Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I first sincerely apologise for addressing your Lordships from a sedentary position. I took a tumble down a slope on Monday and have broken my ankle, which is now strapped into a boot for the next six weeks. My consultant was not pleased when I told him that I had one appointment this week that I simply would not cancel and that was our debate today on an issue dear to my heart. I was particularly anxious not to let down noble Lords who had signed up to speak, and I am most grateful to them all for taking part.
It was back in 2013 that I first had the privilege to lead a debate on the welfare of our domestic animals, and my noble friend Lord De Mauley responded, setting out the then coalition Government’s plans. I am delighted that he is speaking again today. That debate was the first time, so far as the House of Lords Library could tell, that our House had ever debated the topic. Back then it was perhaps rather an esoteric subject, and certainly on the fringes of public policy. What a difference five years can make. The welfare of our pets, and animal welfare more widely, is now a central political issue and one where there is commendable cross-party support, as indeed there should be on an issue such as this.
Defra—and, I have no doubt, my noble friend the Minister, who is such an energetic and eloquent champion of animal welfare—has been crucial in this: a dynamo of policy announcements and initiatives. I commend in particular the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, who has done so much to make this a mainstream issue and a big priority for the Government and Parliament. New animal activities licensing regulations will come into force in October; new welfare codes of practice for cats, dogs and horses have just been published; there has been a consultation on third-party sales of puppies and kittens, which is still a cause of considerable concern; and, at the end of last year, the Secretary of State announced the welcome publication of a draft animal welfare Bill, which will increase the maximum penalty for the most serious animal welfare offences under the Animal Welfare Act from six months’ imprisonment to five years’. Central to the Bill are the welfare needs of “animals as sentient beings”. That legislation will be enormously important in drawing together the threads of policy in this area and will make a real difference to domestic animals and the amazing charities that care for them. I hope legislative time will be found for it soon, although I know how difficult that is. I wonder whether my noble friend, who I know will be deploying his legendary and persuasive charm on the business managers, can give us any clues as to when it might be introduced.
In the cross-party spirit I just mentioned, I welcome the animal welfare plan that the Labour Party launched earlier this year and which is, I understand, still out for consultation. One of the issues it highlights is the compulsory microchipping of cats, which I strongly support because it is so important for owners and their animals. I would be grateful if my noble friend could give us his view of the case for the compulsory microchipping of cats as part of promoting responsible pet ownership.
A huge amount has been achieved and a great deal learned from a number of consultations, but challenges remain and it is right that we highlight and confront them. A primary issue is the prevention of both cruelty and poor welfare—different sides of the same coin. There should be no remorse for those who deliberately attack animals with a view to either killing them or causing them intolerable pain.
Increased penalties will help, of course, but there is more that we can do. In Oral Questions recently I highlighted the issue of air guns and the growing problem of people using these weapons to shoot animals, cats in particular. In 2017, the RSPCA received 884 calls to its 24-hour cruelty hotline, reporting air weapon attacks on animals, many of which resulted in either terrible pain for the animal concerned or often death. The public simply will not tolerate this. Just yesterday, a petition organised by Cats Protection with 110,000 signatures was delivered to Downing Street, calling for the licensing of air guns in England and Wales. The Government are consulting on this area and perhaps my noble friend could inform us when we might see a response and whether he would kindly specifically draw to the attention of the Home Office the urgent animal welfare issues that this raises.
The poor or inadequate welfare of animals is just another aspect of cruelty and neglect. Here again, we face real challenges in promoting the needs of animals. Last year, a PDSA report underlined the scale of the problem. It found that 93,000 dogs are never walked at all; almost 1.8 million dogs are left at home for five hours or more on a typical weekday; around 40% of cats are overweight or obese because of poor diet; and 3.6 million cats have not had a primary vaccination course when young. That is not acceptable and we clearly need a new approach to public education and awareness about the needs of animals. Part of that involves educating young people. Next time there is a review of the national curriculum, Defra should lead the way in ensuring that it covers animal welfare, as the EFRA Select Committee recommended. Perhaps my noble friend could store that one away at the back of his mind for when the time comes.
We also need a more strategic approach to educating the public about animal welfare needs. Crucially, the new statutory codes will be of real value only if people know about them. That means an approach which involves the animal welfare charities, pet industry representatives, local government—which bears so much of the brunt of this—the enforcement agencies, veterinary professionals, healthcare professionals, housing providers and teachers. Such an approach, drawing together so many of the very welcome public policy developments, which have happened under all parties in the 12 years since the Animal Welfare Act 2006, could really be the motor that makes these new policies, codes and regulations work in practice for the benefit of all our domestic animals.
