All done; all declared.
We will now hear oral evidence from David Bowles, head of public affairs at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and from Paula Boyden, veterinary director of the Dogs Trust. Before calling the first Members to ask questions, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we must stick to the timings in the programme motion that the Committee has agreed. For this session, we have until 10.30 am. Could the witnesses introduce themselves for the record?
Q Hello. I am the Minister taking the Bill through. It is good to have you here. Could you start by giving us your views of the Bill, in general?
In general, we are very happy with the Bill. We are glad that the Government have brought the Bill forward. Obviously, it covers a number of main areas, such as sheep worrying, for example, which has not been reviewed for nearly 80 years. It covers the live export of animals, which is of course a Government manifesto commitment. We are very pleased to see that in there. It covers the licensing of and strengthens the rules on primate keeping, which has not been discussed under legislation for 11 years. The RSPCA is very happy with most of those issues. We believe that there can be improvements, as with any legislation. We are particularly concerned about the primate legislation. We would like to see a ban on keeping primates, rather than licensing, because we do not think that that will sort out the problem with private primate keeping and it will not sort out the animal welfare issues, which are primarily what the Bill is about.
On livestock worrying, we have a couple of tweaks to try to make enforcement better. On a broader point, we are concerned because Parliament, rightly, is passing legislation and looking to local authorities to enforce that legislation, whether that is complicated licensing legislation for primates or fairly simple legislation on transport rules, but the money has been cut. I think at some stage Parliament should be looking at how to enforce legislation, as well as passing more and more laws.
I will limit my comments to the areas around livestock worrying and illegal importation. Dogs Trust is broadly supportive of the proposals in the Bill. If we look first at importation, Dogs Trust has been very involved in the issue of puppy smuggling for a number of years. We are very supportive, in broad terms, of the raising of the minimum age of entry to six months. We would really like to see some science behind that. What I mean is a reintroduction of a rabies titre test and a wait period that is in line with the incubation of the disease. We think that is really quite important.
We very much welcome the reduction of the maximum point of gestation—when pregnant mums can be brought into the country. We would support a total ban on the commercial importation of pregnant mums. We see no reason for it to happen at all.
On the mutilation side of things, the provisions are again very welcome. We have seen an increase in dogs with mutilation, specifically docked tails and cropped ears, being imported. We would like to see a tweak to that, to ban not only the importation but the sale of such dogs; however, we would like a tightly worded exemption, so that as a rehoming organisation we could rehome those dogs. We have a similar situation with section 1 dogs, which we cannot rehome even if they are completely rehomeable dogs. That is really quite important.
Going back to puppy smuggling for a moment, we would really like to see a reduction in the maximum number of animals that can be in a vehicle from five to three. Sadly, we have to think of how the illegal importers work and what loopholes they would jump through. There is some science behind reducing it to three. Some work was done 10 years ago that showed that over 97% of dog owners have one, two or three pets. We have just undertaken a big dog survey with more than 240,000 respondents and we had exactly the same response—that over 97% of dog owners have one, two or three dogs—so there is good reason for that.
Like my colleague, I am broadly supportive of the livestock worrying provision, but we need some tweaks, particularly on dogs, and the definition of a dog at large in an enclosure or field. We feel that that needs tightening up to protect the livestock.
Q Thank you so much for coming to give evidence to us. The aim of the Bill is to bring all those who keep primates up to the level that you would expect in a zoo. I noticed, David, that you focused in on the welfare concerns, which are of course the aim of the Bill. Why would you be concerned who is keeping the primate as long as we know that they are being kept to zoo-level standards?
There are two issues here. The first is the welfare issue that you rightly raise. It goes back to the point about local authorities. If we need to get enforcement correct, we need to make the rules as simple as possible for the enforcement agents. This piece of legislation contains amendments to the Zoo Licensing Act 1981. Unlike in the Zoo Licensing Act, under which a trained zoo inspector goes in with the local authority inspector, on primates we just have the local authority inspector, who could be inspecting a Chinese takeaway restaurant in the morning and doing this in the afternoon. That is a problem, because you are dealing with the same animal. A marmoset or tamarin in a zoo is likely to have better enforcement and better auditing than a tamarin or marmoset with a private keeper, so it is about trying to make the rules really clear.
We also have a problem with the licensing because the RSPCA is worried that we will have a cliff edge. We do not know how many primates there are in England, but let us say that there are something like 3,000 to 5,000. The RSPCA has been getting an increasing number of calls on the inappropriate use of primates in captivity. Mostly that is because they are kept singly, they are kept in birdcages, they are not given the right ultraviolet lighting, so their bones disintegrate, or they are not given the right exercise. In other words, their welfare is not catered for in terms of the five welfare needs in the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
Under the Government’s plans there is a two-year period to bring in the licensing, and then a six-year period for the licence to operate. We worry that that is quite a long period for things to get out of control. We also worry that after two years primate keepers who have decided to give it up will suddenly abandon their primates. The RSPCA has proposed a ban on the private use of primates, but with grandfather rights, so you have a soft landing whereby if people have primates they are allowed to keep them until they die. Do not forget that marmosets and tamarins have a lifespan of about 10 to 15 years, so it will be a much softer landing.
