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Animal Rescue Homes

Volume 655: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered regulation of animal rescue homes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the Minister for attending this debate, on an issue of great importance to our constituencies.

Many MPs will, like me, have rescue centres in their constituencies, serving to protect animals who have been abandoned or whose owners cannot look after them due to ill health. Such centres offer an invaluable service to communities across the UK, especially as we are a nation well known for our love of animals and pets. It is estimated that our pet population last year was an incredible 9 million dogs and 8 million cats. That means that an estimated 44% of households own a pet.

However, with so many pets across the country, sometimes things go wrong. For various reasons, an estimated 250,000 animals go to rescue centres each year. In their time of need, we expect those animals to receive the best possible care, and thankfully the vast majority do. I have had the pleasure of visiting some such rescue centres, and we all appreciate the amazing work that they carry out across the sector. Their work is invaluable, and it is a testament to the passion that those working in the field have for animal welfare that a great many of them do so voluntarily. Visiting Battersea Dogs and Cats Home recently brought into sharp relief for me the impact of rescue shelters and rehoming shelters, not just because of the high value that is placed on animal welfare, but because of the social impact of such well-run centres. In each of the clean and well-maintained rooms was a story. Some were sad—some made my heart ache—but I left there happy that day. I was happy that all the animals in the care of Battersea were being looked after to the highest of standards and by people who had the interests of the animals at heart.

My own cat, Lucky, who I got just over two years ago, was rescued from a building site by Cats Protection. I got to meet the amazing foster mum who was looking after him and other cats in her home. It was heart-warming to see the love and commitment from a volunteer, who helps cats to socialise and supports those who desperately need a home.

Although we have fantastic organisations and volunteers doing great work, there are some that take advantage of the lack of regulation or are simply not equipped to manage the welfare of already vulnerable and distressed animals. Without regulation, animals may not be adequately checked for diseases, they may live in cramped and overcrowded conditions and they may not be given the tailored support vulnerable animals need. It is often only after many complaints or accusations that the issue of competence or regulation is ever raised.

I am delighted that this debate is taking place. I visited Battersea Dogs and Cats Home only yesterday and came away with a very positive impression. I have been supporting the idea of reintroducing dog licensing, so that we know where dogs are, which would help to deal with any problems, but it was brought to my attention that when introducing legislation, we want to be awfully careful not to drive things underground. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to tread carefully as we consider introducing legislation?

I will come on to the Government consultation later; smaller charities and those who do this work voluntarily, without the shelter of a larger organisation, do have concerns, and legislation is about supporting those people as well. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point.

We know that good guidance and transparency works. Membership of the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes has raised standards in rescue centres—I am pleased to have seen the work of such organisations at first hand—but that is sadly not the case for a large number of shelters and refuges across the country. When I tried to research how many rescue centres operate in the UK and how many face any regulation or scrutiny at all, the statistics were simply not there. Nobody had any idea. I asked each local authority in England how many centres operated in their districts. About half of the councils that responded did not know how many rescue homes they had in their area. In those that did, only 18% of shelters had any regulation at all, through their voluntary membership of the ADCH—although the vast majority of those not taking part in the self-regulation scheme are beyond reproach in their efficacy and attention to the welfare of animals in their care.

Recently, the Blue Cross reported an increase in rescue centres that import dogs from abroad and sell them to members of the public. They are obviously not genuine rescue centres. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government need to discourage that practice and ensure that only genuine rescue centres are recognised?

I absolutely agree. There is an issue of understanding what we are dealing with—how many people are opening up as refuge centres and sanctuaries, and how many are doing that voluntarily. There are people who are probably not getting the support they need to look after vulnerable animals.

I have heard some truly horrific stories, and formal regulation is now surely necessary to ensure that the care of all animals is of the highest standards, regardless of their circumstances. I am particularly pleased that in the Government’s recent consultation on third-party sales of pets, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recognised the deficiency in animal rescue centre regulation. I understand that 90% of respondents agreed that there needed to be regulation. With a constructive approach, I hope we can work together on this important issue to make regulation work in the best interests of pet welfare.

