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House of Commons Hansard
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06 July 2011
Volume 530

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I am immensely grateful to Mr Speaker for allowing this debate. We can see from the number of Members present in the Chamber what an important subject this is and how much concern it has caused.

I should declare an interest at the outset as the owner of two adorable cocker spaniels. However, although they are both quite mad, exhibiting all the natural exuberance of the breed, neither has an aggressive bone in its body, and they are dangerous only in their capacity to leap around.

The issue of dangerous dogs affects many rural and urban constituencies and has been raised with me on numerous occasions since last year’s general election. Experiences differ: in one constituency, I have been faced with complaints about dogs being used as weapons and with the problem of dogs exhibiting pack behaviour and attacking farm animals and domestic pets. I will never forget the day when I received in the post a package containing photographs of a Jack Russell terrier that had been ripped to shreds by a larger dog.

Legislation is outdated and ineffective in addressing a problem that evidence indicates is growing. The Dogs Act 1871 is still in force, but it was significantly updated by the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997, which made owning certain types of dogs a criminal offence. Until then, to be responsible for a dangerous dog was only a civil offence. The 1991 Act was a legislative reaction to a series of high-profile attacks by pit bull terriers.

I am not saying that that legislation was wrong, but it has caused heartache for the owners of dogs that have done nothing wrong other than appearing to be of the wrong breed or type. It has certainly not prevented further tragedies—indeed, they have increased—and it has caused police forces and local authorities enormous sums in court cases and kennelling fees. It has been in desperate need of updating for a long time.

Why do I believe that now is an appropriate time to update the legislation? At long last, there is widespread agreement among different organisations about the way forward. Some 20 different bodies, including the National Dog Warden Association, the Police Federation, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Communication Workers Union and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home have now reached a level of agreement about what might be effective.

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I agree that it is not the dogs but the owners who are dangerous in many respects, especially people with status dogs who train them to be vicious. Such dogs are known to be vicious, and postal workers and midwives go into homes where such dogs have been trained to be vicious and are attacked. We must do something about that.

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I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, which I will certainly address later. The crucial point is that in many cases it is the owners who are dangerous, not the dogs.

Any proposed solution must be practical and in the best interests of both dogs and their owners. Not only dog welfare organisations but professional bodies, trade unions and charities covering wide interest areas have all concluded that the current law on irresponsible dog ownership is simply inadequate. New legislation has been passed in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, and consistency across the whole United Kingdom would be helpful. Finally, in an era of austerity, the current legislation places an immense financial burden on hard-pressed bodies, such as local authorities, our police, national health and ambulance services and not to mention animal welfare organisations, which all too often end up picking up the pieces.

Under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, it is a criminal offence for a dog owner or the person in charge of a dog to allow it to be dangerously out of control in a public place. Such a dog is defined as one that has injured someone or that a person has reasonable grounds to believe might do so. The most contentious part of the 1991 Act is section 1, which details the breeds of dog that it is an offence to own or keep. Four types of dog are referred to specifically, including the notorious pit bull terrier, Japanese fighting dogs and Brazilian mastiffs.

The original intention of the 1991 Act was that due to the restraints and conditions placed on owners, such dogs would simply die out, having been destroyed or compulsorily neutered, and that they would all have been eradicated by now. However, that clearly has not been the case. Evidence suggests that their popularity, and hence their number, has risen. The number of bull terriers taken in by Battersea Dogs Home has increased dramatically. I mention Staffordshire bull terriers in particular for reasons that I hope will become clear. In 1996, 380 bull terrier types were received at Battersea. Last year, there were nearly 2,500. Many of those dogs were not pit bulls but Staffies. I appreciate fully the clear difference between a Staffordshire bull terrier and an American pit bull. The Staffie is well known as a bold and fearless dog, but it is also affectionate, particularly with children. By contrast, the pit bull is a breed created by interbreeding terriers and bulldogs specifically for illegal dog fights.

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I commend the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Does she agree that the trick is to get the balance right so that the law takes action on irresponsible owners of any breed of dog? We need to enact legislation in respect of those owners without penalising responsible dog owners who are prepared to look after their dogs, keep them on a leash and ensure that they do not get out of control.

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That is exactly the problem. It is all very well to ban a particular breed, but any dog can be dangerous, whatever the breed. We must consider behaviour and responsible ownership. I am the first to concede that getting that balance right will be difficult. I am sure that that is part of the reason why—

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On that point, before we all rush to enact more legislation and regulation, in many cases the current legislation is not always enforced properly. Before we introduce another Act, we must ensure that local agencies, the police and so on enforce current legislation. In many cases, they do not.

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That is valid. My hon. Friend makes a good point. Enforcement is certainly not consistent. However, I am seeking consolidation of the legislation to make it easier to enforce consistently across the country.

As I was saying, the problem is that Staffordshire bull terriers and pit bulls share many visual characteristics. Naturally affectionate Staffies are either mistaken for pit bulls by the authorities, resulting in seizure, kennelling and lengthy legal battles to prove that they are not one of the banned breeds, or—which is much worse, in my view—are deliberately selected for their status dog appearance and then trained to be aggressive, or not trained at all. As all of us who are dog owners know, any pet requires a reasonable level of training and discipline to become a pleasant, well-behaved member of the family.

I contend that much behaviour is learned rather than inherent, and that wrong handling or deliberate training to provoke aggression can turn any dog into a potential problem. The rise of so-called status dogs, which are often linked to antisocial behaviour, cannot necessarily be addressed by breed-specific legislation. The real cause of the problem is the owner’s actions rather than the breed of dog.

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I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining this important debate. I pay tribute to Banbridge high school in my constituency, which has taken a great interest in the matter and made it into a project. She has mentioned Northern Ireland. One blight on Northern Ireland is illegal dog fights for gambling and so on. Does she agree that if illegal dog fights are found to be occurring—we need the general public to provide information about them—the full rigour of the law must be brought to bear on the people who hold such fights? Those people train dogs to be vicious, while people who look after their pets properly are penalised.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the problem of illegal dog fighting. He is correct to say there has been a rise in such cases not only in Northern Ireland, but here in the capital, London, in particular. He is right that the full rigour of the law must be brought to bear.

One problem is that, while some dogs may have certain characteristics, it does not mean that they are fighting or status dogs, either by temperament or by upbringing. There is a fundamental problem with the assumption that one breed or type is dangerous and others are not. That misses the point that it is owners, not dogs, who pose the risk, and that a dog’s behaviour will be largely dependent on its upbringing, socialisation and home environment. Ultimately, the law should be targeted at individuals taking responsibility for their dogs, not at dogs for simply being dogs.

There is, however, a significant problem with aggressive and out-of-control dogs. I emphasise that much of the problem stems from irresponsible ownership, but we cannot get away from the fact that eight people have been killed in dog attacks in the past four years. According to the Communication Workers Union, 6,000 postal workers are attacked by dogs every single year. Attacks on farm animals cost in the region of £2.8 million a year, and there have been 74 reported attacks on horses in the past three years. Other dogs are certainly not immune. According to the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, there are three attacks a month on guide dogs.