The real concerns that we have on this are the enforcement issue and whether it is will improve the welfare of primates. Do not forget that we are 11 years on from the primate code that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs did in 2010. I think everyone now agrees and admits that that has not worked, because it is too complicated for local authorities, they do not understand what it is, and most of them do not even apply it. I do not want to have the same situation in 10 years’ time, discussing why a licensing regime for primates has not worked.
Q Thank you very much; that is really helpful evidence. Can we move on to puppy smuggling, or dog smuggling generally? I will also ask Paula this question in a minute; we have heard evidence that a certain number of pet owners keep more than three or four animals and, occasionally, travel with them. The most interesting evidence we have had is from Brittany Ferries, which chose a limit of five animals per vehicle. Would you like to tell us more about your sources of evidence, and about your feeling that a reduction to a limit of three would not impact on genuine pet owners?
Sure. You have to go back to what we are trying to do with the improvements to the pet imports, both commercial and non-commercial. We are trying to cut down the illegal trade in puppies. Clearly, under covid we have seen a massive increase in the illegal and quasi-legal trade in puppies coming in, particularly from Romania, in response to the huge spike in demand that happened during covid, when new dog owners wanted exercise, mental health improvements and companionship. Those are all very understandable reasons, but obviously supply in the UK could not keep up with that demand, and we went abroad.
We know that puppy dealers have continued despite England’s third-party ban because it has so many loop- holes. Puppy dealers have continued—indeed, they have increased—the number of puppies that they are bringing in. If you look at 2020, there were some of the highest-ever levels of declared legal commercial imports. That has continued into 2021 despite puppy prices actually stabilising and maybe even going down since January. Something strange is happening: puppies are still coming in and being sold at service stations and lay-bys, and people are still making money. The RSPCA have found that some puppy dealers are earning £2.5 million to £3 million a year. These are not small amounts of money.
In response to your question, I will refer to Paula’s excellent statistics. We do not believe that reducing the limit from five to three would make any measurable difference to legal and responsible owners going either on holiday or to dog shows, or to legal importers bringing dogs in, but it will clamp down on puppy dealers who basically make money on the misery of puppies.
Q You can still go to a dog show—you would be part of the exemption—but someone travelling with a pair of dogs, with a friend who has their pair of dogs, would be caught by the reduction. Have you done an estimate of how many genuine travellers would be affected?
We have not done any work on that specific issue, but I can repeat the statistics that we have. A paper published back in 2010 by Murray et al. looked at dog ownership within the UK. It found that more than 96% of dog owners have one, two or three dogs, so you are dealing with a minority. Dogs Trust has just undertaken a big dog survey, for which we surveyed over 240 dog owners. The outcome of that was that 97% of dog owners have one, two or three dogs. The numbers are incredibly low.
As David has mentioned, my concern with the comments that we are getting is whether what the ferry companies are seeing is a true reflection of dog ownership, or is it people bringing puppies in for sale to make a profit? It is not normal activity to go out and buy yourself five puppies. Those are the sorts of things that we are facing.
The other thing we have to bear in mind is just how quickly those illegal importers will change their tactics. During lockdown, we were not travelling, so we saw this enormous shift over to commercial movement. We have to think of the unintended consequences of whatever happens. Reducing the number of animals to three per vehicle is an appropriate way to go, because at the moment, you could just pitch up at the port, pick up a couple of foot passengers and bring in 15 dogs.
Q Yes, that is one of the reasons that we are taking regulation-making powers in the Bill: so that we can adjust our regulatory mechanism to cope with the changing world of puppy smuggling, which, as we have seen, changes very quickly—there is a lot of money at stake.
To move on to livestock worrying for a moment, how do you think we can best encourage dog owners to act responsibly around livestock?
Part of that will be legislation, but that is only one part of it. We know that the majority of livestock worrying is actually by dogs who are not with their owners and have escaped from a garden, so there is an element of irresponsible ownership there. Certainly, some of the proposals within the Bill—about tackling those irresponsible owners, depriving them of their dogs and banning them from keeping dogs—are appropriate.
However, that is only one part of it, and the proposals could certainly be tightened up. As someone who has worked for the Dogs Trust, but also as a vet and a dog owner, I see no reason why a dog should be off a lead in an enclosure or field where there are livestock. My feelings would be that the species that are listed at the moment is limited. Why would we limit that list of species?
There are a couple of other elements we need to work on. We need to work with the farming community. For example, signs on gates are fine, but if that sign is up 12 months of the year, then folk become conditioned to it because they know that, at times, there will not be livestock in the field. We also need good, accurate recording and reporting of livestock worrying from the police force perspective, because we do not know the true extent, and if we put these measures into place, how do we know what is good or not?
