Monday 7 June 2021
[David Mundell in the Chair]
[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]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
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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.
Protection of Retail Workers
[James Gray in the Chair]
Before I call the Member in charge of the debate to propose the motion, I point out to Members both physically here in Westminster Hall and virtually that we have a total of 15 Back-Bencher speakers. Allowing 43 minutes for those speeches, that gives us less than three minutes per head for Back Benchers. I do not intend to impose a formal time limit, because I think that substitutes quality for quantity, but we should all limit ourselves to a maximum of two—perhaps three—minutes for Back-Bench speeches.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 328621, relating to the protection of retail workers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I thank the petition creator and all those who signed it, giving us the opportunity to debate this hugely important issue. As of last Friday, 104,354 signatures were on the petition, so I think it is fair to say that this something that a lot of people up and down the country care greatly about. Having worked in retail, it is one that I, too, care deeply about. Over the past year, while most of us have retreated to the safety and comfort of our own homes, many of our retail workers rolled up their sleeves and got on with it, making sure that our shops remained stocked so that we could all access the essentials we needed as we bunkered down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
We have asked a lot of our retail workers over the past year: not only have we asked them to brave the pandemic, potentially putting themselves at risk from the virus, but we have asked them to implement the measures that were designed to keep us all safe, such as mask wearing and social distancing. As a result, violence and abuse directed towards retail workers has gone through the roof.
Recently, I met some amazing, passionate ladies who work in retail: Jo who works for the Co-op in Northumberland, Kate who works for Primark in Worcester and Jane who works at Tesco in north Wales. Each told me that since the pandemic began, the number of incidents of abuse had increased noticeably. They told me about the fear and the risks faced by ordinary men and women who go to work in shops in all our communities across the country, echoing the issues I have heard from my own constituents.
I heard from responsible retail businesses as well, such as Morrisons, the Co-op, Asda, Sainsbury’s and many others. They are investing millions of pounds trying to protect their staff and are desperate for more to be done. A recent survey by the British Retail Consortium has shown that a staggering 455 incidents of abuse and violence are now directed towards retail workers, not each month or each week, but every day—yes, 455 incidents every day. Men and women go to work—some of them young people or even students in their first job, some of them mothers, trying to manage a job around family life, some of them semi-retired, in the later years of their life, but all trying to earn a living—and are subjected to disgusting abuse as a result.
Another survey, by USDAW, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, found that the top triggers for abusive incidents were enforcing social distancing at 24%, queuing to get into stores at 17%, and wearing face masks at 15%. Nobody likes having to queue to get into a shop or to wear masks, but that is absolutely no reason to be abusive, threatening or violent to someone who is just doing their job. There is never a reason to do any of those things to someone who is trying to earn a living. When I was talking to USDAW members, they told me shocking stories about how people have weaponised covid during the pandemic, spitting at them and threatening to infect them with the virus.
The issue, however, was not created by the pandemic; it pre-dates it. I have heard the terrible stories of people being on the receiving end of vile abuse for having the temerity to do their duty of checking ID when selling drinks, or being assaulted when they step up and try to stop a shoplifter. The problem is rife. In the words of one retail worker—an ordinary person working in an ordinary store on the streets of a constituency like mine or yours:
“I have been dragged out of the store and battered by a group of five men, punched and kicked by a gang of teenagers, followed home after late night shifts, had a knife pulled on me three times, had to wrestle needles out of drug addicts’ hands to prevent harm to colleagues, and that doesn’t include the verbal abuse I receive on a daily basis.”
We need to send a clear message to the people that this is unacceptable. Retail staff must be able to do their jobs without the fear that they will be on the receiving end of abuse or worse at any time throughout their shift. That is why I wholeheartedly support the demands in the petition. We need a punishment for these crimes that shows that we stand by our retail staff and that acts as a proper deterrent. Often, instances are sparked by retail staff doing the duties that we in Parliament have asked them to do. If we are going to put the burden of statutory responsibilities on them, we need to give them statutory protections too.
As well as protecting retail workers, we need to ensure our shops are safe for everyone. They are the hearts of our communities. Not everybody has friends and family they can talk to nearby. They might not go to the pub, but they will go to shops, and sometimes the interaction with the person at the checkout is the chat they need to prevent isolation. We cannot have our shops—the hearts of our communities—turning into something like the wild west where anything goes. We need to make them safe for everyone.
I know that putting in greater protections for retail workers does not require a feat of legislative gymnastics. Looking just north of the border, the Scottish Parliament recently passed a Bill, now an Act, put forward by Daniel Johnson MSP. It is decisive and sends a clear message that these actions will not be tolerated, but it now means that retail staff are better protected in Dumfries than they are 30 miles south in Carlisle. I would like to see similar action taken in England so that retail workers in my patch are just as safe doing their jobs as their counterparts in Edinburgh or Glasgow.
When I read the Government’s response to the petition, I was glad to see that they said:
“Everyone should feel safe at work”.
That is a sentiment that we can all agree on, but I was disheartened to see that they were not persuaded that a specific measure is needed to protect the retail workforce, particularly when prosecutions are so low and the role played by retail workers in upholding the law and their statutory duties was considered an aggravating factor in only three in 100 cases.
The Government are correct that there is a wide range of offences to hold offenders to account, but if those offences were a sufficient deterrent, incidents would not continue to rise. We need to look again and do something stronger. However, we still have the chance to make things better. I hope the Government will work with me and Members from all corners of this House to support the provisions in this petition and look again. Let us send a message that this Government have retail workers’ backs.
What a pleasure it is serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, even though it is remotely. I have been a member of the Co-operative party and a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for all my long parliamentary career, and I have a particular affinity for the small co-operative shops—real grassroots community facilities—that are essential to local communities. Of course, the Co-op is not the only small business working in local communities; there are many more. We must seek to protect all workers in all those shops.
Yes, we would like legislation; yes, we want this petition to be successful; yes, we want to give as much protection to workers in England and other parts of the United Kingdom as those in Scotland have. But we need to go further than that. The small shop is absolutely central to our communities—it is the life of the community. Workers in small shops that stay open late at night, are there when people need them and are very close to home so that people do not need a car to get large amounts of goods in order to be a customer—vital neighbourhood facilities—should be protected as well as workers in the large stores. Some large stores are well managed and have security that is very good indeed. Others are less efficient at keeping a well-managed shop and protecting the workers who work there. I want a change in the law to protect workers, but that is not all. These are designated key workers, who have been key in the first wave of fighting against covid and all the problems of this past miserable year, so I want them to be protected; I want them to be looked after, whether in a big store or a small store. I do not go to as many shops as many people, because I am a married man, and all the research data shows that if a woman takes a man to a shop with her, her bill when they get to the checkout is 20% higher than if she goes on her own. That might be a bit of a sexist comment, but it is my personal experience.
