Dangerous Dogs Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: HM Treasury

Dangerous Dogs

David Rutley Excerpts
Thursday 7th March 2019

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
HM Treasury
Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Sue Hayman - Hansard
7 Mar 2019, 2:31 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In an area such as Cumbria, where I live, many visitors are perhaps not used to being with their dogs in the countryside and around sheep. The education aspect of the issue is absolutely critical, because I do not think that those people appreciate the damage that can be done simply by allowing a dog to run amok among a flock of sheep. We really need to raise awareness of the issue and look at how we can tackle it. I know that the all-party parliamentary group on animal welfare produced an excellent report last year on livestock worrying, and I ask the Minister to look at it and consider its recommendations on how to tackle the problem.

The Select Committee’s report is very clear in its recommendation that changing the law is widely desirable but also achievable, and that it will protect the public much better than the status quo. Let us get the legislation right in order to protect both the public and dogs. We need the right education in place, and we need to focus on how we can tackle irresponsible dog owners, not just the dogs. I look forward to the Minister’s response. I hope that he has paid close attention the recommendations of this excellent report. It would be good if we could finally start to move the issue forward.

David Rutley Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Rutley) - Hansard
7 Mar 2019, 2:32 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for determining as the subject of the debate the EFRA Committee’s report on controlling dangerous dogs and the Government response to it. I am also grateful for the thoughtful and considered contributions that have been made in this debate, which although not one of quantity, has certainly been one of quality. I know that those contributions have been made with conviction, first-hand experience and considerable passion, not least that of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Paris), which is characteristic of him.

I will provide some information on the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and the Government’s position on breed-specific legislation. The 1991 Act does two things: it provides offences in connection with fighting dogs and offences in connection with dog attacks on people and other animals. Section 1 prohibits four types of fighting dogs: pit bull terriers, Japanese tosa, Fila Brasileiro and Dogo Argentino.

Pit bulls have been associated with a number of serious attacks on people and it was decided that action should be taken against their ownership. Fundamentally, the 1991 Act is about public safety. Under that Act, it is an offence to breed from, sell or exchange those dogs. Courts can allow owners to keep prohibited dogs if they are not a danger to public safety, taking account of the dog’s temperament and of the intended keeper, who must have had substantial prior responsibility for the dog.

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish - Hansard
7 Mar 2019, 2:34 p.m.

The Minister is addressing the crux of the matter. When courts deal with dangerous dogs that have owners, they look at the temperament of the dog and say, “That dog can be kept by the owner as long as it is properly muzzled, leashed and handled.” The problem occurs when the same type of dog, with the same temperament, turns up in a rehoming centre that can no longer look after it. It has to be checked, but nobody will actually take the case to court, meaning that the dog will potentially be destroyed. That is exactly the type of dog that could be saved if it still had an owner. Instead, it is put down because it has gone into a rehoming centre. That is the real problem.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard
7 Mar 2019, 2:35 p.m.

I thank my hon. Friend for clarifying. He spelled that out very well in his speech and, with his permission, I will come to that specific point later, but I think it is important to set the context before getting into the meat of the issues that have been raised.

Prohibited dogs that owners are allowed to keep are placed on the index of exempted dogs, which is managed by DEFRA. In addition to restrictions on certain fighting dogs, under section 3 of the 1991 Act it is an offence to allow any dog to be dangerously out of control in any place. Severe penalties are in place for allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control. Those penalties were increased 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 someone is killed. We realised from the tragic cases that we had seen that the sentences needed to be more in line with the crimes committed.

Both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) were absolutely right to raise the issue of postal workers. We need to get the balance right between public safety and animal welfare. The number of attacks on postal workers is absolutely to be regretted. It is unacceptable that people are unable to go about their business because of fear or actual attacks. We therefore work closely with police and local authorities to see how we can best respond to those attacks. I am sure that many MPs have worked with their local postal workers at Christmas or at other times of the year to better understand those situations and to make representations.

The Government are committed to public safety and to tackling the issue of dangerous dogs. We believe that communication and co-operation between the police and local authorities is vital. That is why we have endorsed initiatives such as the early intervention and partnership working scheme, Local Environmental Awareness on Dogs, or LEAD—that is not one of my hon. Friend’s puns, but the name of the scheme.

The scheme encourages police and local authorities to co-operate and share information when there has been a minor incident, provide advice to a dog owner on dog control issues, improve public safety around dogs and help to improve dog welfare. There have been strong endorsements of the initiative. The then deputy chief constable of North Wales police and recently retired National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on dangerous dogs, Gareth Pritchard, said:

“Problems regarding dogs can cause a great deal of anxiety in some communities. The new LEAD initiative aims to allay some of these fears to help educate dog owners and residents further by promoting responsible dog ownership.”

