HC Deb 07 February 1994 vol 237 cc116-24

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

10.3 pm

Mr. Colin Pickthall (Lancashire, West)

I am grateful to have this opportunity to mention the problem of cruelty to greyhounds so soon after the BBC's "On the Line" programme on the subject. That documentary brought the issue to my attention and there has subsequently been much comment in the press—especially the sporting press—and a great deal of supplementary information and evidence has been sent to me, and no doubt to other hon. Members.

I shall make a special mention of Mrs. Anne Shannon of the Isle of Man, who runs the Homesafe Greyhound Rescue outfit, and of Mr. Paddy Sweeney, a prominent veterinary surgeon who is also the father of the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Sweeney). The hon. Gentleman has kindly passed information from his father to me.

It is not my intention this evening to criticise greyhound racing as a sport—the second largest spectator sport in the United Kingdom and a very important industry—but I intend to criticise some of the priorities within the sport.

At the most public end of greyhound racing is a vastly profitable public entertainment colossus. I am told that £2 billion a year is gambled on dogs, £14 million is spent on upgrading Hackney stadium, including, I believe, £10 million investment by Saudi Arabia. The cloth cap and half-crown bet image of dog racing has given way to a much more wealthy and upmarket image, with excellent restaurants, bars and relatively luxurious accommodation. It is a multi-million pound entertainment industry at that end.

At the other end are the charities and the volunteers struggling to rescue as many as 30,000 dogs a year, who are either retired from racing or never make the grade. The Retired Greyhound Trust can rescue some 600 dogs a year. One wonders what happens to the other 29,400. The chief trading axis in greyhounds that concerns us is Ireland, the United Kingdom and Spain. More than 25,000 dogs are registered in Ireland every year; 9,000 are exported to the United Kingdom, which totals around 90 per cent. of the United Kingdom runners.

The United Kingdom accounts for 80 per cent. of Irish exports, so conditions and attitudes in Ireland are of direct concern to the authorities and the Government in this country. Some 50 per cent. of Irish greyhound puppies make the grade. Therefore, 50 per cent. do not. One wonders what happens to them. In my view, there is massive over-breeding of greyhounds in Ireland, which is encouraged by an EC grant of some £1 million a year.

The purpose of my speech is to highlight a variety of abuses to which greyhounds are subjected, which were made clear by the television programme and by publicity in the Sunday People and other newspapers around the same time. First, there is the trade in selling greyhounds for use in Spain, for all sorts of purposes—such as inferior meetings or, at worst, to be killed. One hears about them being ground down for dog food, used for vivisection and so on.

In the television documentary, a Mr. John Shields was shown buying dogs in Ireland and transporting them to Spain. Some evidence shows that he transports dogs to Spain not only directly but in a transit van that travels through this country—some 36 dogs at a time, in cages less than 14 in wide. Some of the dogs that are transported to Spain are British-bred; most are not.

Mr. Shields said that he has sold thousands of dogs to Spain, over a period, and that it is not against the law. That is true. It is against National Greyhound Racing Club rules. I believe its integrity and sincerity in trying to maintain those rules, but it is not against the law. Therefore, there is no means of stopping Mr. Shields or others who want to take part in that trade.

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, as well as its being against NGRC rules to sell greyhounds to Spain, it is against its rules to allow dogs to go to Spain to be used in other activities such as coursing and hunting, to be used on flapping tracks in the United Kingdom, or for them to be bloodied on live animals, including rabbits?

There is a price to pay. My hon. Friend may not be aware that anybody found practising any of those habits with greyhounds in Britian will be barred from participation in any NGRC track in the United Kingdom. That means that they cannot race on registered tracks, which form the majority of race tracks in this country.

Mr. Pickthall

My hon. Friend is an expert, and I take what he says seriously. I shall say more about NGRC sanctions later: on the basis of what my hon. Friend has said, some people who figured in the documentary should be barred from the sport forthwith.

Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan)

The mere fact that such practices may contravene NGRC rules does not make them illegal. Legislation is needed to make the rules stick.

Mr. Pickthall

I shall emphasise that point later.

I could describe conditions in Spain at length, but time forbids, the information is readily available and my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) has covered much of it. I can summarise the position by saying that many dogs end up in what approximate to concentration camps. The conditions they must survive have been described in lurid terms; one or two English veterinarians have done sterling work in Spain, trying to alleviate those conditions.

In 1992, the last year for which I have figures, some 55 dogs were subjected to vivisection or experimentation in the United Kingdom, although such action is against the spirit of the law—and against the law itself, as I understand it.

