Monday 28th June 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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What a pleasure to hear the introduction by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). Whenever I attend a petitions debate in Westminster Hall either he or the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) is introducing a petition, and it is always a pleasure to hear either of them.

I have owned a dog probably all my life. I cannot remember not having a dog, from a very early age in Ballywalter in the 1960s. I remember the first dog we had, and I remember the last dog we had. Dogs are very much part of my life. My mailbox has taken a hit because of this issue, because so many people support the petitions. They may not have even signed the petitions but they support the principle, and it is important that they have that opportunity.

It is not very often that I am No. 2 in a Westminster Hall debate. As a matter of fact, I cannot remember the last time, but I was pleased to see the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) arrive. For a minute, I thought I was going to be the only Opposition Member, so I am pleased to see him in his place.

Although the signatories to the petition in my constituency numbered just 60, many more people have contacted me about this issue. The theft of dogs across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been enormous this year. During the covid-19 pandemic, people have needed to have dogs as pets—that was their contact with the outside. The great thing about a dog is that it will always love you. It always wags its tail. It will always respond to your affection. Even when you are cross, the dog will wag its tail if you turn on the charm again. That is what a dog does.

There are some examples of dog theft in my constituency. Cocker spaniels were making about £300 to £500 last year. This year, they are making anywhere from £1,500 to £2,000, so there has been a criminal aspect, to which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North referred. I am very conscious that, as they always do, the criminals seem to take advantage of someone’s vulnerability.

Our dogs are our best friends. My dog is the one loving creature in my life that does not disagree with me. He does not huff with me, and he always offers unconditional love. I have often been so grateful for Autumn, my wife’s springer spaniel, when I have come home from an arduous week at Westminster to see the pure joy that the dog has for me. I cannot say that Sandra, my wife, is just as happy to see me on every occasion. I say that in jest, because I know for a fact that she is happy to see me. She might not always express it as forcefully as the dog does, but that is by the way. The bond that comes from my relationship with the dog is unshakeable, and the thought of ever coming home and not seeing that wee tail wagging away is truly a difficult one to consider.

Our dog Autumn was a rescue dog. Someone had unfortunately been bad to it, and we brought it home to our house. The dog has settled in well, and the nervousness and vulnerability that it had at the beginning has gone away, thank goodness. As it is a springer spaniel, I was pleased to take it out shooting with me, so it has now become my hunting dog. It is my wife’s dog, but it is my hunting dog, which I use on occasion during the shooting season.

How much worse is it for those who live alone and whose little cat or dog is their sole companion? I have had distressed constituents who are their wit’s end ringing my office and searching for their lost cat. They cannot get help. When I contact my local council, which is always responsive, compassionate and truly wonderful, it is often unable to help, as it does not have a policy of scanning cats. That has not helped to alleviate families’ distress, which is why I support the petitions that are before us, and I know that other hon. Members will endorse them.

According to figures from Cats Protection, some 2.6 million cats across the UK are not microchipped, representing 26% of all cats. My wife has three cats. At one stage, we had six cats. When three passed away, we did not replace them. My wife has worked in an animal charity for some time, and she now works in a cattery. Cats can roam freely and are known for their inquisitive nature. We have two cats who are house cats, and we have one cat who will hunt night and day. We live on a farm, so we want all the cats to hunt and to keep the rats and mice under control, which can lead to their becoming lost or injured. We have lost quite a few on the road. Without a microchip, an owned cat may never be reunited with its owner. If a cat is sadly killed in the road, a microchip allows the owner to be informed and have closure. If a cat is stolen, a microchip gives the owner the best chance of being reunited. If cats were all microchipped, as with dogs, it would prevent the euthanising of owned and loved cats. That is why I add my voice to the call of the petitions, to which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North referred in his introduction.

The all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group has clearly stated that although it is compulsory for the public to microchip dogs, it is only optional for vets, professionals, authorities and rescues to scan and check microchip registration. With new and potentially stolen dogs not being scanned and checked at their first vet consultation, the opportunity to identify and reunite thousands of stolen dogs is being missed. Members have asked lots of questions in relation to this issue, and I know the Government have given commitments. There have been some success stories in certain parts of the country, such as the midlands. It just shows how a dog that is stolen in Kent can very quickly end up in Birmingham, so a network of criminality is in place.

The flawed microchipping system does not provide any peace of mind whatever to families who experience dog or cat theft. The microchipping of all dogs and cats is absolutely essential, and we have a clear opportunity to put that right. Fern’s story and subsequent campaign have highlighted how something that would take a mere minute of a vet’s time could reunite families and bring healing to a devastated heart. For people I know whose dog or cat is the absolute treasure of their lives and their constant companion, not knowing whether their wee pet was roaming sick or in pain would be worse than knowing that they are gone. We can implement reform to take away that uncertainty for many.

As always, I very much look forward to the Minister’s response. I am convinced that she understands what we are saying and will respond in a positive way. These simple changes are not onerous and would make great steps in animal welfare. I am proud to have spoken in the debate in support of the hon Gentleman and others who have said that something can be done. The fact is, we must do it now.