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Dangerous Dogs

Volume 508: debated on Thursday 25 March 2010

2. What steps he is taking to tackle the problem of dangerous dogs; and if he will make a statement. (324047)

10. What steps he is taking to tackle the problem of dangerous dogs; and if he will make a statement. (324057)

We have launched a wide-ranging consultation on the problem of dangerous dogs, and I recently met with welfare groups and enforcement agencies to discuss this. We have also produced new guidance for the public, enforcers of the law and magistrates, as well as provided the Association of Chief Police Officers with funding to help train police officers.

It seems to me that the 9 March consultation document does not deal with a crucial issue, which is people actually breeding dogs to be weapons and the increase in the breeding of pit bull terriers. A microchipped pit bull terrier is still a pit bull terrier, and there needs to be discussion with the Kennel Club, vets and others about how one can limit the breeding of dogs that are intended to be weapons.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, that was one of the points raised at the meeting with stakeholders to which I referred in my answer. The consultation paper ranges quite widely, but given that there is a bit of history on legislation passed in haste and repented at some leisure and cost to many people, it is important that we get this right. I encourage all those with an interest to express a view. There was agreement on some points in the meeting: there is pretty broad support, I think, for extending the legislation to private property and for the idea of dog control orders, which would, it seemed to many people at the meeting, provide a pretty targeted way of trying to deal with particular owners, and the dogs they own, who are causing the bulk of the problem.

Although I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to say quite clearly that there is one hell of a difference between a pit bull terrier and a Staffordshire terrier, which has a very different temperament indeed?

Of course, many people in the country own Staffordshire terriers, and they are much loved family pets. The lesson, which the Home Secretary and I saw when we visited the RSPCA hospital in Seven Sisters a couple of weeks ago, is that other breeds are now being trained as fighting dogs, status dogs, weapon dogs—or whatever phrase one uses to describe them—and the question is how we target effort and energy on those who are doing it. Let us be honest: there is a very lively debate about breed versus deed. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 specified four breeds, but in the consultation meeting that I held, the majority of those who expressed a view were sceptical about a breed approach, and thought that we should focus more on deed.

In the horrific case of John Paul Massey in my constituency, a focus on the breed disrupted and undermined the partnership that needs to work between a housing association and the police when the public report concerns about the behaviour of dogs. Chipping dogs and encouraging owners to be trained in ownership, not focusing on the breed, is the way forward.

There is a great deal of sense in the comments of my right hon. Friend, who sadly has experience of this matter, through the constituency case to which she referred. In the end my concern, and I think that of the House, is that we come up with a set of proposals that will help to deal with the remaining problem. Certainly, some people argue that spending time looking at the features of a particular dog to determine whether it falls within the four categories in the original legislation might not necessarily be the most sensible approach. That is one of the questions that we have raised in the consultation paper.

I wish to follow the comments by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) about the Staffordshire bull terrier. Anyone who owns a Staffordshire bull terrier knows what lovely, warm animals they are, but they were demonised in our national media through ignorance and a misunderstanding of what a dangerous dog is. The very title “dangerous dog” is misleading in the campaign to control the ownership of a dog—it is a privilege and not to be given out lightly. What are we going to do to stop the people who own these dogs?

I take my hon. Friend’s point that demonisation will not help anybody to deal with the problem. This debate is about what further steps we can take, building on existing legislation, and amending it if that is sensible, to put in place effective measures to deal with the problem of the small number of owners—the vast majority of dog owners are responsible and as concerned about this as anybody else—who through breeding, training or incitement allow their dogs to do the kind of things that we have seen.

On Monday the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), said,

“we are still interested, certainly from a Home Office perspective, in views on third-party insurance”.—[Official Report, 22 March 2010; Vol. 508, c. 4.]

Ministers know the problems with bull breeds in certain communities and they know about their effects on people living in those communities, so what do this Government do? They use a sledgehammer to miss a nut. They have had 13 years to get this issue right and now, in the run-up to an election, they produce measures, immediately withdraw them and then partially reintroduce them again. Do they actually talk to their Home Office colleagues? What confidence can we have that this Government will bring in measures that will deal with a serious and urgent problem?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I say that I am pretty reluctant to take lectures on effective legislation from the party responsible for the original, 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, which had to be amended in 1997. He should be slightly cautious on that subject. That is the first point.

The second point—[Interruption.] I was not in the House at the time; I will take credit for what I have done. The second point is that third-party insurance could be useful to particular dog owners. For example, it could be part of a dog control order. Third-party insurance was included in the consultation paper because some who have been party to the debate suggested it. The Dogs Trust, for example, is in favour of the proposal and thinks that it would be sensible to have compulsory third-party insurance. However, I am afraid to say that the Opposition decided to go around suggesting that the Government had already made up their mind to introduce compulsory third-party insurance for everybody. That is not our position, and that is why I made it clear that we do not intend to proceed with that proposal.