Thursday 2 December 2021
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit
I remind Members that the House authorities request people to wear face coverings, except when they are speaking in the debate. I am also asked to remind Members to have a covid lateral flow test twice weekly if coming on to the parliamentary estate—that may be done either at the testing centre on the estate or at home—and to space yourselves out. Clearly, we have spaced ourselves out nicely already.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the 2021 Tokyo Nutrition for Growth summit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for affording me the opportunity to propose the motion.
It is almost exactly a year since we last gathered in Westminster Hall to debate the role of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in tackling global malnutrition. At the time, I, the all-party parliamentary group on Nutrition for Growth—which I co-chair with Lord Collins of Highbury—and the Members present at the debate urged the FCDO to make an early Nutrition for Growth commitment at an event co-hosted by the Governments of Canada and Bangladesh. Indeed, the UK was represented at that event. Of course, it took place because the Nutrition for Growth summit had been postponed for a year because of covid. The summit is finally scheduled to happen in just a few days.
On 7 and 8 December, the Government of Japan will convene Governments, philanthropists, non-governmental organisations and business leaders in an online summit to commit finances and to make policy changes that will help to end malnutrition. It will be the fourth Nutrition for Growth summit since the initiative was launched by David Cameron and the UK Government in 2013. The focus of the Nutrition for Growth APPG had obviously been on the Tokyo summit, but the delay because of covid has allowed us to continue to press the issue at every parliamentary opportunity. I thank our secretariat, Results UK, and Tom Guha in particular, for their help and support in doing so.
I also took the opportunity to meet the Prime Minister last week to discuss the issues and to reaffirm the prime ministerial support that Nutrition for Growth has always enjoyed. I know, therefore, that he will be taking a significant interest in the summit and its outcome, and he wants to see the continuation of the global leadership that the UK has demonstrated to date.
Before I get on to the summit itself, I will lay out why malnutrition is a problem that demands our urgent attention. I will start with one very grim statistic: in 2019, more than 5 million children under five died. Malnutrition was linked to 45% of those deaths. That is a staggering number, and the reason for it is that malnutrition during critical periods of growth—for example, during pregnancy or the early years—stunts the growth of the immune system, making children more likely both to get ill and to die as a result.
The problem does not stop there. In 2020, 149 million children worldwide suffered chronic health conditions due to stunted growth. That number is more than double the population size of the UK. In some regions, such as central Africa, stunting affects 40% of all children. Malnutrition not only has dire health consequences, but malnourished children are 13% less likely to be in the correct school year for their age. Moreover, the World Bank estimates that malnutrition costs some countries up to 11% of GDP annually through productivity losses and healthcare costs.
Nutrition is a foundational investment in people. It prevents ill health, rather than treating it, it ensures that children learn at school rather than simply attend, and it sets children up to realise their future potential in adult life. It is for this reason that Nobel economists describe nutrition as
“the most effective development investment that could be made, with massive benefits for a tiny price-tag.”
Whatever the Government’s position on the overseas aid budget, I am sure that we all agree that taxpayers’ money should be spent as impactfully as possible. Therefore, we must prioritise nutrition and use summits such as Nutrition for Growth to co-ordinate our approach with other countries to maximise its impact even further.
There is some good news. Although the problem of malnutrition is all too prevalent, the number of under-five deaths worldwide has more than halved since 1990 and the number of stunted children has decreased by 11% in the past 20 years, from 203 million to 149 million. The figure is enormous, but that is still a monumental achievement that shows that action and global co-operation to address malnutrition have worked.
Progress is now under threat. Covid has closed health centres, and pushed food prices up and wages down. As a result, it is predicted that an additional 283,000 children under five will die from malnutrition between 2020 and 2022, which is a shocking equivalent to 225 more children dying every day. In the same period, it is predicted that an additional 3.6 million children will become stunted.
We cannot stand by as years of progress unravel in this way. I have the following calls on the Minister today. Will she confirm that the UK Government will make a pledge at the Nutrition for Growth summit next week? Will the UK Government commit to reach 50 million women, adolescent girls and children with high-impact nutrition interventions by 2025, which would be consistent with the commitment they gave at the last Nutrition for Growth summit? Will she ensure that her Department has the funding required to meet that target? NGOs estimate that roughly £120 million per year is required for nutrition-specific programmes, but that accounts for just 1% of official development assistance. Will the FCDO increase the impact of other UK aid spending by adding nutrition objectives to £680 million of programming in other areas?
That is not an ask for new money; it is about targeting other programmes, such as agricultural or social protection schemes, on areas with a high prevalence of malnutrition. Will the Government and the FCDO commit to implement the OECD’s policy marker for nutrition at programme design phase, to ensure that the Minister’s Department proactively considers how nutrition can be woven into programmes? These are not just arbitrary requests or calls for more money. Each commitment would make a real difference to the lives of millions of malnourished women, children and adolescent girls.
