Puppy Smuggling Debate

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Department: HM Treasury

Puppy Smuggling

David Rutley Excerpts
Tuesday 2nd April 2019

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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HM Treasury
Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Sue Hayman (Workington) (Lab) - Hansard
2 Apr 2019, 5:22 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As other hon. Members have done, I thank the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for securing this debate and for keeping up the pressure to get this terrible activity banned. We need to keep up that pressure if we are to make progress.

There is huge public appetite for robust action to improve the lives of animals and strengthen the animal protections in our laws. We are a nation of animal lovers, and we want all our animals to be well loved and given the opportunity to live happy and stable lives. Puppy smuggling is just one of many serious animal welfare issues that all Members read about in our postbags. Since last year’s debate on the matter, I have been proud to launch the Labour party’s animal plan, which pledges to take increased measures to tackle puppy smuggling. It has received an excellent response and we are working on the next version, which I hope to be able to share with hon. Members shortly.

It is obvious that the humane treatment of animals should be a benchmark for a civilised society. As parliamentarians, we must send out a strong message that the illegal importation of puppies is a cruel practice that must stop; there has been extraordinary consensus on that today, just as there was last year. The Animal and Plant Health Agency and many animal welfare charities such as the Dogs Trust, the RSPCA and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home have done a lot of crucial and very welcome work to tackle puppy smuggling.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) said, it really is time for the Government to act. I know that their commitment to banning the third-party sale of puppies and kittens through Lucy’s law, which the Minister announced in December, has been welcomed by Cats Protection and many dog charities—it is indeed welcome, but we need to see results as soon as possible. The pledge to increase sentences is also welcome, but the legislation needs to be introduced as soon as possible so that we can debate it, scrutinise it and get it on the statute book; I hope that the Minister will give us some idea of when that will happen. In the meantime, Government agencies need the resources to tackle puppy smuggling by enforcing the current legislation. We need to ensure that we have sufficient border guards, with greater international co-operation between police forces to crack down on the problem properly.

As we have heard, dogs should be available only from licensed and regulated breeders or from approved rehoming organisations. Unfortunately, the current legislation does not protect the welfare of all dogs or the interests of all consumers, so the only solution is to ban third-party sales entirely. We have heard about the terrible treatment of smuggled dogs and the terrible diseases and health problems that they can suffer, as in the really sad story that the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire told. As long as there is a market for cheap, intensively bred puppies, such welfare problems will persist, because the incentives for non-compliance far exceed the penalties.

Availability may artificially inflate demand, so unless we reduce the supply of cheap, poorly bred puppies from dealers and smugglers, we will never bring a more responsible buying culture into society. Ministers have said that prospective buyers should always insist on seeing a puppy interacting with its mother in the place where it was born, but that advice is inconsistent with the ongoing legality of third-party sales, because it concedes that neither animals nor consumers can be protected by the regulations imposed on the industry. We therefore need a third-party sales ban as soon as possible.

I do not think that it is too ambitious to want to move on now, or to ask the Government to do more to enable that. Animal welfare must not be swept under the carpet or undercut, so I ask the Minister again for a commitment that he will continue to show that he understands the need for this legislation and that he will do everything he can to stamp out this appalling trade.

David Rutley Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Rutley) - Hansard
2 Apr 2019, 5:27 p.m.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair again, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing the debate. It is a testament to the hard work of my hon. Friend and many other Members, and to public concern, that so many are present. I am grateful for his work and his active communication.

Since my appointment as Minister, it has become increasingly clear to me that we need to tackle the abhorrent puppy smuggling trade from end to end by looking at both supply and demand. I have spent a lot of time working with officials on the issue. Like all other hon. Members who have spoken, I have zero tolerance for the unscrupulous dealers and breeders who are simply abusing the pet travel scheme—we need to put an end to that.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend—no, my hon. Friend; I am elevating him before his time, but I am sure that his time will come—for highlighting such an abhorrent case, which brought home just how awful and how illegal puppy smuggling activities are. We need to do everything we can to protect animals, their potential owners and other humans who may suffer from the health risks. We must tackle the issue as best we can and with real urgency.

Along with 137 other Members of Parliament, I have pledged to be part of the Dogs Trust’s campaign to end puppy smuggling. I stand by that commitment fully, and I am very grateful to the trust for its hard work on this really important issue. We must also respect the important work that the RSPCA and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home do to shine a spotlight on the issue.

DEFRA’s overall comprehensive approach to tackling puppy smuggling encompasses international engagement, enforcement, tighter regulations and public communications. We have been doing a great deal of work on all those fronts since the last Westminster Hall debate in 2017.

The Government continue to raise the issue of puppy smuggling at an international level. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, raised that issue today. International engagement is particularly important in the wake of intelligence such as that mentioned by my hon. Friend, which suggests that puppies from non-EU countries such as Serbia are being illegally imported into the UK with EU passports and microchips, to make them appear EU-bred. Our chief veterinary officer has written to Serbia and Hungary, which is one of the potential receiving countries, to highlight our concerns.

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish - Hansard
2 Apr 2019, 5:30 p.m.

I have raised this point before. At the moment, people can bring in five puppies legally. I do not think that anyone needs five puppies for their own need. Will the Minister look at that? I mention the word “Brexit”, and leaving the EU under whatever system and circumstance. Can we reduce the allowance to two puppies? I really do not think anyone needs five puppies; it is just open to abuse from criminal gangs.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard
2 Apr 2019, 5:31 p.m.

My hon. Friend has been very consistent on this point in Committee and in other meetings, and that is something that we will be able to look at. We have sympathy with the point that he, and many others, make.

