[Relevant documents: Correspondence with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on microchipping of pets, reported to the House on 3 September 2020 and 22 September 2020.]
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[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 300010 and 300025, relating to microchipping of pets.
The laws called for in the petitions are known as Fern’s law and Tuk’s law. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. Today we debate an issue that is close to the hearts of many hon. Members and their families, as well as the millions of pet owners around the country. As the proud father to Bella, my cavachon, and Bailey, my cavapoochon, I am horrified by the thought of ever losing them. I did have a scare recently when I was walking Bella in Bathpool park in Kidsgrove for her first birthday. Something spooked her and she ran off, leaving my partner and me frantic as we searched for her. Three and a half hours later, and with the support of the incredible Greyhound Gap team, led by the tenacious Lisa Cartwright, she was found—shaken but well. Pets are more than just animals; they really are members of the family, and when they go missing, the other family members are left devastated.
Before I start, I want to thank all those who have given up their time to help me to prepare for today. I thank the Fern’s Law team, who comprise Debbie Matthews of Vets Get Scanning and the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance; Dr Daniel Allen of Keele University and Pet Theft Reform; Marc Abraham OBE of the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group and Lucy’s law; Sarah Dixon of Focus On Animal Law and Flop Not Crop; and Freya Woodhall, founder of Let’s Get Willow Home. I also thank Dawn Ashley, Sue Williams and Dominic Dyer, animal welfare campaigners and members of the Tuk’s Law campaign. In addition, I thank all those campaigners who have been working tirelessly to support bereaved pet owners and to bring microchipping to the attention of this place.
I will take the two petitions in turn and try to keep the two clearly separate, as they are on distinct issues, albeit that both relate to microchipping. I will start with Fern’s law. That campaign is calling for it to be made compulsory for veterinary practices to scan a pet when it is presented for the first consultation, or at its yearly check-up. The campaign, known as Vets Get Scanning, was started by Debbie Matthews after her two Yorkshire terriers, Gizmo and Widget, were stolen from her car in 2006. Within the first 24 hours, Debbie found out that the police regarded the theft of her dogs as not important enough to attend the scene, saying, “As it’s only dogs, we won’t come out.” Thankfully, with the help of her father, Sir Bruce Forsyth, Debbie was in a position to launch a major campaign to get her dogs back, and the people who had bought Gizmo and Widget came forward after just one week.
However, for many owners, there is not a happy ending; and sadly, because pet theft is a low-risk, high-reward crime, it is on the rise. The scale of the problem is clear. Roughly 20,000 dogs and cats are listed on DogLost as missing. Debbie named her campaign Fern’s law after a stray cocker-springer spaniel cross who was stolen from her home in Malden, Surrey in April 2013. Fern was reunited with her owners only in 2019. Fern was in a pretty sorry state, having been used for breeding during those six years. After a veterinary check-up, there was evidence that Fern had been taken to a vet for a medical procedure during that time, but because it is not compulsory for vets to scan dogs for microchips when they are first presented, Fern was not reunited with her family for years. That was a missed opportunity. How many other dogs and cats have been lost this way?
It was only when Fern was abandoned and a kind soul brought her to another vet as a stray that she was reunited with her owners. This is one of the contradictions of the issue. It seems that vets are happy to scan dogs brought in as strays, but sold-on and kept-by-finding missing dogs and cats that have a new keeper are not always scanned. It takes the same amount of time to scan a dog brought in as a stray as it does to scan one brought in by an owner, so why cannot vets scan dogs by default?
The other contradiction is that since 2016 it has been compulsory to have a dog microchipped. Microchips are sold to owners as a permanent marker with traceability, as a way to discourage pet theft, and as the best way to be reunited with their pets if they are stolen. But if microchipping is designed to reunite missing pets with their owners, what is the point of having it when it is not compulsory for vets to scan the microchip at a pet’s first veterinary treatment?
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs held a consultation on making cat microchipping compulsory. Once again, however, what is the point if vets and others do not have to scan them? Many missing pets are never reunited with their owners, because it is optional for vets to scan and check microchip registration on the original database to ensure that pets and their owners match. If just one organisation is not committed to scan and check microchip registration, the whole system fails and is not fit for purpose.
The Fern’s law campaigners want legislation to replace the current best practice recommendations from the British Veterinary Association, which, although they have been strengthened, are only optional guidelines. As Marc Abraham OBE said to me:
“Vets are missing a trick by not scanning dogs as standard. It is not a complicated procedure to scan a dog. It does not need to be done by a vet. The receptionist could do it while the owner is waiting in reception.”
It seems like a no-brainer to me and I very much hope that, following its consultation, DEFRA will make it compulsory for veterinarians to check microchips.
I will move on to the next petition, which is about Tuk’s law. It has been started to make it a legal requirement that no healthy animal can be destroyed by a vet without the vet first scanning the animal’s microchip, to confirm that the person requesting euthanasia has the authority to do so and that the dual registration contact detail—that is, an animal rescue and owner—on the microchip is assessed and honoured.
The campaign is named after Tuk, a 16-month-old rescue animal that was euthanised in December 2017. He was not scanned prior to euthanasia and his rescue back-ups were not contacted or notified of his death. This is an important point. Typically, animal rescue organisations microchip pets in their care at the time of carrying out essential healthcare treatments, such as vaccinating, spaying or neutering. This usually occurs when new owners have been found for the pet, so the details registered for the microchips belong to the rescue. Once animals are rehomed, rescues remain a presence in their life, offering rescue back-up to new owners for the duration of the pet’s life. They remain on hand for advice and if owners are no longer able to cope with or care for the pet, the rescue organisation’s contract typically stipulates that the pet returns to its care, and it will then try to find alternative care. Tuk had full rescue back-up details on his microchip, but despite that and despite the fact that he was presented for euthanasia by an individual who was not his registered keeper, he was euthanised.
As I have said, our pets become family members and the thought of what happened to Tuk happening to one of my dogs is truly horrific. The Tuk’s law petitioners shared details with my team of some tragic cases where pets were taken in by neighbours who had them euthanised, simply because they did not like them or the way they behaved. The youngest dog that was mentioned was only six months old.
I am told that 98% of vets have been presented with a healthy pet to be euthanised simply because of their behaviour. Tuk’s law asks for vets to be compelled to scan microchips and contact the registered keeper and rescue back-up when a healthy and treatable animal is presented to them for euthanasia, in order to prevent harrowing cases such as that of Tuk from ever happening again.
I was pleased to hear that progress on this campaign has been made, and the BVA has worked with the campaign and Government to strengthen its guidance to vets. The new guidance, which underpins the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons’ code of professional conduct, advises that veterinary surgeons should scan for a microchip in dogs prior to euthanasia, where, in their professional judgment, destruction of the dog is not necessary on animal health or welfare grounds.
That is a welcome change, but the Tuk’s law campaigners argue that it does not go far enough. They argue that the new code needs to be publicised and enforced to save the lives of many dogs. The petitioners make it clear that action is needed quickly because there is a ticking time bomb coming down the road.
