The covid-19 pandemic has been unlike anything that we have experienced since the second world war. The mandatory closure of businesses and the restrictions on where we could go and who we could meet were unprecedented in our recent history, as were the restrictions on travelling abroad for holidays or business. Most of us are used to simply booking a flight, arranging for our pets to be looked after and heading off to the sun. I will talk about those restrictions and their specific impact on catteries and kennels.
The Government’s response to the pandemic made available unprecedented levels of support to businesses and to the economy as a whole. Without that urgent action, many businesses would have failed and our economy would have suffered untold damage. History will judge our actions and the support that we provided as necessary, proportionate and crucial; Ministers should be commended for putting it together so quickly.
As with any system, however, issues on the periphery inevitably meant that a limited number of specific cases fell through the cracks. After all, not everything fits neatly into a defined box or is easily categorised. I will highlight the example of kennels and catteries, which offer accommodation to pets 365 days a year and provide a vital service to travellers and businesspeople who need to go abroad.
Like other industries, kennels and catteries were affected by the lockdowns and their trade was restricted. Unlike a shop or restaurant, however, they did not simply spring back into shape after the lockdowns ended. International travel was still hugely restricted and the demand for travel was hit by a lack of confidence even when people could travel abroad. Indeed, much of the demand did not come back even after the rules surrounding opening businesses had lifted.
The difficulty is that restrictions remained in the tourism supply chain—industries directly affected by tourism—but, unlike other industries, kennels and catteries are not considered part of the tourism sector. This is where my constituents Claire and Craig Dodding, who run a cattery in my constituency, come in. In response to those difficulties, they set up the UK Alliance of Catteries and Kennels, which advocates on behalf of the industry and supports catteries and kennels across the country. They set out the problem in a recent email to me, which, if the House will bear with me, I will read in full:
“Our industry is regulated by DEFRA yet is not part of DEFRA. It is licensed by councils yet has no awarding body. Our industry is business rated yet has no guidelines regarding premises. Our industry is not recognised under any main SIC yet has Government-regulated bodies making decisions that impact it with no means of challenge. The industry falls into sub-representation with charities yet is a business, not a charity.”
In short, the industry is not easily categorised and so falls through the cracks.
My hon. Friend is making some interesting and important points. Businesses that have benefited from her constituents’ advocacy include Clearview Cattery in Burnley, which is run by Ryan, and the Pet Hotel. I thank her constituents for everything they do to advocate not just for themselves but for the whole sector.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Craig and Claire have done astounding work with councils across the country, lobbying on behalf of all their members.
We see a discrepancy in how councils have awarded discretionary funding. Grants in Hyndburn, for example, have been different from others across the country, which can range from thousands of pounds to hundreds of pounds.
The industry has a huge number of regulations on everything from licensing and welfare to safety and staffing, yet there is no accurate number of businesses in the industry as they pay their licensing fees to local councils, and the bulk of councils do not collate that information correctly or at all. All councils are meant to have an accurate, up-to-date list of licensed animal boarding establishments available to the general public. However, the UK Alliance’s research suggests that 75% of councils either do not have that or they have information that is incorrect or out of date. I spoke to constituents today who explained that, when they were given a grant by a local council, it called a cattery in someone else’s patch and a lady who had not had her cattery for 49 years was still on the council’s list. That goes to show the issue that we have.
We need to focus on the industry’s place within the wider economy—it clearly needs to be part of travel and tourism. It is also important to consider how it is regulated and where it sits in relation to oversight and regulation. We must ensure that councils are giving it the support that it needs and that support is consistent across councils.
