Puppy smuggling crackdown and live exports ban dropped in major government U-turn

Rishi Sunak, who promised last year to champion Kept Animals Bill, accused of breaking promises in Tory manifesto

Jane Dalton
Friday 26 May 2023 12:29 BST
The promises were mainstays of the government’s 2021 grand animal-welfare action plan
The promises were mainstays of the government’s 2021 grand animal-welfare action plan (Getty)

The government has dropped plans for a bill that would have banned live exports and cracked down on puppy smuggling, prompting waves of fury from animal-welfare campaigners and experts.

The Kept Animals Bill – which also included a ban on primates as pets, a crackdown on puppy smuggling and greater protection for sheep from dangerous dogs – were in the Conservatives’ election manifesto.

The promises were mainstays of the government’s 2021 grand animal-welfare action plan, and the Bill was one of Boris Johnson’s flagship policies.

Lambs on a lorry in Scotland
Lambs on a lorry in Scotland (Getty Images)

During his Tory leadership campaign last year, Rishi Sunak promised to ban live animal exports and to champion the Kept Animals Bill.

When the heads of nearly 30 campaign organisations called on him and rival Liz Truss to promise to uphold the pledges, Mr Sunak’s team replied saying: “Rishi looks forward to championing this Bill as it continues to progress through parliament.”

The legislation would also have tackled pet theft, improved rules on zoo animal welfare and banned the import of dogs with cropped ears.

Environment, food and rural affairs minister Mark Spencer announced on Thursday the government was dropping it, citing a lack of parliamentary time – but sources said the government feared it could lead to debates over the hunting ban.

Animal-welfare campaigners accused the prime minister of breaking Tory promises.

Claire Bass, senior director of campaigns and public affairs at Humane Society International/UK, said: “The government’s decision to abandon the Kept Animals Bill is an astonishing betrayal of both animals and public trust.”

Charities used a banner urging Therese Coffey and Rishi Sunak not to ‘hang animals out to dry'
Charities used a banner urging Therese Coffey and Rishi Sunak not to ‘hang animals out to dry' (AP)

She said the bill needed only a few more hours in the Commons to succeed, so parliamentary time clearly was not the real issue.

She said Whitehall sources had said the Bill had been dropped over concerns it could “act as a vehicle for uncomfortable debates that the government does not want held on polarising issues such as hunting with dogs”.

Hunting wild mammals with dogs is illegal under the Hunting Act 2004.

“Vital protections for dogs, calves, sheep, primates and other animals have been sacrificed today at the government’s altar of self-serving political convenience,” Ms Bass said.

Protests against live exports have been held in Dover since 1989
Protests against live exports have been held in Dover since 1989 (AFP via Getty Images)

Battersea, Blue Cross, Cats Protection, Dogs Trust, RSPCA and The Kennel Club joined forces to condemn the U-turn, saying animals “will now continue to suffer without the protections the bill could have provided, including victims of puppy and kitten smuggling, dog and cat abduction and the importation of dogs with cropped ears and declawed cats”.

Before Brexit, an estimated 4,000 sheep were transported from the UK to Europe for slaughter each year, and around 6,000 calves were exported from Scotland via Northern Ireland, mostly to Spain and Italy. Exports from Northern Ireland continue.

The government had come under pressure to move ahead with the Bill, which had been stalled since its report stage in the Commons.

British Veterinary Association President Malcolm Morley said: “News that the Kept Animals Bill will not progress through parliament is extremely disappointing. This crucial legislation, and the package of measures it contained, would have prevented the immeasurable suffering of thousands of animals.”

The RSPCA said it was frustrated and disappointed that, despite overwhelming public support, the government had “delayed and delayed” and had now broken up the bill.

(Compassion in World Farming)

Emma Slawinski, head of policy at the RSPCA, said: “We have been waiting for almost two years for the Kept Animals Bill to improve the lives of billions of animals and now it’s effectively been scrapped. While politicians dither, animals suffer.”

Mr Spencer suggested the measures could be brought into law through Private Members’ Bills – but such bills rarely make it through parliament.

Nick Palmer, head of Compassion in World Farming UK, said: This cruel and outdated trade has been a stain on British farm animal welfare standards for far too long, and the Kept Animals Bill would have finally consigned it to the history books. But sadly, the government have let this opportunity slide.

“We urge MPs who are successful in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills in the autumn, to take up the ban and propose legislation to finally end this horrific practice which has caused so much suffering over the years.”

Ms Bass said the U-turn was “indicative of the low priority the government now evidently places on animal welfare”.

Other animal lovers branded the decision “shameful”, and one commented: “The UK is supposed to be one of the leaders in animal welfare. What a joke that is, especially where the Tory government is concerned.”

Mr Spencer told MPs: “We will be taking forward measures in the Kept Animals Bill individually during the remainder of the Parliament.

“We remain fully committed to delivering our manifesto commitments – and this approach is now the surest and the quickest way of doing so, rather than letting it be mired in political game-playing.”

The Independent has asked No 10 to comment on the U-turn in the light of Mr Sunak’s promise last year, but has not received a response.

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