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Animal Welfare (Electronic Collars) (England) Regulations 2023

Volume 830: debated on Tuesday 13 June 2023

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Animal Welfare (Electronic Collars) (England) Regulations 2023.

Relevant document: 38th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, these draft regulations were laid before the House on 27 April. The purpose of the instrument is to promote the welfare of cats and dogs by prohibiting the use of electronic collars capable of emitting an electric current when activated by a handheld device. As noble Lords will be aware, animal welfare is a devolved issue. Therefore, these regulations apply to England only.

These collars are sometimes described as electric shock collars or e-collars. The instrument will make it an offence for a person to attach, or cause the attachment of, an e-collar to a cat or a dog. It will also make it an offence for a person responsible for a cat or dog that is wearing an e-collar to be in possession of a remote control device designed or adapted for activating the collar. This proportionate and targeted ban will not prevent the continued use of other electronic collars which are not associated with such harm and abuse. These include those that emit a vibration or a spray, as well as invisible fencing or containment systems.

This instrument fulfils a commitment given by the Government in response to their 2018 consultation on electronic training collars for cats and dogs in England. This commitment was reiterated in Defra’s 2021 action plan for animal welfare. Concerns about the capacity for e-collars to cause harm to cats and dogs have consistently been raised with the Government. In response, Defra commissioned research to understand the effect of these devices on the welfare of domestic dogs. The research showed that many owners do not read the manufacturer’s instructions prior to use. It also showed that e-collars have a negative impact on the welfare of some dogs, even when used in compliance with the manufacturer’s instructions. E-collars may also redirect aggression or generate anxiety-based behaviour, worsening underlying problems.

In developing these regulations, we have listened carefully to a range of views from pet owners and respondents and have consulted key organisations, including animal welfare and dog owning organisations, veterinary organisations, e-collar manufacturers, dog trainers and behaviourists. We engaged with both those who support the use of e-collars and those who do not.

I am aware of concerns raised by some colleagues regarding the implications of these regulations on livestock worrying. I assure noble Lords that very careful consideration was given to this matter. My officials liaised closely with the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on livestock worrying, and with several English police forces, as well as police from Wales. They noted that the vast majority of livestock worrying cases involve dogs that have escaped from the premises on which they are kept without their owners knowing. These are cases that hand-controlled e-collars could not have prevented. We therefore maintain that owners keeping dogs in secure premises and ensuring that they are kept on leads when walked in close proximity to livestock is the most effective line of defence against dog attacks of this nature.

We have also considered the impacts of the ban under the Equality Act 2010. Most people who reported having a protected characteristic, when responding to the 2018 consultation or writing to the department since, noted that they relied on the vibration function of e-collars, so the impact of the ban on people with a protected characteristic will be minimal.

We consider that this instrument is an appropriate and measured response to the welfare concerns raised and to the outcomes of the Defra-commissioned research and public consultation. The Scottish Animal Welfare Commission has also recently conducted its own review. It concluded that e-collars should be banned for any training purpose. The same conclusion was reached by other nations that have already banned the use of these devices, including Wales, Austria and Germany. However, the instrument will allow His Majesty’s Armed Forces to continue to use e-collars controlled by handheld devices where this is needed for national security reasons. The Government recognise that some pet owners and trainers have been using e-collars for some time. This means that they will need time to retrain their pets to respond to alternative training methods and devices. For this reason, we have built in a transition period until 1 February next year, when the ban will come into force. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction. I acknowledge his confident sign- posting of where the regulation takes us. It is clearly a very welcome regulation; there are millions of cat and dog owners who are hugely fond of their pets and will, no doubt, greet the mention of electronic collars with quite some repugnance. The Minister can be congratulated on his regulation, which will surely be wholeheartedly greeted with no little relief by many pet owners.

The regulations are securely rooted in the Animal Welfare Act 2006—perhaps a landmark Act of its kind. We should thank the department for them. As a dog lover, and a dog owner at one time, I recollect our late dog: a black lab, named Sweep. He was a failed gun- dog and, for sure, he had neither courage nor aggression. When we were burgled, I rather think he was the welcoming group for that misdemeanour.

