Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2012/2013

Date: Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development

The Welfare of Animals (Dog Breeding Establishments and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012:  Stakeholder Event Feedback

The Chairperson: I welcome everyone back.  Sorry for the delay, but we had to go down to the Chamber to vote.  I hope that you found your discussions interesting and useful.  We are struggling for time, so, without further ado, I will ask the MLAs representing each table to take a few minutes to give feedback on the key points raised in their group.  I will start with group 3 and Jo-Anne Dobson.

Mrs Dobson: Group 3 had a very lively discussion.  We were not all in agreement most of the time, but the first issue that we discussed was microchipping.  Most thought that it was a good thing, should solve straying and provide traceability.  There were questions raised, however, about whether Northern Ireland should impose legislation on England.  Another issue raised was whether microchipping will increase the stigma around Irish dogs, and we discussed whether some opposition to microchipping is linked to the cost to the breeders.  We talked about registering details associated with microchipping and about whether the breeder should do that with a £15 transfer fee.  That may discourage some owners from doing that, and it was quite an emotive issue.  The key point that came across was that the onus needs to be on the new owners to register the dog's new details.  That came across very strongly from everyone in the group.

The next issue that we discussed was guidance for enforcement officers.  The changes from the previous guidance were welcomed, but some breeders felt that it was still too prescriptive and would lead some to hide the dogs.  Should we move towards the Republic of Ireland guidelines, which are less prescriptive?  Is that a good model to follow?  Guidance should put disreputable breeders out of business.  The focus in the guidance is open to interpretation by enforcement officers.  For example, what is a "home environment"?  That created quite a lot of debate.  Another major concern was the relationship between the breeder and the council officer.  We all thought that it is critical to ensuring that the guidelines are implemented.  Personally, I wondered whether the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) should provide training to benchmark that.

The third item under discussion was the suspension and appeals procedure.  There was consensus on that and a welcome for the appeals procedure initially to be to the council prior to need for Magistrates' Court involvement.  Everyone felt that that system would work.  There was a suggestion of introducing a time limit in improvement notices, as is used in the Republic of Ireland, and if the legislation is right, the appeals process will take care of itself.  We were in agreement on that one.

The issue that caused the most concern around the table was the definition of a "breeding establishment".  Exceptional circumstances can lead to a limit of three litters being exceeded, and some asked why it is not four or five, in common with the Republic of Ireland and GB.  There was quite a lot of debate on that.  Should or should there not be exemptions?  There were divergent views and no consensus on that.  There was a common focus on animal welfare. 

Another major concern was whether hobby or show breeders are being forced to become commercial breeders, and the licence fee change was driving the former point.  For example, an establishment with three breeding bitches was £150 and rising from £350 for 200-plus.  Should the number of litters per bitch return to one litter in 12 months or three litters in three years?  There were a lot of differing opinions on that in my group.

Mr Byrne: First, I thank everybody who took part in our discussion, which was very lively, and I was glad that we had a veterinary perspective.  It is good to have that in a discussion such as this.

Group 2 was asked to deal with block licences.  There was a general feeling that there should be a common fee and a scaling of fees so that the larger establishments with more breeding dogs pay a higher contribution.  However, the key things are to encourage all breeders to be registered and pay a fee and to encourage compliance.  There was an issue about the scale of fees — to make sure that we had a graduated scale from a minimum fee to whatever the maximum might be, relative to the production of the breeding agency.

As Jo-Anne mentioned earlier, there was a discussion about looking to the South as an example.  The high scale of fees there has driven breeders out of the system and has meant that some have gone underground or are working illegally.

The question of fees versus fines was mentioned, as was the need to penalise the people who are not abiding by the law or the regulations.  It was argued that fees should be based on the number of litters produced rather than on the number of bitches kept.  That is an argument about having a stronger handle on the production of pups.

The general feeling and consensus about exemptions was that there should be no exemptions across the board.  Anyone coming under the regulations should not be exempt and should meet minimum welfare standards in particular.  It was also felt that charities should be in the system without exemptions, but, obviously, subject to a different and possibly reduced fee structure.

There was a question about definitions for charities.  One gentleman in our group is from a charity that has only two members, so there is a question about what is a recognisable charity that is both viable and functioning.  There was a discussion about the definition of a "charity".  That needs to be revised in the legislation.

