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Dangerous Dogs

Volume 514: debated on Tuesday 20 July 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Vara.)

I am grateful for the opportunity finally to raise this difficult issue, which is not just a continuing problem for many of my constituents who find their visits to local parks and their movements on the streets and even on local buses blighted by intimidating dogs and their owners. This is a growing problem, and I am certain that it affects countless others in urban and suburban areas. I have been talking to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and I have discovered that Ealing is the ninth-worst borough for this problem. According to some of the statistics, it seems to be the fifth-worst, so it is little wonder that so many of my constituents have wanted to raise their anxieties with me. I know that Ealing council takes the problem extremely seriously and that it is in discussions with a number of organisations to plan a way forward.

We need to be very clear about this issue because there are different aspects to what is quite a complex matter. One aspect is the dogs that are simply out of control. Not long ago, on Acton green, almost outside my house, a Rottweiler attacked a pet that was being walked there and injured it quite seriously. The Rottweiler had been rescued by a lady who had no intention of setting it on anything, but she clearly had not learned how to manage it properly. The RSPCA thinks that the best way forward in such instances is to give those owners some education in an early intervention to try to teach them how to be more responsible. I am sure that that is the right way forward. Getting the RSPCA lined up with specific cases may be a little difficult, but that is a discussion for another night.

I want to deal with an issue that is in many ways far more serious: dogs that are intentionally trained by their owners to be nasty and intimidating. That growing menace is always about young—almost always—men with large fierce dogs attached to a lead and usually fitted out with full studded collars. They are called status dogs, and that is all about machismo or certainly about displaying potential aggression. The dogs accompany those owners pretty much as a weapon, but, crucially, whereas carrying a weapon such as a knife involves a certain penalty, owning such dogs does not, which is exactly why they are the growing weapon of choice at the moment. Sometimes, drug dealers will use those dogs to protect themselves as they trade and perhaps to enforce their trade, particularly against rivals. Other people may train the dogs for fighting. Unfortunately, dog fighting is a lucrative sport, although rather a grotesque one. Other people are simply demonstrating who is boss on a piece of local territory.

Innocent members of the public who go into parks with their families and pets to enjoy a day out do not know whether those dogs will be let off their leads at any stage, and if they are, they do not know whether they will then run after them and attack them, their pets or, worst of all, their children. Frankly, it is absolutely unacceptable that, instead of being able to enjoy their day out, they must spend their time looking over their shoulders.

What can be done to tackle this menace? I am not expert in the field and it will be for others who are to find the right solutions. My purpose is to urge the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to get moving on the issue as quickly as possible.

I have received some ideas from the organisations that I have spoken to. First and foremost, I do not believe that going after dog breeds is the right way forward. I have my doubts about the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Pit bulls may look vicious, but they are not necessarily born vicious. Like any other dog, they are just born; what happens next can turn them into something altogether more unpleasant. The problem with pit bulls, of course, is their physical size and strength. If an owner sets out to turn them into something nasty, they turn into something quite lethal, but that is not how they start out. My contention is that we should be targeting not dangerous dogs, but dangerous owners.

I want to support that view. I represent Battersea, and Battersea dogs home is a great source of expertise. It says that those dogs come through its doors as the victims of irresponsible back-street breeding and irresponsible ownership. It is a tragic sight to go to the dogs home and see many dozens of abandoned dogs that have little chance of being re-homed because someone bred and treated them irresponsibly.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I know Battersea dogs home well. In fact, I got my first rescue dog from Battersea dogs home, so I know what fantastically good work it does. It is very much involved in the discussions about how we can get more responsibility into dog owning. I look forward to hearing more from it about what it has to say.

Obviously, we must find out how we can best get rid of the threat in our open spaces. Who can do that? Obviously, we have the police and safer neighbourhood teams. Councils employ park rangers and dog wardens. Of course, the problem is one of resources. The Metropolitan police have also set up a status dog unit, which has been fully supported by the deputy Mayor of London, Kit Malthouse, who is doing a lot of work in this respect. The new unit is operating effectively throughout London, but it is still relatively small, so we need to think about how we get resources into addressing the problem. My local police are frank in telling me that if someone says that their dog has been attacked by another dog, the police will not intervene—they say that dogs fight each other—because they do not have the necessary resources. However, as I have pointed out, the problem is that if a dog is attacked today, that might be a child tomorrow.