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I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this incredibly popular debate. I have a constituent whose guide dog was attacked by another dog and, when the guide dog was retired, my constituent was refused a replacement on the grounds that there were too many dangerous dogs in the area. Does the hon. Lady agree that we should ask the Government to look at that specific issue?

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The hon. Lady makes a valid point. Guide dogs are not simply pets or companions, because they enable the visually impaired to lead a normal life. It is critical that we look at that problem. It is unacceptable that a blind person should be penalised simply because there is a type of aggressive and unpleasant dog in the surrounding area. Statistics for the number of attacks on family pets in public places are not available, because those attacks are too numerous.

I represent a small corner of New Forest national park, which is extremely popular with dog walkers, and I am conscious from both my own experience and the comments of local residents that not all owners who utilise the area to walk their pets have their dogs adequately under control. I am not suggesting that Wellow common is rife with dog attacks—it is not—but incidents involving out-of-control, aggressive dogs do occur, and for every person or other dog involved, it is not only terrifying, but dangerous.

There is also a significant cost, both to individuals and to the public purse, as a consequence of the rising incidence of dog attacks. Every single strategic health authority has experienced an increase in accident and emergency admissions due to dog bites. It is hard to estimate the financial cost accurately, but attempts to do so indicate that, over the past few years, it has been more than £2.5 million a year. In Hampshire, the local police have experienced a clear rise in the number of incidents involving dangerous dogs, and there is increasing anecdotal evidence of status dogs being used in the county instead of firearms or knives. Among the criminally inclined, there is a growing awareness that the potential punishments for having a dangerous dog are far lower than for other weapons.

Tackling the issue is expensive for my local police force. Last year, it spent about £30,000 on kennelling fees, but that is tiny in comparison with the Metropolitan police, which spends £9,000 a day and has budgeted for £10 million to be available for the seizure and kennelling of dogs over the next three years. For every dog seized, there is a human cost. As owners struggle to prove that their family pet is innocent of any crime, families are deprived of its companionship, and the poor animal itself is deprived of its liberty and the chance to have a normal existence. The great irony is that the stress placed on a kennelled dog makes that pet more likely to develop behavioural issues.

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This is an important debate. Perhaps the Minister will address this later, but does the hon. Lady have any information about the tests that are available nowadays which show the DNA of a dog’s parents and their breed types in a matter of minutes? We can use technology to accelerate decisions and make sure that dogs that should not be kept in kennels are released back to their families.

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My hon. Friend is right. DNA testing to determine the type of dog is much easier now than it was when the legislation was introduced. It is interesting that, in the past week, the Government have acknowledged the dreadful stress placed on dogs in quarantine and have announced a relaxation of those time limits, yet some dogs whose breed type is under question end up kennelled for several years.

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In our previous jobs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and I were members of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development in the Northern Ireland Assembly and were involved in legislative change in relation to dangerous dogs in Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Lady agree that it would be helpful for the Minister and his Department to make direct contact with the Northern Ireland Assembly in order to gauge the lessons that we learned about important legislative changes?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman. Progress towards legislative change has been made not only in Northern Ireland, but in Scotland. Such progress has, sadly, been lacking here.

Any legislation must be evidence based, proportionate and, importantly, best debated and drafted away from the perfectly understandable reaction that is always to the fore when there has been a dreadful attack. I do not seek to undermine the importance of and need for legislation to protect the public from dogs that are a danger, that have been trained and encouraged to be aggressive, and that, in increasing instances, are used as a weapon. That is why I welcome several of the components of Lord Redesdale’s Dog Control Bill, which was introduced in the other place and is currently on Third Reading. It aims to consolidate existing legislation, give greater flexibility and discretion to enforcers and the courts, include a genuine preventive effect, improve public safety and animal welfare and reduce the costs of enforcement.

At present, enforcers have to wait for an incident to occur before they can step in and deal with the animal. As we have heard, there is a lack of consistent enforcement, but if police have a dog of a banned type drawn to their attention, they must act, whether that dog has done anything aggressive or not.

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I have agreed entirely with every word my hon. Friend has said until now, but she seems to have slipped back from her argument of a moment ago that it is the deed, not the breed, that matters. She now seems to be saying that it is the breed that matters and that, if the police are aware of a particular breed and that there is DNA evidence or a microchip to prove it, they should step in prior to an incident. Surely the process should be incident-driven, not breed-driven.

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With respect to my hon. Friend, that is my exact point. Under the current legislation, if a banned type or breed is drawn to the police’s attention, the police must act, regardless of its behaviour. There is currently no provision for an owner to be able to apply to a court for a seized dog to be returned, and the 1991 Act predicts a dog’s behaviour based on its physical conformation, which, I would contend, is simply wrong.

Indeed, to drift off into the anecdotal, the dog that made me run in the opposite direction fastest during last year’s general election campaign was a golden retriever. That breed is never going to appear on a list of dangerous dogs, but the one that I encountered seemed rather enamoured by the prospect of chewing my leg off. We need to establish in law the principle that it is the deed, not the breed, that determines whether a dog is dangerous or not. That view is widely held, even at the very highest levels of Government.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has indicated, I used to chair the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is a grand place. Whenever we dealt with the issue of legislation, the key point was that it was backed up by adequate resources, so that the police or whoever was responsible for enforcement—it could be another agency, such as a local authority—would be able to enforce it. The most important issue was that the local authority was adequately resourced by central Government. Whatever legislative change the hon. Lady goes for, I urge her to insist that the necessary resources be made available to allow it to take proper effect.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution and hope that the Minister will comment on it later.

I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on the range of possible measures to tackle the problem. The possible solutions include dog control notices, compulsory microchipping, muzzling in public places and, importantly, training for owners. Rather than generalising a type or a breed, those are practical suggestions that directly address the specific behaviour and the ways to ameliorate it.

Failure to comply with a dog control notice could lead to the responsible person becoming liable to a fine and potentially being disqualified from owning or keeping a dog for a prescribed period. This issue has been the subject of numerous written and oral questions, consultation and reviews of existing legislation. The issue is not confined to cities, but I highlight the work of the deputy Mayor of London, the Metropolitan police and many hon. and right hon. Members who represent constituencies in the capital, where there are certainly greater issues than in other parts of the country. Yet still we have unsatisfactory legislation that does not address the rise of the so-called status dog, which has impacted on the police and on their ability to carry out their role. The legislation desperately needs updating.

I urge the Minister to publish the Government’s response to the consultation on dangerous dogs, for which we have been waiting a considerable time. Will he also indicate whether he supports the measures in Lord Redesdale’s Bill, and whether he will consider introducing compulsory microchipping? I am the first to acknowledge that that is a measure of traceability rather than prevention, but it was simply not an option in 1991 when the Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced. Microchipping was first introduced in the UK in about 2000. The procedure is now commonplace and can be carried out by not only vets but registered practitioners, which has brought down the cost. I appreciate that microchipping will inevitably be most prevalent among the law-abiding majority, but it will indelibly link dog to owner and provide an important step forward.

Obviously there will need to be a register that is updated at every change of ownership, but dogs do not change hands that often. The vast majority of owners have dogs for life and, although I understand concerns that a register will be another imposition on responsible citizens, it will also be a way to steadily move towards a situation in which owners are accountable and dogs behaving in an antisocial way are identifiable. If there is no excuse for mistaken identity, enforcement officers will be able to judge the deed not the breed.

