Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
Co-Op, Tow Law, Co. Durham
North West Durham is currently quilted by its second blanket of snow in the last month. This week’s constituency surgery visits involved cautious transit along ungritted roads to my hardy constituents.
Even the sheep, usually scattered across fells, or grazing their own patch of fields, were huddled round hayracks – the animals themselves barely offset from the off-white landscape about them. Temperatures have averaged below freezing for five weeks now and, chatting with constituents, outside homes and businesses, in the villages and towns that fill the upper reaches of the Wear and Derwent catchments, I was glad I’d suitably layered up.
I mention the environment because it and the animals that we share it with are both important to my constituents. Necessarily removed from human contact, people have lent much more on ‘man’s best friend’ as a substitute. Animals have provided companionship, especially to the most vulnerable, and a necessary breathing-space for so many families that have otherwise been largely stuck indoors.
Despite all this, though, my constituents wouldn’t view themselves as ‘animal rights activists’. Nonetheless, they are animal lovers, and are deeply concerned about animal welfare.
With so many stuck at home and unable to see friends, pets have become more prized and demand for them, especially dogs, has jumped. Sadly, reports of dog-thefts have surged in the UK and now litter many local Facebook groups.
Last year, I met with the Royal Veterinary College, Dogs Trust and other animal charities, including Farplace Animal Rescue based in North West Durham, and they also raised concern about another issue that’s on the rise and has been more acute during lockdown: so-called ‘puppy smuggling’ by organised crime gangs from Eastern Europe. Animals illegally being carted across the continent, with many dying in transit and others, without the proper vaccinations or paperwork, susceptible to bringing diseases, such as rabies, into the UK.
In constituencies like North West Durham, with working dogs and animals on farms and on the moors; pit ponies in the mines within the last few decades, and with pet ownership well above the national average, these issues matter to local people – even if often they are seen as low priority for policymakers.
What’s vitally important is that we do not allow the extremists to grab hold of the debate in this area. We need to be leading the way on reasonable measures to protect people and their animals and here are a few suggestions:
1) Pet Theft
My colleague Tom Hunt is already leading the charge on better legislation to tackle dog theft. Too often, it’s treated the same as a stolen bicycle but, as the pandemic has emphasised, our pets are far more than that.
Our animals are part of our families, and those targeting animals know that the worth that they have is far more than their supposed monetary value. It’s vital that this particularly nasty crime gets the proper sentencing it deserves.
While there is a good theoretical top-end sentence at present, all too often perpetrators get away with fines. It’s clear that the guidelines on sentencing need to be toughened up, and the Home Secretary may be able to act in this area without further recourse to brand new primary legislation.
2) Puppy Smuggling
It’s not always that national charities such as the Royal Veterinary College and the Dogs Trust are aligned, but they are in this instance – and we should make the most of this.
Our new freedom from the EU makes checks in this area much easier, in order to tackle the organised crime gangs behind this. It’s likely that if they’re involved in smuggling one thing then they’re involved in smuggling another.
It’s clear that we must step up measures in this area – not just in terms of people smuggling dogs but also people. We already have compulsory microchipping of dogs since 2016, so checking that dogs have been chipped must be an easy step forward in this area. The current fine of up to £500 could be increased, too, to help ensure compliance and make it easier to deal with illegally smuggled animals.
3) Horse Tethering
Several constituents have raised this issue with me recently and, with people less willing to leave their houses, it seems to be a growing issue locally, and one I’m looking at leading a campaign on.
It’s clearly wholly unnecessary that horses in an enclosed field should be tethered to a post for any period beyond that necessary for their own welfare (such as for shoeing to take place).
We rightly have some of the highest standards in the world in terms of animals being bred for food production, and those being kept as pets should have similar protection. Issues such as this could be managed by the Government supporting various Private Members’ Bills during the coming years.
4) Banning the export of live animals
Further measures like banning the live export of animals is a massive step in the right direction, and the Government has already indicated its willingness to move forward in this area. Again, often changes to regulations rather than primary legislation could achieve this objective.
Let one of the consequences of lock-down be that we deal with some of these issues, which have been bubbling away on the backburner for too long. Better animal welfare is clearly one of them.
Addressing it also allows us as Conservatives to ensure that the whole environmental agenda isn’t left in the hands of extremists, and delivers something that connects on a visceral level – more than ever because of Coronavirus, with our animal-loving constituents and their pets.
Targeted action with short and snappy campaigns can really help make a difference, rather than sweeping reviews and consultations. We know what the issues are. Let’s tackle them – and give a bit of extra protection to ‘mans’ best friend’ and his pals who, for so many, have really earned that title during the last year.