HL Deb 24 February 1981 vol 417 cc1022-32

6.1 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Houghton of Sowerby.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The Lord Drumalbyn in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Amendment of 1951 Act]:

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

I understand, by a rather circuitous route, that there is some slight doubt as to whether my amendments, to both of which I propose to speak together, are completely in order. I can honestly say I have done my best to see that they are. I can reassure the Committee that I shall not detain it for long; I do not propose to speak on these two amendments for more than five minutes.

I shall not press the amendments, partly because I know that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, feels that his Bill, which I heartily support, needs to go through unamended, and partly because there is this doubt about the amendments. All I ask is that when the Government reply to the amendments—I know that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, will reply with sympathy—they should comment on the situation which is dealt with in these amendments in a way which is geared not entirely to whether my amendment is in or out of order but to what they would propose to do if they were concerned with this situation.

The sale of animals we quite rightly control, but there is a form of sale of animals which is under very little control—that is, sales through lottery or competition where people pay money and get, as a result, not necessarily an animal itself but the chance of winning an animal. The most obvious and the most widespread of these occasions is, I suppose, the winning of goldfish at fairs. I must confess to a certain guilt, if it is guilt, in that I regularly restock my own very small pond from the goldfish which my children win at fairs.

Although the Showmens' Guild has entered into an agreement to try to observe certain basic conditions for looking after these pets, the fact remains that the giving away, or the winning, or the buying of goldfish like this must result, and does result, in a great deal of unintentional cruelty through the fish being kept in inadequate containers and sometimes merely being thrown away. We find it very difficult to get het up about the sufferings of goldfish—probably wrongly, but that is natural. It becomes more to the point when we visualise some of the trouble that comes from animals being offered in a raffle or as a prize. In the old days, bowling for a pig at the village fair was natural, for everybody in the village probably had their own pig at the back of their cottage for fattening. This was one way of getting yourself started off. Anybody who won the pig would know how to look after it and would realise what a valuable source of food it was.

In these days, if puppies, kittens, or in some cases ponies are put up as prizes, it is obviously a tremendous temptation to children to urge their parents to buy tickets for the raffle, or whatever it is. Then, as often as not, the proud winners have not the faintest idea how to look after the animal and do not have the resources for looking after it. A great deal of cruelty again occurs.

There is a horrifying story in the Horse and Hound of 6th February of this year about a nine-month old pony foal which was rescued, after being prepared for the knackers' yard in order to be made into dog meat or some kind of animal food like that, and put up for a raffle. It was finally won, in a very inadequate condition, and taken home. The story has a happy ending in that case, because the animal was taken over by somebody who looked after it. But it does not always happen like that. There are a great many really nasty stories. The RSPCA have been doing the best they can to deal with this very real problem.

As I have said, although I do not propose to press my amendment to the Bill, I look forward very much to the Government telling me what they think can be done about an extremely distressing situation.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, for saying that he will not press his amendment. It does not lie within the scope either of the original Act or of the amending Bill. The amendment deals with the recipient of an animal. It says that it should be unlawful for an animal to be given away as a prize in a lottery or competition. No legislation at the moment deals with the giving away of animals.

I was pressed at an earlier stage to look at one or two other matters that might arise on the principal Act of 1951. Section 3 of the principal Act deals with the age of the recipient and makes it unlawful to sell to a child under 12 years of age. That is the only reference to a recipient in the principal Act.

I should hope that the giving of animals as prizes in lotteries or compeitions is a diminishing irresponsibility. Welfare organisations as well as the greater awareness and wider commonsense of people about these matters would discourage the practice of giving animals as prizes. If it were intended to make it unlawful in this Bill it might be necessary to expand a little on the provisions that the noble Lord wishes to introduce. I have rarely found that a new clause consisting of two lines is a complete version of what the law requires to make it watertight and to overcome difficulties of interpretation and of application.

In my Second Reading speech (at col. 874) on the 29th January I mentioned that the pet trade associations were conducting discussions with the authorities on a number of matters which in their experience arise on the principal Act and they hoped that I would not find it necessary to deal with anything beyond the sale of animals in open-air markets in this amending Bill. In regard to the other matters they thought it was probably more appropriate for the discussions that they wished to have with the authorities to proceed, so that if the principal Act is to be reviewed it could be done more comprehensively and take these other matters in its stride.

