HL Deb 11 March 1983 vol 440 cc457-68

1.30 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This Bill has already twice passed your Lordships' House through all stages; last year and the year before. I am now submitting this Bill for the favourable consideration of the House for the third time. The father of this Bill was the originator and sponsor of the principal Act 1951, the late Sir Ronald Russell, who was Conservative Member of Parliament for Wembley, South. After a struggle of years he managed to get the 1951 Act on the statute book. That Act has remained unamended for 32 years. It is the law at present and it requires those who carry on the business of selling pet animals to do so under licence granted by the local authority. The selling of pet animals is permissible under the Act only when conducted in a shop, or from a barrow or stall set up in an authorised street market. The Act prohibits the sale of animals as pets from any other place, with certain exceptions made in the case of recognised breeders of pedigree animals.

Sixteen years after the principal Act became law Sir Ronald Russell, watching it in operation, came to the conclusion that it needed strengthening. He introduced an amending Bill, and that is the Bill before your Lordships' House now. Although the minimum conditions for the health and welfare of animals exposed for sale in open markets were prescribed in the Act the problems of enforcement were formidable and almost insuperable. Although the conditions looked pretty good on paper, in practice, in all weathers, under all conditions, they simply did not apply. By 1969 Sir Ronald Russell made his first attempt to introduce this Bill. He tried three times to do so but his health broke down, he had to leave the House of Commons, and he died shortly after he left in 1974. I revived this Bill, his Bill, three years ago.

Nine years after he finally gave up I hope to crown his efforts and bring about this change, which is long overdue. I realise that this is a Private Member's Bill. I realise too that even though it may pass all stages in your Lordships' House it may not find a place, or the time, to complete its passage through Parliament. I can only turn my attention for the moment then to the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, who I see on the Bench opposite, and who had the experience of piloting a Private Member's Bill on animals through this House, which I envied at the time and I envy still. His Bill went through this House and the other place on the wings of a dove, and I hope to borrow those wings this afternoon. The Government can do things even through the machinery of the Private Member's Bill when they set their minds to it. It is only when their minds are not engaged in the matter that the procedures of obstruction and frustration operate to disappoint any achievement.

The noble Lord is in a position this afternoon to lend a helping hand, and I think that a fellow feeling should make him wondrous kind. I am not by nature a persistent person. I hate to become either a nuisance or a bore, and one cannot go on trying to get this kind of reform year after year without making any progress. It is this kind of frustration which leads to so many militant attitudes among those who are heavily engaged in this work of animal care outside. However, I am in the happy position of reporting two things which help me this afternoon. One is that the open market in London known as Club Row, which was the centre of a great deal of criticism and a great deal of attention in previous debates, is on the way out. The Tower Hamlets borough council, stimulated by an influx of Liberal councillors, have now grasped this nettle of Club Row, and they have already decided that they will grant no fresh licences and not renew any licences after July of this year. Unless the stallholders, or others, seek to get an inquiry set up by the Secretary of State for the Envirnment, then the council's decision will become effective.

That is good news. It means that the Tower Hamlets borough council have done what Parliament has not done for them. They took the view earlier that if it came to dealing with the closing of a market and there was a general feeling that markets of this kind should be closed, it is better that Parliament should decide and not leave it to local authorities to deal individually with their own problems. However, we are now in a position to follow the example of Tower Hamlets borough council and decide that other markets shall be closed. There are about 20 others up and down the country, and I shall say something about them in a moment.

The second development which is encouraging is the measure of public opinion on this subject, among others, which was studied on behalf of the RSPCA last year. This was a deeper study than is usually obtained through Gallup polls and public opinion polls. It was an inquiry into the attitudes of the public on different matters affecting animals. An attempt was made to relate one cause with another so that people could express some kind of priority as to what they thought needed to be done first. The outcome of this survey showed that 73 per cent. of those interviewed approved of the elimination of the sale of pets in street markets. That compares with very high percentages also for other problems affecting animals, and a very high percentage in favour of raising the dog licence fee to £5, for example, in order to enable dog warden schemes to be introduced to facilitate much better control of the stray dog problem, which still remains for attention.

