[Esther McVey in the Chair]
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on animal welfare.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McVey, and to serve under your chairship. I am delighted to have secured the debate on an issue that, if my email inbox is anything to go by, many of our constituents across the country feel very strongly about.
I want to place on the record my gratitude to some of the incredible organisations who work hard all year round to support animal welfare projects across the country. Indeed, many of those organisations—there are far too many to list—have supported me with my preparation for the debate. Locally, I am grateful for the expertise of Hope Rescue, a dog rescue charity working across south Wales who operate from a rescue centre in Llanharan, just across the border in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). Thankfully, Hope Rescue’s work covers the whole of Rhondda Cynon Taf and beyond, and I am extremely grateful for its engagement ahead of the debate. The same sentiments apply to Friends of Animals Wales, which has been working constantly behind the scenes to improve, educate and inform on the importance of robust animal welfare standards for all of us in Wales.
I must finally extend my thanks to the many national organisations whom I have met and engaged with ahead of today. I will try my best to name them all, but an exhaustive list is practically impossible. Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the Dogs Trust, Blue Cross, the Kennel Club, Wildlife and Countryside Link and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Cymru all have some incredible research and recommendation reports. I urge colleagues of all political persuasions to reach out and read the information readily available to us all. Finally, I am especially grateful to the House of Commons Library service, whose briefing will, I am sure, be well referred to by colleagues.
The debate feels particularly timely for two reasons. Colleagues will be aware that this is Pet Theft Awareness Week. I have specific concerns relating to the impact that the coronavirus has had on pet owners like me, and I am sure they will be echoed by others. Given that we are all increasingly spending more time out walking in our local areas, I know that, sadly, some places have seen rises in opportunistic pet thefts. I will touch on that worrying trend in my contribution.
In addition, it would seem foolish not to reference the dialogue around the issues relating to violence and abuse towards women and girls that has grown in recent weeks. There is little research connecting domestic violence with animal abuse, but thankfully this is an area of growing academic interest. We now know that pet dogs and cats are at high risk in abusive households as perpetrators direct their anger at them and use them to manipulate and control their human victims.
I am sure colleagues agree that we need to be having those conversations around welfare—whether human or animal-related—regularly in this place. It is vital that regulation and law enforcement are considered key parts of that conversation, too. I specifically look forward to hearing from the Minister about the cross-departmental work and conversations that I sincerely hope are taking place with her colleagues in the Home Office on how to tackle issues specific to crimes against animal welfare.
It is often said with great pride that we are a nation of animal lovers. From old tropes connecting Great Britain with the British bulldog to the jokes made far too often about sheep and Wales—none of which I will reference here today; I am sure colleagues can use their imagination —it cannot be denied that animals big and small are at the very heart of our global identity. That is certainly the case in my constituency of Pontypridd, and I would be hard-pressed to find a Welsh valleys resident who was not at least a lover of cats or dogs.
Obviously, no debate on animal welfare would be complete without reference to my own two gorgeous Jack Russells, Dotty and Dora. I got them when they were just a few weeks old, and in September they will both turn nine. They have truly seen me through thick and thin, the good and the bad. Family aside, they really are my world. If anything, coronavirus has made our bond stronger than ever before, and I know that sentiment is shared by many others in my community.
Since I was elected in December 2019, I have received more emails from constituents concerned in one way or another about animal welfare than I have on any other topic—second only to inquiries about coronavirus. They cover a huge range, dealing with badger culling, puppy smuggling, fur imports and concern about bee-killing pesticides. In applying for the debate, I wanted an opportunity to touch on some of the ways the coronavirus epidemic has had an impact on animal welfare across the country.
For many of us, the pandemic has meant that we could spend more time than ever before with our pets. For Dotty and Dora, that has been a wonderful thing. I am lucky to be surrounded by the gorgeous Welsh valleys and to have plenty of open space to take my two out and about whenever possible. It is one of the only benefits that the coronavirus pandemic has brought us, I think—the opportunity to spend time with family and pets.
Sadly, for other animals the coronavirus pandemic has been anything but a good thing. During the first lockdown, calls to the RSPCA’s national cruelty and advice lines halved from their 2019 level. At face value, that sounds like a good thing, but on looking at the stats in detail we can see a worrying picture developing. There are concerns from the sector that that was simply because lockdown meant people did not see incidents of neglect or cruelty as they usually would. When restrictions began to be lifted, from May to July, the number of calls to the RSPCA rose above 2019 levels, and there are concerns that we have not yet seen the real impact of the pandemic on domestic animals.
Another worrying trend is the fact that there have been significant increases in the demand for animals, as more people than ever before have seen the benefit of having pets, especially when we are all spending so much time at home. Research conducted by Battersea Dogs & Cats Home found that 31% of people who acquired a dog or cat during the first lockdown had not even thought of becoming pet owners before. Its research also found that online searches about buying a dog increased by about 217% between February and April 2020.
We keep springer spaniels and cocker spaniels, because we do hunting and shooting. My son sold a dog last year for £150 and the pups this year are making £2,500. The value is absolutely abnormal and as a result dog thefts have risen dramatically. Does the hon. Lady agree that better co-operation on dog sales is needed between all the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to ensure an end to dog thefts, and an end to the dispersal of dogs around the UK—or at least better regulation?
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. There has been a dramatic rise in pet theft throughout lockdown and, sadly, those pets are being transported across all four regions of our United Kingdom, so it is vital to have a joined-up approach to tackling the issue.
I am sure that the majority of the people who have acquired pets during the lockdown will go on to become loving pet owners, but impulse purchases are hugely worrying for rescue centres, which anticipate a surge in the number of animals being brought to them when life returns to normal. It is important to note that a dog is for life, not just for lockdown. The RSPCA has concerns that as the economic consequences of covid-19 continue to take hold, more and more larger animals, including horses, will face neglect and abandonment too.
Sadly but unsurprisingly, the increase in demand for animals has had a huge impact on the incidence of pet theft, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said. The Minister will be aware—I am sure she is as concerned as I am—of the response to a recent freedom of information request stating that in five policing areas there was a double-digit increase in the number of dog thefts reported between January and July 2020, compared with the previous year.
I know at first hand how worrying those incidents can be for communities. Community Facebook groups in my area are full of posts from people worrying about dog thefts, vans driving around suspiciously and chalk prints being put on houses where a dog is known to be present. I should be interested to hear the Minister’s comments about conversations with colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about the spread of misinformation, and social media companies’ responsibility to regulate fake news, particularly in the context of animal welfare. Pets really are part of our families, so I fully understand why such posts and the threat of pet theft cause such alarm in communities.
Given the heightened demand for animals during the lockdown, there has been a rapid increase in the number of dogs entering the country for commercial reasons. Some of the recent responses to written parliamentary questions have revealed that the number of intra-trade animal health certificates issued for dogs from May to August 2020 was almost 16,000. That is double the figure for the same period in 2019.