When I previously asked DEFRA why rescue homes are not licensed, the answer was that smaller charities or single volunteers would struggle. That is a legitimate concern, but not one without solutions. We need to collect data on the number of rescue homes operating. We must also assess the impact any regulations will have on local authorities. Cuts to central funding often currently impair local councils from providing enforcement on a range of civil matters, and legislation for animal shelters must make provision to ensure that, where concerns are raised or scrutiny of provision is required, the regulatory body responsible has the necessary tools to ensure best practice is maintained.

Any licensing regime must also ensure that applications are from those with the right skills, dedication and resourcing to protect the long-term welfare of the animals. Community operators, often with a small number of animals in their charge, also provide immediate and ongoing care for animals in need and are extremely valuable, both in terms of the service they provide for animals and in their wider community. However, they should not be simply exempt from a requirement to be recognised and regulated. In such cases, perhaps an accreditation to a larger organisation would negate the possibility of smaller groups being unable to function with the additional regulations.

I have laid out just a few of the areas that I hope we can work on, across party lines, to put animal welfare first. As a nation of dedicated animal lovers, I am sure that is what our constituents expect from us. The Minister can count on my support and that of many others in realising a new regulatory framework for animal shelters and rescue centres that protects our most vulnerable animals and gives the public confidence that animals are receiving the best possible care in all cases. Animals who are in need of shelter or need to find a new home should be expected to receive good care regardless of which organisation provides it.

One thing is uniting the animal charity sector—they all agree that regulation is urgently needed. Cats Protection say that regulation would provide transparency, helping to ensure consistent and high welfare for animals within sanctuaries or rehoming centres. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals points out that without regulation the forthcoming ban on third-party sales could result in current third parties disguising themselves as rescue centres to evade regulation, and warns how easy that would be, as some pet shops already operate charitable arms. It concludes that the regulation of rescue centres is the best option, a view reiterated by the majority of rescue centres I have spoken and met, despite the additional burden it would place on them.

Ultimately, if animal welfare is their guiding motivation, rescue centres will always welcome measures to ensure they are doing all they can to help the animals they look after. That is why we must build on the work of the ADCH, with its incredibly robust framework that strives to drive up standards in animal welfare. It provides a strong basis and starting point for the regulation needed, as well as the support network to promote best practice and assist member organisations to continually raise their levels of care.

I hope that in answering the debate this morning the Minister can update us on the progress of the consultation, outline a timetable in which regulation could be introduced and commit to working together in the interests of animal welfare and the sector as a whole. What has become clear to anyone looking at this issue is that we must regulate and license animal shelters and rescue homes to ensure adequate levels of care. We must close the loophole that would allow third-party dealers to pose as shelters to evade the ban, and we must provide the resourcing and powers to give real teeth to any regulatory system. I look forward to hearing the plans to finally make that happen and recommit my support to any efforts to ensure that this is a system that does justice to our incredible rescue centres.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the hon. Member for Leigh (Jo Platt) for securing this debate on a subject that I know is very dear to the hearts of many people, and is particularly close to her heart. I respect the amount of hard work she has put into fully understanding this subject and into pressing for further action, for which she is to be commended. I am also grateful for the contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling), with his particular interest in the subject, and my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns).

The hon. Member for Leigh has set out clearly her concerns about regulation of animal rescue and rehoming centres. She has sincerely and strongly held views, and I agree that we must do everything we can to ensure that good welfare practices are in place in all animal rescue homes. With that in mind, I recognise that the vast majority of animal rescue homes up and down the country are legitimate, and I pay tribute to the valuable work they do in rescuing and rehoming thousands of sick, abandoned and stray animals each year. The work of rescue homes can too easily be taken for granted, and we should remember that most people working at them are volunteers who are incredibly dedicated to the welfare of the animals in their care.

