Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what actions they are taking to improve the welfare of cats and dogs in the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I am privileged to open this debate and indebted to all noble Lords, both mischievous and not mischievous, who are taking part. I am extremely pleased to see my noble friend Lord De Mauley on the Front Bench. Since his appointment at Defra, he has proved to be a redoubtable champion of our feline and canine friends and I look forward greatly to his response.
According to the Library, this House has not held a debate on the welfare of cats and dogs for over 20 years. It is good to have the chance to put this glaring omission right. I declare my interest as a cat owner. The indomitable Victoria is at home—with her sister Alexandra there in spirit—making sure I am on message. She will, no doubt, keep me up all night if I stray.
This is not a peripheral policy issue. It is estimated that 13 million households—45% of the total—have at least one pet, including between them over 17 million cats and dogs. The vast majority of owners are responsible families who love their pets and want to see all pets treated with the same affection. We are a nation of animal lovers and are all the better for it—as President Lincoln, who is much on our minds this week, nobly put it:
“I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being”.
Faithful cats and dogs, which are present throughout life’s journey—from the time children are taught to care for animals, to the companionship that pets give those in their final days—are the key to that “whole human being” and their role is growing in importance. More people live alone and live longer, often in isolation. Family structures are changing and, for many, pets fill the gap. They contribute to good health, reduce blood pressure, and teach the young about the values of a civilised society. They are central to the lives of many families. That is why this debate is important.
Today we face a crisis in animal welfare, as charities struggle to cope with a tide of unwanted pets, or pets that families can no longer afford to keep. Blue Cross has reported a 40% increase in abandoned pets since 2010, while the Cats Protection helpline receives four calls asking them to take a cat in for every one seeking adoption. The reason is simple: there are too many pets, and not enough good homes where families understand a pet’s welfare needs and can afford the cost of looking after them. Policy needs to change and I want to highlight four areas—breeding and sale, microchipping, companion animals and anti-social behaviour—where we can take action to improve the welfare of those who give their love unconditionally.
I will deal first with breeding and sale. Seven years ago, the Animal Welfare Act was put on the statute book. It was landmark legislation, and I pay tribute to the Labour Government who put it there. However, the legislation has not fulfilled its ambitions because many of the regulations promised under the Act have never materialised. One key example is the Pet Animals Act 1951, which protects the welfare of cats and dogs sold as pets. It became law when people bought animals from a pet shop. However, more than 60 years on people now buy pets online, which has created a whole range of problems with back-street breeders churning out kittens and puppies in an unregulated way. Too many loving pets are subjected to repeated breeding for sale online. There is some protection for dogs under the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act, although this needs amending to reduce the number of legal litters from five to two, but there is no equivalent protection for cats, which often get overlooked in legislation.
I welcome the Government's support for the Pet Advertising Advisory Group which aims to make online pet ads more responsible. The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, has played an important role in that, but it is only a start. The promised regulations under the Animal Welfare Act need to be brought forward; there needs to be a review of “hobby breeders” of kittens and puppies; and the work of animal charities in encouraging neutering needs support. When you consider that one unneutered female cat can be responsible for 20,000 descendants in just five years, you understand how central this issue is. The role of animal charities is vital here but a government-backed national neutering day might be an admirable way to support their tremendous work.
Secondly, microchipping is critical to the welfare of animals because it allows strays to be reunited with their owners. At present only 33% of dogs and a woeful 10% of cats arriving at Battersea are chipped. Cats Protection had to chip 86% of the cats it re-homed last year. This causes huge pressure on charities, which often have to re-home strays unnecessarily. It is good news that microchipping is to be compulsory for all dogs in England from 2016. However, what about the cats? Arguably it is even more important for them as so many of them roam freely and are out at night. Without making microchipping of cats compulsory, Defra could strengthen advice under the cat code, and if breeding was more tightly regulated, as I suggested, breeders could be obliged to microchip kittens before sale.
The third issue is companion animals, which I raised in Committee on the Care Bill, when I pointed out the huge role that cats and dogs play in the care of the elderly and the sick. My noble friend Lord Howe was encouraging in his response at that time and I hope the Government will ensure that guidance on the implementation of the legislation makes it crystal clear that the needs of individuals’ beloved pets, and the wishes of those individuals—who may often be very vulnerable or old—to keep them if taken into a care home, are included in individual care assessments.
Finally, I turn to anti-social behaviour and attacks by dogs on vulnerable, often elderly, cats. I know and hear of far too many distressing incidents where cats are set upon and killed by dogs. Cats Protection has logged 88 reported attacks this year so far, 89% of them fatal. These incidents—I was going to read out some of them but they are actually too distressing—can have a devastating impact on the lives of those who see a beloved cat killed in this way. The noble Lord, Lord Trees, set out the issue extremely well in his speech at Second Reading of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill and I endorse everything he had to say. I ask the Government to reconsider whether bespoke dog control notices to prevent attacks on protected animals are needed under the legislation, and to look at guidance to be issued under the Bill to ensure such appalling attacks are prevented.