To highlight the international dimension of the issue, I note that it is not just us who are concerned about the illegal puppy trade. At a recent international forum, Austrian, Dutch, German, French, Italian and Danish representatives all highlighted the increase in the trade.

Many hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson), and the hon. Members for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) have talked about the need to increase 10-fold the maximum sentence for animal cruelty, from six months to five years. We are absolutely committed to that, and I am very keen to bring that to the House—

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish - Hansard
2 Apr 2019, 5:31 p.m.

Do it!

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Sue Hayman - Hansard
2 Apr 2019, 5:31 p.m.

When?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard
2 Apr 2019, 5:32 p.m.

And we will do it very shortly. This is a huge priority for us. Obviously, it requires primary legislation. I hope that hon. Members can see that I am as committed as they are to bringing this forward as soon as we can, but it requires other parts of the Government to work with us. We will push it through. I know that the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) will cut me a little bit of slack, because she knows that I am keen to move the matter forward.

The hon. Member for Workington raised resources. We have increased resources at major UK ports by one third since 2017, specifically to detect smuggled puppies. That has helped us to intercept tragic cases such as that of Lola, the heavily pregnant French bulldog, who has already been mentioned today. Last year, we also launched our new dog importation intelligence steering group. It consists of national enforcement agencies such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, Border Force, the police and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who are forming a collaborative partnership with the Animal and Plant Health Agency to disrupt puppy smuggling. I know that my right hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and for Ashford (Damian Green) are concerned about that issue.

Our collaborative relationship with Border Force continues, and last year Border Force established a special point of contact at Dover, who is specifically in post to share information and intelligence on suspected puppy smuggling. DEFRA and APHA officials have been working in partnership with the Dogs Trust since 2015 on the Dover puppy pilot, which aims to tackle the illegal importation of puppies by providing additional resource to seize and quarantine smuggled puppies, as well as to ensure that they are placed in secure, caring homes afterwards.

APHA continues to be fully engaged at the border, and last year we saw a downturn in the number of non-compliant puppies seized. It is, however, too early to draw any conclusions from that single result, but we will continue to monitor the situation and to shine a spotlight on the issue.

Based on what we have seen so far, there is limited overall evidence of concealed smuggling, with the exception of one case last year in which Border Force collaborated with APHA to intercept 10 heavily sedated and concealed puppies. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire mentioned that case in his opening remarks. I will be discussing the issue in more detail with the Minister for Immigration when I meet her later this month to further our continued collaboration on puppy smuggling, which is one of the requests that has been made. We need a joined-up approach.

Improving and ensuring the welfare of animals is at the heart of our recent welfare reforms. In December last year, we announced that we were going to ban the third-party selling of puppies and kittens. I was proud to be able to do that. Third-party sales are often linked to so-called puppy farms and to shocking welfare conditions, which many of us have seen on video or TV footage. It is absolutely abhorrent, and a ban will mean that puppies and kittens younger than six months can only be sold by the breeder directly or adopted through rescue and rehoming centres.

When the selling of puppies is restricted to licensed breeders, that will also help to deter people from attempting to bring puppies into the country to be sold here. The ban will help to tackle puppy smuggling as well as to address welfare issues here in England. I know that hon. Members are interested to know when that secondary legislation will be laid, and I can tell them that that will be later this spring—so, very soon.

Tracey Crouch Portrait Tracey Crouch - Hansard
2 Apr 2019, 5:35 p.m.

This spring!

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard

There are plenty of other things going on—I can see hon. Members complaining, but we are moving forward later this spring. There is much more that we want to do to move this forward—

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish - Hansard
2 Apr 2019, 5:35 p.m.

Get on with it!

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard
2 Apr 2019, 5:36 p.m.

We are getting on with it. As many hon. Members have said, we need to look at the effectiveness of on-the-spot fines. We will look at that and will review the effectiveness of mandating carriers to conduct 100% visual checks of all dogs travelling. For example, Eurotunnel has a pet checking reception, built in 2015, which gives it the capacity to visually check many dogs, and we will be exploring the positive impacts of that in tackling puppy smuggling.

We need to do more on communications with the public to help them to understand the commitments they are making at the point of purchase, and to help them think about where the puppy that they are so keen to buy has been sourced from.

Coming back to the “B” word, which a few hon. Members have mentioned, we will be considering our future approach to regulation in the context of the negotiations on our future relationship with the EU. We are open to actively exploring future options and opportunities for our pet travel scheme, and will look at each of the recommendations from the Dogs Trust and the British Veterinary Association as a part of that. I hope that that gives some reassurance to my hon. Friends the Members for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and for Mid Worcestershire that we are committed to taking further action, and that we will continue to ensure that there are robust controls on disease and animal welfare after we leave the EU.

My time is just about up and I hear some shouts outside, which I hope are not about this particular subject. I and the Government are committed to working collaboratively with colleagues to take further action on this vitally important issue.

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston - Hansard
2 Apr 2019, 4:37 p.m.

I just briefly say a very big thank you to so many colleagues, from all nations and all parts of the UK, who have contributed to the debate and have made so many compelling arguments and constructive recommendations in so many different policy areas where we can take action. I also thank the Minister for the content and the tone of his response. I do not doubt for one minute his sincerity. I have trust and faith that we will see action from him, but we wish to be very clear that there is a sense of urgency. There is a bit of impatience, but we will trust the Government that they will take action. We are a nation of dog lovers and animal lovers. Let us take some more action so that we can really show that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the matter of puppy smuggling.