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Sale of Puppies

Volume 629: debated on Tuesday 17 October 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Craig Whittaker.)

I welcome this timely opportunity to discuss the legislation relating to the sale of puppies in Great Britain, and the need for stricter enforcement of licences and inspections of breeders.

Owning a puppy can be a rite of passage for so many people. Being responsible for a dog is part of growing up. I still remember the very first puppy that we owned. I remember my mother going to Aberdare Corn Stores to buy a small puppy, which we called Pep, for £5. He lived until he was 17: he was one of the lucky ones. Even today, I am delighted that my own son Zac will grow up knowing the companionship, the loyalty and the friendship that owning a dog brings.

As I said, my mother paid £5 to Aberdare Corn Stores for our first dog, but those days are long gone. More people shop online now than ever before, so why should finding a puppy for sale be any different? Puppies are found and purchased without the buyer ever knowing where the dog has truly come from, or having any information about the breeder. People buy on the assumption that the puppy must have been bred in humane conditions. Sadly, that is not always the case, which is why there is now a need to discuss and review the problems with the current pet sale legislation and the licensing of breeders.

The sale of pets in Great Britain is governed by the Pet Animals Act 1951, which covers breeders as well as third-party sales groups such as pet shops. It is old legislation, predating the internet. Let me put the Act in perspective. When it was passed, Winston Churchill was leader of the Conservative party and Clement Attlee was leader of the Labour party. It was passed three years before Elvis Presley would have his first hit record, and teddy boys were walking the streets of Great Britain. All those are long gone.

That means that there is currently no law in the UK to regulate the sale of pets online. It would seem to be madness for us to legislate today for technological developments that will come 60 years in the future, but effectively that is what happened 60 years ago. The lack of regulation has consequences. Many unlicensed breeders have slipped off the radar of the local authorities responsible for them. Without regulation, the welfare of animals is compromised and unscrupulous breeders make tens of thousands of pounds in tax-free profit from naive buyers.

The hon. Gentleman brings great issues to Adjournment debates and other debates in the House, and I congratulate him on that. Does he agree that simple humanity should dictate an end to puppy farm breeding, and that there must be legislation to formalise standards for anyone who wishes to sell a puppy, whether it be a pedigree dog or a mongrel?

Of all the Members whom I expected to intervene on my speech, I would have expected the hon. Gentleman to do so in particular. He is a fantastic parliamentarian and I know that he loves this place. Again, he has made a very good point. I do, however, ask him please to let me continue my speech, in which I will answer his question.

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home suggests that 88% of puppies born in the UK are bred by unlicensed breeders. Many people are falling into the trap of buying puppies from third-party sellers such as puppy farms, and some puppies are illegally smuggled from Ireland and Eastern Europe. Those who run puppy farms and puppy-smuggling businesses are rarely concerned with the welfare of their dogs and puppies. The mothers are treated like machines, bred within an inch of their lives, producing far more litters of puppies in a year than is legally allowed. They are kept in horrific conditions. “Unpicking the Knots”, a report produced recently by Blue Cross for Pets, found that many dogs were kept in enclosed spaces such as rabbit hutches, and without water. As an animal lover and a dog owner, I find that completely abhorrent.

The puppies and their mothers are seen not as sentient beings, but merely as pathways to profit. Puppies are seized from their mothers long before the 12 weeks for which they are supposed to stay with them are up and are sold, malnourished and without vital vaccinations, to unwitting buyers. As a result, many irresponsibly bred puppies end up with life-threatening illnesses such as parvovirus and kennel cough. New dog owners are then faced with the financial and emotional hardship of ongoing veterinary treatment or, in many cases, the death of the puppy, which means that the buyer has essentially spent hundreds of pounds on a dog who lives for no more than six months.

Although, as I said earlier, our dog lived for many long years, I remember the first thing that happened when we brought him home from the pet shop. His hair fell out because he was infested with mange. We took him to the vet and found out that he was only two and a half weeks old. His eyes had just opened. I accept that that was many years ago—in 1989—but it still happens in this day and age.

