Alok Sharma responds to debate on South Korea and the dog meat trade

12th September 2016
Alok Sharma responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on an e-Petition relating to South Korea and the dog meat trade.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this incredibly important debate, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) on accepting the petition and securing the debate, and I thank the Petitions Committee for its work.

I begin by declaring an interest. My family and I adore dogs. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) demonstrated his love for cats—specifically Larry, the No. 10 cat—by producing photographic evidence. If right hon. and hon. Members will indulge me, I would also like to offer some photographic evidence of Olly, my five-year-old golden retriever. It is often said that dogs and owners end up resembling each other—

 

Order. I am sure that the Minister is keen to show us his dog, but he is out of order.

 

I apologise, Mr Nuttall. [Interruption.] There is a different view, perhaps, in the Public Gallery. I have induced an element of levity and I apologise if that was not warranted. I did it to make the point that people in this country have a special relationship with dogs. Like millions of dog owners across our great nation, my wife, daughters and I regard our dog as a treasured member of our family. I am certain that all hon. Members present who have dogs feel exactly the same way about their canine friends.

The Westminster dog of the year competition is a wonderful innovation that allows individual parliamentarians not just to showcase their best friend but to highlight to the world at large that those who make Britain’s laws care deeply about the welfare of animals. The very idea of eating dog meat or allowing any form of cruelty to be visited on dogs, or indeed on any other animal, is anathema to us all.

It is clear that the British public feel strongly about the dog meat trade in South Korea and more widely. More than 100,000 people signed the petition, and we have had excellent contributions from hon. Members highlighting their own and their constituents’ heartfelt concerns. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere made an excellent opening contribution. He wanted to know what specifically the UK Government are doing to engage South Korea in dialogue on this issue, which I will address later. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) made a fantastic speech, and she was keen to make the point that the UK Government should not somehow hide behind the fact that in some countries it is legal to eat dog meat. She pressed me on what we are doing as a Government.

The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) talked about the support that the UK Government may be providing to local charities in some of these jurisdictions. She and a number of other hon. Members also spoke about the winter Olympics, which I will of course discuss later. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about local charities and the work that South Korean politicians may be doing on this issue. Again, I will address that in my remarks. The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) said that culture evolves, and he is right that culture does evolve in these countries. I will talk about how culture is evolving and coming around to our way of thinking on dogs and animal welfare.

The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) made an important point about the use of soft power. We have a good relationship with the South Korean Government and many other Governments in that part of the world, and of course we should be using those relationships. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) said that we need to take a sensitive approach in such discussions. After all, this is about persuasion.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), the shadow Minister, also wanted to know about the winter Olympics, and she echoed the points raised by the hon. Member for Bristol East about how the Foreign Office is working with other Departments to highlight issues related to animal welfare and human rights. The shadow Minister made an interesting point about exchanging best practice in the meat industry.

I hope to cover many, if not all, of those points. If I do not manage to cover them all, I will be happy to have a further discussion with hon. Members. Of course, I will write to them on any substantive issues that they wish to raise.

 

Huge apologies for being late. I would have put in to speak in this debate, but I could not get here.

I am the co-chair of the all-party animal welfare group, and I have two quick points. Given that we have such a high reputation across the world for our animal welfare, I urge the Minister to use those levers to work with countries where dog meat is still on the menu and with pet owners in those countries on animal welfare standards and on forming their own strong lobbies against the dog meat trade.

My second point, which I am sure has already been raised, is on rabies. There is a strong connection between handling dog meat and a high incidence of rabies. On health grounds, we should press that handling dog meat is not a good practice.

 

My hon. Friend makes some excellent points, which I will cover. She is right that we need to highlight the negative health issues connected with eating dog meat. Of course, we should also encourage those who are working hard in many of these jurisdictions to change attitudes and culture. I will talk about what is happening in a positive way in some of these countries, particularly in South Korea.