Another aspect of cruelty that I should like to mention—again I have raised it at Oral Questions with an extremely helpful and positive response from my noble friend—is the growing problem of the breeding of cats and dogs with extreme characteristics, including flat-faced or brachycephalic animals, such as French bulldogs, Boston terriers or extreme flat-faced Persian cats, or those bred to have short limbs, such as munchkin cats, or curled or folded ears like the Scottish fold cats. The result of this grotesque genetic modification, which takes place in a wholly unregulated way in the absence of an effective cat breeding regime, is that many of these poor animals often spend a life in intolerable pain, suffering, for instance, from early-onset arthritis or unable to breathe properly. It is in effect torture breeding of animals that are literally born to suffer.
The proper regulation of cat breeding, in the first instance through a Government-backed code of practice on cat breeding welfare, would help in many ways, because many of those buying such benighted animals do so simply because they are a fashion accessory and they have no idea of the suffering that is involved. This is one of the issues on which International Cat Care, of which I am a patron, has campaigned and is part of its excellent international declaration of responsibilities to cats, which has to date attracted over 20,000 signatures from across the world. Sadly, we do not have time today to look at the international dimensions of animal welfare, but will my noble friend always bear in mind that our responsibilities should not stop at our borders and look in particular at the terms of the international declaration?
I hope I have been able to highlight in that quick canter some of the significant challenges all of us who love our domestic animals, which bring joy to millions of homes across the country—in fact, probably half the population—still face. I look forward to hearing about other issues from noble Lords this afternoon.
In closing, I pay a heartfelt tribute to all those charities and their armies of fantastic, selfless volunteers, who do so much extraordinary work in this area: the Dogs Trust, Battersea, Blue Cross, Cats Protection, International Cat Care, Wood Green and the RSPCA. Their work helps to improve the quality of life of so many animals and is vital to the education of children and the public. Those charities, the people who work in them and the volunteers who support them are right at the heart of a civilised society. I know all of us here today applaud their dedication, commitment and shining humanity.
I congratulate my noble friend on bringing forward this debate. I declare my interest as a former cat and dog owner. Promoting and improving the welfare of domestic animals has a simple solution—and the solution is us human beings. We class ourselves as a nation of animal lovers, but the evidence does not prove that. If one studies the PAW report of 2017—a very good document indeed—one will find that a significant minority of animal owners are thoughtless, irresponsible and inconsiderate.
People are thoughtless, in that 98% of cat owners have no idea of the costs of keeping a cat before they have one, which should be a primary consideration. Nearly one-fifth of dogs in the UK are left for five hours or more in a typical weekday; 93,000 dogs are never walked at all. They are irresponsible, in that animals are not receiving primary vaccination courses; 36% of cats are not receiving them, up from 28% in 2011. Some 25% of dogs are not receiving them, up from 18% in 2011, and 55% of rabbits are not receiving them.
People are inconsiderate to their animals—in their diet, as my noble friend mentioned, and in their lack of knowledge of animal laws. Some 15% of owners have not registered their pets with a vet. They are inconsiderate to their neighbours, because poor care of an animal leads to behaviour problems. Some 66% of dog owners would like to change their animal’s behaviour, but they had better change their behaviour first before they can change their animal’s behaviour. They are also inconsiderate to other animals: free-ranging and feral cats kill about 55 million wild birds and a further 220 million small mammals, reptiles and amphibians each year. Cat predation is a national problem. It is estimated that UK cats kill songbirds at 10 times the rate that illegal hunters in the Mediterranean kill migratory species. Researchers at the Universities of Reading and Exeter have reported on the widespread ignorance of that fact by many cat owners—and it is difficult for charities such as the RSPB, because they rely on legacies from cat owners. However, SongBird Survival is working with the University of Exeter and cat owners to get better information and to minimise the adverse effect of pet cats on native wildlife while enhancing cat welfare. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to help that project—and if they are not helping, why not?
I have some quick questions for my noble friend. What steps are the Government taking to minimise the adverse effect of cat owners’ pets on native wildlife? Will they press the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to include provisions in planning policy so that, as urban areas grow, a buffer zone of 400 metres is imposed around any new development to help to mitigate the adverse ecological consequences of cat predation, where species of conservation concern nest? Will my noble friend give domestic cats the same legal status as dogs?
