HC Deb 02 July 1984 vol 63 cc121-8

Motion made, and Question proposed,That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Major.]

11.5 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)

I am glad to have this opportunity to raise a very important matter. No one can say that our debates lack variety, and I realise that the subject that I have chosen may be regarded by some hon. Members as rather unusual. However, the ill-treatment of monkeys and the consequent safety of members of the public are matters of concern. I shall refer not to some far-flung corner of the world, but to what is happening in Britain in 1984.

Regrettably, in the short time available I cannot deal with all the areas of abuse, so I shall restrict my remarks to a relatively narrow subject — the misuse and ill-treatment of monkeys in captivity for entertainment and other purposes. I particularly include those animals that are used as props by seaside and street photographers as an aid to attracting custom, and those kept as pets, often in unsuitable accommodation.

The problem is growing. During the past year or so monkeys have to my knowledge been used by street photographers in Hastings, Lytham St. Anne's, Morecambe, Flamborough, Skegness, Great Yarmouth and many other places, as well as in Cornwall and in the Middlesex street market in London, colloquially known as Petticoat lane. In addition, the number of monkeys in private ownership is believed to be on the increase.

Some hon. Members may ask: what is wrong with photographers using monkeys in that way? The answer is that there is a lot wrong with it. I shall endeavour to explain why. It may well be true that a dog is a man's best friend, but, whether or not hon. Members like it, it is undeniable that a monkey is man's closest relative. We are, therefore, talking about a highly intelligent and sensitive animal that needs the company of its own kind, a varied and well-balanced diet and plenty of space for exercise. To deny all or any of those facilities amounts to cruelty and should not be allowed.

Street photographers fall well below what we should expect and require. Invariably, their monkeys are kept in inadequate cages, and when they are being used as business props—which can be for five or six hours a day, five days a week—they are denied proper exercise and are disgracefully treated. I have had reports and letters from all over Britain saying that monkeys have been seen tied with tight-fitting belts. The belts often cause sores in the short-term and lead to intestinal problems later. One photographer whom I met in Skegness said that he never removed the belts that he used for his animals despite their obvious discomfort.

Tonight's debate has attracted a lot of interest. I am delighted to see so many of my hon. Friends here.

I shall read from two of the many supportive letters which I have received. A lady who lives in Cheshire states: I had my picture taken, a number of years ago in Stockport market, with a squirrel monkey and I am ashamed to say I never gave a thought to the misery and degredation suffered by that unfortunate animal … I find the exploitation of primates (or any other animal for that matter) by man, for entertainment, very distasteful. A letter from a lady living in Norfolk states: one day last year I went to Yarmouth for the day and going down Regent Street, there was this photographer with this little monkey. It had a collar and lead on which he was using to swing the monkey around. I went and spoke to him about it. It had two sores on its tail … I was very distressed to see how it was being treated, so I sincerely hope that something will be done by the House of Commons. The cruelty aspect is only one matter which gives me cause for concern. A second, equally important, problem is public safety. Monkeys can and do bite, especially when irritated or unhappy. Those used by photographers are often both irritated and unhappy. Why should the public be placed at risk? Within two months, in Sussex, seven monkey bites were reported. One was on a baby's face and another on a baby's finger. In the east midlands recently two people were bitten by a monkey which escaped from a shop. Similar incidents have occurred elsewhere, including London. The story is the same in most parts of the country where photographers operate and monkeys are mistreated or manage to escape.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is also anxious and has drawn my attention to cases of children in pushchairs having monkeys placed on their laps and being frightened. In a letter the RSPCA confirms that the problem has been with us for some time. The letter states: As long ago as September 1980 the Chief Executive of a South Coast resort which was the home base of an operator of monkeys for photographers told us 'I receive several complaints each year from pedestrians who have been bitten by these monkeys.' … photographers appear to be aggressive in thrusting animals into the arms of passers-by in order to solicit custom. That is exactly what happens. It is why unsuspecting members of the public receive nasty bites.

