Examination of Witness

Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 9th November 2021.

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Mike Flynn gave evidence.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton 4:10 pm, 9th November 2021

We move straight on to our next witness, Mike Flynn, who is also joining us virtually. He is the chief superintendent of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Could you please introduce yourself?

Mike Flynn:

I am Mike Flynn, chief superintendent of the Scottish SPCA. I am delighted to be here.

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

Q Thank you for joining us. I have only really one question: do you think it is helpful that we have been able to work as four nations on the import and export measures for the Bill? Do you think that will help with enforcement?

Mike Flynn:

I am absolutely delighted that you have worked with the devolved Administrations. If certain parts of the Bill are not UK-wide, that will open up loopholes for everyone. Take cropping dogs’ ears, for instance: if it is not banned in Scotland, they would import them into Scotland and transport them down to England. It really has to be UK-wide.

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

Q Thank you for joining us. My question follows on from that: the written evidence from Compassion in World Farming stresses that is absolutely essential, particularly on the live export ban, that all the Administrations work together in tandem. How confident are you that we are in situation?

Mike Flynn:

On the importation of dogs and the import and export of livestock for further farming, I think you are on the right track. I have spoken to people in the Scottish Government and they are happy with that—I believe a consent motion has already been laid before the Scottish Parliament. As I said in my previous answer, if there is one part of the UK that is exempt, it will open up loopholes and encourage people, especially in the puppy trade, to exploit that loophole.

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

Q In that case, I am almost bound to follow up with a question about your concerns about the Northern Ireland protocol. Do you think that might create any problems?

Mike Flynn:

That is way above my pay grade, I am afraid. That will bring many problems, but it is something that the UK Government and the Administrations will have to work through.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

Are there any other questions?

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

They are all coming in! Let us start with Cherilyn Mackrory.

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

Q We heard evidence this morning about the most recent Scottish animal welfare Act—I do not know which one it was. There was criticism of it; I think the RSPCA said that it was not helpful as some of the language was ambiguous. Could you comment on that? Have you seen the same? Are there any examples that you feel we could learn from, to avoid falling into the same traps?

Mike Flynn:

I think what David Bowles of the RSPCA was referring to was in the protection of livestock and dogs attacking and worrying sheep, the definition of on the lead or under close control. We argued at the time that if a dog is not on a lead in an area where there is livestock, it is not under close control. Your Bill states they must be on a lead less than 1.9 metres long. I have been in this job for 34 years, and I have never known an occasion when a dog has attacked a sheep when on a lead, because you have physical control. Some say a dog always comes back and if they whistle it will do that, but that is not the case. Some dogs will just run blind. They may have walked past the same sheep day after day for years, and then one day it could just go. The devastation is horrendous for the farmers and the animals involved.

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

Thank you. I think we have answered the “lead or no lead” question.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

Q In Scottish law, is there an offence similar to what we are talking about where a dog attacks or worries livestock?

Mike Flynn:

Yes. It was in the original 1953 Act. The Member’s Bill that Emma Harper put through last year updated it to include a wider definition of livestock—ostriches, llamas and all that kind of stuff—and to increase the penalties up to 12 months’ imprisonment and a £40,000 fine.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

Q One witness who has given evidence stated that in certain cases that are proceeding or have proceeded through the Scottish courts, dogs are kept in kennels for long periods—we were given one example of up to four years—while legal proceedings are ongoing. Do you have anything you can say in respect of how dogs’ welfare is maintained while legal proceedings are ongoing?

Mike Flynn:

The case that Paula referred to earlier of a spaniel did take just under four years to conclude in court, because it kept getting postponed, for various reasons. Thankfully, the law in Scotland has recently changed—as recently as a month ago. Up until then, in any case that we took—because we are a reporting agency to the Crown Office, authorised by the Scottish Minister—we had to keep the animal as a production if the person refused to sign it over, until the conclusion of the criminal case. It was that or we had to take a civil case against them, which could cost up to £60,000. So that led to animals being kept in our kennels. We have the best staff and best kennels in the world, but it is not welfare friendly to keep a young dog, which is a two-year-old adult by the time it gets out of there. The law has recently changed the emphasis: animals that are seized in certain circumstances can now be disposed of after a three-week period. We have to issue a decision notice on the person, stating our intention is to dispose of the animal. “Dispose” does not mean destroy; we can rehome it, but it can be put down on veterinary advice. The person can appeal that decision, but that would be very, very unlikely.