During the pandemic, we were all required to stay home and—quite reasonably—many people got a pet to help them to cope with the sudden dislocation from their normal lives; I did so myself. However, having a dog that needs walking every day is easy enough when the Government are telling people to stay at home; it is less easy when people need to be in the office again from nine-to-five. It is estimated that close to 1.5 million dogs were adopted or bought during the pandemic. As life returns to normal, many owners will realise that they cannot care for their dogs properly any more. Campaigners are seriously worried that, as a result, many healthy dogs will be brought in for euthanasia.
Dominic Dyer from the Tuk’s law campaign says that the situation is expected to be even worse than the 2008 financial crash, when many families realised they could no longer care for their dog. I recognise that the BVA has concerns about making Tuk’s law a legal requirement; it argues that it could inadvertently create problems not only for the veterinary profession but for the pets and owners that it seeks to protect. However, as Dominic made clear, we are on the cusp of potentially many thousands of dogs being given up by their owners. I am concerned that the current guidelines may not be strong enough.
An issue identified by both sets of petitioners is the need for a centralised database of microchipped pets. Currently, there is a complicated situation of 16 different national pet microchip databases recognised by DEFRA. Most databases offer the availability of a quick microchip database search. The technology already exists to create a centralised database—one only has to consider the centralised database of motor insurance. Dr Sharon Alston was kind enough to share her experience of working on such a system for microchipped animals in Ireland in the build-up to today’s debate. A centralised database would be available to the police, vets, authorities and rescues, for easy access to microchip registration and quick reunifications.
The current system makes it much harder for owners to be reunited with their pets, even in cases where vets scan, but it does work. The BVA also recognises the lack of a centralised database as a key stumbling block for vets trying to reunite lost or stolen dogs, but when Debbie asked the association if a centralised database would be the key to compulsory microchip checks, the answer was no.
On GDPR and reporting scanned missing pets, there would not be a breach for RCVS and BVA if the details are requested by the police as part of an investigation triggered by reports in the microchip database by the veterinary clinic. There seems to be a misconception that the obligation to report to the police falls on vets—it does not. The obligation to report rests on the chipping companies, which will contact the registered keeper.
I have probably gone on for long enough, and I am eager to hear what other Members have to say about the two petitions. All I will add is that Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and the Kennel Club have given their support to both petitions. I am a supporter of Fern’s law, as someone who firmly believed that every time I took my dogs to the vets they were being scanned and checked. The fact that that is not happening gravely concerns me. My veterinary practice is delighted that I have become educated on that, following the emails I sent to make sure it never happens again.
I would like to believe that vets in any circumstances would already check microchips before euthanising a dog. I believe the vast majority of veterinarians would do such a thing—there is not a mass number of people disobeying the rules and guidance sent to them. Although Tuk’s law should be taken into consideration, I like to believe in the goodness of the human spirit, and that vets are doing the correct and appropriate thing before ever having to do something as hard as putting down an animal, be it one that is sick or one that is well.
I am pleased to see the Minister and the shadow Minister here today, and I look forward to hearing their responses and the outcome of the consultation, hopefully in the very near future.
What a pleasure to hear the introduction by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). Whenever I attend a petitions debate in Westminster Hall either he or the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) is introducing a petition, and it is always a pleasure to hear either of them.
I have owned a dog probably all my life. I cannot remember not having a dog, from a very early age in Ballywalter in the 1960s. I remember the first dog we had, and I remember the last dog we had. Dogs are very much part of my life. My mailbox has taken a hit because of this issue, because so many people support the petitions. They may not have even signed the petitions but they support the principle, and it is important that they have that opportunity.
It is not very often that I am No. 2 in a Westminster Hall debate. As a matter of fact, I cannot remember the last time, but I was pleased to see the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) arrive. For a minute, I thought I was going to be the only Opposition Member, so I am pleased to see him in his place.
Although the signatories to the petition in my constituency numbered just 60, many more people have contacted me about this issue. The theft of dogs across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been enormous this year. During the covid-19 pandemic, people have needed to have dogs as pets—that was their contact with the outside. The great thing about a dog is that it will always love you. It always wags its tail. It will always respond to your affection. Even when you are cross, the dog will wag its tail if you turn on the charm again. That is what a dog does.
There are some examples of dog theft in my constituency. Cocker spaniels were making about £300 to £500 last year. This year, they are making anywhere from £1,500 to £2,000, so there has been a criminal aspect, to which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North referred. I am very conscious that, as they always do, the criminals seem to take advantage of someone’s vulnerability.
Our dogs are our best friends. My dog is the one loving creature in my life that does not disagree with me. He does not huff with me, and he always offers unconditional love. I have often been so grateful for Autumn, my wife’s springer spaniel, when I have come home from an arduous week at Westminster to see the pure joy that the dog has for me. I cannot say that Sandra, my wife, is just as happy to see me on every occasion. I say that in jest, because I know for a fact that she is happy to see me. She might not always express it as forcefully as the dog does, but that is by the way. The bond that comes from my relationship with the dog is unshakeable, and the thought of ever coming home and not seeing that wee tail wagging away is truly a difficult one to consider.
Our dog Autumn was a rescue dog. Someone had unfortunately been bad to it, and we brought it home to our house. The dog has settled in well, and the nervousness and vulnerability that it had at the beginning has gone away, thank goodness. As it is a springer spaniel, I was pleased to take it out shooting with me, so it has now become my hunting dog. It is my wife’s dog, but it is my hunting dog, which I use on occasion during the shooting season.
How much worse is it for those who live alone and whose little cat or dog is their sole companion? I have had distressed constituents who are their wit’s end ringing my office and searching for their lost cat. They cannot get help. When I contact my local council, which is always responsive, compassionate and truly wonderful, it is often unable to help, as it does not have a policy of scanning cats. That has not helped to alleviate families’ distress, which is why I support the petitions that are before us, and I know that other hon. Members will endorse them.
According to figures from Cats Protection, some 2.6 million cats across the UK are not microchipped, representing 26% of all cats. My wife has three cats. At one stage, we had six cats. When three passed away, we did not replace them. My wife has worked in an animal charity for some time, and she now works in a cattery. Cats can roam freely and are known for their inquisitive nature. We have two cats who are house cats, and we have one cat who will hunt night and day. We live on a farm, so we want all the cats to hunt and to keep the rats and mice under control, which can lead to their becoming lost or injured. We have lost quite a few on the road. Without a microchip, an owned cat may never be reunited with its owner. If a cat is sadly killed in the road, a microchip allows the owner to be informed and have closure. If a cat is stolen, a microchip gives the owner the best chance of being reunited. If cats were all microchipped, as with dogs, it would prevent the euthanising of owned and loved cats. That is why I add my voice to the call of the petitions, to which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North referred in his introduction.
The all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group has clearly stated that although it is compulsory for the public to microchip dogs, it is only optional for vets, professionals, authorities and rescues to scan and check microchip registration. With new and potentially stolen dogs not being scanned and checked at their first vet consultation, the opportunity to identify and reunite thousands of stolen dogs is being missed. Members have asked lots of questions in relation to this issue, and I know the Government have given commitments. There have been some success stories in certain parts of the country, such as the midlands. It just shows how a dog that is stolen in Kent can very quickly end up in Birmingham, so a network of criminality is in place.