Given the question of resources, I am wary about bringing back the old licensing system, which probably cost more than it raised. An annual round of licensing would impose an additional tier of bureaucracy on owners, and the trouble would be that the good guys would get the licences while the bad guys would ignore them. I am also aware that we must look after our pensioners, who often depend on animals for company more than anyone else, so I do not particularly want to impose anything on them. However, I might be persuaded of the case for a one-off dog licence—a life licence—that would involve making a payment when the ownership of a dog was taken up, provided that the revenue was properly ring-fenced for policing dangerous dogs.

Last weekend, I visited Pets Corner on Bank street in Rawtenstall, which is a town in my constituency. Pets Corner will microchip dogs for less than £10. Does my hon. Friend agree that as the cost of microchipping has fallen to such an extent, and given that, unlike a dog licence, it is a whole-life solution, now might be the time to consider compulsory microchipping?

We should consider microchipping because it offers a good approach to encourage more responsible dog ownership. Whatever else one says, it means that the owner is indelibly linked to the dog and will therefore be much more concerned about how it behaves, especially if they have to take responsibility for that. Microchipping has an important part to play and I welcome the fact that many rescue centres, including Battersea, send out all their dogs with microchips, which means that we know that they are properly registered, which is an important step forward. However, given that much of the problem is due to people who think that they and their dogs are beyond the law, I suspect that that will not be the whole answer to dealing with awful dogs.

I have been given a couple of straightforward, simple ideas that could really help without increasing the need for resources. The first, which was put to me by my local police, is the introduction of a new type of court order that would be attached to the sentence of anyone found guilty of any kind of crime involving violence or drug dealing. I am not saying that the order should apply to the first offence, but it might apply to a second and it almost certainly should apply to a third. The court order would provide that a person found guilty of such a crime would be banned from being in control of a dog in a public place for x years—I leave it to others to decide the time, but I would suggest about five years. The police say that they know their local criminals, so if they saw those people out and about with a dog, they would find it easier to know that they should intervene quickly. I purposely talk about being in control of a dog rather than owning one because the order would mean that those people would not be allowed to have any dog with them over that time period, including if they were walking their grandmother’s poodle. That approach would allow the police to intervene on people with a violent record.

My second simple idea, which I know that Ealing council is considering—I am sure that other local authorities are also considering it—is to attach conditions on dog ownership to tenancy agreements. Those conditions could range from banning dogs from certain properties, which would be a good idea for tower blocks, to limiting ownership to only one dog. The conditions could certainly deal with dogs that are a nuisance to neighbours. If neighbours complain about a dog, it should be easy to ensure that either the owner agrees to get rid of the dog or they have to move out. The microchipping rules would help with that, too, because if dogs that run amok are microchipped it is much easier to find out who owns them.

I appreciate that those measures will not deal with the whole problem, but they would at least begin to provide people with some reassurance that the worst owners were being targeted, and that their ability to use intimidating dogs to threaten their community was being removed.

I am a long-standing, enthusiastic dog owner. I have had two rescue dogs. The first came from Battersea dogs home and the second from the Blue Cross, and both were difficult dogs to begin with. One in particular had had a bad start in life and had been badly treated by their owner, and both were tricky, but my partner and I devoted a lot of TLC to them and in the end they turned out to be very nice dogs. The reason why I mention this is that, importantly, dog ownership cannot be taken lightly. It requires a certain amount of dedicated time in which the dog must be socialised as well as cared for. The dogs that I have been largely concerned with in this debate are those that receive none of that TLC. They endure a life of cruelty and training to turn them into something lethal. Their owners have absolutely no sense of responsibility towards the communities in which they live, and it is precisely those people whom we need to target.

I know that the issue is already under consideration at DEFRA, but we do need more urgency. During these summer months, in particular, when people want to be out enjoying their open spaces, it really is offensive when they have to share quite limited space with someone who is setting out to make them feel nervous and intimidated. That is a real blight on people in London, in suburbs and in urban areas throughout the country, and we really need to lift that blight as soon as possible.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) on securing this Adjournment debate about a subject that is of increasing importance not just to those of us in the suburbs, but to people throughout the country.

Last Sunday afternoon I was delighted to be present at the Framfield allotment association, and I met a brindle Staff that had been rescued from a dog-fighting ring. That dog had been saved, and it revealed a gentle sweetness of character, but, had it remained with those who tortured it to torture other people, it would have become the slathering beast that they wished it to be. Dogs can be rescued, but importantly, we are faced with a problem that revolves around three areas.