The Government also support an increase in awareness at all levels across society. We are aware, for example, that many police forces and welfare charities, such as the Dogs Trust, visit schools to raise awareness of responsible dog ownership. We fully endorse that work and I will come to how we will do more on the back of the EFRA Committee’s excellent report. I want to make clear that the Government are keen to tackle irresponsible dog ownership. As I have explained, a number of changes were made to the laws and powers available to enforcement agencies in an attempt to improve responsible ownership of dogs. The Government acknowledge that the number of people admitted to hospital as a result of being bitten by a dog has risen from 6,836 in 2013-14 to 8,014 in 2017-18.

A number of concerns have been raised about whether it is fair to put particular focus on pit bulls, but as a nation we are not alone in doing so: France, Spain and Germany have also put restrictions on keeping a number of types of dog, including pit bulls. It is also worth looking at some of the evidence that I have seen and that has been submitted to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton in his capacity as Chair of the Select Committee, about section 3 incidents—the particularly difficult ones—involving pit bulls. There were 92 such cases in 2015-16, and those pit bulls were not on the dangerous dogs index. In comparison, there were 84 attacks by Staffordshire bull terriers.

We could say, “Well, there is not much difference,” but I think we would all accept that the number of Staffordshire bull terriers in the UK is sizeable—around 300,000, according to the latest estimates—whereas, although we do not know the exact number of pit bulls, there are about 3,000 on the DDI. We probably need to get more evidence, but the evidence that is to hand points to the fact that there is a greater likelihood of incidents involving pit bulls.

Gordon Marsden Hansard
7 Mar 2019, 2:39 p.m.

That is what the Department says, but is it not ludicrous that it does not openly address the issue—it is an issue, and one that was put forcefully to the Committee—that it is very difficult for police on the ground to determine genetically what is a pit bull and what is not? The Minister spoke about Staffordshire bull terriers. What is the logic for having an investigation into attacks by pit bulls, which are covered by the Act—albeit many of us dispute that—and not into attacks by Staffordshire bull terriers?

Break in Debate

Gordon Marsden Hansard
7 Mar 2019, 2:40 p.m.

If the Minister looks only at the issue of the breeds in the 1991 Act, he will of course come to the same conclusion, because he is not examining the broader evidence.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard
7 Mar 2019, 2:41 p.m.

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. When I appeared before the Select Committee, I said that we should remember that the Dangerous Dogs Act is trying to deal with two things: fighting types, which are bred specifically to fight, and dangerous dogs. That is my worry. The hon. Gentleman might have had cases of this in his constituency and, as I said at the meeting, I certainly did in Macclesfield, where a few years ago pit bulls were being trained to hang from tree branches. That is not what most people do with a normal dog. Certain types of dog are bred for a specific purpose, and that needs to be tackled, because there are people who carry out that practice, which I abhor. Dog fighting is a separate issue, and we could have a separate debate on it. The legislation tries to recognise both those aspects. I understand his point, but I hope that he understands at least that there are differences in why dogs are being bred. As long as dog fighting goes on, there will such challenges.

We understand the concern about dog control and the need to reduce the number of dog attacks. People are of course not the only victims of dog attacks; other dogs and animals can be the victims of such attacks. Dog attacks on livestock have caused suffering to animals and misery for farmers, and we want to reduce all such attacks and to improve responsible ownership of dogs. That point was made well by the hon. Member for Workington and my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton.

I emphasise that section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 also applies to attacks on other dogs, livestock and any other animal, and the High Court and the Crown Prosecution Service have made that clear. There has been a lot of talk about amending the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, but our advice is to use the Dangerous Dogs Act because it is more up to date and applies anywhere. We are working with the CPS and the police to ensure a universally accepted position on that, which we will promote.

The Government do not want to reduce dog ownership. Dogs have been a part of our lives for hundreds of years, and we certainly do not want to change that. However, owning a dog comes with responsibilities. Ownership means that we have to provide a dog with its welfare needs—at all times—and that a dog must be trained. The owner is responsible for looking after the dog as well as its behaviour. The more irresponsible ownership of dogs we have, the more calls we and local authorities receive to introduce restrictions such as banning dogs from parks and beaches. The Government therefore agree with the vast majority of good, proper owners and stakeholders that we need more responsible ownership of dogs if we are to see a reduction in the number of dog attacks.

Last year, the EFRA Committee conducted its review into controlling dangerous dogs. The review focused on section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. The report was welcomed by the Government and, again, I take the opportunity to thank my hon. Friend, the Select Committee Chair, and the rest of the Committee for publishing the report. We are all in agreement that we are not looking to increase the number of types of dogs that are named in the legislation, nor are we looking to remove any types.

The report made 16 recommendations to improve dog ownership and reduce dog attacks. The Government responded positively to the recommendations, which reflects how in tune the Government, the Committee and most stakeholders are on the issue of dangerous dogs. There are, obviously, a few exceptions, which came out in the debate today, but on the vast majority of issues we all want to see positive progress. The EFRA Committee’s report was published in September 2018 and the Government’s response was published by the Select Committee in January this year. Last month, the Committee had another sitting, also on dangerous dogs.

