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Pet Travel

Volume 704: debated on Thursday 2 December 2021

[Rushanara Ali in the Chair]

[Relevant documents: e-petition 587165, Let airlines allow pets in the airplane’s cabin to and from the UK, e-petition 593806, Seek to rejoin the EU pet passport scheme, e-petition 565677, Seek common travel area between GB NI & ROI for Guide dogs & Assistance dogs, and e-petition 560549, Let airlines allow pets under 10kg in the airplane’s cabin to and from the UK.]

Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in this debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind everyone that Members are required by the House to have covid lateral flow tests twice a week if they are coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at home or in the testing centre.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered pet travel.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this important debate. I declare an interest: I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on cats. I thank Cats Protection for its assistance in acting as secretariat to the APPG and its help in so many cat matters. I would also note that I own—if that is the right term when it comes to cats—two cats, Milly and Louie. Neither plans to travel, especially Milly, as she does not travel well and sings all the way. Louie, my other cat, was a rescue through Cats Protection, and I hope he is now happy in his forever home. I know that there are many cat-owning Ministers: the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has Gus, and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), another DEFRA Minister, has Midnight. Cats are a great interest for all of us.

Moving to the substance of the debate, I first welcome representatives of Cats Protection and thank them for their detailed briefing, on which my speech largely relies. I am supportive of the proposals for changes to travel legislation for dogs. The increased minimum age limit, the restrictions on numbers, and the ban on importing heavily pregnant dogs and dogs with mutilations such as cropped ears will make a big difference for dog welfare and help to combat the increasing illegal trade in puppies. I am, however, concerned that a lack of focus on cats by DEFRA could result in a missed opportunity to stop the illegal trade in cats and kittens before it reaches the scale and cruelty of the illegal puppy trade.

The estimated population of pet dogs in the UK is 9.6 million, with 26% of adults owning a dog. A very similar proportion of UK adults—24%—own a cat, with an estimated 10.7 million pet cats in total. Cats Protection’s 2021 “Cats and Their Stats” UK report has made significant findings regarding changes to the commercial market for cats and consumer behaviours that put cats at greater risk of exploitation by unscrupulous sellers and, potentially, pet smugglers. Cats Protection has found that consumers are buying, rather than adopting. More recently obtained cats are more likely to have been bought, as opposed to adopted or taken on. Some 34% of cats obtained in the past year were bought—up from 24% for cats obtained more than five years ago.

Cats Protection has also pointed out that consumers are going online to find cats to buy. Those buying cats are increasingly going online to find a cat, 68% of purchased cats having been found online in the last year. It has also found that high-value pedigrees are in demand. According to their owners, more recently obtained cats are significantly more likely to be pedigrees: of those cats obtained in the past year, 36% were pedigrees, compared with just 16% for those obtained over five years ago. With more high-value cats being sought, there is a risk of even more unscrupulous sellers looking to exploit cats and consumers for profit. An analysis by tech4pets for Cats Protection found skyrocketing cat prices across three pet-selling websites, with an increase of around £150 in June 2021 compared with June 2020. That equates to an increase in price of around 45%. The analysis also found that the number of online adverts more than doubled over the same period.

There is no doubt that people want cats. I know that animal welfare charities are currently concerned about the consultation on the commercial and non-commercial movement of pets into Great Britain. In the consultation, DEFRA proposes to increase the minimum import age for puppies from 15 weeks to six months. It also proposes to ban dogs with non-exempted mutilations and the importation of bitches that are more than 42 days pregnant. Those are all sensible and proportionate measures that will safeguard the welfare of dogs. For cats, however, DEFRA is proposing to maintain the current requirements, leaving welfare threats unchecked.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, on which I serve, has produced a report on the movement of pets across borders and recommended that the Government ban the importation of pets, which would include cats younger than six months and heavily pregnant pets, including cats. The Committee also recommended the banning of importation of pets that have been subjected to poor welfare practices, such as the cruel and unnecessary declawing of cats. The recommendations are fully supported by animal welfare charities.