These are the most crucial policy areas that need tackling and there are others I do not have time to address, including the important issue of updating the licensing regime for catteries and kennels and the role of animal welfare in the national primary curriculum. I know the Minister appreciates the breadth of these issues and I am delighted that Defra has established a canine and feline steering group to co-ordinate activity. Could the Minister ask that group to review the way existing legislation and regulation is working and to identify areas where out-of-date legislation needs overhauling or new regulations need bringing forward? Might it also be tasked with considering how future legislation impacts on the welfare of cats and dogs before it is brought to this House?
No speech on this subject could be complete without mentioning the charities that do so much in this area: Cats Protection, whose wonderful work I have seen at first hand; the Dogs Trust; Battersea; Wood Green; the Blue Cross; and the RSPCA. Their often life-saving work in looking after, neutering, microchipping and re-homing abandoned pets, as well as their educative work in schools, is beyond price. Much of that work— fundraising, fostering and running adoption centres—is volunteer-based. I pay tribute to everything volunteers and professional staff do to care for tens of thousands of defenceless and vulnerable animals. They are a crucial part of a civilised society and we applaud their dedication and commitment.
This is a subject about which I feel passionately. I have always believed that it is the priceless role of this House to give a voice to the voiceless, and what better example is there than to give a voice to our friends in the animal kingdom who have perhaps been cruelly treated, or abandoned, and in need of a caring home? For those of us lucky enough to live with a cat or a dog, their unconditional love becomes one of the most precious things in our lives. I have always sought to return that, but I want to ensure that all cats and dogs are as loved as those my partner and I have been privileged to share our lives with. This debate is a wonderful way to do just that, and I look forward greatly to hearing the contributions ahead.
My Lords, in opening I wish to say something that may be considered trite but which is nevertheless true. There is no such thing as a bad dog; what we have are bad owners. It is worth stressing that particularly now, coming up to Christmas time, when many people bring in pets that they believe they will love for life and then find out that the pets are difficult and tiring and need a lot of work. It is right that we are having this debate at this time and I congratulate the noble Lord on tabling his Question. While we may not want pets to be treated in that way, it will happen and a few months after Christmas there will be a lot more dogs and cats put out on the street. The emphasis being placed on this issue tonight will be helpful for the future.
I am also concerned about the breeding of fighting dogs. Perhaps the Minister can help me on this: why is the law not enforced more vigorously? For instance, I would like to know how many people have been prosecuted in the past 10 years for breeding fighting dogs. What about the people who organise the dog fights at which betting takes place? How many of those have been prosecuted? These are the problems that we need to look at, particularly when a good breed such as the Staffordshire bull terrier, which can be a lovable dog and a good family dog, is used in this way. Owners, particularly in London, use the dogs for their own protection. We ought to give attention to that in this debate.
The number of incidents involving injuries caused in attacks by dogs that are out of control has increased by 94% in the past 10 years. That is a very large increase. The number of people who have died since 2005 as a result of attacks by dogs totals 16. That is an increase to which we must pay attention. I was pleased that the noble Lord mentioned attacks by dogs on cats because it is nearly always fatal for them—and when it is not fatal, the cat is often badly damaged and frightened, and becomes even more timid about going out. That is another matter to which we must pay attention. I emphasise that this is about people and how they deal with their animals.
Another aspect is the illegal importing of dogs and cats. I hope the Minister will pay some attention to that because we need to zone in on it and try to prevent it happening.
It cannot be emphasised too much that one of the main priorities is that cats and dogs should be neutered whenever possible, and a national neutering day would be a very good idea. We must get through to people; why should there be unnecessary puppies and kittens, a lot of which come as a result of people who do not understand the importance of having their animals neutered? I join in paying tribute to the charities that are doing a wonderful job in providing neutering for no cost, which is encouragement in itself. Anything that we can do in that regard would be helpful.
Of increasing importance is the fact that more and more people are going overseas on their holidays and are putting their dogs and cats into kennels and catteries. We must try to ensure that these institutions and the people who run them are of a high standard. Many of them are—in fact the vast majority are and the people who run them do so because of their interest in animals. However, in many places the conditions are not as good as they ought to be. We ought to express an interest in that and do what we can to improve the standard of care that is provided by kennels and catteries. Let us try to bring them all up to the standard of those that are doing their best and are outstanding in that work.
Finally, because my time is up, how effective has the Animal Welfare Act 2006 been? I should like the Minister to comment because we can do an awful lot to improve the lot of our animal friends, who, as the noble Lord said, are important to all of us here—not only those of us taking part in the debate but millions of pet owners outside. I thank the noble Lord for raising this matter.
