Westminster Hall

Monday 5th July 2021

(3 years ago)

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Monday 5 July 2021
[Derek Twigg in the Chair]


Monday 5th July 2021

(3 years ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to the normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall and Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.

I also remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their camera on for the duration of the debate, and that they will be visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address, which is westminsterhallclerks@parliament.uk. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I should also like to remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

Members who are not on the call list but wish to intervene can do so only from the horseshoe. I remind Members that those on the call list have priority for spaces on the horseshoe. Those wishing to intervene should not prevent a Member from the call list from speaking.

Matt Vickers Portrait Matt Vickers (Stockton South) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 550379, relating to the protection of hedgehogs.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank the petition creator and all those who signed it for giving us this important opportunity to address this issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), who is sorry not to be able to be with us today, has talked about the incredible contribution made by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, which is based in his constituency.

The last time we had the pleasure of a debate on hedgehogs in Parliament was almost six years ago, in November 2015. During that debate, the former Member for Penrith and The Border, the right hon. Rory Stewart, gave a fantastic, impassioned speech on hedgehogs from the Dispatch Box, and the former MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport called for the hedgehog to be made the UK’s national animal. Although I have a great appreciation for hedgehogs, and despite this country’s love for them, I agree with Mr Stewart that choosing an animal that rolls into a ball at any sign of danger and sleeps for half the year would not necessarily portray the image that we want as a nation. Before that debate in 2015, the last time Parliament debated the issue was in 1566, when, in true Tudor fashion, it discussed a bounty on hedgehogs, so this is only the second debate on the subject since 1566, and I am honoured to introduce it.

We have come a long way in how we treat hedgehogs in this country. Thankfully, we have moved past the idea that hedgehogs are a pest that prey on resting cows and need to be exterminated. We now have a greater understanding of the great British hedgehog. Their image is now used in election campaigns or to teach children the green cross code to the tune of “Stayin’ Alive”. They are now a much-loved part of the British countryside, and although they are not particularly cuddly, these prickly creatures have come to occupy a very special place in the hearts of people not just in my constituency but right across the UK.

Despite their relatively new-found popularity, however, the British hedgehog is facing a number of varied and complex threats. Before the debate, I had the pleasure of meeting representatives from the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, who told me that since 2000 we have lost half of our rural hedgehogs and a third of our urban ones. Sadly, they were recently added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list for Britain as vulnerable, which means that they have an appreciable risk of extinction in the next 10 years.

As I have said, the problems that hedgehogs face are numerous. It is difficult to point to one factor as the sole reason for the population’s decline. That is partly a reflection on how varied their habitats can be. Modern farming practices have been blamed, including the use of pesticides that kill hedgehogs’ prey or potentially poison the hedgehogs themselves. A loss of habitat has similarly been pointed at—modern agricultural practices use larger fields and fewer hedgerows—and of course there are questions about the impact of climate change on hedgehogs’ hibernating habits.

Hedgehogs are protected from some methods of killing and collection under schedule 6 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The petition asks for that protection to be increased to schedule 5, which would offer protection from all intentional killing, injuring or taking, and prohibits them from being sold. The Government’s response to the petition states that they have not previously moved hedgehogs into schedule 5 because they have no evidence that hedgehogs are being intentionally killed. I am sure we are all grateful for that and I hope that people would not do something as cruel.

However, there is a problem of hedgehogs being sold. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of people owning hedgehogs as pets, although that is the African pygmy hedgehog, not the variety native in the UK. The sale of those cute little creatures—although they are not as cute as the great British hedgehog—is not necessarily the problem. The problem arises when people start to snatch the hedgehogs they find at the bottom of their garden and sell them on for £300 a pop. That threatens population numbers and creates biosecurity risks. Moving hedgehogs to schedule 5 would prevent it.

I would welcome other measures to help hedgehog numbers bounce back. I know from speaking to Anne Purchase-Walker, who runs HoggyStockton Rescue, that a large number of hedgehogs fall victim to weed strimmers. Greater awareness by people using them and a quick check of the grass before starting to cut would go a long way. Similarly, developers creating less robust fencing and walling, and hedgehog highways that link up green spaces so that hedgehogs can better forage for food, would also be welcome.

The Government are not deaf to the issue. I was pleased to see in their response to the petition that they are committed to taking action to recover threatened native species, and they are exploring the use of powers in the Environment Bill to strengthen commitments to improve the status of this threatened species. The petition’s request to move hedgehogs to schedule 5 would go some way to help the numbers bounce back. However, we welcome any policy that would help protect this much-loved animal and I would happily look at what the Government can propose.

One thing, however, is clear: we need to act now. Losing half the rural population in two decades shows that the decline is rapid and the situation is critical. There is no point letting the situation get worse before we step in and try to halt the decline. Intervention now will make this task easier and cheaper, and ensure that our prickly little friends still take pride of place in Britain’s countryside.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on speaking so eloquently on behalf of the petitioners. A remarkable number of people signed the petition, started by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. That shows how much people in the UK really care about hedgehogs and protecting the nature around us. As I went to the Library to print out my speech, I was accosted by one of the staff who found out it was about hedgehogs; she insisted on showing me a photograph of the hedgehogs in her garden.

The issue is everywhere. In fact, the hedgehog has been voted Britain’s most popular wild mammal in several surveys over the years. As we heard, since 2000 hedgehog numbers in the UK have declined by half in rural areas and by a third in urban ones. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the main reasons for the decline are the destruction of their shelters and habitats, increased levels of traffic, poorly planned roads and the use of pesticides. Those are all things that we can and should work to prevent. The hedgehog has been listed as vulnerable to extinction in the UK, conceivably within the next decade if nothing is done to reverse the decline.

I recently visited Sandra Lowe, who lives in Woodside in my constituency. Sandra operates a hedgehog rescue called Hope for Hedgehogs. When people bring hedgehogs to her, she works tirelessly to ensure that they are properly treated. She works with local vets to ensure they get the right medication and does everything that she can to keep them. For the little ones, that involves getting up three times during the night to feed them the appropriate food. It certainly is a labour of love, and thankfully there are people who will help her with that. Sandra funds the endeavour entirely by herself, and she says it costs around £50 for each hedgehog to be treated and released. The organisation is entirely self-funded, which is why I am supporting her efforts to obtain funding to create a hog hospital, so that she can treat hedgehogs properly.

A lot of people, such as Sandra, are doing amazing work to help protect hedgehogs, but it is not enough to rely on the work of volunteers. The Government must commit to protecting our wildlife. Most of all, we know that Sandra and all the other volunteers want to see the prevention of injury, damage and deaths of hedgehogs as the priority. That is the important thing. Real consideration for nature and wildlife must be at the core of our planning decisions and many other decisions.

I and many others, including the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, are concerned by the proposed changes to the status of many of our widespread species in the United Kingdom, including hedgehogs. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee review will provide recommendations to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As far as I understand it from Sandra and others, the upcoming review seeks to change the eligibility criteria of the hedgehog, currently listed on schedule 6, if that is the recommendation. Sandra tells me the review proposes that statutory nature conservation bodies will retain protected status only for species that are in imminent danger of extinction in Great Britain. That is clearly too low a bar to set, and I hope the Government will be much more ambitious. The effect of the proposed changes could be that rather than increasing protection for hedgehogs, as called for in the petition, their current lower level of protection could be removed. Sandra tells me that she has concerns about the impact of the quinquennial review, so I hope that the Minister will be able to assure me and Sandra that there will be increased protection and no diminution of it.

The Government’s national planning policy framework has a chapter on conserving and enhancing the natural environment. It opens by setting out how planning policies and decisions should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment. Priority species are defined in the NPPF as those included in England’s biodiversity list, which is published by the Secretary of State under section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. As I have set out, the list currently includes hedgehogs.

With some narrow exemptions, the Environment Bill of 2021-22 contains provisions intended to make it mandatory for housing and development to achieve at least a 10% net gain in value for biodiversity, and a requirement that habitats for wildlife must be left in a measurably better state than before the development. Many of us know that although we can see the words on the page when it comes to planning policy guidance, we need to see the impact on the ground. We are seeing too many hedgerows lost as well as other biodiversity losses, even now. In today’s debate, we are calling on the Government to increase the protection offered to the hedgehog under the Wildlife and Countryside Act by moving it to schedule 5 as a first step in helping to protect our precious wildlife.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Just to let Members know, I intend for the Opposition spokesperson and the Minister to start winding up at no later than 5.40 pm. Given the great deal of interest and the number of speakers, please keep your contributions to around four and a half minutes, which will ensure that everybody gets in. I ask for your indulgence in that.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank all the people who signed the petition.

From the emails that I received from constituents about the debate, I was deeply worried to learn of the disastrous decline in hedgehog numbers. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) and the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) have referred to the numbers: we have lost half of all hedgehogs in rural areas, and a third in urban ones. As we have heard, this much-loved animal has recently been added to the IUCN red list and designated as vulnerable, with an appreciable risk of extinction within 10 years. There is a need for urgent action, and I want to press the Minister to enhance protection for hedgehogs, as called for in the petition.