I want to change the culture. This is not about every consumer, but about a small minority of people who do not like obeying the laws that we pass in this Parliament. They do not like the fact that there are age restrictions on buying alcohol, restrictions on buying tobacco, or the special restrictions on buying too many items of one good that were introduced during the covid epidemic. Most customers are good, well-behaved, excellent people, going about their business, buying things and being nice—the sermon in my church on Sunday was about, “Let’s get back to being nice to one another.” We need a cultural change, speaking up when we witness verbal abuse or any abuse in our local shops or supermarkets. Let us work together to change culture: let us make sure that we drive out the antisocial behaviour, whether verbal or physical abuse, that is becoming far too common.
As I have walked through my lovely constituency of Huddersfield, I have talked to many workers who have not only been in fear during working hours, but fear being followed home and having stones thrown through their windows. This is a real problem for many workers, and I came into Parliament to protect workers and workers’ rights. We need better laws and better police regulation and response, but we also need a changed culture.
Mr Gray, as ever, it is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair. I shall do my best to follow your instruction, although I cannot guarantee any greater degree of quality if I get rid of quantity. Following the recollection by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) of the sermon he heard at the weekend, I agree wholeheartedly that we should all be nice to one another, but I also hope that men and women alike will go and spend what they can at our shops as we emerge from the covid pandemic. The Co-op being a theme of today’s debate, there are two pioneers here today—if I can use that phrase, borrowed from the Rochdale pioneers of the co-operative movement. Those are my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), who gave a fine exposition of the issues in his opening speech, and the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who is further down the call list and has done a great deal of work in this area.
If I have any time left after those opening remarks, I will be very brief. Last Wednesday, I was fortunate to visit the newly opened Co-op store in my constituency, on Church Lane in Marple. They are doing a great job there, regenerating that part of the town and improving that end of Market street. I was able to hear at first hand from Nick, Julie and Melissa about their experiences, particularly during the pandemic—which have been ably explained by others—but also more generally. As an example, workers at the Sainsbury’s in my constituency now wear a body cam as they limit the queues going in. What a sign of the times! Many of us have been able to exist in a degree of comfort and convenience during the pandemic, but those on the frontline—on the shop floor—have had to bear witness and have been assaulted in all manner of ways. It is simply intolerable.
I am not one to recommend a change in the law lightly. The first step, as has been shown by some police and crime commissioners, is to enforce the existing law properly, particularly against prolific offenders. I think that an example in Sussex showed recently that a targeted approach, whereby the police are able to take this matter as seriously as they should, yielded strong results and gave shop workers the confidence that their daily experience is being taken seriously. However, if that is not enough, then a change in the law is necessary and I would support assaults on retail workers becoming an aggravated offence.
However, as I have said, and as I am sure the Minister will ably seek to reassure us in his summing-up at the end of this debate, the existing law must be enforced. Mr Gray, doing my best to follow your instruction, I hope that if the existing law cannot be enforced, the law can be changed and we must give all retail workers the absolute assurance that we take their difficulties seriously, and will make that change if necessary.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I thank the Member in charge, the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), for agreeing to lead the debate for the Petitions Committee. In doing so, I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who has worked on this issue since he joined the House in 2017. I was proud to support his ten-minute rule Bill—I think that was well over a year ago—highlighting the realities of working in the retail sector and the abuses that too many people who work in the sector face.
I will place something on the record as a former worker in the retail sector. For those who do not know, I was a trainee butcher in Tesco; you would not believe the number of times I have said that, Mr Gray. That was my first proper job and I received abuse from members of the public; it was nothing unusual to have meat quite literally thrown at us in shops. It was really very common for customers to think it perfectly normal to shout at staff on a regular basis and to think nothing of making threats of physical and verbal abuse.
I also stand here proudly as an USDAW-supported Member of Parliament; I have been for many years and it is in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. USDAW does Freedom From Fear work every year. Its last survey was in 2020. Of the respondents, nine in 10 shop workers confirmed that they had been verbally abused; 60% said that they had reported threats of abuse; and 9% had been physically assaulted. Those figures are stark and deeply concerning, showing that when someone goes to work they live with the fear of either being threatened or actually physically assaulted.
I pay tribute to USDAW for the work that it has done over decades to try and improve this situation. When I was working in retail some 20 years ago, this work was going on then. Actually, it has gone on too long—this abuse is simply unacceptable. I agree, as I do occasionally, with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), that if the law cannot be enforced, I hope that the Minister will tell us today that there can be a meaningful change in the law to protect retail workers, in the same way that we protect other frontline workers in the NHS, the police, the ambulance service and the fire service. Retail workers really are frontline workers who deserve our support.
In closing, I will briefly pay tribute to another organisation. There has been much talk of the Co-op in everyone’s speeches so far; I think that is a theme that shows the positive work that the Co-op does to engage with Members of Parliament. I have many Co-ops across my constituency; I think I have met staff from all of them. The truly concerning thing is that they all say the same thing: abuse is commonplace; it is something that they have come to accept; and it is something which they almost tolerate as part of the job. Covid has only increased that abuse, because a lot of people see shop workers as fair game. I hope that the Minister, in his closing remarks, will set out how the Ministry of Justice will deal with this abuse, because it has to stop. Enough really is enough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I hope that connection with Coatbridge will buy me an extra 30 seconds in this debate.
I commend the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for leading this debate today.
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, key workers across the retail sector have played an invaluable role in our communities, ensuring that we can maintain our basic right to access food. Without their incredible contribution, it is undoubtedly clear that we would have failed to get through this unprecedented global crisis in the manner we have. However, despite their heroic efforts, it is incredibly disappointing that the coronavirus crisis has resulted in a significant increase in abuse, threats and violence towards our retail workers. It is high time that we tackled such abuse and provided retail workers with the proper protections and respect that they deserve, especially given the current climate.
Weekly data released by the representative body of the UK’s retail sector, USDAW, show that abusive incidents towards shop workers have doubled since the outbreak of covid-19. Respondents to its survey reported being spat at, coughed at and sneezed at when asking customers to practise social distancing—I am sure every Member will agree that that really is abhorrent. When averaged across all 3 million workers across the retail sector, it amounts to a staggering 3,500 assaults every single day. Although not all shop workers suffer to this extent, some experience much worse, with one in six reporting being abused on every single shift. These are not mere statistics; this issue affects our parents, our partners, our brothers and sisters, and our children, who are needlessly suffering just for carrying out their job.
Many incidents arise as staff carry out their legal duties, including age verification and, more recently, the implementation of covid safety measures. We must all recognise that outwith our NHS, the biggest body of work throughout this pandemic has been undertaken by these undervalued and underpaid workers, who have been tasked with implementing, and ultimately enforcing, many of the guidelines that affect our daily lives. Despite retailers and businesses spending enormous sums on crime prevention, the situation is getting worse. Retail workers are employed in one of the sectors most vulnerable to violence, yet they are still being neglected and ignored. Of course, we are seeking to put that right.
