Online Animal Sales: Regulation

Lisa Cameron Excerpts
Monday 13th December 2021

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP)
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It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and to sum up the debate for the Scottish National party. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees), who set the scene in such a detailed way and who often speaks on animal welfare matters. She laid out the crux of the matter for the Minister, and why this is such an important debate to so many right across the United Kingdom.

I also pay a special tribute to Richard Ackers, who is in the Gallery and has spearheaded this wonderful campaign, paying tribute in such an important and compassionate way to the life of Reggie in order to ensure that his sad life and death were not in vain. Much good can come from his story. This little puppy has stolen the hearts of many people across the United Kingdom, and is now spearheading a campaign to ensure that no other puppies and pets go through the same trauma that he did, or a similar trauma.

I pay tribute to many of the hon. Members on both sides of the House who have spoken. It has been a fantastic debate. As was mentioned, it has been difficult to disagree with anything that has been said so far, which is somewhat unusual but very—

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Cameron
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It makes me feel extremely positive, and as the hon. Member says it is refreshing in this House.

The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) spoke about cats and rabbits too, which was important. As chair of the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group, I tend to have a focus on dogs, which I think, until he met his wife, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) had, too. It is important that we realise that there are huge sales of other types of pet too, and this type of regulation can have a wide-ranging impact. Many Members have spoken, including the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), who I joined last week at the door of No. 10, with Rick.

Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Cameron
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Absolutely. I thought I mentioned everybody, but I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead, who is waving at me from across the way. He has managed to combine many animal welfare campaigns, and it has been amazing to work with him. He was one of the leading lights in the campaign last week.

The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) was on the steps alongside us. There was such a cross-party effort. He made sure that we were aware that the issue did not just affect little Reggie, it carries on to this day. MPs too can fall foul when buying puppies and other animals online, despite best efforts and the research we try to do. As the hon. Member said, when he saw that little puppy—particularly with his family with him—his heart melted and the sale was done. The unscrupulous dealers of puppies, kittens and other pets see that as money in the bank.

We have done a lot with Lucy’s law. I want to pay tribute to Marc Abraham, because Lucy’s law has taken us on a journey towards much better regulation. However, as has been mentioned today, we have further steps to take, and laws must be strengthened. The Justice For Reggie campaign group has listened to thousands of people every month who suffer scams, heartache and financial turmoil. Most end up paying financially as well as emotionally. They are traumatised and scarred, while the seller readvertises on platforms, because, quite simply, platforms lack the required regulation.

Rick said:

“When I bought Reggie through a well-known selling website and realised I had unknowingly contributed to illegal puppy farming, I have never hidden the fact that I could have done more research and should have walked away. This would have prevented the seller getting more money to continue the illegal acts of animal cruelty, although Reggie's fate would have been the same and he would have still died. What I gave Reggie was love and dignity and ensured he had pain relief throughout his very short life. Had I not bought him, Reggie would have been discarded like rubbish and died in pain.”

Families are put in an impossible situation day after day. Rick’s campaign has heard from over 300 families, who have contacted it distraught and not knowing which way to turn. They blame themselves, as they too bought puppies using online sites.

Mike Penning Portrait Sir Mike Penning
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I thank the hon. Member for giving way. I hope I am not shortening the Minister’s speaking time, Mr Mundell. There is another side to this. There are people out there who want to buy dogs that are mutilated. Their ears have been cut—not by vets. They mutilate these animals and sell them on. There is a market for that; that market needs to be shut and the full force of the law imposed. It is not just about families who are buying an animal to love and cherish. There are people who want to buy mutilated dogs, which are available on these sites.

Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Cameron
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Absolutely. The right hon. Member makes an extremely good point. There is also what I would describe as an ongoing fashion in breeding dogs in ways that are not healthy for the dog breed. That must be looked at alongside the matter that he raised.

We all applauded the introduction of Lucy’s law. I was privileged and delighted to campaign on it and launch it in Parliament as chair of the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group. The law has gone a long way. However, as we can see, people are evading it. Over lockdown, Rick’s campaign spoke to 86 councils across the UK. All of them have repeated the same message: they are too underfunded and understaffed to police the law. Much more support must go to councils. That will be absolutely crucial. It would be helpful if the Minister indicated the level of ongoing collaboration with the council groups and explained how we can strengthen that to make sure that, in practice, it does what it says it does on the tin.

It is very upsetting for families to go through this. Rick said it affected his mental health, and he was so disturbed by it that he decided to set up the Animal Welfare Alliance, a collaboration between 10 of the largest websites in the UK, prompted by Justice For Reggie through numerous meetings. Their aim is to share data and improve protection, but they are not naive enough to say that that will solve the problems. They need the Government to act. This clearly needs enforcing with regulations. As many hon. Members have said, it is a wild west on the internet, quite frankly. Without the Government acting to ensure regulation, this will not happen, because platforms simply will not do it themselves.

Rick highlighted PAAG, and he appreciates its work to control online sales, to try to make being online safer. However, it cannot do that alone, and it only speaks with a small number of websites. As we discussed, we are in a digital age, and we cannot turn back the clock. A ban on online sales is not pragmatic. It is not doable. It is not going to work. Regulation is supported by many of the animal welfare charities that contacted me before the debate and it seems to be the most pragmatic way of addressing these grave matters.

Pets are sentient. There seems to be more regulation when buying a car online nowadays than when buying a pet. People have to go through many more processes to verify who they are and their insurance and other various things, but buying a pet does not seem to have the same level of rigour, which it really should have. It is a tall order for the Minister, but I know she has a good heart and tries her very best in everything she works on. In tribute to Reggie, we must make sure his life is not in vain. We must tackle this online wild west with regulation. It is a mix of consumer scams, animal cruelty and serious organised criminals who profit in the same way as they do from other illegal activities that they engage in. It is a serious matter.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards
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I was touched by the comments from the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) about the criminal nature of these gangs. Unfortunately, Carmarthenshire has a number of illegal puppy farms. The fines for people when they are caught seem pretty low. There was one instance of a £200,000 fine. Do we need to look at the penalties for people who engage in this activity?

Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Cameron
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Absolutely. That is a great point to end on. Action must be taken, because this is about serious organised criminals. I have the same situation in my constituency as the hon. Member. It is difficult to address these issues. It will require concerted effort, but it must be undertaken to make sure that no more little dogs like Reggie go through such a terrible death.