Sharon spoke during a Backbench Business Committee debate secured by Rob Flello MP following an e-petition on this subject attracting over 120,000 signatures.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I am extremely grateful to have this opportunity to speak in this important debate. As my inbox attests, it is an extremely important issue for many of my constituents. It is also important to me, as I am the owner of a lovely springer spaniel called Leo. My family adopted him when he was seven months old, and he is now nearly nine.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) and his colleagues for securing this debate and for introducing it so well. I also pay tribute to the members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for their report on dog control and welfare.
As any dog lover would agree, the crux of this matter is that we simply cannot see dogs or kittens as commodities. They are not an asset or a piece of capital from which a producer seeks to extract as much financial gain as possible. They are future members of our families, future best friends for our children and future companions for us when our children flee the nest. They are sentient beings, with similar feelings and reactions to us. We would not stand for our children being mistreated in the way that some domestic animals are at birth, as they are ripped apart from their mother and the nurture that she instinctively provides. We would not stand for that because we know how that kind of trauma affects them later in life, whether it is to their personality, their health or both. We all want to encourage more responsible dog ownership. I cannot think of any responsible dog owner who would be happy in the knowledge that their new puppy or kitten, which they thought had been bought from a reputable breeder or at least from a pet shop that deals exclusively with responsible breeders, had actually had such a traumatic start in life.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): My hon. Friend is right to point out that often the people who purchase these animals do not realise the animal’s background or where they have come from. A report by the RSPCA said that breeders in eastern Europe and Ireland were selling so-called handbag dogs—little Chihuahuas that the likes of Paris Hilton carry around in their handbags. The breeders were only charging about £25 each for them, but they were then being sold on for between £800 and £1,500. Obviously, the people who are paying £1,500 for such a dog think they are getting a top-of-the market dog that has been very well looked after, but that is not the case.
Mrs Hodgson: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Often those dogs go on to have terrible health conditions, which then cost the loving owner a fortune in vets’ fees, as they have to mitigate against some of those terrible breeding practices that the poor pup suffered in its early life.
Obviously, the breeding and sale of puppies and other animals provides a living, and in some cases a good living. The vast majority of breeders have chosen that as a way of life because they love animals and love the joy that they can bring to the families to whom they go. Many are very particular about ensuring that their puppies go to a good and loving home. I do not want to see the lives of those breeders made more difficult by any change in the law. None the less, I am sure that they would be the first to agree that we must ensure that the law is strong enough to be able to stamp out the minority of breeders in the country who do not share their high standards of care.
My constituents are particularly concerned when they see puppies for sale in pet shops without their mothers present. I understand that that practice persists in a very small minority of pet shops in the UK—about 2% according to Pet Care Trust. None the less, I agree with my constituents that that practice should be ended completely. It has been pointed out that some councils have successfully eradicated this practice in their areas through their licensing requirements, but, like buying a car, buying a pet involves the kind of purchase that people are prepared to go further afield to make. Indeed, my dog Leo is an Essex boy, and we travelled all the way there to adopt him. Although such actions are welcome, they mean little if all the surrounding councils do not feel able to follow suit. I therefore think it is worth looking at what more can be done at a central Government level to spread best practice across the country.
I do not know what the right balance is in obtaining regulations that are enforceable and effective but that do not represent an onerous duty on local authorities or other agencies or place unnecessary restrictions on the many good, responsible and caring breeders, but it is clear that we are not striking that balance at the moment.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I am very interested in the hon. Lady’s point about regulation. Although there is a role for central Government, does she agree that much more can be done by organisations such as the Local Government Association? The local government sector can collaborate to spread around best practice, which some councils have and others do not. As she rightly observes, this is an issue that runs across the country and it is important that we have the best possible knowledge for sometimes quite hard-pressed local authority enforcement arms.
Mrs Hodgson: The hon. Gentleman is quite right and has some expertise in this area. There are councils that have great best practice and it is important that we disseminate and share that.
The other thing I want to mention is public awareness. Often the public are not aware that these issues exist and think when they buy a kitten or puppy, wherever they buy it from, that it will have been taken care of, nurtured and loved in the right way. We need the public to be made more aware of the welfare standards and of the legislation, as that would mean that they could have confidence in the system and could demand that puppies were bred in a fair and just way.
I wholeheartedly support the calls in the motion for a review of the legislation on breeding and sale. I am pleased that my Front-Bench colleagues are committed to undertaking such a review if we form the next Government, but given that the election is eight months away and countless puppies and kittens will be born and sold between now and then, I hope that the Government will listen to the cross-party calls we have heard today and to the thousands of people who signed the petition and will announce that they will instigate a review forthwith.