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Licensing and enforcement

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BATTERSEA Dogs & Cats Home launched a report this week indicating that less than 12 per cent of puppies born in Great Britain each year are bred by licensed breeders.1 This, the charity points out, means that 88 per cent come from breeders who are unlicensed. The report is based on a Freedom of Information request made in April this year to all 379 local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales, asking for information about the number of breeding licence applications in each of the previous five years, the number of licences issued and refused, the number of breeding bitches in each currently licensed establishment, and the fees currently charged. Among the findings highlighted by the charity are that:

  • There are currently 895 licensed dog breeders in Great Britain, with 40 per cent of these breeders being located in just 6 per cent of local authorities;

  • Over a third of local authorities do not have any licensed breeders;

  • Seventy-seven per cent of local authorities did not issue any new licences to breeders in 2014;

  • Ninety per cent of licence applications are renewals rather than first-time applications;

  • The licence fee charged by different authorities varies greatly, with fees ranging from £23 to £741;

  • Most breeding establishments are relatively small, having 10 breeding bitches or fewer; however, five have over 100 and the largest has 200.

From the information gathered, the charity estimates that licensed dog breeders produce 67,125 puppies each year, representing 12 per cent of the 560,000 puppies which the Government estimates are born in Great Britain annually.

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home is currently campaigning for a change in dog breeding regulations, to simplify the law and bring more breeders under regulatory control (VR, February 7, 2015, vol 176, p 137). From the information presented in its report it would be hard to disagree with its conclusion that licensing is in need of a rethink. As the charity remarks, the findings ‘expose some serious gaps in a system which is supposed to safeguard the welfare of dogs and puppies, protect the interests of the puppy-buying public and ensure a level playing field for small businesses’. Meanwhile, discussing enforcement, it draws attention to the difficulties local authorities face in enforcing the currently complex regulations in areas where licensing applications are rare, commenting ‘the scarcity of breeding applications in some Council areas means that dog breeding premises may be regulated by staff whose expertise lies primarily in inspecting taxis, restaurants and other non-animal premises.’

Enforcement of licensing and other regulations relating to animal health and welfare is an important issue, and one which is not just confined to dog breeding. It could become more of an issue in the future if, as seems likely, local authority budgets are reduced further. In the meantime, as part of the Government's ‘Better Regulation’ initiative, Defra is currently reviewing animal-related licensing with a view to modernising the system. In an informal consultation document sent to interested parties earlier this year, Defra pointed out that animal-related licences account for the largest group of business licences issued by local authorities (after premises, taxi and gambling licences). It also pointed out that the current laws and their specific requirements are often decades old, and difficult to adapt to changing types of animal-related businesses and to new standards of good practice in animal welfare. ‘A modernisation of the current licensing system should relieve the administrative burden for local authorities, simplify the application and inspection processes for businesses and allow for more targeted enforcement,’ it argued. ‘It could also permit more time to be spent on improving welfare standards at poor performing establishments, and encourage the sharing of expertise between local authorities and other organisations.’

Details of precisely how Defra intended to modernise the arrangements were lacking and it said that any formal proposals will be subject to public consultation. However, ideas mentioned in the document included bringing existing licensing schemes (relating to, for example, riding schools, pet shops, animal boarding establishments as well as dog breeding) under the Animal Welfare Act, so that they can be updated more readily; the introduction of ‘rolling’ licences as opposed to the one-year system currently in place in a number of areas; and extending the duration of licences that local authorities can issue. Views were sought on ideas on how to encourage greater sharing of animal welfare functions across local authorities, simplify the licensing system for businesses and reduce the administrative burden on local authorities, while maintaining good animal welfare standards.

In a response to Defra's consultation, which is available on the BVA website,2 the BVA, together with the British Small Animal Veterinary Association and the British Veterinary Zoological Society, acknowledged that there is a need to change the licensing arrangements while also advocating more consistent and effective enforcement of the existing legislative regulatory framework. They expressed concern about the increasing lack of resources available to local authorities and for animal welfare inspection processes and warned that any changes should not be seen as a cost-cutting exercise, because any new model would need to be properly resourced. While supporting the proposal to bring existing licensing under the Animal Welfare Act, they argued that there was a need for a more detailed review of the legislation currently governing licensing schemes, to ensure that they are fit for purpose and to consider whether other types of activity and premises (such as animal rescue centres) should be included.

The figures relating to dog breeding licensing produced by Battersea Dogs & Cats Home this week support the idea that Britain's licensing arrangements are in need of review. However, this has to be done for the right reasons and, whatever the outcome, sufficient resources must be available to ensure that regulations can be enforced. Defra's review of the licensing arrangements needs to be comprehensive. As far as responsible dog ownership is concerned, there remains a need for a coherent strategy and, as the All Party Group on Animal Welfare argued in a report last December, it would be best to take a holistic approach (VR, December 13, 2014, vol 175, p 574).

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