This was originally designed for the big puppy farming cases, because we have had cases where—well, the biggest that I think we had was one where we seized 109 dogs, and they were in our care for just under 18 months. First, it is very bad for animal welfare; secondly, it is a horrendous cost to a charity, because we never get that money back. I think the biggest cost we have had was from a case with 58 dogs that had been in for 23 months. It works out at £15 per dog per day—that cost us £440,000.

There is a compensation element. W have to notify the person in the event that they lose the case or the sheriff decides otherwise. They are compensated for the current value when the animal was seized. In that individual case, the maximum compensation would have been £25,000, so we would have saved £415,000 and protected animal welfare.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

Q Indeed, and I think you are highlighting the problem where an offender or somebody who has been involved in this behaviour is on state benefit; they may be asked to repay the debt at £5 per week. Is that right?

Mike Flynn:

Well, there is provision to recover reasonable costs, but sometimes the people that we deal with—I am sure the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals experiences the same—have no financial means. Where is the punishment in £5 a week for the rest of their life or something like that? If the animals are signed over, or with the new provision, we can get them into loving new homes a lot quicker and then it does not matter how long it takes for the criminal proceedings to commence. If Westminster has any power, I am sure the RSPCA would love you to introduce something similar down there.

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

Q Thank you, Mike, for appearing before us today. I was very encouraged by your response to the Minister about the importance of the devolved nations working together on this important legislation. In your answer, you said that it has to be joined up; otherwise there will be loopholes. Can you give us examples in, perhaps, previous legislation where loopholes have opened up and where that has adversely impacted on animal welfare? I am specifically thinking of things like Lucy’s law and third party sales. Have you experience of that in the United Kingdom where there have been discrepancies in different parts of the UK and it has had adverse animal welfare impacts inadvertently?

Mike Flynn:

There must be several examples, but one that springs to mind is that until about nine years ago, when a consequential amendment to sentencing powers was brought in, somebody banned in England was not banned in Scotland. It was not UK-wide until that amendment came in, so people from Manchester and Liverpool who were banned were moving up to Scotland and evading the ban—I am sure there would be Scottish people doing the same. But the amendment closed that, so if people are banned in England and Wales, they are also banned in Scotland, and vice versa. So you have things like that.

Lucy’s law has been widely talked about, but there are loopholes in that. Somebody can say, “I bred it myself.” People who bring in pregnant bitches did not breed the dog, but they hand the bitch over when it gives birth. Let us be honest: a lot of the people we deal with are out-and-out criminals. I am talking about the puppy trade. They just use puppies as a commodity, and if they can find a loophole, whether it is through England, Wales or Scotland, they will find it and use it because the profits are so huge.

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

Q That is really helpful. The legislation will hopefully be able to close the loopholes in some of the other laws as well. Being clear on heavily pregnant dogs coming in and the age of dogs and cats coming in at the minimum age of six months will close some of the loopholes.

Moving on to a different species, in the evidence we have taken today we have not covered horses and ponies. I see from your experience, Mike, that you have worked with all creatures great and small, and you have some experience in the equine world as well. The export of livestock in the Bill covers horses. We on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee have taken evidence that not one horse has been legally exported to the EU for slaughter, but potentially thousands have been exported illegally. A lot of that comes from identification issues and people passing the animals off as going for competitions and suchlike. Do you feel that the Bill will help shut that loophole and improve the transport of animals so that horses move around only for legitimate reasons? Will the Bill help the equine world?

Mike Flynn:

I do not see that it can do any harm. As you have just explained, a lot of the movement of these animals is illegal in the first place. You have to sign the horse out of the food chain, and that does not happen. You just need to go back to the horsemeat scandal many years ago. Our main port in and out of Scotland is Cairnryan, which has a direct link to Northern Ireland. There was a regular trade of equines going from Scotland to Northern Ireland and down into southern Ireland. Where they went after that, I have no idea. Anything to deal with that will help. The legal issue in my opinion is exporting for further fattening or immediate slaughter.

