Breed Specific Legislation

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Monday 5th July 2021

(3 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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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.