To conclude, let me give just one example of the difference that such commitments can make, by speaking about Halima. Halima was 17 months old when she was admitted to hospital in Mogadishu. She was dangerously underweight and had peeling skin, swollen limbs and brittle hair. As a result of UK funding, Halima was given ready-to-use therapeutic food at the hospital, and her mother, Fatuma, was supported with a cash transfer scheme that enabled her to provide her daughter with a healthy, balanced diet. I am sure we are all pleased to know that after five months, Halima was bouncy, bubbly and healthy. As a direct result of decisions made in this place and by the UK Government, Halima survived.
Let us grasp the opportunity that the Nutrition for Growth summit next week affords, to ensure that there are more positive outcomes like Halima’s. I look forward to the debate and to the Minister’s positive response.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) for securing this debate on the very important Nutrition for Growth summit in Tokyo next week, and for such a thoughtful opening speech.
Since I have been chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the human microbiome, I have been furthering my knowledge about the fundamental role that diet plays in everyone’s health and its ability to change the gut microbiome for better or worse. I raise the issue of the gut microbiome because it plays a crucial role in nutritional uptake. The composition of the bacteria in the gut is implicated in a vast array of illnesses, conditions and infections that affect physical and mental health. Around 70% of the immune system is derived from the gut microbiome, so the stronger it is, the stronger our immune system and overall resilience—that is particularly pertinent in this time of covid-19.
The remarkable thing about our gut microbiome is that, unlike our genetics, it can be altered throughout our lives—deliberately, and for the better—most easily by the foods we choose to eat, among other things. Our gut microbiome needs to have many of the positive types of bacteria that are beneficial to health, which are collectively called probiotics. We can ingest those bacteria in the food we eat, especially fermented foods such as live yoghurts, and in any approved supplements that we may take. The positive bacteria then need food of their own so that they can produce the compounds that support our health and resilience. One of the reasons we are encouraged to eat a wide variety of plant foods is that they feed the positive bacteria that we all need to make for our health to be more robust, with better resistance to infection. Food that targets specific types of positive bacteria can be taken in the form of supplements called prebiotics.
At a recent meeting of the APPG on the human microbiome, we had a talk by Professor Gregor Reid of Western University in London, Ontario, in Canada. He spoke about a truly transformative programme that is already operational in Africa, called Fermented Food for Life, which is pertinent to the ambitions of the summit. The programme provides affordable, good-tasting foods that improve the gut microbiome, nutritional intake and health. It uses local people, local resources and a very simple production method that ferments milk, fruits, cereals and vegetables. It starts with an affordable sachet containing 1 gram of two food-grade beneficial bacteria that can produce 100 litres of probiotic fermented food. A cow or goat will then provide milk that is fermented with the bacteria in order to make yoghurt. Fermented fruit juices, vegetables and cereals, all of which are highly nutritious, can also be made. By making such foods with some of those types of probiotic bacteria, we are adding to the health-promoting properties of these organisms.
Scientists in Canada and the Netherlands have shown that communities in Africa can purchase the sachets and minimal equipment to produce those health-promoting probiotic fermented foods—supplemented if desired with local moringa leaves, which are considered to be nutritional treasures in themselves—and create a value chain that brings economic and health gains.
Research has shown that probiotic yoghurts can confer health benefits such as preventing and treating gastrointestinal infections, increasing birth weight in babies and improving the mother’s health, helping to remove toxins such as mercury from the body, strengthening the immune system, and improving general health and nutrition. Such effects are particularly pronounced in areas with high rates of malnutrition and for individuals who are immunocompromised. Many peer-reviewed research papers back that up.
There are now hundreds of yoghurt kitchens in east Africa, run by women affectionately known as yoghurt mamas. In 2019, the programme reached some 260,000 consumers. As well as the production, there is a distribution network providing employment. By improving the microbiome, the Fermented Food for Life programme is improving nutritional uptake and the health of people in low-income African countries. If such a programme can work in Africa, it can work across the world. It is easily replicable, low cost, sustainable, uses local resources and contributes to meaningful employment and community health.
With a little external investment, many more yoghurt kitchens can be set up. There is a model to follow, and we know it works. The people behind the programme know that it can be transferred to other countries where malnutrition is prevalent—it could even be transferred to Britain and other developed countries. When we talk about malnutrition, we have to link it to poverty, unemployment, low levels of education or lack of accessibility to good, affordable food. We all know that those factors affect regions in our own country.
If such a programme can work in Africa, it can work across the world. Micro-enterprises anywhere in the world can follow the same model as in Africa to produce probiotic fermented foods to improve health outcomes through the gut microbiome. These cost-effective solutions have been shown to work, and this sustainable programme of recognising the gut microbiome as an integral element of human health fits perfectly with the three key pillars of the Nutrition for Growth summit: health, food and resilience.
