Luke PollardMain Page: Luke Pollard (Labour (Co-op)) - Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport)
Department Debates - View all Luke Pollard's debates with the HM Treasury
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. This is not about the safety of the public. It is about the family’s wellbeing and knowing what has happened to their beloved pet.
The process of scanning can be done in minutes and is not a complex procedure. Councils that have a policy to scan deceased pets often leave the onus on the owner to contact the council within seven days, which is a pointless exercise if an owner is not notified or if the pet is disposed of without the owner being given the chance to collect the body, to bury or cremate it, and to deal with their grief. During the holiday period, people might be away for longer than one week, so seven days is just unrealistic.
Too often, there is a disparity between council policy and actual practice. We know that from various cases evidenced by witnesses and council workers. One such worker, who wished to remain anonymous, told Gizmo’s Legacy:
“Oh, we don’t scan them, we are told not to. We take them to the local tip, where they are thrown in a freezer until full then put into the refuse.”
Des Kane is a volunteer chip scanner with Harvey’s Army. He regularly pops by his local council’s storage facility in Coatbridge in North Lanarkshire, to check whether any pets in the freezer can be identified. He finds the council’s approach to pets found on the road to be very hit and miss:
“I find that the only real documenting of any such unfortunate deceased pet is the label attached to the bag in which they are placed. This label states the following: animal type, colour, where and when picked up from, and any distinguishing markings.
To my knowledge that is as far as it goes with documentation and I’m not aware of any other efforts made by the council to find a potential owner, i.e. posting on their website or social media. They do have an animal welfare officer who they call to scan animals when they’ve been lifted or they call me when he’s not available.
I’ve found the council staff at the facility very accommodating and helpful but I feel the council policy, as it stands, could be a bit more thorough in trying to contact a possible owner, although I know they are more proactive than some other authorities.”
Such volunteers do a tremendous job around the country uniting people with their deceased pets, but it should not be left to them or to the random lottery of what each local council chooses to do.
Cat owner Anita Short, a resident of Sunderland City Council, learned from a neighbour that her cat Toby had been collected by cleansing services. She then contacted the council and was invited to Sunderland council’s depot to see if Toby was in its freezer. Anita recognised her cat from his collar. She asked why her cat had not been scanned and the excuse she was given was that they did not have a scanner on them. Why does the council state that its workers will scan animals they pick up? As I said, they should all have scanners, given the requirement for dogs. The council was not following its own policy. Anita Short would have never known that her cat had been collected and was in a council freezer if it was not for her neighbour. Relying on best practice is meaningless if policies are not strictly followed, which is why Gizmo’s law needs to be implemented.
DogLost.co.uk is the country’s leading lost-and-found pets service—despite the name, it also deals with cats. It has a national network of volunteers. Its service is free but it relies on donations. Hon. Members have probably seen its posters attached to lamp posts or in shop windows with details of missing pets. Since the launch of DogLost UK in 2003, more than 105,000 dogs and cats have been registered as missing or stolen. Thankfully, nearly three-quarters of pets have been found. DogLost informs us that, in 2018, 9,029 pets were reported missing. At the start of this month, 24,201 pets were still missing, which means that many families are still searching. How many of those dogs and cats will have been recovered from council roads and paths but never scanned? We will never know how many of those dogs and cats have ended up in landfill because of lax record keeping.
Of course, not all animals are microchipped, so to be fair to councils it is sometimes not possible to find owners even when they scan. What we do know is that two councils admitted to collecting bodies of cats and putting them in the freezer, but failing to scan or keep any records. On questioning, they admitted remembering the description of two cats: that happened to Michelle Morton’s cat Cookie, which was in the hands of Blackpool Council, and Janette Barton’s cat Benji under Wigan Council. Both those cats were microchipped, but it appears that neither council bothered to scan, because they do not have to—it is only best practice. Councils make their own policies and do not even need to bother to stick to the rules that they have set themselves. It is too much to ask that they take a few minutes to scan for a chip, keep some records that can be easily accessed and contact owners to let them know the bad news, to give them the chance to collect their pet for burial or cremation?
