HC Deb 07 May 1999 vol 330 cc1235-43

`Each local authority shall publish and present to the Secretary of State on an annual basis a written report stating—

  1. (a) the number of licences granted or renewed to breeding establishments in the local authority area;
  2. (b) the number of applications refused;
  3. (c) the number of convictions under sections 4 and 9 of the Act;
  4. (d) the number of disqualifications under section 5 of the Act;
  5. (e) the number of appeals against convictions and disqualifications; and
  6. (f) any other relevant matter as may be prescribed by the Secretary of State.'—[Mr. Maclean.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

12.32 pm
Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

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

The clause imposes a new requirement on local authorities. I am largely satisfied with the Bill as it appears before the House. It is much better than the Bill that came before the House last year. What is more, we have the chance to give it a proper Report stage and Third Reading. We are able to explore issues that have been raised with me, although I do not intend to try to force changes in the Bill that would not be acceptable to the coalition of organisations—or to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), or my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison)— that has come together to try to make the Bill workable.

Having said that, we should consider some issues to ask whether the Bill could be improved, whether it contains something unnecessary or whether its provisions may contain any retrograde step. I hope that those who read Hansard once we have completed our deliberations will see that we have considered all the points that may worry them. I hope that they will conclude that the House accepted or rejected new clause 1 and the other amendments that I have tabled after full consideration and for sensible reasons. I hope that they will see that we have produced the best possible legislation to deal with a vexed problem.

The new clause would place an obligation on local authorities to publish a report and present it the Secretary of State. That obligation would not be too onerous on local authorities. Local authorities regularly have to present reports. They are bound by various charters and have to report on many aspects of how they conduct their affairs to the Secretary of State. In any case, most local authorities will want to state in their annual report to their electorate how well they have been operating various aspects of their business. Usually, they report on how well they are doing on environmental health issues, for example, giving the number of inspections carried out and so forth.

One obligation on local authorities is the licensing regime, which is set out in clause 1. The improvement under the Bill will be the involvement of veterinary practitioners in the reports and in coming to conclusions, which will add a professional expertise that was absent.

Since we have new legislation that is imposing new obligations, it would be worth while for local authorities to present a report stating how many licences have been renewed for breeding establishments in their area. We need to know whether the legislation is biting. We have all read about the awful examples of puppy farms in the country. I think that most of the original examples were in Wales. I make no slight on the new Welsh Assembly—indeed, it could not be a slight as the elections were only held last night for that body—or the Welsh people and I am not criticising breeders in Wales in particular. However, advocates of the legislation and those who say that something must be done always seem to quote examples of puppy farms in Wales.

People have different concepts of what constitutes a puppy farm. Some believe them to be huge places with hundreds of breeding bitches, while others rightly point out that the abuse can be as wicked, with the breeding of inappropriate dogs with genetic deformities, and the conditions in which animals are kept as horrific in a small operation. Whatever one's concept of the breeding establishment—the Bill gives a definition—it is important that local authorities report on how things are going.

In this place we have a tendency when we pass legislation to say on Third Reading, "This is a wonderful Bill. It is a great improvement and a great step forward." This Bill represents a great step forward compared with present legislation, but everyone knows that it is by no means perfect. The organisations that have come together to assist in its drafting all accept that they have had to make some compromises on the Bill that they would have written were they solely in charge. Everyone has had to compromise, but nevertheless we will all say that the measure is a great step forward.

After a Bill is enacted, we have a tendency to think that we will not need any more legislation on the matter for a while. We will think that in 1999 we enacted the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Bill

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. It might be as well if I reminded the right hon. Gentleman and the House that the scope for discussion on the new clause is very narrow. An occasional reference to the title of the clause and the need for an annual report does not excuse remarks that cover the substance of other clauses. The new clause would provide for local authorities to report in writing to the Secretary of State on the exercise of the powers conferred by a number of clauses in the Bill. It is not an opportunity for a Second or Third Reading debate.