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Black, whose eloquence was in no way diminished by his sadly enforced sedentary position, has been a tireless champion of the interests of the nation’s pets throughout the 32 years that I have known him and observed his work admiringly. In a debate on these issues a few months ago, to which he was unable to contribute, I recalled a general election long ago when he devised, with some small help from me, a manifesto which set forth the commitments that our much-loved pets would require from political parties if they had the vote. I went on to suggest the kind of action for which they would be looking today.
Briefed by that excellent organisation, Cats Protection, feline electors would want, among other things, absolute guarantees that enhanced border checks for cats and kittens would be introduced, along with a central register of feline immigrants, and tick and tapeworm treatment to prevent the import of infections from abroad. Backed by the marvellous Dogs Trust, canine voters would insist on a major revision of the Pet Travel Scheme—now a very practical proposition with the approach of Brexit—to ensure more stringent tests for rabies. Dogs would be paw-to-paw with their feline colleagues on the need for swift and effective treatment for ticks and tapeworm.
I now think it very likely that the Tory cause has been significantly boosted by the recent introduction of regulations that provide for a new local authority licensing system. I am reliably informed that sounds of approval have emanated from dog baskets and hearth rugs throughout the land. The fine organisations that work on behalf of the nation’s cats and dogs—which include many mentioned by my noble friend, such as the much-admired Battersea Dogs & Cats Home—will be scrutinising the implementation of these regulations very carefully, noting their successes and highlighting any shortcomings.
The team running Cats Protection tell me that they attach great importance to ensuring that the ban on the sale of puppies and little kittens under eight weeks is effectively enforced. It is imperative that licences awarded to commercial operations make it absolutely clear that they are trading for profit, closing loopholes that were exploited under previous legislation. There is also a strong view that the regulations should be extended to cover, for example, rehoming organisations and sanctuaries.
Our pets think to themselves, “Will the new licensing system, with its star ratings and other features, be fully understood by fallible human beings”—the fallibility being underlined by my noble friend Lord Caithness—“and will they seek out pet sellers with good welfare standards, endorsed under the new system?”. If the Government give their full backing to the guidance that has been produced by a group of animal welfare charities and help promote it with vigour, they would move even further to winning the hearts of the nation’s pets as they ponder their votes.
My Lords, there are a number of things to be welcomed in the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018, including the licensing of breeding establishments, the risk-based approach to inspections, the prohibition of the sale of puppies under eight weeks old, and the requirements on advertisements of pets, although those may be tricky to enforce—I hope that the various websites are being helpful. It is vital that the regulations are applied consistently across local councils and I hope that the Government will keep their operation under review.
There remain a number of important issues that are difficult to deal with, including the breeding of domestic animals in poor conditions, and, as my noble friend Lord Black mentioned, the breeding of dogs and cats with congenital conditions such as severe breathing difficulties and eye problems, which breeds such as French bulldogs and pugs experience, due to extreme conformation. There is also the matter of the frequent import of dogs and cats bred and travelled in poor conditions, often leading to disease. My noble friend Lord Lexden spoke in detail about that.
Clearly, electronic collars should never be used for the routine training of dogs. There may, however, be occasions when, used properly and as a last resort, they can prevent serious problems, such as sheep worrying. In these cases the only viable alternative to their use could be euthanasia. The recent consultation document regrettably failed to consider options such as further regulation, a licensing system or statutory controls on the quality and specification of the devices available. If there is to be a ban, it should at least include an exemption for boundary fence systems. The use of these allows animals more freedom and greater safety, particularly near busy roads.
Turning to horse welfare, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Horse Trust. The creation of the British Horse Council is a major achievement. There have been a number of other successes along the way, from new protocols for dealing with contagious equine metritis to a tighter tripartite agreement and the Control of Horses Act. On the latter, I ask my noble friend the Minister to update us on progress, especially on enforcement.
I understand that a new statutory instrument is now planned to include both retrospective microchipping, which is essential for disease control, traceability, theft prevention and holding owners to account, and civil sanctions, as well as requirements such as the Central Equine Database. It would be helpful if the fine income could be returned to local authorities to act as an incentive to enforcement.