In Scotland, we have said that enough is enough. As ever, we are leading the way in the protection of shop workers by passing the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act 2021. Scotland has sent a clear message that the rise in violence and abuse towards workers in the sector must end, and the rest of the UK must now follow suit. Despite clear evidence showing the escalation of violence and abuse against retail workers, time and again the Government have chosen not to act. This place must now stop dragging its feet and take the necessary action to protect retail colleagues from harm, and I urge the UK Government to follow the lead of the Scottish Government and enact legislation to protect our retail workers, who have been at the very heart of fighting for us all throughout the whole of this pandemic.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and note that I am a proud member of USDAW, which does so much great campaign work on this issue.
The pandemic has shown once and for all how vital retail workers are. They have been largely unsung heroes on the frontline of the pandemic—dealing with the public, keeping us supplied and keeping our society going, yet they are regularly abused and assaulted. We have heard some of the shocking statistics from hon. Members, and things have got worse over the last year. In Co-op stores alone in the first quarter of 2021, there have been almost 400 incidents where weapons have been used against shop workers, and more than half of those have been sharp implements such as a syringe, knife or bottle. That is just in the first quarter of 2021.
As today’s report from the Home Affairs Committee says, many incidents go unreported. Some of the people who are reluctant to report incidents said in their evidence to the Committee that it is part of the job, but it should not be part of the job. When I discussed this issue with local shop workers in Didsbury in my constituency, it was clear that this was a really big problem. Despite what the Daily Mail might think, Didsbury is an enviably nice, welcoming, cosmopolitan and mainly middle-class area—and a no-go zone for no one—but we have had issues in recent years with gangs of young people shoplifting. The fear is that when they are challenged, they then become aggressive and abusive, or worse.
A couple of years ago, I wrote to the regional managers of the bigger stores in the area, asking for their support for better security and engagement with the local traders association. Most of them were positive and responsive, but not all, and it should not be down to the attitudes of individual employers or owners for retail workers to be properly protected. The Government need to introduce a framework of protection for workers, which means ensuring that people understand that there are consequences for abusing or assaulting retail workers. As the petition asks for, we need the creation of a specific new criminal offence of assaulting, threatening or abusing retail workers. That is supported across the country by staff, by unions and by shop owners, from small businesses to retail giants. We have heard that, in Scotland, legislation to protect shop workers from violence will come into force on 24 August. I congratulate everyone who has made that happen, but if it is good enough for Scotland, why not for the rest of the UK? We have an opportunity. We do not need to wait for a full Bill to pass through Parliament. If we can support new clause 45 as tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we have an opportunity to make a real difference for retail workers, so let us take that opportunity. Let us help the people who should not be scared just by going to work. “Freedom From Fear”, the USDAW campaign slogan, should not be just a campaign slogan. It should be reality for the people who serve us.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on introducing this really important debate.
As the first woman to speak in the debate, I would like to take issue with the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) when he was making his points earlier. I have to tell him that my husband is actually a much better grocery shopper than I am and much better at seeking out the bargains. Where I agree with the hon. Gentleman is that what is really needed is a change of culture and a change in attitude towards shop workers.
Like the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), I draw on my own experience. Twenty years ago, I was working in a bookshop and I had those experiences of facing customers every day. I also know that the experience in the last year for people working in supermarkets in particular has been really difficult. I know that because both my brother and my brother-in-law are supermarket workers. They have been on the shop floor every day during the pandemic and they have had, along with their colleagues, a really hard time. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to everyone who has kept our grocery sector going at this time.
In common with many other hon. Members, I have been speaking recently to a constituent whose daughter has not been able to work because she is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after a knife was pulled on her during a shift she was working in a shop not far away. The impact that that kind of behaviour has on young people, on women and on vulnerable people is really serious, and that is why I support calls for the Government to introduce a specific law.
It is really important to recognise that we are asking shop workers to enforce the law themselves; they are enforcing the law on age-restricted products such as alcohol, games, DVDs—all sorts of things. We need to recognise that, during the pandemic, they have been called on to enforce all the extra regulations and the social distancing and they have played a really important part in managing shortages. That, of course, has created a great many difficult situations for them. They have put themselves at risk, in harm’s way, to protect the public from the impact of the pandemic, and I think it is high time that we recognised the role that retail workers play in keeping us all safe.
I also want to mention the really important role—again, we have noticed this more and more during the pandemic, but we knew about it already—that retail workers play in maintaining our communities. The biggest issue that so many of us have been dealing with in our constituencies over the last 18 months has been loneliness and isolation, and our retail workers have been the ones to really make a difference in that. Whether we are talking about the lady on the cash register or checkout, or the person bringing groceries to someone’s front door, it is that human connection that has made all the difference to many of our constituents. That is why I think it is high time that we recognised the important role that retail workers play in every community in the land and that to pass this law, or to make the amendment to the Bill that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) mentioned, would be a real step forward. What is absolutely critical is to demonstrate to the public how much we value our retail workers. That will be critical in changing the culture, as the Member for Huddersfield mentioned, and that to me is the most important thing.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for introducing the debate on this petition.
I pay tribute to all the retail workers in Liverpool, West Derby for everything that they have done for our community, especially during the pandemic. There are many examples of how, during the height of lockdown, retail workers went over and above the call of duty to ensure that there was a service to the local community. Despite the shortages of personal protective equipment across the sector and the fear of the unknown consequences of covid-19, retail workers were at the coalface, ensuring that services stayed open, and played a vital role in pulling the country through this period.
I often hear the words “retail work” and “low skilled” in the same sentence. That term must be consigned to the dustbin of history. It devalues the workers in roles that are vital to our communities; the people in those roles should be acknowledged as such. The term also plays into a perception of a lesser worth, which may lead some to try to justify the behaviours that people have been speaking about. Some 164 people in my constituency signed USDAW’s petition to protect retail workers from abuse, threats and violence, and many also wrote to me directly.
Even before the pandemic, threatening behaviour towards retail workers was increasing; USDAW’s annual survey showed an increase of a third in workers threatened during the course of their duties between 2015 and 2019. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the situation has got even worse, with USDAW’s 2020 survey finding that 88% of workers experienced verbal abuse, 61% were threatened by a customer and 9% were assaulted. Those experiences can be especially traumatic as retail staff usually have to work every day in the same situation in which they were attacked. Staff have reported anxiety and panic attacks on returning to the workplace after an assault and the constant worry that they will be attacked again, leading some to leave the profession entirely, losing their livelihood as a result.
The signatories to the petition and USDAW demand specific legislation to tackle this. Action from the Government cannot wait when there are an estimated 455 violent or abusive incidents in retail workplaces every single day of the year. Will the Government listen to my constituents; will the Minister work with the trade unions and others to bring about this legislation; and will the Minister commit to taking the words “low skilled” out of any future literature?