I would like us to raise the importation age of cats. It is true that cat imports do not currently take place on the same scale as dog imports. However, according to the “PDSA Animal Wellbeing Report 2021”, an estimated 48,000 cats acquired between March 2020 and May 2021 came from abroad, accounting for 5% of overall cat acquisitions during that period. Similarly, Cats Protection’s “Cats and Their Stats” report of 2021 estimated that 5% of overall cat acquisitions between March 2020 and March 2021 were from an overseas source. That equates to around 70,000 cats.

Although cat and kitten importation is less widespread than that of dogs, it is clearly a route to satisfy demand for pet cats in Great Britain, and there is no reason to suppose that cat welfare is respected any better than dog welfare by people who import illegally. The increased demand for kittens, coupled with the rapidly rising cost of cats in the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic, has the potential to make cat importation a more tempting prospect for illegal importers. Cats Protection volunteers found evidence of kittens being advertised for sale with worldwide shipping as an option. It is clear that there is an international trade in cats.

A freedom of information request carried out by Cats Protection found that the number of cats seized at the UK border more than doubled between 2019 and 2020, and the majority were high-value breeds such as Scottish Folds, Maine Coons and Bengals. The breeding of some of these breeds—for example, Scottish Folds—has its own welfare concerns. There has also been a large increase in the number of cats being seized because of non-compliance with the Trade in Animals and Related Products Regulations 2011 between 2019 and 2020. Providing parity with the proposed dog legislation changes—at the same time as welcome changes are being made for dogs—would safeguard feline welfare against any opportunity for cats to be exploited in a similar way to dogs, particularly given the equivalent surge in demand for cats over the last 18 months.

I will move on to the importing of pregnant cats. As territorial animals, cats choose their environment. Transport can therefore be a stressful experience, as I know from the behaviour of my Milly when she goes to the vet, and it can be especially stressful if they are pregnant—although I hope she is not pregnant. Not extending the provisions proposed for dogs to cats threatens their welfare by risking having pregnant cats imported to meet increased demand. It is essential that the importation of pregnant cats is prohibited in the last 50% of gestation.

Public communications from DEFRA on banning the importation of mutilated animals have had a clear focus on dogs, with tail docking and ear cropping. While that is welcome, mutilation is not a concern only for dogs. Cats can be affected too, such as through the practice of declawing, which is illegal in the UK under section 5 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Under the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, all animals that have mutilations under the 2006 Act should be banned from importation. It is essential that there is a prohibition on importing cats with mutilations, such as declawed cats.

Effective, targeted and robust enforcement is crucial for the success of the new proposals and in order to halt pet smuggling for good. Increased spot checks—including visual checks of animals by Government agencies, which can significantly disrupt the movement of goods and people—are essential if puppy and kitten smuggling is to be tackled effectively. There should also be adequate staffing during weekends and evenings to reduce opportunities to circumvent spot checks, which should be accompanied by increased and sufficiently resourced cross-border and cross-agency collaboration, sharing intelligence and information on suspected smugglers and routes into the UK. It is disappointing that the Government consultation did not include more proposals and questions on an issue of such importance.

From 1 July 2022, commercial imports will have to enter Great Britain via a border control post. Despite that requirement, such posts do not cover all potential points of entry into the UK. It is unclear what steps will be taken to ensure that illegal importers cannot subvert the system simply by surreptitiously landing their animals at a non-designated port which may have less stringent checks. Greater clarity would also be welcome on the process following an illegal landing, as there is significant concern over the consequences if animals were given back to their owner and required to complete a harrowing return journey to their point of origin.

Thank you for chairing the debate, Ms Ali. I also thank the Minister for hearing the debate and I look forward to her response.

I am pleased to be able to contribute to the debate and I commend the Backbench Business Committee for making time for it. I want to mention some of the petitions that have been included as background papers to today’s debate because, although none have reached the 100,000-signature threshold to guarantee a debate, some of them raise important issues that deserve to at least be given an airing.

I commend the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) for her contribution and for her well-informed and well-researched comments, specifically on the laws that relate to the import of cats and how their welfare can be protected. Unlike the hon. Lady, I have never owned a cat in my life; I have been owned by a succession of mogs for a continuous period of about 25 years, although not recently. Something that always struck me was that every one of them was its own person. We have to accept that some animals have feelings, have emotions; they are intensely intelligent and intensely sentient. Sometimes I think they are a bit more emotionally intelligent than us humans.

