HC Deb 07 May 1999 vol 330 cc1250-5
Mr. Clappison

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 15, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 11, in line 22, at end add `and shall make the report available for inspection by the applicant'. No. 2, in line 22, at end add—

`(2C) Any report published under subsection (2B) above shall take account of records kept by the breeding establishment.'. No. 12, in line 22, at end add—

`(2C) No inspection shall involve the taking of photographs of any premises without the prior consent of the owner.'.

Mr. Clappison

As I have said, the welfare of breeding bitches and their puppies is at the heart of the Bill. As the Bill stands, on receipt of an application for premises that have not previously been licensed, the local authority must arrange for an inspection by a veterinary surgeon or a practitioner. That is an advance on the position under existing legislation.

As the Bill stands, in other cases—such as when the premises have previously been licensed and the holder of the licence is applying for a renewal—the local authority has a power, but not a duty, to arrange an inspection by a veterinary surgeon or practitioner. It has a duty to arrange an inspection by a veterinary surgeon or practitioner on the first application for premises not previously licensed, but if the application is for renewal, there is a power to inspect, but no duty. The amendment turns that power into a duty. The local authority would have to arrange an inspection in those cases. The amendment strengthens the Bill, catering for cases that might arise and strengthening animal welfare provisions. It is worth while, and I am glad to have the support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean).

Amendments Nos. 11, 2 and 12 have worthy objectives, but I fear that cannot support them as strongly as amendment No. 1. In general, the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border are too prescriptive. Amendment No. 11 would require a report of an inspection made by a local authority and a veterinary practitioner to be made available to applicants in all cases. The requirement in amendment No. 2 that those who carry out inspections should take account of the records of breeding establishments in every report and inspection is also too prescriptive.

Amendment No. 12 is too prescriptive in another direction, in that it prevents any inspection involving the taking of photographs on premises without the owner's prior consent. I am curious about that amendment, but feel that it would be too prescriptive.

I commend amendment No. 1 to the House as it would be an important step forward and a further important provision in safeguarding the welfare of breeding bitches and puppies.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

The Opposition support the Bill. We see inspection of premises as lying at the heart of the Bill and the improvement of the welfare of dogs and puppies in commercial breeding establishments. Anyone who has been a dog owner—I own one—will have been disgusted by reports of dogs and puppies being kept and bred in the most appalling surroundings. That is why the Bill is welcome, and the rules for inspection of premises particularly so.

We support amendment No. 1 because of a weakness in the Bill. Under the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973, licences are issued for only one year, and the existing Bill would allow an authority to reissue a licence without reinspecting premises. Circumstances in a breeding establishment can change markedly in 12 months, and the amendment would ensure that all of them were inspected at least once a year. Without it, an authority may be tempted—perhaps because of lack of resources—to neglect to inspect premises. That might allow an unscrupulous and cruel owner to continue with unsatisfactory practices.

The Opposition support amendment No. 1, but I agree with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) about the other three amendments.

Mr. Maclean

I shall speak briefly about amendments Nos. 11, 2 and 12 and the one moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison). Under the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973, licences are issued for a year. The law allows a local authority to reissue a licence without inspecting premises. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) that circumstances can change considerably over 12 months. Amendment No. 1 would ensure that all establishments were inspected at least once a year. Without that provision, a local authority might be tempted to concentrate on other priority areas.

1.45 pm

On the other hand, I am conscious that I do not want to put an undue burden on local authorities. I am also conscious that, while I support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere—I hope that the Minister will say that it is acceptable and all the groups concerned will be happy with it—which is worthy and which I would be happy for it to be pressed, I am not sure whether it is worthy enough if it ends up destabilising the legislation. I will leave it to the Minister to conclude whether it is acceptable in those circumstances.

Amendment No. 11, which is in my name alone, is a probing amendment, as are amendments Nos. 2 and 3—I do not intend to press them against the wishes of the Minister or those of my hon. Friend. Amendment No. 11 would make the report available for inspection by the applicant. I am sorry if it is too prescriptive—it was intended simply to be fair.

At present, no provision exists for applicants to inspect reports on their establishments, but under section 1(5) of the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973, if applicants are aggrieved by the refusal to grant a licence they may appeal to a magistrates court. Surely it makes sense for applicants to have access to a report that rules against them being granted a licence so that they can mount a suitable defence. By having access to the report on his property an individual would be able to make suitable improvements to the establishment to tackle any problems. He would therefore be in a position to make a successful application for a licence the following year.

In the spirit of open government that this Minister and other Ministers espouse, I should have thought it only fair that any person whose property is being inspected—in many cases, property that is not on some separate industrial site but is close to the home, as many kennels are attached to the house or are in the garden—should have access to the report, especially as the inspection will probably include the back kitchen of the house.

I hope that that suggestion will be taken on board in that spirit for people who are refused a licence. I accept that the provision might be too prescriptive if every person who was granted a licence could demand to see the report. If someone is refused and has the right of appeal, it seems fair that he or she should have a copy of the report on which the rejection was based.

