Online Animal Sales: Regulation

Christina Rees Excerpts
Monday 13th December 2021

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.