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Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): I join right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House in welcoming the Bill. It is gratifying to support a Bill that has so much support in the House and, more widely, from the many agencies that are concerned with animal welfare.

In speaking at this point in the debate I am faced with the dilemma that is known to all Members of the new intake. Having waited for hours to speak, it seems that much that I wanted to say has already been said.
 
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However, it is important that as many Members as possible have a chance to speak and to air their views on the issues that have been raised.

We have heard from many colleagues who have a long history of concern about animal welfare issues. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned that we were the first country to legislate to protect animal welfare. Yet, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) said, it is curious that in a country such as ours, with so much concern for animal welfare, there are still so many instances of animals being subject to suffering and living their lives in stressful and unnatural conditions. At its extreme, this emerges as examples of cruelty sent to right hon. and hon. Members in the briefings from the RSPCA. It is to be seen in reports of, for example, the party-goers who microwaved a pet cat during a party over the Christmas season.

It is therefore most welcome that the Bill promotes a duty of care among animal owners that is surely to be applied to those such as the people who had the party during which the cat was microwaved. Account must also be taken of the needs of animals. The Bill covers needs such as a suitable environment, food and water, protection from pain, the suffering of injury and disease, housing with or apart from other animals and the ability to exhibit normal behaviour patterns.

From that list, I think that the two most important needs are protection from pain, injury and disease and the ability to be able to exhibit normal behaviour for the species. Those two aspects of an animal's welfare are important in determining our responses to the issues that have been highlighted earlier, such as mutilation in the form of tail docking, electric shock collars used for training, pet fairs or intensive factory-level farming for the rearing of game birds.

If we take account of an animal's welfare needs as expressed in the Bill, it is clear what our response to many of these issues should be. Ways of mutilating animals such as the non-therapeutic docking of dogs' tails should no longer be allowed in my view. Tail docking undoubtedly causes pain. If the reasons are cosmetic and mainly to do with the dog's breed, that pain seems to be unnecessary. Tail docking will also inhibit normal behavioural habits. The dog cannot wag its tail or use it for balance or movement. Mutilating a dog's tail seems to be one of those outdated and unnecessary practices that it is time that we planned to end. In common with other hon. Members, the dog owners to whom I have spoken recently share that view.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), have raised the issue of pet fairs. Given the emphasis in the Bill on regulation, licensing and a duty of care, a fair is not the right place to buy and sell animals. There is evidence that some pet fairs sell animals caught in the wild, so there is clearly a health risk to the public, particularly given current concerns about wild birds. Pets undoubtedly suffer stress if they are taken to a crowded fair and exhibited for sale. For those reasons, we should revisit the issue of banning pet fairs. Some local authorities already do so, and it would be helpful if good practice were clarified for the benefit of all local authorities.

Concern has been expressed about farming conditions for the millions of game birds reared every year for shooting. My hon. Friend the Member for
 
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Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) aired the issues very well. It is good that shooting organisations such as the British Association for Shooting and Conservation have now expressed opposition to the intensive rearing of game birds. It should therefore be clear to people who rear such birds that the time has come to look at more traditional methods, to abandon the intensive farming of game birds, and to try to return to free-range methods of rearing.

I should like to close my remarks by congratulating the Government on the Bill, which will raise animal welfare standards and make owners responsible for their animals or suffer increased penalties if they fail to do what is reasonable to meet the animal's needs. I welcome, too, the prosecution of people responsible for arranging, or being present at, animal fights, or causing unnecessary suffering in other ways described by hon. Members. When I was an elected member in local government in Trafford, we introduced our own animal welfare charter, which covered many aspects of animal welfare. It did not have the force of legislation, but we introduced it to promote debate on the issues and to foster best practice. I am pleased that the framework of the Bill will allow debate and the fostering of best practice, both now and in the months and years to come.

8.36 pm

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to our debate. Mine is the last Back-Bench contribution, so the debate will conclude early, thus allowing hon. Members to return home to their pets, which will be wondering what on earth has become of them. It often strikes me that it is a misnomer to describe people as pet owners, as clearly it is the pet that owns the human. Indeed, as a young boy I was brought up by two Burmese cats which ruled the roost in my house. Our debate is ending early not because of a lack of interest among hon. Members—many of them have studied the Bill with great care and have an intense interest in the issues that it raises—but because there is significant consensus that the Bill is welcome and necessary. It is timely, it has been the subject of consultation, and it has been examined in great detail, so it will have a relatively smooth passage through the House and the other place.

As a new Member, I continue to enjoy participating in our debates and seeing how the issues develop, and it is clear from today's debate that two or three issues will be contentious, including tail docking. Having been lobbied by constituents and organisations that are interested in the issue, I have studied the subject closely in the past few weeks and months in an effort to reach a conclusive view. The Government should ask themselves three questions. First, does the current system work? It is a rigorous system, based on amendments in 1991 and 1993 to the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966, which permitted vets alone to carry out tail dockings. Anyone else who docks a dog's tail performs an illegal act, as I pointed out to the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew).

We should accept that the system works well, given the strong position of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, which opposes tail docking except where it is necessary. Secondly, if we opt for a total ban on tail
 
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docking, the Government should ask what the consequences will be. Like many unpleasant practices that we regulate or allow to be legal, we do so partly because we do not want to see the consequences when those practices are illegal. Those consequences are that the practice goes underground, is carried out by inexperienced people, and leads, possibly, to more cruelty by being carried out in an unregulated environment than in a regulated environment.

At the heart of the debate on tail docking is the issue of whether it is cruel. Again, the evidence is finely balanced. I have been referred to at least three senior veterinary sources who have come to the conclusion that tail docking is not cruel because young puppies do not have the same nervous systems as grown dogs. In particular, I refer to the research of Professor Grandjean, a French professor whose name loosely translates as Big John, and therefore not a man to be trifled with, from the veterinary school of Alfor in France, who is the author and scientific co-ordinator of the "Royal Canine Dog Encyclopaedia". I shall carry on talking as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is ready to spring on me. He describes the period shortly after birth as a "vegetative phase". The dog has few reflex actions and the nervous system is not fully developed.

Miss Widdecombe: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. First, how young a puppy has he dealt with, and was that puppy a vegetable, or did it actually exhibit reactions? Secondly, does he agree that unless there is a serious purpose to docking, even if it causes only minimal pain it is wrong because of the other consequences? Finally, after all that, does he accept that there is also research, which I think was quoted earlier, that shows that puppies do feel the pain?

Mr. Vaizey: As I say, the research is worth considering in some detail, but the sources that I am quoting appear to me to be extremely senior veterinary surgeons. As to the age of the puppy, I would refer to the research of Professor Hales from Sydney university, who says that tail docking up to the age of 14 days would not lead to pain for the puppy. Returning to Professor Grandjean, his view is that major surgery could be carried out on a puppy that was very young because the nervous system is not yet developed. The point—


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