Planning rules need to be changed to require the presence of hedgehogs to be taken into consideration when deciding whether to grant permission for development. Will the Minister also provide reassurance that the quinquennial review of schedules 5 and 8 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act will not lead to any weakening of protections? Most important of all, I urge the Government to include hedgehog habitats in their extensive programme of nature recovery. There can be no doubt that decline in habitats is a key driver in the loss of hedgehogs. We need the biodiversity net gain provisions of the Environment Bill to be implemented so that a new income stream is created for protecting wildlife habitats, and I want to see councils also encouraged to include hedgehog recovery strategies in their local nature recovery strategies, which the Bill will require them to establish.

Of course, I note the efforts by Natural England and DEFRA to create a national nature recovery network, which is a further, crucial opportunity to alleviate the pressure on the vulnerable creatures that we are debating today. Connected wildlife corridors can make a huge difference to the recovery of the species. I hope the voice of today’s petitioners will be heard by Ministers, particularly as they design and implement this country’s new system of farm support. There can be little doubt that some modern farming practices have made survival more difficult for this country’s favourite prickly mammal. The environmental land management schemes, which will replace the European Union’s common agricultural policy, should aim to secure and restore hedgerows and habitats to give our hedgehogs a bit of a Brexit dividend.

As we have heard, in 1566 this Parliament put a bounty on hedgehogs, which apparently led to the death of as many as 2 million in the period up to 1800. I really hope that today’s debate has a much more positive outcome. The Government have a stronger commitment to nature recovery than any of their predecessors ever before. When they set what I hope will be a really ambitious 2030 target for species conservation, I urge them to ensure that a thriving hedgehog population is included in that as a very important goal.

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, and a pleasure to speak up for the hedgehog.

Although I represent a largely urban constituency, the hedgehog is equally at home among our parks, gardens and untidy corners of the countryside, and many residents of Hull West and Hessle welcome its presence. I want to pay tribute to the fantastic work of Carolyn Harman of Hessle Hedgehog Rescue in providing care for sick and injured animals and advice on making the area hedgehog-friendly. Sadly, as mentioned by hon. Members already, hedgehog numbers continue to decline. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species surveys, conducted by citizen scientists, demonstrate that hedgehog numbers have fallen by around 50% in the past 20 years, so there is no doubt that urgent action needs to be taken, and the petition reflects that urgency.

The Government’s response to the petition stated that they have,

“not previously moved to protect this species under Schedule 5”—

to the Wildlife and Countryside Act—

“as it is not clear that such protection would be of benefit to the species, in so far that: we have no evidence that intentionally killing, taking or injuring hedgehogs is currently an issue; and it would not address the main threat of habitat loss.”

That appears to refer to the protections found in section 9(1). Although the petition mentioned only schedule 5, I assume it also refers to the protections under section 9(4), which include protections for habitat from intentional disturbance and damage.

The Minister may not be aware of this, but I am proud to be the butterfly conservation species champion for the brimstone butterfly, which is the flagship species of Hull’s Butterfly City project. She may also be interested to know that the marsh fritillary, the heath fritillary, the large blue and the swallowtail, which is the UK’s largest butterfly, are also included in schedule 5 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act. I assure the Minister that the main threat to all those butterfly species is habitat loss, and they are also included in section 9(4) of the Act. Every other mammal that is considered vulnerable to extinction in the UK is listed in schedule 7: the hazel dormouse, two species of bat, and the Orkney vole.

Even a layperson who is familiar with the behaviour of hedgehogs can imagine how the provisions in section 9(5) would protect them; detailed knowledge of hedgehogs’ habitat requirements is not necessary. Many people know that hedgehogs like the shelter of a nice compost heap, or being tucked up beneath the garden shed. In fact, hedgehogs can journey up to 2 km per night and can build several nests across their home range, so it is clear how protection of hedgehogs’ nesting sites from disturbance or harm, as well as protection of hedgehogs themselves from disturbance or harm, would be of benefit.

The hedgehog and other wildlife can also be helped through changes to the planning law. Biodiversity can be built into housing and commercial developments in many ways, such as hedgehog highways, wildlife corridors, and swift boxes and other bird boxes built into buildings. There are already fantastic examples, backed up by research, of the benefits of these innovations. It just requires the will from Government to make them mandatory.

The petition is timely because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) mentioned, the Wildlife and Countryside Act is undergoing its five-yearly review of the species included. However, I am extremely concerned to hear that the terms of this year’s review have been changed and that, contrary to what a reasonable person might expect given the well documented decline in biodiversity across the board, this is likely to result in fewer species under protection, not more. Under the new standards, an animal or plant species would be protected if only it were in imminent danger of extinction, so dozens of species face losing vital safeguards, and action to protect a species would come only when it was in crisis, which might be too late. That cannot be right.

I understand that over 30 conservation groups have written to Ministers voicing their concerns. I would welcome the Minister taking the opportunity today to explain why it was felt that the standards needed changing and how the Government expect the changes to halt the decline in species numbers. Although I welcome the assurances given in response to the petition relating to forthcoming legislation, given the changes to the way that the 1981 Act is being reviewed, it is difficult to have confidence that the final detail will measure up to the promises. The hedgehog needs increased and meaningful protections now, not fuzzy—or even prickly—assurances about its future.

Chris Grayling Portrait Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg.

I follow a fellow parliamentary species champion, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), but I am perhaps the most topical species champion today, because I am the species champion for the hedgehog. Indeed, as the Minister knows, because she is committed to these issues, I have been, probably not biting her ankles, but prickling them over this issue for some time now, and I intend to carry on doing so. Six years have passed since this House last debated the hedgehog. I very much hope that we will not need to debate it again soon, but I also hope that, if a debate is necessary, it will not take another six years.

It is a national tragedy that we have lost so much of our wildlife. If we look across the range of species that have suffered catastrophic declines in recent years, the picture is profoundly disturbing and worrying. The hedgehog’s decline goes back further than the last 20 years, though. In the 1950s, there were nearly as many hedgehogs as people in the United Kingdom; today the hedgehog population is only a tiny fraction of our population, with perhaps only 1.5 million hedgehogs surviving. We have to turn the situation around, not just for hedgehogs but for all the species that have suffered such declines, and we must start doing it now, because we cannot allow numbers to continue to go down.

There is a variety of reasons why these declines have happened. It is true that there has been habitat loss. Sadly, over the years too many hedgehogs have died on our roads, although I have to say that it is relatively rare to see a dead hedgehog on our roads nowadays. Of course, we see rather a lot of dead badgers on our roads, but that remains a subject of debate. I am not here today to point a finger at the badger, although are issues around the competition between species for ever-diminishing habitats. I am here to argue for tangible Government measures to address the issue.

There has been a lot of debate about the specific review taking place this year. There is genuine cause for concern there, which I hope the Minister will address in her remarks, because none of us wants a formal reduction of protection for species. She knows my concerns about the way the quinquennial review approaches creatures such as the hedgehog, and I hope she will be able to set everybody’s mind at rest.

I hope the Minister recognises from the scale of this petition the genuine public concern. I echo the words of congratulation to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, to Hedgehog Street, which has done a fantastic job in promoting the need for action, and to all those groups around the country doing so much to protect hedgehogs, to rescue hedgehogs that are in danger, to rescue baby hedgehogs that may not survive the winter, and to look after those that have been injured. I pay tribute to the team at the Wildlife Aid Foundation, just outside my constituency in Leatherhead, who do a fantastic job. I have been down there on many occasions to see the work they are doing with hedgehogs that have run into difficulties in life..

That work and all those different projects all around the country are valuable, but there is a bigger-picture issue to solve here. It was brought home to me this week by a message I received from one of the hedgehog groups distraught that, just down the road from where it is based, a developer starting to clear a site ahead of development had killed a significant number of hedgehogs just by clearing the undergrowth alongside a roadway to make way for that development. In accordance with the law, we in this country do a lot of work before we develop sites, such as checking for bats and newts, but I want the Government think differently, because searching for an individual species on a development site is not the right way forward. We need an holistic approach to nature on a development site. Of course, we still need to develop for the future—we need to provide housing for the future—but we should do that with care. One thing I hope for from the Government in the next few months is a plan to turn the current system into one of holistic analysis of what wildlife is on a site and what needs to be protected, so that we do not simply bulldoze a roadside or cut down a hedgerow with no regard at all for any animals inside it. All too often, hedgehogs are inside it. That change is urgently needed.

The Minister will be aware that I tabled an amendment to the Environment Bill to move the hedgehog into schedule 5 protection. I did not push that amendment to a Division because I understand that the legislative framework is not right for today’s world. It is focused particularly on human intent against animals, and nobody is seriously suggesting that everybody wants to kill hedgehogs. However, I expect quid pro quo from the Minister, which is a proper, urgent review of the legislative framework to address things such as the circumstance I just described, where a developer does not have to look holistically for the full range of species on a site but can just make sure that there are no bats or newts and everything else just gets bulldozed out of the way. That cannot be right, and I very much hope that she will change that.