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I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend up to now. However, does she not remember the days when we had dog licences? They did not work. The bad guys did not have them; only the good guys had them. Surely what she is proposing is a bureaucratic, interventionist, centralised solution to the issue. If we want to deal with the problem of people who have criminal intent and behave badly, licensing dogs will not achieve that.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I disagree with him. This is not about licensing; this is about being able to scientifically identify a dog that has perpetrated some sort of unpleasant deed. Many other types of animals are microchipped and are identifiable from birth. We could easily have registers that trace any transfer of ownership. As I have said and as the Dogs Trust has taught us, a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. They rarely change hands, and we simply need to move to a situation whereby we can identify who is responsible for which dog.

As I said at the outset, we are 20 years on from the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Police forces, animal welfare organisations, vets and nurses all believe that that legislation failed to solve the problem. It is high time that that failure was addressed.

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rose

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Order. It is clear that there is likely to be more demand than supply when it comes to speeches. I intend to start the winding-up speeches at 10.40 am, so we have about 50 minutes for debate. I do not have any power to stop Members speaking, but I ask people to try to be kind to their colleagues.

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It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this important and timely debate. The vital context for many of her comments is the consensus, to which she referred, around the need to introduce, update and consolidate the laws on dog control. The fact that Scotland and Northern Ireland are legislating makes it important that we follow the lead of the devolved Assemblies and update the legislation.

The hon. Lady set out clearly the case for changing the law. Between 2004 and 2008, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has seen a twelvefold increase in reports of dog-fighting. As she mentioned, more than 6,000 postal workers are injured every year by dogs. The estimated cost to the state of dealing with issues relating to irresponsible dog ownership is £76.8 million, which does not include the costs of dog welfare enforcement. That figure alone indicates the need to update the legislation, prevent and educate in order to reduce the incidence of irresponsible dog ownership, thereby reducing the overall cost.

Some 2,500 adults and 2,200 children were either treated in A and E or admitted to hospital for dog-related incidents in 2006-07, and eight people were killed by dogs in the past four years—six children and two adults. I think we would all agree that that is six children and two adults too many. In addition, some 197 people were seriously injured.

In an age of austerity, we can’t go on like this, to borrow a phrase from the general election. We need to educate, prevent and enforce. Many hon. Members have long been persuaded of the need to act. For me, the starting point was Christmas 2006, when there was a horrendous attack on a postal worker called Paul Coleman in Sheffield. He was dragged to the ground by a dog in a street outside the property at which the dog resided. Paul Coleman suffered horrendous injuries. He needed plastic surgery and skin grafts to his leg to try to repair the damage. I have met him and the scars from that attack are visible to this day. The psychological scars will remain for ever, along with the physical ones.

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I accept that it is vital that on the mainland in the United Kingdom there is an essential strengthening of the legislation, and we must get it right. However, that in itself is not the answer. We need to ensure that the legislation is enforced. How does the hon. Lady think that will be done in reality?

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I will come on to that later, because it is a very important point.

After the attack I mentioned, the Communication Workers Union—the postal workers’ union—launched its bite-back campaign, which has been incredibly successful in raising the profile of the issue. I think that the Minister acknowledges that. I place on the record today the importance of the work done by the CWU in partnership with the RSPCA. They have played a critical role in bringing us to where we are today. About three years ago, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill based on the bite-back campaign to try to get the law changed. However, before I could get the Bill on the Floor of the House, there was another serious attack involving a postal worker in Cambridge, who nearly lost his arm as a result of a dog escaping from inside the gates of a property. Two Rottweilers dragged him to the ground and, as I say, he nearly lost his arm.

In that case, there was an attempt at prosecution on the grounds that the dog attacked on public property. However, the case was thrown out because the attack happened in an unadopted cul-de-sac. That judgment effectively means that there is very little protection not just on private property, but beyond the boundaries of what most of us would understand to be private property. That case alone highlights and underlines the need not only to consolidate, but to strengthen the law, as the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) mentioned a moment ago.

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I would like to mention a case in my constituency, where a young child was attacked by a dog on private property. After the child had been taken to hospital and things had calmed down, the parents understandably rang the police and said, “Can you do something?”. They were told, “We can’t act because it’s on private property and therefore it’s a civil matter.” Surely we must do something about such cases.

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We must absolutely do something about that. Every single time a child is seriously attacked or killed on private property, usually in the home of a grandmother or a relative, it makes it incumbent on legislators to strengthen the law, so that we can reduce and possibly eliminate such attacks. It is absolutely critical that we act. I am fed up of being asked to go on radio or television to comment on yet another attack on a child on private property, or another attack on a postal worker, a midwife, a health visitor and so on. It goes on and on.

Last year, Labour Members persuaded the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), to initiate the consultation that we are discussing. I place on the record my appreciation of the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who was then Home Secretary, and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who was at that time a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. They were both absolutely instrumental in persuading the then Prime Minister of the need for change. The consultation finished more than a year ago, and since then the case for updating the law has not changed. The health costs of dealing with dog-related injuries have not reduced. In fact, if anything, the case since June last year has strengthened.

What needs to be done? The hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North laid out the case for change very well indeed. We need to prevent. We need dog prevention notices, or dog ASBOs, as they are often called. That may require a range of measures on the part of a dog owner to restrain and control a dog properly, including muzzling in public and keeping a dog on a lead at all times. There are all sorts of measures that could be included in a dog penalty notice to encourage more responsible ownership. I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to repeal section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. It is deed, not breed, and it is the owner, not the dog, that we need to focus on in legislation.

We need to enforce, which is a point that was raised earlier. We need the law to apply to private property, so that enforcement can be initiated. At the moment, it is impossible to do anything at all. We need a range of penalties for irresponsible dog ownership, including disqualification if necessary and/or deprivation of ownership. We need more severe penalties, especially at the extreme end of irresponsible dog control, involving dogs as weapons. We need more consistent and effective enforcement of dog control measures, including, if necessary, more dog wardens and police dog legislation officers. That is the point about the microchip and the reintroduction of a licensing system. That system not only helps with enforcement, but means that we can raise the funds necessary to enforce more consistently across the country; that is the key point. Local authorities will lose 28% of their budgets in the next four years. They need the funds to enforce properly, as do the police.

We need education. We need dedicated budgets for local authorities and trained officers to be made available, not just to enforce new legislation, but to ensure that owners are educated about responsible dog ownership. I met a woman a couple of years ago whose dog attacked her own child on her own property. She was in the house doing a bit of hoovering. The dog attacked her boy in the garden, and she has never reconciled herself to what happened that day. She is now passionate about the need to educate owners about responsible dog ownership.

I think it seems obvious to everyone in the Chamber that nobody should ever leave a dog alone with a child, but people out there do need to be educated on these points—they need that. Education is critical to the success of any legislation. There is public support for updating the legislation: 78% of the public want the law updated and consolidated. I call on the Minister to put on the record today that he will inform the House, before the recess, of his response to the consultation, and that he will recommend that we update and consolidate the legislation.