There are strong feelings about fox hunting and hare coursing too, but what it shows is that when public opinion is consulted on matters affecting animals there is a strong feeling running throughout the country over a wide area, which is probably different from that which one finds within the precincts of Parliament. Parliament is the only place where these things will be done, although I have great difficulty in convincing many activists in the animal welfare and protection movement that they should give their attention to Parliament. I am bound to report that some scornful things are said about Parliament among young people today, who feel that it is not responsive to them and that it is ineffectual and slow moving.

After all, look how many years it has taken for me to be where I am this afternoon, pleading, in 1983, for something to be done that Ronald Russell asked to be done in 1969—exactly the same thing in exactly the same conditions. That is what is so frustrating. However, people will have the opportunity of bringing their views on animals before parliamentary candidates at the next election, and I fully believe that that will be done on an effective and rather surprising scale.

On this particular problem, public opinion is appalled at the number of stray dogs and feral cats, and pets in the households of the great mass of the public that are becoming waifs and strays on the urban scene, with the great deal of hardship and cruelty that is bound to ensue. It leads to the conclusion that we need to discourage, by all the means we have, thoughtless pet ownership—impulsive buying, indulging children too lightly and that sort of thing—because there is far too much irresponsible acquisition of animals and irresponsible ownership.

Markets are a temptation we want to remove. Those who are going to buy animals should deliberate about it, undertake it in a deliberate manner, understanding what they are doing and taking guidance. The market stall is not the place for that. Very often it is the place where a trader persuades a passer-by to buy an animal he or she is not seeking and does not really want. Other countries have banned the selling of pet animals in open markets and the time has come for us to do the same. There are about 20 of these markets left. They are to be found, for example, in Cardiff, Doncaster, Newcastle, South Shields, St. Albans, Watford, Nottingham and Chelmsford.

I have with me some lengthy reports on conditions in the cattle market in Nottingham, where pets are on sale, and in Chelmsford. They have been given close attention by Society officers, but I will not try the patience of the House by quoting from them. These conditions are typical of what we found at Club Row, and they are very similar everywhere—animals out in the open, stalls of, in many cases, doubtful quality and protection against weather conditions and that kind of thing. I have seen it for myself. On bitterly cold days one feels extremely sorry for animals, especially young animals, that are pulled around, put on view and put back in baskets to protect them from the weather. And the health of animals bought under those conditions can be very uncertain indeed.

The great volume of opinion now is in favour of doing something decisive about it. Since the Act was originally passed—indeed, since Ronald Russel dealt with it in 1969—the growth of pet shops has surely rendered open market sales unnecessary. Many of the proprietors of pet shops have stalls in markets; they are just using what retail outlets they can get and feel that they must be there if others are there. Looking at the people who had licences in Club Row, one found they were pet shop owners. They were, as it were, in a network; many of them were related and quite a number of family concerns were involved. Therefore we are not dealing with the casual trader; he is a licensed person with an interest which enables him to prosper. So we need not feel we are robbing people of their livelihood. I am sure that will not be the case anywhere; they will have and do have other opportunities of selling the animals they have.

I sincerely hope your Lordships will feel able to give the Bill a Second Reading, for the third time, but I hope for more than that. I sincerely hope that the Bill can this time be taken seriously by the Minister on behalf of the Government so that we may see whether we can make some progress after all this time. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Houghton of Sowerby.)

1.46 p.m.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, if I understood my noble friend aright, this is the fourth time that a measure of this kind has been introduced in Parliament. The third time was during the last Session, about a year ago, when it was introduced by my noble friend in this House. We must admire his persistence and tenacity, although he was modest enough to disclaim this. I am glad to say that I strongly support the Bill and agree with everything he said.

