HC Deb 30 January 1998 vol 305 cc686-92

Order for Second Reading read.

2.6 pm

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I wish to place on record my thanks to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, particularly Mr. Alex Ross, for the preparation and drafting of the Bill. I also thank Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Home Office Minister, for his guidance and encouragement. I hope that the Bill will now receive the Government's support and that we can claim that it has all-party support.

The Bill seeks to clamp down on large-scale, unlicensed commercial puppy farms and reduce the suffering of thousands of puppies that are bred each year. The dog—man's best friend and the family pet of millions of households—is all too often bred in lousy conditions and transported long distances for sale. Many dogs are bred by people who appear to have no idea about the conditions in which they should be bred and brought up. Animal welfare considerations are put on one side to boost the profits of unscrupulous dog breeders. The conditions compare badly with those of good dog breeders, who provide decent welfare standards in their kennels and look after their puppies by exercising and socialising them.

All too often, dogs are kept in cramped, filthy conditions, bitches are bred far too often and dogs receive no exercise or human contact. Puppies are taken away from their mothers at a young age and transported hundreds of miles to be sold in pub car parks, motorway service stations and other outlets.

One need only look in the classified sections of local newspapers and magazines to find advertisements of dogs for sale. It is all too easy to buy a dog. Many of the puppies advertised start their lives in large-scale, unlicensed puppy farms in squalid conditions. They are taken away from their mothers at five weeks old, sold to dealers for some £150 and resold to unsuspecting people for £250.

I have received a letter, from constituents not of mine but of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), from the village of Northwich, drawing to my attention the terrible tale of a kennel in Antrobus. When the couple went to the kennel, they found the reception area unclean and dishevelled. They said that

a very unpleasant smell filled the room … We asked if we could see a West Highland White Terrier puppy, two pups were consequently brought to us, supposed to be brother and sister. They were so different that we asked if we could see the mother and father. The breeder left the room, and came back with a west highland terrier bitch. The dog was placed on the floor, but did not seem interested in the puppies: she growled at them when they came near her. The alleged mother was in a terrible condition: she could hardly walk and her fur was tainted yellow. They knew that they had to buy a Puppy.

The couple paid £236 for that puppy in 1990. When they took it home in the car, they noticed that it was bleeding from its rear end, and was covered in fleas.

They took it to the vet, who discovered that it had one eye smaller than the other, no tear ducts, an undershot jaw, its legs, tail and ears were too long, it had only one testicle and the texture and colour of its coat were wrong. They contacted the breeder to find out why they had paid all that money for a defective animal. Instead of apologising, he took a "tough luck" attitude, gave them a load of abuse and slammed down the phone.

That is one example of what can happen when puppies are bought from a puppy farm. In 1995, after growing concern, the all-party animal welfare group inquired into this matter. Its report "The Commercial Breeding and Sale of Dogs and Puppies" was produced with the support of the RSPCA, the Kennel Club, the British Veterinary Association and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association. It made a number of recommendations to improve the welfare of dogs and puppies. The Bill reflects those recommendations and builds on them.

I have consulted widely to improve the Bill. The views of local authorities, animal welfare organisations and many others have been taken into account. I have also consulted dog breeders and dog owners to ensure that the Bill is fair and does not punish the responsible dog breeder who has high animal welfare standards in his breeding establishment. The Bill is necessary because the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973 is badly written and prosecutions are difficult to achieve. The 1973 Act focuses on the conditions of breeding premises and ignores the animal welfare issue, so I hope to redress that balance in my Bill.

The current law makes it easier for breeders to avoid being licensed, allows them to cut corners on welfare, and makes it much more difficult for prosecutions to be brought. The all-party animal welfare group showed the extent of the problem when it discovered that in the three counties of west Wales there are 230 licensed and almost 300 unlicensed breeders. Unlicensed breeders are not subject to inspection, even though they sell thousands of puppies every year. The evidence that those puppies suffer serious health problems is there for all to see. They are often lice ridden, worm infested, have physical disabilities, skeletal deformities and behavioural problems.

The primary aim of the Bill is to ensure that commercial puppy farms are licensed and provide healthy conditions for their animals, and that the welfare of the dogs is paramount. The current law is ambiguous and allows breeders to avoid licensing. Dogs can be bred in lousy conditions and sold almost anywhere. There is no requirement to promote the animal welfare of the dogs and puppies involved.

