[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on 18 May 2021 on moving animals across borders, HC 79. Oral evidence taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on 24 November 2020 on pet smuggling, HC 926]
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 300535, 326261, and 574305, relating to the Government’s Action Plan for Animal Welfare.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. Since these petitions were launched, the Government published their action plan on 12 May 2021, setting out their plans, aims and ambitions across the field of animal welfare. I know that in her summing up, the Minister will want to go into more detail about the plan’s contents, so I will try not to steal all of her material. However, I will briefly say how much I welcome many of the commitments made in the plan, which truly reflects the fact that the UK is a nation of animal lovers and that the Government are keen to put the highest possible animal welfare standard in place, not just in terms of our domestic aims and objectives, but in terms of importing animals from overseas. The plan includes three very specific commitments, all of which relate to one of the three petitions under discussion. I am grateful to everyone who has signed these petitions, who have demonstrated the power that they have to bring about change.
I will turn first to e-petition 300535, entitled “The UK should ban the importation of Shark Fins.” The prayer of this petition states,
“Now that we have left the EU, the UK has the ability to finally stop the importation of Shark Fins. They had previously stated that ‘Whilst in the EU, it is not possible to unilaterally ban the import of shark fins into the UK.’
Each year roughly 75 million sharks are killed for Shark Fin Soup where their fins are brutally cut from their bodies and thrown back in the sea to die. Despite countries in recent years making an attempt to crack down on Shark Finning no European country has yet to ban the importation of fins, meaning that loopholes still exist. Britain should become the first European country to ban the importation of Shark Fins before we lose these beautiful creatures forever.”
This petition closed with 115,382 signatures, including 155 from my constituency of Carshalton and Wallington, and I am incredibly grateful to the petition’s creator Robin for taking the time to speak to me last week about why he started this petition, in partnership with the charity Shark Guardian. I pay tribute to them both for their incredible efforts. As the Government outlined in their response to this petition in November 2020, it is true that shark finning is an illegal practice in UK waters, but imports and exports are helping to keep the demand—and consequently the practice—alive.
The prayer of this petition eloquently outlines the need for a ban, but I want to expand a little further on that. According to Shark Guardian, it is currently legal, under the fish and fish product allowances set by UK Border Force, to bring 20 kg of dried shark fin into the UK without declaration. Twenty kilograms of dried shark fin potentially equates to hundreds of sharks being butchered, depending on their size. Many of those fins could belong to threatened shark species listed under the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora, and they could make their way into the UK illegally through this loophole. UK Border Force also requires people to declare goods worth more than £390, but 20 kg of shark fin could have a value of more than £4,000, so Shark Guardian identifies huge potential for tax evasion. It is therefore very welcome that the UK Government have committed in the action plan to ban the import and export of shark fins to and from the UK. The only clarification that I seek from the Government today is on the timeline for implementation.
I turn next to e-petition 326261, entitled “Ban the exploitative import of young puppies for sale in the UK”. The prayer of the petition states:
“Plenty of dogs from UK breeders & rescues need homes. Transporting young pups long distances is often stressful, before being sold for ridiculous prices to unsuspecting dog-lovers. Government must adjust current laws, ban this unethical activity on welfare grounds & protect these poor animals ASAP.
The recent tragic case of a puppy dying just 6 days after being delivered from Russia has exposed a completely legal but immoral route to market for pups bred hundreds of miles away & sold away from their mums. Who’s actually inspecting these breeders & transportation conditions? Selling imported pups like this is cruel & appears to contradict the Government’s own advice to always physically ‘see puppies interacting with their mothers in their place of birth’ as with Lucy’s Law in England.”
The petition closed with 128,549 signatures, including 217 from Carshalton and Wallington.
There has been significant interest in this petition. I am grateful to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Kennel Club, the Dogs Trust, Blue Cross, the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group and others for briefing me prior to today’s debate. All organisations have spelled out, almost in complete agreement, why action is desperately needed. Animals imported from overseas have often been subject to much lower animal welfare standards and even abuse, and the long journey can be physically and mentally draining for a puppy. It is also evident that the EU pet travel scheme is being completely abused, and the enforcement at the UK border is not good enough.
Again, since responding to this petition the UK Government have taken action in the form of the action plan, which states that they will increase the minimum age at which dogs can be brought into the UK. That has largely been welcomed. The action plan also contains a commitment to reduce the number of dogs and cats that can be moved under pet travel rules.
There are many common themes from all the organisations that have approached me with briefings prior to today’s debate, and I hope that the Minister will address them in her response. They include the need to reduce from five to two or three the number of dogs that can be moved under the pet travel rules, to increase the maximum sentence, and to ensure much better enforcement at the border, including by using trained animal professionals and having trained staff available 24/7 to avoid lapses at weekends and out of hours. Additionally, any information that the Minister can provide on timelines would be very welcome indeed.
Finally, I turn to e-petition 574305, entitled “Stop the rising number of ear-cropped dogs in the UK”. The prayer of the petition states:
“Leading veterinary and welfare bodies are concerned by the alarming rise in ear-cropped dogs in the UK. Ear cropping is illegal in the UK and an unnecessary, painful mutilation with no welfare benefit. The practice involves cutting off part of the ear flap, often without anaesthesia or pain relief.
The RSPCA states a 621% increase in reports of ear cropping from 2015 to 2020. We believe a rise in UK celebs sharing images of their cropped dogs on social media is helping to fuel this. While illegal to crop in the UK, it’s not illegal to sell ear-cropped dogs, import them from abroad or take dogs abroad to be cropped. These loopholes act as a smokescreen for those illegally cropping in UK. We call on the Government to close these loopholes and end the trend in ear-cropped dogs for good.”
This petition is still open and at the time of my writing this speech it has over 104,000 signatures, including 147 from Carshalton and Wallington. I am grateful to the petition’s creators for speaking to me last week about why they feel it is important.
Similar to shark finning, the practice of cropping a dog’s ear is indeed illegal in the UK, but importing and exporting is keeping the practice alive. However, as the petitioners have outlined, there is an added pressure given the increase in the number of celebrities and so-called social media influencers who have been buying ear-cropped dogs and parading them online. Although I am sure that some want to provide them with a loving home, many are buying them for their aesthetics—in other words, the way they look.
I will not waste time naming and shaming those celebrities, because they have all been well covered in press reports. However, I will join animal charities in urging them not to buy ear-cropped dogs or parade them around social media, which could lead others to buy them, too. We need to take the demand away, so I hope that when she replies the Minister will join me in condemning this celebrity trend and in urging them not to do it.
There is no need to crop a dog’s ear, and many people who do so put the animal through this awful procedure without any sedation or pain relief. Again, I praise the Government for the measures in the action plan, which states that they are seeking to prohibit the importation and non-commercial movement into Great Britain of dogs that have been subject to low welfare practices such as ear cropping and tail docking, in line with domestic legislation.
Although the practice might be banned in the UK, however, UK-based companies are still offering do-it-yourself cropping kits for sale on online platforms such as Google and Amazon. What steps are the UK Government taking to tackle that?
Will the Minister also confirm that the commitment to ban imports and non-commercial movement includes a ban on the private sale of ear-cropped dogs within the UK, regardless of whether the seller caused the dog’s ears to be cropped in the first place? Finally, as with the other petitions, any news on timelines would be greatly appreciated.
