Westminster Hall

Monday 13th December 2021

(2 years, 6 months ago)

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Monday 13 December 2021
[David Mundell in the Chair]

Online Animal Sales: Regulation

Monday 13th December 2021

(2 years, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

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.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

[Relevant document: Oral evidence before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 24 November 2020, Pet Smuggling, HC 926.]
David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
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Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab/Co-op)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 587654, relating to regulation of online animal sales.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. This petition, entitled “#Reggieslaw—Regulate online animal sales”, closed with over 109,000 signatures, and states:

“Given how many animals are sold online, we want Government to introduce regulation of all websites where animals are sold. Websites should be required to verify the identity of all sellers, and for young animals for sale pictures with their parents be posted with all listings.”

I volunteered to lead on this petition because my daughter had a dog called Reggie. He was part of our family for many years, and we loved him so much that it broke our hearts when he tragically died from cancer. I met with the petitioner, Richard, who told me that he started the petition after he bought his 12-week-old Labrador puppy Reggie through a reputable website for his partner for Christmas, and then realised that he had unknowingly contributed to illegal puppy farming. Richard, who is with us in the Public Gallery tonight, bravely concedes that he should have done more research before buying Reggie and should have walked away, which would have prevented the seller from getting more money to continue acts of animal cruelty. However, Reggie would still have died.

Richard gave Reggie love, dignity and pain relief throughout his very short life. Reggie fell ill 12 hours after Richard took him home, and died from parvovirus after two days. When Richard bought Reggie, he thought that Reggie was from St Helens, Merseyside, but when he went back to the address where he had bought Reggie, he found that the seller had gone. The microchip number for Reggie did not match the documentation and was registered to Dublin, Ireland, so Richard believes that Reggie was illegally shipped to the UK. Richard started Justice For Reggie to raise awareness of the dangers of online animal sales, which is part of the Animal Welfare Alliance, which he also set up and is made up of a number of animal websites.

Richard would like the Government to establish a regulatory board to regulate all animal sales websites, and that these websites should be verified before they are set up. He would like it to be a legal requirement to have pictures of puppies suckling on their mother, and to identify online sellers, in that every seller should produce a photo ID and two proof-of-address documents to prove by whom, and from where, the pet is sold. Last week, Richard walked 200 miles from his home in Wigan to hand in a petition to the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street, and I know that some Members who will speak in tonight’s debate met Richard at Downing Street to show their support.

The Government responded to the petition on 1 July 2021, saying:

“The Government shares the public’s high regard for animal welfare. We endorse the Pet Advertising Advisory Group’s work and support their actions to improve the traceability of online vendors.”

Their response mentioned the UK Government’s Petfished campaign, and said that the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill will end puppy smuggling, as it

“includes powers to introduce new restrictions on pet travel and the commercial import of pets on welfare grounds, via secondary legislation.”

It went on to say that the UK Government’s pet theft taskforce is considering different measures to stop pet theft, including the regulation of online sales, a voluntary code of practice and a certification scheme for compliant websites to encourage sites to increase checks. Sales should be cashless to improve traceability. It also said that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs planned to launch an online advertising programme to assess whether the Government need to strengthen the regulatory framework around online advertising, with a consultation expected before the end of this year.

I am sure Members are aware that animal welfare is a devolved matter. There is no specific legislation on acquiring a pet online; however, the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018 cover, among other things, dog and cat breeding and selling animals as pets, as licensed by local authorities. Dog breeding is defined as “three or more” litters a year or where that is regarded as a business by a local authority. “Selling animals as pets” covers selling and selling on, whether bred by the seller or not. The regulations require an advertisement for an animal sale to include the licence number, the licensing authority, the age of the animal, a photo, country of origin and residence, and require that the animal be in good health. Dogs must be sold in the presence of the purchaser and from the premises in which they are kept.

In April 2020, Lucy’s law amended the regulations to prohibit the commercial sale of dogs and cats under six months other than by the breeder. However, the regulations do not apply to private animal sellers. Perhaps the Minister will consider amending them to include private sales. I have met a number of animal organisations to listen to their views on animal online sales, and there was broad support for reform.

PAAG, the Pet Advertising Advisory Group, was set up in 2001 to combat growing concerns about irresponsible advertising of pets for sale, rehoming and exchange. It is made up of 25 animal welfare organisations, trade associations and veterinary bodies, and is endorsed by DEFRA and the devolved Administrations. PAAG is concerned about poor welfare standards, lack of information about a pet’s history, offloading sick pets, dealers posing as private sellers, and pets ending up with unsuitable owners who, for example, use them in dog fights.

Peter Dowd Portrait Peter Dowd (Bootle) (Lab)
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What is concerning in the discussions we have had is that, currently, websites are not a safe place to buy a pet. It is estimated that 92% of pets are sold online, with most taking little responsibility in the sale. Does my hon. Friend that that is something we have to deal with robustly?

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees
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I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who has been a staunch campaigner for animal welfare for many years. I am sure the Minister is listening to his point.

PAAG has set out 27 voluntary minimum standards that advertisers should comply with, and some of the UK’s largest classified websites have agreed to do so. PAAG told me that Richard’s petition includes one of PAAG’s minimum standards: that all breeders should include a recognisable photo of young animals, including dogs and cats with their mother. That has been implemented by Pets4Homes and Preloved, which remove adverts that do not adhere to that.

PAAG will continue to engage with other websites on implementing that more widely. PAAG believes its work is vital, given the lack of regulation of online advertising and sale of pets. Dogs Trust asks for PAAG’s voluntary minimum standards to become a legal requirement for all adverts of pets for sale, and asks for a centralised, publicly accessible list of commercial and private registered sellers and breeders. It believes that a complete ban on advertising pets for sale online would not eradicate the challenges of poor animal welfare, impulsive pet purchases and unscrupulous sellers seeking to profit from selling animals. Dedicated consumer awareness campaigns will be more likely to encourage responsible advertising and purchasing in the long term. There is no jurisdiction over websites based outside the UK, however, so a ban may have the unintended consequence that websites move their operations overseas to avoid having to abide by such a law.

