Pet Identification Debate

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Department: HM Treasury

Pet Identification

Patricia Gibson Excerpts
Monday 17th June 2019

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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HM Treasury
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.

Break in Debate

Liz McInnes (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab) Hansard
17 Jun 2019, 5:16 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Strangely, I used to have a cat called Muffin as well, which was sadly knocked over at the age of one. It was in the days before microchips, but because it happened in our street, the cat was handed to me and we were able to bury her in the garden, plant a little tree on top and say goodbye to her. I know how important it is for people to be able to do that and to know what has happened to their beloved pet.

Muffin was followed by two ginger cats—I decided to get two cats after that, so if one was knocked over, I would have one left—which lived to be 19 and 21. When they shuffled off this mortal coil, after a long and happy life, I decided that life was getting slightly complicated and it was too difficult to fit cats into a politician’s lifestyle. I admire hon. Members who have pets. I would find it impossible because of living in two places at once. Deep down, however, I am a cat owner. I am very fond of cats and, given the choice, I would have one as a pet. At the moment, it is totally incompatible with this lifestyle.

The other reason I wanted to speak in the debate is that, of anywhere in the country, the petition gathered most support from my constituency. Heywood and Middleton topped the table with 634 signatures, so I feel duty bound to speak on behalf of those constituents who cared enough to sign it. The sad story of Gizmo also happened in my neighbouring constituency of Bury North.

I fully support the aim of the petition, which hon. Members have described as a tweak in the law—that is all. Simply, the petition’s aim is that deceased or injured cats be required by law to be scanned in the same way that dogs are, and that efforts be made to track down their owners. Despite cats being popular pets, the law does not require motorists to report running a cat over, nor is it compulsory for cats to be microchipped, although many owners do that voluntarily. According to Cats Protection, 68% of domestic cats are microchipped. Those cat owners have done that for a reason: their hope is that, if their cat goes missing, somebody will scan the chip and the cat will be returned to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) referred to the Road Traffic Act 1988, which states that collisions causing death or injury to dogs, horses, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, donkeys and mules, but not cats, must be reported to the police. The Government’s guidelines state that there is no requirement to report a collision involving an animal smaller than a dog, although I wonder what size of dog the Government are referring to. That guideline seems deliberately vague. The point is that the law could easily be extended to include cats.

The natural consequence of this petition is to extend compulsory microchipping to cats, to change the law to require motorists to report all accidents in which an animal is injured, and to make it a duty for local authorities to scan deceased and injured cats for microchips. I am pleased to say that my local authority—Labour-run Rochdale Borough Council—already has a policy to check deceased cats for microchips, and it makes every effort to identify pet owners. If the cat has a chip, a member of the environmental management team will contact the owner to break the sad news and arrange for the pet to be either collected or incinerated by the council—whatever the owner decides to do. If the pet does not have a chip, it is stored for up to four weeks in case it fits a description from concerned owners. Unclaimed pets are incinerated after four weeks.

My local authority’s response seems sensible and humane, and all councils should adopt it. Handheld scanners are inexpensive and take only a few minutes to use. The point has been well made that councils are already in possession of scanners because of the laws relating to dogs. It would save so much heartache if all councils adopted that practice. It would allow the pet to be buried or cremated with dignity, and would give their owners the chance to say goodbye and get closure.

The charity Cats Protection supports the compulsory microchipping of cats, which is one of its 2022 agenda priorities. It says that “cats are not political”, although some cats, such as Larry the No. 10 cat, might dispute that. Larry frequently comments on the political issues of the day via his Twitter feed, which may have just a hint of human assistance. At the moment, Larry is extremely concerned about whether the next incumbent of No. 10 has a cat allergy. I wish that was all we had to worry about.

