Clause 36 - Forfeiture of equipment used in offences

Animal Welfare Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:15 am on 26th January 2006.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud 9:15 am, 26th January 2006

I beg to move amendment No. 208, in clause 36, page 19, line 10, at end insert—

‘(aa)in the case of a conviction for an offence under section 5, to an electric collar or similar device or anything designed or adapted for using it;’.s

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 13—Electric collars—

‘(1)A person commits an offence if—

(a)he attaches an electric collar to an animal if he knows it to be an electric collar; or

(b)he knowingly uses or permits the use of any electric collar or similar device on any animal.

(2)A person commits an offence if he has in his possession or under his control, or offers, exposes, or advertises for sale or supply, or sells or supplies, any electric collar or similar device designed or intended for use on any animal.

(3)In this section, “electric collar” means any collar or any other device which is made, designed or adapted to transmit electric current or other electric impulse to cause shock, pain or other stimulus to an animal wearing, or otherwise in contact with, the collar or device.’.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

We reach another of the somewhat controversial elements of the Bill, and I hope that the Government will clarify what they intend to do. As is the nature of the Bill, their intent does not appear in it and there is no implication in the clause that the Government will do anything about the issue. I start from the premise that electric shock collars are cruel and unnecessary and that there ought to be alternatives. I am happy for the Government to introduce suggestions that, at the very least, would clarify the grounds on which they should be used, who they should be used by and, if there is abuse, what the consequences should be.

To refer back to the Select Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill, we were somewhat surprised that there had been no research in this area. Research has been done by some of the antagonists—those who want the devices banned—and those who believe that they are vital for training, but the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has yet to undertake any research. I shall outline the arguments that should be considered in a moment, but DEFRA should examine this issue.

There has been an increase in the use of these products; they are ever present. I distinguish between electric shock collars and devices such as electric fences. They are different, and I prefer the latter. My friends in the Stonehouse dog training club, with whom I met regularly when I was a town councillor, told me that using electric collars is not the appropriate   way to train a dog. If hon. Members want to listen to experts, they should listen to the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, which was very clear in the evidence that it gave to the Select Committee: it felt that there should be a ban. I am no expert in this area. I have listened to those who are, and the Kennel Club takes the clear view that it regards such collars as an inappropriate way to train a dog.

I shall take the Committee through the arguments. First, there is no evidence that the use of such collars is an effective way to train a dog or any animal. There is a lot of evidence that it will not make that much difference to dogs that have problems with barking or running away. My second argument is that there should always be an alternative method of training, and the use of collars should not be a primary source of training.

Thirdly, there is a dearth of scientific research on this issue. It must be undertaken, and given that we are considering a Bill dealing with this matter, the least I would expect from the Minister is an explanation. I hope that he will agree that we should consider the area and pursue the matter further.

Finally, there is the issue of abuse. What is abuse and what is acceptable? What can be done if a product is completely inappropriate? Are such products licensed or registered in anything other than a cursory way? I am sure that the Minister will have something to say about that.

I am aware that we use electric shock treatment on human beings, via electro-convulsive treatment, something about which I have grave misgivings, given my interest in mental health. That is a slightly different issue, inasmuch as it is connected to medical treatment. The matter under discussion is not connected to any form of medical treatment for an animal; it is about the notion that the best way to train a dog is by giving it a shock, so that it will not perform in a certain way again. That is not the right way to go about things, but I am willing to listen to the Minister to find out what proposals he might come up with at least to ensure that the matter is dealt with appropriately. At the moment, it clearly is not.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am pleased to support the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) in his amendment and new clause. He raises an important issue. There are differences of opinion about this matter, and, looking at the Minister, I assume that on this issue, as on tail docking, there will be a free vote. Certainly, it seems that there is no party line in the Opposition parties on this issue. If there is a vote on Committee or on Report, Liberal Democrats will have a free vote.

I am concerned about the use of shock collars, as are many people who are intimately involved in the training of dogs, including well respected organisations such as the Kennel Club. A shock collar must be painful for the dog; if it is not painful, it does not work. The whole purpose of the shock collar is to inflict pain in order to guide behaviour. That is not an appropriate way forward. It hardly inspires a relationship that one would wish to see between a dog and a trainer, and it fails to exploit the positive options that are undoubtedly available, whether it is behaviour   training, advice on how to deal with a dog or other training methods that are well established in dog circles. It is a pity that people resort to cruel methods, rather than going down the route of the positive training that is available.

