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5 Mar 2010 : Column 1167

Care Homes and Sheltered Accommodation (Domestic Pets) Bill

Second Reading

1.14 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a great pleasure to be able to introduce my Bill. I begin by thanking its sponsors, who, as you will see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are a cross-party group. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), who introduced a very similar Bill not long ago. I am grateful to him for all his help and encouragement on this Bill.

It is a staggering and depressing fact that about 38,000 healthy animals are put down every year simply because their owners are going into a care home or sheltered housing project and the rules do not allow them to take their pet with them. That is bad enough, but it is also estimated that a further 100,000 pets have to be given up for adoption for the same reason. Many become so distressed because of being abandoned by their owners that they eventually have to be put down. That is totally unacceptable in a civilised country. Many other countries, such as France and the USA, have laws aimed at allowing people to keep their beloved pets. Some enlightened councils in the UK, such as Wandsworth, have shown how positive policies can easily be brought in and have great benefits.

It is bad enough for someone to reach the point in their life at which they need to move into a care home or sheltered housing-it is a stressful moment involving a lot of upheaval and often distress.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that as people become elderly and perhaps live alone, a pet is a friend to them and can keep them company? If they have to go into a home either because of failing health or because there is no one to look after them, the fact that they lose the friend that has been with them as a companion for many years will be even more distressing. We therefore need a change in the law to ensure that that does not happen.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that he is a doughty campaigner in his constituency for older people and their rights.

It is important that we try to put a stop to this needless trauma for older people. I am particularly interested in the matter not simply because of my experiences as a local MP, or indeed as vice-president of Age Concern Eastbourne, but in my role as shadow Minister with responsibility for older people. All politicians talk about giving older people dignity and security, and a nationwide policy on pets could help lift one particular burden from many older people. We may look at the demographics. I believe some experts say that one in four babies born today will live to see their 100th birthday. The population is ageing and people are living longer and longer, so this problem will get more acute if anything.

Approximately 25 per cent. of all people over retirement age own pets at the moment. I am indebted to the Society for Companion Animal Studies, which has done a huge amount of work on the topic. Its research shows that the majority of care homes and sheltered housing
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complexes in the UK do not have pet policies. It is not the case that there is a rule that applies across the whole country that needs to be changed; the fact is simply that a lot of places have not even addressed the issue. That is what causes such distress.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I greatly support the aims of the hon. Gentleman's Bill. Does he know what proportion of care homes have banned pets? I certainly agree with him about the importance of the matter, having recently visited a home in my constituency. An animal is not just good for the owner but becomes adopted by the care home as a whole and provides support and comfort for all the residents.

Mr. Waterson: I am most grateful for that intervention. The hon. Gentleman is right. Some charities-the hon. Gentleman may have come across them-bring pets into care homes for a couple of hours so that residents can pet and play with them. Clearly, there is a benefit from that. I cannot help him with the statistics, which are difficult to obtain. I suspect that one reason for that is that people have not thought through the policies-there is simply a knee-jerk reaction of, "Oh, we don't want the fuss and bother of a pet," with no distinction made between budgerigars at one end of the scale and Irish wolfhounds or rottweilers at the other.

In many cases, a blanket ban on pets is applied for no reason other than that the provider has not given the issue any serious consideration. That results in many older people being faced with little choice but to give up their pet. While some facilities may allow pets, few have an official policy on the subject. For example, the manager of a facility may be particularly animal friendly and happy to allow residents to keep pets, but what happens when that manager moves on? That ad hoc approach is extremely fragile. It does not present a clear position to residents, staff or anybody else.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at the annual meeting of Sussex Housing and Care, which has many homes in and around my constituency. It had just been given the gold Community Animal Welfare Footprints for housing award by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It won the silver award in the previous year. It is a shining example of how care homes can strive for a policy that has a direct impact on the quality of residents' lives. Once such an organisation applies its mind to the issue, it often turns out not to experience many practical problems with it.

A constituent, Mrs. Maureen Martini, raised with me a related problem, which could perhaps be considered in Committee. She lives in a sheltered housing complex, which is well known to me. She has always owned dogs and she lost her last dog due to illness only in December. She wants to adopt another small dog and she is looking to adopt one that is already four years old. She finds that, although her landlord, the Anchor Trust, which seems to be one of the enlightened landlords, has a small pets policy, she cannot get the animal rescue centres to give her a small dog. They seem to impose their own rules and requirements on the availability of suitable pets. She says:

That is a typical case of an older person who can see the health benefits of having a pet.