Animal welfare groups also, justifiably, have major concerns about puppy smuggling, where animals are illegally transported into the UK in horrendous conditions. Puppies are often bred in terrible conditions and are taken away from their mums at increasingly early ages. They then face a perilous 33-hour-long journey to the UK, often with no food, little water and no exercise. Recent research from Dogs Trust has also found that, increasingly, heavily pregnant dogs are being imported into the UK, often at the late stage of their pregnancies, in order to circumvent the ban on commercial third-party puppy sales, which came into force in England in April last year.
The Government have a responsibility to act to stop these barbaric practices, and I urge the Minister to work with charities that have the expertise in this area to achieve lasting change for our four-legged friends. Although I am pleased to see that the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill just about managed to clear Report stage in the Commons on Friday, and I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on his fantastic work campaigning on this issue, without the adequate funding and support, how are the police supposed to enforce such changes to the law? I recognise that policing and enforcement are not a key responsibility of the Minister’s Department, but I am discouraged by responses that I have received from her colleague, Lord Goldsmith, on this particular issue.
We all know and recognise the importance of an inter-agency, Government departmental approach to tackling social issues, and the policing and enforcement of these abhorrent crimes against animals should be no different. Indeed, I remind the Minister that since 2010, the number of police officers in our forces across England and Wales has fallen by more than 14%. Worryingly, we also now find ourselves with one of the lowest ratios of police officers per 100,000 inhabitants compared with our friends in the EU.
Estimates suggest that the current scale of the increase in the backlog of cases before our courts would take 10 years to clear at pre-pandemic rates. That is clearly outrageous, and I shudder to think of the impact that that will have on the victims of crime in this country, who will be forced to wait years for their day in court. What does this really mean for animal cruelty cases? Well, I suspect that, with our courts and police forces stretched beyond breaking point, there simply will not be capacity to deal with the animal cruelty offences.
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen that there is one rule for them and another for us. When the Prime Minister’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, drove across the country with symptoms of coronavirus, the rest of us were struggling through lockdown at home—obeying the rules. The same was true with the Government’s absurd exemption to the coronavirus rule of six for hunting in autumn 2020. Not only that, but over Christmas, when so many of us were unable to spend time with our families after a difficult year because of the pandemic, the Tory Government introduced yet another exemption to enable Boxing day hunts to take place. It is no surprise when you find out that the Tories and the Prime Minister have taken more than £1 million from donors linked to hunting. If that does not tell you what this Government think about animal welfare, I do not know what does.
Still, after years of campaigning from animal rights groups, the import of so-called hunting trophies into the UK is legal, as long as the animal is licensed under the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora. However, the trade is exacerbating the decline of threatened species and is causing unnecessary suffering to animals. Even worse, it is often being used as a cover for illegal poaching, as traffickers pass off illegal wildlife products as legal.
I welcome the UK Government’s decision to hold a consultation on options to restrict the import and export of hunting trophies into the UK, but the consultation closed on 25 February 2020. It has been over a year since the consultation closed and still the Government have not responded. I implore the Minister to confirm when her Department will formally respond to the consultation, and I look forward to an update in her remarks later.
I am afraid to say that this is not the only area where the UK Government have been too slow to act. Three years ago, the Government promised, after much pressure from public and animal welfare organisations, to include animal sentience legislation in law after Brexit. Well, the transition period has now ended and still no legislation is forthcoming from the Government. What we need now is action, and I fear we are simply stuck in a climate of consultations. I look forward to hearing in the Minister’s update how the Government plan to bring forward legislation on animal welfare protections beyond the current parliamentary Session.
For the animal welfare sector, who work so hard to ensure that every animal lives in a safe and loving home, the pandemic has, of course, sadly brought its own set of financial challenges. Indeed, research by the brilliant Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, who have partnered with the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes to conduct a survey of over 100 centres in January this year, found that nine out of 10 rescue centres had experienced a drop in income, with a third losing over half of their income. According to the RSPCA, the total predicted financial loss for the sector was over £101 million for 2020. Like so many sectors up and down the country, animal welfare charities need specific support from the UK Government in order to survive the coronavirus pandemic.
I sincerely wish, on behalf of animals in need across England, that the UK Government showed a level of commitment to providing funding for charities in line with the support on offer from the fantastic Welsh Labour Government. In Wales, our Welsh Labour Government have ensured that animal welfare charities have access to emergency funding grants, including local authority rates grants, the third sector resilience fund, the voluntary services recovery fund and sector-specific funds via Business Wales. Sadly, it is not the same for colleagues in England, where funding for charities has largely been given to national funders for distribution, such as the National Lottery, which often excludes animal welfare charities.
I have said it before and I say it again: I urge the Minister, if she is serious about animal welfare, to consider following the approach in Wales and to work with colleagues in Her Majesty’s Treasury to provide access to funding for the charities that need it the most. Indeed, I am aware that the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes has specifically lobbied her Department for sector-specific funding—but that has not been forthcoming, despite zoos and aquariums being awarded such funding.
It is also somewhat ironic that the greyhound racing industry was awarded emergency funding through the sports package. That sends a clear message to me and to others across the country that the Government are willing to engage in animal-related pursuits, but only when there is a gain to be made. Hunting and greyhound racing are two examples of such pursuits that put animals at great risk, yet both appear to have the support of the UK Government.
I conclude by referring to two specific animal welfare concerns that I truly believe the Minister’s Department needs to pay close attention to. First, she may be aware of the alarming rise in the number of ear-cropped dogs in the UK. I am sure she knows that the practice of ear cropping is illegal in the UK—quite rightly. The barbaric practice involves the unnecessary and painful mutilation of ear flaps, and often takes place without anaesthesia or pain relief. I should clarify that it also has absolutely no welfare benefit. However, the RSPCA has reported a 621% increase in reports of ear cropping between 2015 to 2020.
Although it is illegal to crop dogs’ ears in the UK, it is not illegal to sell ear-cropped dogs, to import them from abroad, or to take dogs abroad to be cropped. These loopholes act as a smokescreen for those who are illegally cropping dogs in the UK. Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic and the overall increase in demand for dogs and puppies have led to an increase in demand for dogs with cropped ears. These are often Dobermans or American Bullies. Hope Rescue, which I referred to earlier, currently has eight seized puppies from their local area, and six of the eight have cropped ears. This issue really is closer to us than many people may imagine or understand.
Indeed, the Minister may be aware of the petition, which is currently live, to stop this barbaric practice. At the moment, it has more than 67,000 signatures, which just goes to show the widespread feeling about it. I am proud that Hope Rescue is partnering with the “Flop Don’t Crop” campaign, but really things should not be happening this way.
It would also be remiss of me, in a debate on animal welfare, not to mention breed-specific legislation. Too many harmless dogs are being destroyed simply because they are a banned breed—they are destroyed because of what they look like, regardless of their temperament. We must recognise that all dogs can bite and that any animal can be dangerous in the wrong hands, regardless of breed or type, or the fact that they look a certain way. Any action to tackle dog bites and all other instances of canine aggression must be focused on the deed, not the breed.