Mr. Meale

I have been told, in reply to my questions to the Home Office, that only 14 of those 55 dogs came from the United Kingdom. Having checked with the NGRC, I understand that, if any person involved in greyhound racing in this country were found to have provided dogs for experimentation, that person would be barred from participating in registered racing.

Has it occurred to my hon. Friend that, if greyhound racing were made illegal in this country—I hope that he does not suggest such a course—the door would be left wide open to another abhorrent practice? I refer to the coursing of live rabbits and hares, which, unfortunately, still takes place here. I hope to God that we do not allow that to happen, rather than organising registered races with proper veterinary c are—which is available, under the guidance of the NGRC.

Mr. Pickthall

I do not remotely suggest that greyhound racing as a sport should be banned. I am simply saying that, if the Government and the industry do not take urgent and drastic action to stop the current abuses, a groundswell of opinion—led by various groups—will suggest just such action. The father of the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan made that clear in the documentary.

Mr. Meale

I do not mean to keep interrupting my hon. Friend; I promise him that I shall not do so again. However, he has quoted Mr. Paddy Sweeney a number of times. Mr. Sweeney, unfortunately, must be cited as a relative of an hon. Member who is present in the Chamber.

I have a letter from Mr. Sweeney, quoting a speech in which he said that it was the job of everyone connected with greyhounds to work for the welfare of greyhounds and the development of coursing. Just who are we talking about, and whose word are we taking?

Mr. Picktall

As my hon. Friend knows from my interest in abolishing hare coursing, I totally disagree with the latter part of that sentence.

I will touch briefly on the disposal of what might be termed redundant greyhounds. I am told that a greyhound costs around £2,000 a year to kennel and feed properly, and in the documentary that we all saw the Ulster RSPCA described various horrors. They may have been one-offs, but I suspect that they were not—instances of dogs clubbed to death, having their ears cut off, being dumped in the Foyle and injected with household bleach or other substances—anything to kill them, to avoid paying the £20 its costs to have a dog put down humanely, as if that were not bad enough.

A side issue, but none the less important, is the bailing and training of dogs using live rabbits. The film clearly showed Owen McKenna, the son of Joe McKenna, baiting dogs with live rabbits. Our interviewee said that dogs get bored with artificial bait—the conclusion being that they need live bait from time to time. That was particularly horrific—and if the strictures of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield are to be taken seriously, I presume that at least Owen McKenna will soon be banned by the NGRC from participating in the sport.

There are two aspects to the drugs question. One is the ready availability to the training industry of black market drugs such as cortisones, amphetamines and anabolics. The documentary showed them to be available at least from a man called Alan Bennett in Yorkshire—not, I hope, the Alan Bennett that we all know and love. He was saying over the telephone that, if those drugs were used, the dogs would be—forgive the language, Madam Speaker—buggered afterwards. In other words, the second problem is the use of drugs to allow injured dogs to run. That may be okay in the short term, but in the longer term it harms dogs and perhaps even finishes them off.

The veterinary surgeon to whom several references have been made graphically illustrated, as he has done in writing, the effect of track racing on the four legs and feet of dogs. Again, that problem is sometimes covered up by drug misuse.

I hope that the Government will consider a number of matters, and that the Minister will comment on them tonight. The Select Committee on Home Affairs should reopen its 1991 investigation, which imposed severe strictures that were not followed up. The Government should at least query EC subsidies or overbreeding in Ireland.

The Government should also be involved in talks with their Irish and Spanish counterparts, to agree a joint approach to greyhound welfare and to prevent the export and import of animals other than as runners at proper tracks. I believe that the Irish Government's Agriculture Minister is still Brian O'Shea. So far, he has not been very helpful, although the board has been positive.

The Home Office should tighten up on the exemptions that allow ex-racing greyhounds to be purchased by laboratories where there are no suitable purpose-bred animals. The NGRC will ban for life owners who sell greyhounds that way. The Government should discuss—this is important to the NGRC and to everyone else involved in the sport—the possibility of imposing something like a levy at track level to provide properly for retired greyhounds. I hope that the industry will take that on board. There is surely enough money at the top of the industry to do something effective about it.

The Government should take action against the wrongful sale and use of drugs to enable sick or injured dogs to run. They should insist on enhanced veterinary examination before racing. Again, those guilty of the abuse of drugs should be banned from involvement in the sport.

