Examination of Witness

Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:52 pm on 9th November 2021.

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Mike Webb gave evidence.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton 3:05 pm, 9th November 2021

We will now hear from Mike Webb, head of policy and public affairs at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. We have until 4 o’clock for this session. Will the witness please introduce himself?

Mike Webb:

My name is Michael Webb. I am the head of policy and public affairs at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Thank you, Mike, for coming to give evidence. We have been touching on the same issues repeatedly. You have probably been following our proceedings, so without a great preamble can I go straight to the issues that concern us? On pet imports and pet travel, would you be in the five animals per vehicle camp or the three animals per vehicle camp?

Mike Webb:

It will probably not surprise you to learn that I am in the three animals per vehicle camp, for reasons similar to those explained by colleagues earlier in the day. We still are yet to bottom out the intention behind setting the limit at five. It is worth recognising that the change to expressing this per vehicle rather than per person is incredibly welcome. That will make a significant difference.

We are arguing in favour of three simply because we do not believe that it will affect dog owners to a significant degree, given that so few people own more than three dogs. There are different figures being banded around. We have used the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association figures, which say that 94% of dog owners have two or fewer dogs. That means that by extending it beyond three we would not capture too many legitimate dog owners, whose lives we certainly do not want to make difficult.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q I think the concern today has centred on dog owners travelling together legitimately—a person with two dogs travelling with another person with two dogs.

Mike Webb:

It is a legitimate concern, although where I had some concern from the information from Brittany Ferries this morning was how many of the people travelling with more than three dogs in their party are a dog owner with two dogs and another dog owner with two dogs. Actually, four dogs in a car is quite a lot. How many of them are people who are passing those dogs off as their pets when, in fact, they are not? That is exactly what this law is trying to stop.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Do you agree that there should be no exemption for rescue dogs?

Mike Webb:

Yes, given the loophole that was expressed earlier. We run an academy at Battersea that is focused very much on working with rescues, both domestic and international, to try to improve standards. One of the things we are working on is trying to prepare as well as we can for the advent of this legislation. My feeling is that most people recognise that it is necessary and that, if there were to be an exemption for rescue dogs, a significant loophole would be open to abuse. So for the time being at least, we would agree with that.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Finally, can you give us your views on whether cats should be included in any conversations about theft? What sort of values are you seeing for cats that are stolen at the moment?

Mike Webb:

I think the issue with cats at the moment is that although the trade is perhaps less lucrative and less well known or understood than with dogs, we know that it is increasing. We have seen a steady increase in the number of cats brought into the UK over the last five or six years. The number we have been quoting is an estimate from PDSA that suggests 48,000 cats were brought into the UK between the start of the pandemic and May of this year. That is quite a sizable increase on five or six years ago, and it is continuing to grow. Our view is that the Bill puts forward some really sensible and welcome provisions for dogs, and it just makes sense to extend those to cats. This is a really good opportunity to significantly improve animal welfare. By extending some of these measures, particularly around pregnant cats, this is a great opportunity to improve animal welfare across the board, not just for dogs.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q I will take my lead from the Minister and ask the lead question: on livestock attacks, where do you stand on leads?

Mike Webb:

Clearly, the Bill is trying to strike a sensible balance. We share the concern of some others that some of the definitions currently in the Bill perhaps muddy those waters a little. There is no need for some kind of blanket ban on off-lead walking. At the same time, however, if people have a reasonable suspicion that there is going to be livestock in the area, it is absolutely essential that they keep their dog on a lead. From our perspective, this is about people’s livelihoods. Dogs should not be walked off-lead in areas where there will be livestock present.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q That was a brilliant politician’s answer, if I may say, because I am not entirely sure where you are on leads after that. Never mind; I get the drift. I will move on to the import issues, some of which you have already talked about. I would like to explore two areas. The first is the difficult issue, throughout all the legislation, of where dogs are confined to kennels and the unintended consequences of being tough in other areas. What is Battersea’s view on how we might go forward on that?

Mike Webb:

We welcome the seizure powers in the Bill, because if people are bringing animals in for a less than reputable purpose, ultimately there is no reason why those people should have those animals back. However, there are still a few areas that we feel need ironing out. In particular, with the move towards border control posts, which I believe are due to be operational from January, what happens if someone, either innocently or otherwise, takes their dog to the wrong place? One assumes that there will be adequate kennelling facilities at the designated border control post for animal movements, but what happens elsewhere? Our concern is that people might be given the dog back and told to return whence they came, thus exposing the dog to a hazardous journey. On how the imports system will continue to operate, we think the Bill makes some pretty sensible proposals. We hope that in some areas greater clarity will come out during Committee stage and in further scrutiny.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

As ever, I think that we are good at identifying problems, but solutions are sometimes more difficult.