As a former retail worker myself, I very much wanted to participate in the debate, because I know first-hand how important it is that those working in retail feel safe and protected while doing their jobs. The vast majority of those whom retail workers come into contact with are polite and reasonable, but it only takes one incident of abuse or violence to leave a worker in the retail industry feeling distressed, afraid, shaken and threatened as they go about their job.
The petition calls on the UK Government to protect workers from abuse, threats and violence. Of course, the Minister will be aware that the Scottish Parliament has already passed the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act 2021, which will come into force very soon. It creates an offence of assaulting, threatening or abusing retail workers and will provide statutory aggravation of that offence where the retail worker is enforcing a statutory age restriction. As someone who spent almost a decade working in betting shops, I absolutely appreciate the value of that protection, and I know that other workers delivering age-restricted services will too. Scotland is leading the way, and I urge the Minister to study that legislation closely, as it gives greater protection under the law to retail workers in this field. The British Retail Consortium and more than 65 chief executives have called on the UK Government to follow Scotland’s lead.
In addition, the Scottish Government have launched a new awareness-raising campaign, delivered by Crimestoppers, Fearless and the Scottish Grocers’ Federation, highlighting the impact of abuse, threats and violence on retail staff. We know that threats toward and abuse of retail workers have increased as a result of covid safety measures. Retail workers are on the frontline, trying to ensure that customers comply with covid safety measures on their premises; requesting ID when age-restricted products are sought by customers; and having to confront those who seek to shoplift. They have demanding jobs and too often do not get the credit or, indeed, the pay that they should.
I hope the Minister will seriously reflect on what he has heard in the debate and will support specific legal protection for our retail workers, who have served us so well during the difficult period of the pandemic, as they have always done. They deserve our support and our thanks. It is time for the Government to catch up with the Scottish Government and do more to support our retail workers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on the excellent way in which he introduced the debate, and I particularly thank the 104,354 people who signed the petition, thereby triggering the debate. The violence and abuse our shop workers face is a source of national shame, and it is well beyond time that we acted.
According to the Association of Convenience Stores, there have been 40,000 violent incidents in the past year, with one in five resulting in injury. On top of that, there are a staggering 1.2 million incidents of abuse, and nearly nine out of every 10 shop workers have been affected. They are key workers, doing their job, keeping us fed and watered, and that is what they have to face daily.
This is such a significant issue, and it calls us to act. As parliamentarians, we have a special responsibility to do so. When do many of those flashpoints happen? When shop workers enforce age or similar restrictions—alcohol, cigarettes, acids, knives: 50 different categories of things that we have asked them to restrict. Those are important restrictions, and in that moment the staff act as, yes, employees of their retailers, but also as public servants. We put them at risk while they do so: we ought to have their backs.
What could we do? I hope that the Minister has had the chance to read the excellent “Breaking the Cycle” report carried out by Dr Emmeline Taylor in conjunction with the Co-op Group, which is doing outstanding work on behalf of its staff in this area. I am proud to have provided an introduction to that report, but I assure colleagues that it gets better after that bit, so keep reading on. The report provides tangible ways in which to tackle the epidemic, with particular regard to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, from the better use of civil tools to improvement in the ways in which probation and prison services respond to offenders.
I will finish by focusing on one suggestion, which is to replicate the excellent Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act 2021, introduced by our colleague Daniel Johnson. That Act created a new offence in Scotland regarding violence and abuse targeted at shop workers, with an enhanced aggravating factor when age restrictions are involved. I have introduced a private Member’s Bill in each of the two previous Sessions along the same lines, with the support of excellent trade unions such as USDAW, of which I am a member.
Like no other campaign, this has united companies and their unions, management and their staff, big retailers and the independents—they all think that that is the right thing to do and they all want to act now. My good friend, Sir David Hanson, pressed for similar during proceedings on the Offensive Weapons Act 2019, the Government asked for time for the case to be proven through the call for evidence. That evidence was overwhelming. Since then, things have worsened, and have been turbo-charged by the pandemic. I hope that when the Minister sums up, he will announce that the Government are ready to bring forward their own amendment, or to accept the amendment mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) to move the issue forward. The time is now, we have proven the case and we can wait no longer. It is time to act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I, too, declare an interest, as a proud member of both USDAW and the Co-op party.
I am an ardent support of USDAW’s Freedom From Fear campaign, as 2020 was a year like no other. As the pandemic took hold, we realised what services and occupations we relied on most. Our shop workers were and still are vital frontline key workers. For too long, they have been undervalued. The pandemic exacerbated that. We have to acknowledge the contribution that those workers make, and ensuring their safety and protecting them from violence and abuse is a good place to start.
Nothing would please me more than to be able to share with hon. Members a decline in the incidence of abuse but, unfortunately, I cannot. Our shop workers put themselves at risk of covid so that we can have our essential supplies, but abuse of staff have worsened. Each year, USDAW conducts a survey of the violence and abuse experienced by members and those working on the frontline of the retail sector. The 2020 survey found that 88% experienced verbal abuse, 61% were threatened by a customer and 9% were assaulted, and that abuse, threats and violence doubled in the first few months of the pandemic.
I will share some of the shocking first-hand experiences of shop workers:
“I’ve had customers say they’ve got covid-19 and then cough in my face because they were asked to stand behind a marked line”;
“Customers grabbing my arm to verbally abuse me”;
“Pushed, shoved, coughed at and not given any social distancing”;
“I was filmed in work and threatened to be posted all over Facebook. Sworn at for refusing a return with no proof of purchase.”
I am sure we can all agree that such accounts are beyond appalling and that nobody should be exposed to that level of abuse. We would not tolerate that abuse of any other frontline occupation. It is time that shop workers were afforded the same consideration as other professions.
The abuse and violence stands at an unacceptably high level. It is essential that we take action to reduce incidence of abuse. Like others, I will continue to support USDAW’s Freedom From Fear campaign and the calls for legislation to help shopworkers against these acts of abuse, threatening and assault. I urge the Minister to listen the many contributions of hon. Members, to the 104,000 people who signed the petition and to the shopworkers who were subject to this vile treatment. Our shopworkers’ safety is paramount. We do not need empty words; we need change and we need it now.
We come now to Mike Amesbury, but he has not been here for the debate, so theoretically we should not call him. On this occasion, as we have some time in hand and he probably has perfectly good reasons for not being here, we will call him towards the end of the debate. That brings us to Liz Twist.
It is an honour to serve with you in the chair, Mr Gray. I am particularly keen to take part in this debate because my constituency of Blaydon has a huge proportion of retail workers, what with the Metrocentre at one end and lots of small district centres, so I know that retail workers are crucially important to our local economy and deserve to be treated properly.