Snatching puppies from their mothers too early can have ongoing impacts on the lucky dogs that do make it. The first 12 weeks of a dog’s life are its most important, with those crucial moments socialising with its mother and littermates dictating the dog’s future temperament as an adult. As a result, dogs born of irresponsible breeding often grow into anxious and aggressive adults, which can lead to additional costs being incurred in training and behavioural classes for the owners.

The hon. Gentleman describes very well the puppy farms, which are disgraceful and operate in agricultural terms in southern Ireland. Does he agree that Operation Delphin at the port of Cairnryan in my constituency, which to date has led to the seizure and return of over 500 puppies, has been a huge success? Does he also welcome the fact that that pilot scheme has been extended for another year, so it is to be hoped that the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will now be able to get on and send even more puppies back to the farms they came from, and stamp out this illegal trade?

I know of that case in Dumfries, and it is a brilliant example, but as I will say later, this is all about enforcement, as there is only so much the Government can do through legislation. They should, however, look at the examples the hon. Gentleman has raised as a way forward.

I am listening with great interest to the powerful case the hon. Gentleman is unfolding about the horrors of this trade. He mentions enforcement, but does he agree that there might be a role, in addition to the legislative aspect he is looking at, for education for the public, so that people know the questions to ask of the seller? If they know there are certain red flags to suggest the puppy has come from an illegal source, that might help.

To make a wider point, a fantastic aspect of this debate is that so many people have come to me with solutions. The hon. Gentleman is right: there should be a multifaceted attack on puppy farms and illegal dog breeding, and it should include education and raising red flags, as he suggests.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and I am pleased to be attending it. Good friends of mine who are intelligent human beings who really worry about the care of animals have been taken in by puppy dealers, and by the role played by the child of the puppy dealer, pretending that the puppy in question is a loved puppy that has been with their family for ages. They can be completely unscrupulous in the stories they tell and the ways in which they dupe members of the public.

These puppy breeders will go to any lengths to make a case and secure a sale; it is all about profit.

I will use the example of my current dog; he is a fantastic dog with a great temperament. The key difference between the purchase of my first dog, which my mother bought from a pet shop, and that of my current dog is that I went to a reputable dealer, and met the mother and father, and saw what the puppy was like. The dealer also provided examples of what other puppies from that litter were like. There was a lot of further important information, too. I also had an information pack, so I knew who I was dealing with. We have had a fantastic time with the dog I have now.

In this age of modern technology, consumers are increasingly turning to online shopping to purchase their goods, and it is no different when buying a puppy. However, as I have mentioned, online sellers are slipping through the net and are becoming increasingly difficult to regulate and identify.

Blue Cross has been working in partnership with classified ad site Gumtree, which has been able to track repeated advertisers of puppies. It found that online sellers were using multiple email addresses, placing hundreds of adverts over the course of 24 months, and selling in multiple local authority areas—all the classic signs of a puppy farmer.

These cases are only a drop in the ocean of the wider problem of unlicensed breeders abusing the legislation. The Pet Animals Act 1951 must be updated in line with modern internet use. I know the Department has in the past said that it believes the definition of a pet shop to be wide enough to include the sale of pets online, but the horrific reality of what is happening says otherwise. However, updating the legislation is only one way in which we can tackle the problem. It is also vital that we are firmer with the enforcement of licences and with inspections of breeders, which must be more frequent and thorough.

