Wednesday, 6 February 2019
Greyhound Racing Bill 2018: Second Stage
I was very surprised when I heard Deputy Danny Healy-Rae saying no dog owner would want to hurt a hair on a dog's head but I realised he was talking about a "hair" not a "hare" because hares unfortunately are regularly injured by the activity of some dog owners and the barbaric practice of hare coursing which continues in this State.
This is not a debate about rural versus urban because increasingly many farmers and land owners are objecting to mobs coming onto their land trying to gather hares or engage in that type of activity. There is a certain irony in our discussing this Bill when Deputy O'Sullivan and I came from a court case in Carlow this morning, which was unfortunately adjourned, the Kavanagh case where the accused has pleaded guilty to 120 counts of appalling animal cruelty in puppy farming. There are huge issues around animal welfare in this State which need to be addressed.
This Bill before us is another attempt to update the legislation by regulating the greyhound industry. There have been numerous attempts to clean it up over the years, there was the Act in 1993, two more in 2007 and the Welfare of Greyhounds Act 2011, and the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013. There have been three reports on the industry in the past five years: Indecon; the 2015 report on the greyhound industry and the Morris Review of Anti Doping and Medication Control in Ireland, all of which serve to highlight how defective and how desperately in need of robust legislation the so-called industry is. To talk about "rogue operators", as Deputy Danny Healy-Rae did, flies in the face of the evidence of those reports. Regulation is urgently needed.
While I welcome the fact that the Government is bringing forward the Bill, it is not enough. Some aspects are of course to be welcomed but there is much that has not been addressed and we would be failing in our responsibility if we did not concentrate our remarks on that. The Bill is weighted towards administrative powers, such as the make-up of the board membership and its expertise. The legislation seems to be more about the marketing, rather than the welfare, of greyhounds, without which there is no industry. I object to the term "industry" when we are talking about the welfare of animals. It gives us an insight into the thinking behind the Bill that it took an amendment from Senator Ruane, which thankfully was included, to get a veterinary surgeon on the board. If the Bill was to deal with animal and dog welfare one would think a vet would have been put on the board without somebody in here having to propose an amendment to do that.
Issues such as governance, animal welfare and the export of dogs, which has been left out of the Bill entirely, need a legislative framework that is not provided in the Bill. I do not know how much we will be able to amend it on Committee Stage but it does need considerable work. We have to be honest and say this industry has been surrounded by scandal, illegality, doping and animal cruelty. It is an established fact that thousands of dogs are surrendered or abandoned to pounds every year and hundreds are put down as a result of injuries received at racetracks, including fractures, spinal injuries, ligament and muscle damage and head trauma. There have also been the very high profile incidents of doping with cocaine and other products that can be bought on the Internet. That was absolutely shocking and brought this State into serious disrepute internationally. I am very disappointed with the governance proposals in the Bill. They do not go far enough.
To suggest, as the Bill does, that it is enough to hand over the administrative powers of sanction to a board that has no real powers of enforcement indicates how seriously regulation is being taken, not very seriously at all. It is akin to lip service. There is no attempt to enhance enforcement or to introduce criminal sanctions of a serious character. The Bill is proposing some form of self policing. We all know where self policing gets us. Self regulation is no regulation. This State has learned nothing if it does not provide for outside oversight and scrutiny. Many of the animal welfare organisations have highlighted some of these points in previous discussions on this Bill. The Irish Society for the Protection of Animals, ISPCA, has questioned the limited powers of sanction and highlighted that the Bill needs to be altered to provide for serious deterrents. It points out that the stewards of the Irish Greyhound Board, IGB, are not authorised under the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 to investigate possession of illegal substances, an evolving issue which has featured prominently in the industry.
Let us be honest: people are very creative in finding ways around doping controls in order to have it continue under different guises, all at the expense of the dogs. The Irish Council Against Blood Sports has stated that the sampling strategy currently in place is far too routine. The council has serious concerns about the ability of the Irish Greyhound Board to keep up with the rapid pace of development in doping in the industry. As stated, this is a national scandal. Apart from the reputational damage caused by this appalling conduct, there is a serious welfare issue at its heart.
The welfare of greyhounds and the deployment of funds in respect of welfare-related issues were identified as being key during pre-legislative scrutiny but they not been addressed in the Bill. Why is that? Will the Minister of State address that point? This aspect of the Bill has to be substantially strengthened. I would really like to know why these issues did not find their way into the Bill in its latter stages.
The greyhound racing industry relies on a massive subsidy from taxpayers. This subsidy rose rapidly and steadily during the period from 2010 to 2016. During that time, 2,896 greyhounds were surrendered to dog pounds. Of those, 2,497 were put down. There was no increase in funding from the industry in the same period in order to provide for retired greyhounds. Why is that? The organisations at the coalface, including the Irish Council Against Blood Sports, the ISPCA, the Dogs Trust, and Greyhound Rescue Association Ireland, have all highlighted the need for the industry to increase its contribution in the context of animal welfare. Funds are badly needed to cover the cost of additional inspectors and to ensure that welfare issues, medical treatment, and the rehoming of retired greyhounds are all addressed. It is interesting that the Greyhound Trust receives substantial funding from the industry in Britain each year. Why are we so far behind? Why have we not adopted that practice if we are serious about assisting these dogs?
