Clause 1 - Prohibition on keeping primates without a licence

Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 16th November 2021.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:25 am, 16th November 2021

I beg to move amendment 91, in clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out from “primate” to second “under”.

This amendment would prohibit the keeping of primates as pets in England.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McVey, and to be back in Committee Room 10 discussing these issues, which some of us have spent many a happy hour doing. I look forward to an excellent debate over the next few days. I think we all enjoyed the excellent witness sessions last week, from which we learned a great deal, and there is much common ground. Both parties promised this Bill in their election manifestos, and I am delighted that the Government have put Members on the Committee who have expertise and interest in it. I strongly encourage them to speak, intervene and vote with their hearts when the moment comes. I am looking at the Government Whip; I know that she will encourage them to do that.

On one level, the Bill is quite dry, and it is a mixture of things, but it sits within the wider framework of the Government’s action plan for animal welfare, which was published some months ago, and was well received by Members on both sides of the House. It covers a lot of ground. When rereading it, I could not help noticing that, as in many documents from Governments of all colours, there is a kind of year zero, as if nothing happened before 2010 and all the good things have happened since. Indeed, in his introductory speech on Second Reading, the Secretary of State referred to 1822 and then jumped to 2010. Of course, Labour is quite proud of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which was significant. Much that we will discuss comes on the back of that groundbreaking legislation, but we will let that pass in a spirit of generosity, as we work together.

There is a slight problem with understanding how all the legislation fits together. That starts with the amendment and clause 1. When the animal welfare action plan refers to the Bill, it talks about

“ending the low-welfare practice of keeping primates as pets”.

I immediately wonder what that means. There is not a ban, as far as I can see. I will return to that point later. The plan starts with sentience, which is quite logical, although of course, as so often in this place, we have not started with that. Debate on that started in the other place, and doubtless we will talk about it in the months, or possibly weeks, ahead.

The plan goes on to cover animals abroad. I will perhaps gently press the Minister occasionally during these discussions on where that measure has got to. There seems to be some speculation that it may have got lost temporarily. We would be interested to hear more, as some of the issues that we would have liked to raise in the Bill may well have been in that measure.

Overall, there is a slight sense of an out-of-control shopping trolley veering along the aisles of animal welfare goodies, seeking to find the odd crowd-pleaser along the way. That is not how we would have done things, but here we are. There is a rather odd mix of things in the Bill, and perhaps to everyone’s slight surprise, we begin the journey of tackling all the issues around animal welfare with primates. Amendment 91 to clause 1 deals with that. It is a simple amendment, because it merely translates what is in the Bill to what was promised in the Conservative manifesto.

I admit to being slightly unkind, but I took another look at the manifesto—during elections, we all rush around and try to find time to read manifestos—and was delighted to find a happy picture of the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border. I know we are not supposed to wave things around when we are speaking, but I have a copy with me: it is a very nice picture. Next to him is a list of all the animal welfare things that are going to be done, including this statement:

“We will ban keeping primates as pets.”

The manifesto does not say that the Conservatives would ban the keeping of primates as pets unless someone has a licence. That is rather different, but that is what the Bill says. It goes into great detail on how a licensing system will be set up, and we will spend a lot of time discussing that this morning. However, that is not banning the keeping of primates as pets. Despite my attempt to make this amendment, I suspect that we will go on to discuss many of those issues. There are a range of other things in the manifesto, including an ivory ban, which I have referenced, so I commend the Conservative manifesto to Conservative Members, and we will hold them to account on it.

