Animal Welfare Bill

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Norman Baker: Yes. I am coming on to the problems with pet fairs, but I shall give way at this point.

Bill Wiggin: I am grateful. My difficulty with the new clause is that there are people who breed birds or other animals in captivity and wish to sell them responsibly. Then there are the irresponsible sales of wild-caught birds that may be unwell. How would the hon. Gentleman separate the two? Without an outlet for the birds bred legitimately, the new clause may cause more trouble than the problem he is seeking to solve. At the same time, I support what he is trying to do about the bad sales—the illegal sales and the sale of wild-caught birds.

Norman Baker: There are currently a number of problems with selling animals; I shall come to that point. On the legal outlet that the hon. Gentleman seeks, there are people licensed to sell animals—I refer to pet shops. There should be a trade through pet shops if necessary. The problems are significant and
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should not be underestimated. There is no reason for leaving the situation as it is: unclear and unsatisfactory in welfare terms.

The welfare implications of pet fairs are, I believe, accepted by many. There are concerns that animals are regularly transported large distances across the country, possibly to be sold. Often, the animal’s welfare requirements mean that the transportation in itself causes welfare problems, as can the temporary accommodation in which the animals are held. Such problems are particularly possible with the transportation or temporary accommodation of exotic species that are unaccustomed to living in this country’s environment. Yet if we go down the road of licensing pet fairs, as the Government wish, they will inherently accept that it is permissible to transport and sell animals in that way. In other words, they will say that the welfare implications are rather unimportant, or that they cannot be met. I am not convinced that either conclusion is right.

The second problem with pet fairs at present is that they encourage a trade in wild-caught and rare species, when the value of those animals may necessarily be greater than that of others. Those species often need specific living environments or may be CITES-related species. With the best will of those organising pet fairs, the fairs may act as a cloak for the illegal sale of species that are, by law, protected and that should not be subject to such trade.

The third problem is that of necessarily bringing together animals when disease may be present, and that can cause health implications for both animals and humans through exposure to, and the exchange of, such animals. I am afraid it is also often true that animals may be diseased at such pet fairs, as has been proven by examination and the evidence of animal welfare bodies. That reinforces the point about the possibility of disease spreading, and suggests that there is insufficient process in place to prevent such diseased animals from being offered for sale or from being sold. The consequence of such sales is often that animals may subsequently suffer or die; indeed, they may need to be put down. The problems are well documented, and their existence means that the Government’s preferred solution, the licensing of pet fairs, will do nothing to arrest them.

A further problem is that, should licensing take place, we will see a considerable increase in the number of pet fairs. There is clearly a demand for pet fairs in certain areas at present, but that demand is being suppressed by local authorities, many of whom are refusing to licence them. Presumably, if the Government’s preferred solution came forward, those areas would be obliged to license pet fairs, which would increase in number across the country—along with an increase in the problems to which I just referred. That, in itself, would naturally provide an enormous challenge for local authorities in terms of both enforcement and their workload. They would either be spending a great deal of time and money in checking these pet fairs or, as I suspect, they would be
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unable to do the job properly with the resources available. Consequently, the disease and welfare problems to which I referred would be allowed to occur without those local authorities taking remedial action.

It is important to stress that my new clause does not prevent members’ events, such as Crufts. It explicitly does not prevent pet shops from operating; indeed, it prevents no displays where sales do not take place. For example, many members will have seen outdoor events—perhaps a Saturday afternoon fair—where birds of prey are part of the attraction. I do not feel the need to curtail such events because those birds are held by someone who is responsible and knows how to deal with them. The birds are subsequently taken back and are not there to generate finance through direct sales.

12.30 pm

In his intervention, the hon. Member for Leominster raised a legitimate point about the legitimate avenue for sales, and I do not wish to dissent from it. I have concluded—by looking from the other end, as it were—that pet fairs present insurmountable welfare problems and that it is not appropriate to allow them to continue. There is, however, a need to recognise that some people have an animal that they want to sell quite legitimately and responsibly and in a way that protects its welfare. In those circumstances, one must decide who can sell the animal and whether it will be looked after responsibly. It should therefore be possible to engage with a proper licensed premises, namely a pet shop, for that purpose.