The trust asks that anyone breeding, selling or transferring the ownership of a puppy aged up to six months old, regardless of any financial gain, should be required to be registered, that anyone doing so for more than one litter of puppies should require a licence, and that all breeders should display their unique registration or licence number on any advert. It also asks for a central, publicly accessible list of all registered and licenced breeders or, failing that, a single point of entry for the databases operated by individual local authorities, which would allow purchasers to verify where they are buying a dog from—for example, by verifying the postcode. It also asks for a single database or point of contact for the 15 national microchip databases, and for DEFRA to create a system whereby websites can verify the details on a microchip. The trust also states that action should be taken against sellers who get around the prohibition of the sale of pets on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram by using emojis in place of words such as “for sale”, not including the sale price and speaking with potential buyers in closed groups or private messages, which are not monitored.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals told me that demand for puppies rose exponentially during the pandemic, as people wanted companionship or exercise during lockdown. During the first lockdown, Google searches for “puppies near me” increased by 650%, with 15,000 searches in July 2020 compared with 2,000 in January 2020. The prices for some popular breeds escalated. For example, the price of French bulldogs increased from £1,500 pre pandemic to £7,000. Unbelievable. English breeders could not satisfy the demand, so trade in imported dogs escalated by 43% between May 2019 and May 2020, with many sold online. Although the regulatory framework has changed considerably in the past five years, the RSPCA believes that there are still loopholes in the law and, most significantly, huge issues with enforcement, especially in the complicated online marketplace. Enforcement should be a priority.

It is still too easy to find online adverts for pets that do not comply with the 2018 regulations. As lockdown has shown, sellers and buyers are ignoring the rules on conducting sales in person. It is not clear that online adverts that break the rules are routinely removed by websites and social media platforms, and the sellers behind them are not being punished. The RSPCA asks for more resources for local authorities, which lack resources and expertise, and more funding for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs tax investigations into serious pet selling, which often involves large amounts of money. Border Force should prioritise the illegal import of animals.

The Kennel Club told me that when the licence regulations changed in 2018 from five to three puppy litters a year, reputable breeders complained of too much bureaucracy, which resulted in a 10% decrease in puppies being registered with the Kennel Club. It has evidence of disreputable sellers using fake names and false Airbnb addresses to sell puppies from. Disreputable sellers want to offload puppies quickly, so they sell the popular breeds. The British Veterinary Association is a member of PAAG and fully supports PAAG’s position on online animal sales.

The placement and content of online advertising is regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority, which it does by enforcing the code of non-broadcast advertising, sales, promotion and direct marketing, known as the CAP code. This self-regulatory system states that all online adverts are expected to be

“legal, decent, honest and truthful”.

Online advertising includes marketing and communications on companies’ own websites, and other third party spaces under their control, such as Twitter and Facebook. The Advertising Standards Authority website states that to report a dubious advert after the fact, someone would need a photo—a screenshot of the advert—and to complete an online form. However, it also states that it is impossible to check all online adverts because there are millions every year. The ASA can refer advertisers who persistently break the CAP code to trading standards departments in local authorities for enforcement, under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. However, these apply only to businesses. As I have said, local authority trading standards departments are under-staffed and under-resourced, and their priority during the pandemic is enforcing covid restrictions—or, as I call them, covid protections.

I conclude by urging the Minister to support Reggie’s law to prevent “dogfishing”, which is a term for when a person tries to mislead someone into buying a dog that might not be as advertised. For example, the dog might be a different gender or breed—or, as in the tragic case of Reggie, it may be seriously unwell. I ask the Minister to answer the requests from the animal organisations that I have presented.

David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
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If everyone sticks to about five minutes, we will fit everyone in who wants to speak in this debate.

Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter (Warrington South) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. May I start by saying how good it is to see Rick sitting at the back? I hope his feet have recovered, because he has done so much to highlight this cause. I remember joining him on a Zoom call late one evening back in April during lockdown, and hearing the terribly sad story, which the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) outlined, and seeing some of the pictures of Reggie. No animal lover could fail to be impacted by the story that Rick has told.

I am really pleased to be able to contribute to this debate, because as a two-time dog owner, I think there is something very special about animals, particularly dogs. They give us companionship and loyalty. When they are ill, we want to do everything we can to try and protect them, look after them and make them better. Particularly when it is a puppy, it is such an emotive issue that not being able to do anything is heartbreaking. This House needs to be able to highlight this issue and to talk about unregulated advertising.

I want to praise and thank the team at Justice For Reggie for the work they have done in bringing national attention to the issue of puppy farming. I have seen Rick on the TV more than I have seen the Prime Minister over the last couple of days; he has appeared on Sky News and a variety of other channels, with the dog at his side, to talk about these issues, capture the nation’s attention and highlight the issue of puppy farming and dodgy advertising; and that is what this is: dodgy advertising.

This is an emotive issue, and it is an issue for families up and down the UK. In my constituency of Warrington South, I have heard from families who have been personally affected. They have purchased a dog and within a couple of weeks that dog has become desperately ill. They do not know what to do or where to go to.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
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Will the hon. Member commend the work of the RSPCA and the Animal Welfare Foundation, who have come up with a puppy contract? This contract could empower someone looking to purchase a puppy or a dog, and help them avoid some of the pitfalls that come from dealing with irresponsible breeders.

Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter
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I absolutely will, and I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I will come on to some of the other charities and animal campaigning groups that have done so much to highlight the issue. I remember saying to Rick early on that if we can build a coalition, that is a great opportunity to put a strong message to parliamentarians and the wider public that this is happening.

It is worth saying at the start that the Government have done some very good work in this area, particularly through Lucy’s law, which means that anyone wanting to get a new puppy or kitten must buy it directly from the breeder, with some significant fines and sentences for people who break the rules. However, as the hon. Member for Neath mentioned, we can and should go further on some of the legislation. While progress on Lucy’s law has been encouraging, there are difficulties with the application of the legislation, primarily in stopping the importation of illegally farmed puppies from outside the UK. As we heard in Reggie’s case, it sounds as though he was imported from Ireland into the country. The ease and popularity of the internet means that impulse-buying pets has become an appealing option, with people able to search and find an animal for sale at the click of a button.

The lure of a quick, unregulated sale also attracts many unscrupulous breeders and dealers to websites and other platforms. As I mentioned earlier, people in my Warrington South constituency have told me that they have lost money after responding to posts advertising dogs, puppies, cats and kittens on social media, online marketplaces and other pet-selling platforms. They meet someone in a car park, hand over cash and then they disappear, or they put down a deposit and never see that person again. We must take steps to stop that happening. In many cases, animal lovers are being encouraged to hand over funds as a deposit and are presented with cute pictures of animals only for nothing to be delivered. Thousands of times a day, we see online sites advertising and selling puppies without the parents being present in any photos. That is a general theme we are seeing in online sales not just here, but across Europe.

I read an article this morning in the Metro, which put it well:

“People are profiting from misery”,

and the whole practice of online pet selling is, I am afraid, a very shady place.

Dog thefts are also a consequence of rapidly rising prices, and the pandemic has only sought to increase opportunities for criminals to exploit pet owners and families. According to the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, as of March this year, an estimated 3.2 million households had acquired a new pet during lockdown. That is a huge market for criminals across Europe, and we must get tougher in catching them and regulating the online space. Estimates suggest that as many as 88% of puppies born in Great Britain are bred by unlicensed breeders. We need websites to commit to following at least the minimum PAAG standards. It is important that all adverts display the age of the animal advertised. While the rules of social media sites are clear that such sales are completely prohibited, people have ways to get round them. The reality is that sellers of banned or dangerous dogs can often be found lurking in the comments section of images of adorable puppies in closed groups.

