Animal Welfare

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th December 1973.

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Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Merton and Morden 12:00 am, 14th December 1973

I beg to move, That this House strongly reaffirms its responsibility for the promotion of animal welfare; expresses its deep concern at evidence of ill-treatment and cruelty to animals within the United Kingdom; draws attention to the urgent need to strengthen the state veterinary service; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to take serious account of proposals for animal welfare measures when drawing up its own legislative programme. I make no apology for bringing this matter to the attention of the House at a time of grave national crisis. Crises come and go, but animal welfare is a continuous problem, and has been for many years. Furthermore, I consider it to be incumbent upon this House from time to time to state that it has a definite duty to promote animal welfare—indeed, to promote the welfare of all those who cannot help themselves. In this I include children, the aged, and other members of the community whose needs are more often before the House, but it is rare for us to have time to discuss the welfare of animals.

Let there be no doubt that animals do feel pain. To all well-meaning people that may seem a trite remark, but one of the justifications for those who ill-treat animals is, "Well, they do not feel the degree of pain. They would not notice."

The report of the Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals in 1951 made it clear that there are good reasons, anatomical and physiological, for accepting that animals suffer in much the same way as human beings. That being so, there is a duty incumbent upon us to see that they are not only not cruelly treated, but well treated.

I extend this proposition to all kinds of animals. It is easy to work up enthusiasm when something fluffy and attractive is ill-treated. From time to time we see this in newspaper reports and articles. But we should remember that the nervous system even of a rat is highly developed and that it, too, can feel pain. I ask the House to extend its sympathy to all living creatures who would not otherwise enlist our sympathy because they are considered as pests, or are unattractive to look at.

When I was considering what aspects of ill-treatment to bring before the House today for consideration, I was faced with an embarrassment of choice, because many spheres give rise for concern. I turn, first, to one which I know is controversial—field sports. No doubt their opponents would call them blood sports. I take a rather puritanical view. I believe that field sports can be justified only if the animal that is hunted needs to be controlled and hunting is the most humane way of doing it. I suspect that by these criteria many field sports would cease.

One such sport that I loathe and detest is hare coursing. The National Coursing Club, in evidence to the Scott Henderson Committee, which dealt with cruelty to wild animals, admitted that the object of hare coursing was to test the stamina and ability of the greyhounds, not to kill hares. Therefore no question of controlling a pest can arise.

It seems perfectly possible—indeed, it happens—for greyhounds to be tested in other ways than chasing a live hare over a course for about 30 seconds, as I understand it. Even the National Coursing Club admitted that a slight delay sometimes occurred before the hare was killed. I suggest that that is an under-statement. The hare may go through agony for quite a time before being killed by either the hounds or those who are responsible for them.

I think there have been no fewer than five Bills on this subject since 1970. I am a sponsor of the latest one. There were also at least four attempts to deal with the subject in the last Parliament, but all met with singular lack of success. I can only hope and pray that the latest Bill will be passed, although I suspect that it will not be.

Otter hunting, too, is a deplorable pastime. It is very easy to describe an animal as a pest which ought to be exterminated, without thinking too deeply about it. It is said that otters kill a lot of fish, so everyone jumps to the conclusion that they must do unmitigated harm. But nobody pauses to consider whether they kill things which are harmful, so that, on balance, they may do far more good than harm, and that is the criterion which I should like to see adopted in relation to field sports. It is now many years since the publication of the Scott Henderson Report, which was a somewhat weak, anaemic and wishy-washy document.

I turn now to another aspect of the Scott Henderson Report—the poaching of deer. Legislation was passed on this subject. It seems to me that in an age of inflation the penalties embodied in the relevant Act are far from satisfactory. The maximum penalty is a £50 fine or three months' imprisonment, or both. I understand, from an article in the Sunday Telegraph in September this year, that between £50 and £60 can be obtained for a single deer carcase, such is the demand for the meat of this animal. The article contained a horrifying account of the kind of torture to which deer are being submitted by poachers in the New Forest. One unpleasant trick seems to be to string up wires between trees and drive the deer into them under cover of darkness, pursued by lurcher dogs. The deer's throats are then cut, or the wire winds round them so that they are unable to eat, and starve to death. There is a clear case for the penalties to be greatly increased.

Unfortunately, not only wild animals are ill-treated. Even those which are regarded as man's pets are not so well treated as one would wish. For example, many vets—and this applies also to the British Veterinary Association—are alarmed by the imports of exotic creatures which people do not know how to care for and which find it difficult to live in the British climate. One vet has written to me to say that he believes that of the tortoises that are imported from abroad only 20 per cent. survive their first winter. That is a shocking indictment. The law needs to be clarified on this point.

But what of man's best friend, the dog? We probably all have pets which we look after and cherish, and we lament bitterly when they die, but no fewer than 250,000 dogs are destroyed each year because they are not wanted and are abandoned by their owners. There is, indeed, great over-production of dogs. In my file on this subject I found a Press cutting dated January last year, reporting that it was estimated by the superintendent of the Plymouth Cats and Dogs Home that no fewer than 60 puppies and dogs had been returned to the home, either by being hurled over 15 ft. high walls or by being tied up and left outside. One can imagine that that behaviour will be repeated all over the country as irresponsible people who have bought pets at Christmas, perhaps for children, are tired of them by the New Year. This is, indeed, a grave problem, and various suggestions have been put forward for dealing with it.

One which commends itself to me is the reform of dog licensing. It is ludicrous that the sum of 7s. 6d., or whatever is its equivalent in decimal currency, should still be charged for the acquisition of a dog. I suggest that the cost of the initial licence should be very much higher, and that the licence should extend for three years. One could perhaps fix the licence fee at £1·12 or £1·50 which would be roughly equivalent to the cost of buying a licence every year but might deter the making of irresponsible purchases on impulse. What is more, I believe that the licence should be due the moment a puppy changes hands, and not six months afterwards as at present. The present arrangement only assists people who are anxious to get rid of a dog when they find that they must pay out.