Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing this important debate, as well as the Petitions Committee for allowing time for those of us whose constituents have written to them copiously on this subject to debate it. I warmly welcome the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill; indeed, I was the parliamentary private secretary when it was in Committee, just over a year ago. I very much hope that the new team at DEFRA will ensure that the Bill gets going once again, and that we can see it go through.
I particularly welcome the Bill’s recognition that dogs are so much more than property—indeed, hopefully, all pets will be considered more than property. Some 97% of households with pets view those pets as part of the family. That is no surprise: the UK is a country of animal lovers, with six in 10 households having some kind of pet and the British people sharing their lives with around 13 million dogs. Speaking from very personal experience this weekend, our four-legged friends ensure that we go out whatever the weather, be it darkness or light, to exercise them. If we are entirely honest about it, we treat them more like one of the family than the actual family.
The Bill continues the work that has put the UK at the forefront of animal welfare. We are home to the RSPCA, the first animal welfare charity in the world, which is now approaching its 200th birthday. That care for our animals shows in public surveys: the RSPCA found that 86% of the British public support measures to stop the illegal puppy trade, while 76% support a ban on the import of dogs with cropped ears. Since 2012, the pet travel scheme established to make it easier for people to take their pets on holiday with them has been abused by unscrupulous pet traders. That scheme allows people to bring in up to five pets per person in each motor vehicle. Those traders bring in very young puppies, often in poor health and weakened by their long journey without suitable care. Those puppies are then sold on in the UK to unsuspecting buyers, who often put significant resources into trying to save their new family member—not always successfully.
Traders have responded to moves by potential buyers to be more responsible, including asking to see the puppy with the mother, by importing heavily pregnant mothers. Again, those mothers are not adequately cared for: the Dogs Trust, as part of its tireless campaign to end puppy smuggling, has reported that it has taken 103 pregnant dogs into care in the past two years. As we are in the run-up to Christmas, those numbers are increasing, with 17 taken in in September and October alone. I take this opportunity to thank the Dogs Trust for all its work on this issue, and in particular its branch in Ilfracombe in my constituency of North Devon for all the wonderful work it does locally. I just wish it was not quite so busy, particularly with this issue.
Puppy smuggling is worth an estimated £3 million, and I welcome the move in this Bill to limit the number of animals that can be brought in to five, which will limit the amount of profit these traders can make from their barbarous actions. However, I hope the Government will consider supporting the Dogs Trust’s call to lower that number further to three, as 97.7% of dog owners in the UK own three or fewer dogs. I also ask that the Department look at bringing in visual checks as a requirement through secondary legislation. That would further hinder traders looking to bring in very young, sick, or heavily pregnant dogs. Unfortunately, there is evidence that overseas vets are forging pet passports, so documentation and identity checks alone are not robust enough to protect those dogs.
Our dogs are sentient animals, friends and family members, highly attuned to the emotional state of their family. When times are tough, they support us and bring love and joy to people across the UK. They deserve our support and protection. I hope that the Bill comes back to the House swiftly, so that by next Christmas fewer animals suffer at the hands of unscrupulous traders.
As a dog owner myself, I have focused primarily on puppy smuggling, but it would be remiss not to mention concerns—voiced by the Blue Cross—that in the Bill’s current format, the theft of a much-loved pet excludes cats and horses. There is clearly scope to extend the theft clause. I suspect the 11 million cats in the country are loved almost as much as my beloved Labrador, Henry, and their theft would be equally distressing. Although horses generally do not live in their owners’ houses, the bond they have with their owners is clearly very great, given how long so many of them live.
I hope that the Government reconsider theft beyond just dogs, as we are a nation of animal lovers. Unfortunately, that puts a value on to our pets that others exploit beyond just our canine companions. There is much to commend in the Bill, and I very much hope that the new ministerial team at DEFRA will expedite its parliamentary progress to the statute book.