I welcome the priority set out for sellers to display their licence number on all adverts. There are problems with ensuring that licences are properly granted and that local authorities have adequate resources to assess the applications and the locations of those licences. Even so, many sellers fail to display the number, making it more difficult for consumers to know who they are buying from. I ask the Minister to look at what action can be taken to encourage more sellers to display their licence details.

As the hon. Member for Neath mentioned, local authorities are currently in charge of licensing, but it is extremely difficult for them to tackle illegal trading on such a scale, because of the lack of resources they have to monitor the enormous volume of online sales. Indeed, local authorities are unable to monitor the trade offline too, or to provide qualified individuals to assess welfare needs. Along with a stricter licensing regime, we need professionals who are able to adequately determine whether a licence should be granted. Unfortunately, local authority officials who inspect places where animals are sold are not necessarily trained specifically in detecting animal welfare issues. That is where we need, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) mentioned, the work of the RSPCA and other organisations to be included too. Another important point is that the individuals who buy such animals are not aware that the seller should be licensed.

To conclude, I am looking forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the request that the Government introduce further regulation for all websites where animals are sold, including by private individuals. I again congratulate all those at the Justice For Reggie campaign on the incredible work they have done to highlight this issue.

Margaret Ferrier Portrait Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Ind)
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It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for having opened today’s debate on e-petition 587654, and the over 100,000 signatories who have brought this important issue before the House. As an animal lover, I fully support any measures that will strengthen animal welfare laws, and I commend Richard Ackers on his dedication in pursuing Reggie’s law. I am saddened by the circumstances that led him here in the first place—circumstances that were traumatic for Richard and his family, of course, but were also devastatingly cruel for Reggie, the adorable 12-week-old puppy whose death sits at the very heart of this campaign.

Many people across the UK have found themselves with a surplus of free time over the past 20 months or so. We are a nation of animal lovers, and millions found themselves in a position to take on a pet they might not have otherwise had time for. Adoption rates soared; there was also a huge increase in puppy sales, and naturally, it became a sellers’ market. It has not just been puppies such as Reggie, though: there has been an increase in ownership of other pets, such as cats and rabbits. Unfortunately, people will always look to take advantage of such an increase in demand. Unscrupulous sellers putting profit before the wellbeing of animals has always been an issue: I would like to think that those sellers are in the minority, but that does not detract from the need to do everything we can to stop them.

Existing licensing laws go some way towards providing regulatory oversight, but it has become clear that those laws are no longer enough. Sales made through online platforms by unlicensed private sellers are prevalent. The issue is not isolated to pets—I have spoken before about the need for better regulation of online marketplaces for children’s toys—but the sale of live and sentient beings, often suffering, cannot continue to fly under the radar unaddressed. The Pet Advertising Advisory Group has done some excellent work on this issue, developing 27 minimum standards that should be adhered to by online adverts for young animals, and its collaborative approach has brought some of the UK’s biggest online platforms on board. Those standards remain voluntary, though, meaning that not all websites have opted to implement them. I know that DEFRA supports and encourages take-up of those standards, but will the Minister commit to legislating for them?

I also want to highlight the issue of cat breeding, which is sometimes overshadowed by the focus on puppy farms and smuggling. This year’s Cats Protection “Cats and Their Stats” report found that there had been a huge increase in online sales of cats, with 68% of new owners purchasing their cat online. As I touched on, this has led to skyrocketing cat prices, with the average price almost £150 higher than in 2020. I am very pleased to be able to say that cat breeding is regulated in Scotland, but am disappointed in equal measure that Scotland is the only part of the UK that does so. As of September this year, anyone breeding three or more litters in a year must be licensed. The PAAG agrees that cat breeding should be regulated, although most of its members believe that the threshold should be two or more litters annually. It also generally supports registration of breeders of one litter, although Cats Protection has concerns that this could have unintended consequences, such as an increase in abandoned kittens as a result of people finding themselves with an unexpected litter. Kittens do not fetch as high a price as puppies, so I understand that concern.

Scotland is also the only nation in the UK that regulates rabbit breeding. That threshold is a little higher—six or more litters of kits per year—presumably recognising that there is a reason behind the phrase, “breeding like rabbits”. Could the Minister tell us about her Department’s plans to regulate sales of cats, rabbits, and other common pets? Has the Department engaged with its Scottish counterparts to inform those plans?

To conclude, the Government’s initial response to the petition indicates positive forward movement. However, the position that advertising and trading standards sit within the remit of the relevant non-ministerial bodies is disappointing. These bodies must first have the legislative framework to work within, and that responsibility sits with Ministers.

Roger Gale Portrait Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con)
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Bonnie came to us when she was about seven years old. She was dumped in a field, with three other dogs, in the west midlands. She was emaciated, traumatised and had quite obviously been used for puppy breeding. Her body was covered in scars and her feet were rotten from the urine that she had been paddling in, in the cage or shed that she had been born in.

That is the background to the dear little puppies that are sold online; that is where they come from. It is misery. They are then laundered, fraudulently, through breeding bitches, presented as the mother of the litter. It does not matter much whether they come from Wales or England, or, as many do, from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland or mainland Europe. A lot of them are in the country illegally and many are carrying diseases.

These “dog is for life, not just for Christmas” dogs and puppies, are often bought before Christmas and, within two or three days, people such as my eldest son, who is a vet in practice, are asked to pick up the bits —the bits of a dying puppy while a little girl is in tears having been given the animal for Christmas. That is what we are dealing with, so what are we going to do about it?

Personally, I would like to ban the sale of all sentient beings online, but I have to accept that that horse has probably left the stable long ago. We are now living in an age of electronic sales, so it has got to be right that each and every person, whether they are selling as breeders, commercially or “privately,” are licensed and identifiable.

Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter
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Does my right hon. Friend agree that there should be some responsibility with the online platforms for looking at what is going on in that space? Having worked in the broadcast space, I remember selling pets on air was prohibited and there were certain regulations for selling in newspapers. It seems to me that the online space is a wild west where there is not really any regulation by those platform owners.

Roger Gale Portrait Sir Roger Gale
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As we know, these online platforms are notoriously reluctant to take responsibility for anything much, if they can get away with it. I believe that the online platforms should have a responsibility for checking the licences of the people who are selling, not just with this but with a lot of other products as well, before they are allowed to sell anything.

I commend Rick Ackers for promoting Reggie’s law and the thousands of people who have signed the petition. Rick’s sore feet will not be going anywhere, unless we get some legislation. We owe it to a lot of people to make sure that we get this properly under control once and for all.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones (Pontypridd) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Mundell and to speak in the debate today, and especially to follow the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), who I know is a passionate life-long campaigner for animal welfare, just like myself.

