Online Animal Sales: Regulation

Andy Carter Excerpts
Monday 13th December 2021

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.

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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.