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Docking still in the frame - Lords give second reading to AWB

THE ANIMAL Welfare Bill continued its Parliamentary progress on Tuesday last week (April 18th) when it received its Second Reading in the House of Lords. The Bill now passes to Standing Committee for scrutiny on its key clauses, which include the restrictions on tail docking voted for a few weeks previously in the House of Commons.

However, as can be seen from the comments expressed by the noble Lords who took part in the most recent debate, notions that the ban of tail docking for all but working dogs may be thrown out are unfounded – if anything, the Lords may ask the Commons to vote again on the issue as they consider the compromise clause of allowing the docking of puppies destined to be working dogs as being unworkable. However, it is clear that the pro-docking camp certainly have some supporters in the Lords, so the issue is clearly one that will not go away.

The debate was opened at 3.07pm by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Lord Bach, who said: ‘This Bill is a broadly supported and popular initiative which has had extensive public consultation and was welcomed during pre-legislative scrutiny in another place [the Commons]. It promotes a positive duty to ensure the welfare of animals, and brings the legislation on pets up to date with that of farmed animals. It is also the most significant and comprehensive proposal for animal welfare legislation for almost a century and fulfils a commitment made in our manifesto.’

Lord Bach spoke on the various clauses of the Bill, including Clause 5, which imposes for the first time a specific statutory ban on mutilations: ‘Exemptions to the general ban are provided to permit procedures that are necessary for the overall welfare or good management of the individual animal, or herd or flock of animals—for example, neutering and ear-clipping. The docking of dogs' tails is dealt with in a separate clause to the main mutilations provision. As the House will be aware, following a free vote in another place, the decision was that the docking of dogs' tails for non-therapeutic reasons should be prohibited, but that an exemption would apply to certain certified working dogs, provided the procedure is carried out, as now, by a qualified veterinary surgeon.’

The peer went on to outline the other highly contentious issue of licensing, which includes animal sanctuaries, whilst also allowing the Greyhound racing industry to ‘police itself’: ‘Clause 13 establishes powers to make licensing or registration schemes. These powers will replace a range of statutes regulating such businesses as pet shops, riding schools, and dog-breeding and animal-boarding establishments. We propose to use these provisions also to improve and control the welfare standards for livery yards and animal sanctuaries. In most cases, we will replace existing 12-month licences with more flexible licences of no more than three years' duration. For animal sanctuaries, we propose registration rather than licensing.

‘We are also discussing with stakeholders whether it would be possible to bring in self-regulation rather than licensing or registration. There are aspects of racing-greyhound welfare, for example, where self-regulation by the industry would be the most effective way of raising standards, but we have made it clear that we will bring in regulations should self-regulation fail. This flexible approach to licensing and registration will enable local authorities to target establishments according to risk, concentrating resources where acceptable standards are not being met. It will also allow veterinarians or other professionals to become involved without imposing unreasonable financial burdens on the licensed or registered activity.’

The next speaker was Baroness Byford, who made it clear that in Committee the Opposition parties would query ‘… both the intended meaning of and the necessity for a number of clauses and subsections. We shall also table amendments designed to highlight some of the inconsistencies that we feel the Bill contains. There are, however, fewer major points of disagreement than is often the case with Defra Bills.’

The Baroness went on to discuss the gruesome issue of so-called ‘squish movies’, saying: ‘…my particular concern is the control and—I hope—the eradication of what I call animal pornography. It is high time that we cracked down hard on the making, supply, sale, purchase and possession of videos, DVDs and computer images of humans hurting or abusing animals. It demeans the victims, debases the perpetrators and defiles those who come across it—especially young people. I was grateful for the Minister's full comments on that section of the Bill.’

