HC Deb 07 May 1999 vol 330 cc1258-62

Amendment made: No. 9, in page 8, line 23, leave out `time to' and insert `the'.—[Mr. Maclean.]

Order for Third Reading read.

2.8 pm

Mr. Clappison

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

The Bill's primary aim is to improve the welfare of dogs and puppies kept in commercial breeding establishments. It strengthens the existing law and closes some loopholes. I believe that it will make a material difference to the welfare of bitches and puppies in breeding establishments, particularly in some large establishments. Many large breeding establishments keep dogs in satisfactory and reasonable conditions, but some do not. The Bill will tackle that latter group. Breeders will be subject to stronger and tighter legislation, better inspections with animal welfare at their heart and several important considerations regarding the welfare of bitches and puppies. Those measures, which will be enforced through an inspection regime, will address the particular problems of overbreeding and breeding too young.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) said, the Bill is the result of patient, hard and careful work by a number of people and organisations. I have paid tribute already to the 11 that have been involved in bringing forward the Bill. I pay a warm and sincere tribute to the outstanding work carried out by Baroness Wharton in support of the Bill and in support of animal welfare generally. Tribute should also be paid to Barry Huckle of the Pet Care Trust, who gave us much support and a large amount of his time in supporting the Bill.

I thank those who sponsored and supported the Bill. I thank especially my hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton), and the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), who has taken a significant interest in the Bill as chairman of the all-party animal welfare group. I should mention also the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), who in many respects pioneered the way for the Bill with a similar piece of legislation last year.

There are many dog owners and pet lovers in the House, and I know that there is widespread all-party support for the aims of the Bill. It is my sincere hope that the Bill will make a material difference by enabling us to tackle the problems that cause concern to so many members of the public, including the unfortunate people who have the experience of buying puppies that are unhealthy or suffering from congenital defects. It will help to do away with the terrible conditions in which puppies are sometimes kept in the sort of breeding establishments to which I have referred. These problems rightly cause concern to members of the public, and I hope that through the Bill we will be able to address them by tackling the abuses, bringing to an end the suffering of animals in the establishments that cause concern, promoting the welfare of bitches and puppies and doing our bit as a dog-loving nation.

2.12 pm
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

I shall keep my remarks relatively short. I am a supporter of the Bill, and I want to see it make progress.

I pay tribute to all those to whom the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) referred and to him for steering the Bill through the House. He has done a very good job. The Bill is an improvement on the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973 in a number of respects. For example, it will stop overbreeding and under-age breeding. It will provide for better inspection and increased veterinary powers. It will require more accurate records to be kept, along with compulsory identification for traded dogs. It will introduce new rules for the sale of dogs at pet shops and through dealers, and there will be new penalties for misrepresentation. All these things are very welcome.

There has been a call for such legislation. In 1996, the all-party parliamentary group for animal welfare referred to the reasons for concern. It said: The large scale breeding and sale of dogs for commercial purposes causes a number of welfare concerns; puppies are often taken from their mothers too early; dogs are kept in cramped or unsuitable conditions; bitches are bred too often, making them more likely to produce unfit puppies with health problems; dogs are often given insufficient exercise or human contact and the long distance transportation of puppies can cause health problems. It is crucial that there is a much better staffing ratio. The RSPCA found one elderly woman looking after 120 dogs. Puppies need human contact at a crucial stage in their development; otherwise they are likely to be untamed. That is cruel because they become unmanageable and have to be put down.

I am pleased about the provision to limit the number of litters per bitch to six. There will be records kept on that. The offspring of litters after the sixth are likely to be sickly, and the bitch will be likely to suffer ill health. It is cruel for both the puppies and the bitch. There will be a cost to the purchaser in the form of high vet bills. Unfortunately, there might be a tendency to put the bitch down after the sixth litter. I hope that that will not be the case and that efforts will be made to find homes for them. Nevertheless, the Bill's provisions in this respect are certainly better than current ones.

I have four other concerns. First, in a previous Parliament, the former Liberal Democrat Member, Diana Maddock, when promoting a similar Bill, claimed that some owners, to avoid inspection, took puppies into their own homes. I do not think that this Bill will deal with that problem. Although we all respect the need to protect civil liberties, we should give a little more power to inspectors in order to close that loophole.

My second concern relates to the selling of puppies at market stalls, in the street or at auction. I shall not deal with the comments of the RSPCA working group on the problem, except to say that it identified a problem with the definition of "a business". If people only occasionally make such sales, they are not considered to be operating a business and are, therefore, not caught by current legislation. The Bill does not seem to deal with the matter, which therefore requires further consideration.

Thirdly, the point has rightly been made that all puppies should have a microchip implant. I strongly agree with that. We are perhaps moving towards requiring all pets to have implants. If so, I favour it. The Home Office should consider phasing in such a policy.

Finally, as I have argued in the past, there is a case for giving RSPCA inspectors policing powers. Although local authorities have a role in monitoring and enforcement, some of them may be interested only in licence fees. The RSPCA is already playing an important role in dealing with animal cruelty, and its inspectors should have policing powers in fulfilling that role.

I support the Bill—on which I congratulate the hon. Member for Hertsmere.

2.17 pm
Mr. Heald

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on the way in which he has conducted the Bill's passage. The Bill rights a wrong, will improve the welfare of dogs, and is supported by the Opposition.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

The Bill has all-party support—that of Liberal Democrat Members included—and I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on piloting it this far.

Mr. Heald

I commend the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere has built his coalition and so successfully pushed through the Bill, which I should certainly commend to the House.

