Change in policy in UK animal welfare strategy has major implications for Irish animal welfare: report plus podcast

Report on UK animal welfare strategy

A major report has just been published by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee, a cross-party group which is appointed by the House of Commons to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and associated public bodies. As such, the committee’s latest report on the welfare of pets, with serious recommendations on actions, represents the latest course of action likely to be taken by the British government. With the closeness of the two nations, and in particular with the high volume of trade in puppies between Ireland and the UK, there are likely to be significant changes down the road along similar lines in Ireland.

It’s a lengthy report at over 70 pages, but the report summary picks out the key points, which I’ve listed below in italics. After each point, I’ve added, in bold, non-italic text, the implications for Ireland.

Summary of report

We found that there are many flaws in the legislation, from licensing through enforcement and to sale, which lead to inadequate protection of animals. We have focused on the need for transparency, traceability and enforcement through the supply chain. The Committee’s key recommendations and conclusions are:
(Ireland has similar legislation, and similar flaws, and this means we suffer from the same lack of transparency, traceability and enforcement of animal welfare)

  1. We recommend that the Government set out a timetable for the secondary legislation that was foreseen ten years ago in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. In the UK, this includes legislation to create a single ‘Animal Establishment Licence’ for animal boarding establishments, pet shops, riding establishments, and dog breeding, as well as a way of bringing animal sanctuaries into the licencing system.
    In Ireland, similar steps need to be taken. At the moment, boarding kennels and animal rescue centres have to be registered as “dog breeding establishments” which is clearly wrong. New statutory instruments are needed to modify this type of anomaly. Also in Ireland, boarding kennels, pet shops, doggy day care centres and other commercial entities that involve the care of animals do not need to be registered: for the sake of animal welfare, there’s an argument that they ought to be.
  2. We recommend that the Government pass regulations to protect the genetic viability and welfare of offspring as well as adult dogs.
    The Dog Breeding Reform Group said “the mating of dogs which are suffering from, or carry the genes for, a breed related disease or harmful physical traits should be as much a contravention of the Animal Welfare Act as physical or psychological mistreatment” The Act enables regulations to be made to extend the application of the Act to an animal from an earlier stage of its development. We recommend that the Government pass regulations to protect the genetic viability and welfare of offspring as well as adult dogs.
    So this is saying that it is a form of animal cruelty to produce pups with serious inherited disease, and that the government should pass regulations to make this a crime. The current Irish legislation offers similar protection in theory but some sort of statutory instrument would be needed to enforce this theory. The Irish government should watch this closely with a view to taking similar steps as in the UK.
  3. We recommend that anyone breeding two litters or more per year should be licensed as a breeder. and those falling below the threshold of a licensed breeder should be registered with their Local Authority
    In Ireland, dog breeders only need to register if they own more than five breeding bitches. This UK suggestion is far more stringent, and it presents a case for the Irish government seriously tightening their own number limits under dog breeding legislation. It would be helpful for the Irish government also to insist that anyone who sells puppies is licensed so that they are traceable, even if they are not inspected or expected to maintain certain standards. This registration would also provide useful information for the Revenue Commissioners with respect to unpaid tax on selling puppies.
  4. Breeders have an important responsibility to provide for the social development and broader welfare requirements for puppies in their care. We recommend that the legislation governing the breeding of dogs should be updated with a licensing regime based on modern welfare standards.
    In Ireland, we do have the Dog Breeding Establishments Act, but it’s interpretation by Local Authorities needs to be tightened up, again based on modern welfare standards including more than just the “basics” i.e. addressing issues such as adequate socialisation of puppies etc. Psychological welfare should be explicitly included under the Animal Health and Welfare Act which currently it is not (although it’s implicitly included via the Five Freedoms). Explicit inclusion would probably require an amendment to the Act rather than secondary legislation (statutory instrument).
  5. We recommend that a national inspectorate should be established to liaise and support local authorities in enforcing the licensing regime, undertaking inspections and dealing with complaints.
    In Ireland, the Local Authority Veterinary Services is effectively a national organisation which carries out Dog Breeding Establishment inspections, so this is already in place. In Ireland, a change of emphasis in the work done by inspecting vets would be useful, so that the legislation started to be used as a tool for prosecuting those who contravene the guidelines, instead of (as currently) a tool to bring those that are not compliant into compliance. 
  6. To address the low awareness of the obligations of pet owners under the Animal Welfare Act, we recommend that the Government examine how animal welfare can be incorporated into citizenship classes as part of the school curriculum.
    This has happened in Educate Together schools in Ireland but it would be helpful for animal welfare to be introduced as part of all school curricula. The ISPCA is currently lobbying for this to be brought about.
  7. The Pet Travel Scheme is providing a vehicle for the illegal importation of puppies. The Government must ensure that negotiations regarding our future relationship with Europe include this issue. The age at which dogs are allowed to enter the United Kingdom under the PETS system should be increased to six months, thereby reducing their commercial value to smugglers.