The Baroness also raised the thorny question of who, exactly, would be the ‘inspectors’ referred to so often in the Bill, if the RSPCA were not, as they had stated, seeking such extra powers: ‘The Bill is somewhat silent on the subject of inspectors and the qualifications or expertise that will be required before someone can be appointed as an inspector. This is considered by some, including myself, to be unsatisfactory, and we shall certainly address this subject and its implications in Committee. The Minister clearly said to us today that inspectors will not be RSPCA inspectors, but will be employed by the local authority or be state veterinary surgeons. However, if there is any subsequent court case, I wonder whether RSPCA inspectors will be involved or whether it will be a stand-alone case. Again, that is not clear and I should be grateful for clarification.’

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior spoke next, declaring his interests with respect to the Bill, namely his being chairman of the Companion Animal Welfare Council (CAWC); secondly, as president of the Pet Advisory Committee; and, thirdly, as chairman of the Ethics Committee of the British Veterinary Association. It wasn’t perhaps surprising then that of tail docking he said: ‘…Docking is considered a mutilation by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, of which I had the honour to be president some 10 years ago, and by the British Veterinary Association, which condemns it except for therapeutic purposes.

‘The Bill will permit the docking of puppies' tails provided a veterinary surgeon can certify on evidence provided by the owner that the dog is a working dog likely to be used for work in certain activities, and that it is not more than five days of age. I believe this places a veterinary surgeon in an almost impossible position, knowing that in any litter of puppies not all will be destined for work. Further, he is expected to certify an action on his behalf on evidence provided by another person—an action which any veterinary surgeon would resist. From my early days as a veterinary surgeon, I can say that I would resist it.’

‘…The major bodies of the veterinary profession in the United Kingdom recommend that docking should be prohibited, as in Scotland. Evidence from other countries where docking is prohibited—for example, Norway—does not indicate that there is significant increase in tail damage in dogs which have not been docked but which worked in circumstances previously thought liable to damage the tail.’

Lord Christopher commented on the need for proper inspection of animal sanctuaries, saying: ‘In today's Guardian, it is reported that in a breeding establishment, the owner of which died of a heart attack—which is perhaps as well for her—they found 200 Yorkshire terriers, some of them dead, and 37 cats in a windowless breeding shed in West Sussex in unspeakable conditions. I assume that that establishment is technically inspected. As my noble friend said, there is provision for inspections in the Bill, but I have no confidence that that will turn out to be wholly real because, as things stand, not only the will, but the means are unlikely to be there. Even in medical research, with 3 million procedures in 227 establishments, there are only 30 Home Office inspectors. We need to be aware of that when we consider the Bill.’

Lord Christopher turned his attention to tail docking, saying:

‘… There is a lot of confusion about this, and it is difficult not to be schizophrenic. One can see that there is a case for a dog being docked in certain circumstances, although docked breeds are in the minority…. According to the Kennel Club, about 18,000 Springer spaniels are registered with it each year. Probably no more than a fifth of those will ever become working dogs. I asked the Kennel Club for its definition of working dogs. It is surprisingly limited, although it has escaped me for the moment—these papers slide about. The club has identified only 19 breeds, of which about five are of the spaniel variety, a couple are pointers, and two or three are of the Bichon Frise variety. What is widely regarded as appropriate in the docking field is quite remarkable.

‘…If we are to have docking at all, we have to have a very clear definition of it. I am not sure how we should deal with the difficulty highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, but it is a very real difficulty. Some breeds are docked and some are not. You cannot for the life of you understand why some breeds are docked, except to say that it must be for fashion and cosmetic reasons. It cannot possibly have anything to do with the difficulties of owning and using such dogs for any particular working practice.’

Lord Naseby queried the definition within the Bill of ‘working dogs’, saying: ‘From memory, one would normally buy a dog at six to 12 weeks old—certainly not within five days. How on earth is a prospective purchaser who believes that he needs a working dog to establish one in a litter?

Therefore, the points raised by a number of noble Lords about the poor old vet who is charged with establishing within five days the demand for working dogs—I do not know whether there are any papers on that, although presumably the Office for National Statistics must have some evidence—suggest that the Bill, in its present form, is singularly unworkable.

