HC Deb 23 December 1981 vol 15 cc1044-9 2.18 pm
Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise, at this season, the plight of animals given as Christmas pets by people who try to do a kindness but who so often commit a cruelty. There is no other season at which more unkindness is done by mistake and with the best motives.

It is a basic human wish to provide companionship for others, above all at Christmas. People who see others who are lonely may believe that they can provide for those people the same sort of companionship that they themselves enjoy so much through having a pet. They may know, for instance, that next door there is a lonely child, anxious for the fun, the frolic, the delight and the joy that a loved pet can bring. So they decide to give the child a lovely surprise on Christmas Day—or they may see, in a pet shop window, a furry creature which the people next door would surely adore, or perhaps grandparents decide to buy a pet for their grandchildren's Christmas.

As a result, the chances are that the givers will commit an unkindness not only to the pet but also to the people who receive it. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals have appealed this Christmas to everyone not to give pets, because too often they have to deal with the aftermath.

First, there are the children who delight in their pets on Christmas Day, who perhaps are still not bored with them on Boxing Day but who then return to their friends to their football or to the fields, or to their schools, and somebody else has to look after the animals. Perhaps the parents do not want to cope or cannot cope. Perhaps they are at work, or the pet is a puppy which cannot be left alone for more than a few hours and the family are all out for much of the day. It is not fair on the puppy, it is not fair on the kitten, and it is not fair on the family.

It may be that the recipients would love to look after the animal, but people forget that a puppy—a tiny, lively, happy little creature—will before long grow into an adult animal. Ogden Nash once said: The trouble with a kitten is that Eventually it becomes a cat". A puppy is inexpensive to keep and lovely—if messy—to look after, but when it gets big it costs more to feed and too often its owners cannot afford that cost.

Animal welfare societies tell us that there is more cruelty today, in times of recession, than ever before. Too many pet owners do not have the means to look after an extra member of the family. When we give a dog, a cat or any other animal as a pet, we are introducing a new member into a family. We should not impose a new member on anyone else's family or even on our own unless we are certain that they all want it. Sometimes one member of the family wants the pet and the others do not. Many families will be quarrelling their way through Christmas because they cannot agree on what to do with the unwanted gift—it maybe a gift that one member of the family wants and others do not.

I know of a family not far from here who already had a cat. Someone gave them a dog, and the two animals do not get on together. We forget that animals also have personalities, jealousies and rights.

The effect of giving pets at Christmas is often a catastrophe for the people concerned. It is especially catastrophic for the cats and dogs.

I recently visited the Leicester headquarters of the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals and discussed also with people from their Derby headquarters the sort of problems they have with unwanted pets. In my constituency, stray dogs are a problem on many estates throughout the year. Dogs are put out either because their owners do not love them or because they do not have the means to look after them or to care for them.

The RSPCA says that every day of the week strays are collected and brought into their pound to be looked after. It is hoped that people will collect the animals, but every week the RSCPA has to put down animals that nobody wants. Monday is called "Bloody Monday", because that is the day of the week when the RSCPA has to put down hundreds of animals which nobody wants.

The period after Christmas is the bloodiest in the year. That is when families which have received pets which they do not want, and do not know how to cope with, put the animals into the street—sometimes even a motorway. The animals are treated with the sort of cruelty which, it is sometimes forgotten, is totally illegal. Offenders are not often caught because it is difficult to identify the many people who have behaved in that way.

A short time ago, a veterinary surgeon wrote in the Sunday Mirror: Christmas is the worst possible time to give anyone—a child, a relative or a friend—a pet as a surprise present. You do not do it as a surprise. You must not surprise people with a new member of the family. The RSPCA has said this year: If an appealing little kitten or puppy catches your eye as an ideal Christmas present for one of your family or for a friend, we urge you to stop and think again of the problems that could be involved not only for the recipient but also for the future welfare of the animal. Last year the RSPCA found new homes for 94,000 animals, but far more than that were not so lucky and did not have homes and were put down. The extent of the problem in this animal-loving country is incredible. We have a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but only a National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. We love our children, and there are reasons for the difference in the names. I hope that at this Christmas time the House will allow me to make an appeal of behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.

On occasion, I have clashed with the Minister of State. I appreciate that he has other problems connected with people. But as this is Christmas time I am happy to say publicly that he has often successfully gone out of his way to try to help. This is an occasion to thank him for the kindness which, despite laws and regulations, he and his staff often manage to show people. Perhaps this is also an occasion when he might stretch his kindness a little further, in the direction of animals. Perhaps he will send a message from this great House that there is a tradition of kindness that stretches beyond people into the animal kingdom. I hope that he will urge people to resist the temptation to give pets so as not to cause more unwanted or abandoned pets to be put out when the Christmas season is over.

The Minister should remember that the number of pets abandoned because of the recession is higher than ever. The situation was bad enough in past Christmases, but in 1982 it is likely to be worse as pets become victims of the recession and their owners find that they can no longer afford to keep them.