There was a big debate about who should be invoking inspections on a breeder farm.  Should it be a vet who is asked voluntarily to carry out an annual inspection or inspections as and when required?  What about statutory inspections?  In the South, there are county veterinary officers who deal with animals that are registered with the local authority.  In the North, we have dog wardens and other people who are involved in animal health.  There is discretion about invoking inspections and making sure that there is ongoing registration.

Should there be a section in the proposed regulations particularly for gaming dogs or greyhounds?  The South has legislation that deals with regulating greyhounds, and in GB there is greyhound-specific legislation.  We do not have that in Northern Ireland, so there is a question as to whether the legislation should contain provisions that deal particularly with greyhounds.

There was a fairly heated discussion about mating and limitations.  Again, there was a question about definitions.  In the proposed legislation, there is a reference to six months and 12 months, and there is confusion about what means what, but there was a general agreement that no bitch should be allowed to have offspring until after 12 months, and for bigger dogs, that should be extended to a possible minimum of 18 months.

The cost of neutering causes bitches to be euthanised once their biological reproductive cycle is finished.  There was a heated discussion about how to make sure that responsible breeders look after the welfare of older bitches.  It was argued that we need a provision for the welfare of dogs that have finished breeding, but the issue is how to enforce it.  It was suggested that we have some sort of tracking system similar to that which is used for livestock, or a logbook for each breeding dog.

The number of litters leads to very bad animal welfare.  Sorry, I am reading someone else's writing, so bear with me.

There was a question about the number of litters that a dog should be allowed to have in a specified period.  It was asked whether a bitch should be required to have three litters in three years, but there was a question about the period between reproductive cycles.

Again, it was emphasised that there should be some compatibility with the GB legislation and the law in the Republic, given that we are a single island.  Otherwise, we will have dogs not recognising the border.  Those of us who live in the border areas know what that means — smuggling or jumping across the border.  That is as much as I can say.  I thank Suzie, my assistant, for taking the notes.

The Chairperson: Thank you, Joe and Jo-Anne for that feedback from your groups.  I thank Bronagh for taking notes for me in group 1.  They were very good, and I must say that she has very good handwriting.  The three topics that we discussed were the definition of "breeding establishments"; the period for compliance with the new requirements; and the requirement for whelping facilities, normal behaviour and socialisation programmes.

At times, there were heated discussions on the first topic, the definition of "breeding establishments".  Of course, that is healthy; it gets the views of everyone across.  There was not so much consensus on that, but we had belief structures and made comments, I suppose.  One issue that we did reach consensus on related to the fact that the three breeding bitches should be from the registered kennel.  That distinguishes between the hobby breeders and the dog-breeding establishments.  There was a discussion on whether a bitch should have more than one litter a year.  Again, that ties in with having three litters over the three years, with regard to the bitch being on heat out of cycle.  That would cover that to that degree.  A question was raised around the breeder and the seller.  If there are different definitions, should there be, or should they all be in together?  There was discussion around exemptions.  We also asked whether charities should be licensed.

We also had the huntsmen.  Again, it was explained that the huntspeople would fall into the category with their block licences, so they will still get some inspections, albeit not through the definition of "breeding establishments".

The definition itself should be strengthened.  There were occasions when you could have said that there was something more in the legislation on page 8, or whatever, but that should be front-loaded so that there are no grey areas regarding the breeding establishments.  It is self-explanatory, but if there is something else to be added in the further pages, it should be front-loaded, even if it repeats itself.

We need to ensure that people do not fall through the net.  That is very important.  Mating is also addressed later in the legislation, and that ties in with the point that I made about front-loading.  Can we get the registration numbers of the breeders on to the advertisements?  That would provide a reassurance of standards and give the advertisement a Kitemark, if you like.  It would mean that when people are reading advertisements for puppies, they will see the registered number and know that it is a reputable puppy breeder.

The definition of "breeding establishments" in regulation 2 was corrected at our table.  It should read:

"from which the business of breeding, supplying and selling of puppies is advertised;"

 

It should cover not just the breeding and selling but the supplying, and it is the business of breeding not the breeding itself.  Those words have to be added as yet.

Our second topic concerned the period of compliance with the new requirements.  There was more consensus on that issue, and it was clarified to us again that when this legislation comes in, people will still be on their yearly licence.  The regulations will kick in when that yearly licence lapses.  If the written standard in the regulations is six months, that will mean that, in effect, some people could get up to 18 months in which to comply.  Others will not be so lucky and will have six months, depending on when they have to renew their licence.  Therefore, there is room and flexibility there, depending on when you apply for a new licence or when your licence is up.