Mike Webb:

If I may propose a solution on the imports idea, it seems to me that there is a great opportunity for partnership working here. Obviously, border control posts, the police or Border Force, will only want to keep kennelled animals for a period of time. It seems to me that what they will require is partners to move those animals to thereafter. There is a strong and very dedicated network of rescue centres around the country, so we would encourage Border Force, for example, to get to know their local rescue centre, which might have kennelling space that they are able to help them with.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q Thank you; that is helpful. I want to explore a slightly different area from the ones that we have explored with other witnesses so far. Do you have any potential solutions for the vexed issues with microchipping, such as the multiplicity of data- bases and the problems that creates for vets in some circumstances?

Mike Webb:

In a perfect world we would have one easy-to-access database, but we do not live in that perfect world and we are unlikely to. Ultimately, these are commercial entities and it would be very expensive and complicated to get back to a position of there being only one microchipping database for dogs, and that is before it becomes compulsory for cats, which we expect in the coming months. It is really essential that there is one simple, easy-to-access place that vets can visit to find out which database is holding the information on the chip they scanned, rather than having to go through, I think, 13 currently compliant databases—plus however many non-compliant databases. If there was one simple portal with the capacity to access the different databases that vets need, that would surely save them a whole lot of time.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

Are there any further questions?

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

Q I was interested in the statistics you gave on the number of animals coming in. I think you talked about cats, so I guess you would have a feel for the number of dogs being imported as well. Some of them, sadly, end up going into rehoming shelters, such as your charity, and homes and so on. For your charity and partners, has there been any concomitant increase in the number of animals coming in with health issues? I am thinking of exotic diseases to the UK. Diseases such as leishmaniasis and canine brucellosis have health implications for the animals coming in as well as those already in this country and, importantly, in some disease situations for people.

Mike Webb:

Not yet, but it stretches credibility to think that it is not going to happen eventually. As we see more and more animals coming in at the border with relatively little checking, and certainly no visual checking, it seems only a matter of time. This is already a consistent worry for rescue organisations, as you can imagine. When we see an animal that causes any sort of suspicion, we separate it into our isolation kennels. That is not a particularly nice experience for the dog, but happily so far every time that has happened we have done the necessary blood work and it has come back with nothing to worry about, but we have to remain ever vigilant.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

Q That is helpful. Chair, I will pursue the line of questioning about the specifics of some of the diseases with the president of the British Veterinary Association, Justine Shotton, when she is with us. Measures could be brought in through legislation, be it primary or secondary, to improve checks on animals prior to entry, ensuring that they have health checks, and potentially preventative health treatments, before they arrive. In your view, as a key stakeholder, would that help the population of animals in this country and then, indirectly, people?

Mike Webb:

I think it would provide the public with greater security and confidence in the animal that they are bringing in. We remain somewhat sceptical of whether people are as aware as they might be of the risk of animals that they bring in.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

Q I think that is right, because a lot of people will be trying, with good intentions, to rehome an animal and will maybe import an animal, but they will not know whether the animal is harbouring a very serious disease, because no checks have been done. There is that factor of the unknown.

Mike Webb:

Yes, and we certainly see people who are unaware of behavioural issues with animals that they have bought that come into Battersea. We have seen that increasingly throughout the pandemic. We are seeing a greater proportion of our intake of animals that have particular behavioural problems. It may well be that over time we see the same with health problems too.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

Q Following up on something we heard from a previous witness, are you seeing an increase over the last 12 to 18 months of animals coming in that have potentially had mutilations, such as cropped ears?

Mike Webb:

We are for cropped ears, yes.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

Q Can you put a figure on that at all?

Mike Webb:

Yes, but they are still fairly small numbers. I looked it up this morning. Six years ago, in 2015, we had only one animal with cropped ears, and last year we had 12. They are still fairly small numbers, but that is how these trends work. We see this time and again with rescue centres. Trends tend to hit us a bit later because of the nature of how we source animals. A lot of animals are given up to us for whatever reason. We do not necessarily perform the same role that a breeder would in the animal supply process. We tend to see trends a little later, after they have taken root. We monitor social media discussions and we are seeing an awful lot more promotion of animals with cropped ears. That is why we feel that the Government are acting in a timely fashion. Ultimately, these are mutilations that for a long time have been considered illegal in this country. If it is illegal for a UK vet to perform this kind of procedure, surely as a country we should consider it similarly illegal for someone else to do it and bring the animal into the UK. We would absolutely include the declawing of cats in that.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

Q Thank you. I think you make a very pertinent point that sometimes we are lagging behind the trends. In popular culture there is a subliminal promotion of these animals as being normal. They are in celebrity culture as well. I think of Pixar’s film “Up”, which has Dobermans with cropped ears. People look at that and think that is normal. Really, there is a role for all of us to call that out and say that it is not normal. The Bill will help in saying that if procedures are illegal in this country, you cannot bring in dogs or cats that have had those procedures from elsewhere. We all have a role to play in that.

Mike Webb:

We do, and I would add that the definitions under section 5 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 are actually quite clear that anything that is not of medical benefit to the animal should be considered an unacceptable mutilation under the Act. We support that and think the Bill strengthens the provision already in law very well.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

If there are no further questions from Members, I will thank the witness, Mike Webb, head of policy and public affairs a Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, on behalf of the Committee. Thank you very much. Our next session will be at 3.45 pm.

Sitting suspended.