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According to the Pet Food Manufacturers Association survey, distress caused by the loss of a pet was observed by staff in 39 per cent. of homes that were sampled-an increase of 4 per cent. since Rowntree conducted a similar survey in 1993. Pets are an important source of physical, emotional and social support. They have proven health benefits for older people and can improve even cardiovascular as well as mental health. They are also a great antidote to loneliness, which can afflict so many older people. We know through the work of organisations such as Age Concern that one in four people of pension age suffers from depression at one time or another.

The figures that SCAS produced speak for themselves. Pet owners are 40 per cent. less likely to die from a heart attack and 30 per cent. less likely to have a stroke. They have 30 per cent. less risk of developing heart failure and are more likely to survive a heart attack or stroke. Moreover, routines of pet care are linked with routines of self care. Pets are recognised as one of the key factors in promoting well-being, according to Age Concern and the Mental Health Foundation. As in my constituent's case, pets encourage greater exercise and activity, and older pet owners score more highly on activities of daily living.

The National Ageing Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia showed:

Of course, there are reservations, and I imagine the Minister will raise some of them-I hope she does not do so extensively because we do not want to run out of time for this important legislation. For example, an animal could outlive its owner. I gather that that does not happen very often, and that when it does, the owner's friends or family, or indeed other residents, often agree to look after it. As the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said, pets living in care homes and sheltered accommodation often become part of the more general community, and in many instances, other residents take a share in the care of the animal. That routine of shared care might continue if the owner dies or is no longer able to care for the animal.

There are concerns about pets-particularly dogs-going into such accommodation and not mixing well or not getting adequate exercise, and the question of who is responsible for veterinary care. Other residents could be frightened of, or allergic to, animals. I am arguing not for a blanket policy so that every pet from python to budgerigar must be admitted to a care home or sheltered housing, but simply for a basic legal presumption that pets should be permitted, subject to appropriate discussion about all possible eventualities, and provided they do not cause a nuisance to other residents.

Care providers could legitimately and understandably face opposition if any extra burdens were placed on them, but as the studies have shown, an intelligent pets policy allows into care homes animals that would reduce the burden on staff by improving the quality of life for
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the elderly. Indeed, residents who would otherwise make frequent demands on staff time often focus on their companion animals for much of the day.

In conclusion, I should point out the careful wording of the safeguards in the Bill. As I said, there is an overall assumption that care home and sheltered housing providers will not refuse permission for a domestic pet to accompany its owner, but the pet must be of a species authorised by the Secretary of State, so the most outlandish and potentially dangerous animals would hopefully not be authorised.

Mr. Dismore: As I said, I support the hon. Gentleman's Bill, but I have a little trouble with the wording of this aspect of it. In Committee, will he consider including the size of animals or the breeds of dogs? He mentioned that a giant rottweiler is not exactly the same as a Yorkshire terrier, so perhaps that provision needs a little tidying up, because a dog is a dog-it could be very small or very big.

Mr. Waterson: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, although I have come across some fairly vicious Yorkshire terriers in my time, particularly when out canvassing. I will be happy to take that on board in Committee. Basically, animals must be of a species authorised by the Secretary of State, so we are not talking about wolves, tigers or pythons, as I said, or anything of that sort.

There could be an objection to a pet if the safety of other residents is affected. That is important, because we do not want to allow a pet that is going to annoy, upset or worry other residents. In addition, clause 1(2)(c) refers to the welfare of the animal-a view could be taken that an animal would not benefit from entering the accommodation with its owner. There is also a provision for the accommodation provider to charge a fee to cover the cost of having a pet, and one for an appeals procedure, which is fairly simple and not burdensome.

The principle is right, but we have also thought through the practicalities, and the Bill deals with potential objections and provides safeguards for residents, care home and sheltered housing operators, and animals. As I said at the beginning of my speech, the problem, which arises simply because many homes and projects have not thought through a policy, will only become worse and more widespread as more people live longer. This is one matter on which we can do something positive to help older people, and make that little bit easier their transition from their homes to care homes or sheltered housing, which can often be very painful. I commend the Bill to the House.

1.30 pm

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): I shall be brief, as requested by Members on both sides of the House, but I wish to support this important piece of legislation. I commend the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) on the Bill. As he has said, the health benefits for elderly people-and the wider community-are well known, and they should be encouraged. It is unfortunate that so many good, healthy animals have to be destroyed.

