Examination of Witness

Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:22 pm on 9th November 2021.

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Justine Shotton gave evidence.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton 3:45 pm, 9th November 2021

We will now hear from Justine Shotton, president of the British Veterinary Association, who will appear virtually. We have until 4.30 pm. Could the witness please introduce herself for the record?

Justine Shotton:

My name is Justine Shotton, and I am the president of the British Veterinary Association, which is the national representative body for veterinary surgeons in the UK.

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

Q Hello, Justine. Thank you very much for giving evidence to us. Do you support the livestock worrying provisions in the Bill, and specifically the expansion of the definition of livestock?

Justine Shotton:

Thank you very much for the opportunity to give evidence. We are absolutely in favour of the livestock worrying part of the Bill. We have one area of concern: there need to be safeguards in the Bill to ensure that any seized dogs are not held in kennels for long periods, because we are worried that that could affect their welfare. That is really our main concern in that area.

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

Q Lovely. I will move straight on, then. Do you also approve of the export ban for fattening and slaughter, and are you happy with that area of the Bill?

Justine Shotton:

We feel that this is an area where we really need to focus on not just journey times but the overall experience of the animals. In some instances, the journey time may be shorter even if they are going abroad. We need to be mindful of the whole picture and the welfare impacts on the animals, so it is a bit more nuanced. We need to be really aware of not only the quality of the journey overall, but whether such things as time spent in markets or collection centres will affect the journey and will be considered in terms of the journey time. We need some tightening up of the welfare experience of animals in collection centres and markets. We also have a concern about how the Bill could affect rural areas, in terms of travel time from the highlands and islands. We want to ensure that a ban on exports does not oversimplify the issue when there are other welfare considerations.

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

Q Absolutely. Have you been fully sighted on the consultation on animal transport generally?

Justine Shotton:

Yes.

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

Q Great. A lot of that is not dealt with in the Bill, which deals specifically with live exports, but is dealt with elsewhere.

Justine Shotton:

Yes, and we are very happy to support and feed in where we can.

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

Q Brilliant. Thank you. You might have heard some of the discussion in Committee today about whether reducing the number of pets that can travel per vehicle from five to three is a good thing. Where do you stand on that?

Justine Shotton:

We support a reduction in the number of animals per consignment in general, and the ability to restrict imports on welfare grounds, as in other areas that are detailed. If the reduction goes ahead, we ask for a tightly worded exemption, so that people relocating permanently back to the UK who have more than three pets can bring them all. We are concerned about that in particular, but we support measures in general that reduce the number of animals per consignment.

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

Q So you would be more happy with three per vehicle than with five.

Justine Shotton:

To some extent, the numbers are relatively arbitrary, but overall we feel a reduction is sensible. We have some key asks on the importation of dogs, cats and ferrets. We feel there should be mandatory pre-import testing, particularly for dogs with unknown health status coming from countries where we know that diseases that are not present in the UK are endemic. That is partly to protect our dog populations, but also to protect public health, because some of these are zoonotic diseases. We are seeing an increasing incidence of such diseases as Brucella canis. We would really like an amendment to be tabled on that.

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

We have seen your evidence, and of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border asks questions about that frequently. Thank you; that is all from me.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

I am sure he will ask some more, Minister. We now go to the hon. Member for Cambridge.

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

Q Good afternoon. Thank you for giving us your time and expertise. I will run through things in the order that the Bill covers them, starting with primates. In your written evidence, you say you are concerned about a number of loopholes that you think might make the Bill ineffective. What should we do to strengthen it?

Justine Shotton:

We have a very detailed annexe to our briefing, which we have sent you, so I refer you to that on specific wording changes. We are particularly worried about single-kept primates—how changes to the number of primates you might be holding could lead to primates being on their own, which has serious welfare implications for such a social taxon. If a licensing scheme is implemented, rather than a complete ban, then we want that to be as tight as possible, with very high standards, so that keeping primates really is the exception rather than the rule. That would involve experienced keepers, who would be part of international breeding programmes, for example, so the standards were at least as per zoos, if not higher. We know that local authorities will need support and resourcing to enforce this, and we can absolutely support vets, in terms of instructing them around the training that they require, and acting in their areas of competency.

