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Pet Fairs - licence to sell, or licence to show?

THE POSSIBILITY that all Fancy livestock shows, including dog and cat shows, could be subjected to strict Government-sanctioned licensing controls emerged during the latest discussions of the Standing Committee considering the Government’s flagship Animal Welfare Bill.

Last Thursday, the Committee turned its attention to the issue of so-called ‘Pet Fairs’, linked inextricably to the sale of animals under the terms of Section Two of the 1951 Sale of Animals Act which will be amended as a result of the AWB passing into law.

The discussion was opened by Norman Baker (Lewes, Lib Dem) who pointed out the widespread confusion about he definition of a Pet Fair and was attempting to introduce an amendment to the Bill to ban such gatherings: "The issue is pet fairs. I suspect that there is common ground in Committee on the fact that the present law needs to be clarified. Section 2 of the Pet Animals Act 1951 states:

"If any person carries on a business of selling animals as pets in any part of a street or public place, or at a stall or barrow in a market, he shall be guilty of an offence."

"...practice on the ground has demonstrated that that section is subject to uncertainty. What exactly is a market, a public place or even a pet? There have been uncertainties as to what the law means, notwithstanding the 1983 amendment to that Act. As a consequence, we have a patchwork of enforcement across the country, with different local authorities taking different views.

"Some have deemed the 1951 Act to represent a ban on pet fairs, and I subscribe to that view. Others have taken the contrary view. Some court cases have upheld the suggestion that the 1951 Act prohibits pet fairs, so there is case law for those of us who do not wish to see pet fairs allowed.

The good news is that the Government have taken the opportunity in the Bill to recognise that the position must be clarified. The bad news is that they have concluded that pet fairs should be legalised. I think that we should stick to the spirit of the 1951 Act and the rest of the Bill by outlawing the activity in question."

Bill Wiggin (Leominster, Con) came to the defence of animal fanciers: "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, who is a Vice-President of the RSPCA, responded: "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 should not be underestimated. There is no reason for leaving the situation as it is: unclear and unsatisfactory in welfare terms."

Mr Baker went on to add that most people accepted that there welfare problems with pet fairs, including concerns that animals are regularly transported large distances across the country, possibly to be sold, sometimes in unsatisfactory conditions. He added: "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."

He went on to state other concerns, which have been highlighted by animal welfare organisations, such as the RSPCA, including the fact that pet fairs encourage a trade in wild-caught and rare species, whilst bringing together animals when disease may be present could cause health implications for both animals and humans through exposure to, and the exchange of, such animals.

"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," said Mr Baker.

The subject of fanciers’ shows and exhibitions was considered, together with the need to differentiate these from sales-related trade events. Norman Baker pointed out:

"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.

"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) followed on from Mr Baker’s points, saying: "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. 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."

She went on to point out that the Bill proposes to license such events through secondary legislation and to allow local authorities to attend them to assess welfare standards, but that this was, in itself, is a cause for concern, because there remained 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.

She added: "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."

Phillip Hollobone (Kettering, Con) read from a letter he had received from a constituent, Mr Page who is president of the Corby and District Aquarist Society who 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 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."

He had also received some interesting correspondence from Mr. John Catchpole, the director and publisher of Parrots Magazine.

Mr Catchpole wrote: "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."

David Drew (Stroud, Labour Co-Op) commented: "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, and trading will become the norm at any show. That is the telling point…

"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."

Defra Minister Ben Bradshaw responded the MPs’ comments saying: "…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."

In a clear reference to Mr Baker’s planned amendment which would see all shows banned, Mr Bradshaw stated: "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 responded: "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 rebuffed this suggestion, saying: "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."

Mr Bradshaw pointed out that licensing was the Government’s preferred regulatory system of choice, adding: "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.

Clearly annoyed by this, Norman Baker responded: "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 replied: "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 came back with the point about Fanciers being caught up in the licensing plans, saying: "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… 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 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.

Committee Chairman George Gale asked if Mr Baker wished to press his amendment, to which Mr Baker replied: "I will withdraw the new clause, but I reserve the right to bring the issue back if the Minister does not come forward with something better himself."

Mr Bradshaw’s comments show that whilst accepting that hobby breeders and fanciers would sometimes sell animals at shows but could not be deemed ‘traders’ or that most pet shows could not be deemed trade-based ‘pet fairs’, the Government still believed that a catch-all licensing system was the way to regulate all private sales of animals.

Mr Baker’s plans to ban pet fairs was, of course, more radical and far-reaching, but it would have required careful differentiation between a trade-based pet fair and an ordinary pet show (at which some private sales may or may not take place).

Chris Newman, Chairman of FOCAS studied the Hansard proceedings of the Committee’s deliberations carefully, but remained concerned that many other MPs may ell give in to the anti-showing propaganda pit about by some animal rights organisations and simply opt for a ban on all ‘pet fairs’.

Mr Newman told OUR DOGS: "Ben Bradshaw is standing firm, problem is when this get its third reading it could all go to pot. We animal keepers, need to be a little more proactive. I am preparing a briefing document for FOCAS which will be sent to all MP's and Peers outlining the issue of shows in more detail. I am very hopeful that we will win at the end of the day, but mustn't be complacent."

The Select Committee members are: Chairmen: Mr. Roger Gale, Mrs. Joan Humble Baker, Norman (Lewes) (LD) Bradshaw, Mr. Ben (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) Cunningham, Tony (Workington) (Lab) Drew, Mr. David (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op) Greening, Justine (Putney) (Con) Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab) Hollobone, Mr. Philip (Kettering) (Con) Keeley, Barbara (Worsley) (Lab) Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab) McIsaac, Shona (Cleethorpes) (Lab) Mulholland, Greg (Leeds, North-West) (LD) Paice, Mr. James (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con) Rosindell, Andrew (Romford) (Con) Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab) Snelgrove, Anne (South Swindon) (Lab) Tipping, Paddy (Sherwood) (Lab) Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con) Geoffrey Farrar, Jenny McCullough, Committee Clerks