Why should the public have to face the risk? We have a dual problem — the danger to the public and the cruelty often involved. There are 51 genera of living primates, but only two or three genera of monkeys are commonly used by street photographers. These are known as New World monkeys — mainly the squirrel and capuchin monkeys. Why are those monkeys so attractive to street photographers? The main reason is that the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 does not list New World monkeys in its schedule. That means that they can be owned without a licence and used without restriction.

Those with financial interests would no doubt argue that a licence should not be necessary because a New World monkey is not dangerous. I disagree with that. It is true that some primates are more dangerous than others. Looking around the House, some may say that the most dangerous of all is homo sapiens. But for non-human primates, the difference is only one of degree in terms of the danger that members of the public face. Of course, a gorilla is more dangerous than a squirrel monkey, but even a squirrel monkey—and I assure hon. Members that I speak from experience—can inflict a nasty bite. I do not understand why the public should face that potential danger.

For those who may argue that the New World monkey is not dangerous, I also pray in aid a circular sent to most zoos by the Secretary of State under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981, headed The Secretary of State's standards of modern zoo practice". In the introduction, it states: In pursuance of section 9 of the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 the Secretary of State, after having consulted such persons on the list compiled under section 8 of the Act and such other persons as he has thought fit, hereby specifies the following standards of modern zoo practice, that is, standards with respect to the management of zoos and the animals in them. That document, in the section headed "Interpretation", under the sub-heading "Hazardous animals" further states: 'hazardous animals' means those animals listed in the Schedule, for the time being current, to the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, and any other animal which, because of its individual disposition, sexual cycle, maternal instincts, or for any other reason, whether by biting, scratching, butting, compression, injecting venom, or by any other method, is likely to injure seriously or transmit disease to humans. It goes on to say, and this is the important point: For the avoidance of doubt all (non-human) primates will be considered as hazardous animals for the purpose of these standards. Zoos are being told to consider all non-human primates as hazardous, yet the public are not protected under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act against New World monkeys. Surely that is wrong.

Some may ask how will the Act help? It makes it a requirement that an owner of a dangerous animal therein defined needs to obtain a licence. The question is whether the schedule to the Act should be extended to include the species of monkey that I have described. I believe the answer to be yes.

Should that be done, the Dangerous Wild Animals Act empowers a local authority not to grant a licence unless it is satisfied on a number of points. In the main, they relate not only to the safety of the public, but to the conditions in which the animal is kept. Clause 1(5) states: A local authority shall not grant a licence under this Act unless a veterinary surgeon or veterinary practitioner authorised by the authority to do so under section 3 of this Act has inspected the premises where any animal will normally be held in pursuance of the licence and the authority has received and considered a report by the surgeon or practitioner, containing such particulars as in the authority's opinion enable it to decide whether the premises are such that any animal proposed to be kept under the authority of the licence may suitably be held there, and describing the condition of the premises and of any animal or other thing found there. We have two duties, both of which involve protection. The first is a duty to protect the public from potential danger. The second is to protect monkeys and other animals from exploitation, abuse and inadequate or unsuitable owners. I hope that the Government will discharge those two duties.

11.20 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. William Waldegrave)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) on raising an important matter. The subjects that fall to my Department include the abolition of the GLC — [HON. MEMBERS: "And monkeys."] — yes, and monkeys, though why, I am not entirely sure. Having listened to my hon. Friend, the relationship between these subjects may be clearer to the House.

My hon. Friend has persuaded the Government of his case. There is no question, having listened to his arguments, but that there is really nothing more to say. My right hon. Friend will this very month be laying a relevant order under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976. Especially gratifying to us in the Department, and to the many experts who advise us on these matters, is that someone who has first-hand experience of having been savaged by a squirrel monkey has reached the same conclusions as we have about the borderline that we must draw. As in all these matters, it is difficult to draw the borderline between what is and what is not a dangerous animal.