Overall, the Government should be commended for their action plan on animal welfare and on listening to the petitioners’ concerns. I thank those who have signed each of these three petitions, who have demonstrated the power of the petitions system in the UK, as evidenced by the fact that all three petitions have secured changes in policy.
The big question coming out of today’s debate must be this: when can we expect to see these measures brought before the House? In addition, while the UK is showing leadership, the lead petitioners to whom I have spoken said that we cannot act alone. Although the UK may take firm action—which I am sure the Minister will further outline in her reply—overseas animals will still be subject to these practices unless we encourage others to follow our lead. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will also touch on what we are doing to influence animal welfare standards around the world, taking advantage of our hosting of the G7 and our new trading relationships, to ensure that others can follow our example.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on bringing this important debate before us.
Historically, the UK was the foremost leader when it came to animal welfare and it is the first island of nations in the world to implement legislation protecting animal rights, but today we have witnessed this Tory Government turn their back on the opportunity to implement the very highest standards of animal welfare.
The Scottish National party has always had a steadfast commitment to initiate the steps that strengthen animal welfare legislation and will continue on this progressive path in this new parliamentary term. Indeed, the Scottish Government have undoubtedly led the way in developing policies that keep animal health and welfare at the forefront of any new legislation.
It has been especially heartening to see those decisions prompt debate and considerable movement on crucial pieces of legislation across the other nations of the UK. That includes banning the use of wild animals in circuses and an effective ban on the use of electric shock collars, paving the way for the rest of the UK to follow suit and highlighting issues that are emblematic of our position that animals under the care of our Government deserve the very highest possible protections in future legislation.
Since the pandemic, there has been an unprecedented demand for puppies, which has led to a devastating increase in the prevalence of abuse on puppy farms. The increase in price due to increased demand has only further fuelled criminality. The introduction of Lucy’s law in Scotland has helped crack down somewhat on this scandalous trade, and it means that puppies and kittens in Scotland can no longer be sold by third-party sellers such as pet shops and commercial dealers, unless they have bred the animals. Instead, anyone seeking to buy or adopt a puppy under six months old must deal directly with either the breeder or the animal rehoming centre. The move has been warmly welcomed by animal charities such as the Kennel Club, which has described it as a crucial step in advancing animal welfare regulations.
I saw the positive effects of Scotland’s approach on a visit to the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals rehoming centre in Lanarkshire just last week, and I place on the record the fact that the work carried out by its outstanding team is nothing short of incredible. They are, indeed, a credit to their sector and provide a lifeblood to the animals that depend so much on their care. They noted that the regulations introduced in Scotland are far more effective, fairer and far more straightforward than their English counterparts, simply by not repeating the mistakes made in the parallel regulations, which we already know have been embarrassingly ineffective in tackling poor breeding practices.
That proves again that Scotland is leading the UK—not for the first time, of course, and not only in this specific area. Indeed, unlike the Government who operate from this place, the Scottish Government create animal welfare legislation based on independent scientific and ethical advice by the Scottish animal welfare commission, a body of leading animal welfare experts and vets who are responsible for helping develop evidence-led recommendations on issues relating to animal welfare and sentience.
Today, in the name of my constituents in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, many of whom have signed the three petitions, I am further calling on the Government to prohibit the importation of shark fins, ban the exploitative import of young puppies, end the sale of electric shock training devices on pet collars, and stop the increasing number of ear-cropped dogs being imported into the UK. The Government must work to ensure that regulations are in place to protect the welfare of all animals. Although much of the legislation has been devolved, the Scottish Government are always willing to support strengthening animal welfare legislation within the UK and achieving better standards internationally. If the UK Government need a precursor, they need look no further than to Edinburgh and the Scottish Parliament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and to follow the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar). I welcome this debate on important areas of animal welfare. I declare a professional interest as a veterinary surgeon, and I also declare that I am a member of the Dogs Trust parliamentary puppy smuggling taskforce.
I strongly support the shark fin petition, and I am reassured that the Government have said they are keen to act in order to stop this cruel practice. Enlarging this theme, as we move from World Environment Day to World Ocean Day, we must as a nation speak out and urge other countries to join in the conservation of species in all habitats. I welcome the Government’s approach in their action plan for animal welfare, and the Environment Minister’s responses to our letters and to the inquiries held by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs into pet smuggling and the movement of animals across borders. I pay tribute to those campaigners championing the causes in the puppy and ear-cropping petitions, including my fellow vet Marc Abraham, the British Veterinary Association, the Dogs Trust, Blues Cross, Battersea, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the FOAL Group—Focus on Animal Law—to name but a few.
In recent times, and stimulated by the pandemic, we have seen increased demand for pets, increased smuggling and importation, and a shift from the pet travel scheme to the commercial Balai directive. We have also heard increased reports in the UK of diseases such as canine brucellosis, babesiosis, leishmaniasis and echinococcus, some of which have zoonotic potential. In our EFRA Committee hearings, we have heard harrowing accounts of the transport of puppies and heavily pregnant dogs in appalling conditions. Now that we have left the EU, we have the opportunity to tighten up on legislation and border checks, in order to put an end to the miserable plight of animals being transported by unscrupulous smugglers. We urgently need to raise to six months the minimum age of entry for dogs and cats, reinstate rabies titre checks, and increase the wait time post-rabies vaccination to 12 weeks. We also need to institute pre-import screening for pathogens such as brucella canis and to reinstitute mandatory tick and tapeworm treatment before entry. This will protect not only travelling animals but the UK pet population, and it will also militate against the risk of some diseases being transmitted to people.
In addition, the number of pets per person, currently set at five, is too high and should be reduced to two. In fact, it would be good if it was capped per vehicle, as we have heard reports of vehicles picking up foot passengers in order to increase the number of animals they can legally transport. The rules on transporting pregnant dogs and cats need to be tightened. Currently, this is not allowed in the last 10% of the pregnancy, but that is very difficult to adjudicate on, so the period should be increased to, say, after 50% of the pregnancy. We must not forget about cats and kittens in this debate. The scale of their smuggling is harder to ascertain, but we must be cognisant that this is not just a canine problem.
Ear cropping is a cruel, horrific and unnecessary practice that is rightly illegal in the UK, but sadly there are increased reports of cropped dogs, with six in 10 small animal vets saying they have seen cropped dogs in the past year, begging the question of not only whether there are increased imports but also the horrific concept of whether cropping is being done illicitly here in the UK. Celebrities and people in public life have a role to play here by not endorsing or promoting the ownership of cropped dogs. We also need to be careful in culture and media. One of my favourite films is Disney Pixar’s “Up”, a touching and funny film that coined the inspired phrase “cone of shame” to describe a veterinary buster collar. However, take a closer look at one of the Dobermans in the cartoon film and it looks like its ears have been cropped and splintered. These subtle images normalise something in our psyches that we should be calling out as unacceptable. Again, we should not forget the cat here. We should ban the import of dogs with cropped ears but also the import of cats that have been de-clawed, another banned practice here in the UK.