Part of it will absolutely be around owner education, and I have concerns with some of the current wording in the Bill, such as a dog not being deemed to be “at large” if it is in sight of the owner and the owner has a reasonable idea that they can get the dog back. In sight of the owner could be two fields away. For me, that is not under control. I am not suggesting that every time a dog goes into the country, it should be on a lead, but in an enclosure where there is livestock, then I think it should be taken as read that a dog should be on a lead.
Not within a specific enclosure. Obviously, we have things like common land, and that is a different element; that is where we do have to rely on dog owners to be vigilant and to ensure, as best they can, that there are no livestock there before they let their dog off the lead. However, if I was in a field of sheep, why would I have my dog off the lead? Even with the best-trained dog in the world, can you 100% say that that dog will not go if a lamb runs away?
It must be proportionate. We do not want to be the fun police; we do not want to stop dogs having off-lead exercise because it is really important for their enrichment, but it must be proportionate. Aside from the financial impact, a dog worrying livestock is traumatic for the farmer. No farmer will want to shoot a dog, but that is the sort of resolution that will happen in those sorts of situations. We want to avoid that, both for the farming community and for our dog owners too.
It is a pleasure to be on this Committee. I am really looking forward to it. I think is an interesting and important Bill. Thank you both for giving evidence this morning.Q
Going to the RSPCA first, this is a slightly odd Bill, in the sense that it is a collection of bits and pieces. While being careful to remain within the scope of the Bill, it is perfectly possible to imagine that there are other things that could have been included. Could you reflect on that first? What would your priorities be if you were drawing up this Bill from scratch?
Yes, it is a bit of a potpourri, you are right, but the RSPCA is not against that, so long as we can get improvements to animal welfare. The Government came in with something like nine or 10 animal welfare commitments, and we are delighted that they are moving on those commitments, whether it is the sentience Bill, this Bill, or the Animals Abroad Bill.
The RSPCA are glad to see the issues that are in there, and the main issue for us is ensuring that it is done properly; you only get one chance at this. I have mentioned primates, and I totally agree with Paula on the livestock worrying side of things. We need to make it as easy as possible for enforcement people. Having statements like “at large” is not an easy thing for an enforcement person to go out with and then work out.
The Scottish Government also passed legislation on this only this year. Unfortunately, their Act is not that helpful for us, because it also does not define “at large”. I think that will be a problem for enforcement agents. We should always look to write legislation that will be easy to enforce. Unfortunately, this Parliament—not this particular Parliament, but Parliament in general—has a track record of passing legislation that maybe has not done what it was supposed to do.
Q That is a very fair point. Turning to primates, I think lots of us are slightly puzzled as to who is keeping primates at the moment. It seems we do not really know how many there are. What is the RSPCA’s view? If I wander around my constituency in Cambridge, am I likely to stumble on someone keeping a primate in their house?
It is very likely. Let us say that 3,000 to 5,000 primates are being kept. Some people keep them because they are exotic and very easy to get—all you need to do is go on the internet, google “buy me a tamarin” and hand over between £1,500 and £2,000, and you can get one. They do not come with any instructions. If you wanted to buy a washing machine, the person selling it would tell you, “You need to put it on this cycle”, but tamarins do not come with instructions. Is it any wonder that people do not know that they need UV lighting and a specific diet, or that they are social primates and therefore need company? Putting one in a birdcage on its own will obviously not meet its welfare needs.
A variety of people buy primates. Although some people get them because they know how to keep them, I fear the vast majority do not know how to do that, and therefore we run into welfare problems. Unfortunately, because the RSPCA is only tipped off by the public, we see only the tip of the iceberg—we know only what the public tell us. As I said, we have unfortunately seen an increase in the number of complaints on primates being kept. In many instances, when we look into those people, the primates are not being kept properly and have welfare problems, and sometimes the person will have to be prosecuted for not keeping them according to their welfare needs.
Q I think it was fairly clear on Second Reading that there is a strong feeling across the House that people would like to see this practice banned; the question is how we do it. One question that troubles me is what happens to those animals if we implement a ban in that transition period. What is the RSPCA’s view on how to do that?
Let us be realistic. There is only a finite number of places where we could put primates that have been confiscated—whether it is Wild Futures or Monkey World, who you are hearing evidence from after me—and they are full. We have to try and manage that problem, which is why, as I said to the Minister earlier, we need a soft landing.
The RSPCA is really worried that if there are licence requirements coming in after two years, there will be a cliff edge: people will keep their primates until the end of the two-year period and then abandon them, whether by turning up to an RSPCA centre or letting them loose—who knows. That really worries us, and that is why we have recommended a ban on the use of primates, rather than a licensing system, but with grandfather rights and a soft landing; as those primates die, they are taken out of the system.
Unfortunately, the primate legislation as written means that if you get licensed, you are still allowed to trade and breed those primates, so you are not going to reduce the primate population. If we want to improve the population of primates kept by private owners, we need to reduce it. Unfortunately, the Bill does not do that. I go back to the issue that the person inspecting and licensing is not an expert; they will not know what they are looking at. If you get licensed by the local authority and your licence lasts for six years, you can then breed your primate and make money from it. Those animals can be sold for a couple of thousand pounds, which is not an insubstantial amount of money. That is the worry for us.