Finally, the Prime Minister sent a letter to the Communication Workers Union on 30 April 2010, in which he stated that his party’s manifesto pledged support for

“updating the Act in such a way that it provides adequate protection for all and ensures that dog owners are fully responsible for their dogs.”

He went on:

“We support extending dangerous dogs law to cover all places including private property”.

I therefore call on the Minister to fulfil the manifesto commitment, and the commitment made by the Prime Minister last year.

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I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this important debate.

I first raised the issue of dangerous dogs in my maiden speech in the House last year. Having heard a number of horror stories from constituents about out-of-control dogs terrorising parks and open spaces, it was quickly obvious that Ealing and Acton, like the rest of London, has a serious problem. I put on record my support for the approach in the coalition agreement—cracking down on irresponsible owners who use their dogs as weapons—and I hope that we still agree that that is the correct approach. This debate is important, a year on, because we really need to see some action.

There have been some whisperings that an announcement from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs might be imminent. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s words this morning. It is true that last year’s DEFRA public consultation provided some interesting responses and talking points, as I am sure the recent Home Office consultation on antisocial behaviour will. Yet, in essence, that is part of the problem. The issue of dangerous dogs cuts across several Government Departments. We need a co-ordinated approach to finally get something done.

My Adjournment debate on dangerous dogs, this time last year, touched on that. In my speech, I focused on two measures that I thought might be helpful as a way forward. At the time, the Minister reacted positively. The first measure would be to attach court orders to the sentence of anyone found guilty of a crime involving violence or drug dealing. Those court orders would ban the person from being in control of a dog in a public place for a fixed amount of time. My local police assure me that that would be easily enforceable—they know their local criminals. That would not deal with the problem entirely, but would provide a measure of reassurance to the public. The second idea is to make local authorities attach conditions on dog ownership to tenancy agreements. I am pleased to hear that a number of local authorities are considering that and beginning to apply it. That would go some way towards dealing with dogs that are a nuisance to neighbours, as would a requirement to microchip, which is essential to ensure proper responsibility. I am aware, however, that neither of the measures are necessarily areas that DEFRA could take the lead on. Nevertheless, this is a pressing problem, and we need a common approach across Departments.

The issue filters down to a local level, too. Our local dog warden in Ealing has told me on a number of occasions how frustrating it is that doing something about dangerous dogs is talked about endlessly, but nothing ever actually gets done. Similarly, he cannot understand why each borough attempts to tackle their own problem in their own way, often quite differently. He feels that a common approach is surely needed. We need direction from the top.

The Deputy Mayor of London, Kit Malthouse, has been leading the way on the issue for the Mayor of London, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North mentioned. His focus on getting tougher sentences for owners of weapon dogs or status dogs—whatever you want to call them—who use their dogs for crime, is entirely right and a good example to follow. I hope that we start to see some action soon. He also wants tougher enforcement against ownership of banned breeds. I take the point that we are talking about deeds rather than breeds. I also suggest that it tends to be dangerous owners who are more of a problem than dangerous dogs. We have to recognise, however, that there are breeds that very much lend themselves to weapon status, and they must be controlled. Kit Malthouse says, rightly, that the whole court process must be speeded up, partly to save the public purse from the costs of kennelling, which costs £2.5 million a year in London alone, but also because it is cruel to keep animals cooped up for weeks on end.

Speaking as a London MP, I am only too aware that our open spaces are especially precious in built-up areas. That is why it is so galling when some thug dominates the space with a weapon dog kitted out with the usual status paraphernalia and spoils everyone’s pleasure. Not so long ago a puppy was ripped to pieces in Walpole park in my constituency, in front of a distraught mother and her son. I also recognise, however, that we need to amend the law to cover private land. The law must be able to intervene when a dog attack takes place on private property, just as it can in a case of domestic abuse. Somebody pointed out the other day that it seems ridiculous that if a postman puts his hand through a letter box and is bitten by a dog, no action can be taken. However, if the owner of the house happened to be standing behind the letterbox and for some reason decided to bite the hand of the postman, that would automatically be an assault—an offence that the police would look into. We need a proper balance. We must protect those workers who need access to private properties and children who are at risk.

The problem will not go away. It is getting worse and we need our Ministers, right across Government, to get together and sort it out before we are all confronted by yet another terrible tragedy.

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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who saw off a lot of competition to secure this debate, on giving us all the opportunity to have this discussion with the Minister.

I asked about dangerous dogs twice last week in the House, at Home Office questions and in Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions. As the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) has just said, because the issue is cross-departmental, it is more complicated. However, I was grateful for the positive responses from both Ministers on the Treasury Bench. Also, as was referred to earlier, the coalition agreement is positive in that its programme for government states:

“We will promote responsible pet ownership…and will ensure that enforcement agencies target irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs.”

On the back of last year’s DEFRA consultation, which received more than 4,000 responses, I and other colleagues hope that the Minister will indicate the Government’s conclusions and the way forward.

I have had, as have many colleagues, various meetings with a number of organisations, most recently with the Dogs Trust, the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Association of Chief Police Officers. They all want a Bill. I am grateful to them for their briefings, and the consensus across the piece is that any Bill must consolidate legislation concerning dog control, allow greater flexibility and discretion to enforcers and the courts, include a genuine preventive effect, update some offences, improve public safety and animal welfare and reduce the cost of enforcement, all of which have been referred to by colleagues so far.

As the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North said, breed-specific legislation is not effective in tackling the real cause of the problem, but should—there is agreement—relate to the owner’s acts and omissions rather than the type of dog. All the groups mentioned also believe that, without the political will to repeal breed-specific legislation, it must be amended to ensure better canine welfare and a clear strategy must be put in place to phase out the breed-specific legislation. The third main pillar of the consensus is that the scope of updated legislation must be extended to cover all places, including private property, to ensure better public safety and animal welfare. It must also provide suitable defences for responsible dog owners—for example, if people are attacked and their dog defends them. I want to focus a few remarks on the third point.

I was e-mailed by two constituents, Mr and Mrs Sprosson of Wapping. They were walking their dog last Friday and were subjected to a vicious attack by a dogo Argentino. Both their dog and Mr Sprosson were seriously injured. It was very much the usual story, with no owner in sight, although one eventually came into the open. My constituents are very unhappy with the response to their 999 calls to both the police and the ambulance—I am pursuing those concerns with the borough police commander and the chief executive of the London ambulance service—but those responses were almost symptomatic of the problem caused by inadequate legislation, which does not give the emergency services clear indications of how they ought to respond. Mrs Sprosson, in her e-mail, concluded:

“It is only a matter of time before this dog attacks again. Judging by its size, strength and alarming aggression it could easily kill a child and very badly damage an adult. What will it take for the police to address this terrible situation? How many more people will it be allowed to damage before they are forced to take action?”

The statistics, quoted by many and in the speeches this morning, are quite clear. We have seen a twelvefold increase in dog fighting between 2004 and 2008, according to figures from the RSPCA; 6,000-plus attacks on postal workers every year, according to the Communication Workers Union; 1,000-plus dogs seized by the Metropolitan police in 2009 and 2010, according to the Mayor of London’s office; and, sadly, as has been referred to, eight people killed and 197 seriously injured in the past four years. All of that is costing the taxpayer money, quite apart from the untold suffering.