Animal welfare unites us in humanity in our duty of care to animals, the fully sentient beings in our care. I welcome the Government’s direction of travel in this area, and I am sure that we can work with the Government, across parties, to do our bit to help sharks and dogs—and not forgetting the cats.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on securing this important debate. We have had a cross-party discussion on the shame attached to various behaviours so grotesque that it is truly challenging to admit that they are tolerated in any culture or community, much less elements of the communities that we live in and represent. I thank the members of my constituency who contacted me independently and those who signed these important petitions.
I turn first to the toe-curling barbarism of shark-finning and the unfolding catastrophe it presents. A once rare and infrequently consumed dish for the Chinese aristocracy, it is now a macabre edible trinket of no nutritional value—I understand it must be comprehensively seasoned before it even has a taste—the global demand for which, principally from the burgeoning Chinese middle class, has made it a totem for conspicuous consumption and an ultimate status symbol. The resulting demand is literally insatiable; there will never be enough sharks to sate the demand, currently running at 73 million sharks annually.
The strongest action must be taken if we are to reverse the growth in popularity of this most costly of dishes—costly in every sense, not only in that it is $100 for a bowl of broth—making it the guilty pleasure that it is and ensuring that, over time, it is consigned to history. We should do so as soon as possible. The UK Government have said that they will bring in legislation to ban the import and export of detached shark fins. Will the Minister clarify whether that is only shark fins that are intact and dried, or whether it is also shark fin products? If it is not, we risk supplanting one problem with another just as grievous. This being an issue of customs and enforcement at the UK border, it is of course reserved for the time being to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the UK Government, but to be clear, the SNP Government in Scotland will support any prohibition on the import of detached shark fins and shark fin products, to protect this majestic animal, an apex predator, from the unimaginable suffering of finning.
Let me turn to puppy smuggling. I and my colleagues on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee have heard the most harrowing evidence of puppy smuggling into the UK. Particularly horrifying was the evidence about pregnant bitches being seized and found to be pregnant without having had the opportunity to heal from their last caesarean section. This was compounded by evidence that the gangs will grudgingly concede their pups at the border when seized, but will be very unhappy indeed to lose a breeding bitch. This indicates the terrible ordeal for pups and their mothers who travel huge distances in poor conditions and the long-term health problems that will leave many a heartbroken family with a poorly bred pup that will never reach adulthood.
The SNP Government in Scotland have pledged to modernise and update the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and will continue to adopt the highest possible animal welfare standards to protect their wellbeing. The Scottish Government will adopt new licensing requirements for breeding puppies and, importantly, also for kittens and infant rabbits, something that I do not believe at the moment, although the Minister might clarify this, DEFRA is planning to do, and we will have the introduction of Lucy’s law, which will end the third party selling of dogs and cats under the age of six months in Scotland.
On ear cropping, many of us in this room are dog owners and dog lovers and the notion of mutilating a puppy to reshape its ears into a more aggressive posture is beyond my ken, and I am sure beyond that of the vast majority of the public. However, it is not currently prohibited to possess a dog with cropped ears. As suggested by the Scottish SPCA, animals that have undergone that mutilation are being seen in greater numbers. These animals might have been cropped illegally in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK, or might have been imported, and we need to make sure that we work cross-party and cross-nation in the UK to adopt the best possible outcome for our animals.
It is a pleasure to be back in Westminster Hall. This is the first time I have made a contribution in Westminster Hall since the start of the lockdown, and it is even better that it is under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am grateful to see you, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan).
We have three petitions brought together for this afternoon’s debate, and I am encouraged that in my constituency of Belfast East, 464 individuals have signed them. I want to focus my remarks during my four minutes on puppy welfare. Progress on Lucy’s law has been encouraging, but, as has been mentioned and no doubt will be repeated throughout the debate, there are difficulties with the application of the law, primarily in frustrating the importation of illegally farmed puppies from outside the United Kingdom. England led the way last year, and the introduction in Scotland shortly followed. Wales will introduce legislation in September. In Northern Ireland, Marc Abraham, who was mentioned, has been keenly involved in the campaigning to introduce Lucy’s law in Northern Ireland. My party colleague from East Belfast, Robin Newton MLA, is advancing that legislation—not a moment too soon.
My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) noted that his wife is a volunteer at the Assisi Animal Sanctuary in his constituency. It is a wonderful charity, and six years ago, just prior to my election to this place, I launched our party’s animal welfare policy document in its facility in Newtownards. We had ambitious plans—we still do—to increase sentencing for animal welfare. Animal cruelty is a challenge, but there is a challenge here for the Minster. So much of this debate is about what is happening in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England as though they are separate entities. There is a much greater need for collaboration across the four nations, and I do not think the Minister will baulk at that notion. There just needs to be a greater focus on it.
One issue that comes up time and again is the lack of a register of those banned from holding animals. Sentencing is one thing, and we want to see an increase in penalties, but there is no register where people can read across and check whether somebody has been banned from holding animals, so we need that register to preclude them from looking after animals again.
I remember, shortly after my election in 2015, working with the then Member for Dumfries and Galloway, Richard Arkless, on puppy smuggling—my constituency of Belfast East straddles Belfast lough, and we all know that there is a good ferry connection from there over to Scotland—and here we are six years later, still talking about the same issue. I see that the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) will be talking on this issue later as the SNP spokesperson. I think that there is an onus on us from Northern Ireland and Scotland to collaborate in a much greater and impactful fashion.
Just six years ago, 100,000 puppies were being brought into this country from illegal farms; 40% of those were coming from the Republic of Ireland and 30% were coming from illegal farms in Romania, Hungary, Poland and Lithuania. Those numbers have greatly increased in the intervening period—they have increased dramatically.
I think of a constituency worker in my own team in Belfast East who bought a wonderful cocker spaniel called Walter just a year ago. At £450, he thought that it was a bargain, but Walter, after £1,200-worth of vet’s bills, had to be put down after six months because of total organ failure. All of us who bring an animal into our home know how quickly it becomes a loved one and a huge part of the family. Whenever we are in a situation like that, it pulls at our hearts. I approach this issue, as we all do, as an animal lover. I think that the challenge is about not just incorporating and strengthening the law that is already there, but increasing collaboration across the four parts of this United Kingdom, so that we do not see repeat after repeat of Walter, of Mr Chai and of Lucy herself.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and to follow the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), who makes a very good point about the diseased animals that people are likely to buy and the great cost and heartache to people when they have to have them put down. It is essential that we do more about this. I am also happy to follow the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), who is a great member of the EFRA Committee, and my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), who of course brings his veterinary experience to our Select Committee.
I very much support the petitions that have come through. On shark finning, let me say to my hon. Friend the Minister in all seriousness that I think that we have to take that issue up with the European Union. I will not name the particular countries that are interested in shark finning. They are well south of Europe, and I do not need to name them. That is where we need to act to stop that happening. Of course, the trouble with shark fins is that they are very valuable, but the practice must be stopped.
As for puppies, I very much endorse what every Member has said. I will explain what I am going to concentrate on. In the Committee, we have taken oral evidence on pet smuggling from the veterinary director of Dogs Trust, from Dr Jennifer Maher of the University of South Wales and from Daniella Dos Santos, senior vice-president of the British Veterinary Association, as well as from the RSPCA and others; and it is key that we act on this. I congratulate the Government and the Minister on putting together some very good legislation, but I think that the biggest issue of all is enforcing that legislation. I also think that Border Force needs to have many more staff and many more trained staff so that as puppies come through, they can work out whether they are 15 weeks old or not. All these things have to be done.