I have only a few brief questions. Mainly as a point of principle and for the record, will the Minister expand a little on paragraphs 4.1 and 4.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum? How did he or his department consult the Senedd? It is a trifle delphic. It is not sophistry, of course, but perhaps he might expand on those paragraphs a little.

Further, paragraph 7.13 refers to His Majesty’s Armed Forces. How will this operate? In what circumstances does the Minister envisage paragraph 7.13 operating? One might presume that an MoD dog with an electronic collar would be very obedient and might even, if it is doing its work, in some circumstances cease to worry a trespasser. One does not know, so perhaps the Minister could indicate how that might work.

Paragraph 10.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum is about consultation. Can the Minister give a brief summary—a précis—of those involved? Maybe they are well-known national organisations, and it may come easily to his memory whom he or his department consulted. Again, I congratulate him on the regulations and a helpful Explanatory Memorandum.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for laying out these regulations and the work that has gone into drawing them up. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the National Sheep Association. Of course, worrying by dogs is a major concern for the industry. I have had sheep worried by family pets, and it is very sad for all concerned because, at the moment, the only cure for a dog that is worrying sheep is to have it put down. If a dear family pet fails in this way, often people send it away somewhere else, which does not really solve the situation.

Recently, the secretary of the NSA issued a statement that some farmers in Wales are finding that they can train a dog not to worry sheep by using electronic collars. It is not a question of monitoring the collar but of training the dog. This could prevent the putting down of healthy dogs. Has this been considered? The collars are limited to shocks of about 5,000 volts, whereas electric fences and so on can be about 35,000 volts, which animals quickly come to recognise. This is an area where the limits covered by this measure might have to be reconsidered.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a landowner and farmer. We have a flock of sheep and, of course, I keep dogs. These days, it seems that every public document states that it is evidence-based, but too often the scientific research and the evidence involved are pre-organised to produce a political result—and so it is with this legislation, prepared by Defra.

Wales, a country with a great deal of sheep farming, banned electronic dog collars a few years ago. A year after the ban, Welsh farmers reported four times more dog attacks on sheep and that they had needed to shoot three times as many dogs. At home, in 2020, our flock lost five sheep to dog attacks and two in 2021. One was saved but was never the same again, and perhaps we should have euthanised the poor thing when we found it. Last year, we lost 23 sheep. I am not saying that this legislation would have saved all those dogs, because clearly there is an issue with responsible dog ownership. Most responsible dog owners keep their dogs on leads. However, we are about to pass this legislation. Defra understood that 500,000 electronic dog collars were in operation in this country. The RSPCA’s 2021 figures for cruelty to animals reported 1,094 killings of animals and 38,087 abandonments. How many e-collar incidents of cruelty were reported? Zero.

I have had 15 dogs. I have had five generations of working spaniels. In answer to the emotive speech by the noble Lord, Lord Jones, about dog owners loving their dogs, of course I love my dogs. The fifth generation of my working spaniels is a batshit crazy spaniel. I am sure that noble Lords with spaniels will agree with this. I try to love him. Well, I do love him. For Christmas, he got an e-collar. The first thing that I did was use the “vibrate” button on him, but in worst-case scenarios I use the “shock” button. I am lucky that the Government are allowing me a transition period to February 2024; I am certain he will be a brilliant dog by then. He wants to do a good job but he is a lively animal.

What will happen after February 2024 to the 500,000 people in this country who own an electronic dog collar? This legislation says that they will be subject to unlimited fines. I know about this, so I will have to destroy my electronic dog collar and put it in the bin, but what will happen to someone found with one who is unaware of this legislation? What sort of fine will they get?

I turn to the policy background on this. The Explanatory Memorandum says at paragraph 7.2:

“The Government’s decision was based on the concern”—

I suggest that concern is supposition—

“that electric shock collars can be all too easily”—

“can” is again supposition; it is not evidence based—

“be open to abuse and can be harmful for animal welfare, and as there was a lack of evidence of the capacity for electronic shock collars to correct unwanted behaviour without also impacting the animal’s welfare”.

I suggest that there is no scientific evidence because research has not been carried out. This is well-meaning legislation but it is ill thought through and will lead to more animals, specifically sheep, being killed and more dogs being put down prematurely.

