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Dog Daycare: Urban Areas

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 27 October 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Jenkinson.)

It gives me great pleasure to rise to raise the important issue of daycare for dogs, particularly in the inner city. I appreciate the Minister having a quick word with me ahead of the debate. I hope that in the spirit of collaboration, despite differences in recent weeks that have arisen across Parliament, we can work together to resolve this issue. Before I get into my main comments, I want to shout out my thanks to Edita Sykora of Hairy Hounds in Hackney, which is a dog daycare and training centre in Homerton in my constituency, and to Daniel Conn of Great and Small Dog Care, which has premises in my neighbouring constituencies of Islington North, and Islington South and Finsbury. I met Edita and Daniel when I visited Hairy Hounds last month.

Dog ownership has been growing considerably. The pet charity PDSA—People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals —estimates that there are 10.2 million dogs in the UK in 2022, with approximately 27% of households owning a dog. There has been a steady rise in dog ownership, as I am sure the Minister is aware. In 2013, 23% of households owned a dog. It is difficult to pin down figures, but anecdotally—certainly in London and I think across the country—we saw a rise in dog ownership during the pandemic. Dogs, which are often called man’s best friend—let us say man and woman’s best friend—have been a very welcome addition to many households and a great support for both physical and mental health. From that we can infer—and what, locally, we know—there has been an increasing demand for dog daycare, particularly as people get back into offices and the number of people working from home decreases. The big challenge is then what to do about the dog they love very much but are no longer able to support during the day.

The regulations on dog daycare are under the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018 and guidance. Section 4 of the specific statutory guidance on dog daycare licensing states:

“each dog must have 6 square metres of space available to them within the premises - this can include inside and outside space.”

That is great—we are all very concerned about animal welfare and I would not want dogs to be crammed into unnecessarily small spaces—but in the inner city, in Hackney South and Shoreditch, that is just too large for many urban daycares, where space is often at a premium. It is often impossible for those businesses to be viable, given high rents and overheads, yet dog owners need somewhere for their dogs to go. Yes, they can have dogwalkers, but many of my constituents live in small flats where their dog, left home alone for much of the day, would not be in a great setting anyway. So actually dog daycare, sometimes with smaller space standards, could be a better option than the alternatives.

The required space—six square metres per dog—can often be difficult to find in the first place. In the past couple of weeks, I have done three surgeries—two were in people’s homes, visiting them where they are—and I saw, as I have over the years, children in Hackney who do not have six square metres in their home. It is important to look at animal welfare, but if we compare and contrast, the balance does not seem right. It is a fact of inner-city living that dogs need support, but it can be very difficult to find the space.

Animal welfare is at the heart of this issue. It may sound counterintuitive to be arguing for flexibility on space standards to ensure that we can have a thriving dog daycare and training sector in the inner city, but it is important that people have options. The key point is that if dogs do not go to daycare, the other options are a dog walker and being left at home for a lot of the day. I am not at all trying to diminish the important work of many dog walkers, but there are not the places to go locally. Some people want their dogs to go into dog daycare, which, let me be clear, is not always about daycare; it is often about the training and socialisation of dogs to help them with their behaviour. Given the explosion of dog ownership during the pandemic, it is particularly important that new dog owners know that their dogs, and they as owners, can get support to ensure that their dogs are well behaved in public settings.

Some of my constituents are forced, because of the lack of dog daycare, to send their dogs to rural daycare. That sounds lovely and idyllic, but if we look at Hackney South and Shoreditch, which is in zones 1 and 2 in central London, we see that that means, in practical terms, that a van with cages in it arrives from outside London to pick up someone’s dog. If that person is unlucky and their dog is picked up early, and the van still has to pick up other dogs from the area, that can take an hour and there is often at least an hour’s drive, depending on the traffic, to the beautiful rural setting to which some dogs may go. I would not call it good animal welfare to have vans come in to pick up and drop off dogs. At its worst, that means that there are hot dogs in cramped conditions, shut in cages. That is not good for them and it does not help their socialisation and behaviour.

