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Animal Welfare Bill: MPs demand free vote on tail docking

THE ANIMAL Welfare Bill gained its Second Reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday evening (January 10th), but one issue was raised repeatedly by most of the MPs taking part in the debate – that of tail docking and the need, as they see it, to ban the practice as mutilation.

The three-hour debate was, however, an example of how Parliamentary business should be conducted, with MPs from all parties addressing the animal welfare content of the Government’s Bill with very little party-political bias in evidence.

On the subject of tail docking, the comments made by Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab) were typical: "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," said Ms Thornberry. "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 (Margaret Beckett) to consider it again."

Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Affairs answered, putting the Government’s ‘neutral’ view on the issue, in effect promising a Free Vote on the matter when the Bill was presented for its Third Reading later in the year: "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."

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab) added: "I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and her team for bringing forward this Bill, which is welcomed by hon. Members of all parties, and by animal lovers throughout the country. Does she agree that it would be appropriate for all parties to allow a free vote on the issue of the docking of dogs' tails, so that the will of Parliament can be made clear?"
Mrs Beckett replied: "Obviously, that will be a matter for the parliamentary authorities as the Bill goes through the House. However, I doubt that any group will take the view that the issue has a party-political edge, given the genuine and strongly held views on both sides of the argument. No doubt those views will become clear as the Bill is discussed."

Other issues raised in some detail were the licensing of animal sanctuaries, whether or not the RSPCA would be given greater powers under the Bill and also the vexed question of stronger welfare legislation relating to Greyhound Racing.

However, several MPs strongly expressed their opposition to ‘Pet Fairs’, the catch-all term given to animal shows where animals might be sold and urged that these either be banned or licensed. It became clear from the debate that very few MPs understood – or wanted to acknowledge – that shows at which animals were sold were very much in the minority and that most were simply gatherings for hobbyists to exhibit their pets.