Pet Identification Debate

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Department: HM Treasury

Pet Identification

Luke Pollard Excerpts
Monday 17th June 2019

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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HM Treasury
Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day - Hansard
17 Jun 2019, 4:48 p.m.

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.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard
17 Jun 2019, 4:56 p.m.

I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for introducing the debate and explaining the real pain when a cat goes missing and no one knows what has happened to it. More than 800 people across the three Plymouth constituencies signed Helena’s petition. So many of them have shared stories of their own missing animals to stress how important this issue is—a fairly simple legislative tweak could make a powerful difference to those families. A total of 320 people in the patch that I represent signed the petition. It is clear that British people are asking us to demand an animal welfare agenda that is consistent in its application across the country.

Last year, 230,000 cats were killed in road traffic accidents. That is more than 600 every day. Since this debate started, roughly 12 cats will have died. Each of those incidents will mean a family will not see their moggy come home. Young children will ask where their cat is and everyone will be worried about them. We need to create a regulatory environment where, as much as possible, we value animals and their relationships with families. That is not too much to ask. Every animal matters and, importantly, every cat matters to its family.

As always before I speak in these kinds of debates, I reached out to people on social media. It will be no surprise that many people wanted to share the story of their lost cat—whether it came home, was found or is still missing in action somewhere and the owners do not know what happened. My own cat, the fantastically named Bumblesnarf—after Bumblebee from “Transformers” and Snarf from “ThunderCats”, obviously—went missing and, sadly, was found much later. I know the worry of not knowing where a cat is. We all know that cats have a mind of their own and will not do as they are told—unlike dogs, they will do as they please. Sometimes, they might just want to go out and have a play, but when they go missing there is so much heartache, worry and stress. Emma told me on social media that she was pleased that MPs are pushing for this debate. She talked about the cats that she has lost in road traffic accidents and the importance of microchipping. Others shared similar stories.

The petition calls for councils to have the same respect for cats as they have for dogs. I am proud to say that Labour-run Plymouth City Council treats cats the same as dogs in road traffic accidents. That is really important. We need to engineer out of our system the postcode lottery that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk spoke about. We must also ensure that councils apply the rules consistently, especially where there are multi-tier councils or borough boundaries. As politicians, we recognise borough boundaries—some of us even recognise the boundaries between wards or polling districts—but for the vast majority of people, they just live in a community.

Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day - Hansard

Of course, some boundaries run down the middle of a major road, which is exactly where an incident may occur.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard - Hansard
17 Jun 2019, 5 p.m.

I agree entirely. That is why it is important that the rules are applied similarly by every council.

As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), there is no statutory obligation to scan microchipped cats when they are found. However, I am proud that Plymouth City Council follows best practice and scans both cats and dogs that are found on roads. If, sadly, the animal did not survive the accident, it is kept for a further two weeks, so there is plenty of time for the owner to be notified and for the pet to be returned to its owner for a proper goodbye.

The law is only paper if it is not enforced, so we need to ensure that the regulatory framework is in place, that councils understand it, and that the people who work on the frontline, who sometimes get a tough time—those who collect the bins and clean our streets, for example—receive training and understand how important that framework is. Because of the level of cuts, we are asking them to clean more streets, or collect more bins, more quickly. Pausing to collect a cat adds extra work to their day, but it is important that they recognise the value of doing so; that empathy and connection—the thought that it could be their cat—is so important.

Ann Clwyd Hansard

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.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard - Hansard

I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point. That is why it is really important not only that the regulatory framework is tightened but that training is provided so everyone who works on the frontline in our public services, from local councils upwards, understands the value of enforcing that framework and giving proper care to those cats.

Almost one in five households in Britain has a cat, making cats the second most popular pet after dogs. Many people assume that if their pet is microchipped, they will be alerted if something happens. However, we know from the stories we heard earlier and from our own communities that that does not happen in every situation. Under the Road Traffic Act 1988, road users are required to stop and report an accident involving horses, cattle, mules, sheep, pigs, goats or dogs. I think that list partly reflects the very different role of animals in society. The social contract for how animals are used changes every day—we see that in greater demands for protection of animals—so we must ensure that that list is updated to reflect our changing views.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP) - Hansard

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.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard - Hansard

One thing I have discovered since being elected two years ago is that the public really want proper rules for animal welfare that are properly enforced and properly funded. In that respect, the hon. Lady’s point is well put.

Sadly, despite being valued members of households—part of the family—cats are not afforded the same duty of care we afford to cattle, horses, mules and dogs. The life of a cat should be worth no less than that of any other animal, because of the emotional connection that animal brings to the family and its important role in a household. That needs to be addressed.

Unfortunately, road traffic accidents involving cats happen frequently. As we know, cats sometimes misjudge the distance and speed of oncoming vehicles and can be blinded by headlights at night. The law requires people to stop and report the accident if they run over a dog. That helps to save the lives of hundreds of dogs every year. We have spoken so far about reporting in the event that an animal dies, but it can help save the lives of dogs and other animals if people know they are required to stop and report that an animal has been involved in an accident. We should think not just about what happens at the end of an animal’s life but about how we prevent needless deaths along the way.

Petplan estimates that a quarter of road accidents involving cats are fatal. That means there is a good chance that a cat will survive if it gets the urgent care it needs, but that can happen only if there is a requirement for road users to report accidents involving cats. I would like the legislative proposals for compulsory microchipping of cats to be tightened, and I would like to see compulsory reporting where a cat is injured or involved in an accident.

Although the debate is about accidents involving pets rather than their owners, I want to take a moment to talk about the importance of drivers and other road users recognising the role of animals in communities. I represent an urban area, but Plymouth is surrounded by beautiful countryside, with many weird and varied country lanes. In such fantastic rural areas, accidents may involve different animals—a cow coming over a high fence, for example. Having the driving skills to understand what anticipatory action to take is really important both on country lanes and on major roads, so part of this debate should be about the need to teach and inform drivers, not just in their driving test and their theory test but throughout their lives, about the importance of looking out for and recognising not only pedestrians but animals on pavements and in other settings. We need to ensure that the structures on our roads are engineered to better protect animals, and we need to make our roads safer. I hope that is not lost on the Minister.

Councils across the UK should be required to follow best practice on scanning cats involved in road traffic accidents, which, as we have heard, a number of councils already do. Families deserve to know what happened to their pet if it goes missing. We need more action from the Government to make tweaks in this area. I say to the Minister, with whom I work in a number of areas, that at a time when the Government’s legislative agenda is not as full as it might be, there is space for doing things that have genuine cross-party support. I know that, regardless of what happens with Brexit, nearly all my constituents would want us to act to protect our animals. I think a tweak to the rules to extend compulsory microchipping to cats and to require a uniform approach from every council, no matter which political party runs it, would be well supported.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) - Hansard
17 Jun 2019, 5:10 p.m.

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.