There are real animal welfare benefits to having urban dog daycare. Dogs are not travelling for hours in vans. It can be more natural for many dogs to be in smaller, well-socialised groups. When I went to Hairy Hounds, unbelievably, given the number of dogs that were there, there was not a single bark or any snappiness. The dogs were incredibly well behaved. Edita has done an amazing job. She has converted shipping containers, so when someone looks in, it looks like a lovely front room, with dogs sleeping on cushions, sitting on sofas and behaving as a dog would in a home environment. If I had a dog, that is what I would want them to do. There is an outside space with a course so that they can be trained and exercised, as well as having walks in local parks.

Walks in local parks are important. With the increase in dog numbers, there are issues because some dog owners do not manage their dogs well. With good training and support, however, those dogs behave well and when they meet in the park at weekends, when they are not in dog daycare, they know one another. There is no snappiness and the behaviour is much better, which is also better for the environment generally. Urban daycares, including Hairy Hounds, use outdoor space, and when they do not have the outdoor space, there are frequent, controlled exercise walks in local parks. Again, that allows for opportunities for training and development.

There are other benefits, such as the creation of local jobs—it is important that we maintain jobs across all sectors—and there is no requirement for vans to travel in and out of London, adding to pollution. With the ultra-low emission zone and congestion charging, it can be very expensive for daycare owners as well as for those who are paying for their dogs to go to daycare. There are unnecessary add-on costs that do not contribute anything beneficial for the dog concerned. Hairy Hounds is a good example of how a neglected public space has become useful. This might sound odd to the Minister, but Hairy Hounds is on a former scrapyard right by the railway line. That land is hard to let to other people, but it has been turned into a wonderful haven for dogs.

I have some asks of the Minister. A review of the 2018 regulations is due to be published in 2023, five years after they came into force. It offers the Minister an opportunity to re-examine the standards and the associated guidance and consider whether any changes are necessary. My first ask is for a recognition of the difference between dog daycare in the inner city and in a rural area where land is more available.

It also needs to be recognised that many people want their dog to be looked after close to home. That is not an unreasonable request. We are not asking for cramped space. In some ways, the situation is equivalent to that of nurseries in London, many of which do not even have outdoor space, whereas outside London that is much easier to achieve. As I have mentioned, many owners took on dogs during lockdown for company and for support with mental and physical health. It would be a tragedy if those dogs were then stuck in cramped flats. Unfortunately, many people are having to let their dogs go or give them away because they cannot look after them any more.

Some people have suggested 4 square metres of space for urban daycare. I think a less prescriptive approach might be better. I know that it will be quite challenging for officials to write the rules. I am not suggesting a free-for-all with no regulation; I think it is vital to have the right regulation. At the moment, some areas can license premises and others go through planning permission. There are some areas that could be worked on.

If the Minister or his officials—I know Ministers are always very busy—have time, I know that Edita, Daniel and others would be willing to meet. We could make it a very quick meeting; I entice officials on that basis. We could thoughtfully discuss the options and how they could be codified in regulations so that they are manageable, understandable for businesses, understandable for the consumer—the dog owner putting their dog into the right environment—and, crucially, understandable for local authorities and other inspection regimes that may take an interest in ensuring that provision is safe, properly managed and good for the dogs concerned.

If we have a good discussion, I think we can come up with a good regime in which urban daycares can operate in a viable way and dogs in the city can enjoy the benefits of local daycare. Many dogs already do, but not enough, because not enough daycare is available. I hope that the Minister will consider that genuine and open offer to meet him or his officials. If we could meet before the outcome of the review so that we can feed into it, that would be very helpful.

I am grateful that the Speaker’s Office granted me this debate, because it is very timely. It is really important that we get this right so that we support dogs and dog owners as much as we can.