Cats Protection is seeking cross-party support for its 2022 agenda. Compulsory microchipping for owned cats would allow more pets to be reunited with their owners and would enable owners to be contacted if their cat is involved in a road traffic accident. It also stresses the importance of keeping microchip details up to date if the owner moves house, for example. Those proposals are supported by the Labour party’s animal welfare plan, which calls for mandatory microchipping for cats, and a requirement for motorists to report all accidents in which an animal had been incurred or killed. The natural consequence of that would be that all councils put in place a policy on scanning cats as well as dogs—a simple step that would save so much heartache.

There are many good reasons to bring about this change in the law, and not one reason why we should not. It is clear that it has cross-party support, so let’s just do it.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP) - Hansard
17 Jun 2019, 5:24 p.m.

Like everybody else who has contributed, I am delighted to participate in this debate. I thank the Petitions Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for his well informed and comprehensive speech to kick off the debate.

Like everybody else in the Chamber, I am hugely fond of animals. We all appreciate the importance of family pets. I may completely divide public opinion across the UK, but I wish to confess on the record that I am a cat lover and have had pet cats in the past. I had a cat call Kitty and a stray cat who my family took in at my behest. We called her Misty because she had a misty past and we did not know where she came from, but she was very keen to stay with us. Like the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), I suffer from the lack of a cat at the moment, not having sufficient time to look after and care for one in the way that cats demand. I declare an interest: I am a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on cats. A number of hon. Members in the Chamber confessed to me that they did not know that there was such a group. They are all very welcome to come along.

If, as the petition calls for, all cats are scanned for a microchip when they are lost, injured or killed, it makes nothing but logical sense that all cats ought to be required by law to be microchipped if this policy is to have any real coherence. Family pets add so much value to our lives and help us to maintain better mental health, whatever our age. They play a significant role in combating loneliness, especially, but not exclusively, for older people.

Everyone understands that the compulsory microchipping of dogs has been very positive, so why is the same not the case for cats? As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said, every animal—every cat—matters. A cat’s life is worth the same as any dog’s life. Dogs are required to be microchipped, and drivers are required to report if they are involved in an accident with them.

In an ideal world, we would all make every effort to have our cats microchipped, because there are significant benefits to cats and cat owners in doing so. The SNP Government in Scotland have long recommended the microchipping of cats as best practice in their code of practice for the welfare of cats. Responsible cat owners want to do what is best for their cat’s welfare, and it is important that they are able to avail themselves of this option. It is always better to encourage people to do something, rather than force them. If all owners were fully informed of the benefits of microchipping their cats, I am sure that the vast majority—many more than currently do so—would be keen to take up that offer. Many cat owners do not think about losing their cat or about their cat having an accident until it happens, so they do not prioritise microchipping, and by the time they do, it is too late. If the law right across the UK required all cats to be microchipped, and councils by necessity played their part, it would save a lot of distress to cat owners and cats themselves, and in the event of loss or injury, it could save a cat’s life.

The Scottish and UK Governments have yet to be persuaded of the merits of compulsory microchipping for cats. I do not really understand why, as we already have compulsory microchipping for dogs. Those of us who believe that it is a good idea therefore need to continue to make the case to persuade them that it is the right thing to do. I believe that it is the right thing to do for cats and cat owners, and it is the right thing to do from an animal welfare perspective, from any angle we choose to look at it. If chipping is compulsory, local authorities will of necessity scan all cats that are lost, killed or injured. Given that dogs are already microchipped, this is not such a great leap from current practice, as the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton said. Clearly, some cat owners will not microchip their cat unless it is an absolute requirement, so in the end animal welfare requires us to make this a legislative matter.

Ross Thomson Hansard
17 Jun 2019, 5:29 p.m.

