Animal Welfare

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Monday 7th June 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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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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Thank you, Mr Mundell. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing the debate, in which I know he was ably assisted by his dogs Willow and Lola, and probably by his rabbits Benji and Bella as well. He is a strong champion of animal welfare, and I know that he speaks on behalf of many of his constituents when he raises these issues in Parliament.

I also thank all other hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, including very distinguished Members—several of them from the EFRA Committee—who have worked hard in this area, and many others who have spoken repeatedly in our animal welfare debates. What they say is listened to, and I hope that I will be able to reassure Members present that some of the points they have raised will be imminently brought forward into legislation, and that we have a plan for the rest as well. It is not possible to do everything at once. Given the number of actions mentioned in the past hour and a half, Members will realise that there is a great deal to do. I also thank the public, who engaged with the petitions, and indeed the organisations that worked so very hard to provide all of us with the evidence that we need to make proper legislation.

Animal welfare is one of the very highest priorities for this Government. We know that animals make a valuable contribution to all of our lives and to the planet that we share with them. This is why we recently published an action plan for animal welfare, and it is why we have started the process of legislation to bring many of the issues we have discussed today into effect. I do want to manage expectations, though, because not all of the answers are legislative: the public need to be involved. Where we see infringements of animal welfare that are already contrary to the law, it is important that these are called out, as was suggested by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). I totally agree that enforcement is critically important, and it is often the case that we need to work across Government Departments to make sure that these laws actually take effect—I was going to say “bite”, but stopped myself. The pet theft taskforce, launched just under a month ago and due to report later this year, is an example of this. It is also important that we work together, both cross-party and as four nations, to make sure that we put into action what we have talked about today.

As many Members have said, we also have an important role as a global leader on the animal welfare front. That leads me to the issue of detaching shark fins, on which we really want to be seen to demonstrate global leadership. As a Government, we are strongly opposed to shark finning: we banned finning nearly 20 years ago and, since 2009, we have enforced a “fins naturally attached” policy that applies to UK vessels. We launched a call for evidence, which closed earlier this year; the evidence we got through that has helped us to draft legislation that will seek to ban all fins that are not naturally attached to the carcass from being imported to and exported from the UK, with extremely limited scientific exceptions. This will get rid of the high personal allowance mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington in his opening speech. I am not able to give an exact date for the introduction of that Bill, but I reassure hon. Members that we are moving at pace to make sure we get this legislation absolutely right.

On puppy smuggling, we will very, very shortly show how we will fulfil our manifesto commitment: I urge hon. Members to watch for news in this area very closely, very shortly. When the new legislation is introduced, it will reduce the number of dogs, cats and ferrets that can be moved under the pet travel rules, in order to prevent unscrupulous traders from exploiting those rules—it is not in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests that we have a ferret at home, as well as a cat, but perhaps it should be and I should declare that interest. As we all know, there have been loopholes in the rules, and we do not want to encourage the importation of animals that are heavily pregnant because we make a rule reducing the age limit on puppies. It is really important that we draft this new legislation very carefully, in conjunction with those who work on the ground, so that we can make laws that are enforceable. As many hon. Members have mentioned, pets imported illegally are often in poor health, having been brought up under poor welfare conditions and subject to horrific abuses. There are many reasons for making sure that we get this absolutely right.

We will also bring forward regulations, probably via secondary legislation, to introduce new restrictions on both commercial and non-commercial imports on welfare grounds. Such rules could include a new minimum age for puppy imports and restrictions on the import of heavily pregnant bitches. It is important that we are able to introduce these regulations in a very specific way that enables us to close loopholes. On the point about the Republic of Ireland, we work very closely with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and we will continue to work with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the Republic to put a stop to that abhorrent trade.

Regarding dogs subject to mutilations, my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington raised the particular issue of DIY cropping kits. I remind him, everybody in the room and the general public that cropping is illegal in this country and is an offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Later this month, the sentences available under the Act become much longer, as hon. Members know. Dogs with cropped ears should not be available domestically, except for those that have already, sadly, been cropped. will introduce powers to enable us to bring in new restrictions on welfare grounds in future. We will need to work very closely on closing the loopholes, but all of us and the public have a role to play in calling out bad practice where it is seen.

It is not only sharks and puppies that the Government intend to protect. We have really ambitious plans across the animal welfare spectrum. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021 became law, as I have mentioned, which means that from the end of this month the prison sentence available for animal cruelty will move from six months to five years, which is something that many people in this room should be proud of. We introduced the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, which will recognise and enshrine animal sentience in law and make sure that Ministers take animal welfare into account when making policy generally.

I must mention farm animal welfare, as so many animals are affected by the laws and regulations in this space. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) will be pleased to know that we will introduce measures to end the export of live animals for fattening and slaughter, and we will update the law on livestock worrying. It is important that hon. Members continue to watch this space on keeping primates and how that is regulated in future as well.

On Gizmo’s law, I can never look at my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) without calling him Gizmo, as he mentions it frequently to me. It is awful to lose a cat to a road traffic accident; I have done so myself. We have a manifesto commitment to introduce the compulsory microchipping of cats, as he knows. We have consulted on that fully and will respond later this year. If legislation is not imminent, I undertake to continue to engage with him on this important area.

In summary, there is a great deal to do, but I want to reassure Members about the Government’s commitment to protecting and enhancing the welfare of all animals.