Those staff have to be there late at night, early in the morning and at weekends—perhaps not every weekend and every night, but they need to come and go so that those who are smuggling puppies through illegally will be caught. We are talking now probably about a sum of between £2,000 and £3,000 per puppy. It does not take too much arithmetic to work out that if someone smuggles quite a number of puppies through, it is very lucrative. Of course, up until now, the sentencing has been very light. We are now welcoming longer sentencing of up to five years, but we have to ensure that that happens. Puppy smuggling does not always fall within the animal welfare legislation, either. It is therefore absolutely key that we get on with this and ensure that we enforce it properly.
I am going to say something that perhaps is slightly more controversial: we in this country probably need about 800,000 puppies a year. I think that there are in this country about 10 million dogs and they have an average life expectancy of about 12 years, so again, if we do the arithmetic, we probably need between 700,000 and 800,000 puppies. We do not breed that number, and that is a problem. I do not want to go into vast puppy farming, but somehow or other, the Government need to encourage substantial breeding of dogs in a humane way. That is not easy, because we do not want to overbreed from any bitches—lots of things have to be done carefully—but I fear that if we do not do something about the number of puppies that are needed, the sheer price of them will mean that the temptation to smuggle remains. I therefore say to the Minister in all seriousness that I would very much consider this.
I am not going to raise all the points that every other Member has made about the action plan and the minimum of 15 weeks. I believe we should reduce the number of puppies that can come in legitimately to two: not many people go out and buy five puppies for their own use, so therefore those puppies are coming back legitimately through a system that is being abused. There are lots of things we can do, including about the cropping of tails and ears, which is absolutely abhorrent and something we should do our best to stamp out. I think we are agreed on this across all parties: one thing I enjoy about chairing the Select Committee is that we can bring all parties together. I am sure the Minister would congratulate all parties on working on this, so it is not a party political issue.
I will finish where I started: we can have the best rules in the world, but if we do not enforce them, they will not work. We have rules about microchipping and all of these things, but very often when these puppies that are found are taken to a vet, most of the information on those microchips is fictitious: they are not kept up to date. When people genuinely sell dogs, their microchips should be kept up to date, and then we will start to pick up on those that are illegally traded. These gangs are very clever—there is big money to be made—and we must not underestimate them. Let us all work together to try to stamp this out, but that will require Government to work across all Departments, not just DEFRA. I am sure that the Minister would agree with me about that. Thank you very much, Mr Mundell.
This is one of those glorious occasions, Mr Mundell, on which you have caught me off guard. I had not realised that there had been a number of withdrawals from the debate, so obviously that is a bonus.
This is one of those wonderful occasions on which the House can agree on something, because all Members of Parliament are against cruelty to animals. That is not rocket science, but, of course, some of us have been saying these things in Parliament a little longer than others. For me, it is an enormous joy that so many Members of Parliament have prioritised this as the top of their agenda, for all sorts of reasons. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) has introduced the debate so effectively that there is precious little left to say. I very much support what he said, although I will say that sharks are not at the top of my list of favourite animals. We do know that there was a film about sharks that did a great deal of damage; I have kept sharks in tropical fish tanks, but they are not quite like the ones that we see in that film.
Now that we have left the European Union, I hope that we will be able to drag some other countries up to our already high standards, and that we will continue to improve standards of animal welfare in this country. As such, I am delighted to say to my hon. Friend the Minister —who is yet again replying to such a debate—that I am very pleased with the progress that is being made on animal welfare. I was delighted that my ten-minute rule Bill on banning farrowing crates was recognised in the Government’s action plan. I again urge the Government to ban those cruel and unnecessary cages for sows. It might upset some of the farming community, but there is no reason to use them.
We banned shark finning 20 years ago, yet shark fins are still being traded today. As a country with strong marine conservation, we must ban the import and export of shark fins, as other colleagues have said, and press for stronger action against unsustainable fishing practices. Tomorrow is World Oceans Day—I do not know whether we have a badge to wear to celebrate it—so it is apt that we are bringing to the House’s attention the plight of sharks and are pushing for harsher financial punishments to act as a deterrent to the mutilation of those wonderful creatures, which are perhaps scary if one goes towards them but are fine if left alone.
We heard in the opening speech about a puppy that was just four months old and died after being transported from the Soviet Union to the United Kingdom, but that is only one example of the many puppies imported for sale. All puppies are cute; we love puppies. However, as we tell our children and grandchildren—I do not have any grandchildren yet—they grow up and develop different personalities. There is an enormous responsibility in owning a dog; it is not just that they are cute while they are a puppy. There should be much more careful thought about dog ownership generally. In the 18 months in which the pandemic has been with us, lots of people found great comfort in owning an animal. I understand all that, but I have talked to many animal welfare groups, and the number of dogs that have been returned to them is rather heartbreaking.
That puppy suffered harsh, cruel conditions before dying. Many importers exploit a loophole in Lucy’s law by legally bringing in five puppies at a time to the United Kingdom and selling them directly to the buyer for a larger profit. The number of dogs that can legally be brought into the country should be reduced to two per vehicle to stop criminals importing on a mass scale as they are currently doing. I would very much like our Government to increase the minimum import age for dogs to six months, and restrict the ability of unscrupulous traders to import heavily pregnant dogs. That is absolutely ridiculous. Although we are talking about dogs today, we must never forget about the very young farm animals that also endure long journeys for export and similarly need conditions to be improved. I feel very, very strongly about the live export of animals.
I will not go into the details of ear cropping, which other colleagues have mentioned, but it is preventable. It is painful, and is often performed without any sort of pain relief—how would we like our ears to be cropped? Despite it being illegal, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stated that there was a 621% increase in reports of ear cropping from 2015 to today. It is, however, not illegal to sell ear-cropped dogs, import them from abroad or take dogs abroad to be cropped. As a patron of the wonderful Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, I encourage the Government, whom I support, to introduce further steps to ensure that the transport of dogs with cropped ears for sale in the United Kingdom cannot take place, and address that loophole.
At the border, there should be more thorough visual checks of dogs and importation methods. We must, however, be careful not to affect the importation of rescue dogs—we have heard wonderful stories about rescue dogs—or any dogs bred by responsible breeders who follow high animal welfare standards.
I welcome the Government’s intention to introduce three new Bills to continue to improve animal welfare—the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, the Kept Animals Bill and the Animals Abroad Bill—and I hope the House will come together, support them and get them quickly on to the statute book. A timeline for the urgent delivery of the Government’s action plan on animal welfare is much needed. I urge people to buy pets from trusted sellers and to follow the Animal Welfare Foundation and RSPCA puppy contract to ensure that dogs are in good health when they are purchased.
I am delighted to participate in this debate. In the past, others and I have spoken many times about the unscrupulous elements who exploitatively import puppies in horrific conditions, so today I will focus on the ear cropping of dogs and the need to ban the importation of shark fins.