I have not mentioned compulsory microchipping for all dogs, which many of us support, although perhaps not the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray). That would be a modern, 21st-century solution to registering dogs, tracking owners and ensuring that those responsible are held to account when things go wrong.

In conclusion, there is cross-party, animal welfare, police and public support for a Bill dealing with dangerous dogs and irresponsible owners. The Minister is sympathetic and DEFRA and the Home Office want to make progress. Colleagues in the Chamber are not being over-critical but genuinely trying to be helpful in giving momentum to what Ministers and civil servants want to achieve, which is updating the legislation.

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I am grateful to you, Mr Bayley, for allowing me to speak now. I join in the congratulations for my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes).

I will deal with two issues, one of which is to add to the momentum about consolidation, and the other is to touch on the law of unintended consequences. I have been fascinated and to some extent enlightened by the rare outbreak of consensus among all parties—we seldom hear so many hon. Members making the same points for the right reasons in Westminster Hall or the main Chamber—but one issue does concern me. There has been much reference to evidence and statistics that suggest an increase in attacks by dangerous dogs or, indeed, by dogs. Is that a trend with evidence to which the Minister can refer us, or is there simply a greater awareness or reporting of such incidents? Is there perhaps greater enforcement of which we are not aware, because we might not be privy to the statistics, and can the Minister put us right?

Another important point was the reference to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 as amended. If ever there was an example of a piece of legislation that has clearly had no effect, the 1991 Act is surely it. Many of the speeches made today were made then as well, back in 1991, with just as much passion and feeling. Legislation was forthcoming, and those in Parliament at the time presumably felt that they had done the right thing by voting for the legislation; yet, a few years on, here we are, having the same debate and referring to statistics that appear to have got worse rather than better. So I ask the Minister to exercise some caution in thinking that the solution to the problem mentioned by so many Members is simply further legislation. Unless we deal with the problem of enforcement, such legislation will serve only to restrict legitimate dog owners, while not restricting illegitimate ones, which is contrary to what we are all attempting to do.

I want to touch on the six pieces of existing legislation, although I will not go into them all. There are provisions in the Dogs Act 1871, as amended in 1989, for some civil recourse for people such as postmen who might be the victims of vicious dog attacks. I note that no one has highlighted the plight of poor old parliamentary candidates—apart from my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, who touched on the issue—who might also find themselves being attacked on private property.

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To satisfy the hon. Gentleman, I put on the record that I was attacked in the general election last year, in precisely the circumstances outlined earlier—the hand through the letter box and the dog on the other side—so I sympathise with the plight of parliamentary candidates in elections.

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I do not think that there would be much public sympathy for our plight, but it might be the only area in which we could generate some sympathy for ourselves. That is why I made the point. I accept that such an incident is a civil rather than a criminal matter, so that might need some attention as part of any consolidation process that follows. We must also not overlook the Animal Welfare Act 2006 or the Policing and Crime Act 2009, which do at least provide an opportunity for injunctions forbidding ownership.

As other Members have mentioned, there is therefore quite a lot of legislation, dealing with quite a lot of issues, varying from using dogs as a form of weapon to using dogs in a way that might cause them suffering, let alone the people that they might come into contact with—indeed, there is a power to prevent some people from owning dogs at all. Such provisions already exist, suggesting that instead of new legislation necessarily being the solution, the proper and cross-departmental consolidation of existing legislation might be the way to proceed.

I also want to touch on the law of unintended consequences. There are some grey areas in what constitutes a dangerous dog or activity that might cause alarm and distress to members of the public. Plenty of dog owners have fallen foul of concerned if not mischievous people who are worried that the activity of a dog might be dangerous, although it is not at all. We must protect those whose livelihoods depend on working dogs. There is a distinct line to be drawn between legitimate scrutiny by law enforcement agencies and individuals, and people who may simply be caught up as a consequence of owning a dog responsibly and thoughtfully, but which might seem to an outsider to pose a danger. There have been numerous examples of people who have fallen foul of that distinction.

This debate has shown, if nothing else, that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 did not have the desired effect, nor did the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997. Clearly, there is much work to be done on the activities of irresponsible dog owners, for which the dog usually gets the blame. One wonders whether some of the measures for dog control notices that have been suggested or are in place would be better applied to the owner instead of the dog. The point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North about attitude and education is crucial. I fiercely defend the Minister’s position that the Government are not bossy and that it is not their business to interfere with people’s daily lives, but there is line to be drawn.

With a little knowledge, a lot of progress can be made in persuading, educating and informing people about the difference between irresponsible dog ownership and responsible dog ownership, and that could be easily and cheaply achieved. Consolidation of existing legislation, coupled with other measures, would be a sensible and proportionate way forward.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this debate. The behaviour of aggressive, violent dogs and their irresponsible owners has been raised with me by constituents time and again. Earlier this year, I was presented with a petition of more than 350 signatures from residents living in the West Pottergate area of the city demanding that local authorities take action. I heard terrible stories from some of those residents about pets that had been mauled to death by loose dogs running freely around their neighbourhood. Patricia McAndrews saw her dog killed by a Staffordshire bull terrier in September, and Patricia Harker lost her kitten to another aggressive dog in the same area.

The residents who came to see me told me of their fears, not only for their pets and their neighbours’ pets, but for children. Horrifyingly, their fears were realised on Friday last week when a 10-year-old child was attacked by two dogs in a park near West Pottergate and sustained injuries to his arms and legs. Those residents are right to call for action and right to call for protection, so that they can enjoy their neighbourhood without fear of what may happen to them or their own loved pets if confronted by a dangerous dog.

As we have heard, the problem is generally with so-called status dogs, which are kept not as pets but as symbols of aggression or, even worse, as weapons. We would not allow young men on the streets waving knives around, but dogs in the wrong hands can be just as dangerous. Many dogs have been deliberately trained by irresponsible owners to be aggressive and violent, and others have been neglected, abused and deprived of the love and attention that other pets receive and develop an aggressive personality as a result. Those owners have no respect for their animal, and instead see them as a means of gaining respect for themselves, but fear does not equate to respect.

One breed that has been abused as a status dog is the Staffordshire bull terrier, but I want to say a few words of support for the Staffie. It gets some dreadful press, partly due to its historic use as a fighting dog, and because it is also associated with many reported incidents, including some of those that I mentioned in Norwich. My brother is the proud owner of a Staffie called Milo—a lovely dog with an affectionate and playful personality. To assume that all Staffies are aggressive is far from the truth, as I have seen for myself. Indeed, the UK Kennel Club describes Staffies as

“Extremely reliable, highly intelligent and affectionate, especially with children.”

The temperament of any animal will always be due in large part to the care and attention that it receives at a young age from its owner. When we talk about dangerous dogs, it would often be more reasonable, as other hon. Members have said, to refer to dangerous owners. Government policy should focus on responsible ownership over and above a breed-specific approach.