Amendment No. 2 states that any report should take account of records kept by the breeding establishment. Those records must clearly display the breeding lines of puppies sold, which would enable vets to check that a breeder is not employing excessive line breeding, which we discussed earlier. The records should also include written confirmation from vets that bitches had been certified as fit to breed prior to mating. I will not press that amendment as I would have to go over similar ground to that covered on an amendment that I withdrew earlier. Amendment No. 12 concerns taking photographs of premises without the prior consent of the owner. In many cases, kennels are attached to or in the garden of someone's house in the country or on the edge of a town. We are not talking about property on an industrial estate. I suspect that the kitchen where the dog and puppy food is made will be the kitchen of the house, although there may be separate storage facilities. In many cases, the premises are more closely integrated with the residential home than is the case with other industries.

I do not feel too strongly on the matter and am simply floating the idea that if someone from the local authority decides to take photographs he might be photographing someone's home and gardens. Hon. Members may say, "So what? If people are in the business of dog breeding and a report has been made against them, the authority should have the right to photograph anything it likes." That may be a legitimate point.

Mr. Dismore

Surely photographs are likely to be taken when those carrying out the inspection want evidence of malpractice or a poor standard of premises to attach to their report. In those circumstances, the amendment would give the dog breeder a right of veto over the collection of that evidence.

Mr. Maclean

The hon. Gentleman has a strong point. I would not want my amendment to rule out collecting important evidence because photographs were banned. I have not been able to phrase my amendment in a better form that would allow some rights to privacy to people in their homes. I do not want it to be a veto on the collection of evidence against people who should be disqualified or have criminal action taken against them. That is why I prefaced my remarks by saying that I do not feel too strongly about the point, but I thought that it was worth floating. I am glad that the intervention of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) was not longer or he might have persuaded me that the amendment was totally flawed. I leave it there. The other amendments in the group are more important.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

I make a brief plea to allow discretion to local authorities. We had a "may" and "shall" debate earlier. It is wrong for the House to be so prescriptive that local government cannot make its own choices. It is nonsensical for a breeding establishment that is well known and respected in an area to be inspected to such a degree every year. Local authorities should be allowed to make that judgment and issue a licence without inspection. We should all seek to minimise the burden of regulation rather than adding to it without positive gain.

In the same way, I am cautious about amendment No. 11. I am not a lawyer, but, except for the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen), I seem to be surrounded by them. The local authority report would have to be confidential because if it were published and given to an applicant for a licence, it would have to be provable. An inspection might take the overall view that there was something wrong with the kennel but not identify a particular item as the cause for refusing the licence. If the applicant decided to go to court to appeal against refusal, the local authority would have to justify its stance. I oppose amendment No. 11.

I have more sympathy with amendment No. 2 because anyone in the serious business of breeding dogs should keep proper records. All those who breed properly already do. It is certainly a requirement in the breeding of livestock that complete records of progeny and pedigree are kept. I see no reason why a serious dog breeding establishment should not do likewise. The absence of proper records would suggest that an establishment was defective and unsuitable for a licence.

Mr. George Howarth

The Bill provides that a local authority, before granting a licence, can determine whether it considers it necessary to inspect the premises of a person who has previously been licensed in respect of dog breeding premises. Amendment No. 1 would oblige local authorities to arrange for the inspection of such premises by a vet and/or an official before granting a licence. That would be an improvement in that such inspections could only be for the good of animal welfare. For that reason, I recommend that the House accept the amendment.

On amendment No. 11, clause 1 provides that on receipt of an application for the granting of a licence to operate a dog breeding establishment, a local authority may, depending on the circumstances, arrange for an inspection of the premises. A report is compiled about the premises, the applicant and any other relevant matter, and considered before the determination whether to grant a licence. Amendment No. 11 would require the report to be made available for inspection by the applicant. Although I sympathise with the principle behind the amendment, which the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) made clear, I am not very happy about the way in which it is proposed to proceed. The amendment would require local authorities to make the report available in all cases, whereas I think it would be more appropriate that they should do so only if that was requested by the applicant. I understand where the right hon. Gentleman is coming from, but the amendment is unnecessary and might even lead to problems for the reasons that have been discussed.

Amendment No. 2 covers a different matter. Clause 2(2)(i) requires that accurate records in a form prescribed by regulations are kept at the premises and made available for inspection". The amendment requires that any report of inspections of premises for licensing purposes shall take account of records kept by the breeding establishment. Clause 1 includes the requirement that such reports may take account of "any other relevant matter". Records kept by breeding establishments may of course be relevant to considerations of whether to grant a licence. However, as the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) pointed out, we do not want to be too prescriptive as to the inspection of premises. If necessary, that could always be brought out in guidance to local authorities. That seems the most appropriate way to deal with any problems that might arise.

Finally, amendment No. 12 would prohibit the taking of photographs of premises during an inspection by a local authority veterinary surgeon without the consent of the owner. I am not aware that local authorities routinely resort to photographing premises as part of their procedure for compiling reports. Such occasions are likely to be most exceptional, and, in those circumstances, there may be good reasons to use that procedure. Again, I would not want to be overly prescriptive as to how a local authority conducts its inspections. The hon.Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who is in the Chamber but somewhat peripatetic at the moment, pointed out that a local authority should be able to use a reasonable degree of common sense in deciding what is most appropriate. I would not want to rule out the use of photographs, or to hedge in such use in the way that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border may have intended in the amendment.

I hope that the House will accept amendment No. 1 and that the hon. Member for Hertsmere will not press the other amendments in the group, as they are either overly prescriptive or unnecessary.

Amendment agreed to.

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