My Lords, I want to address an issue that affects millions of families in this country. It is a subject that cuts right across many of the areas that we have been discussing today, including health, welfare and education. It has a breadth and width throughout society that is in many ways far greater than the important measures outlined in the gracious Speech, yet it rarely gets a look-in when it comes to legislation and regulation. That issue is animal welfare.
We are a nation of animal lovers; 48% of UK households, some 13 million of us, own between them 22 million pets. I am proud to declare an interest as an owner of one of them, a venerable Russian Blue. At the moment, however, we are experiencing what the RSPCA has described as,
“a growing animal cruelty crisis”.
Last year, there was a 15% increase in the number of people being taken to court for the neglect of and cruelty to animals in England and Wales, and an increase of a third in the number of convictions. As a result of every conviction, more animals are taken in by animal welfare charities for care and rehoming.
I heard at first hand, on a visit last year to the wonderful National Cat Centre in Sussex, which is run by the Cats Protection, that there is an unprecedented demand for its services in taking in stray and abandoned cats. However, at the same time, requests to adopt a cat have dropped to a third of what they were at the start of 2010. That is the perfect storm of increasing need and declining resource.
Many of these problems are of course part and parcel of the economic hardship that we have been experiencing, which my noble friend Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope mentioned. Pressure on family incomes of the sort that he described often means that people have to give up their pets when they cannot afford to feed them or pay for veterinary care. We have a duty to do something about this growing crisis. The treatment of animals is a barometer for the health of our society, and if we want to live in a decent and tolerant society we should be doing all that we can to promote and enhance the welfare of all animals, particularly domestic pets who give so unconditionally of their love to many of society’s most vulnerable members, including the sick, the elderly and the lonely. It is a love that we should return.
There is much that government can do to help without placing a strain on overstretched public finances, and a number of measures outlined in the gracious Speech are of particular importance in this respect. The Care Bill represents an excellent new approach to looking at well-being and personal care, centred as it is on,
“domestic, family and personal relationships”,
of which domestic pets are of course a key part. Owning a cat or dog is an incredibly close, personal relationship. Cats Protection submitted powerful evidence to the scrutiny committee looking at the draft Bill—I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, remembers seeing it—about the health benefits that companion animals such as cats or dogs can offer in preventing or delaying the onset of health problems and promoting general well-being, not least in alleviating depression and loneliness and lowering stress, with the benefits that that brings to cardiac health. I therefore hope that the Bill will encourage the use of care budgets for companion animal support programmes and recognise the important role that pets play in personal well-being.
The measures in the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill to deal with dangerous dogs are welcome, too. However, it is vital that the Bill cracks down on attacks by dogs on all “protected animals”, as defined by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and not just on attacks on people and assistance dogs. In most weeks, there is a report in the press of at least one fatal attack on a cat by a dangerous dog, and that should not be tolerated. This Bill should be extended to allow us the chance to deal with this dreadful problem. In addition, we should use it as an opportunity to review the penalties for cruelty to animals under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Those who harm animals—for instance, in the cases of those who have attacked and injured cats by poisoning them with anti-freeze—should face significant custodial sentences.
If owners of dangerous dogs that attack people in public face two years in prison, why should not those who harm their pets? I heard just this morning a most awful story from my vet of how he had taken in a puppy that had been rescued by the Dogs Trust. This puppy had been wrapped up, placed in a bin liner and kicked down nine flights of stairs in a tower block. At just three months of age, it came in with 40 broken bones in its body and a lump on its head that was bigger than its head. Those who do those sorts of things should feel the full force of the law.
Welcome though these various measures are, a lot more needs doing, not least in the updating of legislation on animal welfare, which is becoming obsolescent. I wish that the gracious Speech had contained measures, for instance, to repeal and replace the Pet Animals Act 1951, which covers the breeding and sale of pets. It stems from a time when people bought pets from the window of a pet shop, but today pets are bought online. This outdated legislation does not deal with the abuse of animals that comes from the repeat breeding of pets for sale on the internet. Similarly, the Animal Boarding Establishments Act 1963 badly needs updating and simplifying to provide a modern and effective licensing regime for boarding establishments such as kennels and catteries.
Even in the absence of new laws or the repeal of old ones, we can do a lot within the framework of existing legislation to deal with the animal welfare crisis that we are facing. We have the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which sets out a framework for the care of animals, including establishing their five basic needs. Yet that Act has not fulfilled its ambitions because regulations under Section 13 to repeal outdated legislation have not yet materialised. I hope that my noble friend will ask his colleagues at Defra to look into this. Indeed, Ministers should look afresh at the whole structure of animal welfare legislation, dealing with commitments that have not yet been delivered and looking to deal with the out of date laws that I mentioned earlier.
I hope I will not sound like a cracked record if I return to an issue that I raised in a debate on the national curriculum in the Moses Room earlier this year. The key to effective long-term care for animals lies in education. It is essential that children in primary schools are taught about the five basic needs of animals and about the responsibility that comes with owning a pet. My noble friend Lord Nash has said that he will look into this area, and I hope that the Government will listen carefully to the concerns of Cats Protection and other animal charities.
Finally, I must tell your Lordships that since I have been studying these issues in recent months—they have been a welcome break from the rigours of the Leveson inquiry—it has struck me that the care of our animals, which is crucial, as I said at the outset, to the development of a civilised, liberal and caring society, encompasses a huge number of issues and hence a number of government departments. Some lie with Defra, where my noble friend Lord De Mauley is a tower of strength, but the Home Office has important responsibilities too. There are also issues relating to care that fall under the Department of Health, and of course there is education, which lies with the Department for Education. There are also spending issues; after all, the issue of irresponsible dog ownership alone costs the taxpayer nearly £80 million per year. If ever there was a case for joined-up government, it is this, so would it not be a good idea to establish a post for an animal welfare champion to draw all these threads together, championing the cause of vulnerable animals, saving the taxpayer money, ensuring that our children are educated in the care of pets in a way that would be of real benefit to their all-round education, and at the same time helping the elderly and the lonely? That would be a win-win for our society.
The Prime Minister rightly declared that this is a gracious Speech for ordinary hard-working families, and so it is. Let us just ensure that we include our pets, such a special part of so many families, in that noble ambition too.