There are a few asks on the detail. We feel that the licence length is far too long at six years, and want that brought down to four years, with inspections every couple of years. We also want a reduction in the rectification time from two years to six months, because two years is a very long time for welfare issues in primates.

A key concern around this part of the Bill is that it could be applied to other wild animals, and if that goes in there, there needs to be a caveat: species-specific needs should be considered and relevant stakeholders engaged before it can be applied to other species. It could work well with primates if we can get a few changes in there, but we do not think it is appropriate for it to apply to other species at this point.

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

Q I think what I took from that is that you would prefer a ban.

Justine Shotton:

We would prefer a ban, unless the licensing standards are extremely high, so that licensing really is only for the occasional individual with legitimate reasons, where we can adequately ensure the welfare of those animals.

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

Q Moving on to attacks on livestock, we have basically reduced this down to a question of whether you are in favour of leads. Do you think dogs should be on a lead?

Justine Shotton:

We do feel that dogs should be on a lead. We do not want to discourage people from walking their dogs in the countryside. We know the welfare benefits for the dogs, as well as for their owners and their mental health, but we think it is appropriate to have dogs on leads when they are around livestock.

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

Q On export for slaughter, a lot of this ground has been covered by other witnesses, but I noticed that in your written evidence, you talked about certified training for farmers, drivers and hauliers. What would that look like?

Justine Shotton:

I think we would have to engage with our stakeholders in more detail to see exactly what that looks like, but it is about ensuring that the welfare needs of animals can be met throughout the journey—a lot of injuries and welfare compromises happen around loading and unloading—and around being fit to transport in the first place. We want to ensure that anyone in charge of those animals at any point along their export knows how to meet their welfare needs. They need adequate veterinary-led training in that.

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

Q Thank you. On the import of dogs and cats, you have already made the point about pre-import testing. Again, how would that work in practice? What are the implications?

Justine Shotton:

I think it how it is applied depends on the country. There are a number of different tests for different diseases, but we would want to see those put on an import certificate that came with a dog that had been declared to be free of certain diseases via testing, and we would want to see adequate results from approved laboratories. That is the way it works for other diseases and other species, when it comes to imports and exports.

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

Q In discussions with previous witnesses, the point has begun to be made that the provisions for dogs should probably be extended to cats. Is that your view, too?

Justine Shotton:

Yes. We have a number of additional asks. For example, we would like the reintroduction of tick and tapeworm treatments for cats as well as dogs, and a reduction in the amount of time before animals—dogs and cats—come in for the tapeworm treatments. As a general rule, we think that the diseases are slightly different, depending on the species and the country, but ideally pre-import testing would apply to both groups.

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

Q Finally, on zoos there is a specific ask to change the term “specialist” to “expert”. Could you explain the thinking behind that?

Justine Shotton:

Absolutely. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, which is our regulator, uses the term “specialist” to refer to vets who have achieved the highest academic level of qualification, which is a diplomate status in a certain field. When they have achieved that level, they can be called “specialist,” so it is a particular term in a professional context.

For example, I am a zoo vet. I have worked in a zoo for seven years and I look after primates on a daily basis, but I am not a specialist. I could be considered an expert in primate care, I suppose, and I should be considered one of the people whom it would be appropriate to have look after primates and ensure that their welfare needs are met, but I am not a specialist. That is why we would like that wording changed.

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

Q The Minister will be relieved to hear that Justine has answered many of my questions already. To reiterate a couple of them, you are keen for health checks to be made on animals prior to entry, covering diseases such as brucellosis and leishmaniasis. I am interested in your comments about reintroducing mandatory tick and tapeworm treatments for cats. Can you give the Committee your perspective on why it is important that we do that quickly?

Justine Shotton:

That is to protect not only those animals, but animals in the UK. Certain parasites can be detrimental and harmful to human health, so we want to ensure they are eliminated before those animals come in. The timeframe is important in terms of the elimination. There are also some nasty tick-borne diseases. This would protect not only our pets but public health, and the timeframe is important because of the lifecycle of those animals and the timeframe in which they breed infection.