I ask two other things of Ministers. The first involves habitats for hedgehogs and other species. One reason why we have seen the decline in numbers has been the disappearance of hedgerows. I very much hope that the implementation of the Agriculture Act 2020 and the new agriculture support framework will genuinely encourage farmers to put back some of those lost habitats. CPRE is in the process of launching a timely campaign to get more hedgerows planted in this country, and I hope the Government take that on board and ensure that the support they provide to farmers encourages them not only to have wider margins at the sides of existing fields, which is to be welcomed, but to start replanting hedgerows for the future, because they are vital habitats.

My final request to the Minister is this. It is important for species that travel long distances to be able to do so. Colleagues have mentioned hedgehog highways and developers being encouraged to put holes in fences. That is very good and should continue to be encouraged, but we also need, in areas of open country where there are development threats, to make sure that corridors exist for wildlife—not only hedgehogs but other species—so that we do not lock away one bit of habitat from another, losing the movement between the two and so ultimately the species decline and die. That also has to change.

Those are my three requests to the Minister. We need to ensure that we have proper planning for highways between different habitats, and that we look at supporting the recovery of hedgerows. We particularly need protections for species such as the hedgehog in law, to prevent developers from simply ripping up a site with no regard for what is there. If the Minister delivers all that, she will be able to take pride in the fact that she has played a big part in turning the tide on the tragic decline of hedgehog numbers.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is, as always, a pleasure to speak in the debate. As is often said in this Chamber, conservation is not a hobby for me; it is a duty that I take a very seriously.

I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), and I wholeheartedly endorse his request to retain hedgerows and enhance field edges. That is something that I do on the land where I have the opportunity to have some input. I am blessed to live on the family farm, with my son living on the farm up a very long laneway. It gives me a chance to see where the hedgerows are and to ensure that the edges of the lanes are well kept. During lockdown, the ability to wander through the beautiful countryside surrounding my home as I read my briefings and did my daily Bible readings, was one of things that kept me sane. It made me appreciate what I have outside my window that little bit more. I have a real passion to ensure that my grandchildren will have the same ability to enjoy nature when they reach my age, so retaining hedgerows and field edges is something that I wholeheartedly endorse.

Hedgehogs are under extreme pressure. The right hon. Gentleman referred to badgers, and the information that I have is hedgehogs are a bit of a delicacy for badgers, which are renowned for feasting on hedgehogs more than they probably should. One part of this fight for our countryside is the declining number of hedgehogs. Ulster Wildlife has an entire section on its website about how to help hedgehogs due to their decline, and it states:

“Hedgehogs are in trouble—they have declined by 30% in the last 10 years alone and there are now thought to be fewer than one million left in the UK. Whether you live in town or country, you can help to look after these much-loved creatures by providing food, water and shelter.”

Ulster Wildlife’s useful site outlines ways to help and provides links where people can donate and adopt a hedgehog. When my boys were at school, they did a project on hedgehogs, and I sincerely hope that there are still school projects to raise awareness of just how vital these little creatures are to our ecosystem.

My constituents in Strangford who signed the petition outlined the dire straits in which our population of hedgehogs find themselves. Since 2000, hedgehog numbers in the UK have declined by half in rural areas and by a third in urban ones. I very rarely see any of them about now, even with our taking a direct interest in trying to retain the habitat for them. For that reason, BHPS is asking for hedgehogs to be moved from schedule 6 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to schedule 5, to allow them greater protection. I would support that.

My constituents are concerned that the 2021 review seeks to change the eligibility criteria affecting hedgehogs. It is proposed that the country-based statutory nature conservation bodies will retain protected status only for species that are in imminent danger of extinction in Great Britain. I would suggest that the hedgehog is very clearly in such danger. The shift in focus will give preferential consideration to GB red-listed species as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but the IUCN guidance specifically identifies the automatic use of red-list categories in policy as an “inappropriate use” of the red list, so that is the wrong bar to set. We need to get it right, so I look to the Minister with respect, as I often do, and ask her to respond, which I know she will.

The effect of the proposed change would be that rather than increasing protection for hedgehogs, as called for in the petition, their current, minor level of protection will be removed altogether. The change will make it legal to sell hedgehogs; worse still, they will lose protection from killing and injury. I just cannot believe that that is possible.

The petition makes it clear that hedgehogs have widespread support and are in need of enhanced protection. The hedgehog has been voted Britain’s most popular wild mammal in several surveys. In the BBC’s wildlife survey in 2013, it won 42% of the vote. In 2016, the hedgehog won more than twice the votes of the second-placed animal in the Royal Society of Biology’s survey. Clearly, hedgehogs are a favourite of the general public, so removing hedgehogs’ legal protection would be widely viewed as inappropriate and an extremely perverse response to a parliamentary petition backed by more than 100,000 voters.

Will the Minister reflect on this well thought-out flag that has been raised? We need to do something, and we are all saying that we must do the right thing. We need to enhance protection and to fund a breeding programme to release hedgehogs into safe places throughout the countryside. I look to the Minister to outline that very plan of action.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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I remind Members to wear masks while in this room, if they are not speaking, please.

Roger Gale Portrait Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con) [V]
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My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) remarked on the fact that we see far fewer hedgehogs dead on the roads now. Perversely, that is not a good sign; it is a bad sign, because the reason is that there are so many fewer hedgehogs than there used to be. It is hard to find one now, and yet when I was a lad, we could go out every night into the garden and there would be one, two or three hedgehogs snuffling around. The change has been absolutely dramatic.

I understand that the Government want to wait for the findings of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee review before taking any action, but we cannot wait much longer. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species has indicated clearly that the hedgehog is vulnerable to extinction. Hedgehogs are on the red list for British mammals. This is an animal that, as my right hon. Friend said, we used to have almost as many of as there were people in the United Kingdom. Now their number has dwindled to insignificance.

The Government say in their policy papers that they want

“to recover our threatened native species”.

One of the reasons for not accepting today’s recommendation is that—to quote from the Government comment—

“it would not address the main threat of habitat loss”.

No, it would not, and that is the main threat. It is because of current Government planning policy that habitat loss is worsening. The national planning policy framework states that policies

“should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment”.

That is hogwash—possibly hedgehogwash. We are not enhancing our natural and local environments or our agricultural environment. Every time that farm fields are built over, hedgerows go, headlands go and the fields themselves with crops in go. Those are the habitats not just for hedgehogs, but for literally thousands of birds, mammals, butterflies and insects—the insects upon which hedgehogs feed. It is because of that loss of habitat that we have lost so many hedgehogs. The hedgerows, the meadowlands and the rough pasture that we are told hedgehogs in the wild live on are going. That is why the numbers are decreasing so dramatically in rural areas.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister is in her place to answer the debate, but I rather wish that we had a Planning Minister sitting listening to this as well, and perhaps responding. We have to get to grips with the fact that we are building over agricultural land. “We are protecting the green belt,” we are told. Yes, we are protecting the green belt, but agricultural land is being built over in the south of England in particular to an extent that is positively dangerous to food production and our wildlife. That has got to stop.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Twigg. It is also a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), with whom I have co-operated over many years on issues of animal husbandry, and all hon. Members who have spoken so passionately about hedgehogs.

Across the royal town of Sutton Coldfield, many Suttonians wish to see greater protection for our local hedgehog population. That is reflected in the huge number of people who have asked me to attend the debate and speak in it today—185 people from Sutton Coldfield signed the petition that we are debating.

I pay tribute to Snuffles Hedgehog Rescue, based in Four Oaks in my constituency. Claire and her partner Matt have been rescuing and looking after local hedgehogs for eight years, once they built up their knowledge and expertise after rescuing a hedgehog they found that needed help. Since 2013, they have built up a local network of volunteers, including people who help to clean the facilities, provide foster care for hedgehogs as they recover, and rehome hedgehogs in a safe environment.

In December last year, I supported a new clause in the Environment Bill, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) referred to, that would have added the hedgehog to the list of protected animals under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It would create a legal imperative to search for hedgehogs in building developments and to mitigate the impact on their habitats, as we do for bats, for example. I am glad to have the opportunity today to speak briefly in favour of this greater protection for our hedgehogs. We know that there is significant public support for additional safeguards. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, surveys show time and again just how loved hedgehogs are by British people. They have been voted Britain’s most popular wild mammal in several surveys, including the BBC’s 2013 wildlife survey.

Over the past two decades, hedgehog numbers across the UK have plummeted by 50% in rural areas and 30% in urban areas. I support the British Hedgehog Preservation Society’s campaign for hedgehogs to be moved from schedule 6 to schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, to allow them greater protection, notwithstanding the legitimate reservations that my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell has mentioned.