Should it be possible for someone to sell an animal to another person without the involvement of a third party, namely a pet shop? It probably should be, and I will be open to any suggestions about how that can be managed—frankly, I do not have the answer myself—in a way that satisfies animal welfare legislation. I am convinced, however, that pet fairs do not satisfy that legislation, so it is appropriate to tidy up the law to put an end to them for good animal welfare reasons, as new clause 2 would do.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): I have concerns about pet fairs or shows. First, as the hon. Gentleman has just said, there seems to be some confusion about the new Bill and the legality or otherwise of commercial sales of animals in public places such as pet fairs or shows. We have heard that section 2 of the Pet Animals Act 1951 has been used to regulate the sales of animals in pet shops, and has therefore made it an offence to sell animals as pets in public places. The Bill seeks to regulate and license those activities. I understand that section 2 of the 1951 Act will be repealed, but this approach seems to have pitfalls and gives rise to concerns that it is right to debate here.

The term “pet show” seems to be used to cover both commercial pet fairs and the sort of member-only events that are run mainly to show animals and to allow animal enthusiasts to exchange information. It is important to find a way of differentiating between the two in the Bill. Although non-commercial sales may be involved in the enthusiast type of event, some local authorities also allow commercial pet fairs, as the hon.
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Gentleman has said. I understand that reptiles and birds are offered for sale at many such fairs, but it is clear from briefings that the RSPCA has concerns, which I share, about the welfare implications for animals at those fairs.

The Bill clearly requires the needs of an animal that is being sold at a fair or a show to be met both during transport to the show and at the event. Those needs include appropriate noise levels, temperature, light levels and proximity to other animals. These one-day shows can be held in town halls and conference centres, and speaking as someone who has spent a great deal of time—indeed, probably too much time—in both, as many Committee members will have done, it is hard to see how such places can provide suitable and safe environments.

Other concerns, as we have heard, are that commercial shows or fairs may lead to the sale of rare species and of animals that were captured in the wild. In many cases, there are consequent concerns about public health, as well as about the welfare of the animals being sold. It is fair to emphasise that the concern about public health is even more to the fore, given current concerns about the spread of avian flu.

The Bill proposes to license such events through secondary legislation and to allow local authorities to attend them to assess welfare standards. That, in itself, is a cause for concern, because there is the question of whether the local authorities will have the officer time and the resources necessary to police very large events or locations at which numerous events are held each year. Several local authorities have conference centres, and there would be a lot of pressure to hold many events each year at them. Moreover, the secondary legislation will have to be very tightly drafted if the sale of pets at commercial pet fairs or shows is to be licensed. It must be said that the RSPCA believes that only events at which adequate welfare can be ensured and enforced should go ahead. That is key, even if it is difficult to define.

My hon. Friend the Minister has helpfully circulated draft statutory instruments and codes of practice to members of the Committee. As the hon. Member for Lewes said, there can be no objection in principle to enthusiasts holding member-only events that involve the showing of pets. However, concerns have been expressed about the commercial sale of animals at pet fairs or shows—and, indeed, about whether such events should be licensed at all. I would be interested to hear my hon. Friend assure us on that point.

Mr. Hollobone: I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to separate pet fairs and pet sales. I have received a letter from Mr. Page, a constituent, who is president of the Corby and District Aquarist Society. I shall share his words of wisdom with the Committee. He wrote:

    “Many fishkeepers enjoy exhibiting their fishes at Open Shows held around the country throughout the year. Should these Shows require a Licence to operate then this will make most of these events non-viable to those Societies organising them. The crux of the matter seems to be the classification of such events under the blanket description of Pet Fairs rather than as Pet Shows. At fish Open Shows there is minimal trading . . . There is no comparison
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    between a simple one-day Aquatic Society event and large, trade-driven Animal Fairs. The eventual closure of such events through financial strictures would lead to the collapse of the organised aquarium hobby, which does much good, especially in conservancy matters. Several species of fish, now extinct in the wild, continue to exist and thrive in captivity and there is much evidence that captive breeding lessens the need to take fishes from the wild. Many of the most popular freshwater fishes are now captive bred by the aquatic trade and this also an area of increasing possibilities for the captive breeding of marine fishes.”

