HC Deb 07 May 1999 vol 330 cc1243-50

`The keeper of a breeding establishment shall be guilty of an offence if he— (a) breeds a dog without previously gaining a certification from a veterinary practitioner or veterinary surgeon that both the bitch and the sire were in a fit state for breeding purposes and that they were not suffering from any congenital defects; or (b) knowingly mates two dogs who are brother and sister.'.—[4r. Maclean.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Maclean

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

New clause 4 is perhaps more important than new clause 1, particularly as it mentions the problem of suffering from any congenital defects". When I say that the new clause may be more important, I mean that the problem with which it deals is a vitally important one which one day—with or without the assistance provided by the mechanisms in the Bill—I hope that dog breeders and veterinary organisations will be able to get to grips with and stamp out.

I am conscious that—as with new clause 1—if I am too keen in my advocacy of the new clause, I may destabilise the consortium that has formed to ensure the Bill's passage. Nevertheless, I should like to float the ideas expressed in the new clause. Perhaps, in another place, the provision will be considered, and a better or shorter version of it will be tabled, to deal with the problem of congenital defects.

Paragraph (b) deals with the breeder who knowingly mates two dogs who are brother and sister. It will be obvious to everyone concerned that I am an expert neither in veterinary matters nor in dog breeding practices. However, I am interested in the effects of breeding and in the progeny of such dogs. I should be desperately concerned if breeding malpractice caused congenital defects which would be very painful and very expensive to correct.

Of the 39 member states of the Council of Europe, 11 have signed and ratified the European convention for the protection of pet animals. The United Kingdom has not yet signed up to it. Article 5 was amplified by a resolution, adopted in 1995, encouraging breeding associations to reconsider breed standards to counteract development of the extreme characteristics that may cause welfare problems, by taking into account the anatomical, physiological and behavioural characteristics likely to put at risk the health and welfare either of the offspring or of the female parent.

The convention indirectly advises against the use of line or incestuous breeding. Constantly breeding brothers and sisters together, all too frequently results in dogs with odd behavioural characteristics. Incestuous breeding of cocker spaniels in one line can result in spaniel rage. Such breeding can produce dogs that are mad or hyperactive or have other behavioural problems.

I should also put forward the opposing arguments to ensure that those with different views have their points represented. I am happy for my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) to say that my argument may be a good one but would cause problems in the Bill and should be dealt with in other legislation. The contrary point, as dog breeding organisations have pointed out, is that introducing such a restriction on mating dogs who are brother and sister would result in the disappearance of the breeds of dog that we know, love and cherish because of the characteristics that we see on the television at Crufts. Those breeds have come about because of inbreeding. Fathers are put to daughters, grandfathers to granddaughters and brothers to sisters. Once a certain genetic trait has been found in an animal and there is a litter of puppies in which the males and females have a particular good quality—it might be the length of leg, conformity, coat order or an ability to sniff out game—people breed the brothers and sisters in the hope of getting more puppies with similar characteristics.

The top champions are apparently a result of such selective breeding over generations. It frequently involves what we would consider in human terms to be incest but what in animal husbandry can be regarded as a harmless form of animal eugenics that produces a dog of a particular nature. I am told that line breeding is frequently tempered by outbreeding to other lines. Occasionally an outside line of dog is bred in, avoiding the marginal risks arising from line breeding and preventing the canine madness that may be possible in some species.

I have presented the arguments on both sides. I am in no position to judge. I leave it to my hon. Friend, the Minister or the veterinary profession to do so. I am happy to accept their judgment if paragraph (b) is not helpful in the process of getting the Bill on the statute book.

Paragraph (a) deals with the very difficult issue of congenital defects. The problem has to be tackled sooner or later, perhaps by legislation. It is currently being tackled by voluntary means through the British Veterinary Association, the Kennel Club and, for congenital eye problems, the international sheepdog society. The horrific scenes that we frequently see on puppy farms are well documented. Animal welfare groups can quote them and show pictures. The clause would be a radical improvement on existing welfare provisions for breeding bitches by ensuring that they were physically fit enough to cope with the rigours of pregnancy.