I support the remarks of my noble friends who spoke about the use of collars in livestock, but I will ask my noble friend the Minister a brief question. Why has the department provided an exemption for the use of e-collars by the Armed Forces? What was the basis for that? It would be helpful and interesting to have sight of the internal animal welfare standards and permissions of the Armed Forces if they are available.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to the SI. He will be pleased to know that I am happy with it and have only a couple of points to make.

In contrast to the previous SI, this one seeks to protect animals from harm and amends the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Once implemented, it will ban the use of handheld devices and prohibit the use of electric shock collars. Anyone found guilty of using a handheld device will be subject to unlimited fines. This is quite clearly a good thing.

Defra conducted a public consultation in 2018. Most respondents supported a ban on all types of electronic training collar but some were in favour of retaining the ability to use them provided they did not deliver an electric shock. Animals quickly learn from these devices and they are useful in keeping animals safe near busy roads by keeping them contained in a restricted area. There is also an opportunity for their use in preventing dogs escaping and chasing livestock, as we have heard. Sheep worrying is a very serious matter—

Might I suggest that the seven-week public consultation in 2018 received 6,700 responses, of which 64% opposed making it an offence to attach an e-collar to a cat or a dog and 63% opposed making it an offence to be responsible for a cat or a dog who had an e-collar?

I thank the noble Earl for his correction. However, I was going on the information that I had received in the SI.

As I was saying, sheep worrying is a very serious matter and one where every effort should be made to prevent it happening.

I welcome the consultation but wonder why it has taken so long since its completion in 2018—five years ago—to bring forward the SI. In the intervening period, many dogs will have suffered electric shock treatment, which could have been prevented.

It is useful to make a distinction between domestic dogs and working dogs. I would support that.

There is a great difference in the way the two systems work. Collars that make a sound or vibrate are not prohibited under this SI. Paragraph 7.12 of the Explanatory Memorandum is very clear on that. It says:

“As electronic training collars that emit sound, vibration or some other non-shock signals are not prohibited under this instrument, they will remain available for situations where voice, sound or other recall methods cannot be used”.

An electric shock is a form of punishment for a dog or a cat, whereas the other system is a more humane way of encouraging domestic animals to adopt a different behaviour. I have seen some of the comments made in response to the consultation, including from those who believe that dogs will go on killing if electric shock collars are banned—the noble Earl, Lord Leicester, seems to indicate that this will be the case. This is the response, I believe, of the farmer and the shepherd, and some weight should be attached to that response. A collar that provides an electric shock is the tool—certainly in a domestic situation—of the uncaring. A better option is for a collar that emits a sound or a vibration.

The noble Lord, Lord Jones, raised an important point about the Armed Forces, and I am very interested in the Minister’s response.

From my point of view, this SI is long overdue in preventing unnecessary suffering endured by dogs and cats. I fully support the ban and the measures contained in the SI; there are exclusions, but I am happy with them.

My Lords, I was not intending to intervene in this short debate but, through sitting here, I think I have something to contribute as a sitting magistrate. I deal with dogs and dog owners in magistrates’ courts in London, and a number of times I have put in place what are effectively dog death sentences for those that have misbehaved. Before one gets to that stage, of course, one would have mandatory chipping and neutering of animals, but sometimes they continue to attack people or other dogs.

It is a very interesting debate, but I have just one specific question for the Minister. We have heard about the unlimited fines on the owner if there is no compliance with these regulations, but can I check that there is no change in the powers of the courts when they are dealing with the dogs themselves as a result of this statutory instrument?

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Ponsonby. This SI is a necessary piece of legislation and His Majesty’s Opposition will support it. Many of us have and have had wonderful family pets who are and were central to our family life. I come from a family of dog owners, having had an Alsatian and a crazy—maybe not batshit—springer spaniel as cherished childhood pets. I cannot imagine why anyone would wish to use an electronic shock collar for training, rather than treats.

A 2019 study carried out by the University of Lincoln found that electric shock collars compromised a dog’s well-being, even when used by professional e-collar trainers. They were also found to be no more effective than training using positive reinforcement methods. This is far from the only evidence that collars cause harm to animals. We therefore strongly welcome the introduction of this SI.