I know that the Government are considering whether to renew their commitment to reach 50 million people with nutrition interventions by 2025 at the summit next week, as recommended by the International Coalition for Advocacy on Nutrition, which includes Save the Children, UNICEF and other important non-governmental organisations. Now that the spending review is over, perhaps the Minister could update us on the progress of that decision. As part of such a renewed commitment to the Nutrition for Growth summit, would the Government explore supporting programmes like the one I have described?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) on securing this debate, which is timely given the summit next week, and because yesterday was World AIDS Day, and nutrition is crucial in helping people infected with HIV/AIDS—as well as those with covid and many other diseases, as we have heard.
I am struck by the link between this debate and one that we had on Tuesday in Westminster Hall on the wellbeing economy approach to measuring success and what matters. That debate was particularly about our response to climate change, but it is at the heart of the issue of nutrition for growth as well.
Katherine Trebeck, a constituent of mine, is a leading thinker on wellbeing economics. She talks about how we can reframe the kind of goals we want to achieve and the measures that we make of society. One of her cornerstone indicators is how many girls in a country cycle to school. That can be applied in the United Kingdom and in sub-Saharan Africa. A range of things have to come together to increase that number, and the benefits of that increase are so important for so many other things across society.
Nutrition is absolutely at the core of that. Any of us who wants to expend energy—in fighting disease, paying attention in class, working in heavy industry or talking in Westminster Hall—has to be adequately fed. We recognise that in our country. One of the biggest political debates during the covid crisis was free school meals. The Government had to respond to the national outcry led by Marcus Rashford, who knows from experience that sustenance and adequate nutrition are the foundation of everything a person might want to do in daily life. The series of Nutrition for Growth summits are recognition of the centrality of good nutrition to human development. The summit in a couple of weeks will build on previous summits. We recognise that they were started under the Conservative Government of David Cameron, but of course that Government reached the 0.7% target and increased the amount of money that the UK was spending on international development. I will come back to that, because sadly that is not what this Conservative Government are doing.
Nutrition is the underlying driver of, and essential to meeting, 12 of the 17 sustainable development goals, and it is absolutely crucial to the second sustainable development goal of ending hunger in all its forms by 2030, which is not very far away at all. Again, I pay tribute to David Cameron’s work to mobilise global opinion behind the SDGs. People questioned whether 17 SDGs was enough or too many. It is the right number, because those were identified as the goals that we need to meet in order to build a more sustainable and just world for everybody.
The fact that the goal on hunger is the second SDG is recognition of how important it is to achieving everything else that we want to achieve. I pay tribute to the work of the University of Nottingham, and particularly Professor Nicola Pitchford; at a recent meeting of all-party parliamentary groups, they gave a presentation on a very impressive study they are doing in Malawi to monitor, prove and demonstrate the significance of nutrition for all the other wellbeing indicators. The right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale is vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Malawi, and we share a deep interest in that country. That study will use big data from across the whole country; 4,500 mother and infant pairs will be studied over the long term to see what difference different kinds of intervention can make. Crucial to that will, of course, be the kind of food and the adequacy of the nutrition that they are able to access.
The latest FCDO annual report states that Malawi is to experience a 50% cut in the aid it receives from the United Kingdom. This has to be addressed. I know it is uncomfortable. Ministers do not like it, and Conservative Back Benchers do not like it very much either, but the reality is that the United Kingdom is set to make one of the biggest cuts to its overseas nutrition work in history. The aid budget as a whole faces a cut of roughly a third, and aid for nutrition is set to be slashed by 70%. That is the finding of the International Coalition for Advocacy on Nutrition, which produced a through report with some important recommendations, some of which the right hon. Gentleman echoed.
The difficulty, which we were warned of when the cuts came forward, is that they are not being applied equally across the board. It is almost impossible to apply them equally across the board, so the Government are having to pick and choose between priorities, whether that is priority issues or priority countries. As soon as they do that, other projects and programmes that have been supported by the Department for International Development and the FCDO suffer disproportionately.
The reality of the cuts is that the money will not turn back on like a tap in a couple of years’ time when the Chancellor says, “We’re going to get back to 0.7%.” That will be of no use to programmes that are closing now, for experience that is being lost now, to staff who are moving to other projects or moving elsewhere, and for the progress that has been made with cohorts who are not receiving inputs now. That will have a long-term consequence, even if the budget is brought back up to 0.7% in a couple of years’ time—and we will wait to see whether that is what happens. I have to contrast that with what the Scottish Government are doing. They have increased their international development fund, despite the pressures on their budget as a whole. When Scotland becomes an independent country, we absolutely want to meet 0.7%. We have recently offered £250,000 to help with the hunger crisis in Sudan, and another £250,000 to Afghanistan because of the approaching catastrophic winter famine.
