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Animal Welfare Bill debate - Docking in the dock

By far the most controversial and most referred to subject in the Animal Welfare Bill debate was the practice of tail docking. Nearly every single MP who spoke on the subject expressed a point of view that it was ‘cruel practice’ and that it should be banned by means of a free vote on the issue.

Secretary of State Margaret Beckett: tried to emphasise the Government’s neutral stance on the matter saying: "I am very conscious indeed that the docking of dogs' tails is a controversial practice. At present, the law permits veterinary surgeons to undertake the operation, and the Government are inclined to support the status quo. However, we appreciate that there are genuine and strongly held views on both sides of the argument. It is our hope and intention that Parliament will decide the issue, and that hon. Members will have the opportunity to express their views during the passage of the Bill."

MPs’ comments were typical throughout the debate:

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): "A number of my constituents have expressed to me the view that to take away a dog's tail is to mutilate that animal, as that is like taking away its smile. That view was impressed on me particularly by the owner of a Great Dane-mastiff cross, which I was summoned to see. Many people feel strongly about the matter and I urge my right hon. Friend to consider it again."

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): "I thank the Secretary of State and hope that she will forgive me for mentioning tail-docking for a final time. Does she think that it might benefit the debate to distinguish between the docking of tails for cosmetic effect and the use of docking for working dogs?

Margaret Beckett: "The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, which goes to the heart of many of the concerns that have been aired. I have no doubt that that issue will be considered in depth during the Bill's passage."

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): "Among the questions that remain unanswered is the question of what will be exempt by regulation 5(4) from the general ban on mutilation. The timing of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) is impeccable. For example, the regulatory impact assessment, as ever the best source of information on the Bill, states, in the context of discussions about the draft Bill:

"Sincere views were held by those who both support and oppose a ban on cosmetic docking and our preference is that there should continue to be freedom of choice."

That suggests to me that the Government are in favour of allowing the cosmetic tail docking of dogs to continue as now. I think that the Secretary of State made that point earlier. I say to my right hon. Friend that if the matter arises in Committee or subsequently on the Floor of the House, my right hon. and hon. Friends will certainly be offered a free vote on the matter and on many of the other issues that are likely to arise in consideration of the Bill."

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): "Wherever cruelty or unnatural treatment is involved in the maintenance of an animal for no good reason, it is wrong…The question of tail docking has already been covered fairly extensively. It is an important issue. Tails are docked for one of two reasons. First, it is done for cosmetic reasons, which can never be justified and should be outlawed, with no vet allowed to do it. The second is applied to working dogs, especially gun dogs, and others whose tails may become damaged in the course of their rather regrettable duties. However, other parts of the animals may be damaged in the course of those regrettable duties, such as paws, ears and noses. We are talking about preventive mutilation. That is not justifiable.

"The farce is that whereas the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) rightly said that he had not seen a boxer with a tail, I have seen many working gun dogs with tails. Their tails were not docked and they did not appear to have come to grief. Once again, I hope that there will be a full debate on anti-docking on the Floor of the House, rather than merely in Committee, with a free vote. Docking includes the cutting through of muscles, tendons and up to seven pairs of nerves. It also means severing bone and cartilage connections; it is not a small, cosmetic operation, but something that causes a great deal of pain.

"We should also consider the purpose of tails. I shall not say that if a dog loses its tail it loses its smile, but the tail is a means of communication…The tail is not just a point of communication for humans. We have to understand that the tail is a genuine means of communication between dogs, and aggression can result if dogs cannot communicate with each other. In case anyone says that bans are unworkable, I point out that there has been a ban in Norway since 1987, and in Sweden and Switzerland since 1988. Those bans have worked and none of those countries has seen fit to repeal them.

"Finally, whatever laws we pass after our debates on the Bill must be observed. It demeans democracy when the House passes law, sometimes by a large majority, yet some people out there decide that because they do not like the law, they will not obey it. If, for example, following a ban on docking, we do not see boxers with tails, we will know that the law is being disobeyed. This law, like the hunting law or any other law, must be observed when it is passed."

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): "…As any dog owner will know, dogs use their tails to communicate. Any frustration that I might have felt when my late dog, George, flapped his mighty tail across the coffee table and caused absolute chaos was quickly subdued by the immense friendship, enthusiasm and excitement that he communicated with that tail. Most importantly, dogs use their tails to communicate with other dogs. Some behaviourists believe that if a dog cannot use its tail to communicate, it can feel insecure and vulnerable. The result of that can be that dogs show unwarranted aggression towards other dogs and humans. The tail is also important as a means of counterbalancing, especially if a dog wants to do something such as leap across a gap or walk along the edge of a canal.