During the evidence sessions, we heard excellent evidence from witnesses on this issue. It is clear that the number of primates in this country that are not in zoos or research institutions is hard to estimate. We really do not know the number, which makes this quite difficult. However, I understood from the evidence that there are very few people who can provide the zoo-equivalent conditions in which, the Government argue, primates can reasonably be kept. The number may be hundreds, although I am sceptical that it is as many as that. We heard from many organisations, both in oral and written evidence. Interestingly, we also heard from Members on both sides of the House on Second Reading who believe, as Labour does, that primates should not be kept as pets, whether licensed or not. That is because primates are intelligent and socially complex creatures. Their physical, behavioural and environmental needs mean that they cannot be kept properly in a household environment. However well-intentioned the keeper, their suffering is all but inevitable. I will press the Minister on what a good environment might look like. We heard what a bad environment looks like—the awful cases of people keeping primates in parrot cages—but what conditions are good enough? I do not think that that is set out in the Bill.

Primates kept in domestic settings are liable to experience a host of welfare issues that can result in profound physical and psychological harm. For good welfare, both physical and psychological health must be ensured. Primates need to be kept in social groups, in complex, specially designed indoor and outdoor facilities, as I have just said. Generally, when kept as pets, primates do not have access to such facilities, and sadly, all too often, owners lack knowledge and understanding of the species they own, with inevitably serious welfare implications. That is why we all want this to stop.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the consultation on the Bill have exposed some awful stories of primates being kept in the kind of cages that I have described. They are also given unsuitable diets and can become sick as a result of not being exposed to proper light and heat levels. The evidence against keeping primates as pets is so strong that it has resulted in broad consensus among all those concerned with animal welfare that it should stop.

The danger of a licensing system, I am afraid, is that it will potentially allow the private owning, breeding and selling of pets to continue in perpetuity. This is not a ban; it is a licence. The RSPCA, Blue Cross and Wildlife and Countryside Link have all expressed their grave disappointment that the Government have opted for a licensing system rather than a ban. The British Veterinary Association has also raised concerns about the system.

We have identified a further inconsistency. Schedule 5, which the Committee will debate on Thursday when we come on to zoos, sets out the underlying principle of the Secretary of State’s zoo standards and licensing system: that as a society we do not approve of the keeping and breeding of animals in captivity unless there is a conservational and educational remit. Zoos are not allowed to keep animals for entertainment or hobby purposes only.

If privately owned primates are to be kept and traded under licence to the zoo welfare standard, frankly we think that the accompanying principles should be the same. It is widely recognised elsewhere in Europe that personal gain or hobby is not a sufficient justification for welfare compromises on the captivity of a wild animal. We believe that there is a need for a licensing system for genuine rescue and sanctuary, but that is different, and it would require clear definition and criteria.

Let us examine a further objection. The Government argue that the Bill will ban keeping primates as pets but will allow individuals who can keep primates to zoo quality standards to maintain ownership. A recent conversation with the RSPCA reconfirmed what is palpably obvious: whether an animal is deemed a pet is based on the purpose of keeping it, not on the standard of care. That position is backed up by the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018.

An animal kept in a domestic environment, however fancy and well equipped, is a pet. I know of several cats in Cambridge that live in the lap of luxury—not mine, sadly—with a quality of life high enough to please even the wealthiest of individuals, but it would be ludicrous to say that they are not pets.

The licensing system proposed in the Bill categorically fails to live up to the promises of the manifesto on which the Government were elected, which is why we have tabled amendment 91. I am afraid that it is for the Minister to explain why she does not think that the manifesto promise should be honoured.

Our amendment would put an end to keeping primates as pets. It would avoid the inevitable failures that I fear will result from the Government’s proposed licensing system—not least because, beyond allowing the practice of keeping pets as primates to continue, licensing will effectively create a sanctioned system for breeding and selling primates, as the RSPCA noted in oral evidence. That will do nothing to reduce the primate population; it could allow it to grow and could allow people to continue to profit from the domestic ownership of primates.

In the evidence session, we also heard the likely consequences of the Government’s expectation that local authorities with no extra resources will have to pick up the pieces of what we think is a flawed system. As we all know, the past 11 years have left local authorities struggling, to put it mildly. Most are struggling, and when it comes to animal welfare duties, I fear that many lack the experience and skills to carry out the task—a point to which we will return. Now it seems that the Government are proposing that primates whose keepers fail to meet the requirements of the licence should become the responsibility of the local council.