Returning to the situation in West Pottergate, I have been asking Norwich city council to introduce a dog control order to require owners to keep their dogs on leads in public in that part of the city. Compelling people to keep dogs on leads raises questions about whether it is fair for responsible owners of harmless dogs to have their liberty constrained, but I do not believe that that argument holds up in areas with an established problem. Many responsible pet owners are terrified of what could happen to their animal, and many would gladly exchange the right to allow their animal to run free in problem areas for greater peace of mind. I will continue to make the case for dog control orders as part of a proportionate response to a real problem, and I hope that there will be no more incidents before the council changes its mind.

The compulsory microchipping of dogs has been mentioned and is endorsed by the RSPCA and others. There is merit in such a policy, and it would certainly be of huge help in tracing stray and lost animals, but in the context of today’s debate, it would also help authorities to identify ownership and accountability of dangerous dogs immediately. However, if a compulsory scheme is introduced, it needs to be done in such a way that it will make a difference. I suspect that responsible dog owners will be queuing up with their pets, and the irresponsible—those whom we are most concerned about in today’s debate—will try to find ways of avoiding the system. Any system must be watertight.

A significant issue is who should bear the burden of cost. It would almost certainly be the owners of the pets, but if the system were not watertight, it would not be fair for responsible owners to shell out £35, while those whom we are most concerned about today fail to do so. The system must be drawn up in such a way that it would minimise the risk of large numbers of dogs being made homeless by owners who would sooner dump their pet than pay for microchipping. That prospect could be minimised by applying the new compulsion at times of change of ownership of the animal, or by exempting groups of owners who find it hardest to pay the charges. Microchipping may have an important role to play, but these issues need to be clearly addressed in any scheme.

This debate is important, and my constituents are eagerly awaiting the Minister’s response. I appreciate the Government’s difficulties in reconciling the rights of responsible pet owners with irresponsible ones. The issues are quite complex, and proposals cannot be rushed. However, many of my constituents are appalled by the dreadful treatment that many dogs receive at the hands of their owners, and horrified by the all-too-real consequences on the safety of the wider community. They are calling out for the Government to help to make our neighbourhoods and areas such as West Pottergate safe for animal lovers, for children and for all who wish to enjoy public spaces without fear of out-of-control dogs. If the Minister can explain how new measures can make all pets safer from both aggressive dogs and abusive owners, he will have the support of animal lovers throughout the country. We must address this issue before more pets and children become victims of aggressive dogs and dangerous dog owners.

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rose

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Order. Three hon. Members are trying to catch my eye, and 12 minutes remain.

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I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this valuable debate. You will be pleased to hear, Mr Bayley, that my comments will be brief. I shall concentrate on the increasing incidences of status dogs—dogs that have been bred and, more importantly, trained to be weapons.

The Government have made inroads in tackling antisocial behaviour and violence on our streets. Knife crime has been vilified, and serious steps are being taken to stem the gang culture and youth violence that fuelled its rise. In place of the knives and offensive weapons that people carry in their pockets, more imaginative ways are springing up for people to look scary, fierce and suitably menacing. Status dogs should be seen for what they are: a violent weapon, a source of fear and something that fuels the rise in crime and antisocial behaviour.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) said, we do not necessarily need more legislation, but we must ensure that existing legislation is interpreted correctly and is flexible enough to get to the heart of the problem. We need to bring about a culture of more responsible and positive dog ownership.

The rise of the status dog is striking. Between 2004 and 2008, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reported a twelvefold increase in reports of dog-fighting. Over half those cases involved youths fighting with their dogs in the street. A clear connection exists between the breeding and training of such dogs and criminal activity, and dogs are often used as a way of threatening and coercing others. As many of my colleagues have mentioned, attacks on humans have also increased and convictions have doubled over the past decade.

That troubling rise has been confirmed by my experiences and those of my constituents in Gosport. A great number of constituents have contacted me, sometimes in great distress, following attacks on much-loved family pets in public places. Dangerous dogs make the streets less safe for all by supporting and exacerbating violent crime. Current legislation is failing to deal effectively with the use of dangerous dogs as weapons, and ownership of the four breeds prohibited under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has increased. Perversely, the pariah status of such dogs is an attraction for youths involved in violence.

I want to see a more cohesive vision for tackling the use of dogs as weapons. We must recognise that such dogs are part of a wider network of street violence and antisocial behaviour. The most troubling attacks—those linked to gang warfare—must be met with immediate and severe penalties. Furthermore, courts must be enabled to disqualify offenders from dog ownership altogether when the clear intention is for dogs to be used to cause harm.

We must not lose sight, however, of the suffering of the animals. Despite the danger that they pose to the public, in many cases their experience involves severe animal abuse. Through a partnership between the police, councils and animal welfare charities, it is possible to combine effective enforcement with wider educative goals. Dog ownership can have a beneficial and socialising effect on disadvantaged and demonised youths. Pioneering work has been done by organisations such as BARK—Borough Action for Responsible K9s—which seeks to teach responsible animal ownership in deprived and crime-ridden areas.

The beneficial and socialising effects of dog ownership on disadvantaged youths presents a powerful case for thinking imaginatively about future legislation. The straightforward ban on breeds and the reactive enforcement action of the current legislation has proved ineffective in the face of an increasing use of dogs as weapons. Such animals present a serious threat to the public; they are a significant prop for street violence, but in themselves a tragic example of animal abuse. I welcome this debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts on proactive steps that could be taken to address the issue of dangerous dogs and the wider culture of gang crime and animal cruelty that perpetuates their use.

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I, too, will try to be brief. I congratulate the hon. Members for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), and for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on their accurate and appropriate comments about this serious issue.

I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to the latest in a long series of cases that have hit the headlines in my constituency. On 7 May, the headline in the local paper stated: “Savage dog went in for the kill”. It recounted the story of an Alsatian cross called Cleo that suffered horrific injuries at the teeth, I suppose, of a husky-type dog in Springfield park in Cheltenham. Her owner was 71-year-old Mr Robbins, who has already had a triple heart bypass. I imagine that he was terrified by the whole incident. It probably posed a threat to his health, and it would certainly have terrified any bystanders, especially parents, who may have imagined what could have happened had it been their child, rather than another animal, that irritated the dog. Mr Robbins said:

“It was a vicious attack and it was horrible to watch…The man was kicking his dog to get him to stop.”

The dog that attacked Cleo was on a lead, but dragged its owner to the ground as it pounced. According to the article,

“Police have not established whether the owner of the other dog could be charged with breaching the dangerous dogs act.”

That may provoke looks of astonishment from the Minister and other hon. Members, but we can draw a few conclusions from that story. First, the dog in question was not one of the four banned breeds—I am not sure when a Japanese Tosa was last seen in Gloucestershire, or whether Gloucestershire constabulary would recognise it if it saw one. Although that part of the legislation should remain—I would not want to be the Minister who removed it and later saw an attack by a dog of that breed—emphasis needs to shift away from breed and towards behaviour.

Secondly, because the attack was on an animal rather than a human, it carries less weight under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, and that issue needs to be tackled. Thirdly, the owner tried to control his dog by kicking it which, as we have often noted, suggests that the origin of the dog’s problem lies with the owner. As the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton rightly pointed out, there is no definitive way of identifying a dog’s owner. I know from Cheltenham animal shelter and other places that at times, people have claimed ownership of a dog until they realised that they were at risk of prosecution, at which point they passed the animal to someone else. That also has to be tackled. Universal microchipping is ready to roll. Welfare charities know how to run the system; it takes seconds and costs a few pounds, and if it makes a surplus to enable the provision of more resources for dog control, that would be desirable. The time for universal microchipping has arrived.