We also said that improvement notices would be the best system, and we had a good consensus on that.  Some people asked what an improvement notice really means.  They asked whether it would be a system of three strikes and you are out and whether that would mean that we were being too lenient on people.  Should there be a timescale on that to ensure that people comply quicker?  Are we being too soft?  The consensus was that that could be a way to raise the standard and not cut people off and force them to go underground.  That would raise standards quite well, which, of course, is the whole nature and spirit of the legislation in the first place.

It would have to be an independent, DARD-appointed veterinary surgeon.  If these are DARD regulations, the appointment of vets should be made by DARD to comply with the regulations.  It would keep it independent, so your own vet, if you like, would not be judging or standardising your own establishment.  It was agreed that if an establishment cannot come up to standard within the period that we are talking about, whether that be six months or 18 months, there is something wrong, and there should be enforcement to that degree.  We have covered the point that registration stays valid until the due date for renewal.

Education of the general public is a key issue when it comes to where they buy their puppies.  The public should make it their business to know exactly how puppies are raised in these establishments.  That will only add to the credibility of the dog-breeding establishments.

The next point is the need for fully trained inspectors.  If the councils are going to inspect these establishments, they need to be fully trained.  They need to know exactly what they are looking for and what they are not looking for.  I will speak a bit more about that when discussing our final topic.

It was quite concerning that DARD figures from 2010 show that there are no registered breeders at all in Belfast.  That highlights a problem.  Are we saying that there are no dog breeders in Belfast?  I will pursue that in our questioning.  There were also no licensed dog breeders in other council areas in the country.

Our third topic was the requirement for whelping facilities, normal behaviour and socialisation programmes.  That is the area in which we got the most consensus, and there was a clear sense at our table of what that meant and what are good, standard requirements for whelping facilities for bitches, dogs and puppies.  The problem that we had is on the question of what is normal behaviour.  We know that there are different breeds of dogs, with different behaviours.  Even within specific breeds of dogs, dogs will react differently, because they all have a mind of their own.  How can you define what normal behaviour is?  That definition is a very grey area.  How do you get that down in legislation or guidance notes?

We discussed problems with the socialisation programme to do with the written work.  Will that heap more bureaucracy on to the breeders' businesses, and will it only be a piece of paper, just a method statement that people write out, put on a shelf and then bring out when the official comes out to inspect?  We agreed that inspectors should have a checklist and know exactly what they are looking for, but the checklist should not ask whether the official has seen the socialisation programmes.  It should ask whether you have checked for this and for that in the dog pen, for the behaviour of the bitch, and all of that.  It should not be a paper exercise.  That came across strongly in our discussion.  The expert who goes out should know exactly what normal behaviour is and what could be construed as wrong.  When inspectors see the dogs, they should know whether there is an issue.  It should not be a matter of whether they have written a great socialisation programme that ticks all the boxes but that they have written one that they can see in practice when they view the dogs at first hand.  To me, that is the proof.  The proof is in the looking, not in the paperwork that could or should have to be done to tick boxes on an inspection chart.  What is best practice?  There should be guidance notes issued for the inspectors and for the breeders so that there are no grey areas and they know what is expected of them with regard to their facilities, what constitutes normal behaviour in a dog and a bitch, and what socialisation is.  If there is clear guidance for the breeders and the inspectors, there should be no ambiguity and everybody should know what they need.  That should mean less need for paperwork and socialisation programmes. 

Puppies should be sold with a Kitemark.  There are big concerns about selling puppies out of the back of a van, so there should be a Kitemark, whether that is a vet-approved certificate or some other standard.  That would help the credibility of dog breeders.  A breeder made the point that whelping bitches should be in a kennel of their own and not with other dogs, in a quiet area with low levels of noise.  There is a great sense at our table of what should be normal practice and what are high standards of treatment for bitches and dogs.  Again, I emphasise that inspectors need to be properly trained and monitored when going out to inspect those properties.

