I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. There has been a dramatic rise in pet theft throughout lockdown and, sadly, those pets are being transported across all four regions of our United Kingdom, so it is vital to have a joined-up approach to tackling the issue.
I am sure that the majority of the people who have acquired pets during the lockdown will go on to become loving pet owners, but impulse purchases are hugely worrying for rescue centres, which anticipate a surge in the number of animals being brought to them when life returns to normal. It is important to note that a dog is for life, not just for lockdown. The RSPCA has concerns that as the economic consequences of covid-19 continue to take hold, more and more larger animals, including horses, will face neglect and abandonment too.
Sadly but unsurprisingly, the increase in demand for animals has had a huge impact on the incidence of pet theft, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said. The Minister will be aware—I am sure she is as concerned as I am—of the response to a recent freedom of information request stating that in five policing areas there was a double-digit increase in the number of dog thefts reported between January and July 2020, compared with the previous year.
I know at first hand how worrying those incidents can be for communities. Community Facebook groups in my area are full of posts from people worrying about dog thefts, vans driving around suspiciously and chalk prints being put on houses where a dog is known to be present. I should be interested to hear the Minister’s comments about conversations with colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about the spread of misinformation, and social media companies’ responsibility to regulate fake news, particularly in the context of animal welfare. Pets really are part of our families, so I fully understand why such posts and the threat of pet theft cause such alarm in communities.
Given the heightened demand for animals during the lockdown, there has been a rapid increase in the number of dogs entering the country for commercial reasons. Some of the recent responses to written parliamentary questions have revealed that the number of intra-trade animal health certificates issued for dogs from May to August 2020 was almost 16,000. That is double the figure for the same period in 2019.
Animal welfare groups also, justifiably, have major concerns about puppy smuggling, where animals are illegally transported into the UK in horrendous conditions. Puppies are often bred in terrible conditions and are taken away from their mums at increasingly early ages. They then face a perilous 33-hour-long journey to the UK, often with no food, little water and no exercise. Recent research from Dogs Trust has also found that, increasingly, heavily pregnant dogs are being imported into the UK, often at the late stage of their pregnancies, in order to circumvent the ban on commercial third-party puppy sales, which came into force in England in April last year.
The Government have a responsibility to act to stop these barbaric practices, and I urge the Minister to work with charities that have the expertise in this area to achieve lasting change for our four-legged friends. Although I am pleased to see that the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill just about managed to clear Report stage in the Commons on Friday, and I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) on his fantastic work campaigning on this issue, without the adequate funding and support, how are the police supposed to enforce such changes to the law? I recognise that policing and enforcement are not a key responsibility of the Minister’s Department, but I am discouraged by responses that I have received from her colleague, Lord Goldsmith, on this particular issue.
We all know and recognise the importance of an inter-agency, Government departmental approach to tackling social issues, and the policing and enforcement of these abhorrent crimes against animals should be no different. Indeed, I remind the Minister that since 2010, the number of police officers in our forces across England and Wales has fallen by more than 14%. Worryingly, we also now find ourselves with one of the lowest ratios of police officers per 100,000 inhabitants compared with our friends in the EU.
Estimates suggest that the current scale of the increase in the backlog of cases before our courts would take 10 years to clear at pre-pandemic rates. That is clearly outrageous, and I shudder to think of the impact that that will have on the victims of crime in this country, who will be forced to wait years for their day in court. What does this really mean for animal cruelty cases? Well, I suspect that, with our courts and police forces stretched beyond breaking point, there simply will not be capacity to deal with the animal cruelty offences.
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen that there is one rule for them and another for us. When the Prime Minister’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, drove across the country with symptoms of coronavirus, the rest of us were struggling through lockdown at home—obeying the rules. The same was true with the Government’s absurd exemption to the coronavirus rule of six for hunting in autumn 2020. Not only that, but over Christmas, when so many of us were unable to spend time with our families after a difficult year because of the pandemic, the Tory Government introduced yet another exemption to enable Boxing day hunts to take place. It is no surprise when you find out that the Tories and the Prime Minister have taken more than £1 million from donors linked to hunting. If that does not tell you what this Government think about animal welfare, I do not know what does.
Still, after years of campaigning from animal rights groups, the import of so-called hunting trophies into the UK is legal, as long as the animal is licensed under the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora. However, the trade is exacerbating the decline of threatened species and is causing unnecessary suffering to animals. Even worse, it is often being used as a cover for illegal poaching, as traffickers pass off illegal wildlife products as legal.
I welcome the UK Government’s decision to hold a consultation on options to restrict the import and export of hunting trophies into the UK, but the consultation closed on 25 February 2020. It has been over a year since the consultation closed and still the Government have not responded. I implore the Minister to confirm when her Department will formally respond to the consultation, and I look forward to an update in her remarks later.