The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to consider several issues in Committee-I hope that the Bill reaches Committee. He mentioned the problem of residents who may have pet allergies, and that certain pets may
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not be suitable, perhaps because they are unruly. One care home owner in my constituency also raised the issue of damage being done by the pets of residents, and we need to consider that. Those issues aside-and they can be addressed in Committee-I hope that the Bill goes through, and it has my and my party's support.

1.31 pm

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): It is a privilege on behalf of the Opposition to support the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). The Bill has been drafted cleverly and concisely, and it addresses many of the concerns that we have heard today. Some areas could be tightened up, and the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has highlighted some of those. Those points can be addressed in Committee.

I hope that the Government will support the Bill. Indeed, I hope that they will go further than not opposing it and work with my hon. Friend to get it through in the short time we have left in this Parliament. It is an important Bill that addresses an issue of natural justice, which may be an old concept but is eminently sensible. Why should someone who is leaving local authority housing, where they may have lived for many years, to move into sheltered accommodation managed by the same authority, be forced to get rid of a pet that they may also have had for many years?

We all visit care homes and sheltered accommodation in our constituencies, so we know that they can be very lonely places. There may be many people there, but residents can be isolated, perhaps because they have difficulty hearing or other problems associated with old age. Having a pet, even something as trivial-I do not like the word trivial, so perhaps I should say cuddly-as a budgerigar could be the stimulus that residents need to make their lives more fulfilling.

The hon. Member for Hendon mentioned the size of dogs, and he is right that some accommodation would not be suitable for, for example, a St. Bernard, but would be suitable for a Jack Russell or a Pom. It is only right and proper that this House looks at what is best for our constituents, especially those in state-owned accommodation paid for by the taxpayer.

Clause 2 addresses the concerns of the private sector, and the wording is important for those who fear this legislation might be imposed on them. It takes into consideration the type of premises, the other residents and the benefits of having a pet.

For the second time today we have a consensus. I hope that the Government will support the Bill and assist its passage. I hope that they will not just pay lip service to the Bill, but get involved. I hope that the Whips put people on the Committee who want the Bill to go through, rather than those who would seek to hold it up. If that happens, the quality of the lives of many of our elderly constituents could be improved by being able to keep their pets with them.

There are rescue centres for many different pets around our constituencies, and it is only right and proper that the Bill ensures that the type of pet is suitable for the premises-frankly, animals that some people call pets I would like to see in the wild, rather than in any form of
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cage or restrictive environment. Many pets are put down because a loving home cannot be found for them. Sometimes, they will have been for some time with a loving family who, owing to circumstances, have had to move to different premises where pets are not allowed. If we can save the lives of those pets, we will demonstrate the compassion towards animals that this country has shown for generations and centuries. Pets give an awful lot; is it not time that we gave something back to those pets? I commend the Bill to the House.

1.35 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Gillian Merron): I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) on bringing the Bill before the House, and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) on introducing a previous, similar Bill-the hon. Gentleman has already acknowledged my hon. Friend's contribution. Organisations such as Blue Cross, the Dogs Trust and the Society for Companion Animal Studies have all expressed sympathy with the Bill's aims. I also pay tribute to the Cinnamon Trust, a charity helping older people to keep their beloved pets, and thank it for its advocacy and for supporting prospective care home residents and helping them to make the right decisions about their care. Its work relates to today's debate. I also thank other hon. Members for their contributions and for making clear their support for the Bill.

I listened carefully to the comments of the hon. Member for Eastbourne, and I share his concern about the lack of consideration of this matter in places where there is a blanket ban, without thought, on pets. That works against the kind of compassion to which the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) referred. The point made by the hon. Member for Eastbourne about distress is hugely important, and I particularly wanted to reflect on his comments about the major contribution made by pets to the physical, social and emotional well-being of older people in particular. I particularly liked his acknowledgment that pets can be an antidote to loneliness. It shows why the Bill is of importance to the House.

The decision to enter a care home or sheltered housing is an important one. I know well that it often coincides with the lack or loss of independence or mobility, so anything that can help people to retain a sense of themselves and their lives-pets have a role to play in that-and to help the transition is to be welcomed.

Mike Penning: I am sure that it was not intentional, but the Minister suggested that these issues concern only older people in sheltered accommodation, but of course there are younger people, often with specialist physical or mental needs, for whom a pet is an essential part of their lives. Sometimes, however, they cannot keep them because they are not permitted in the accommodation. This matter concerns not just older people, but people in need more generally.

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