The flawed microchipping system does not provide any peace of mind whatever to families who experience dog or cat theft. The microchipping of all dogs and cats is absolutely essential, and we have a clear opportunity to put that right. Fern’s story and subsequent campaign have highlighted how something that would take a mere minute of a vet’s time could reunite families and bring healing to a devastated heart. For people I know whose dog or cat is the absolute treasure of their lives and their constant companion, not knowing whether their wee pet was roaming sick or in pain would be worse than knowing that they are gone. We can implement reform to take away that uncertainty for many.
As always, I very much look forward to the Minister’s response. I am convinced that she understands what we are saying and will respond in a positive way. These simple changes are not onerous and would make great steps in animal welfare. I am proud to have spoken in the debate in support of the hon Gentleman and others who have said that something can be done. The fact is, we must do it now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Pritchard. May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on his success in bringing this important issue to the public gaze and to Parliament, where we are charged with setting the laws and ensuring that they are properly policed?
I fully agree with the petitions and the sentiment behind them. They are focused on chipping dogs and reading the chips. Currently, it is compulsory to have one’s dog chipped, but it is not compulsory, as I discovered to my surprise during lockdown, to scan those chips. That discovery led me to ask further questions. Many of the people whom my hon. Friend mentioned, including Debbie and others, showed me that it is literally incoherent that we have an obligation on owners to chip but not on vets to scan. What is the point of chipping animals if the honest people in society are the only ones who get them checked? We need that to be made obligatory.
My hon. Friend is quite right that there are between 14 and 16 separate databases, and that we need to ensure that the data is centrally available and read, so that we know who the original owner is and the right people—the people who originally owned the dog—have the say so on the decision about whether a dog is to be put down or not, as my hon. Friend said.
I draw the House’s attention to the Report stage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, for which I and my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) have tabled three new clauses. New clause 14 would require the sale of pet by cheque or bank transfer, basically banning cash sales. New clause 15 would make it compulsory for microchipped pets to be scanned by vets, who must check that the microchip number is registered on an approved database and confirm the correct registered keeper. New clause 16 would make the offence of pet theft a specific category of crime carrying a much more significant fine and/or incarceration.
I want us to come back to the idea that microchipping is important because it is necessary to understand who the owner is. I say that because there has been a staggering increase in crime relating to pets, and dogs in particular. As has been said, during the lockdown, many people who had never had a pet suddenly realised that they had more time on their hands and wanted one, so demand went up. Legitimate supply was unable to keep up for the simple reason that legitimate breeders were unable to put dogs and bitches together to produce legitimate litters, so we were left with the criminal fraternity, which did two things.
First, there was the increase in puppy farms, which is a disgusting state of affairs. A bitch will be stolen from somebody, she will be used constantly to produce young puppies until she is worn out within about six months to a year, and then the criminals have her put down or abandon her on the streets. That is really important. For those who care about this, it is not just a political game; it is very serious, because it is about unnecessary pain and the terrible lives led by animals who are taken by criminals.
Secondly, there has been an enormous increase in dog theft. The BBC reported a 250% increase in dog theft crime in Suffolk alone during the pandemic, comparing the year ending July 2019 and that ending July 2020. The Metropolitan police report the highest number of dog thefts in the country. The number of stolen dogs registered on the DogLost website increased by 170% from 2019 to 2020, and 2020 has been one of the worst years ever for dognapping.
It is bad enough that there is theft, which is a crime, but dog theft is the theft of people’s pets, not just property, and that is where the law falls down again. Pets are more than just property. I might own this chair behind me, but the chair does not greet me in the evening when I come back. It does not console me when there is a problem. It just sits there. A dog is a sentient being and therefore has greater value than just an object, and it is time we brought the law up to speed.
The problem is that prices have rocketed. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North spoke about that earlier. The price has increased by 134% for chows, at £2,000 in October compared with £1,000 the previous March. Pets such as French bulldogs can be more than £5,000 each, and a litter can earn more than £30,000 for those who use them to breed. The problem is not just criminality. Violence is used by criminals to steal dogs to order, so we now have an increase in violent crime.
Here is the problem; it has gone to the gangs. I live in an area of north-east London that has real problems with street gangs. The police work hard on it and so does the local authority. I make no criticism of them. But the gangs now see it as easier, cheaper and less of a problem to steal a pet such as a French bulldog and sell it on for cash rather than try to sell drugs on a street corner, because selling drugs gets them into much greater trouble. It leads to great violence to themselves and therefore becomes a bigger problem. Why would they not steal a valuable pet and sell it? They might get a £250 fine. They are just laughing their heads off.
Dogs are now valuable merchandise. There is no real criminal penalty for stealing one, so why not do it? That is one reason why violent thefts have increased dramatically. What the hell do they care if they smash somebody to the ground, hurt them—normally an elderly person—and take their dog? We have heard stories of people being stamped on, their hands smashed and the dog taken off the lead. Sometimes knives are used. All sorts of stuff goes on, because pets now have a significant cash value.
Cash is key here, which is why we want to ban the use of cash. It had a massive effect on the theft of lead from churches when we introduced a ban on cash for scrap metal. This is another angle of attack. I absolutely support what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said about microchipping. It is, however, only one element of what has to happen with regard to pets. We need to update the law. Far too many people out there are really worried.
I know what goes on in Ministries. I had six years in a Department, so I know what civil servants say: “Oh, Minister, this is really a second-order issue. There are many more important things that we have to focus on. There are all these big things that we have to deal with.” I say there is no greater issue than the thing that affects our constituents’ lives and worries them and that leads to criminality, violence and the loss of the legitimate property of a pet—a dog, a cat or whatever. It is time to make this not a second-order issue, but a first-order issue. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the issue has been kicked around the different Departments. I know that the Lord Chancellor is speaking to people in the next couple of days, so he takes an interest in it. The Home Secretary spoke to me and she took an interest in it, and I know that the Minister’s Department takes an interest in it. Can we please make sure that the Government recognise that whoever owns this problem, we all own it collectively as a Parliament—not even as a Government? We own it because we owe it to our constituents to save them from any further problems, any further violence, and any further threats and the theft of pets.
I am a dog owner myself. Like many others, I would hate the idea of my wife or somebody else being smashed to the ground, beaten up and their pet stolen. My wife has just stepped down as chair of the trustees of the charity Medical Detection Dogs. The charity is currently working on detecting covid, with brilliant and immediate results, as high as any of the tests. These are very valuable animals that save our lives. They sniff aircraft to check there are no bombs or illegal currency, and they come to this place to run around the Benches and tell us that we are safe. They are not items; they are pets that are owned by people, but they are also incredibly powerful and save lives. Now is the time to act. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to relay that back to all the Government Departments. Let’s get on with this, do what is right and help our constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and all the hon. Members who have spoken so passionately on this subject.
The topic is close to my heart. I want to take Members back to the hazy days of 1986. Shadow was our family dog. He was a beautiful Labrador-cross—adorable, a real gentle soul—and we also had his mother, Suzie. One day I remember coming home from school aged 12 and she was missing from our garden. We contacted the police, the animal rescue centres and the council, but she was never found again, so I know what it is like when dogs go missing. As a family, we felt real anguish. As most of us who have pets know, our animals are part of our family. We felt real grief and loss not ever knowing what happened to her. Had microchipping been available then, we would have had a better chance of finding her. I believe it was first introduced into our country in 1989, just three years after we lost our dog.