Given our discussion, I would like to raise three particular aspects. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere and many others raised the cultural aspect of the consumption of dog meat. Secondly, there is the issue of welfare and the conditions in which the dogs are reared before they are subsequently killed for their meat. Specifically, I will address what we, the British Government, are doing to influence change. Thirdly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) just pointed out, I will cover the potential health risks of eating dog meat. I will also discuss the enormous amount of work that the UK Government are leading on antimicrobial resistance.

As hon. Members have noted, eating dog meat has been part of the culture of certain countries—sometimes going back hundreds of years and sometimes, as has been pointed out, slightly more recent. However distressing we may find the consumption of dog meat, we need to recognise that there are cultural differences across the globe. We need to respect that in some countries the sale and consumption of dog meat is legal.

Dogs are not an internationally protected species, and there are no international norms, laws or agreements covering the trade and consumption of dog meat. As a Government we aim to influence changes in attitudes and behaviour. No one would be happier than me if the consumption of dog meat ended tomorrow, but dictating to people in South Korea or anywhere else that they should not eat dog meat would be akin to another country telling us that we should not eat beef or pork. We need to win hearts and minds as a way of effecting change in attitudes to dog meat consumption. I will outline the specific support that the British Government are providing in that respect.

It is encouraging that in countries where dog meat is consumed—a number of hon. Members alluded to this—there are already signs that the culture and tradition is beginning to fade among the younger generation and the emerging middle classes, who view dogs as pets and companions rather than as a food source. In a recent survey 60% of under 30-year-olds in South Korea said that they regarded dogs as pets, and we would all expect that trend to continue.

In May 2016, 300,000 Koreans signed a petition calling on their Government to improve the country’s animal welfare Act. The petition was started by the Korean Animal Welfare Association, and it garnered those 300,000 signatures in five days on the back of Korean TV broadcasting a programme called “Animal Farm”, which highlighted abuses at puppy farms in the country. We should take heart from those trends and celebrate that many people in countries with a history of dog meat consumption share British attitudes towards dogs.

Although we need to be culturally sensitive, it is right that we speak up loudly on animal welfare matters. The UK Government take seriously all reports of animal cruelty wherever it takes place, whether in Britain or elsewhere. We are committed to raising standards of animal welfare and to phasing out cruel and inhumane practices both in the UK and overseas. Members have noted some of the cruel practices to which dogs reared for meat are subjected, and they have pointed out that in recent days a number of national newspapers have graphically highlighted some of the awful suffering and pain to which dogs are subjected in captivity and as they are killed. I was absolutely shocked by those images. There can be no excuse for barbarity against animals, wherever it takes place.

[Phil Wilson in the Chair]

The British Government are at the forefront of efforts to protect the welfare of animals. In Britain, all owners and keepers must provide for the welfare needs of their animals. Failure to do so is an offence. I acknowledge the important work done by organisations such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare and, of course, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to improve standards of animal welfare both in the UK and in other countries. More widely, the United Kingdom hosted the first high-level conference on the illegal wildlife trade in 2014, in which more than 40 countries participated.

The dog meat trade was last debated in this House in November 2015. In that debate, the former Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), gave an account of the work that we are doing in the Asia-Pacific region. As this petition relates primarily to South Korea, I will outline our work on this issue in that country specifically, although of course we are working with a range of countries, as the Government outlined last year.

 

I apologise for not having been here earlier. The Minister mentioned the debate a year ago; I was there. Little progress seems to have been made since that time, but there has been a change in view among some politicians in South Korea and elsewhere. What specifically are the Government doing to work with those progressive forces, if I can put it that way, on this serious issue?

 

I will come to what we are doing, and what I personally have done, in terms of dialogue with representatives of the South Korean Government. We must acknowledge that there has been some change. I mentioned the changes in South Korea itself, and the fact that people in that country are recognising the need for change. We must give credit where it is due. With respect, I would say that progress is being made. It might not be fast enough for all of us in this room, but it is being made. As I said, I will come to what the Government and I are doing specifically in terms of dialogue with the South Korean Government.