Q Moving on to dogs, I want to return to a point that David touched on around enforcement and, I would say, unintended consequences. There are a number of elements in the Bill where I worry the unintended consequences could mean dogs are possibly kept for long periods of time while legal investigations are going on. We have discussed that in other fora before, around the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. What would the Dogs Trust recommend that we do to tackle that in general across the Bill?
I completely agree. It is a huge worry to think that a dog could potentially be held indefinitely while proceedings go forward. There has to be a means of either expediting those investigations—I appreciate that that is easier said than done; we know that there is huge pressure on the judicial service and police forces—or, if it is appropriate, doing what the Scottish Government have just done, which is introduce a means to be able to move case animals on and rehome them. We see that with livestock worrying; as you rightly mentioned, we see it with section 1 dogs as well. We really need to address it so that we do not have dogs languishing in kennels, because that is not welfare-friendly either.
The whole reason the Scottish Government have introduced this measure is because of delays with animal welfare prosecutions. There was a case I am aware of in Scotland where the dog was kept in kennels for four years, because the defendant would not sign the dog over. We are compromising their welfare. The risk is that, with cases potentially going up to Crown court, they could take even longer. We need to look at that and work out how we can manage it so that we are not keeping dogs incarcerated for great lengths of time.
I have one final question for David. There is lots in the Bill about dogs. We have had representations from those who speak for cats. In a lot of cases the nasty stuff we are going to clamp down on is about money, and there is a worry that, if it works on dogs, people will then switch to cats, and there is not sufficient strength in the Bill to stop that happening. What is the RSPCA’s view on that?Q
The “A” in RSPCA is animals. I do not differentiate between dogs and cats—they are as good as each other, and have as many welfare needs as each other. We have to recognise that there are different markets for dogs and cats. The market for dogs tends to be much more breed-specific; cats tend to be moggies. The way they are brought to market is very different. There is no big trade in cats. There is some evidence that there may be a trade that is starting to rise in breed-specific cats, and that could be mimicking what is happening to dogs, but because the market is very different, I do not think that if we crack down on dogs, people will go on to cats to make money. Frankly, it is a different market and there is a completely different system for how people get their cats. It is also a different system in terms of what breeds they are looking for compared with what dog breeds they are looking for.
Q Paula, you talked about clarity on the age of animals being brought in. There are many welcome suggestions in the Bill. Many people have said, and I share the concerns, that we need more clarity and detail in the Bill, on issues such as increasing the age to six months, and you talked about reintroducing the rabies titre test. Also, the Bill talks about mutilations, but does not specify the mutilations; there is a similar point about the number of days pregnant. Currently, importation is illegal in the last 10% of gestation, but it is actually very difficult to ascertain how heavily pregnant an animal is.
Can you give us some evidence to help us in terms of tightening up the Bill through putting in numbers, such as six months of age; reintroducing health checks; the rabies titre test; and specifying mutilations such as cropped ears? The hon. Member for Cambridge talked about declawed cats as well. Can you give us specific asks? For example, how heavily pregnant should it be—is it in the last 30% to 50% of gestation? What can we do to tighten up the Bill to make the provisions clearer to the outside world?
You mentioned the minimum age of entry. The proposal is six months. We would really like to see that science, as there is a potential to start looking at older dogs. The reason I say that is because of the disease risk from those dogs, which I appreciate is not part of the scope today. We have 12 years of serology data on the rabies vaccination and the rabies titre test from the 12 years prior to the change in 2012. We know that the animals that are least likely to respond to the rabies vaccination are young dogs—young, naive animals—those under a year of age, I would say, particularly with large breeds. The wait period would bring the time period in line with the incubation of the disease—most cases of rabies will present between three and 12 weeks post infection. That measure starts to give us a good framework, should we want to expand that at a later date.
On pregnancy, David mentioned third-party sales. It is not a bad piece of legislation, but I go back to a previous comment—we need to take a holistic view. This is all about the supply of and demand for dogs. Illegal importation is one side, but the domestic legislation around breeding and sale is also important. We have to tie them together. Since that legislation on third-party sales came in, we have seen a significant increase in pregnant mums coming in. This time of year, we are seeing a surge because they are all coming in for the Christmas market, because it completely circumvents the ban on third-party sales.
As a minimum, we ought to be reducing the gestation period to a maximum of 30% —a maximum of one half to two-thirds pregnant. We had originally said 50% of pregnancy, and the reason for that was that the New Zealand Animal Welfare Act 1999 protects unborn offspring at 50%, but having spoken to colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I understand that you can use ultrasound and the kidneys appear at about 42 days, so that could be quite a good indicator. The challenge with ageing at the moment is that it is very subjective. You are looking at the body weight, the size, of the puppy, but you are also looking at the eruption of the teeth—the adult teeth—which again is going to be variable. So having something that is a little bit more specific would be great, and if it were reduced to 42 days, it would mean that—well, certainly looking at the figures that we have, over 70% of the pregnant mums that were seized would have been illegally imported, compared with a smaller proportion. It is very, very difficult to say that a bitch is 50 days’ pregnant versus 54 days’ pregnant or whatever. The issue is having that specificity.