According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, it is estimated that there are 51 million pets, across 12 million households, across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. With 44% of all households owning pets, including mine—I now have a miniature schnauzer called Godiva and rescue dog called Suzie—we are a nation of animal lovers who cherish our pets, and especially so in my constituency of Morley and Outwood. We have an annual dog show, the fantastic College of Animal Welfare, the RSPCA rescue centre, the Cats Protection rescue centre and the Whitehall Dog Rescue centre, where I got my own rescue dog, Suzie.
Over the course of the past year, we have seen how pets have become indispensable for so many people, especially supporting people when they have physical and mental health challenges. That is one reason that the welfare of our pets matters to us and why responsible dog owners will ensure their pets are microchipped.
The petitions call for two measures to be introduced, as was mentioned earlier: first, that vets must scan microchips of animals brought into them in order to combat pet theft, which we know is on the rise and, secondly, that vets should scan the microchips prior to performing euthanasia on any animal, to ensure that the owner is the person who has brought the pet in and that they are guaranteed to be aware of the situation. I am proud to support both these measures and all the measures that my right hon. and hon. Friends and Members from across the House have spoken about today.
If enacted into law, the measures in these e-petitions will help to reduce the suffering that both animals and their families face. They will ensure that animals can be reunited with the family that cares for them and that families can take comfort in knowing that everything possible has been done to help reunite them with their pets. They will guarantee that owners can fear less and if something has happened to their pets, in the saddest of circumstances, it maximises the chances that they will be there when they say their final goodbye. These measures are pure in their intentions, and I urge the Government to look seriously at them to further strengthen the great work we have already done on animal welfare in recent years.
It is a pleasure to be here under your stewardship, Mr Pritchard, although it will not be so much of a pleasure for my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), who brought the debate, because unfortunately he will have to listen to me for the next couple of minutes talking about my own pets. I think it is important to do that, because that is what humanises the debate.
In the nearly 18 months I have been here, this is one of the easiest speeches I have had to give, talking about my pets, Roux and Ada, who are two very silly whippets, the first of whom was bought before the first lockdown. In the same week that Michel Roux died, we got Roux, a grey, very small—very tiny—very meek whippet. She was supposed to be my wife’s dog, while I was away down in Westminster, but of course we went straight into lockdown and Roux joined me, at my feet, at my beck and call. Every single day, during those phone calls, from 6 o’clock in the morning to 11 o’clock at night, dealing with my constituents in the pandemic, Roux was there. My only break was to get her a drink or feed her, to let her out and to take her for a walk. She was my companion.
That of course meant a problem, because that dog was supposed to be my wife’s—so we had to get a second. The second came in the form of Ada, named after Ada Lovelace for two reasons: she has a great big heart—literally, on the side of her chest—and Ada Lovelace has a special place in my constituency. Ada is the complete opposite of the meek Roux; she is tenacious and grunty, and she has only one gear, which is forward. That is problematic. When I go out across the fields of Leicestershire, Ada and Roux head out and leave me for dust. They are not only whippets by name. As people who have a whippet know, they are digital animals—they are either on or off. Most people say of having a whippet, “You don’t own one; you wear one”—they are on the sofa, they are around our neck or lying in our lap. When we take them out, however, it is a different kettle of fish.
I am lucky to have the fields of Desford, Peckleton and Newbold Verdon all at my beck and call, because the dogs love to run across them. The problem is, they will spot children and other dogs on the other side of the fields, and be gone. The good news is that mine are so meek that I am yet to see a dominant display at any point. It usually ends with them rolling over and showing their tummy.
Whippets are fantastic escape artists. They are brilliant at defusing all my ways of keeping them in the garden, from chewing through chicken wire to leaping six-foot fences. That, however, is of course the cut and thrust of what we are talking about: they escape easily and, should they escape, they can disappear; and if they disappear, they can be lost and, unfortunately, lost forever—as we heard, tragically, from my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns).
About 8.5 million dogs in the country are chipped. I like to think that most of them have good homes, so that is at least 8.5 million people looking after them, although of course they are family animals. That is why the debate matters; it cuts through to who we are. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) hinted at that. He gave many stats about how the subject not only is the soft underbelly of the emotional aspect of the UK, but leads to the harder crime aspect.
Given those serious points, I would like to think that if my dogs ever went missing, a vet would scan my dog. We know that the numbers have gone from 58% to 90% when dogs are chipped, but we also know that prices have gone up and that there is puppy profiteering. In my own experience—which with whippets, not the most popular breed—prices doubled in that timeframe. Worse still is puppy smuggling. I know, from when I asked about pet fish and how to protect oneself when buying them, that the Minister is working hard to deal with the issues. Most people are good people, they do their diligent research, but we need the vets and the industry to support our fight in dealing with theft and loss.
I am completely open to the fact that unintended consequences are possible. I would like to see the consultation get underneath what is going on, bringing with the Government the vets, the associations, the rescuers and of course the public, because at heart, as a Parliament, we can all agree, no matter which side of the House we are on, no matter which industry we are in—receiver or carer—that this can be resolved. I would like the Minister to consider that, to provide some dates for when the two measures are likely to come forward and, I hope, be passed.
It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for securing an important debate.
Pet theft reform is something I have campaigned on for a while now. Indeed, we had a debate on pet theft last year, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt). Many points were made, and I think that the Government are attempting to deal with them in this Parliament. They are trying to tackle this horrific crime, which impacts on our constituents so fundamentally. We need to use every tool available to us, and the two petitions highlight how absolutely crucial the rules on microchipping, databases and scanning are to getting this right. Fern, of Fern’s law, spent six years as a lost dog away from her family. Had a vet been obliged to check her microchip—veterinary treatment had been sought for her in that time—we know she would have made it home more quickly.
Many petitions that come with such popularity from the general public have common sense at their core. Having a single database to identify lost or stolen dog is basic common sense. If a dog is stolen, being able to add a marker to that single database to flag the pet as stolen is common sense. When a dog is sadly presented to be euthanised, we should establish that the correct and rightful owner is the person making that request. There is a further debate to be had about whether euthanising a healthy pet by a vet should be an available option, or whether surrender to a rescue would be a much better way to tackle unwanted pets, because no healthy dog should be euthanised. I know vets have an incredibly difficult time having to euthanise healthy dogs.
Pet theft is utterly barbaric. As we heard from so many people who have spoken, it is an urgent matter that we reform pet theft laws. Every day, I read another story of a devastated owner who has lost a beloved family member. In recent local elections, I heard that this crime has become such a concern to people I met, especially older constituents and female constituents. They are now too nervous to take their dogs out, certainly towards the end of the day. I was talking to them when trying to get dog-walking groups together; obviously, in the pandemic, that has been difficult for people. However, we must deal with this. It is so important to our constituents.