Before I explain what action we are taking specifically on the dog meat trade, I will outline our broader bilateral relationship with South Korea, which a number of Members mentioned. The state visit by President Park in 2013 and our annual Foreign Secretary-level strategic dialogue are testament to the strength of our growing strategic partnership. Our bilateral discussions range widely, from the situation in North Korea to security in the wider region, climate change and terrorism.

Numerous Members, including the shadow Minister, alluded to the situation in North Korea. I can confirm that this afternoon I summoned the North Korean ambassador to the Foreign Office and explained to him in strong terms that the British Government do not believe that what the North Koreans are doing in terms of nuclear testing is acceptable.

However, we share similar views with South Korea on many international issues; our voting records in the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council are closely aligned. We supported and welcomed South Korea’s decision to deploy personnel to the UK-led effort to tackle Ebola in Sierra Leone. It was the only non-western country to do so, and the fact that South Korea chose to partner with the UK is further evidence of our strong relationship. We welcome increasing bilateral trade and investment ties between our two nations. It is the strength of our bilateral relationship and growing friendship that allows us the space to speak frankly on so many matters, including the dog meat trade.

Indeed, this morning, before this debate, I spoke to the South Korean ambassador, Ambassador Hwang, on the subject and explained the strength of feeling here in the UK. His view, as he expressed it, was that the South Korean Government are trying to address this issue by raising awareness around pet ownership and educating the Korean public about animal welfare issues. As he pointed out to me, the number of restaurants in South Korea serving dog meat is decreasing, while the number of pet owners is increasing.

 

In my speech, I mentioned that in the five months from May to September, 51 National Assembly members in South Korea signed up to a group, similar to our all-party parliamentary groups, on the sale and consumption of dog meat. Have the British Government had the opportunity at any stage to speak to that group? If not, I encourage the Minister and the British Government to do so.

 
We talk to a range of organisations, but I am happy to discuss the issue with the hon. Gentleman subsequent to this debate. We certainly know that there is an opportunity and a need to engage, not just with the Government but with charitable organisations.
 

Given the great success of the Westminster dog of the year competition last week, of which the Minister spoke so highly, could he have a diplomatic word with his counterpart regarding that great success? Surely it would be a small but significant step in changing attitudes and minds if the South Korean Government also hosted such an event annually.

 

The hon. Lady raises an intriguing point. I am sure that many people will be listening with great interest to this debate, including representatives of the South Korean Government, and that they will have heard that very good suggestion.

Several Members commented on the work being done by South Korean politicians. It was reported in July 2016 that, in response to media coverage, the South Korean Agriculture Ministry had launched an investigation into serious abuses at the country’s puppy farms and thousands of other places where dogs are raised for meat. A meeting was held at the South Korean National Assembly in August to discuss revision of the Animal Protection Act, and I understand that an amendment may be tabled sometime this autumn.

What else are the UK Government doing to tackle the scourge of appalling welfare conditions experienced by many dogs? We face limitations. As hon. Members have noted, the consumption of dog meat is not illegal in South Korea and a number of other countries, dogs are not an internationally protected species and, of course, the UK has no jurisdiction to take action in countries where the practice is legal. However, I agree that although we have no legal jurisdiction, we can and do still work hard to make our views known to the South Korean Government and press for change.

Our ambassador in Seoul has raised the issue of animal welfare, and the dog meat trade in particular, with the South Korean authorities on several occasions, and has stressed the desire in the UK to see the practice brought to an end. Our reputation as a nation of animal lovers means that we can make a strong case for dogs as pets rather than as food. We raise with South Korea our concerns about the conditions in which dogs in the dog meat trade are kept.

