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The gratuitous abuse of animals is clearly to be abhorred, but we know that many dog and other pet owners do behave responsibly. A trial is taking place this week that has highlighted the issues that have been raised. One concern that colleagues have mentioned—it led to the 2006 Act, which comes into force this month—is the lack of prosecutions hitherto. That is one reason why my hon. Friend the Minister, who has an excellent
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track record on this issue, consolidated the 20 various pieces of such legislation reaching back to 1911. The Protection of Animals Act 1911 makes it clear that to cause unnecessary suffering to a domestic or captive animal is unlawful. However, this legislation, which is now almost 100 years old, has not led, so far as I am aware, to any prosecutions of pet owners for the misuse of electric shock training devices. I am surprised not by the lack of prosecutions for their use, but by the lack of prosecutions for their misuse. I am pleased that the 2006 Act provides for the introduction, if necessary, of secondary legislation in England and Wales regulating equipment harmful to animal welfare. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister has listened to the points that have been made and will take them seriously.

As has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North, Wales and Scotland are ahead of England in this area, as is often the case. Wales’s Minister for Environment, Planning and the Countryside has said that he proposes to undertake a public consultation on banning the use of electric shock training collars for dogs in Wales, under the 2006 Act. The excellent Scottish Executive coalition, which will continue to exist after the elections on 3 May, will make an order banning these devices under the 2006 Act, which was enacted on 6 October last year. They are committed to undertaking a public consultation on banning the general use of certain types of electric shock collars.

I am looking to my hon. Friend the Minister to give in his response the same commitment, and to show the same compassion. I want him to show that the welfare of dogs and other animals is at the heart of what DEFRA does, and to ensure that if this Bill does not reach the statute book—although I still live in hope that it will—he will use the spirit and sentiment of it, taking into account the issues that have been raised today, to ensure that research on this issue is expedited. I hope that if those who carry out that research recommend a ban, he will come back to this place as soon as possible with secondary legislation to outlaw this outrageous behaviour.

11.8 am

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) had to say, and I agree with him entirely that any legislation on this matter should be based on scientific evidence. We are open to evidence the Minister might bring forward at a later stage. It is nice that a cat owner and a dog owner should agree, because traditionally they have somewhat differing views of life in general and of animal welfare in particular. However, I have a confession to make to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), whom I congratulate on introducing this Bill: I am not a dog owner, although I was until my dog was put down just before Christmas. She had had a good life, and I am afraid that it was necessary for her own welfare.

I was particularly impressed by the hon. Lady’s speech. She and I are on entirely common ground on the need for responsible dog ownership. On this issue, it is irresponsible dog ownership and the welfare of dogs that concern me more than anything else, which is why I believe that, to a certain extent, this Bill somewhat
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misses the mark. On Merseyside not so long ago, a child was killed by an irresponsibly owned dog, if I might put it that way. There was a not dissimilar incident in Leicester last summer when a child was savaged and I believe killed—it did not happen in my constituency—by two rottweilers that were guarding a pub. That concerns me much more than this issue.

Electric shock training devices issue an electric shock to a dog’s neck and are used for training and protection purposes. They have different strength settings, depending on the size of the dog. I would contend that there are occasions when the use of such devices is beneficial to an animal’s welfare. The hon. Lady mentioned sheep worrying. I own and live on a farm, and sheep worrying is a real concern. Her arguments against using these devices in cases of sheep worrying were not necessarily scientifically based. Dogs may not mean to be malicious, but the sheep are worried by them and run away. A quick burst of electric shock will stop a dog chasing the sheep. Farmers can, rightly, shoot dogs to stop them worrying sheep, so if the device restrains a dog from doing so, or from running out on to a road, it can be argued to be beneficial to its welfare.

The hon. Lady has exempted proximity fences from the Bill, although I would point out gently that that is illogical. Either it is cruel to give an animal an electric shock or it is not. If the dog does not realise that it is running up to sheep that causes the electric shock, why will it realise that it will get a shock from a fence? To answer that requires scientific experiment, instead of relying on our feelings about it.

The point about electric shock devices is that they are not designed to be cruel. If animals suffer cruelty as the result of their use, it is the fault of the owner, rather than the device itself. We have discussed other methods of discipline. I am appalled by the way in which people ill-treat animals, both domestic and wild. Dogs are starved, flogged to within an inch of their lives or have burning items tied to their tails. One does not need an electric shock collar, which actually costs a lot of money, to ill-treat a dog. That is where the Bill misses the point slightly.