As the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) said, this issue affects countries all around the world. We are particularly focused, in the summit and in the debate, on Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and developing countries in the least developed category, but the issue affects so many people. As I said at the start, it affects us here at home as well. That is why I warmly welcome the Scottish Government’s commitments on free school meals. Over many years now, that has been rolled out to increasing numbers of primary school children. The Scottish Government are going further, faster, because they recognise the difference that it makes to the wellbeing of children, their educational opportunities and closing the attainment gap. If it is good enough for us here in Scotland and the United Kingdom, it should be good enough for all the countries that we work with around the world.
I hope that the Minister will recognise the foundational importance of nutrition for all the other development goals that we aspire to reach, and that the UK Government will find a way to show leadership when it comes to requests made by stakeholder groups and by the Members in today’s debate. If we do not do that, it will put all the other goals at risk, because of the foundational nature of this topic.
I know things are difficult for the Minister; first of all, half the ministerial team are off because of various commitments and self-isolation. They have been working very hard this week, between Westminster Hall and the Chamber. Also, it is difficult because it is an uncomfortable decision that has been made. However, we have to be honest about the reality of the impact of the cuts. We need to work together in order to find the best way to act to make the best of the situation, and to use the resources as effectively as possible, so that they make as big a difference as possible.
I look forward to contributing under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) on securing this timely debate, and on his brilliant contribution.
As an officer of the all-party parliamentary group on population, development and reproductive health, and as a member of the Select Committee on International Development, I have always had a passion for this subject. I will join my colleagues next week at the summit online; we will be there from the IDC.
Next week, this Government have the opportunity to continue the work that they have done promoting good nutrition. In 2013, this Government led the world at the first Nutrition for Growth summit, and we can do it again. Truly it is an opportunity to fundamentally change the lives of the poorest in the world for the better. This is possibly the most important time to tackle malnutrition since the 1983 to 1985 famine in Ethiopia.
Covid-19 has ripped through the most deprived parts of the world in ways inconceivable to us. It has left swathes of already vulnerable children on the very edge of starvation. This year, 225 more children will die every day because of malnutrition. An additional 3.6 million children are predicted to become stunted, and 13.6 million children are predicted to become wasted by 2022 because of malnutrition arising from covid-19. This is not intangible. It is real children whose lives are blighted.
Nutrition is the single simplest, most effective way to improve lives across the globe, yet this year we are turning our backs on the malnourished. This Christmas— supposedly a time of good will—while the aid budget as a whole is facing a cut of roughly a third, ODA for nutrition is set to be slashed by 70%, despite the relative affordability of nutrition, the efficiency of spending it represents, and the impact it has. Nutrition cuts across every single target the FCDO has. It meets targets and it changes lives. Money spent on nutrition delivers an average return of 16 times the investment and supports future generations; it does not have a one-off impact.
With this in mind, and with the legacy of the first Nutrition for Growth summit as a role model, I hope the Minister will answer the following questions. There might be some repetition of other Members’ suggestions; I tried to cut it out, but then I thought, “I must add my voice to theirs, and endorse and support what they said.” Will the Minister attend the Nutrition for Growth summit, make an ambitious pledge there, and commit to renewing the commitment to reaching 50 million children, women and adolescent girls with nutrition programmes by 2025? Will the Minister commit to adding nutrition indicators to roughly £680 million of aid in other areas, to maximise the effectiveness of the aid budget? What work is the Minister’s Department doing to ensure that other Government Departments and other Governments around the world take nutrition seriously? Finally, will she commit to reading the International Coalition for Advocacy on Nutrition’s latest document, “Time for Action”, and respond to its recommendations?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) not only for securing this debate, but for making very eloquent and powerful arguments in the run-up to the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth summit next week. I thank all Members who have spoken. It seems that we are breaking out into consensus, and I hope to hear a consensual reply from the Minister.
For many of us, our first and fundamental understanding of international development, and our moral obligation as global citizens to provide assistance to the poorest and most vulnerable in the world, will have been shaped by stories and images of children who did not have the well-nourished, healthy life that we took for granted. We see pleas, both on television and in newspapers, almost every day for support from our citizens for those most in need. Those of us old enough remember the horrific images from the mid-1980s of many children starving to death, which led to an international outcry. We all watched the Band Aid concert, which raised hundreds of millions worldwide to help people in Ethiopia.
The simple fact is that a healthy diet is a fundamental human need—in fact, it should be a right. That is something even the youngest child can understand, but as we debate this issue today, halfway through the United Nations decade of action on nutrition, the UN has sombrely concluded that the world is not on track to achieve sustainable development goal 2, which is zero hunger by 2030, or on track to meet global nutrition targets. Sadly, it is not on track to meet some of the other sustainable development goals, either.
