Online Animal Sales: Regulation

Jo Churchill Excerpts
Monday 13th December 2021

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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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.

Mike Penning Portrait Sir Mike Penning
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One of the biggest issues for the Minister and the public to understand is that if these animals were pigs or cattle, we would know exactly who the mum was and where they had been travelling. We would know all their breeding—everything about them—for the safety of our constituents. This cannot be beyond the wit of man. Just because the word “pet” is used should not mean that we cannot trace these animals. Surely we can do something.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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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
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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
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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.