First, dogs are used in the commission of crime. They can be used to force someone to hand over their possessions. People are threatened with the dog, which is a weapon in that criminal activity, and they are also used in many cases to guard drug dealers or drug stashes.

Secondly, there is dog fighting, but the Metropolitan police force has been very proactive, and the hon. Lady tangentially referred to Inspector Jenkins of Ealing police station, who has been closely involved in dealing with that.

Thirdly, there are the dogs that are simply brought up in chaos. One can walk into a small flat on the sixth or seventh floor of a tower block and see eight or nine dogs running wild, and that is cruel to the dogs, vicious for the children who live in the flat and destructive to the community.

The problem is evident; the solution is one that we have to address. I have always admired the Minister, but I have some sympathy for him in this case. We are asking DEFRA to be the lead Ministry, but the subject moves into the Home Office’s jurisdiction and a number of others. It is a truism that we in this House enter into legislation involving dogs with considerable trepidation, because our track record is not brilliant, but we are at the stage where we need a lead Minister, a lead agency and a lead Ministry to pull together those various strands. We need a solution to the problem of the ordinary family enjoying an al fresco afternoon and meal while quietly picnicking in, say, Pitshanger park, a piece of land that abuts both our constituencies, when suddenly a dog comes bursting through to the delight of the people who are supposed to be responsible for it. That is threatening, bullying, vicious and dangerous, and it destroys young children’s trust in open spaces and the open air.

We need to have a solution to the problem at the time. The hon. Lady is absolutely right; we have the police, the safer neighbourhoods teams, the dog wardens, the RSPCA and so many other agencies. We need to draw up an established protocol, hopefully Government led, which can pull together those agencies and link up with the other issues. I mentioned the Home Office, but the Department for Communities and Local Government is also relevant. Most council property and registered social landlord tenancies contain the clause that the tenancy will be nullified if its terms and conditions are not kept to. Although not all of them specifically exclude dogs other than companion animals and guide dogs, all—almost without exception—will have a clause saying that the tenant or their agents are enjoined not to cause annoyance or nuisance to neighbours. The dogs that we are discussing are demonstrably that.

We have laid the problem before the Minister, and we look to him with confidence to provide the solution. The extent and scale of the problem is exemplified by this meeting across the Chamber; just as the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton and I meet in Pitshanger park, we meet across the Chamber today. The problem being debated is increasingly serious and, sadly, we are at the stage where a child could be seriously hurt. A whole community is being threatened. We look with confidence to the Minister for a solution.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) on securing this debate on an important subject. I assume that it is her first Adjournment debate, and she has got off lucky; my first Adjournment debate was called at 3.15 in the morning, so this is early by comparison.

I fully understand the importance of the issue that my hon. Friend raises. Members who, like me, represent more rural constituencies do not see the problem as much as my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) do. Nevertheless, we are very aware of it. I respond directly to the challenge of the hon. Gentleman: the issue of dangerous dogs falls squarely within the remit of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He is right about cross-cutting with other Departments. My noble Friend Lord Henley is directly responsible for that part of the Department’s activities, although, as I shall try to demonstrate, there are areas on which we work closely with other Departments.

We take the issue seriously—so much so that the coalition agreement makes an explicit commitment to tackling the problem. Both hon. Members said that there are many strands to the problem. There is the irresponsible ownership—at the lesser end, but still a serious issue—and there is the clear problem of dogs being used to intimidate and as part of the commission of crime. Furthermore, there is organised dog fighting. All those issues have a knock-on effect on the welfare of the dogs, let alone all the other problems that they cause society.

Most of us find it difficult to understand why people would want to keep a dog, particularly one of the more vicious breeds, as a status symbol. The need that those people feel to have such a dog alongside them to bolster their image is probably a sign of their inadequacy. Nevertheless, it happens and we have to address it.

Many suggestions have been made. As hon. Members must be aware, the previous Government commissioned a consultation on the problem. That period has finished and we are analysing the results, which we will publish. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend say that she does not necessarily believe that the issue requires more legislation. She made a couple of suggestions, which I shall come to. As I shall try to describe, there is a plethora of legislation on the matter—too much, some would argue. It is often a matter of enforcement. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has become a bit of byword for hasty legislation, but the reality is that in the 19 years since it was passed nobody has come forward with a comprehensive alternative.

