctuaries are outside, and with proper coronavirus safety measures put in place, such as mandatory face coverings, one-way systems and time slots, they can reopen safely. Keeping our zoos shut is reducing the amount of charitable work that zoos can undertake and reducing the quality of care that they can give animals. Whether or not zoos are able to reopen soon, they need financial support to purchase essential medical supplies and to feed the animals.

The zoo support fund was warmly welcomed by the zoos and animal sanctuaries that matched the eligibility criteria, but, according to the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums, only 26 out of 300 zoos in England have been successful with the fund. That is ridiculous. Unspent funds must be redeveloped into a more accessible support mechanism for the sector, so that all zoos can benefit. A parliamentary petition, e-petition No. 308733, on providing financial help to zoos, aquariums and rescue centres during the pandemic, which received more than 135,000 signatures, was debated in June last year. The Government said that they were keeping the situation under close review. Now that the situation has changed due to the added restrictions, I hope that the Government are intending to increase the support for zoos.

In conclusion, while coronavirus has undoubtedly created unprecedented problems for multiple industries, including the animal welfare sector, it has provided an opportunity to address key animal welfare issues concerning the link between wild animals and the spread of zoonotic diseases. This should prompt a much-needed reconsideration of our relationship with animals. This pandemic may be all about our relationship with animals. Incarcerating animals in cage systems on factory farms provides the ideal breeding ground for dangerous new strains of the virus. We have all been appalled by the huge culling of 17 million mink on industrial fur farms in Denmark over fears of a mutated form of coronavirus. Without extensive support measures directed at animal charities, the problem will continue to occur and animals will continue to suffer long after the coronavirus pandemic is over and we return to normality. We rely on our wonderful voluntary industry to selflessly help those more vulnerable than us. We must not forget about the animals. We need to ensure that animal charities have the resources and the finances to look after animals’ welfare. Now is the time to set out a new vision and a compassionate way forward.

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) for bringing such an important debate to the House and for letting me speak briefly. I am grateful to be given one minute to bring an equally important matter to the Floor of the House concerning animals—that of the kennel and cattery boarding industry.

Animal charities are now becoming overwhelmed with pets purchased during the lockdown. If they are having difficulties, our local authorities have an obligation to house strays for a period of time, and this is usually with local commercial boarding kennels. Here is the problem: many have not had sufficient financial assistance during the pandemic, with the lack of industry definition making obtaining the Government grants problematic. They are technically open, but they have had limited or no income, because no one has been on holiday. These issues will become increasingly problematic as kennels fall by the wayside, and animal charities—our wonderful animal charities—will undoubtedly bear the brunt of the ensuing problems. I urge the Minister to please have a thought for this.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) for arranging this debate this evening. Zoos such as Dudley Zoo are among our foremost animal charities, caring for some of the world’s most endangered animals and undertaking essential conservation and research work to ensure a sustainable future for all species. They are reliant on income from visitors, and coronavirus has had a devastating impact on their ability to raise funds, but they are still incurring the high costs of high-quality animal welfare.

Dudley zoo has only just qualified for a quarter of a million pounds of the much welcomed £100 million zoo animals fund. To be eligible for this emergency funding, it must see its finances diminish dangerously low to just three months of reserves, which is impractical to ensure the welfare of animals in its care. It would not be right for zoos to have to euthanise animals in their care simply because they can no longer afford to care for them. Although I am deeply grateful for the support scheme, my plea to Ministers on behalf of Dudley zoo and zoos across the United Kingdom is to revisit the support package, eligibility criteria and deadline to save our zoos.

It is a great pleasure to take part in this excellent debate, called by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). There is only one issue about which he feels more strongly than Southend becoming a city: animals and their welfare. Madam Deputy Speaker, if you were to read his excellent book, “Ayes and Ears”— probably available in all good bookshops—you would be aware that he is the proud patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation and has devoted much of his life to campaigning on behalf of our furry friends.

Like my hon. Friend, the Government greatly appreciate the work that animal welfare organisations do, often on a voluntary basis. They protect animals against cruelty and ensure that unwanted animals are offered a loving home. We have heard some great examples this evening, not least the Dogs Trust, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois).