A further consideration is that I am most anxious that Members of another place should have the opportunity of considering this Bill. I think it is better that the Bill should remain in its original state; in other words, in the condition in which it was introduced on three previous occasions in another place and in which it is now before the Committee in your Lordships' House. The Bill therefore would deal solely with that issue and would have no "sideshows" of any kind that might impede its progress through another place. Therefore, I sincerely hope that the noble Lord will feel that, while this is not an inconsiderable matter, it would be better left until the more comprehensive review of the principal Act is completed.

Lord de Clifford

I am afraid I have a rather nasty mind. If I were in an open air or a permanent market and was selling a dog, for instance, a collie, a terrier or any form of gun dog, and I was told that I could not sell it as a pet, I would say: "I am not doing so. I am selling it as a working dog". I would open my remarks by saying: "This is a very good working dog but it will make a good pet as well". I have a feeling—always coming back again to the country—that where I have seen dogs offered for sale in permanent markets, the let-out would be so quick: "This is a good working dog; it comes from a good working strain".

This Bill deals with pet animals, but there could be a very fast avoidance by saying: "This is not a pet animal; this comes from a good working strain and will make a good working dog, and I am selling it to you as a working dog and not as a pet". I would not under any circumstances stop this Bill from going through, but I should like to raise that point as a matter of interest.

Lord Somers

I am sorry to differ from the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, but I am inclined to support the amendment. The noble Lord says that the Bill deals with the recipients of animals. To take that a little further, presumably it deals with the kind of home that they are going to have, and certainly animals which are offered as prizes in lotteries are, in 99 cases out of a hundred, going to get extremely poor homes. Therefore I cannot see that an amendment such as this would be is out of place in a Bill such as this, and I hope personally that the Committee will accept it.

Lord Boston of Faversham

Like the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, I look forward to hearing what the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has to say about the points which have been raised. I think many people will be in sympathy with the purposes of the amendments which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has tabled. They have been put forward clearly, with wholly praiseworthy and beneficial intentions. However my fear, when I saw that they had been tabled, was that they might perhaps jeopardise the chances of the Bill if it passed through your Lordshps' House and went to another place.

I have been very much persuaded by the advice given to your Lordships this afternoon by my noble friend Lord Houghton. So, while I sympathise with the purposes of the amendments I, too, fear that they might have some effect on the chances of the Bill finally passing if we were to extend it in this fairly considerable way. Therefore I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, will, as indeed he has been kind enough to indicate to your Lordships, feel able not to press these amendments.

6.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Belstead)

While I appreciate the objective of the amendment I am a little sceptical about the value which it would have if it were to be written into the Bill and I can quite understand the reasons which prompt the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, to say that he does not wish to see the Bill amended. Indeed, I think probably all of us who are taking part in this Committee stage on the Bill would agree, and I note that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has said that he will not press the amendments.

The reason why I say to the noble Lord that I am a little sceptical about the value of the amendments is that, while the Home Office has received a number of representations about irresponsible pet ownership, complaints about the giving away of pets as prizes in lotteries are very rare. I quailed a little when I heard the noble Lord talking about the different animals which can be given away as prizes, because one of the animals which he selected was the goldfish, and that reminded me that many years ago at a fair one night I won a pair of goldfish in a plastic bag. After I had received my prize for whatever it was that I did at the fair, I really felt rather ashamed. All I can say is that I gave them care and attention and, I think, a good home, and I do not think that perhaps on that occasion any sanction should have been forthcoming against me. That leads me to say that there appears to be no sanction, so far as I can see, relating to the amendment. Therefore, if the amendment were to have been pressed I think it would have missed its aim in that respect.

The only other thing I should like to say is that the remarks of my noble friend Lord de Clifford were drawn rather more widely than the terms of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont. In fact my noble friend was really questioning whether the objective of the Bill would be achieved if it were to pass into law, and that is something which on this occasion I can have the luxury—as I generally have to answer questions—of saying that it is the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, who must answer my noble friend's question.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

I thank noble Lords for their interest in the amendments and I am particularly grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Somers, urging me on. I do think something ought to be done about this. The Government say there are not very many examples of it happening, apart from goldfish. I think there probably are quite a few. The RSPCA certainly seems to think it is a problem which ought to be dealt with. I do not think it necessarily needs sanctions; I do not think that would be a fault in the amendments. I think very often in these matters all you need to do is to go along to the promoter of the lottery and say, "Look, this is against the law". I do not think you need any sanctions: they would immediately withdraw it, whereas it is a bit more difficult to go and argue the ethical toss when they say, "children in this part of the world know how to look after their pets", et cetera. It gives added strength to be able to say that it is against the law. I think it is something which ought to be dealt with and something the Home Office ought to have in mind. At the moment we are discussing the Question, That Clause 1 stand part. Well, I am all for Clause 1 standing part, and I shall not be moving my amendments.