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady. I want to work with her and colleagues to ensure that the law is changed, both across Scotland and in the rest of the UK. Does she agree that, if we secure compulsory microchipping and scanning, it would be beneficial to have one centralised database, so that when a missing cat or dog is found it is really easy to get the data from the database and reunite the pet with its owner? At the moment, it is far too complex. The Government really need to look at having one centralised database.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson - Hansard
17 Jun 2019, 5:31 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. A centralised database is particularly important for cats, rather than perhaps dogs, because cats, as we know, often wander extremely far from home, and may wander into a completely different part of the country. A centralised database would make a lot of sense. I will press the Scottish Government on compulsory microchipping for cats. The matter is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and I hope that MPs representing constituencies in England will likewise press the UK Government and the Minister, who I am sure is listening carefully.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk rightly pointed out that local authorities across the UK have a confused and patchy policy on scanning for microchips. It is clear that the reason for such patchy and inconsistent practices across local authorities is because there is no compulsory microchipping. If we sort that out—local authorities will do their duty and follow the law if it is changed—it will reconcile thousands of lost, killed and injured cats with their grateful owners.

I am not a particularly prolific user of social media; I tend to post whatever I want to post and then log off. However, almost every time I log on to social media, like the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) I see posts from worried pet owners—overwhelmingly cat owners—who are desperately worried about their family pet, who has wandered off and seems to be lost or worse.

Having been a pet owner myself, I completely understand, as I am sure everyone in the Chamber does, how worrying it is when a beloved pet cat does not come home, and the owner does not know whether it is lost or in distress, whether it is trapped somewhere and cannot get back home, or whether it has even met with some terrible accident. Not knowing whether we will ever see a beloved pet again is extremely distressing.

We have heard that it cannot be underestimated just how much a part of the family our pets become. It is a really distressing experience for any pet owner to go through. If a cat seems to be lost, and if it is microchipped and microchipping is enshrined by law, it is extremely likely that when it is found it will be returned to its owner, as their details will be contained in the microchip that will be scanned by the local authorities. I honestly cannot see any downside to that idea.

Compulsory microchipping and local authorities scanning microchips are inherently intertwined. The patchy and inconsistent scanning that we have heard about today cannot continue in all good conscience. We have heard from the UK Government and the Scottish Government that it is best practice to microchip a cat. If that is the case, then it must be better practice, by definition, for all cats to be microchipped—by law, if necessary. It must be even better practice for local authorities to fulfil what would become a legal duty to scan cats that are lost, injured or killed, so that owners can be informed.

I have heard some people argue that this is not necessary because a cat can wear a collar with the owner’s contact details, and that works just as well. Although that is better than nothing, it is not as secure a safeguard as a microchip; collars can become loose and untangled, and be lost. There are no such worries with a microchip.

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home is unequivocal in its view that microchipping is the most effective way of ensuring that a cat can be safely reunited with its owner quickly, together with recording its medical and domestic history. In 2018, it was able to reunite 333 lost cats with their owners because they were microchipped. We can increase that number with compulsory microchipping, which will, of necessity, mean compulsory scanning by local authorities.

As we have heard, drivers are required by law to stop and report incidents of hitting a

“horse, cattle, ass, mule, sheep, pig, goat or dog”,

but not a cat. This seems an odd omission that must be addressed. I know several people who have found a poor dead cat at the side of a road, after it has been hit by a vehicle as it tried to cross the road. That is deeply distressing and makes the loss of a beloved pet all the more difficult to come to terms with. It is as if the poor cat, who was like a member of its own family, was discarded in a way that suggests it simply did not matter. To all of us who consider ourselves animal lovers, that cannot be right. Research has shown that over 60% of people in the UK believe that the law should be changed and that drivers who knock down a cat should have to report that as well. Why should cats continue to be excluded?

When a driver hits a dog with their car and fails to report it to the police, they can be fined up to £5,000. The fact that they are under no obligation to make a report when they hit a cat is deeply unfair. We understand that dogs are more likely to inflict damage; there is insurance and liability to consider, and dogs are supposed to be on leads on the highway, so perhaps their owners have been negligent. Despite that, the current situation continues to be deeply unfair and distressing to cats and their owners, as the hon. Member for Strangford and others indicated.

