Care Homes (Domestic Pets)

– in the House of Commons at 1:32 pm on 8th July 2009.

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Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe 1:33 pm, 8th July 2009

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for residents of care homes to keep domestic pets in certain circumstances;
and for connected purposes.

In addition to the subject of the title of the Bill, I propose to discuss sheltered accommodation. I am pleased to be able to present this Bill today and delighted to have received so much cross-party support for what it outlines from colleagues, including the shadow spokesmen for animal welfare and for elderly people. The issue touches every constituency throughout the UK and, given a growing elderly population, will need to be addressed.

Superficially, the issue appears to be about animal welfare, and I should say that I have been involved in animal welfare organisations for even longer than I have been a member of the Labour party, which is 40 years. Indeed, Alexander Solzhenitsyn once made the relevant connection, saying:

"Nowadays we don't think much of a man's love for an animal; we laugh at people who are attached to cats. But if we stop loving animals, aren't we bound to stop loving humans too?"

Separate from that, however, I see the issue as one about the right of elderly people to live their lives as they wish, without too much well meant regulation of every detail from the moment that they leave independent accommodation to the moment that they move to sheltered accommodation or care.

The problem is simply stated: when people move into sheltered accommodation or into care, there is no consistent policy allowing them to take a pet with them. As a direct result, in the most recent year for which statistics are available, 38,000 healthy pets had to be put down and a further 100,000 had to be given up by their owners. Many of those pets will have been put down after an attempt to re-home them.

Moving home is stressful for anyone. Moving from one's long-standing home into sheltered or care environments is often traumatic, as one separates oneself from independent life. If we add to that having to part from one's pet and, even, having to order it to be put down, we add distress and guilt, and there is a very clear case for Parliament to help in avoiding that if it can.

Practice varies enormously throughout Britain, but there are numerous examples of successful schemes that allow pets to remain with their owners, and that should be the norm for sheltered housing. The fact that one is now living in a warden-aided flat should not remove one's right to make the choice to keep a pet. Pets provide an important source of physical, emotional and social support for many older people, and there is extensive evidence of improved cardiovascular and mental health and other health benefits from the relationship with a familiar animal. It mitigates the loneliness of many people in old age and provides an avenue for nurturing, caring and taking responsibility for others, and maintains the sense of still feeling useful.

I have discovered that many older people find that when it is time to move into care, there are wildly different practices throughout the country, making for a postcode lottery if one wants to keep an animal. There are no legal obligations on residential homes in that respect, and that is in stark contrast to other countries, including the USA, Germany, Greece, France and Switzerland, all of which have introduced legislation to ensure that older people have the right to keep or maintain contact with animals, whether those people live independently in the community, in sheltered accommodation or in long-term homes.

As far back as 1970, France legislated for pets to be allowed in all public and private housing, provided that the pet is properly cared for and not causing a nuisance. In 1983, the USA passed a national law permitting older and disabled people to keep pets in housing that received federal funding. The Society for Companion Animal Studies, supported by the Pet Food Manufacturers' Association, both of which have been extremely helpful in preparing the Bill, has published research to assess the scale of the problem in the UK. It found that 65 per cent. of care homes have no formal written policy whatever. Of those that do, 29 per cent. permit pet ownership, but more than half—54 per cent.—specifically exclude cats and dogs.

I know from correspondence from constituents that there are genuine concerns about pets going with their owners into shared or nursing care accommodation relating to pets not mixing well and about adequate exercise for dogs; responsibility for the payment of veterinary care when it becomes necessary; and the fact that older residents might be frightened of or allergic to animals. I am not arguing for a blanket policy, stating that every pet, from an anaconda to a Rottweiler, has to be admitted; I am arguing for a basic presumption that pets be permitted—subject to appropriate discussion about all the eventualities that can arise, and provided that they do not cause a nuisance to other residents.

Care providers would be understandably and rightly concerned if an extra burden was placed on them. However, evidence from experience is that an intelligent policy allowing animals actually reduces the burden on staff; residents who would otherwise make frequent demands on staff time often focus on their companion animals for much of the day.

Best practice guidelines are available for any authority that changes its policy. Wandsworth council has been proactive on the issue; its previous policy effectively ruled out pets in its accommodation, but its current policy makes the keeping of pets normally permissible. The feedback has been entirely positive. The council has told me that it would be glad to advise other authorities that might be considering a similar change. Organisations such as Help the Aged, Age Concern, Pathway and the Anchor Housing Trust have recommended guidelines that can help.

The Cinnamon Trust has gone beyond that and produced a comprehensive publication of pet-friendly homes; it gives ratings to the top 500 establishments visited by the trust's assessors. I was delighted to visit Elm House nursing home in my constituency of Broxtowe. It has a five-star rating for the criterion "Welcoming any owner and their pet with caring, friendly staff". I saw the dramatic effects that the home's cat, budgerigar and visiting pets have on the lives and reactions of long-term residents with physical and mental disabilities.

The Cinnamon Trust also has a national network of more than 10,000 community service volunteers who provide practical help when day-to-day care is an issue. Volunteers from another group, Canine Concern, bring in formerly homeless dogs that they have adopted as individual pets to visit patients. The animals are a positive therapy in recovery; as the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has recognised, that can often be the case.

In preparing the Bill, I have been helped by many colleagues with personal experiences. My hon. Friend Kali Mountford tells me that her mother was allowed a visit from her dog only once after she went into care, and would have liked so much to have had more contact with her companion from the years before. My hon. Friend Meg Munn was a social services manager in an area where one Sue Ryder home regularly brought in a much-loved cat to cheer up the residents.

My Bill will address a problem that remains general. Today I met Brenda Eustace, an elderly resident in London who was unable to find a home willing to take her small pet dog and who, as a result, could not go into care. We need to end the postcode lottery and to come to the aid of elderly people faced with this trauma. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Dr. Nick Palmer, Miss Ann Widdecombe, Mr. Ian Cawsey, Mr. David Blunkett, Meg Munn, Andrew Rosindell, Mrs. Linda Riordan, Paul Flynn, Mr. Denis MacShane, Mr. Roger Gale, Ann Clwyd and Judy Mallaber present the Bill.

Dr. Nick Palmer accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October and to be printed (Bill 129).