HC Deb 17 September 2003 vol 410 cc878-80 1.27 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for stray animals and for their ownership; and for connected purposes.

In all our constituencies, as we walk up and down the streets visiting people, we often see pinned to trees notices advertising various animals that have been lost and found. I wonder whether the House has any idea that re-homing animals is in no sense a straightforward matter. Sadly, we live in an increasingly litigious society. Not a week goes by without a new story of individuals suing someone for what most right-thinking people would regard as trivial or malicious reasons. Although one would not think so, that happens even in the world of animal welfare and care. Unfortunately, the excellent work that individuals and organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals undertake in re-homing stray animals is threatened by the lack of legal certainty in this area.

The Bill that I seek to persuade the House to accept would clear up the anomalies and introduce some common sense into an area of law that has been neglected for too long. In moving the Bill, I hope to achieve two clear objectives. First, the Bill would assist individuals and organisations to re-home animals more quickly, thereby improving animal welfare. Secondly, it would update our nation's legislation and raise it to the standard enjoyed by many other modern democracies.

Under the current position, literally thousands of individuals, along with large and small charities, regularly re-home stray animals—and I join all hon. Members in paying tribute to those people. In very many cases, the animal is reunited with its owner. Just as often, a new owner is found and the animal goes off to a new, loving home—a happy ending in all senses. That frees up space in the re-homing centre for more strays to be taken in. However—and this is where our law is insufficient—those hard-working individuals have to go to inordinate lengths to prove that they have sought to identify the original owner. If they do not, there is currently no defence to any future civil action by a person claiming to be the owner of the animal.

I recently spoke to a senior RSPCA inspector from the east of England who told me that all too often he and his colleagues get stuck in the middle when owners seek to reclaim animals they believe to be theirs. Only last week, he had to mediate between an aggressive individual trying to take back a cat more than a month after it had been re-homed. Along with all the other excellent work the RSPCA inspectorate undertakes, we should not expect it to have the wisdom of Solomon.

My Bill would strike a balance between trying to reunite an animal with its owner and dealing with animals efficiently, so that capacity is available for more stray animals to be re-homed. Fortunately, there is an excellent precedent that proves that such a change is not just possible in theory, but actually works in practice. It is the New Zealand Animal Welfare Act 1999, and I hope that the Government will study it closely.

In New Zealand, a section of the 1999 Act deals exclusively with the "disposal" of animals in custody. It states: Where a person (other than the owner of an animal) gives that animal into the custody of an approved organisation and that approved organisation accepts custody of that animal, or where an approved organisation takes any animal into its custody, that approved organisation … Must take reasonable steps to identify the owner of the animal; and … May take such steps as it considers necessary or desirable to prevent or mitigate any suffering of the animal. Furthermore, it states: Where the approved organisation cannot identify the owner of the animal, an inspector or auxiliary officer acting for the approved organisation may … After the animal has been in the custody of the organisation for at least 7 days … Sell the animal; or … Find a home for the animal; or … Destroy or otherwise dispose of the animal in such manner as the inspector or auxiliary officer thinks fit. The Act also states that if the organisation or individual has made every effort to locate the owner, it may then re-home the animal, without fear that the original owner, at some point in the future, can come and claim their animal. That may seem harsh, but it is a practical solution according to all the advice that I have been given.

The effect of such a change would be that more stray animals could be re-homed more quickly, and more animals could be received into re-homing centres. That would lead to a decrease in the number of animals that tragically have to be destroyed through lack of space. It would also certainly lead to a saving in time and money for animal centres that encounter the problem. We should not forget that many of those wonderful homes depend on charitable giving. People who give money do not want it to disappear into the bottomless pit of litigation.

I understand that some people may be concerned by the Bill and may say that seven days is too short a period before strays can be re-homed. However, the provision is in line with the local authority obligation created in respect of stray dogs by the Environmental Protection Act 1991. Some may be of the view that 14 days might be appropriate to allow for owners who are away on holiday when their animal is found. I say loud and clear that anyone who owns a pet should be responsible in how they care for it. Responsible pet ownership dictates that proper arrangements should be made for pets while people go away on holiday, so that the animals do not stray. Those left in charge should be responsible enough to carry out all reasonable efforts to find the animal, in the event that it does stray.

I am grateful for the support that I have received for this modest measure from both sides of the House. As a result of the Bill, I hope that my phone will not ring endlessly, and that people will not visit my house, to ask me to mediate in such matters or to find homes for stray animals. I gently say to the Government, given that we do not have much time left in this Session, that I hope that I am pushing at an open door and that the Government will seek to take this modest measure forward when they finalise the arrangements for the Gracious Speech. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Amess, Mr. David Atkinson, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Keith Bradley, Mr. Ian Cawsey, Mrs. Helen Clark, Mr. David Drew, Mr. Andrew Rosindell, Bob Russell, Bob Spink, Angela Watkinson and Miss Ann Widdecombe.

  1. STRAY ANIMALS 46 words
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