We must not, however, wear rose-tinted spectacles when looking at this issue. As well as owner behaviour we must tackle dog behaviour. If a dog is showing extremely aggressive behaviour, as in the case I mentioned in my constituency and other such instances, we need powers to deal with that. The Association of Chief Police Officers, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other organisations have pointed out the importance of early intervention. Whether or not that involves control orders—dog ASBOs, as they have been called—we need something to enable properly licensed persons in a local area, including those who work in animal shelters, local authority employers and the police, to exercise professional judgment about whether a dog is dangerous.

One animal I saw at Cheltenham animal shelter was so aggressive that the well-trained staff could approach it only with a humane version of a cattle prod. They were not clear who the owner was, and did not know whether, if someone claimed to be its owner, they would have to release that dog out into the community. The dog that attacked poor Cleo is still at large in Cheltenham. Something is badly wrong if we cannot confiscate a dog when necessary. Even if no attack has taken place on a human being or been documented to the satisfaction of current legislation, if a dog is clearly aggressive in the eyes of professionals, they should have the power to confiscate it. They do not necessarily need to put it down; it could be neutered, trained or re-homed. In extremis, sometimes a dog may need to be put down. Unless such matters are tackled with care and a degree of urgency, I fear that I will read more headlines like the one that I quoted from the Gloucestershire Echo, and I would not want that. I hope that the Minister understands the urgency of the problem.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this debate. I have one minute and 30 seconds for my speech, so I will make one basic point. For me, the issue comes down to basic common sense, and in that respect, dog owners are like parents. I echo the sentiment that the issue is not about dangerous dogs, but dangerous owners.

I am a parent of three children, and in the minute that remains I would like to repeat a brief quote. When I was a candidate, the wisest thing said to me came from an individual in a mosque who recited a saying that I believe is 3,500 years old. It is an Indian Veda; it may be apocryphal, but its essence is as follows: we spend time with children from the age of nought to seven; from seven to 14 we educate them; and from 14 to 21 we love them unconditionally. If dogs are brought up in an environment where they have little engagement with their owners and little emotional input, are we surprised that society has to pick up the pieces? In essence, it is about responsibility.

I will finish by echoing the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. If a person chooses to own and look after a dog, they should be legally responsible for the actions of that dog. In agreeing to take the dog into their home, they must ensure that the dog is safe and behaves appropriately wherever it is. That is the essence of the issue. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will cover all the other points about breed and deed, microchipping and so on, but for me, the essence of the issue is the ownership of the dogs.

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It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship again, Mr Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing the debate. It has been remarkably well attended and has shown great insight from hon. Members from Northern Ireland, from urban constituencies and from rural constituencies. There has also been great consensus across the Chamber that this problem must be dealt with for the benefit of people throughout the country.

We heard some fine speeches. A particularly fine speech was made by the hon. Lady, who dealt with the issues in a very practical and consensual way. We also heard from the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray). We heard from the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on the impact of the dangerous dogs legislation in rural communities. The hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) spoke about responsible ownership and the effects that compulsory microchipping would have. The hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) spoke about the ineffectiveness of a reactive approach to the current dangerous dogs strategy.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) spoke about the need for early intervention and addressing the behaviour of the owner. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal), in his brief but very cogent remarks, stressed the need for policy makers to address the environment in which dogs are being brought up and stressed responsible dog ownership.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) spoke very cogently about the need to extend the dangerous dogs legislation to private property. She spoke movingly about the impact that the failure to do so has had on her constituents. She also spoke about the need for education on responsible dog ownership. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) has great experience in these matters, having been in the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs and having been involved in launching the consultation. He spoke with great power and authority about the need for an urgent Government response and action on the part of the House to deal with the situation now.

The need for further action is shown by even a cursory analysis of the number of prosecutions and the number of persons found guilty of offences under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 in the past 13 years. In 1998, 764 people were proceeded against under the 1991 Act in England and Wales, yet by 2008, the number had risen to 1,247. In 1998, of those 764 people proceeded against, 406 were found guilty of an offence; that number had risen to 889 by 2008. The problem has become so serious in London that the Metropolitan police set up a status dogs unit in March 2009. They did so because of the serious impact on antisocial behaviour in London.

Department of Health figures show that 565 dog attack victims needed to go to hospital in August 2010. That was up from 538 in June 2010. The problem is one that constituents throughout the country are raising with Members of Parliament, and the Government have to get a grip on it and address it urgently.

I am in the very good position—perhaps even the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) will be satisfied with this—of being the walking embodiment of the West Lothian question this morning, because from 26 February 2011, my constituents have benefited from improvements to the law made by the Scottish Parliament. Of course, the issue is largely devolved. It is instructive to consider what the Scottish Parliament decided to do, having explored the issue for the past 18 months.

The Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010, passed by the Holyrood Parliament last year and enforced from February 2011, did not end the prohibition on the four prohibited breeds. It did not bring in a scheme of compulsory microchipping. Those may be issues on which there would be a difference with England. However, the Act did ensure that the legislation would apply to private property, so that postal workers and other employees, children and other dogs and animals would be protected. It also brought in a system of dog control notices—sometimes referred to as dog ASBOs—which place real responsibilities on the owner, in terms of their conduct. Conditions imposed by a notice can relate to such things as training and neutering of animals. There is a great deal in the Scottish approach that could be taken up by DEFRA. There may be differences, but certainly the direction of travel followed by the Holyrood Parliament and, indeed, the Northern Ireland Assembly commends itself to this House and DEFRA.

The consultation closed last June. Since then, the Government have been informing us that we will hear soon what the response will be. In a written answer in December, the Minister said that we would hear early in the new year. We are now into July, but hon. Members are none the wiser. I hope that when the Minister winds up this debate, he will be able to outline the broad principles of the changes that will be taken up by DEFRA. We can see from this debate that there is consensus across the House. The Government would have support from those on the Opposition Benches for the introduction of a Bill in 2012, after the next Queen’s Speech, to deal with the fact that the 1991 Act does not apply to private property, to deal with the lack of enforcement options available and to allow for compulsory microchipping to be introduced if DEFRA wanted to do that.

What is remarkable about the issue is the degree of consensus in civic society. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Blue Cross, which I visited late last year, Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Kennel Club, Prospect, the Police Federation, the Royal College of Nursing, Unison, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, Unite and, of course, the Communication Workers Union all support the campaign for a change in the law in England.

When we examine the data—what is happening on the ground year by year—we see that the case for change is strong and urgent. As many hon. Members pointed out, 6,000 postal workers are injured every year in dog attacks. Hospital admission statistics show that 2,500 adults and 1,200 children were either treated in accident and emergency departments or admitted to hospital in the 2006-07 financial year alone. As has also been said, most notably by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse, in the past four years, eight people have been killed and 197 people have been seriously injured in dog-related incidents. This is a serious problem, not just for urban Britain but in rural Britain.