As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), amendments have been tabled to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. New clause 15 would make Fern’s law a reality, and I will support that new clause. We need action now. I spoke to the Lord Chancellor about pet theft a couple of weeks ago, and I have spoken to DEFRA Ministers and to the Home Office, and I am reassured that the Government are absolutely committed to doing this. I welcome the Government’s setting up the pet theft taskforce, which will look at all the issues around pet theft and report in the autumn.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister in advance: I talk to her a lot about various animal welfare issues, and she is a real animal lover. I know that so many people support these reforms. How they happen is not important; whether via amendments to that Bill or a separate Act, it just needs to happen, and it needs to happen immediately, or as quickly as Government time will allow. Finally, I thank everybody who has campaigned for Fern’s law and Tuk’s law and every single person who signs petitions and who writes to their Member of Parliament. It is so important that we are kept informed and that we keep the pressure up to get something done—to get positive action. I thank the Government for listening and reacting to that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. These two very important petitions essentially deal with the same matter—the fact that there is no legal requirement on veterinarians, local authorities or highways agencies to scan dog or cat microchips in any circumstances, and variations of legal problems that flow from that fact. I will confine my remarks in the main to Tuk’s law, for reasons I will outline in a second. However, I fully support Fern’s law. I will not add to what other hon. Members have said, but I do not think the Minister will be unsuspecting of what I am about to say. Fern’s law asks for it to be made compulsory to scan and check all microchips, to reunite stolen dogs and cats. The request behind Gizmo’s law is that more legislation should be brought in for deceased cats and other pets, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister—she is the most fantastic Minister on such issues—to ensure that Gizmo’s law is given due consideration at the earliest opportunity, which I know I say to the Minister every single time I meet her in and outside the main Chamber. Gizmo’s law is an important part of the animal legislation that I believe the Government should bring forward.
Like many other Members, I am a dog owner. My friend is Bertie, a 16-month-old black lab, and I do not know what I would do without him. Tuk was a 16-month-old rescue dog—the same age as my dog—and, sadly, he was destroyed on 22 December 2017. This debate follows on from that event and that sacrifice. Tuk was not scanned prior to euthanasia, and his rescue back-ups were not contacted or notified of his death, even though he had full rescue back-up registered on his microchip and on the original database. It required only the microchip to be scanned for the rescue back-up to be contacted and for Tuk to be saved, which highlights the importance of the legislation.
I have worked with Sue Williams, Dawn Ashley and Dominic Dyer. I introduced a private Member’s Bill on Tuk’s law, which sadly fell, in the last Session, but I have decided to make my remarks about Tuk’s law their words, because they are the passionate campaigners who have driven the campaign forward. They are the people who have got over 100,000 signatures in their desire to protect animals.
What is a rescue back-up registration on a microchip? As part of the adoption contract, rescue organisations register their details on the original database as a secondary contact. In times of vulnerability, the secondary contact is there to protect the animal from being unnecessarily euthanised and to alert the veterinarian that an alternative is in place.
What is rescue back-up? Once an animal is adopted and rehomed, the rescue remains a presence in their life, offering rescue back-up to the adopter for the duration of the pet’s life. The rescue is available for advice, and should the adopter no longer be able to care for the animal, the rescue will support them and find an alternative new home. For those reasons, I am therefore delighted that Tuk’s law has been included in the Government’s action plan for animals, and I thank the Minister and the Government for that.
I want to point out some of the concerns of the Tuk’s law campaign. I know the Minister is aware of them, but they bear repeating. As ever, the Tuk’s law campaign continues to lobby the Government to ensure that all microchipped details, including the rescue back-up contact details for the rescue organisation, are confirmed on the original database prior to the euthanasia of a healthy or treatable animal. The Tuk’s law campaign also requests that, once confirmed, any identified rescue back-up details, including the rescue organisation’s contact details, are registered on veterinarian practice databases, and that should an animal ever be in a vulnerable position, the veterinarians agree to communicate with the rescue or second contact prior to the euthanasia of the healthy or treatable animal.
Obviously, we have heard that DEFRA, the RCVS and BVA have taken some positive steps to prevent the unnecessary euthanasia of dogs. However, the Tuk’s law campaign is dedicated to ensuring that lives are not unnecessarily lost. The campaigners consider that the commitment in its current form does not go far enough, and they believe that the omission of the word “treatable” in the recent change to the RCVS code of conduct leaves many animals still at risk. Although there is appreciation that the BVA has concerns regarding the levels of intervention that the veterinarian profession is willing to undertake, those steps should be taken when the life of any animal is at risk.
This is a subject that I could speak on for a long time. It is rooted in common sense, legality and the desire of all our constituents to ensure that no healthy animals— like Tuk, Bertie and the pets that right hon. and hon. Members have talked about—are ever in a position, be it through theft or loss, whereby they lose their lives through no fault of their own, even though a rescue back-up is in place to help them, to protect them and to ensure that they continue to be the constant companions that we all value and treasure as part of our everyday lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for leading this debate for the Petitions Committee; it is particularly good to see him here. I also thank the Minister, both for being here today and for recently visiting my North West Durham constituency; it was great to see her there.
Spice, Sam, Tess and Cookie were the pets that I grew up with at home when I was a child. It is quite clear that pets are far more than just animals; they are family members, too. That was attested to by my visit to Bishop Ian Ramsey Primary School in Medomsley on Friday, when I spoke to the children in year 6 there about this very issue.
I will not regurgitate too much of the speeches from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), or my hon. Friends the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans), for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson), and for Bury North (James Daly), who have all hammered home the key points that need to be made. However, I will pay tribute to the Farplace animal rescue centre in my constituency, which does so much good work.
On Fern’s law, the situation seems pretty clear to me. We have compulsory microchipping, so compulsory scanning is the obvious next step, because without it we do not have compulsory checking and therefore we have a weak system. Without compulsory scanning, how can we possibly move towards the compulsory microchipping of cats? It is an absolute no-brainer, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said. Clearly, compulsory scanning should be made obligatory as quickly as possible.
Regarding Tuk’s law, it was particularly nice to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North talking about his own 16-month-old dog, which is the same age that Tuk was when he was put down. It seems absolutely sensible for there to be a compulsory scan before destruction. Although the strengthened guidance is welcome, I would like the Government to consider what else can be done in this space.
As many Members have said, it is quite clear that lockdown has made this issue even more important, with the cost of dogs being driven through the roof over the past few months. Coming out of lockdown, when we might also see the destruction of dogs, is also important. It is quite clear that lockdown has made the situation even worse, which is why it is so important that the Government act. I hope they will speak to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green about what can possibly be done.
It is also clear that the 16 different databases that currently exist are not fit for purpose. If we have just one system for cars, we should have just one for people’s animals, which mean a lot more to them than their cars or so many other things in their lives.
I will conclude by saying that I really welcome these petitions; they are about issues that are hugely important to many of my constituents. In addition, pet theft has been a major issue. Durham Constabulary has raised it with me personally several times over the last few months during lockdown, so I really hope that we get some action and some positive words about it from the Minister today.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for calling this important debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee and for setting the scene for us all in such detail at the outset.
Before I begin my contribution, I will declare an interest as the proud owner of Rossi the rescue dog, which won fourth place in the Westminster Dog of the Year contest a few years back; we are so proud of Rossi. I am also the chair of the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group, or APDAWG. Additionally, I wish to thank from the bottom of my heart the 538 constituents of mine who signed the petitions that we are debating today. Like others who have already spoken, I express my thanks to Marc Abraham OBE, to Dr Daniel Allen, and to the Tuk’s law and Fern’s law campaigners, alongside Debbie Matthews, for their invaluable work in campaigning on these important matters.