As hon. Members across the House well know, we are a proud nation of animal lovers. Animal welfare is an issue that cuts across political divides, and I am so pleased to see Members from across the House calling for urgent reform and regulation of the sale of animals online.

Those of us with pets know first hand the joy and excitement of bringing home a new cat, dog or rabbit to become a member of the family. I am becoming something of a broken record, but bringing home Dotty and Dora—my Jack Russell puppies—nine years ago was an incredibly exciting time for my family. I was lucky: Dotty and Dora came from a friend up the road whose dog had just had puppies; I knew they had been looked after, and they had stayed with their mum until they were big enough to leave safely.

However, in the nine years since, there has been a huge shift in the way people acquire animals. The most popular way to get a new pet is online, with some 92% of all pet sales happening online via websites which allow for third-party sales or on social media. While the vast majority of people looking to get a pet that way do their best to make sure it has been properly looked after and is the right age to leave its mother, there are many tragic cases of animals being bred or transported to the UK in horrible circumstances, and then sold on to unsuspecting customers online. In the worst instances—in cases such as Reggie’s—those animals are simply too sick to survive, leaving behind devastated families.

Last week, I was honoured to join the team behind the Reggie’s law campaign at 10 Downing Street to hand their petition—which received more than 100,000 signatures —to the Prime Minister. They have turned their tragedy into a really powerful campaign. It is wonderful to see Richard and the team here today, after he walked an incredible 232 miles from his home to London to raise awareness of this important issue and to raise money to support animal charities.

One of the beneficiaries of Richard’s fundraising is Hope Rescue, a dog rescue charity working across south Wales that operates from a rescue centre in Llanharan, just across the border in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). I visited the charity a few months ago, and saw first hand the incredible work it does looking after rescued and abandoned dogs. I saw one five-week old puppy that had been rescued from an illegal puppy farm only a few days earlier, but he was one of the lucky ones: he is now in a place where he is loved and cared for, and has luckily suffered no long-term damage as a result of his start in life.

As Members well know, there is already a significant amount of regulation across the UK to control the sale of pets online, which, in England and Wales, is set out in the respective licensing of activities involving animals regulations, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees). Although the regulations are devolved, their provisions on pet sales are broadly the same. They require all advertisements for pets—online and offline—to display the licence number and issuing local authority, as well as a recognisable photo and the age of the animal. For dogs specifically, the regulations require the sale to be completed in person, not online, at the site where the dog was kept and, in the case of puppies, the animal to be seen with its mother.

Lucy’s law also bans the third-party sale of puppies and kittens in both England and Wales. Such animals should therefore be sold only by the person who bred them and, in Wales, from the breeders’ premises. However, it is clear from Reggie’s tragic story, and as hon. Members have said, that those regulations are simply not working well enough.

A quick online search shows that a major issue with the regulations is that they are simply not being enforced properly, which has only been exacerbated by the explosion of interest in buying a pet during lockdown. Local authorities have seen their funding slashed over the last decade, and over the last 18 months they have faced enormous challenges because of the pandemic. While I recognise that policing and enforcement is not a key responsibility of the Minister’s Department, I am hugely concerned that not enough is being done to tackle this all-important issue.

I commend the Government’s petfishing campaign and recognise that public awareness of the things to look for is vital. However, until bad actors are stopped from making huge amounts of money selling animals illegally online, there will be more sad stories like Reggie’s. I support the calls in the petition to require people who sell animals online to verify their identity, and I would be grateful if the Minister could outline the Government’s policy on that matter.

I also urge the Minister to work with her counterparts across Government and with the devolved Governments to make enforcing policies on animal welfare a priority, both at home and at the border. Without swift action, there will sadly be many more Reggies and many more Ricks and families like his forced to contend with losing a beloved family pet in horrible circumstances.

Mike Penning Portrait Sir Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. Unusually, I do not think I can disagree with a single thing that has been said in the Chamber today. As I look around the Chamber at the colleagues who are going to contribute, I do not think I will disagree with anything they say either, but do not test me too much.

It was a pleasure to be with Ricky and several colleagues outside No. 10 in the pouring rain. The longer we stayed, the more it rained; it was horrendous. To get 100,000 signatures from one person’s experience means that that experience touched the nation. It did so, as we have already heard, because we are a country—a United Kingdom —of animal lovers. I have seen more people get agitated about an animal being hurt than about people hurting themselves or other people. In many ways, that is right, because the animals cannot defend themselves.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) said, puppy farms are the most abhorrent industry out there. When I was a very young lad, I used to work in Petticoat Lane, Brick Lane, in north London, where puppies were sold at the side of the road in cages. They had obviously come from puppy farms, way back then, 50-odd years ago. We banned that; we stopped that. But the marketplaces that were there off Petticoat Lane and other markets around the country, in all colleagues’ constituencies, are now online. It is fundamentally unacceptable for platforms or marketplaces or whatever they want to call themselves today to say, “Hold up! It’s too difficult to monitor this,” just like it is too difficult for them to pay some tax occasionally. They spend untold amounts of money making sure they get around that sort of regulation, and it is about time that we put regulations in place not after the fact but as these things are happening, today.

I commend the Government and the Minister for the work on Lucy’s law; it was life-changing for a lot of people. What is also life-changing for a lot of people is when, in good faith, they see a puppy online with its gorgeous little eyes, and its mummy sitting there looking after it and snuggling up so that it can have its milk, but it is not the puppy that they get and it was not its mother giving it milk. I have constituents who say to me that when they go with their children to collect the puppy that they bought online, and there is the little puppy—in a car park, because, of course, something is going on in the house, or else they have been shown mum, but mum is nowhere near the puppies—and within months, and sometimes within days, the puppy is not only ill but is not actually what they thought they had bought in the first place. I have a constituent who bought a whippet. It is the biggest whippet ever seen now and it has clearly been cross-bred. People are petrified of going back, even if they know who the seller might be, because these people are serious criminals. Let’s not beat around the bush—they are criminals.

Peter Dowd Portrait Peter Dowd
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If the law were passed, it would be an exemplar for other countries across the world; it would send the message out. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be a win-win situation, both for the consumer—the person buying the dog—and more importantly for the dogs and the animals themselves?

Mike Penning Portrait Sir Mike Penning
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I completely agree. In fact, it would be a win for everybody if we get this right, including for the Inland Revenue, because none of these people pay any tax. It would be a complete win for the animal—not just for the puppy, but for where it came from, that puppy farm. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) said she had lovely Jack Russells. I saw some footage of a bitch that came on heat and they put her in a shed with three or four male stud dogs, to make sure that she had puppies within a few weeks. That animal nearly never survived, let alone gave birth. Those things are happening; these people are criminals. Although we quite rightly say that we need to give more power to local authorities, we need to give them the expertise and ammunition to scare the criminals out of the marketplace. At the same time, the people providing that marketplace need to close it down.