With EU exit ahead, there are many challenges for the equine world to help government work through, such as the movement of horses between the north and south of Ireland and, indeed, throughout the rest of the European Union. I have concerns about horses being exported for slaughter and I am frankly unconvinced by the lack of declarations thereof. Until there is full traceability within and outside the United Kingdom, it is impossible to know where exported horses end up. In the meantime, intelligence-led checks at the border and point of origin would help stop the non-compliant movement of horses out of the United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State announced plans last September to have the maximum prison term for an animal welfare offence raised from six months to five years, which I would welcome. In closing, I ask my noble friend the Minister to tell us when and how that will be implemented.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Black, for initiating this debate. I have had a number of briefings from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the Dogs Trust and the Kennel Club. Of course, if I read out the briefings it would take far longer than probably all the speeches combined.
I particularly thank the Dogs Trust because I found our family pet from it: a rehomed, extremely stupid cockapoo. Although he is much loved, the actual cost of keeping a dog and dealing with some of the things he has, such as anxiety issues, should not be taken lightly. One of the problems we face across the board is that many people buy dogs and cats on impulse. This is a particular issue: they see a cute kitten or puppy and see it as something that should be owned automatically. Of course, this leads to the problems of the industry: puppy farms, which I know regulation is needed for, and smuggling of puppies. I hope the Government will start thinking about age restrictions on puppies that can be imported. This would solve some of the problems, especially since some of the diseases that the puppies might carry, especially tick-borne ones, which can be imported to this country, might be an issue in future, as has happened with Alabama rot, whatever that is—I have not seen very much about it, although people on Hampstead Heath are getting very worried about it. I believe that it is mostly around Manchester.
We are a nation of animal lovers. Indeed, the trade body I work for calculated that the energy used for watching cat videos is the equivalent of running Ashford in Kent—67,000 houses—for a year. Obviously, they are terribly important. I went on Gumtree this morning to see how easy it is to acquire an animal. It was interesting that a lot of the owners on that website were talking about the fact that their dogs were registered with the Kennel Club, which showed best practice. You can also then happily google, “Where can I find a cheap, cute puppy?”, which obviously feeds into exactly the wrong attitude, which we are trying to look at.
I introduced two Private Members’ Bills, which I think the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, remembers, to try to overturn some of the worst aspects of the Dangerous Dogs Act, which increased the problem by creating status dogs. People are owning Staffordshire bull terriers, which are excellent dogs and look like pit bull terriers. They make them aggressive, which is a very dangerous thing to do with a dog of that order. I ask the Minister: since there are new duties on local authorities—and I commend the work done by dog wardens around the country, and their dedication—are there adequate resources to undertake the work they have been given? Secondly, following the Home Office regulations, will there be a review of public space protection orders to make sure that they are not being implemented against animal welfare?
My Lords, I have decided to speak today as I am concerned about the Government’s possible plans to ban so-called shock collars. I am grateful to my noble friend for giving me the opportunity by initiating this debate.
I understand the Secretary of State has indicated that he might limit the ban to collars used for training devices, but exempt those used to contain animals. I declare an interest. I have five dogs—two spaniels and three terriers—none of whom has ever worn a collar of that type. They are used for two reasons and the second is the important one; that is, to contain pets from wandering. Where these collars are justified, and supported by many vets, is where the animals gets a buzz—if necessary, a mild shock—to keep them safe in gardens. It is an invisible fence supported by an electric collar that responds to signals from wire buried around a garden or home. There are 40,000 of these collars in use and many vets say they are in the animal’s best interest. In a recent letter to the Times, they said:
“The pet is in control and quickly learns not to go too close to the boundary”.
They went on:
“We are confident that sound science shows these garden systems do not harm pets. They instead stop them joining the 300,000 cats and dogs killed on roads every year”.
None of us has an escape-proof garden; I certainly do not. We do not want to lock our dogs up all day and all night while out at work. Many people who use these collars find that once their pet has gone near the fence they never go near it again. It does work.
I was concerned about some of the lobbying, particularly by the Kennel Club, whose stance I thought somewhat hypocritical. It lobbied against shock collars, but uses choke leads in its shows. These improve the dog’s posture but often result in ongoing health problems to the neck and disc problems for the dog.