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

Q Certainly, there are reports of dogs in this country picking up exotic tick-borne diseases when they have never been out of this country. They have picked up a tick in this country, obviously from a dog that has come into Essex or somewhere. The Government can act on that pretty quickly, can they not?

Justine Shotton:

Absolutely.

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

Q Good. I am going to duck around the species a little bit, Chair, with your forgiveness. I want to go back to primates. Justine, you are a zoo vet. I take your point about being a specialist, as opposed to having expertise, but can you give the Committee some perspective on the number of vets who have the relevant experience or expertise to treat, diagnose and look after primates in this country? Are they spread around the country geographically, or are they concentrated next to zoos or in zoos? Can you give us any perspective on that?

Justine Shotton:

I would say that the numbers are relatively low. Very few zoos have staff vets—they are mainly the big zoos—so we are talking about just a handful of people. Some of the smaller zoos and wildlife parks use local vets with a level of expertise that would be appropriate. It is a relatively small number. I could not give you an exact figure, but off the top of my head, it is probably fewer than 50.

If there was a licensing scheme, rather than a complete ban, we would need to make sure that since the licensing standards were so high that really it would apply to a very small number of animals, so that the vets would be able to service those animals and look after their welfare needs appropriately.

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

Q You have come on to my follow-up question. If licensing came in, would there be enough vets able to get involved in that, and to deliver the health and welfare monitoring of those animals?

Justine Shotton:

Again, it depends on how many licences would be granted. From my personal perspective, zoo vets can be very busy, and they may not, in terms of biosecurity, want to be going off site to look at primates in other areas and other collections. I think we need to be mindful of that. There are vets in practice who could service a need if appropriate, but it would need to be relatively small numbers. That is my personal opinion.

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

Q Thank you; that is helpful. There has been a lot of debate about a ban versus licensing. Can you give us your perspective? We are still trying to get to the bottom of how many people in this country would be looking after a primate in zoo-type conditions. How many people are there? Is there really a reason to be keeping a primate in that situation outside zoo premises?

Justine Shotton:

Unfortunately, we do not know the exact numbers. I never came across that when working in private practice. In small animal practice, I never saw a primate as a pet. There was a local wildlife park that had primates, and it was looked after by a zoo practice.

I think it would be hard to define the numbers exactly. We worked with the British Veterinary Zoological Society on our response, and it did not know the numbers either, so I think they are small. However, there could be places where there are legitimate keepers who keep primates as part of, for example, breeding programmes that may be helpful for international conservation work. The numbers would be low, but that could be a legitimate reason.

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

Q So the numbers could be low, but there could potentially be people who are keeping primates, not as pets, and who are affiliated with zoos and are part of conservation programmes. You feel that from the veterinary profession’s viewpoint, there is a small number of people whom that would work for, and you are comfortable with that.

Justine Shotton:

Exactly. I know personally from my zoo experience that that is the case for other species. We have worked with organisations that have that, and it could be a useful place for animals to go and to come from the zoo populations. Most zoos only trade as part of international breeding programmes with other zoos, but there is a small place where this work could be needed when it comes to primates.

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

Q Finally, do you think the Bill could be strengthened if we were a bit clearer in some of the definitions and the criteria? I am thinking of things such as putting six months in the Bill as the minimum age at which animals can be brought into the country, and specifying the need for health checks, rabies titre tests and so on before animals come in. Also, potentially, there could be a definition of what we mean by a heavily pregnant pet. We heard Paula from the Dogs Trust say in evidence that it is currently illegal to bring in an animal in the last 10% of gestation, but that it would be sensible use some other definition—say, the last 30% to 50% of gestation. Do you think the Bill would be strengthened if we were clearer, and that that would perhaps tighten up some loopholes?

