I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
I move the new clause because the badly needed reform of the greyhound industry is not proceeding as the Government say they would like. The purpose of the new clause is to introduce a requirement that within two years of the implementation of this legislation, regulations would be made under its terms to introduce the licensing of all racing greyhounds in the United Kingdom.
Hon. Members may not be particularly interested in greyhounds. They may not have a greyhound racing track in their constituency and they may not know much about them, so the issue may not be of much concern to them. However, greyhound racing touches every constituency in the land, because most of the money bet on it is done through the average high street bookmaker, and most of the bets placed are on races that take place in between horse races.
In every constituency in the country, constituents bet money on greyhound racing. There is nothing wrong with that; it is a well established sport. However, it is essentially part of the gambling industry. The gambling industry uses and—all too often, sadly—abuses greyhounds.
The Government recognise the need for the reform of greyhound racing. They favour a voluntary approach, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is that that approach is not delivering improvements in greyhound welfare. I hope that all hon. Members want those improvements to be introduced—hence, my new clause.
The hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) spoke eloquently about greyhound racing during an Adjournment debate in June 2004. There is widespread cross-party support for tightening the legislation, and I hope that that is reflected in Committee today. There are about 30,000 greyhounds racing at any one time in the United Kingdom, and their average racing life is three years. Therefore, about 10,000 greyhounds a year are retired from the sport. About 2,500 are re-homed, but no one quite knows what happens to the other 7,500 every year. One effect of the new clause would be that the industry is licensed and proper re-homing is introduced for greyhounds.
There are many reputable greyhound racing tracks, but there are about 20 independent tracks in this country that do not form part of most of the industry, which is voluntarily regulated. There is precious little sign that those tracks are making much progress towards coming on board.
The key welfare concerns faced by racing greyhounds include over-breeding, being raced when not fit, injury and death caused by inappropriate track surfaces and design, and kennelling conditions at tracks and trainers’ premises. Treatment on retirement, as I have said, is of particular concern.
The Government have proposed monitoring the industry’s reforms and will consider what further regulation is necessary. The Minister was kind enough to confirm that on Second Reading. The regulatory impact assessment states that any regulations to be introduced under the Bill will be brought in and enforced in 2008–09. My contention, and that of the RSPCA, the League Against Cruel Sports and the Dogs Trust, is that that is too long. We must say in the Bill that licensing is needed within two years. The Government agreed with the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report that arguments for bringing forward the time scale for regulation were strong and that they would consider doing so.
I believe that higher welfare standards would be ensured by the introduction of a set of national standards. They would ensure welfare to the same standard at all tracks, enforcement of those standards, accountability of the enforcement system and the requirement that euthanasia is undertaken on welfare grounds only on the advice of a veterinary surgeon. Sadly, all too often no qualified vets are available at some greyhound racing tracks. An independent vet should attend all greyhound race meetings and trials to certify the fitness of racing dogs and assess track conditions for wear and tear. Any dog entering the industry should be permanently identified, preferably by microchipping. Track layout should be considered by a licensing body before a licence is granted and when it is renewed. A member of staff at each track should be responsible for track layout, maintenance and the welfare of the greyhounds. Tracks should ensure that trainers have a current licence, and guidelines must be established on transportation.
The short racing life of greyhounds means that many younger dogs are bred to replace them. Tracks should be encouraged to hold more graded races for older and/or slower dogs to prevent a dog being less economical on retirement. Owners should be made to account for the fate of a greyhound on retirement to reduce abandonment and killings. More funding is necessary to care for retired greyhounds, and the industry should bear significant responsibility for that. Every year bookmakers make millions of pounds on greyhound racing, so they should also be obliged to contribute far more to the funding than they do at present. Owners should contribute to a retirement fund for their dogs, which could also be used for emergency treatment if the dog is injured and the owner is unable to pay for it.
Animal welfare Bills do not come around very often. This is the first comprehensive one for the best part of 100 years. I very much hope that the Committee will seize this opportunity to say in the Bill that they want to see the industry fully licensed within two years.
Many people will have sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has just said. We all want to see a high standard of welfare at greyhound tracks and improvements. However, I am not convinced by the argument that greyhound racing uniquely should have a place in the Bill, nor do I believe that he was as fair as he might have been about some of the improvements that have been made in recent years and are being made. I believe that the new regime at the organisation that oversees racing is committed to high welfare standards.
One principle that the Government have tried to stress throughout the Bill, which I think would be shared by his party if not by the hon. Gentleman as an individual, is that, where possible, regulation should be self-regulation, as long as we can be satisfied that it works. Livery yards, for example, could be regulated and inspected by some of the horse welfare organisations, because they have expertise in that area. We are keen to see welfare improvements at the tracks and to give self-regulation a chance, but I have made it clear on many occasions, and I am happy to do so again today, that if we are not satisfied that self-regulation is delivering the welfare improvements that we seek, we shall not hesitate to regulate.
I accept that. We expect all greyhound tracks to meet the welfare standards of the best. If they do not, we may have to consider regulation. However, I would be reluctant in the Bill to bind this or a future Government to do that within a particular time frame, given the pressure that other hon. Members have put me under to bring various bits of regulation forward as fast as possible. The case has not been made to single out greyhound racing. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, as soon as the Bill is passed, the welfare and cruelty offences will apply to greyhound tracks, and that should make an immediate improvement in welfare at those tracks.