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Microchipping of Dogs (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2022

Volume 818: debated on Tuesday 25 January 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Microchipping of Dogs (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2022.

My Lords, the purpose of this short and simple instrument is to extend the sunset clause contained in the Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations 2015 by two years, until 23 February 2024. Without this instrument, the 2015 regulations will cease to have effect as of 24 February this year. This extension will enable the 2015 regulations to remain in force until we introduce a new set of regulations later this year.

The primary policy objective of the 2015 regulations is to improve animal welfare by increasing the traceability of dogs. This facilitates lost dogs being quickly reunited with their keepers. The 2015 regulations made it compulsory for dogs in England over eight weeks of age to be microchipped, unless exempted by a veterinary surgeon. The dog’s details must also be registered on a compliant database. The regulations set out the requirements which these databases must adhere to, as well as setting standards relating both to the microchips and to microchip implanters. Finally, the regulations give enforcement powers to local authorities and the police.

Under Regulation 18 of the 2015 regulations, the Government must review the regulations within five years of them coming into force. I must apologise to your Lordships that due to pressures within the department created first by EU exit and then by the pandemic, this review was published only in December last year, alongside a Defra-commissioned research report from Nottingham University which informed the review.

The review clearly demonstrates that dog microchipping has had a positive effect on reunification rates of stray dogs with their keepers. Before the intention to introduce compulsory dog microchipping was first announced in 2012, around 70% of dogs were microchipped. In 2021, that number was close to 90%.

The Nottingham University research showed that compulsory microchipping has contributed to a reduction in the number of stray dogs taken in by local authorities. This in turn has led to more of those stray dogs being reunited with their keepers. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home reported last year that stray dogs that are microchipped and have up-to-date microchip records are more than twice as likely to be reunited with their keepers than stray dogs without a microchip.

The review concluded that the current legislation is seen as an important and necessary means to achieve improvements in dog welfare by increasing the traceability of dogs and their keepers. The review, however, also highlighted areas where improvements to the micro- chipping regime would be beneficial. In particular, improvements could be made to the operation of the database system, a point raised by the Pet Theft Taskforce, which published its report last September.

Since the 2015 regulations came into force, there has been an increase in the number of databases that hold dog microchip records. These databases offer a range of services and provide choice for dog owners, but key users, such as local authorities and vets, have expressed concerns that this has made it more difficult and time-consuming to find the keeper details linked to a dog’s microchip number. In addition, to help combat pet theft we want to strengthen processes of updating a microchip record when a dog moves to a new keeper.

We are committed to addressing these issues, because we want to give every dog the best possible opportunity of being reunited with its keeper if it gets lost. We are working at pace to deliver changes, starting with a consultation that we intend to launch in March this year, which will pave the way for introducing changes to the microchipping regime.

Your Lordships will be interested to note that we announced last December that we will introduce compulsory cat microchipping, which will fulfil a manifesto commitment. As the existing microchip database system will also hold cat microchip records, we want to ensure that the database issues have been addressed before expanding the regulations to include cats. This approach is supported by stakeholders.

Our intention is to introduce a new, single set of regulations by the end of the year, which will incorporate the changes to the 2015 regulations and add a new requirement for compulsory microchipping of cats. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for introducing the regulations extending the current regime and for highlighting what is to follow. He will be aware of the work that we did when I chaired the EFRA Committee, and I am delighted to see that that work has brought good effect. I also welcome the fact that the microchipping will be extended to cats, which implements the manifesto pledge to all cat owners and dog owners. It is very good news indeed.

I still believe that one of the best means of ensuring that prospective owners can ensure the safe birth of their puppies is for the bitch to be present at the point of sale, and I understood from our noble friend Lord Goldsmith that that is indeed the case. That, too, is very welcome. Undoubtedly, the regulations before us today, and the future regulations, have improved the animal welfare of the dogs that went missing and, as my noble friend has highlighted, have expedited the time when those dogs are reunited with their owners.