I thank the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) for securing this debate. One of my first actions in this House was supporting her as a candidate to chair the Public Accounts Committee, which she has done so eloquently for the past seven years, so it is somewhat fitting that my Dispatch Box debut is replying to her.

We are a proud nation of animal lovers. We have a strong record of being at the forefront of standards of care and protection for our animals. Two hundred years ago, the United Kingdom was the first country in the world to pass legislation to protect animals: the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822, which was instrumental in paving the way for future animal welfare legislation.

The Government recognise the importance of high animal welfare standards. On 12 May last year, we published the action plan for animal welfare, laying out the breadth of animal welfare and conservation reforms that we are looking to take forward. We are already delivering several of those objectives. We passed the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021, realising our manifesto commitment to

“introduce tougher sentences for animal cruelty.”

The Act’s new maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine for the worst cases of animal cruelty is a significant step forward in protecting animal welfare. In addition, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 recognises the sentience of vertebrates, decapods, crustaceans such as lobsters, and cephalopod molluscs such as octopus. Our approach takes into account central Government policy decisions.

That is not all we are doing. We have passed the Glue Traps (Offences) Act 2022, which prohibits the use of inhumane glue traps, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which introduces tougher sentencing and improved powers to tackle the cruel practice of chasing hares with dogs. Under the new measures, anyone caught hare coursing will now face an unlimited fine and up to six months in prison.

The welfare of dogs is important and close to the hearts of many people in this country. The hon. Member has spoken about the important issue of urban dog daycare centres undertaking to improve accessibility and local options for dog owners who want their pets to be cared for. I am myself a dog owner, and I know that owning and caring for a dog is wonderfully rewarding. I should like to think of my two doggos going to Hairy Hounds and having a fabulous afternoon there. I am well aware of the vital role that dog daycare centres provide in ensuring that our pets are looked after. It is hugely important for dogs— regardless of their size or location—to have their welfare needs met. From the most impressive of Great Danes to the diminutive chihuahua, every dog needs appropriate space.

Before I deal with the key issues of the debate, let me say something about the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018, which introduced the licensing scheme for commercial dog daycare centre providers. In 2018 we brought together and modernised the licensing of a range of activities by making those regulations under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The regulated activities include dog and cat boarding, dog breeding, pet sales, the hiring out of horses, and the keeping or training of animals for exhibition. The 2018 regulations apply modern animal welfare standards to those activities, and make it easier for local authorities to carry out their enforcement duties. They also enable businesses to gain earned recognition by allowing local authorities to grant longer licences to premises which meet higher welfare standards.

The regulations were designed to specify and update the licensing of five key activities involving animals. They include a licensing scheme which ensures, at a minimum, that improved standards of welfare included in the 2006 Act are applied across the five licensable activities. They build on existing requirements, some of which had existed for more than 50 years, including dog boarding legislation from 1963. Thankfully welfare standards have developed considerably since then, and the dog boarding sector has changed significantly. The regulations enable welfare protection to be extended to novel types of dog care which were not mentioned in the Animal Boarding Establishments Act 1963; dog daycare was one of those activities.

As the hon. Lady will know, local authorities are responsible for implementing the licensing regime. They ensure that businesses that should be licensed are licensed, and meet the licence conditions of the 2018 regulations. They also check the welfare of the animals involved in licensed activities. Local authorities carry out enforcement activity where necessary if they find that businesses are not meeting their obligations.

The regulations are supported by statutory guidance from the Secretary of State for local authority inspectors implementing the licensing regime. The guidance is intended to clarify details of the requirements, and to assist inspectors in their interpretation and application of the licensing regime across England. That ensures consistency between local authorities and gives confidence to trained local authority licensing inspectors, many of whom will have responsibility for licensing a wide range of other business types.

One of the anomalies in the system is the fact that some local authorities use a licensing scheme while others use planning permission. There are other parts of the regulations, which I did not go into in detail this evening, which is a further reason why it would be helpful if we could have a meeting.