Every year, countless cats are left to die alone, sometimes slowly and in pain, before being dumped in landfill, when they could perhaps have been saved with treatment or their grieving owners could have been given the opportunity to say a proper goodbye. If drivers knock down a dog—or even an ass—they cannot flee the scene without reporting it to the police. Cats must not be seen as less worthy or less important to their owners. If it were illegal for a driver to fail to report the knocking down of a cat, a compulsory microchip in the cat would mean the owner would be notified in the appropriate way by the local authority, instead of them being left to wonder what happened to their beloved family pet, perhaps for years.

Many local councils might argue that they do not have the resources to purchase scanning machines for microchipped cats. I pay tribute to Cats Protection, which has worked with local authorities across the UK for some time, donating scanning machines to those that struggle to afford or prioritise providing them. A number of local authorities have been able to commit to adhering to a scanning policy, as a direct result of those efforts. That is important as it is believed that of approximately 11 million pet cats in the UK, over 230,000 die on our roads each year. Charities such as CatsMatter believe this figure could be higher, due to under-reporting. For fear of banging on, if the law were changed to ensure compulsory microchipping, local authorities would prioritise purchasing scanning machines to comply with that law.

I pay tribute to North Ayrshire Cats Protection; it does sterling work and has some really dedicated volunteers whom I met shortly after I was elected. I had the good fortune and pleasure of meeting Fonzie the cat, with whom I was quite taken.

We have heard voices in the Chamber calling for cats to be microchipped and for improvements in scanning procedures in the event of misadventure, so that cats can be returned to their owners. For me, it follows that all cats ought to be microchipped for the same reason. Where we cannot persuade—and we have not persuaded everybody—we have to compel owners; it is the right thing to do. I support this petition and would go further, as I have set out. We need a coherent, joined-up policy, and I urge the Minister to consider compulsory microchipping, which will also deliver routine scanning by local authorities of cats who are lost or injured.

Make no mistake; I will pursue the Scottish Government about this matter. I ask the Minister to set about correcting the matter for cats in England, as I will seek to address it for the cats in Scotland.

Dr David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op) Hansard
17 Jun 2019, 5:39 p.m.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I know that if you were not in the Chair you would be speaking in the debate, but unfortunately you have to keep mum. I hope we have done enough, and that you feel our representations have fully covered the matter.

The issue has been covered well, with excellent speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), and a number of interventions, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Frith), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). I should expect nothing else, as a fellow cat lover. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is as expert on this subject as on everything else, also contributed, and there were interventions from the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson). I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for introducing the debate. He covered nearly all the issues, and what he did not cover was dealt with comprehensively by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), so I am left with an unenviable task: there is nothing for me to say because it has all been said. However, I want to give some personal witness, and to make an offer to the Minister.

I shall start with the offer. As has been said, the change in question is a small amendment to the Road Traffic Act 1988. I thank Battersea, Blue Cross and Cats Protection for giving us full briefings. The amendment would insert the word “cat” into the list of animals in section 170(8) of the 1988 Act. On behalf of the Opposition, I make the offer to the Government to help them in doing that. We will play no politics in any way, and will just get the amendment in place. I do not know whether the change could be made by statutory instrument. That would be good, but we are willing to work with the Government. It would be a minor change, but an important one, which is why we are here.

The petition was signed by more than 100,000 people. For those who have had the experiences we have heard about, it is emotional. To give personal witness, I have had three cats that were knocked down: Wolfie, Tiggy and Darcy. The first and third I had to go and find myself, and the second was found and taken to the local vet. All my cats are microchipped. We were able to bury Tiggy’s ashes in the garden after he was incinerated. It is a very emotional thing. At any one time I have five cats using the catflaps in my house, and I think there are more, as we are generous with the amount of food we put out. I am a cat lover. To declare an interest, I am secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on cats—it is good to see my fellow member, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran, here. The group is not necessarily very political, but in one respect the issue is political, because we are asking the Government to change the law. The change we seek would be limited, but we hope that, if nothing else, it will mean that people can say goodbye to their animal if it is knocked over and dies. Alternatively, if an animal is injured, hopefully something might be done to safe its life.