Finally, I thank all the right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part today and spoken so passionately on behalf of their constituents, including the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson), and those who spoke about their own pets: the hon. Members for Bosworth (Dr Evans), for North West Durham (Mr Holden), and for Bury North (James Daly), who has done so much already around Tuk’s law, as I am aware; the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), whose wife is heavily involved in dog welfare and rescue; and the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), who spoke so poignantly about the loss of her own pet, Shadow, highlighting to us that animals are sentient beings and very much a part of our families.
Last Friday, I was proud to visit the south Lanarkshire rescue centre of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and to speak with the CEO Kirsteen Campbell, alongside Mike Flynn and other staff who work there. Not only was it a privilege to see first-hand the lengths that staff and volunteers go to in order to treat and care for the dogs, cats and other little animals in desperate need of re-homing, it was great to hear so much more about the work it is doing with the Links Group to highlight the link between animal abuse, domestic violence and other social issues, as well as through its education programme. I was interested to hear that local shelters often have to pay the costs of animals seized until their court date, amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds. It has been particularly difficult during the pandemic to raise funds. Much more must be done in legislation on temporary refuge.
In my visit to the SSPCA, it was clear to see the difficulty that it faces in reuniting pets with their rightful owners where their details have not been kept up to date. By acting on the petitions, first by making microchip scanning mandatory for vets at a pet’s first consultation, and secondly by creating a centralised database for microchip companies, the House would take a vital step towards ensuring pets are given every opportunity to be reunited with their owners, wherever they are lost or stolen.
It is impossible to overstate the importance and urgency of the action required. The pandemic has seen a surge in pet ownership, with more than 3 million pets acquired since the start of the first lockdown, mostly cats and dogs. Tragically, the rise in demand has been accompanied by an unprecedented rise in pet theft. Given that 99% of pet owners consider their pets to be family members, yet only one in five stolen pets is ever returned to their family, the current gaps and the distinct and worrying lack of microchip scanning cause immense distress to families and pets across all our constituencies. Compulsory scanning at first visit would also act as a significant deterrent to pet theft, as thieves will be reluctant to sell on stolen pets for fear of compulsory scanning triggering a potential investigation or prosecution.
The real tragedy of the issue is that most of us who have pets assume that a vet’s practice would scan our pet’s microchip should they go missing. The public assume that practice is already in place. A Twitter poll published by Dr Daniel Allen found that almost 4,000 voters —or 98%—expected vets to check their pet’s microchip should they be stolen. We read Government statements and information on microchip websites boasting that microchipping our pets will increase our chances of being reunited with them, and we believe them. Yet, very often, due to gaps in scanning and data collection, that is sadly not the case. One of the most common reasons cited against mandating vets to check pets’ microchips on the first visit is that it would take too long to scan and check microchips, and it is not the vet’s job. However, someone else in the practice could do it, such as a member of the support staff, to ensure that the vet’s time is not taken up.
I welcome the Government’s commitments and their action plan for animal welfare, particularly with regard to the introduction of compulsory cat microchipping and the explicit reference to reforming the current system of collating animal microchip data to prevent instances where pets have been euthanised without the express consent of their rightful owners. I echo the comments of hon. Members, including those of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), that we must give vets every opportunity to succeed in reuniting lost pets with owners, and identify and prosecute instances of pet theft that cause such harm to everyone involved. We must take this issue forward collectively across Parliament. I am sure it has cross-party support and I very much look forward to the Minister’s response.
I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for introducing the petition so well. There is good cross-party support from all the hon. Members in the debate for action to be taken. I fear that it will be déjà vu for the Minister, because there have been examples, across a number of animal welfare debates, of Opposition and Government Members all agreeing that action needs to be taken. We also nearly always agree that that action would be relatively simple and low cost, and would have a substantially positive impact on our constituents. That puts the Minister in a bad situation, because she will have to explain why that action still has not happened.
We are facing a relative slew of parliamentary legislation —a real piggery of parliamentary business—around animal welfare at the moment. There is lots of it, but there is a lot missing from it. I want to hear from the Minister about what needs primary legislation, and I want clarification that it will be included in primary legislation. Where items do not need primary legislation—I believe that in this case we do not need primary legislation to take action—secondary legislation should be brought forward swiftly. The danger is that we will all just sit here in this debate and agree, but this issue requires the Government to act.
The petitions are well supported, with 235,000 signatures, including 436 from Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. I know that people feel really passionately about this matter. The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill—the flagship piece of animal welfare legislation that the Minister is introducing—offers a chance to tidy up and clear up a number of the remaining animal welfare problems. The Minister has looked carefully at Labour’s animal welfare manifesto and included a number of the points from it in the legislation, and I am grateful to her for doing so. I know that Back-Bench Members from her own party would also be grateful if Ministers listened to their campaigns on this matter.
I am also grateful to the Minister for taking the time last week to sit down with me and the shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team to talk through what is in the Bill and, importantly, what is not, as well as what could be put into it at a later stage. That is really where secondary legislation comes in. Some people watching the debate will not really be excited by secondary legislation, and the truth is that many people in this House are not particularly excited by secondary legislation either, but it does enable the Government, relatively simply, to change the rules on legislation that has already been passed, largely with cross-party support. I encourage the Minister to do that in the two cases before us.
During the debate, a number of right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about the loss of their own pets and what that meant to them. The hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) spoke about the loss of her dog, Shadow, who went missing. As the Minister knows, I had my own experience of that when, as a little boy, I lost my cat, Bumblesnarf—named after Bumblebee from “Transformers” and Snarf from “Thundercats”, obviously—and I did not know where it was, whether it was coming back and whether it was in distress or in pain. Those are common concerns for people right across the country.
Compulsory microchipping makes a lot of sense and is hugely popular among the people we represent, but it would seem to be only part of the solution if we require compulsory microchipping but do not require compulsory checking of the microchip once it is in the animal. Throughout the debate we have effectively, without saying so, made the case that microchipping is good, positive and has real benefits. However, the system has to deliver on the promise that was made, including by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who said way back in April 2016:
“Microchipping will not only reunite people with their lost or stolen pets, but also help to tackle the growing problem of strays roaming the streets and relieve the burden placed on animal charities and local authorities.”
He was right then and he is right now, but the system needs to work from end to end. At the moment, there are sizeable gaps in the system.
Microchipping is a cheap and easy procedure; it is safe for cats, dogs and other animals; and it is permanent and cost-effective. It needs to work, however, and that is why I think the challenge for the Minister is to convince herself, her Government colleagues and her officials that this action is worth taking.
I find myself in the awkward position of agreeing wholeheartedly with the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith)—as an Opposition Member, that is something that I pride myself on not always doing. [Interruption.] I will be talking to myself in the mirror later; do not worry. He raised a fantastic point about first and second-order issues. I do not know of a single voter in Plymouth who would say that animal welfare is anything other than a first-order issue. We, as parliamentarians of any party, need to make that case to Ministers—to use all parliamentary legislative opportunities, including secondary legislation via statutory instruments, to achieve this.