My constituents have specific issues and asks of the Government that they have asked me to set out. First, there is no standard industrial classification code for animal boarding establishments. I am told that, at present, the nearest code is 01.62/1, which is farm animal boarding and care—except pets. The UK Alliance proposes that we follow the USA’s SIC and create a new subcategory under section A called “animal services, except veterinary” and include the following: animal shelters; boarding horses; boarding catteries; boarding kennels; boarding of other animals; home boarding dogs; home boarding cats; home boarding of other animals; breeding of animals—
My hon. Friend is clearly setting out the complexities of the industry—I will refer to it as an industry. Does she agree that businesses such as the Longcroft Luxury Cat Hotel in my constituency want certainty and that, whether they are dealing with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the local council or their tax affairs, everything should be codified in one place so that they can understand what they are entitled to and what is available to them?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention. She is correct. I have been getting that message loud and clear from the UK Alliance. Many Members of Parliament have been lobbied to put that message to the Government by their local kennels and catteries, who have really struggled throughout the pandemic. We must consider that going forward.
I will carry on with the list; there are only a few left. The new sub-category should also include dog grooming, pedigree record services for pets and other animal specialties, and the showing of pets and other animal specialties. That would bring all other animal services under one sub-category of section A. It would also bring all businesses that follow DEFRA’s 2018 boarding of cats and dogs regulations under the same sub-category.
The UK Alliance has also suggested that the Government should establish a centralised professional body, which would be responsible for issuing licences to these businesses. The system is currently fragmented and operated by individual local authorities. That professional body would ensure that a current list of inspected and regulated businesses was available to the general public, deal with requests from business owners and the general public, and maintain a database of inspected businesses to be available at all times.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case on behalf of the kennels and catteries industry. May I cheekily take the opportunity to raise the case of Eardley Hall kennels in my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme? It suffered not only from the impact of covid, which she has already spoken about, but from flooding caused by a broken culvert on an illegal waste dump. I am trying to adjudicate between the Environment Agency and Staffordshire County Council as to why that has happened. The Minister is in her place; perhaps she will hear what I am saying too. Eardley Hall kennels, and all the other kennels and catteries in Newcastle-under-Lyme, contribute a huge amount to our local economy and I am very glad that my hon. Friend has secured this Adjournment debate.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that case and I completely agree with him. I can imagine that Claire and Craig will have been lobbying on behalf of his constituents too, because they have done a fantastic job of that.
Finally, the industry suggests that catteries and kennels should have specific guidelines for business rating purposes. At present, there is no agreed standard, and all areas of cattery and kennel businesses, including communal corridors and fire escapes, are included in calculations. Other commercial properties are exempt from paying rates on those areas.
Obviously, a lot of this is very technical and would require changes at least to regulations and possibly to legislation. It seems to me that a sensible first step would be for representatives of the sector to meet DEFRA and discuss these issues. I therefore ask the Minister whether it would be possible to broker an initial meeting between her and her officials, the UK Alliance and me. That would go a long way to opening lines of communication and starting the discussion about how we can better ensure that the needs of this sector are met and that catteries and kennels across the country are treated fairly and consistently.
I thank my hon. Friend Sara Britcliffe for securing this debate. I could not agree with her more that kennels and catteries contribute an awful lot to our economy and society, but also to our lives. We were in this place only last Friday discussing some of the benefits. I apologise, because she spoke in that debate and I think she has rescue cats herself—does she not?
Yes. Some incredible names were mentioned that day, and I cannot bring to mind whether she had a Noodle, a Doodle, a Frazzle or whoever. The one that sticks in my mind is Andrew the pig—but I digress.
As I say, kennels and catteries contribute in many ways, on both national and local scale. My right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes mentioned the importance of looking to treat them as a group. Some 26% of UK adults own a dog and some 24% a cat. Their companion dogs or cats will be among the 9.6 million dogs and 10.7 million cats that reside in this country and, hopefully, are lavished with an enormous amount of love. Indeed, I will declare that I am a dog owner, and I probably over-indulge him.
Kennels and catteries provide important services to our cat and dog populations and their owners, and I know that my hon. Friend’s constituency is the base for several such establishments. That situation is replicated in just about every constituency across the House.