The journeys that these mums undertake are horrific—that is the only way I can describe them. They do not have enough room. There is no temperature regulation. Quite often, they are not fed, because if they are not fed, there is very little coming out the other end. They are given very little water. They have no breaks. That is not a way to treat a heavily pregnant animal of whatever species we are talking about. So the aim should be to reduce that and, as I mentioned, to absolutely ban the commercial importation of pregnant mums as well.
Sitting alongside that is the issue of mutilations. We very much support the ban on importing dogs that are mutilated—docked and cropped, and you mentioned cats that have been declawed. The one thing that does not happen at the moment is visual checks on importation. The checks are undertaken by the carriers, which we feel is wrong. That should actually be done by either an independent or a Government agency, so that there is no conflict there. But it should at least involve a visual check. We have demonstrated that on a number of occasions when we have actually imported a toy dog and nobody looked in the crate to see that it was a toy dog. We need that to see what the position is: “Does this actually match up? Does this animal actually need a physical examination?” We are not saying that we need to be hands on with every animal, but having a physical check is really quite critical in this respect.
In terms of mutilations, as I have mentioned, it is really important that we ban not only the importation but the sale of those dogs and cats so that they cannot be passed on, but we would very much welcome a very tight exemption so that, as a rehoming organisation, we could rehome them rather than the dogs being confined to our care for the rest of their lives. That is exactly what we have with section 1 dogs at the moment, because we cannot rehome them.
There is another thing sitting alongside this. We have spoken about the checks at the ports. I have two comments. One is that the risk with raising the minimum age of entry to six months is that we may see a shift from what we have at the moment, which is illegal importation, whereby the puppies are declared and have a passport but the information is wrong, to true smuggling, whereby they are hidden. We need to be mindful of that and look at how we can address it.
The other thing that we need alongside this, aside from the enforcement, is penalties, because the penalties just are not there. We have had approximately 2,000 puppies come into our care since we have been working with Animal and Plant Health Agency colleagues at Dover. Out of those, there have been three prosecutions and not one custodial sentence. If I use the analogy of cigarette smuggling, the maximum sentence there is seven years, whereas the maximum sentence for this is a year. I find it quite strange that if I were caught smuggling cigarettes, the last thing that would happen is that I would be given my cigarettes back, yet that is what has happened to the importers—they can claim their puppies back. One thing that we have seen through lockdown, because of the increased demand and increased prices, is more and more puppies being reclaimed through quarantine, because there is still a profit to be made. That is fundamentally wrong. At the moment, there is no deterrent to trying to circumvent whatever rules we put in place.
Q Thank you; that is really helpful. Finally, do you feel that if we added some specifics to the Bill, that would give clarity in how we legislate? Obviously, the science is evolving, but the Secretary of State potentially then has discretion to add things as the science develops. In terms of putting six months in the Bill, putting in pre-import health checks for things like brucellosis and specifying some of the mutilations, do you think that that would give clarity to the Bill?
It would certainly give clarity. I appreciate that there are benefits on either side. If the Bill goes through as it is, you can then bring something in under secondary legislation. Obviously, putting it in the Bill brings it in more quickly, but if secondary legislation allows us to make more changes, I think we have to weigh that up as to what is the most appropriate thing to do.
It is really important that the ban on importation, whether it applies to cropped dogs or puppies under the age of six months, applies to everything, because one lesson that we have learned from the puppy trade is that the dealers will make money out of anything; they will exploit loopholes. While I have total sympathy with people who are importing dogs from abroad that have had their ears cropped, it makes it really difficult for enforcement in the UK, because people then just say, “I’ve imported that dog with cropped ears”, rather than, “I’ve just done it myself last week”.
I am very interested in and intrigued by this issue; I have a background in local government, so I understand how difficult it is at the moment to take part in these schemes and things like them. What do you think that Government would need to provide to allow local authorities to be able to enforce the licensing part of keeping primates as petsQ ?
There are three points—and there is no easy answer to this. The RSPCA has been working with the all-party parliamentary group on animal welfare to try to consider how we can improve this situation.
The obvious one is money, but then you get told that all the time. Secondly, there is training. There are a number of very good training courses out there for local authority staff, but there are also some very poor training courses. I worry that a local authority employee would just go on a poor training course and have the certificate for it on their wall, but they will not have the same competence as somebody who has been on a course run by, say, the City of London.
Thirdly, where you are seeing things moving is local authorities, because of the budgetary issue, starting to pool resources. There are some very good examples of where local authorities have joined together. There is a very good one in Wales, but there are also a couple of good ones in England, where local authorities have decided to pool their resources and work together on the enforcement issue. I think that is the way forward.