Jeanette told us that she still cries over losing Ernie. The emotional connection between humans and pets cannot be emphasised enough. This debate is about human suffering, not the lost pet that has caused the human suffering. There are so many heart-breaking examples of families who have lost their pets. Gizmo’s Legacy detailed a broad range of them in the pack it sends to members, which highlights that there is a lack of scanning all over the United Kingdom.
The last example I will give is that of Wendy Turner and her cat Merlin, who was neutered and microchipped. After spending a day looking for him, she posted on Facebook and, following a last sighting of him, discovered he had been taken by the council. After contacting the council, Wendy was told that they would be in touch after they had scanned the cat, but that did not happen. She was then given the runaround, being passed on to different departments and being told that Merlin would be added to the list of deceased animals in a day or so. It was to be several weeks later before a vague description of a cat found in the area where Merlin was picked up appeared on the deceased animal list. Wendy says that
“it is two years since I lost Merlin and even now I feel that there is no closure. The thought of his precious remains being tossed away with rubbish or thrown into a furnace with no regard to him or his family I find very hard to accept. I only wanted to bring my boy home. This was the reason why I invested in a microchip. If it was not for the reply to my Facebook post I would still be searching for Merlin.”
People are spending real money to get their cats microchipped, so that when something does go wrong they can be reunited with them, whether alive or unfortunately deceased.
What can be done? Recommendations of good practice clearly do not work for everyone, which suggests that legislation for the UK’s 408 councils may be required. Local authorities are devolved, so we may need legislation in the devolved nations as well as in this Parliament. It takes minutes to scan a pet, log details and contact an owner—a small price to pay considering the human misery that searching for a pet generates. It is important that contact is made where microchips exist, and that there be a system to view photos of deceased pets where no microchip is found.
Our pets need improved protection. Gizmo’s law would mean that all councils would have to start scanning all animals they collect on all their roads, paths and locations and contacting their owners to give them closure. If the animals are not chipped, they should send images to organisations such as Deceased Cats UK and Ireland or DogLost, which will happily share them to help to trace owners. Councils could even set up a web page or social media site. It is not too much to ask to keep all cats and dogs for at least seven days. If local authorities do not have freezers, they can use a local vets. The petitioners are not asking for anything that is not easily attainable, and given the attendance in the debate, it seems they have broad cross-party support.
We need Gizmo’s law to help to protect the basic rights of pet owners: the right to not have a family member thrown into a landfill, and the right to know whether their pet has been found and identified so they can collect the body and start the grieving process. Pets are part of the family. It is unacceptable for councils to treat pets as throwaway rubbish. Now is the time to do away with the postcode lottery of random policies and often uncaring practices that are described by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as best practice. Campaigners and pet owners all hope that the Minister will do the right thing: make Gizmo’s law a reality.
Of course, some boundaries run down the middle of a major road, which is exactly where an incident may occur.
I referred to Cardiff City Council, a large city council that is also run by Labour. In theory it reports cat deaths, but in practice it does not.
I heard the hon. Gentleman say that having a cat microchipped is no guarantee that it will be scanned if something happens to it. Does he therefore agree that it is not enough just to ask people to microchip their cats? To make any policy coherent, we must legally compel them to do so, as we do with dogs. Local authorities will then step up to that policy and fulfil their duties so that, when something happens to a cat, it is scanned and its owner finds out what happened to it.
I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for bringing forward the debate and setting the scene so well, and I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for his contribution.
I am well known as a dog lover. I cannot remember not having had a dog as a pet since I was very young, many years ago in Ballywalter. My wife has volunteered at Assisi animal sanctuary for many years and often sees the effects of unwanted and abandoned pets. It breaks her heart and brings a lump to her throat—and perhaps even to mine—to tell me some of those stories. My wife has had cats nearly all her life. I never had a cat until we married. My dogs and her cats came together as she and I came together. I am not sure whether that is why we did so, but that is the way it happened. As a result, we have always had a love for cats.
We live on a farm. Because we own the land, whenever our animals or pets have passed away, we have been able to bury them on the farm, but that is not the case for everyone. I believe that when we are able to bury our dogs and cats on the farm, they may still roam the fields—not physically, but perhaps in their afterlife, wherever that may be.