My Lords, I am delighted to participate in this debate secured by my noble friend. I do so not as a dog owner, nor indeed as a cat owner—much to the chagrin of my 10 year-old daughter, who puts persistent pressure on me but I will resist. That is not to say that I do not understand the many benefits that cats and dogs bring to homes in our country in terms of companionship, health, and animals’ ability to encourage people’s better nature. It is important that this House is debating this issue and it does not do so enough. I pay tribute to my noble friend for securing this debate.
We as individuals have a huge duty of care to animals, and the way that we treat them is important. We should reflect on how we do so because it is also an indication of how we treat our fellow humans. Like others, I pay tribute to the welfare organisations that do so much for our companion animals. As a former head of campaigns and former vice-president of the RSPCA, it is no surprise that I shall focus on that organisation at a time when it is being targeted because of what is seen to be more political campaigning. I dispute that, but it nevertheless means that the vital work it undertakes in re-homing cats and dogs can be put to one side. The RSPCA is now re-homing more than 11,000 dogs and nearly 30,000 cats a year; we should remember that and pay tribute to the organisation and its volunteers who carry out that work.
I also acknowledge the work that this coalition Government have done on the welfare of dogs. As has been noted, it is this Government who will bring in compulsory microchipping for dogs, which will be incredibly valuable in reuniting pets with their owners; and it is this Government who plan to clear up some of the confusion in the legislation around the definition of a public place, so that criminal liability can be extended to private property.
The issue that I want to cover relates to the welfare of dogs and specifically the consolidation of dog legislation. As many Members will be aware, it is presently scattered among 10 pieces of legislation—soon to be 11 if the Bill that made us begin this debate late reaches the statute books. That plethora of legislation leads to confusion among the law enforcement agencies—dog wardens, RSPCA inspectors and others—about which legislation is right to use in different situations, be it dog fighting, straying, prohibition types or dangerous dogs. It also means that there can be some lack of clarity for the general public to know who they should report incidents and complaints about.
There are clearly a number of arguments in favour of dog legislation consolidation; I will concentrate on just four. The first is that the legislation we have at the moment tends to be very reactive, so does not prevent accidents from happening. It is interesting to note that both Northern Ireland and Scotland have recently passed legislation to make earlier intervention possible. Secondly, most of this legislation was drafted prior to the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and may not take account of the current understanding of dog behaviour and welfare. That is particularly true in the area of dangerous dogs, where it is generally accepted that there are critical developments and environmental influences which affect aggression, and that it is not just about the breed types. It is interesting that in America, in October I think—certainly this autumn—President Obama said that breed-specific legislation was ineffective and that the right approach should be to encourage responsible dog ownership regardless of breed.
Thirdly, the existing legislation is incredibly complex and has required an awful lot of legal testing. There is nothing wrong with that; court cases can often be very helpful in understanding what the legislation was seeking to achieve, but in the area of the Dangerous Dogs Act it has become extremely complex and expensive to enforce. The seizing and kennelling costs associated with enforcing that legislation in England and Wales alone for the police force is £4 million every year. We are also getting a ballooning number of prosecution cases, which is making the costs much, much higher for our hard pressed law enforcement agencies, including the police. Fourthly and finally, the trends in animal welfare are clearly all moving in the wrong direction. Cruelty prosecutions are up, the number of dog bites is up, the number of prosecutions for prohibited types is up, and the number of prosecutions for people not keeping their dogs under control is up as well. Something is clearly not working. We are not only compromising animal welfare but putting human safety at risk.
In conclusion, there are loud voices in favour now of consolidating the dog legislation. In a recent 2010 consultation for the Government, 78% of the public said that they were in favour of it, the EFRA Select Committee said that it was in favour of it, and we know that ACPO is as well. I ask the Government: what is their current thinking on the case for consolidating dog legislation welfare?
My Lords, I come from a family of proud dog lovers. My long standing personal friend and noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood, to whom we are all deeply indebted for this debate, has spoken eloquently of his lifelong devotion to cats. There is ample room in the human heart for both. Churchill regarded both cats and dogs with great affection and from time to time brought them together in happy co-existence. During his peacetime premiership, he had for some while the exclusive companionship of a fine poodle, named Rufus. Then in October 1953, a pretty black kitten was found on the steps of No. 10 where, over the years ahead, under Conservative, Labour, and coalition Governments, a succession of felines would turn up. The 1953 kitten rushed to Churchill and jumped on his knee to begin deep, contented purring. “It has brought me luck,” Churchill declared. “It shall be called Margate,” he added, without further explanation. He presumably had in mind the seaside town where he had recently delivered a triumphant speech to the Conservative Party conference. Rufus went off to bed in a sulk, but swiftly came to terms with the new situation and contented to share his world famous master with the new arrival.
