It is a great pleasure to take part in this excellent debate, called by my hon. Friend Sir David Amess. There is only one issue about which he feels more strongly than Southend becoming a city: animals and their welfare. Madam Deputy Speaker, if you were to read his excellent book, “Ayes and Ears”— probably available in all good bookshops—you would be aware that he is the proud patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation and has devoted much of his life to campaigning on behalf of our furry friends.
Like my hon. Friend, the Government greatly appreciate the work that animal welfare organisations do, often on a voluntary basis. They protect animals against cruelty and ensure that unwanted animals are offered a loving home. We have heard some great examples this evening, not least the Dogs Trust, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend Mr Francois.
The good news is that we have all appreciated animals in a new and different way over lockdown. There has been increased interest from people wanting to rehome pets, which has helped to alleviate pressure on the sector. Far fewer pets have been abandoned during lockdown. In fact, it is estimated that about 50% fewer were abandoned in 2020 than in 2019 or 2018. The latest data from the RSPCA—although we must read this with the caveats that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West mentioned—shows that there has been a reduction in animal cruelty, with fewer calls about cruelty and fewer complaints needing to be investigated. But of course my hon. Friend is right to highlight fears about people adopting pets when they are not suitable or do not have the ability to train those pets, and we will continue to work closely with the sector on those issues.
The less good news is, of course, that many charities have suffered income shortfalls during this difficult time, because charity shops cannot open and it is difficult to fundraise. Charitable providers of veterinary care have also found it challenging to deliver a full service during lockdown, and have just done emergency care. The Government are very keen to support the animal welfare sector and have made sure that in the covid restrictions, the welfare needs of animals are considered and protected. We have tried to ensure that we can continue to allow animal charities that concentrate on rehoming to continue to carry out their business as best they possibly can within the restrictions.
The Minister responsible for animal welfare, who sits in the other place, meets the sector very frequently, and I know that he will be watching tonight’s debate with interest and will take forward the ideas that have been raised. I particularly want to mention a meeting that he had in September with the chief executive officers of leading equine welfare charities, to discuss their specific worries about the winter horse problem, which happens annually; they were particularly worried about people who care for horses not having enough money to care for them properly this year. We feel that that is going well so far, but we are keeping a close eye on it.
The sector is a really useful source of information to my Department—for example, on rehoming rates and animal cruelty investigations. We have kept up a useful dialogue with the pet industry, local authorities and vets, who are also useful sources of information. It has been really encouraging to see the sector working together collaboratively to safeguard animals in its care, and it has organised emergency grant schemes itself specifically to support smaller organisations.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, these charities can apply for the full range of Government support measures. The furlough scheme has made a significant difference to between 50% and 60% of animal welfare charities, although of course a certain number of staff have to be kept in place to care for the animals that are still in the home. The Charity Commission has issued really useful guidance on running a charity during covid, including advice for trustees on managing reserves in restricted funds and on provisions to help charities through this difficult period.
On animal welfare generally—I think it is fair to say that my hon. Friend mentioned a wide range of issues during his speech—I would like to say that the Government, despite the pandemic, have been working hard not to take our foot off the accelerator in our agenda in this space. In March last year, I was very pleased, as a former pig keeper, to oversee the new code of practice for the welfare of pigs. In April last year, we introduced the ban on third-party commercial sales of puppies and kittens, which tied in with the earlier pet fish campaign to help people make informed choices when looking for a pet.
In November last year, we launched a new agricultural policy, more details of which will come out in the following weeks and months. An integral part of this is the animal health and welfare pathway, which is there to promote the production of animals at a level beyond compliance with current regulations. This is a way of reaching a large number of animals, and of protecting and improving the way we care for them.
We are also very keen as a Government to support the Bill to increase custodial sentences for animal cruelty. This Bill, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, is currently awaiting its Committee stage in this place.
Among the other points raised briefly by my hon. Friends was the issue of boarding kennels, raised by my hon. Friend Duncan Baker. That is primarily a matter for local authorities, but I will pass on his words to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
My hon. Friend Marco Longhi raised the difficulties that Dudley zoo has been having. He has raised them many times, and most forcibly, with the Department, and I was glad to hear that he feels the zoo animals fund is more acceptable than the zoo support fund, the previous fund, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West. We feel that this package is working well with the sector at the moment, but we continue to keep the matter under review.
In brief, this Government are committed to animal welfare, as is my hon. Friend, and I look forward to continuing to work together with him in this area.
Question put and agreed to.