There are many important issues in the animal world that need attention, including battery farming, puppy farming and general animal cruelty. It is animal cruelty that, paradoxically, will explode if collars used to prevent dogs escaping on to roads are banned. It is cruel to the dogs and cats and deeply upsetting for the owners. I hope my noble friend will meet all those who are concerned in this area, particularly vets, before making a final decision. I would indeed support the Government if they banned shock collars for training. They are unnecessary and can sometimes lead to cruelty and be detrimental to the dog. For containing pets in gardens, however, they are probably very important.
My Lords, I am delighted that the Government are committed to ensuring that Brexit will be good for animal welfare in the UK. Far from looking to loosen regulations in this important area, as we leave the EU we will ensure that we do even more to protect animals.
I am confining my remarks principally to dogs, without intending any slight to other domestic animals. That is simply due to time pressure and because dogs are, after all, our most popular domestic animal, with over 10 million living with us in the UK. It is argued that we are a country that gives undue priority to the care of our domestic animals, but that is emphatically not a view that I share. That is not surprising, as I am a vice-president of the Kennel Club, founded in 1873, and deputy president of the Animal Health Trust, which is 75 years old. Both organisations are absolutely committed to improving the health and welfare of domestic animals, particularly dogs.
With that prompt, I trust that the Government are still minded to ban those horrible electric-shock collars that my noble friends Lord De Mauley and Lord Astor mentioned. I look forward to the Government’s considered consultation response. With the support of the Kennel Club, the Animal Health Trust is driving forward research that is delivering new treatments, vaccines, preventive measures and pioneering scientific developments. These will make life better for dogs and other companion animals worldwide. That is research that can yield read-across benefits to other domestic animals and to human beings.
As well as fulfilling the role of loving companions that help keep us fit and sane, dogs can be key workers, too. Every day they help to make our workplace, here in the House, safer as the sniffer dogs and their handlers diligently search around those red leather Benches for explosives. Lottie the calm canine guide leads my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond to his place and into the right Lobby. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has a new Labrador, Barley, who skilfully guides him into a different Lobby. Police dogs help to protect us here and in many public places. Sniffer dogs guard our borders against smugglers of bombs, drugs, money, animals, plants, food and people. Dogs help us find the victims of natural disasters, living and dead; they serve with distinction in our Armed Forces; and play a vital role on every farm in the land. Whether it is as guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf, seizure alert dogs, other assistance dogs for the elderly and disabled, comforters for the sick and bereaved, or simply as much-loved and valued pets, it is hard to overstate the importance of the role dogs play in all our lives.
It is our duty as a civilised nation to ensure that we repay the devotion of our dogs, recognising them not merely as sentient beings but as our very best friends, and that they and all other domestic animals are afforded the fullest protection of the law as we move into the next phase of our proud history outside the EU.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the owner of five dogs and president of the Dove Valley Working Gundog Club. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Black on securing this important debate. I shall briefly make two points.
The first is regarding the completely unacceptable practice of puppy farming. On 8 February this year my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced:
“A ban on third party puppy sales is to be explored by the government as part of a package of reforms to drive up animal welfare standards”.
I believe that any such reform should be much stronger than simply a ban—it should be much more bite than just a bark. Will my noble friend the Minister provide an update on the progress of this, and on his plans in this area?
My second point concerns the theft of working dogs, predominantly gundogs, in rural areas. The number of missing or stolen gundogs has been on the rise since 2012. According to the Shooting Times, in that year around 3,500 dogs were reported stolen simply during the shooting season. Since then, gundog theft has continued in a big way: the figures are on the increase each year. These working dogs are highly valuable assets, with a typical trained Labrador costing upwards of £4,000. But it is not only gundogs which fall victim to the thief: terriers are fair game, too. I understand that criminals sell them into the unspeakably cruel and vile dogfighting world, as so-called bait dogs. That is quite simply disgusting. Does my noble friend agree that everything must be done to bear down on this aspect of rural crime, which causes considerable cruelty and great distress to dogs and their owners alike? Will he convey to his colleagues at the Home Office that funding for rural crime units must not be diminished but enhanced?
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Black, for securing this debate. In agreeing with many speakers, I would like to voice my support for improving measures and raising standards for our domestic animals. These much-needed measures are long awaited and we need to see clear, strong guidelines embedded in a good, clear strategy. It is regrettable that little further has been done apart from the microchipping of dogs and the Welfare of Racing Greyhounds Regulations 2010, although both are welcome.
