Dangerous Dogs Act
I open this debate by thanking the Minister and his colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office. It would appear that not only are they highly competent and hard-working Ministers, but they have a crystal ball, because most of what I intended to call for in this debate was highlighted recently in the Home Secretary’s announcement on Tuesday of the consultation to take place on toughening up existing laws to protect the public from dangerous dogs. Or perhaps Stourbridge just has a psychic MP!
I will begin by explaining how a reign of terror by two dogs, of the presa canario breed, in Stourbridge, and the increase in the west midlands of dogfighting and breeding for fighting, prompted me to call for this debate. Wollescote is one of the most ancient parts of my constituency, and one of the nicest places in which to walk and play is the green space by Rufford primary school. Presa canario dogs are Canary island fighting dogs, and a relatively new breed to this country. Two such dogs have been allowed by their owner to run free on this field for some time, and have attacked other dogs and chased and frightened young children and parents on their way to and from school. On each occasion it has been reported, and the police have attended, but of course the incident is usually long finished.
I am sure the Minister can imagine that such dogs do not sit well with pensioners out for a stroll, responsible dog walkers and primary school children. The presa canario is classed as a dangerous dog in the USA, and quite recently two of these dogs killed a trainer in Los Angeles. Further details of the breed are available on the internet—it makes quite alarming reading. Although I know most people would agree that, as a rule, there are few dangerous dogs but many irresponsible owners, in this case I would like the Minister to investigate this breed and consider it for inclusion on the dangerous breeds list.
There have been several local meetings on this issue, because obviously my constituents are concerned by what is effectively antisocial behaviour of the worst kind. As a result of those meetings, local people have come up with a set of clearly defined requests. First, they are asking for clearer Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs guidance on prohibited dogs, because there appears to be a great deal of confusion over cross breeds, in particular, as well as the protracted detention of such dogs while awaiting assessment. They would like stricter licensing of new breeds, and are asking how anyone could have gained a licence for a presa canario given that it is known to be a fighting breed.
Local people would also like irresponsible owners who allow their dogs to intimidate or harm others to be held responsible for veterinary or medical bills resulting from an attack. They are asking also for stricter legislation to enable the police to seize and detain any dog that attacks. Local people also asked for stricter law enforcement when a dog owner disregards police advice, and for a review of dog control orders and local council responsibility for their implementation in public areas, because the question of who is responsible for which area has made the problem quite difficult to sort out in Wollescote.
Whether such terrorising is due to the breeding of the dog or the irresponsibility of the owner goes right to the heart of the issues that Ministers need to consult on. I have spoken to many of my constituents about the proposals to tighten the law and to local police officers who deal with dangerous dogs, and I can tell the Minister that they are very keen to support the proposals.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals saw a twelvefold increase in complaints about dogfights between 2004 and 2008, and there are significant increases in the west midlands in particular. Dogfighting—both caged fights and rolling fights, usually organised quickly in parks and open spaces—is becoming extremely well organised and is seen as a great money spinner. The main focus is usually on pit bull-type dogs. They are bred to reach an extreme state of attack arousal much more quickly than other dogs and to maintain it for longer. That, coupled with their strong physical stature, makes pit bull-type dogs the dog of choice in such situations. They also attract a certain element of society who sees a status value in owning such a dog or regards them as so-called weapon dogs.
Dangerous dogs are widely used by gangs and criminals to intimidate and cause injury, and possession is associated with worrying elements of antisocial behaviour and gang culture. Sadly, the dogs are often victims too, suffering from cruelty, neglect or conditioning to encourage further aggressive behaviour. The RSPCA reports a recent explosion in the numbers of such dogs, particularly with indiscriminate breeding across cities. Exhausted bitches are regularly brought to animal hospitals, having been used as breeding machines, which has also led to a flooded market. The puppies that once earned their owners £200 to £250 now fetch only around £100, so many are now abandoned, which is an additional problem.
Part of the problem is that dogfighting is still legal in many parts of the world. It is important that people realise that dogfighting is most definitely unacceptable and against the law in this country; indeed, along with many of my colleagues, I regard it as cruel as fox hunting.
I would like to commend the west midlands dangerous dogs unit and the work that it does, particularly in identifying, investigating and seizing such dogs, and in bringing their owners to justice. I spent time with members of the unit when I participated in the police parliamentary scheme two years ago. I am filled with admiration for their dedication to duty and their skilled handling of complex and dangerous situations.