The good news is that we have all appreciated animals in a new and different way over lockdown. There has been increased interest from people wanting to rehome pets, which has helped to alleviate pressure on the sector. Far fewer pets have been abandoned during lockdown. In fact, it is estimated that about 50% fewer were abandoned in 2020 than in 2019 or 2018. The latest data from the RSPCA—although we must read this with the caveats that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West mentioned—shows that there has been a reduction in animal cruelty, with fewer calls about cruelty and fewer complaints needing to be investigated. But of course my hon. Friend is right to highlight fears about people adopting pets when they are not suitable or do not have the ability to train those pets, and we will continue to work closely with the sector on those issues.

The less good news is, of course, that many charities have suffered income shortfalls during this difficult time, because charity shops cannot open and it is difficult to fundraise. Charitable providers of veterinary care have also found it challenging to deliver a full service during lockdown, and have just done emergency care. The Government are very keen to support the animal welfare sector and have made sure that in the covid restrictions, the welfare needs of animals are considered and protected. We have tried to ensure that we can continue to allow animal charities that concentrate on rehoming to continue to carry out their business as best they possibly can within the restrictions.

The Minister responsible for animal welfare, who sits in the other place, meets the sector very frequently, and I know that he will be watching tonight’s debate with interest and will take forward the ideas that have been raised. I particularly want to mention a meeting that he had in September with the chief executive officers of leading equine welfare charities, to discuss their specific worries about the winter horse problem, which happens annually; they were particularly worried about people who care for horses not having enough money to care for them properly this year. We feel that that is going well so far, but we are keeping a close eye on it.

The sector is a really useful source of information to my Department—for example, on rehoming rates and animal cruelty investigations. We have kept up a useful dialogue with the pet industry, local authorities and vets, who are also useful sources of information. It has been really encouraging to see the sector working together collaboratively to safeguard animals in its care, and it has organised emergency grant schemes itself specifically to support smaller organisations.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, these charities can apply for the full range of Government support measures. The furlough scheme has made a significant difference to between 50% and 60% of animal welfare charities, although of course a certain number of staff have to be kept in place to care for the animals that are still in the home. The Charity Commission has issued really useful guidance on running a charity during covid, including advice for trustees on managing reserves in restricted funds and on provisions to help charities through this difficult period.

On animal welfare generally—I think it is fair to say that my hon. Friend mentioned a wide range of issues during his speech—I would like to say that the Government, despite the pandemic, have been working hard not to take our foot off the accelerator in our agenda in this space. In March last year, I was very pleased, as a former pig keeper, to oversee the new code of practice for the welfare of pigs. In April last year, we introduced the ban on third-party commercial sales of puppies and kittens, which tied in with the earlier pet fish campaign to help people make informed choices when looking for a pet.

In November last year, we launched a new agricultural policy, more details of which will come out in the following weeks and months. An integral part of this is the animal health and welfare pathway, which is there to promote the production of animals at a level beyond compliance with current regulations. This is a way of reaching a large number of animals, and of protecting and improving the way we care for them.

On 3 December, we launched a consultation on plans to ban exports for slaughter and fattening, alongside wider proposals on animal welfare during transport. I would encourage all those with an interest in this sector to reply to that consultation by 28 January. On 6 December, we launched a call for evidence on the shark fin trade. On 12 December, we launched the primates as pets consultation. On 23 December, we launched the consultation on the compulsory microchipping of cats, which follows on from the earlier decision several years ago to make the microchipping of dogs compulsory.

We are also very keen as a Government to support the Bill to increase custodial sentences for animal cruelty. This Bill, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, is currently awaiting its Committee stage in this place.

Among the other points raised briefly by my hon. Friends was the issue of boarding kennels, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker). That is primarily a matter for local authorities, but I will pass on his words to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) raised the difficulties that Dudley zoo has been having. He has raised them many times, and most forcibly, with the Department, and I was glad to hear that he feels the zoo animals fund is more acceptable than the zoo support fund, the previous fund, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West. We feel that this package is working well with the sector at the moment, but we continue to keep the matter under review.

In brief, this Government are committed to animal welfare, as is my hon. Friend, and I look forward to continuing to work together with him in this area.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.