As the hon. Gentleman says, there is a question about scientific research, but I cannot believe that negative training is the right way forward. I am also concerned that such devices are readily available without proper advice on how they should be used. They are available on mail order and through retail outlets on the internet. They are accessible to people with limited experience of how to use and administer those devices. Even if the case could be made that they are appropriate and can be properly used, which I do not accept anyway, the devices are available to people who do not have the training and may not use them as the manufacturer suggests appropriate. The devices will be used by those who have not explored the options of positive behaviour training and have opted for an inferior method of controlling the dog, namely the use of shock collars. There is no justification for that.

There is a difference between the other devices that the hon. Gentleman mentioned and electric collars, and I can see no reason why electric shock collars should be permitted. I hope that the Government shall respond positively and treat it as a free-vote issue, recognising, as I hope DEFRA will, that there is case for dealing with such devices under this Bill.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I can confirm that this is a free-vote issue for the Conservatives, too. I wrestled with my conscience on this matter for some time. I do not like the idea that people can zap their animal as they see fit, because it is effectively the same as hitting them. However, when it comes to sheep worrying, there is a very big problem, because a dog’s natural instinct is to want to chase sheep. Often at this time of the year, sheep worried by dogs will abort their lambs.

This is a serious duty-of-care issue for the Committee. As a result, I do not support the absolute ban, although I agree with what the hon. Member for Stroud said about fencing. The Government can deal with the matter differently from making a provision in the Bill. Farmers will shoot dogs—and they do. Farmers rightly do not ignore that power, because if one has lost control of one’s dog, the knock-on effects are serious welfare problems for the sheep. That is possibly the only excuse, but it is a good one.

The other issue is the dogs that run into the road and potentially cause huge problems, not only for motorists but for people standing by the road who may be hit by a car swerving to avoid a dog. There may be mitigating circumstances for the use of such devices. There is common ground in Committee, in that we do not want people to use electric shock collars as a torture device. We would not want such devices used on people or on any other sentient being. This is a difficult issue, and I look forward to seeing how the Minister deals with it.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department of Trade and Industry

I have some sympathy with the amendment. Electric shock collars are cruel, and numerous organisations have spoken out against their use as a training method. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, but there is also the Pet Advisory Committee, which comprises the RSPCA, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. the Dogs Trust, the Blue Cross, the British Veterinary Association, the British Small Animal Veterinary Association, Cats Protection, the Feline Advisory Bureau, the Pet Care Trust and the Pet Food Manufacturers Association. Many organisations have said that they are unhappy about the use of electric shock collars as a training method. Other organisations, which are not part of the Pet Advisory Committee but which have voiced concern about the use of the collars, include Battersea dogs and cats home, Dogs for the Disabled, Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, Pets As Therapy and Wood Green Animal Shelters.

My hon. Friend the Minister must consider the views of those well respected organisations on the use of electric shock collars in the training of dogs. I firmly believe that other methods could be used for dogs with behavioural problems; there are numerous other training devices. If any hon. Members do not have their eyes glued to the House of Commons Chamber on the monitors in their offices on Tuesday nights, they might want to watch a programme called “It’s Me or the Dog”, in which an animal behaviourist and trainer deals with very badly behaved dogs. The results achieved are phenomenal. We would assume that the dogs could never be trained because their behaviour is so extreme, but in fact they can be trained and their behaviour is vastly improved.

The Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association thinks that the collars are necessary and has mentioned to me their use to prevent dogs from worrying sheep or running into the road, to which the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) referred. I could not recall any constituents getting in touch with me to support shock collars, but apparently one did a couple of years ago. Far more constituents have been in touch with me to express their concern about the use of shock collars. That concern may derive from their own experience of having tried them and found that they do not deal with the underlying behavioural issues that might have caused the dog to bark incessantly, run away or whatever, or they may have seen the collars used.