We know that there are hundreds of unlicensed puppy farms in Britain. It is estimated that there may be 70,000 puppies a year bred for profit from those farms. The dogs are usually sold to middlemen for cheaper than the usual price. They often have undetected health problems, and that is the iniquity. People buy puppies that are only a few months old. A vet can tell whether a puppy may have a problem, but potential purchasers are often unaware that it has congenital defects that will come to light later resulting in agony for the dog. In some cases they have to be put down, but many undergo expensive surgery and veterinary treatment and the new owner still does not end up with a fit and active dog.

1.15 pm

Unlike horses, which are generally vetted and checked out before purchase, puppies are usually sold on sight. We can improve the health of puppies and try to eradicate the sale of congenitally diseased puppies by trying to ensure that the parents are healthy specimens. The new clause would ensure that in future people buying puppies will not be saddled with the financial and emotional burden of discovering that they have bought a desperately sick animal.

As there are no veterinary surgeons in the House, we are all average dog owners who are not well versed in the intricacies of dog ailments. When we make judgments on buying puppies, I suspect that most of our concerns will be emotional ones. We will not be looking to see whether the legs are correct or whether there is a possibility of dysplasia or retinal problems. We assume that the puppies are healthy.

In Committee, the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) mentioned a constituent who had bought a dog in good faith, only to pay a fortune in vet's fees as a result of its poor breeding and congenital defects. There are thousands of examples up and down the country. The new clause would ensure that the Bill addressed that problem.

Congenital ailments are an inherent problem in dog breeding and in many instances they can be avoided by careful selective breeding. The most common problems include heart problems, hip dysplasia, spinal problems and ingrowing eyelashes. A few years ago I saw a television programme about a breed of dog called the Shar-Pei—a Chinese breed that died out at the end of the last century. It had been recreated by breeding together the types of dog that were thought to have created the Shar-Pei in the first place. Although the breed had evolved from dogs breeding in China over thousands of years, it had been recreated by breeding together X, Y and Z types of dog. The result was a dog that looked like the original Shar-Pei breed although the skin folds are so intense that they get rotten diseases in the flesh. Worst of all, because of the way in which the dogs have been bred, they suffer from ingrowing eyebrows and eyelashes that cause awful pain and distress. That is the most extreme example of genetic breeding—trying to recreate a dog in a certain mould when the original species has died out.

In Britain, ordinary breeds of dog that we know and love—particularly retrievers and labradors—are being bred with hip dysplasia. When those dogs have puppies, they inevitably also have hip dysplasia. Hip dysplasia is a broad term that encompasses many developmental and other abnormalities of the hip joint. The simplest way to put it is that if someone buys a puppy with hip dysplasia, within 12 months they will have a crippled dog trying to drag itself around because it cannot walk. I shall not sicken the House with some of the details that the British Veterinary Association has supplied me with about hereditary eye diseases and other congenital defects relating to elbows.

At the moment, the British Veterinary Association, the Kennel Club and—in the case of the eye diseases of collie dogs—the National Sheepdog Society have a voluntary screening programme in an attempt to screen out all dogs with congenital defects so that people do not breed from them. If they do not breed from them, the problem is eradicated.

My new clause proposes that that process should be put on a statutory basis. That can be done relatively simply, as the British Veterinary Association has panels around the country that are capable of doing it. I accept that that will not deal with every problem, and that the reference in the new clause to the dogs being in a "fit state" for breeding has a severe weakness; a vet might not be able to tell, and the dog's owner might be in a better position.

Nevertheless, the second part of the sentence— and that they were not suffering from any congenital defects —could make a significant impact. It could be possible to deal with the common types of congenital defect, such as hip dysplasia, retinal dysplasia, collie eye anomaly, hereditary cataract, primary lens luxation—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is experienced enough to know that he is now indulging in repetition and remoteness. I would be grateful if he came back to the core of the new clause.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

Come to heel.

Mr. Maclean

I shall do as my hon. Friend suggests. The problem is that some dogs cannot come to heel because of congenital defects.

