I have long been involved in the politics of the pet industry. In the late 1980s I attended an important meeting in London when the Pet Trade Association and the Pet Industry Association first came together as one body. Soon afterwards, Barry Huckle who was appointed its first secretary, invited me to join the board of the charity which was established as a result of the merger - the Pet Care Trust. I even ran the Trust for a few months in 2004 and I have been honoured to be its chairman for the last two years. For this reason and because, as the Director General's deputy of Battersea Dogs Home, I was often asked to be the representative for Association of British Cats and Dogs Homes, I was drawn into many groups concerning the welfare of pet animals.
I became a member of a number of committees set up to advise and/or lobby government. The most important was the Dangerous Dogs Reform Group, which did eventually force through some much-needed changes to the law, and the committee under Mary Fretwell which was instrumental in establishing pet passport legislation (although to be honest this was more, in the end, to do with European legislation than our government's willingness to listen to Mary!).
At one time, the most important organisation in this area was the Pet Advisory Committee (PAC) which was then recognised as the main forum for pet animals in society. Most of the major charities and institutions, including Dogs Trust (then the National Canine Defence League), Blue Cross, PDSA, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and the National Institute of Animal Health, who were concerned about the welfare of animals in society were members. I was instrumental in persuading the Committee to invite both the Kennel Club and the Pet Care Trust into membership. There was a degree of suspicion from the RSPCA and others but it was soon recognised that they had the welfare of dogs and pets as their main objective. That said, there were often major disagreements about how those objectives should be achieved.
The work of the Pet Advisory Committee
For many years PAC was funded by Pedigree Petfoods and its Chairman was an influential Environmental Services Officer called Lou Leather who was a major player in the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. His position enabled him to persuade his colleagues and government to listen to our conclusions. Lou and I had many battles but I think we always respected each other and became friends. When he stepped down through ill-health and Pedigree decided they had better things to do with their money, things changed very quickly and, in my view, PAC now has much less influence - although I understand that it is becoming more active and is beginning to regain its former status under its new chairman Tracey Crouch MP and its Secretary, my friend, Miranda Luck. Its remit is 'to encourage the introduction of effective legislation by influencing Government and key opinion formers and to represent the most appropriate view on such matters (via its membership) in order to ensure its recommendations are pertinent, reasonable, comprehensive and enhance the welfare pet animals'. These are worthy objectives and although PAC has often moved, in my view, much too far towards legislation and regulation its briefing and position papers are well worth looking at. You can find them at http://www.pet advisory.org.uk./
However, I have watched in some dismay as organisations have left PAC (the RSPCA did so because they disagreed with some policies although I have no idea why the Chartered Institute is no longer involved). This is not just because PAC has gradually become less effective but another factor is, I believe, more important. Almost all these organisations have become institutionalised and the interests of their staff and some of their committee members have gradually eroded their primary objectives so that they are now largely about creating enough income to keep the organisation solvent (although most of them have plenty of money if it was used properly!). I discussed this very topic in a recent article (click here to access it) so I will not elaborate here.
Suffice to say that over the last few years many have become extraordinarily protectionist, focusing on narrow objectives and the promotion of their own particular agendas. Some work together on specific issues but the idea of developing policies to which everyone can sign up to and promote appears to have died. The one bright spot is the recent innovation by the Pet Foods Manufacturing Association to try to persuade the government to establish the responsible care of pets as an integral element of the National Curriculum.
The new focus
The focus of influence these days, where everyone comes together and which seems to have some influence on government, is the Associate Parliamentary Group for the Welfare of Animals (APGAW). I have a lot of time for its current chairman, Neil Parish and I have met him on a number of occasions one of which was a particularly interesting lunch. He comes from a farming family and has long had a concern and interest in animal welfare. APGAW meets five or six times a year at Westminster. The group is made up of parliamentarians who are primarily responsible for setting the agenda on the basis of current concerns. But there are also about 100 associates (groups and individuals who pay £30 a year to attend meetings) who range from the Kennel Club through to representatives of what can only be described as extreme animal rights groups. I attend on behalf of the Animal Care College and, occasionally, the Pet Care Trust.
Because Defra and the Home Office take note of the minutes of APGAW meetings, influential MPs are usually present and, occasionally, Ministers make an appearance. This means that there may be an opportunity to gain the ear of parliamentarians because Associates take part in the discussion. The Chairman and secretariat arranges for information on current concerns to be provided at the meeting by authorities on those subjects. Recent discussions have included the welfare of animals in circuses, greyhounds and, of course, dangerous dogs and dog breeding.
Our Dogs reports very fully on APGAWs latest interim report on dog breeding elsewhere in this current issue. You may like to know that Lord Taylor, currently the Minister responsible for these matters, said at an APGAW meeting in April that he was 'prepared to consider any proposals which would improve the welfare of dogs and breeding establishments as long as it does not place a disproportionate burden on those running such establishment.' He went on to say that he will be most interested in suggestions which were 'not based on legislation' and I made a point in support of his statement that more legislation is not what is required: what is needed enforcement of those laws already in place and the education of all young people in schools about the responsibilities of pet ownership.
I feel that APGAW is an important forum but there is no doubt, as demonstrated by this latest report, that these matters are much more complicated than suggested by the simplistic myriad of solutions which are so often bandied about and that huge areas of concern, such as the sensible training dogs as I discussed recently (click here to access) being an excellent example, are virtually ignored.