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Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab):
It is a pleasure to speak in a debate in which a Bill is welcomed on both sides of the House, albeit with differences of opinion about the interpretation of some of the clauses. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), who spoke passionatelyas have other hon. Membersbut with great understanding of
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the issues. It has been suggested that some of the debate has been emotive, but I think that hon. Members have spoken with passion as well as an understanding of the science and technology involved in the issues.
We are known as a nation of animal lovers, but I wonder whether we really deserve that description, given the research on animal cruelty. A small minority of people cause suffering to animals, and the Bill rightly seeks to stop that and to deal with those people. That is why it is warmly welcomed by me, by other Labour Members and, I am glad to hear, by Opposition Members.
Unfortunately, figures released last year by the RSPCA showed a rise in the number of convictions for animal cruelty in the Swindon area from four to 15. The number of animals rescued from cruel treatment and abandonment in the south-west rose by 1,000. Some of the cases made grim headlines, as the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) graphically described earlier. I hope that the Bill will outlaw some of those practices and bring the perpetrators to book.
Later this year I hope to work as an RSPCA inspector for a day and I hope that other hon. Members will take advantage of the opportunity to do so. I am a little apprehensive about it because their work, while very worthwhile, can be harrowing. However, it is important for hon. Members to have some understanding of what is happening in our areas. There are many animal welfare organisations operating in Swindon, as in other parts of the country, and my office has consulted them about the Bill. They welcome it, and it will help them to deal with the results of the senseless animal cruelty that we have heard about today.
I hope that the Bill will cause a reversal of the statistics that I mentioned earlier and we can maintain our good reputation for animal welfare through our protection for animals. The Bill has seen a high level of public engagement. Since I have been a Member of Parliament I have noticed that people who care deeply about animal welfare tend to be open to working with their MP to bring about change, and that is obvious on both sides of the House. My postbag is full of letters expressing delight that the legislation is to be updated. As we have heard, the original legislation is nearly 100 years old and was the first parliamentary legislation on animal welfare in the world.
Like my correspondents, I have been waiting for better legislation and I am aware that many people in Swindon are counting on us to ensure that the Bill is robust enough to stand the test of another century if necessary. One area in which I fear the Bill will not be robust enough is tail docking. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State repeated earlier her statement at the weekend that she will listen to the views of Parliament on that issue and I welcome that. I did not interpret that to mean that she would retain the status quo. I hope that she will listen and see the necessity of banning tail docking. Vets and the RSPCA have opposed tail docking for many years on the grounds that it causes pain and serves no useful purpose. I see a conflict between the Bill's new obligation on the owner of an animal to do what is reasonable to meet its needs for appropriate protection from pain and injury and the practice of tail docking. There is a real need for concrete evidence about whether tail docking is justified for working dogs because of the risk of injury, compared
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with non-working dogs. A seven-year study at the university of Edinburgh showed insufficient evidence of statistical significance to suggest a positive association between tail injuries and undocked tails. We would need evidence of some weight before we could say that we should retain that practice. I believe that the House should legislate to ban tail docking in all dogs, including working dogs. It is a controversial issue, as we have heard, with strong views held on both sides, and I hope that it will be examined in detail in Committee.
The Bill has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of many domestic animals in Swindon and those at the Swindon greyhound track in the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), when the secondary legislation is made in the next few years. The new welfare offence will prevent many animals from enduring serious ongoing neglect by legally obliging owners to care for their pets properly. Too often, offenders have walked away. The Bill will strengthen the penalties and eliminate loopholes. For example, as we have heard, there will be a fine of up to £25,000 and an available sentence of nearly a year in prison, although I take the point that that may not be the final outcome.
The Bill sends a strong message to would-be abusers of animals and backs it up with real deterrents. That is why I have welcomed it and supported it in principle. I look forward to working with organisations and residents in my constituency to make it an even better Bill.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I pay tribute to the Government for introducing the Bill, which I support, but I would ask the Government to go further on the range of issues that I will set out in the next few minutes. The Bill is perhaps a little confused in parts. Some hon. Members have said that it has some grey areas and some have gone as far as saying that it has some large holes. I would not go that far, but we do need clarification on several points.
We have heard some excellent contributions. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) who said that one only had to be normal to be a cat owner, which might explain why I have always only ever owned dogs. I declare an interest as a dog owner with two miniature schnauzers. I am a proud member of the miniature schnauzer club of Great Britain and I am secretary of the all-party group on wildlife trusts.
I also pay tribute to the Dogs Trust in Roden in my constituency, which I have visited several times. The head office of the PDSA is in Shropshire, and I also pay tribute to the Hilbrae kennels, which I have also visited and which does a marvellous job taking in abandoned dogs. I also pay tribute to the Shropshire Star, which campaigns for animal welfare.
I shall make some general points and then some points about specific clauses. There has been no mention of the epidemic of dog-napping. Up and down the land, even as we speak, dogs are being kidnapped, which causes great distress and misery not only to pets but also to owners. I hope that the Minister will look at the
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excellent work of dogslost.co.uk and consider how the Government might help that organisation in reuniting pets with owners, perhaps by encouraging the police to take the crime of dog-napping more seriously.
Members have referred to suffering due to internet sales of animals. I am disappointed that the Bill does not explicitly make provision for stricter controls on internet sales. Although the Government recognise the need for a code of conduct, there are no proposals for tightening up the controls and no guarantee that they will be forthcoming, as they should be. I encourage the Minister to come to the House on 31 January when I shall present a 10-minute Bill that would end internet sales of endangered animals. I hope that we can safeguard the keeping and transportation of animals by regulating auction sites and internet sales of pets, and that the secondary legislation will cover that in detail.
Members on both sides of the House have made excellent speeches and have made many of the points that I wanted to raise, so I shall speak about some issues that have not been mentioned. Have the Government held discussions with the Town and Country Planning Association with regard to the effects on animal welfare of the design of new houses? As the majority of domestic animals spend most of their time in houses, unfortunately, I hope that due consideration to their welfare will be given in the design of new houses. Homes can be made pet-friendly, and I should welcome the Minister's comments on that point.
Even as we speak, tens of thousands of cats and dogs are locked up in homes throughout the country while their owners are at work. The simple installation of a dog or cat flap would make their lives much easier. Animals do not have our privileges. When nature calls, I can approach the Chair and you are always generous, Mr. Deputy Speaker; you release me from the Chamber for a few moments, but pets in homes up and down the land do not have that privilege. I hope that the design of new homes will be taken seriously, so that people can have gardens.
In refutation, it is often said that burglars can get in through the dog or cat flap, but if a burglar wants to get into someone's home, they will find a way. I do not know of many burglars who have confessed to and been convicted of entering a house through the dog flap. They usually get in through an open bathroom window or simply smash down the door.
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