We need much-improved measures to include the licensing of all sellers, with better enforcement and strict new import rules to stamp out unregulated dealers. Anyone breeding or selling should and must be tightly regulated and licensed, with the local authority holding the register to inspect on a regular basis. People who are in this business, whether on a large or smaller scale, should have the added incentive to support raising animal welfare standards. It is being recommended that anyone breeding two litters or more per year should be licensed but I would like to see anyone breeding just one litter and selling puppies for a profit having to have a licence. A priority must be to see an end to third-party sales, including in pet shops.
Brexit heralds the opportunity, I hope, for stronger enforcement, particularly when puppies are found to have been imported underage and unvaccinated, with some having travelled in appalling conditions to then be sold on the internet with false data on their passports to evade contravening the PETS. We need to see full traceability at customs points.
Finally, the legislation has potential but progress has been limited on the commitment to promote good welfare, and we must stamp out cruelty. I would like to see the Government working with animal welfare organisations to have a public media campaign bringing all this to the fore.
A timetable for secondary legislation was set some 10 years ago in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. We need some real progress. I want particular attention paid to animal cruelty, for which the maximum sentence is just six months—in the UK it is among the lowest in Europe. I hope that the Government will quickly introduce a change to a five-year sentence. Let us hope that 2018 will be the year for real progress on all fronts in stamping out cruelty to animals.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Black, for securing this important debate. I declare my entry in the register of interests. Britain is a nation of animal lovers. Animal welfare is also an important issue for councils, which in some areas have not received sufficient funding from central government to enforce the Animal Welfare Act. This has moved the responsibility to charities such as the RSPCA. Councils work in partnership with the RSPCA and in many areas are reliant on it for enforcement of the Act.
The other place produced a report in November 2016, Animal Welfare in England: Domestic Pets, which made several recommendations. Many of those were in included in the SI debated on 27 March in this Room, when the Government updated the animal welfare regulations. I have been lobbied, as have other noble Lords, by Battersea Dogs Home and the Dogs Trust about third-party sales. A consultation under way on this subject closed on 2 May. Despite it being early days, is the Minister able to indicate the preliminary outcomes from that consultation?
A recommendation from 2016 that the RSPCA should no longer be involved in acting as a prosecutor of first resort when there are statutory bodies with a duty to carry out that role has resulted in the Government giving the RSPCA two years to set its house in order over its prosecutions policy. How is the review of that policy progressing?
A further recommendation for the Government to set up a register of those convicted of animal cruelty offences who had also been disqualified from keeping animals was rejected in favour of public access to police prosecutions. I note that a petition was launched by the Daily Mail that year. I wonder how many people find it easy to access the police prosecutions lists and whether the Government are thinking of reviewing their decision.
The regulation and licensing of dog walkers has been raised previously. Dog walkers and grooming premises are not currently licensed. There is a National Dog Walking Register website, which gives advice about pet insurance and a list of dog walkers in one’s area, but there is no statutory licensing system. A second website on dog walking indicates that some local authorities may require a dog walker to have a business licence, but this is by no means widespread. Can the Minister say whether there have been complaints about dog walkers and whether licensing is necessary?
I support the comments of previous speakers on puppy farming and deliberate animal cruelty, and look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Black, for being a great champion of domestic animal welfare and to all noble Lords who have spoken. In the brief time I have to speak, I want to say something about Labour's animal welfare proposals. But before I do that, I want to ask the Minister whether a timetable of primary and secondary legislation will be produced. Despite the Secretary of State’s enthusiasm for animal welfare issues, the legislation does not seem to be keeping pace with his promises and his credibility is increasingly on the line. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Black, that this would be rectified if we had more assurance on the future timeline of legislation.
In the meantime, noble Lords have mentioned important animal welfare issues, most of which are encapsulated in Labour’s animal welfare plan. It was, of course, Labour which brought in the landmark Animal Welfare Act 2006, but we recognise that it is now time to update the existing legislation so that we continue to have the best standards in the world.
We are angry that penalties for animal cruelty are now some of the lowest in Europe, which is why we supported the animal welfare Bill, which would increase maximum sentences. We have fought to enshrine the principle of animal sentience in UK law, preventing animals being exposed to cruel and degrading treatment—despite the Government’s prevarication.