Folks, that is basically the summing up of what was said at all three tables.  I hope that you found the discussions informative.  However, I am aware that some groups were aggrieved that they were not at the table that discussed a certain subject.  I hope that we have spread people across the tables as best we could.  However, if there is a burning desire to talk about an issue that was not covered at your table, I will let you talk about it now.  If there are any other issues that you feel you need to talk about, please bring them to our attention now.  We will go into plenary session.  We have a roving mic, and if anybody feels the need to stand up and talk about an issue that they have not had a chance to discuss, please do so now.  I know that we had a big interruption there, so I am content to let this run on for a bit longer.  If anybody wants to speak on any of the issues that have not been covered or are not in the legislation, please do so now.  I will take a show of hands.  This man here at the front.

Mr David Hamilton (Canine Breeders Ireland): People may accuse me of hogging the mic, but I just want to thank Paul, the Committee members and the staff.  This legislation affects the welfare of thousands of dogs; it affects the lives of families throughout this country, rural families and many others, so it is very important that we get it right.  I am grateful to the Committee for going into it in such detail.  One point that I did not get a chance to raise at our table was about the maintenance of records for dogs and the filling in of log books.  We suggested that a day log or a veterinary medicines book could be applied so that, with treatments that are used in the kennel, the breeder could do that in the kennel to simplify the process and ensure that it is complied with.  We hold out the hope that we can get the legislation right and that we will be able to endorse it and get something that works and that helps the industry.

Ms Elza Margrain (Afghan Hound Society of Northern Ireland): I am Elza Margrain, secretary of the Afghan Hound Society of Northern Ireland.  I have a whole page of things here, but you will be pleased to know that most of them have already been covered.  However, the letter that we got that referred to the changes in the legislation said that they were no longer going to deal with the issues of line breeding and genetic testing.  Therefore, I want to know why the document still refers to DNA sampling, as I can see no reason for it if you are not looking at line breeding.  If you are going to continue with that, it has to be done by a vet; it cannot be done by inspectors, even if they are trained.

The other issue is not the young age of breeding bitches but the other end.  The Kennel Club will not register puppies to a bitch who is over eight, and I do not see any reason why that should be changed.  If a bitch is eight, it is old enough.  Similarly, I think that I am right in saying that, from January this year, the Kennel Club reduced the number of litters that it will register to any one bitch from six to four.  So why are we still having six litters?

The Chairperson: OK.  Thank you.

Mr Lyall Plant (Countryside Alliance Ireland): I would like to thank the Committee for this excellent day.  The Irish Coursing Club adheres to the Irish legislation in its greyhound stud book, which the club holds and runs.  We would like to see that remain as it is in the legislation.  Moreover, we would like to see the exemptions for gun clubs, charities and those who do field trials and hunts remain in place, because hunting is a recreational activity.  It is not a business or a livelihood and should, therefore, remain separate from the dog breeders' legislation.  However, they will conform and have a block licence and will, therefore, be open for inspection through the animal welfare regulations.

The Chairperson: Thank you, Lyall.  No one else has indicated. 

Again, thank you very much for all your contributions in the plenary session and at the round-table discussions.  I assure you that this has been of value to us as MLAs.  This is what we need to hear.  The politician who tells you that he knows everything is a liar.  We need to be informed by the public and by people such as you who work in the business, day in, day out.  It is very important that we are informed of the issues and problems with the legislation because we in the Committee are the ones who will be speaking to and engaging with the Department on those issues to make sure that whatever goes to the Floor of the Assembly is right for Northern Ireland, for the businesses involved and, most important, for the welfare of animals.  That is very important, and we take it very seriously.  We have a scrutiny role, which we take very seriously, because we know that if we get the legislation wrong, it could have a massive impact. 

I know that there is a wide range of views among the people at all the tables.  You still have an opportunity to write to the Committee, so please do so if you feel the need.  Write to us with your views, because the more views we get, the more information we will have to inform our discussions and to make sure that we come to the best view before speaking to the Department.  That is what the Department wants:  it wants the Committee to have a clear version of what it believes.  Therefore, to help the Department, the Committee needs to have a good sense of this.  I am not saying that that will be easy.  There are issues and divides, but it is up to us to make sure that we close those divides as much as possible so that the legislation will help everybody in the business.

Today's event has been recorded by Hansard, and the transcript will be available on the Northern Ireland Assembly website in due course.  Given the interest demonstrated here today, I suggest that you check the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development’s forward work programme to see when the Department will bring the regulations back to us.  We do not know exactly when that will be.  You will have the opportunity to follow the Committee meeting via the Assembly website or to attend the meeting as a member of the public if you so wish.  Finally, I wish all of you a safe journey home.  Thank you very much for attending today.  [Applause.]

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