I will take this opportunity to update hon. Members on the Government’s progress with some of the recommendations. Rehoming of pit bulls is an emotive and difficult issue. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton—instead of Tiverton, I keep almost saying Tytherington, which is in my constituency—I do not want to see healthy and well-adjusted dogs being put to sleep. For the reasons I have set out, however, we are subject to what is legally possible. Recent case law has interpreted the legislation, so the court may decide to give possession of a pit bull to a person who has had some contact with it, such as taking the dog for a walk. Ultimately, the courts will make the decision on whether the dog is safe, and the prospective person is fit and proper.

The difficulty is putting a stray dog that has no owner with a person the dog has not met before the court case. That is not feasible under the law. We continue to discuss with stakeholders what can be done, and we will involve my hon. Friend in those discussions, as I promised following my recent evidence to the Committee. We are happy to meet him and relevant welfare groups for further discussion and greater clarity. It is a tricky area, but the case law needs to be explored fully. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept the invitation to meet as sincere. He knows that I want us to do all we can to address the concerns that he has expressed.

In the course of the debate, a number of specific issues were raised. If the owner of a dog dies, it can be transferred under article 12 of the Dangerous Dogs Exemption Schemes (England and Wales) Order 2015. If an owner moves and abandons a dog, it can be rehomed to a person who can be considered the person in charge of that dog for the time being—but remember that abandoning a dog is in the first place a criminal act. If someone got to know the dog before the owner moved—this is important, with an educational aspect—that person could apply to be the person in charge of the dog, and the new person would need to be considered fit and proper by the court. There are opportunities therefore for such dogs to be rehomed. We need to look through all such opportunities.

The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) asked why we are not recommending a change in the law. That would require primary legislation and, as I said, there are concerns about public safety. We need to explore the issues that we have just discussed. However, I point out that while there may be disagreement on that issue, the Government are absolutely committed to the welfare of dogs and cats: we have looked to increase sentences for animal cruelty, and are trying to find the right legislative vehicle to do so quickly; third-party sale has been banned; and we are reviewing our approach to the licensing of rehoming centres. All those issues are being taken forward with conviction.

Continuing the theme of preventive action, the EFRA Committee recommended more research on the causes of dog attacks. In December 2018, therefore, DEFRA in collaboration with Middlesex University commissioned further research into responsible ownership across all dog breeds, with a budget of more than £70,000. Middlesex has five main researchers to consider different approaches and the effectiveness of existing dog control measures.

The research seeks to identify and examine factors and situations that might cause dog attacks, and how to promote responsible dog ownership. The initial stage of the project, which is a literature review, is nearly complete. Middlesex has started initial stakeholder engagement to inform a number of focus groups, which is the next phase. We expect an interim report at the beginning of September, with a final report at the end of the year. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. The project, as I said, will include a review of dog control measures.

Related to that research is the need to educate children in particular, and the public more widely, about safety around dogs. The Government are committed to developing a plan of action with stakeholders on the most effective way to reach children across the country, in order to make them aware of dog safety. We have had early discussions with stakeholders and are developing the delivery plan, which is due later this year. We are working with the Department for Education, and are keen to ensure that that links with our wider work on communications and engagement about how to take forward responsible ownership and purchasing of dogs, and education regarding them.

Hon. Members can be assured that the Government will continue to take forward the actions I set out in response to the EFRA Committee with speed and conviction. I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for bringing this debate forward and giving me the opportunity to set out the Government’s position and proposals.

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish - Hansard
7 Mar 2019, 2:50 p.m.

I thank all Members who have spoken. I thank the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) for his thoughtful contribution and support for the report, as well as the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Workington (Sue Hayman). From the tone of the speeches, it is apparent that there is cross-party support for some change to the Dangerous Dogs Act. I thank the Minister for his very humane response, because this is a humane issue.

In the Select Committee we have tried not to be too demanding. We perhaps started out wanting to repeal the Act entirely, but did not end up with that conclusion. I restate that similar dogs to those that go to rehoming centres and are put down because they cannot be rehomed are allowed to be kept, under licence, but the original owners. Blue Cross, Dogs Trust, Battersea dogs home and the RSPCA need to be confident that there is a system that allows them legally to rehome that dog. That is why I look forward to meeting the Minister and officials to try to get a legal basis for that.

I do not think the Government are necessarily hiding behind breed-specific legislation, but those four particular breeds, mainly pit bulls, account for 20% of attacks. The other 80% are by other dogs. Therefore it is about education, management of dogs, responsible dog ownership and getting to those sectors of society that create dangerous dogs. They may not be pit bull types, because it is the way they are treated that makes them dangerous.

There is a lot of work to be done, because we do not want more postal workers to be attacked or for the number of dog bites to keep going up as they have. Again, I thank the Minister for his engagement. The Select Committee, the Opposition and the Government can make the law work much better, and I hope that fewer dogs of good temperament will be put down in future.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the Ninth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Controlling dangerous dogs, HC 1040, and the Government response, HC 1892.