At the beginning of the year, I was appalled to hear that one of my staff had witnessed a shop worker in a local store—an Iceland store, I believe—being spat on when trying to enforce mask wearing in the shop. I raised this issue in business questions and was told by the Leader of the House that of course it was awful, but that there were already many ways to prosecute, which is important.
This is another example that was reported to me from my constituency:
“A colleague asked a customer for ID as they were attempting to buy an age restricted product. The customer began verbally abusing the colleague, calling her a fat slag.”
Retail workers have been at the frontline of this pandemic and they need to be protected and valued. This petition calls for specific legislation to protect retail workers and has attracted over 100,000 signatures, including many from Blaydon. It is clear that something has to be done, as the current situation is simply not acceptable.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for raising the issue through private Member’s Bills. As he mentioned, in 2018 the former Member for Delyn, Sir David Hanson, also attempted to raise the issue. I credit them with building this campaign from that time. We now have an opportunity to make assault on retail workers a crime in its own right through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Sadly, it seems the Government remain unpersuaded by this, but the Bill is an opportunity to address the issue.
I will not go into the details of the USDAW survey, as many hon. Members have already referred to them, but it provides a shocking picture. Shop workers just from Tyne and Wear provide the following testimony:
“Punched by customer under the influence.”
“Threats from men to ‘kick my head in’, spat at twice.”
“Most customers are polite and keep their distance, however I have had verbal abuse shouted at me.”
We need stronger protection for these staff. Too few cases are prosecuted, and we really need to do something about that.
As I understand it, the Government say that there are already means of prosecuting people. Let us look at what happened with the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018. From a starting point that not many would be prosecuted, we find that 50 assaults on emergency workers have been prosecuted. If the offence is there, it will be pursued. I urge the Government to consider their position.
Thank you for calling me in this important debate, Mr Gray. It is always a pleasure and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the Petitions Committee and the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for the way in which he initiated the debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for all the excellent work he has done, over a number of years, in promoting the Freedom From Fear campaign. I also want to give a shout-out to USDAW, the GMB and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, who have been very much involved in speaking up for their members who face assaults and in the campaign to end abuse and violence towards retail staff.
Whether it is clapping for NHS staff or thanking our key workers, such gestures are worthless if not substantiated with meaningful change by this House. I look to the Minister here. Time and again the Government sympathise with but ignore workers facing cuts to their pay and terms and conditions. I am thinking of businesses, many that have received substantial sums in taxpayer-funded support, using fire and rehire tactics as a form of industrial blackmail. Unless the Government act, they are failing our retail workers because, sadly, workplace abuse and violence have been normalised and are now accepted as part of the job.
My hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and others have referred to the USDAW survey, so I will not repeat that, but the British Retail Consortium revealed that there were 455 incidents of abuse and violence every day in the year to March 2020. Indeed, covid has not improved the situation, with the enforcement of Government covid regulations being a major trigger alongside the more traditional confrontation points, such as challenging customers over ID for age-restricted products like alcohol, or encountering shoplifters. Clearly, the Government have placed additional responsibilities on retail workers. Failing to ID customers for age-restricted products can lead to a criminal conviction for a retail worker, a fine, or even being sacked.
Clearly, challenging people can lead to threats of violence. Where the Government place extra demands on retail workers, it is surely reasonable for those workers to expect that when they are placed in harm’s way they are provided with greater protection under the law.
I want to refer to a survey by the Home Affairs Committee, in which 42% of respondents said,
“More or improved security measures in/around the premises”
“prevent future incidents…from occurring”.
I hope the Minister has noted that. People working in convenience stores are particularly vulnerable, potentially being a lone worker or working in a small team of young staff. The Association of Convenience Stores estimated that there were 50,000 incidents of violence in the sector, a quarter of which resulted in injury.
I want to make some promises to our key workers and our frontline shopworkers: people such as Loraine Fox from the GMB who works at the Peterlee Asda in my constituency and Alan Kell and his colleagues in USDAW. I want to do more than clap on the doorstep for key workers. I will not say thank you and then vote against protecting workers in Parliament. I say to the Minister: you have a choice. Will the Government introduce legislation to protect retail workers, or will they ignore the epidemic of abuse and violence in our retail sector? Will the Minister sit on his hands and leave shopworkers unprotected in the workplace?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the 104,000 who signed the petition and my good colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who has been such a vocal champion for this cause.
This debate comes nearly a year and a half after I led a Westminster Hall debate on the very same vital subject over a year ago. Thanks to the engagement team from USDAW, the Co-op, and the British Retail Consortium, we received powerful, often very distressing, stories from retail workers across the country of their experiences of abuse in the workplace. As has been documented in the debate today, the challenges facing retail workers since the previous debate, especially in the early days of the first lockdown, have been extraordinary. It is no surprise to hear that enforcing public health measures such as social distancing and face coverings, and dealing with stock issues, have been big triggers for abuse over the past year. More than ever, we have relied on our shop workers to enforce important laws—not just those relating to alcohol, knives and other potentially dangerous goods, but those relating to social distancing, mask wearing and ensuring that household items are not hoarded.
Shop workers in Cheshire told USDAW that they have had cans thrown at their heads, and have been spat on and kicked by customers. Refusing to sell alcohol to a customer resulted in verbal abuse. Such incidents clearly deserve prosecution, but very few get to that point. That is why we need specific protections. If it is good enough for Scotland—a law was introduced on 24 August—it is certainly good enough for the people of Runcorn and our nation. I look forward to the Government doing the right thing and legislating now.
It is a pleasure to see a fellow Glaswegian in the Chair, Mr Gray—our city is the centre of the universe, as you are aware. I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for presenting this debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I pay tribute to my colleagues for their fine speeches. This has been an excellent debate, and I commend my hon. Friends the Members for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for their excellent contributions.
I should declare—other hon. Members have mentioned their careers—that my first job when I was at school was working for the then supermarket chain Presto. I was still at school, but I worked for Presto two evenings a week, and I was assigned to the paperware department. For those watching these proceedings who do not know what the paperware department is, it is the toilet rolls. My responsibility was to stack the shelves of toilet rolls where I lived—obviously, I moved up in my career to soup tins and the rest. But some of the issues then apply now.
We should start from the basic principle that no one should have to experience violence and abuse while doing their job. The Scottish National party supports the effective legal protection of retail workers and is urging the UK Government to take action on this issue and strengthen other workers’ rights. As many hon. Members have said, retail workers carry out an important role in serving the needs of our communities, and it is only right that they receive effective legal protection. As many colleagues have said, that is going to exist very shortly in Scotland.
The Scottish Government not only supported the Bill that gives greater protections in law to retail workers, but are assisting with a new awareness-raising campaign to highlight the impact of the abuse, threats and violence on retail staff. The campaign is being delivered by Crimestoppers, Fearless and the Scottish Grocers’ Federation and is backed by £50,000 of Scottish Government funding.