Hon. Members ably set out the case for preventive action. In the public’s response to the consultation launched by DEFRA, 78% of people believed that consolidation of the law and taking proactive and preventive steps were the most important way of improving the law at the moment. Hon. Members also pointed out the need for discretion in the seizure of dogs. In a written answer, the Minister provided stark statistics on the number of animals seized in the past two years. Perhaps DEFRA could consider giving the police greater discretion regarding the necessity of seizure in any legislation.

The case advanced by the public is clear: 88% of the public believe that change is needed. We need to move to an approach that is based less on the breed of the animal and more on the deed of the owner. We need to promote responsible dog ownership. We need to ensure that local authorities and police authorities, which are under great stress because of some of the Government’s public spending policies, have dedicated resources in place to deal with enforcement. The Opposition are prepared to work co-operatively with the Government, and if we move forward together, we can secure reforms that will be in the interests of animal welfare, employee safety and public safety.

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I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, and to reply to the debate, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). I, too, congratulate her on securing it; like the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), I heard that a number of people wanted to secure a debate on this subject, but fortune favoured my hon. Friend. Clearly, I will not be able to pick up every point that has been made in the debate in the time that remains, but I will try to explore the main issues, as DEFRA is indeed doing.

I start by saying that there is absolutely no difference between the Government’s position and that shared by every Member who has spoken this morning—there is a need for change, and there can be no doubt about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) asked whether there is real evidence that the situation is worsening, and I assure him that there is; indeed, after he spoke, other Members, including the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain), trotted out some statistics. Action must, therefore, be taken. As hon. Members have said, the issue crosses different Departments, which is unfortunate, but they will appreciate that that means that DEFRA has to work closely with other Departments, particularly the Home Office.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North said that she owns a couple of exuberant cocker spaniels, and any of us who owns one or more dogs should, like me, treat that close relationship as a privilege. When a dog actually does something that we tell it to do, because it is properly trained, that is a privilege and a reflection of a close personal relationship—sometimes, it is probably easier than trying to train our children. [Interruption.] I will not repeat the sedentary comment from my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray). However, such a relationship is a privilege, and all of us who consider ourselves to be responsible dog owners understand that. It is therefore difficult to understand the mentality of people who do not have that relationship, who even go out of their way to create a totally different relationship and who treat their animals with the cruelty that hon. Members have mentioned. In that respect, we are seeing a deterioration, and, tragically, there has been another attack on a child in the past 24 hours. Fortunately, it was not fatal, but we all send our support and sympathy to the family and hope that the child recovers quickly.

We need to respect the principle that we should get these things right and avoid jumping in simply because something must be done. I agree that something must be done, but if we are not careful, we tend to take precipitate action, which is exactly what happened in 1991, when, as we all accept, the Government of the day rushed to introduce the Dangerous Dogs Act, which was not the salvation that people thought it was. We therefore need to get things right and to ensure that any changes have a real impact on reducing instances of irresponsible dog ownership—the issue of the deed, which so many hon. Members have spoken about.

Let me take a minute or two to go through what we have been doing in the past 12 months. In that context, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse gave his successor—namely me—a hospital pass. It must have been one of his last decisions before the general election to launch the consultation—as has been said, the consultation did not finish until well after the election. Since then, we have been analysing the 4,250-odd responses. Clearly, now is not the time to go through all the results, but it is interesting that some of the answers are not what one would have expected. The first question was about whether to extend the 1991 Act to private property, an issue that the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) mentioned. Some 63% of respondents said no, and 37% said yes, which is a surprise, but it just shows that there is not great agreement on all the issues, and the same interpretation could apply on other issues.

The Home Office consultation was launched by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who made it clear that the Government expect everyone to have a right to feel safe in their home and neighbourhood. She also made it clear that antisocial behaviour should be a priority for local agencies, including the police, councils and landlords. She was referring to antisocial behaviour across the piece, and much of what we discuss in relation to dogs involves people, too, which is why there is a crossover.

I will not go through all our proposals in the consultation document, because I assume that hon. Members have read it, but the new flexible tools proposed by the Home Office would replace the 18 formal powers currently in use, including those applicable to dogs. Under the proposals, control measures on dangerous and nuisance dogs would be effected largely through the new crime prevention injunctions and community protection orders. The Home Office is analysing the results of its consultation and will publish a summary soon.

In addition, DEFRA is looking at the results of the earlier consultation to see how the Home Office’s actions and ours would meld together to address the very real problem that we face. I assure hon. Members that my noble Friend Lord Henley, who leads on this issue, is discussing it with all the civic organisations that the hon. Member for Glasgow North East mentioned.

I want to refer to the quite proper point about Scotland and Northern Ireland. I assure hon. Members that we are very much aware of the decisions that have been taken there, and we are in close contact with those involved. As the hon. Gentleman said, the provisions have been in place for only a few months, so it is early days in terms of judging whether they will work. However, I assure hon. Members that we are not averse to introducing such measures, if they work.

Several Members discussed dog control notices, which many people see as an example of preventive action, in that they can be used in circumstance where a dog is unruly without actually being dangerous. The Home Secretary’s review, which I have just mentioned, includes the full range of measures currently being used to prevent people from allowing their dogs to be a nuisance or a threat to others. The measures include everything from keeping dogs on the lead to dog fouling and tackling those who allow their dogs to threaten and intimidate. We are working closely with those involved.

For those who use dogs as a weapon, there are already some severe penalties. Although it is an old Act, the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 provides that a person guilty of such an offence can face a long prison sentence, including up to life in certain circumstances. There is legislation—it might not be the easiest to use, but I assure my hon. Friends that it exists.

There is also the issue of section 1 of the 1991 Act—the breed-specific legislation—which we discussed. ACPO tells us that without breed-specific legislation and, more specifically, the prohibition on pit bull terriers, there would have been many more attacks. The vast majority of police officers are of the view that pit bull terrier-type dogs are not suitable to be kept as pets, unless they are in strictly controlled conditions. We must also recognise that other breeds—the hon. Members for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and for Norwich South (Simon Wright) mentioned some—have occasionally attacked people or other animals. That is why section 3 of the 1991 Act applies to all dogs, regardless of breed.

There is also the issue of extending the criminal law to private property. I mentioned the response in the consultation, and I do not want anybody to read anything into that, other than that it is an example of how public consultation does not always produce the answer we expect. As the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge rightly said, there is currently no criminal liability if the dog itself is not trespassing. Extending the law would allow the police to investigate all dog attacks on private property to establish the facts and see whether a prosecution should be brought. Extending the law in that way might, on the face of it, be an easy thing to do, but we must avoid the law of unintended consequences, which is a frequent problem. Do we really want a home owner to be investigated as a possible offender and to be at risk of prosecution because their dog acted in a way that most people would consider only natural, in that it defended the property on which it was brought up?

I do not have time to answer the many other points that were properly raised. Let me conclude by saying that we are ruling nothing out at this stage. All the measures that have been advocated are under close consideration. I wish that I could give a precise timetable, but I can only repeat that it will be soon. We are working closely with the Home Office to get on top of what we all accept is a serious situation.