It will be of no surprise to the House to know that the biggest culprits are the large-scale, unregistered, commercial breeders. My Bill will target those breeders. It has four main objectives: to stamp out unlicensed breeders who are breaking the law; to ensure high animal welfare standards at all licensed premises; to better regulate the way in which puppies are sold; and to achieve that without placing further burdens on the small-scale, responsible breeder.

To ensure that local authorities can stamp out unlicensed breeders who are breaking the law, the Bill will crucially amend the definition of a breeding establishment. If it is enacted, only those businesses breeding dogs for massive profits will be required to license. A breeding establishment that produces more than four litters a year will be presumed to be running a business under the terms of the Bill, and will have to be licensed.

To improve animal welfare at licensed premises, the Bill introduces minimum and maximum age gaps between which bitches can be bred from, and it restricts the frequency with which bitches can be mated. The measure is supported by the Kennel Club, the RSPCA and the British Dog Breeders Council.

The Bill will require veterinary surgeons to carry out initial and annual inspections of all potential and existing licensed breeders and their reports will be considered by the local authority before a licence is issued or renewed. That will help improve welfare standards at all licensed breeding establishments. Breeders will be required to keep records of the dogs that they breed. That will help local authorities to verify the number of dogs bred and help in any legal action.

The Bill contains a new measure to prevent unlicensed dog breeders from supplying puppies for sale to the public. The Bill will therefore prevent the sale of puppies by anyone other than a licensed breeder or a licensed pet retailer. I assure the House that I am quite prepared to revisit the clause concerned to ensure that we do not make it an offence for a wife or partner of a breeder or people who work in licensed pet shops to be engaged in the sale of puppies.

The measure will help to get rid of unlicensed dealers and the go-between who sells puppies to the public through classified advertisements, in pub car parks and at motorway service stations. In addition, the Bill will require pet shop retailers who want to sell puppies to ensure that the puppies are properly cared for. Veterinary inspections of such shops will be required. The House will be delighted to know that there is a beneficial spin-off for the welfare of other animals on sale in pet shops.

Under the current law, those convicted of offences relating to dog breeding often escape with a minimum fine. A pedigree puppy litter can be sold for up to £3,000. That can be multiplied by dozens of breeding bitches. A puppy farm income can be in excess of £50,000, so a fine of £100 is totally inadequate and pointless. The Bill will give magistrates the power to imprison breeders who break the law or to confiscate the animals of those convicted. Where legal proceedings are instigated, those facing prosecution can have their animals seized and rehoused in the event of a prosecution.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hall

No, I am sorry. I cannot give way.

The measures are aimed at encouraging commercial puppy farmers to be licensed and adopt good animal welfare practices and at protecting members of the public who buy puppies.

I am acutely aware that hundreds of families buy puppies in the hope that they will have a companion that they can enjoy for its full life, only to find that they have bought a dog with serious health and behavioural problems due to the way in which it has been bred and sold. The best advice that I or the House can give to anyone buying a puppy is to check out the breeder, see the puppy with its mother and to get as much information as possible on the history of the puppy that they intend to purchase.

This Bill, with the support of local authorities, animal welfare organisations, responsible dog breeders and pet retailers, will change the law to deal with the huge problem of puppy farms. I commend it to the House.

2.17 pm
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) on his success in the ballot and on introducing the Bill. It gives me particular pleasure to say that because—he will not realise this—I was born and raised in Northwich and attended Sir John Deane's grammar school in his constituency. I vividly recall as a child walking our collie dog—long since departed—along the Trent and Mersey canal, where I learned the love of dog ownership. We have two splendid Norfolk terriers at home in Yorkshire. Like many dog lovers, I derive great pleasure from being with my dogs and walking them at weekends. I commend such a leisure pursuit to others.

As the hon. Member for Weaver Vale has said, this issue is primarily one of welfare. He is right to suggest that a legislative change is overdue. There is not time today for the House to consider, in as much detail as we might have preferred had time allowed, some of the issues in the Bill.