The RSPCA believes that breed-specific legislation is ineffective in protecting public safety, and results in the unnecessary suffering and even the euthanasia of many dogs. It believes that breed-specific legislation should be repealed and that the issues surrounding human safety should be tackled using education and effective legislative measures that do not unnecessarily compromise dog welfare. Sadly, to comply with the current legislation, the RSPCA has had to euthanise hundreds of dogs, and many other rescue centres have had to do the same. Many of these dogs would have been suitable for rehoming.
I am particularly looking forward to hearing the Minister’s specific comments about what her Department is doing to work with local authorities and law enforcement organisations to review the current legislation and to prevent the barbaric practice of ear cropping.
Taken together, it is clear to me that the issues raised in this debate show the urgent need for a comprehensive animal welfare Bill to be introduced by the Government, yet legislation is only a stepping stone to solving the issues that we see far too often with the regulation of animal welfare practices. Parcelling up individual policy ideas into announcements might work well for the Government’s press office, but it does not truly address the animal welfare problems in this country.
With a Queen’s Speech just around the corner, I urge the Minister to bring forward specific legislation on this issue and, crucially, to ensure that police, courts and local authorities are properly funded to ensure that such legislation is enforced.
Back Benchers will now be called, followed by the Scottish National party spokesperson, the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson and the Minister. I will look to call the first Front-Bench spokesperson no later than 3.30 pm. We have plenty of time—approximately 10 minutes—for each of the Members to speak.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) on securing this important debate. Animal welfare is an issue that unites us; I firmly believe that we should work together and that animal welfare should transcend party politics.
First, I declare a strong interest as a veterinary surgeon, and put on record my thanks to the vets, nurses and staff in practices up and down the country, who have done so much to look after the health and welfare of animals during these challenging times. They are the custodians of animal health and welfare and they have stepped up admirably to administer care in challenging circumstances. I would also like to thank the animal welfare charities that have had a challenging time during this period.
As we heard from the hon. Lady, covid has brought into sharp relief many issues related to animal welfare. We all know the benefits of owning animals and looking after pets; how that can help our own mental and physical health, as well as bring benefits to the animals. That is an important point to remember.
Unfortunately, the covid crisis has brought into sharp relief related negative aspects. As we have heard, there has been a significant increase in demand for pets and animals, leading to huge increases in prices, which fuel the trade in animals and the scope for unscrupulous breeders to come into the market. We have also heard about a significant increase in pet smuggling, leading to puppies being transported in dreadful conditions. There have been horrific cases of heavily pregnant dogs being transported in awful circumstances to give birth, in order to get round loopholes in legislation. There has been a decrease in the number of animals transported through the Pet Travel Scheme but conversely an increase in the commercial movement of animals into the UK, for instance, through the Balai directive.
The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on which I sit, is conducting an inquiry into the movement of animals across borders and will look at many of these issues. Sadly, there has been a significant increase in reports of theft of both domestic animals, such as pets, and livestock and horses. There have been reports from various police authorities of the increase in domestic abuse throughout the crisis. Sadly, we know the link between domestic abuse and animal abuse in certain households. That has significant animal welfare implications.
There are concerns that we are potentially storing up problems. People who have taken on animals or are looking after them may have been slow to bring their animals for vaccination. There has been a reported reduction in the number of neutering surgeries. Animals that have been taken on, such as puppies, may also have had reduced socialisation, which could lead to future behavioural problems.
As we come through the crisis, animal charities have expressed fears about significant abandonment of animals. People who thought this was a good time to take on a pet might not have thought through the implications or financial cost, with the potential for increased abandonment. As we get society back to normal, people return to the workplace and kids go back to school, stored-up behavioural issues for animals are possible, such as the syndrome known as separation anxiety. We need to be cognisant of that.
Charities and rescue centres have struggled during the crisis. Their funding sources have been reduced alongside their fundraising capability. Some have been able to find support through the generous Government schemes instituted through the crisis, but we need to keep an eye on that, to ensure that targeted support can be made available. This is not just an issue of small animals—cats, dogs and pets. Equine welfare charities estimate that at the start of 2020, approximately 7,000 horses were at risk of imminent need of rescue. That could have escalated to more than 10,000 by the end of the year.
We need to think about the take-home messages from this crisis. We need to keep an eye on the charitable sector and ensure that there is targeted support for animal welfare charities to deliver the care that may be needed as we come through the crisis. I look forward to hearing from the Minister on the role that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will take in keeping a watching brief on this area for any unintended consequences, and any animal health and welfare issues that may have been stored up through the crisis.
We also need to think about tightening legislation. As the hon. Member for Pontypridd said, we all welcome the fact that the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill is progressing to the other place. That is fantastic news and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on championing that Bill. With increased sentences for animal cruelty, we also need to work out whether there are better ways of deterring people from pet and animal theft. We need to look at sentencing there.
There is scope to tighten up rules and legislation now that we have left the European Union. I ask the Government to look at this closely, so that we have a real opportunity to improve the health and welfare of animals that are moved around, and of animals in our own country. I suggest that we look at raising the minimum age at which cats and dogs can be brought into the country to six months. We also need to be able to tighten the health requirements of animals as they are moved into the country and reinstate, for instance, the mandatory tick treatment that was abolished a few years ago, which will improve the animal health and welfare status of animals in the United Kingdom.
As we have seen, there have been significant challenges to animal health and welfare during the coronavirus crisis. We need to learn the lessons from that and see if we can put in place measures to improve animal health and welfare. We need to monitor the situation closely and keep a watching brief on the care of the animals that we have a moral duty to look after—these fully sentient beings that we are so privileged to look after.
I thank the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) for her sponsorship of this debate and her excellent exposition of the challenges for animal welfare as a result of covid-19.
Although, with covid-19, we face a situation unparalleled in our lifetime, with all its challenges and all it has cost us in the loss of loved ones, job opportunities, and disruption, we know that there is no situation that will diminish the importance of animal welfare in the eyes of our constituents. The UK is indeed four nations of animal lovers. Animal welfare has been a mainstay of my inbox since 2015, whether the subject is the cruel practice of puppy smuggling, the ivory trade, the fur trade, experimentation on animals, the wildlife trade, animal caging, or trophy hunting. Animal cruelty of any type has motivated my constituents to contact me in large numbers to express their concerns. I am sure every Member present would say the same.
Covid-19 has thrown up challenges for animal welfare, as it has in a whole range of areas. For charities such as Dogs Trust, covid-19 has put significant strain on its operations, and its rehoming centres have had to operate at a much reduced capacity. All 20 of its rehoming centres were closed to the public while staff continued to do all they could to safeguard the welfare of the dogs in its care. Rehoming has taken place during covid-19, but it has been very challenging and last year decreased by 88%. The same is true for cats, according to Cats Protection. This is deeply unfortunate when we know that covid led to an increased demand for dogs, with Google searches for “buy a puppy” increasing by 166% after the first lockdown was announced.