Mr. Maclean

I accept your admonitions, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The areas that I selected on which local authorities should report in new clause 1 represent some of the key powers conferred by the Bill. One has to be the number of licences granted or renewed to breeding establishments in the local authority area. It will be particularly useful to the Secretary of State and to hon. Members to know how many licences have been refused—that provision is in paragraph (b) of the new clause. We want to know how many have been renewed and how many refused. We also need to know, as paragraph (f) provides, any other relevant matter as may be prescribed by the Secretary of State. I hope that, if my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere accepts new clause 1, one of the relevant matters might be that local authorities would have to give explanations of why licences were refused. The bare statistics on refused licences are relevant. If more licences have been refused than in previous years, is it a statistical quirk or are local authorities applying the law more tightly? If so, it would be helpful for us and the Secretary of State to know the reasons.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

I do not understand my right hon. Friend's logic. If a local authority's annual return to the Secretary of State said that it had issued 12 licences and refused none, that there were no convictions under clauses 4 and 9, no disqualifications under clause 5, no appeals against conviction or disqualification and no relevant matters, does that mean that the local authority is doing a good or bad job?

Mr. Maclean

I accept my hon. Friend's point. One could not come to a conclusion on the quality of local authority inspection or whether it was licensing in the same way as an authority that had refused the 12 licence applications that it had received. There will be disparities between local authorities. That is where new clause 1(f) comes in. It provides that authorities can report any other relevant matter as may be prescribed by the Secretary of State. Even with my inadequate wording, it might be possible to have a quality control threshold. The Secretary of State might ask authorities to respond in terms of best value. I am not sure whether local authorities would be inspected on their enforcement of the Bill, but the Government are insisting on best value throughout the country. Rightly, part of that regime will be audit or quality control. I accept that the inadequate wording of my new clause means that we cannot be sure whether a local authority is doing a good job by refusing every licence or a sloppy one by granting them all. Paragraph (f) would allow the Secretary of State to build in mechanisms to allow us to make a guess about that or at least to get some information.

I do not want to labour my point in advocating new clause I because I have another important new clause on which I wish to speak and I know that other hon. Members want to contribute, but I want to touch on convictions. It is important to get a report on them from local authorities. The Minister may say that they are covered somewhere in the annual digest of convictions published by the Home Office. If we ploughed through it, we would find the convictions for various offences and crimes. After much study, we might find those that relate to animal offences or breaches of the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973. Those of us who take an interest in such matters would find it helpful if local authorities responsible for dog licensing and taking out prosecutions included in their reports to the Secretary of State their conclusions on the number of convictions under clause 4, which deals with imprisonment for keeping an unlicensed establishment. Clause 9 deals with the penalties in respect of clause 8 on the sale of dogs. It would be helpful to have information on convictions under clauses 4 and 9 and information from local authorities on disqualifications under clause 5.

Those who are concerned about inappropriate dog breeding and puppy farming need to know the number of people who have been struck off and the extent of the abuse so that they can get a measure of their success in trying to deal with it. The fact that a local authority may be highly successful in dealing with it is pertinent information to which the rest of us have a right. It would be helpful if other local authorities could see success rates.

Mr. Atkinson

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way to me a second time. Again, I have lost the logic of his argument. There might be several breeding establishments in some local authority areas—for example, those in rural areas such as those that he and I represent, where people often do such work as a sideline. However, if my right hon. Friend represented Kensington and Chelsea, the chances of finding dog-breeding establishments in that area would be most unlikely—although it is possible that there might be some. My right hon. Friend is comparing one quite different local authority to another; it is difficult to compare the activities of local authorities in rural and urban areas.

12.45 pm
Mr. Maclean

I accept my hon. Friend's point; it may be difficult to compare their activities. Nevertheless, each local authority would have to enforce the same legislation that is passed by the House. If my new clause were accepted, they would be under an obligation to report the same matters.