In our discussion of the Bill’s various clauses and amendments, there is an issue that I think the Committee should address. It is not clear what will happen to the potentially thousands of pet primates that will be taken from their owners as a result of measures introduced in the Bill. Whether there is a complete ban or a licensing system, that question really has to be addressed.

Beyond the care of primates whose keepers are unable to obtain a licence, there is also the question of enforcement. I fear that the system will put extra strain on councils. They will need to oversee licensing and conduct premise inspections, which are quite likely to have to be carried out by people who are not primate experts. Potentially, the system will also leave primates at the whim of a postcode lottery: their standard of care will vary significantly, depending on which council has responsibility for them.

Then there is the licensing. Despite the claims that the Bill will dramatically improve the welfare of primates, I am afraid that the Government are at risk of presiding over a situation in which animal welfare organisations are expected to give an opinion on licensing standards that they have not seen, and we in turn are expected to vote on licensing standards that we have not seen. This is an important decision, so we will press the amendment to a vote. There is a clear choice: a ban or a licensing system. The amendment will give many Committee members the opportunity to fulfil one of their election manifesto commitments if they come with us and ban the keeping of primates as pets.

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

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. As I said at the conclusion of the Second Reading debate, this House has been passing animal welfare legislation since 1635. I very much view the Bill as being on that continuum. We try to deal with all creatures great and small, but we cannot do that in every single Bill. I view the Bill as part of the ongoing journey since 1635. I see it not as a wobbly supermarket trolley, but as being on a trajectory towards better animal welfare. I will focus my remarks on the Bill, when I can; we will deal with many amendments that seek to go broader.

“Primates are long-lived, intelligent, socially-complex animals. They engage in imaginative problem-solving, form intricate social relationships, and display complex patterns of behaviour. Being social is a striking feature of primates, and perhaps the most important in terms of meeting their needs. With few exceptions, they live in complex societies that can comprise tens of individual animals.”

That statement is found in our “Code of Practice for the Welfare of Privately Kept Non-Human Primates”. It is always worth remembering that we are all, of course, primates in the wider sense. That code sets important parameters within which primates thrive.

The amendment seeks an outright ban with no exemptions. We need to focus on the welfare of the primate. We propose a licensing scheme for primates who are kept outside zoos, but to very high zoo standards. The fear is that if we have an outright ban, as the amendment suggests, we would trigger a rehoming crisis, which might lead to primates being euthanised. It is possible that there are up to 5,000 primates being kept privately in the UK, and if a ban comes in overnight, they would overwhelm rehoming capacity.

We heard powerful evidence last week from Dr Jo Judge of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Dr Alison Cronin of Monkey World, who both supported our approach. Dr Judge said:

“there are a number of responsible, registered—with BIAZA—keepers who keep their animals to…the highest level. We are very much in favour of banning primates

“as pets but allowing a licensing system for responsible keepers.”––[Official Report, Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Public Bill Committee, 9 November 2021; c. 24, Q32.]

Dr Cronin said:

“somebody’s back garden might have higher standards than…Monkey World”,––[Official Report, Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Public Bill Committee, 9 November 2021; c. 29, Q41.]

which is her own organisation.

Some of these private keepers help zoos manage excess primate stock, including primates who, for temperamental reasons, are not suited to a zoo environment. In our public consultation on this issue, only 19 respondents out of 4,500 opposed our licensing scheme.

I reassure the hon. Member for Cambridge that as part of the new standards for keeping primates, the code of practice will be backed up with secondary legislation that will be subject to the affirmative procedure in this House, so we will have many more opportunities to consider the way in which they are kept, and I respectfully ask him to withdraw his amendment.

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

The Minister gives it a good try, and I do not dispute her good intentions, but I think there is a fundamental problem. A number of responsible keepers could mean anything from zero to 5,000, and we heard in evidence that numbers are relatively low. My worry is that the crisis that she talks about will happen regardless. That is the problem, and the Bill presents no solution to it, so far as I can see.