It is not surprising that more people want the companionship of a dog or cat when they are forced to spend more time at home. But, as we have heard, there is some concern that, when people return to something like a normal routine, or if people find themselves out of work and on a much tighter budget, they may find that they can no longer accommodate a pet in their lives as they once did. Charities like Dogs Trust, the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Blue Cross or Cats Protection will somehow take on these animals, and offer them whatever home they can. We also expect that the so-called pandemic puppies are likely to be less socialised than they would be if they had been bought in normal times. Animal charities have some concerns about puppies acquired during lockdown, with limited opportunities for socialising, social distancing, a lack of exposure to other people and, indeed, a lack of exposure even to traffic and everyday life. Ultimately, those charities may have to pick up the pieces if those pets are required to be rehomed.
We also know that having a dog and a cat can incur costs that may not have been considered at the outset. The Battersea Dogs and Cats Home estimates that 19% of new pet owners come to regret their decision to acquire a pet, mainly because of costs. Unfortunately, the demand for puppies during covid has also been exploited by those engaged in puppy smuggling. We know that puppy smuggling causes great distress to puppies, and is damaging to them. My view is that the barbaric practice is so lucrative that nothing but the potential threat of a significant custodial sentence for the crime can realistically hope to help mitigate the growing problem.
It is also worth considering the challenges that people faced in accessing and financing veterinary care during the pandemic, as we heard earlier. Lockdown limited access to veterinary care, which means that there is a backlog of neutering, and vaccination courses for pets have been disrupted. Even when those normal services resume, we cannot assume that every dog owner—however well-intentioned—will be able to afford the cost of veterinary care for their pet as they perhaps once could. Delays in accessing treatments for pets, or an inability to afford it, could have real longer-term implications for the overall health of pets. That is an especially significant issue for cats, as it could lead to much higher numbers of unwanted litters.
Charities that work hard to improve animal welfare are under pressure, and they will be dealing with the fall-out for years to come as the consequences are all too real. The Paws Protect service of Cats Protection, which supports survivors of domestic abuse and their cats, found that it simply could not cope with all the referrals to its service during 2020. Yet, as we have heard, the link between domestic abuse and animal abuse is well established. Indeed, pet cats and dogs are at high risk in abusive households, as perpetrators direct their anger at pets and use them to manipulate their victims.
Just as animal welfare charities have found that their services are more in demand than ever, the opportunities for traditional fundraising have all but disappeared, and their income stream has been very seriously curtailed. Charity shops are closed, which meant the loss of £4 million in the first four months of shop closures in 2020 for Cats Protection. That income can never be recovered, as all fundraising adventure challenges were cancelled as well, and there were fewer and fewer opportunities for cat adoption and the fees derived from that.
We are all concerned about the negative impacts on animal welfare as a result of covid-19, so today seems like a good day to highlight to the Minister what can be done about it. For a start, animal welfare charities could be helped: we know they will be under severe strain in the months and years following lockdown as they deal with the animal welfare crisis. The fallout from covid looks all too set to continue, so it is really important that the Government work with animal welfare charities to see how they can better support the work that those charities currently do, as well as all the additional work the sector will face as we return to some kind of normality.
Underpinning all that is the need to ensure that the high standards we all wish to see are a feature of our trade deals. During the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020 and of the Trade Bill, the SNP fought to ensure that imported foods had to match our high animal welfare and safety standards in domestic produce to ensure that our farmers are not undercut by low-quality and low-grade animal welfare regulations. Instead, foreign traders with lower animal welfare standards, and consequently lower costs, may have a competitive advantage now and in the future over our own farmers.
A race to the bottom does not promote the high standards of animal welfare that we all want, including, of course, for the sake of the food that we eat—we surely cannot have forgotten the risk of damage to our foods posed by compromising on animal welfare—and to militate against diseases such as foot and mouth disease and swine flu. It is really important that the Government lobby through international bodies to pressure countries to upgrade their animal welfare regulations, to avoid the potential of disease outbreaks crippling our domestic standards in trade deals.
Since 2015, when I was elected to this place, I have been calling for tougher penalties for animal cruelty. The Scottish Government agreed, and have enshrined tougher penalties for animal cruelty into law, with a maximum five-year sentence and unlimited fines. It really is time for the UK Government to get this on the statute books as well, as soon as possible, because they have fallen behind in that regard. Covid-19 has been hard on all of us, but the consequences for the animal welfare charitable sector have been devastating. We must do more to support the vital work undertaken by animal welfare charities, and I very much look forward to hearing from the Minister as to how she intends to do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms McVey, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) on securing time to debate this important issue. After 12 months of this health emergency, we are all very conscious that thousands of people have lost loved ones; others are debilitated by long covid and the after-effects of the virus; and, of course, so many people have lost their jobs or had their incomes drastically cut by the emergency. All those people have my sympathy and support after all the difficult experiences they have been through.
However, the sad fact is that this health crisis has also hit defenceless animals, as we have already heard in this debate. Like others, I pay tribute to everyone who has been involved in caring for animals, whether that is people caring for their own pets, vets and their staff, zoo staff, farmers, or the animal welfare charities and rescue centres that do such incredible work. The sad fact is that most charitable fundraising has become almost impossible over the past year, leaving a really significant gap in the income of these very important bodies. As we have already heard, the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home reports, for example, that nine out of 10 rescue centres have seen their income fall. Furlough clearly will have helped, as will much of the rest of the Government’s comprehensive covid support scheme, but it still leaves a hole in the income of these charities caring for vulnerable animals.
The Battersea charity also reports a 214% spike in people searching online to buy a dog. Heightened demand has seen prices climb, leading to increased anxiety about pet theft. It will have also increased dependence on pet imports, some of which, as we have heard, involve smuggling and illegal and unacceptable welfare practices. Over £280,000 has been lost to fraudsters from people paying deposits for pets advertised online. The big increase in the number of people buying new pets will, for many, have provided a crucial and much-valued antidote to loneliness and boredom during lockdown, particularly for many children stuck at home week after week, away from their friends. However, the worry is that the covid rush to buy cats, dogs and other pets may ultimately lead to an upsurge in companion animals being relinquished or abandoned when reality bites and we all start to return to the office.
Another grave concern is domestic violence. Being shut up at home in lockdown with an abusive partner can, of course, lead to horrific and frightening consequences for women, and it is very sad that such situations can also lead to horrendous treatment of pets.
In conclusion, I hope the Minister will listen to what has been said today and to the animal welfare charities and campaign groups. It is crucial that the Government find a way for big charity fundraising events to start up again. The cancellation of the London marathon alone will have left a huge dent in charitable fundraising. We have to get these events open again with spectators and mass participants.
I also call on the Government always to emphasise the benefits of people getting a pet from a rescue centre, rather than taking risks with unreliable online sources. We also need to see determined action to crack down on pet theft, reflecting the fact that the loss of an animal is far more heartbreaking, distressing and upsetting than having a phone or TV stolen. Now we have left the European Union, we have an opportunity to crack down on unlawful puppy imports, as we are now allowed to place tougher restrictions on imports that were previously barred by the single market. It is vital that we fulfil our promise to get recognition of animal sentience on the statute book.