6.21 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

On the Question, That the Clause stand part, I would say this. At the conclusion of the Second Reading debate I felt that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, was still an agnostic about this Bill. One can read about his agnosticism in cols. 882 and 883 of the Official Report of 29th January. It seemed to me it would be a great pity if this Bill went on its way to another place with an uncon- verted Minister in your Lordships' House. So I made it my business to ask for the maximum co-operation of the RSPCA to find out more about the matters which were troubling the noble Lord at the time of the Second Reading. I ask the forgiveness of the Committee for the time I feel I have to take to deal with some of those major questions that the noble Lord asked towards the end of his remarks.

One of the points that he made was that this Bill would hit far more than its target. He said that the focal point of the discontent and anxiety on this subject was the open air market in Club Row in Tower Hamlets; why not, then, deal with the Club Row market and leave the others alone, rather than trying to bring all the open-air markets within the purpose of this Bill in order to clean up one of them? That I think suggests that we should find out how big is the target. If this Bill would hit far more than its target, what is the size of the target? I wish to thank the RSPCA most warmly for the excellent job they have done in scouring the country for open-air markets where animals are regularly sold and in reporting upon their size and upon the conditions that obtain in them.

The RSPCA are aware of 23 street markets at which animals are sold regularly from stalls or barrows. In those 23 markets there exist a total of 57 licensed stalls or pitches. A pitch in a market place is where the stallholder has a right to be. There are 57 licensed pitches in the 23 open-air markets; 33 of those are within the London borough of Tower Hamlets and 28 are licensed and registered as being within the Club Row market itself. So Tower Hamlets has more than one half of all the pitches known to the RSPCA throughout England and Wales, and Club Row contains nearly one-third of them; that is, nearly one-third of the total pitches in the country are at Club Row. Although, therefore, the target is larger than the bull, if we hit the bull we gain 30 per cent. of the total score. That, I suggest, means that the bull is a substantial part of the target and that we are not really hitting far off its target if we pass a Bill dealing with them all. If we include Watney Street and Wentworth Street markets, both in East London, these three London markets comprise over one half of the total target. By far the greatest concentration of licensed street traders in the country is at Club Row, so it is not surprising that that market has received so much attention.

I have a list of all these markets but I am not going to trouble the Committee with them. They are pretty widely scattered. They are in 20 towns outside London. What the RSPCA survey on them all shows—and I quote from the report they have given to me—is that, Exactly the same sort of animal welfare and disease problems are to be found wherever animals are sold in street markets". I have received from a veterinary surgeon some adverse comments about Newcastle Quayside and also South Shields, but it is clear that wherever these markets are similar problems arise.

The next point the Minister made was about the conditions of granting licences, and the rules about animal welfare which are made under the authority of the 1951 Act. I think I have proved that the Bill is not hitting too wide of the target as regards the size of the problem. The question is whether it is hitting too wide of the target so far as conditions in the markets are concerned. Is the Bill taking a sledge hammer to crack a nut, even though it is a hard nut? The answer is that the RSPCA find that the most commonly reported problems involve overcrowding, the housing of animals in cages of inadequate size, disease, sickness, neglect and the sale of unweaned animals. It is also clear that such markets attract a percentage of unlicensed traders. So the RSPCA report to me. And they say that it is not solely a matter of cats and dogs. Their survey of all these markets reveals hamsters, mice, tortoises, terrapins, snakes, spiders, guinea pigs, rabbits, poultry, fish, goats, ferrets, rats, gerbils, wild birds and even monkeys being offered for sale.

I think that, if we are satisfied from this report that all is not well in the open-market trade, we can pass to the apparent belief of the Minister that the 1951 Act lays down conditions which can be applied to stalls and barrows in open markets, quite apart from the difficulties of enforcing them. The RSPCA report to me confirms the doubt that I expressed myself on this matter at Second Reading. It says: Lord Belstead emphasised during his speech that the regulations which apply to pet shops apply equally to markets. In practical terms this is simply not the case. The provisions of the 1951 Act were clearly drafted with pet shops in mind. Section 1(3) of the Act, for instance, states that in considering an application for a licence a local authority shall have regard among other things for securing, '(a) that animals will at all times be kept in accommodation suitable as respects size, temperature, lighting, ventilation and cleanliness; … (e) that appropriate steps will be taken in case of fire and other emergency'. So both these paragraphs were clearly drafted with shop premises in mind. Moreover the specific requirements of paragraph (a) simply cannot be adequately met because of the necessarily temporary nature of market stalls. It is simply not practicable to satisfy the requirements for adequate heating on a cold winter's morning in the open air". Last Sunday morning was a good example of the type of weather that the open-air market might encounter.