Unfortunately, the law on cruelty to animals is often honoured only in the breach and on many occasions there is no law. There is no law against giving a pet to people who do not want it. Indeed, there cannot be. It must be a matter for human judgment. By all means let us wish each other a happy Christmas through the giving of gifts, but not through the giving of pets when the recipients do not necessarily want them.

Even now, if people have bought pets to give away in two or three days' time, they should resist the temptation and somehow find a way of making quite sure that the pet is wanted. The Minister's advice should be firm. Above all, kindness to people this Christmas is paramount, particularly to the elderly, the lonely, the housebound, the disabled, those who dare not go out because the pavements are icy and the thousands of people in hospital with broken limbs and other ailments. They need our care and help. We must not forget them, but we should also spare a moment to think about the unnecessary cruelty to those who cannot speak for themselves.

I ask the Minister to give proper advice from the Dispatch Box so that Christmas can be a better one for people who receive animals but do not want them. We should also spare a thought for the animals who are likely to be abandoned. We should pay tribute to the RSPCA, the PDSA and all those who on behalf of the community care for animals during the year. They should be spared the absolute misery after Christmas of looking after or putting down animals that are given with the best motives in mind by people who should have asked first and then probably not given at all.

2.29 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Timothy Raison)

I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) on his choice of subject, and I thank him for his kind personal remarks. The topic that he has raised is appropriate at this time of the year, although perhaps it should have come a little earlier in the year, because we are now very near Christmas. However, we have to take whatever opportunities the House offers. The hon. and learned Gentleman has performed a service in raising the subject.

On the face of it, a pet appears to be an acceptable Christmas present, but, as the hon. and learned Gentleman said, the giving of animals at Christmas is often done without full appreciation of the implications and without proper regard to the arrangements for their welfare. What seems to be the answer to the problem of choosing a gift in the pre-Christmas rush can, after Christmas, take on a quite different character. It may result in neglect, or even abandonment, of unwanted pets.

The law has an important part to play in seeking to safeguard the welfare of animals, though, as I shall explain, our concerns about the giving of animals as Christmas presents cannot adequately be dealt with just by legislation. We need also education and example.

The Protection of Animals Act 1911 makes it an offence to cause or, being the owner, permit to be caused any unnecessary suffering to any captive or domestic animal. It is open to any person or society to initiate proceedings under the Act where there is reason to believe that an offence has been committed; or he or the society may report the matter to the police, who will decide, in the light of the facts of the case, whether to prosecute. The penalties for offences under the Protection of Animals Act 1911, which has its counterpart in the 1912 Act in Scotland, include a maximum fine of £500 or three months' imprisonment or both. There is also an important power whereby a court can deprive a person convicted of cruelty of the ownership of the animal or animals involved. Further, in the case of a repeated offence, it can also deprive the offender, who may not actually be the owner of the animal concerned, of its custody.

I recognise that the hon. and learned Member is anxious to tackle at source the problem of the acquisition of pets in unsuitable circumstances, before any risk arises that the animals concerned would be subject to the kind of maltreatment at which the Protection of Animals Acts are aimed. But, as he well knows, much of the impact of the law in these situations must depend upon the existence of relatively severe sanctions to deal with the aggravated cases.

The law does, however, provide other measures which attempt to deal with the problem at an earlier stage and before there is any actual intention to cause wilful suffering. The Abandonment of Animals Act 1960 makes it an offence for any person, without reasonable cause or excuse, to abandon a captive or domestic animal, whether permanently or not, in circumstances likely to cause it unnecessary suffering. The maximum penalty on conviction of such an offence is a fine of £500 or three months' imprisonment or both.

The sale of pet animals is regulated by the Pet Animals Act 1951. This requires those who carry on such a business to do so under licence granted by the local authority. The business of selling pet animals is permissible under the Act only when conducted in a shop or from a barrow or stall set up in an authorised street market. The Act prohibits the sale of animals as pets from any other place, with certain exceptions made in the case of the recognised breeders of pedigree animals. It is an offence to sell an animal as a pet in any street or public place, whether or not from any stall or barrow, unless, as I have said, the stall or barrow is set up in an authorised street market. It is an offence also to sell an animal as a pet to any child whom there is reason to believe is under the age of 12.

In the controls which it places upon premises which the Act empowers local authorities to license—that is to say shops, or barrows or stalls in proper street markets—the local authority is required before granting a licence to have particular regard to various things. They include the need for ensuring that the animals will be kept at all times in accommodation that is suitable as respects size, temperature, lighting, ventilation and cleanliness; and that mammals will not be sold at too early an age. The local authority must attach such conditions to the licences as are necessary to achieve these standards, and may inspect licensed premises at all reasonable times.