Last year we had the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which already makes provision for acts of cruelty and unnecessary suffering. I was not on the Committee that considered the Bill, but I suspect that this issue was discussed. I further understand that the Minister has agreed to look into the matter and commission further scientific research, so the Bill may not be very timely. Section 4 of the Act states:

So the animal is already protected from unnecessary suffering, as is right and proper.

Norman Baker: The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point, but it is not entirely clear whether someone could be prosecuted for cruelty to animals for using the device if it was legally available, as that would constitute a sensible defence.

Mr. Robathan: That is a valid point, which is why the issue needs further examination and discussion, rather than the feeling that it seems cruel to use an electric shock on an animal. Others might argue that it can be beneficial to the animal’s welfare.

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Section 4 of the Act also has regard to whether

The hon. Gentleman’s point has validity there also. In the wider context of the treatment of animals, minor electric shocks—and they are minor—are not necessarily that cruel. With my last dog, I used to run through a field that had an electric fence in it and she would run joyously along it until she came into contact with it. That did seem to be cruel, and she did not like going through that field. However, the siting of the fence was reasonable, and as the hon. Lady might argue, I should have perhaps kept my dog on a lead so that she did not come into contact with the fence.

We rightly allow the castrating and neutering of many domestic and farm animals. If we did not castrate bulls, the problems would be huge. It is not pleasant, but I have seen it done and the young bull calf did not seem to be in terrible discomfort, although I cannot say so definitively as I have never—I am glad to say—been a young bull calf.

Where it can be proven that those using electric shock devices are abusing animals and where the balance is not weighted in favour of animal welfare benefits, it is clearly already an offence. It would therefore be premature to impose a blanket ban. We could also say that smacking a dog should be illegal, and many people might. I would argue that that is taking anthropomorphism too far. I loved both my dogs and I am very keen on animal welfare, but I smacked them from time to time and it improved their behaviour. They are not human beings—although smacking children also improves their behaviour, in my opinion. However, I shall not pursue that line of argument—

Mr. Khan: Oh, go on.

Mr. Robathan: I could, believe me.

The greater concerns are dangerous dogs and irresponsible dog ownership. Anything that improves responsible dog ownership should be applauded. However, by banning the use of a training device, this measure could further restrict the ability of dog owners to act responsibly and train their dogs well. I am not generally well disposed towards the Bill, therefore, but I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

11.16 am

The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) on her Bill and on the way in which she has approached the issue. We have had several detailed and civilised conversations about it, and she has had discussions with my officials. I also congratulate the other hon. Members on both sides of the House who have contributed to this welcome debate.

I completely understand and sympathise with the motives behind the Bill. I appreciate that the issue arouses strong feelings in people, as I know from my postbag and the lengthy debates that we had on the subject during the passage of the Animal Welfare
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Act 2006. I am also grateful that hon. Members have recognised that Act as a major step forward for animal welfare. Indeed, it is probably the most important such step for nearly a century. I am also grateful for their recognition of my commitment to improving animal welfare. I was proud to be able to take over responsibility for that legislation from my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley).

While we have much sympathy for the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North raises, we do not believe that primary legislation on this issue is appropriate or timely. We need a stronger evidence base and more research before we consider further the request that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) have made to take action against the devices through secondary legislation. She is right to say that many animal welfare organisations are concerned about the use—and indeed misuse—of the devices. Any misuse would already be covered by the welfare and cruelty offences in the Act. It will always be difficult, whether one is talking about the use of such devices, a stick or even the hand of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), for courts to determine whether a cruelty offence has been committed, but that is why we have the Act. As with all legislation, the Act will have to be tested in the courts, but I am confident—as was discussed at some length during its passage—that it will give the courts powers to come down hard on people who can be shown to be abusing such equipment.

Bob Spink: Does the Minister accept, however, that if the devices were banned there would be far fewer opportunities for their abuse or misuse?

Mr. Bradshaw: Of course, but the implication of the hon. Gentleman’s question is that we should ban devices that many responsible dog owners—who love their animals no less than he and other Members love their dogs—have told me they find useful as a last resort. The use of such a device prevents their dog from causing accidents and distress to other people, and also stops the dog behaving in a way that could lead to far greater suffering for itself, because it could be shot by a farmer or injured by running in front of a car.

I was given a couple of examples of such use by loving, decent, kind animal owners who live near my constituency, in the Devon countryside where, as the hon. Member for Blaby pointed out, there are many sheep. In one case, the problem was that the animal chased sheep, even though the owner had taken it to dog training classes and dog clubs. In the end a friend recommended that she try an electric shock collar. She used it only once, but the dog never again chased sheep. If she had not used the device, the likelihood was either that her dog would have been shot or that she would have had to have it put down.