I should be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady and representatives of her businesses at the Department—if I am still in place for the next few hours, which I very much hope I shall be. I am keen to open up this discussion, because I think there might be something we can do here.

The guidance for the licensing regime is published on, allowing prospective and existing licence holders full access to the information.

Let me now turn to the issue at the centre of the debate: the space required for dogs in daycare settings. The 2018 regulations state that dogs should be provided with a suitable environment. As I mentioned earlier, the regulations are supported by guidance from the Secretary of State, to which local authorities are required to have regard. The guidance states that when welfare standards are not being met, inspectors should take several factors into account. For instance—as the hon. Lady mentioned—each dog must have 6 square metres of space, which can include inside and outside space.

It may not surprise Members to learn that there are numerous business models in dog daycare centres. The welfare needs of an individual dog do not change on the basis of location, but the way in which they are met may vary.

In all settings, the primary licensing objective is to ensure that the dog’s welfare needs are met. Given the diversity of the sector, making a quick change to that guidance without consulting more widely may well resolve one problem but create others. Prior to making any change to the guidance, we need to consider carefully that risk and any impact on the animal welfare standards that I mentioned earlier. We would also need to consider any proposed change to the guidance for dog daycare centres, alongside similar guidance for other licensable activities involving dogs, to ensure parity of provision and consistency of standards.

I also understand that there are some concerns about dog daycare centre providers operating outside urban areas, where there is more space. I have received correspondence suggesting that dogs are travelling for significant periods to be taken to those places, as the hon. Lady rightly said. Animals’ transportation needs must be met—people must avoid causing them pain, suffering or distress—and transportation must fully comply with legal requirements to protect their welfare, including the provision of sufficient space, while journey time should be minimised. We take potential breaches of animal welfare legislation seriously, and advise that any concerns should be reported to the relevant local authority.

In February this year, we published an update to the guidance, largely to bring it in line with modern publication standards. After publication, a concern was raised regarding dog daycare. Working with the sector, we took steps to address the issue earlier in 2022. We were also clear with all involved that we would also consider the issue of space in the 2018 regulations.

The core purpose of the review is to assess the current operation of the 2018 regulations against their original impact assessment and policy intent, and to make recommendations on whether to retain, repeal or replace them. We are always seeking to learn from the implementation of legislation, and we feel that the review is also an appropriate time to re-examine the standards and the associated guidance, and to consider any changes.

I can confirm that DEFRA has begun the review process and that, as part of the review, my officials are proactively working with partners, including local authorities, businesses, and animal welfare organisations, to collate data that can provide a picture of licensed and unlicensed activities involving animals in the UK. I can confirm that Islington dog services and other urban dog daycare centres that have co-signed letters will be included in those submissions. As I have said, I am more than happy to meet the hon. Lady and her constituents.

Given the aforementioned need to consider the space needed by dog daycare centres, and by all licensed dog activities, the best route is to allow for the review to be completed before taking any further steps to address the guidance. However, we recognise that some businesses may not be able to wait that long because of their impending licence renewals. In light of all those factors, I will commit my officials to finding an interim solution for the space issue that protects the welfare of dogs in daycare settings, but which tries to reduce the impact on the urban businesses. We recognise the high demand for dog daycare in urban areas such as London, and we recognise and consider the issue of space across licensable dog activities.

The Government recognise the important role that responsible dog daycare centres play in caring for our pets. Their services not only ensure the welfare of dogs and afford them the opportunity to socialise, but allow the owners to go to work—we are very supportive of that. I hope that all present are reassured that the Government have heard of the difficulties in urban dog daycare centres and are committed to taking steps to address some of the challenges they face.

In the meantime, local authorities should be the point of inquiry about the application of the regime. If a licence holder is unhappy about the way a local authority handles an inquiry, they can report the matter to the chief executive officer of the local authority or, further still, to the local government and social care ombudsman.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing the debate about.

House adjourned.