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Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North) (Lab): It is a great pleasure and privilege to speak in this debate, which is one of the best that I have heard for quite a long time.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was perhaps being diplomatic when she said that many members of the public do not put animal welfare high on their agenda of importance. She was perhaps too kind as, unfortunately, a large swathe of the population are completely indifferent to animal welfare, which is very sad. We have three categories of people. There are those in the middle, whom she described so well. There are those who are ardent supporters of treating animals—farm animals, companion animals or any animals—with respect, consideration and kindness. At the other end of the spectrum is a very small minority who treat animals cruelly, sometimes through intent and sometimes through indifference. The end result is the same, however—the suffering of an animal.

I am pleased that the Bill has been introduced. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that it had taken four years to prepare. It has been worth it. Most people, despite some reservations, will think that it has been four years well spent. Few of those who have been eagerly awaiting the Bill for some time will be disappointed overall.

Importantly, the Bill recognises that society has a problem that will not just be put right by legislation. We will only put right the problem in society through education and changing the culture. That is one of the things that legislation can do. If we legislate to say that, no matter what the circumstances, a certain thing will be considered illegal, people will end up accepting that, there will not be any doubt, and we will start to bring about improvement.

We have heard some harrowing tales of animal cruelty, and the RSPCA says that in some areas it is getting worse. In my part of the country, Sunderland,
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there have been some deplorable instances. Against that, a growing number of people who are not necessarily animal owners will not accept that animals should be treated in such a way, from which we should take hope. Our prognostication should not be gloomy, because things can be improved. I heard it stated in a previous debate that many people look at life and say, "That's the way things are. You can't do much about it." That is not true. Over the years, politically, we have seen many changes take place, although perhaps not to as great an extent as we would like in animal welfare. Changes have taken place, however, and things can therefore be made better.

I want to take exception to one or two issues. First, I do so on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's position on tail docking, which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald was the first to describe correctly as mutilation. The term was used once or twice after that, but she was the first one to use it, and she is exactly right because that is what it is.

I am disappointed to hear from the Dispatch Box justifications for doing nothing on the ground that the same views are held sincerely on both sides. That is not exactly the nub of political action. No one denies that people are well-intentioned and sincere, but sometimes they are wrong. Tail docking is an example. It is deplorable and unacceptable that the small minority represented by dog breeders, those who show dogs and those who organise dog shows can bring about a degree of mutilation that I do not think the public accept. Moreover, no good argument has been presented for docking the tails of so-called working dogs. There is a view in its favour, but it does not seem to have been substantiated by any scientific evidence. I should have been much happier if the Government had expressed an intention of doing away with that deplorable practice.

I am, however, pleased that we have been promised a free vote—as are the Anti-Docking Alliance, the League Against Cruel Sports, the Dogs Trust, the British Veterinary Association and the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals. It is fair to assume that that is because they think that a free vote will lead to abolition of the reprehensible practice of tail docking. Nothing that causes pain should be done to any animal unless there is some justification for it. It is bad enough when it can be justified, but when there is no justification it borders on evil.

Two Members mentioned the 9,000 greyhounds that go out of service each year. Many excellent organisations try to rehouse them, and they do a good job, but it does not always work. Let us not forget that greyhounds are working animals and that a lot of money is involved in the greyhound industry. It seems to me not unreasonable for every greyhound owner to be required to register his dog, and for greyhounds that are to be disposed of to be found homes or humanely or properly destroyed by vets. There should be no more of the business of dogs being weighed down and thrown into rivers, because it is barbaric.

Unfortunately, the tail end—excuse the pun—of the dog track organisations is not particularly well thought of in that regard. We hear a great deal of anecdotal evidence about cruelty to greyhounds. If a greyhound cannot run, if it cannot make money, if it is not a winner, many people decide that it must be disposed of because it is worth nothing. We do not do such things in a
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civilised society; we look for a better way of going about matters. There should be a proper registration system, and proper obligations. I know that the greyhound industry has some good systems in place, and I understand that in 2008 the Government will introduce regulations involving the industry. I hope that they will subject every dog track to statutory legislation. Self-regulation is possible, but if it is to work there must be a proper code of practice. The Government have an important task to perform in that respect.

I want to say something about tethering and snaring. Snaring is a very emotional subject. I consider it intolerable that in this day and age we should snare animals in any circumstances, but let me issue a challenge to those who claim that the practice is acceptable. Until it can be proved that no animal is ever caused unnecessary pain and suffering as a result of snaring, intentionally or otherwise, it should be banned. If someone can demonstrate a humane system of snaring under which the wrong animal will never be snared, no animal will be caught in the wrong way and no unnecessary pain will be suffered, I just might be prepared to modify my views; but I am not prepared to do so now. I ask Ministers to examine the issue, although I accept that this is a very fine Bill—one of the best that we have seen. It has been long awaited, it is comprehensive and it is very much a modernising Bill. I use that term in the proper sense, not in the new Labour sense. The word "modernisation" regains its pleasant tone when applied to something worthwhile like the Bill, rather than to a measure that takes us down the wrong road, as some measures do.

