Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir George. This has been a very focused and consensual debate, and I am pleased to say a few words from the Opposition Front Bench. This is the second time in just a few months that I have had the opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for opening a debate in the House, and I do so again today.
I would like to acknowledge the colleagues who have spoken in today’s debate and all those who signed this petition. Involvement and engagement with our democratic processes can at times seem difficult, so I am pleased that at least 114,000 people from across the UK, including more than 150 people in my own constituency of Newport West, signed the petition. I thank them for ensuring that their voices have been heard and I hope that the Minister responds in detail to the points raised in this debate.
The benefit of a very focused debate is that there is no excuse for rambling, dithering or delay, so I shall be as brief as possible. I start by reiterating, as I do at every opportunity afforded to me, that those on the Opposition Benches believe in honouring animal welfare and we will always push for the strongest possible animal welfare policies. Those are not just words. Colleagues across the House had the opportunity to help us to put our pledges into action during the passage of the Bill that became the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022. Alas, Tory Members of this House voted down every single animal welfare-related amendment, opposed every single suggestion and ignored even the most anodyne points from Opposition Members. That is a matter of deep regret.
Many people out in the country, including those who have signed this petition, believe that the current approach to dog control is misguided and does not adequately protect people, or animals for that matter. I agree with that and I hope that the Minister will be crystal clear about her view and that of Her Majesty’s Government.
It is important that we consider some of the background to this important issue. Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act, also known as breed-specific legislation, makes it an offence to own, breed from, sell or exchange four dog breeds: the pit bull terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro. The police or local authority can take away a banned dog even if it is not acting dangerously and there has not been a complaint. It is important to note, as hon. Members have done today, that owners can apply for an exemption order. I would be grateful if the Minister told us how many owners have applied for an exemption in each of the last five years. I hope that, if she does not have access to that information today, she will write to me with it. This is important, because if the court finds that the banned dog is not a danger to public safety, it will be put on the index of exempted dogs and the owner will be allowed to keep it—in compliance with certain conditions, which we have heard outlined today. I think that it would be helpful to colleagues if the Minister outlined whether she thinks that the said conditions as they stand are suitable and effective. If not, how does she think they can be improved, and what work is she doing to improve them?
The Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced to protect the public from attacks by dangerous dogs. More than 200,000 people are attacked by dogs in England alone every year. The Act prohibits breeds traditionally bred for fighting, and makes it an offence for any dog to be “dangerously out of control” in our communities. However, since the Act was introduced, the number of fatalities from dog attacks each year has risen. Up to August 2017, there had been 73 fatal dog attacks in England and Wales since the Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced. Hospital admissions, as we have heard today, have increased by 81% since 2005. Therefore this is not something that we can ignore.
A petition to the UK Parliament that was entitled “Replace Breed Specific Legislation with a new statutory framework” received more than 118,000 signatures and was debated in Parliament on 5 July 2021. The petition stated that BSL
“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.”
It further stated:
“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.”
It called on the Government to “Reconsider a licensing system.” Opposition Members believe that safety must be our top priority, without unnecessarily punishing responsible dog owners or harming dogs that are not necessarily a risk. In other words, we need a realistic and objective approach.
Since the Dangerous Dogs Act came into force, more people have been killed by dog attacks and more people are being admitted to hospital due to dog bites. We all know the feeling of horror when we receive the news of a child or young person killed by a dangerous dog, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David). Our sympathies and condolences go out to all those affected by this issue.
At the same time, it is important and fair to note that too many harmless dogs are destroyed simply because they are a banned breed, regardless of their temperament, behaviour or surroundings. We must be more pragmatic when it comes to banning certain dogs based on their breed. All dogs can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Action to tackle dog bites and canine aggression must focus on the deed, not the breed, and that requires proper resources, focus and attention, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) so eloquently stated.
In 2018, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee carried out an inquiry into breed-specific legislation, and called for a full-scale review of current dog control legislation and policy to ensure the public is properly protected and animal welfare concerns addressed. It said that changing the law on BSL is
“desirable, achievable, and would better protect the public.”
I would welcome hearing the Minister’s view on that inquiry. I would like to know whether she supports the recommendations and what progress has been made on introducing and implementing them. What cross-nation engagement has taken place with the devolved Governments of the United Kingdom?
Like my colleagues on the Opposition Benches, I believe we must follow the science and evidence. I call on the Minister today to commit to a review of breed-specific legislation and the Dangerous Dogs Act as soon as possible, and to engage with local authorities, police and experts from other countries to develop a deeper understanding of different successful approaches for the UK.
Government-commissioned research by Middlesex University into dog control measures published in December 2021 concluded that dog ownership is insufficiently regulated. The Government have said that they remain concerned that lifting restrictions could lead to further tragedy, but they have indicated that they are considering the recommendations, which included improved recording of dog attack data and characteristics, and new legal requirements on dog ownership. It would be good to have a further update from the Minister today if possible.
Breed-specific legislation does not stop dogs biting children, young people and adults. It is bad for animal welfare because the dogs cannot be rehomed in a controlled environment. Thousands of dogs are being euthanised. That simply is not a sustainable or fair solution; not if we want to say that this country takes animal welfare seriously. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) highlighted eloquently how people the length and breadth of the UK love their pets. I wish his cat and dog a long and happy life. We want a more holistic approach to dog control that focuses on prevention through education, responsible ownership and early intervention, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly stated. As with so much of our national life since 2010, we can solve things if we want to. I hope the Minister will instruct her officials to start making progress on the many points that have been made today. We have no time to waste.