Last, but possibly the most important of all, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill must finally be implemented. It has had such a depressing stop-start history. How many times has it started in this House—three or four times? It is time to get this done. It is a great opportunity for us to discuss these issues and I look forward to the Minister’s response. I know this Government are really serious about animal welfare. They have done good work, but there is really vital work still to be done.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) on securing such an important debate. Having heard the contributions so far, there is very little to add, as my colleagues have expressed the very real and varied issues of animal welfare that have been exacerbated during the pandemic period in an articulate and passionate way. I am always interested and delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), who uses his expertise on these matters as a true animal welfare champion, and I would always turn to his wise words on many of these issues.
Like other Members, I have consulted many facts and figures about what I wanted to say today, but I am going to go back to something I have spoken about before to the excellent Minister. I have had an opportunity to speak to her on a number of occasions, and she is a champion of animal welfare. Rather than simply regurgitating facts, I have to mention my private Member’s Bill, which is snappily titled the Pets (Microchips) Bill, and urges the Government to consider putting Tuk’s law and Gizmo’s law into legislation. For those who are unaware, Tuk’s law—this is the aim of my private Member’s Bill, as well as the aim of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country—would make it a legal requirement for veterinary surgeons to scan for rescue back-up contact details of, for example, a former owner or breeder, and contact those people to inquire whether they would like to take ownership of the pet, and confirm that the person presenting the animal to the veterinary surgeon is registered on the microchip prior to euthanasia of the pet.
When I was first approached about this issue, I was absolutely astonished. I have a pet dog, Bertie, who is, along with many other things, the light of my life. The impact of Bertie, who was bought during the pandemic, especially on my two young children has been a joy to behold. The idea that people could go to a veterinary surgeon with a fit and healthy dog, present themselves as the owner—or not the owner in certain circumstances—and that animal could potentially be euthanised is clearly something that legislation is required to address.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border knows far more about these issues than me, but there has been much consultation on this, and I genuinely believe this is a matter of animal welfare that the Government can support. The protection of innocent dogs is something we all want to see strengthened within legislation, and clearly the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill is an absolute prerequisite in terms of statutory provision for animals.
I was a criminal defence solicitor for 16 years before coming to Parliament. The sentences in court for animal welfare offences were ludicrously lenient for many, many years, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) for the work he has done in this Parliament on that issue.
Other Members have articulated the case that many pets have been purchased over the period of the pandemic, and many people who bought their pets in good faith are finding it difficult to cope with those animals for a wide variety of reasons. The role of Tuk’s law is to strengthen and protect the interests of every animal—whether a stray animal or animal that has been bought, perhaps mistakenly, during the pandemic, or an animal that the owners cannot cope with—to make sure that there is a requirement that the microchip is scanned, that contact details are sought, and every animal is protected.
I would also like to talk about Gizmo’s law. The first person I met after being elected was a wonderful lady called Helena Abrahams, who spent the last number of years leading a campaign for Gizmo’s law. Gizmo’s law is a very simple, cost-neutral measure to respect pet cats in both life and death. Sadly, many pet cats—and other pets—die on our roads and in various other circumstances. When they are found they are often taken to local authorities, which dispose of those pets without scanning the microchips that they may have, and without trying to establish the ownership of a much-loved pet.
Helena, whom—this is very unparliamentary language —I love to death, is passionate about wanting to make sure that those pets are respected and that animal welfare rights are respected, and that the owners have the opportunity to be reunited with their pets in these difficult circumstances. She has fought a campaign in which she has persuaded a very large pet-food manufacturer to undertake to purchase scanners for every local authority in the country to ensure that this is a cost-neutral measure.
I have taken the opportunity today to support everything that my colleagues have said. We need to face up to the realities of the pandemic and its negative impact on many facets of the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will wish to take the opportunity to support my private Member’s Bill, to support the hundreds of thousands of people who want to put Tuk’s law and Gizmo’s law into legislation, and feel that it is an animal welfare measure that all of us can support across the political spectrum. I welcome any further opportunity to speak on this matter with the excellent Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) for securing this debate, which is about a very serious problem for people across these islands. My constituents in Angus are no different, and have contacted me in significant numbers about this issue.
Since devolution, where Scotland leads, the rest of the UK often follows, and so it is in animal welfare. Scotland was the first part of the UK to ban performances of wild animals in travelling circuses. That important animal welfare policy was widely welcomed, and since been replicated elsewhere in the UK.
As part of the European Union, we were obligated to maintain strict animal welfare policies. In some instances, Scotland exceeded the minimum standards, for example, with bans on fur farms. While there are historic positives, there are also low points, such as the Conservatives’ manifesto position in 2015 and again, in 2017. They stood on a manifesto that would give their MPs a free vote on repealing the fox-hunting ban—a ban against which the Prime Minister himself voted in 2004.
With the effects of covid compounded by the administrative and exporting challenges thrown up by Brexit, along with to the Government’s refusal to uphold animal welfare standards in either the Trade Bill or the Agriculture Act 2020, we see a challenged position. Moreover, that position is inconsistent with “Scotland the Brand”, which has a world-class reputation, thanks in no small part to Scotland’s strong animal welfare policies.
Covid has presented additional challenges, over and above Brexit, on animal welfare and, in particular, on the domestic and international trade in puppies. Alongside my colleagues on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which includes the wise counsel of the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), I heard harrowing evidence about the malice of puppy smugglers and the contempt with which they treat litters, and especially the mothers of those litters: caesarean sections are carried out inhumanely quickly one after the other, leaving insufficient time to heal. It is an egregious, greedy trade. The Government have an opportunity to address this issue, which is of real concern to ordinary members of the public.
Puppy demand and prices experienced an extraordinary jump following the covid outbreak. That, in turn, led to a 140% increase in commercial import licences for foreign dog breeders. It is important to note that not all foreign dog breeders are breaching animal welfare standards en masse. Likewise, it is important to acknowledge that there are instances of breeders breaching standards on these British Isles. Taken together at home and abroad, this issue is of significant concern to my Angus constituents, as is the horrendous spike in dog thefts, which is terrifying for families with dogs.
As a dog owner myself, I know the importance of dogs to families across the UK, and the place that they hold in the hearts of the British public. The difference that my beautiful old golden retriever, Maggie, has made to my family during lockdown has been invaluable—she ensures that we get exercise and she provides companionship. It is no wonder that people have sought similar comfort and enjoyment from having a pet.
I was delighted to support the excellent work of Dogs Trust, which provided information to hon. Members before the debate. The Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reported that a gang of puppy smugglers were arrested following the use of an Airbnb property to sell trafficked puppies. There is a significant element of duplicity in the trade. Half those puppies died, including from parvovirus, because of the squalid conditions in which those poor creatures must have spent their brutish, short lives. That poses a more general risk to dog health in the community.
