Skip to main content

Domestic Animals

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 15 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to improve the welfare of domestic animals in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Government are committed to improving the welfare of domestic animals. We have updated legislation to facilitate the control of horses and improve licensing of activities involving animals, prohibited the third-party sale of puppies and kittens in England and targeted unscrupulous selling through our Petfished campaign. We are also supporting the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, which increases animal cruelty sentences to five years, and acting on cat microchipping, puppy smuggling, pet theft and more besides.

I congratulate my noble friend on everything that he is doing to protect domestic animals. Is he aware that one result of lockdown has been a surge in demand for companion animals and a resultant hike in prices, with Cats Protection reporting a 40% price rise for kittens last year? Sadly, some demand is met by unscrupulous online sellers, often peddling sick and underage kittens. It may also be responsible for the rising trend in cat thefts as well as the growing market for animals bred more for their looks than their welfare, such as the Scottish Fold cat, born with cartilage deficiency and destined for lifelong pain. What action will my noble friend take to ensure that cat breeding is properly regulated and that there is compliance with regulations governing commercial pet sales?

Following the introduction of Lucy’s law last year, anyone looking to get a kitten or cat now has to source directly from the breeder or consider adopting from a rescue centre. This is a major step forward in disrupting the unscrupulous online trade my noble friend has highlighted.

Defra’s national Petfished campaign, which launched in March last year, continues to educate prospective buyers on how to source pets responsibly and how to avoid deceitful sellers. Local authorities are responsible for enforcing the regulation of commercial pet sales, and I urge anyone with any concerns to report the matter to the relevant local authority.

The animal welfare sector has been under huge strain with the increase in abandoned pets during lockdown. The Minister mentioned horses. The RSPCA has raised serious concerns about the huge increase in abandoned horses and ponies. However, without rigorous enforcement and tough financial penalties, current legislation will do little to stop irresponsible horse owners continuing to dump their animals. Does the Minister agree that animal welfare charities need extra support following this very challenging year, and will he look at toughening up enforcement and increasing penalties for those who abandon horses?

The noble Baroness raises an important point. Animal rescue organisations do extraordinarily valuable work, usually on a voluntary basis, and the pandemic has had a massive impact on individuals, businesses and charities caring for animals. Throughout this challenging period, we have pressed to ensure that rescue and rehoming organisations are able to stay open, that staff and volunteers can continue to work and tend to the animals in their care and that rehoming, fostering and adoption services can continue. Throughout the pandemic we have kept in very close contact with the entire sector.

I am afraid to say that I did not hear the noble Lord’s full question. However, in relation to increased punishments for cruelty to animals, I can say that the Government are supporting a Bill that appears before this House tomorrow; my noble friend Lord Randall will be introducing the Sentencing Bill, and the Government support it. It will increase the maximum custodial sentence for animal cruelty from the current six months to five years, and that will enable courts to take a much firmer approach to cases such as dog fighting, the abuse of puppies and kittens and so on, and the gross neglect of farm animals. I hope that answers the noble Lord’s question.

My Lords, while I accept that my noble friend cannot anticipate the contents of the Queen’s Speech, perhaps I may none the less urge him to expedite the introduction of a Bill to ban the export of live animals for slaughter or further fattening, which has long been desired by many of us. Our patience is not merely thin, it is getting threadbare.

I am hopeful that the Queen’s Speech, when it happens, will include a number of measures to improve animal welfare, not just those that appeared in our most recent manifesto. As my noble friend will know, we recently consulted on ending live exports for slaughter and fattening. We are analysing the responses that we received and will be publishing the government response very soon. We hope to have legislation in place to end live animal exports for slaughter and fattening by the end of the year, and hopefully sooner than that.

There has been an explosion in the last two years of dogs imported into the UK—mainly puppies with poor disease status from Romania. What are the Government doing to increase the minimum age for imported dogs from 15 weeks to 24 weeks, which would solve this problem?

Now that the transition period has ended, we have the opportunity to manage our own pet travel and commercial importation rules. We are actively liaising with and listening to the concerns of stakeholders, not least Cats Protection, and there has been recent parliamentary work from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee. We are considering a whole range of recommendations in the area raised by the noble Baroness.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is actually up to the owners of animals to behave better towards them, which would be the best way to go forward, and that those who do not look after animals should be prohibited from owning them? Has my noble friend seen the SongBird Survival research into how cat owners can improve the mental and physical well-being of their cats, as well as reducing the number of wild birds that cats take each year, which is many millions?

I am not aware of the research cited by my noble friend, but I will certainly look out for it. The difficulty for the Government is that our job in a sense is to ensure that the minimum standard is acceptable and that owners are not able easily to sink beneath acceptable standards. It is therefore really a baseline that we set. But my noble friend is absolutely right that this is a country of animal lovers and most owners are inspired to look after their pets with great care, and we should of course be doing everything we can to raise standards across the board and encourage everyone to apply the same level of attention, care and love to the pets that they own.

My Lords, disease and ill health are a major cause of poor welfare in both companion animals and livestock. I congratulate Her Majesty’s Government on recognising this with respect to livestock in the Agriculture Act by providing the possibility of financial incentives to improve health and welfare. How do the Government intend to assess and measure livestock welfare to achieve that objective?

The Government’s planned animal health and welfare pathway will support livestock farmers financially by using public funds to deliver public goods and pay for health and welfare enhancements that are valued by the public but not currently delivered by the market or through existing regulatory standards. We are working closely with animal welfare scientists and stakeholders to determine which animal welfare enhancements to pursue and the most effective welfare metrics to use as a basis for those future payments.

My Lords, as has already been touched on, there has already been a massive upsurge in the purchase of domestic animals during lockdown. It is clear that, as people return to normal forms of working, there will be an acceleration of the abandonment of many pets, particularly dogs. Is the Minister’s department prepared to engage in an advertising campaign about both the treatment and the rehousing of animals rather than their abandonment on the street?

The noble Lord makes a really important point. The department has run a successful campaign called Petfished, which we launched in March last year, to raise issues associated with low welfare and the illegal supply of pets and to help prospective buyers source pets responsibly. It is one of the most successful comms campaigns that the department has run and it has generated masses of interest; we are told through YouGov polling that it has contributed to doubling awareness of low-welfare pet sellers. I cannot commit here and now that we will replicate those efforts in relation to the issues raised by the noble Lord, but I will certainly take his message back to the department and discuss it with colleagues and officials.

My Lords, there is well-reported and documented evidence of people stealing pets for profit. It is usually dogs, but cats are also being stolen to order, usually Persians and Bengal cats. According to Cats Protection, only 26% of cats are microchipped. Will the Minister consider introducing the mandatory microchipping of cats to give their owners a small chance of getting their pets back?

The Government have a manifesto commitment to introduce the compulsory microchipping of cats—so, yes, we will do that. We have consulted and will issue our response later this year.

My Lords, I want to ask the Minister about the situation with pigs. I know we have high welfare standards here, but we still allow the import of meat from pigs and piglets that have been reared in less humane conditions such as farrowing crates and places where tails are docked. Will he level up the playing field and ensure that our trade rules ensure that animal compassion is in all our supply chains?

My Lords, the new pig welfare code of practice, which came into force in March last year, states that the aim is to phase out the use of farrowing crates in the UK and for any new system to protect the welfare of the sow as well as her piglets. We are continuing to work with the industry on this issue. In relation to imports of substandard produce, as set out in our manifesto and repeated many times since, both by the Prime Minister and by other Ministers, we will not compromise on our high animal welfare standards in the pursuit of free trade agreements. That is a commitment that we are absolutely committed to and will stick to.