Let me turn quickly to the consultation. I am pleased to see that the Government want to update the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, to ensure that it works better and enables the police, local authorities and the RSPCA to take swift action to protect the public and other animals, and to stop abuse. It is particularly helpful that the Government want to extend legislation to cover private property, so that postal workers, engineers, health visitors and so on can be protected and allowed to do their job in safety. I have spoken to a midwife and a social worker this week who described how frightened they feel when visiting a home where such dogs are allowed inside or even allowed close to the babies or children they are attending. I have long felt that we surely owe a duty of care to such workers. We must protect them from fear or injury when they attend family homes in the course of their duties.
Along with many dog welfare institutions, I welcome the news that dogs should be microchipped and that insurance is to be considered. I would, however, like to flag up an area of concern. We must consider the cost of such items for pensioners and those on fixed incomes. We must also think about how we would enforce such measures, especially among those whom we consider to be irresponsible owners, who might be less likely to have insurance.
I was also pleased to hear that the Home Office is increasing funding to the Association of Chief Police Officers to help the police to train dog legislation officers, matching the funding from DEFRA last year. Alongside all this, it is essential that well-funded and targeted education programmes are encouraged, to assist in persuading dog owners to be more responsible for the care and control of their pets. I hope that the Government will take on board the wishes of my constituents during the consultation, so that the law relating to dogs can function better, and that the dogs, their owners and the wider public can cease living in fear or with cruelty.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) on securing this very well-timed debate. She is not only psychic but assiduous in her work on behalf of her constituents, and not least on this issue, which has caused widespread concern throughout the United Kingdom. The debate provides an opportunity to discuss dangerous dogs legislation. I present my apologies to the House for the absence of my colleague Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick). I give him credit for bringing forward the timely consultation on this issue, and he would have loved to be here today, but I will happily try to fill his shoes.
The debate is well timed because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge mentioned, only this week the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office launched a wide-ranging public consultation on dangerous dogs legislation. Let me explain why we have done that now. We are responding to the genuine and widespread public concern about the problem of dangerous dogs, and to the question of whether the law in this area is adequate. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has reported a twelvefold increase in complaints about dogfighting between 2004 and 2008 in London alone, and 719 dangerous dogs were seized by the police between April 2008 and April 2009. That recent increase in the numbers of attacks and prosecutions show that we should consider the matter urgently.
Members of Parliament will shortly be using the services of postal workers. The postmen and women will go about the country, delivering our leaflets that will seek to persuade people to get out and vote, one way or the other. The Communication Workers Union has campaigned assiduously for the law to be amended, the better to prevent attacks on postal workers. I have certainly come close to some full-frontal confrontations with a variety of dogs in my time, as I am sure have other hon. Members. We try to do our best, but postal workers have to do that every day, so we must take their views into account.
The Government share the concerns about dangerous dogs, including dogs that are being used to threaten and intimidate people, as well as those that present a risk because they are just not being controlled properly. That is totally unacceptable, and in the consultation we are asking those who enforce the law as well as animal welfare organisations, the general public and Members of Parliament for their views on what needs to be done. We are asking about a range of measures aimed at dealing with the problem.
The press has, perhaps understandably, tended to major on dog control notices and third party insurance. I would therefore like to say a quick word about microchipping. This is already done by responsible dog owners, and it can be done quite cheaply. I know that many police officers and local authorities feel that if it were to become mandatory, they would be better equipped to trace and deal with irresponsible owners.
I was a little surprised by comments made over the last few days by the Opposition Front-Bench team stating that the Government have been slow to pick up on a problem that has been around for years. On the contrary; the Government have responded very quickly to what I have just described as a problem that in the scale of its escalation is very new.
Five years ago, the Metropolitan police seized just 42 dogs under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. In 2009-10, the figure is likely to exceed 1,100. There are similarly depressing figures on the kennelling costs incurred by the Metropolitan police, showing that the problem is not just the capture and identification of these dogs, but the fact that they have to be kennelled. Somebody has to pay for that; it is the taxpayer, through the police. In 2008-09, £1.35 million was spent on the kennelling of seized dogs; this year, the figure has risen to £2.65 million, and it has been necessary to allocate £2.85 million for the next financial year. Those figures show a rapidly and recently deteriorating system, which is why the Government are determined to act now.
Changing the law is only one aspect of solving the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge remarked on that herself. Much more important are changing attitudes and fostering responsible dog ownership. We should not forget, however, that despite all the tabloid headlines, there are a lot of responsible dog owners out there in the country. In this context, I am particularly heartened by the fact that a growing number of community-based projects during the last few years have been aimed at encouraging responsible dog ownership. They involve the police, local authorities, community groups and animal welfare organisations going out into particular areas where there are problems in order to encourage responsible dog ownership. What do they do? These initiatives involve talking to people to encourage a responsible attitude to dog ownership and they offer practical help, including with regard to microchipping and neutering.