We are also working with charities operating in South Korea, both to encourage improvement of those conditions and to encourage dog farmers to seek other sources of income, a point made by the hon. Member for Belfast East. The UK charity Change for Animals Foundation offers dog farmers alternative avenues for income, buys their animals and sends the dogs to rescue centres around the globe. Farmers who take part in the scheme sign a legally binding contract preventing them from rearing dogs in the future. In April, officials from our embassy in Seoul visited a dog farm with the charity. The farmer had more than 250 dogs that he agreed to sell to the charity and start a scrap metal business instead, using the cages left over from the farm. Other previous dog meat traders have switched to other pursuits, including beekeeping. We will continue to support the work of that charity.

Health risks have been discussed. Although we want an end to the eating of dog meat and to the dog meat trade itself, until that happens we want to encourage the South Korean Government to improve regulation in the industry—the shadow Minister alluded to that as well—not just on animal welfare grounds, but due to the risks to human health associated with anti-microbial resistance when antibiotics used in livestock farming enter the food chain. It has been reported that the use of antibiotics in the dog meat trade is widespread in South Korea. Although the World Health Organisation recognises that the use of antibiotics in livestock farming is a concern, no research is currently available on the impact of AMR caused by the use of antibiotics in the dog meat trade.

The UK is an international leader on tackling AMR and is committed to full implementation of the 2015 global action plan. We will host an AMR event in New York at the UN General Assembly later this month, and we have invited South Korea to take part. Several hon. Members discussed changes in attitude in other countries in south-east Asia. When we talk about the health risks of eating dog meat, it is worth noting that in 2013 the Philippines outlawed the consumption and sale of dog meat in an attempt to prevent the spread of rabies.

Several hon. Members mentioned the forthcoming winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in 2018. High-profile global events such as Olympic games can be a catalyst for positive change. The South Korean Government will be aware that the high profile of the winter games could cast a spotlight on issues such as the dog meat trade, and we will continue our dialogue with them on it.

The hon. Member for Bristol East raised the issue of human rights. I want to make it clear that we regularly raise human rights issues with relevant countries where we have concerns; I have done so myself in my two months as a Minister. The Department for International Trade is now in the same building as my Department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and we have a regular dialogue, but I will certainly take the hon. Lady’s points on board.

We will continue to work with the devolved Administrations to ensure that all Governments in the UK do as much as possible to promote animal welfare standards in the UK. We will also continue to work with our international partners.

Pedigree racing dogs were also mentioned. The animal reception centre at Heathrow plays an incredibly important role in enforcing the regulations that protect animal welfare during transport. In May, the centre prevented greyhounds from Ireland from being transported to China, because their cages were deemed too small to meet the requirements designed to protect the welfare of animals during transport on planes. We do take action where we see the need.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) asked what checks there are on meat that comes into the UK and whether there is any contamination of the food chain. Given what has happened in the past, that is a perfectly relevant question. Any meat imported into the UK, or indeed into the EU, has to be accompanied by a health certificate to attest that it has met certain requirements. The UK has strict procedures in place to prevent meat such as dog meat from entering the food chain.

A point was raised about the work of Humane Society International and whether the Government are interacting with it. I can confirm that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is funding an HSI project in Vietnam, through the UK Government’s illegal wildlife trade challenge fund. However, the Government are not working directly with HSI on the issue of dog meat.

This has been an incredibly important and wide-ranging debate, in which Members have raised some incredibly important points. I am absolutely sure that people outside the House who have watched the debate will have understood the strength of feeling of Members of Parliament and of the many others present today. I assure the House that, although the dog meat trade and the practice of eating dog meat may not be illegal, there is nothing to stop us from raising our concerns about it with the South Korean Government or other Governments, as we have done in the past and will continue to do.

More widely, the UK remains committed to its global leadership role in helping to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. We will continue to work to raise standards of animal welfare across the world and to end animal cruelty wherever it prevails. Governments and peoples around the world listen to the views expressed in the British Parliament, and I am certain that this debate—and the heartfelt contributions from all hon. Members present—will be another significant milestone on the road to helping to improve the welfare of dogs and, ultimately, to ending the dog meat trade itself.

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