More specifically, will my noble friend tell us the timetable for the review, and not only when the regulations will come before the House but when they will take effect? I assume from his comments that the regulations that will replace the regulations before us today will take effect from the end of this year.

I record my thanks to the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, which shared the briefing with me about the regulations, and I would like to raise some of the issues that arise from that briefing.

My noble friend referred to the databases. My understanding is that currently there are only minimum requirements for a database to be compliant. There is nothing clear or obvious to a consumer that it is compliant or not compliant, and I believe that the consultation announced by my noble friend today to be held this year would provide the opportunity for that to be revisited. Would my noble friend and the department consider enhancing stipulations about database companies, making it a requirement for them to implement more systematically the process of information checking and updating to ensure the accuracy of their records? My noble friend said that compliance with microchipping is at 90%, which is very welcome if that figure is correct. When microchipping was first introduced, my understanding was that it was at 50%, so we have come a long way since then and it would be nice to think that we could close the gap on the remaining 10%.

Will my noble friend assure us this afternoon that local authorities will have sufficient resources, and indeed a legal duty, to enforce the regulations? Am I right that, at the moment, there is currently no legal obligation on any statutory body to enforce them? Will the Government produce best-practice guidance for local authorities, taking the practices that work best and rolling them out to all local authorities in future, and will they consider introducing the power to issue a conditional fixed penalty for non-compliance that could be cancelled or reduced once the keepers have complied?

I have addressed the point that there are apparently only minimum requirements for a database to be compliant. What duty is there for the database owners or the keepers to ensure that the database is regularly updated? Do they have to enter the information only once, as my noble friend suggests? What obligation are they under if they move house or the dog is sold? Who is responsible for keeping the information on the database updated, and what is the timeframe for that to be entered?

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Trees, will address all the points of relevance to veterinary surgeons, but an issue that is of concern to vets is that there should be single-portal access to the database to prevent vets, enforcement and rescuers having to search through multiple websites after scanning to find a record. That would have significant time and resource implications if that was the case.

Can my noble friend take the opportunity of the consultation to address the issue of non-compliant databases operating and appearing prominently on search engines? There are currently limited enforcement mechanisms to ensure that only compliant databases can offer services to the public. There is potential for improving the way that non-compliance is dealt with to provide the public with certainty when using a database, for example, an accreditation that databases are required to show indicating that they are compliant.

Can my noble friend further consider a legal duty on implanters to register microchips that they have implanted on to a compliant database? Equally, can he consider imposing a legal duty on puppies’ first keepers, the owner of the bitch—if you will pardon the expression—that gave birth to the puppy, to update the database with the new keeper’s details when the keeper changes?

Dogs with foreign microchips present a particular problem for disease management, especially if the keeper cannot be traced or the chip originates from a country where rabies is endemic. If an animal’s chip details were recorded on the database at the point of entry into the UK, then the length of time that it had been in the UK would be known. This would remove the need to quarantine and blood-test some of the dogs with foreign chips which come into rescue centres such as Battersea or veterinary practices, thereby reducing costs for these organisations when dealing with such animals. If my noble friend could respond either today or in writing to those concerns, I would be very grateful.

My noble friend suggested that the consultation exercise will be carried out this year on the regulations due to come into effect and that these regulations will remain in force beyond 24 February 2022 for a two-year period. Is my understanding correct that the new regulations will not take effect until then?

With those few remarks, I am delighted to welcome these regulations, but I hope that my noble friend will take the opportunity to address some of the concerns of these and the future regulations that he referred to.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his excellent introduction and his articulation of the very positive effects of compulsory dog microchipping, which I congratulate the Government for introducing in 2015. Those regulations are very well supported by the animal welfare charities, the veterinary profession and me, but as the Minister has said, there are issues and shortcomings regarding the current regulations. It is good news that the Government are considering revising those regulations and that this extension is simply a stopgap, which I support. I want to consider some of the issues, problems and deficits in the current regulations, to which the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, have responded, but I welcome the Minister’s assurance that new regulations will be brought before the House this year.