We have consistently supported a ban on the third-party sale of puppies and the requirement for all puppies to be sold with their mother on site. We will take proactive measures to tackle the cruel and illegal acts of puppy smuggling, often carried out by organised gangs, and review the operation of the pet travel scheme. We would introduce a microchip database, recording microchip numbers upon entry to the UK and extending mandatory microchipping to cover cats. We are opposed to the use of animal shock collars and would ban their sale and importation. We would introduce new restrictions on people keeping primates and other exotic animals captured from the wild as pets. We would tackle the scandal of retired greyhounds being needlessly destroyed by introducing a centralised database to trace ownership. Recognising the companionship and comfort that animals bring to so many people, we are consulting with landlords and care home providers on allowing pets to be kept on their premises.
The humane treatment of all animals is the benchmark of a civilised society. Our proposals would make sure that we remain world leaders on this important issue.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Black’s dedication to animal welfare is truly exceptional, and today we witness this given his recent accident. We are proud to have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, and I say to my noble friend Lord Kirkham that they will remain so under our new arrangements.
Animal welfare affects us all. The veterinary profession is at the front line, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the veterinary community and the contributions it makes. Together, we are working to create a veterinary profession equipped to deliver future requirements: to protect animal health and welfare, safeguard our food chain, maintain public health and services, and enable thriving trade. Work is ongoing between the Government, the British Veterinary Association, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and other key partners on the hugely important veterinary capability and capacity project. The profession also has a key role in the fight against antimicrobial resistance and meeting our targets for the reduction in antibiotic usage.
My recent visit to the Animal Health Trust at Newmarket reminded me just how much we owe my noble friend Lord Kirkham for his generosity and commitment to that establishment. We are extremely fortunate to also have the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England and the Farm Animal Welfare Committee providing advice, and I acknowledge their work.
The UK equestrian sector plays a significant role in our national and rural economies. It sets a global standard with its exceptionally high level of expertise, which is recognised around the world and has encouraged a strong and successful export market. I value the work of the British Horse Council, to which my noble friend Lord De Mauley referred, and in particular its help in the creation of the Central Equine Database. This holds 1.2 million equine records and is being used by local authorities to help identify the owners of straying, abandoned or neglected horses which have previously been microchipped.
My noble friend Lord De Mauley asked about progress with the Control of Horses Act, and I pay tribute to him for his close involvement in bringing that forward. The Act has undoubtedly helped tackle this problem, which is one that he knows so well. However, there remains the issue of equine fly-grazing. We encourage partnership working between all partners—landowners and their representatives, local authorities and the equine charities—to deal with horse abandonment and fly-grazing. I know a number of equine charities that are absolutely instrumental in this, including the British Horse Society, of which I should declare membership, and in the castration of horses, which is hugely important.
My noble friend Lord De Mauley asked about fine income in connection with retrospective equine microchipping. We are finalising our new statutory instrument on equine identification to implement EU requirements, which will be laid as soon as practicable. Officials are in discussion with local authorities and other government departments to establish whether it is appropriate that any fine income could be returned to local authorities.
As a number of your Lordships have said, cats and dogs are surely our most numerous and hugely popular pets. So many of us have had them, and without them our lives would not be as full as they have been, from early childhood and thereafter. I had the privilege of speaking recently at the Big Tent event for the Canine & Feline Sector Group. I cannot overstate the importance of these connections and the constant communication and sharing of ideas with the sectors on animal welfare. My noble friend Lord Caithness and a number of your Lordships raised the issue of awareness. I am acutely aware of that in so far as the veterinary profession, as well as the animal charities, will be key to helping us raise awareness as we seek to persuade many owners who would not dream of even thinking of being cruel to their animals but who unfortunately are not caring for them in an enlightened way. We absolutely need to raise awareness.
My noble friend Lord Black made reference to the PDSA report and to the importance of education. These are all things on which we must beat the drum. The codes of practice for dogs, cats, horses, ponies and their hybrids have been updated, as a number of your Lordships mentioned, and they came in to force on 6 April. The whole purpose of these updated codes is to contain more detail about what owners and keepers need to do to ensure the welfare of their animals.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, quite rightly asked about the timetable for primary and secondary legislation. Of course, I will have to reply with what is expected from the Government Benches, that we will bring forward legislation when parliamentary time permits, but we are clear about the priorities we set on bringing these matters forward. In particular, my noble friend Lord De Mauley asked about the legislation increasing the prison sentences for animal welfare offences. Our proposal is to increase the maximum penalty for animal cruelty from six months’ to five years’ imprisonment. As your Lordships know, we published a draft Bill in December, and the timing will be announced in the usual way. However, I am conscious that we all want to make progress on that. The Bill also seeks explicitly to recognise animals as sentient beings, which is an indication of the Government’s resolve not only to maintain current standards of animal welfare but to strengthen them.