I think that my hon. Friend's point is not that what I suggest in the new clause is wholly wrong in concept, but that the new clause may be inadequate to deal with what is—yet again— a quality control measure. It is true that the number of people disqualified may vary in different authorities, depending on how active a local authority is in making prosecutions and on how many people are convicted. It will vary according to the attitude of the courts; courts in some areas may take a dimmer view of inappropriate activity under the breeding and sale of dogs legislation than those in other areas. One would hope not. However, the range of penalties will differ. Furthermore, when people are disqualified, there will also be differences from area to area.

Nevertheless, it is worth knowing how local authorities are proceeding, in order that such information can be shared not only by the Secretary of State, but by other local authorities and the rest of us. One of the small, but important, points in my new clause is that Each local authority shall publish and present to the Secretary of State". The benefit of publishing is that it would allow best practice in local authorities to be shown. They could publish anywhere, either in a written document that people could read and say, "Ah, that's the way they're doing it in that local authority", or by putting the information on the internet or on their web pages. Many local authorities now do that with their annual reports and their charters. I commend that as a good way for local authorities to make that information easily available for people to see. By sharing best practice, we will make substantial improvements to animal welfare throughout the country. We may also achieve greater consistency in the enforcement of the provisions of the legislation, as local authorities take courage and take heart from the ways in which others carry out the provisions. When they study the published reports, they will be able to see the style and format. They will also be able to see any important matters referred to by the Secretary of State under paragraph (f) of the new clause. If he prescribes some quality control measures, the authorities will be aware of how others are carrying out such matters. That will be of general benefit.

I conclude by pointing out that I have suggested new clause 1 as a possible improvement. I am happy to accept the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere or of the Minister that it is not necessary and that it is not an improvement, or that it would destabilise the coalition of interests that has come together to get the Bill into a negotiated state. I think that my new clause is a possible improvement. I should be happy if my hon. Friend accepts the substance of the new clause. Perhaps, in another place, we may come up with better wording or suggest a better means of drafting it. I should be happy if the Minister suggested that. At present, I commend the new clause to the House as worthy of some consideration.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

In another debate earlier today, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) mentioned his suspicions of Bills that were consensus Bills. My suspicions too are aroused, because this is a consensus Bill. It was not debated on Second Reading, as it received an unopposed Second Reading several Fridays ago. It was discussed only briefly in Committee. Therefore, at this late stage, on Report, it is right that we test the Bill as much as we possibly can, to ensure that it has a reasonable chance of achieving that which it seeks to achieve. The test of a Friday morning Bill that tries to increase regulation or prevent people from doing things is whether its outcome is worth the bother. New clause 1 does not in any way compensate for the Bill's central weakness—the difficulty in identifying a puppy farm. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) will discuss that weakness at a later stage of the Bill.

New clause 1 seeks to place an additional burden on local authorities. That is unacceptable, unless it can be shown that the Bill is strengthened by making local authorities undergo such a rigorous and bureaucratic procedure. As I tried—possibly not successfully—to point out in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), I cannot see what use it would be if one local authority said that it had had no appeals, no convictions, no disqualifications and no relevant matters of discussion, whereas another local authority said that, in the same year, it had turned down two licences and prosecuted once. That would not allow comparison between the performance of different local authorities. That is a weakness of the new clause.

If local authorities are given that burden and they report a nil scoresheet—if I may use that cricketing expression—it will aggravate dog lovers. We know what the British or the English dog lover is like. If dog lovers were to think that their local authority was not properly doing its job of looking after the interests of dogs, they would get very angry with that authority, even though it might be doing a perfectly good job. There might simply be no such establishments or identifiable establishments in its area. What a waste of time.

In another sense, legitimate breeders of dogs might be damaged. If one gives a local authority a sensitive target such as this one, it becomes rather like the parking warden who must issue a certain number of tickets to show that he is doing his job properly. We do not want local authority environmental health inspectors or enforcement officers—or whoever is given the duty—to run a league table to see how miserable they can make the life of perfectly legitimate and responsible dog breeders in the local authority area. There would be a temptation for local authorities to seek to interfere hugely and over-burdensomely in such establishments.