I want to discuss three current issues that have been referred to already. First, on the issue of compliance and enforcement, 74% of stray dogs handled by local authorities in Great Britain cannot be easily and simply reunited with their keeper because either there is not a microchip or the data recorded in the database is incorrect, yet failure to microchip or to keep that information correct is an offence under the current regulations. In fact, we have no idea of the proportion of dogs that are microchipped and for which the details are kept up to date. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider giving local authorities the legal duty and the resource to enforce this and many other animal welfare legislative instruments? As has been stated by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, currently there is no official body with the legal obligation to do such enforcement.

I respectfully suggest that there is little point in us introducing new or improving existing animal welfare legislation unless and until we address the problem of the inadequate enforcement of the current legislation.

The second issue, which has been mentioned, is the number of databases. Currently, 17 databases can be chosen to record information from a microchip, which creates considerable problems, as have been referred to, for those seeking to identify a given dog, including my fellow veterinary surgeons and others who should be interrogating dogs’ microchip information. The requirements for the databases are laid out in Regulation 6 of the current 2015 regulations, but are we confident that adequate checks are being made to ensure that those requirements are met?

My second question to the Minister is this. The Secretary of State has powers to request information from database operators to ascertain whether they are meeting the conditions of their operation, as set out in Regulation 6 of the 2015 regulations, but how many times has such a notice been served on a database operator?

Following that is a third question. Will the Government, in their current revisions to the microchipping regulations, consider appointing, after open invitation, a single database provider, certainly one providing a single portal of entry, the performance of which can then be properly monitored?

Finally, I briefly raise the issue of biosecurity. Substantial numbers of dogs are being imported into Britain from continental Europe, mainly legally but many illegally. All have the potential to introduce not just rabies, for which there is a legal requirement for vaccination, but a number of other canine pathogens, some of which are zoonotic and can threaten the health of both the UK canine population and its human population. Some 10% of all strays in London are now registered on a foreign database, and we have no idea how many entered the UK legally or illegally.

So my final question for the Minister is this. What plans do Her Majesty’s Government have to reduce these risks of disease introduction? I appreciate that I have not given notice of these questions, so I would accept responses by letter, if need be.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction and for his time, and that of his officials, in providing a briefing for this statutory instrument. The microchipping of dogs, which was introduced in 2015, has made a tremendous difference to the owners of the dogs and to the dogs themselves. The safety and traceability of dogs are made easier by this process. Dogs are often lost or stolen but are reunited with their owners through the information stored on the microchip, and reducing the number of stray dogs is to be welcomed.

The sunset clause on this regulation terminates on 24 February this year. I note that the Government conducted a consultation on extending this clause, the results of which were due to be published in December 2021. Presumably this has happened. Given the instrument expires in February, the consultation was somewhat late taking place.

A second targeted consultation, to 36 stakeholders, took place in November 2021. Just over half responded. Given the level of support from those responding, I am surprised that the Government have not removed the sunset clause altogether, instead of extending it by two years. However, I understand the need to take this opportunity to rectify the anomalies in data collection and to include the compulsory microchipping of cats in future microchipping legislation. Can the Minister say what the database issues are and whether they will all be addressed in the new regulations?

Nottingham University undertook a lengthy report on the post-implementation review of the 2015 legislation, but unfortunately, probably due to my own incompetence, I could find no reference to this when I searched on the internet. Can the Minister say whether this report has been published and, if not, whether it is likely to be? Is this likely to be before the next consultation, which, according to the Explanatory Memorandum, is likely to cover areas for improvement in the existing regulations?

Currently, when you take your dog along to the vet for their routine health check or vaccinations, your vet will routinely scan the dog for their microchip. However, there is no enforced regulation on veterinary staff to report to the authorities dogs that have not been microchipped. Is this one of the anomalies which the revised legislation will include in future?

There was no updated impact assessment in the EM for this SI. As the 2015 impact assessment was still extant, can the Minister confirm that, when this new regulation has been updated to include the compulsory microchipping of cats and provisions on other database issues, an updated impact assessment will be issued to cover all aspects of the new regulations? Can he confirm that there will also be no sunset clause?