Sadly, there are parts of the world, and there are people in all parts of the world, that regard all animals as simply objects to be bought and sold for money. Let us face it: there are people who think that their fellow human beings are little more than objects to be bought and sold for money. Therefore it is essential, in any legislation that this Parliament is competent to enforce, which in effect means the way animals are treated in the United Kingdom and all the rules about bringing animals into the United Kingdom, that we always impose our standard, the standard that would be accepted by the vast majority of people in these islands, which is that animals deserve to be treated humanely, to be well treated. They should not be transported halfway around the world in appalling conditions just because somebody thinks that having a cat or a dog of a particular breed will give them a bit of bragging rights at their local club.

In that context, I have to say that I do not get pedigree animals. All our cats were mogs, and proud to be so. I have some friends who get very touchy if their cat or dog is described as the wrong breed. I understand that that is a vital thing for a lot of people. I do not fully understand it myself—I don’t get it. I wonder whether we need to recognise that the belief that certain breeds are intrinsically more valuable than others is perhaps part of the problem. I know that that starts to open up very difficult questions—first, for those who have businesses responsibly and humanely breeding very specialist pedigrees, whether it is cats, dogs or any other animals. However, as somebody who is not really into the pedigree aspect of animals, I sometimes wonder whether it is part of the problem—if the reason why people are able to make money out of the cruel and unlawful treatment of animals is that somewhere, either in the UK or elsewhere, there is somebody who will pay an exceptional amount of money for a dog or cat just because it has a certificate that attaches it to a particular breed.

Dogs Trust has provided a very helpful briefing for today’s debate. It highlights some of the loopholes in the existing legislation and gives examples of how irresponsible breeders and irresponsible importers in the UK will find ways around legislation almost before the ink is dry on the Act. That means that the legislation has to keep being updated. We have to give powers to those with enforcement responsibilities so that they are able to adapt to whatever the latest dodge is.

For example, relatively recently, we have seen a big increase in the number of heavily pregnant dogs being brought into the UK, because the Government tried to help people to avoid buying illegally imported puppies by saying, “Don’t buy a puppy if you don’t see it with its mum.” What happened was that the importer would bring in a heavily pregnant female, show the puppies with their mum as soon as they were born, and then send the mum back to wherever she came from to start the whole horrible process again. The people buying the puppies in those cases thought that they were following the guidance; they had no idea that they were being duped and that the puppy would be with its mum for a few hours, if it was lucky, and that that would be the last it would see of her. I give that as just one example of how legislation has to keep pace with the worst examples of what we see either in the UK illegal pet import industry or in some of the worst examples that we see overseas.

I want to come on to the different petitions. There are two petitions about allowing pets to travel in airplane cabins. Neither has enough signatures to generate a debate, although one of them certainly has enough to merit a formal response from the Government, which it has received. If I am looking at petitions, my eyes are always drawn to the bit of the map that says “Glenrothes and Central Fife”, because how much support a petition has from my constituents is clearly relevant to me; and when I speak on behalf of the Scottish National party, I will always look to see what support it has elsewhere in Scotland. Neither of those two petitions, 587165 and 560549, has any significant support in Scotland. One of them got seven signatures from my constituency, and the other got one. Interestingly, the more heavily subscribed of them seems to have a lot of support in London. I do not know what the reason for that is, but the Government may want to look at why the question of how pets travel in aeroplanes is obviously important to a significant number of people in London and the surrounding area.

I can understand the sentiments behind that petition, because I can appreciate that it is upsetting for an owner to be separated from their pet for a long time while they are travelling and that the owner might think that it is also distressing for the pet. However, I am not convinced that I could support such a petition, although neither am I convinced that I would oppose it; I suppose that I am a bit of a “don’t know” on this issue.

That is partly because I am not an expert and so I cannot answer the question of whether it is in the best welfare interests of an animal to be in the cabin of a plane, where the owner can potentially hear it if it gets upset, but cannot do anything about it, or whether it is better to have pets in a designated part of the hold with a professional welfare officer there to look after them. I do not know the answer to that, but I think the petition possibly overstates the point a bit by suggesting that it is always in the interests of a pet to be kept in the cabin with its owner.

