‘(1A)A licence shall be required in all circumstances where an animal is used in a commercial activity.’.
In many respects, the amendment is a warm-up act for new clause 10, which does not appear on the selection list but which I hope to debate. My interest is in the proper statutory licensing of greyhound racing and in the welfare of greyhounds before they arrive at the race track and after they have finished their racing lives.
The Committee may not be aware that, at any one time, as many as 30,000 greyhounds are involved in the racing industry. The average racing life is between two and three years, which means that about 10,000 greyhounds are retired from racing every year—but only about 2,500 are re-homed, and no one knows what happens to the other 7,500. There is no argument, however, that many of them meet a fairly grisly end. It is my view, therefore, that greyhound racing in the 21st century should be licensed.
The industry has gone some way by introducing a voluntary code of practice, but a large number of greyhound racing tracks do not conform to that voluntary code; at the current rate of progress, I do not foresee them being absorbed into the code in the near future.
I have some sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman suggests, and I am sure that all members of the Committee would wish to see an improvement in welfare standards at greyhound tracks. The difficulty is that the amendment would require licensing in every case that had an element of commercial activity, including farming. We believe that that would be disproportionate and too prescriptive.
We do not rule out the need in future for a licensing regime for greyhound racing, and a number of other activities. However, we believe that it would best be left to regulation, on which there would be further consultation, rather than taking such a prescriptive approach.
One of the things that worries me, and I suspect my hon. Friend as well, is that, in the schedule outlining roughly when the Government will issue codes of conduct, the code for greyhounds is near the end. That is where the problem lies. We want clearer codes of conduct to be published more quickly specifically for the greyhound tracks that are outside the convention. I cannot remember its exact name, but I think that the Minister understands my point.
Many of us would like to see all the codes of conduct and the secondary regulation initiated as soon as possible, but that is clearly not feasible. There is a capacity issue here. I suspect that, later this morning, we shall debate the codes of conduct and under which parliamentary procedure they should be dealt with, and there will be choices about how onerous or easy a system we want. There is always a trade-off between speed and scrutiny.
One reason why the code of conduct for greyhounds is not in the first tranche is that we want time to see whether the good work that is taking place on a voluntary basis in the industry—the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) referred to it—actually works. We have always said that, if it does not, we would not rule out the need for proper regulation and licensing in the future.
I am grateful for the short debate on an issue that I hope is in hon. Members’ minds. We shall refer to it again. If we do not reach it in Committee, I intend to raise it on the Floor of the House. My view is that the industry is not moving quickly enough and that it is time for statutory licensing for greyhounds. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
First, may I add that I have some sympathy for the previous amendment?
The amendment enables me to explore with the Minister the circumstances under which he would deem licensing to be appropriate and the circumstances under which he would consider registration to be appropriate. I have some doubts about the use of registration, which can be used to justify in people’s eyes activities which, were they licensed, would not secure a licence. In other words, the test is not the same.
My experience from environmental health matters, when I was a council leader in Lewes, was that fast food or hot dog stalls beside a road would put up signs saying that they were registered by the council, as if that was a mark of approval, whereas the council simply registered that they were there without any control of the activities that took place. That was worse than useless; it was counter-productive. Since then, I have had a fear that registration may appear to give validity to an exercise while doing nothing of the sort. It allows what we would regard as unsatisfactory practices to continue.
The Minister may say that registration is appropriate in some cases because licensing carries an administrative burden which, in the case of smaller activities, might be disproportionate. I understand that argument, but I ask him to take my concerns on board and to tell the Committee when he believes that licensing would be appropriate and whether licensing with a different fee level might not be a better option. Small establishments or activities that would otherwise find licensing an onerous burden could then pay less while still having proper concern for the animals for which they cared.
Again, I have some sympathy with the amendment and I suspect that much of our discussion will turn on semantics.
The hon. Gentleman asked in what circumstances we envisage licensing being more appropriate. Until we debate the various licensing regimes under the secondary legislation powers that the Bill will give us, I would not want to prejudge the issue, but in our regulatory impact assessment we say that, probably for most of the activities considered in the Committee, licensing would be more appropriate.
However, to return to my point in response to the hon. Member for Kettering on greyhound racing, we are not keen to rule out the option of a lighter-touch regime, which we would call registration, although it could be called a lighter-touch licensing regime with a lower fee and without the requirement, which we shall discuss in a moment, for three-yearly inspections.
We resist the amendment simply to avoid the prescriptive approach whereby we would be bound by a requirement to insist on licensing for every sort of activity in the future. I urge the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) to withdraw his amendment on those grounds.
I do not want to interpret the meaning of the words of the hon. Member for Lewes, but I believe that we are concerned about what registration actually achieves. Does it create a power of inspection, and how does that fit into the legal framework differently from a licensing regime? We are concerned that people can simply register their activity—their sanctuary or whatever—but can still go on in their own sweet way, apart from the duty of care under the welfare codes, which will be applied separately. What does registration carry with it that is different from a licensing regime?
Without knowing the details of the hot dog stall that the hon. Member for Lewes mentioned, I do not believe that it would be a fair parallel, because registration would allow local authorities to make inspections. Inspectors would have the power of entry to inspect all activities related to registered premises, and local authorities would be able to charge a registration and inspection fee to help to fund those activities. The registration would therefore give local authorities important powers to monitor animal welfare standards, which they would not have were the activities not registered.
I have tried to give one example of the difference if the Bill is enacted unamended, which is that the licensing regime would require an inspection at least every three years. We do not believe that that is necessarily essential for every activity.
This is an important point. Leaving aside the initial Bill, what will such a difference mean? If one registers an activity, whether it is a sanctuary or simply the keeping of some sort of animal, there will be quite a lot of pressure from people who may not want one to keep such an animal and who may seek to inspect the activity under cover in the way in which circuses, for example, have been exposed by undercover teams.
If one has a licence, one will have to satisfy the council officer that one is a proper person and will conduct one’s activity properly. My fear is that registration will be a shortcut that will be undermined and that it will lead to the rather nasty side of animal activity rather than to an open and clear licensing regime.
I do not accept that. We are simply trying to avoid adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to every activity.
I am grateful for the Minister’s comments in so far as they have clarified matters.
I accept the logic of the Minister’s view that there should not be a one-size-fits-all prescription, but equally he must accept that guarantees need to be in place to ensure that the animal welfare standards, which he and all members of the Committee want enacted, are enforced and that it is not possible for people to continue to keep animals, albeit often for well meaning reasons in sanctuaries, without any inspection or control over their activities.
I am perfectly happy for there to be a full licensing regime or something less if the circumstances demand it, but that something less needs to be the power of inspection and a system that allows animal abuse or lack of care to be identified early and corrected. If the system allows that, then I am perfectly happy with it.
I believe that the best way forward is a licensing regime with a lower fee arrangement, rather than registration, which is a word that I do not like. Registration suggests a piece of paper that means nothing. The Minister said that that is not what he means, but that is how it is used in other contexts. Having had that exchange, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.