One SSPCA investigator noted that public demand for puppies
“remains sky high and as long as this continues, bad dealers will find any means to operate.”
Dogs Trust also noted that the effects and impact of the pandemic would be felt for some time to come. That is true for all walks of life, but in this context, it would be sensible for Government to carefully consider the Blue Cross recommendation that Governments undertake work to determine the impact of covid-19 on puppy farming and smuggling, the damage caused to date, and how to reverse that trend.
The demand for puppies fuelled the unsustainable rise in prices, and for families duped into buying a puppy from an unreputable breeder, that causes significant financial loss, as well as heartache. We have seen an apparent increase in impulse purchases: 31% of people who acquired a dog or a cat during the first lockdown stated that they were not considering becoming pet owners beforehand. Although the great majority of recent pet owners will go on to provide safe and loving homes for their pets, that spike in ownership presents a clear risk that, for some, the good intentions will give way to the financial reality—not least the first uninsured visit to the vet for health complaints which, if the animal was poorly bred, may be the first of many visits to the vet.
That will inevitably lead to increased health and behavioural problems. Puppies that were introduced to their families with an abundance of affection and attention during lockdown will need careful management when adults return to work and kids go back to school. It will be a very demanding adjustment for animals and humans alike, which will have consequences, including abandonment and pressure on rehoming services. When the consequences of poorly bred dogs or inappropriate and unsustainable ownership or changes in circumstance post lockdown wash out, it will be animal welfare charities that have to pick up the pieces, at a time when their ability to fundraise is seriously constrained, which we must all bear in mind.
There is significant scope for the UK Government to tighten the licensing regime for foreign dog breeders importing puppies into the UK and for the UK Government to work together with devolved Administrations on better regulation for domestic breeders. I look forward to the Minister’s reassurance in this regard.
It is a pleasure to be able to sum up this debate for the Opposition. First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) for the way in which she introduced this debate with such passion and care. It is very clear that she is an animal lover, not just of Dotty and Dora, but of many other animals as well. I think she spoke for nearly all of us in the debate when she spoke so eloquently about what has happened during the pandemic to our pets and animals, and why it is so important to take action to ensure that there is no more suffering for animals during this period. She is one of Labour’s rising stars and her remarks show us why.
Britain is indeed a nation of animal lovers and, as we have heard throughout the debate, wherever we are in the United Kingdom, there is a requirement, a need and an urgency to see better protection for animals, better enforcement and better funding for those services that are trying to look after those animals. Successive lockdowns have shown more than ever how important animals are to our wellbeing and how much joy and comfort they can bring to our lives. They really are incredibly special.
Pets are not just a commodity; they are not just an item to be purchased; they are not a DVD player or an iPhone—they are part of the family. When we talk about pets and the impact on animals throughout the pandemic, we should approach it from that point—our pets are a full part of our families, not just property. Sadly, that is not how they are described in law. Many of the challenges presented to the Minister today are about how the law can better reflect the importance of animals and how our relationship with animals has changed over time. They are no longer just work animals in support of our economy, but animals to comfort, nurture and be a full member of our families.
A number of issues have been raised in this debate. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken. They have all raised very important, serious issues that need to be addressed by the Minister—I hope they will be.
There has been a huge rise in demand for dogs and cats—pandemic puppies and covid cats—during this period, and that is clear not only in the price paid for them, but in internet searches for them. That creates an opportunity for unscrupulous dealers and those people who want to exploit, con and make money at all costs, including accepting cruelty to animals. As well as the increased sale of healthy pets, there has been a rise in the number of dogs and cats being imported into the UK from unscrupulous dealers. As the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), not all foreign imports are from unscrupulous dealers, but sadly, far too many of them are. That needs to be addressed.
Many unscrupulous dealers are taking pets away from their mothers at an extremely young age. Those pets have a higher risk of carrying diseases and have not been fully nurtured into the healthy young animals we hope them to be. Many new pet owners have participated in impulse-buying over the pandemic. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home found that 42% of pandemic pup buyers had not seen their puppy’s breeding environment prior to purchase, and 27% paid for their puppy without even seeing it.
This situation underlines the need not only for regulatory action, but for better communication of the laws that already exist. In many cases, campaigners, on a cross-party basis, have changed the law, to require that animals should be seen with their mother and to make sure that animal cruelty in the breeding process is eliminated as much as possible, but if people do not know that those laws exist, they might as well not exist. That is a really important part of the communication effort that I encourage the Minister to look at. As well as arguing for regulation, we need to make sure that people understand what is going on, so they can be better protected.
Now more than ever, when demand for pets is so high, it is vital that the Government increase the legal imported age to six months, as has been discussed. Doing so would make it easier for imported dogs to be checked for rabies and would also ensure that pets are not taken for long journeys at far too young an age. I would also like the Government to stop allowing soft repercussions for those who disregard animal welfare for their own monetary benefits.
We have heard much about the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill—and believe me, the Minister has heard an awful lot from me about it over many years. As we heard from the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), we can have no more false starts on this Bill. She argued for it during her time at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; indeed, successive Secretaries of State have argued for it. There seems to be a blockage in the way that Bills are brought forward to Parliament and a blind spot towards the needs of animals among those doing the parliamentary programming. I know that the Minister shares that concern and will do all that she can to ensure that the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill is passed through the other place in due course.
Equally, I pay tribute to my fellow west country Member, the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder), for his work. In praising him for the way that he has conducted his campaign, I also place on record the work of Anna Turley, the former Member for Redcar, who did so much during her time in this place to learn the lessons from the experience of Baby, the young dog that was cruelly abused in such an awful way. Although increasing the sentence for animal cruelty from six months to five years in the most extreme cases is a substantial step, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill does not do two things that in my mind it must do.
The first is to apply equally to wild animals as it does to domestic animals, a step that has been taken elsewhere in the United Kingdom but not in England. Secondly, learning the lesson from Baby’s law, we should consider introducing the aggravating offence of deliberately filming the animal cruelty for the personal enjoyment of those doing it or to boast by sharing it online. That is an extra-special form of cruelty, and the law should better reflect that. We did not have the chance to vote on those amendments, which Labour tabled, to the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill. The Minister will know that I am hopeful that she will look to cut and paste those amendments, in the spirit of cross-party co-operation, in any future legislation.
I want to turn briefly to pet theft, which my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd and others mentioned. Losing a pet is not about losing property, which is what the law currently suggests, so I think the law on pet theft needs to be updated. It needs to be better understood and communicated; it also needs to be better enforced. Lockdown has created situations that have led to social media panic, certainly in Plymouth and Pontypridd, about the risk of dog theft. Although pet theft has increased during the pandemic, especially for rare and valuable breeds of dogs and cats in particular, the worry for people that someone will steal their animal, or that something could happen if they let it out of sight, has been combined with the extra worry of those walking their dog on their own, especially at night. Many dog owners have correctly taken extra steps to avoid people during the pandemic, following Government advice to stay away from people, but in doing so they potentially put themselves at greater risk, if only of greater worry about what might happen to them. The Minister urgently needs to communicate with her colleagues at the Home Office to ensure that pet theft is adequately addressed in law and also regulation.
