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Dangerous Dogs

Volume 533: debated on Wednesday 19 October 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate, which I think has been welcomed by all parties in the House and by areas throughout the country. For that reason, I hope we can keep the debate on the strictly all-party basis it deserves. That will certainly be the tenor of my remarks throughout.

More than 6,000 postmen a year are bitten or attacked in one form or another by dogs. There are approximately 10 attacks per constituency per year, so it is a matter in which we all have a direct and important interest. Indeed, the devolved Parliament in Scotland has legislated on the issue, and Northern Ireland is in the process of doing so.

The reason why I have called for this debate relates to a nasty incident in Coventry involving a young girl, Alicia Foskett, whose mother, Sarah, has, without a great deal of encouragement, led a campaign. Under existing law, the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 excludes private property from any criminal provision, so Sarah Foskett felt that, at best, she got passive help from the police and local council. That might be understandable in the context of the present law, which I wish to address. I hope to leave as much time as I can for the Minister and other MPs to respond, but I cannot leave too much time because it is only a half hour debate. The support for Sarah Foskett seemed inadequate, so she led a strong and courageous single-woman campaign to raise the profile of the issue in Coventry and has done extremely well. I am pleased to say that the police are now giving her a lot of support in the civil action she intends to take.

It is only after the event that the police are actually doing something. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a pity they did not do something beforehand?

I agree. They should have given much more positive support beforehand, but they could not take any action under the existing legislation. I will come back to that in a moment, but it is one of the principal things that needs to be addressed. As things stand, the case is for a civil action rather than criminal proceedings.

As I have said, this is not a party political issue. Indeed, the Prime Minister in a letter to the Communication Workers Union just before the election, when he was Leader of the Opposition, made it clear that he and the Conservative party were very much in favour of the action that I wish to recommend. He wrote:

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

That is a clear statement from the then Leader of the Opposition and now Prime Minister. I hope that the Government can find some impetus in the light of that support.

The more general statistics are interesting, but I will not detain hon. Members with them for too long. I have already mentioned that 6,000 postal workers are injured every year. Some 2,500 adults and 2,700 children are treated for injuries every year. In the past four years, six children and two adults have been killed. The attacks seem to come in spates. The past few years have seen a further spate of attacks in London that have been so bad that the Met has set up its own special dog unit in response.

A constituent of mine, Mr Naylor, has asked me to raise this very point with my hon. Friend. The burden on the authorities and the taxpayers is growing daily because of the lack of control and responsibility exercised by owners. We need more control over the behaviour of owners, whether that be via an insurance policy—that idea has been floated in the past—or some other mechanism. We cannot have the general public picking up the bill for irresponsible dog owners.

Getting all dog owners to pay into an insurance fund relating to a small minority of dogs would tar everybody with the same brush. Over the centuries, dogs have been man’s greatest friend. They are appreciated in families such as mine and by children. That idea would also be grossly unfair at a time of extreme stringency for all families. It is a question of getting the owners to change their behaviour and become responsible. I regret to say that that is a more general problem throughout society at present.

In the case of Mrs Foskett, the owner refused to even have the dog looked at. He shunted it off to a friend. We do not know where it is yet, but it continues to be on private premises and to pose a danger, which is not good enough. He even refused to have the dog put under the temporary care of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals while it undertook training. That is, by any standards, irresponsible behaviour. I agree with my hon. Friend that part of the solution is to change that, but the application of criminal law—the greatest sanction the country can impose on any individual—would be a good step forward. Making the law apply to individual premises would begin the change of mindset that my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) are seeking.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and I congratulate his constituent on her work. Does he agree that it is not the breed of dog that seems to be the problem? It seems to be a problem with all dogs. A common theme seems to be that cases are not treated as seriously as they could be by the police, and that far greater resources need to be given to making prosecutions.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and agree with her to some extent. In Scotland, they have brought the “deed, not the breed” distinction into play. I do not know how useful that would be; I would go for “and the breed”. It was a Staffordshire bull terrier that was involved in the incident in my constituency, and there was dreadful scarring to the young girl’s face. The breeds are fairly identifiable. Indeed, the Met’s conclusion is that they are being bred in London by young men and others almost as trophy items to display. That is a problem, and I do not think that we lose anything by having a category. It should also be made clear that no other breed of dog is excluded, and that the criminal law will apply to them if there is any doubt, which I do not think there is.

