Online Animal Sales: Regulation

Daniel Zeichner Excerpts
Monday 13th December 2021

(2 years, 5 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

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
- Hansard - -

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)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

--- Later in debate ---
Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.