We have seen not only risks of cruelty towards pets, but risks of animals not receiving the medical care they need. The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) used his expertise very wisely to talk about the implications of not taking a new animal to a vet for support, and I support his words of thanks to those in the veterinary profession for their tireless work to help animals during the pandemic. We need to ensure that we pick up on the lessons from microchipping, which the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) spoke about. Tuk’s law and Gizmo’s law are much to be supported, but I would like the Minister to apply the same emphasis elsewhere, because it is not right that steps are taken to microchip animals without then scanning them at certain points. Indeed, I might go one step further and suggest that we extend the current requirement to report on motor incidents involving livestock and dogs to include cats, because as we know, the loss of an animal, especially when they have a microchip, or not knowing what has happened to them is very serious.
I would also like to echo the concerns raised by hon. Members about the funding for animal welfare charities. Each animal welfare charity is really important in stopping cruelty in their community and for campaigning for better standards, and I am very concerned to read of the huge numbers of losses that many animal welfare charities have had during this period. Dogs Trust has seen a loss of income of 15% to 30% in donations and legacy income. RSPCA had a 12% fall in donations and a 9% reduction in legacies, and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home has suffered a £4 million loss in fundraising income.
Smaller charities have also suffered. They might not have the public affairs team to send us briefs on it, but smaller animal charities up and down the country are equally facing difficult times. The Association of Dogs and Cats Homes found that 47% of the 142 UK rescue organisations have reported an income drop of more than 50%. With a recession looming, their recovery will be incredibly difficult, and extending support to those organisations is incredibly vital, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Pontypridd. Just as we have seen with the zoo support fund, the Minister has allocated funding for it, but with 97% of the zoo support fund not yet spent, I encourage her to look at the conditions for that and see whether money can be allocated to support those individuals or steps can be taken by the Treasury.
The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border spoke about the need to ensure that it is not just domestic animals that are protected during this period. The case he made around equine health is especially important because of the incredible cost of keeping a horse. I share his concern that horse abandonment will increase during this period. I know these concerns are shared by the animal welfare sector as well, and I think the Minister would be wise to look at this issue. One way that she could address this area and provide a bit of hope would be to look at the Labour animal welfare manifesto from the previous election. There is much to be said for bringing forward a comprehensive animal welfare Bill in the next Queen’s Speech. It is a proposition that I have put to the Minister previously in debates, and I hope that she will take it up in the spirit that it is intended.
There is cross-party support for tougher measures for animal welfare, better support for pet owners and better support for those people working in this sector. In my mind, an animal welfare Bill should include provisions for tightening the rules on pet theft and puppy smuggling. Should the Bill sponsored by the hon. Member for Bury North not pass, an animal welfare Bill should adopt Tuk’s law and Gizmo’s law and look at cat microchipping. It should look at cruelty to wild animals and include tougher sentences for filming, as I mentioned in relation to the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill earlier. It should also include provisions for animal sentience and for the “flop not crop” campaign to ensure that dog ear cropping is not part of our national culture.
An animal welfare Bill should also improve accessibility to vets, improve affordability for those on low incomes, and improve tenants’ ability to properly keep pets. It should improve reporting of motor incidents to include animals beyond livestock and dogs, and take action around livestock worrying. Many people have taken their animals into rural areas and that has had consequences for farm animals. I think that can be better supported without necessarily reducing the right to roam along the way. As we have heard from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), action should be taken to ban fur imports and to address trophy hunting. Finally, there should be an animal welfare commissioner to produce an annual report on the state of animal welfare in England in particular.
With a Bill as comprehensive as that, there would be much that would have cross-party support. I would encourage the Minister to look carefully at how that can be included in the Queen’s Speech that we are expecting, so we can avoid so many of these debates where hon. Members on both sides make the same cases. Let us have one single Bill to deal with all these issues and to make sure that we are properly putting into law the fact that every pet and every animal matters, with proper, decent protection and funding to go along with it.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I join in thanking the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), inspired by Dotty and Dora, for organising this debate today. It has been thoughtful and full of many ideas, to which I will try to respond. If I do not manage to deal with everything, then please do come and talk to me at any point about animal welfare. It is right that we talk about this a great deal in this place, and it is right that our constituents are concerned about it. While much of the national attention has rightly been focused on the impact on humans of the pandemic, today’s debate is a reminder that we are a nation of animal lovers and we do have compassion and concern for the impact of the pandemic on animal welfare generally.
We have all heard a great deal about the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, which I was thrilled to see finish its stages in this House last Friday. It was tense to the end—we have been kept guessing throughout its passage—and if I may say so, it is a testament to cross-party working, for which I will put on the record formally my thanks to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). I heard the points that he made once again today, in particular about the filming of animals. Although I do not think that we will amend the Bill—we want it to go through and the way to achieve that is by not amending it—I have said before and I will say again today that I will make points in the guidelines about filming. I hope that they will remain part of the way that sentences are given under the Bill, which we hope will soon be a piece of legislation.
DEFRA has been monitoring animal welfare very closely since the start of the pandemic and I would like to assure everybody that we will continue to work closely with the sector to understand the long-term impacts, which are not exactly as we imagined they would be this time a year ago. I, too, pay tribute to the hard work of animal welfare charities, the pet industry and the vets who have all been affected by the pandemic but have continued to prioritise animal welfare in the face of financial hardship and, indeed, uncertainty.
I will also take this opportunity to thank farming organisations and charities for all the support that they have given to farmers during this very difficult year. I never forget that most of the captive animals in this country are, of course, on farms. When we talk about animal welfare, we often do not focus on those animals, but DEFRA will very much focus on them in the future, and it is important that we remember that.
We have had really good speeches this afternoon on a number of topics. Another point made by the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, was that it is important to remind people of our laws. So I will, if I may, pick up on some of the laws that have been mentioned by others, as a reminder to us all.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) is a vet and he spoke passionately to remind us all of the importance of taking our pets and our farm animals for vaccinations and neutering, for example, even during the pandemic. I have accessed vets several times during the pandemic. The first time, in full lockdown, the animal was handed over in a carrying case. Indeed, the vets also had to attend my smallholding during full lockdown; I remember leaving the animals’ passports outside their doors, so that the vet did not even have to speak to me. It has been possible, though difficult, to treat animals throughout the pandemic and vets have done a really good job of managing that.