It is fitting that we should discuss in the same debate the welfare of two animals that have given so much companionship to so many people, and will continue to do so. They all deserve the best possible care, but as my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood has shown so distressingly, today too many of them are the recipients of harshness and cruelty, not love and affection.
The Question before us happily relates to the entire United Kingdom and so provides an opportunity for me to make brief reference to Northern Ireland, a part of our country to which I am particularly attached. Animal welfare issues come within the ambit of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but that is no reason to exclude them from consideration here. At every level there is much that Belfast can learn from Westminster and vice versa. A new chapter in the history of animal welfare in the province opened last year with the implementation of the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, which introduced—very belatedly it must be said—the major new legislative framework of protection created in England and Wales by the landmark 2006 Act. Enforcement of the law, which had previously rested with the police, has passed to Northern Ireland’s 26 local councils. They have banded together to appoint five—just five—animal welfare officers.
There is much for the group of five to do. A rising tide of abuse and neglect is plainly apparent to the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the world’s second oldest animal welfare charity, founded in 1836 and to whose work I pay tribute. All sections of the community have always been served with unwavering dedication both in times of turmoil and in the better times that now exist. The USPCA backs wholeheartedly the calls being made throughout the country for action in schools, particularly primary schools, to equip the young with a proper sense of responsibility towards family pets.
Some appalling recent cases of cruelty have been uncovered by the USPCA. For example, a single family in North Down now faces some 200 charges arising from the attacks it unleashed first on badgers and subsequently on pet cats, using dogs including illegal pit bull terriers. In its most recent report, the USPCA expressed profound concern about the increasing number of puppy farms, which nothing is likely to halt while advertising on the internet remains unregulated. As an officer of the USPCA put it to me:
“The sums to be made are astronomical and public awareness is low”.
As regards cat breeders, no arrangements for inspection exist. The USPCA states that:
“A kitten would have to die for reasons attributable to the breeder before any action could be considered by a welfare officer”.
Will the new legislation make a significant difference? Will there be an increase in prosecutions on a similar scale to that recorded in England and Wales after the 2006 Act? The early signs are not encouraging. In 2012-13, just one person was successfully prosecuted. The USPCA is concerned that undue use is being made of improvement notices in cases where prosecutions are needed. But in the ineffable prose in which our public authorities delight, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, known as SOLACE, looks serenely ahead. It has a project board that,
“continues to hold stakeholder events to build relationships and an understanding of roles and responsibilities and to discuss a wide range of animal welfare issues”.
A rather more vigorous approach would be preferable.
The Northern Ireland Executive need to instil a far greater sense of urgency and purpose into the civil servants and officials with whom they are so generously supplied. I hope that my noble friend the Minister, who is devoting so much time and care to the welfare of cats and dogs in this part of the country, will encourage Northern Ireland Ministers to follow his fine example. He might, in particular, press them to consider putting the USPCA on the same footing as the RSPCA as regards investigatory and enforcement powers. Let us do things in the same way throughout our country where that is the best course.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Black, for initiating this debate, which, as he pointed out, is the first that we have had on this subject for some time, and it is very timely.
In recent years, a number of cultural, social and economic developments have dramatically affected the well-being and welfare of our pet dogs in the UK. Many of these changes are associated with the breeding of dogs and their subsequent fate, and it is this aspect of canine welfare on which I want to concentrate.
Some issues have been evolving over many years—notably the breeding of dogs with exaggerated physical conformations, which are detrimental to health. Indeed, this was an issue that worried me greatly when I was in practice some 40 years ago. The matter was thoroughly reviewed by Sir Patrick Bateson’s independent inquiry into dog breeding in 2010, and remedial action is being taken by, among others, the Kennel Club and the Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding, which was set up as a consequence of the Bateson report.
Such action is very welcome, but I have to say that it is at the very least an embarrassment that this matter was brought to a head by a TV programme and not by those working closely with pedigree dogs, including the Kennel Club, the dog charities and, regrettably, the veterinary profession. We have all been complicit in creating animals that have been so deformed that they have suffered unnecessarily because of physical conformation. I am not talking here about the more complex genetic diseases which affect a proportion of some breeds and which require genetic and epidemiological investigation to predict; I am talking about anatomical deformations, plain for anyone to see. Sadly, there is still a culture which regards dogs as fashion accessories. We must ensure that in future the whims of human fashion do not dictate animal structure to the detriment of the health of those animals.