I have been concerned, as others have, to read that the seventh quinquennial review of schedules 5 and 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 could introduce changes that would affect the status of many of our native species, including hedgehogs. I understand that the review seeks to change the eligibility criteria of the hedgehog, currently listed in schedule 6. It is proposed that the country-based statutory nature conservation bodies will retain protected status only for species that are in imminent danger of extinction in the United Kingdom. I echo the words of the hon. Member for Strangford; the effect of the proposed changes could mean that, rather than increasing protection for hedgehogs, as my constituents have asked, the level of protection that they currently enjoy could be removed altogether.

Hedgehogs are currently protected under schedule 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as well as the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996. This makes it illegal to kill or capture them using certain methods and prohibits cruelty and mistreatment. However, this legislation does not address many of the reasons why hedgehogs have declined over the past 20 years. I believe we need to take further action to help conserve wild hedgehog populations. Listing hedgehogs under schedule 5 of the 1981 Act would allow them greater protection. This would ensure that their nesting sites, as well as the hedgehogs themselves, are protected from disturbance or harm, and would offer hedgehogs the same protection as hazel dormice, red squirrels, water vole, otters and all our bat species.

This Government have a strong track record when it comes to environmental issues, including our commitment to net zero. Our world-leading Environment Bill will set a new and ambitious framework for environmental governance, to address environmental challenges including biodiversity loss and climate change. We have committed to leaving the environment in a better space than we inherited it. I therefore cannot understand why, in all these changes we are making, Ministers are not considering strengthening our protection for hedgehogs. I look forward to listening to this very accomplished Minister explain what plans the Government have in that respect.

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on initiating this debate.

I welcome this discussion, as the protection of hedgehogs is a topic that I hold close to my heart. As some of my Twitter followers may have seen, we recently welcomed a new tenant to the Halfon household. Horace the hedgehog moved into our garden earlier this year and has very much made himself at home. Given these modern times, although we have called him Horace, he clearly is a he/him or she/her hedgehog. He has even been brave enough to approach the back door to try to watch Netflix through the window, particularly “Sons of Anarchy”. He has risen to dizzying heights of fame on our social media page, and I have had individuals write to my office to ask whether Horace will be making an appearance in upcoming Zoom meetings.

I thank the numerous individuals who kindly wrote to me with advice on how to care for Horace and to ask me to provide an update on his recent escapades. The interest in looking after these wonderful animals shows just how much the public love hedgehogs. I may spend months writing a speech on education, and a few people might notice, but when it comes to Horace the hedgehog, literally thousands of people have written to me, commented or whatever it may be.

I am led to believe that Horace may have found himself a partner. We have purchased a proper hedgehog house, and there may be some hoglets on the way. Since Horace’s appearance, I am pleased to say that the slug plague in my garden has vanished. I understand that hedgehogs roll them into what is called slug con carne.

In 2013, hedgehogs were voted Britain’s favourite wild animal. Despite the public’s immense love for these small and spiny creatures, their existence hangs in the balance, as has been said many times in this debate. I was deeply saddened to learn that, since 2000, hedgehog numbers in the UK have declined by half in rural areas and a third in urban ones. The speed of the decline is akin to dropping off a cliff. In July 2020, the British hedgehog became officially classified as vulnerable to extinction, when it was added, as has been highlighted, to the red list for British mammals. That is extraordinarily depressing. That is why we have to do all we can to ensure that these special creatures are protected. We need to eliminate the risk of them disappearing from the UK forever. I strongly favour our children being educated at school about mammals on the red list, and particularly about hedgehogs, because it is important that we learn about these animals and how to look after them.

Some of my Harlow residents have written to me to ask that the Government act to move hedgehogs to schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to allow them greater protection. I would be hugely grateful if the Minister outlined what measures will be taken to preserve and enhance the UK’s hedgehog population.

Since the arrival of Horace the hedgehog in my garden, I have taken great care to educate myself on what steps individuals can take to look after hedgehogs. I say to members of the public that I have learned that if a hedgehog pays a visit to their garden, they should please be sure to leave out a bowl of water and allow areas of their garden to remain wild. Hedgehogs use piles of leaf litter and logs to build their nests. Horace used a plastic bag—not from my garden, I should stress—to cover the leaves that he used as his home before we gave him the hedgehog house.

We should all adopt hedgehog-friendly habits. Horace has changed my understanding and helped me develop a real love for hedgehogs. I hope this debate will ensure that the preservation of that species becomes a real priority. This is only the second debate on hedgehogs in many hundreds of years. I hope it will lead to a sea change so that hedgehogs are no longer a potentially extinct mammal but flourish once again up and down our streets in Britain, not just in Harlow but across the country.

Duncan Baker Portrait Duncan Baker (North Norfolk) (Con)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for introducing the petition. It is an honour to be in the room with a true hedgehog champion—my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who has done so much to further the cause through parliamentary debate.

As we have heard many times, the hedgehog has been voted the most popular British wild mammal. But the numbers we have also heard are truly shocking. None of us could fail to be extremely worried that we are down to potentially our last million hedgehogs. To read that they are vulnerable to extinction would have been unheard of when I was growing up. A decrease of over 50% in the last 20 years is something that we should all sit up and notice. But why? Essentially, lockdown has focused our minds. It has made us re-evaluate much of our lives, and I am glad, because the environment has taken centre stage more than ever before. That has heightened our understanding of the delicately constructed ecosystems on which all our society is built.

This debate is calling for hedgehog protections to be increased by moving their status in schedule 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to schedule 5. However, as we have heard, the seventh quinquennial review of schedules 5 and 8 to the Act potentially provides DEFRA with recommendations to make major changes to those schedules. The 2021 review seeks to change the eligibility criteria for hedgehogs, currently listed in schedule 6. It proposes that the country-based statutory nature conservation bodies should retain protected status only of species that are in imminent danger of extinction in Great Britain. That shift in focus preferably considers Great Britain red-listed species, as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The effect of the proposed change could mean that, rather than increasing protections for hedgehogs, their current minor level of protection might be further removed.

That is the nub of why so many of us are concerned. We simply cannot allow that to happen. Already we have heard that the species is in significant decline. It is affected by many things—the loss of hedgerows as habitat and traffic accidents. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) pointed out, the numbers would of course be down on the road, because the numbers are significantly down in the country. The decline in food, through the increased use of pesticides, is also a material reason why the numbers have decreased. We must do everything we possibly can to increase their chances of survival, not diminish them.

I want to quickly mention Hedgehog Haven in North Walsham, a wonderful local organisation run by my constituent Marian Grimes. She has told me many times that Government action to uphold our collective custodial responsibility is owed to those animals. We can do that. As a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, I know from the report that we released in the past week that we have to do more for our domestic ecosystems. Our Chair, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), even highlighted that hedgehogs’ health and their quantity are one of the best indicators of a healthy micro-environment.

While the Government continue to do the work that they can, which we welcome, I hope this debate will be the start of a step change in the long-term prospects for the hedgehog population. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s review must strengthen the protective legislation for hedgehogs. I go back to the Environmental Audit Committee’s findings on biodiversity from the past week or so: we have to do more, whether through planning or agriculture legislation. We have to keep doing everything we can to protect nature. A very good starting point would be enhancing protection for our population of hedgehogs.

Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for presenting and introducing the debate in such a passionate manner.

Clearly, this topic matters to many people across the UK and to Members from across the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and others highlighted, the hedgehog has been voted the most popular wild mammal in the UK, and I wish the campaign for a hedgehog hospital, which they have highlighted, every success. I also commend the work of the Hedgehog Preservation Society and hedgehog rescues—which have some fantastic names, such as Snuffles Hedgehog Rescue, which the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) mentioned. Clearly, volunteers and groups up and down the country are working to turn the tide on decline.

We have heard about how people can make their gardens better habitats for hedgehogs. Simple interventions can make a big difference. We heard memories and stories about the wonderful hedgehog, from the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), sharing the regular sightings when there were as many hedgehogs as people in the UK, to the latest household member of the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), Horace. We heard about the decline and what issues may be causing it, from habitat destruction to pesticides and other issues. We heard about the incredible lives that hedgehogs have, with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) explaining that they can travel up to 2 km a night, which is extraordinary.

Before I directly address the prickly situation of hedgehogs, I will discuss the Department’s answer to the petition, which I read with great interest. Ministers have rightly framed their response to the plight of hedgehogs in relation to the wider issues of species abundance targets, even if they have yet to propose what those targets will be. We absolutely need biodiversity targets, and they should be ambitious. We should not only halt the decline of hedgehogs and other nature; we should reverse it. Ministers seem to agree. The Secretary of State said that he wants not only to stem the tide of the loss of nature but to turn it around and leave the environment in a better state than we found it. I hope the Minister will use this debate to outline why, in the other place, the Government’s proposals for species abundance targets committed only to

“further the objective of halting a decline in the abundance of species”,

and what that means for hedgehogs. We need more than a halt to the decline; we should be aiming for a dramatic incline in species abundance and trying to reverse the trend for hedgehogs.