Given that the consultation took place in 2018 and featured in the 2021 action plan for animal welfare, why has it taken the extra time to bring the measure forward? As acknowledged in the Explanatory Memorandum and by the Minister, the Welsh Government acted on this back in 2010. Can the Minister inform the Committee why we are legislating 13 years later? Do our colleagues in Wales care more about corgis than this Government care about bulldogs?

We welcome the decision to include an exemption—outlined in paragraph 7.12 of the EM—for those with protected characteristics. This will help those who have a legitimate need for collars that emit sound, vibration or other non-shock signals, whether for the owner’s benefit or the animal’s. After all, Labradors, golden retrievers and German shepherd dogs are so valuable for those of our citizens who are dependent on service dogs. It would be an anathema to them that anyone would seek to train their support dogs via shock treatment.

We also note the exemption on the use of electronic collars for the Armed Forces, where this is required for defence purposes. The Minister knows that we share a keen interest on issues pertaining to our Armed Forces. Does he have any estimate of how many dogs this is likely to affect and which breeds, and is he personally satisfied that the Armed Forces’ animal welfare standards are robust in this area?

The Kennel Club is campaigning for the same measures to be introduced in Scotland. Its chief executive, Mark Beazley, was quoted in the Independent as saying:

“More action is urgently needed in Scotland, where regulations are needed to replace the ineffective guidance currently in place, and we will not rest until we see the complete ban on these devices that cause suffering and harm”.

What discussions, if any, has Defra had with Scottish counterparts?

We all have a favourite breed of dog, whether that is a Labrador retriever, a Border collie or a cockapoo. There are more than 13 million pet dogs in the UK. Their owners will expect us to do everything we can to protect their pets from harm, which is why we are supporting this SI. After all, who could countenance the image of a cocker spaniel, a Jack Russell or a labradoodle being subject to electric shock treatment?

I am grateful to noble Lords for their important contributions to the debate. This instrument will deliver on another commitment made in the Government’s action plan for animal welfare. As a nation of animal lovers, we are united in our commitment to do what is best for the welfare of our pets. Protecting them from unnecessary suffering is an important step towards that goal.

Almost unique in any animal welfare debate, I think, has been the absence of a response I get to almost any measure we bring in, which is, “That is all very well, but—”. Usually, people want you to go further. I have been to enough animal welfare events and debates in this and the other place where people always want more. But we hope that we have introduced something that is proportionate, addresses the concerns of animal welfare organisations—I will come on to talk about who we consulted—and reflects the need for this.

Several noble Lords asked about our exemption for the Armed Forces. They are right: this instrument includes an exemption for His Majesty’s Armed Forces where required for defence purposes. This is a specific and limited exemption to ensure that important national security and public safety capabilities are retained. The use of an e-collar in such circumstances would be subject to the internal Ministry of Defence animal welfare standards and permissions. I say to my noble friend Lady McIntosh that it is entirely legitimate that she puts that question to Ministry of Defence Ministers. They have very high standards for animal welfare right across the Armed Forces. There is an exemption here, for reasons of a specialist nature, for certain uses of dogs. I will not go into any more detail, but I assure the Committee that I have been convinced by the evidence I have heard on that matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Jones, asked who Defra engaged with in drawing up the ban. We ran a public consultation on proposals for a ban in 2018. A total of 7,334 responses was received, including approximately 6,000 from members of the public. The remaining responses were from organisations or individuals involved in fields relevant to electronic training collars, dog trainers or vets. Animal welfare groups support the ban, as do veterinary surgeons, the training sector and assistance dog charities. In the way that the data was compiled, an individual’s responded was counted as one and an organisation’s was also counted as one, but those organisations may have reflected the views of many hundreds, possibly even thousands, of members. It may be not quite right to talk about it in terms of percentages. Of course, animal welfare is a devolved matter and we engage closely with the devolved Administrations on a range of issues, including this policy.

A number of people have raised the issue of the increase in sheep worrying in Wales subsequent to the ban. I investigated this closely in the lead-up to our debate on this statutory instrument. It is clear that, across police forces, there has been increased activity and an increased determination to work with both the public and farmers to report sheep worrying events; that may be the reason why we have heard of more cases. Sheep worrying is a disgusting thing to witness. I have had livestock killed and injured by dog worrying. This Government have taken immense pains to try to limit these sorts of activities. We will continue to work with others to make sure that we limit the number of livestock worrying incidents and dog attacks.