In the world we live in today, animals will be bought online, and the pandemic increased the number of people going online. I went through trauma—absolute trauma—at home, because we lost our dog. It is the first time in my life that we have not had a dog at home. She was 22 and a dachshund—before they were fashionable, as they are at the moment—and we lost her. At home, both my daughters and my wife are saying, “Let’s get a puppy. We’re at home. We can look after her now.” I stood my ground, for one simple reason: we are not at home now.

If people go to any of the rescue centres, they will see that there are thousands of animals there now. The people who got the animals were in the right frame of mind at the time. Admittedly, lockdown put a lot of us into very difficult times. At the time, it was the right thing to do, but now it is not. If someone goes to a rescue centre, they will not be able to just pick an animal up and walk away. The staff will check the person out and ensure that the animal is healthy, and that is what we should be doing today. I say this to the Minister. It may be difficult, but lots of things are difficult in government. That is why we are in government—to sort these things out and to sort the online market in animals out. It can be done if there is a will, and there is a will in this room today.

Neale Hanvey Portrait Neale Hanvey (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (Alba)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and to speak in this important debate. I, too, thank the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for introducing the debate, but most importantly I thank Richard Ackers, or Rick as he is better known, and the Reggie’s law team for their courage, passion, compassion and determination to bring this matter into focus and before the House today through their petition, tireless campaigning and a more than 200-mile walk from Wigan to deliver the petition. It was an honour to join Rick as he delivered it to No. 10 last week.

There can surely be no more noble pursuit than seeking to protect those who are otherwise defenceless against tyranny. That is what we are concerned with today—the tyrannical abuse of power against defenceless creatures and what action we can take to limit, prevent and ultimately stamp out such cruel practices.

Like many families, mine was blessed with a new puppy during the pandemic. Reflecting back, I realise that our wee puppy could so easily have suffered the same fate as Rick’s Reggie. We found his advert online, we visited the seller and—despite asking all the reasonable questions about the location of the mother—once we had seen the pup, we melted and just accepted the assurances that we were given that mum was resting because she was tired from suckling. Thankfully, our wee Malu is fine and is now the boss of all he surveys.

Rick’s family were not so fortunate. Since the loss of Reggie in December 2020, Rick and the Justice For Reggie team have been working with other distressed families to highlight and uncover the facts about the illegal puppy trade, illegal online sales and the mental health impact that has on families. Their work aims to use this tragedy to deliver positive legislation by gaining the support of Parliament, and it is great to see cross-party support today.

What will Reggie’s law do? It will incorporate regulations to provide a safe buying platform for potential buyers of animals sold online on animal selling sites. It is far too easy to sell a pet. It requires only an email address and a burner phone. Rick has found that too many online pet selling sites are reluctant to engage in improving standards of online animal sales and welfare. The law would require all online pet selling platforms to support a comprehensive ID check of the seller behind every pet, and require evidence of the mum to be submitted, whether by photo ID or other means. I suggest today that that should be tied to a pet passport identifier, because we know that a large number of puppies are illegally imported into the UK to be sold online.

The other question to understand is this. Will Reggie’s law make a difference? Well, Rick and the team are in regular discussion with various stakeholders from the RSPCA, Dogs Trust and others, and they have secured agreement that the ID requirements of Reggie’s law would not only put in place necessary barriers in relation to this practice, but make investigations and court action against illegal breeders and sellers much easier. We know what the international response has been. In Victoria, Australia, following the introduction of a similar law known as Oscar’s law, dog theft and illegal breeding and selling dropped by more than 90%. Reggie’s law could have such a positive impact, not only on puppy-farmed pets and stolen pets but on the health and wellbeing of owners and buyers.

As animal lovers and pet owners, we know the bond of love and loyalty that exists with the family pet. Will the Minister outline how the matter being debated is to be taken forward, given the wide public and cross-party support here today? We have a duty to honour that loyalty by protecting those creatures who are otherwise defenceless against such cruelty. This would be a real opportunity to set the tone for legislation to be developed across these islands.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Mundell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) on setting the scene so well for us all. I also congratulate Richard, who is in the Gallery, for making this debate happen, and all those MPs who made the effort on that very wet day to be with him—I was not one of them.

When I read the title of the debate, I knew I would want to add my comments. I have always been an animal lover, and I have always been fortunate to have dogs. When I lived with my mother and father in the countryside or in small villages, having a dog was as natural as getting up in the morning, going for a walk and going to school. We have always had dogs. I remember my first dog very well, in Ballywalter back in the early ’60s. He was a collie; we have also had Pomeranians, Jack Russells, terriers, springer and cocker spaniels, and we have also moved to hunting dogs—I love hunting. Hunting dogs give us a purpose, and love and affection and companionship.

I was also very fortunate to have married, some 34 years ago, another animal lover, who volunteered at Assisi for 10 years. She now works part-time in a cattery. Sandra had a love of cats; I had a love of dogs but I learned to love cats, because my wife wanted me to. That was just the way it happened. Now, I love cats as much as my wife does, although I had to acquire that affection for them over the years. What brought us together was our love for each other, but she then brought home a wonderful rescue dog from Assisi called Autumn. That is the dog we have now. That dog was abused and very fearful. She had a particular fear of men; I only had to raise my voice a bit and her tail would be between her legs. It took a number of years for that dog to come around. She is some seven years down the line, and is loving her life. Sandra and I could not imagine life without her.

Autumn and so many others like her are the reason I abhor online shopping for animals because of the lack of regulation and the potential for abuse of the system that is in place to protect animal welfare. That is why the debate is so important. Members have made pertinent contributions, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. I have spoken on many occasions against puppy farms, and the need to see the dog in the home with the mum, not in a Tesco car park, as the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) said. It may happen in Tesco or any other big car park so that they can get lost in the crowd.

We need to prevent some of the horror stories that we hear daily of the maltreatment of animals in puppy farms. Covid-19 exacerbated the online sale of animals, there is no doubt about that. People were seeking companionship and needed something to fill that gap. Charities such as Blue Cross and Dogs Trust sent me and others briefings stating that they understood that many pets are bought and sold on the internet in the 21st century. Therefore, we must work together with classified websites, social media platforms, charities and the Minister to ensure that the online marketplace is as safe as possible for people to buy and sell animals.

How do we improve it? I look to my Minister and my Government. My preference would be to end all online sales, but I understand that that is how the world now operates, so it may not be possible. I would suggest that we bring in regulations to change the situation. We need to ensure that enforceable legislation is place. Blue Cross has urged the Government to legislate to make the Pet Advertising Advisory Group’s minimum standards a legal requirement for website selling animals.