A more recent development has been the emergence of puppy farming, which is now taking place on an alarming scale. For example, the counties of Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire alone, according to Puppy Alert, have a total of 162 licensed premises, which are thought to produce some 28,000 puppies a year destined for the pet trade in England. The RSPCA estimates that some 50,000 dogs are imported from Ireland alone, and then there are imports of unknown quantity from mainland Europe. The conditions under which these animals are bred are often totally inappropriate, with overcrowding, lack of hygiene and lack of attention to the social needs of the animals. This supply chain leads to a complete separation of the dog breeder and the parent bitch from the puppy offspring and the ultimate dog owner. This is bad for the ultimate owner and certainly detrimental to the well-being of the pup. This dissociation is further exacerbated by the now widespread practice of selling puppies over the internet, to which several noble Lords have referred. One has to ask whether the internet is an appropriate way of selling a dog, but I fear that there is little that we can do about that.
Paradoxically, this commercial exploitation and proliferation of dog breeding, often by criminal gangs, has been accompanied by a huge increase in the number of stray dogs. The Dogs Trust estimates that around 126,000 stray dogs were seized by local authorities in the year to March 2011, and the financial burden on charities and local authorities of dealing with the stray dog problem has been estimated at nearly £60 million. Finally, the growth in cross-border trade—especially illegal trade—exposes the British dog population and, indeed, humans to the increased risk of imported diseases, some of which are unique to dogs but others, such as rabies, are fatal to humans.
What can be done? First, there is much that can be, and is being, done by bodies interested in the welfare of dogs voluntarily to improve the situation by education, information and co-ordination. Defra has published on its website excellent guidelines to follow when buying a cat or dog. The BVA Animal Welfare Foundation and the RSPCA have collaborated to launch the Puppy Contract and the Puppy Information Pack, which provide advice and, on a voluntary basis, have the buyer and seller agree on their responsibilities with regard to the animal’s health and well-being. Furthermore, the Pet Advertising Advisory Group has provided guidelines for websites that advertise puppies for sale, and those guidelines have been adopted by at least two of the websites involved.
However, there is a need for some strengthening of statutory controls, and I submit that it would not need new primary legislation. The potentially excellent Animal Welfare Act 2006, to which many noble Lords have referred, has laid down clear responsibilities for all animal keepers. In addition to the provision of adequate food, water and living conditions, it requires owners to cater for the social needs of animals, to allow animals to express their normal behaviour and to provide,
“protection from, and treatment of, illness and injury”.
Only modest subsidiary measures under the Animal Welfare Act 2006—for example, expansion of the guidelines and welfare code for dogs—would be required to render it unambiguously applicable to some of the above problems around dog breeding, and that would allow the repeal of the Breeding of Dogs Acts of 1973 and 1991 and the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999.
I apologise to the noble Lord but he is going into the time that will be available for the Minister’s reply.
Other issues require more rigorous enforcement of existing legislation.
In conclusion, with the refinement of existing regulation and proper enforcement, the Animal Welfare Act could be used better to safeguard the health and welfare of dogs and to ensure that dogs are bred with due regard to the health of their offspring. I urge the Government to consider such action.
My Lords, before I get launched and forget, I must declare an interest as a vice-president of the RSPCA and president of one of its local branches. I also chair a charity that seeks to raise funds and channel them to the Companion Animal Welfare Council, which was set up originally by my noble friend Lord Soulsby and others, with the object of providing expert advisory guidance on all matters relating to companion animals. The idea of the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, was that eventually it would become like the Farm Animal Welfare Council, with some government support. Unfortunately, finances are such that this has never happened. Indeed, we are now finding it difficult to raise funds, at a time when it is so difficult for all the animal welfare charities that previously contributed to it. It has produced a number of interesting reports, one of which went to Defra when it was considering, in its embryonic form, what became the 2006 Act. It has also considered dog registration and other matters.
I am, of course, delighted that dog registration will become compulsory, with microchipping, in 2016, but I have to tell the Minister that I personally, like many others, have waited a long, long time. When the old dog licensing legislation was abolished in the 1980s, I suggested that compulsory registration, brought up to date with the then new microchipping, would be a good idea. In the other place I sought on two separate occasions to attach it to other Bills, with a total lack of success. So I am very pleased now, because I think it will do more than anything else to improve the welfare of dogs and help to deal with the appalling problem of strays, which has been so distressing to many of us for years, and also the unwanted dog population.
The noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, mentioned dog fighting—a particularly horrible and barbaric so-called sport. He wondered why there were so few prosecutions. I fear that the reason is that the very secretive groups of people who undertake this are very good at finding distant places where they may engage in it. For example, when I was a Plymouth MP, we knew that Dartmoor often provided ideal opportunities for people to hide away and engage in that barbaric practice. I know from talking to RSPCA inspectors that they virtually had to go underground, practically in disguise, to penetrate such groups. It is not an easy thing to do.
