Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill

George Eustice Excerpts
Monday 5th December 2022

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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George Eustice Portrait George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con)
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I feel quite close to the Bill, since it has my name on the cover and started its passage through Parliament all those days ago when I was Secretary of State. I will not spend all of my time going through the various matters that it covers; others will no doubt do that. The issues were also dealt with at some length by the Conservative party before we put most of them in our 2019 Conservative manifesto. The matters covered by the Bill were then debated somewhat exhaustively in Government during the last Session; the Minister was then Chief Whip, and was party to some of those discussions. The Bill has also already been debated at some length in Parliament, having passed both Second Reading and Committee stage.

The Bill is packed with commitments from the Conservative manifesto, including totemic measures such as the ban on live exports, which we would have been unable to introduce as an EU member. It toughens up the rules on the importation of puppies, to deal with a long-standing problem there. Finally, it would ban keeping primates as pets. It is a popular Bill that has near-universal public support, and the Government should now find the time to proceed to Report as quickly as possible.

We often hear representations in these situations about the lack of parliamentary time; again, my right hon. Friend the Minister knows how business managers will play on the issue of parliamentary time. However, I do not think lack of parliamentary time is a particularly persuasive argument in the case of this Bill, given the stage it has reached; it probably needs only about five hours to get through Report. Then, of course, it goes to the House of Lords, and our noble Friends in the Lords like to be kept active. We must not disappoint them; it is important that we keep them busy. There are plenty of hours between midnight and 4 am, for instance, during which the Bill can keep moving, provided that consideration of it commences at the right time in the other place.

I point out to the Minister that when it comes to animal welfare, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has already made an offer to parliamentary business managers that freed up parliamentary time. As he knows, the Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill was once to have been a Government Bill, but it was decided at the beginning of this Session that we would try to progress it as a private Member’s Bill, so DEFRA has already made an important down payment to business managers, giving them time.

Arguments about a lack of parliamentary time will be unpersuasive. I hope that the Minister will not make such an argument. I have every confidence that he will not. If there is doubt about whether the Government will take the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill forward, it will be down to something else: a lack of confidence somewhere in Government about navigating the Bill through Parliament. I understand that, and will address it.

Tracey Crouch Portrait Tracey Crouch
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My right hon. Friend has been a strong advocate for animal welfare improvements over many years. Although it is infuriating that it has taken so long to get some things through Parliament, he has done so, while showing great insight and interest in these matters. Does he agree that it is slightly strange that this Bill, which is supported wholeheartedly by all animal welfare charities, is being delayed, yet we are finding parliamentary time for the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which animal welfare charities have concerns about? That Bill is racing through both Houses.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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My hon. Friend makes an important point. I would find time for both of them, because I am also very committed to the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, but I understand that animal welfare issues can be contentious and emotive. Some veterans of the last Parliament may recall that when the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019 was being passed, there was a controversy about whether some largely irrelevant recitals in EU law about the existence of animal sentience should be brought into a British Act of Parliament. At the time, the legal advice was that those words would behave in a very different way when placed in a British Act of Parliament than they did as some benign, largely irrelevant recital in EU law, and that therefore we had to think more carefully about how to do that.

At the time, many Conservative MPs received Twitter abuse from people saying, “You’ve just voted to say that animals don’t feel pain.” That was always a lie. No Member of this House voted to say such a thing; people voted to say that the way the EU provision was drafted did not work correctly in UK law. That is why we had to revisit the matter, which is exactly what we did with the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022. When it was introduced, there were anxieties that it could become a Christmas tree Bill, and that there would be all sorts of difficult amendments, but in the end it progressed without incident. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it turned out to be perhaps the least controversial Bill that the Government passed in the last Session. The Animal Sentience Committee is about to be set up. It already has, in Michael Seals, a sensible, illustrious chair, and it is ready to go.