In fact, the number of undernourished people has increased by over 50%, from 633 million to 957 million—almost a billion—in the past three years alone. Pause to consider that number for a second: that is one in seven people on Earth. Let us be in no doubt: this is a global crisis. That increase should shame us all, and today this Chamber is clearly sending the Government the message that they must reaffirm their commitment to global nutrition—not through vague platitudes from the Minister at the end of this debate, but through concrete and evidenced action at next week’s summit.
Nutrition has a fundamental impact on the life chances of a child, even before they are born. We all know that well-nourished women have safer pregnancies and deliver healthier babies, yet one third of women of reproductive age suffer from anaemia—the leading cause of complication in pregnancy and childbirth—which increases the likelihood of miscarriage, stillbirth, low birth weight and maternal mortality. Sadly, Governments are not on track to reach the World Health Organisation target of reducing anaemia in women by 50% by 2025, despite the fact that providing iron supplements costs less than $5 per woman. Well-nourished infants and children are healthier and have stronger immune systems, making them more able to resist infection and disease. Without sufficient nutrition, children, particularly those under the age of two, are at high risk of wasting, which causes them to be too thin and to have weak immune systems. That results in development delays, disease and, ultimately, death. Tragically, as was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, malnutrition is still linked to 45% of all under-five child deaths.
Similarly, in 2019, 144 million children under the age of five were affected by stunting—being too short for their age. They, too, are more susceptible to disease and infection, and are unlikely to develop their full cognitive potential. Adults who are stunted earn about 20% less than their peers, and mothers who are undernourished are more likely to have children who are subsequently stunted, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and undernutrition. If there is a point to be made here about lifting people out of poverty around the world, it is this: we are talking about a simple and affordable investment that will ensure that nations around the world can grow out of a situation in which they are regularly in need of international development. That argument, I would think, would work for even the most libertarian Conservatives in this Government.
Furthermore, good nutrition is critical to brain development and educational achievement. Well-nourished schoolchildren are more likely to stay in school, but malnourished children are, at age eight, 20% less likely to be able to read simple sentences and 13% less likely to be in the correct school year for their age. Once again, if trade is to be a key part of our development work—which I fully support—we need to make sure that young people have good access to health and education. Food will be a key part of that. Only then will they be able to trade their way out of their current situation and be prosperous like those in other nations in the western world.
Ensuring good nutrition is therefore critical to preventing disease, reducing unnecessary death, and enabling people to reach their full potential. Nutrition is recognised by Nobel economists as the most effective development intervention. That makes it all the more regrettable that it has been neglected, and that malnutrition is on the rise. It is therefore fundamentally vital—I cannot emphasise this enough—that the UK Government recommit to reaching over 50 million children, women, and adolescent girls with nutrition-relevant programmes by 2025. Those in this Chamber have said that with one voice. The Department for International Development was able to exceed that commitment between 2015 and 2020, so there should be no reason why the FCDO could not do likewise.
Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on global nutrition, with rates of malnutrition soaring due to the pandemic. The disruption to economic, health, development and educational systems has meant that livelihoods have become more fragile, and has exacerbated existing inequalities. How can someone provide a broad range of food for their family when lockdowns and economic instability have meant that they have lost their job and income? How can they receive nutritional supplements when their country’s healthcare system is overwhelmed with covid patients, or when aid workers cannot reach them because of border closures? How can they receive their one healthy meal a day when the school that they go to is closed?
The impact has been catastrophic. Between 2020 and 2022, an additional 3.6 million children are predicted to become stunted, and 13.6 million children are predicted to become wasted. This will cause over a quarter of a million more children under five to die from malnutrition. That is 225 children dying every single day—these could be our children. Will the Minister commit today to conducting an impact assessment on how covid-19 has affected, and will continue to affect, rates of malnutrition in FCDO partner countries?
Nutrition is even more important in the context of covid-19, as good nutrition is essential to maintaining a strong immune system, as was noted by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). Conversely, malnutrition is the leading cause of ill health and death worldwide, increasing the risk of developing severe covid symptoms, and therefore possibly reducing the efficacy of covid vaccines. The impact of covid should have made the UK’s investment in nutrition more important, not less—the impact of covid should have made all of the UK’s aid spending more important.
However, what did we see from this UK Government in response? We saw the very opposite. We saw the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Cabinet abandon their obligation to leave no one behind, abandon any notion of building back better, and abandon the UK’s role as a leader—let us be clear—in international development by reneging on the cross-party manifesto commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on ODA. The term “global Britain” would be funny if it was not so tragic.