Greyhound Rescue Association Ireland has reported that in the period 2014 to 2015 there was a decline in the number of dogs being destroyed which corresponded with a rise in the number of greyhounds being transferred to welfare groups. In other words, the volunteer-based rescue and animal welfare groups such as Dogs Trust and Homes for Unwanted Greyhounds, HUG, intervened and stepped in to provide the protection and welfare needed and to home greyhounds abandoned by the greyhound racing industry, which is not paying its way despite being the source of the problem. The Minister of State will be aware that the ISPCA has called for an additional €500,000 per year just to hire additional inspectors. As far as I am concerned, the industry needs to be made to cough up substantially more than that in order to address the welfare of retired greyhounds.
We also need to take note of the figures regarding greyhounds being killed in pounds, which represent only a small proportion of the number falling victim to this industry. As stated previously, thousands of greyhounds suffer injuries at racetracks every year and are destroyed by track veterinarians. As my colleagues stated earlier, there is also the shame of greyhounds that go missing and are presumably killed. Despite the remarks suggesting that every dog owner is a dog lover - and many of them are - not all of them are. The existence of cruelty and bad practice is undisputed. One Irish trainer remarked online, "I’ve seen dogs being shot. It has to be done as there’s too many of them to rehome." A former chairman of the Irish Greyhound Board admitted on radio in 2016 his belief that it is absolutely okay for thousands of dogs to be killed and that racing could not exist without the destruction of dogs. Again, this is an industry that is given State funds. It is responsible for catastrophic injury, death and abandonment of greyhounds and gives dogs over to hard-pressed volunteers. I point this out because some of the language is misleading and not really believable.
In reply to a question from Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan last year, the Minister, Deputy Creed, stated that Bord na gCon's strategic plan is to put animal welfare at the centre of the industry. Let us be honest; profit is at the centre of the industry, not animal welfare. Animal welfare is only involved if the asset is jeopardised and if it will be worth the effort. That does not always tally. It is handled within very narrow perimeters. The language really demonstrates that we are not serious, because we are not putting in the supports in respect of welfare.
The other key issue which is not dealt with in the Bill - this is a matter of great concern in itself - is that relating to the export of Irish greyhounds. My colleague, Deputy Broughan, has tabled a Private Members' Bill on this issue and he addressed some of these points earlier. Could this matter not have been dealt with in the Bill? Why are the issues the Deputy spoke about not dealt with? The Minister of State and everyone else knows that this is a hugely controversial issue because of our appalling record in facilitating exports to China and other countries that have few or no regulations to protect the welfare of dogs.
We know of the very high-profile cases in the media, some of which were cited earlier. We know of the treatment of dogs in places such as Macau where there are no regulations at all to protect dogs during their careers. They live the majority of their lives in cages and face certain death at the end. They are boiled, skinned, and sold off for food, which is, quite frankly, horrific. I see a contradiction in the remarks of some people who would find it abhorrent to eat dog but who have no problem with eating the meat of cows, sheep or pigs. That is probably not a debate for today, but it is linked.
We have also seen the embarrassing situation whereby animal welfare volunteers in the UK had to stop the export of Irish greyhounds through UK airports in 2017. Some airlines have since taken a principled stand on the matter and refuse to transport greyhounds to countries that do not meet animal welfare standards. Australia refuses to export greyhounds to China. This should be a fundamental part of the legislation. The Government's refusal to include it is a reflection of the fact that we do not attend to these matters sufficiently. I note the Minister of State's response to this proposal suggests that such restrictions may not be compatible with EU trade law, but that is a deflection.
There have been really contradictory responses on this over the years. The previous Minister is on record as stating "Once appropriate animal health and welfare certification requirements are met, dogs, including greyhounds, may be exported internationally, including to China." This certification, however, refers only to transport conditions and does not deal with the conditions the dogs will face in the jurisdiction to which they are being transported or with the welfare standards in the state. In March last year, the Department blocked the Irish Greyhound Board from exporting dogs to China as a result of animal welfare concerns. It stated that it considered the risk contained in Bord na gCon's proposal to be unacceptably high from a range of different perspectives. The Department is more concerned about reputational damage than the damage being done to dogs. As was pointed out in the Seanad, we can also call for a derogation under Article 36 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which expressly provides for exceptions based on public morality and the protection of health and life of humans, animals, or plants.
There is a lot more work to be done on this Bill. We can deal with these points on Committee Stage. I welcome that the Bill is here. However, it is not good enough and there is a lot more work to be done.