    This has massive implications for the legitimate Irish puppy farm and dog breeding industry. Currently, puppies can be exported legally to the UK at 15 weeks of age. If this was increased to six months, as recommended, the pups would be past the “cute and fluffy” stage, and would be far less in demand. This will reduce the demand for puppies from Ireland, lower the price of puppies, and take away much of the profit from the industry. The only problem with this is that it might increase smuggling as no pups could be compliant under 6 months so breeders might decide to take the risk of smuggling younger pups as the market is so lucrative and there will still be a demand. Unless more dogs are bred in England and Wales there will always be a demand from Ireland. 
  8. We recommend that the Government ban third party sale of dogs. Dogs should only be available from licensed, regulated breeders or approved rehoming organisations.
    This means no more sale of puppies through pet shops (doesn’t happen much in Ireland anyway). It also would make it far more difficult for illegal puppy farmers in Ireland to sell their pups in the UK. However, the unintended result could be that more puppies could be smuggled and illegally sold out of car boots rather than third party dealers houses.
  9. We recommend that the Pet Advertising Advisory Group’s minimum standards should be made mandatory for all websites where pets are advertised and sold.
    In Ireland, we have an Irish Pet Advertising Advisory Group which has established voluntary standards. It would be good for the Irish government to follow this lead and also make it compulsory for all websites that sell animals to comply with these standards.
  10. We recommend that the Government make it compulsory that all internet advertisements should include the registration or licence number of the seller.
    This follows on from earlier, where anyone selling puppies has to be registered with the local authority. This also would be helpful in Ireland, although  there is a risk that puppy farmers will simply advertise on sites based outside Ireland and the UK that can never be policed.  For this reason, it makes sense not to raise the bar so high that it simply moves the problem somewhere else.
  11. We recommend that the Government place a statutory duty on local authorities to enforce the Animal Welfare Act. The Government must ensure that appropriate resources are made available to local authorities to support them in this extension of their statutory duties.
    The issue of central funding for Local Authorities is a perennial one in Ireland too, and it is true that if centrally introduced laws introduce new costs to local authorities, then appropriate funding should be introduced to allow the appropriate actions to be taken.
  12. The Committee recommends that the RSPCA should continue its important work investigating animal welfare cases and working closely with the police and statutory authorities. It should, however, withdraw from acting as a prosecutor of first resort where there are statutory bodies with a duty to carry out this role. We are not convinced by its arguments that it is in a better position than the CPS to prosecute animal welfare cases.
    This does not apply in Ireland, as the ISPCA has never had the same primary prosecutor role as the RSPCA: the ISPCA always works hand in hand with the public prosecutor. In the UK, this is seen as the most dramatic and controversial recommendation in the report. This would be a huge step backwards for animal welfare in England and Wales. The ideal would be to shift to the Irish or Scottish system where the charity investigates and hands evidence to the prosecuting body (i.e. separating investigation and prosecution). Incidentally the committee voted 6 to 4 to call for RSPCA to cease prosecuting – 5 Conservative and 1 SNP  against 3 labour and 1 SDLP. This is clearly a political split, which is not surprising given that number of Conservative MPs who want the Hunting Act repealed, and fox hunting reintroduced. It’s worth noting that one of the committee members is Simon Hart, a Conservative MP, and a former chairperson of the Countryside Alliance. He’s currently being paid £30k / annum by the Countryside Alliance for 8 hours per week as a ‘high-value consultant’.  The Countryside Alliance has been a vocal campaigning organisation for the reintroduction of hunting to the UK, which immediately puts it at loggerheads with the RSPCA.By the way, regardless of this recommendation by the committee, the RSPCA has said it will continue to prosecute as it is their legal right to do so and nobody else will do it.
  13. The current penalties for animal welfare cases in England are amongst the lowest in Europe. We recommend that the maximum penalty is increased to five years.
    In Ireland, whenever there is a conviction for animal cruelty, the penalties seem to be ridiculously light even though the possible penalties are high. In this country, some sort of sentencing guidelines for judges would be helpful. In Ireland, potential penalties at District Court for animal cruelty are fines of up to €5000 +/- 6 months imprisonment, and at Circuit Court,  fines of up to €250,000 +/- 5 years imprisonment. In reality, to date, these maximum sentences are never handed down.
  14. We recommend that the Government examines the potential for the establishment of an animal abuse register of those convicted of animal cruelty offences and who have been disqualified from keeping animals.
    This would also be useful in Ireland but there would need to be restricted access to the lists, to prevent lynching mobs from harassing people who, in fairness, have served their punishment for their crimes.

Questions from Pat Kenny Show listeners

  • Question from presenter: what is the story about “anti-vaccination campaigners” in the veterinary world?
  • Deborah from Carlow wanted advice on a suitable breed of toy dog
  • With the winter setting in, does frost/ snow do damage to my dog’s paws when out walking. Louise In Galway
  • I’ve decided to get a new puppy from a rescue centre but have 2 dogs already. Any tips on introducing them? Natalie
  • If a large Labrador type dog is confined in a high walled garden measuring a few square yards alone over many years without exercise, is that legal?
  • Why is it more expensive to get my cats treated with a small animal vet then a equine vet. My last two bills for an equine vet to visit my pony was €50 & €45 (medicine was included), Whereas I have to bring my cats to a vet and they charge more. Tom
  • I have two female Jack Russells around 5 and 6 they don’t fight much but when they do it’s frightening. It seems the younger dog starts growling first then they fight. I sometimes try separate them its very hard. Should I just leave them to it and hope it will just stop?  Ciaran

To listen to the podcast which discusses the animal welfare report and answers the questions listed above, click on the link below.


Listen to the podcast:

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