Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), who made a reasoned, and seasoned, contribution to the debate in his usual sincere manner, and I am grateful to him for that.

A number of people have commented on their memories of Tony Banks in this place. Although he became famous, or even infamous, for his campaigns on hunting with dogs, he did, as my right hon. Friend the
10 Jan 2006 : Column 192
Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) mentioned, take a great interest in many animals. During my time as chief executive of the Cats Protection League, or Cats Protection, as it now prefers to be called, Tony was made one of the patrons of the league, along with my right hon. Friend. Tony was a strong supporter and a great cat lover. I like to think that he would have a wry smile on his face at the thought that he, like the cats he loved, left a mark on this place. He was a man who will be well thought of in the animal welfare world for the sincerity with which he cared for the pets he owned and the pets he argued for.

It is a pleasure to take part in a debate in which there are so many Members present who over the years have expressed such keen interest in animal welfare work. I am glad that we can now have this debate, which has been delayed for so long under Conservative Governments and under this Government because there was always the danger that the Bill would be hijacked and would concentrate only on hunting with dogs. Every time Ministers suggested trying to do something about the legislation, the business managers on all sides would run for cover because they knew that it would be a Christmas tree Bill, with everybody wanting to hang a bauble on it, so it would be completely lost in this place. Now that hunting with dogs has been taken care of in a different way, we can concentrate on how legislation affects animals more widely.

The contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald about our responsibilities, particularly to domesticated animals, was well made. When I represented the largest cat welfare charity in Britain and went to different places, I often got quite hostile questions from people in the audience. We raised £27 million a year for cats, and people would ask, "Why aren't you giving that to children or to people abroad? How dare you have 300 employees spending so much time and effort looking after cats?", without realising that, as my right hon. Friend said, how we treat our animals is very much a mark of our society.

What helped to make the cruelty debate more realistic was when, eventually, the police came to the conclusion that a person—sadly, often, a man—who will kick a dog is often the same individual who will as likely kick a child or a partner. The same is true of cruelty to cats. Some of my friends used to tease me about my work with Cats Protection, saying, "I bet you mix with some pretty strange people." The term "mad cat lady" was always being thrown at me and the people with whom I was dealing. I well remember when my right hon. Friend visited one of the shelters; I went with her because the manager was a bit nervous about having someone so famous come to look at a cat. My right hon. Friend went round to decide to which one or two cats she might give a home. There was one that she particularly liked, and the manager came up to me quietly and asked, "How do we tell her that this cat is an ankle-biter?" I approached my right hon. Friend and said, "You might want to be careful because one of the cats you're looking at is an ankle-biter." She said, "Only once." We understood exactly. Of course, she went on to give the animals a wonderful home.

The thing that I have discovered, having met thousands of men and women who work in cat welfare, is that the vast majority are perfectly normal—but,
10 Jan 2006 : Column 193
every now and then, we get a really odd one. What the Bill does, particularly for sanctuaries, is deal with the odd one: the person who ostensibly loves the animal and means well and takes in a cat or two; then it is five and then 10, and because the cat is one of the most proficient breeding animals in the world, before very long it is 100. We would then have to try to move in vets, the RSPCA and social workers to do something about it.

The message that we always used to try to put across to people is, "You don't have to be kooky to look after a cat. You don't have to be an extreme animal welfare person. You just have to be normal." We would say to those with a dog, "Have a cat as well" because dogs and cats get on well together. I would then get hostile letters from cat ladies saying that one should never have cats with children or with dogs. What I found increasingly with some of the smaller sanctuaries where we had to put in vets to try to help is that some people's love for the animal was completely overtaken by their inability to cope with the care of the animal. Although they meant well they just could not cope.

I am glad that the Government are bringing forward measures to tackle licensing and registration. The Secretary of State, in her welcome opening remarks, mentioned that there would be greater need for welfare sanctuaries. The right hon. Lady is probably right in saying that. As a result of that, there will be much greater need for care standards. The Cats Protection charity introduced cat care standards. It was hugely controversial because it was designed to limit the number of cats that people could look after—rather than hundreds, say a maximum of five. It was rather like declaring war on some of our supporters.

When it comes to sanctuaries, vets are not always the best inspectors. I found it surprising that some vets can have a pretty hard-hearted approach to pets. I am not decrying the profession generally, but I have met a number of vets who have a pretty tough approach to animals. Although they would obviously care for them from a veterinary point of view, welfare was less of a strong point for them. When secondary legislation is brought forward, especially that dealing with sanctuaries, it is important that proper care and attention is given to the way in which animals are kept.