In Wales, we are steps ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to regulating dog breeders. The Animal Welfare (Breeding of Dogs) (Wales) Regulations 2014 enabled the Welsh Government to enforce stricter rules for those wishing to breed dogs for profit. This is certainly a step in the right direction and I urge England and Scotland to follow suit, but the legislation is only as strong as the practices of the licensing officers. As elsewhere in the UK, local authorities in Wales are severely underfunded, and licensing officers are therefore not fully equipped or trained to do the job at full capacity. Many juggle multiple job roles, from inspecting food outlets in the morning to assessing dog breeders in the afternoon. Without full animal welfare training, licensing officers are unable to properly assess how fit a breeding establishment is for purpose. As a result, many puppy farms are issued licences. It is important to realise that this is not a Wales-only problem, a Scotland-only problem, a Northern Ireland-only problem or an England-only problem. It is a problem not only for the four nations but across European borders, and we need joined-up thinking on this.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for bringing forward the debate this evening. As a fellow Welsh MP, he will know that one of the great embarrassments for us is the fact that puppy farming is quite prevalent to the west of our constituencies. My opinion on puppy farming has changed considerably since I went on a DEFRA Committee visit there last year. I was for puppy farming, but having visited a puppy farm, I changed my mind completely. The dogs were not allowed to be dogs; they were just breeding machines. I agree with almost everything that the hon. Gentleman has said, but I must point out that in Wales the law is already there and that the problem lies in its enforcement.

That is absolutely right. The hon. Gentleman and I are both south Wales MPs. If anyone visiting Pembrokeshire drives down the road from Swansea to Carmarthenshire, all they will see are signs saying “Puppies for sale” and “Dogs for sale.” They might wonder why people are constantly selling puppies and dogs. Enforcement is the real issue; it is the crux of the problem. We might have the legislation but we also need strong enforcement.

I understand that in enforcing stricter and more robust licensing laws, the work of the already thinly stretched and underfunded local authorities will increase. There is an urgent need for additional funding for local authorities, but the expertise of the third sector can also have a role. That is why I advocate charities such as the Dogs Trust, Blue Cross and the RSPCA working alongside the local authorities to aid them with inspections and with the enforcement of licensing standards. We cannot rely solely on the third sector to fix all our problems, but it is important that we foster collaboration between local authorities and the animal welfare charities that are experts in the area.

We cannot talk about licences without talking about fees. There are no standardised licensing fees for dog breeders, and prices per local authority vary from £23 to £782. It is no wonder that many responsible breeders are so put off applying for a licence. One way of rectifying this is by introducing a risk-based approach to licensing, with the level of risk that a breeding business poses determining the fee. There could be a rating system, with those with higher points and adhering to higher standards of breeding being awarded lower licensing fees. Such financial incentives would encourage compliance with higher standards and better practice—almost like the road fund licence in relation to polluting cars.

In addition to the aforementioned proposals, we need to look further at third-party sales of puppies. Yes, we could call for a ban, but it is clear that the internet is like the wild west at the moment. It is so unlicensed that it would be difficult to clamp down on those third-party sales. I am therefore asking the Government to introduce an information campaign and to make it mandatory for a buyer to see the puppy interacting with its mother and its littermates before purchase; but we would need to ensure that such a requirement could be enforced. As unlicensed breeders become increasingly savvy in working round the regulations of breeding, it could only work if local authorities were given the necessary resources, perhaps using the proceeds of a licensing fee for that purpose. We should also contemplate forcing breeders to provide full seller information when posting adverts, and introducing the practice of assigning every breeder a unique identification number, as France has recently done.

It is great that my hon. Friend has secured this Adjournment debate. I have received many letters on this issue, and I want to let the Minister know that it is a real matter of concern for many of our constituents. I thank my hon. Friend for raising it.

I thank my hon. Friend, who is a diligent Member of Parliament and a good friend since I came to the House.

In conclusion, I urge the Government to review the current legislation surrounding sales of puppies and other pets in the UK. The 1951 Act must be updated to regulate online sales of puppies. More importantly, we need to ensure that local authorities and licensing officers receive full appropriate training to do their jobs properly. Once that has been established, we can consider a ban on third-party sales.

This debate has shown the House at its very best, and I know that many Members will support me on this initiative. Dogs bring so much joy to our lives and help us in so many ways. Whether we keep dogs for work, as a health aid or simply for companionship, it is high time that we gave something back to our four-legged friends and afforded them the protection they deserve. My life has been enlightened by owning a dog. Dogs are important to me, and I will own dogs for the rest of my life.

