I am delighted to speak in this debate, and I thank Nigel Huddleston for securing it.
We know that puppy smuggling is increasing, but the scale of the problem is, by its nature, difficult to assess. Puppy smuggling now represents the third most frequent organised criminal activity to emerge from the RSPCA’s intelligence gathering, with only animal fighting and illegal hunting more frequent. The challenge is that the deterrents against that type of criminal behaviour are simply not robust enough: the fortunes that can be made far outweigh the punishments meted out, and that has to change. The real way to stop this barbaric trade is to enhance public awareness of the issue by highlighting the consequences of this vile illegal trade for dogs and for families.
The Dogs Trust and others have warned that damaging changes to the pet travel scheme in 2012 have resulted in an influx of puppies being illegally imported from central and eastern Europe into the UK for sale, with corrupt breeders abusing the system. Such mistakes must not be compounded inadvertently, but must be comprehensively addressed. An important aspect of tackling that abuse is cross-border co-operation with our European neighbours, and I hope—to mention the “B” word—that any form of Brexit, should it happen, does not prevent such co-operation between the UK and Europe. The European Parliament called last year for new resolutions to end the illegal trafficking of pets, and is working towards them. Whether we are in or out of Europe, we in the United Kingdom need to be part of those efforts.
I urge the Minister to work with our European partners to ensure that the microchipping of pets across the member states of the EU is more harmonised, as that would enable a more compatible database. We know that criminal gangs have taken advantage of the lack of harmonisation of ID, registration and database requirements to circumvent the pet travel scheme and use it as cover for the mass illegal smuggling of puppies. Harmonisation would strike a significant blow to the heart of this barbaric, illegal trade. We are nations of animal lovers, and we cannot delay any longer.