Our hedgehog population is threatened, and in response to the petition, the Department says that it is reviewing the species that will be protected as part of the regular five-year review. As highlighted by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), this year the rules have changed. Animals will be automatically added to the protection list only if they are critically endangered, and will be eligible to be added only if they are endangered in the first place. What assurance can the Minister give that hedgehogs will receive the protections they deserve? Hedgehogs fit neither requirement outlined above, but their numbers have rapidly declined—by 50% in rural areas and a third in urban areas over the past 20 years. As the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) asked, what will be done to keep the weaker protections they currently have?

It is fantastic that the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) is the species champion for hedgehogs. He reported on the steep decline since 1950, with hedgehog numbers falling from 30 million to 1.5 million. That is a shocking figure. The need for an holistic approach to nature and development is clear. Will the Minister address what conversations are occurring across Government to protect nature under new planning laws? I agree with the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) that the decline means that we need to protect hedgehog habitats, making considerations in planning, and that we should actively intervene to restore habitats as part of what we do to create nature corridors and in the restoration of hedgerows. We also need to continue to make space for hedgehogs with methods such as creating tunnels, hedgehog highways and hedgehog houses in our urban areas.

The England trees action plan commits to a mere 12% of woodland coverage by the middle of the century, which is 7% less than the Climate Change Committee’s recommendation of 19%. As well as being weak on woodland coverage, the document contains only four references to hedgerows. I would be grateful if the Minister set out what the Department will do specifically to encourage the creation of more of these habitats, which are so beneficial to hedgehogs. In addition to habitat restoration, there is a wider point to make about species abundance targets—a strange approach to biodiversity that is indifferent to the steep decline of the population. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle passionately highlighted, we should not have to wait for a species to become endangered before extending protections to it.

Therefore, I ask the Minister whether her Department has any plans to reverse its approach, in order to ensure that the rhetoric on protecting species abundance matches the reality. If we are aiming for abundance, raising the threshold for species protection is a step in the wrong direction, certainly when species have faced such dramatic reductions in numbers. Will she support the beloved prickly mammal that our country is so passionate about in the upcoming review?

Rebecca Pow Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Twigg—I do not think that I have had the pleasure before, so it is very nice to see you in the Chair. Indeed, it is a pleasure to see all hon. Members and Friends here for this debate.

First of all, I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for introducing the debate and for making a very clear case, as he always does in these petition debates. He referred to the debate in 2015, and I think a number of hon. Friends and Members were probably at that debate. I do not know if you were there, Mr Twigg, but I must say that it was one of the best debates I have ever attended in Parliament—and it was about hedgehogs. It was responded to by my then right hon. Friend for Penrith and The Border, and it has stayed in my mind.

Today’s debate has demonstrated, with the number of speakers we have had and the number of people who have signed the petition, just how heartfelt this whole issue of hedgehogs is—they are wonderful creatures. We have had wonderful references to all sorts of hedgehog charities and organisations, and I thank them all. We had Hessle Hog House, Hedgehog Street, the Wildlife Aid Foundation and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, which arranged the petition and does so much good work. It is based in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), who could not be here today but wanted to ensure that we thanked it for all the work it does in his constituency. We have also had Snuffles Hedgehog Rescue, and we must not forget Horace the film buff hedgehog—I am sorry that he is outdoing my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) when it comes to his other debates, but that just goes to show the strength of feeling.

This Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that our native species thrive, as we take action to address the declines that we are all so sad about. We—and I as the Minister—are deeply concerned about the findings of the red list for British mammals, published in 2020 by the Mammal Society, which has classed hedgehogs as vulnerable.

I am a great fan of hedgehogs, not least from reading all my children Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, the amazing Beatrix Potter book. As a Back Bencher, I worked with others, and we secured a reference in the national planning policy framework for hedgehog highways—that reference is in there now. Only today, I made a speech on green infrastructure to the Town and Country Planning Association, and I referenced hedgehog highways again.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers
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I warmly congratulate the Minister on that success. Now she has a real opportunity in her current role, because she will be signing off on environmental land management schemes. A good, simple scheme to promote hedgerows is great for farmers and even better for hedgehogs. I hope that we will see that in the ELM scheme.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I thank my right hon. Friend very much for that intervention; she is obviously passionate about this issue and indeed worked in the Department. I am sure she knows that we have just announced the details of our sustainable farming initiative and the ELM scheme is very much about habitats, bringing nature back and being able to produce food sustainably, and there will be an emphasis on wildlife corridors and particularly river corridors. All these things will benefit our native wildlife and particularly hedgehogs. So my right hon. Friend is right, and I shall be taking advantage of the opportunity; indeed, I have been speaking up for hedgehogs.

I must mention West Hatch Animal Centre, which is just over the hill from where I live. It does absolutely brilliant work when hedgehogs are orphaned. I have been up there, and the centre has all these baby hedgehogs that are underweight and cannot get through the winter. The centre takes them on and literally drip-feeds them with pipettes to keep them alive. I was then very honoured that my garden was vetted and was deemed acceptable—I garden for wildlife—to receive some of these, now fattened-up, hedgehogs. I had some released in my garden. I was in Parliament one day, and the centre said, “You have to have a hedgehog house.” I thought, “What is that?” So I googled, “What is a hedgehog house?” I then had to build one in order to receive a hedgehog, which we duly did.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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In the royal town of Sutton Coldfield, we make hedgehog boxes. If the Minister would like one for her garden, it would be my pleasure to ensure that one is delivered to her at Westminster.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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That is the kind of offer I would find hard to refuse. Interestingly, we went to all the effort of making the house, then releasing the hedgehog into it, but I do not think that the hedgehog ever lived in it again. I think my garden was much more suited to it than the house. That is not to say that the boxes from Sutton Coldfield will not be a great deal better than those from Taunton Deane.

On the serious points, as we look to conserve and protect our native hedgehogs we have to consider the reasons for their decline. The main threat to the hedgehog is habitat loss, as many hon. Members referenced, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and the hon. Members for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Habitat change has been due to such things as agricultural intensification and deterioration in the actual habitat, and that has affected so much of our other wildlife as well.

Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 focuses on deliberate harm against species. Although I agree with the sentiment behind the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) to ensure that we protect our hedgehogs, it is not clear that the species is being threatened in that way. Therefore, that protection under the Act would not address the main challenges that the species faces, although I was interested to hear about the potential collecting and selling of hedgehogs. If there is evidence of that from the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, I would certainly like to see it, because that has not been flagged to me and it would concern me.

I must go on to the points made by so many Members, particularly my right hon. Friends the Members for Chipping Barnet and for Epsom and Ewell, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) and the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) and for Blaydon, about schedule 6 of the 1981 Act, under which the hedgehog is listed. The schedule makes it an offence to kill or take listed animals by certain methods, such as types of traps and snares.

The quinquennial review process, which many have referred to, reviews schedules 5 and 8 of the Act, and the JNCC will make recommendations with regard to those lists. As I have highlighted to a number of Members, no changes to species protection have yet been recommended to us, nor have any decisions been made. Proposals for change will be formally consulted on later this year, and the Government will then consider the recommendations and advice provided by the JNCC before making any decisions.

Chris Grayling Portrait Chris Grayling
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Given that the Minister accepted in the debate on the Environment Bill—I am grateful for that—that the current legislative framework is really no longer fit for purpose in today’s world, would it not be better to set aside the quinquennial review and just get on with replacing the system? Carrying on with what we have at the moment will just cause confusion and uncertainty. It would be better to say, “This doesn’t work anymore,” and do something different.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I hear what my right hon. Friend says. We have discussed this at length, and I thank him for that. As I have said previously, it is a priority for us to provide the legislative protections and policy interventions needed for our wildlife, including of course declines in hedgehogs. I am determined that we will get this right, and my right hon. Friend will know that we have recently announced a Green Paper towards that ambition. My Department will begin a review of species legislation, with a view to enhancing and modernising it, and we intend to publish the Green Paper and seek views later in the year. I absolutely agree that we need a better approach to addressing threats to a range of species, and that is what the Green Paper will focus on.

Furthermore, the Environment Bill will strengthen our commitment to such species as hedgehogs. We have amended it to require a new, holistic, legally binding target to be set for species abundance by 2030. The aim of that is to halt the decline in nature. That is a really strong commitment, the like of which we have never seen before. It demonstrates that the Government are determined that we will get this right. Indeed, we have to get it right, and I agree with various Members who have spoken, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), who was very forceful. The matter is urgent and we need to get on with it.

We are taking action through a range of measures that I honestly believe will help. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet referred to the net gain provisions in the Bill, which will mean that every single new development will have to put back 10% more nature than was there at the start. I know that many developers will put back more than that, and that will help hedgehog habitats. Through the Bill, we are also introducing local nature recovery strategies, which have been referred to. Those will help to identify local biodiversity priorities in order to improve the co-ordination of the whole conservation effort, but at scale, and they will be beneficial to species such as hedgehogs.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist
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On paper, all these things are great, but it is essential that we have the resources to enforce the requirements, which need to be very specific. Too many times we have seen hedgerows ripped out, even where there is supposed to be protection. How will the Minister ensure that the requirements are effective?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I thank the hon. Lady for that, but one cannot rip hedgerows out now. We have a portfolio—a toolbox—of measures that will combine to improve our nature and put back our declining species. The local nature recovery strategies are key to that and will be used on the ground by local authorities. That will give them the opportunity to determine—it is like a mapping system—what they want where, where there is good nature, where it could be better or where they would rather just focus on industry. All of those things will build together, and local authorities will be able to make hedgehogs a priority if they so wish. I am confident that we have a very good framework in the Environment Bill.