I am grateful, given the hour. Is the Minister aware of the Bill proposed in another place by my noble Friend Lord Redesdale, which is intended to tackle some of the issues to do with ownership and microchipping, while shifting comprehensively away from the specific list of obscure breeds towards the deeds and behaviour of the dog, and indeed the owner, which seems to get to the crux of the issue that the hon. Lady rightly identified? What is his view of that proposed legislation?

We are very much aware of Lord Redesdale’s Bill. My noble Friend Lord Henley is looking at it very carefully and trying to work with Lord Redesdale on it. We have our doubts about some aspects, but I recognise that it is a noble attempt to try to deal with the problem.

Part of the problem has been the lack of enforcement across the country. We clearly want to see better enforcement, and we have provided better guidance and funding for training in police forces. Both hon. Members who spoke referred to the Metropolitan police, who have their specialist status dogs unit to target the problem. That has resulted in more dogs being seized year on year in the London area. I understand that between April 2004 and April 2005, just 42 dogs were seized, by 2008-2009 the figure had risen to 719, and it is expected that in the past year up to April 2010 the figure will have been 1,100. That dramatic increase demonstrates the importance of the issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton referred to council housing leases and social landlords. Earlier this year, the Department for Communities and Local Government published guidance for social landlords entitled, “Tackling anti-social behaviour: Tools and powers—toolkit for social landlords”. That includes the powers available under current legislation for social landlords to tackle dangerous dogs. More recently, DEFRA facilitated the production of guidance for magistrates courts designed to help to speed up cases involving dangerous dogs. Last year, DEFRA issued widely welcomed guidance aimed at enforcers of the legislation. It was written in association with the police and the RSPCA, as well as some local authorities, to set out the law in detail and provide advice.

I want briefly to refer to the existing legislation and then address some of the points that may take us forward. The 1991 Act provides the police with powers to take action when any dog becomes dangerously out of control in a public place or a place where it has no right to be. Offences under that legislation have risen considerably. The Act also prohibits the keeping of certain types of dog. I understand what my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said about the problems of specific breeds. However, the fact is that in 2004, 17 people were successfully prosecuted for that offence, and by 2008 that figure had risen to 115. The maximum penalty for keeping a keeping a prohibited type of dog is six months imprisonment, a fine of £5,000, or both.

Importantly, the police have also said that the prohibition of certain types of dog is useful in tackling organised dog fighting, as it is predominantly pit bull terriers that are used. I hear the point made by my hon. Friend about the problem being the owner, not the dog, but there is a bit of a caveat to that—certain dogs are far more predisposed to aggression. Why else does everybody want to use a pit bull? Clearly it is easier to use them; we do not see many fighting chihuahuas around the countryside.

No, I cannot, I am sorry. I am really tight for time.

The 1991 Act strengthened the powers available to magistrates courts to place controls on dogs under the Dogs Act 1871. Those controls can be about muzzling a dog, keeping it on a lead, excluding it from specific places or having it neutered. The maximum penalty for failing to comply is £5,000.

The Offences Against the Person Act was passed back in 1861 but is still valid because of the point that the hon. Member for Ealing North made—it can be used in a situation in which people use a dog as a weapon. The maximum penalty is five years in prison. There is also the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005.

The consultation that was carried out recently addressed a range of issues, such as extending the current criminal offence in the 1991 Act of allowing a dog of any type or breed to become dangerously out of control to private property where a dog has a right to be but where it may well still be a danger to young children. There is also the serious problem of attacks on public workers, particularly postal workers, in gardens or drives. It also invited comments on whether the prohibition of certain types of dog should be repealed, as we have discussed, or extended to other breeds.

The idea of compulsory insurance was given short shrift. The then Government put the matter in the consultation and rightly decided quickly that it was not the right way forward. People’s advice and views were requested on the introduction of dog control notices, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has indicated that improvement notices have been successful. It considers that dog control notices could also work well.

Some people advocate compulsory microchipping. At the moment, our view is that as with licensing, the people whom we are trying to address would not do it. One could argue that dogs found without a microchip would be destroyed, but we would end up with the serious problem of having to destroy a large number of dogs. Again, the majority would be paying for the sins of the minority.

Finally, my hon. Friend proposed that anyone convicted of a violent or drug-related offence should not be allowed to have control of a dog. That is clearly a matter for the Home Office, and I will try to ensure that it is aware of the suggestion and gives it the consideration that it merits.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the whole Government take the matter very seriously. We are aware of the concerns and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing them to the attention of the House. I promise her that we will not let the matter slip.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.