The right hon. Gentleman’s case for amending the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill—a Bill that I am not a huge fan of—to include pet theft is a good one. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and I have argued for the same thing from Labour’s perspective. Elements of that would have cross-party support, because pet theft is an increasingly difficult and stubborn problem. The pandemic has made it considerably worse; we all recognise the demand for animals and the company that they provide. The legislation needs to be flexible enough to catch up with that demand and the problems that it is causing. There is a real chance to do something on pet theft. I do not have high hopes for a taskforce, but I want to see action. We know what needs to be done—we do not need a delaying tactic to help us to get there slower—and it needs to happen shortly.
There is real support for action on microchipping cats, as we have heard. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) remarked in his speech that 2.6 million owned cats in the UK have still not been microchipped—that is a quarter of all pet cats. Cats, as we know, have a mind of their own. However, if an owner microchips their cat, it is an important aspect of the bond between them, because the owner knows that if the cat keeps going out, they will have the opportunity to be reunited with it. There is a good case for more work to be done on that. There is cross-party support for such action, as the Government’s consultation showed, so it should just happen.
There is also good support for Fern’s law. I do not share the concerns that have been expressed by a number of veterinary colleagues, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. There is always time to ensure that the animal that the vet is dealing with—and its owner—is the one that is supposed to be there, and it is right to take time to scan the animal properly. I notice that in the original response that the petition triggered, the Government said that the area is largely governed by self-regulation and best practice. I spent five years working for ABTA—the Travel Association—so I support self-regulation and industries looking after themselves, but not enough is being done on this. It is reasonable to require veterinary businesses to scan animals that come into their surgeries. I ask the industry to look again at that, because there is strong support for Fern’s law.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson), talked about common sense being at the core of any good policy, and I agree with her. There is real concern about the databases: the fact that there are 16 different databases in this area shows not that the market is working effectively and efficiently, but that we have a broken market and a broken system. Along with those 16 database, which do not often speak to each other, there are bogus websites deliberately set up by scammers to take money off pet owners who want to do the right thing and register their animal. That is not backed up by any certainty that were anything to happen, it would be looked at. I encourage the Minister to look carefully at the databases, because the whole system is not working. She would enjoy cross-party support if she took action in that respect, albeit first recommending that there should be quick action from the companies that are already dealing with the matter. If there is no voluntary action, there should be Government action.
Tuk’s law—that a healthy animal’s microchip must always be scanned before euthanising—is also a no-brainer. That must happen, and there is something obviously wrong with the existing system. I encourage the Minister to look at swiftly implementing Tuk’s law by whatever legislative route she can, whether in secondary or primary legislation.
That leads me briefly to the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly). He and I share a real passion to see Gizmo’s law put into legislation. It is frustrating for him and for me to hear that being skipped over in each and every debate. Heléna Abrahams, Gizmo’s owner, shares our passion for real change. I encourage the Minister not only to continue to listen to the hon Gentleman, but to act on what he says, because it is very sensible.
We also need to talk about the important issue of access to vets. In each of our contributions, we have made the case that access to veterinary care is available and that, when an animal is taken to a vet, a certain action should be taken as a result. However, there are many people who cannot afford access to a vet; it is a luxury that they cannot afford for themselves. We need to look at the affordability of access to veterinary care to ensure that everyone can access the proper services of a vet in this respect. That is another point from Labour’s animal welfare manifesto that I would encourage the Minister to cut and paste. I think that that would be popular.
When it comes to animal welfare, it helps to remember that doing the right thing for animals is almost always in the best interests of humans as well. That is where I think there is strong support from both sides of the House for the measures outlined in these two petitions.
I say to the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) that I am a big fan of his Instagram and his pictures of his whippets. There needs to be a parliamentary caucus for parliamentary Lukes—indeed, we have a small one here in this debate.
The issue raised by the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) about the potential increase in the destruction of animals as we come out of lockdown restrictions is another good point. Although it does not easily fit into a solution, it certainly helps to identify an emerging problem that will get bigger and bigger, particularly with more animals potentially presenting with behavioural difficulties because of the on-again, off-again presence of their owners and families.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to set out the positive and cross-party case for action on this matter. I look forward to the Minister giving us—I hope—the good news that she will be taking action and not just delaying that further.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time, Mr Pritchard. It is also a great pleasure to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), and all who signed the petitions that led to the debate this afternoon. I reassure everybody that animal welfare is definitely a first-order issue for this Government. We all recognise the valuable contribution that our pets can make to our lives. We have heard this afternoon the sad stories of Shadow and Bumblesnarf, but we have also heard very heart-warming stories—from my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans), for example, and, indeed, from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who feels that his dog greets him more warmly than his wife.
Last month, we introduced a Bill to recognise that animals are sentient beings—the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill. Earlier this month, we introduced a Bill that will enhance protection for kept animals—the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill—including through provisions on puppy smuggling and livestock worrying; introduce bans on the export of live animals for slaughter and fattening; and put controls on keeping primates as pets.
I assure everyone that action is being taken. There is a long list of animal welfare issues to get through, and we are working through it. We are keen not to delay. Some of this can be dealt with in primary legislation. Some, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) reminds me—he knows that I am a great fan of secondary legislation—can be dealt with in secondary legislation. Some can be dealt with by non-legislative means. It is important that we use every tool in our toolbox. I know that right hon. and hon. Members are impatient to get this done. It is important that we do that; I am not trying to hold anything up in this respect, but it is also important that we do it properly, that we do it after full consultation with the public and that we bring the members of the veterinary profession with us or encourage them to move with us on this, because, as many hon. Members have said, much depends on them.
We are committed to microchipping. Our action plan for animal welfare reaffirmed that, so compulsory cat microchipping will be coming in. We have consulted on this already. More than 33,000 people took the trouble to respond to the consultation. We are working up the detailed proposals at the moment and we will respond fully on that in the autumn, following which, I am sure, hon. Members will have a great deal to say on our response. And we will definitely be introducing the necessary regulation next year.
The action plan for animal welfare also sets out our ambition to introduce further microchipping reforms in relation to the database systems. On Tuk’s law specifically, steps have already been taken to give greater assurance that the microchip database information is checked whenever a healthy dog is presented for euthanasia. I pay tribute to Sue, Dawn and Dominic, the driving forces behind this campaign, for their tireless efforts to highlight the plight of Tuk and other dogs who were put down when an alternative home might well have been available. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) also mentioned the dark side of domestic abuse that can underlie some of these tragic cases.
We have listened carefully to the campaign’s concerns and worked hard with the veterinary profession to develop an approach that has won approval from all sides. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons amended its guidance in May so that when a healthy dog is presented to be put down, the vet is now required to scan the microchip and check the details on the microchip database. This will enable them to consider whether anyone else has an interest in the animal, such as a rehoming centre that might well be able to prevent the animal from being put down. The guidance underpins the code of professional conduct for vets. Any vet practising in the UK is required to adhere to it. Notification of the change to the guidance was sent to every registered vet and was well publicised in sector publications. I am grateful to the veterinary profession for its positive engagement on this.
I heard, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, that pets obtained during the pandemic might be given up as life returns to normal. I reassure my hon. Friend and other Members that we are monitoring this issue extremely closely as we— hopefully—come out of the pandemic. However, information received only last week from the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes suggests that dog and cat rescue centres have actually seen a decline in animals being given up for adoption and are currently, on average, below 60% full. In brief, we think that we have dealt with this issue by working closely with the veterinary profession, but we will continue to keep the matter closely under review as we come out of the pandemic, as suggested by many Members and the campaign.