Justine Shotton:

Clarity is really important. On primary or secondary legislation, we do not have a particular view, as long as it is robust and enforceable. We feel that if there is secondary legislation, particularly around imports of pets, perhaps some of our asks around tick and tapeworm treatment could go there; it would be even easier to amend that. On gestation, in an ideal world, we would support the ban of importation of any pregnant bitches, but we understand how difficult that is, particularly without ultrasound scanning, which is why either a proportion of gestation or, when you visually assess it, around 42 days seems appropriate. It is not the ideal situation, but it would be impossible to enforce below that.

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

Thank you. Hopefully the Minister and the Government can help us through this process. It is really helpful for us to hear that your view is that this important stuff needs to be done in either primary or secondary legislation, but on some of these issues, such as the health status of animals, it needs to be done quickly, so we can stop diseases coming in and stop cruel practices. Hopefully the Government can work with everyone on that.

Photo of Luke Evans Luke Evans Conservative, Bosworth

Q I point out what I said earlier about my interest in zoos. On zoos, Justine, your report mentions the “Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice”. What is your understanding of that, and your concerns about it?

Justine Shotton:

Our main concern is that these are under review, and we and other stakeholders have not had sight of the new standards. We also do not know whether there will be a transition period. That is really important, particularly for some of the smaller, less resourced zoos and particularly after the pandemic. Zoos have really struggled during the pandemic, even the very big ones. We absolutely support higher welfare standards in zoos, but we need to be mindful that if there are changes that will take time, zoos need time to make those changes, otherwise there could be welfare harms to those animals, particularly with the challenges we are seeing around exporting zoo animals at the moment, which is very difficult. They could go into other areas of trade where their welfare may be compromised. Our key ask is around having sight of the new standards and a legitimate transition period for those smaller zoos in particular.

Photo of Luke Evans Luke Evans Conservative, Bosworth

Q That is really helpful to look at the welfare side. I do not know if your organisation has a position on conservation because that has been brought in together with the zoo aspect. Do you have any comments on that?

Justine Shotton:

Again, I think we would want to see what it entails. Personally, I work for a conservation-focused zoo and I think conservation is really important and absolutely a key part of why zoos should exist in society. However, in terms of our comments on conservation more broadly, we would want to see what that would look like before we could comment, how achievable it is and exactly what it would cover.

Photo of Luke Evans Luke Evans Conservative, Bosworth

Q How do you think things are set up to provide the communication, both to you as practising veterinarians and to the public about the standards of welfare?

Justine Shotton:

Yes, probably more can be done in both of those areas in terms of communicating to vets and other members of the zoo community about welfare and what zoos can do. We do a lot of animal welfare assessment, for example, in zoo animals. We have published a lot on that in our zoo in particular. I think sometimes the public do not realise the breadth of what goes on in good zoos to maximise animal welfare, so I think public education is vital as well.

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q I want to pick up on some of the breeding issues in primates. What is your view on whether the licensing scheme would leave scope for inappropriate breeding if there was not enough oversight? Do you think the annual health check from a veterinary surgeon would help combat that? I was interested to see your addition of that in your written evidence.

Justine Shotton:

In terms of breeding in general, if there was licensing, that would have to be very tightly worded around breeding itself. It calls for neutering in another part of that wording, and we want to be really clear that that also includes contraception. Primates live in these social groups, and if you neuter rather than contracept them, sometimes that can really disrupt the group dynamic. There are a lot of methods of safe contraception available that experts in primate medicine would be able to advise on, which is why, again, it fits in with the annual health check that we are recommending. The vet would be able to have that conversation with the primate keeper and discuss the appropriate method of contraception or, in possible circumstances, breeding if it was part of a legitimate reason for breeding.

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q Is there anything that you think is missing around primates as well that you would like to see if licensing were to be developed?

Justine Shotton:

Yes, as I mentioned, making sure that the welfare issues of single kept primates are met, so that if there is a change in the number of primates that people are proposing to keep, it is assessed on a case-by-case basis. We want to make sure that the licensing and rectification periods are reduced, as I mentioned already, and that there is adequate resourcing for local authorities as well as training. The other thing we would be calling for under a licensing system is a centralised database of primate keepers, so that it is easy to access and see where all these primates are being kept.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

As there are no further questions, I extend our thanks to Justine Shotton, president of the British Veterinary Association, for joining us.