Finally, I thank Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, Blue Cross, RSPCA, Dogs Trust and the International Fund for Animal Welfare for their tireless work to improve welfare standards for dogs and animals across the country, and for bringing often ignored issues to the country’s attention. I hope the Minister will take on board some of the constructive suggestions that we have heard in this debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this debate on a subject that is dear to many hon. Members’ hearts, including mine. He gave an account of his first family pet when he was young, and I never give up the opportunity in such debates to talk about Mono, a rather erratic border collie that I adopted from the RSPCA. He lived to a good age and, certainly in the last seven years of his life, had a good life on our farm.

As a Back Bencher and a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I campaigned to change the rules around the licensing of puppy breeding. I was therefore pleased to have the opportunity to become a DEFRA Minister, and then to become responsible for companion animals. For once, I was in a position to see through something that I had sought for some time. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, many people and organisations have been calling for more restrictions on the breeding and selling of dogs. I initiated a consultation, which Lord Gardiner has continued, and I now have the opportunity to update the House on some of our plans.

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that many of the ideas that he outlined are exactly what we are planning to do and exactly what we have already consulted on. The Government will be replacing existing laws on the breeding and selling of dogs with a stricter licensing regime. The regime will, for the first time, be linked directly to the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and will introduce several important changes. First, we will lower the threshold under which a dog breeder needs a licence, moving it from five litters or more to three litters or more, thus ensuring that more commercial dog breeders will be required to have a licence.

Secondly, we will require all dog breeders and the sellers of all pet animals, including dogs, to adhere to statutory minimum welfare standards that will be linked to the welfare needs set out in the 2006 Act. That is important for raising standards and improving consistency in the licensing regimes that local authorities put in place. Thirdly, we will remove the exemption through which some people who breed from their own pet dog claim that they do not need a licence to sell puppies. Fourthly—the hon. Gentleman made this point—we intend to reward licensees who are considered to be at low risk of breaching the new regulations with longer licences and fewer inspections. We could, for instance, recognise those who sign up to United Kingdom Accreditation Service-accredited schemes run by groups such as the Kennel Club, and the new regulations will provide for that.

Finally—this goes to the heart of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised—we intend to make it clear that anyone in the business of selling dogs online will need a licence from their local authority. As he says, our legal view has always been clear that the 1951 Act, which regulates the licensing of pet shops, already provides that anyone in the business of selling dogs, whether they have a shop on the high street or are selling online, requires a licence, but we have accepted in the consultation that there may be a sense of ambiguity. We therefore want to place the requirement beyond any doubt, so I reassure him that we will be doing precisely what he asks for.

There have also been calls for more robust inspections. The statutory minimum welfare standards will have to be applied by local authorities, and the regulations will be accompanied by guidance to which local authorities must have regard. The regulations will require all inspectors to be suitably qualified, and the guidance will set out what “suitably qualified” means.

As a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I am pleased to hear about some of the proposed changes. However, who will bear the cost of training suitably qualified inspectors at the local authority level?

As the hon. Lady knows, local authorities already have budgets for such things and departments that deal with animal welfare. We will be addressing exactly what is required by “suitably qualified”. Most local authorities already have people who are suitably qualified, although they might require additional training.

The Minister was doing well up to that point. We all know that our local authorities are under particular pressure. If this is to mean anything, the Government will have to put some money into it.

Local authorities are already required to carry out such activity. They already have animal welfare departments and dog wardens, and they already issue licensing conditions for a range of things. They already have trading standards departments. I think I have addressed that point, so I will move on, because other important issues have been raised.

I thank my hon. Friend for all his welcome proposals. One thing that we have not tackled so far is illegal imports. Supply does not equal demand in this country, because people want more puppies and dogs than the breeders in this country can supply. How do the Government plan to address that real problem? As we have heard, puppies often travel in difficult conditions and die within a few weeks of being in this country.

