(1 year, 6 months ago)Read Full debate
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. As he said, he has had Staffordshire bull terriers for 25 years. Loving, caring dog owners create loving dogs. That is how it is. Dangerous dogs are created by irresponsible owners, sometimes through neglect and sometimes through wilful behavioural training to create a dangerous dog, which is alarming in itself. We need to tackle those people, rather than worrying about specific dog breeds.
I will touch briefly on some of the evidence I picked up on in the Select Committee inquiry. This might or might not find its way into the report, and I might be at odds with other Committee members, but it seemed to me that the police have said that they are open to changes to breed-specific legislation. They say that other measures are needed to allow controls to be put in place and allow people to tackle dangerous dogs, but they are certainly receptive to changes to BSL.
There needs to be greater information-sharing between various local authorities and individual police forces across England and Wales, so that anyone who is banned from owning dogs because they have had dangerous dogs is tracked if they move from one area to another. That is something that needs to be looked at. Resources for local authorities seem to be an issue, and in some cases, a clearer understanding is needed between the polic and the relevant local authority as to who has most responsibility for enforcing the legislation on dangerous dogs.
As the Chair of the Select Committee said, the Scottish Government have introduced additional legislation in Scotland, the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010, which touches on the general theme of this debate—looking at deeds rather than individual dogs. That Act was,
“designed to highlight the responsibilities of dog owners by putting in place a regime that will identify ‘out of control’ dogs at an early juncture”.
It includes measures to try to change the behaviour of these dogs and, of course, their owners, because owners need to be able to train their dogs and implement the change before the dogs become dangerous. It is about early intervention. That buzz phrase is used quite a lot in politics, but it is clearly important in ensuring the welfare of dogs. The 2010 Act also created a dog control notice regime that permits officers—appointed and authorised by the local authority—to issue dog control notices to irresponsible owners of any dog found to have been out of control, while also setting out what “out of control” means.
The general theme of the debate has definitely been about tackling owners, rather than vilifying individual breeds. There is certainly a case for looking at the existing legislation and bringing forward improvements. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
The shadow Minister makes a very good point: the dog had done no harm. It was of good temperament and did not have a record of biting people. In this country, we are usually considered innocent until proven guilty, whereas these dogs are considered guilty because they are of a particular breed, and they are then put down, irrespective of temperament. That is exactly the point.
The hon. Lady makes entirely the right point. When I was the Lord Mayor of Belfast, there was the case of a dog called Lennox, which hon. Members can look up online. It led to 200,000 complaints to the council, death threats to council officers and ammunition technical officers defusing a suspect device in city hall. Lennox was lifted because of his breed and appearance; his temperament was absolutely fine. Having been moved from secret location to secret location during two years of detention, Lennox developed behavioural issues that ultimately led to his destruction. There is a role for councils and those involved in looking after the welfare of dogs, but they should not do anything of detriment to family dogs with otherwise perfectly good temperaments.
I am pleased to hear the hon. Lady say that. She is coming at this from exactly the right angle. The Dangerous Dogs Act was brought in in 1991 and was a knee-jerk reaction. It has never been effective and has always been completely flawed. There should surely be cross-party consensus to review this legislation so that we have an effective law that protects the public and is not cruel to animals—that have committed no crime and have never bitten anybody—because of their appearance or breed. As the shadow Minister for animal welfare prior to the 2010 general election, I championed reviewing the legislation; sadly, this Government have not yet looked at it properly and dealt with it. Will the hon. Lady work with the Minister to try to find a consensus? The current legislation has to be reviewed and changed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on the way she introduced the debate. The petition has attracted more than 160,000 signatures, which shows how strongly people feel about this issue. I understand that the petition was a reaction to a submission made by PETA to the ongoing inquiry on dangerous dogs by the EFRA Committee. Today, we have heard a number of quite powerful and detailed speeches, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who, appropriately, stood up for this breed, which hails from his part of the world. I, too, was very interested to hear the history of the Staffordshire bull terrier as a mascot for the Staffordshire Regiment and the fascinating story of the genesis of that.
