Monday 28th June 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op)
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I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for introducing the petition so well. There is good cross-party support from all the hon. Members in the debate for action to be taken. I fear that it will be déjà vu for the Minister, because there have been examples, across a number of animal welfare debates, of Opposition and Government Members all agreeing that action needs to be taken. We also nearly always agree that that action would be relatively simple and low cost, and would have a substantially positive impact on our constituents. That puts the Minister in a bad situation, because she will have to explain why that action still has not happened.

We are facing a relative slew of parliamentary legislation —a real piggery of parliamentary business—around animal welfare at the moment. There is lots of it, but there is a lot missing from it. I want to hear from the Minister about what needs primary legislation, and I want clarification that it will be included in primary legislation. Where items do not need primary legislation—I believe that in this case we do not need primary legislation to take action—secondary legislation should be brought forward swiftly. The danger is that we will all just sit here in this debate and agree, but this issue requires the Government to act.

The petitions are well supported, with 235,000 signatures, including 436 from Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. I know that people feel really passionately about this matter. The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill—the flagship piece of animal welfare legislation that the Minister is introducing—offers a chance to tidy up and clear up a number of the remaining animal welfare problems. The Minister has looked carefully at Labour’s animal welfare manifesto and included a number of the points from it in the legislation, and I am grateful to her for doing so. I know that Back-Bench Members from her own party would also be grateful if Ministers listened to their campaigns on this matter.

I am also grateful to the Minister for taking the time last week to sit down with me and the shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team to talk through what is in the Bill and, importantly, what is not, as well as what could be put into it at a later stage. That is really where secondary legislation comes in. Some people watching the debate will not really be excited by secondary legislation, and the truth is that many people in this House are not particularly excited by secondary legislation either, but it does enable the Government, relatively simply, to change the rules on legislation that has already been passed, largely with cross-party support. I encourage the Minister to do that in the two cases before us.

During the debate, a number of right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about the loss of their own pets and what that meant to them. The hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) spoke about the loss of her dog, Shadow, who went missing. As the Minister knows, I had my own experience of that when, as a little boy, I lost my cat, Bumblesnarf—named after Bumblebee from “Transformers” and Snarf from “Thundercats”, obviously—and I did not know where it was, whether it was coming back and whether it was in distress or in pain. Those are common concerns for people right across the country.

Compulsory microchipping makes a lot of sense and is hugely popular among the people we represent, but it would seem to be only part of the solution if we require compulsory microchipping but do not require compulsory checking of the microchip once it is in the animal. Throughout the debate we have effectively, without saying so, made the case that microchipping is good, positive and has real benefits. However, the system has to deliver on the promise that was made, including by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who said way back in April 2016:

“Microchipping will not only reunite people with their lost or stolen pets, but also help to tackle the growing problem of strays roaming the streets and relieve the burden placed on animal charities and local authorities.”

He was right then and he is right now, but the system needs to work from end to end. At the moment, there are sizeable gaps in the system.

Microchipping is a cheap and easy procedure; it is safe for cats, dogs and other animals; and it is permanent and cost-effective. It needs to work, however, and that is why I think the challenge for the Minister is to convince herself, her Government colleagues and her officials that this action is worth taking.

I find myself in the awkward position of agreeing wholeheartedly with the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith)—as an Opposition Member, that is something that I pride myself on not always doing. [Interruption.] I will be talking to myself in the mirror later; do not worry. He raised a fantastic point about first and second-order issues. I do not know of a single voter in Plymouth who would say that animal welfare is anything other than a first-order issue. We, as parliamentarians of any party, need to make that case to Ministers—to use all parliamentary legislative opportunities, including secondary legislation via statutory instruments, to achieve this.