We also have to realise that even if the law was changed, what happens in practice would not necessarily change, because a lot of airlines flying in and out of countries where they are allowed to carry pets in the cabin choose, as a matter of their own policy, not to permit that, or they permit it only in certain circumstances. Thankfully, most airlines allow registered assistance dogs into the cabin, but a lot of them do not go any further than that. Although I can sympathise with the intention behind this petition, I am not convinced that changing the law in the way that is being asked for would have as much benefit as the petitioners perhaps think it would.

I can understand why the Government do not want to introduce any legislation on that just now; I can understand that they might not be convinced of the benefits, but can the Minister point to any clear evidence that changing the law as requested would cause any harm? If changing the law will not do a lot of good, but will not do any harm, why do we not allow airlines to do something that might benefit some of their passengers, unless there is clear evidence that harm would be done?

I have a great deal more sympathy for the other two petitions. First, petition 565677 seeks a common travel area between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for guide dogs and assistance dogs. It received just under 6,000 signatures, which is not a lot, but in Northern Ireland it received over 3,800 signatures. This petition is about an issue that has little or no impact on mainland Great Britain, but clearly is significant for people in Northern Ireland: 3,800 signatories from a population of 1.9 million is equivalent to about 138,000 signatories in the whole of the United Kingdom. We would clearly see that number as meriting time for a debate, either here in Westminster Hall or even possibly in the main Chamber.

I have a particular interest in making the guide dog service as widely available as possible, because my grandad, Arthur Grant, went blind in later life as a result of cataracts. Then he got Punch. He had Punch for about two or three years, and Punch changed his life. Unfortunately, Punch was quite a bit younger and fitter than my grandad, and too often Punch took grandad for a walk instead of the other way round. So Punch was taken and retrained for a younger owner, and Kirsty arrived. Kirsty was with my grandad for her entire working life. My grandad died the weekend after Kirsty was retired and I will always believe that he just decided that it was time to go.

For all that time, Punch and then Kirsty were my grandad’s eyes, but they were more than that; they were his constant companions. They were his best friends in a way that a dog or a cat that is a best friend to somebody who can see for themselves cannot possibly be.

My grandad had 12 active and independent years at the end of his life, which would not have been possible without those guide dogs, so I can never sufficiently thank the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, as it was called then. I can say with some feeling that any obstacle that gets in the way of this life-changing service in any part of these islands must be removed, if at all possible, and I urge the Government to look very seriously at this petition and to do what it takes to deliver what is being asked for.

It is tragic if anyone in Northern Ireland is either unable to receive the support of a guide dog or has to wait for a guide dog to arrive because of bureaucracy related to Brexit. As this part of the debate focuses almost entirely on Northern Ireland, it is perhaps worth pointing out that grandad Grant was of Ulster descent, which, of course, means that so am I; in fact, I can claim Ulster descent on both sides of my family.

The final petition that we are considering—petition 593806—calls for the UK to join the EU pet passport scheme. Again, there are not a huge number of signatories, but I know that the people who have signed this petition love their animals—their pets—and get really distressed at the additional bureaucracy and additional cost that is now imposed on them if they want to do what they used to do quite easily, which is to take their pet on holiday with them.

What this petition tries to undo is one of the downsides of Brexit that people were not told about before. I am hoping that today’s debate can be consensual, so I will not labour the point too much, but it is one example of a consequence of Brexit that might not have looked like it was very high up the list of issues to be addressed at the time. It simply was not addressed until it was too late.

While the Government will no doubt talk about their efforts to persuade the European Union to improve the UK’s position from part 2 to part 1 listed, the unavoidable truth is that on the day that the Government unilaterally set out for EU exit, they handed that decision over entirely to the European Union. The petition asks to undo some of the damage done by Brexit. I suspect those who signed the petition, even those who voted for Brexit, had no idea of the impact that Brexit was going to have.