Something of great concern to me at the moment is the use of electronic collars for the so-called training of dogs. As far as I am aware—unless the Minister can tell me otherwise—it is still legal, but I think it should be outlawed. The matter could well be embraced in one of the codes under the 2006 Act. I hope that the Minister will look into that as a matter of urgency.
There are innumerable other matters with which one could concern oneself, but let me now turn to the subject of cats. Like my noble friend Lord Black, I am a great lover of cats as well as dogs. One of the most miserable parts of my life in animal welfare has been seeing how many cats are unwanted. Sometimes they become feral. The animal welfare charities are unable to deal with them all properly, and one of the most miserable things one can do is to go to one of the welfare establishments where there are cages upon cages of animals waiting to be re-homed. They all look adorable, and one wants to take them all home. In fact, years ago when I chaired the RSPCA, my mother was still alive and I used to take her round on visits—until finally she said, “I can’t bear to see any more of these unwanted dogs and cats. Please don’t ask me to come with you again.” We still have the problem; it never seems to go away.
I hope that the Minister will look again at the issue of unwanted animals, particularly cats. I am sure that, as other noble Lords have suggested, a lot could be done with a really good neutering programme. The animal welfare charities do their best, but I believe that the Government themselves should be taking a more urgent look at this. Dare I suggest that they might put a little money towards it? I am probably addressing deaf ears—very deaf ears. None the less I shall make the point, because it is time that Governments took more responsibility, rather than waving it off to local authorities, animal welfare charities—you name it. I am aware that my time is up, so I shall sit down in hope.
My Lords, may I first congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Black, on securing this excellent debate and on the way in which he introduced it? The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, is right to resist getting a dog or a cat until she is ready. I was not so strong, and have two delightful dogs, Chesil and Otis, at home.
We are a nation of animal lovers. One quarter of us have a dog and a fifth of UK households have a cat, but it is clear that, as has been reiterated by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and others in the debate, there are more cats, kittens, dogs and puppies than there are good homes for them. The noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, has given us a timely reminder of the need to educate owners and potential owners in the run-up to Christmas.
The defining legislation is, of course, as we have heard, the Animal Welfare Act 2006, brought in by the Labour Government. Under that Act, powers exist for secondary legislation and codes of practice to be made to promote the welfare of animals. I know that the Government are considering a number of specific issues, including updating or bringing in new regulations or codes. Until such new provisions are made, existing laws will continue to apply. We look forward with impatience. As a result of that legislation, there is guidance for pet owners and codes of practice that can also be used in courts as evidence in cases brought before them relating to poor welfare. Clearly, owners should therefore be aware of them and I wonder whether the Minister has any plans to publicise them further through vets, pet shops, pet insurers or other media.
There is a plethora of legislation relating to the keeping of cats and dogs, their sale and their welfare. Your Lordships’ House is separately debating the need for stronger dog control. I pay tribute to the work of Angela Smith MP and Julie Hilling MP who are driving a lot of this work in the other place, and to my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon who is leading for this side on the Bill that we are interrupting this evening.
When we ask people about the welfare of dogs and cats, many ask what we can do about breeding and better regulation of breeders. The Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999 provides protection for dogs used in breeding establishments. Under this legislation, any person who keeps a breeding establishment for dogs at any premises and carries on at those premises a business of breeding dogs for sale must obtain a licence from the local council. Those people who are not in the business of breeding dogs for sale—the so-called hobby breeders—and produce fewer than five litters in any period of 12 months do not need a licence. I would be interested in whether the Minister agrees with the noble Lord, Lord Black, and others who argue that this should be lowered to two litters in 12 months and whether that should be extended to cats.
The local council has the discretion under current legislation whether to grant a licence and, before doing so, must satisfy itself that the animals are provided with suitable accommodation, food, water and bedding material; that they are adequately exercised and visited at suitable intervals; and that all reasonable precautions are taken to prevent and control the spread of diseases among dogs. Local councils are responsible for enforcing the legislation. I am interested to know the Minister’s judgment as to whether he believes that councils still have the resources and expertise to do that.
In addition to ensuring that dogs are kept in suitable accommodation, the law also places limits on the frequency and timing of breeding from a bitch. Bitches cannot be mated before they are one year old, must have no more than six litters in a lifetime and can have only one litter every 12 months. Breeding records must be kept to ensure that these requirements are adhered to. Puppies produced at licensed breeding establishments can be sold only at those premises or a licensed pet shop. There is no mention of the internet. Does the Minister agree that this regime needs to be revisited?
The Welsh Assembly Government are acting: they began a three-part consultation in 2010, which ended last month. It seeks to repeal the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973 and replace it with regulations made under Section 13 of the Animal Welfare Act in relation to Wales. The policy intent is to improve the animal welfare of all dogs on licensed breeding establishments. Importantly, once again, we in England are being left behind. Wales will have consulted and be reforming the laws on dog breeding before the coalition Government have even begun.