My husband and I took on a rescue dog in the spring of last year. The dog had not been maltreated, but its owner was suffering from dementia and could no longer look after it. Through the microchip, we were able to estimate roughly how old the dog was and to see that it had been vaccinated and well cared for previously. I am sure that many others who have done the same are grateful for the information provided on the microchip, but it is important that there is adequate enforcement.

Pet theft is an invidious crime and extremely upsetting to families with children and the elderly, whose only companion may be a dog or a cat. Therefore, it is important that microchipping of dogs should continue without interruption, and I would like the Minister’s reassurance that the new regulation will be laid well before the nine-year sunset clause runs out in 2024.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction and for the helpful briefing he organised. On the face of it, this seems a straightforward proposal, and we certainly do not want to see the sunset clause come into force on 24 February as a result of our inaction, so we clearly support this regulation.

The question arises as to why a sunset clause was added in the first place. I have been covering this department for so long that I probably contributed to the original decision back in 2015, although I do not remember the arguments put forward at that time. But we are where we are. Of course, as the Minister said, the first report on the implementation of microchipping was due to be held within five years. I appreciate his recognition that there has been a delay, which has caused this SI to be necessary, and his apology.

I am grateful to the departmental official Craig Lee for sending me a copy of the review into the legislation. I got round to requesting it slightly before the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, had a chance to do so. It was very interesting reading, as was the report from Nottingham University that underpinned it. I was pleased to see that microchipping had achieved the desired outcomes of improving animal welfare through the increased traceability of owners and reducing the number of stray dogs.

However, the review also identifies some challenging issues, which have been echoed by noble Lords today. There is, for example—I do not know whether anybody would have foreseen this—the new plethora of microchip database companies that have sprung up. As we have heard, this has made ownership tracing more complex. Like other noble Lords, I think it would be helpful if the Minister could shed a little light on how the Government intend to deal with this. By any stretch of the imagination, having 17 databases seems impractical when trying to monitor and keep up with the ownership of individual animals.

Did we anticipate that this would happen, and is the Minister satisfied that we have the right standards for these databases and are scrutinising them before they are set up, or will that come from any new regulations? Are there any constraints on how much somebody can charge for using a database? Is that why we suddenly have so many—because they are easy money, if I can put it that way, without having to do a great deal? Noble Lords have made a case today that on the face of it seems quite sensible: that we should have a single portal of access, or indeed one database, which could be agreed through some sort of nomination process. It would certainly make people’s lives easier when trying to trace the owners of dogs, or to check the dogs’ history.

The review also identified the failure of many breeders to microchip their puppies. Will that be made more emphatic in the new regulations, so that before they are sold on the place of their ownership and birth, and so on, is recorded and a proper history is kept of the animals? It identified the failure of owners to keep their contact details on the database up to date. Again, there need to be more incentives to make sure that that happens. Even if owners are responsible, sometimes, when they move house, one of the last things they think of doing is providing the database with their latest address, but there needs to be some way to ensure that that is enforced.

The noble Lord, Lord Trees, illustrated very well the problems of local authorities not overseeing compliance effectively. That is a point well made, and I would like to be reassured that the new regulations will address that. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, referred to taking in a stray dog and being able to trace its history. That was a very good example of how it can work well. That is really what we want to achieve for all dogs in future, so that there is a proper case history of the animal’s birth and well-being.

I am sure that sensible solutions to these challenges can be found, and I look forward to seeing the revised regulations later this year, which I hope will provide a comprehensive update of the scheme to ensure that microchipping reaches its full potential. I am also pleased to see that cat microchipping is now being recommended.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving us a more precise timetable for when the new consultation is expected to take place, and therefore when we will see the new regulations. He has been quite explicit on this, and I hope that we will not be here again this time next year with excuses for delays. I hope the Government meet that demand, because it seems achievable and eminently sensible.