I think we can avoid the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill becoming a Christmas tree Bill. It is open to the Government to determine the long titles of Bills, to ensure that they remain focused on the subject that the Government intend to address. That issue was thought about at some length when we designed the structure of the Bill, and other Bills. As a result, the Bill has a very tight long title. That was by design, not accident. Also, a huge amount of thought has already been given in the Department to a handling strategy to navigate the Bill through its various stages of Parliament. I have had discussions with the Minister on that, and I do not want to give away to those present what a concession strategy might be, but virtually every conceivable amendment to the Bill has been thought about in advance, and can be managed.

Some of us voted to leave the European Union because we really wanted to take back control. We wanted to make our own laws and be a genuinely self-governing country once again, but with that comes a responsibility, in some ways. We cannot just hide behind the EU and expect it to do our dirty work, or to do difficult, contentious things on our behalf, as we often used to on animal welfare issues. We cannot blame the European Union any more. We have to take ownership, including of difficult, contentious or even emotive issues, and we must challenge ourselves to avoid a tendency to duck and dive and get by without tackling those difficult decisions.

I hope that the Government will have the courage to grasp this Bill and move it forward, recognising that there could be some emotive or contentious issues to be managed. I believe that Parliament must develop the maturity to be able to debate these issues sensibly. There is a good precedent in proceedings on the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022, in that although Members in all parts of the House tabled probing amendments, they recognised that, ultimately, they had to be sensible and responsible to ensure that the Bill entered the statute book. I therefore believe that we can do this.

I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that although helpful Back Benchers—including helpful Back Benchers our side—have tabled a number of probing amendments, he should not be spooked by that. As one who started this Bill, I am willing to help Ministers and play my part in ensuring that we manage those probing amendments by explaining to certain hon. Members why certain amendments might not be necessary after all.

Craig Mackinlay Portrait Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet) (Con)
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I thank my right hon. Friend for raising issues of Brexit in his observations. I know he will be aware, but I will emphasise it here, of the absolute fiasco that happened at Ramsgate port back in September 2012, when more than 40 animals had to be euthanised because of the appalling vessel that was used for the cross-channel live animal exports. That has been a stain on Ramsgate, and I salute Kent Action Against Live Exports and others who have kept the issue alive. My right hon. Friend came down and joined me to see what was happening there. Activists are frustrated that, post Brexit, progress has not been made. I am sure that he would join me in recommending that the Government take that to a conclusion sooner rather than later.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, I remember visiting Ramsgate and having to deal with that case, which was even worse than he describes, as Thanet District Council had to pay more than £2 million in compensation to the foreign company, which took it to court for trying to put in place a localised ban. That is the kind of thing that used to happen when we were in the European Union. We now have the power to prevent that happening, and that is why I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries to work with us—with Conservative Members; we are all on his side—to ensure that the Bill is carried through Parliament. We only need about five hours for Report stage. I ask the same of Opposition Members.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies
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Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, because of the botched Brexit, we have ended up with a situation where we have been forced to have those Australian trade deals, which he has criticised, at a rapid pace, which will give rise to importing badly treated animals? The problems of pregnant dogs being brought over and abused on a great scale, which I mentioned earlier, is also a result of our not having the harmonised border control that we would have in the single market. The idea that we are better off is absurd.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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I do not want this debate to drift too far into the historical question about leaving the European Union. Suffice it to say that I strongly disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I want us to have an independent trade policy, but I want us to take a more muscular approach to those trade agreements. I made that point some weeks ago. As I said, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will find the time in the next few weeks to take this Bill through to Report.

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James Daly Portrait James Daly (Bury North) (Con)
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I always agree with every word said by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), and I endorse every single word of her powerful speech today. Everyone who has chosen to participate in this debate will say that, quite simply, the Bill is a good piece of legislation. It is needed, and we encourage the Government to get it on the statute book at the earliest opportunity. This debate gives Members an opportunity to discuss issues related to the Bill, which is important. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) said, Conservative Back Benchers will do nothing that will risk the Bill making the statute book. However, we are able—quite rightly—to raise concerns and suggest additions. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon did just that when she raised concerns that cats are excluded from the new offence of taking a dog without lawful authority.

