Tuesday 16th March 2021

(3 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

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Victoria Prentis Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Victoria Prentis)
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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.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
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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.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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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.