Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 300010 and 300025, relating to microchipping of pets.
The laws called for in the petitions are known as Fern’s law and Tuk’s law. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. Today we debate an issue that is close to the hearts of many hon. Members and their families, as well as the millions of pet owners around the country. As the proud father to Bella, my cavachon, and Bailey, my cavapoochon, I am horrified by the thought of ever losing them. I did have a scare recently when I was walking Bella in Bathpool park in Kidsgrove for her first birthday. Something spooked her and she ran off, leaving my partner and me frantic as we searched for her. Three and a half hours later, and with the support of the incredible Greyhound Gap team, led by the tenacious Lisa Cartwright, she was found—shaken but well. Pets are more than just animals; they really are members of the family, and when they go missing, the other family members are left devastated.
Before I start, I want to thank all those who have given up their time to help me to prepare for today. I thank the Fern’s Law team, who comprise Debbie Matthews of Vets Get Scanning and the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance; Dr Daniel Allen of Keele University and Pet Theft Reform; Marc Abraham OBE of the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group and Lucy’s law; Sarah Dixon of Focus On Animal Law and Flop Not Crop; and Freya Woodhall, founder of Let’s Get Willow Home. I also thank Dawn Ashley, Sue Williams and Dominic Dyer, animal welfare campaigners and members of the Tuk’s Law campaign. In addition, I thank all those campaigners who have been working tirelessly to support bereaved pet owners and to bring microchipping to the attention of this place.
I will take the two petitions in turn and try to keep the two clearly separate, as they are on distinct issues, albeit that both relate to microchipping. I will start with Fern’s law. That campaign is calling for it to be made compulsory for veterinary practices to scan a pet when it is presented for the first consultation, or at its yearly check-up. The campaign, known as Vets Get Scanning, was started by Debbie Matthews after her two Yorkshire terriers, Gizmo and Widget, were stolen from her car in 2006. Within the first 24 hours, Debbie found out that the police regarded the theft of her dogs as not important enough to attend the scene, saying, “As it’s only dogs, we won’t come out.” Thankfully, with the help of her father, Sir Bruce Forsyth, Debbie was in a position to launch a major campaign to get her dogs back, and the people who had bought Gizmo and Widget came forward after just one week.
However, for many owners, there is not a happy ending; and sadly, because pet theft is a low-risk, high-reward crime, it is on the rise. The scale of the problem is clear. Roughly 20,000 dogs and cats are listed on DogLost as missing. Debbie named her campaign Fern’s law after a stray cocker-springer spaniel cross who was stolen from her home in Malden, Surrey in April 2013. Fern was reunited with her owners only in 2019. Fern was in a pretty sorry state, having been used for breeding during those six years. After a veterinary check-up, there was evidence that Fern had been taken to a vet for a medical procedure during that time, but because it is not compulsory for vets to scan dogs for microchips when they are first presented, Fern was not reunited with her family for years. That was a missed opportunity. How many other dogs and cats have been lost this way?
It was only when Fern was abandoned and a kind soul brought her to another vet as a stray that she was reunited with her owners. This is one of the contradictions of the issue. It seems that vets are happy to scan dogs brought in as strays, but sold-on and kept-by-finding missing dogs and cats that have a new keeper are not always scanned. It takes the same amount of time to scan a dog brought in as a stray as it does to scan one brought in by an owner, so why cannot vets scan dogs by default?
The other contradiction is that since 2016 it has been compulsory to have a dog microchipped. Microchips are sold to owners as a permanent marker with traceability, as a way to discourage pet theft, and as the best way to be reunited with their pets if they are stolen. But if microchipping is designed to reunite missing pets with their owners, what is the point of having it when it is not compulsory for vets to scan the microchip at a pet’s first veterinary treatment?
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs held a consultation on making cat microchipping compulsory. Once again, however, what is the point if vets and others do not have to scan them? Many missing pets are never reunited with their owners, because it is optional for vets to scan and check microchip registration on the original database to ensure that pets and their owners match. If just one organisation is not committed to scan and check microchip registration, the whole system fails and is not fit for purpose.
The Fern’s law campaigners want legislation to replace the current best practice recommendations from the British Veterinary Association, which, although they have been strengthened, are only optional guidelines. As Marc Abraham OBE said to me:
“Vets are missing a trick by not scanning dogs as standard. It is not a complicated procedure to scan a dog. It does not need to be done by a vet. The receptionist could do it while the owner is waiting in reception.”
It seems like a no-brainer to me and I very much hope that, following its consultation, DEFRA will make it compulsory for veterinarians to check microchips.
I will move on to the next petition, which is about Tuk’s law. It has been started to make it a legal requirement that no healthy animal can be destroyed by a vet without the vet first scanning the animal’s microchip, to confirm that the person requesting euthanasia has the authority to do so and that the dual registration contact detail—that is, an animal rescue and owner—on the microchip is assessed and honoured.