The British Retail Consortium and more than 65 chief executive officers wrote to the Prime Minister in February calling for legislation to make assaulting shop workers a separate offence in England and Wales. I really am staggered to see that the Government’s first response to the petition on 15 September 2020 was to say that that they were not persuaded that a specific offence was needed as a wide range of offences already exist covering assaults against any worker, including shop workers. I hope the Minister will perhaps give us an indication of why that is the case, because it is certainly not what is being said by many Members in this debate.
Verbal abuse and violence against all staff has been increasing for some time. A British Retail Consortium survey finds that that has accelerated as a result of covid safety measures and is now up to 455 incidents a day. Major triggers for these incidents, as we have heard from many colleagues in this debate, include challenging customers for identification and encountering shoplifters. The Scottish Grocers’ Federation crime survey last year indicated an increase in verbal or physical abuse in 2020 in the retail sector. Such appalling behaviour is completely unacceptable. Like everyone else, shop workers are fully entitled to work free from the threat of violence or abuse.
I have read the USDAW briefing and I think that some of the evidence presented to us by the trade union should be read out. I will read out extracts from the presentation given to us about what has happened in Scotland; I think that will show why the legislation was needed in Scotland and why it is needed in the rest of the United Kingdom.
A worker in central Scotland said:
“I challenged a customer under Think 25. He threw his shopping at me and tried to grab me.”
Another worker was punched in the back by a customer when they were filling shelves,
“just to ask me if I am busy”.
There is verbal abuse. An USDAW member in Glasgow said:
“A customer swore at me and hit me with a sandwich. The abuse I receive varies from comments”—
I will not say some of the words used, but again it is verbal abuse. There is finger-pointing in the face and being poked at with a finger. Another worker said:
“Customers tried to punch me on the body.”
USDAW members in the highlands and islands who asked people politely to keep a two-metre distance were met with verbal abuse and told to get on with their work. People have thrown money at retail workers. There is verbal abuse, mainly from people influenced by drugs and alcohol.
USDAW members in Lothian say:
“People get stroppy about wearing face coverings. Customers have called me an idiot for asking for identification.”
There has been sexual assault of workers in the retail sector. USDAW members in mid-Scotland and Fife say:
“Customers take their frustration out on staff, being verbally abusive for no reason and treating us like dirt. Threats, coughing in my face and rants at having to wait in a queue.”
USDAW members in the north-east of Scotland talk about
“Shoplifters angry at being challenged. An attempted armed robbery. Verbal abuse from shoplifters, verbal abuse from intoxicated customers and verbal abuse from people who have been asked for ID.”
USDAW members in the south of Scotland talk about
“Covid-related abuse about social distancing and queues at checkouts…Get verbal abuse asking for ID, customers being nasty, shouting in front of the rest of the queue and shouting abuse when we carry out Challenge 25.”
Finally, this is from USDAW members in the west of Scotland:
“Drunk people unable to accept service refusal, usually verbal, being spat at and threats. When we are politely explaining our refund policy, some people get very abusive when they find out they cannot exchange without a receipt.”
If people think that this law should only be law in Scotland and that what I have just read out—testimonies from USDAW workers in Scotland—does not apply in the rest of the United Kingdom, then I have magic beans to sell them, because it is quite clear that this legislation should be introduced across the United Kingdom. I hope that the Government will do that.
However, there is a thread here that is of concern to me—the UK Government’s failure to deliver. As the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), I think, quite rightly asked, where are the protections for workers since covid and as a result of covid? Where is the Employment Bill that was in the last two Queen’s Speeches as a result of the Taylor review, which should deal with exploitative contracts and short-term shift changes—both features of the retail sector? Where is the Bill to ban fire and rehire, as proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands)—which, again, is a feature in the retail sector? It is not there. I have a real concern, as the hon. Member for Easington rightly pointed out, that this Government give platitudes with one hand but do not deliver protections and legislation with the other.
If we are to build a fairer society, it needs to enhance and protect the workers’ rights that were hard-fought for. Frankly, if the UK Government will not provide those employment rights, they should devolve the responsibility to the Scottish Parliament—the Scottish Parliament will ensure that it does provide them.
It is a pleasure, Mr Gray, to serve under your chairship.
I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for introducing this timely debate on the protection of retail workers from abuse, threats and violence—an issue he has experience of, having worked in retail. I also place on the record my thanks to the Petitions Committee, and I give a massive thanks to the thousands of signatories and those who have championed this petition. I also pay tribute to USDAW, the co-operative movement and the GMB, who have all worked tirelessly to ensure that this issue is rightly given the time that it deserves to be debated in.
We have heard strong and passionate contributions from right across the political divide, showing the need to drive forward this issue. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who has worked tirelessly on this issue, including on the recent introduction of his own 10-minute rule Bill.
There is a growing epidemic in the heart of our communities of abuse and violence against key workers, who are the backbone of this country. In this difficult year, they have shown the significant value that they add to our communities and our lives up and down the country. This is a crisis. Like so many other crises we must confront, we have a solution to tackle and deter unacceptable behaviour and violence, and deliver justice for victims. If anyone is in any doubt about the scale of the problem across the country in 2021, we have heard some of it today: 88% of retail workers experienced verbal abuse last year, up from 77% the year before. Some 10% were assaulted—that is 300,000 out of a 3 million-strong retail workforce. There were 455 incidents of violence and abuse each day, yet only 6% of those incidents resulted in prosecution. That is shocking.
Covid pressures and restrictions have certainly driven that increase, but that is by no means a justifiable excuse. This crisis and grave miscarriage of justice has long existed and cannot be ignored. Retail staff are key workers: they are our sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, friends and neighbours. They are those who have kept our country fed throughout this pandemic. They may be the only smile or conversation our grandparent may have that day. They may be the person who returned a lost wallet, who comforts a child when they are separated. They are retail workers, but they are so much more. They are counsellors, friends and heroes.
Let us be clear that any and all forms of abuse, threats and violence, whether physical, verbal or mental, are unacceptable. No one should have to face harm at the hands of a stranger at work. No one should be treated with disrespect, spat at, bitten, grabbed, sexually harassed or discriminated against, and no one should have to mentally prepare themselves before a shift. No one should be forced to take self-defence classes because the law fails them. No one should have to take time off because of trauma or injury. Retail workers should not have to wear body cameras to carry out their work, yet so many are so fearful, traumatised and badly neglected by the authorities and the law that they feel there is no alternative.