As my noble friend reminded us, since the last occasion on which this subject was debated there has been a significant development, and we are glad to note that the London Borough of Tower Hamlets has acted, on a recommendation from its health and consumer services committee, and has announced that it will not renew licences for street trading in pet animals by stallholders in the street which is familiarly known as Club Row. The council, I also understand, has already suspended the issue of new licences to fresh traders in pet animals from stalls and barrows in that market, so the future of Club Row now appears to be restricted, and this activity is likely to close unless any appeal against the council's decision is lodged. If the Minister has any news, perhaps he will tell the House about the present position with regard to an appeal.

While Club Row is the major example of street trading in pets, it is by no means the sole market of its kind. I understand from the RSPCA that they have been concerned for many years past about its character and location, and indeed the Society has over a period taken a number of successful convictions for causing unnecessary suffering to animals. The RSPCA's local inspectors in London, who do such good work, patrol the market regularly each Sunday when it is held and they work in close co-operation with the local authority's enforcement officers. Action under the Pet Animals Act 1951 for breaches of that statute is a matter for the authority, although the RSPCA's remit is, of course, the prevention of suffering and cruelty. However, as my noble friend said, there are about 20 cities and towns in which animals are sold in the same way from market stalls or barrows.

The argument was advanced by Government spokesmen the last time the Bill was debated that legisaltion to prevent street trading in pets generally is a cumbersome and unnecessary method of putting locations such as Club Row out of business. This implies, especially in view of the recent decision by the local authority, that the problem will solve itself in the near future. While the situation in Bethnal Green may be settled—we hope it will be—legislation will still surely be needed to prevent the setting up of new pet trading stalls in other markets, both in London and elsewhere. I should like the Minister to say whether the present law covers that. I understand it does not, and that if one local authority closes down a particular location, nothing can prevent other street trading of this kind from starting up in other areas in London and in other cities and towns.

As my noble friend has said, these markets are undesirable in this particular connection, since they permit the sales of pets of uncertain health record, age and condition, or even breed. There is a disregard for preventitive measures against the spread of diseases. There is also the possibility of stolen pets being resold and perhaps purchased by agents selling to research premises using live animals. Also, trading can take place in circumstances which occasionally seem to breach the Act's requirements in respect of fire precautions, accommodation and other necessary conditions.

Since my noble friend's first introduction of a Bill against the street trading in pets, the number of market traders licensed to sell animals in Club Row has, I understand, fallen sharply from a peak of over 30 pitches trading at that time. It could be suggested that the arbitrary closure of this traditional market—which is only one part of a busy East End traditional Sunday market—would cause great hardship to those licensed to trade. In fact, as my noble friend has already explained when presenting his previous Bills, and again today, in most instances traders already hold petshop licences in the Tower Hamlets or other London boroughs. Some have other businesses related to the sale of pets, or they deal in accessories and supplies for animals and birds. So this is not their only means of trading.

It has been stated by the Government in previous debates that local authorities of other areas where there are street markets have not reported any cause for concern. Perhaps some of the problems which apply at Club Row do not manifest themselves to the same degree elsewhere. But we welcome the constructive approach of the London borough; and there is always the possibility that similar problems could arise.

Surely genuine purchasers of companion animals have numerous opportunities to acquire the pet of their choice by visiting not only licensed pet shops, but preferably the breeder, or supplier, of the species, who can provide evidence of pedigree, fitness and age, and, of course, advice. They need not chance the possibility of purchasing an animal that is probably substandard, unfit or under age for normal sale from a trader who is unable to confirm the quality of the pet.

I should like to say a few words about tortoises—those charming, friendly, and inoffensive little creatures—and to ask the Government for some information about the present situation concerning their importation, since I believe that this is causing concern. Despite repeated complaints during the years from 1965 to 1980 from the RSPCA and conservation bodies, no Government action was taken at that time to restrict imports of tortoises from the Mediterranean and Eastern European countries for sale as pets in this country. The Government of which I had the privilege to be a member were equally to blame; so I am not making any party political point here. The RSPCA based its appeal for prohibition of imports on the conditions of transport from the country of export, the problems of acclimatisation on arrival, the ignorance by some owners of the tortoise's diet and habit—a minority, I hasten to add—and the obvious unsuitability of the tortoise, because of hibernation and other factors, as a companion animal. There is evidence that many tortoises failed to survive longer than one or two years in this country. A survey in Germany, which has a similar climate, showed that 83 per cent. died during their first year. So they are being brought across from Southern Europe and the Mediterranean to a fairly early death.