Finally, the new regulations also have some overlap with the provisions in the kept animals Bill, particularly with regard to the dog theft elements and those referring to the import of dogs and cats. Again, there is the whole issue of how we monitor dogs that have been bred abroad, as noble Lords raised.

Noble Lords may have seen press reports that the kept animals Bill is being paused, which is a matter of regret for us. Can the Minister shed any light on when we might see that Bill in the Lords, and is it indeed true that it has been stalled in the Commons, as press reports say? If the Minister could shed some light on the progress of that Bill, we would be very grateful. I look forward to his response on these issues.

I am grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate.

To tackle a point raised by a number of noble Lords about the sunset clause, despite there being a sunset clause in the 2015 regulations, they were never intended to fall away seven years after coming into force. The clause was intended to put a marker in the sand for a thorough review. Now that we have done that review it is only right that we address the findings before adding the requirement for the compulsory microchipping of cats, an approach supported by key stakeholders such as Cats Protection. I am grateful for noble Lords’ support today for that move.

On the 2015 regulations review, besides a need to make it easier for key users such as dog wardens or vets to access microchip details, the Pet Theft Taskforce recommended strengthening processes in the transfer of keepership. In addition, the post-implementation review of the 2015 regulations highlighted a need to consider how to deal with records being held on more than one database—I will come back to that in a minute —and suggested the inclusion of a number of new record requirements, such as rescue back-up information, as part of it. We plan to launch a consultation, as has been said, in March.

I will tackle the points that other noble Lords have raised. A number of concerns were raised, particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, about the impact assessment. The original impact assessment published alongside the 2015 regulations had assessed impacts over 10 years. The two-year extension of the regulations in this SI therefore falls within this already assessed period, meaning that no new impact assessment is needed. In addition, this SI does not introduce any policy changes. However, I assure the noble Baroness that there will be a new impact assessment for the new regulations. I think my noble friend Lady McIntosh also raised that point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, also raised a point about the Nottingham University report. Defra commissioned the university to review the effectiveness of the compulsory dog microchipping policy in England and to provide views about compulsory cat microchipping. Compulsory dog microchipping, as I have said, has contributed to the reduction in the number of stray dogs handled by local authorities and an increased reunification rate for lost dogs. The research also demonstrated support for the introduction of cat micro- chipping.

The report makes a number of recommendations on how to make compulsory microchipping more effective, notably by increasing public awareness and improving the ease of navigation of the microchip databases. We will factor these recommendations in to the public consultation on proposed changes to the current dog microchipping regulations. We aim to launch the consultation, as I have said, in March. I will make sure that we send the noble Baroness the link so that she can see the University of Nottingham report.

Noble Lords asked about the legal provisions on microchipping. Since 6 April 2016, it has been a requirement for dogs in England to be microchipped. Puppies over the age of eight weeks must be registered on one of the compliant databases. That answers my noble friend’s question in part. There is a devolved issue here; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also have mandatory microchipping requirements, and we are working with those Administrations to make sure that there is seamlessness across the United Kingdom. The databases are run by private companies, not by the Government or local councils. Dog owners are also required to keep their pet’s details up to date on these databases.

It was asked how we know on which database a microchip is registered. As has been pointed out, there are currently a plethora—I think that was the word the noble Baroness used—of them. Seventeen separate databases hold themselves out as compliant with the Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations 2015. If anyone wishes to find out which database a specific microchip is registered on, they need only enter the individual microchip number on a look-up facility, which is accessible from the Government’s website. It is also available from any compliant database’s website.

The noble Lord, Lord Trees, asked whether we would migrate on to a single database. We consider that significant improvements can be made to the operation of the existing microchipping databases. We are exploring the possibility of creating a single point of access for key users to compliant databases. Database operators are commercial enterprises which offer a range of services and provide choice for pet owners. However, we are confident that improvements can be made to the current regime, and these will be considered as part of our consultation that starts in March.