Members receive a lot of lobbying from the RSPCA, which has its detractors. Sometimes it is more political than some people would like. My experience of working closely with it over seven years is that it means well and that the political dimension of its activities is only a small, although controversial, part of its work overall. The RSPCA undertakes a vast iceberg of work through its paid staff and also through voluntary helpers. It is remarkable. It is right that Members and Government advisers take note of the RSPCA's views.

We must have a mind to some of the other welfare societies that have particular expertise. Reference has been made to the work of the Dogs Trust. My hon. Friends the Members for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) have been great supporters of the trust. It is a wonderful organisation. It used to be called the National Canine Defence League. In our well-educated society, people did not understand what canine meant, so it was thought that the title "Dogs Trust" would be a bit easier and better to market.
10 Jan 2006 : Column 194
It has a dedicated chief executive called Clarissa Baldwin, who has sent a briefing pack to us all. I hope that Members who are appointed to the Committee will consider it closely. The trust does a marvellous job in looking after dogs, as does the Battersea Dogs Home, which is across the river from this place. It takes in cats as well, and its work has been continuing for 100 years.

Some of us might get into hot water over the business of mutilation. I find it a difficult issue. I can understand the point that is made about working dogs and the problems of maggots and faeces, for example, and there is also the domestic issue. I am confused because for many years I had a wonderful dog, which was a Labrador. It was not a gun dog or a working dog but a family pet. I lived in Shropshire and I saw many gun dogs at work. I cannot remember seeing a Labrador with a docked tail. It may be that some dogs are more appropriate to be gun dogs than others, but I think that Labradors are quite well used. Those who are in favour of the mutilation of tails will have to persuade me on the Labrador point.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend on the issue of tail docking. How would he see the matter being policed? I have a five-year-old terrier without a tail. I am sure that she is very sorry that she does not have one. If I get another terrier, I will make sure that it has a tail. If a ban is introduced, how will I prove that the dog's tail was docked before the ban came into place?

Derek Conway: I take my hon. Friend's point. Our family pet has a docked tail, and had one when we took it in. Many people give homes to rescued animals that have docked tails. Whatever the regulation that takes effect, from that moment on no doubt prosecutions will occur, if the practice continues.

I can understand why the Kennel Club is arguing on behalf of its members. It guards the purity of the breeds with great care, and it does a remarkable job. Many people forget that the club is not only about the defence of the breeds—it is a generous charity, together with other welfare charities. It has a policing job within breeds as well as a supportive role, and it is generous to other dog welfare charities. I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, but I think that there will be a way round the issue once the proposed legislation is in place.

It is what will come from the legislation that worries me. We have all praised the Government for what they are doing, and that praise is meant genuinely, but I urge them to think back to the Environment Bill, which was enacted last year. Within that measure was a clause dealing with stray dogs. It provided for how they would be collected, cared for and all the rest of it. It was a flimsy part of the Bill. The Minister who was responsible for the Bill—not the Minister on the Front Bench—was nervous about it. There was not much time for it to be considered by the Committee. Dog wardens throughout the country are confused about what is going on.

The dog welfare charities, particularly the Dogs Trust, are trying to re-home stray dogs, and they are under great pressure. The measure was sold to us as enabling legislation and it was said that we would return to the details later. We have not done so, and stray dogs are still very much at issue. My hon. Friend the Member
10 Jan 2006 : Column 195
for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, had a bit of a dig at the Government about the Bill being open-ended. I have given an example of where previous open-ended legislation has passed through the House and has not worked.

There are so many issues of animal welfare to talk about. Clearly, everyone will wish to participate in consideration of the Bill in Committee. I hope that the business managers will ensure that consideration on Report will be of a decent length. What tends to happen is that Bills return from Committee and we find that there is no real time for the House to express its opinions. This is one Bill where the business managers can afford to be generous with time. We are talking not about party political issues, but issues that are widely felt not only in this place but by those who send us here. I look forward to the Bill's consideration in Committee and I wish the Committee well. I am glad that the debate can take place without extreme views dominating the agenda. It is because of that that so many aspects of animal welfare have had to sit on the back burner. I congratulate the Minister on bringing the Bill forward and on all the work that he has done. We look forward to seeing what he produces in Committee and when we consider the Bill on Report.

5.56 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page