Britain is a nation of pet lovers. Half of British households own a pet, including 8.5 million dogs and 7.5 million cats. That’s why the cross-party Select Committee which I chair has today published a report on how we can improve animal welfare and achieve the best possible standards for the well over 20 million domestic pets in the UK.
Supplying this demand for pets can be a very lucrative business. There are many good, responsible breeders of cats and dogs in the UK. But the sad reality is that some unscrupulous breeders care more about lining their own pockets than the welfare of the animals concerned. It is all too easy for an unknowing member of the public to buy a puppy from a plethora of unlicensed or illegal sellers.
That’s why the Committee’s report is recommending that this process is properly licensed and regulated. Anyone breeding two litters or more per year should be licensed as a breeder and there should be a ban on third party sales. This would bring far greater transparency, making it easier to trace the animal back to its original breeder and for buyers to assess the premises for themselves, driving up animal welfare standards.
Selling pets via the internet has grown sharply in recent years and regulation has to stay up to date. At the very minimum, legislation should state specifically that those advertising the sale of animals on the internet should have a licence. It should be compulsory for internet advertisements to include the registration or licence number of the seller. We also need a national inspectorate to bring greater consistency to this licensing process to ensure these standards are met.
The report also deals with prosecutions for animal cruelty. The maximum sentence for an animal welfare offence in England is only six months – one of the shortest terms in the world. The report recommends that this is increased to five years to create a real deterrent. A new animal abuse register should be considered alongside this, to bar those convicted of animal cruelty offences from owning pets again.
As it stands, no specific body currently enforces our main piece of animal welfare legislation – the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The RSPCA fills a role in investigating allegations of animal welfare. However, the Committee believes that there needs to be a rethink about the RSPCA acting as a prosecutor of first resort. It is not appropriate for the RSPCA to be a campaigning, investigative and enforcement body.
Instead, the Committee recommends that local government is given statutory responsibility for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act. The Crown Prosecution Service is better placed to prosecute animal welfare cases. This will help to ensure all prosecutions are as rigorous and transparent as possible.
The British public care deeply about our pets. I hope the Government will consider these recommendations to make our animal welfare standards among the best in the world. Our pets deserve nothing less.