I want to comment on the scope of the Bill. Perhaps it is my tender years in this place, but I look to the eminence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) to correct me if anything I say is wrong. I think we all received a brief from the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation. We are told that the Bill is broad-ranging and includes farm animals and domestic pets. I took that as a starting point, and asked what the phrase “kept animals” means if we take it away from the nature of the Bill. I could not find a satisfactory dictionary definition, so I went to the Bill’s long title, which says the Bill is to

“make provision about the welfare of certain kept animals that are...imported into, or exported from Great Britain.”

It appears that the scope of the Bill relates to the import and export of farm animals and domestic pets, but that does not seem to be the case. As we have just heard, one of the provisions relates directly to an offence that can only be committed when taking a dog without lawful authority in the jurisdiction of this country. The Bill presents an opportunity for the Government to consider not many amendments, but probing amendments that are not simply related to import or export—however important those issues are.

We need to look at the scope of the Bill in relation to pets and domestic animals. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon said, the reason for that is important to us all. My dog Bertie is my best mate; he is part of my family. I will take any opportunity I get to talk about animals and how we treat domestic pets. The scope of the Bill hopefully allows us to do that. I stand to be corrected if I am wrong.

You would expect me, Mr Hollobone, to take the opportunity to refer to the Pets (Microchips) Bill—my private Member’s Bill that I have put before the House on three occasions. I will briefly mention why it is appropriate to talk about this issue, and to at least consider it being part of the provisions of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. Gizmo’s law, which is part of my Bill, comes from a campaign run by a lady called Helena Abrahams from Bury North. As her constituency MP, I have a duty to talk about that campaign; it has been going on for many years.

Many Members may not know this, but if a cat is found deceased in a local authority area, the general action of a council—not all councils, because I am sure that some councils will be outraged by what I am about to say—is that that cat is immediately disposed of in landfill. There is no scanning of the microchip; there is no attempt to reunite that cat with its owner. When we consider the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon made, namely that cats as well as dogs are valued members of our families and a part of who we are as individuals, we should at least consider whether legislation can be brought in to address that situation.

Working with a pet food company, the Gizmo’s law campaign has been able to provide scanners to all local authorities in the country to allow them to scan a cat to see whether there is a contact address, and then to give the owner the opportunity to come and collect that cat, if that is what they want to do; if not, the cat will be disposed of. At the heart of a Bill that is about the best of animal welfare, the cost of such a scheme is not even minimal; the cost is non-existent. However, it could be a positive addition to the Bill.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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My hon. Friend raises a really important issue relating to what is called Gizmo’s law. I know that the Department has looked at this issue multiple times over many years. Indeed, four or five years ago, it was a requirement for the Highways Agency to scan animals—that was an administrative requirement handed down by the Department for Transport. However, does he not think that that may be something that could be addressed in a non-legislative way, such as simply making it a condition of some of the grants that local authorities receive, so that they actually show the due diligence to scan roadkill cats and dogs when they encounter them?

James Daly Portrait James Daly
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As ever, my right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. However, I would argue that legislation is the correct vehicle for doing this. Establishing a legal duty reflects what I hope would be Parliament’s view as to the necessity for such a condition. However, I fully accept the point that has been made and his suggestion may well be another way of dealing with this matter.

The second part of my private Member’s Bill is Tuk’s law. In different circumstances, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), with his expertise in this area, would be able to correct what I am about to say. In essence, however, a person might take a healthy animal to a veterinary surgeon and they say to a vet—again, this only occurs very infrequently—that they would like, for whatever reason, a healthy dog to be euthanised or put down. That has happened in the past and it continues to happen infrequently.