I think we have a problem coming down the track. I suspect that, as so often happens in this place, we will pass legislation that we do not really have the means to enforce. A few years later, people will look back and wonder why it did not work, and they will have another try. That is the danger. The fundamental difficulty is what we do when we have thousands of primates in this country who, frankly, probably should not be here. It is an historical question, and, as on so many things we seem to be struggling with these days, we might ask how we got here. It was probably because of the ill-advised actions of a number of people in the past that we cannot necessarily undo now, even though we should be pretty clear, looking back, that what they did was not sensible.

What do we do? I think there are two approaches. My worry is that the crisis that the Minister describes will happen with the licensing system in the same way as it would without it, but with the added problem that we will have created a small group of people—I suspect that they will predominantly be pretty wealthy people—whom we indulge by allowing them to continue keeping primates as pets. That was not among the headline promises made by either party in their manifesto, and we will run the risk of keeping the problem going in perpetuity.

Although I do not underestimate the difficulties, and certainly do not underestimate the advice given by some of the witnesses, I think that when they were pressed last week, we could see that they would not be able to cope with such numbers. I will come back to this later, but I rather dread a situation in which the local town hall finds a primate dumped in reception. That would not be good for the primate, and it would be absolutely hopeless for the poor council officer who is left with the problem of what to do. I am afraid the Bill does not solve that problem, so we will push the amendment to a vote because we think there should be a proper ban.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 1 Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill — Clause 1 - Prohibition on keeping primates without a licence

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

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

I beg to move amendment 3, in clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out “anywhere in England”.

This amendment results in Part 1 of the Bill applying to Wales. There follow a number of other amendments in the name of the Minister which enable Part 1 to operate in relation to Wales. Functions under Part 1 that in England are conferred on the Secretary of State will, in Wales, be conferred on the Welsh Ministers.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 71 to 78, 5 to 9, 79 to 81, 15 to 17, 19 to 25, 27 and 28, 30 to 35, 59 and 60, and 65 to 67.

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

We have worked closely with the Welsh Government to ensure that the protections that this Bill provides to primates in England can be extended to Wales.

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

I am not going to make a longer speech. I am very pleased to see that the Welsh Government have come forward on this Bill. I am sure they would share many of the Opposition’s objections, but we are not going to go through amendment by amendment and query it. Clearly there are a lot of technical changes that have been made, and it would be in the interest of the Committee to get them through.

Amendment 3 agreed to.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

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

This clause, as amended, will prohibit the keeping of primates in England and Wales without a primate licence unless the primates are being kept under another licensing regime, for example, the Zoo Licensing Act 1981. Anyone keeping a primate without a licence, or without being subject to an exemption, will be committing an offence and will be subject to the maximum penalty of an unlimited fine on conviction. The goal of this legislation is to ensure that primates are not kept in unsuitable welfare conditions that are bad for their health. Primates are wild animals with complex needs. Where keepers have sufficient knowledge, time and resources it is possible to meet a primate’s needs in private ownership, as it is in a zoo or rescue centre. I therefore move that this clause stand part of the Bill.

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

This is the nub of the question: is it possible for these creatures to be kept in these kind of standards? I am not sure if the issue is whether it should be private or public ownership. We will possibly come back to the definition of zoos, rescue centres and sanctuaries, which prompt some big questions. There is a profound difference of opinion here. When one sees the documentaries one is struck by how complex and sophisticated these creatures are. There has been a long philosophical debate over the centuries considering our relationship with these complicated creatures, and I suspect that this is not the end of the story. I fear that we will look back—I am not sure we all will, but some of us will—in decades to come and think that we could have moved quicker towards a position where we treat these creatures with the respect that they deserve. I fear we have not gone far enough today. I suspect that we are now going to go on to discuss the details of a licensing system, but the Opposition do not think that there should be one.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.