Local government already has enormous duties associated with environmental health, and new clause 1 would impose even more burdens. The House is in danger of initiating a chain of events, as it has done repeatedly before, by which the House passes the buck to local authorities to do things that we think are good. Hon. Members think that this Bill is a thoroughly good thing, so we shall pass it—and, by the way, the local authority will implement it. Then the local authority meets and decides what it will do, and passes the burden to the environmental inspectors. Those inspectors are then given that job, on top of all their other multifarious jobs.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border must show that new clause 1 will significantly improve the Bill and correct what I perceive to be the Bill's essential weakness. He has not done so, so the House should reject new clause 1.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I have sympathy with the arguments expressed by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson). I agree that we should try to ensure some consistency in enforcement of the new legislation—assuming that it passes—but I am also worried that a disproportionate burden may be placed on some local authorities.

I am unaware of any dog breeding establishments in my constituency, yet presumably, if new clause 1 were passed, the local authority would be required to submit some sort of nil return. For the reasons given by the hon. Member for Hexham, I am concerned that that may generate concern among the—very strong—animal welfare lobby in my constituency as to why action is not being taken. We would then see all sorts of correspondence in the local papers about why we were not taking action against non-existent establishments.

I think the proposed new clause will place a disproportionate burden on my local authority, which has plenty to do already. If it were to establish a threshold in terms of the number of licences issued or make some other requirement before imposing obligations on local authorities, I might have more sympathy with it. That would ensure the consistency that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border seeks regarding the proper licensing and policing of establishments. However, we must not impose unnecessary obligations on the vast bulk of local authorities.

The Bill correctly places responsibility for enforcement on local authorities, which reflects local conditions and concerns. However, I am not sure why local authorities should provide annual reports to the Secretary of State. What will that achieve? What will the Secretary of State do with those reports and all of that information? Will he put the reports in a filing cabinet and forget about them, or will he be obliged—this requirement is not in the new clause—to produce a report consolidating all the other reports? The next thing we know is that we will have an incredibly complicated bureaucracy and we will be using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut, given the relatively narrow geographical location of such establishments.

Mr. Maclean

I think the Secretary of State should be involved in the process because he may make regulations under clause 2 of the Bill, which relates to licensing conditions. As the Secretary of State has that regulation-making power, he should receive the reports so that he will know what is going on.

Mr. Dismore

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for those comments, which clarify his argument.

If there were problems in enforcing the legislation, I am sure that they would be highlighted by the animal welfare lobby, which is very well organised—I am happy to be associated with it. It has been said that this is something of a compromise Bill: many hon. Members would like to see the legislation include other objectives that are not achievable at this time. So I question whether a great deal will be achieved by passing reports to the Secretary of State. I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but that will inevitably put pressure on the Secretary of State to start producing his own report on the subject.

I do not support the proposed new clause because I do not think it adds to the force of the Bill. We know that the groups involved are very well organised and that they will highlight any problems. I am sure that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other organisations will ensure that there is co-ordination between enforcement bodies. While I sympathise with what the right hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve, I believe that the proposed new clause goes a little too far.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I have listened carefully to the arguments that have been advanced this morning, particularly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). I am grateful for his general support for the Bill and for the thoughtful way in which he proposed the new clause.

My right hon. Friend was correct in saying that the Bill has flowed from the work of 11 major organisations representing animal welfare, dog breeders, local authorities, the veterinary profession and the pet care industry. They have worked together closely to lay the foundations of the Bill, which strengthens existing legislation, closes loopholes and addresses the serious problem of some—but not all—large breeding establishments where standards fall well short of the desired levels. I emphasise that the legislation is aimed not at the responsible small hobby breeder but at the irresponsible minority of large breeding establishments.