If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I intend to return to that issue.

I conclude on the licensing point by thanking the many stakeholder organisations and animal welfare groups that have already contributed to our contribution and the formulation of these draft regulations. The hon. Member for Islwyn raised a point about the sale of puppies under eight weeks old, and he said that the first dog he had was sold at two and a half weeks. A couple of things are being done. First, the microchipping regulations that were introduced two years ago already require that no dog can be sold until it has been microchipped, and it is unlawful to microchip a dog until it is eight weeks old. In the normal course of events, it is already the case that no dog under the age of eight weeks can be sold.

Again, there is some ambiguity under the 1951 Act, and some people have identified the fact that a small number of pet shops might have been able to sell dogs under eight weeks old. We will put the situation beyond doubt in the regulations by making it clear that no puppy below that age can be sold.

I want to move on to maximum sentences for animal cruelty as that is another important area in which we have recently made some announcements. The issue has been raised a number of times, including in private Members’ Bills promoted by several hon. Members, notably my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster). The Government have made it clear that we will increase the maximum penalty for animal cruelty from six months’ imprisonment to five years’ imprisonment. The maximum sentence needs to be increased for the most horrific acts, such as deliberate, calculating and sadistic behaviour. The offences for which that would apply could include causing unnecessary suffering to an animal and holding organised animal fights. The existing six-month limit does not allow judges to pass the most appropriate sentence in such circumstances. We want to send a clear message that animal cruelty is not acceptable in our society, and a Bill to effect the necessary changes to the Animal Welfare Act will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows.

I turn now to the question of a ban on the third-party sale of puppies. This issue is often raised and the hon. Member for Islwyn, to be fair, rightly pointed out the difficulty that enforcing such a ban might involve. We do not believe that a ban on third-party sellers is necessary, and that view is shared by many stakeholders. We believe that a better approach is to aim for more robust licensing of pet sellers, as well as continued encouragement that people source dogs from reputable breeders and see any puppy interact with its mother, and consider a rescue or re-homed dog first, alongside consumer pressure to drive down the sales of dogs from third parties such as pet shops. The evidence shows that that is already happening, with as few as 4% of pet shops now licensed to sell dogs. That figure is always declining, and the reality is that even fewer shops actually do so.

We want to drive up animal welfare standards rather than introduce bans that are difficult to enforce. That is why the new regulations will set statutory minimum welfare standards for all commercial pet sellers that the local authority must apply when considering whether to issue a licence. There will also be an opportunity to apply higher standards, with pet sellers and dog breeders able to earn recognition so that the better performers have a longer licence, with fewer inspections and a lower fee. We are developing a star system similar to that which applies to food hygiene, and that will be backed up by statutory guidance. The use of a risk-based assessment of operators and an emphasis on cost recovery will enable local authorities to fulfil their responsibilities and target enforcement on the poorer performers. It will also assist the public to make an informed choice when choosing a pet provider.

I turn now to the issue of online sales. I particularly wish to point out to hon. Members that the Department established the Pet Advertising Advisory Group some years ago. DEFRA has already published guidance on buying a pet and has worked closely with PAAG to drive up standards for online advertisements. It is important that we give credit where it is due, so I should like to take this opportunity to praise PAAG’s work, which has resulted in six of the largest online sites signing up to agreed minimum standards for sites that advertise pet animals for sale. The types of measures that have been introduced include: a requirement that all adverts display the age of the animal advertised, with no pet advertised for transfer to a new owner before it is weaned and no longer dependent on its parents; a permanent ban on vendors on a “three strikes and you’re out” basis, so that those who attempt to post illegal adverts can be blocked indefinitely from advertising on any of these sites; and steps to ensure that every “view item” page includes prominent links to PAAG’s advice on buying and selling a pet, which can ensure that someone who is searching for a dog or any other pet is targeted with informative emails to tell them what they need to know so that they will be able to care for that pet. The standards are being applied by half a dozen or so sites, including the main ones. People who are looking online should be advised to keep to those sites that have signed up to PAAG’s minimum standards.

