I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention; indeed, one of the recommendations that I will come to in a moment is to introduce a test for rabies. We cannot do so at the moment, because we are in the EU, but that is an opportunity that we could take once we have left the EU. I also thank her for raising the “B word”.
Puppies should be at least seven months old before travelling to an EU member state from a third country, but the Dogs Trust found that in Serbia puppies as young as 10 weeks were given fake documentation, so that they could gain entry to the UK.
It is worth reflecting on the truly awful conditions that some of these poor animals have to endure. To evade detection, puppies are sometimes squashed into the hollow of backseats or covered in blankets and bundled under a front seat. They are often sedated to prevent them from making any noise or moving around. The Dogs Trust has told me that it has intercepted at the border puppies that have been given such heavy doses of sedative that it has taken them several days to come to. Travelling to the UK by car from countries such as Lithuania, Latvia and Serbia can take up to 30 hours, during which time puppies are given no toilet breaks, no time to exercise and very little, if any, food and water.
One case that exemplifies just how awful the trade is, is that of Lola, a French bulldog who was transported hundreds of miles from Lithuania, with temperatures in the van she was smuggled in reaching more than 40° C. She was heavily pregnant and it is illegal for a travelling pet to be pregnant. Shortly after being taken in by the Dogs Trust, she gave birth to four puppies, but it was such a difficult birth and she had been through such a traumatic experience that two of them were stillborn.
Lola has since had a number of health issues, ranging from infections to respiratory diseases, with some requiring surgery, but the Dogs Trust has managed to arrange treatment and she has been successfully rehomed. However, had Lola not been detected at the border, she and her puppies would have been advertised online and sold to an unsuspecting family who had no knowledge of the state of their health. Imagine someone bringing a new puppy home to their family, to very excited children, only to discover that it was unwell, possibly diseased and requiring treatment that could cost thousands of pounds.
The trauma of the journeys these puppies are forced to endure often leads them to develop behavioural issues and some, unfortunately, do not recover from their health issues and end up being put down. After rescuing 39 puppies from one commercial dealer, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found that six needed to be put down immediately and two thirds had congenital defects. The RSPCA has also cited an investigation that found that about 20% of puppies bought on the internet died within six months.
What can be done to put an end to this trade? There have been many suggestions and, as has been mentioned, some of the changes can be made once we have left the EU. I wish to acknowledge and show my appreciation for the fact that the Government take animal safety and welfare seriously—for example, all the work that they have done on the banning of ivory sales and third-party sales of puppies. But they could, and should, go further. For instance, I urge them to bring before Parliament as soon as possible the already promised increase to five years of the maximum sentence for animal cruelty. That would apply to puppy smuggling.
I also ask the Government to consider introducing on-the-spot fines for those caught illegally importing dogs, and I encourage them to improve the presence of border officials at our ports, to carry out more visual checks at all hours of the day, every day of the week. The current disparity in the border presence between office hours and weekend and evening slots can all too easily be exploited by smugglers.
Post-Brexit, the Government could reintroduce a requirement for dogs to have a rabies blood test and set a restriction on how soon after the test they could travel. That could increase the age at which dogs could legally enter the country to six months, say. The benefits of that in tackling puppy smuggling are twofold: it is much easier for officials to assess accurately the age of puppies once they have reached six months, and the incentive to smuggle puppies in the first place would be reduced because they are less desirable to the public once they are that bit older.
I know that the Minister is familiar with the issues we have raised; he and I have had many conversations in the past. Colleagues wish to bring up many other points, so I will finish my speech. I know that the Minister will listen carefully, and I look forward to his response.