Are the Government aware of any harm that would be done if the petition on allowing pets into aircraft cabins was accepted? On the petitions for a common travel area for guide dogs and assistance dogs, and on rejoining the EU pet passport scheme or giving pet owners benefits as close to those granted under that scheme as possible, I urge the Government to do what is requested as soon as possible.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Ali—I think it is the first time I have done so. I congratulate the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) on bringing the debate to the Chamber. I follow the work of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs very closely. It produced an excellent report, which the hon. Lady referred to extensively. Some of the issues are under consideration during the passage of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill and I had the pleasure of being on the Bill Committee and will comment on some of those points.

Of course, the debate is also about pet travel in general. I start by following up on some of the comments of the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), who spoke for the SNP. In my part of the world, huge numbers of people travelled freely to and from our neighbouring countries in the European Union over many years, not just for holidays, but for work. For thousands and thousands of people in and around Cambridge, the changes that were introduced at the start of this year had implications that were perhaps not entirely foreseen, exactly as the hon. Member for Glenrothes has said.

As ever, the House of Commons Library briefing on this was very useful. As it explains, when we left the EU, we were treated as a third country. Now, the new scheme requires pet owners to obtain an animal health certificate for their pet every time they travel to the EU. That certificate must be produced in the 10 days before travel—not exactly always very convenient, when people are busy working. It is valid for four months, and the costs charged vary between an estimated £100 and £150 a time.

Does the briefing that the hon. Gentleman refers to note what other measures EU member states are imposing on people who want to visit the UK and bring their pets? It would be interesting to see what the like-for-like situation is.

The hon. Member raises an interesting point. Sadly, we are exactly in that tit-for-tat situation, so it does not work for anybody, which, of course, is what many of us rather feared.

My constituents now face considerable inconvenience and considerable costs. Frankly, it gets worse. As the hon. Member for Glenrothes said, the Government have negotiated for part 2 listed status, and believe that we should qualify for part 1 listed status, but it is of course part of a wider negotiation, which is the problem we have entered into.

I was quite shocked to read about the situation with Northern Ireland, which effectively means that animal health certificates are needed for trips in and out of Northern Ireland. When asked about the costs, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) said, in reply to a written question, that the cost of AHCs is

“a private matter between individual practices and their clients”.

That is a statement of truth, but no consolation for people who face those very high costs. It is a very unsatisfactory situation. Obviously, we hope that it can be improved in the future.

I am sorry to intervene again, but when I worked as a GP receptionist before I came to this place, suggested charges were circulated to all GPs on all sorts of things that they would term “private work”, including diving medicals, signing letters and so on. Does the hon. Gentleman have any information on what the BMA recommends GPs should charge?

I am talking about pets, and the situation is very clearly different from what it was last year. The hon. Member for Glenrothes said that he hoped for a consensual debate—he is absolutely right to—but I am just laying out the facts. Pet travel is more difficult, and although it may be a difficult question to answer, I hope to hear from the Minister about progress on that.

The hon. Member for South East Cornwall raised a whole series of absolutely appropriate questions around pet smuggling, and I will address those.

To clarify, I should have said the British Veterinary Association and veterinary practitioners.

Ah, that is a different issue entirely. I have looked at the BVA policy position on pet travel, and it has a whole series of detailed recommendations. I am not sure that I want to take the Minister through all the various forms of tapeworm and rabies so late on a Thursday afternoon. Clearly, expert advice on how we might be able to improve the position is available to the Government, and I am sure that they will be mindful of it.

I will be brief, as I am sure you will be pleased to hear, Ms Ali, because many of the points have already been well made by both speakers so far. I very much agree with the hon. Member for South East Cornwall about cats—I am a cat person myself. In the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill Committee, we had considerable back and forth on whether the legislation treated cats fairly. I had representations from Cats Protection, and it is fair to say that we would like to strengthen that Bill. I am sure that the Minister will reflect any comments and observations made this afternoon back to her ministerial colleague,

The good news is that the Bill will be back with us on Report and there will be some exciting amendments for people to support. I hope that the hon. Member for South East Cornwall will be with us on those points as we try to strengthen the Bill on behalf of cats. In Committee, there was considerable consensus—sadly, not with the Government, but with some Government Back Benchers—in two or three areas in particular, including whether five or three pets should be checked at the border, and of course, the EFRA Committee had a view on that. The consensus led to a historic tied vote in Committee, which was carried for the Government by the Chair’s reluctant casting vote—the Chair was a Labour Member but he did the decent thing. That matter will, I suspect, be an issue on Report.