I have also received some interesting correspondence from Mr. John Catchpole, the director and publisher of Parrots Magazine—which I am sure the Minister reads quite often. Mr. Catchpole writes:

    “We need to understand that there are two distinct groups of people who sell birds at pet fairs.”

The first is the dedicated aviculturist. Mr. Catchpole says that they are

    “individuals who have a passion for birds and who consider the welfare of their birds to be of prime importance. They do sometimes sell their birds but this monetary factor is way down their list of priorities and birds are usually only subjected to one short journey.”

The second group comprises the traders, who he says are

    “individuals whose prime objective is to make money. The welfare of the birds tends to be of little importance. They hawk their ‘stock’ around the UK at pet fairs with little regard for the welfare of the birds. Birds may be diseased, injured or in poor condition and are often subjected to a string of long journeys.”

The letter continues:

    “It is this second group of traders that has created the animosity between genuine birdkeepers and animal welfare groups.”

He then writes:

    “I ask you to understand this difference between the genuine birdkeeper and the unscrupulous trader . . . The genuine birdkeepers should be allowed to display, exhibit and sell their birds without problem, as they are only interested in the hobby and do not have financial aspirations. It is the clubs and associations which do not organise their shows on a commercial basis that add value to the hobby and should be protected.”

Mr. Drew: I received a similar missive. Mr. Catchpole’s letter was very interesting. Will the Minister dwell on what the EFRA Committee said in the report on its pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill? The Committee concluded:

    “Defra appears to have proceeded straight to the question of asking how pet fairs should be regulated, without first asking whether they should be clearly legalised. This is a significant deficiency in the approach adopted by Defra in updating animal welfare legislation. We recommend that, before Defra proceeds to draft regulations which would repeal the 1951 Act and introduce, in its place, a licensing regime on pet fairs, it first consults on whether pet fairs should be made unequivocally legal.”

That Select Committee debate was important. Ministers still have not explained why we need to change the 1951 Act other than to clarify whether it is currently being abused.

I turn to the letter that was quoted by the hon. Member for Kettering. Mr. Catchpole clearly identifies a difference between those who wish to show their animals—most of us would think that laudable, provided that such shows are properly conducted, and perhaps licensed—and those who wish to trade as a result. My fear is that, in trying to combine the two, we will open the floodgates, as Mr. Catchpole intimates,
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and trading will become the norm at any show. That is the telling point. Therefore, the Minister must be very clear.

Some of us believe that there is merit in using secondary legislation to tighten up animal welfare, but here the reverse may be true: secondary legislation, if I may mix my metaphors, may open up a whole can of worms. Those who wish to display their animals may be overtaken by events and completely pushed away. I fear that, as a result of that secondary legislation, we will change the nature of the Bill and animal welfare legislation, and there will be a call to ban not just those who wish to trade but those who wish to show.

Therefore, we need to get this right. I hope that the Minister will gauge the temperature of this debate and explain why he is doing what he is doing, before we cement what he is trying to do into how he is trying to deliver it.

Mr. Paice: I apologise to the hon. Member for Lewes for missing some of his opening words. I should preface my remarks by repeating what my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster has said several times: on issues of this kind hon. Members on these Benches have a free vote, so I am speaking personally rather than officially for the Opposition.

I largely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. I am wary about the desire to ban pet fairs. As the Minister has repeatedly said, part of the idea behind the Bill is flexibility. When we are dealing with legislation that is already 44 years old, which at least needs clarification, as the Minister has rightly said, it is right to revisit the issue of pet fairs. I did not visit any pet fairs in 1951—I would have been in my pram if I had—but I venture to guess that today’s are significantly different events. However, a few important points must be made.

The first is the fundamental question: what is a pet fair? The hon. Member for Stroud rightly referred to the letter that most of us have seen, differentiating between enthusiasts and dealers, if I may put it in those terms. It is probably unfair to suggest that every dealer will automatically not care about the welfare of their birds, but there is no doubt that some are like that.