I will go on to my hobby-horse—although not for long—about what happens when someone knocks an animal over. Accidents happen, but most are preventable. It is purely bad driving. People drive far too fast and therefore they are responsible. My view of driving has always been that it is a privilege rather than a right. This is nothing to do with cats, but it is pertinent. There are a number of commons in my constituency, and every year cows and horses are put on to them. The Minister will know the reason for that: it is the only way to keep the grass down and maintain the quality of biodiversity on very important commons. Every year 10 to 12 cattle or horses are knocked down. If someone hits one of those animals it will not do a lot of good to their vehicle, let alone to them, but it is because they have been driving too fast. The other day at dusk I was going at about 15 to 20 mph, because it was difficult to see. Two idiots went past me doing at least 40 mph or 50 mph. They would not have had a chance of avoiding a cow or horse. It makes you think, “What planet are these people on?” Sadly, the owner of such an animal has to deal with the carcase, as it is usually dead. It is even worse if it is dying, as a vet has to be got to euthanise the animal painlessly. I do not understand why people do not see that it is their responsibility if they knock over an animal. I would widen that view to include wild animals, given the number of badgers, foxes and so on that get killed. If someone hits an animal, it is dangerous to them as well as the animal. A lot of road accidents are caused by people driving far too fast and then hitting something.

We are talking about cats. Most are somebody’s pet and really important to that person. People know when they have hit something. I am sorry, but it is not explicable by saying “Oh, I didn’t realise I hit it.” People should always stop and think, “Maybe they did run out. Maybe I had no chance. I hit them, and I therefore at least have to do something about it.” It is a criminal offence if someone hits a dog and does not report it. If their number is taken, they can be dealt with. We have put that into law. I ask the Minister, with the best of intentions: can we just include cats? Cats are, next to dogs, probably the second most popular pet. There are also many feral cats, which probably increase the numbers dramatically. That is why I am in favour of neutering, and have always done things in the past to encourage those campaigns. Certainly, Cats Protection will always neuter cats, usually for free, if people bring them along. That is why I also believe in microchipping. I support the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran in her view that microchipping should be compulsory, because we want to control cat numbers. That is right and appropriate.

We recognise that people who have a pet have a responsibility, but so do others who, perhaps in a genuine accident, knock an animal over. They should report it and ensure that the person who has undergone that loss can at least know what happened to the animal. The worst thing possible is when someone’s animal has gone missing and they do not know for days, or sometimes weeks, what has happened. There have been good cases when animals have been lost for 10 years or more and suddenly returned, although those involve very strange circumstances.

I ask the Minister in good faith whether we can make the proposed change. It may not be easy, but I hope that it could be done through secondary legislation. If it is put on the agenda, we will genuinely support it. I make that commitment. There will not be any funny games: we will not suddenly say, “We’re going to include other animals.” Let us keep it to cats. That is what the petition is about. That is what people want us to do.

I hope that the Minister will say some good things. At the moment, the Government have not committed to microchipping, as they should, for the reasons I have given, or to including cats in the list of animals that should be reportable if knocked over. It is not much to ask. Most people are horrified if they knock an animal over. Sadly, there are those who seem rather indifferent, but they should not be driving anyway, in my opinion, because they are a danger. It could be a child—that is the repercussion. We know how dangerously some people drive, and I am always mystified by how few people are banned at any one time, given how many people I see when I cycle around who seem to drive incredibly badly, and to be indifferent. We have to deal with that issue, but the debate today is on a narrower issue and we are talking about cats. If someone knocks a cat over, they should have to report it. They should deal with it, because that is the right and humane thing to do.