The Minister referred to the new and tighter conditions to be attached to licences granted by the Tower Hamlets Authority as from 1st January 1981. I ought to point out that the new conditions apply only to licences newly applied for or renewed after 1st January 1981 and do not apply to licences current at that time until they have to be renewed. Looking at them, and I have studied them most carefully, it is quite clear that these conditions really relate to pet shops where the conditions can be satisfied, but certainly not to an open air market. It was reported to me that last Sunday morning at Club Row tarpaulins were blowing about in the snow and wind, and it was quite impossible to satisfy the conditions laid down on one of the coldest mornings of the winter.

The fact is that so far as the 1951 Act is concerned stalls in open markets were and are a thing apart. At a meeting between officials of the Tower Hamlets Borough Council, the City of London Veterinary Department and the RSPCA inspectors held on 17th May 1980, an officer of the City of London Veterinary Department stated that his department considered that the application of the provisions of the 1951 Act had to be more liberal to pet stalls than to pet shops. When asked what authority he had for that in the Act, he admitted that there was none.

That is the root of the matter. The truth is that conditions laid down in the Act can rarely be fully complied with in open-air markets. Indeed, that was one of the weaknesses of Sir Ronald Russell's Bill. He received no help from the Government of the day in 1951 to remedy that weakness. My strong belief is that Sir Ronald realised very fully as the years went by that he had failed to deal adequately with the sale of animals in open-air markets and sought on three occasions, unsuccessfully each time, to introduce the very Bill that is before the Committee today. The Government of the day were unmoved each time and they are unmoved today. The fact is that no Government have ever been moved to introduce the original legislation, so why do we expect them to be moved to introduce or support an amendment?

Not only are adequate welfare conditions difficult to define—they are difficult to comply with and difficult to enforce. Although the Minister acknowledged the difficulties of enforcement, I wonder whether he realises the diffusion of responsibility in a market such as Club Row. Enforcement appears to be shared between the Environmental Health Department of the local authority and the City of London Veterinary Department. The City of London Veterinary Department supplements the resources of other local boroughs in this particular respect. But the City of London Veterinary Department has staffing difficulties of its own and it can attend Club Row only one Sunday a month. The Environmental Health Department of Tower Hamlets has said that it cannot ensure attendance every Sunday and it has no regular roster.

Last Sunday two officers of the Environmental Health Department of the Tower Hamlets Authority were in the market, but they were not looking at the enforcement of the conditions for the welfare of the animals; they were trying to silence a demonstration. They were seeking out persons on whom they could serve an order under Section 58 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974, having already served five similar notices upon societies which are alleged by them to be responsible for the emission of the noise in the demonstrations on Sunday mornings. The police are there every Sunday to keep the demonstrators in order and they are not normally there as enforcement officers under the 1951 Act because that really rests with the two other authorities. However, the RSPCA fills the gap—as the noble Lord the Minister, acknowledged—as it so frequently does when the statutory duty of the responsible authorities falls short of what is required.

Incidentally, I think that I should mention that the Automobile Association, who publishes a book called The London Book, apparently thinks that Club Row is a suitable tourist attraction and it mentions in that book that RSPCA officials are present. It says: Resident RSPCA officials are on hand to give assessments of animals before they are purchased". That must be denied absolutely and the RSPCA have remonstrated with the AA for including such a reference to them in a book without any consultation whatever. The RSPCA officials are not there to vet the animals for intended purchasers: they are there to watch the administration and application of the 1951 Act. The AA has promised that it will attend to the matter in the next edition. I think it unfortunate if people are to rely on the RSPCA as a vetting authority in buying animals in a market like that.