The new clause may have some deficiencies, as it deals with some vague and loose aspects. However, the part dealing with congenital defects is the most serious point. I believe that dealing with congenital defects in dogs and other animals used for breeding purposes should be tackled with more statutory backing than at present. If that can be done in this Bill, so be it, but I am happy to accept the assurances of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere and the Minister that this Bill is not a suitable vehicle. However, I want the House to know that this is a serious problem that must be tackled.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

This is the kamikaze new clause from my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), in that he is aiming at the right target but will probably die in the attempt. If he knows anything about the world of dog breeding, he will realise that he is treading in some extremely dangerous territory with the new clause. He will have had some experience of dog shows, and the people who take part in them—excellent people though they are—are terribly dedicated, and they all have strong and differing opinions. One of the problems for the dog world is to get any form of agreement on anything. That is the strength of the dog breeding world; it is also its weakness.

When my right hon. Friend refers, effectively, to seeking to outlaw line breeding, he moves into difficult territory as far as breed societies are concerned.

The new clause talks about "congenital defects". We may think we know what that means, but it is the subjective decision of a vet. Vets disagree profoundly on what is and what is not a defect in a dog. My right hon. Friend referred to hip dysplasia, and we would all agree that that should be bred out. It is right that dogs are scored for hip dysplasia, but the difficulty comes in other matters, such as breed standards. Although this would not be considered a congenital defect, there is great controversy among vets and breed societies about tail-docking.

There is considerable disagreement on whether the breeding that has taken place over many generations to turn a dog from a utilitarian dog to a show dog has caused a congenital defect. The classic example is the bulldog, which was obviously designed for the old-fashioned and unpleasant activity of bull baiting. It has now been bred into a completely different dog, but many would say that breeding to meet show standards has produced a dog with congenital breathing defects.

The new clause moves into territory that is better left to the breed societies and to the good sense of the professional breeders and those who buy dogs. Caveat emptor must apply. It is very bad news that members of the public who are ignorant of the problems that certain breeds are likely to have will buy dogs without having them properly vetted. Anyone wanting to buy a labrador should first demand that its hips are scored by a vet; anyone failing to do that would fall into the same category as someone who buys a second-hand car without having it properly tested. Although it may be damaging to the breed, one cannot protect fools from themselves.

There should be more publicity from the breed societies to ensure that people who want to buy pedigree dogs do so from respectable breeders whose dogs are properly registered with the breed society and the Kennel Club. That, and not the new clause, is how we can overcome the problem.

Mr. Dismore

On the point about caveat emptor, if I intended to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds on a dog, I would certainly get it checked by a vet first; but I fully accept what the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) said about people getting caught by sentiment and putting their heart before their head. If somebody buys a dog that is found to have a serious congenital defect, with all the consequent vets' bills and so forth, redress may well be available under the Sale of Goods Acts, although that is a convoluted way of dealing with the problem identified in the new clause.

Subsection (b) of the new clause concerns in-breeding. I used to have a dog. She died about six months before the general election, of old age. She was absolutely fit until the day she died. She happened to be a mongrel, and there was no evidence whatever of in-breeding in her background.

Mr. Clappison

I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) who suggested some worthwhile objectives and expressed some very worthy sentiments. I can give him the general reassurance that the Bill's provisions will put animal welfare considerations at the heart of the licensing process for breeding establishments, by requiring the participation of veterinary practitioners or surgeons.

Dog welfare considerations, concerning overbreeding and breeding too young—practices that have resulted in some of the problems to which my right hon. Friend alluded—will be at the heart of the Bill. It is certainly extremely distressing when members of the public unsuspectingly buy puppies that turn out to have congenital defects and all sorts of problems

. The new clause arises from worthy intentions but it may be a little on the impractical side. I await with interest the Minister's view, but it seems to me that the new clause would require a breeder to engage the services of a vet before each proposed mating. That would have very wide-ranging implications and, if that is the correct interpretation, I certainly would not want to go that far. I wait to hear the Minister's view, but I have some misgivings about the practicality of the proposal.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to draw reassurance from the fact that the Bill tackles many of the problems inherent in some large-scale puppy farming establishments, and that it will go a long way towards solving them.