For many retail workers across the country, that is their daily experience and their battle. They already face insecure and precarious working conditions: they are paid disproportionately lower wages; they have fire and rehire tactics used against them; and a third are under the age of 25 and particularly vulnerable. Let us look at a few examples. Take Ian Robson from Gateshead: he was dragged and punched repeatedly with a knuckle duster after asking a customer to wear a face mask. A shop worker in Northamptonshire had part of her ear bitten off. Others often have needles pulled out at them in store. Another in west Yorkshire was spat at in the face, thumped in the chest and head butted. When she was visibly pregnant, she was repeatedly knocked by a customer with a trolley and chased down the aisle. That is not normal. The situation is untenable.
Retail workers should be free from worry, fear and anxiety. It is so easy to get lost in the statistics, but many people across the country, including from my own constituency, have contacted me demanding change. That is why we are here today. We know that that feeling is shared across the country. Worse still, too many victims feel that the system does not work to protect them. Who can blame them, when so few cases lead to prosecution and a quarter of cases go unreported altogether? This must be tackled with sustained and meaningful action.
It is a damning failure of this UK Government not to listen to the voices from the frontline, not recognise the exponential rise in abuse of retail staff, and not protect our heroes. Labour has long campaigned for, and brought forward, credible, achievable and non-partisan legislative proposals to improve conditions for millions. All were hindered by consecutive Conservative Governments, including this one, whose own consultation—not a year old—said that
“it does not consider that the case is yet made out for a change in the law.”
The first question the Minister must answer today is: if the Government truly believe that there is a serious issue, why continue to delay necessary action to protect workers? I am sure we will hear plenty of warm words from the Minister, but they will all be hollow platitudes until his Government bring forward the necessary legislation, and work together to make progress on this issue by passing our amendment tabled to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
The Government consultation last year reads like a devastating charge sheet of failings. These included a lack of response by police to threats, inadequacies within the criminal justice system, concern over ineffective powers to deal with abuse in the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, and the recognition that victims themselves have a lack of awareness of their rights under the victims’ code—a consequence of the Justice Secretary, his predecessor, and his predecessor’s predecessor breaking promises to reinforce victims’ rights and bring forward a Bill.
Those points in the consultation were all accepted and recognised by this Government, yet they have failed to act. All this evidence points to the clear need for tighter legislation along the lines of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). Will the Minister work with us now, as his predecessors did then? Will he explain what steps the Government are taking to ensure the safety of retail workers, why they believe there is no case for a change in the law, and how they will deal with the appallingly low prosecution rate?
Time and again, we have heard warm words and grand gestures, but seen little action. Through our amendment, we have put the option for progress on the table: a stand-alone offence and a 12-month prison sentence for abuse, threats and violence against retail workers is here and ready to go. We will do what is necessary; we have cross-party support. The Government must stop aiding and abetting offenders, and improve this law to protect our retail workers—our key workers, who have worked hard during this pandemic—and they must ensure that this system delivers justice.
As always, Mr Gray, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I join others in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for the aplomb and elegance with which he introduced this afternoon’s debate. I add a tribute to the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) who, as many other Members have said, has been campaigning on this issue for a very long time. The strength of feeling on this topic is palpable and, of course, is evidenced by the 104,000 people who signed the petition.
To add my own CV reference to those of others, my very first salaried job when I was aged about 16 or 17 was working in a branch of Sainsbury’s in south London—very close to my now constituency—so I have had that experience of working in retail myself. Thankfully, I never got assaulted, although I was frequently ridiculed by customers on the rare occasions I was allowed to operate the till instead of stacking shelves, due to my complete inability to recognise various rudimentary forms of fruit and vegetable. This was in the days before barcodes, and I was completely unable to recognise most of the fruit and vegetables that people were buying. That caused a lot of merriment and, on occasion, ridicule—all of which was entirely deserved, I should add.
Many Members have paid deserved and justified tribute to retail operatives and retail workers for the work that they have been doing, particularly during the pandemic. They serve the public and our communities, as many Members have eloquently and powerfully set out. Of course, violence against such workers has a significant impact on individuals. It can leave them with physical effects, but it also has a significant bearing on their overall emotional and mental stability. No worker should suffer abuse or violence in providing service to members of the public—that is completely unacceptable. For more than a year, the pandemic has resulted in some shop workers feeling more vulnerable and susceptible to even worse behaviour and treatment than they might have experienced before, so we completely understand the motivations and concerns that have brought so many Members to this Westminster Hall debate, and we understand what motivated 104,000 people to sign the petition.
It is worth laying out the law as it currently stands, because some speeches might have suggested that there are no provisions in place to protect emergency workers from these kinds of terrible assaults, but that is of course not the case. A number of existing criminal offences cover many of the terrible attacks of the kind that we have heard described, which inflict harm on people both physically and psychologically. The entry level offence is common assault, which carries a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment, but a lot of offences go beyond that. Many of the examples of offences that we have heard described would, in fact, not be charged as common assault; they would be charged as much more serious offences. The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) described several incidents, but two in particular stuck in my mind. She mentioned a terrible example—I think it was in the north-east—of someone being dragged, punched with knuckle-dusters and kicked, and another terrible case where somebody’s ear was bitten. That would not be charged as common assault, because it is much more serious than common assault.
That would apply in Scotland as well. The law in Scotland applies to the common assault-type offences. Much more serious offences, such as those I have just mentioned, would be charged as something different. For example, actual bodily harm, or section 20 grievous bodily harm, carries a maximum sentence not of six months or 12 months, as is the case with the new law in Scotland, but of five years. More serious offences—for example grievous bodily harm with intent to commit—carry a maximum sentence not of a year, as per the new law in Scotland, but of 10 years.
I agree that there is an issue with the number of prosecutions. I will come to that in just a few moments’ time. I will address that point—I am not trying to duck it, because I am coming to it next.
Points have been made about knives and people producing a bladed article in a shop. Again, if somebody makes a threat with a knife, it is not charged as common assault and it would not be charged under the new offence in Scotland. It would be charged as making a threat with a bladed article, which carries a four-year maximum sentence and, for adults, a six-month minimum sentence. All of these offences exist, and many of them carry higher sentences than the new Scottish law, and higher sentences than common assault.
That does not, however, answer the question that many Members have raised. They have made the point that attacks on retail workers are different, because the retail worker is providing a service to the public. In some cases, the retail worker is effectively enforcing the law on our behalf—for example, by asking questions about whether somebody is over the age of 18 when buying cigarettes, alcohol and similar. Many Members have made the point that retail workers are different and that for that reason the offence should be taken more seriously. Members are right to say that.
In responding to that reasonable and legitimate question, I point colleagues to the Sentencing Council guidelines for common assault, which, as it happens, were refreshed and updated just last week—I think the updated version came out on Thursday of last week. The section on common assault also covers racially and religiously aggravated assault and the common assault of an emergency worker. One of the listed aggravating factors for common assault, which would lead to a sentence going up relative to what would otherwise be the case, is an
“Offence committed against those working in the public sector—”
“or providing a service to the public or against a person coming to the assistance of an emergency worker.”