We also have our new Agriculture Act 2020, and we have left the common agricultural policy. We now have schemes to ensure that our land use will deliver environmental benefits—through the sustainable farming incentive, the local nature recovery scheme and our much bigger landscape recovery scheme, which will link whole areas and potentially have the corridors that our wildlife needs to move about. Those schemes—sustainable farming, in particular—will be able to create and preserve woodlands, heathlands, species-rich grassland and a range of habitats that will benefit hedgehogs, in particular.

Serious points were made about planning. DEFRA is in close consultation with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, particularly on the issue of sustainable development. Hedgehog highways, swift boxes, ponds and all of the things that we are flagging really need to go into our future developments, together with sustainable urban drainage and all of the things that affect our water quality and flooding. It should all knit together.

There is obviously huge interest in hedgehog protection. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate and made such very strong cases.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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Will the hon. Lady give way?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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I think I have time to give way to the hon. Member for Strangford, because he is always so polite.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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A number of people, including myself, have put forward the planning issue, to which the Minister referred. Is it possible, before anyone does any work on any site or development, to ask them to remove any hedgehogs and to relocate them? The Minister said that many farms would wish to accept hedgehogs. Is that possible?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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That is an interesting suggestion. In the Environment Bill, we are bringing in new measures for strategies for certain wider groups of species and wildlife to look after habitats and deal with wildlife issues on a more comprehensive scale, rather than in the itsy-bitsy way that we do now, which often frustrates developments as well, because they are held up. Under biodiversity net gain and the nature that has to be put back by developers, they will be conscious that they have to look at things such as the hedgehog population, just as we do now with dormice and so on.

On that note, I will wind up. I hope that I have outlined that the Government have a real desire, and I believe the framework, to protect nature and biodiversity on a national scale, and that we are committed to reviewing species legislation so that we get it right. We give the assurance that we will be looking after our absolutely much-loved and indeed revered hedgehogs.

Matt Vickers Portrait Matt Vickers
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As ever, enthusiasm, energy and passion from the Minister. She is passionate about our wildlife and our nature, and there is a commitment there to work to further the interests of hedgehogs. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), I hope we will not be having this debate in a few years’ time. I also hope that there will be some robust population growth.

My right hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), for Epsom and Ewell and for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) talked about the need for a wider, cross-Government look at the issue. It would be good to get Planning Ministers to look at it—it needs to be in every thought, in every Department.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) with Horace the hedgehog and his sluggy con carne showed that, wherever we go, a hedgehog raises a smile, as it does in Blaydon, Chipping Barnet, North Norfolk and Sheffield. Local champions across the country, in every corner of the UK, including Northern Ireland, do fantastic work to support our hedgehogs. It was a hugely successful debate, and I thank the Minister and Members for their thoughts.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 550379, relating to the protection of hedgehogs.

Sitting suspended.

Breed Specific Legislation

Monday 5th July 2021

(3 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (in the Chair)
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Thank you, colleagues, for attending. As you know, there are now hybrid arrangements in place. Suffice it to say that Members who are attending physically—all of us—should clean our spaces before we leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has asked that masks be worn. I suggested before the debate that there will be Divisions at some point. If that is the case, we will adjourn until five minutes after the last vote.

It is my pleasure to call Elliot Colburn to move the motion.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 300561, relating to breed specific legislation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. The prayer of the petition states:

“Breed Specific Legislation fails to achieve what Parliament intended, to protect the public. It focuses on specific breeds, which fails to appreciate a dog is not aggressive purely on the basis of its breed. It allows seizure of other breeds, but the rules are not applied homogeneously by councils. We need a system that focuses on the aggressive behaviour of dogs, and the failure of owners to control their dog, rather than the way a dog looks. Reconsider a licensing system. The framework must be applied by local authorities the same, whereas currently some destroy dogs with no court order. It must be much more strictly controlled than it is currently. The system needs to be fairer for all, dogs and humans. We are touched by cases of people committing suicide over the current system.”

When it closed, the petition had reached 118,641 signatures, including 163 from my constituency of Carshalton and Wallington. As a dog owner and an animal lover, I feel strongly that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. I have owned breeds that have had a terribly unfair reputation, such as Staffordshire bull terriers. In reality, they have the sweetest temperament and make great pets, as anyone who has owned one will say.

However, certain dog breeds are banned, purely based on their breed, under breed-specific legislation. In the UK, BSL takes the form of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which bans the breeding, sale and exchange of four breeds of dog: the pit bull terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro. However, the law allows a person to keep an individual dog where a court has considered that it does not present a danger to public safety. The court will consider the temperament of the dog, whether the intended keeper is a fit and proper person, and other matters such as the suitability of the accommodation. Dogs placed on the index of exempted dogs may be kept by the owner under strict conditions, including that the dog is neutered, microchipped and kept on a lead and muzzle in public.

The Dangerous Dogs Act came in response to a spate of dog attacks, which it obviously intended to try to reduce. However, judging on the evidence and the discussions that I have been having since the petition reached 100,000 signatures, it is fair to say that the Act was not necessarily based on evidence or science in any great detail. It was really quite a knee-jerk reaction at the time. The aftermath of the Act has suggested that, actually, it may not have worked as intended. All major animal welfare organisations, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Blue Cross and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, as well as the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report of 2018, have expressed concern about breed-specific legislation, and I thank them for providing me with briefings prior to the debate.

The data suggest that the Act has, indeed, failed to achieve its intended purpose. The four breeds covered by the Act account for only a small fraction of legal cases brought under the Dangerous Dogs Act. Between 1992 and 2019, only 8% of cases involved those four breeds. At the same time, the number of hospital admissions since the Act was introduced has risen from 3,079 in 1999 to 8,859 in 2020—a 188% increase. Campaigners have also pointed to other areas where the legislation falls down. It fails to tackle the issue of irresponsible owners because the focus is on the breed, which detracts from the real problem of poor animal husbandry, welfare and training of a dog.

Every tragic fatality in the UK involving a dog attack has also involved some element of neglect. The law unfairly targets good dogs. It fails to recognise that any breed can be dangerous in the wrong hands and any large dog can cause horrific injuries. It produces a crime where the burden of proof is on a defendant to prove that their dog is not a banned breed. This leaves owners with the almost impossible task of proving a negative, which also seems contradictory to the principle of innocent until proven guilty.

In particular, the Act seems to fail in regard to the pit bull, because that breed is not recognised by the Kennel Club or other dog organisations in the United Kingdom, and therefore the seizure of these breeds has been very patchy and differently applied across the UK. Resemblance to an American pit bull seems to be the primary reason that this is happening. It is an injustice when a dog is held to be this type of dog when, in fact, it is a cross between, for example, a Staffordshire bull terrier and a Labrador—a common cross to be seized because of its resemblance to a pit bull.

There is also the issue of cost. The cost racked up for the taxpayer for kennelling seized dogs is tens of millions of pounds per year. Even when exempted, a dog cannot be transferred or left with others. It must remain muzzled in public, even when in a private car, and must be walked on a lead, even if there is no evidence that it is a danger to a human. That leads to stress for both the dog and the owner. Owners of seized dogs have reported high levels of stress, both for them and for their dog, because they are not sure if the dog will ever be seized again.

There have even been cases of a dog choking while it has been muzzled and the owner being prosecuted for removing the muzzle to save the dog’s life. Sadly, the law does not recognise the need of necessity, so such a dog would be liable to be seized and destroyed, even though it would have died had the muzzle not been removed. In my opinion, that cannot be fair.

There are also issues with the enforcement of the legislation. Evidence from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the RSPCA and Blue Cross, and that submitted to the 2018 EFRA Committee inquiry, suggests that the application of the law is often a postcode lottery, with different police forces and local authorities taking very varied approaches. However, there are a number of common themes.

Well-behaved dogs suffer at the hands of this law because often the seizing itself is a traumatic experience, which is handled brutally and heavy-handedly. The dog is then held in kennels for many months, which has an adverse effect on its temperament, and many good-natured dogs have been reported as being returned to owners with serious behavioural issues, the most common being separation anxiety. There has been photographic and video evidence of the injuries and severe malnutrition that dogs kept by the police have suffered, but when information about the kennel that they were kept in is requested, no legal information is forthcoming to allow dog owners to bring forward any prosecutions or legal challenges.

The law does not tackle public safety effectively and is damaging for dogs and their families in many ways. There are reports of children being traumatised by watching their best friends being dragged away by the police. Scientific studies have shown that young people often form incredibly strong bonds with a family dog, sometimes stronger than with their siblings. Removing an innocent dog from the home can have an incredibly negative effect on a child.

