HL Deb 19 July 1991 vol 531 cc427-31

3.37 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. This is a short Bill dealing with a small but important matter. It comes from another place where it was introduced by my right honourable friend Alan Williams, Member of Parliament for Swansea, West, after a good deal of preparation and investigation. It is heavily backed by all parties in the House of Commons and, I understand, has the support of the Government. Its purpose is to enable entry to be made by local authority representatives to discover whether unlawful dog breeding is going on.

Dog breeding premises are covered by the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973. If there are two or more breeding bitches, the Act applies and a licence may he granted where the conditions of rearing puppies are satisfactory and all the conditions of health and welfare are observed. If there is only one breeding bitch, a licence is not required under the 1973 Act. A considerable amount of evasion of the obligations under the 1973 Act is taking place. The sponsor of the Bill has gone to a good deal of trouble to have research carried out on the discoveries made. Disclosures which have come about caused a good deal of unease and distress. The Bill simply enables, on a magistrates' warrant, an authorised officer of a local authority to enter and to see whether there is any breach of the 1973 Act or other Acts relating to the welfare of animals. I emphasise, however, that the Bill specifically excludes from that order premises used as a private residence. There is therefore no entry to the private home but there is entry to what may be believed to be business premises.

Puppy farming has been the subject of widespread public discovery and upset. Pet shops have their problems in connection with that. If noble Lords see fit to give the Bill a Second Reading and no dissent is forthcoming, it may well make rapid progress through the House. It is a unanimous Bill. Noble Lords know of my inherent dislike of authorising fresh, forcible entry into premises. In such a matter, where there can be so much scandal, suffering and hardship, I believe it is fully justified that entry should be made under the law to discover whether the 1973 Act is being observed.

I warmly recommend the Bill to your Lordships. It comes at the end of a troubled week for me on the subject of dogs. I gave my word that I would introduce the Bill to this House. I do not retract from that in the slightest degree, notwithstanding much that I said on another Bill which has been before this House.

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

3.41 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I echo the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. We on these Benches give the Bill an absolute welcome. It is not very complicated and it does not go very far. However, so far as it goes, it improves the situation as regards the quite deplorable conditions involved in the breeding of puppies in some areas, especially those where there has been a decrease in normal farming activities and where people have been encouraged to breed puppies in order to supplement their income. The ordinary, and even the unlicensed, breeder would have no objection under normal circumstances to an inspector coming in and looking at his premises. But, of course, there are those who would wish to keep their activities as far away from scrutiny as possible because, quite frankly, they treat the dogs in their care in a deplorable fashion.

As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, said, the Bill does not provide for right of entry to the home or the dwelling. I suppose that that that could he viewed as a weakness in the legislation because it is perfectly possible to keep a number of bitches in deplorable conditions in a farmhouse or whatever. But it does improve the situation.

As I said, the Bill is entirely welcome. It goes a small way towards proving the quite extraordinary situation as regards dogs in this country. The Government steadfastly object to the introduction of a dog registration scheme. But I think that it would be much easier to deal with these matters, including the question of breeding conditions, if we had such a scheme. No one knows how many dogs there are in the country or how many people are breeding them. Further, no one knows how many people who say that they are just family owners of dogs are in fact selling their dogs as a business or as a part time way of earning extra money. The whole thing if very unclear. The Bill before us is at least a move in the right direction. We welcome it.

3.42 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, we on these Benches are most grateful to my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby who has taken on yet another duty of a similar nature. He has done so simply, and has given a clear and cogent exposition of the arguments. I cannot believe there is anyone who does not understand the purpose of the Bill.

The promoter of the Bill in another place, Alan Williams, has been known to me for many years. I congratulate him for the persistence that he has shown and for the detective work which was undoubtedly involved in order to produce the evidence. Those of us who have read about such matters, or who have seen reports of such conditions on television, find it absolutely nauseating and horrendous.

This simple measure, taken on a day when we have discussed a Finance Bill, the G7 conference and the affairs of BCCI, may seem somewhat incongruous in the circumstances. However, I can assure the Minister that thousands of people throughout the country will be grateful to the Government if they enable the Bill to make its way speedily through Parliament and on to the statute book. I hope that the Minister has taken note of the fact that there is no opposition to the Bill in the House today. There has been warm commendation for it.

The usual channels are in their place, listening carefully. With the Minister's support, I hope that we will be able to put the Bill on the statute book sooner rather than later. I am sure that the Minister and his advisers will have noticed the significance of Christmas. If the Bill can become law soon it may do something to alleviate the dreadful suffering of many dogs. I warmly congratulate my noble friend and my right honourable and honourable friends in another place. I hope that the Minister will say the right thing.

3.45 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, on introducing yet another Bill on animal welfare into this House. He has done so, if I may say so, in his own compelling and inimitable style. There are considerable advantages in the Private Member's procedures for this kind of measure, which has wide, indeed, unanimous support.

I pay tribute also to the patience and skill of the right honourable Member for Swansea, West, Mr. Alan Williams, who negotiated so patiently with the Home Office for such a long time to secure government support for this measure. He was instrumental in bringing the abuses of so-called "puppy farms" to the attention of Parliament, so it is no surprise that he was the sponsor of the Bill in another place. He was supported by a distinguished list of right honourable and honourable Members.

It is my pleasure to present the Government's view on the Bill. There has been no earlier opportunity to do so owing to the speed with which it passed through its various stages in another place.

The Bill addresses directly a weakness in the legislation to regulate dog-breeding establishments. The Government are aware of the strength of public feeling concerning the ill-treatment of animals generally and it is fair to say that for some time the Home Office has received a steady flow of letters from people who are worried about the conditions in which dogs are kept in so-called puppy farms.

There has been a wave of revulsion at conditions, many of them horrific, which have been well-publicised in the media. Dogs have been found in generally filthy surroundings, starving, unkempt, uncared for, in various states of disease and injury, or even dead. Bitches are used as breeding machines, producing, it is said, sometimes two litters every year, until their usefulness to the breeder is over and they are cold-bloodedly killed or left to die. The Government abhor such cruelty and made it clear in another place that they would support measures to strengthen the existing legislation, provided that they resulted in effective and enforceable law. I have to tell the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, that I do not believe that the introduction of a dog registration scheme would do anything to solve the abuses that I have described.

I am pleased to be able to say that the Government fully support the Bill. We recognise that the current legislation is deficient in allowing local authorities to inspect only licensed premises when unlicensed premises can represent the worst conditions likely to be found. We recognise, too, the fundamental principle concerning licensing which is involved: that any licensing system has to be fair and effectively enforced, otherwise it falls into disrepute.

There is certainly something wrong with any system which allows widespread avoidance. In that respect, the power of entry proposed in the Bill would be a major help for local authorities in enforcing the licensing of dog breeders. The Bill has been long awaited. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, asked that the remaining stages of the Bill be taken as soon as possible. The Government are happy to accede to that request. Through the usual channels, I understand that time will be made available next week for that to happen.

The general recognition of the necessity for the Bill is reflected in the unanimity with which it was received in another place. I hope that your Lordships will also allow the Bill a swift passage so that it can take its place on the statute book at the earliest opportunity.

3.49 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving such a full explanation of the Bill. I thank him for the Government's support. I also thank other noble Lords who have supported the Bill. I ask your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading.

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

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