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Licensing opportunity on welfare

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THE prospect of Brexit seems to have put a lot of things on hold but, in some areas at least, the wheels of government are still turning. This much is apparent from a report published by Defra last month discussing the results of a consultation it held at the end of last year on proposals to update the rules governing the licensing of dog breeding and other animal-related businesses in England. This might sound like a bureaucratic exercise but it represents a rare opportunity to help improve the welfare of a wide range of animals, as the licensing rules cover a variety of different types of businesses, including pet shops, animal boarding establishments and horse riding establishments. Such opportunities don't come around very often, and it is important to make the most of them.

The licensing rules are enforced by local authorities and are intended to ensure that animal welfare standards are adhered to. However, the existing rules are creaking at the seams and levels of enforcement vary, not least because local authorities have many other responsibilities and are currently severely stretched in terms of resources. In a consultation document issued last December, Defra asked for comments on proposals to replace and update the existing licensing rules by introducing a single, generic ‘Animal Establishment Licence’ under the Animal Welfare Act. As Defra explained, ‘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 would 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 proposed strengthening the rules on dog breeding by banning the sale of puppies less than eight weeks old, 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 would make clear that the rules would 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 would be maintained, as would 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 proposed that anyone selling pets should be required to provide written information for owners (VR, January 2, 2016, vol 178, p 5).

Responding jointly to the consultation in March this year, the BVA, the British Small Animal Veterinary Association and the British Veterinary Zoological Society broadly welcomed the proposals, while also making some additional proposals of their own. They drew particular attention to the importance of proper enforcement, and ensuring that resources are available for this. They also drew attention to the difficulties of identifying everyone who should be licensed, and, with this in mind, suggested that anyone breeding from a dog should be required to register with their local authority. They endorsed the idea of a single generic Animal Establishment Licence, while pointing out that there are a number of other activities and types of establishment to which this could be applied, including, for example, animal rescue and rehoming centres, pet fairs, the breeding and sale of cats, dog grooming centres and dog training. They also made the important point that the changes should not be used as a cost-cutting exercise (VR, March 19, 2016, vol 178, p 276).

Summarising the responses to its consultation in a report published last month,1 Defra reports that most of the 1386 substantive responses it received were positive about the proposal to introduce a single Animal Establishment Licence, as well as about proposals on adopting ‘model conditions’ for licensing. A majority of respondents agreed with the proposal to prohibit the sale of puppies younger than eight weeks of age, and that the statutory licensing threshold for dog breeders should be three or more litters per year. Most respondents agreed that those selling pets should be required to provide written information when doing so. Most also agreed that registration should continue to be required for performing animals, and may need to be updated. Most agreed with a proposal that licences could be issued for a fixed term, set at any point in the year; however, only 48 per cent agreed that the period covered by the licence should be extended to three years and a majority disagreed with the idea that licences might be transferred.

Responses on possible measures to improve the care of exotic animals were mixed, with concern being expressed that inspectors might not have the necessary expert knowledge and that not enough specialist vets would be available. There was a mixed response, too, to a proposal regarding an exemption from licensing requirements for businesses affiliated to a body accredited by UKAS, with 31 per cent of respondents being in favour and 42 per cent against.

At this stage, it is not altogether clear what changes Defra will make to the regulations, although its report concludes ‘Overall, the responses were very positive about updating the licensing requirements for animal establishments, which has reassured us that we are taking the right approach.’ Over the next few months it plans to draft regulations regarding specific proposals, taking account of the views expressed. Presumably it will also take account of the views of the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which is currently considering the existing arrangements as part of an inquiry on domestic pets (VR, April 30, 2016, vol 178, p 430).

This is more than just a legislative tidying-up exercise. There must be no diminution in the application of animal welfare standards as a result of any changes. Potentially, with proper consideration for enforcement, much could be achieved, and the Government must make best possible use of the legislative opportunity available.

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