As we have heard, ear cropping in dogs is vile, mutilating dogs’ ears for so-called aesthetic reasons. It is illegal in the UK and the EU, but it continues to be a challenge. Dogs that have their ears cropped undergo an incredibly painful procedure, typically with no pain relief, and are vulnerable to infection as a result. The practice has the potential to influence a dog’s behaviour, welfare and quality of life. As dogs use their ears to communicate, ear cropping can impact a dog’s relationship with other dogs and with people.
The RSPCA has reported a 621% increase in the number of cases between 2015 and 2019. That is truly shocking. Loopholes in current legislation mean that it is legal to sell ear-cropped dogs and to import dogs with cropped ears from abroad. These loopholes act as a smokescreen for those who illegally crop dogs’ ears inside the UK. If the ban on ear cropping in the UK is to truly safeguard dogs, as is the intention, then banning the importation of dogs with cropped ears into the UK is vital. That would allow much more robust enforcement action to be taken against those cropping dogs’ ears in the UK.
In addition, the law should make it clear that arranging to take a dog abroad for the purposes of cropping is an offence. The Scottish Government are looking seriously at that. Work on that would be carried out most effectively with a co-ordinated set of actions across the UK, so I am sure that the Minister will seek to liaise with the Scottish Government on that important issue.
The petition on the importation of shark fins is also very important. The shark population is declining rapidly on a global scale, because humans have now replaced sharks as the ocean’s top predator. The shark population has been severely impacted by the horrific practice of shark finning, which is the process of slicing off a shark’s fin and discarding the rest of the still-living animal into the ocean where, unable to swim, it sinks to the bottom and dies a slow and painful death.
Shark fins are considered a real prize for some fishermen because they have a high monetary and cultural value. Conservation, advocacy and education have cut China’s consumption of shark fins by 80% since 2011. Sadly, that has been offset by a rise in the consumption of this fish in places such as Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.
In order to protect the shark as a species, given the terrible cruelty the practice inflicts on the sharks and the vital role sharks play in our ocean ecosystem health, I urge the Minister to do all she can to guide progress on banning the importation of shark fins, following the Government’s announcement on the global shark-fin trade last month. It is important that action proceeds with all due haste, sending a clear signal that we will have no truck with such a cruel and shocking practice. I conclude my remarks, Mr Mundell, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Mr Mundell. I endorse the things that all colleagues have spoken about.
I will concentrate my remarks on e-petition 574305 regarding ear cropping of dogs in the UK, which is an abhorrent practice. In recognition that there is no medical justification for ear cropping, the procedure has been banned in the UK for over 100 years and is currently covered by section 5 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 as an illegal mutilation. I am grateful to Pennine Vets in my constituency for briefing me on this important issue.
The current position in the UK is that although it is illegal to conduct such mutilation, it is not illegal to import a dog with cropped ears, which has resulted in several issues. The first is that owners and breeders can send their puppies abroad to be cropped and then returned to the UK, only to claim that the dog is a legal import. This quite frequently involves transporting a puppy that is too young for travel, but it also means that if the cropping is done in another country where cropping is illegal, the enforcement agencies in that country are not able to bring any prosecutions, as the evidence—the cropped puppy—has left their jurisdiction.
The second issue is that pro croppers have relied on the ability to import cropped dogs in order to hide a very dark back-street practice, whereby breeders or owners undertake illegal do-it-yourself cropping, frequently with no medical knowledge or training, and with rudimentary equipment, no anaesthetic and no post-operative pain relief for the dogs. As the ability to import cropped dogs also extends to rescue dogs, it is imperative that genuine rescue dogs are protected and are not demonised due to the abuse they have suffered. The pain and suffering caused to the dogs does not cease post procedure. One of the breeds frequently cropped is the Doberman, which is a large and noble breed. For Doberman puppies, ear cropping can mean not only the severance of a significant part of their ear flap, but months of splinting and/or taping in order to encourage the remaining ear to stand erect. This is not a guaranteed result; it can and does fail, leaving the dog either having to go through further surgery to try to obtain the original desired look, or with one ear erect and one ear flapping. Wound infections are not uncommon. The practice is utterly abhorrent, and I fully support the Government’s move to include ear cropping in the action plan for animal welfare.
I have to finish by echoing something that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) said—not forgetting the cat. On numerous occasions, I have stood with my hon. Friend the Minister and talked about Gizmo’s law, which is not included—I stand to be corrected—in the plan for animal welfare. It is an animal welfare issue that is incredibly serious and very important to people in my constituency, and I know that other colleagues, including the shadow Minister, have had meetings with Helena Abrahams—a force of nature—to try to put this important law into statute. I am grateful that the Government adopted Tuk’s law, which was part of a private Member’s Bill that I introduced, and I hope that Gizmo’s law will follow very shortly.
Diolch, Mr Mundell. I am grateful to be able to follow the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly), and I echo his comments regarding Gizmo’s law being brought in as soon as possible. I am also grateful for being called to speak in this debate on a topic that is close to heart for so many of us, and about which I have spoken at length in this place. The welfare of animals big and small has undeniably taken a hit as a consequence of the pandemic, but it is our duty and moral obligation to protect animals from harm. Like many others, I have fears that the Government’s action plan for animal welfare does not stretch far enough.
Residents across my Pontypridd constituency topped the signature count for the petition focused on the worrying rise in the ear cropping of dogs, so that is where I will focus my comments. Let us be clear: ear cropping is a barbaric and illegal practice that is completely unnecessary and which brings no welfare benefit to dogs. There are some fantastic charities out there that are leading the way on tackling this issue—none more so than Hope Rescue, which is a dog rescue charity based in the constituency of my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). Hope Rescue does genuinely brilliant work and is a proud former partner of the “flop not crop” campaign, which is a collaboration led by the Focus on Animal Law Group and the British Veterinary Association.
The strength of feeling on ear cropping is particularly clear in south Wales, and Hope Rescue is currently caring for eight micro-bully puppies seized from a breeder. Of the eight, six have had their ears cropped. It is all very well to outlaw such cruel practices, but it is clear that in the case of ear cropping, the law is doing nothing to protect dogs that are at risk. As others have mentioned, although it is illegal to crop in the UK, it is not illegal to sell cropped dogs, import them from abroad, or take dogs abroad to be cropped. Such loopholes act as a smokescreen for illegal cropping in the UK. Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic, and the overall increase in demand for dogs and puppies, has seen an increase in demand for dogs with cropped ears. It is utterly shocking that the RSPCA has reported a 621% increase in reports of dogs with cropped ears over the past five years, and this is clearly something that charities on the ground are having to cope with too. In the past few weeks alone, Hope Rescue has reported a number of breeders across south Wales to both the police and relevant local authorities, but ultimately the severe delays in the court system are having a major impact. Sadly, the ability to create meaningful change is very limited.
It is absolutely vital that when we consider issues of animal welfare, including those covered by the petitions that we are debating today, we also consider the knock-on effects and long-term problems that animals may face in years to come. Puppies that have been subjected to ear-cropping have often been subjected to poor breeding techniques that consequently impact their overall health and welfare too.
Put simply, in its current form the Government’s action plan for animal welfare does not go far enough to protect animals, both now and in the years to come. If we are truly to get a grip on tackling the abuse of animals, part of the conversation is to improve law enforcement practices. Although I welcome the recent introduction of the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, tougher prison sentences for animal cruelty offences will do little to change the situation on the ground and are unlikely to lead to meaningful and much-needed change for animals that are suffering today.