Some owners have been misled as to the nature of the seizing of their dogs and have signed a document that was not properly explained to them. The dog has consequently been destroyed, only for the owner to claim that they were not aware that that was what they were agreeing to. There have been many accusations that the police have wilfully misled owners in order to get a dog destroyed. On some occasions, a dog has even been destroyed without a court order or the informed consent of the owner.

When a dog is seized, it is not allowed to have familiar objects around it, such as favourite toys. It is an incredibly stressful situation for a dog to be seized and put in a kennel, so to further add insult to injury by denying it something familiar seems to me to be cruel. Tragically, there have been cases, as is referred to in the prayer of this petition, of people committing suicide because they could not afford to apply to have their dog exempted. The experience of having the dog removed and not knowing whether it will ever come back has led them to make the decision to take their own life. No one should be put in that position. There should be adequate signposting so that those people are put in contact with the myriad charitable organisations that might be able to help, but the evidence is that it is not forthcoming.

I appreciate that the Government set out strongly in their response to the petition why they do not want to repeal this legislation, which has the support of the police, and frankly I see the political difficulty in doing so. If changes are made to the Dangerous Dogs Act and an attack follows, the political fallout would be severe. Even if there were little to no evidence that the attack was related to the decision, it would not look good.

However, the petitioners—particularly the lead petitioner, Gavin, who I had the pleasure of speaking to before the debate—have suggested a number of options to improve the legislation, not all of which would need primary legislative change. I hope the Minister will take some of them back to the Department. I know that Lord Goldsmith has primary oversight of the enforcement of the legislation, so if the Minister is willing to take some of the suggestions back to see what can be done, that would be very welcome indeed.

The suggestions include reversing the burden of proof and requiring the prosecution to prove that the dog is a banned breed, rather than the other way round. The petitioners suggest ensuring that the law requires dogs to be released in a timely fashion, and enforcing a strict time limit. They suggest ensuring that owners are fully informed of the process and that the police do not accept an agreement for destruction at the point of seizure. The police should ensure that the owner has received any advice that they want and is fully informed of their rights. The petitioners suggest ensuring that those assessing the behaviour of dogs are independent of the police.

The petitioners suggest ensuring that the ownership of seized dogs remains with the owner, who must be informed of all material aspects of the dog’s care requirements, veterinary treatment and so on. They suggest removing the requirement that a dog seized for reason of breed and not for anything it has done must be detained while its case is considered. That is a waste of public funds and causes unnecessary stress to the dogs and the owners. The dog should be able to remain at home if there is no evidence that it is a danger and there is no reason to believe that the owners would not co-operate with the authorities to ensure that reasonable arrangements are put in place.

The petitioners suggest that there should be an assurance that dogs detained for reason of their conduct have their cases heard and considered with the option of putting in place compulsory training and behavioural work. There should not be a jump straight to destruction. They call on the police to use the principle that the aim should be to keep as many dogs alive as possible within the limits of public safety; they should not be minded towards automatic destruction. The petitioners suggest prioritising the hearing of cases so that no dog has to remain in a cage for an inordinate period. They suggest working with an organisation to establish a facility where dogs can be detained, staffed by experts in canine welfare and behaviour, with complete transparency. That would reduce costs far below their current levels, and it should be partly funded by charitable donations.

I appreciate that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has received some new research from the University of Middlesex, which is currently being peer reviewed, so the Minister will want to wait for that to happen before she tells us what it says. I hope the Government will consider some of the suggestions that the charities, campaign groups and petitioners have made. The EFRA Committee inquiry was also pretty damning of the legislation. Those suggestions would improve it, even if primary legislation is not introduced.

Owning a dog is one of the most joyous and rewarding things that I have ever done, and I am sure many people would say the same. Dogs can bring such happiness into the lives of families but, like any animal, they can turn if they are in the wrong hands. The data tell us that breed is a poor indicator of the likelihood of violence. A dog is only as good or bad as the person who owns it. The legislation should reflect that, but it is clear that it is currently littered with issues. I hope the Government will commit to reviewing the evidence further and making improvements to the application of the Act.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for not just leading this important debate, but setting out the issues so clearly and fully. I suspect we may have read the same briefing notes, so he might recognise some of my statistics.

It is essential to our democracy that we here in Westminster make sure we are debating the issues that really matter to people. I thank the 118,641 people who signed the petition, including 127 from my constituency—not quite as many as from Carshalton. When I was a member of the Petitions Committee, I always enjoyed leading debates on issues such as this, not least because I am told that they are some of the most-watched debates in Parliament—they are often in the top 10 each year. I reflect that at the time I was doing that, I had absolutely no inkling that I might be recalled to the Front Bench at some point. I have therefore reread some of those debates with some trepidation, in case I said things within my brief that I might later regret. I issue that warning to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, but I am sure that members of the Petitions Committee are always suitably mindful, because we never know what the future holds.

The dangerous dogs legislation is, of course, routinely cited as an example of Parliament acting in haste in response to events.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
On resuming—
Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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As I was saying, the Dangerous Dogs Act is frequently cited as a piece of legislation whereby Parliament acted in haste in relation to events—events I remember well, although I suspect that they may have been before the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington was with us. It was a long time ago. If there is any repenting, it has certainly been leisurely, and that is the force of the petition.

We need to get on with updating and revising the law. I am sorry that there are not more Members involved in the debate, but I do not think it is a reflection on the seriousness or importance of the issue. There are some pretty significant things happening in the main Chamber, and the announcements affect every citizen in the country, so it is not surprising that Members are focused on that today.

The issue of dangerous dogs is very sensitive. Labour thinks that we should start by making safety our top priority, but without unnecessarily punishing responsible dog owners or doing unnecessary harm to dogs that are not necessarily a risk. In our view and that of many people, the breed-specific legislation that we are discussing has fallen well short of what it was supposed to do. The time has come for reform, and we need DEFRA to lead the way.

I will start with the issue of safety. Whether it is about postal workers suffering from bites or dog walkers feeling intimidated by other dogs, let us not underplay the problem. I am very happy with dogs now, but as a child I was not. I remember my fear, day after day, when I was doing my paper round. A black Labrador would suddenly appear, give chase and jump up at me. It was not a real danger, but I have to say that it blighted every morning for me for years. Some children are not happy in that situation, which should be respected, just as I still respect dogs when I am out canvassing, quite frankly. They are our best friends, but there is a risk. That is what we as legislators have to find a way to help manage.

Looking at the evidence, the Dangerous Dogs Act is not quite fit for purpose, and it is time to have a further look. It was a swift and possibly panicky response to some particularly tragic events 30 years ago and to a very strong public reaction at the time, so we can see why Parliament acted quickly. Whether it acted entirely accurately, however, is now for us to judge. I will make a minor political point: we note that it was a Conservative Government at the time, and we feel the legislation was a touch reactive. We would like the Government to be a bit more proactive now, and we hope we can do better.

As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington outlined earlier, section 1 introduced the approach known as breed-specific legislation. I, too, will have a go at pronouncing the four types of dogs to which it applied: the pit bull terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Fila Brasileiro and the Dogo Argentino. Of course, the aim was to limit the number of those dogs and hopefully, in turn, to improve safety by reducing the number of bites. As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington has outlined, however, that is not the way it has turned out.

It is sometimes slightly dangerous to take just a few statistics and assume cause and effect, but the fact that there has not been a reduction in the number of dog bites raises questions about the effectiveness of the legislation. Between March 2005 and February 2015, the number of hospital admissions in England due to dog bites increased by 76%, from 4,110 to 7,273. In 2020, the figure reached 8,875. We are told by people who are able to calculate such things that, between 2009 and 2018, the healthcare costs for dog bites totalled £174,188,443. That is very precise, but it is fair to say it is a considerable sum. There is no robust scientific evidence to suggest that the banned dog breeds are more likely to be involved in instances of dog bitings or fatalities than any other breed or type of dog. Again, as the hon. Gentleman said, between 1992 and 2019 only 8% of dangerously out of control dog cases involved banned breeds. The legislation simply is not working; it is not stopping dog bites.

Of course, the animal welfare consequences are sad, as has been outlined. Dogs that do not necessarily pose a risk are being seized and placed in kennels. There is something self-fulfilling about that, because, as the hon. Gentleman also outlined, the physical and mental stress caused can mean that dogs then begin to act out and show aggressive behaviour, which might not have happened had they been kept with their original families.

The law does not allow animal charities and rehoming organisations, such as Blue Cross, Dogs Trust and the RSPCA, to rehome prohibited dog types to new owners. That does not take into account the individual dog’s behaviour, which then means that the only option is to euthanise. One wonders what vets feel about having to go through with that; they are people who have given their lives to protect and help animals, but have to put down perfectly healthy and friendly dogs. As the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee put it:

“Defra’s position is both illogical and inherently unfair. Whether a dog is euthanised or not can depend entirely on whether it ‘looks like’ a Pit Bull Terrier.”

That is a loose criterion for something so serious.

