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Smuggling: Kittens and Puppies

Volume 816: debated on Tuesday 7 December 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to prevent the smuggling of kittens and puppies into the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill outlines how the Government will fulfil their manifesto commitment to, among other things, crack down on puppy smuggling and address the low-welfare movement of pets, including by reducing the number of pets that can travel in one non-commercial movement. We have also consulted on further proposed restrictions to the commercial and non-commercial movement of pets into Great Britain, and we will publish a summary of responses in due course.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer and for the action the Government are taking on the microchipping of owned cats. The Government’s proposals to clamp down on puppy smuggling through new pet travel regulations governing the movement of puppies into the UK are very welcome, but should not the same protections apply to kittens? Otherwise, there is a real risk of unscrupulous sellers bringing in increasing numbers of defenceless kittens under the age of six months, with real damage to their welfare. Would he also agree that measures to tackle illegal imports of both puppies and kittens need to be accompanied by improved enforcement provision and pet checks at UK ports?

My Lords, enforcement is clearly key, but we did not propose increasing the minimum age of imported kittens to six months or banning the import of heavily pregnant cats because there is very limited evidence that there is a significant illegal trade in cats or significant numbers of low-welfare movements. Similarly, we are not aware of evidence to suggest that there is a significant trade in declawed cats. However, having said that, the consultation sought views on whether this is the right approach, and we will be led by the outcome.

My Lords, as an animal welfare measure—and the Minister has already referred to the need for enforcement—will the Government bring forward a complete ban on the commercial movement into Britain of dogs that are pregnant?

My Lords, the proposal that we have put forward involves banning the import of heavily pregnant dogs for welfare reasons. We do not think that that needs to extend to pregnant dogs as a whole.

My Lords, the smuggling from abroad is driven by the high demand for puppies unmet by conventional breeding establishments in the UK. While I support the Government’s efforts to clamp down on illicit importations, should we not be addressing the root cause of this problem and, recognising that dogs are social animals, encourage large-scale, high-health, high-welfare dog breeding in the UK? This would end the serious animal welfare and biosecurity problems caused by criminal smuggling.

My Lords, an unacceptable number of low-welfare establishments provide puppies and dogs for the UK market from overseas. In taking the measures that we are taking, there is undoubtedly going to be at least one effect, which is that we will see an increase in high-quality breeding programmes here in the UK. The market will undoubtedly respond to that demand without compromising welfare.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the old saying, “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas”, should be expanded? If you get a pet, it is going to be for at least a decade. Will the Government make sure that there is greater awareness of the responsibility that one is taking on and of how long it will go on? The message at the moment seems to have become the victim of fashion.

My Lords, there is no doubt that, during the Covid pandemic, we saw a spike in the acquisition of pets of all sorts, particularly dogs. As the pandemic has come—we hope —to an end, we see that people are often coming to regret those decisions, so there is a glut of unwanted pets right now. I encourage anyone looking for a pet to seek out the nearest rehoming centre and adopt.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, talked about enforcement, as did my noble friend Lady Ritchie. Does the Minister believe that current rules and checks on the movement of domestic animals are strong enough to prevent so much illegal activity? In particular, will the Government ensure that, when they fulfil their policy on tackling puppy smuggling, they will also give the Border Force the resources that it needs to enforce the new rules?

My Lords, we believe that the network of agencies and stakeholders that work on puppy smuggling are doing a good job. We are not planning to change this, but we will work closely with the Border Force, local authorities, the devolved Administrations and so on to tackle the problem. The new measures that we are introducing should have very little additional impact on APHA, the Border Force or local authorities, but we are looking closely at the implications of these proposals and we will continue to work with them as we develop future restrictions.

My Lords, will my noble friend accept that the single most effective measure for reducing the smuggling of puppies is to ensure that the mother of the puppies is always present at the point of sale? Will that be included in the kept animals Bill?

My Lords, two years ago we introduced Lucy’s law, whose purpose was to tackle unscrupulous breeders in this country. One of its components was a requirement that, where people purchase a puppy, they are able to see that puppy first in the context of its natural family and the home in which it was raised. That would include, of course, being with its mother.

My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of the risk of rabies being brought into the country through smuggled animals? What action is being taken?

My Lords, there are no proposed changes to the animal health requirements of pets entering Great Britain within this Bill, as our focus here is on stopping low-welfare practices for pets being imported. However, the Government monitor disease risk carefully, and changes to animal health requirements will be made under separate legislation. We remain aware of the concerns around non-endemic diseases and continue to monitor the disease situation carefully, but our future policy will be guided by risk assessment.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the reports that Pen Farthing and his dogs were evacuated from Afghanistan following the personal intervention of the Prime Minister, encouraged by his wife? Why does No. 10 give priority to dogs over threatened human beings?

My Lords, No. 10 and, indeed, the Prime Minister have clearly and emphatically pushed back against any such suggestion today. The noble Lord shakes his head, but I can tell him from my own experience that his rebuttal is entirely accurate.

Has my noble friend seen the research by the highly respected organisation Cats Protection, which shows that the market in cats is increasing rapidly, heightening the danger of unscrupulous sellers seeking profits at the expense of welfare? In view of that, is it not important, as my noble friend Lord Black suggested, to extend the protection that will be given to puppies to kittens as well?

My noble friend might well be right. If he is, I hope that that will come clear as we go through all the responses that we have had to the consultation, but based on what we know now it does not seem to be right. We are not seeing the same issues with young kittens and pregnant cats being imported. In 2020, only 17 kittens under 15 weeks and zero pregnant cats were seized and detained. Overall, the number of movements of cats into Great Britain is far lower than for dogs, making up about 9% of the total commercial movements and around 12% of the total non-commercial movements into this country.

Is it not time that we relooked at the idea of bringing back dog licence fees, as happens in other parts of the United Kingdom, which work very successfully, with some exceptions, of course, for some people?

My Lords, there are currently no plans to bring in a dog registration system of the sort that the noble Baroness mentions, but I would be very willing to have that discussion with her and hear her arguments.

My Lords, I declare an interest as an owner of a Labrador born in the safe care of the Dogs Trust after her mother was seized at the border. Can my noble friend say whether the Government are considering the changes proposed by the Dogs Trust to reduce the maximum number of pets allowed to travel under the pet travel scheme from five to three to reduce the incentive for puppy smugglers?

My Lords, I am aware of the position taken by the Dogs Trust. We conducted extensive research and engagement right across the sector to try to understand the ideal limit that would disrupt this grim illegal trade while minimising the impact on genuine owners. A report from PDSA in May found that less than 2% of pet owners have six or more pet cats and dogs. That is why, to ensure that we minimise the impact on genuine pet owners, we decided to put in place a limit of five pets per vehicle, but there again we will be guided by the outcome of the consultation.

My Lords, what more is my noble friend going to do to encourage high-quality breeding of dogs and cats so that hereditary diseases such as hip dysplasia are not passed on?

My noble friend makes an important point. That is not addressed in this legislation or the proposals that we have put forward, but we are raising standards of animal welfare across the board from an enforcement and penalties point of view, and across the sector in a number of different ways. I hope that one outcome of the package of measures that we are bringing in is that we eliminate the unscrupulous breeders and boost the quantity of high-welfare puppies and kittens on the market.