I am sorry to say that some constituents have said that they believe that a minority of people take some pleasure in using shock collars. The hon. Gentleman says that he believes that their use is morally wrong. He does not like the idea that someone can zap a dog and cause it discomfort and pain. Some constituents have told me that they have witnessed collars being used in that manner. If people are doing so, we seriously have to consider the issue.

I hear what people are saying about electric fences and the so-called freedom fences that confine a dog to a certain area, but I am also worried about the use of electric goads and prods, which can be used in the   training of circus animals. If we are going to consider shock collars, we should also consider goads and prods. They could be grouped together as similar devices.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:30 am, 26th January 2006

I very much support what my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster has said. The Committee must avoid the trap of looking for what could be described as simplistic solutions and must respect the need for a sense of proportion. I do not like the idea of using an electric collar, but the issue of electric collars is certainly different from that of freedom fences. To me, the freedom fence is akin to the electric fencing used as standard practice for farm animals and horses all over the country. The animal gets used to a particular barrier. It may just be a thin wire that would never normally keep the animal in, but the animal learns that that is a barrier because it has received a shock. The same principle can apply to the use of an electric collar.

There is no one way to train an animal. One has only to watch television programmes or read the magazines and thousands of books on the subject to realise that experienced, competent trainers have different ways of doing things and different ideas. However, I quite agree with everybody that the use of an electric collar should not be the normal method. I also agree with the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster that there are probably people who take some sort of vicious pleasure in using such collars. That is clearly wrong and should stop. There are no ifs or buts about it.

However, thousands, if not millions, of people in this country have their own pet dog—not necessarily a working dog—and have tried in their own best way to train it, but perhaps not done very well. Let us be realistic: we all see dogs like that when we walk round the countryside in our constituencies. We must consider what the last resort is, which is why we have to accept the existence of electric collars, albeit regulated. I look forward to what the Minister is going to say about that. I do not support an outright ban because such collars can be the last resort to break a dog of a bad habit, such as chasing sheep, running off or chasing any wild animal in the countryside. However hard the private owner has tried to train the dog, they may have failed to break that habit.

The role of the electric collar is to give a short shock. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) is right: of course the shock is painful the moment it happens. However, it could be used to break the concentration of a dog that was chasing something. I have seen it happen and it works. Just for that split second, the dog’s mind is taken off chasing the hare—or whatever it may be—and that can be enough to make it return. The collar should not be used as part of a normal process, but it can work as a last resort.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department of Trade and Industry

I am listening to what the hon. Gentleman is saying about using the collar as a last resort, but I understand that there are collars that emit a scent, such as citronella, which dogs find mildly   unpleasant. That can have the same effect of stopping a dog from doing something, given a dog’s sense of smell, but it is not as cruel as the use of shock collars. People are not as aware of spray collars as they are of shock collars. Perhaps that could be a solution.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Lady is right: there is a citronella spray collar. There are also collars that emit a screech—a loud noise—to break the dog’s concentration. We are talking about anything that breaks the dog’s concentration on whatever it is chasing or whatever course of action it has set its mind on. However, I would not necessarily say that any one method is right or wrong. I agree with the hon. Member for Stroud that there is a dearth of scientific knowledge about the issue, and there is clearly room for further investigation. At this stage, without that scientific evidence, it would be wrong to go for an outright ban.

We should regulate collars in some way, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister says, but they have a role to play. It would be wrong to assume, as some hon. Members seem to be doing, that everybody who has a dog is brilliant at training it. That is not the reality. Many people are not that good at training their dogs—I probably stand as one of them—and we must understand that, in the long run, collars are probably in the dog’s best interests. If a bad habit is not broken, the dog’s behaviour may only get worse and it might end up being killed on the road or something like that. That is why we must find a balance: sometimes there may be a role for the short-term use of an electric collar to break a particular habit, and the dog may end up better off for it. It sounds perverse, but the question is one of balance.

I am happy to see more scientific research—indeed, I demand it—and I would certainly expect some form of control or regulation, but I would not support an absolute ban.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Labour, Worsley

Like other hon. Members, I have constituents who have voiced concerns. I want to add a couple of thoughts in support of my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud and for Cleethorpes.