‘Secondly, it is with enormous trepidation that I question the view of my noble friend Lord Soulsby about pain suffered by dogs. I had a skin tag removed by electrocautery. I did not feel any pain at all. My understanding from the briefing that I received from the Council of Docked Breeds is that that is the modern method of docking. I think that I am reasonably sensitive; I was a pilot in the Royal Air Force and one's hands, at least, are very sensitive, and the mind is pretty good, too. If I did not feel any pain, it is questionable whether a dog that is less than five days old would feel any. I could refer to other parts of my anatomy where I must have had surgery and where I certainly did not feel any lasting pain—at least, I cannot remember it. I do not know whether any of your Lordships in the same age group who underwent the same surgery can remember whether they felt any pain. So I say to my noble friend that it is pretty questionable whether a pup of that age feels any pain.

‘When we come to the categories of what a working dog is about—lawful pest control—at this point, I do not require a licence to control the rabbits that are in my domain. I am not a licensed pest control operator because I do not work on anybody else's land, but I certainly use the dogs to control the rabbits and I would be in deep trouble if I did not. I am not sure that the Bill covers that point.

‘Then we come to the lawful shooting of animals. I am not clear about the difference between pest control and the control of animals, but presumably that will be defined in the regulations. Therefore, I suggest to the Minister that, when he comes to review the Second Reading debate and to consider amendments for Committee, if there really has to be some restriction, would it not be more sensible to do it by breed? The majority of dogs in a particular breed are used in some sort of working environment…My plea is that, for heaven's sake, let us have some legislation that is workable. Will I have to put in a bid to the vet at some point? [My own dog] Bertie wants a second Jack Russell because there are so many damn rabbits around that he is worked off his little feet. He does not need a tail to turn as well as any spaniel or any other dog. He can turn extremely quickly without a tail. He is pretty quick, as I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Christopher.’

The RSPCA also came in for some criticism from Lord Plumb, who said: ‘Twenty years ago, we all used to hold up the RSPCA as a beacon of responsibility in matters to do with animal welfare and had 110 per cent trust in its judgment. Sadly, that is gone. I do not know why it has gone, but the RSPCA seems to have become a campaigning organisation rather than an animal welfare organisation. Therefore, the point made by my noble friend Lord Plumb about inspection and the importance of experience and qualifications—it is also made by many of the parties that make representations to noble Lords—is absolutely fundamental.’

Lord Lucas was open about his pro-docking credentials: ‘When it comes to docking, I have an interest to declare in that I own two terriers, both of which have been docked. My feeling is that we should respect the free vote in another place, but that we should seek, as the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, pointed out, to make that section of the Bill practically enforceable. I share his doubts as to whether the imposition on vets of the requirement to certificate in relation to the conditions imposed by the Bill is possible or practicable. Vets should do the docking; indeed, the Bill should ensure that the veterinary colleges cannot discipline a vet for docking. But perhaps it is sufficient to say that you cannot show a breed that has been docked. If you cannot show docked breeds, cosmetic docking will of necessity rapidly die out, because it will no longer be the breed standard and a fair proportion of those who care about the look of such dogs are interested in the show world.’

Lord Lucas had plenty to say on self-regulation by the Greyhound industry: ‘I wish to raise the question of greyhounds and again declare an interest, in that my uncle by marriage is Paddy Sweeney. I am glad that at last the greyhound industry is coming into line with what he has urged for ages—proper care for the animals which it uses to earn a livelihood. I hope that the Government will preserve a degree of scepticism when it comes to allowing the greyhound industry to regulate itself. The industry has been extremely reluctant to make the course vets independent. On reading the literature, I see that even now they are only quasi-independent. They are appointed by the courses, but the authorities say that they will consider taking action if a course dismisses a vet because the vet says that things need to be changed or improved.