Tethering is another deplorable practice that should not be allowed. People who own animals should be allowed to enclose them and keep them safely, but not tether them—not least because tethering means that an animal is captive and prey to predators. I remember the heart-rending plight of a pet donkey in a village near where I lived some years ago. It was very well loved and spent much of its time with small children, but it was tethered and it was butchered by some thugs. We shall never know what might have happened if it had not been tethered, but it would have had a much better chance of not being butchered. If animals must be kept, they should be kept in proper, enclosed premises. They do not need to be tethered. What they need is some freedom so that they can protect themselves, even if that means running away.

7.16 pm

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): The hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Bill Etherington) mentioned greyhounds. I agreed with much of what he said. I shall say something about the subject towards the end of my speech, although I shall reach slightly different conclusions because I have slightly different views on the industry.

As an animal lover, I support the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) has his dog Buster and, previously, his dog Spike; I have my cats Boris and Barney, although they are not as ambitious as Buster and Spike, who have received plenty of publicity. I think that we are all animal lovers, which
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is why we support the Bill and why there is a broad consensus on it. I believe, however, that some elements are flawed.

I support the Bill because it moves away from a narrow definition of cruelty. It is more welfare orientated, and is designed to ensure that there is a duty of care. The 1911 Act consolidated a number of 19th century Acts. This 2006 Bill faces a great challenge: to last, and to support the rising standards of welfare over time rather than simply addressing today's needs.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, of which I have the honour to be a member, considered the Government's response to the pre-legislative scrutiny that took place before my election. That showed me the value of Select Committees, and I believe that my Committee can play a greater role in overcoming some of the problems of secondary legislation.

I recognise that this is an enabling Bill. I asked the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) why he wanted to propose so many amendments. He may believe that they will allow the enabling legislation to become broader. I do not think that that will happen, but if he intends to table probing amendments, I think that that is a good idea. It is only through the prism of the various issues such as tail docking and circus animals that we can make sense of the legislation and establish whether it will work.

I hesitate to mention my father, because when I quote him people always assume that he is dead, whereas he is very much alive. However, he told me that the devil is in the detail—and in the Bill the devil is the question of how we will deal with secondary legislation. If we did not raise all the individual issues and consider how the Bill will be translated into secondary legislation, we might be subjected to fair criticism. The public would accuse us of leaving aside the hard decisions, as the DEFRA Select Committee put it. I am happy that secondary legislation will be subject to the affirmative procedure, but I am concerned and surprised that, rather like other codes, the farm codes, which date from the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968, will go from the affirmative procedure to the negative procedure.

I must admit that I am very unimpressed with the regulatory impact assessment, which I believe the Under-Secretary has to sign, but it must be said that a number of such assessments of Bills are not entirely satisfactory. I am particularly concerned about the extra long-term pressures that this regulation will put on councils such as Southend, which is already underfunded. Secondary legislation is likely to impose even greater responsibilities on councils. This issue was raised during pre-legislative scrutiny, but it has not been sufficiently dealt with.

I welcome the inclusion of clause 10, which obliges the Government to consult the "appropriate national authority", but I am concerned that that is too broad a definition. Perhaps we should extend the obligation to regional authorities, particularly devolved Assemblies, and a number of interest groups also want to contribute to the process. I appreciate that the Government cannot extend the terms of the clause too widely, but extending them would assist the secondary legislation process.
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There is no duty on the Government to look at the science and the facts behind the decisions that they are taking, which concerns me. Animal welfare is a particularly emotive subject. When someone says, "This is an animal welfare issue", almost all of us think, "Such a view must be right." However, there are people on both sides of the fence examining animal welfare issues, and not all objections made on the basis of animal welfare are right. Members in all parts of the House doubtless received briefings on this issue from various organisations. Some were very good; others were very emotive and lacked scientific fact. My worry is that during the secondary legislation process, the Government and members of the Committee will be swayed by emotive and impassioned pleas, rather than by science.

I am also worried about the likely pace of introduction of secondary legislation. I implore the Under-Secretary to consider quality, rather than sticking rigidly to the timetable. Matters such as riding schools, livery yards, cat and other animal homes, pet shops, pet fairs, mutilations and the tethering of horses must all be dealt with and legislated on, according to the current timetable, before the end of 2007. That might prove a little too much to take on, given that the current situation has evolved over time since 1911. It is more important that we get this legislation right than that we simply to get it on to the statute book.

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