Similarly, there was consensus on the age of animals that are being imported, pregnancy and, in particular, fashion-based mutilation. I think we all find it extraordinary that anyone would want to do those horrible things to dogs, or that anyone would want to buy a dog with cropped ears, but it seems, sadly, that people do and that there is a market for that, although I note that many of those poor animals are now being dumped post pandemic, which shows how difficult some of this stuff is. We would also like the legislation to be strengthened in the same way to protect against the declawing of cats, which I think most of us find extraordinary but which is being done, particularly in America. As the hon. Lady said, there are some implementation issues for border checks, because we would need visual checks rather than the current processes to make that work.

Although there are perhaps one or two points on which we cannot agree, we can agree on a lot. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to respond on pet travel. We all know that pets are part of people’s families. We want to ensure that our country is protected, particularly against rabies and other diseases, and to crack down on those who pursue the vile trades that have been mentioned. Provided that pet owners can travel with their pets safely, we want them to be able to do so in the smoothest and most efficient way.

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Ms Ali—I do not think I have had that pleasure before. What a lovely subject to be debating: cats. I do not know whether you are a cat owner, Ms Ali.

You are not; but a lot of us here are. Those who are not are missing out, I think—hands up for cats. I did not get the name of the shadow Minister’s cat.

I am afraid my cat has been 25 years gone, but I and the Minister’s colleague the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) have frequently mentioned Brian, who unfortunately was a female cat—I was not entirely accurate in my identification.

And we are still talking about Brian, the female cat, 25 years on, which is pretty good, isn’t it?

If anybody were tempted to adopt a cat, I am sure they could approach Cats Protection. When I adopted Louie, I did it virtually. The adoption of cats did not stop during the pandemic, and they make such wonderful companions.

I thank my hon. Friend. While we are talking about how wonderful they are, I have to mention my two cats, Mr Tipps and Raffa. The lovely lady who goes into my house to feed them when I am not there has literally just sent me two pictures of them so that I know they are okay—I think they are basically in command when I am not there, having a great time.

We are a nation of dog lovers and cat lovers, are we not? I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) for securing this debate. She is a great champion for cats, being chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on cats, and she has a lot of in-depth knowledge of this subject, so I thank her for securing the debate. I personally take all issues relating to the welfare of animals—particularly things such as puppy smuggling, other illegal importations and low welfare movements of pets—extremely seriously. There is an abhorrent trade going on out there. I believe that, as a Back Bencher, I worked with my hon. Friend; indeed, I was co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for animal welfare. Interestingly, as I think the shadow Minister will agree, a lot of the measures in the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill relate to the issues we talked about up to five years ago. Those things, which are a manifesto commitment, are now coming forward in that Bill, cracking down on these ghastly practices, particularly puppy smuggling and low welfare issues. I am very pleased that we are seeing that action happen now.

My hon. Friend will be familiar with the significant changes that I am proposing we make to the existing rules on the non-commercial movement and the commercial importation of cats, dogs and ferrets—do not leave out the ferrets, Ms Ali. We know that there is evidence that traders abuse our pet travel rules, illicitly using them to bring in lots of puppies at once to maximise profit. The welfare of those puppies is frequently compromised—we have all seen some really ghastly footage of what is going on. Indeed, I have friends who have brought a dog without any idea at all that they came through illegal channels, so that definitely needs cracking down on.

The Bill aims to tackle the issue by reducing the number of pets—dogs, cats and ferrets—that can travel in one non-commercial movement from five per person to five per vehicle, or three per person if people are travelling on foot or by air, to prevent unscrupulous traders from exploiting our pet travel rules. Air travel was raised by the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), who does not have a cat—although I think that, having heard this debate, he might be going home to get one.

I could not honestly tell the Minister how many cats have owned me in the past. When the last one went to the big cattery in the sky, the reason we chose not to get another one was precisely that we were not happy at having to impose on neighbours to look after them when we were away and did not feel it was fair on the cat to take it with us. It is not that I would not like to have a cat; it is just that we thought it was not fair on the cats to be left to look after the house on their own when we were not there.