‘One of the major causes of greyhound injury is the tightness of the bands on the tracks operated by those people. They are unlikely to take action on that issue. I hope that the Minister will insist, if the industry is to be allowed to self-regulate, that the vets appointed on courses are truly independent; that is, they are appointed by someone other than the course or the greyhound industry associations, and cannot be sacked under any circumstances by the course but perhaps only by the veterinary authorities. That would be an acceptable way of allowing self-regulation. The proposals in the glossy that I received from the Greyhound Racing Association fall far short of what is required.

The Earl of Shrewsbury also advocated the docking or working dogs and also had some sympathy with the clause’s built-in ban on the showing of docked working dogs: ‘I should declare that I am chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council and president of the Dove Valley Working Gundog Club… Much has been made of the practice of tail-docking of dogs. During the Bill's recent passage in the other place, the decision was reached to allow the tail-docking of certified working dogs by a qualified veterinary surgeon within five days of the puppy's birth. I fully support that decision, but I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord Naseby that the working dog breed should be certified and not individual animals. I believe it is a necessity that certain breeds of working dogs be tail-docked simply for animal welfare reasons. Dogs working in thick cover can easily lacerate or even break their tails. Dogs working underground, if they have undocked tails, often have difficulty in turning around and can become stuck with often fatal consequences.

‘Sheep farmers dock their sheep's tails purely for welfare reasons. Why can it not be the same case for working dogs? However, as I understand it, the Bill states that although working dogs can be docked in certain circumstances, they will not be allowed if docked to take part in shows where the public pay for admission. The ban does not apply where the dogs are shown only for the purpose of demonstrating their working skills, for instance gundog trials. That cannot be right; many shows, including Crufts, stage working dog classes. Yet if one owns a working dog that has been docked, one will be unable to show it. A working dog has a different gene pool from show dogs; indeed a completely different makeup. I ask the Minister to look carefully at that anomaly and perhaps to alter the Bill to allow the showing of docked working breeds.’

He was backed up on this point by Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer who said: ‘Tail-docking is an interesting example of where Members in the other place grasped the issue and, in a free vote, came to a conclusion which these Benches will be inclined to respect. However, the conclusion is still somewhat illogical because, as other noble Lords have pointed out, docking the tails of working dogs is acceptable but you are not able to show those dogs. If docking the tails of working dogs is allowed, that does not make such dogs unsuitable for showing. We shall need to explore that matter much further in Committee.’

The Baroness also drew attention to the issue of pet theft: ‘Nothing in the Bill addresses the growing issue of pet theft and effective pet identification—an issue which has pointed out to me and, I am sure, to other noble Lords by the insurance industry. Pet theft is a serious and increasing problem which must be looked at with pet identification. Have the Government, given current technology, made any progress on finding more effective methods of protecting pets from theft and identifying them when they have been stolen, thereby cutting down on the number of animals that need to be destroyed as a result?’

Turning to the issue of whether pet shows should be classified as ‘pet fairs’ and duly licensed, the Baroness added: ‘Finally, there is the issue of pet shows and pet fairs. Pet shows are pretty much okay. There are an awful lot of them—thousands a year. They bring enormous pleasure to a lot of people who usually have very high care standards for their pets and enjoy swapping notes on welfare, breeds and so on with other people. Then there are pet fairs, which are run primarily for the sale of pets. The Government need to talk about whether such fairs are a biosecurity threat.

I am sure they are harder to regulate and encourage the sale of illegally imported creatures—a matter we discussed with the Minister during passage of the most recent Bill we had the pleasure of debating with him, concerning illegally imported wild birds. Pet fairs are probably the animal equivalent of the car boot sale. I hope that in Committee we will spend some time discussing the exact definitions of ‘a fair’ and ‘a show’ and the Government's regard of those.’

The Baroness also made an impassioned point about animal sanctuary licensing and the controversial plans for re-defining what a ‘boarding kennel’ meant: ‘The regulation and licensing of animal sanctuaries is an important issue. Many excellent sanctuaries provide expert care to particular species. There are sanctuaries for hedgehogs, monkeys, dogs, toads and many other species. However, other establishments pose as sanctuaries but are more tourist attractions.