There have been 56 convictions during the past seven years, which suggests that there have been quite a lot of misdemeanours from time to time. Suggestions made by the RSPCA for imposing far stricter safeguards against health hazards in the conditions of the licences have not been adopted. For example, they have put forward the requirement that each stallholder should provide a veterinary certificate of good health and a certificate of vaccination against canine distemper or infectious gastro-enteritis in cats, but no such safeguards has been adopted. But through the good offices of the Euro-group for Animal Welfare—a new body of observers and lobbyists in Brussels—I have seen the draft decree of the Netherlands Government on the boarding and selling of cats and dogs. It makes our own provisions look primitive. All cats and dogs in Holland involved in commercial transactions of buying, selling, taking into care, training and so on, will require a passport, and that will have to show essential particulars about origin, health, vaccination and registration. So dogs and cats in Holland will have a new legitimacy or at least an identity with all the pedigree attached. That will be a new feature in the commercial life of Holland. As for street selling—it simply is not on. They recognise, as we should now, that no satisfactory conditions are attainable in open markets.

Finally, I want to deal as briefly as possible with another concern of the Minister—and it is right and proper that he should have this concern; namely, would the Bill in total, in making the sale of animals in open markets unlawful, unduly harm those engaged in this trade? Would there be perfectly law-abiding and respectable traders who would be adversely affected and suffer loss? Even if we are expected to put commercial interests before welfare and humane treatment of animals, which I do not accept, there are still no serious grounds for concern. The reason, as I suggested on Second Reading, is that most of the market trade is also involved in the pet shop trade. In fact, much of the market trade is on sale or return from pet shops.

There was a very full description of the fascinating background to these commercial activities in Club Row in a book by Norman Comben, BSc, MRCVS, published in 1955 called Dogs, Cats and People—a Vet's Eye View. One sees there the ramifications of this trade in the markets in London. The RSPCA has carried out a detailed census of 16 stallholders at Club Row. It shows how closely interconnected are those traders. Three families—and I could give their names—in their several inter-relationships have the bulk of the trade at Club Row. The RSPCA has also carried out a most complete census of who's who at Club Row, and I am bound to acknowledge with thanks that the stallholders themselves have provided most of the information. No one is making a living out of selling animals in Club Row only on Sunday mornings. They all have other activities and sources of income. Some have stalls and no longer use them, but perhaps that helps those who retain them, and sometimes they are members of the same family. The fact that some of the stallholders are occupied in another trade during the week I think suggests that they do not rely on their business at Club Row on a Sunday morning.

I do not think that the Minister has any grounds for serious concern about the ill-effects upon the commercial interests of those engaged in this trade. It is true that many of them have been in the market for a very long time. These three families under different names have controlled the business in Club Row for a great many years. They are also actively concerned in other activities.

I conclude by apologising for keeping the Committee so long on the Motion that the clause shall stand part, but it is in the hope that I have given the Committee and the Minister additional information which may at least bring him to believe that the Bill has greater merits than perhaps he understood at the conclusion of the Second Reading debate. My final sentence is this. Members of another place await this Bill and will put their efforts behind it; I should add that the honourable Member for the constituency in which Club Row is situated, Mr. Ian Mikado, has stated quite voluntarily that he will give this Bill his fullest support, if and when it arrives in another place.

Lord Belstead

In his remarks on Clause 1 stand part the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, took up the point which I sought to make on Second Reading, that if this Bill were to pass into law, it is arguable that it would hit far more than its target. When I said that I had in mind the requirements in the 1951 Act for the holding of a licence and during Second Reading I gave some details of those requirements. I reminded your Lordships then of the existence of the Protection of Animals Act 1911 and of the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960. I had that legislation in mind when I spoke. I went on to refer to the way in which the Tower Hamlets Borough Council environmental health department had strengthened its requirements for the holding of a licence under the 1951 Act. Thus, in saying that the Bill would hit more than its target, I meant—and, indeed, I think I said—that it would affect markets where traders are conforming to the conditions of their licences. I said this also in the context of the strengthening of the licence requirements by the Tower Hamlets environmental health department.

Therefore, with that statutory base, we must look at the evidence before the Government could possibly bring forward a public Bill. Although I appreciate the noble Lord's concern, which he has repeated this evening, and although the Home Office always takes seriously any comments from the RSPCA, I must tell your Lordships this evening that since the Second Reading the Home Office has written to five district councils, which were selected at random. So far we have received two replies and both—from Harlow and from South Tyneside—have told us that there are no problems in their street markets.

It is for those reasons that I said on Second Reading, and I repeat this evening, that the Government have no plans for introducing legislation. However, the noble Lord has done so, although on the fairly limited basis of the present Bill. I would simply say that the Government are not opposing the provisions of this Bill as it passes through its Committee stage in your Lordships' House.

Clause 1 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 1 not moved.]

Clause 2 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.

Forward to