See more like "Dangerous Dogs Act: Staffordshire Bull Terriers"

Dangerous Dogs Act: Staffordshire Bull Terriers
Exerpts for Sue Hayman
Monday 16 July 2018

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Read Full debate
Westminster Hall
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown - Hansard
16 Jul 2018, 5:18 p.m.

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.

Sue Hayman (Workington) (Lab) Hansard
16 Jul 2018, 5:21 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for introducing the debate. There has not been a huge number of speakers, but those who have spoken feel strongly about this issue. It has been an excellent debate, with some really good information shared.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who chairs the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, was particularly interesting and well informed. I was pleased by a lot of what he said, because I started to become interested in this topic on a visit similar to the one he described. I was also particularly interested by what the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) said about the regimental mascot, which I was not aware of. I wish him all the luck in the world in getting a statue in place. That would be a fantastic tribute.

I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown)—I remembered his constituency—said about the 2010 Act. I was not aware of it, so I will be interested to take a look at it. I was also interested to hear his idea of using a chair, rather than a dustbin lid, to fend off dogs. When I go canvassing, I fill my pockets with dog biscuits, which I find can be very useful.

I would like to talk about an experience I had that was similar to the one the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton had. I launched Labour’s animal welfare plan in February from the RSPCA’s Harmsworth Hospital, in north London. As part of that visit I was introduced to a lovely dog, Bailey, who had a great temperament. The hospital staff and I believed that he could have been rehomed, but because he had been typed as a pitbull, that, sadly, could not happen, and, tragically, he was put to sleep the week after my visit. I told the staff that I would take him because he was such a lovely dog, although I did not tell my husband. I was deeply shocked that this dog, which had never done any harm to anybody, was to be put down because of what he looked like.

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish - Hansard
16 Jul 2018, 5:24 p.m.

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.

Sue Hayman Hansard
16 Jul 2018, 5:25 p.m.

That is exactly the point: the dogs are found guilty before having done anything wrong. We have heard that people can secure exemptions from the law in court. However, I said that I would take that dog, that I was a dog owner and that I had always had dogs, so those exemptions are clearly not in place for dogs in rescue centres. Many dogs are being put down entirely unnecessarily.

We heard that we have to ensure that legislation to keep people safe from dangerous dogs has to jointly prioritise public safety and animal welfare. We need to be a lot more pragmatic when it comes to banning certain dogs based only on their breed. As has been said, all dogs can bite and all dogs can be dangerous in the wrong hands, regardless of breed or type or whether they happen to look a certain way. It is therefore clear to me, and to the many animal welfare charities quoted, that any action to tackle dog bites and all other instances of canine aggression must focus on the deed, not the breed.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP) - Hansard
16 Jul 2018, 5:26 p.m.

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.

Sue Hayman Hansard
16 Jul 2018, 5:26 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. We absolutely have to remember that it is often how we treat an animal that creates certain behaviours.

The RSPCA tells me that, year on year, Staffordshire bull terriers are the one breed that ends up in its centres most often, through no fault of their own. They can often be overlooked because of the preconceptions many people have about them, which, in the overwhelming majority of cases, are simply wrong. As we have heard, Staffies can make great pets, with the more than 150,000 signatures to the petition demonstrating how strongly Staffordshire owners feel. Like any dog, with the right owner, they make great pets.

In evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s ongoing inquiry into dangerous dog legislation, the RSPCA said that it believes breed-specific legislation—BSL—is ineffective in terms of public safety and results in the unnecessary suffering and euthanasia of many dogs. It says that BSL should be repealed, and issues around human safety tackled using education and effective legislative measures that do not unnecessarily compromise dog welfare.

The RSPCA goes on to say that BSL fails to deliver what it was designed to do. It has not reduced hospital admissions from dog bites, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North. It has not improved public safety, and it has not reduced the numbers of dogs of the breeds or types it legislates against. The RSPCA wants dog control legislation reformed such that BSL is repealed and replaced, education is put in place to ensure that high-risk behaviour towards dogs is avoided, and all severe and fatal dog bite incidents are properly investigated.

Just before Easter, I was lucky enough to visit Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, and I again met an abandoned dog that was about to be put down after being typed. Staff had exactly the same concerns that we have already heard about. I also visited another rescue centre—Oak Tree, near my constituency, in Cumbria—and had the same situation again. This is not unusual; every time I visit a rescue centre, I am presented with exactly the same situation. Battersea Dogs & Cats Home believes that the Dangerous Dogs Act is ineffective at protecting the public, because, as we have heard, there has been no appreciable reduction in dog attacks since it was passed.

Andrew Rosindell - Hansard

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.

Sue Hayman Hansard
16 Jul 2018, 5:29 p.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I would be happy to work with anyone to improve the legislation, because this is about animal welfare and treating dogs fairly, but also about protecting people. At the moment, the legislation does not work for either of those.

Battersea argues for the abolition or, at the very least, reformation of BSL. It calls it a sticking plaster that does not prevent public harm, and it wants the Government to amend the legislation to ensure that dogs are not put down simply because of their appearance.

It is also right that proper education and community engagement processes should be in place to help the public better understand dog behaviour and to encourage responsible ownership. I am a pet owner—I have a dog, a cat and all sorts—and being a pet owner is so rewarding, but people need to understand, particularly when taking on a dog, that it is a huge responsibility. People need to be better educated when they buy their dogs in the first place. It is clear that, in the wrong hands, any dog has the potential to injure either people or other animals. I have a Labrador, and when I was researching this issue, I was horrified to find out that many Labradors carry out attacks. My dog is so soft that I cannot imagine that it would do that. It just shows that, in the wrong hands, any dog can be dangerous.

To sum up, we need to ensure that we focus on ownership rather than on a particular breed or type of dog. I say to the Minister that it is really important that the legislation has a proper, thorough review. It would be good if that were carried out by DEFRA and we could have some timescales as to when he will be able to look into this issue, because it seems to me, from this debate and from discussion further afield, that there is a pretty broad consensus that what we have on the statute book at the moment simply is not working to protect either people or dogs.

I am very pleased that the Government, in their response to the petition, have said that they have no plans to ban Staffies. I look forward with interest to the EFRA Committee’s report and hope that the Minister will pay close attention to its recommendations.

I shall finish with a plea to the Minister from dog owners everywhere. Let us get the legislation right to protect both the public and dogs. We need the right education to be in place, and we need to focus on how we can effectively tackle irresponsible dog owners, not just the dogs themselves.

George Eustice Portrait The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (George Eustice) - Hansard
16 Jul 2018, 5:33 p.m.

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.