I am afraid to say that this is not the only area where the UK Government have been too slow to act. Three years ago, the Government promised, after much pressure from public and animal welfare organisations, to include animal sentience legislation in law after Brexit. Well, the transition period has now ended and still no legislation is forthcoming from the Government. What we need now is action, and I fear we are simply stuck in a climate of consultations. I look forward to hearing in the Minister’s update how the Government plan to bring forward legislation on animal welfare protections beyond the current parliamentary Session.
For the animal welfare sector, who work so hard to ensure that every animal lives in a safe and loving home, the pandemic has, of course, sadly brought its own set of financial challenges. Indeed, research by the brilliant Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, who have partnered with the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes to conduct a survey of over 100 centres in January this year, found that nine out of 10 rescue centres had experienced a drop in income, with a third losing over half of their income. According to the RSPCA, the total predicted financial loss for the sector was over £101 million for 2020. Like so many sectors up and down the country, animal welfare charities need specific support from the UK Government in order to survive the coronavirus pandemic.
I sincerely wish, on behalf of animals in need across England, that the UK Government showed a level of commitment to providing funding for charities in line with the support on offer from the fantastic Welsh Labour Government. In Wales, our Welsh Labour Government have ensured that animal welfare charities have access to emergency funding grants, including local authority rates grants, the third sector resilience fund, the voluntary services recovery fund and sector-specific funds via Business Wales. Sadly, it is not the same for colleagues in England, where funding for charities has largely been given to national funders for distribution, such as the National Lottery, which often excludes animal welfare charities.
I have said it before and I say it again: I urge the Minister, if she is serious about animal welfare, to consider following the approach in Wales and to work with colleagues in Her Majesty’s Treasury to provide access to funding for the charities that need it the most. Indeed, I am aware that the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes has specifically lobbied her Department for sector-specific funding—but that has not been forthcoming, despite zoos and aquariums being awarded such funding.
It is also somewhat ironic that the greyhound racing industry was awarded emergency funding through the sports package. That sends a clear message to me and to others across the country that the Government are willing to engage in animal-related pursuits, but only when there is a gain to be made. Hunting and greyhound racing are two examples of such pursuits that put animals at great risk, yet both appear to have the support of the UK Government.
I conclude by referring to two specific animal welfare concerns that I truly believe the Minister’s Department needs to pay close attention to. First, she may be aware of the alarming rise in the number of ear-cropped dogs in the UK. I am sure she knows that the practice of ear cropping is illegal in the UK—quite rightly. The barbaric practice involves the unnecessary and painful mutilation of ear flaps, and often takes place without anaesthesia or pain relief. I should clarify that it also has absolutely no welfare benefit. However, the RSPCA has reported a 621% increase in reports of ear cropping between 2015 to 2020.
Although it is illegal to crop dogs’ ears in the UK, it is not illegal to sell ear-cropped dogs, to import them from abroad, or to take dogs abroad to be cropped. These loopholes act as a smokescreen for those who are illegally cropping dogs in the UK. Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic and the overall increase in demand for dogs and puppies have led to an increase in demand for dogs with cropped ears. These are often Dobermans or American Bullies. Hope Rescue, which I referred to earlier, currently has eight seized puppies from their local area, and six of the eight have cropped ears. This issue really is closer to us than many people may imagine or understand.
Indeed, the Minister may be aware of the petition, which is currently live, to stop this barbaric practice. At the moment, it has more than 67,000 signatures, which just goes to show the widespread feeling about it. I am proud that Hope Rescue is partnering with the “Flop Don’t Crop” campaign, but really things should not be happening this way.
It would also be remiss of me, in a debate on animal welfare, not to mention breed-specific legislation. Too many harmless dogs are being destroyed simply because they are a banned breed—they are destroyed because of what they look like, regardless of their temperament. We must recognise that all dogs can bite and that any animal can be dangerous in the wrong hands, regardless of breed or type, or the fact that they look a certain way. Any action to tackle dog bites and all other instances of canine aggression must be focused on the deed, not the breed.
The RSPCA believes that breed-specific legislation is ineffective in protecting public safety, and results in the unnecessary suffering and even the euthanasia of many dogs. It believes that breed-specific legislation should be repealed and that the issues surrounding human safety should be tackled using education and effective legislative measures that do not unnecessarily compromise dog welfare. Sadly, to comply with the current legislation, the RSPCA has had to euthanise hundreds of dogs, and many other rescue centres have had to do the same. Many of these dogs would have been suitable for rehoming.
I am particularly looking forward to hearing the Minister’s specific comments about what her Department is doing to work with local authorities and law enforcement organisations to review the current legislation and to prevent the barbaric practice of ear cropping.
Taken together, it is clear to me that the issues raised in this debate show the urgent need for a comprehensive animal welfare Bill to be introduced by the Government, yet legislation is only a stepping stone to solving the issues that we see far too often with the regulation of animal welfare practices. Parcelling up individual policy ideas into announcements might work well for the Government’s press office, but it does not truly address the animal welfare problems in this country.
With a Queen’s Speech just around the corner, I urge the Minister to bring forward specific legislation on this issue and, crucially, to ensure that police, courts and local authorities are properly funded to ensure that such legislation is enforced.