An impressive list of organisations has been cited that have urged that shock collars should not be used, but two further organisations have not been mentioned. It is telling that the Association of Chief Police Officers has urged police forces not to use electric shock collars and that the armed forces dog unit recently prohibited their use. The addition of those two organisations is very convincing. The evidence seems to be piling up from organisations urging that the devices are not used.

If any group of people has an interest in not finding dogs roaming about in outside areas, it is politicians and those who work on our campaigns. I have been chased a few times by dogs in my constituency. Some hon. Members have said that electric fences might be all right, but if they do not stop other dogs, children or even canvassers venturing into the area where the resident dog is, leaving the dog vulnerable to attack as well as perhaps children and other pets, they are not   suitable. Something is available on the open market that should perhaps be used only by the smallest group, and there are even doubts about that. Clearly we have a problem. Although the scientific evidence is lacking and people that there has not been enough research, a convincing range of organisations is saying, “Do not use these devices”.

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Shadow Minister (International Development)

We have had interesting and excellent debates on many clauses. Although I have not always agreed with the outcome, I have been persuaded that some of the arguments have a great deal of merit. However, the idea that an unacceptably cruel and unnecessary practice is justified because a dog might chase sheep or run into the this is probably the weakest argument against an amendment that we have heard. We all know that, to follow the country code, one’s dog must be on a lead. If people are irresponsible enough not to do that, their dog can be shot by a farmer. I do not believe that anyone has a problem with that. Children might run into the road. Do we seriously suggest that, because a child might run into the road, we should allow the use of shock collars for children also? I am afraid that the arguments being made are spurious. We cannot allow people’s inability to manage an animal properly, or their irresponsibility, to justify such means.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I believe that relating the discussion to children running on the road lowers the tone of what has been a good debate. The hon. Gentleman said that the country code requires dogs to be kept on a lead. Yes, it does. But in the country, many people do not obey the country code. We may not like that, and it may be wrong, but it is a fact of life. Politicians have to understand what goes on in the real world, rather than having a starry-eyed vision of everyone abiding by every law, rule and convention. Many dogs in the countryside are not kept on leads. The implication of what the hon. Gentleman says is that if, as a result of that, a dog runs into the road and gets run over, that is tough luck. I should have thought a short, sharp shock would be preferable to the dog’s being run over.

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Shadow Minister (International Development)

I am afraid that that demonstrates how weak the hon. Gentleman’s argument is because it is entirely irresponsible not to have a dog on a lead by a busy road. His assertion is quite ludicrous. The dog should be put on a lead.

I am afraid that we have failed to realise that the duty of care for animals is not simply a question of animal welfare. All dog owners, and pet owners in general, have a responsibility, which the Bill covers to some extent. They also have a responsibility in relation to the country code, and if that is not working, we should consider it in a different way. However, to use such thin arguments as a justification for what is clearly an unacceptable, cruel and unnecessary method of training is not reasonable. If it is, in the words of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), a normal method that will not be allowed to continue, I should like the Minister to explain how that can be achieved apart from through an outright ban.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare)

I would like to ensure that Committee members are clear about the effects of the amendment and new clause. They would ban any device that transmits an electric current and is designed to have an impact on an animal that comes into contact with it, which includes electric containment fences used for small animals.

I have listened carefully and have spent quite a lot of time in recent months, as Members would expect, talking and learning about such issues. Like most hon. Members here, I did not know a great deal about them. I do not own a dog myself, and I did not know a great deal about such devices before I became responsible for animal welfare. I have not simply waited to be lobbied by organisations and charities. I conducted straw polls in the pub in my constituency and in rural Devon. That somewhat tempered my instincts, which I suspect most people would share, that such collars are inherently cruel and should be banned. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire gave some good reasons why that would not be appropriate.

Some feel strongly that collars are cruel and should be banned. Equally, I have met very responsible dog owners—I am sure that they have lobbied other hon. Members—who take their responsibility to their pets extremely seriously, but who swear by such devices as a last resort. They say that the alternative in some rare cases would be euthanasia for the dog.