In 1982 however the Department of the Environment, recognising the possibility that tortoises were becoming vulnerable as a result of this situation, took steps to issue a "direction" under the existing legislation on endangered species. I understand that every purchaser, from importer to retail purchaser, was required to complete an "undertaking" for the department. Perhaps the noble Lord who is to reply will say what kind of an undertaking it is, because of course the tortoise is not in a position to see that its interests are being looked after. It has been suggested that the trade will become sensitive to this move and probably reduce imports this year, with a possibility of the whole shipment of tortoises to this country being phased out in 1984.

I submit that few people would regret the passing of a trade which could hardly be beneficial to the creatures concerned, whether they are sold in open markets—and many are—or through other channels of supply. The continued restriction of importation of tortoises could surely go some way to help rescue the species in their native countries, where they are already under pressure to survive for reasons other than the so-called "harvest", amounting to many hundreds of thousands, collected for export. In conclusion, I hope that the House will give my noble friend's Bill a Second Reading.

1.56 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, it is not my intention to make a Second Reading speech at this moment, because I do not believe there is anyone left to convince. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has several times previously produced a Bill such as this, and certainly my noble friend Lord Airedale and myself have spoken in support on previous occasions. This seems to be one of those minor but important reforms which is long overdue. The longer I remain on my feet, the longer it will be before we hear whether the Government have any comfort to give us in speeding along this reform and giving what is undoubtedly the will of your Lordships' House some real effect.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has I believe much on which to congratulate himself, or on which we should congratulate him, in regard to the pertinacity that he has applied to the pursuit of the Bill. It is due partly to his work and to the way in which he has kept the issue before the public that the reform in Club Row has taken place, and I was delighted to hear that councillors from my party have been helping with this matter. Both the Liberals, and our noble allies, the Social Democrats, are wholeheartedly behind the Bill, and I hope that at last it will reach the statute book.

1.58 p.m.

Lord Somers

My Lords, I, too, most certainly hope that the House will accept the Bill and give it a Second Reading. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, on his persistence in trying to get the Bill through the House. I doubt whether I should myself have had quite so much, but he has certainly shown great persistence, which I hope will reap its due reward this afternoon.

In his speech the noble Lord spoke about the irresponsible ownership of pets. The Bill does not actually deal with the ownership of them, but merely with obtaining them. However, I should like to point out that the method of obtaining a pet does much to influence the way in which it is to be owned and kept. Imagine, my Lords, a barrow in some market, with perhaps a young puppy in a basket. A mother and her child pass, and the child is fascinated by the sight of the young puppy; so fascinated in fact that the mother decides that she must buy it. But the barrow owner is no expert on dogs. He cannot give any directions as to proper feeding, he has no knowledge of what should be the correct vaccinations for various diseases; he just lets the puppy go. The result is that that puppy may have a very unhappy home.

I recognise that this is not always the case but I think it is probably more often the case than not. Pet shops are qualified to give all the proper advice as to feeding, vaccinations and so on. And there is another point. A dog bought from a stall of the kind I have referred to is much more likely to be a disease-carrier, as has already been mentioned, than one which is properly kept and sold in a pet shop. Disease carrying, obviously, is the thing we want to avoid.

So, looking at the dreadful toll on the road of dogs, and, I regret to say, of cats as well, and at the frequent cases of dogs unfortunately causing very bad accidents as drivers swerve to avoid them, one realises that it is most important that we do something to make for a more responsible ownership of pets. Although plenty remains to be done, this Bill is one step on the way. Therefore, I hope that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.