Rather than step up to help the world’s poorest and most vulnerable when they needed it the most, the Government stepped away and made an ideologically motivated death-sentence cut. The pandemic forced hundreds of millions of people into hunger and malnutrition, but at a time when people needed strong immunity more than ever, UK aid for nutrition-specific programmes plummeted by—wait for it—70%, from £118 million in 2018 to just £37 million this year. Despite nutrition being central to the FCDO’s development priorities, less than 1% of the UK budget is spent on nutrition-specific programmes. Withdrawing support from these life-saving nutrition programmes severely compromises the effectiveness of UK aid, including in priority areas such as covid, global health security and, fundamentally, girls’ education. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated the importance of good nutrition for human immunity and vaccine efficacy. Well-nourished girls are more likely to stay in school, succeed in their studies and delay their first pregnancy.
The tragedy of the “global Britain” approach is that the Government knew that they would be undermining this work. Their own equalities assessment concluded that these cuts would negatively impact girls’ education, harm wider efforts to advance gender equality, disrupt disability-inclusive development and diminish the ability to reach those furthest behind. It was not done without knowledge in advance. Nevertheless, they pressed ahead with this callous cut regardless. Let us be clear that these cuts have consequences: they kill. Therefore, this UK Government have blood on their dirty little hands.
I will demonstrate an example of this. In evidence given to the International Development Committee, of which I am a member, along with my colleague from the Labour party, the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), witnesses from UNICEF spoke of their UK aid-funded nutrition programme in South Sudan, which was cut this year by 75%, from £20 million to £5 million. What does that mean on the ground? It means that an additional 73,000 children with severe wasting may not be reached and now face the highest risk of death. These cuts stand in stark contrast with every other G7 country, which have increased their aid contributions over the past year. It is no wonder that they have done this; we have been living through covid and we all know what that has meant. It is something that every country on earth is experiencing—we are not unique. It is the Scottish Government who have pledged to increase their international development fund by 50%. Let me be crystal clear: Scotland wants no part of the UK Government’s abdication of responsibility, and sees international development very differently.
This Conservative Government have abandoned the UK’s role as leader in international development in favour of following the manifesto commitments of the UK Independence party and the Brexit party. The upcoming Nutrition for Growth summit cannot fall short in the same way that the Education for Development summit did this summer. Rose Caldwell, chief executive of Plan International UK, said that the UK had failed in its duty as co-host after the summit failed to reach its target by a staggering $1 billion.
As the host of the original Nutrition for Growth summit in 2013, which was supported by cross-party unanimity when David Cameron brought it forward, the UK should have tremendous convening power. If the UK Government wish to restore their credibility on the world’s stage in any shape or form, they must deliver a strong pledge next week to catalyse commitments from other donors. It is essential that the UK increases aid for nutrition-specific programmes and, at the very least, returns to the original 2015-20 levels and commits the necessary £120 million per year over the next five years.
The Nutrition for Growth summit is a rare opportunity for ambitious change. It is not too late. The UK Government, and Governments across the world, cannot let down those most in need yet again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) for securing this timely debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) for all the work that she does in her APPG. I also thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), and the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who is the Front-Bench spokesperson for his party.
I will perhaps repeat some of the points that my colleagues have made, but this issue is so important that they need to be repeated again and again. As has been said, hunger and malnutrition are one of the world’s most serious but least addressed development challenges. Although the proportion and absolute number of chronically undernourished people has declined worldwide, the progress has been uneven among developing countries. The challenge we face in the international community is to build on that progress and accelerate the processes to improve nutrition.
Malnutrition affects lifelong development and contributes to half of all child deaths. Millions of children around the world are affected by the life-limiting outcomes of poor nutrition. In many developing countries, only one third of children under two are fed what they need for healthy growth; no progress has been made on improving their nutrition over the past decade.
A recent UNICEF report found that a combination of crises, from covid-19 to conflict and climate breakdown, had stunted progress on children’s nutrition in 91 countries. The report sets out that half of children aged from six to 23 months across a range of developing countries were not fed the minimum number of daily meals, and even fewer had a diverse diet that met minimum requirements.
Until recently, the Government regularly reminded us of their objective to ensure
“12 years of quality education for all girls”
—a very noble aim. However, such objectives cannot be met unless we also support nutrition. Nutrition has implications for a child’s employment prospects and therefore the economic success of their country. Good nutrition relies on food and agricultural systems that deliver healthy and diverse diets at a cost that people can afford.
It is estimated that undernutrition in childhood reduces an individual’s earning potential by 10% and has the same impact on GDP rates, with a total global economic cost of $3.5 trillion. Progress can only be made through joint global action to build, strengthen and transform food systems, so that children can get the nutrition they need to survive and then thrive. This underlines exactly why we need our Government to tackle this problem and invest in more nutrition.