I turn to the benefits of kennels and catteries. Locally, kennels and catteries have a positive economic benefit, stimulating the local economy through the purchase of pet food and equipment and the employing of local vets for the health of their residents, as well as tradesmen to maintain their establishments. The ripples of that economic benefit will be felt discretely regionally and nationally through medium and large-scale suppliers and manufacturers. In that way, kennels and catteries contribute to continued economic success and increasing consumer spending across the sector.
There is, of course, a further significant economic benefit to kennels and catteries, one which my right hon. Friend has taken great care to raise with us this evening: the indirect economic benefit felt by others, such as the travel and tourism sector. In this case, the services provided by kennels and catteries allow us to travel or visit locations which would not otherwise be possible. I heard her comments about re-categorisation and so on. The challenge is that several Departments are involved in what she is asking me to consider.
The security of pets is a major concern these days. I strongly compliment my hon. Friend Sara Britcliffe for raising the issue. It is an issue that worries people and I have had meetings on it in my constituency. A strong and vibrant cattery and kennel sector is a very important part of keeping our pets secure.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Indeed, the Department is looking to do something about pet theft in future legislation.
The Government are aware of the sector’s concerns relating to the covid-19 restrictions that were in place and understand the considerable difficulties faced not only by kennels and catteries, but by many businesses adversely affected by the fall in travel and tourism due to the pandemic. I place on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn for her acknowledgement that the Government acted swiftly and put a great deal of effort into ensuring that businesses were supported.
The Government’s swift action to provide a range of covid-19 support measures to both businesses and charities was done at pace. We published information on how to access that support and worked with sector bodies at the time—that is the important thing I would like to stress—such as the Canine and Feline Sector Group. We worked with the group to enable grooming to start up. In the difficult days of the pandemic, it worked on regulations around safety handovers and so on, so that the industry could get up and running. That work led to the publication of advice to owners and pet businesses throughout the period that restrictions were in place.
We continue to engage with the sector to try to understand and address any residual issues. Government support included, but was not limited to, loans, small business grants available through local authorities, mortgage holidays and VAT deferral. Those, and other provisions, were maintained and extended as the situation developed. The Government also acted to protect the income of the self-employed through the self-employed income support scheme grant, and supported employees through the furlough scheme. Businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency, including catteries, will have felt the benefit of that support.
I understand that the owner of Rhoden Manor has gone on to establish the UK Alliance of Catteries and Kennels with the aim of strengthening their collective voice. I recognise that there has been a great deal of concern in the sector and we take that very seriously. We will keep a close watch on intake levels and trends. DEFRA remains committed to continued engagement with the sector and to understanding the long-term impacts of the pandemic, monitoring the animal welfare implications and offering subsequent and appropriate advice.
Local authorities were allocated £500 million in discretionary funding through the additional restrictions grant to support businesses that were significantly impacted, even though they were not required to close. That was in addition to the £1.1 billion allocated in November 2020. Local authorities had the discretion to support businesses in the way that they saw fit.
I recognise the importance of kennels and catteries and the varied roles that they play in our lives, from enabling our ability to travel to supporting key workers, allowing them to undertake their roles. The Government are also convinced that the kennels and catteries of this country provide many economic benefits. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn can be reassured by the fact that we are working with the Local Government Animal Welfare Group to improve the data that several hon. Members said was perhaps not as seamless as they would like it to be.
I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that the Government have taken the appropriate steps throughout the covid restrictions to ensure that we supported kennels and catteries, so that they could, and can, continue to operate. I thank her for securing tonight’s debate. She spoke recently about the support that the Government have given to high streets, recognising the effort and investment that we have made.
To conclude, I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to tease out, as she said, the quite complex set of asks that she laid out this evening and to see exactly where the challenges are, because I would like my officials to check some of the details about the database, and so on. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North said, making it a simpler system to navigate is probably one of the key asks. On that note, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn again for securing the debate and thank our cattery and kennel owners for not only all they did in the pandemic, but all they do all the time.
I was honoured to chair both Friday’s debate on animals and tonight’s as well. If it proves anything, we are a Parliament of animal lovers, that is for certain.
Question put and agreed to.