1.30 pm
Mr. George Howarth

New clause 4 is intended to deal with a problem that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) described well, but the remedy that he proposes would impose undue and inappropriate regulation. It would make it an offence for a breeding establishment to breed a dog without the veterinary surgeon certifying that both the bitch and the sire were in a fit state for breeding purposes and that they were not suffering from any congenital defects", or knowingly to mate two dogs who are brother and sister". The proposed new offence should not be introduced, for two reasons. First, as the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) pointed out, it would require the breeder to call upon the services of the veterinary surgeon before each proposed mating. That would have resource implications, not only for the breeder but, down the line, for the purchasers of puppies.

Secondly—the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) made the same point as I am about to make, although in a different way—a vet cannot always give an opinion on suitability for breeding. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman went further and said that often the owner would be better able to make that judgment than a vet called in to carry out an examination for that purpose.

Moreover, after the clinical examination, anything could happen. The vet could issue the appropriate certificate, then something could happen, as a result of which something could go wrong with the breeding. Then, when someone had bought the puppy, there might be litigation, not because anybody had done anything wrong but because something had changed between the issue of the certificate and the event.

I do not believe that a responsible breeder would deliberately mate dogs that were brother and sister—although I do not say that that would never happen, and I am being careful with my use of the word "responsible". As the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border said, to do so would run the risk of causing abnormalities in the progeny. Apart from the obvious animal welfare considerations, it would not be in the best interests of breeders to run the risk of creating puppies with defects.

The hon. Member for Hexham was right to say that there are safeguards, especially in connection with the breed societies and the Kennel Club, which are perhaps the best bodies to deal with the situation. I can remember a constituency case some years ago that involved such issues, including determining the precise breed of a dog. It was satisfactorily resolved in the end by bringing the breed society and the Kennel Club into the equation.

My experience in such matters is that if one can achieve good voluntary regulation, such as that provided by the breed societies and the Kennel Club, that is better than over-heavy regulation, especially when some of the offences could be serious. I therefore hope that the right hon. Gentleman, even if he is not entirely reassured by my words of wisdom, will accept that the proposed new clause would be inappropriate.

Mr. Maclean

We are almost there. I have listened carefully to the Minister and to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), and I accept the deficiencies in the new clause. I accept the difficulties in requiring that a veterinary surgeon must determine that both the bitch and sire are in a fit state for breeding. Even if the somewhat loose terminology were right, it would impose the awful regulatory burden of checks on every occasion and that was not my intention.

I wanted to address the problem of congenital defects, and the Minister may have given me a clue. Under the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973, in determining whether to grant a licence for the keeping of a breeding establishment for dogs, the local authority shall in particular (but without prejudice to their discretion to withhold a licence on other grounds) have regard to the need for securing that the dogs will … be kept in accommodation suitable as respects construction, size of quarters … lighting, ventilation and cleanliness … that the dogs will be adequately supplied with food, drink and bedding material … and"— this is the important point— all reasonable precautions will be taken to prevent and control the spread among dogs of infectious or contagious diseases". We know what sort of diseases the Act means.

Clause 2 of the Bill would give the Minister a regulation-making power and the solution to the congenital defects problem might be for the Minister to make regulations permitting the local authorities to withhold licences, or to add the condition that the owners of the breeding establishments should operate the voluntary schemes run by the Kennel Club and the British Veterinary Association. I have all the details of those schemes for dealing with the eye defects and the hip and elbow dysplasia defects. I do not want an answer from the Minister today, and perhaps the issue could be addressed in the other place.

Hundreds of other congenital defects might be more difficult to detect. My new clause would cover all congenital defects that might need more than a vet with an ophthalmoscope to discover them, such as expensive x-rays. Through the licensing route, it might be possible for the Minister to give powers to the local authorities to insist that breeding establishments operate the congenital defects schemes. I hope that the Minister will bear that point in mind as a possible avenue—without destabilising this Bill—to giving more impetus to dealing with the ghastly congenital defects that have been bred in some dogs, in some cases deliberately. With those observations on the kind responses from the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere, I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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