That is a really important point for pet owners, and it is why I do not have a dog—it simply would not be fair to leave it. I think that cats are rather more independent, although I have to rely on a neighbour to come in and out, so the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Even though people can now get self-feed mechanisms and watch on their phone to see whether the cats have taken the food, I want a human to come in and see my cats every day, because I think they like it. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point.

The hon. Member for Glenrothes was talking about air travel. Obviously, all pets travelling into GB have to be checked for compliance with the necessary health and documentary requirements prior to entry. To facilitate those checks, all pets entering GB airports must be transported safely and securely to the pet-checking facility. In practice, that means that most pets are required to travel by air to GB as manifest cargo, and we do not have any immediate plans to change the process by which pets—cats, dogs and ferrets—may enter GB by air. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware of that. Interestingly, when one was allowed to travel freely, my daughter travelled to Majorca with a friend’s dog. The dog was next to her on the plane, in a proper bag, which I find extraordinary. I have never seen that before, but it was all totally legal and had all the right paperwork. The dog was literally sitting on the seat next to her.

Back to the Bill. As I have said, it aims to tackle these issues by reducing the allowed number of pets from five per person to five per vehicle, and to three per person if one is travelling on foot. We completed extensive research and engagement with various stakeholders to determine a suitable limit that would disrupt the illegal trade while diminishing the impact on genuine owners travelling with their pets under the pet rules. The Bill also includes an enabling power to make regulations about the importation of pet animals in Great Britain, for the purpose of promoting animal welfare. That will enable us to go further in the future and explore measures such as increasing the minimum age at which animals can be moved for non-commercial purposes or commercially imported into Great Britain, prohibiting the importation of heavily pregnant dams and animals that have been subjected to mutilations, such as ear-cropping and tail-docking. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall welcomes all the measures in the Bill, as she said. The Bill has completed its Committee stage in the House of Commons, as we have heard, and we are now awaiting a date for Report.

In August, the Government launched an eight-week consultation on our proposed restrictions to the commercial and non-commercial movement of pets in Great Britain. The consultation focused largely on dogs and included proposals to prohibit the commercial importation and non-commercial movement of puppies under six months, dogs that have undergone non-exempted mutilations such as cropped ears and docked tails, and dogs that are over 42 days pregnant. We have proposed a limited number of exceptions to the measures that were laid out within the consultation, which also sought views on the enforcement regime, the process for seizing and detaining animals that are suspected of being illegally imported, and whether the maximum penalty should be increased.

The consultation has now closed, and we have received an incredible 14,000 responses from a wide range of stakeholders and members of the public. We are analysing all the responses to the consultation and will publish a summary in due course. That will allow us to take on board the views of the public and interested groups, such as Cats Protection, to shape future policy. We will continue to work closely with all the stakeholders before the introduction of the legislation to ensure that the final measures are well considered and led by the latest evidence.

We are finally getting to cats. I fully acknowledge the concerns that have been raised about extending the measures to cats, and I am also aware that a number of stakeholders are calling for us to raise the minimum age at which kittens can be imported and to ban the importation of heavily pregnant and declawed cats. I absolutely agree with hon. Members who have mentioned that horrific activity, which is illegal in the UK. We did not propose those measures in the consultation because there is limited evidence of a significant illegal trade in cats, or significant numbers of low welfare movements.

Going into some of the stats, the number of movements of cats into Great Britain is much lower than for dogs. In 2020, cats made up 9% of the total commercial movements of cats, dogs and ferrets to Great Britain, although that was a 2% increase from 2019 and I acknowledge the point made about cat ownership rocketing during lockdown. Dogs travelling by the same rules made up 91% of the total movements. Non-commercial movements of cats are also much lower than those of dogs. In 2020, 12% of the corresponding non-commercial movements into Great Britain were of cats, while dogs made up 88% of the total movements over the same period. We are also not seeing the same issues with young kittens and pregnant cats being imported. In 2020, only 17 kittens under 15 weeks—and zero pregnant cats—were seized and detained.

The consultation obviously sought views on whether that was the right approach. I note the comments made and will definitely pass them to the Minister who is bringing forward the Bill, particularly about pregnant cats, the specialist breeds, and that de-clawing mutilation issue.

