My hon. Friend makes a good point. Most of these homes—the vast majority—are set up with good intentions in mind, and sometimes those setting them up can be overwhelmed. However, there is support available, and in the months ahead we need to ensure that it is readily available and understood.
It is worth responding to the point on dog licensing made by the hon. Member for Leigh. We stopped dog licensing in 1988 due to low compliance. Those countries that have dog licensing schemes invariably still have low compliance rates. We have found it much more effective to rely on compulsory microchipping, and our focus is on increasing its uptake.
The consultation on the third-party sale ban, which we took forward in August 2018, attracted nearly 7,000 responses, and we published the summary of responses in December 2018. As a result of concerns being expressed similar to those articulated by the hon. Member for Leigh, the summary of responses document makes it clear that we will bring in a ban on third-party sellers of puppies and kittens as soon as possible. The document also made it clear that we would undertake further consultations with key stakeholders, such as welfare charities, vets and local authorities, on the idea of licensing rescue and rehoming centres, with a particular focus on centres that rescue and rehome dogs, cats and horses.
The Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018, which came into force in October, already require licensing of commercial pet sellers, dog breeders and certain other activities involving animals. The regulations provide the tools for regulating rescue and rehoming centres. We would need to set out the necessary specific conditions for such centres, which the sector is happy to help develop. However, I want to make it clear that in regulating this sector, we need to be confident of the benefits and the impacts, particularly on some of the smaller rescue and rehoming charities, which is why we are exploring these issues with the organisations involved. The hon. Member for Leigh alluded to that in her speech, and I hope she will understand that we are taking some time to ensure that we get our approach to the various aspects of the sector absolutely right.
The RSPCA is a member of the ADCH. The charity says that in the past eight years it has investigated some 11 individuals and obtained 80 convictions against five persons involved in animal rescue. A further two people received a caution. These cases involved a total of over 150 animals of different species, including dogs, cats, horses, farm animals and birds. This is despite the ongoing assistance that the RSPCA gives to failing establishments to ensure that they meet the needs of the animals under their care. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton alluded to the fact that support was required. The RSPCA does fantastic work in this area, which can involve years of work in providing advice and education to the same establishment. Sometimes those organisations fall foul of the law, which is when the RSPCA can get involved, as can local authorities in some cases.
Although regulation could benefit the rehoming sector and, importantly, the welfare of animals involved, we must remember the work and contributions of smaller rescue centres, which in the vast majority of cases do all they can to promote the welfare of animals in their care. Many of these centres are not members of ADCH, and we are discovering that there are likely to be hundreds out there. The latest estimates indicate that there are over 1,000 organisations operating in England that rehome and rescue dogs, cats and equines. In a way, that fits with the analysis that the hon. Member for Leigh obtained through her freedom of information request.
Clearly, we are dealing with many hundreds of these organisations. DEFRA is working with them and other welfare organisations to build a better understanding of the issues for smaller organisations. We want to work with them to improve the standards of welfare in those that are operating genuinely with the best intentions. More can be done to address the work of well-intentioned rehoming centres in the context of puppy imports. I have zero tolerance for unscrupulous dealers—I am sure the hon. Member for Leigh and other hon. Members share my view—who clearly abuse the pet travel scheme to traffic underage puppies into the UK. These puppies travel long journeys in very poor conditions and are not effectively protected against serious diseases, such as rabies and tapeworm, which poses a risk to their health as well as to that of other animals and people. These puppies spend their early weeks of life facing unacceptable welfare and health conditions, and we must put a stop to this.
A key aspect of tackling puppy smuggling and assisting rehoming centres in their work is helping the public better to understand how to responsibly purchase or adopt a puppy and raising awareness of puppy smuggling. Through the umbrella body, the Canine and Feline Sector Group, we are in early discussions with key stakeholders on the development of a behaviour change campaign. I strongly believe that a unified message across Government and respected non-governmental organisations can have a real impact, and I look forward to working together with our partners and hon. Members to achieve this. We can work with them to share our early understanding of this and develop a better approach, and I look forward to engaging with them on this issue.
We must also guard against those who might be tempted to set up a rescue and rehoming operation with the primary intention of profiting from the public’s appetite for pets, and effectively operating a pet-selling business, rather than a genuine rescue and rehoming charity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood said. Pet-selling businesses should be regulated under the animal activity licensing regulations introduced in October 2018. We will help local authorities with clear guidance to help them distinguish between those selling pets and genuine rehoming centres.
The Government have made it clear that we take animal welfare very seriously. We have a clear, positive action plan and have followed it up with a series of plans and actions, including updating and improving the laws on the licensing of certain animal-related activities, increasing the maximum penalties for animal cruelty, banning third-party sales of puppies and kittens, and looking at the options for licencing rehoming centres to ensure all rescue homes meet good standards of animal welfare. We will take the steps necessary to address the concerns relating to the regulation of rehoming centres and animal rescue centres. I thank the hon. Member for Leigh for securing this debate and for giving us the opportunity to debate these important issues.
Question put and agreed to.