On Fern’s law, we recognise the clear emotional upset and trauma that the loss of a much-loved pet can cause, and we will continue to take action on pet theft. We set up the Government’s pet theft taskforce, not at all to kick the issue down the road, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport suggested, but in fact, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) indicated, because this is a multi-departmental issue. My right hon. Friend has, if I may say so, knocked around government for some time now and is aware that we need DEFRA, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office to work together to ensure that this issue is right at the top of the agenda.
The taskforce will report by the end of July. Officials are working on the recommended actions at the moment. In the autumn, following the recommendations of the taskforce, we will work on the legislative and non-legislative measures that can help to deal with pet theft. Items that we are working on include stopping cash payments, as mentioned by my right hon. Friend; creating a new pet theft offence or offences where necessary; and considering measures on the compulsory scanning of microchips. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) said, we need to use every available tool in our response to this.
Fern’s law formed part of the consultation we carried out earlier this year. It is worth reminding colleagues that the compulsory microchipping of dogs was primarily brought in to reduce the number of dogs that needed to be rehomed or put down because their keepers could not be traced. In this, it has been really successful, with an increased reunification rate for strays since its introduction. The routine scanning of strays is clearly helpful, and there is a strong imperative to do that on animal welfare grounds. The veterinary profession already recommends that vets scan cats and dogs on first presentation to make sure that animals are correctly identified when checked against the database, and that the same thing is done at regular check-ups. Where the checks raise a concern that the animal might have been lost or stolen, vets have procedures in place to handle that. All of us have a shared goal to reunite pets with their owners. Vets play an important part in the system, and it will take a whole system approach to deal with it, including but not limited to microchipping animals, effective databases, and keepers ensuring that their details are kept up to date.
I will watch the progress of the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green closely. I know that he has been in touch with the Lord Chancellor about it. We are considering the consultation responses on Fern’s law and will put forward our proposals this autumn.
On the calls for a single database, I have listened carefully to the arguments put forward, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), whose constituency I was very pleased to visit. We should recognise that database operators are commercial enterprises that offer a range of services and provide a level of choice for pet owners, but I am sure that significant improvements can be made to the current system to address the issues of concern. Those include considering a single point of access for all databases, which, from the user’s perspective, might be very much like having a single database. We are working on that urgently, and, once again, I will come back to right hon. and hon. Members in the autumn with the response to the consultation. The improvements will help to support the principles behind the scanning campaigns that we have discussed today.
On Gizmo’s legacy—again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly), whom I now refer to as Gizmo—colleagues also raised the issue of scanning dead cats killed by the roadside, which is the subject of this campaign. Poor Gizmo was disposed of in landfill without his microchip being scanned and his owner informed. Colleagues know that I myself lost a cat, Twilight—we still have his brother, Midnight—to a road traffic accident, and I have enormous sympathy with the aims of the campaign. All Highways England contracts include a requirement to identify and inform owners of dead cats and dogs found by the roadside. The charity CatsMatter, which does tremendous work with local authorities to encourage scanning, tells me that all but two local authorities—I am happy to name them—have scanning procedures in place. [Interruption.] The two exceptions are, I believe, Tower Hamlets and Westminster. Still more can be done to develop a consistent and effective approach based on best practice across all local authorities. I have superb examples of best practice available to all colleagues who wish to chat to me about it afterwards, and I encourage Members to be in touch with their local authority to check that best practice is carried out across the nation.
I want to reassure hon. Members that we will have more to say on this matter when we respond to the consultation exercise later in the year. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North does not talk about Gizmo in vain. In brief, I hope that you, Mr Pritchard, and colleagues are reassured that the Government are committed to addressing the issues to ensure that the microchipping regime is as effective as it possibly can be.
Once again, it is a pleasure to participate in a Petitions Committee debate. There is certainly unity among all Members here, and I thank them all for their fantastic contributions. We are proud of our dogs, and we have Westminster dog of the year for those of us who are pet owners. I look forward to knocking the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) off first place with Bella and Bailey. I am delighted to know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans), while shamelessly smouldering in his Instagram pose, does actually have a fan. [Laughter.] However, hearing from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) that my hon. Friend has a fan means that I have just unfollowed him, because I do not want to be associated with someone whose smouldering look I cannot match and who shamelessly uses pets to get likes on Instagram, which is obviously a trick I need to learn.
Everything—the whole plethora—was really well summed up in this debate by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), who made the point that animals are not just property. They are far more than that. We have all talked about our own experiences and I certainly know Bella and Bailey mean far more to me.
My constituents in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke want to see their area made safer, because sadly a scumbag called Malachy Doherty stole two dogs outside Marks & Spencer and was sentenced to 27 weeks in prison for stealing. I think 27 weeks in prison does not send a strong enough message. His 14-year-old accomplice is sadly still on the run, but hopefully he will be brought before a court soon. I do not want Malachy back in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, quite frankly. I hope he finds a new home, in a tent in a field, maybe, so that he can be surrounded by his animals and maybe they will trample over that tent to remind him of what animals are like. Ultimately, this is the problem we face.
We have a pet theft taskforce, from which we are all waiting to see the results. We have to ensure that there are stricter laws in place and proper consequences for those who do harm to lives. It is now over two years since Freya Woodhall, one of the people from Fern’s law, lost her beloved dog. She told me that her children have sadly had to seek mental health support because of the long-term impact that losing that family member has had on them, which shows that more needs to be done.
I thank the Minister for her contribution. There is an awful lot going through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs at the moment and I am sure it has been a hectic time, on top of everything that has been going on with the global pandemic, but the sooner we act and the quicker we get these things done, the quicker that maintains public confidence in the Government, in which I have full confidence. It shows that we are listening to our constituents. Dealing with pet theft, microchipping and scanning of animals may seem small to some Members of Parliament, but it goes a massively long way to improving lives and outcomes. As Members of Parliament, this work is far more important in helping our constituents from day to day than other things that we might think are much grander when we are in the Chamber talking about convoluted issues. This is the bread-and-butter stuff that I was elected by the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke to change and deliver on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) talked about Shadow and Suzie, which touched us all. My thoughts are with her. The fact that it was so long ago, yet has stayed with her, shows how important that is. The Government have introduced a Bill on animal sentience, and that plays into what my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said about animals being more than just pets. We have to take into account the distress that is caused to these animals when they are taken.
Sadly, some animals are so distressed that they end up having health ailments or are so scared that they quake when walking along. I was told by Dr Daniel Allen that when people are reunited with pets, the pet is never the same. In fact, they can end up dying from heart strain due to the disgusting attempts to breed them day in, day out, as well as suffering from the abuse of living in those terrible conditions.
We love our pets and our animals. We always want to do much more. I have no doubt this is an easy win for the Government. We are united across the House. All we are waiting for is the ability to walk through the Division Lobby or to give regulations a nod through a statutory instrument. Whatever is needed, let us get this thing done quickly and give confidence to pet owners across the United Kingdom. I look forward to seeing the Minister bring those recommendations forward in the autumn.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 300010 and 300025, relating to microchipping of pets.