Q That is certainly true on enforcement for things such as tobacco, interestingly. I know that you have suggested that this measure is pretty unworkable and will not achieve what needs to be achieved, but once somebody has got a licence and they need to go for the veterinary checks, do you think there are enough qualified vets in the UK at the moment to be able to do these checks appropriately, and will people who keep animals under a licence be able to keep up with what they need to keep up with in order to hold that licence?
There are two problems. First, once you have got a licence, you have got a licence for six years. That is a long, long time. If you are talking about the lifespan of a marmoset, that is almost half its lifespan. So that is a very long time. The RSPCA would like to see that licence period reduced to a year.
Secondly, you are right, because this is all about expertise. When you are dealing with animals, it is not just expertise on the enforcement side that is needed; expertise on the vet side is also needed. Obviously, I defer to the very experienced vet at your table. There are very experienced wild animal vets out there, but they are not all over the place. The difficulty is that if you are presented with an animal that you have never been presented with before and you do not have experience of that animal, there could be a problem to work out whether its welfare needs are being met.
I would be concerned, and not only because the present legislation allows the breeding of primates from a licensed keeper and the sale of primates. So, there is a commercial trade element. How will those primates get from one place to another? They have to be transported. When you are dealing with primates that at the moment are not being kept in appropriate conditions—you know, kept in a parrot cage, with no enrichment, in a very small space, on their own—I worry that that person will also not how to transport their primate adequately.
Q Thank you. I have two more questions on the importation of dogs, if that is okay. First, what provision do you need to see at Border Force level in order to implement these changes and ensure adequate checks?
At the border, first and foremost we need cover at the right times. We know that there is limited cover at weekends and in the small hours. The importers know that too, and that is quite often when animals are illegally imported, because there are limited checks.
As I mentioned, it is really important that we consider shifting the checks from the carriers to a Government agency. That should involve a visual check. The analogy that I have used many times is that at the moment it is a bit like you or me walking through an airport with a paper bag over our head, because there are no visual checks. That is why we have been able to import toy dogs into the country on a number of occasions without being challenged. We really need to address that. We will need individuals with a level of animal welfare knowledge, so that if there are concerns, they can flag them and arrange for a full physical check.
Alongside that, the physical resources at the ports are limited. For example, if somebody sees a dog that they think is pregnant, where will she be taken to allow her first, to rest, and secondly, to be examined? She cannot be left portside in the middle of June when it is 25°. We need to think about that side of things as well. It is not just Dover; the importers are very clever, and we need to look at other ports around Great Britain as well.
Q That is very helpful. I was interested in what you were saying about mutilation and rehoming in the UK. I should probably declare that I own a dog that has a docked tail, who I rehomed. Are you concerned about people who do not have any evidence that they genuinely rehomed an animal that already had a mutilation? Will they be caught out, not having been in any way involved in the mutilation, because they had rescued that animal? What are your views on that? Clearly, mutilation is awful and horrific, and we heard about declawing cats. What more could be done to raise awareness of why this is so negative? Could the Bill help do that?
The Bill, by mentioning mutilation, is highlighting that it is not appropriate. Speaking as a vet as well as for the Dogs Trust, I can think of no medical reason why you would mutilate a dog’s ears. It is the wrong bit of the ear that you would operate on. I understand that in other countries, there are breed standards in which the ears are cropped. I suggest considering a time-limited and very tight exemption for individuals who are caught now—who perhaps already have a dog that is mutilated, and are truly relocating—to allow them to bring their dogs into the country, but that would have to be incredibly tight, because any exemption is a potential loophole. That is something that we could think about. It should be time-limited. If the dog was mutilated before the legislation comes in, obviously within 10 to 12 years that exemption should not be necessary.
I would endorse the point that if these dogs and cats are imported into the country, it would allow us to rehome them responsibly, and give them a much better quality of house. We probably have some of the best kennelling in the world, but it is not the same as being in a home.
I concur with everything that Paula said, but we should not forget that tail docking is permitted in certain circumstances, if the vet believes that that dog will be used for certain activities, whereas dog mutilation has been prohibited for many years. There are different reasons why that is done; as Paula rightly says, there is no reason to mutilate a dog’s ear. It is done purely from vanity, and because some societies believe that some breeds look better like that. It is totally bizarre.
There are different issues there. The RSPCA has been asked by, for example, diplomats in other places who have a dog with a docked tail whether they can bring it back in. Under the legislation, the Secretary of State can allow certain exemptions, and I think that is right. Again, I emphasise that if we have a loophole for rescue organisations, the puppy dealers will jump straight through that door.
David mentions that a lot of the imports come from Romania at the moment. The cropping of ears is illegal in all EU member states, so there is no reason why there should be cropped dogs in any EU member state.
Following up on Vicky’s point about future-proofing and imports, do you think there is a way we can future-proof against trends such as brachycephalic—short or flat-nosed—pets? One in five pets bought now has this big potential problem because of the trend for short-snouted dogs. In the legislation, we are talking about banning imports and setting standards. Is there a way to do that in legislation, or is it too difficult, practically, to protect and future-proof against trendsQ ?