However, the Government seem to be considering doing the opposite. Earlier this year we discovered that they are planning to spend 70% less on vital nutrition services, by cutting £100 million from the aid budget. They are aware that such a move would leave tens of thousands of children hungry and even at risk of starvation. Is that what we are now coming to? Are we now looking at the near collapse of British help for hungry children in some of the world’s poorest and most dangerous countries, including Yemen, Somalia and Sudan?
Ending preventable child deaths will never be achieved if we ignore the role that prolonged malnutrition plays in a child’s development and future quality of life. It is simply not credible for the Government to claim global leadership in tackling hunger while slashing aid. That amounts to nothing more than a hollow “global Britain” slogan with nothing tangible behind it.
Perhaps what makes this situation most sad and self-defeating is that Britain has been a genuine global leader in this area for the past decade, saving lives and gaining a huge soft power benefit as a result. I implore the Minister to recommit to reaching out to over 50 million children, women and adolescent girls with nutrition-relevant programmes by 2025. That is a target that the Department for International Development made and even exceeded between 2015 and 2020.
We all know that next week the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth summit will take place. The first Nutrition for Growth summit in 2013 was, of course, hosted by the United Kingdom. It mobilised some £17 billion in new investment, with the UK contributing massively to that sum. Since 2013, the number of children whose physical or cognitive growth has been stunted by malnutrition has been reduced by over 13 million.
Despite the progress that I have just mentioned, nutrition remains one of the most pressing issues in global development. If progress is to continue, we must see the UK leading once again in Tokyo by taking steps to ensure that nutrition is embedded within the UK aid’s portfolio and pledging funds that are at least at the same level as those pledged since 2013. Ideally, of course, it would be great to have an uplift.
When the Minister responds to the debate, can she say whether the Government will commit to making such a pledge at Tokyo? Will they commit to fund nutrition-specific services to a level that is roughly equivalent to that between 2015 and 2020, which was about £120 million per year or roughly 1% of the ODA budget? That small increase would reflect inflation, the UK’s economic growth and the global shortfall in funding for nutrition.
Can the Minister also tell us who will represent the United Kingdom at the Tokyo summit? Ensuring that there is high-level ministerial attendance at the summit, drafting ambitious policy commitments, considering a match funding scheme and co-financing and supporting the implementation of countries’ national nutrition plans would all send a strong message that our Government take nutrition seriously.
Nutrition is so paramount in human life that it intersects with almost all aspects of development policy and is therefore fundamental to delivering on our goals. Therefore, I hope that the Minister who attends the Tokyo summit will make a powerful case for the importance of nutrition and address the issues that my parliamentary colleagues and I have raised this afternoon.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Bone. I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) on securing the debate. I know that he tirelessly champions the cause of nutrition—that most basic human need—as chair of the APPG. From the discussion that we have had this afternoon, I know that Members of different parties welcome his commitment to this really important agenda. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to the debate.
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), is responsible for global health policy. She would have been delighted to be present but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale suggested, the ministerial team are in quite a few different places this week. My ministerial colleague is currently in the main Chamber for another debate, so it is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. As I say, I am grateful to all Members for their contributions.
Six years ago the international community pledged to end malnutrition by 2030. However, despite progress in some areas, we face an ever greater challenge. Malnutrition is increasing, with huge consequences for people, the economy and society, and the pandemic and climate emergency have only made things worse. I hope that the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth summit next week will mark a renewed global effort to prevent malnutrition in all its forms, and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is working closely with the Government of Japan to build the foundations for a successful summit.
The UK Government have made a commitment to end preventable deaths of mothers, newborns and children by 2030, and addressing malnutrition is fundamental to this endeavour. Malnutrition lies behind nearly half of all child deaths and one in five maternal deaths. Poor nutrition leaves millions of women and girls suffering from anaemia. Meanwhile, with 2.2 billion overweight people, it is fuelling obesity-related diseases and making people more vulnerable to covid-19.
The Government are determined to ensure that people around the world benefit from improved nutrition. Since 2015, we have supported more than 55 million women, children and girls in this regard. Through our special envoy on famine prevention and humanitarian affairs, we are tackling malnutrition in countries where conflict and covid-19 make our job harder. We will deliver on our financial commitments in the G7 famine compact by the end of the year, and we have announced new funding to address increasing needs.
In Ethiopia, the UK has provided £76 million in humanitarian assistance since the start of the conflict, including for work to support nutrition. In Afghanistan, we are doubling our humanitarian and development assistance, with £50 million committed for life-saving support since the Taliban takeover—again, that includes food assistance. However, this is not just about money. We will also scale up our action to anticipate and avert crises before they happen. That is why our humanitarian funding will do more to integrate food assistance with other support, including for nutrition, health, clean water, hygiene and sanitation. We will focus, as ever, on the most vulnerable, particularly women and girls.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale and other Members have called on the Government to make fresh commitments to Nutrition for Growth, including on spending. As Members are well aware, and as has been discussed, the seismic impact of the pandemic forced us to take the tough but necessary decision to reduce our official development assistance temporarily. However, the ODA budget is growing, and the Chancellor confirmed in the recent Budget that we are scheduled to return to spending 0.7% of GNI on official development assistance in 2024-25. We will continue to improve the nutrition of those who need it most, as we will set out in our approach paper on ending preventable deaths, which will be published on 14 December.