Furthermore, the Government and the Minister must look at the legislation introduced in France in 2016, which is a good example of how we can do this. I am not fond of everything that comes out of Europe—that is not a secret—but if France can do something with that legislation, why can we not at least look at it? The legislation mandated the inclusion of tax numbers in all online pet adverts. I suggest that we ascertain whether something similar would be workable across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

As someone who is usually sceptical of additional regulation, it is not often that I advocate for it, but as a bare minimum we must introduce those minimum standards. However, I do not believe that that is the end of our obligations. I ask the Minister whether consideration has been given to appointing a working group to tease out the best way of fulfilling our animal welfare obligations to a high standard, which is what we all want to do, including the Minister, and not to the bare minimum standard that is apparent today.

How can we allow reputable businesses to continue their trade? Not everybody is in the puppy farm business; some do it the right way, and we have to ensure that they are rewarded and can continue to do so, while ferreting out those who have no concern for the animal that they are selling, or the home that they are placing it into. The debate has given us a chance to reiterate our commitment to doing better than we are. I know that the Minister, like myself, is keen to have something in place that works for the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the rest of the regions of the United Kingdom. How are we ensuring that puppies from puppy farms in the Republic of Ireland cannot come through Northern Ireland into Scotland and the rest of the mainland?

Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP)
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It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and to sum up the debate for the Scottish National party. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees), who set the scene in such a detailed way and who often speaks on animal welfare matters. She laid out the crux of the matter for the Minister, and why this is such an important debate to so many right across the United Kingdom.

I also pay a special tribute to Richard Ackers, who is in the Gallery and has spearheaded this wonderful campaign, paying tribute in such an important and compassionate way to the life of Reggie in order to ensure that his sad life and death were not in vain. Much good can come from his story. This little puppy has stolen the hearts of many people across the United Kingdom, and is now spearheading a campaign to ensure that no other puppies and pets go through the same trauma that he did, or a similar trauma.

I pay tribute to many of the hon. Members on both sides of the House who have spoken. It has been a fantastic debate. As was mentioned, it has been difficult to disagree with anything that has been said so far, which is somewhat unusual but very—

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Cameron
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It makes me feel extremely positive, and as the hon. Member says it is refreshing in this House.

The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) spoke about cats and rabbits too, which was important. As chair of the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group, I tend to have a focus on dogs, which I think, until he met his wife, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) had, too. It is important that we realise that there are huge sales of other types of pet too, and this type of regulation can have a wide-ranging impact. Many Members have spoken, including the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), who I joined last week at the door of No. 10, with Rick.

Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Cameron
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Absolutely. I thought I mentioned everybody, but I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead, who is waving at me from across the way. He has managed to combine many animal welfare campaigns, and it has been amazing to work with him. He was one of the leading lights in the campaign last week.

The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) was on the steps alongside us. There was such a cross-party effort. He made sure that we were aware that the issue did not just affect little Reggie, it carries on to this day. MPs too can fall foul when buying puppies and other animals online, despite best efforts and the research we try to do. As the hon. Member said, when he saw that little puppy—particularly with his family with him—his heart melted and the sale was done. The unscrupulous dealers of puppies, kittens and other pets see that as money in the bank.

We have done a lot with Lucy’s law. I want to pay tribute to Marc Abraham, because Lucy’s law has taken us on a journey towards much better regulation. However, as has been mentioned today, we have further steps to take, and laws must be strengthened. The Justice For Reggie campaign group has listened to thousands of people every month who suffer scams, heartache and financial turmoil. Most end up paying financially as well as emotionally. They are traumatised and scarred, while the seller readvertises on platforms, because, quite simply, platforms lack the required regulation.

Rick said:

“When I bought Reggie through a well-known selling website and realised I had unknowingly contributed to illegal puppy farming, I have never hidden the fact that I could have done more research and should have walked away. This would have prevented the seller getting more money to continue the illegal acts of animal cruelty, although Reggie's fate would have been the same and he would have still died. What I gave Reggie was love and dignity and ensured he had pain relief throughout his very short life. Had I not bought him, Reggie would have been discarded like rubbish and died in pain.”

Families are put in an impossible situation day after day. Rick’s campaign has heard from over 300 families, who have contacted it distraught and not knowing which way to turn. They blame themselves, as they too bought puppies using online sites.

Mike Penning Portrait Sir Mike Penning
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I thank the hon. Member for giving way. I hope I am not shortening the Minister’s speaking time, Mr Mundell. There is another side to this. There are people out there who want to buy dogs that are mutilated. Their ears have been cut—not by vets. They mutilate these animals and sell them on. There is a market for that; that market needs to be shut and the full force of the law imposed. It is not just about families who are buying an animal to love and cherish. There are people who want to buy mutilated dogs, which are available on these sites.

Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Cameron
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Absolutely. The right hon. Member makes an extremely good point. There is also what I would describe as an ongoing fashion in breeding dogs in ways that are not healthy for the dog breed. That must be looked at alongside the matter that he raised.

We all applauded the introduction of Lucy’s law. I was privileged and delighted to campaign on it and launch it in Parliament as chair of the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group. The law has gone a long way. However, as we can see, people are evading it. Over lockdown, Rick’s campaign spoke to 86 councils across the UK. All of them have repeated the same message: they are too underfunded and understaffed to police the law. Much more support must go to councils. That will be absolutely crucial. It would be helpful if the Minister indicated the level of ongoing collaboration with the council groups and explained how we can strengthen that to make sure that, in practice, it does what it says it does on the tin.

It is very upsetting for families to go through this. Rick said it affected his mental health, and he was so disturbed by it that he decided to set up the Animal Welfare Alliance, a collaboration between 10 of the largest websites in the UK, prompted by Justice For Reggie through numerous meetings. Their aim is to share data and improve protection, but they are not naive enough to say that that will solve the problems. They need the Government to act. This clearly needs enforcing with regulations. As many hon. Members have said, it is a wild west on the internet, quite frankly. Without the Government acting to ensure regulation, this will not happen, because platforms simply will not do it themselves.

Rick highlighted PAAG, and he appreciates its work to control online sales, to try to make being online safer. However, it cannot do that alone, and it only speaks with a small number of websites. As we discussed, we are in a digital age, and we cannot turn back the clock. A ban on online sales is not pragmatic. It is not doable. It is not going to work. Regulation is supported by many of the animal welfare charities that contacted me before the debate and it seems to be the most pragmatic way of addressing these grave matters.

