Microchipping of Pets

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Monday 28th 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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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time, Mr Pritchard. It is also a great pleasure to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), and all who signed the petitions that led to the debate this afternoon. I reassure everybody that animal welfare is definitely a first-order issue for this Government. We all recognise the valuable contribution that our pets can make to our lives. We have heard this afternoon the sad stories of Shadow and Bumblesnarf, but we have also heard very heart-warming stories—from my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans), for example, and, indeed, from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who feels that his dog greets him more warmly than his wife.

Last month, we introduced a Bill to recognise that animals are sentient beings—the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill. Earlier this month, we introduced a Bill that will enhance protection for kept animals—the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill—including through provisions on puppy smuggling and livestock worrying; introduce bans on the export of live animals for slaughter and fattening; and put controls on keeping primates as pets.

I assure everyone that action is being taken. There is a long list of animal welfare issues to get through, and we are working through it. We are keen not to delay. Some of this can be dealt with in primary legislation. Some, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) reminds me—he knows that I am a great fan of secondary legislation—can be dealt with in secondary legislation. Some can be dealt with by non-legislative means. It is important that we use every tool in our toolbox. I know that right hon. and hon. Members are impatient to get this done. It is important that we do that; I am not trying to hold anything up in this respect, but it is also important that we do it properly, that we do it after full consultation with the public and that we bring the members of the veterinary profession with us or encourage them to move with us on this, because, as many hon. Members have said, much depends on them.

We are committed to microchipping. Our action plan for animal welfare reaffirmed that, so compulsory cat microchipping will be coming in. We have consulted on this already. More than 33,000 people took the trouble to respond to the consultation. We are working up the detailed proposals at the moment and we will respond fully on that in the autumn, following which, I am sure, hon. Members will have a great deal to say on our response. And we will definitely be introducing the necessary regulation next year.

The action plan for animal welfare also sets out our ambition to introduce further microchipping reforms in relation to the database systems. On Tuk’s law specifically, steps have already been taken to give greater assurance that the microchip database information is checked whenever a healthy dog is presented for euthanasia. I pay tribute to Sue, Dawn and Dominic, the driving forces behind this campaign, for their tireless efforts to highlight the plight of Tuk and other dogs who were put down when an alternative home might well have been available. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) also mentioned the dark side of domestic abuse that can underlie some of these tragic cases.

We have listened carefully to the campaign’s concerns and worked hard with the veterinary profession to develop an approach that has won approval from all sides. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons amended its guidance in May so that when a healthy dog is presented to be put down, the vet is now required to scan the microchip and check the details on the microchip database. This will enable them to consider whether anyone else has an interest in the animal, such as a rehoming centre that might well be able to prevent the animal from being put down. The guidance underpins the code of professional conduct for vets. Any vet practising in the UK is required to adhere to it. Notification of the change to the guidance was sent to every registered vet and was well publicised in sector publications. I am grateful to the veterinary profession for its positive engagement on this.

I heard, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, that pets obtained during the pandemic might be given up as life returns to normal. I reassure my hon. Friend and other Members that we are monitoring this issue extremely closely as we— hopefully—come out of the pandemic. However, information received only last week from the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes suggests that dog and cat rescue centres have actually seen a decline in animals being given up for adoption and are currently, on average, below 60% full. In brief, we think that we have dealt with this issue by working closely with the veterinary profession, but we will continue to keep the matter closely under review as we come out of the pandemic, as suggested by many Members and the campaign.

On Fern’s law, we recognise the clear emotional upset and trauma that the loss of a much-loved pet can cause, and we will continue to take action on pet theft. We set up the Government’s pet theft taskforce, not at all to kick the issue down the road, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport suggested, but in fact, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) indicated, because this is a multi-departmental issue. My right hon. Friend has, if I may say so, knocked around government for some time now and is aware that we need DEFRA, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office to work together to ensure that this issue is right at the top of the agenda.

The taskforce will report by the end of July. Officials are working on the recommended actions at the moment. In the autumn, following the recommendations of the taskforce, we will work on the legislative and non-legislative measures that can help to deal with pet theft. Items that we are working on include stopping cash payments, as mentioned by my right hon. Friend; creating a new pet theft offence or offences where necessary; and considering measures on the compulsory scanning of microchips. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) said, we need to use every available tool in our response to this.

Fern’s law formed part of the consultation we carried out earlier this year. It is worth reminding colleagues that the compulsory microchipping of dogs was primarily brought in to reduce the number of dogs that needed to be rehomed or put down because their keepers could not be traced. In this, it has been really successful, with an increased reunification rate for strays since its introduction. The routine scanning of strays is clearly helpful, and there is a strong imperative to do that on animal welfare grounds. The veterinary profession already recommends that vets scan cats and dogs on first presentation to make sure that animals are correctly identified when checked against the database, and that the same thing is done at regular check-ups. Where the checks raise a concern that the animal might have been lost or stolen, vets have procedures in place to handle that. All of us have a shared goal to reunite pets with their owners. Vets play an important part in the system, and it will take a whole system approach to deal with it, including but not limited to microchipping animals, effective databases, and keepers ensuring that their details are kept up to date.

I will watch the progress of the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green closely. I know that he has been in touch with the Lord Chancellor about it. We are considering the consultation responses on Fern’s law and will put forward our proposals this autumn.

On the calls for a single database, I have listened carefully to the arguments put forward, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), whose constituency I was very pleased to visit. We should recognise that database operators are commercial enterprises that offer a range of services and provide a level of choice for pet owners, but I am sure that significant improvements can be made to the current system to address the issues of concern. Those include considering a single point of access for all databases, which, from the user’s perspective, might be very much like having a single database. We are working on that urgently, and, once again, I will come back to right hon. and hon. Members in the autumn with the response to the consultation. The improvements will help to support the principles behind the scanning campaigns that we have discussed today.

On Gizmo’s legacy—again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly), whom I now refer to as Gizmo—colleagues also raised the issue of scanning dead cats killed by the roadside, which is the subject of this campaign. Poor Gizmo was disposed of in landfill without his microchip being scanned and his owner informed. Colleagues know that I myself lost a cat, Twilight—we still have his brother, Midnight—to a road traffic accident, and I have enormous sympathy with the aims of the campaign. All Highways England contracts include a requirement to identify and inform owners of dead cats and dogs found by the roadside. The charity CatsMatter, which does tremendous work with local authorities to encourage scanning, tells me that all but two local authorities—I am happy to name them—have scanning procedures in place. [Interruption.] The two exceptions are, I believe, Tower Hamlets and Westminster. Still more can be done to develop a consistent and effective approach based on best practice across all local authorities. I have superb examples of best practice available to all colleagues who wish to chat to me about it afterwards, and I encourage Members to be in touch with their local authority to check that best practice is carried out across the nation.

I want to reassure hon. Members that we will have more to say on this matter when we respond to the consultation exercise later in the year. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North does not talk about Gizmo in vain. In brief, I hope that you, Mr Pritchard, and colleagues are reassured that the Government are committed to addressing the issues to ensure that the microchipping regime is as effective as it possibly can be.