The right hon. Gentleman’s case for amending the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill—a Bill that I am not a huge fan of—to include pet theft is a good one. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and I have argued for the same thing from Labour’s perspective. Elements of that would have cross-party support, because pet theft is an increasingly difficult and stubborn problem. The pandemic has made it considerably worse; we all recognise the demand for animals and the company that they provide. The legislation needs to be flexible enough to catch up with that demand and the problems that it is causing. There is a real chance to do something on pet theft. I do not have high hopes for a taskforce, but I want to see action. We know what needs to be done—we do not need a delaying tactic to help us to get there slower—and it needs to happen shortly.

There is real support for action on microchipping cats, as we have heard. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) remarked in his speech that 2.6 million owned cats in the UK have still not been microchipped—that is a quarter of all pet cats. Cats, as we know, have a mind of their own. However, if an owner microchips their cat, it is an important aspect of the bond between them, because the owner knows that if the cat keeps going out, they will have the opportunity to be reunited with it. There is a good case for more work to be done on that. There is cross-party support for such action, as the Government’s consultation showed, so it should just happen.

There is also good support for Fern’s law. I do not share the concerns that have been expressed by a number of veterinary colleagues, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. There is always time to ensure that the animal that the vet is dealing with—and its owner—is the one that is supposed to be there, and it is right to take time to scan the animal properly. I notice that in the original response that the petition triggered, the Government said that the area is largely governed by self-regulation and best practice. I spent five years working for ABTA—the Travel Association—so I support self-regulation and industries looking after themselves, but not enough is being done on this. It is reasonable to require veterinary businesses to scan animals that come into their surgeries. I ask the industry to look again at that, because there is strong support for Fern’s law.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson), talked about common sense being at the core of any good policy, and I agree with her. There is real concern about the databases: the fact that there are 16 different databases in this area shows not that the market is working effectively and efficiently, but that we have a broken market and a broken system. Along with those 16 database, which do not often speak to each other, there are bogus websites deliberately set up by scammers to take money off pet owners who want to do the right thing and register their animal. That is not backed up by any certainty that were anything to happen, it would be looked at. I encourage the Minister to look carefully at the databases, because the whole system is not working. She would enjoy cross-party support if she took action in that respect, albeit first recommending that there should be quick action from the companies that are already dealing with the matter. If there is no voluntary action, there should be Government action.

Tuk’s law—that a healthy animal’s microchip must always be scanned before euthanising—is also a no-brainer. That must happen, and there is something obviously wrong with the existing system. I encourage the Minister to look at swiftly implementing Tuk’s law by whatever legislative route she can, whether in secondary or primary legislation.

That leads me briefly to the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly). He and I share a real passion to see Gizmo’s law put into legislation. It is frustrating for him and for me to hear that being skipped over in each and every debate. Heléna Abrahams, Gizmo’s owner, shares our passion for real change. I encourage the Minister not only to continue to listen to the hon Gentleman, but to act on what he says, because it is very sensible.

We also need to talk about the important issue of access to vets. In each of our contributions, we have made the case that access to veterinary care is available and that, when an animal is taken to a vet, a certain action should be taken as a result. However, there are many people who cannot afford access to a vet; it is a luxury that they cannot afford for themselves. We need to look at the affordability of access to veterinary care to ensure that everyone can access the proper services of a vet in this respect. That is another point from Labour’s animal welfare manifesto that I would encourage the Minister to cut and paste. I think that that would be popular.

When it comes to animal welfare, it helps to remember that doing the right thing for animals is almost always in the best interests of humans as well. That is where I think there is strong support from both sides of the House for the measures outlined in these two petitions.

I say to the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) that I am a big fan of his Instagram and his pictures of his whippets. There needs to be a parliamentary caucus for parliamentary Lukes—indeed, we have a small one here in this debate.

The issue raised by the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) about the potential increase in the destruction of animals as we come out of lockdown restrictions is another good point. Although it does not easily fit into a solution, it certainly helps to identify an emerging problem that will get bigger and bigger, particularly with more animals potentially presenting with behavioural difficulties because of the on-again, off-again presence of their owners and families.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to set out the positive and cross-party case for action on this matter. I look forward to the Minister giving us—I hope—the good news that she will be taking action and not just delaying that further.