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Step in the right direction on licensing?

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PROPOSALS from Defra to change the regulations governing the licensing of dog breeding and other animal-related businesses in England fall short of the comprehensive strategy for dogs advocated by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare in 2014 and, indeed, the comprehensive review of dog-related legislation recommended by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee the year before. However, with some important provisos, they could represent a step in the right direction. Not least among these is that sufficient resources are available to make them work.

In a consultation document issued just before Christmas, Defra invited comments on proposals to replace and update the existing rules governing the licensing of pet shops, animal boarding establishments, riding establishments and dog breeders by introducing a single, generic ‘Animal Establishment Licence’ under the Animal Welfare Act (VR, January 2, 2016, vol 178, p 5). The licensing arrangements are intended to ensure that animal welfare standards are maintained, and responsibility for licensing rests with local authorities. As Defra explains in the consultation document, ‘There is a strong public expectation that animal welfare standards will be robustly enforced by local authorities. However, the laws, and their specific requirements, are often decades old, and difficult to adapt to the changing types of animal-related businesses, and to new standards of good practice in animal welfare. Moreover, the current process is complex and burdensome for both businesses and local authorities.’ The aim of the changes will be to allow more flexibility in the licensing arrangements to take account of changes in animal-related activities and current knowledge of animal welfare, avoid duplication of effort and reduce the administrative burden on local authorities and businesses.

At the same time, Defra is proposing to strengthen the rules on dog breeding by banning the sale of puppies less than eight weeks old in any circumstances, and by requiring anyone in the business of breeding or selling dogs, or producing more than three litters from their dogs in a 12-month period, to be licensed. The legislation will make clear that the rules will apply to online and home-based businesses as well as other premises. Existing requirements that each breeding bitch should not be allowed to produce more than one litter in a 12-month period will be maintained, as will requirements that they should not be mated unless they are one year old and that they should give birth to no more than six litters in their lifetime. To address concerns about exotic pets, Defra also proposes that anyone selling pets should be required to provide written information for owners.

The current licensing arrangements are creaking at the seams and, in this respect, the proposals to strengthen and update the legislation are welcome. The extent of the problem in relation to dog breeding has been highlighted by Battersea Dogs & Cats Home which, in a report last year, drew attention to the small proportion of puppies produced by licensed breeders in Great Britain each year compared to the overall number. Calling for more breeders to be brought under regulatory control, it also drew attention to the relatively small number of licences issued by local authorities in 2014, and to wide variation in the number of licences issued by different local authorities (VR, October 3, 2015, vol 177, p 324). Against this background, proposals that can simplify the law and ease the burden on local authorities should be helpful. Inevitably, however, questions must be raised about enforcement, particularly at a time when local authorities are hard pressed financially. As the BVA pointed out when Defra consulted informally on the proposals last August, the changes should not be used as a cost-cutting exercise, as any new model for regulation will need to be adequately resourced.

To allow more flexibility and ease administrative burdens, Defra is proposing, among other things, allowing licences to be issued for a fixed period of time at any time of year rather being tied to the calendar year as at present, increasing the length of licences, and making more use of risk assessments. It also suggests using other ways of upholding standards, such as wider application of model standards and making use of UKAS accreditation. It will be important to ensure that there is no dilution of controls as a result of these changes and that vets are fully involved in developing standards as well as the inspection process.

Defra's consultation represents a valuable opportunity to improve regulation of animal establishments and dog breeding. However, concerns remain about enforcement. Attention will have to be devoted both to the detail of the proposed legislation and to developing appropriate standards. Opportunities like this don't come along very often, and it will be important to get the mechanism right.

▪ Defra's consultation document is available at www.gov.uk/government/consultations/animal-welfare-reviewing-animal-establishments-licensing-in-england. Comments have been invited by March 12.

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