I urge the Minister to take forward my concerns and those of colleagues across the political divide in her conversations with colleagues in the Home Office. The Government have the opportunity to improve practices, but they are dragging their heels when it comes to ear cropping. I truly hope that today’s debate will make it clear to the Minister that urgent action is required, and required now.
I certainly will do that, Mr Mundell; thank you for that clarification.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) and everyone else who has spoken. I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for presenting the case.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), who has just left the Chamber, referred to the Assisi Animal Sanctuary, where my wife has been a dedicated volunteer for many years; indeed, many of the animals in our own home are animals that have been rescued. They now rule the roost.
My comments today will largely focus on the puppy issue. The facts are clear—there has been an absolutely massive increase in demand for puppies during the pandemic. People who are spending more time at home have realised that a wee dog may be something that can complete their family; that is lovely and it should be the case. However, my wife has highlighted to me that often after peaks of demand such as this one there will be a devastating peak of abandoned dogs, when owners realise the huge responsibility that comes with a cute little puppy, as the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) has said.
Dogs are a lot of work. In my opinion, as someone who has had dogs all his life, they are worth every second. The fact is that dogs will always love their owner and will always wag their tail. The springer spaniel that we have—Autumn—probably came from a home where it was abused. It was certainly nervous and unsure. Now, it is confident; it is now my hunting dog and also my guard dog.
I first realised the scale of the problem when one of my staff members told me that she had been approached during lockdown while she was out on a walk with a two-year-old Dachshund by a man who offered to buy her dog. She laughed it off by saying that she would rather sell her husband before she would sell her dog—there is a thought for us. My goodness me, that was not a nice thing to say and it was not my wife who said it. Perhaps my wife did not hear—there we are.
Here is the story. My staff member was met with a stern expression and the man saying, “I will give you £1,000. I can’t source Dachshunds anywhere.” She had paid £550 for the dog to a local lady who had invited her into her home. When she saw the dog’s mum and dad, and the papers, she was happy that all was well; that is the way it should be done. This type of dog is now listed as costing over £2,000, so it is little wonder that she was approached like that. We are now seeing people who are capitalising on people’s isolation and loneliness, and when there is a demand the unscrupulous will do whatever it takes to try and meet it.
Therefore, despite Lucy’s law, the unscrupulous are exploiting the loopholes in order to exploit animals and make a quick buck. The problem is that these animals are not checked against rigorous standards and the results can be dire. There can be health risks for both pups and unsuspecting new owners; families in the UK could get infectious diseases. We must be aware of them: parvovirus; e-coli; brucellosis; parasitic infestations of ticks; tapeworms; rabies; and other problems that are endemic. Those are diseases that we cannot ignore. These are serious issues. Indeed, I read an article recently that outlined an increasing fear of diseases that cross the human-animal divide. In some cases, those diseases have an impact upon human beings as well.
At present, puppies must be at least 15 weeks old to enter the UK legally. It is virtually impossible to establish the age of a 15-week-old puppy accurately by its teeth or appearance alone. Documents, including certification and animal passports, are commonly forged and microchip numbers can be falsified, thus compromising both traceability and accountability.
I will finish with this point. The suggestion has been made that the import age must be raised to six months. I understand that some people may be less inclined to get a dog that is older and therefore harder to train. At the same time, I have had many older dogs over the years, so I can testify that a gentle hand and love can teach any old dog the basics. Six months may affect the cuteness factor of a dog that is being bought, but it certainly will not affect its training.
In conclusion, I will ask the Minister a question. The Republic of Ireland is seen as a place where puppy farming can happen, and dogs can be trafficked from the Republic into the UK, and vice versa. What discussions has the Minister had with Ministers in the Republic of Ireland to ensure that laws are used right across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland so that that does not happen? Loopholes exist. We must work to close them as soon as possible and to prevent the abuse of this system, which translates into the abuse of animals and can pose a danger to families throughout this UK. I think that was just about four minutes.
Excellent; thank you very much, Mr Shannon. I will now call Dr Lisa Cameron, followed by Luke Pollard and the Minister. If they could each stick to speaking for about nine minutes, that will allow Mr Colburn some moments to conclude the debate.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in such an important Petitions Committee debate, Mr Mundell. I thank all those who have spoken, the people of the United Kingdom who signed petitions of the utmost importance on dog and shark welfare, and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his dedicated work on animal welfare issues and for leading the debate. I also thank the numerous animal welfare charities, organisations and experts who have been in touch, including the Kennel Club, Dogs Trust, RSPCA, SSPCA, Blue Cross, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, CARIAD, Marc Abraham and the League Against Cruel Sports, to name just a few.
I must declare an interest as the owner of Rossi the rescue French bulldog, who came fourth in the Westminster dog of the year competition a few years ago. We are very proud of Rossi. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group and we have been championing Lucy’s law, cross party, for so long, as Members know. It has had such success across the United Kingdom. We are proud of that, but this debate shows that there is much more work to be done and that we can work together, across parties, to ensure that that happens.
The contributions have been absolutely excellent. I highlight my hon. Friends the Members for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Angus (Dave Doogan), who proudly raised the Scottish Government’s work on animal welfare and the work that will be taken forward by the Scottish Parliament over the next five years. I was also particularly delighted to hear about the experiences of the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), who is himself a veterinary surgeon, and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), who spoke passionately about puppy welfare.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) speaks in so many of these debates, and his wife works on the frontline of puppy welfare, so he spoke with great family expertise. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) works endlessly on animal welfare issues on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and always attends these debates. He is dedicated to the issue of animal welfare. I could not believe my ears when I heard the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) say he was a keen shark keeper. I was glad that he clarified that he meant little tropical tank sharks. He is assiduous in speaking on animal welfare across the House and has achieved so much in raising and taking forward these matters. The hon. Members for Bury North (James Daly) and for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) gave detailed rationales against cropping dogs’ ears and on the need for Government action, particularly in relation to the petition on that aspect of animal welfare legislation.
In line with others who have spoken, I press the Government on their commitment to increase the minimum age at which dogs can be moved non-commercially and imported commercially. I place on the record my support for the recommendation of the Scottish animal welfare commission and the more than 120,000 members of the public across the UK who signed the petition calling for the Government to increase from 15 weeks to six months the age at which puppies can be imported to the UK. Under present restrictions, it is incredibly difficult to identify by appearance alone whether a puppy is 15 weeks old, and therefore almost impossible to effectively enforce current legislation, as attested by the fact that documentation such as pet passports can be easily forged or falsified. Much more must be done.
There is growing scientific evidence that a single rabies vaccination at 12 weeks is largely ineffective for puppies, which means that the pups imported from countries where rabies is endemic pose a significant public health risk of rabies transmission among humans and dogs in the UK. As we have heard, there is increasing evidence, collected by the Dogs Trust, that suggests that puppies are bred in absolutely horrific conditions and endure journey times of often over 20 hours with little food or water in order to be sold in the UK. The mental and physical health risks associated with travel and unscrupulous low-welfare breeding have led not only to tragic deaths in transit but to the potential transmission of infectious diseases, some of which are zoonotic, including parvovirus, E. coli, brucellosis and parasitic infestations of ticks and tapeworms. Those are extremely serious medical conditions.