Very careful consideration was given to the potential unintended consequences of these regulations. We liaised with the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on livestock worrying and several English police forces. They report that the vast majority of livestock worrying cases involve dogs that have escaped from the premises in which they are kept without their owners knowing. One police force reported that in 70% of such cases, no one in control of the dog was close by.

The police were also clear that they would not recommend the use of e-collars to prevent instances of livestock worrying. As I said earlier, we therefore consider that keeping dogs on leads around livestock and securing dog enclosures are the best measures. This aligns with the advice provided in the Countryside Code, which has just been updated and is supported by landowners, and the views of the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission, which recently reported on this issue.

The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, mentioned electric fences being used to deter livestock from crossing a boundary. They deliver a shock directly to the body and are of course different to e-collars. The use of electric fences in agricultural settings is subject to statutory guidance, which requires anyone installing an electric fence to ensure that it is designed, constructed, used and maintained properly so that, when animals touch it, they feel only slight discomfort. I can assure noble Lords that I have touched enough electric fences in my lifetime to know that they give quite a belt, but they are within regulatory parameters.

Last year, the Animal Welfare Committee prepared an opinion on the welfare implications of virtual fencing systems for livestock—something that could transform our nature conservation and agriculture use, particularly in the uplands. It found that the use of these systems could offer several potential welfare advantages over conventional electric fencing, such as improvements to livestock nutrition, health and welfare, as well as benefits for the land being grazed.

A question was asked about the evidence on which we based our decision. Concerns that e-collars can cause long-term harm have been raised by a number of trainers, behaviourists and dog-keeping organisations, as well as the animal welfare sector. Defra-commissioned research revealed that many shock collar users were not using them properly and in compliance with the manufacturer’s instructions. The research was commissioned in line with the standard processes for the tendering and consideration of bids and in accordance with the rules on government procurement exercises. Data from the research was published separately in two different reputable scientific journals, which required additional independent peer-review exercises involving scrutiny from experts in the same field prior to publication.

As well as being misused to inflict unnecessary harm, there is also concern that, even when used in compliance with the manufacturer’s instructions, shock collars can redirect aggression or generate anxiety-based behaviour in pets, making underlying behavioural and health problems worse. Further to that point, the Government are satisfied that the processes for the tendering and consideration of bids were carried out according to the guidelines, and data from the research was published in two separate reputable journals.

My noble friend Lord Leicester raised some really important points. We will proactively raise awareness of the prohibition and its scope in advance of 1 February 2024, when the regulations come into effect. We intend to work closely with welfare charities, the training sector and the veterinary profession to reach as many owners as possible. We also intend to update the Code of Practice for the Welfare of Dogs, which includes guidance and reminders for owners about their responsibilities to provide for the welfare needs of their animals; guidance on how to minimise the adverse effects of containment systems by having them installed by a professional and set up properly; and guidance on ensuring that the owner is provided with training in their use.

My noble friend will not have to throw away his electric collar: he can put it in a glass case, which he can smash to retrieve the collar if some future Government change the law. He will not be a criminal for possessing it; he will be breaking the law if he uses it. I want to be absolutely clear about that.

Organisational responses to the consultation counted as a single response, as I said earlier. The offence applies mainly when a collar is being used—a point I just made —or if a dog or cat is wearing an electric collar and the owner or keeper is in possession of a remote collar- control device which is connected to the collar, so they look as if they are about to use it.

The noble Baroness made a good point about the time it has taken; it has taken a long time. I think I first attended an event in this building shortly after I was elected to the other place in 2005, and I remember a friend of mine in the House of Commons, Roger Gale, putting an electric collar on his neck to feel the impact. He invited me to do it and I declined. I have four dogs: two whippets and two spaniels, one of which entirely fits the description that my noble friend Lord Leicester applied to his dog, but I am doing my best to change its behaviour through other means than the one we are outlawing today.

I conclude by thanking noble Lords for their contributions, and I commend the regulations.

Motion agreed.