The hon. Member for Lewes has sought to be fair by saying that sales must be carried out in the course of a business and must be open to the public, exempting agricultural shows, sales in a private capacity and so on, but I am not convinced that that addresses the fundamental point. The purpose of the Bill is animal welfare, and I am not sure that one can easily say that this group of people looks after its animals and that group does not, which is implicit in saying that private sales are all right but that commercial ones are not. That is my first concern.

The second relates to a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster touched on in relation to wild-caught fish. The hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) rightly referred to the issue of wild caught birds, something that worries me considerably. Indeed, I tabled an Opposition amendment to the
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Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill to deal with the import of wild-caught birds, because it is a trade that should be stopped.

12.45 pm

I want the entire activity to be eliminated. However, banning bird fairs would not necessarily stop it and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said about fish, captive breeding is important as a means of supporting wild populations or preventing further exploitation—and it sometimes leads to re-release into certain environments. Captive breeding requires a mechanism through which birds can change hands. A properly regulated pet fair can achieve that. Perhaps we should get away from the argument about the term “pet fair”. It is almost a pejorative term these days.

The last word of new clause 2 is “agriculture”. Having sometimes been a habitué of livestock markets, which are places of great information, I have often been astonished at the types of birds that are sold in poultry markets. I know that a livestock market is licensed by the local authority, but some of the species that are sold there are certainly nothing to do with agriculture. I have seen all manner of birds sold in livestock markets—not just ornamental poultry but ornamental game, goodness knows how many species of pigeons, finches and even the odd member of the parrot family. I am not a specialist and cannot describe them by species, but they would certainly not be exempted, because they bear no relation to agriculture. Perhaps they should not even be sold at those places, but they are. Yet I am not sure how that fits in with the question of pet fairs. I have never seen any such birds that were not in good condition and I see no problem in selling them in that way. They are sold in poultry livestock markets and in my view that is perfectly satisfactory.

There are all sorts of problems in attempting to ban pet fairs. I believe that they should be properly regulated. We have all received many letters and e-mails from organisations that, believing a ban to have been intended, want it to be made more explicit. Most of the problems involved could, I believe, be resolved by effective regulation and licensing. Naturally I am not in favour of regulation, but it is preferable to a ban and it is necessary in the present context.

There is a problem that the Minister needs to understand in dealing with the amendments. There is widespread concern about the existing situation which is confused, with some local authorities effectively taking the legislation as a ban and others turning a blind eye. A more pro-active approach to regulation and licensing is needed. A ban is not the right way forward, but I hope that the Minister will present a more comprehensive system through the code of practice and, perhaps, the licensing proposals, so that the law is clear and everyone knows what it is. Then we shall be able to ensure that sales continue, without the welfare implications that arise in some places.

Mr. Bradshaw: This has been a useful, constructive and rational debate—not that our other debates have not been. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud
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wanted to know why we are bothering to clarify the law. There are two basic reasons. We have a legislative opportunity to do so, which we think will improve welfare. Also, for the reasons just set out by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, we think that the law needs clarifying, because there is confusion—not least among local authorities about whether they should allow pet fairs.

The Government have tried very hard—successfully, I think—to make it an overriding principle of the Bill that it should not ban activities unless they are unavoidably cruel or we are convinced that the welfare needs of the animals involved cannot be met. That principle has run right through the Bill—consistently, until now.

The hon. Member for Kettering did a very good job of giving voice to some private individuals—not the sort of people who are usually vociferous or who join lobbying organisations—who feel passionately about their fish or birds. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) told me a story about his old mining constituency where one of the main pastimes is meeting to show budgerigars, some of which are sold or exchanged without money in these forums. It gives great pleasure to people who care deeply about their animals and their welfare.

It is not impossible in all circumstances to ensure that the welfare needs of animals at a bird, animal or pet fair or event are adequately met. It is therefore not justifiable to put a ban in the Bill.

Norman Baker: Having heard what the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said, may I ask for the sake of clarity whether there is a free vote for Government members of the Committee on the issue?