The Conservatives believe that the issues deserve greater consideration and deliberation. The best opportunity for that would be provided by the Bill proceeding to a Standing Committee, where the issues could be aired and addressed. I am glad that the hon. Member for Weaver Vale rightly pointed to the need to ensure that those who wish to sell dogs in proper circumstances are not outlawed. He is also right to draw attention to the fact that the Bill might prevent people from mistakenly purchasing a dog from an unscrupulous breeder—which is all too easy—and ensure that those who want to purchase a pet and a friend for life purchase a young pup that is physically sound and has been properly reared.

We are prepared to give the Bill a Second Reading today. We hope that there will be room in Standing Committee C for consideration of it and the Road Traffic Reduction (United Kingdom Targets) Bill, which was given a Second Reading a little earlier.

2.20 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) on his good fortune in drawing a place in the ballot. The Bill deals with unlicensed dog breeding, with the aim of raising standards in the industry. There is a general consensus that that is a worthy objective. It would extend the provisions of the Breeding of Dogs Acts 1973 and 1991.

I do not need to describe the existing legislation or go into the detail of the Bill, because my hon. Friend did so eloquently and comprehensively. However, I shall give some background to the Bill. There has been concern for some time about the effectiveness of existing legislation, with arguments for the regulation of the dog breeding.

The all-party parliamentary group for animal welfare—in which the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who is in his place, has played a prominent role—has recommended changes to the licensing system under the 1973 and 1991 Acts. My hon. Friend has taken account of the parliamentary group's report. The Bill also has the support of the RSPCA.

My hon. Friend and the RSPCA have consulted widely and met with interested parties, including my noble Friend Lord Williams, my colleague at the Home Office. He has taken note of the concerns that we expressed and made changes. The Bill is better for that.

However, some concerns remain to be addressed. First, there is a problem with record keeping. Clause 1(3)(i) places additional burdens on local authorities. There may be difficulties with enforcement. Secondly, clause 8 introduces a regime for pet shops selling puppies that would ban the sale of puppies from pet shops. Thirdly, the pet trade remains concerned about the possibility of hobby breeders—such as those who breed to show rather than for business purposes—being caught in a licensing system. Finally, doubts have to be expressed about the value of compulsory inspections by a vet. The inspection could take place where there are no puppies on site, leaving little for the vet to inspect.

Having expressed those concerns, I shall give some idea of where the Government stand on the broad thrust of the Bill. The concerns certainly need to be addressed, and as the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) said, it will be appropriate to do that in Committee.

The Government are sympathetic to the aims of the Bill, which are consistent with the Labour party's document, "New Life for Animals", which was issued before the general election. There is certainly a well-documented problem with rogue breeders, and we accept that it needs to be dealt with.

There are three concerns associated with indiscriminate dog breeding. First, of course, come welfare concerns about bitches and puppies kept in unsuitable conditions, with resultant health problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale gave some examples of that phenomenon.

The second problem is the increased likelihood of unhealthy puppies being sold to the public. We are all concerned about that. Last but by no means least, there is the danger of unscrupulous dog breeders tainting the legitimate businesses.

The Bill seeks to address those issues, so it is not my intention or that of the Government to oppose it. We support the principles behind it, but to make it acceptable to the Government, amendments will have to be made in Committee to deal with the concerns that I described earlier.

The Government do not object to the Bill's having a Second Reading and we wish it good progress. I hope that the House will allow it to proceed into Committee, and that while it is there the faults can be remedied and our concerns about the current drafting addressed.

My hon. Friend and those who have supported the Bill will then have done a service to the public, especially to those who care about the welfare of animals. The Bill is a good one and deserves to be taken further. I am sure that, provided that it can be modified, it will reach the statute book—notwithstanding any difficulties that may exist in relation to Standing Committee C—and that my hon. Friend will then have the gratitude not only of the House but of the wider public.

2.26 pm
Mr. Mike Hall

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall respond briefly to the Minister's comments and welcome them. I believe that it is clause 5(8) that concerns him, not clause 8. I am prepared to re-examine all the issues that he has raised concerning the technical details that need additional thought in Committee, and I look forward to taking the Bill there at the earliest opportunity.

I thank the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) for his encouraging remarks, and I thank the chairman of the all-party animal welfare group, the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), for being here to give his support to the Bill. I ask the House to agree that the Bill be read a Second time.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).