I was asked what we are doing to stop non-compliant databases advertising to dog owners. Clearly, that is a very regrettable situation when it occurs. The Government are aware that there are databases which are not compliant. Dog owners registering their animal’s details on one of these databases are not meeting the mandatory requirements. We are discussing this with trading standards as well as with a leading internet search facility to explore how to combat the issue of non-compliant databases advertising to dog owners. A list of compliant databases can be found on the GOV.UK website.

Questions were asked about the quality standards for microchips. Under the Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations 2015, they must have a unique number which includes the manufacturer’s code and be compliant with the ISO standard. The noble Lord, Lord Trees, talked about foreign imports and dogs coming from abroad. In the UK and the European Union microchips must be compliant with international—ISO—standards. The unique number on an ISO-compliant microchip identifies the manufacturer.

As I say, microchipping policy is devolved, so all Administrations have their own regulations governing the microchipping of dogs. The consultation which asked for views on compulsory cat microchipping and potential scanning reform focused only on England. However, we are talking to the devolved Administrations.

A dog should be registered on only one database. This is fundamental; we are considering making a change on this and will include that in our consultation.

A question was asked about whether different databases are compliant with the regulations and talking to each other effectively. Each compliant database is operated as a stand-alone, commercial entity. Under the regulations, compliant databases must have processes in place to enable anyone to find out which database any microchip is registered on. We will consult further on this.

Issues have been raised by some stakeholders concerning Europetnet. The Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations 2015 apply to England only. It is not a legal requirement for database companies to be registered with Europetnet, which is a European-wide central host of microchip details.

I was asked whether we will make it mandatory for all dogs with a foreign microchip to be registered on a compliant database as part of—I presume the noble Lord means—customs clearance or importation. The Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations already require a keeper to microchip and register their dog on a compliant database within 30 days of importation.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh wanted more details about the timings. We think that we will be able to do this by the end of the year. I am very conscious of the noble Baroness; I do not want to have to come here and say that that date has moved, but we hope that it will not. There is a role for the LGA on this—it can help local authorities by reducing costs through effective management of this issue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked about pet theft, which also relates to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. I know of no delays to that Bill. I suggest that the noble Baroness does not believe everything she reads. If there are any changes to it, of course there is great pressure on parliamentary time, but I feel sure that she will get her moment to scrutinise that piece of legislation very soon.

The noble Lord, Lord Trees, referred to a code of practice. We recognise that we need to consider how databases are meeting the requirement, and we will consider a code of practice when we consider the responses to the consultation.

I think I have responded to most of the questions. If any noble Lord feels that I have not responded to theirs, this is a final moment to raise it.

I am almost certain that my noble friend has responded to this point, but could he confirm that he said that if someone were to go to the GOV.UK website, it would show where the microchip was registered? That would satisfy my query about having a single portal. Has he also addressed how the Government intend to tackle the issue of dogs with microchips from France and other countries and the foreign disease risk that they represent?

That is a very good point. It was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Trees, and is very much in my mind as we tackle a range of new diseases coming to this country, particularly, unfortunately, with the recent importation of dogs from Afghanistan. We were told that these dogs were healthy, but it turned out that a number of them had very serious diseases, including Brucella canis, which we really want to keep out of this country.

We are constantly alert to the need for new disease provisions. Our biosecurity in this country is fundamental. Our new border control posts, particularly on the short straits, will soon come online, and this will be an opportunity to work with Border Force to make sure that we identify where risks occur. The rules on the importation of animals, particularly to tackle the scourge of puppy farming and the bringing in of large numbers of dogs for illegal trade in this country, are one of the provisions of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill that we want to see brought online.

I am grateful to hear that there will perhaps be codes of practice for the database operators. With regard to whether they are doing what they are meant to do, I specifically asked how many times the Secretary of State has served a notice on them to check that they are doing what they are meant to be doing. Perhaps the noble Lord can answer that question.

I am not aware of that, although I might just have received some inspiration. No, I have not. If the noble Lord will allow me, I will drop him a line.

I am not sure of the exact nature of the page on the government website and what guidance it gives dog owners, but I will check and give my noble friend any information I can.

With that, I hope that I have covered all the points raised.

Motion agreed.