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The political cat and mouse with dog welfare
Well-hidden within the unprecedented political turmoil of the past two months was an Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA Comm) session (12th July 2016), at which the Minister of State for DEFRA, George Eustice and two colleagues, were called in to give an account of their efforts so far, in improving companion animal welfare. Their performance that afternoon was devastatingly depressing to those of us who campaign for a stronger animal welfare agenda. In the two hours of evidence given I identified at least six unhelpful characteristics, which whether present by design or misfortune, do not give me hope that animal welfare is paid much attention at all by those in the corridors of power. To see the session for yourselves click here or to read the transcript here.
1. Poor grasp of facts.
The DEFRA team seemed very poorly prepped for the session. The Minister gave incorrect information to the committee on a number of matters: the length of time taken for secondary legislation relating to circuses to be enacted (it was six years not five, Q847 in the transcript), local authorities always use the latest version of model license conditions when granting licenses (they don’t Q862), the Kennel Club Assured Breeder Scheme, accredited via UKAS, carries out annual inspections (it is currently once every three years, Q890 and Q892), that all pets and their paperwork are checked at embarkation border control when entering the UK (they are most definitely not Q905). On other matters he hesitated over facts with a very many “I think”s and “if my memory serves me right” punctuating his remarks. At several points the committee chair, Neil Parish MP, had to ask Eustice to submit the facts and figures in writing at a later date, as clearly he was not in a position to offer them there and then.
2. Misunderstanding the question
In dog welfare there are many critical issues in need of debate and exploration, two of the most important are whether dogs and puppies should be sold through third party business models i.e. dealers and pet shops, and whether breeders should be licensed or registered. When asked about these two crucial issues, the Minister demonstrated considerable misunderstanding. In answer to a direct question on whether or not there should be a ban on third party sales (a route to market with unequivocal harmful effects on puppies and breeding animals) he gave a totally inappropriate and irrelevant example to illustrate why he thought not (Q865, Q897). He and his team also used the terms licensed and registered interchangeably (Q867), when in fact registration schemes and licensing schemes offer very different social policy solutions, and have very distinct implications for resources and costs. Whether he misunderstood the questions or whether he misunderstands the concepts it is difficult to tell, but either way, this is of great concern.
3. Lack of urgency
Even the Committee chair acknowledged that governments are often guilty of taking too long to tackle animal welfare and he cited the slow progress of Wild Animals in Circus regulations as a case in point. Back in 2006, 94.5% of respondents to a Labour Government public consultation concluded a ban would be the best option for animal welfare. It took 6 years from consultation to legislation but despite the overwhelming consensus for a ban we got a licensing scheme instead and though the Government still intends to implement a ban no parliamentary time has been allocated to that as yet.
Dog welfare fares no better, as can be seen in exploring appropriate legislation in the light of the growth of internet puppy sales – a phenomenon very hard to police. On this topic the Minister’s exact words were – “we need to take a fresh look at the impact that developments such as the internet have had, particularly when it comes to pet sales” (Q848). Can the internet still be seen as a “development” requiring a “fresh look” in 2016? It was invented in 1982, the world-wide-web was with us in 1989, Google is already 18 years old and Facebook is 12. How long does a Department need to get a grip on new technology and the implications it might have for animal welfare?
4. Lack of ambition
In addition to a lack of urgency there is an equal lack of ambition on where DEFRA hopes to set the benchmark for reform. Despite the many calls for a full systemic review of dog-welfare legislation coming from leading players in dog welfare, Eustice spoke of “tweaking” existing legislation which in the context of pet animals is now decades old, some of it over half a century old. This attitude was not lost on the Committee members – Angela Smith MP very directly called for a more robust review of the outdated laws (Q868) and looked more than a little concerned at the answers she was hearing. So the committee’s final report will make interesting reading on this. I, and perhaps the committee, remain mystified as to why when the clamour for a systemic review is so strong, the Minister is so reticent.
5. Failing to instil confidence
As is clear by now this session did not instil confidence that the DEFRA team has a strong grasp of dog welfare. Alongside the several inaccuracies cited already there was a troubling glimpse into their, shall we say laissez faire, policy management style.
Margaret Ritchie MP asked a very short simple question (Q857), following up on a previous DEFRA intervention into dog breeding policy. She asked about the impact of a letter issued by Eustice’s predecessor in 2014, to every UK local authority clarifying for them a point of law. The Minister’s waffled initial response prompted Ms Ritchie to ask the question a second time (Q858). His reply “I have not seen the statistics since”, in short he has never followed this up. If ever there was an opportunity for a Minister to prove he had a tight grasp of both his subject and his department surely an answer to her simple and direct question was it.
6. The nature of DEFRA’s reliance on the third sector
Throughout the session members of EFRA Comm picked up on the reliance DEFRA places on the third sector for both data and statistics, and actual work of substance. A prime example being the state’s reliance, in England and Wales, on the RSPCA for much, if not all investigations and prosecutions into animal welfare crime. This is such an important structural issue for animal welfare, it deserves a whole analysis of its own.
Eustice was proud to highlight a piece of collaborative work done recently with another welfare charity, the Dogs Trust, relating to the very complex issues of legal and illegal imports of dogs and puppies. However, he and his colleagues did not disclose that subsequent to the conclusion of that said piece of collaborative work, Dogs Trust has expressed real disappointment that, so far, all their recommendations have been ignored by DEFRA.
Overall, Eustice’s explanations suggested an ad hoc and incoherent, rather than strategic, reliance on partners, leaving us with more questions than answers.
A total of 143 questions were asked of the Minister responsible for animal welfare that afternoon. Watching that session unfold, with its unnerving mix of inaccurate assertions, “misunderstandings”, familiar excuses and confidence-busting proposals, leaves me certain of one thing – it is nigh on impossible to get governments to pay attention to animal welfare long enough for them to do something meaningful about it. It has become, or always has been, a low-priority pawn. This is why the work of CASJ is essential if we are ever to protect animal welfare to the level the animals deserve – it needs to be enshrined into policy goals, not toyed with in this frustrating fashion.
by Philippa Robinson, founder of The Karlton Index of dog breed health