That is a really good question. It is quite difficult with brachycephalics. We are always treading a fine line, because we do not want to demonise these breeds. We have been working very hard, as has the RSPCA, on groups such as the Brachycephalic Working Group, with the Kennel Club and breeders to try to improve breed standards, so that we are not breeding for extremes. That is obviously a slow burn; it is not something that will happen overnight. It is quite difficult to predict the next trend. Certainly, when I was growing up, it was Rottweilers and Dobermanns. There is a big surge in hybrid crosses at the moment.
We have to get the message across that health matters over the looks of a dog. Again, it is very easy for us to say that—we have all the information about how one should go about getting a dog—but unfortunately we live in a demand society, where it is, “I want that, and I want it now.” That is part of it. As it is all about supply and demand, part of it is educating those who are looking to get a dog, so that they take their time and get the right dog, rather than getting one virtually at the click of a button. That is one of the challenges.
Q In the current market, what is the drive from imports? We now have the chance to block or ban things in certain ways, to stave off a trend. How much does demand drive imports? If, for example, Italian greyhounds get more popular and become the next trend, how much do you see the outside market respond to that, so that we get those imports? How responsive is it? We seem to have a chance to drop that, if practicable.
The importers are very good and adaptable, and we have seen this. We have been running the puppy pilot for six years. You will not be surprised to hear that the majority of dogs that have come through our care have been French bulldogs, bulldogs and pugs; dachshunds are now the leading breed. During lockdown, because so many people were getting dogs, we saw a bit more variety, but they are the key breeds that are coming through, so we will see that adaptability.
Kennel Club registrations of French bulldogs went up exponentially, but only a small proportion of them were registered. If we do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, there were 9 million dogs in the UK at the time, with an average lifespan of 12 years. I am not saying that supply must equal demand, but it will. We therefore need 750,000 dogs a year. The Kennel Club registers about a third of that, so where do the others come from? That goes back to my comment about being holistic. We do not have true traceability. You need a licence to breed a dog only if you breed three or more litters a year, so where people produce fewer than three litters, we do not know who or where they are. That favours illegal importers, because they can easily advertise online.
One of my key points is that we need to step back and take a holistic view of the supply and demand of dogs. The demand is important. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is doing its “Petfished” campaign, which is fantastic, but we need to start joining these dots up a little bit more.
Certainly, importation has hugely satisfied the demand for cropped-ear dogs, and that loophole has led to an increase in dogs being cropped in the UK. With brachycephalics, it is really interesting. As you know, back in 2005, a handful of French bulldogs were being bred and registered each year, but now thousands are. Will that trend continue? Probably not. We are possibly seeing the start of a decrease in French bulldogs, but people will go on to something else.
You asked how to future-proof the legislation. At the moment, under the Animal Welfare Act, a breeder could theoretically be prosecuted for breeding a French bulldog that has not had its welfare needs cared for, because it cannot breathe. The difficulty is proving intent and where that started off. That is why there has not been any progress on that.
Yes. The RSPCA is glad that, under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981, conservation is in the Bill. The Bill will take that away and put it into the Secretary of State’s standards, but those standards are statutory. That is where we are very pleased that those standards will be statutory.
We have some concerns. There is a lot of power in the Secretary of State’s hands, because the Secretary of State can change those standards, possibly without consultation. We hope that if the Secretary of State is minded to change those standards, they would do a proper consultation and go out to everyone. But we are glad to see the standards becoming statutory.
We have slight concerns about the zoo standards, because different classifications of zoos seem to be being built up here. Obviously, the welfare needs of an animal are the same, whether it is in a big zoo, a small zoo or a medium-sized zoo. It is important that we focus through the lens of welfare, and try to improve the welfare of the animals, not worry about how big the zoo is.
Yes, there are issues around that. When does a farm that has a couple of exotic primates become a zoo? Again, we will come back to enforcement, but this is an issue. At least with zoo licensing, we have a zoo inspector who is an expert on zoos—but possibly not on the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and that is another area to be looked at, raising their standards of understanding of the Act—and the local authority inspector. It is all about trying to make it as clear as possible for them when a zoo is a zoo, and what the welfare needs of those animals are in that zoo. As I say, making those Secretary of State standards statutory is a good thing. Hopefully, that will give us the flexibility to improve them when our knowledge of the welfare needs of animals in zoos becomes greater.
Q A final question: in Committee, our work will involve looking at the detail of the Bill, and it is said that the success of a Bill is often dependent on the financial commitments backing it up, to ensure that it is implemented and enforced. What is your assessment of the financial commitment required to ensure that the Bill is a success, given the experiences you have had in your organisation with the financial gap between enforcement, implementation, and the measures?
It is a real concern for the RSPCA. You just have to look at the Bill and what additional things it is putting on local authorities primarily, such as primate licensing or the puppy issues. Who is responsible for making sure that puppies are imported and sold properly and, if they are sold on the internet, that that licence requirement meets the legislation? Local authorities. For me, that is pushing a lot of stuff on to local authorities, but there is no extra monetary provision.