The Sentencing Council guidelines, refreshed just last week, expressly recognise that those people providing a service to the public, including retail workers, are doing a different kind of job, and that somebody who assaults them deserves a higher sentence. That is what aggravating factor means.
That applies not only to the common assault offence; it is also to be found in the list of aggravating factors for actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm and so on. That list of aggravating factors is not long; it is about 15 bullet points. Those concerns are recognised, as is deliberately spitting or coughing. Some Members mentioned that, during the pandemic, people have spat at or coughed on retail workers in a deliberate attempt to give them covid, to threaten to give them covid or to give them the impression that they might be at risk of covid. “Deliberate spitting or coughing” is the very first non-statutory aggravating factor on the list, so again, that is accounted for.
It is worth saying that these aggravating factors do not apply only to retail workers but to any public sector worker, quite rightly, and to other people providing a public service, including transport workers. The debate has focused on retail workers, who are special and deserve protection and who suffer terrible abuse, as everyone has said, but we should not forget people who work on buses, trains or the London underground, or postmen, teachers or social workers. I would not like to say that they should be overlooked if they are assaulted as they go about their work. They are just as important as retail workers. The Sentencing Council aggravating factor sets out that people who assault retail workers, teachers, postmen and people working on trains and so on will get a heavier sentence.
I will now come to that critical point, which the shadow Minister also raised. I hope I have demonstrated in my foregoing remarks that, first, the criminal offences to prosecute assaults on emergency workers are already on the statute book, and secondly, that where prosecutions are secured, a longer sentence will already be given owing to the aggravating factors I have just read out. Creating a new offence does not answer the question, because the offence exists already. The aggravating factor exists already. The issue is prosecutions, as the shadow Minister and the hon. Lady have raised.
I have some data. I am not sure whether it came from the USDAW survey or another source. I got it through the Home Affairs Committee’s survey. I am not sure whether that is the same one or a different one.
Thank you. The Committee surveyed 8,742 people, whom I believe were retail workers, asking if they had been assaulted, and many had been. They were asked whether they had reported the offence, and 87%—not quite 100%—of respondents reported it to the employer. The Committee then asked whether they had reported the offence to the police, and only 53%—half of those retail workers who suffered an assault—had done so. In 12% of cases there was an investigation and arrest. That 12% figure is clearly too low, as the shadow Minister and the hon. Member for Blaydon pointed out. Putting a new criminal offence on the statute book does not fill the gap. It is about investigation and prosecution, and that has to start with reporting.
I raised the Home Affairs Committee report in my brief contribution. I still think that we need to have a specific offence to deter people—my people in Peterlee should not be any less well protected than the people in Peterhead, which is what is happening at the moment. The Committee suggested improved security. Body cameras have been mentioned, and they should be a factor, to give staff confidence, should they challenge someone, that they have a witness to take forward a prosecution, if necessary. Does the Minister agree?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is vital that more people report such offences and that we support the retail community to take steps to detect such terrible crimes that are being committed. The national retail crime steering group—of which the Policing Minister is a co-chair or leading member—is doing exactly that kind of work. The Home Office has also invested £40,000 in the ShopKind campaign, which aims to move in the direction mentioned by the hon. Member for Easington.
On the reasons why people do not report incidents—and why only half of victims report them to the police—there is some data in the Home Affairs Committee survey. By the way, I commend the Select Committee for putting that together. It found 3,444 people who did not report their incidents. That is a lot of people. Of the reasons given—people clearly gave more than one—the top one, cited by 35% of those victims who did not report, was:
“I did not believe the employer would do anything about it”.
That is terrible. The first thing we need to do is to say to employers, “If your employee is assaulted in any way, it is your duty as an employer to make sure that it gets reported to the police.”
Secondly, 32% said:
“I believed it was just part of the job”.
Clearly, it is not. That is obviously a terrible perception, so we need to send out a clear message that assault of anyone is unacceptable. Others said:
“I considered the incident too minor to report”,
so we need to make sure that such assaults are criminal offences and that they are aggravated when the victim is providing a service to the public. Another reason, given by 28% of respondents, was:
“I did not believe the police would do anything about it”.
The Policing Minister is working on that. Of course, every time one of those incidents gets reported, the police should take action.
As I laid out in the first half of my comments, the laws exist already. The law criminalises every example of the behaviour—terrible behaviour—that Members have laid out this afternoon. They are criminal offences already, each and every single one. Most of them, including the two examples given by the shadow Minister, would not be prosecuted under the new Scottish law; they would be prosecuted as more serious assaults. The criminal offences exist and they are, in the Sentencing Council guidelines, already aggravated where the victim is a retail worker or, indeed, a transport worker. In any case, if we passed a measure focusing only on retail workers, it would obviously neglect train and bus drivers and everyone else. However, they are already covered by those aggravating factors.
What is clearly needed is not to criminalise the behaviour; it is criminal already. It is not to elevate the penalty given to those people who are convicted; it is elevated already. What we need to do is to get more convictions, and that starts with reporting. That is the work that the national retail crime steering group is doing. I have participated in this debate from the Ministry of Justice point of view, while the steering group and policing sit with my hon. Friend the Policing Minister, so I will take away a clear message for him and the national retail crime steering group: these terrible offences, which have an enormous impact on retail workers, need to have a significantly elevated focus, in terms of getting more reporting, as we have just talked about, and making sure the police follow them up in every case. The Government obviously agree that these are serious offences and that they need to be investigated and prosecuted. I can give a firm undertaking to hon. Members that I will take that message back to the Policing Minister.
I thank the Minister for his gallantry. When he talks about reporting, it sounds as if he is asking the shop workers to put right the problem that they are facing. To me, that is definitely not acceptable. We need to look at ways of supporting them, which is why we are all asking the Minister to look again at this issue.
The police can only respond to and investigate crimes that are reported, so any investigation starts with the report by the victim or, in this case, the employer. We heard evidence in the survey report that many victims do not report the crime because they think that their employer will not support them. Clearly, we need to ensure we are actively encouraging reporting and that it is then actively followed up and investigated.
That is the message I will take away from this debate and give clearly to the Policing Minister. I undertake that I will ensure that that message is heard by him and by the steering group, so that steps can be taken to make sure that more of these offences are reported and prosecuted. That is how we can ensure that justice is done and victims protected.
I thank the Minister for his response and the Government for continuing to actively consider how we best tackle this growing and abhorrent problem. I thank hon. Members for their contributions and for sharing the many harrowing experiences of their constituents. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for his campaigning.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) made an important call to be more kind. Let us make it our mission as parliamentarians to go out and make the world a kinder place, by pushing this issue up the agenda in every way possible. Let us ensure that the retail workers in our communities get the respect they so rightfully deserve.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 328621, relating to the protection of retail workers.