2.18 pm
Mr. George Howarth

I join the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) in paying tribute to some of the people and organisations who are behind the Bill and have supported him so well—especially Baroness Wharton and Mr. Barry Huckle of the Pet Care Trust. The hon. Gentleman himself had good fortune in drawing such a high place in the ballot, and I congratulate him on steering the Bill through to Third Reading without losing any support.

We should perhaps not forget the ever-present right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), whose amendments, on this occasion, have improved the Bill.

It would be quite wrong not to mention my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), who, 12 months ago, steered his Breeding and Sale of Dogs Bill through to Third Reading, although it failed to become statute. Perhaps—in the prevailing spirit of co-operation—we shall not go back over that ground.

I should also mention the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who has a long-standing interest in the subject and has long raised the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen) made a characteristically kindly speech in which he raised some important issues. His speech was partly about the fact that some of those issues are not addressed in the Bill. I shall study his observations to see whether there are any arguments that should be given further consideration.

The Bill has enjoyed remarkable consensus in the House and has been a good job well done. If it completes all its stages in another place and finds its way on to the statute book, as I hope it will, we shall have a workable framework for the breeding of dogs, which must be good.

2.20 pm
Mr. Maclean

I am delighted to add my support to the Bill and wish it well in another place, whence it will go in a few minutes. I am grateful for the Minister's kind observation that my contributions today have helped to make it a better Bill. My contributions last year also helped to make a better Bill, because I single-handedly wrecked a Bill with a similar name. That understandably brought about a certain amount of correspondence. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) has taken the measure up this year and, working with the co-operation of 11 groups, has helped to ensure a better Bill with more consensus. Consensus is not necessarily a good thing in itself, but on this occasion it is the only way to ensure a workable measure.

I blocked last year's measure because there were some flaws in it. It got through the House without a Second Reading debate and was going to be bounced through on the nod with no scrutiny on Report. I thought it wrong that such a contentious measure should be dealt with in that way with no discussion on the Floor of the House.

After I blocked the Bill I was contacted by the Pet Care Trust, which said that it had concerns about the Bill but no one would listen. Justice for Dogs and the National Canine Defence League then both said that, although the Bill was better than existing legislation, they would like something better. The Kennel Club and the British Dog Breeders Council came along and said "Thank God someone blocked that Bill, because it was flawed." They wanted various other measures put in. Having met those groups, I was convinced that the Bill should not go ahead in that state, so I blocked it again on 3 July.

The tragedy at that time was that the RSPCA was behaving despicably on the Bill. It refused to talk to some of the other organisations, suggesting that it knew all about dogs and was the main charity, so it could deal with everything. Some of the other organisations—I shall not embarrass them by naming them and I would probably get it wrong because I cannot remember which they were—were adamant that the previous Bill had flaws because the RSPCA had adopted a highly possessive attitude and would not listen to sensible suggestions for amendment. The new Bill addresses those flaws.

The Blue Cross and the British Veterinary Association then came on board. One of the first decisions of the working group was that it required an independent chairman. I was delighted about that, because as the person who had blocked the previous Bill I would not be regarded on all sides as someone with an independent or neutral view. I also had no track record of knowledge on the subject and we needed someone knowledgeable and independent. Lady Wharton was unanimously suggested to chair the group. I pay tribute to the tremendous work that she has done on getting the Bill to the stage at which it is about to go to her Chamber for consideration.

When I ceased to have any involvement with the Bill there were seven groups involved. There are apparently now 11 in the coalition. It is a tribute to the noble Lady and to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere that they have managed to keep on board 11 groups when coming up with this compromise measure. The fact that it is a compromise does not mean that the Bill is flawed or inadequate, but it inevitably cannot do everything that every organisation wanted. If it tried to it would be even more contradictory than some of the amendments for which I have been criticised.

The Bill represents a major step forward. It tightens up the conditions in puppy farms and quite rightly introduces the concept of welfare. It involves the veterinary profession and, importantly, an inspection regime.

I should declare that I am an honorary associate of the British Veterinary Association. That is not a paid post; it merely involves reading some of the tremendous amount of information on hip dysplasia and other problems.

I am happy to send the Bill on its way as it is a considerable improvement on the measure of a similar name that was before the House last year, and on the existing legislation. The Minister has given us some good assurances today. We have built some amendments into the Bill and I am delighted to have had a small part in those improvements. The assurances that the Minister gave the House when he listened kindly and courteously to my proposals in new clause 1 will result in better legislation and better implementation and operation of the legislation in due course. The Minister assured us that he would monitor carefully the licensing conditions contained in the Bill and how many applications were granted and refused. He gave the House an assurance that if he was aware that any parts of the licensing regime were going astray, he could deal with that by Home Office guidance.

I do not mind if my point about the licensing conditions is not addressed in another place as the legislation is good in itself, but congenital defects are one of the worst problems in the dog breeding world. Dogs get horrific illnesses not as a result of accidents or because people have abused them or failed to take care of them, but because they have been bred with congenital defects and action has not been taken to stamp that out. If the Minister or his officials can consider using the provisions of the 1973 Act and the licensing conditions that can be imposed on local authorities, we will have taken a tremendous step forward.

It is a good Bill and I am delighted to offer it my support. Once again, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere has piloted through a tricky and contentious measure. No doubt the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen) is right to say that there are matters that it does not address. No Bill can cover everything, but at least this one deals with more problems than it leaves out and in that sense it deserves to leave the House with the full backing of all the parties in the House of Commons and I look forward to receiving it back from another place, if necessary improved a little more.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

Back to