Before I sit down, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, for mentioning the subject of tortoises. These little creatures are not very often thought of as sentient or as having any feelings or preference for one dwelling or another. But that is quite false; they have all those feelings. It is most important that we do not bring them here (as the noble Lord said) to conditions which are totally unsuitable for them. Therefore, I sincerely hope that the Bill will get through; although I must say that I quite realise that a Private Member's Bill does not stand a great deal of chance of getting on to the statue book. I once tried sponsoring one myself and it got no farther than your Lordships' House. One can but go on hoping and it is possible that the other House may at some time see the light.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, I should like to support this Bill. I am speaking from the Liberal Benches on this occasion; I think it is a good thing that on occasions one should show that we are an alliance. I should like simply to say that I think that one of the nice things about Britain is our care and concern for animals. That we may be way in advance, possibly, of some continental countries is a good thing. We can show the way. I believe that this care is even more important because it represents, perhaps, a care of other things and of people as well. I very much hope that this Bill will succeed.

2.4 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, with characteristic determination the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has reintroduced this Bill to amend the Pet Animals Act 1951. As he has said, he has introduced a similar Bill in each of the last two Sessions and on both occasions it passed through all its stages in your Lordships' House. It is a measure of his tireless efforts to improve the lot of animals that the noble Lord has not been discouraged from reintroducing this particular Bill. When he spoke, he was good enough to refer to a Private Member's Bill which I had to do with a year ago and which dealt with red deer in Scotland. I must confess that when I had taken that Bill through all its stages here, I vowed to myself that I would never get drawn into a debate on animals in your Lordships' House again. But I find myself here in a different guise this afternoon. When that Bill was introduced, my noble friend Lord Mansfield, speaking from the Front Bench, referred to Bills such as that as being "tender plants". The noble Lord and others this afternoon have pointed out that this is still the case, that they are tender plants when it comes to their treatment in another place. So perhaps I ought to say now, so as to remove any element of suspense, that the Government do not propose to stand in the way of the Bill, for reasons which I shall explain.

Those of your Lordships who were present at the Second Reading of the Bill in this House in January 1982 may recall that my noble friend Lord Belstead expressed sympathy with the objectives of the Bill, but said that the Government had to think of its wider implications. The Bill, he said, would not just affect Club Row. It might jeopardise the livelihoods of traders at other markets throughout the country about whom to the Government's knowledge there had been few if any complaints that could be substantiated. Animals sold in these markets were already protected by a battery of legislation, including the Protection of Animals Act 1911, the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960, the Theft Act 1968 and the Pet Animals Act 1951 itself. All the evidence was that this legislation was being properly enforced in markets where pet animals were sold. And so my noble friend concluded that the case for national legislation had not been made out, although your Lordships will recall that he did not oppose the Bill.

Since then, however, as your Lordships know, things have changed. As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has described, Tower Hamlets Borough Council, which controls street trading within that borough, has passed a resolution under Section 16(1)(b) of the London County Council (General Powers) Act 1947 to the effect that, as from 2nd January 1983, the council will no longer include animals in the description, in any street trading licence issued by them, of commodities which may be sold from a stall; although existing traders are to be permitted to trade for the first six months of' 1983. However, 12 appeals against this resolution have been received by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. In this connection, I think the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, referred to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment as being the person to whom appeals would come. In fact, it is the Secretary of State for the Home Office. My Lords, I think I ought to say nothing today which can be taken in any way as prejudging the results of these appeals, which are sub judice. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, will accept that. My remarks are solely concerned with Lord Houghton's Bill to amend current legislation, which aims to improve the present standards of animal welfare.

The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, asked whether under existing legislation there is anything to stop new street markets springing up. The answer to that is, no, if the local authority is willing to license the setting up of new markets. I think that the noble Lord will agree that it does not seem likely that Tower Hamlets will license another market.