On this side, we therefore call on the Government to follow the leadership on animal welfare being demonstrated by the Labour Administration in Wales and to consult on the law and regulations on breeding of dogs and licensed breeding establishments in England so as to repeal outdated legislation and bring forward new regulations to improve the animal welfare of all dogs on licensed breeding establishments.
The Pet Animals Act 1951, as amended in 1983, protects the welfare of animals sold as pets. It requires any person keeping a pet shop to be licensed by the local council. That council may attach any conditions to the licence, may inspect the licensed premises at all reasonable times and may refuse a licence if the conditions at the premises are unsatisfactory or if the terms are not being complied with. Councils are responsible for enforcing the law in this area and anyone who has reason to believe that a pet shop is keeping animals in inadequate conditions should raise the matter with the council. However, much of this Act, which was written in 1951, is still relevant but much is out of date. Even its 1983 revision predates internet sales of pets, which we have heard is rife. Pets cannot be sold in the street, on barrows or at markets but they can be sold on the internet. Will the Minister please tell us when that will be updated?
If I had time, I would talk about puppy farms, which have been addressed well by the noble Lords, Lord Lexden and Lord Trees. I would also have referred to the excellent brief by Cats Protection and have raised the issues around neutering, which were so admirably raised by the noble Lord, Lord Black.
I have run out of time. We have had a good debate and I look forward to hearing answers to some of the questions from the Minister.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Black on securing a debate on this important subject. I echo the generous comments made by him and other noble Lords about the wonderful charities operating with pets. My noble friend reminded me, as did the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that I, too, should declare an interest as a 50% shareholder in a rescue poodle crossed with a Shih Tzu. I am not sure of the breed name for that.
Although I am the Minister with responsibility for companion animal welfare, my ministerial remit applies only to England. As noble Lords will know, animal welfare is a devolved policy area in the United Kingdom, so I hope my noble friend Lord Lexden will forgive me if I therefore focus on what we are doing to improve welfare for cats and dogs in England. He might like to know that I regularly meet with Ministers from the devolved Administrations and our discussions range widely.
Promoting responsible pet ownership—something referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle—remains a clear element of the coalition commitment. More responsible pet owners lead to improved welfare for all pets. The comprehensive legislation providing for and underpinning the welfare of all pet animals is the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and my noble friend paid a fitting tribute to the previous Government for so legislating. That Act not only introduces offences for animal fighting and cruelty, but offers a preventive element by placing a duty of care on owners to provide for the welfare needs of their animals. There are statutory codes of practice on the welfare of cats and dogs that summarise the important things to consider when making decisions on how to care for a pet.
A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend, spoke of the sale of pets and in particular the Pet Animals Act 1951. I understand that there were proposed plans under the previous Government to review existing legislation following the introduction of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. However, they did not pursue the matter. This Government are not pursuing an overhaul either. Having said that, legislation is already being looked at under the red-tape challenge. In the context of my noble friend Lady Parminter’s broad question, perhaps I can return to that later.
In addition, noble Lords are well aware of timetabling pressures. We need to focus on the most urgent changes necessary to protect public safety. We see those changes now in Clauses 98 and 99 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill currently before your Lordships. Rather than take time now—and we will be short of time—I hope that noble Lords are prepared to have those debates when we come to those parts of the Bill.
Where someone is in the business of selling animals as pets in a pet shop or through any other medium, they must be licensed under the 1951 Act. Despite being more than 60 years old, the Pet Animals Act still requires someone who is in the business of selling animals to have a valid licence from their local authority. I will return to that subject in a moment.
As well as important legislative changes we are making to improve the welfare of cats and dogs in United Kingdom, we are also taking forward important non-legislative policies and tools. The key issue here, as my noble friend Lord Black said, is the advertising and selling of cats, dogs and other pets online, which is increasingly controversial as the use of the internet to facilitate such sales increases. We have seen prohibited dogs for sale and cats and dogs kept in unacceptable conditions being advertised. I know that some organisations have called for the advertising of pets online simply to be prohibited. However, having considered this very carefully, my position is that such an approach would be very difficult to enforce and indeed would be likely to increase the risk of pushing unscrupulous advertisers underground.
We stand a much greater chance of success by engendering an improved culture in how our pets are bought and sold in this country. This must be done by better education of buyers, sellers and those in the middle, such as advertising sites that link the two. To that end, I thank the members of the Pet Advertising Advisory Group for their work in this area and their successes so far.
PAAG is a group of animal welfare, keeping and veterinary organisations that have come together to look at the issue of pet advertising. In September, I was privileged to represent the Government in endorsing their minimum standards for classified websites, attending the launch of the standards and holding a meeting with representatives from seven of the most prominent classified ad sites in the country. The engagement with PAAG and the Government on this matter by the sites has been really very encouraging, and I am grateful.