My hon. Friend is also a member of the EFRA Committee and he spoke about the report on the movement of animals across borders that is being prepared by that Committee. It is a report that I look forward to very much. This is an area where, following the end of the transition period and our departure from the EU, we will be able to take further action, if we think it is appropriate to do so. Several Members talked about pet smuggling, for example, and this is an issue where there may now be the possibility of taking the action that I believe many people would welcome. So, I look forward to that report and to engaging with him further on this issue.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) spoke about pandemic puppies and how she fears they will be less socialised than other puppies. She spoke, too, about the cats that have not been neutered during the pandemic, who will of course go on to have unwanted litters in the future. I thought that was a point very well made; we need to remember that the effects of the pandemic on animals will continue in future years.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) made an excellent speech in which she reminded us of many of the important issues that we need to tackle in legislation. She also made the really fundamental point that if we want new animals to keep at home, we should get them from a rescue centre. That point cannot be made too often. She also argued forcibly for big charitable fundraising events to take place again soon. On the way to the debate, I spoke to a Minister from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about that very subject. I am glad to say that I also spoke to the Leader of the House once again about how to continue the progress of the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill. I was worried that I would be late for the debate as a result, but that was important.
I turn to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly), the owner of Bertie. He and I have discussed Tuk’s law and Gizmo’s law many times. The Government are a great supporter of microchipping for animals in general, and I very much hope that he receives good news on that in the next Session of Parliament.
The hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), inspired by Maggie the golden retriever, spoke with particular passion about puppy smuggling. I draw attention once again to the Petfished campaign, which has run throughout the pandemic and raises awareness of many of the issues associated with low welfare and the illegal supply of pets. On pet theft generally, raised by a number of hon. Members in this debate and outside it recently, I reassure all those who are worried that DEFRA is working closely with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to gather and analyse data and scope the scale of the issue. We will continue to work very closely with those Departments to ensure that we can come up with the correct solutions to this difficult issue.
In April 2020, the Government commissioned the Animal Welfare Committee to advise on animal welfare impacts relating to the pandemic. It made a preliminary report in June 2020, which included concerns about: the ability of businesses, vets and charities to continue to provide services; the need for contingency planning; and the impact of owners’ physical and mental health on their ability to care for their animals. I was relieved to note that, in the committee’s second report, which was published in December, it concluded that many of the animal welfare risks that had concerned it had not been fully realised. The report recognised that the farming sector remained vulnerable to slaughterhouse closures, for example, which might cause animal numbers to build up on farms, with possible welfare consequences.
There were concerns about the companion animal sector relating to increased ownership, reduced access to vets, potential impacts of personal restrictions on pet care and the ability of animal welfare charities to operate with reduced resources. Some of the initial concerns raised by that committee were realised, but we were pleased to note that most of them were not.
DEFRA has provided updated advice for pet owners and livestock keepers on looking after animals throughout the pandemic. The advice explains how people who are self-isolating or hospitalised can access support to care for their pets. We have worked very closely with the Canine and Feline Sector Group, the National Equine Welfare Council and other organisations to review guidance for pet businesses and animal charities so that operations can continue wherever possible. That has enabled rescue centres to continue core services and pet shops to remain open and supply all the needs that our pets have, including food. It has meant that the services of pet groomers can be accessed for welfare reasons, and those who have been hospitalised have had access to pet boarding, dog walking or dog day care.
There have been positive trends as a result of the pandemic, including a real reduction in the number of stray dogs dealt with by local authorities and increased interest, as we have heard all round, from people wanting to foster or rehome pets, which has helped to alleviate some of the sector’s pressures. However, even though covid-19 appears to have had a reduced impact on animal cruelty, that may well be, as many have said, because of reduced visibility. I take the points about the link between animal cruelty and domestic violence. We are very live to that and are monitoring the situation closely with others in the sector.We are aware that the picture we have is not yet the full one.
For anyone watching this, can the Minister confirm that there are organisations that will support the animal of anyone fleeing domestic violence as well? The power that a perpetrator may have over an animal should not be used to keep a victim of domestic abuse in their home.
That is an extremely good point. One of the more unpleasant aspects of domestic violence is the use of a pet as a psychological, and sometimes physical weapon by the perpetrator. It is right that there are organisations that can specifically provide care in those situations. This issue may not have had the full light of day shone on it in the past, but I want to assure all those listening that we take it very seriously.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd raised various specific points, first about mutilating dogs’ ears, which she rightly said has been banned for 15 years in the UK. I am happy to discuss that further with her. It is illegal and unlawful to mutilate a dog. One of the major concerns at the moment is about dogs coming in from abroad who are already mutilated. It is to be hoped that that will be picked up in the work that the EFRA Committee and then DEFRA are doing, looking at the way that pets cross borders.
On breed-specific legislation, I too have visited Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and have seen delightful-looking animals who fall on the wrong side of the breed divide. There are strong views on both sides of this argument and it is only fair that we recognise that the legislation was brought in because of fears for public safety. However, DEFRA has commissioned Middlesex University to do some research on this issue and it is important that we continue to follow the evidence in this difficult area; it really is.
In summary, I wish to reassure all those present that the Government are committed to safeguarding the welfare of animals, particularly during this challenging pandemic period. I have been encouraged to commit to a large animals Bill next session. Sadly, Madam Chairman, that is above my pay grade, but I want to assure those present that DEFRA has a good track record of conducting legislation over the past year. We have had the Agriculture Act 2020, the Fisheries Act 2020 and 94 or so statutory instruments and counting—there will be many more this year. I was thrilled when the private Member’s Bill, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, passed the House on Friday. If we are unable to persuade the powers that be to give us one big animals Bill, I want to assure those present that there will be a whole series of Bills to deal with as many of the issues raised today as is possible for us. We are committed to continuing engagement with animal welfare organisations, enforcement agencies and groups across the sector to understand the long-term effects of the pandemic on our animals. I want to assure everyone that we will continue to take action where necessary.
Diolch, Madam Chair. It truly has been a pleasure to take part in today’s debate. I am grateful to all colleagues for their contributions and for their excellent pronunciation of the name of my constituency—da iawn. I said at the beginning, and I know, that animal welfare is an issue that cuts across the political divide. Given the incredible cross-party support for some of the issues, I truly believe that.
I recognise that we are living in extraordinary times. People have seen their incomes cut, the job market is increasingly competitive and I know that for many, animal welfare may not be an issue that sits at the top of their priorities. However, we are fortunate to have the opportunity, as elected representatives, to debate important issues and I am grateful to be able to air my concerns, as well as those I have received from constituents in Pontypridd. I welcome the Minister’s comments. She has always been open to discussions with me on animal welfare issues and I thank her for that co-operation. I am glad that she recognises the issues with animal abuse, particularly the comorbidity with other violent and abusive behaviours. I hope that close attention is paid, and that the Minister will take up the issues raised today with colleagues at the Home Office for further discussion.
I welcome the Minister’s comments on pet theft and look forward to hearing more about the discussions she has with the MOJ and the Home Office on that issue. I also welcome the report on puppy smuggling and the movement across borders, and look forward to seeing what help can be given in that area.
Much has been said today about law enforcement. I would like to bring colleagues back to my earlier point about the importance of having laws that both protect and can be readily applied in cases of animal abuse. The Minister’s comments will help us move in the right direction and I am very grateful for that. I look forward to seeing her promises enacted in future legislation from the Government. Diolch.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on animal welfare.