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Animal Welfare Bill debate - Pet Fairs – or unfair?

"Some [animal welfare organsiations]… would like a ban on all such gatherings. The Government are not convinced that that is justified, but we think that strict licensing requirements are the best way forward."
-Ben Bradshaw, Minister

The subject of ‘Pet Fairs’ was raised by a handful of MPs, but it became clear from the debate that very few had any notion of the distinction between events where animals were put up for sale or a straightforward animal show where the exhibition of animals was the primary cause of the gathering.

Much of the blame for this confusion must lie with the EFRA Committee that drafted the AWB, because the distinction was not made and ‘Pet Fairs’ has become a generic, catch-all term for all animal shows.

The most worrying aspect of the comments made by most MPs who voiced concern over Pet Fairs was that such events should be licensed, or even banned, which could see perfectly straightforward animal shows subjected to licensing by local authorities, presumably at cost. According to the proposed Secondary Legislation on this point, licenses would only be renewable on a show-by-show basis, rather than over a period of months.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op) set the tone by saying: "There has been some discussion about what is not in the Bill, and matters that will be the subject of secondary legislation and the regulatory impact assessment. I would like to concentrate on annexe C of the regulatory impact assessment, which deals with pet fairs because the terms of the Bill do not pay sufficient attention to the recommendations on pet fairs in the report by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the draft Bill. I do not, for instance, agree with the statement in the regulatory impact assessment that there "is a lack of evidence to suggest that pet fairs by their very nature cannot maintain acceptable welfare standards."

"When considering the draft Bill, a major concern of many members of the Select Committee was the wealth of evidence of poor welfare standards at pet fairs. A number of local councils refuse to license pet fairs, and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health believes that they are illegal. The Government are right to seek to clarify their legality, but they are approaching it the wrong way."

Mr Lepper added that worries about pet fairs had been exacerbated by recent concerns about avian flu, and pointed out that such gatherings could be a breeding ground for the spread of disease.

Mr Lepper added: "It is right that the Government make it clear in the regulatory impact assessment that although they wish to consider licensing pet fairs, they do not wish to bring within the scope of that licensing regime shows and exhibitions by genuine hobbyists, those concerned primarily with the welfare of the animals or birds that they keep who wish to exhibit those animals and exchange information about their care. But where the Government have gone wrong is in asking whether pet fairs should be regulated by a licensing regime, rather than clarifying the law on whether they are illegal. Should not the question have been whether they should be allowed to exist, rather than whether they should the licensed? …

"Later this evening, I shall present to the House a petition on the issue containing some 15,000 signatures. The petition asks the Government to think again and hold to their promise to consider an outright ban as part of the consultation on any secondary legislation. It also asks them to go further and deal with the issue now in the Bill, so that the proposed legislation does not overturn the current understanding—this is the view of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and a number of councils throughout the country—that pet fairs are illegal."

Norman Baker (Lewes) (Liberal Democrat) said that clarity was needed about pet fairs. "…Many of us believe that the Pet Animals Act 1951 bans pet fairs, yet they go on all the time. It appears that they will be licensed or registered and allowed to continue, contrary to the 1951 Act. That is legal nonsense and needs to be cleared up. I shall introduce a new clause on pet fairs to try to achieve a ban. I am not confident that the Government will accept it—the Under-Secretary shakes his head without having seen it, which is to prejudge the matter. Never mind, I hope that it will give the Government the opportunity at least to issue a statement to clarify the position."

"On licensing and registration, I am worried that the Government are proposing to allow the registration of certain activities, rather than licensing them. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion raised that point earlier in connection with pet fairs. I remember when the district council in Lewes stopped registering roadside fast-food traders—hot dog stalls—because it could not control them; it could only register them. It found that the stalls were putting up signs saying, ‘Lewes district council registered’, as though some kind of mark of approval had been given. It can be counterproductive to register an activity. In the context of a duty of care and of animal welfare, we should consider licensing in most cases, rather than registration. I am not sure that the idea of registration is worth pursuing at all.

David Amess, (Southend West, Conservative) agreed that the issue should be looked at carefully: "The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper) made a point about pet fairs which I know will slightly annoy the Minister. We do not have the time to go into the minutiae of what has gone on behind the scenes, but I ask the Minister to look at the issue carefully. Pet fairs are currently banned under the 1983 amendment to the Pet Animals Act 1951 which outlaws the business of selling animals: "in any part of a street or public place, or at a stall or barrow in a market".

"I can remember my father, who is now dead, so I can say this, taking me to the animal market in Club Lane, Petticoat row. I thought that it was marvellous, but I now realise that it was a very wrong way to sell animals. I am not happy with the two or three pet fairs that exist. The Minister has all the documentation on them and I ask him to look carefully at the issue."

Caution was urged by Barbara Keeley (Worsley, Labour), who pointed out: "On pet fairs, I am not sure that all hon. Members appreciate that the term can cover a wide range of gatherings. Some of them involve the sale of animals or birds, whereas others merely involve the exchange of expertise by enthusiasts who come together to share good practice. Therefore, there are some arguments—although they were not offered in the Chamber today—for the retention of pet fairs in some form. That is one reason why the Government are considering licensing rather than banning them. We have not seen any convincing evidence that it is impossible to meet the welfare needs of animals at pet fairs."

David Lepper, responding to Defra Minister Ben Bradshaw’s summing-up said: "I believe that the Minister is wrong in that, and in my contribution I made it clear that I wanted to make a distinction between pet fairs and markets where birds and other animals are sold, and gatherings of enthusiasts who want to exhibit, and exchange information about, the birds or other creatures that they rear. I think that he will find that most of the animal welfare organisations that believe that there is evidence to justify banning pet fairs distinguish between them and gatherings of enthusiasts for the purposes of exhibition and the exchange of information."

Minister Ben Bradshaw responded: "Some may, but others would like a ban on all such gatherings. The Government are not convinced that that is justified, but we think that strict licensing requirements are the best way forward.

"My hon. Friend made a point about the repeal or otherwise of the Pet Animals Act 1951. It is our intention to repeal section 2 of the Act, as amended, and to clarify its provisions with respect to pet fairs. I apologise that the final version of the Bill includes a power to repeal section 1 but has inadvertently omitted the repeal of section 2. We intend to address that through Government amendment at the appropriate stage."