We are also working with PAAG and the sites to ensure that potential new pet owners are as fully informed as possible about ownership and the responsibilities that it brings. This is especially important today when purchasing a pet is so easy. Most of the websites already provide welfare advice and we are aiming to top this up with on-screen devices such as pop-ups that will further remind new owners of their duties under the Animal Welfare Act and the responsibility that comes with owning a pet.
In the past year, and as part of the move to the new GOV.UK website, we have included additional information on points to consider when buying a puppy and highlighted important organisations, which are well placed to offer detailed advice in order to ensure that your puppy is healthy. We will continue to remind the public of using the valuable resources that are already available—such as the BVA AWF puppy contract when considering buying a puppy. The wonderful pet charities have extensive user-friendly information available. Above all, we urge the public to consider re-homing a rescue cat or dog before buying a kitten or puppy.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, I am conscious that we are approaching the festive season when people begin to consider pets as presents. I reiterate the 35 year-old message that a pet is for life. It is a message that the Government will be sending out over the next few weeks to ensure that pet ownership is not seen as a light undertaking.
The work on advertising of cats and dogs crosses over into that of breeding, as we see significant numbers of puppies and kittens for sale, as noble Lord, Lord Trees, and others mentioned. As noble Lords will know, there is legislation on the breeding of dogs to protect the welfare of all dogs involved.
Under the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999, local authorities have the power to license those in the business of breeding dogs. I reiterate that the so-called five litter test, which is referred to in the legislation, is a maximum, not a minimum limit. Whether someone needs a licence is first and foremost about whether they are in the business of breeding and selling dogs. There is an obvious read-across into how HMRC defines trading for tax reporting purposes. It helpfully provides nine indicators to aid individuals and authorities in determining whether their earnings are from trading. If some of these indicators are met by dog breeders, then they are in the business of breeding dogs and must be subject to licensing conditions. But even if someone is not in the business of breeding, anyone producing five litters or more per year must be licensed.
For further clarity, I think it is worth addressing the issue of so-called “hobby breeders”, which some noble Lords have referred to. Where hobby breeders are in the business—for instance, there is a profit-seeking motive or a systematic selling system—then these too should be licensed, even if they breed only two litters per year.
I should also emphasise that all breeders of dogs and cats, regardless of their licensing status, may be investigated by local authorities under the Animal Welfare Act where there are welfare concerns. It is for local authorities to prioritise such activities in their area and demonstrate the level of necessary resource that should be allocated. The public should alert their local authority where they have welfare concerns on any breeding establishment or if they believe an unlicensed breeder should be licensed.
The noble Lord, Lord Trees, spoke of standards of breeding. I am very heartened by initiatives such as the BVA and the Kennel Club canine health schemes, and veterinarians are generally being proactive in educating breeders and owner clients on the health consequences of breeding dogs with inherited disease or extreme conformation. The work here of the Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding to improve standards is very welcome. The noble Lord, I hope, will be pleased to hear that Defra is assisting in supporting updating of the guidance for breeding establishments, which will be released shortly and should contribute to better implementation and enforcement of the regulations.
I am about half way through what I wanted to say, but I have just been told that I have no more than two minutes left. I will go as far as I can and then if I may write to noble Lords on points that I am unable to cover. My noble friends Lord Black and Lady Fookes made important points about the benefits of neutering. The Government recommend that owners ensure their pets are neutered in order to limit the number of accidental litters and safeguard the welfare of existing animals. I know that a number of charities are strong advocates of neutering. I cannot commit to a government-backed national neutering day, but we will certainly work with those I have mentioned in order to ensure that the public receive the right message on neutering.
My noble friend Lord Black referred to attacks on cats. Such attacks are immensely distressing for owners and, clearly, for the pets involved. I can assure my noble friend that this is something the Government take very seriously. It is not the norm for dogs routinely to attack cats, although many naturally have a chasing instinct. I will write to my noble friend further on that.
I know that I have to write my noble friend Lady Parminter on the consolidation of the dog legislation—not something that we propose to do, but I need to explain to her why not. Likewise, I must write to my noble friend Lady Fookes about electronic training aids, which is an important subject. I have made sure that I have personally experienced those aids, so that I can form an opinion on them. Yes, I survived.
I wanted to find a moment to tell my noble friend that Defra’s chief vet will be holding an “Ask Defra” session on cat welfare and cat protection shortly.
In closing, I thank noble Lords for an interesting debate on this important issue which is, as your Lordships know, something in which I am particularly interested. I hope that what I have said this evening, perhaps combined with what I shall say in writing, will be useful to clarify what the Government are doing and the work we continue to do in this area.