They have no intention of returning animals to the wild or doing anything other than making money from them. Those so-called sanctuaries need much closer scrutiny. There are also sanctuaries that do not intend to be cruel but are probably created by people with mental health problems. In Committee it will be important to explore cases in which people accumulate a species of animal and call it a sanctuary whereas they are in fact indulging their own fantasies, often funded by well-intentioned members of the public. I have come across at least two such establishments. They really are quite a problem.

‘The Government are inclined to do more about boarding kennels. It will be important to discuss in Committee the definition of commercial boarding, particularly when someone offers to take two or three cats or dogs into their own home. I know that the Government have differentiated between cats and dogs in that regard. Is there a de minimis size for a commercial kennel? What about someone who simply supplements his income by taking in his friends' dog or cat when they are on holiday, for example? All those things will take up some time in Committee.’

The Duke of Montrose also revealed his credentials as a pro-docker: ‘In Clause 6, I am personally much in favour of the exception that allows for the docking of working dogs' tails. I do not feel that that means that all working dogs will have to have their tails docked. On this subject, my noble friend Lord Soulsby gave us great detail about the current understanding of the science on the subject, but are we not converging on a slightly strange world where the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in its brief tells us:

‘In the absence of clear evidence of the necessity of tail docking’,
it considers it right to impose a ban? Here we seem to be verging on legislating on the basis that, as some would say, ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’. But here I echo some of the final sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Christopher; surely the Government should be commissioning some meaningful research on this subject of the sort that is being undertaken in Australia at this time.

‘Perhaps of more concern to me is the effect the ban will have on showing in local agricultural shows—a subject that might not have featured in many people's thoughts. Whole families who might otherwise have little interest in other animals are greatly attracted by the chance to show the family pet in what is by definition the most rudimentary of shows, but one that people will have paid to attend. In the few years after the law is passed, there will be a great shortage of terriers and the like that have had their tails docked, and thus a great shortage of families and their pets.’

Lord Bach closed the debate at around 5.30pm, going through all the points made by the peers. On the subject of tail docking he said: ‘Many comments about tail-docking were made from around the House. This is clearly an important issue for discussion and will be subject to a free vote, in the same way as it was, of course, in another place. Why have any exemptions? Although there is no supportive scientific evidence—it is more anecdotal—there are serious concerns that certain types of working dog are prone to tail injury when working. These include spaniels, hunt, point, retrieve breeds and terriers, plus crosses of those breeds. Although scientific evidence supports the fact that puppies are likely to feel pain when docked, it is considered that there is an overall welfare benefit in docking to prevent tail injury in adult dogs. Such injuries tend to take longer to heal and have led to amputation on occasions. It is important to remember that the Government's preferred option was the status quo, and it was the other place that voted for a ban on cosmetic docking in a free vote.

‘On the responsibility of the veterinary surgeon in such cases, about which the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, is concerned, our intention is that no responsibility will fall on the veterinary surgeon. Regulations will detail the type of dog that is permitted to be docked, and when litters are taken to the vet the docker must also be present. Regulations will detail what a warder of the litter must present as proof of ‘likely to work’. If that proof is not available, it will not be possible to dock the dog. In a nutshell, we hope that it will be a box-ticking exercise for the vet—I realise we will come back to this. If a box cannot be ticked, docking cannot take place. The Bill and accompanying regulations will ensure that we achieve our aim in limiting docking to pups that are likely to end up working.’

Lord Bach ended the debate, commending the Bill to the the House and thence to the Standing Committee saying: ‘I have taken some time to try to answer the points raised in this debate. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part and look forward to examining the Bill in more detail in Committee. Given the interest and expertise we have heard today, we can be sure that the Bill will improve further before it leaves this House. I commend the Bill to the House.’

Comment: see next week’s issue