Lucy’s law, on which many of us worked hard on a cross-party basis during the previous parliamentary Session, has gone some way to improve the welfare of pups and their mums, but the loophole remains and more must be done. The loophole continues to allow breeders to sell puppies that have not been born in licensed and inspected breeding premises. That flies in the face of the Government’s advice that puppies should always be seen interacting with their mum in the place they were born. By introducing a ban on the importation of puppies younger than six months, the Government would not only protect young puppies from arduous travel and curb the spread of potentially fatal diseases; it would also be a far more robust system. A puppy’s age can now be verified by visual appearance due to their adult teeth being visible, and puppies would be travelling after a much more effective full course of two rabies vaccinations.
I would also like to press the Government on their commitment in the action plan to prohibit the importation into the UK of dogs that have been subject to low-welfare practices such as ear cropping and tail docking—[Inaudible.]
Thank you for pointing that out, Mr Mundell.
I want to press the Government on the commitment made in the action plan to prohibit the importation into the UK of dogs that have been subject to low-welfare practices, including ear cropping and tail docking. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home has documented a 200% increase in the number of dogs with cropped ears coming through its gates since 2016. That is absolutely startling. The RSPCA reports a 621% increase in instances of the cropping of dogs’ ears in the past six years.
This ear-cropping phenomenon is often carried out in a crude and amateurish manner with no pain relief, causing immense amounts of pain and trauma to young puppies at a crucial stage in their development and socialisation. Until recently, DIY cropping packages, including scalpels, blades and scissors, could be purchased online for £30. Disturbingly, the phenomenon seems to be fuelled by a growing number of celebrities posing on social media with cropped-ear pets. This really must be addressed.
I echo hon. Members’ calls for the Government to act on the importing of shark fins. Other hon. Members have covered the issue at length, and once again there appears to be broad cross-party agreement. It is not only the public who wish for it to be addressed; animal welfare organisations are also in agreement. The Government must now act.
I thank everyone who has contributed to this excellent debate and my constituents across East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow who signed the petitions in their droves. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments and to working on a cross-party basis to take these issues forward.
I thank all hon. Members who have spoken in this debate. This has been a good debate, and I thank in particular the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), who stole much of everyone else’s speeches by being so comprehensive in his introduction. He was very good at pulling out the reasons why the petitioners brought forward these petitions, and the injustices that compelled them to petition Parliament to get a debate. I thank him for that. I also thank the petitioners and all those who signed the petitions—they have made a really big difference—including the nearly 1,500 people from Plymouth.
It feels like we have been here before. In fact, in this room we held an evidence session during the passage of the Ivory Act 2018, which sought to ban the sale of elephant ivory. Since the Act passed on to the statute book, not a single one of its provisions has been enforced by the Government. We must be careful about Governments, or political parties, using animal welfare as a reason to put stuff into legislation but then not enacting it. I fear there is a risk that in our hurry to pat ourselves on the back and cite our cross-party passion for animal welfare, we let the Government off the hook in what comes afterwards.
That is why some of the contributions from hon. Members have been so powerful. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), whom I want to preserve for many decades to come as he articulates it so very well—I do not want anything to happen to him and I hope he fares well in the boundary changes—talked powerfully about the need for proper enforcement. If we are to make the case for animal welfare law, we must also make the case for it to be properly enforced. The National Wildlife Crime Unit is a great example of something that is absolutely essential and completely underfunded.
The animal welfare action plan is a step forward and contains welcome words, lots of which are borrowed from the animal welfare manifesto that my party stood on at the last election. That is good, because frankly I want to see the change more than I want to see a party rosette attached to it, but we need to ensure that those words are properly enforced as well.
Hon. Members made a number of good contributions in relation to shark finning. The figures are utterly staggering. The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) would need a much bigger tank if he were to rescue the 100 million or so sharks that are killed each year. Although this debate has focused on shark fins, we should be aware that it is not shark fin soup alone that is responsible for the decimation of shark populations. Greenpeace estimates a 50% decline in sharks in the last 30 years. Shark meat, illegal fishing practices and criminal fishing activities also contribute to that decimation.
The hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) asked if we should ban all shark fin products. It is important that we look at that, because the wording of the action plan might be good on shark fins but not necessarily on shark fin products. We must not drive huge numbers of dead sharks through that loophole; we need to make sure that this works. Similarly, the Ivory Act 2018 bans only elephant ivory, so even if it were enforced, rhino ivory is not included. When we take the time to legislate, let us ensure that we do so in a comprehensive way.
The Shark Trust, a fantastic organisation that is based in Plymouth and operates globally, says that
“it’s unlikely that you’ll encounter responsibly sourced shark fin soup and so shark fin should be avoided.”
That is the message that we need to send. We are going into a new era where China will be more dominant, so the practices of the Chinese Government and the state-sponsored practices of illegal fishing activities around the world are more than just welfare matters. It is a matter of geopolitics.
We must be careful about how we have this debate and how we encourage others to come with us. When we talk about the illegal trade in shark fins we must ensure that we also talk about the illegal trade in people that so often accompanies it. We are talking about not just the massacre of 100 million sharks every year, but, in many cases, illegal slavery, oppressive conditions and overfishing. That is why there needs to be a comprehensive strategy on shark fins, not just a tactic to deal with pressure from well-meaning and vociferous lobbying by constituents. The strategy needs to be broader.
We have heard enormously passionate and heartfelt speeches about the ear cropping of dogs. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) spoke passionately about its effects, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), who is a real animal welfare champion. When we talk about this subject, let us remember what happens to a single dog when its ears are cropped. Let us remember the risk to the animal of infection, the person who carries out the practice regularly, the owner who allows it to happen, the person who turns a blind eye to the transit of that animal, and the person who purchases the animal, who also turns a blind eye.
As has been said about the influencers who do this, let us also call out people who put an image of a cropped dog on their Instagram or TikTok to get likes, shares and followers, and who ignore the pain that comes with that dog. Let us properly call out the influencers and also make sure that animal welfare is properly included in the action being taken on online harms by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The Minister knows that I feel strongly about this, and I encourage her to speak regularly to her DCMS colleagues about how the online world is driving poor behaviour in relation to animals. That needs to be addressed and it is also the responsibility of social media companies.
We have a leaky law on dog ear cropping and it is poorly enforced. Many Members, including the hon. Member for Southend West, have referred to the 621% increase in reports of ear cropping since 2015. Although that figure is shocking, it should shock only those who have not been paying attention to what has been a growing trend over many years. That is why we need proper action and a law that is not only tighter but properly enforced. There is a real boom in dog ear cropping—a disgusting criminal activity—so the cross-party message needs to be really powerful. I am certain that the Minister will echo that when she gets to her feet.
On the campaign to ban puppy imports, it feels as though its time really has come. During lockdown, thousands of people felt that something was missing from their homes—it was a pet-sized hole and more and more animals have been bought. I liked it when the Select Committee Chair asked whether the market is sustainable. It is not sustainable, but the animal welfare plan does not address that. I would be grateful if the Minister would not skip over that in her response.