The RSPCA, the Dogs Trust and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home have been referred to on a number of occasions. I was fortunate enough to visit Battersea just before Christmas, when we announced the third-party sales ban. Redwings Horse Sanctuary and World Horse Welfare are also well known to us, as is Cats Protection. They do a brilliant job of caring for and rehoming animals in a responsible and dedicated manner. We can be confident that the animals in these organisations are looked after to the very highest welfare standards, as the hon. Member for Leigh pointed out.

We should not forget that the smaller and lesser-known rescue homes also do really important work in taking care of unwanted and stray animals. The Government value the work of these legitimate, committed animal rescue homes. Without them, many animals would face abandonment and an uncertain future. From our preliminary work exploring this sector with the various bodies that have an interest, we know there is a large and diverse animal rescue and rehoming sector in the UK.

The hon. Member for Leigh indicated the findings of her research. We estimate that those organisations rescue and rehome somewhere in the region of 140,000 cats, 110,000 dogs and 3,000 horses per year. There are various types of organisations that operate according to different models. In addition to their relative size and the types of animals they rehome, one of the main differences between organisations is whether they care for animals in one central place or rely on other people to provide foster care for their animals. It is important to understand this distinction, because their regulation could be very different. We know that the majority of those organisations are registered charities, which means that they meet the requirements set by the Charity Commission—for example, in respect of their finances.

For some rehoming centres, membership of the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes brings key benefits. The chair of the ADCH is Claire Horton, who I am sure is well known to many hon. Members present. She is the chief executive of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and a member of the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England, which reports to Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Under Claire’s skilled chairing, ADCH has developed clear good practice guidelines for the sector and encouraged more centres to come under its influence. I encourage other rehoming centres that are not members of ADCH to consider joining it for the benefits and advice that are available.

The hon. Member for Leigh set out her clear concerns about some rehoming centres and the need for them to be regulated. I agree that, sadly, some rescue homes, for whatever reason, fall below an acceptable standard of welfare. As with any keeper of animals, animal rescue homes must provide for the welfare needs of their animals, as required by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, but they are not licensed in the same way as dog breeding or pet shops. In February 2018 we issued a call for evidence on our proposal to ban the commercial third-party sale of puppies and kittens. In response, many stakeholders pointed out that we should also consider closer regulation of rescue homes, as the hon. Lady pointed out. Their argument was that we need to address concerns about animal welfare standards in some unscrupulous rescue homes, and to address concerns that third-party sellers would simply set up as rescue homes to avoid proposed bans. The Government definitely share those concerns.

The Minister mentioned unscrupulous rescue homes; are not many rescue homes set up by well-meaning people who want to do the very best, but who suddenly become overwhelmed by the number of animals they take on board? It is more to do with outreach—getting in touch with these people to inform and educate them, so that we can help them to run a proper home, rather than their filling their houses with many animals that they cannot manage.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Most of these homes—the vast majority—are set up with good intentions in mind, and sometimes those setting them up can be overwhelmed. However, there is support available, and in the months ahead we need to ensure that it is readily available and understood.

It is worth responding to the point on dog licensing made by the hon. Member for Leigh. We stopped dog licensing in 1988 due to low compliance. Those countries that have dog licensing schemes invariably still have low compliance rates. We have found it much more effective to rely on compulsory microchipping, and our focus is on increasing its uptake.

The consultation on the third-party sale ban, which we took forward in August 2018, attracted nearly 7,000 responses, and we published the summary of responses in December 2018. As a result of concerns being expressed similar to those articulated by the hon. Member for Leigh, the summary of responses document makes it clear that we will bring in a ban on third-party sellers of puppies and kittens as soon as possible. The document also made it clear that we would undertake further consultations with key stakeholders, such as welfare charities, vets and local authorities, on the idea of licensing rescue and rehoming centres, with a particular focus on centres that rescue and rehome dogs, cats and horses.

The Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018, which came into force in October, already require licensing of commercial pet sellers, dog breeders and certain other activities involving animals. The regulations provide the tools for regulating rescue and rehoming centres. We would need to set out the necessary specific conditions for such centres, which the sector is happy to help develop. However, I want to make it clear that in regulating this sector, we need to be confident of the benefits and the impacts, particularly on some of the smaller rescue and rehoming charities, which is why we are exploring these issues with the organisations involved. The hon. Member for Leigh alluded to that in her speech, and I hope she will understand that we are taking some time to ensure that we get our approach to the various aspects of the sector absolutely right.

The RSPCA is a member of the ADCH. The charity says that in the past eight years it has investigated some 11 individuals and obtained 80 convictions against five persons involved in animal rescue. A further two people received a caution. These cases involved a total of over 150 animals of different species, including dogs, cats, horses, farm animals and birds. This is despite the ongoing assistance that the RSPCA gives to failing establishments to ensure that they meet the needs of the animals under their care. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton alluded to the fact that support was required. The RSPCA does fantastic work in this area, which can involve years of work in providing advice and education to the same establishment. Sometimes those organisations fall foul of the law, which is when the RSPCA can get involved, as can local authorities in some cases.

Although regulation could benefit the rehoming sector and, importantly, the welfare of animals involved, we must remember the work and contributions of smaller rescue centres, which in the vast majority of cases do all they can to promote the welfare of animals in their care. Many of these centres are not members of ADCH, and we are discovering that there are likely to be hundreds out there. The latest estimates indicate that there are over 1,000 organisations operating in England that rehome and rescue dogs, cats and equines. In a way, that fits with the analysis that the hon. Member for Leigh obtained through her freedom of information request.

Clearly, we are dealing with many hundreds of these organisations. DEFRA is working with them and other welfare organisations to build a better understanding of the issues for smaller organisations. We want to work with them to improve the standards of welfare in those that are operating genuinely with the best intentions. More can be done to address the work of well-intentioned rehoming centres in the context of puppy imports. I have zero tolerance for unscrupulous dealers—I am sure the hon. Member for Leigh and other hon. Members share my view—who clearly abuse the pet travel scheme to traffic underage puppies into the UK. These puppies travel long journeys in very poor conditions and are not effectively protected against serious diseases, such as rabies and tapeworm, which pose a risk to their health as well as to that of other animals and people. These puppies spend their early weeks of life facing unacceptable welfare and health conditions, and we must put a stop to this.

A key aspect of tackling puppy smuggling and assisting rehoming centres in their work is helping the public better to understand how to responsibly purchase or adopt a puppy and raising awareness of puppy smuggling. Through the umbrella body, the Canine and Feline Sector Group, we are in early discussions with key stakeholders on the development of a behaviour change campaign. I strongly believe that a unified message across Government and respected non-governmental organisations can have a real impact, and I look forward to working together with our partners and hon. Members to achieve this. We can work with them to share our early understanding of this and develop a better approach, and I look forward to engaging with them on this issue.

We must also guard against those who might be tempted to set up a rescue and rehoming operation with the primary intention of profiting from the public’s appetite for pets, and effectively operating a pet-selling business, rather than a genuine rescue and rehoming charity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood said. Pet-selling businesses should be regulated under the animal activity licensing regulations introduced in October 2018. We will help local authorities with clear guidance to help them distinguish between those selling pets and genuine rehoming centres.

The Government have made it clear that we take animal welfare very seriously. We have a clear, positive action plan and have followed it up with a series of plans and actions, including updating and improving the laws on the licensing of certain animal-related activities, increasing the maximum penalties for animal cruelty, banning third-party sales of puppies and kittens, and looking at the options for licensing rehoming centres to ensure all rescue homes meet good standards of animal welfare. We will take the steps necessary to address the concerns relating to the regulation of rehoming centres and animal rescue centres. I thank the hon. Member for Leigh for securing this debate and for giving us the opportunity to debate these important issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.