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Patrick Hall : I congratulate my hon. Friend on being called in this debate on such an important matter. Does he share my satisfaction that the Government confirmed to the Select Committee that the proposed consultation on the secondary legislation that is to come later this year or next year will be full and include the question whether pet fairs should be licensed, not just how they should be licensed?
David Lepper: I welcome the assurance given to the Select Committee in November 2005 on that issue. The Minister went a little furtherI hope that it will be confirmed todaywhen he said that it would be necessary to consider new means of consultation within Parliament and that he hoped that the Select Committee would want to consider that and other issues covered by the regulatory impact assessment again. That is an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) has raised already this afternoon.
I also welcome the fact that the Minister and the head of DEFRA's animal welfare division, Mr. Bourne, in his evidence before the Select Committee, made it clear that the Government would be willing, as part of their consultation, to consider the question of an out and out ban. But that is not what the regulatory impact assessment attached to the Bill at the moment says, so I would welcome confirmation on those points from the Minister, perhaps later today.
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There is some confusion here. If that section is to remain on the statute book, how does it gel with the proposal for a system of licensing of pet fairs? By their very nature they should be illegal, and there is no intention to repeal that section, which makes them illegal.
There is a further confusion. I welcome the fact that the Government have taken precautionary measures in relation to avian flu and gone along with the European Commission's directive on banning pet fairs, but there seems to have been a partial lifting of that ban, because as I understand it organisers need merely to have registered their intention to hold such an event two weeks beforehand with a local representative of the state veterinary service. If that is so, it is at odds with my understanding of the current situation, where the local council, as the licensing authority, decides whether to license such events. The Government's approach has a degree of confusion at its heart.
Later this evening, I shall present to the House a petition on the issue containing some 15,000 signatures. The petition asks the Government to think again and hold to their promise to consider an outright ban as part of the consultation on any secondary legislation. It also asks them to go further and deal with the issue now in the Bill, so that the proposed legislation does not overturn the current understandingthis is the view of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and a number of councils throughout the countrythat pet fairs are illegal.
Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): First, may I add my comments to those of other hon. Members about Tony Banks, who did a great deal in this House for animal welfare? It is very sad that he is not with us to see the introduction of this Bill today.
I welcome the Bill and add my support and that of my hon. Friends to that expressed by the Conservative party and Labour Back Benchers. We support the Bill, but we will also seek to improve it. Although it is a matter of party policy for us, Liberal Democrat Members will, like other hon. Members, have free votes on certain issues, one or two of which have already been raised.
The legislation is long overdue, and it has had a long gestation. The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) was right to say that such legislation normally comes forward only under a Liberal Government. If we had had more Liberal Governments, we might have more legislation to improve animal welfare.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, which allows me to clarify that I did not say
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that. The Bill refers to "cruel and inhumane punishment", which has been dished out to his former leader in past weeks and months.
This is a once-in-a-century opportunity significantly to improve animal welfare in this country, and I congratulate the Government on introducing a Bill that cohesively brings together the relevant Acts of Parliament and that allows the prospect of further improvements. I particularly welcome the duty of care in clause 8, which is central to the Bill. It will go a long way to dealing with the abuses, which all hon. Members know about from their postbags, televisions and elsewhere. In some cases, authorities, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, did not intervene to help animals in distress because an offence had not technically taken place. The Secretary of State has mentioned the extension of protection from farm animals to other animals, and I hope that it will deal with such cases, of which there have been too many.
In this country, we have a tremendous affection for animals and a good record of introducing legislation over the centuries. Almost inexplicably, however, some people derive pleasure from inflicting cruelty on animals, while others are cavalier about animal welfare. We must make it clear that we will not tolerate such behaviour and will introduce legislation to tackle it. The increase in penalties also sends a welcome signal that people who hold such views need to be careful, and I hope that it will reduce instances of animal cruelty and of animals not being cared for properly.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one simple thing that could be done is to ban the keeping of primates as pets? I am glad to be sitting next to my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who has led that campaign in this place. That would make a real difference to the quality of life of those animals, at least.
Norman Baker: I entirely agree. I am sure that the Secretary of State will resist a shopping list of desirable activities and argue, as she already has, that the nature of the Bill provides for future flexibility. I understand that, but certain issues are important and should be included in the Bill. If they are not, we should at least have a ministerial statement clearly setting out the Government's position. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) will be pleased to know that I intend to table an amendment in Committee on primates as pets to establish the Government's position on that.
Mr. Vaizey : I offer the hon. Gentleman my wholehearted support for his amendment. I understand that the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Bill contains a clause that allows the Scottish Government to bring forward regulations banning the keeping of certain pets. Will he press for such an amendment if his amendment does not survive?
It is true that we can learn from Scotland in many ways. One of the advantages of the devolutionary system is that we can try different
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legislative approaches in different parts of the United Kingdom, which often leads to good examples such as that cited by the hon. Gentleman.
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Much has been made of the work done by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but the Government have ignored many of its recommendations, one of which concerns suffering. It said that the whole clause on suffering is unclear in its intent and application. We would not need to discuss primates if the definition of suffering was clear. Part of the reason why it is not is that the Government have merely taken some clauses from case law going back to the 1880s. I hope that in Committee the Government will be more minded to listen to some of the recommendations made by the EFRA Committee than they were previously.
My main concern for the future is that the good intentions in the Bill may not be followed through because to some extent it relies on external activity. The duty of care provisions in the clauses that I mentioned, which I very much support, will rely on the RSPCA and others taking court action in particular cases to establish case law. That applies to all legislation to some extent, but to a greater extent in respect of the Bill. That pushes the responsibility for the interpretation of this central part of the Bill away from Parliament and on to the courts. The wording is therefore terribly important. At worst, we could end up passing an Act that we all think is very good, but subsequently find that it is flawed when tested in the courts, or that the secondary legislation that we expected is not introduced. We need to push the Government further to try to get a clearer picture than emerges at present.
The hon. Member for East Surrey referred to the terms of the secondary legislation. It will indeed provide flexibility if we have a Bill that can be amended quickly in the light of circumstances; I entirely accept the point made by the hon. Member for Carlisle. However, there is a balance to be struck between that flexibility and some degree of certainty that the measures that we expect, and have been argued for outside, will be introduced. Sadly, we can find in enabling legislation passed under all Governments many examples whereby provisions have been put into a Bill that was subject to cross-party agreement and enacted, yet they sit there unused.
I can go back to my days as a parliamentary researcher and the Environmental Protection Act 1990. It gained cross-party agreement yet some provisions have still not been effected 16 years later. Reliance on secondary legislation is reliance on the good faith of the Governmentperhaps not even this Government but the nextin introducing it. It worries me that the provisions may not be effected in their entirety.
That means that the provisions could simply sit there indefinitely. When the Government get cold feet about tail docking or circuses, they will simply say, "This is too difficult; we won't bother to do it." We therefore need some sort of assurance either from the Under-Secretary about the codes of conduct that he intends to introduce or about the commencement date for all the clauses. We need something more than the current open-ended arrangement if we are to be certain that the Bill will be as we want it.
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