As has been mentioned—this was part of our manifesto commitment—we have already achieved the passing of the new animal welfare licensing regulations. I point out specifically to your Lordships that we worked with charities, through the Canine & Feline Sector Group; we are working on guidance on these matters precisely because we want the regulations to be of practical benefit. That was raised by my noble friends Lord Lexden and Lord Black. These regulations update the licensing controls for five activities involving animals. I emphasise to my noble friend Lady Redfern that anyone in the business of breeding and selling, regardless of the number of litters, must have a licence. We are absolutely clear that this is about whether you are in the business of breeding and selling. One of the key points on which we are absolutely clear is that no puppy or kitten should be sold under the age of eight weeks, which is clear in the new arrangements.
A number of your Lordships, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, raised the issue of commercial third-party sales of puppies and kittens in England. As has been said, this consultation closed recently; we need to analyse the responses and will come forward with our own response as soon as we possibly can.
A number of your Lordships, my noble friend Lord Black in particular, raised the issue of breeding pets with what I would describe as extreme characteristics. I have of course discussed the issue with the Kennel Club and the British Veterinary Association. For the first time we have placed legal requirements on licensed dog breeders in our licensing regulations. Surely the point is that we must breed defects out of pets—that point was also raised by my noble friend Lord De Mauley. We must prevent these extreme conformations for cats and dogs. It cannot be right to breed animals that will have all sorts of disabilities because of our self-indulgence. This is the strongest message that anyone, whether breed societies or the Kennel Club, must get across. It is simply not acceptable for animals to be knowingly bred in this way.
Further recent progress on domestic animal welfare arising from the compulsory microchipping of dogs has led to a significant decrease in the number of stray dogs—this is a really strong point. A number of your Lordships mentioned e-collars, including my noble friends Lord De Mauley and Lord Astor. The consultation has just closed. I have had a very large number of representations on a range of issues arising from it. Of course, we must consider the way forward extremely carefully and I am mindful of all the points that have been made by your Lordships and others on this matter. I would also like to recognise all the work that Defra officials do, some of whom are sitting behind me. They have worked tirelessly on these matters.
My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury mentioned pet theft. I know of a number of friends and relations who have suffered this over the years. It is a traumatic event and very often one never really gets over it. There are strict laws in place; in fact, someone can be in prison for up to seven years. The Sentencing Council has issued guidance to the courts underlining the significance of the theft of a pet or, as my noble friend said, a working dog, and the emotional distress that it can cause.
My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury and others are absolutely right to talk of puppy farming. It is at the root of what we need to do to ensure that that illegal trade is stamped out.
My noble friend Lord Black asked about cat microchipping. We definitely agree that microchipping is strongly recommended. However, we do not think at this time that cats present the same potential public nuisance as dogs.
My noble friend Lord Caithness mentioned cats and wildlife. I do not have enough time to go into the intricacies. All I can say at this stage is that we are not convinced that this is a matter for government intervention, but clearly many owners are fitting bells to collars and I encourage that.
My noble friend Lord Black asked about the licensing of air weapons. This is still being analysed and my officials are very strongly in communication with Home Office officials on the matter.
Clearly, we are working on new arrangements. My noble friend Lord Lexden mentioned the Pet Travel Scheme. We need to work on that to heighten biosecurity and to ensure that matters run smoothly.
On the illegal dog trade, the APHA has been working in partnership with the Dogs Trust. I want to record our appreciation of what has been done. It is disrupting the illegal trade in dogs and puppies, and as a result of the partnership more than 700 dogs have been seized and placed into quarantine.
The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and other noble Lords asked about local authorities’ resources. Our licensing regime is created with full cost recovery, including local authorities’ reasonable enforcement costs. We are also placing emphasis and importance on training, which often means that local authorities are collaborating.
I am about to go over time and am conscious that I have not been able to answer a number of questions. I will write to your Lordships. I express my gratitude to my noble friend for his long-term commitment and for giving me this opportunity to update your Lordships. Good progress has been made. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, is quite right to say that there is more to do. We have a lot more that we want to do and are seeking the legislative time to do it. I look forward to working with your Lordships and with all those at home or abroad who are advancing the cause of animal welfare.
Committee adjourned at 1.54 pm.