The Bill does not intend to impose inappropriately burdensome requirements either on those who must enforce the legislation or on those who must comply with it. In that context, I turn to the contents of new clause 1 as I think the contributions by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) have demonstrated that there are some grounds for concern that the requirements that it imposes on local authorities would be inappropriately burdensome. I understand my right hon. Friend's worthy objectives in tabling the new clause, but I wonder whether it is entirely appropriate for the burdens set out in it to be imposed on local authorities. I understand that it is tempting, with a Bill such as this, to try to lay on local authorities a requirement to publish and present reports. I have no doubt that, in some instances, there is a good case for doing so, but I am not entirely convinced that the case has been made on this occasion. I listened carefully to the interesting arguments that my right hon. Friend advanced.

1 pm

I am also concerned about the open-ended nature of the requirement under paragraph (f), which refers to any other relevant matter as may be prescribed by the Secretary of State. That is a requirement that local authorities might have to report back on "any other relevant matter". In another context—my right hon. Friend will know what I mean—I have come to take rather a jaundiced view of open-ended requirements under secondary legislation. That jaundice extends to the requirements that we are considering.

In considering the new clause in its entirety, I am concerned that it may be inappropriate, and burdensome on those who have to enforce the Bill. I do not, of course, know what view the Government take. The Minister is better placed than us to form a view of how burdensome the new clause would be, but I suspect that it would, indeed, be burdensome.

During consideration of the previous Bill some tributes were paid to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for attending the debates. I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman was present because the House was considering a very important piece of legislation. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department for the personal interest that he has shown in the Bill and for the support that he has given it. I have no doubt that that interest and support will be reflected in his contributions on Report. We have had a useful debate and the sentiment behind the new clause is worthy, but I am not sure that the case for it has been made.

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

As the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) rightly said, the new clause would require each local authority annually to submit a report to the Home Office on the operation of this proposed legislation to regulate dog breeding establishments. Enforcement is a key element in the effectiveness of legislation: if it is not enforced, it will not be effective.

It is well known that there is room for some improvement in the area to which the Bill relates, but local authorities have said that the problem of enforcement is that there are loopholes in existing legislation. They say that there is no lack of will on their part to deal with the problems mentioned by the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), for whose kind comments I am grateful. The point of the Bill is to close existing loopholes.

As the hon. Members for Hertsmere and for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) have said, it would be bureaucratic if an annual report had to be compiled by every local authority. The requirement would mean that the Home Office would have to analyse the statistics and produce a report itself. That might be an internal report.

I hope that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border will accept that the new clause would make the Bill unnecessarily cumbersome. It is obviously right that we should try to ensure that the Bill is implemented properly, and, to ease the right hon. Gentleman's mind, I give him the commitment that the Home Office will review the situation after a reasonable period following the Bill's enactment. We shall subsequently determine whether it is necessary to introduce more prescriptive reporting procedures such as those that the right hon. Gentleman describes; and, if so, whether that might be dealt with in guidance to local authorities—which we are already able to issue. Those remedies are available if we feel that is necessary to use them. Moreover, as with all legislation, we shall keep an eye on how the provisions work after implementation.

I therefore hope that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border will accept that we shall be vigilant, and that, if it is necessary to issue guidance to local authorities requiring them to record and report in greater detail, we shall do so. At this stage, however, I prefer to give authorities the opportunity of using the Bill in trying to get to grips with the problem.

Mr. Maclean

I am very grateful to the Minister for his customarily courteous and sensible reply. In the circumstances, I am willing to accept his assurances. He has been brave enough to breach the Home Office wisdom of the past few years, which has been, "Don't touch legislation on dogs," and to get involved. Although, on a previous Friday, he was not fortunate enough to ensure the Bill's passage, his involvement today—with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison)—may prove to be more productive.

The Minister's offer was satisfactory. However, I should like just to reply to one small point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere. He said that the legislation is designed to catch the big breeders, not little hobby breeders. I appreciate that, but let us not turn a blind eye to bad welfare conditions provided by little hobby breeders. Let us not assume that, because someone is a small breeder, their animal welfare is very good: it could be deplorable.

Nevertheless, in the light of the Minister's assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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