Tuk’s law would require veterinary surgeons and veterinary staff to scan what is called the rescue back-up—the chip that is on the dog—which would highlight the breeder or somebody else, at least to give that healthy dog an opportunity for a life, or a different set of circumstances. Whatever the reason is that a healthy dog is brought into a veterinary surgeon, we should be doing everything possible, if that dog is not a threat to human beings, to rehouse it elsewhere. Tuk’s law is a duty to do that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border and I have had the opportunity to discuss this issue and we will not turn it into a debate now. However, for a Bill—I have talked about its scope before—that aims to address directly how we as a Parliament and we as a country view our beloved animals, whether they are farm animals or pets, it is an important matter that should be considered in the round when this Bill is brought back. It is a good Bill and I wholeheartedly support every comment that has been made so far.

I have talked to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about my private Member’s Bill. If the Minister wishes to discuss it with me further, I am happy to do so at any point. It is a good private Member’s Bill, it costs nothing, and it adds to the great strides that our Government have taken in respect of animal welfare since we came into power in 2019.

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Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Twigg. I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for moving the motion on behalf of the Petitions Committee. It is rare to speak in such a consensual and constructive debate. It has been a real pleasure to listen to the knowledgeable contributions of all Members here.

I suppose that the simple question to the Minister is: where is the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill? I could just ask that question and then sit down again, but, sadly, I am not going to, because I would like to—[Interruption.] I will be brief, but I do have a few things that need to be said.

This issue spans the whole of the UK, and I think it speaks volumes that the top 10 constituencies by signature span Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, as well as England. I would acknowledge all of those people across the United Kingdom who signed the petition, including those top 10 by signature—East Londonderry, Ynys Môn, East Antrim, South Antrim, Mid Ulster, North Antrim, South Down, Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Livingston, and North Down.

We all know that involvement and engagement with our democratic processes can, at times, seem difficult, so I am pleased that many people across the UK, including almost 400 people from my own constituency of Newport West, have signed the petition. I thank them for ensuring that their voices have been heard, and I hope that the Minister will go back to his Department and urge the new Secretary of State to get on with it and start delivering.

The benefit of such a focused debate is that there is no excuse for rambling, dithering or delay, so I will be brief. To be clear, Labour supports the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, and, indeed, we want to strengthen it. That is why we have tabled a number of amendments for the Report stage of the Bill. More than anything, we want the Bill back before the House and speedily signed into law. We believe in honouring animal welfare, and will always push for the strongest possible animal welfare policies. Those are not just words; we mean it, and all Members who have had the chance in the recent months and years to work with us know that we mean what we say.

I would like to thank all the stakeholders, campaigners and organisations who work, day in and day out, to fight for the welfare of our natural wildlife, our animals and our pets, and for this country to show real and meaningful leadership. Many of those people and organisations sent helpful briefings before the debate, and those briefings have been cited and referenced by many colleagues this afternoon.

As the RSPCA put it in its excellent briefing, today is a chance for the House to urge Ministers to do what they have promised, to honour their word and to get things done. It is important that the Bill is brought back to the House and that it is signed into law. The Opposition support it, the people across our United Kingdom support it, and, as we have heard today, lots of Tory Back Benchers support it, so I urge the Minister to just get on with it.

Labour not only supports this Bill; we want to make it stronger and properly fit for purpose. That is why we have tabled a number of amendments for Report. I urge Government MPs to get behind our amendments so that, together, we can make this Bill properly fit for purpose.

Our amendments—tabled by me, the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), and my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel)—include new clause 1, which looks at the microchipping of cats. We have talked about that at length this afternoon. The new clause would require the Secretary of State to make regulations on the compulsory microchipping of cats within six months of the Bill being introduced. New clause 14 looks at the regulation of the keeping of hunting dogs and would require the Secretary of State to make regulations for the licensing of the keeping of one or more dogs used for the purposes of hunting, with a view to assuring the health and welfare of those dogs.

Amendment 1 would prohibit the keeping of primates as pets in England—again, a simple amendment, which I hope Ministers will accept when the Bill is brought back to the House. Amendment 2 would broaden the definition of “at large” dogs, by requiring non-exempt dogs in fields with relevant livestock present to be on a lead if they are to be deemed “under control”, unless keeping the dog on a lead poses a risk of harm to the person in charge of the dog. Our final amendment, amendment 3, would restrict the maximum number of dogs, cats and ferrets that may enter Great Britain in a non-commercial motor vehicle to three.