"The initial process of tail docking is painful, and I have heard gruesome tales from experienced vets who have had to clear up the mess when tail docking has gone terribly wrong. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) said, studies that were conducted as far back as 1985 have shown that there is no link between tail injuries and undocked tails. Many of us know of working dogs with tails that have come to no harm. I would ask that the Bill's mutilation clause does not make an exception for the tail docking of dogs. In the event that the decision is left to Parliament, I would urge all hon. Members to support a ban on the tail docking of dogs.

Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North) (Lab): "I am disappointed to hear from the Dispatch Box justifications for doing nothing on the ground that the same views are held sincerely on both sides. That is not exactly the nub of political action. No one denies that people are well-intentioned and sincere, but sometimes they are wrong. Tail docking is an example. It is deplorable and unacceptable that the small minority represented by dog breeders, those who show dogs and those who organise dog shows can bring about a degree of mutilation that I do not think the public accept. Moreover, no good argument has been presented for docking the tails of so-called working dogs. There is a view in its favour, but it does not seem to have been substantiated by any scientific evidence. I should have been much happier if the Government had expressed an intention of doing away with that deplorable practice.

"I am, however, pleased that we have been promised a free vote—as are the Anti-Docking Alliance, the League Against Cruel Sports, the Dogs Trust, the British Veterinary Association and the Peoples Dispensary for Sick Animals. It is fair to assume that that is because they think that a free vote will lead to abolition of the reprehensible practice of tail docking. Nothing that causes pain should be done to any animal unless there is some justification for it. It is bad enough when it can be justified, but when there is no justification it borders on evil."

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): "I do not know that any of us would like to have our tails docked. Of course we do not have tails, but I should not think that we would be terribly pleased. This is a very difficult issue, and I know that one or two hon. Members have said that the Minister has sat on the fence. The Kennel Club welcomes the Bill's stance on the issue; indeed I see that it has placed an information advertisement in "The House Magazine" this week maintaining that tail docking should remain a matter of choice for the owner. That view is supported by the Essex and Eastern Counties Boxer Club, which insists that the breed of the dog and the purpose of its breeding should be considered if regulations were to be introduced on tail docking. It is a difficult issue and I hope that the House will be given the opportunity to come to a conclusion on it."

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): "…it is clear from today's debate that two or three issues will be contentious, including tail docking. Having been lobbied by constituents and organisations that are interested in the issue, I have studied the subject closely in the past few weeks and months in an effort to reach a conclusive view. The Government should ask themselves three questions. First, does the current system work? It is a rigorous system, based on amendments in 1991 and 1993 to the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966, which permitted vets alone to carry out tail dockings. Anyone else who docks a dog's tail performs an illegal act, as I pointed out to the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew).

"We should accept that the system works well, given the strong position of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, which opposes tail docking except where it is necessary. Secondly, if we opt for a total ban on tail docking, the Government should ask what the consequences will be. Like many unpleasant practices that we regulate or allow to be legal, we do so partly because we do not want to see the consequences when those practices are illegal. Those consequences are that the practice goes underground, is carried out by inexperienced people, and leads, possibly, to more cruelty by being carried out in an unregulated environment than in a regulated environment.
"At the heart of the debate on tail docking is the issue of whether it is cruel. Again, the evidence is finely balanced. I have been referred to at least three senior veterinary sources who have come to the conclusion that tail docking is not cruel because young puppies do not have the same nervous systems as grown dogs. In particular, I refer to the research of Professor Grandjean, a French professor whose name loosely translates as Big John, and therefore not a man to be trifled with, from the veterinary school of Alfor in France, who is the author and scientific co-ordinator of the "Royal Canine Dog Encyclopaedia"… He describes the period shortly after birth as a "vegetative phase". The dog has few reflex actions and the nervous system is not fully developed….

"As the Kennel Club has pointed out, many breeds are bred specifically as tail-docked dogs, and those breeds would no longer be bred by their owners were a complete ban introduced, and that would have unfortunate consequences for those breeds."

Defra Minister Ben Bradshaw: "…I listened extremely carefully to the views about tail docking expressed in the debate from hon. Members of all parties. I note that there was very little support for the status quo, but the Government are not persuaded about what is a very contentious issue. There is still a dispute about the science involved, and many people think that this is a matter of ethics. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in her opening remarks, we will continue to listen very carefully to the views of the House, and we will take soundings about the issue in Committee.

"I visited Crufts the year before last—I think that I was the first Minister to do so—and a number of owners of docked breeds told me that they felt that the time when tail docking was acceptable had passed. As I say, we will listen very carefully to what Hon. Members have to say, and act accordingly."