The second example is similar, but relates to perimeter fences—although I realise that the Bill has an exemption covering them. The loving owners of the dogs discovered that the only way they could prevent the dogs from escaping from the garden and chasing sheep was by erecting a perimeter fence. Such fences can be modified so that after one initial shock, a whistle sounds on subsequent occasions, which prevents the dog from
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running away. After installing the fence, those owners, too, never again had a problem with their dogs running away.

We are keen to understand more, however, and to find out about practice in other countries. When I met my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North a few weeks ago, I undertook to ask the chief vet to write to her counterparts in every other EU member state, and we are starting to receive replies. The situation is quite patchy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting pointed out, one or two countries have banned the devices but the majority have not, although they regulate them. Like us, they have animal welfare legislation that prevents the misuse of such devices. We are still waiting for information, but so far the majority view in the EU seems to be that Governments have concluded that the best thing is to regulate the sale and use of the devices rather than to ban them.

In New Zealand, which my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North and I discussed when she came to see me, the devices are not banned, but their use is covered by a dog code. We shall continue to examine what other countries do and learn from their experience. When Governments are considering legislation, it is important that they consider best practice in other countries, and I have tried to introduce that principle in my Department since I became a Minister. We can often learn both from how other countries draw up legislation—so that we avoid making mistakes—and by adopting their good practice.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the research that has been carried out in other countries, and we shall look at it. To respond to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting, we recently set up the Companion Animal Welfare Council, which is the companion animal equivalent to the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which has provided us with extremely valuable independent research on animal welfare issues. We have asked the Companion Animal Welfare Council to carry out an audit of research and practice in other countries and make a report. In addition, we are actively commissioning our own further research, which we hope to begin later this year and which could supply the evidence base for us to proceed down the secondary legislative route—as my hon. Friend would like us to do.

I shall outline why we think secondary legislation is more appropriate than spending time in the Chamber passing primary legislation. The Animal Welfare Act is an enabling measure, as I repeatedly pointed out during its passage, not least in discussions with the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The Act is an umbrella piece of legislation, which guarantees for the first time that the welfare needs of animals must be met—its most advanced step forward. However, we have made it clear, before, during and since the passage of the measure, that most of the nitty-gritty, such as electronic training devices or the other contentious issues discussed—circuses or the welfare of greyhounds, for example—would in time be dealt with through regulation and secondary legislation. There will be consultation on those issues and they will be discussed by Members in the House.

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To pick bits out of the Act and give them special primary legislative treatment would not be a sensible approach and could open the floodgates to every interest group. Different groups have more enthusiasm for certain elements of animal welfare. The hon. Member for Lewes will remember that in Committee I said that the Government were under great pressure to introduce secondary legislation quickly after the passage of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Some organisations are pushing us urgently to legislate on greyhounds, and others on circuses, pet fairs and so on.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North will accept that we are genuine when we say that primary legislation is not the appropriate route for bringing in a ban or restriction on electronic devices, but that we are committed to deal with the devices through secondary legislation, should the evidence emerge and should parliamentary and public consultation point to that route.

There are one or two technical problems with the Bill. As my hon. Friend acknowledges, it exempts perimeter fences, but the advice from our lawyers is that it could catch other electronic devices such as ordinary electric fences at the margins of fields, to which the hon. Member for Blaby referred, as well as the electric goads used—for example, in slaughter houses—to prevent worse animal welfare problems, because the animal might hurt itself or thrash about in panic.

I hope that my brief response has satisfied my hon. Friend that we are committed to further examination of the issue, because we need to listen not just to the animal welfare organisations that have been campaigning for a considerable time for a ban on the devices. I completely accept what she says about some of the new devices that are coming on to the market, particularly the so-called cat mats, or animal training mats. I am not aware that they are yet on sale in the UK, but if that were to be the case I should have strong concerns.

Although I can understand the arguments made by some owners that electronic training devices are useful as a last resort to prevent animals from straying or worrying sheep, I cannot for the life of me understand why anybody would require an electronic mat in their home that delivered a shock to a cat or any other animal that moved off it. That would seem to me to have absolutely no justification whatever. I am aware that Members are concerned about a number of other devices—citronella sprays, for example, which, although they do not deliver a shock, could be regarded as just as unpleasant in respect of the smell offence that they give to animals that have a far higher sense of smell than humans.

We are committed to spending a considerable sum on further research. As far as possible, we want to base our decisions on good evidence and we will continue to examine the issue very closely. On the basis of what I have said, I am afraid that the Government cannot support the Bill.

Question put and negatived.

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Health and Safety (Offences) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

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