My noble friend Lord Belstead said in effect last year that the subject matter of this Bill arose from a local problem which should be dealt with on a local basis. That is now being done, and I imagine therefore that many of your Lordships will now be expecting me to say that the case for the Bill this year is less than it was last. But I am not going to do so. We have kept closely in touch with developments in Club Row and we have considered carefully the conclusions drawn by the council about the vulnerability of the animals displayed there.

We do not think—any more than the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, does, as he made plain last year—that the majority of animals sold in markets are subject to deliberate cruelty or callous neglect. Far from it. But we do think that the conditions which they have to bear are below those which sensible and compassionate public opinion in this country is prepared to tolerate. The Government will not be swayed by the views of extremists in the animal welfare lobby or in any other. But they acknowledge the force expressed in the sincere views held by hundreds of people about pet animals sold in markets. It is quite possible that no licensing system, however rigorous, and no stall-holder, however scrupulous, can guarantee the welfare of the animals on sale against such things as environmental stress and cross-infection. The Government now believe therefore that there is no way, short of prohibiting the sale of pet animals from market stalls, of reassuring the public that such animals arc not at risk.

Here I think I should deal with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stabolgi, on tortoises. That is not a subject on which I am an expert. My noble friend Lord Long sitting on the Front Bench with me has told me that he has two tortoises, so he is much more of an expert than I am. I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me warning that he was going to raise this particular point. I can tell him that the Department of the Environment is responsible for the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act 1976, which implements in the United Kingdom the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora and which makes the import of all tortoises subject to licence.

I understand from the Department of the Environment that a European regulation of the Council of Ministers on the implementation of this convention will ban the import of tortoises from next year. I understand that the agriculture department in this country issued in 1979, after consultation, advisory notes to importers of tortoises, which presumably covers the case up to now. As I said, I should like to look at it further. I hope that that has given the noble Lord some reassurance. The question of the diet and habit of tortoises is something in which I am sure many people will have an interest. Personally, I am appalled when I see photographs of tortoises in cages which contain mostly dead tortoises. My particular problem at the moment—if it is not too wide of the point—is that I share a house not only with two human beings in London but also a rabbit. The rabbit's diet and habits are something apart. It even ate a complete azalea the other day down to the stump!

We have recognised that the Bill which the noble Lord has introduced could affect a number of traders up and down the country. However, we think the impact of the Bill upon them may not be as great as at one time we might have feared. In the first place, we believe that a number of them—and it is probably the majority—use the market trade to supplement their income from pet shops. This was a point that the noble Lord made. I think your Lordships will agree that those who really want a pet and intend to treat it properly will go to a shop to obtain it just as readily as to a street market. Secondly, there is some evidence that the force of public opinion has caused pet stallholders gradually to cease trading and that the number of active licensees is considerably less than it used to be.

This is not the time to look at the detail of the Bill, but it may be helpful to your Lordships if I say now that we have had a look at the drafting and think that it is probably satisfactory. But we shall be happy to give the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, assistance where necessary if changes are to be made.

I end as I began, by congratulating the noble Lord on his tenacity in bringing this Bill forward. That has been echoed by other speakers this afternoon. I am sure the Bill will have a speedy passage going through its later stages in your Lordships' House, and as one who, as I said before, has so recently piloted an animal Bill through, I look forward to having the noble Lord as a companion in success in due course.

2.14 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, for that reply. If I may say so, it is in favourable contrast to the speeches I have received on earlier occasions. Indeed, looking further back, I am sure that Ronald Russell would have been glad to hear anything resembling what the noble Lord has just said.

There may be a point on Committee stage which, as a matter of fact, has been raised by the advisers from Tower Hamlets as to whether any further tightening up is necessary—for example, on what is a public place. We can attend to that then and I do not think it will be a very serious matter. I am therefore deeply indebted to the noble Lord for the assurance that the Bill will now see its way through your Lordships' House; and what happens after that will of course depend on what facilities may be sought or obtained in another place. I may have to visit my old haunts to see what can be done there. However, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, and to the noble Lords who have supported this Bill. The atmosphere and the reception of this Bill this afternoon is a delightful change from previous occasions.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at sixteen minutes past two o'clock.