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Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): First, I would like to say how pleased I am to be taking part in what has been an excellent debate on both sides of the House. The Bill represents a significant step forward in the cause of improving animal welfare, and I particularly welcome the new duty of care that all animal owners will now have to demonstrate, and the welfare offence associated with it. Some concern has been expressed, in the light of the events of the past few days, that the Liberal Democrats do not take seriously the duty of welfare, especially towards creatures in distress. However, I can assure the House that we are fully committed to a duty of welfare, at least when it comes to animals.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: I am fascinated by what the hon. Gentleman has to say about his own party. He need not be over-sensitive, however, because the Bill applies only to vertebrates.

Greg Mulholland: Luckily, we are not particularly sensitive, as I think we have proved. I shall ignore the hon. Gentleman's comments, which is what they deserve.

Last summer I paid my first visit to the Yorkshire animal shelter, which is in my constituency. Like many other such shelters up and down the country, it is run solely by volunteers. It takes in animals ranging from cats and rabbits to ponies and goats. The majority of the shelter's work involves taking in animals that have been abandoned by their owners. The shelter is, like many others, in a very difficult situation. It receives no public funding and is constantly full to capacity.

The shelter manager tells me that, every week, it receives between 50 and 100 animals that have been abandoned. However, it simply does not have the capacity to deal with them all. To its credit, it manages to rehouse between 25 and 30 of those animals every week, which is a tremendous achievement considering the limited resources of the operation.
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This illustrates a serious national problem. The RSPCA investigated complaints of the abandonment of 14,311 animals between December 2004 and November 2005. Yet in 2004, the organisation managed to secure just 88 convictions. From those figures, we can estimate that the number of abandoned domestic pets nationally must total thousands every week. The problem of abandoned animals is one of the biggest animal welfare issues in the country, yet it is not even a grey area in the Bill. Rather, there is a gaping hole where any provisions on it should be. The Bill at last introduces the duty of care of an animal's owner to ensure its welfare. I am sure that we all agree that that is the most positive measure in the Bill, and it will make a difference to many of the animals looked after by people in this country. However, the Bill does not address the problem of abandoned animals.

The Bill repeals and replaces the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960. This was discussed by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, in regard to what was then clause 3(3) of the draft Bill. I am sorry to say, however, that that provision has been removed. The Committee's recommendations stated that

Unfortunately, the Government did not agree that that would be necessary. They claimed in their response to the Committee:

That is ridiculous. How could abandonment not amount to such a failure? Perhaps the answer would be popping a tin of cat food in the sack as it is left outside the gate, or leaving a "happy new home" card attached to a dog's collar as it is left to roam the streets?

The explanatory notes attempt to clarify this matter. They state:

Are the Government seriously arguing that a domestic pet can, in any circumstances, be released to live independently as a stray or in the wild? The Minister may nod his head, but the reality of the Bill is that abandonment will not in itself be an offence. In fact, anyone who abandons an animal in the right way will have no problem at all. This omission gives the impression—and possibly even a case to be argued in court—that, so long as someone leaves an animal near a sanctuary or a refuge, they will not be doing anything wrong. What kind of message is that? It will certainly be received with heavy heart by the many excellent organisations attempting to tackle the problem of abandoned animals. Abandonment of domestic pets is wrong. To omit that from the Bill is to fail to face up to one of the most serious and under-reported problems of animal welfare in the country.

Mr. Walker: Undoubtedly, abandonment is cruel, but how would the hon. Gentleman trace the owner of an
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abandoned animal, in order to bring a prosecution, without any form of identification? Is he suggesting the chipping of all domestic pets?

Greg Mulholland: The hon. Gentleman has pre-empted part of my speech. He makes a fair point, to which I will refer later.

The offence of abandonment must be treated as a specific issue and problem, and it must therefore be highlighted in the Bill. Ultimately, the organisations involved know that the problem of abandoned animals will be eased only when both the supply of animals is better controlled and the responsibilities of the owner better defined and enforced. In terms of supply, therefore, I welcome the provision in the Bill raising the age at which people can buy pets to 16. The law contains a worrying loophole, however, whereby it will still be perfectly legal to allow animals to be given away free with animal-keeping equipment. That is the kind of issue that needs to be addressed. The issue of prizes has also been mentioned. We need to address those matters, tighten up the licensing of pet shops and move with the times to include the internet. I welcome the fact that that will be dealt with in secondary legislation, which I hope will be introduced soon.

To echo the comments of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), more emphasis should be placed on educating people as to their responsibilities in owning an animal. How effective will the new duty of care be if owners are not legally obliged or educated to understand what their legal obligation is to ensure that pets will be both properly nourished and housed and have access to proper care where necessary? If that is not communicated at the point of purchase, it becomes irrelevant. I would only disagree with her in that I believe that it is possible, albeit in a limited way, to legislate to do that. I welcome annexe E of the regulatory impact assessment report, which suggests that pet vendors should have to issue a compulsory standard document to anyone purchasing an animal from them, outlining the responsibilities of owning that animal. As has been outlined, there have been serious situations in which people have simply not understood what is involved in owning even a cat or dog.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, with which I thoroughly agree. That is potentially a way in which the Government can at least signal what they believe constitutes responsible pet ownership, whether in relation to neutering, pet insurance or microchipping. That sort of advice is vital when people first get their pet.

Greg Mulholland: I thank the hon. Lady for that helpful intervention, which brings me on to the issue of microchipping.

I know that microchipping is a potentially divisive issue, but it is time that the House took it seriously. At the moment, I am afraid that the Bill shies away from it. Microchips cause absolutely no harm to animals and are already used by the RSPCA, Cats Protection and many smaller organisations. Back in 2000, the Government-sponsored dog identification working group recommended that a system of microchipping should be introduced and that 75 per cent. of dogs could be
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registered within five years. I am sorry that that recommendation was not taken up. It is regrettable, and it leads to the situation in which the Yorkshire animal shelter and similar organisations still find themselves today.

So much of the suffering of animals is unnecessary as well as disgraceful. I applaud the Bill for tackling many aspects of the problem. The Bill does not sufficiently address the suffering of abandoned animals, however, which begins the moment that they are abandoned. While, broadly, I welcome the Bill, it must be considered thoroughly. We must reintroduce a clause specifically outlawing the abandonment of domestic animals. We must properly tackle the ongoing problem of the irresponsible supply of pets. We must do more to educate people, including introducing some form of compulsory information at the point of purchase.

Broadly, the Bill is good and contains many provisions that will make a huge difference to animal welfare, to which I am proud to add my support. I am also pleased to have had this opportunity to point out an area in which the Bill is inadequate, however, and I hope that the Government will listen and address that before the legislation is finalised.

7.5 pm

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