As someone who has grown up with animals, and who now has a number of pets - large and small - with my partner Jed, I was delighted this afternoon to lead a debate in Westminster on animal welfare, specifically to consider e-petitions 300535, 326261, and 574305, relating to the Government’s Action Plan for Animal Welfare.
Since these petitions were launched, the Government published their action plan on 12 May 2021, setting out their plans, aims and ambitions across the field of animal welfare; I welcome many of the commitments made in the plan, which truly reflect the fact that the UK is a nation of animal lovers and that the Government is keen to put the highest possible animal welfare standard in place, not just in terms of our domestic aims and objectives, but in terms of importing animals from overseas. The plan includes three very specific commitments, all of which relate to one of the three petitions under discussion. I am grateful to everyone who has signed these petitions, who have demonstrated the power that they have to bring about change.
Turning first to e-petition 300535, entitled “The UK should ban the importation of Shark Fins.” The prayer of this petition states,
“Now that we have left the EU, the UK has the ability to finally stop the importation of Shark Fins. They had previously stated that ‘Whilst in the EU, it is not possible to unilaterally ban the import of shark fins into the UK.’
"Each year roughly 75 million sharks are killed for Shark Fin Soup where their fins are brutally cut from their bodies and thrown back in the sea to die. Despite countries in recent years making an attempt to crack down on Shark Finning no European country has yet to ban the importation of fins, meaning that loopholes still exist. Britain should become the first European country to ban the importation of Shark Fins before we lose these beautiful creatures forever.”
This petition closed with 115,382 signatures, including 155 from my constituency of Carshalton and Wallington, and I am incredibly grateful to the petition’s creator Robin for taking the time to speak to me last week about why he started this petition, in partnership with the charity Shark Guardian. I pay tribute to them both for their incredible efforts. As the Government outlined in their response to this petition in November 2020, it is true that shark finning is an illegal practice in UK waters, but imports and exports are helping to keep the demand - and consequently the practice - alive.
The prayer of this petition eloquently outlines the need for a ban, but I want to expand a little further on that. According to Shark Guardian, it is currently legal, under the fish and fish product allowances set by UK Border Force, to bring 20 kg of dried shark fin into the UK without declaration. Twenty kilograms of dried shark fin potentially equates to hundreds of sharks being butchered, depending on their size. Many of those fins could belong to threatened shark species listed under the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora, and they could make their way into the UK illegally through this loophole. UK Border Force also requires people to declare goods worth more than £390, but 20 kg of shark fin could have a value of more than £4,000, so Shark Guardian identifies huge potential for tax evasion. It is therefore very welcome that the UK Government have committed in the action plan to ban the import and export of shark fins to and from the UK. The only clarification that I seek from the Government today is on the timeline for implementation.
Turning next to e-petition 326261, entitled “Ban the exploitative import of young puppies for sale in the UK”. The prayer of the petition states:
“Plenty of dogs from UK breeders & rescues need homes. Transporting young pups long distances is often stressful, before being sold for ridiculous prices to unsuspecting dog-lovers. Government must adjust current laws, ban this unethical activity on welfare grounds & protect these poor animals ASAP.
"The recent tragic case of a puppy dying just 6 days after being delivered from Russia has exposed a completely legal but immoral route to market for pups bred hundreds of miles away & sold away from their mums. Who’s actually inspecting these breeders & transportation conditions? Selling imported pups like this is cruel & appears to contradict the Government’s own advice to always physically ‘see puppies interacting with their mothers in their place of birth’ as with Lucy’s Law in England.”
The petition closed with 128,549 signatures, including 217 from Carshalton and Wallington. There has been significant interest in this petition. I am grateful to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Kennel Club, the Dogs Trust, Blue Cross, the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group and others for briefing me prior to today’s debate. All organisations have spelled out, almost in complete agreement, why action is desperately needed. Animals imported from overseas have often been subject to much lower animal welfare standards and even abuse, and the long journey can be physically and mentally draining for a puppy. It is also evident that the EU pet travel scheme is being completely abused, and the enforcement at the UK border is not good enough.
Again, since responding to this petition the UK Government have taken action in the form of the action plan, which states that they will increase the minimum age at which dogs can be brought into the UK. That has largely been welcomed. The action plan also contains a commitment to reduce the number of dogs and cats that can be moved under pet travel rules.
There are many common themes from all the organisations that have approached me with briefings prior to today’s debate. They include the need to reduce from five to two or three the number of dogs that can be moved under the pet travel rules, to increase the maximum sentence, and to ensure much better enforcement at the border, including by using trained animal professionals and having trained staff available 24/7 to avoid lapses at weekends and out of hours. Additionally, any information that the Minister can provide on timelines would be very welcome indeed.
Finally, I turn to e-petition 574305, entitled “Stop the rising number of ear-cropped dogs in the UK”. The prayer of the petition states:
“Leading veterinary and welfare bodies are concerned by the alarming rise in ear-cropped dogs in the UK. Ear cropping is illegal in the UK and an unnecessary, painful mutilation with no welfare benefit. The practice involves cutting off part of the ear flap, often without anaesthesia or pain relief.
The RSPCA states a 621% increase in reports of ear cropping from 2015 to 2020. We believe a rise in UK celebs sharing images of their cropped dogs on social media is helping to fuel this. While illegal to crop in the UK, it’s not illegal to sell ear-cropped dogs, import them from abroad or take dogs abroad to be cropped. These loopholes act as a smokescreen for those illegally cropping in UK. We call on the Government to close these loopholes and end the trend in ear-cropped dogs for good.”
This petition is still open and at the time of my writing this speech it has over 104,000 signatures, including 147 from Carshalton and Wallington. I am grateful to the petition’s creators for speaking to me last week about why they feel it is important.
Similar to shark finning, the practice of cropping a dog’s ear is indeed illegal in the UK, but importing and exporting is keeping the practice alive. However, as the petitioners have outlined, there is an added pressure given the increase in the number of celebrities and so-called social media influencers who have been buying ear-cropped dogs and parading them online. Although I am sure that some want to provide them with a loving home, many are buying them for their aesthetics - in other words, the way they look.
I will not waste time naming and shaming those celebrities, because they have all been well covered in press reports. However, I will join animal charities in urging them not to buy ear-cropped dogs or parade them around social media, which could lead others to buy them, too. We need to take the demand away, so I hope that when she replies the Minister will join me in condemning this celebrity trend and in urging them not to do it.
There is no need to crop a dog’s ear, and many people who do so put the animal through this awful procedure without any sedation or pain relief. Again, I praise the Government for the measures in the action plan, which states that they are seeking to prohibit the importation and non-commercial movement into Great Britain of dogs that have been subject to low welfare practices such as ear cropping and tail docking, in line with domestic legislation.
Although the practice might be banned in the UK, however, UK-based companies are still offering do-it-yourself cropping kits for sale on online platforms such as Google and Amazon.
Overall, the Government should be commended for their action plan on animal welfare and on listening to the petitioners’ concerns. I thank those who have signed each of these three petitions, who have demonstrated the power of the petitions system in the UK, as evidenced by the fact that all three petitions have secured changes in policy.
The big question coming out of today’s debate must be this: when can we expect to see these measures brought before the House? In addition, while the UK is showing leadership, the lead petitioners to whom I have spoken said that we cannot act alone. Although the UK may take firm action, overseas animals will still be subject to these practices unless we encourage others to follow our lead.
You can read the transcript of the full debate here, including the Minister's response.