While this is not the place to debate the merits of the specific amendments, I wanted to give the House, colleagues present here today, and those watching from outside, a clear picture that Labour is on their side. We understand the importance of this Bill and care about ensuring that our country leads by example.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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I wonder whether, in the interests of getting this Bill through, the hon. Lady might consider not pushing some of those amendments, since many of them are unnecessary. There are already legislative provisions that would enable us to introduce microchipping for cats; it does not need further legislation. There is also a welfare code for working dogs, including hunting dogs, which is covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which the hon. Lady’s party introduced when it was in government. That measure is due for review, so the amendment is wholly unnecessary and is only likely to slow down the passage of the Bill.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones
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I thank the right hon. Member, a former Secretary of State, for his contribution. We proposed the amendments because stakeholders came to us to say that they wanted those things to be strengthened. Although I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman has not changed his position, I hope that we can have a reasoned debate on Report to increase understanding. We have no intention of slowing down the Bill in any way, shape or form; we merely want to strengthen it and make it more fit for purpose. That is why the amendments have been tabled; it is why organisations such as the British Veterinary Association talk about the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill as “important legislation”, and why the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums welcomes its principles, but wants it to make a real impact. It is so good to see so many visitors in the Public Gallery today, listening to the debate; in particular, I pay tribute to Andy Hall and Vicky from BIAZA.

Battersea Dogs and Cats Home—to which I paid a very enjoyable visit earlier this year—has also made clear its concerns about the delay and dithering. In its helpful briefing, written by Helen McNally, Battersea reminds us that the Bill completed its last parliamentary stage over a year ago in November 2021, and although it was carried over in the Queen’s Speech, we still do not have a set date for when it will return to Parliament. It would be marvellous if the Minister could put us all out of our misery by giving us the actual date this afternoon.

James West from Compassion in World Farming shared a briefing that was very helpful and that will guide the discussions we will be able to have when the Bill returns to the House. That briefing sits helpfully alongside the one prepared by Blue Cross for Pets, and I thank Richard Woodward for getting in touch ahead of the debate. Blue Cross notes that it, alongside other animal welfare charities, is deeply concerned at the stalled progress of the Bill, and goes on to note that while the Bill is not perfect, it is a start. We all remain hopeful that Ministers will meet us halfway when the Bill returns, and will support all sensible and objective amendments.

I am also grateful to Ferdy Willans and all those at Dogs Trust for the work they are doing on the horror that is the puppy smuggling trade. Since 2014, Dogs Trust has been exposing widespread abuse of the pet travel scheme—we have heard something of that already this afternoon. That scheme is being used by smugglers illegally to import puppies, often under age, unvaccinated and in poor welfare conditions, from central and eastern Europe to be sold to unsuspecting buyers throughout the UK. With the return of the Bill, we will be able to tackle and end that cruel trade once and for all. I thank Jessica Terry at World Animal Protection and Cameron Stephenson at Chester zoo for their work and for sharing their thoughts ahead of this afternoon’s debate. It was good to meet the Chester zoo staff just a few days ago, and to see the important work they do. I share the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) for just how important their conservation work is.

Today is a good day. The debate has given us an opportunity to talk about the Bill, and to remind ourselves of the benefits of the strong, bold and ambitious piece of legislation that that Bill can be, if we want it to be. I am grateful to those who keep talking about the Bill, including the more than 100,000 people who signed the petition, and I hope the Minister will answer the following four questions: when will the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill be brought back? How much longer do we have before the carry-over motion that kept it going expires? What does animal welfare post Brexit and in 2022 actually mean to Ministers? Finally, will Ministers work with all of us who want to make sure the Bill can deliver the strong and bold approach to animal welfare that we all want and need to see?

I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington for introducing the debate, and I thank you, Mr Twigg, for chairing it.