Mr. Bradshaw: No, because the issue is not whether we believe that pet fairs should be banned, or that the welfare standards should be improved with a robust licensing system, but whether a ban should be in the Bill. The Government will not allow a free vote on that issue for the reasons I gave.

The principle running through the Bill is that activities should be banned only if they are cruel or if they cannot meet the welfare needs of the animal. That is not so in the case of pet fairs. We took a different view about tail docking, and we hope to give hon. Members in the whole House a free vote on tail docking on Report. This issue is fundamentally different, however.

In response to the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud and for Worsley, we are determined to ensure that there is a robust licensing system that meets the RSPCA requirements, quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley, that no event at which the needs of animals could not be met would be licensed. Yes, of course local authorities would retain the power not to license these events, and on that basis I urge the hon. Member for Lewes to withdraw the amendment.

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Norman Baker: I am slightly disappointed by the Minister’s response, not least by its brevity. It may be unusual for an Opposition politician to complain about a Minister’s brevity, but I make that complaint on this occasion because hon. Members on both sides of the Committee identified some serious problems with pet fairs and the welfare of animals. They mentioned the trade in wild-caught species, local authority enforcement and the possibility of disease spreading, none of which were referred to by the Minister. I could also have mentioned impulse buying, which pet fairs engender.

Mr. Bradshaw: We believe that all the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman should be dealt with under secondary legislation in a licensing regime. I did not go into those matters at great length because we are discussing the principle of whether we should do what the hon. Gentleman wants and stamp a ban in the Bill.

Norman Baker: I shall be very interested to see how codes of practice in secondary legislation stop impulse buying. It would be a major achievement if they did.

The Minister’s response does not meet the mood of the Committee, if I assess it correctly—people can tell me if I have the temperature wrong. My understanding is that it is sympathetic to the points made by the hon. Member for Kettering about the private breeders. They are not professionals; they have a hobby and they genuinely want to care for their animals. The same might be said about the exhibitors of budgerigars in the Whip’s constituency. The temperature of the Committee is shown partly in that no one is unsympathetic to that situation.

However, there is genuine disquiet in the Committee about the hawkers and traders for whom animals are a business from which to make a profit. Those people often do not care very much about the animals. I have not heard the Minister say very much about that issue. His idea of licensing will effectively give a stamp of approval to those people by encouraging them to take part in pet fairs. It will encourage the growth of pet fairs because those local authorities who currently say no will be obliged to license them in future. It will lead to an increase in impulse buying by increasing trade in wild birds and animals, often from endangered species. Let us be under no illusions: these pet fairs can be used as a way of laundering animals and no one wants to see that happen.

I am disappointed that the Minister seems rather complacently to believe that a licensing regime will deal with all these problems. I do not think it will. If the Minister does not want to have an outright ban, he ought to come forward with a different solution.

Mr. Drew: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is some surprise that if the 1951 Act had been used properly there would seem to be room for prosecutions in this area? To my knowledge, there has been hardly any attempt to do anything. So, contrary to what the Minister alleges, I would see the benefit of change; I just do not see the benefit of legalising the trading of animals at pet fairs.

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Norman Baker: I entirely agree. I thought that the hon. Gentleman’s contribution in the debate this morning was very helpful. The uncertainties around the 1951 Act have not led to many prosecutions. Local authorities are naturally reluctant to go down that road. That suggests that there may be a problem with local authority enforcement regimes generally in terms of their ability to deal with these issues. That will be made worse if they are to become even more common than at present.

If the Minister wants to avoid the consequences that I have outlined—an increase in the trading of captive and endangered species, an increase in impulse buying, an increase in the possibility of disease transmission and an increase in welfare problems that come from some of this trade, although not all of it as I am happy to accept the points made in Mr. Catchpole’s letter—he should come up with something better than a licensing regime.

If I read the temperature of the Committee correctly, we want to look at arrangements that allow the sort of trade referred to by the hon. Members for
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Kettering and Stroud to carry on and outlaw the sort of trade that others described, involving hawkers going around with the primary purpose of making money. The Minister should reflect on that and come back with an amendment or a new clause that does that, rather than simply relying rather complacently on a licensing regime that will not work.

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