We are in a slightly difficult position in that there is no proper scientific evidence concerning the cruelty and effectiveness of such methods. My Department recently commissioned research into them because of the controversy and debate, including the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes as to whether comparisons between effectiveness and cruelty could be made in relation to citronella sprays. I stress that in the very rare situation highlighted by my hon. Friend where an irresponsible owner used such a device inappropriately, that owner would be subject to the cruelty clause anyway, if not the welfare clause.

Mr. Drewrose—

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

Order. I remind hon. Members and everyone else in the room that all electric devices should be switched off.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

Of course, MPs respond to electric shock treatment through their pagers.

Will the Minister say more about the research? It was not available to us when we undertook the pre-legislative scrutiny. Will it be published? Will it lead to consultation and an opportunity to look at regulations? If so, I will feel reasonably satisfied, but we need to know a bit more.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare) 9:45 am, 26th January 2006

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Of course, as we have discussed before, all research into these areas will be put into the public domain if it is commissioned by Government. Research is taking place not just here, but in Germany,   where the issue is the subject of some debate. In fact, that research might be a little further down the line than ours.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I understood that shock collars were banned in Germany and some other countries. That was the briefing that I received from the Kennel Club, which says that they are banned in Denmark, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and Slovenia. Is that not correct?

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare)

My information is that it is not. This is a Länder issue in Germany; some Länder have banned the devices and some have not. In fact, my information is that in some cases in Germany people are even allowed to use shock collars in sheepdog trials, which I do not think we would find acceptable in this country.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department of Trade and Industry

Following on from what the hon. Member for Lewes said, will the Minister give a commitment to the Committee to investigate some of the research that has been done in the countries that have banned the devices?

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare)

We have done quite a lot of research into the information that is available. One needs to be slightly cautious about some of the lists that are published showing which countries have done things. I have discovered in the process of working on the Bill that they are not always completely accurate. That is one reason we wanted to conduct our own research.

The impact of the amendment and the new clause would be to ban containment fences. The case for that is probably weaker than in the example of the individual shock collar. As the hon. Members for South-East Cambridgeshire and for Leominster said, in some cases one is preventing an animal that it has been impossible or impractical to contain by a wall or a fence from running away to worry, or even maul and kill, sheep, or from running on to a road and creating danger for human beings. In light of that and the Government’s commitment to draft codes and to conduct research, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud will accept that this issue should be dealt with not in the Bill, but by means of a code of conduct and regulation once we have the research available. On that basis, I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I would not say that I am delighted to concur with the Minister, but we have made some progress on the issue. Certainly, I did not realise how much research the Government have been undertaking—perhaps in relation to the Bill, but possibly because the issue is out there already. I am aware that, in the amendment and the new clause, I use the words “electric” and “electronic” interchangeably. It is an electric shock, but electronic equipment. There might be some problems with the wording. I accept that that is an issue in itself. However, I ask the Minister to bear it in mind that the wider issue will not go away. At the very least, we need to recognise that proposals will have to be made in due course to regulate the industry and the use of such devices. I   remind the Minister that the Select Committee suggested that, in extremis, the use of such devices could be limited to veterinarians, for example.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Even if it is accepted that, in some situations—perhaps those described by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, such as when the device is used for agricultural purposes—there may be a justification for the devices, does he agree that the present situation where they are available to all, including those who do not need to use them, without any regulation at all, is unacceptable? We must find a way of limiting their availability to those who genuinely need them, rather than their being the first resort, which they clearly are for many people.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I agree entirely, and I shall not roll over. I shall ask—rather than demand—that the Government put the process in place as quickly as possible. There is a proper debate about the evidence, so to be fair to those companies that are in the marketplace, they are given due warning that they must be able to defend their products. I know where my mind and heart lie: those devices are unacceptable in the norm. They should be banned, or for those who have to use them, regulated.

Let us consider how the Government wish to approach the matter. It was never my intention to put my proposals in the Bill; however, as we have had a very good debate, I certainly intend to consider the issue further, because it draws forth strong emotions on both sides. Those devices should not be the normal means of training a dog or, to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes, any animal. However, there may be extreme reasons why they should be used by an appropriate person, as the Select Committee said. I should like to consider that evidence, and that is why I am happy to withdraw the amendment. I hope that the Government now do as they say they will, but urgently. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.