Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require dog keepers to register a dog’s DNA on a database; to make provision about such databases and about the information held on them; and for connected purposes.
There are not many days when we in this House can bring joy to so many families and individuals, fight crime, improve biosecurity, help the UK’s leadership in animal genomics and repay the loyalty of the nation’s faithful four-legged friends. This is one such day, and I believe we can do so united on both sides of the House.
One in three households across the UK is home to a furry four-legged canine friend. This Bill seeks to create a national register of doggy DNA as a more secure, more humane and better long-term alternative to microchipping. I am grateful for the feedback from the many parties I consulted in developing this Bill, including dog shelters, police forces, vets, academics, members of the public and genomic industry professionals. I am also grateful for the support of the RSPCA, the largest and oldest animal welfare organisation in the world.
Under the Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations 2015, all dogs must already be microchipped. If there is a canine libertarian movement, that pass has already been sold. Although microchips have been a big step forward and have produced many successes in reuniting dogs with their loving owners, they are not infallible. Some dogs have health conditions making them unable to be microchipped. Microchips can be inserted incorrectly, causing suffering, or sometimes migrate to other parts of the body. Increasingly, they can be found and cut out by unscrupulous thieves.
Registration itself is fragmented, with many databases offered by competing suppliers, each of which hold data in a variety of formats. Unlike microchipping, a simple DNA swab inside a dog’s mouth is non-invasive. It is a modern solution whose time has come.
There is a particular problem right now of dog theft, which reportedly increased by 250% in 2020, but a database, once set up, will have a number of additional benefits and solutions for policy questions related to dog welfare and ownership. In March, my colleague Katy Bourne, police and crime commissioner for Sussex, ran a survey that received almost 125,000 responses, revealing fear of dog theft was a “serious problem”.
Earlier this year Gloucestershire constabulary gave us a proof of concept, having set up its own opt-in DNA register. I am grateful to Gloucestershire’s adviser, Kim Mowday, who examined everything from nose prints to paw prints before concluding that DNA was the most robust and reliable identifier. I know from farmers in my constituency, that a register would protect not just dogs but other animals, too. SheepWatch UK estimates that, in 2016 alone, over 15,000 farm animals were killed by out-of-control dogs.
A register would also improve our city parks and public spaces by tackling dog fouling, which has been linked to toxocariasis, a parasite that is a particular risk to the youngest children. Trials by Barking and Dagenham Council showed that DNA testing drove down fouling by over 60% once owners realised that they could or would be traced. A DNA database would also have immense research value, putting Britain at the cutting edge, and allowing for canine genetic diseases to be tracked and traced. In 2018, whole genome sequencing allowed researchers in Helsinki to identify a gene that causes congenital eye disease in dogs, and such a wide and deep data pool would only generate more advances in veterinary science.
I come to the second major function of the Bill: it seeks to unify the existing microchip registers and merge them into a nationally standardised format. Several organisations I consulted when developing this Bill already advocate for that, including Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the Dogs Trust and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. I draw the House’s attention to the 13 June 2013 debate on compulsory microchipping, in which the then Minister said:
“We are working with database operators and the microchip manufacturers and implanters to address standards and ensure quality and consistency”.—[Official Report, 13 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 156WH.]
He was thereby acknowledging the problem that, eight years on, has still sadly not been solved. The Bill would simplify that by providing a single, consistent point of contact for updates, in much the same way as drivers know they must inform the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency when they change vehicle. The RSPCA has welcomed the Bill, which it says will
“streamline the process of registering dogs, making this easier for owners and authorities and vets to get the information they need.”
Nor is the cost of DNA tests a meaningful objection. The Bill does not seek to bring this in overnight, and would instead see a phased introduction over a decade. That would allow for the expanding provision of DNA testing to drive down cost. The cost of genome sequencing has fallen so rapidly that it has outpaced Moore’s law. Today, a whole human genome can be sequenced for less than $300, and this is expected to fall further. A dog DNA test today can cost as little as £40, depending on the purpose. Given that pet testing is a completely new market and is growing rapidly, we can be sure the price will drop much further over the next decade. The original debates about microchipping featured concerns about the cost burden to owners of making microchipping compulsory. Despite the legal requirement having been in place for five years, there has been no collapse in demand for pet dogs—quite the opposite. Dog ownership has soared from 7.8 million in the year of that debate to more than 10 million last year. The 10-year phasing in would also allow the existing microchip databases to regularise their formatting ahead of unification and to avoid existing owners being penalised.
This will be an effective solution for a number of dog-related problems. Although the list I have given today, including pet theft, puppy farms, dog fouling, wildlife protection, livestock worrying and veterinary research, is not exhaustive—although it sounds it—once the basic framework is set up, any number of other applications can follow. It is clear that a DNA-based approach will become the standard sooner or later. It is surely easier to start now, sorting the scaling problems earlier, so that we make this a long-term fix.
Let me conclude by addressing my final remarks to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). This is a change that is coming. The only question is when and how. We can be sure that the departmental brief written for her will raise no end of objections as to why this is the wrong change at the wrong time. Although our civil service is a fine machine in many respects, the status quo has no better or more skilled advocate for inertia and inactivity. This is that rare thing, a Bill for which there is political consensus and that requires no Treasury funding. So I urge her, for the sake of pet owners, and for the much-loved dogs that will be stolen today, tomorrow and the next day, let us fast forward to the point where the Government agree to pick up this Bill and legislate. Please go back to the Department, challenge the advice and seek action this day on this very important issue.
Question put and agreed to.
That Andrew Griffith, Virginia Crosbie, Siobhan Baillie, James Sunderland, Sir David Amess, Sir Roger Gale, Mr Robert Goodwill, Robert Halfon, Jane Hunt, Dr Julian Lewis, Andrew Selous and Suzanne Webb present the Bill.
Andrew Griffith accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 March 2022, and to be printed (Bill 145).