Microchipping has helped with the abandonment of animals on some scale, but certainly more needs to be done to ensure that those who keep animals are able to do so. I have heard a few people say that homing an animal is as difficult as adopting a child. That is said tongue in cheek—let us be honest—but I am glad that it means the decision to house a pet is measured and well thought out. Assisi, where my wife volunteers, does not allocate a pet—a dog or a cat—to any home without first doing a home visit to ensure that the person is ready to give a home to a dog or cat, is in the frame of mind to do so and, let us be honest, has a home that can give the pet the freedom it needs. For many elderly people, pets can be companions, but it would not be fair for someone disabled or elderly to have a springer spaniel—a very energetic dog—that would run them off their feet. Therefore, pets must be allocated. My wife does home visits, so she knows how important they are.
Some 140 of my constituents signed the petition, which is the reason I am here today, but I am confident that I represent many more people who did not sign the petition but agree with its sentiments. Many people want to see the issue addressed appropriately. Although the law says that people do not need to report hitting an animal with a car, the reality is that that leaves a family heartbroken, not knowing what has happened to their beloved pet.
Many years ago, I was out doing deliveries for the business that I used to have and I came up the Darragh Road in Comber. A cat had been killed that morning and the woman was standing at the side of the road in tears. She asked me whether I would scoop it up and put it in a bag, which I was happy to do. The problem was that, as I was doing that, people thought that I had run it down, which I obviously had not. I was trying to be a good Samaritan and respond to that lady. I understood how heartbroken she was, however, because that was her pet—her cat, her love and her companion.
The petition provides a simple solution. If an animal is found, an effort should be made to find the family and allow them to deal with it. To do that, we need to push for people to get their cat microchipped to ensure that any new regulations are worth it. I am glad that Cats Protection in Northern Ireland has a scheme that enables cats to be neutered for £5—many other schemes across Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom are run by volunteers and charitable groups. The offer is open to owners who are receiving state benefits, who are on a low income, who are students or pensioners and who live in Northern Ireland. Microchipping is also available under the campaign at some participating veterinary practices, which may incur a small additional £5 fee. Assisi, the charity that my wife works for, also has a policy of neutering all cats, so there is some control. We cannot ignore the good work that charity groups do across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Those who microchip their cat obviously care for the animal and deserve a modicum of care in response from their council. I have written to my local council—Ards and North Down Borough Council—to ask whether it will co-ordinate the effort put forward by Cats Protection. I served on the old Ards Borough Council for 26 years and came off it when I was elected to this place in 2010. To be fair to the council, when it is asked by the general public to call out and collect a dead dog or cat, it does so without any coercion as part of its commitment to local pet owners, not because there is a written rule, but because it wants to respond to the general public. I congratulate it on being so responsive and community-based on the matter.
In our house, we have three cats and one dog, which all came from charities. The dog came from a bad relationship and had been abused as a pup. It was nervous when it came to us, but it is now very confident and sees the house as its house, rather than anyone else’s. The cats were all strays or from charities. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport referred to the name of his cat earlier. Ours are called Nicholas—I am not sure why; it sounds very royal—Muffins and Podge. The three cats are totally different and have different personalities. Two of them stay in the house all day while the other one hunts all day. Living on a farm, I get quite annoyed when the cat brings home some of its trophies, and my wife hates it more than anybody, but that is their nature—they hunt.
There are heartbreaking posts on Facebook, in the local papers, in the provincial papers and in shop windows that ask, “Have you seen this cat?” The children get so upset, but something can be done. That is why I am happy to speak in the debate and add my voice, along with the hon. Members who have spoken and those who will speak, to the 107,062 signatories of the petition. I ask the Minister to begin the work that needs to be done to ensure that the petition’s calls are answered and that people know their loved ones have been respectfully put to rest and are not lying in a dump somewhere.
The Minister has always been responsive to our proposals. Our personal discussions with him, and the discussions of others, have indicated that he will probably give us the response that we wish for, which I look forward to. I support the petition’s calls and look forward to hearing how the Government intend to respond positively and definitively to make them happen, and to let all those 107,062 signatories of the petition know that the Government work for them.