Pets are sentient. There seems to be more regulation when buying a car online nowadays than when buying a pet. People have to go through many more processes to verify who they are and their insurance and other various things, but buying a pet does not seem to have the same level of rigour, which it really should have. It is a tall order for the Minister, but I know she has a good heart and tries her very best in everything she works on. In tribute to Reggie, we must make sure his life is not in vain. We must tackle this online wild west with regulation. It is a mix of consumer scams, animal cruelty and serious organised criminals who profit in the same way as they do from other illegal activities that they engage in. It is a serious matter.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards
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I was touched by the comments from the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) about the criminal nature of these gangs. Unfortunately, Carmarthenshire has a number of illegal puppy farms. The fines for people when they are caught seem pretty low. There was one instance of a £200,000 fine. Do we need to look at the penalties for people who engage in this activity?

Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Cameron
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Absolutely. That is a great point to end on. Action must be taken, because this is about serious organised criminals. I have the same situation in my constituency as the hon. Member. It is difficult to address these issues. It will require concerted effort, but it must be undertaken to make sure that no more little dogs like Reggie go through such a terrible death.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees). Her introduction was comprehensive, full, excellent and very moving. What a fantastic debate, and what fantastic unanimity around the Chamber. There were powerful contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), the right hon. Members for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) and for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), and the hon. Members for Warrington South (Andy Carter), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey), and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and some powerful interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd).

I am pleased to have the opportunity to put on the record Labour’s tributes to the fantastic campaign for Reggie’s law. We offer our support for it and for the 109,000 people who signed the petition. Like others, I was delighted to meet Rick in a rather wet Trafalgar Square last week. What a walk, what a campaign and what a wounded heel. The simple message from the campaign is that the law is not working, and it is up to us in Parliament to do something about it. That was powerfully put by the right hon. Members for North Thanet and for Hemel Hempstead. The biggest question for the Minister is how DEFRA is working with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, because this is as much about the online world as it is about animal welfare. During the Committee stage of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, Labour tabled an amendment that we believe would have gone a long way in securing progress on this; I will return to that later.

The concerns about online advertising have been around for a long time, and I will not repeat the points made by others, but it is clear that the pandemic introduced a new range of issues. The world has changed, as the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead said. We have gone from the old world of notices on village notice boards to an online world where every notice board is available to everybody, everywhere. That creates a whole new set of problems.

We have heard the figures about the rise in the number of searches and the problems that that creates. From work on the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, I could see the surge in prices and the problems with imports from abroad. It is clear that the treatment of imported cats and dogs, particularly, have fallen below acceptable standards and criminal gangs can see a lucrative revenue stream. The Government have recognised those problems, but we feel that their solutions do not go far enough, hence our amendments to try to crack down on that. There were some Government Members who agreed with us on that and decisions made during discussions were fairly close, so I hope that we will have the opportunity to go further on Report.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd made the point very well about changes over the past few years that have led to a range of worrying situations, including the click and drop situation, where animals are collected by potential buyers. Research from the Kennel Club suggests that, for many people, these ways of buying animals have become the new norms. We heard about some developments that have, quite rightly, been introduced, such as the licensing of activities involving animals regulations and Lucy’s law. There is progress, but more needs to be done. The problem that Rick and others have expressed to me is that PAAG may be well meaning, but it is not going to work with a voluntary system. Many PAAG members have come to the same conclusion.

There is a list of things that people want to be done, alongside the enforcement questions. The RSPCA makes it clear that there is plenty of evidence that those who break the rules do not face any real consequences. It tells us that it is not clear that online adverts that break the rules are routinely removed by many sites, and that neither social media sites nor the sellers responsible are punished. As we heard from a number of Members, local authorities do not have the resources or expertise to deal with this, but I agree with the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead that if there were a real will, it could be done. The question is if there is a real will and if we are prepared to put resources into that.

Many of these websites and social media platforms, for which I do not think there is much sympathy in this room, are hugely profitable businesses. They are very good at—how can I put it?—being creative about how they account for themselves, but that is part of the problem, as they often have external jurisdictions and we need to work with others to try to clamp down on them. There is a wider problem, but we can see the sheer horribleness of it and its consequences. We need better resourced enforcement, to use some of those tax investigations and so that we can go beyond taking part on a voluntary basis.

To finish with the details of Reggie’s law, as I mentioned, we tried to introduce parts of that through an amendment to the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, which I hope will be reintroduced on Report. It required all websites that sell animals to verify the identity of all sellers. It also demanded that all prospective sellers who wished to sell a cat or dog aged one year or less should post a photograph of the animal with one of its parents, as a number of Members have suggested. It required listings by commercial sellers that did not include that seller’s licence number to be removed, therefore helping to ensure that all animals sold online came from reputable, trustworthy sources.

We had a discussion in Committee, but the Government chose not to accept the amendment. In her response to the amendment, the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food cited the existing legislation and guidelines that were in place, but they are not enough. The campaign for Reggie demands more, the petitioners demand more, and frankly, I think all of us in this room demand more. The online world has a lot to offer, but it must stop being a haven for those who profit from the cruel exploitation of animals. It is time to crack down on them.

David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
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I call Minister Jo Churchill. Just be mindful that you should leave a couple of minutes at the end for Christina Rees to wind up.

Jo Churchill Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jo Churchill)
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Indeed I will, Mr Mundell; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees), who laid out brilliantly the challenges we face: she cantered through the challenge posed by the online world while recognising the work of the Pet Advertising Advisory Group.

I pay tribute to Richard, or Rick, Ackers for the work he has done. As he has heard this afternoon, we do not always speak with one voice in this place, but he has managed to galvanise Members from all sides of the House to put forward a very compelling case that there is a challenge here. I hope he will hear in my response something to give him hope that we recognise not only that the issue is a challenge, but that we need help from people like him to get the right answers. Such cases cause emotional distress. As we heard from the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey), when someone is presented with a small puppy, their heart melts. As a Labrador owner, my sympathy is with Richard, his family and his children. What happened is just grim.

We are a nation of animal lovers—if we wanted to prove that, this afternoon’s debate could not have done a better job. We abhor with one voice the mistreatment of animals. The Government have worked hard to improve the welfare of animals wherever they are, but, as today’s debate has outlined, there are still gaps that need filling. Our record on animal welfare is good, and in recent years we have done more to make sure that we are filling those gaps and that animals receive the care and protection they deserve. Only in June this year, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021 came into force, delivering on our manifesto commitment to increase the sentences available in our courts for the most serious cases of animal cruelty from six months to five years. We also launched our action plan for animal welfare this year, bringing together the wide range of different issues we are dealing with and setting out our future aims and ambitions. In addition, our commitment to maintain the UK at the leading edge of animal welfare is one with which we all agree.

As we have heard, the Justice For Reggie campaign that stems from Reggie’s sad little life focuses on the advertising requirements that apply to the sale of pets. The online sale of pets is currently regulated as follows: under the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018, anyone in the business of selling animals as pets, or breeding or selling dogs, requires a valid licence. As we have heard, this is a challenge: we have strengthened things up such that dog breeders are expected to obtain a licence if they breed and sell three or more litters per year.