It would be unfair and invidious of me to single out particular welfare organisations that are in the vanguard of encouraging responsible dog ownership, but I must take the opportunity to pay particular thanks to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Dogs Trust, the Mayhew Trust, the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals and the Blue Cross for the fantastic work they do to encourage people to give their dogs the care that they deserve.
We have heard from my hon. Friend about the presa canario breed. I can reassure her that the Government go into the consultation with an open mind on possible legislative changes. We have advanced for consultation a number of different ideas on changes. I would be interested to hear more of my hon. Friend’s views and I am sure that both DEFRA and the Home Office would welcome from her a further detailed response to the consultation, representing the views of her constituents, which she does so well. The consultation opened on 9 March 2010 and will close on 31 May, so there is plenty of time for my hon. Friend to contribute her views. She will consult her constituents further and I know that she will seek out a wide range of views to present.
I am aware of campaigns to add more dogs to the list of types banned under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. The consultation will help me and my ministerial colleagues better to assess the case for adding more types and breeds to the banned list. However, we will also need to consider whether imposing bans is the best solution. Some hon. Members have made the point that the emphasis in new legislation should be on the deed—that is, the risk presented by any type or breed of dog—rather than the breed itself. That is one of the issues covered by the consultation.
The consultation is only the most recent evidence of the seriousness with which the Government take this issue. We have already taken a number of other steps that we believe will make an impact. My hon. Friend has already spoken about the sterling work of the West Midlands police force. I suspect that some of her insights have not only been gained from constituents who have been confronted by some of these dangerous dogs—and, occasionally, their owners—but have arisen from her service on the police parliamentary scheme.
I fully endorse my hon. Friend’s comments about the West Midlands police. They are among the leading forces in tackling the problem of dangerous dogs. They work closely with the RSPCA in tackling the scourge of organised dogfighting. Who, in this century, could smile on that sort of activity? It is sheer madness. The police also deal with more general issues relating to antisocial behaviour involving dogs, and have developed effective policies and procedures to tackle problems caused by dangerous dogs.
My hon. Friend mentioned the difficulties that police officers can experience in identifying banned breeds. Last year the Association of Chief Police Officers introduced a programme of training for officers who are responsible for dealing with dogs, and I am pleased to say that it covers recognition of pit bull types. I am also pleased to say that—as my hon. Friend rightly acknowledged—DEFRA and the Home Office are contributing to the cost of the training.
DEFRA’s policy has been to improve the way in which current legislation is enforced nationwide. We do not simply produce legislation and hope that the problem has been solved; we know that we must continue to learn. In 2008, we produced a clear and easy-to-read leaflet intended to better inform the public about current law on dangerous dogs. In 2009 we issued widely welcomed guidance on the law, aimed at those who enforce the legislation. The guidance, written in association with the police and the RSPCA as well as some local authorities, sets out the current law on dangerous dogs, and advises enforcers on how the law can be used effectively to tackle the problem of irresponsible dog ownership.
The guidance recommends that each force should have, or have access to, a designated dog legislation officer who knows the law and how it can be used to best effect. Last year, DEFRA provided £20,000 to help fund training courses for new DLOs. The West Midlands police force has played a central role in the provision of DLO training and the Home Office has just announced another one-off grant of £20,000 to fund further training.
But that is not all. In 2009, DEFRA commissioned new research on dog aggression against humans. The project will last for 15 months, and will entail an analytical study of the risk factors associated with past aggressive dog behaviour towards people. At the end of last year, DEFRA published a code of practice for the welfare of dogs. It provides advice on owning a dog and responsible dog ownership, and will come into force on 6 April. DEFRA has also worked with the Ministry of Justice, Her Majesty’s Courts Service, the police and the RSPCA to produce new guidance for the courts on the handling of dangerous dog cases. The guidance has just been published, and we hope that it will help courts to improve the processing of cases involving dogs.
We are working across Government to tackle this issue, because it straddles several areas. The Home Office has recently sponsored the passage of the Policing and Crime Act 2009, which includes a new prohibition in the gang-related violence provisions to prevent gang members from being in charge of an animal in a public place if it has been proved that they have engaged in, or encouraged or assisted, gang-related violence.
I think it is a very good thing that there is to be wide-ranging consultation. The debate is timely: it will make not only my hon. Friend’s constituents but the wider public aware that they need to submit their views to the consultation. The problem of dangerous dogs has been escalating, which is why we need to consider how we can reform the legislation and the way in which we deal with it.
I hope I have reassured the House that the Government recognise the seriousness of the problem and that they continue to take it seriously, to monitor it and, in line with the consultation, to consider useful suggestions of ways in which we can manage the situation better.
Question put and agreed to.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Spellar.)