I have tried to show the House that the law already provides a considerable battery of measures which are aimed at preventing the infliction of suffering to pet animals. I need hardly tell the hon. and learned Gentleman what the law is, as he is an eminent lawyer. The measures range from criminal penalties on those who are convicted of inflicting cruelty, to measures which seek to reduce the chances of animals getting into situations where they are likely to suffer, by making it an offence to abandon an animal or to sell it as a pet in any place which is not under proper control.

However, as in all matters where society wishes to see civilised conduct, the law has only one part to play. It can lay down broad standards and deal with extremes, but it is to the good sense of the public and to the advice which they can obtain from those who are knowledgeable about the welfare of animals that we should look to meet the concerns which have been expressed. The problems which can arise when animals are given as pets to people who are not in a position to care for them are obvious. This is why some animal welfare organisations advise against such giving, particularly at Christmas, which is regarded as too unsettled a time to introduce a young animal to the home. As one would expect, the RSPCA is foremost among those organisations in promoting public awareness of the problems.

Nevertheless, the giving of animals as gifts at this time of year does go on, and some bodies supply information to the general public on how best to care for their pets. Again the RSPCA is prepared to supply free information leaflets and sells books on the subject, and the advice of its local branches is available. Its pre-Christmas publicity campaign advises people not to give pets as Christmas presents even by agreement with the recipient. If people receive an animal as a gift and they do not want to keep it, they should contact their local RSPCA inspector who will do his best to help.

Literature is also available from the Pet Health Council, which was established in 1978 by the British Veterinary Association, the Pet Food Manufacturers' Association and the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries. The aim of the council is to educate the public in good pet health and welfare in the interest of the companion animal and the health of the owner. The council distributes its literature through vets in 1,800 pet shops, 1,200 chemists and a growing number of kennels and catteries, in the form of leaflets and posters. These cover subjects such as animal illnesses, training a puppy, and so forth. There are special campaigns to deal with epidemics, the need for vaccinations, and so on. The Pet Food Manufacturers' Association also produces its own leaflets as well as distributing those of the council.

Of all this helpful advice, the most relevant to the situation to which the hon. and learned Member has addressed himself is the Pet Health Council's leaflet "10 Points on Choosing a Pet". It is brief and very much to the point and I would, with the permission of the House, like to quote from it. The leaflet asks potential owners to think about the sort of pet they want to keep and why they want to keep it, and goes on to say: You must have a liking for or interest in animals and a willingness to care for them. Remember when you buy a puppy or kitten that you are taking him on for the whole of his life; it is quite irresponsible to take on a pet and then dispose of it once the novelty has worn off. Never buy on impulse, think first, look at lots of animals and learn what's involved before you start. Don't let your heart rule your head; never take on a pet simply because you are sorry for him. The leaflet reminds the potential owner that a pet obtained from a low grade shop or street market could become a liability. It has useful advice on the preparation that should be made before the pet is taken into the home. I think that this is wise, because it is much more likely, if thought has been given to such matters beforehand, that the pet will be regarded as a permanent and acceptable addition to the household. Equally usefully, the process of purchasing the necessary equipment and the making of the necessary arrangements for the animal's proper reception may give the potential purchasers cause to stop and think about whether they really want to commit themselves to that amount of trouble indefinitely. Even the smallest animal involves a certain amount of paraphernalia. The Pet Health Council's leaflet says: Have a box or bed and food ready for the puppy or kitten. Have a cage and food ready for the bird or hamster. Think ahead also before you take him home. Get the puppy when you can foresee a clear eight weeks at home. The leaflet goes on to remind potential owners of the attention that has to be given to the medical care of pets, both in preventing illness and in dealing with it when it arises. The leaflet urges the owner not to delay in getting medical advice and points out that every veterinary surgeon is glad to advise a new owner. There can be no excuse for not doing so: vets provide 24-hour cover every day of the week, even on Christmas day.

Advice on the care of animals is of course a specialist matter. I am satisfied that it is available from a variety of sources to those who, after due consideration, decide to give, and those who receive, pets as gifts at Christmas. The British people have a high reputation for the care and concern that they devote to the welfare of animals. I do not say that it could not be improved upon. Improvements can always be made and it is right that the matter should be under continuous scrutiny.

As the Minister at the Home Office whose responsibilities include the welfare of animals, I am very much aware of the deeply held views of the public about the need to protect them. I am sure that most—if not all—Members of Parliament can testify to this from their postbags. The law has a part to play and I have explained its role.

The Government also have a responsibility on this matter and a particular responsibility for the statutes. However, I do not consider, especially in view of the wealth of advice which is already available to the public, that a full-scale Government campaign about advising the public on the care of animals given as Christmas gifts is warranted. Nevertheless, the message that I would wish to go out clearly from our debate this afternoon is that the public should consider giving such gifts only after careful thought and that they will make good use of those several sources of excellent advice which are only too willing and able to help. At this time of giving, let us remember to give animals the care and attention they need and deserve.

The hon. and learned Gentleman has performed a useful service in raising this topic. I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the hon. and learned Gentleman a very happy Christmas.

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