I completely agree. It is important that we provide the right support for local authorities and, equally, for colleagues at the borders who are undertaking the checks. They need the resources and the right sort of training. Comments were made about local authorities getting together and having a central animal welfare inspectorate to undertake the inspections, so that we have that expertise. In effect, that is what we have in the City of London. They are doing this day in, day out, so they have that level of expertise that we need for this.
I have a couple of questions about clauses 26 to 41 in part 2 of the Bill, specifically about dogs attacking or worrying livestock, and about criminal enforcement. I was a solicitor for many years, appearing in the courts. The vast majority of animal welfare proceedings were brought by the RSPCA, not by the police. The Bill talks about the police; it does not talk about private prosecutions or the role of organisations such as the RSPCA in enforcement. Do you foresee any role for the RSPCA or third-party agencies in this processQ ?
You are probably aware that the RSPCA investigates probably about 85% of issues under the Animal Welfare Act. You are probably also aware that under our new strategy, we are in discussions with Government, the Attorney General’s Office and the police about the handing over of prosecutions to the statutory agencies. The primary reason for that is the changes in sentencing, which obviously we fought for and wanted. You will start to see a prison sentence of up to five years. We do not believe that it would be good for a non- governmental, non-statutory agency to be doing something where somebody could end up with up to five years in prison. A lot of the enforcements in this Bill are down to local authorities and down to the police.
The RSPCA will continue to investigate animal welfare issues—for instance, getting the calls on primates that are not being cared for properly. We will continue to enforce those. That is why we wanted a ban—because we want to make life easier not only for local authorities, but for us. I would love for the RSPCA not to have any calls on primates whatever, and for us not to spend the money investigating those cases and then trying to rehabilitate those primates. I do not believe, given how the Bill is written at the moment, that that will happen.
Q I think there is a concern about how these matters are prosecuted. Paula, you touched on the potential for a dog to be kept in kennels for a long time. Clause 27(2), (3) and (4) appears to suggest that if a dog is seized by the police, the owner has seven days to claim the dog back, and if that does not happen, the dog can be given to another owner or potentially destroyed. I do not know whether that is your understanding. Clearly, we want to avoid at all costs healthy dogs being destroyed after seven days. Do you have any thoughts on how we address that part of the Bill?
The devil is in the detail on that. One would hope, and what would be great to see there, is that within the seven days there is some sort of behavioural assessment of that dog—of whether it is appropriate to rehome it. It might involve an irresponsible owner who is not prepared to put the time and effort into training the dog, fencing their garden or whatever it takes. I would very much hope that there will be a little bit more detail about what happens within the seven days. I would certainly support the concept that we do not want dogs just languishing in kennels for protracted periods of time, but it has to be proportionate.
Q It is almost certain that somebody arrested for an offence like this would either be released under investigation or granted police bail. Is the position that you would like that until there is a charge, the dog must be kept with the owner, or do you feel that with release under investigation, it could be many months before a charge even comes? What should happen to the dog in those circumstances?
Again, it depends on the circumstances. If, for example, it is a repeat offender who clearly has not learned from the first time, I would hope that they would be encouraged to sign the dog over, because they are clearly not going to step up to the mark and do something about it. In that situation, rehoming might be the most appropriate thing for that dog. If it is a first offence, again, it depends on the circumstances. Anybody can make a mistake.
Q I am talking about prior to charge—when somebody is arrested, interviewed and released on bail by the police, so there is no charge. What happens to the dog in those circumstances?
In those circumstances, there is the first stage—whether they need to take evidence and those sorts of things—so we assume that that is done. Obviously the person is innocent until proven guilty, so there is the question of whether it is appropriate for the dog to go back to that person, but again it will depend on the circumstances. If, for example, the dog has escaped from the garden, the sensible thing to do is to say, “Okay, we can get the dog back to you, but you’ve got to fence your garden first of all.” Then it depends on their commitment to doing that as to whether they have the dog back or it is deemed appropriate for the dog to be rehomed.
The RSPCA would share some of your concerns about some of these seizure issues. Paula has rightly talked about some of the kennelling issues with the police. I am not sure if you are aware, but the Scottish Government passed legislation this year—it has only been in place for two months—that allows the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to get rid of a seized animal, whether it is a farm animal or a dog, after 21 days, rather than waiting for the court case to take its route. We would like to see something similar happen in England. If the person is found not guilty, then there is a compensation process under the Scottish legislation. That safeguards the welfare of the animal, because they are not languishing in kennels. Do not forget that even before covid, some cases took two or three years to get to court; under covid, 2020 was essentially written off, and we are seeing a huge backlog in court cases.
I worry that we have a lot of dogs, in particular, languishing in kennels, and their welfare needs are not being cared for. Once the court case is finished, it will be up to somebody, perhaps the Dogs Trust or the RSPCA, to try to rehabilitate the dog.