There is a possibility for an amendment in the other place to ensure that we are not back here in five years’ time because the situation with dogs has been addressed, but the situation with cats has escalated to the level that we now see with dogs. We perhaps need to prepare for the future.

I thank my hon. Friend for that very clear point. Obviously, the details of the consultation will be analysed. A lot of views were put forward, and I obviously want to give reassurances that the issue will be fully considered and the response will be published.

One or two Members mentioned enforcement, and the Animal and Plant Health Agency works collaboratively with Border Force and other operational partners at ports, airports, and inland, sharing intelligence to enforce the pet travel scheme, disrupt illegal imports and seize non-compliant animals. The enabling power in the Bill allows the Government to make provisions about the enforcement of any new prohibitions brought in under the power. In addition, APHA has the ability, under existing legislation, to undertake checks on pets, including documentary, identity and physical checks.

We do not propose to make fundamental changes to the enforcement regime as we believe the network of agencies and stakeholders who work on puppy smuggling are doing a good job. We operate one of the most rigorous and robust pet-checking regimes in Europe, and all non-commercial dogs, cats and ferrets entering Great Britain on approved routes—every route other than via the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Crown Dependencies—under the pet travel rules undergo 100% documentary and identity checks by authorised pet checkers.

My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall is correct that commercial movements of cats, dogs and ferrets into Great Britain from the European Union must soon enter Great Britain via a designated border control post. Under the Government’s phased border strategy, post-import checks on commercial cats, dogs and ferrets from the EU are due to be replaced with border control post risk-based checks when sufficient capacity allows. All third-country—so non-EU—shipments are currently checked at the border control post prior to entry. That will continue. As I mentioned, APHA will continue to work collaboratively with Border Force and other operational partners to share intelligence to disrupt this illegal trade.

I will take the intervention, but first I want to say a little more that might answer the question the hon. Gentleman is about to ask. He raised the issues —as did our SNP colleague, the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant)—of the part 2 third country status. The UK has been formally listed as a part 2 third country for the purposes of the EU pet travel scheme, which means that new rules post the transition period now apply to pet movement from Great Britain to the EU and Northern Ireland. These rules are set out in the EU pet travel scheme.

We are committed to simplifying pet movements. As set out in the July ’21 Command Paper, we seek a new balance with the EU that would allow pets that meet UK standards to move more freely. DEFRA recognises the undue impact that these changes are having on many people, including pet owners and assistance dog users. DEFRA has been clear that there are no animal health or biosecurity justifications for those additional rules for travel to the EU, and we seek agreement with the EU Commission on awarding GB part 1 listed status and recognition of the UK’s tapeworm-free status. Achieving them would obviously alleviate the most onerous pet travel rules for all travellers. We see no valid animal health reasons for those not to be granted.

I am very grateful to the Minister. Does she agree that these extra burdens—the £150, the 10 days—make life much more difficult for many of our constituents?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. That is why DEFRA is working hard on the issue. We already have one of the most rigorous pet-checking regimes, to protect our biosecurity. We have submitted a detailed technical case setting that out. We continue to engage with the EU to come up with a much more workable situation.

You will be pleased to hear, Ms Ali, that I am going to wind up my speech. I reassure hon. Members and my hon. Friends that the Government’s commitment to protecting and enhancing the welfare of animals is uppermost. I believe we have already achieved a great deal, but we want to go further, hence the introduction of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. We want to ensure that all animals are afforded the care, protection and respect that they deserve. I am proud of the work going on through the Bill and the measures that the Government have already taken. I reassure Members that officials are working hard behind the scenes. That consultation is being analysed and will be published shortly.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling the debate and my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall for introducing it. I think we all agree that we are a nation of pet lovers, and cat lovers in particular. Once the debate is over, I will be heading for the train to get back to see my two cats.

I will not delay us any longer either, because I am going to hit the car to get back to Milly and Louie. I thank the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), for attending the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) had intended to attend, as a real expert on veterinary matters, but unfortunately he had another engagement. I thank the Minister for her answers. I hope she will be able to make sure that the Bill, when it finally becomes an Act, is welcomed by our cat friends as well.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered pet travel.

Sitting adjourned.