Obviously, it is unnecessary for me to do this for the benefit of my hon. Friend, but some of my other hon. Friends might find it helpful to be reminded of the background to the Act and the schedule. The original objective was to list only those obviously dangerous animals that it was, by 1976, becoming fashionable to keep, such as lions and crocodiles. They were obviously dangerous, and the schedule was prepared accordingly, omitting any creature that it was considered unlikely that anyone would wish to keep.

Also, although there was an underlying reluctance to list species about which there might be scope for serious disagreement as to how dangerous they were, some comparatively harmless species were embraced within certain broad categories. Other more dangerous kinds were omitted.

The approach was, thus, insufficiently selective, and a first amendment to the schedule had to be made as early as 1977. By 1981 it became clear that there were far too many anomalies. It was also felt that it was undesirable for the schedule to have to be amended every time there was a change in fashion in pet-keeping. Lions out, crocodiles in—an amendment.

The decision was, therefore, made to embark on a thoroughgoing revision of the schedule and to list all kinds of dangerous wild animals, whether currently considered likely pets or not. As a first step, the Government put through an urgent revision—we did it as soon as we came to power; it was high on our list of priorities—the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 (Modification) Order 1981—the current schedule—to correct the more glaring anomalies. That order bore an explanatory note to the effect that a second-stage review would follow which would consider further modifications, including the addition of certain snakes and certain mustelids, being the relations of badgers

Mr. Richard Hickmet (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

May we be assured, in the light of my hon. Friend's announcement about the licensing requirements that the Government propose to lay before the House, that right hon. and hon. Members in this place will not be required to be licensed, or that this place will not need to be licensed, on the basis that we fall within the definition of "a primate"?

Mr. Waldegrave

As long as my hon. Friend is not referring to any of the archbishops, the answer is no.

To assist in this review, we assembled a committee of experts. Included were representatives from the British Veterinary Association, the National Federation of Zoological Gardens, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the Pet Trade Association, the Cat Survival Trust, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the Primate Society—nothing to do with the archbishops on this occasion—the British Herpetological Society and the International Herpetological Society. A fine body of men.

My hon. Friend has already said that the sole justification for listing an animal in the schedule is that it is dangerous. There was a great and understandable temptation for some committee members to urge the inclusion of certain animals not because they were dangerous but so that the welfare provisions of the Act could come into play. It was made clear throughout that this temptation had to be resisted. Nor has the Act any role in the protection of endangered species.

So, based exclusively on the criterion of public safety, agreement on most of the species was easy. Although it is very difficult to arrive at completely objective criteria defining what constitutes a dangerous animal, a broad consensus was nevertheless reached and most of the creatures that are listed in the proposed new schedule are so clearly above the line that little or no discussion was needed. As always, it was a small number of borderline cases that took up the time. It is not surprising, given the difficulty of defining "dangerous", that the experts failed to reach a uninimous decision on the borderline cases but, having looked at the various views expressed, I am happy that the forthcoming order will present a realistic and defensible list.

I shall mention the borderline cases in a moment, but, before I do, I should like to re-emphasis a point made by my hon. Friend, that there is nothing in the Dangerous Wild Animals Act designed to stop people from keeping the listed animals. It merely requires that, if they are kept, the local authority should be satisfied that they are kept in a way that poses no threat to public safety and causes no nuisance; that the keeper is a suitable person to be entrusted with their care; and that certain minimum standards are maintained for their welfare.

What were the borderline cases?

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)


Mr. Waldegrave

No, I must continue with my speech. If I am interrupted on an occasion like this I may lose the track of the argument.

The borderline cases were certain spiders, certain snakes, the civets, the smaller New World monkeys and the raccoon. Perhaps that was the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) wanted to make.