We need to recognise that there are things that need to be improved in the action plan. When the legislation comes forward, I hope that some of the suggestions mentioned in this debate will be taken up. I have a lot of time for the Minister, but, speaking frankly, I fear that the Government as a whole have dragged their feet on some of these issues for too long. In addition, that is fuelling a dog abandonment catastrophe, because lack of action now is fuelling an increase in the number of animals with behavioural issues and real problems. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke passionately about dog abandonment issues, which should have had a much more prominent position in the debate.
I thank Marc Abraham and others, and The Mirror campaign, for talking about puppy smuggling. There has been a fantastic focus on this issue and now we need proper action. That should include making sure that there are no imports of puppies younger than six months.
Finally, we have a real opportunity to have cross-party consensus on bold action. I wish the Minister the very best of luck in strengthening the legislation that her Department is currently preparing. The hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) made a very good plea for the inclusion of Gizmo’s law, and I echo that. It is in these coming weeks, before the Minister publishes Bills for First Reading, that we have a chance to ensure that the proposed legislation is good not just in terms of soundbites but in terms of action. I wish the Minister the very best of luck with that, because plenty of MPs will hold her accountable if we see good soundbites but no action.
Thank you, Mr Mundell. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing the debate, in which I know he was ably assisted by his dogs Willow and Lola, and probably by his rabbits Benji and Bella as well. He is a strong champion of animal welfare, and I know that he speaks on behalf of many of his constituents when he raises these issues in Parliament.
I also thank all other hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, including very distinguished Members—several of them from the EFRA Committee—who have worked hard in this area, and many others who have spoken repeatedly in our animal welfare debates. What they say is listened to, and I hope that I will be able to reassure Members present that some of the points they have raised will be imminently brought forward into legislation, and that we have a plan for the rest as well. It is not possible to do everything at once. Given the number of actions mentioned in the past hour and a half, Members will realise that there is a great deal to do. I also thank the public, who engaged with the petitions, and indeed the organisations that worked so very hard to provide all of us with the evidence that we need to make proper legislation.
Animal welfare is one of the very highest priorities for this Government. We know that animals make a valuable contribution to all of our lives and to the planet that we share with them. This is why we recently published an action plan for animal welfare, and it is why we have started the process of legislation to bring many of the issues we have discussed today into effect. I do want to manage expectations, though, because not all of the answers are legislative: the public need to be involved. Where we see infringements of animal welfare that are already contrary to the law, it is important that these are called out, as was suggested by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). I totally agree that enforcement is critically important, and it is often the case that we need to work across Government Departments to make sure that these laws actually take effect—I was going to say “bite”, but stopped myself. The pet theft taskforce, launched just under a month ago and due to report later this year, is an example of this. It is also important that we work together, both cross-party and as four nations, to make sure that we put into action what we have talked about today.
As many Members have said, we also have an important role as a global leader on the animal welfare front. That leads me to the issue of detaching shark fins, on which we really want to be seen to demonstrate global leadership. As a Government, we are strongly opposed to shark finning: we banned finning nearly 20 years ago and, since 2009, we have enforced a “fins naturally attached” policy that applies to UK vessels. We launched a call for evidence, which closed earlier this year; the evidence we got through that has helped us to draft legislation that will seek to ban all fins that are not naturally attached to the carcass from being imported to and exported from the UK, with extremely limited scientific exceptions. This will get rid of the high personal allowance mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington in his opening speech. I am not able to give an exact date for the introduction of that Bill, but I reassure hon. Members that we are moving at pace to make sure we get this legislation absolutely right.
On puppy smuggling, we will very, very shortly show how we will fulfil our manifesto commitment: I urge hon. Members to watch for news in this area very closely, very shortly. When the new legislation is introduced, it will reduce the number of dogs, cats and ferrets that can be moved under the pet travel rules, in order to prevent unscrupulous traders from exploiting those rules—it is not in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests that we have a ferret at home, as well as a cat, but perhaps it should be and I should declare that interest. As we all know, there have been loopholes in the rules, and we do not want to encourage the importation of animals that are heavily pregnant because we make a rule reducing the age limit on puppies. It is really important that we draft this new legislation very carefully, in conjunction with those who work on the ground, so that we can make laws that are enforceable. As many hon. Members have mentioned, pets imported illegally are often in poor health, having been brought up under poor welfare conditions and subject to horrific abuses. There are many reasons for making sure that we get this absolutely right.
We will also bring forward regulations, probably via secondary legislation, to introduce new restrictions on both commercial and non-commercial imports on welfare grounds. Such rules could include a new minimum age for puppy imports and restrictions on the import of heavily pregnant bitches. It is important that we are able to introduce these regulations in a very specific way that enables us to close loopholes. On the point about the Republic of Ireland, we work very closely with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and we will continue to work with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the Republic to put a stop to that abhorrent trade.
Regarding dogs subject to mutilations, my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington raised the particular issue of DIY cropping kits. I remind him, everybody in the room and the general public that cropping is illegal in this country and is an offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Later this month, the sentences available under the Act become much longer, as hon. Members know. Dogs with cropped ears should not be available domestically, except for those that have already, sadly, been cropped. will introduce powers to enable us to bring in new restrictions on welfare grounds in future. We will need to work very closely on closing the loopholes, but all of us and the public have a role to play in calling out bad practice where it is seen.
It is not only sharks and puppies that the Government intend to protect. We have really ambitious plans across the animal welfare spectrum. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021 became law, as I have mentioned, which means that from the end of this month the prison sentence available for animal cruelty will move from six months to five years, which is something that many people in this room should be proud of. We introduced the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, which will recognise and enshrine animal sentience in law and make sure that Ministers take animal welfare into account when making policy generally.
I must mention farm animal welfare, as so many animals are affected by the laws and regulations in this space. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) will be pleased to know that we will introduce measures to end the export of live animals for fattening and slaughter, and we will update the law on livestock worrying. It is important that hon. Members continue to watch this space on keeping primates and how that is regulated in future as well.
On Gizmo’s law, I can never look at my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) without calling him Gizmo, as he mentions it frequently to me. It is awful to lose a cat to a road traffic accident; I have done so myself. We have a manifesto commitment to introduce the compulsory microchipping of cats, as he knows. We have consulted on that fully and will respond later this year. If legislation is not imminent, I undertake to continue to engage with him on this important area.
In summary, there is a great deal to do, but I want to reassure Members about the Government’s commitment to protecting and enhancing the welfare of all animals.
I thank the Minister for her response. I was indeed assisted by my dogs and bunnies in preparing for today’s debate. I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their passionate contributions. Time prevents me from going into everyone’s contributions, but the debate has demonstrated the level of interest and strength of feeling across the House on animal welfare and how keen Members are to see us take important action. I apologise if as several Members mentioned, I have eaten into the content of what that they wanted to raise during the debate.
I also thank the petitioners and those who signed all three of the petitions. It demonstrates that the petitions system in the UK truly can bring about change, so I encourage them to keep signing petitions and engaging with the petitions system because it is clearly a powerful tool, and I am proud to sit as a member of the Petitions Committee.
We all look forward to seeing the measures get on to the statute book soon. As the Minister requested, I will watch this space very closely indeed, and I hope that we can all sit together in the Commons soon to debate the issue again and to bring these measures into law.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 300535, 326261, and 574305, relating to the Government’s Action Plan for Animal Welfare.