Exports of greyhounds should be controlled by law. That has already been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield, and by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan. The NGRC takes action against people involved in the sport in Britain, but it cannot invoke the law to stop the trade. That is a matter for the Government.

Lastly, men such as Owen McKenna and others who use live animals to blood greyhounds should be banned by the NGRC from any involvement in racing. The Government should seriously consider whether such people are breaking the law.

It is an irony for me to be raising the subject of greyhound racing. I do not claim to be a dog lover, but I am revolted by the cruelty at the margins of the sport in Britain, and perhaps more than at the margins in other countries. It is no answer to say that most of the cruelty happens in Ireland or Spain. In the European Union we are intimately bound together in the trade that takes place. What happens in the ghastly Spanish concentration camps, where at least some, however few, of the dogs are from the United Kingdom, is our concern, just as it is the concern of the international community.

If the NGRC and the Government in co-operation do not do something about cruelty to greyhounds, Britain will see a sustained campaign against cruelty in sport. That could damage a perfectly legitimate sport, which I would not want to see damaged or become the subject of the attention of, for example, the League Against Cruel Sports.

10.21 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Pickthall) on his success in obtaining this debate. His concern about the use of animals in sport is well known. The hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) spoke with authority about NGRC rules. His knowledge in that matter is also well known. I noted the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Sweeney).

As my time is limited, I shall press on. As the hon. Member for Lancashire, West said, his debate has been prompted by a recent television programme in which allegations were made about cruelties in the sport of greyhound racing. The programme referred to practices, as the hon. Gentleman described, such as the feeding of dogs with live rabbits. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the use of drugs to enable injured dogs to run when they should not and the disposal of dogs, when they no longer race, for use in experimentation.

Before dealing with the allegations, it might be helpful if I were to describe the current law against cruelty to animals, without giving a long and descriptive passage. The Protection of Animals Act 1911 makes it an offence to ill-treat or cause unnecessary suffering to any domestic or captive animal. Under the Protection of Animals (Amendment) Act 1988, the court may in addition deprive a person of ownership of an animal for such period as it thinks fit. Section 1 of the 1911 Act was amended by the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960, which makes it an offence to abandon any animal—permanently or not—without reasonable cause or excuse in circumstances likely to cause the animal any unnecessary suffering.

Before I deal with the specific matters that the hon. Gentleman raised about the treatment of greyhounds in racing, I should make it clear that the Government are not responsible for greyhound racing as a sport, as the hon. Member for Mansfield reminded us in his recitation of some of the rules. We have two interests: we are responsible for controls on betting and we are responsible for the statutory framework governing the prevention of cruelty to animals to which I have just alluded.

In relation to the first, our concern is—

Mr. Sweeney

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Wardle

I am sorry, I must press on. If there is time later, I will give way. The time was over-run, quite understandably. Our concern is to maintain the integrity of betting as it takes place on greyhound racing and to see that the punter is treated fairly.

Turning to the specific issues raised by the hon. Member for Lancashire, West about the treatment of greyhounds in racing, obviously we must all be concerned if any of the allegations that have been made are true of racing in Britain. I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about other countries in the European Union and I understand his feelings, but he will also appreciate that I speak at the Dispatch Box for controls in this country. No doubt what he has said about conditions in other countries will be noted.

We have been in touch with the British Greyhound Racing Board, which says that the practices depicted on television are not tolerated in regulated greyhound racing in this country. I understand it to be its belief that a considerable amount of the footage shown in the television programme was filmed outside the United Kingdom and that most of the allegations involved practices taking place abroad.

The NGRC has said that there is no place in greyhound racing for anyone involved in cruel practices. It takes a most serious view of the matter and has made it clear that it does not accept cruelty to animals in the training and preparation of racing greyhounds. I understand that NGRC rules forbid the practice of using rabbits to train greyhounds and any trainers found using live bait to train a greyhound will have their licences withdrawn and not be allowed to train greyhounds for NGRC racing. I see that the hon. Member for Mansfield is nodding in agreement. The NGRC also says that it has a clear line in respect of greyhounds racing while injured. It requires a vet to be in attendance at each race meeting and all greyhounds to be inspected twice before racing. I am assured that the rules are very strictly applied.

Many people are naturally concerned to know what happens to retired greyhounds when their racing life is over. The NGRC cannot speak for independent tracks, which are not under their jurisdiction, but under its rules, the welfare of greyhounds is most important. The NGRC says that its main approach is that owners must be registered with the NGRC and can lose their licence if dogs are ill-treated. Of the £20 registration fee, £5 goes to the NGRC's Retired Greyhound Trust, whose function is to act as a fallback to help owners who cannot meet their responsibility towards the greyhounds in their care by placing dogs in homes.