As soon as one mentions spiders and snakes, one enters the realm of folklore. My advisers steadfastly put these considerations behind them. Most of us would run a mile at the sight of a tarantula, but I am advised that in truth it is a most amiable creature. It is reluctant to bite unless under extreme provocation, and then it causes only little more pain than a bee sting. It is not on the list, therefore. As for pythons, boa constrictors and anacondas, their size, like speeches in the House, is directly related to the available accommodation, and the few recorded instances of their having proved dangerous have occurred in their natural habitats. If a boa constrictor happens to live in Africa, it will have plenty of room. If it lives in more confined circumstances, it will be a small example. Therefore, boa constrictors are not on the list either.

The experts were able to reach unanimous agreement on spiders and snakes and on the civets, where the Pet Traders Association's recommendations were accepted without dispute.

There remained one main area where there was an unresolved difference of opinion, the New World monkeys. The Pet Trade Association's representatives, with some expert backing, argued that in ascending order of dangerousness, the marmoset, the tamarin, the saki—perhaps a writer of short stories — the squirrel, the douroucouli and the capuchin were not unacceptably dangerous. Experts from the British Veterinary Association, the National Federation of Zoological Gardens and the Primate Society—on this occasion no "s" should appear after "Primate" — took the contrary view while others suggested that the line should be drawn either between the marmoset and the tamarin or the tamarin and the saki.

The recommendation that I have accepted is that the marmoset should be below the line and the tamarin and all the others above it, the essential difference being the size of the lower permanent canine teeth. Although marmosets can and do bite, I am persuaded that this animal cannot realistically be described as dangerous. I am assured that anyone—my advisers looked into this matter by firsthand experience—who has been bitten by tamarin will know that it is a very different experience from being bitten by a marmoset. I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in that view.

The Pet Trade Association has, during discussion and in the press, drawn comparison between the risk of injury from dogs and from the small monkeys. There is, however, one important distinction. Dogs have been widely domesticated for millennia and bred for specific purposes. Such risk as they present to human safety is accepted by society.

It is quite another matter to permit uncontrolled keeping of species only a few generations away from the wild; and Mr. and Mrs. Public have a right to know that their next door neighbour is not irresponsibly keeping an exotic pet of unpredictable behaviour and the ability to inflict injury on their child. That is the kind of criticism of our living habits that we, as Members of the House, have to face.

The comparison with dogs brings me to the last of the borderline animals—the raccoon—about which my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) was about to intervene. That, incidentally, is not to be confused with the raccoon-dog — my hon. Friend would not have made that mistake— a canine which has been on the list until now, but which is not considered dangerous and which will be taken off the list by the forthcoming order.

Captive-bred specimens of the raccoon itself are entering trade in increasing numbers and the Pet Trade Association argues that they are essentially domesticated and should be accepted as such. I am not persuaded that the time is right to do so. As I have said, dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years and yet still present some degree of risk to the public, and the postman, as I am reminded. I accept the view of the majority of the experts who were consulted — that a species can be classed as domestic only after many generations of selective breeding. The raccoon is a long way short of achieving that status. It may work away at it and in clue course return to the House in some hundreds of years and achieve that status, but not yet. Meanwhile I consider that it should be regarded as a dangerous wild animal. I do not believe that many of my hon. Friends will want to argue against me.

I should like to offer my thanks to all those experts who attended the meetings held in Marsham street and tried out the difference between being bitten by a marmoset and a tamarin, or who offered their comments and advice in writing, and who helped me make my decisions on the revised schedule. I should like to repeat my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North for bringing the subject to the attention of the House tonight. Although we have treated it lightly, there is a serious point here. He is a keeper of these monkeys and we read with great pleasure in Crossbencher at the weekend of the happy event which may be expected by his squirrel monkeys, and we offer our best felicitations. My hon. Friend has done well to raise a serious point. We have followed his advice and been grateful for it in the way in which we have laid the order that my right hon. Friend will put before the House shortly.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Twelve o'clock.