Meanwhile, we are working to ensure that our ongoing investments have the greatest possible impact. Our spending on women and girls’ health is designed to achieve World Health Organisation targets, including on reducing anaemia. We are also strengthening food systems so that nutritious diets become more affordable, accessible and sustainable in the face of climate change. We continue to invest in research and development, including in projects to increase the availability and affordability of nutritious vegetables in areas affected by changing weather patterns. We are also encouraging the private sector to produce more nutritious foods.
I want to pick up on the comments made by the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott). I listened carefully to her update on the work of the all-party parliamentary group on human microbiome, for which I thank her. The nutrition-specific interventions we provide are developed based on rigorous evidence, and we will consider evidence on the microbiome, too.
A number of colleagues mentioned the policy marker. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale and others have asked us to adopt the OECD Development Assistance Committee policy marker on nutrition across the FCDO portfolio at the programme design phase. I am delighted to be able to confirm that we are committed to doing that across the Department and are encouraging all our international partners to do likewise. We are in the final stages of agreeing our spending plans on nutrition, and I will share further details as soon as possible. I, or my ministerial colleagues, would be more than happy to write to my right hon. Friend with more information in due course.
I once again assure right hon. and hon. Members of our commitment to nutrition as we work to end the preventable deaths of mothers and children. We will continue to deliver on this commitment through to the Tokyo summit and beyond. In the light of the challenges we face, we must see a renewed global effort and we must all play our part.
I thank everyone who has contributed to this thoughtful debate in which many interesting and relevant points have been made. When I have raised this issue in the past, the arguments about the 0.7% target have inevitably been rehearsed, but that is not really the focus of this particular discussion, which is about value from interventions—that is a point that everyone has made.
The hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) said that people who might be at the most sceptical end of the development spectrum must realise that interventions in nutrition offer the best value. The relative sums involved for the outcomes are unquestionable, and indeed, if those interventions are not made, the huge amounts of money put in elsewhere—in girls’ education, for example—lose their value. Numerous statistics and studies show that if girls are at school but cannot pay attention to what is going on, the value of their presence there is lost. I think that argument is unchallengeable, and I am glad that there was consensus on it.
I was very interested in what the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) said about the microbiome and yoghurt kitchens. That example demonstrates that we must have, at the heart of our approach to development, more local initiatives that help people in their communities and do not require vast amounts of outside resource. I was fascinated by that and heartened by Minister’s positive response on the microbiome.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) is a seasoned campaigner on development issues, and he authoritatively said that 12 of the 17 development goals are underpinned by nutrition. It is not a side issue—it is right at the heart. Last week, I was very pleased to become co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS, and he was also exactly right to highlight the impact of nutrition on HIV/AIDS. In fact, as he will know, one group of people that need the most support on AIDS is women, particularly in Africa.
On nutrition, we would be remiss to go through the entire debate without paying tribute to the work of Mary’s Meals, a well-known Scottish charity that puts providing nutrition and school meals right at the heart of its work, because of the impact of that on education, particularly for girls. It also works with other organisations to produce nutritious food in the first place. Frankly, I am just taking advantage of the spare time in the debate to put that on the record.
Absolutely. If we had video facilities in Westminster Hall, I would be able to show the hon. Gentleman when I joined Mary’s Meals volunteers in not only making a healthy porridge but having a good old singsong about it as well. He is right. Many similar organisations do a really important job.
The hon. Member for Ealing South always takes an important interest in these matters. I was pleased to hear that he would be participating, through the IDC, in the summit. It is important that it is not only governmental, and that interested and relevant parties play a part. Obviously, I did not agree with everything that the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) said: I sort of agreed with the start and the end. The contribution of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), was thoughtful and underpinned the core asks that we put to the Minister. I was pleased that the Minister was able to confirm at least one of those asks, and I think everyone following the debate will be pleased that the OECD policy markers will be adopted at an early stage. The other issues that everyone raised are as relevant, and we hope to see a positive response to them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I am not as familiar with the geography of London as I might otherwise be.
To return to the point I was making, it is clear what the asks are. I hope that the Government will look favourably on them. As I said when I met the Prime Minister, to come back to the initial point, this represents the best value of any intervention or spend that the UK Government could make. The summit is an opportunity to reaffirm global leadership, and I hope that that opportunity is seized.
That this House has considered the 2021 Tokyo Nutrition for Growth summit.
[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.
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.
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.
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 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.
That this House has considered pet travel.