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

Q We touched on some previous evidence about the identification of dogs, and databases as well. Do you think that the equine health and welfare world would be improved by having improved identity documents and a centralised, digitised database? When you inspect animals that are moving around, that will help shut down the traffic in these animals.

Mike Flynn:

There is a whole other debate on that being taken up by mainly the British Horse Society and World Horse Welfare about the identification of equines and how it can be forged and misrepresented and all that kind of stuff. So, yes, you have got that.

On the dogs side, you heard earlier—from Paula, I think it was—about how there might be dogs coming in from Romania and the lack of border checks. We have had animals coming in. We are not swamped with them like down south, but we do get quite a large number of dogs coming in from Romania being delivered directly to people in Scotland. The last case is pending prosecution. The paperwork had been checked by APHA, the Animal and Plant Health Agency, at the port of entry, but nobody had actually looked at the dog, and that dog should never have been transported. It was in an appalling condition.

We have stopped a lot of puppy dealers and agents. They have microchip certificates and they have six dogs, but there is no guarantee—we have proven it many times—that the microchip certificate with a number on it matches the dog that is in the car. That could be, “Yes, I’ve got this dog, but it has not been vaccinated as it was claimed it has been.” The Scottish Government are bringing in another provision about rehoming a vanload from outwith Scotland into Scotland. If it is a dog that comes in from a European country, part of the condition is that it must be checked by a UK-registered veterinary surgeon before it is delivered to its final destination because of the standards of veterinary care elsewhere, and the number of forged documents that come in is phenomenal.

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

Q Finally, Mike, in your experience in Scotland, are you picking up increased numbers of dogs coming in—you mentioned dogs from Romania—that have concomitant health conditions and exotic diseases that are a potential risk to the canine population in the UK and also to people? Are you picking that up from your members and rescue centres?

Mike Flynn:

What we have picked up is the number of very disturbed dogs that are coming in. A lot of the ones from Romania come from alleged kill shelters. They were just strays, rounded up off the street, so you have a lot of behavioural problems. There are a lot of health problems with the dogs. I have not come across one that has infected another dog here, but there are huge welfare issues, which could be easily addressed by a physical examination as they come in.

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

Q If we do those checks, and are tighter on the guidelines coming in, and then have helpful legislation like this, do you think that we will be able to improve the health and welfare of those animals that are being moved into the country?

Mike Flynn:

Without question, because as I say, they are not being checked. Because there are not enough pups in the UK we have a massive problem with them coming over from Ireland, but there are not even enough of them at times, so they are bringing them in from Romania, and charging people vast sums of money to get a dog delivered to them—in one case, at midnight on a Saturday, and in an appalling condition. You have all the veterinary fees that you are incurring. You have the welfare of the individual dogs. All that could be avoided through sensible legislation such as this, and proper enforcement.

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

Thank you, Mike. That was very powerful evidence for us to hear.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media & Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Housing, Communities & Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (The Constitution and Welsh Affairs)

Q Thank you, Mr Flynn, for your evidence. May I take you back to the issue of livestock worrying? I was interested to hear your comments about the Scottish example, and that the wording of the definition in the Scottish Act of a dog under control or at large had, in practice, proven a bit problematic. I have an idea why that may be, but I am keen to hear of your thoughts and experiences on the wording in the Scottish Act.

Mike Flynn:

I know that David Bowles from the RSPCA voiced a concern earlier. From my 34 years’ experience—we do not directly deal with this, but we assist the police quite often—I have never known a dog that has attacked or savaged a sheep that has been on a lead in the field with its owner attached to it. It is very rarely intentional. The majority say, “My dog would never do that,” until the day that it does. The dog runs wild. Some people say, “But the sheep was still standing when I got my dog back.” They do not realise that it has aborted about an hour later. From the trauma, they can die of stress an hour after you have regained your dog. If your animal is on a lead, it cannot attack something; it is as simple as that.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

Mike Flynn, chief superintendent of the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, thank you very much indeed for your time.