The campaign is named after Tuk, a 16-month-old rescue animal that was euthanised in December 2017. He was not scanned prior to euthanasia and his rescue back-ups were not contacted or notified of his death. This is an important point. Typically, animal rescue organisations microchip pets in their care at the time of carrying out essential healthcare treatments, such as vaccinating, spaying or neutering. This usually occurs when new owners have been found for the pet, so the details registered for the microchips belong to the rescue. Once animals are rehomed, rescues remain a presence in their life, offering rescue back-up to new owners for the duration of the pet’s life. They remain on hand for advice and if owners are no longer able to cope with or care for the pet, the rescue organisation’s contract typically stipulates that the pet returns to its care, and it will then try to find alternative care. Tuk had full rescue back-up details on his microchip, but despite that and despite the fact that he was presented for euthanasia by an individual who was not his registered keeper, he was euthanised.
As I have said, our pets become family members and the thought of what happened to Tuk happening to one of my dogs is truly horrific. The Tuk’s law petitioners shared details with my team of some tragic cases where pets were taken in by neighbours who had them euthanised, simply because they did not like them or the way they behaved. The youngest dog that was mentioned was only six months old.
I am told that 98% of vets have been presented with a healthy pet to be euthanised simply because of their behaviour. Tuk’s law asks for vets to be compelled to scan microchips and contact the registered keeper and rescue back-up when a healthy and treatable animal is presented to them for euthanasia, in order to prevent harrowing cases such as that of Tuk from ever happening again.
I was pleased to hear that progress on this campaign has been made, and the BVA has worked with the campaign and Government to strengthen its guidance to vets. The new guidance, which underpins the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons’ code of professional conduct, advises that veterinary surgeons should scan for a microchip in dogs prior to euthanasia, where, in their professional judgment, destruction of the dog is not necessary on animal health or welfare grounds.
That is a welcome change, but the Tuk’s law campaigners argue that it does not go far enough. They argue that the new code needs to be publicised and enforced to save the lives of many dogs. The petitioners make it clear that action is needed quickly because there is a ticking time bomb coming down the road.
During the pandemic, we were all required to stay home and—quite reasonably—many people got a pet to help them to cope with the sudden dislocation from their normal lives; I did so myself. However, having a dog that needs walking every day is easy enough when the Government are telling people to stay at home; it is less easy when people need to be in the office again from nine-to-five. It is estimated that close to 1.5 million dogs were adopted or bought during the pandemic. As life returns to normal, many owners will realise that they cannot care for their dogs properly any more. Campaigners are seriously worried that, as a result, many healthy dogs will be brought in for euthanasia.
Dominic Dyer from the Tuk’s law campaign says that the situation is expected to be even worse than the 2008 financial crash, when many families realised they could no longer care for their dog. I recognise that the BVA has concerns about making Tuk’s law a legal requirement; it argues that it could inadvertently create problems not only for the veterinary profession but for the pets and owners that it seeks to protect. However, as Dominic made clear, we are on the cusp of potentially many thousands of dogs being given up by their owners. I am concerned that the current guidelines may not be strong enough.
An issue identified by both sets of petitioners is the need for a centralised database of microchipped pets. Currently, there is a complicated situation of 16 different national pet microchip databases recognised by DEFRA. Most databases offer the availability of a quick microchip database search. The technology already exists to create a centralised database—one only has to consider the centralised database of motor insurance. Dr Sharon Alston was kind enough to share her experience of working on such a system for microchipped animals in Ireland in the build-up to today’s debate. A centralised database would be available to the police, vets, authorities and rescues, for easy access to microchip registration and quick reunifications.
The current system makes it much harder for owners to be reunited with their pets, even in cases where vets scan, but it does work. The BVA also recognises the lack of a centralised database as a key stumbling block for vets trying to reunite lost or stolen dogs, but when Debbie asked the association if a centralised database would be the key to compulsory microchip checks, the answer was no.
On GDPR and reporting scanned missing pets, there would not be a breach for RCVS and BVA if the details are requested by the police as part of an investigation triggered by reports in the microchip database by the veterinary clinic. There seems to be a misconception that the obligation to report to the police falls on vets—it does not. The obligation to report rests on the chipping companies, which will contact the registered keeper.
I have probably gone on for long enough, and I am eager to hear what other Members have to say about the two petitions. All I will add is that Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and the Kennel Club have given their support to both petitions. I am a supporter of Fern’s law, as someone who firmly believed that every time I took my dogs to the vets they were being scanned and checked. The fact that that is not happening gravely concerns me. My veterinary practice is delighted that I have become educated on that, following the emails I sent to make sure it never happens again.
I would like to believe that vets in any circumstances would already check microchips before euthanising a dog. I believe the vast majority of veterinarians would do such a thing—there is not a mass number of people disobeying the rules and guidance sent to them. Although Tuk’s law should be taken into consideration, I like to believe in the goodness of the human spirit, and that vets are doing the correct and appropriate thing before ever having to do something as hard as putting down an animal, be it one that is sick or one that is well.
I am pleased to see the Minister and the shadow Minister here today, and I look forward to hearing their responses and the outcome of the consultation, hopefully in the very near future.