The Minister is being generous in giving way. I, too, applaud PAAG for its work—it has been very successful—but some advertisements are disappearing only to be found on sites other than the big six. Surely the Minister agrees that the Government have done part but not all of the job of dealing with problems relating to online sales.

As I pointed out earlier, with the new regulations we are putting it beyond doubt that anyone selling online requires a pet licence. That is how the UK Government can address the issue. The hon. Lady will understand that we do not have jurisdiction over a classified ads operation based in Australia, for instance. What we can do, however, is to ensure that anyone who attempts to sell via the internet, wherever the classified ad website might be registered, will nevertheless require a licence. We continue to apply many of the other standards of the code, including the requirement that licensed breeders or sellers must display a licence number, and the need for an advert to include a photo of the pet and to set out its age. We have made good progress on online sales.

My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) asked about the responsibility of buyers. It is a sad fact that unsuspecting buyers sometimes unwittingly provide a lucrative market for rogue dog breeders and dealers. Potential buyers need to take great care when they are considering taking on a puppy. They should always insist on seeing the mother when they purchase a puppy. My hon. Friend asked whether there are warning signs. If someone arranges to meet at a motorway service station to sell a puppy, that should be a warning sign. Before people buy a puppy, they should consider whether they have the right lifestyle to look after a dog for the next 10 to 15 years and, if so, what type or breed of dog is right for them. They should also consider whether they are prepared to spend the sort of money and commit the sort of time needed to look after a dog for the duration of its lifetime.

There is plenty of advice out there to help people to make the right choice when they buy a puppy. Such advice includes making sure that the breeder is a member of the Kennel Club’s assured breeder scheme or signed up to the puppy contract, which is of course supported by many animal welfare organisations, including the RSPCA, the Dogs Trust, Blue Cross and Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. Such advice can help to inform buyers before they make purchases. In addition, the new regulations I have outlined will help to ensure that puppies born in a licensed dog breeding establishment have a better chance than those born in backstreet breeding establishments.

Finally, I wish to address the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) about illegal puppy imports and to talk about some of the work we are doing on that. We are aware that some puppies may be smuggled into this country from abroad to be sold as pets. DEFRA takes the illegal puppy trade seriously. Responsibility for deterring the illegal movement of puppies starts with their country of origin. Dogs, including puppies, and cats, including kittens, that move to the UK from EU member states, or from other low-rabies-risk third countries, must have received a rabies vaccination at not earlier than 12 weeks of age, after which there must be a wait of 21 days to allow immunity to develop. In practice, that means that puppies or kittens that enter the UK legally will always be a minimum of 15 weeks old.

The UK carries out more pet checks at the border than most member states. All pet animals that travel on approved routes are checked for their compliance to travel. Enforcement at the border also has an important part to play in combating the illegal trade. We are grateful for the Dog Trust’s continued support of the Dover puppy pilot. This partnership between the Dogs Trust, transport companies, Kent County Council and the Animal and Plant Health Agency has so far resulted in 649 non-compliant animals being seized and placed into quarantine since December 2015. DEFRA’s Animal and Plant Health Agency has also played a leading role. Crucially, it has helped to age puppies and identify those that have been illegally smuggled into the country when they are too young.

If a transport company suspects that undeclared pets are present in a vehicle, it can alert the appropriate authorities so that they can take the necessary action. Border Force and local authorities share intelligence and monitor movements, and Border Force officials are constantly searching vehicles for a range of things, and when they detect animals being smuggled in illegally, they alert APHA.

The Government are responding to concerns about the welfare of puppies. This issue has been dear to my heart both as a Back Bencher and as a Minister. I am sure that the hon. Member for Islwyn will be reassured to hear that the Government are already implementing many of the measures that he seeks. Indeed, perhaps reading our consultation gave him some thoughts about this area. I am clear that the measures that we are implementing will improve the welfare of our dogs and give them the respect that they deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.