The subject was touched on by the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which examined the financing of racing in 1991. It recommended that track owners and bookmakers should donate part of their profits to the retired greyhound trust. The Government's response was that the welfare of greyhounds during and after their racing career was the responsibility of the owners. Nevertheless, any support that those involved in the conduct of greyhound racing, or in betting on it, could give would also be welcome.

The Government have played their part in channelling funds towards the sport. The 1992 Budget resulted in a 0.25 per cent. reduction in betting duty. When making the announcement at the time, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he hoped that the bookmakers would channel the portion relating to bets on greyhound racing to a voluntary fund. The two industries have set up the British greyhound racing fund under an independent chairman, Lord Kimball. The fund has benefited integrity services at tracks. In addition, £59,000 was donated in 1993 towards the work of the Retired Greyhound Trust.

It is understood that the track owners are also considering what more might be done to promote the home-finding schemes at their own tracks. It is the industry's intention to give fresh impetus to the work of the trust and in particular to concentrate on expanding and properly financing local home-finding schemes. In addition, it is estimated that 3,000 retired dogs are being kept in kennels by trainers throughout the country.

Whether the industry should be doing more to put money towards the provision of homes must be a matter for it. But I know that the industry is considering those questions most carefully in response to the concerns that have been expressed. I know that there is particular concern about the fate of dogs that are exported—as has been mentioned. The Government have no power to prevent the export of animals to other European Union countries and what goes on in those countries is a matter for them. However, I am sure that the remarks of the hon. Member for Lancashire, West will have been noted. I understand that the NGRC has banned its members from exporting dogs to Spain. Where a dog goes after its racing career has to be the responsibility of the owner.

There have, I know, been suggestions that ex-racing greyhounds may have been used in scientific research. 'The 1986 legislation contains special provisions in respect of laboratory dogs and cats, which must be bred at, and obtained from, a designated breeding establishment. 'The only exception to that is where the Secretary of State is satisfied that animals suitable for the purpose of the programme cannot be so obtained and where there is a clear scientific case for using a non-designated source of supply. That provision is designed as reassurance that stray or stolen dogs will not be used in experiments.

There is now no designated source of supply for greyhounds. For a short period in 1991–92, there was a designated breeder of greyhounds for research purposes. When authority is given by the Home Secretary to acquire greyhounds from non-designated sources, a condition is added to the relevant project licence prohibiting the acquisition of animals from charities seeking homes for ex-racing greyhounds.

The demand for greyhounds for scientific use is very small and appears to be diminishing still further. It is likely that there will always be a residual demand for such animals for very scientific inquiries. For example, studies of the metabolism of drugs in trained, race-fit animals cannot be carried out in animals other than trained, race-fit animals. Therefore, if the scientific question is to be addressed properly, a means of acquiring such animals must be provided.

On the question of abuse of animals at independent tracks, it is already open to any person who believes that a dog has been caused unnecessary suffering in any circumstances to initiate proceedings under the Protection of Animals Act 1911, or to report the matter to the police.

As I seem to have made up a minute or so on time, does my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan wish to intervene?

Mr. Sweeney

Given the high incidence of injuries to greyhounds at United Kingdom dog tracks, will my hon. Friend consider introducing controls over the NGRC and other track operators to ensure that tracks are independently inspected so that racing can be stopped if the going is too hard and so that veterinary examinations are conducted by independent vets rather than those employed by dog tracks?

Mr. Wardle

My hon. Friend will have heard my earlier comments' and his remarks will have been noted by the House. As I said, it is a matter for the NGRC. The Government do not propose to introduce legislation that would, in effect, tell the NGRC what to do. It sets its rules, which it expects to be followed. If they are not, the penalties have been made clear to its members. Two inspections are conducted by a vet at each meeting and I see no reason to doubt their integrity. My hon. Friend's comments will have been noted.

We all want to see humane treatment of the animals on which the sport depends. The Government have given full support to legislation to strengthen the Protection of Animals Act 1911. We have supported measures for increased penalties and stronger powers for the courts to disqualify offenders from having custody of any animal.

The sport must be ever-vigilant to protect its good name and I commend the hon. Member for Lancashire, West for bringing the matter to the attention of the House. The industry must face the concerns that have been expressed head on and must deal with them. We shall be in touch with the sport's ruling body to report what has been said in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

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