The sale of puppies, kittens, ferrets and rabbits under the age of eight weeks is prohibited, and we talk to Scotland quite regularly about that issue, to ensure we can learn from what is being done there. That prohibition prevents licensed breeders from selling dogs not bred by them and from breeding dogs where it can be reasonably expected, on the basis of their genotype, phenotype or health, that doing so would lead to welfare problems. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) raised that issue.

Licensed breeders must also show puppies to purchasers in the presence of their mum. However, we heard that that is not always the easiest thing to insist on when someone is presented with the puppy, particularly if those around them want to take it home. Licensed sellers advertising puppies for sale must include their number; during the recent Animals (Penalty Notices) Bill, the shadow Minister and I spoke about how that will add another tool to our toolbox. We heard about how Lucy’s law stops the early separation of animals from their mums, unnecessary journeys at a young age from breeder to pet shop, and the keeping of puppies in inappropriate commercial premises. We have also heard that, for all that, these things still go on.

Under these licensing requirements, licensees must meet strict statutory welfare standards. Anybody who advertises must include their number on the advert, and must specify which local authority issued the licence. There is an onus on us, and Rick has said that at every stage he should have done more. However, I am cognisant of the fact that while that is easy to say, it is quite challenging to do.

Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter
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Does my hon. Friend agree with me that social media companies can play a much bigger part? It is not beyond the wit of man to create a form for that type of information—those licence numbers—to be entered in, so that they could be clearly verified using technology. Could she consider that with colleagues in DCMS?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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My hon. Friend brings up a point about responsibility. There is responsibility on those who purchase and on the breeders, but there must also be responsibility on online companies. The hon. Member for Neath mentioned databases; making sure that databases are functional is also important in this space, and it is something that I think Mr Ackers has also addressed in his work.

Mike Penning Portrait Sir Mike Penning
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One of the biggest issues for the Minister and the public to understand is that if these animals were pigs or cattle, we would know exactly who the mum was and where they had been travelling. We would know all their breeding—everything about them—for the safety of our constituents. This cannot be beyond the wit of man. Just because the word “pet” is used should not mean that we cannot trace these animals. Surely we can do something.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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My right hon. Friend makes a good point. Covid has meant that the movement of livestock is recorded much more online, which has shown us ways of traceability.

In addition to the duties to show the age of the animal for sale and a recognised photograph, the commercial third party sale of puppies and kittens has been banned in England since 6 April 2020. That prevents commercial outlets from selling animals in England unless they themselves have bred them. As I said before, licensed breeders are prohibited from showing a puppy to a prospective purchaser unless the biological mum is also present. There is an exemption in limited circumstances when welfare concerns must take precedence. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) pointed out, some unscrupulous breeders rarely think of the consequences for the mother when they are doing this under the line.

Alongside the statutory regulation of commercial pet breeders and pet sellers, we support the self-regulation of online platforms that sell pets. We do this through the close working relationship we have with PAAG, which was created to combat concerns regarding the irresponsible advertising of pets for sale, or for rehoming for exchange.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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I heard the Minister mention self-regulation, but are we not agreed that self-regulation is not going to be enough? Are we going to go further?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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Will the hon. Gentleman bear with me a little longer?

PAAG has been engaging with the online marketplaces, to help them distinguish appropriate adverts from those that should be removed. PAAG has developed a set of minimum standards for advertising pets for sale. Several of the UK’s largest classifieds websites have already adopted these minimum standards, which the Government support.

DEFRA also runs a public communications campaign called Petfished, which we heard about earlier; it raises the awareness of issues associated with the low welfare and illegal supply of pets, including encouraging prospective buyers to research thoroughly. The current work in that area also includes progressing the pet theft taskforce recommendation, which was made in September, to encourage sales platforms to implement more identity checks. We will approach that work through our existing relationship with PAAG.

The inclusion of advertising requirements within the local authority licensing regime serves an important purpose, ensuring that those with the power to issue, revoke, refuse or vary a licence can act where requirements are not met. That builds on the local authority’s ability to investigate and prosecute animal welfare issues under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The net result is a rounded approach that lets local authorities investigate local instances of low-welfare breeding and selling, pursue prosecutions where animal welfare standards are breached, and manage the licensing regime. I have heard many hon. Members today saying that there are big gaps, so I will briefly address those comments.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead spoke about mutilations of dogs. The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill includes a power to make regulations about the importation of pet animals into Great Britain, for the purposes of promoting animal welfare. That will enable us to clamp down on the importation of dogs that have been subject to low-welfare practices, such as ear cropping or tail docking.

As I said to the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), we have regular contact with our Scottish counterparts, but the LAIA regulations require anyone selling rabbits as pets to obtain that valid licence, as with any other area. On online sales, DEFRA does have a responsibility to improve self-regulation through PAAG and the LAIA regulations, but the other aspects sit with DCMS. I will come on to how we are working, and intend to work more fully, with the Department.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) spoke about how particularly special dogs are to families, and how parents need to be present; I urge people to ensure that they are. We have heard about the Dotties and the Doras, and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead about how sad a home is when we lose a dog.

Online sales outside the UK that result in animals being imported are not captured by the current licensing regime and neither are pets rehomed by rescue centres, but the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill will introduce further restrictions on imports to combat low-welfare movements. We are working towards the licensing of rescue centres.

To conclude, we think a holistic approach is possible, but I am well aware that the key stakeholders—trade associations, PAAG, the Pet Industry Federation, and the Canine and Feline Sector Group—will be integral to collecting evidence to inform DEFRA’s review. In addition, I would welcome any evidence that Justice for Reggie may hold about how we can improve that. Following this debate, I will ask officials to meet representatives of the Justice for Reggie campaign in the coming days so that we can take on board any information and evidence they can provide that can assist our understanding of these issues. There will also be a roundtable with PAAG and some of the online platforms in the new year, which Justice for Reggie would be welcome to attend to make its points in person.

To conclude, the Government are proud of the improved protections that we have introduced and of our ambitious and progressive reform programme, but there is further to go. I hope that those present today have been reassured that we take this issue seriously and will work together, across Government and with those involved, to improve the situation.

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees
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I thank all Members for their valuable contributions to this important debate. We all agree that the Government must act now. It is terribly upsetting that unscrupulous people are making money from disreputable pet animal sales online, but the key point is that innocent people are being duped by unscrupulous pet sellers who do not care if the animals they are selling live or die. Those poor animals endure the most disgusting conditions; I do not understand how anyone can be cruel to a pet that only wants to give unconditional love.

I urge the Minister—who is very magnanimous, and listens—to legislate to prevent people suffering the heartbreak that Richard has. I thank Richard for his determination not to give up on justice for Reggie. It has been an absolute honour to present Reggie’s law for Richard in this evening’s debate.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).