Breed-specific legislation does not stop dog bites, is bad for animal welfare, and because they cannot be rehomed in a controlled environment thousands of dogs are being put to sleep. The question of aggression in dogs is complicated, but I am told that there is a consensus forming in the scientific community that the breed of a dog is not a reliable predictor of aggressive behaviour. According to the latest data from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, over 200 leading behaviour experts were consulted and found that socialisation is considered the most critical factor; 86% said that how a dog is brought up by its owner is the most important reason why some dogs are more aggressive towards people than others. That rather chimes with my experience back on my paper round, as the indifference of those who kept the dog always seemed to me to be part of the problem—it comes as no surprise to me. Moreover, 73% of the experts consulted said that it is a dog’s upbringing by the breeder before they are sold that determines behaviour. There are a range of factors here and I am afraid that the rather kneejerk response of the Dangerous Dogs Act does not seem to take those factors into account.

Labour has long been clear that the Dangerous Dogs Act needs reform; it was rushed in the first place and it is now seriously out of date. Will the Minister commit to commission an independent review of this legislation, in line with the recommendations made in the EFRA Committee’s report on the issue? As I have already outlined, the petitioners quite clearly feel that the breed-specific ban does not work. If the Minister and DEFRA are insistent that some such ban is needed, will she please outline why and present the evidence in such a review? Some legal breeds can pose just as great a risk to public safety as illegal breeds, yet there are no legislative restrictions on their ownership. That inconsistency undermines the logic of the legislation, so will she tell us why some breeds are banned and other breeds that are known to be dangerous are not?

As we get on to the world-beating animal welfare legislation that we have been promised so often, will the Department engage with those with experience from other countries, and with local authorities and police forces that have considerable practical experience, to develop a deeper understanding of different dog control models and successful approaches that could be used in the UK as part of the review? Also, will the Minister tell us whether she will investigate the possibility of a new dog control Act as part of such a review?

Although we believe that legislative change is the most necessary reform, we also think there is quite a lot more that can be done to educate people about the risks. It is clear that young children are most at risk of serious dog attacks and suffer horrific injuries, too. We think we need better childhood education on staying safe around dogs, to stop avoidable incidents, and that it needs to be consistent across the country. Will the Minister commit to commissioning a childhood education plan from experts and charities to determine the most effective education measures and how they can be implemented consistently across the country? Will she ensure that DEFRA supports a roll-out of such a plan, if it is developed, to help to ensure that fewer children are seriously hurt in dog attacks?

We absolutely recognise that most dog owners are responsible and do everything they can to stop their dog acting aggressively and to protect people around them. Even the most responsible owners, however, can do with a helping hand. Will the Minister therefore consider introducing a targeted awareness campaign to inform dog owners and the general public about responsible ownership and safe interactions? Also, will she consult colleagues to ensure that sentencing guidelines are observed properly in the courts and that consistently robust sanctions under existing legislation are being applied across the country?

In conclusion, we are convinced that arguments that DEFRA has used in the past to maintain breed-specific legislation are not backed up by robust evidence. They do not stop dog bites and, sadly, they lead to hundreds of family-friendly pets being euthanised unnecessarily after being seized and kept in kennels for months. The Dangerous Dogs Act was a knee-jerk piece of legislation responding quickly to public concern about specific incidents. This has become a well-worn phrase but, once again, we need to be led by the science and by evidence.

That is why Labour is clear: we need a review of breed-specific legislation and of the Dangerous Dogs Act as soon as possible. The Labour party has a proud record on animal welfare. We will always do what we can to protect our pets, but we are also always determined to keep people safe. It is an important balance to strike, and it is not being struck right now. The situation needs to be re-examined, and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to signal that she agrees and that the necessary leadership will be forthcoming.

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Victoria Prentis)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for introducing the debate. I thank all those who petitioned and have made suggestions on how the law can be improved in this important area.

I also thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner): I agree that safety is our top priority. He made a characteristically thoughtful speech in which he mentioned how as a boy his morning used to be blighted by a dog on his paper round. I am sure that many of us, while enjoying the company of dogs, have sometimes been frightened by them. It is important that we take the issue of dog attacks extremely seriously. We must crack down on irresponsible dog ownership.

I understand the strength of feeling on all sides of the debate. Of course the behaviour of any dog—any animal—depends on several factors, including the training, the actions of the owner and the environment in which it lives. Hon. Members recognise that we have to balance the views of people who wish to repeal breed-specific legislation with our responsibility to ensure that the public are properly protected from dog attacks.

In this country, however, pit bull types have traditionally been bred for dog fighting, to accentuate their aggressive tendencies. That is not the fault of the dog, of course; people have chosen to do that. Data gathered about fatal dog attacks from 2005 onwards showed that pit bulls have been involved in about one in six of the incidents. That is despite the prohibitions that we have in place, which in themselves have significantly suppressed the number of pit bull types in the UK.

The Metropolitan police tell us that nearly 20% of the dogs found to be dangerously out of control in the area that they police were pit bull types. We have a very small pit bull population that contributes disproportionately to sometimes tragic incidents. That is why we remain concerned that lifting the restrictions, which might result in an increase in the breeding and ownership of pit bulls, could in itself lead to more tragedy.

Despite the general prohibition on those types of dogs, individual prohibited dogs may be kept by their keepers if a court determines that the dog is not a danger to the public. In conducting the assessment, the court will consider the temperament of the dog, its past behaviour, whether the proposed keeper is a fit and proper person and any other relevant circumstances, such as whether the dog will be kept in a suitable environment.

If the court considers that the criteria may be met, the dog can be listed on the index of exempted dogs and kept under strict conditions, including being neutered and being kept on a lead and muzzled in public. We have 3,700 dogs on the index, nearly all of which are pit bulls. None of the pit bulls involved in the fatalities I referred to were registered on that index. The difficulty, of course, is with the animals not on the index.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington raised concerns that dogs being seized and typed as pit bulls are not actually pit bulls, and that the typing is being done inconsistently. I recognise that pit bull terriers are cross breeds, which is why we refer to them as a type rather than a breed. Identification of prohibited-type dogs is made by dog legislation officers, who are police officers specially trained for the purpose. The same standard is used by all those officers to identify a pit bull type. I have that standard here and I am very happy to share it with my hon. Friend—it is based on the American Dog Breeders Association standard of confirmation. A dog has to exhibit a substantial number of the physical characteristics listed before it will be considered more a pit bull type than any other type of dog.

In relation to rehoming, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Cambridge, current legislation permits the transfer of keepership when the existing keeper has died or is seriously ill. Case law has also confirmed that in some cases, a person with a pre-existing relationship with the dog can apply to put it on the index. If we were to make any changes such as on rehoming, we should consider the signals that might send about the acceptability of those types of dogs, which are owned illegally unless they are on the index.

I recognise that breed-specific legislation does not address the issue of dog attacks more widely. We have legislation in place to address that: section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act makes it an offence to allow a dog of any breed or type to be “dangerously out of control” in any place. There are significant penalties available to the courts on that.

We recognise that more needs to be done to support responsible dog ownership, to prevent attacks in the first place. That is why we commissioned research, in collaboration with Middlesex University, to look at responsible ownership across all breeds of dog. The research identifies and examines the factors that might cause dog attacks and how to promote responsible dog ownership. The report is still being peer reviewed, but we will publish it in the next couple of months. I am unable, therefore, to share it now, but I would like to share some parts of it with the House, because it is important and the hon. Member for Cambridge asked for further evidence, so it is right that I explain that the Government are seeking to look into this important matter fully.

The report will make recommendations on improving the recording of dog attack incidents so that we have a proper evidence base, as more data in this area is badly needed. We will develop a more consistent approach to enforcement. We will support preventive initiatives, such as the rather wonderfully named LEAD—local environmental awareness on dogs, which is a police-led initiative, partly in Sutton I am glad to say. We will also work on improving the quality and availability of dog training and dog awareness courses. I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about education and children being important in this space. That is an important step forward.

The recommendations in the Middlesex University report will provide the basis to consider further reform in this area. I look forward to future discussions on this important subject. It is very important that we proceed with caution on the basis of robust data.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (in the Chair)
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There are a few minutes left—almost an hour—so if Mr Colburn like to make some final remarks, I think we could find some time.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the petitioners once again for taking the time to sign the petition and for triggering this debate. In particular, I thank the lead petitioner Gavin for his time on Friday, when he talked me through why he started the petition and why he thinks it is so important. I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), for his contribution and the Minister for her response.

The petitioners will welcome the fact that the review should form a basis for further work to look into reviewing the evidence, which might improve the application of this Act if primary legislation is not forthcoming. I totally agree with both the shadow Minister and the Minister that safety must be the priority. The law must be effectively and evenly applied. It was mentioned many times that the Act was an example of where Parliament acted hastily. It was enacted a year before I was born, so even if it was a Conservative Government, I hope I escape some blame. It is right that the law should be effective and evenly applied.

Question put and agreed to.

That this House has considered e-petition 300561, relating to breed specific legislation.

Sitting adjourned.