I am sure that all hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who also gave a personal account of his love of this breed, will be pleased to know that the Government have no plans at all to add Staffordshire bull terriers, or any other type of dog, to the list of prohibited dogs. Staffordshire bull terriers are a popular breed in this country and have shown themselves to be a good family pet. Like any dog, they should be socialised at an early age and be properly trained to avoid behavioural problems, but for anyone thinking of taking on a dog, there is no reason why a Staffordshire bull terrier should not be considered. My noble Friend Lord Gardiner, who leads on this policy area, has given evidence to the EFRA Committee and confirmed that there is no intention to add further types of dog to the prohibited list.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) suggested that it was disappointing that I am responding to the debate by virtue of the fact that the Minister responsible is a Lords Minister, but let me reassure him that I have been around DEFRA long enough to have had to go in to bat on most issues—indeed, I was the Minister responsible for companion animals and looked closely at this issue for about two years, and I will return to that point.
It should be noted that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is not just about banned breeds. Section 3 makes it an offence to allow any dog to be dangerously out of control. That is the case for all dogs, regardless of breed or type. There are also other preventive measures, which I will mention later, that are applicable to all types of dog.
As the hon. Member for Warrington North and others pointed out, the genesis of the 1991 Act was as a reaction to a series of serious dog attacks at that time. The Act prohibits four types of fighting dog—types traditionally used for dog fighting—and those are the pit bull terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro. Of the four types, the pit bull terrier was by far the most popular. Indeed, pit bulls had been associated with a number of serious attacks on people, and it was decided to take action against their ownership. The other three types of dog were added primarily because it was considered that, having been identified as either fighting types or as sharing the characteristics of fighting dogs, they should be prohibited to prevent people from turning to them instead of the pit bull terrier. However, I am told that we have very few of the other three types in this country and none of the Fila Brasileiro type.
Adding dogs to the list of prohibited types would need to be done on the basis of proportionate risk of harm to people. Under the Act, it is an offence to breed from, sell or exchange the four breeds of dog. That approach is supported by the police. It should be noted—perhaps not enough people are aware of this—that the courts can already allow owners to keep prohibited dogs if they are not a danger to public safety. Account must be taken of the dog’s temperament and whether the intended keeper, who must have had substantial prior responsibility for the dog, is a fit and proper person, with premises suitable for the dog.
Those dogs are placed on the index of exempted dogs, which is managed by DEFRA. Currently, about 3,100 dogs are on the exempt list. They are predominantly pit bull terriers, but there are also about 10 Japanese Tosas and three of the Dogo Argentino type. For a dog to go on the index, certain conditions have to be met. The dog must be neutered. The owner has to maintain annual insurance against their dog injuring third parties. The owner has to pay an initial fee of £92.40. Dogs on the list also have to be microchipped, muzzled and on a lead in public, and they must be in the charge of someone who is at least 16 years old.
It should be noted that, when the provisions were initially brought forward in 1991, they were largely considered to be transitional arrangements. The idea was that dogs that existed in 1991 could remain on the exempt list for the rest of their lives, but those of us who are familiar with dogs and the lifespan of a typical dog will be aware that none of the dogs on the list today was alive in 1991; they are exclusively dogs that have been born since. The Government have chosen to keep that option as a way of managing this situation and enabling people to remain with their dog where it is appropriate to do so and where the courts judge that it is safe to do so.
As I said, in addition to the restrictions on certain fighting dogs, it is an offence under section 3 of the Act to allow any dog to be dangerously out of control. There are severe penalties for allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control; indeed, we increased the penalties in 2014 to three years for allowing a dog to attack an assistance dog, five years if a dog injures someone and 14 years if a dog kills someone.
A number of hon. Members have talked about “deed not breed”. I am well aware of that campaign, which is being run by a number of animal welfare charities. I understand the superficial attraction of that approach, but let me talk about the evidence that supports the Government’s position. We consider the prohibition on the four banned breeds to be a valuable tool in the battle against irresponsible ownership of dogs.
The prohibition on the pit bull terrier is supported by the Metropolitan police’s own figures, which show that in 2015-16, over 19% of dogs involved in reported attacks were pit bulls. That is quite extraordinary, given that this is a banned and illegal breed. Despite that fact and despite the fact that dogs on the exempt list must be muzzled in public, that breed still accounts for almost 20% of all reported attacks. We know also that pit bulls have been involved in seven of the 31 fatal attacks that have occurred since 2005. That is highly disproportionate for one type of dog that is banned, and it underlines the need to be cautious about change in this area. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) acknowledged that, saying that to remove the restrictions would be a difficult decision for any Minister to take, knowing that, even with the ban, this breed of dog is responsible for so many attacks and that a subsequent increase in attacks may be inevitable. The issue is not just the reputational damage that a Minister might suffer, but that they would have to carry on their conscience attacks, injuries and deaths that might have been avoidable had a more cautious approach been taken.