An additional issue that has been brought to my attention by some of my constituents is attacks by out-of-control dogs on wildlife, particularly swans. There has been a distressing increase in the number of swans killed or injured by dogs. At present, rescue groups such as the Gwent Swan Rescue, which is now called Swan Rescue South Wales, cannot claim back the veterinary fees from irresponsible owners. Surely that must be put right.

I agree. This is pointing towards a consolidation of all previous laws—many of them go back many years; one of the most useful was enacted in 1871—into new, modern statutes to deal with some of the points that are not clear in previous legislation. In addition to dogs attacking defenceless, beautiful animals such as swans, I have even heard of dogs attacking guide dogs. It largely comes back to the owner. We must put in place the sanctions that make it clear we are not going to tolerate this situation any more.

Without rehearsing the whole history of the issue, I shall give hon. Members a flavour of it. Related Acts were introduced in 1839, 1847, 1861 and 1871. This is, therefore, a recurrent theme in society and our pet community. It is no good denying the problem; we must simply do the best we can to minimise it, even if we cannot totally eliminate it. That means introducing sensible, modern legislation. I hope that some Conservative Members have time—as they can probably tell, I am trying to get through my speech as quickly as I can to leave time for others to speak—to join us in supporting such an approach. The consultation has been carried out, and finished in June 2010.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that two clear things need to be done? First, the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 needs to be got rid of and replaced by sensible, effective legislation; and secondly, we need a workable law that introduces compulsory micro-chipping for all dogs.

I am coming to that in a moment. I agree with the hon. Gentleman but the point is: why are we not getting on with it? We must face the fact that we need legislation to deal with the problem and, if we all agree on that, we could go one step further and say that it needs to be consolidated. Let us have fresh legislation that takes all recent experience into account. This is not a criticism of the Prime Minister, the Government or the Conservative party, but the consultation was completed a year and a half ago and I cannot think what is holding things up. There is widespread support in the House for dealing with this problem, which exists throughout the country, so let us get on with sorting it out.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have consensus among a range of organisations—such as the Kennel Club, the dog wardens’ body and, indeed, the postal services union—on the need to introduce consolidated legislation that works in the 21st century?

Absolutely. I could not agree more. We have little influence with the Government these days, but the question is whether Conservative Members can influence the Government to get on and produce the legislation. This is a time of party political tensions. There have been bitter disputes in the House about the economy, social welfare and a range of issues, and it is difficult for parties to agree in this time of extreme danger in the economic sphere; but this is an issue on which we could get ahead, do something useful and be united. The country would feel much better for it. There is every reason for taking action.

I will finish my speech by 11.15 am. It is only a half hour debate, and I hope that the Minister will not take too much time and that others can contribute if they still wish to do so. I am not going to legislate now, but essentially, the basis of the new legislation should definitely be to extend the criminal law so that section 3 of the 1991 Act includes private premises. We also need to consider the issue of micro-chipping. As the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) said, there is widespread agreement among, for example, the Dogs Trust and the Kennel Club. Everyone recognises the need to deal with these issues—even those on which we are not known for agreeing. We could push ahead, but we should do so sensibly and clearly.

We should also consider the issue of dog control notices. The no-fault personal injury compensation scheme should not be paid for by all dog owners. That is unfair and unnecessary. There must be some other approach—one that does not impact, I hasten to add, on the public purse.

Much has been made of the fact that breed-specific legislation does not seem to work. Does my hon. Friend know of any analysis of whether such accidents or attacks are breed-specific? We seem to be talking simply about statements made by one side or the other.

I made a statement, for which I do not have any statistics, based on my personal impression—which may well be wrong—and the examples I have seen in and around my constituency and in London. In Scotland, for example, they have rejected that view and are taking a deed-based approach. However, by definition, such an approach accepts that damage has to be done before action can be taken. I do not know what the phrase “deed and breed” might add to the legislation, or whether it might confuse matters; but I am not against that approach.

If the list is breed-specific, people simply swap breeds and find new ones. That is one of the reasons why looking at the deed is considered more helpful.

I am grateful for that intervention. Of course, that is why I said that we cannot focus just on the breed; we also need to consider the deed. We do need, however, to focus a little on the breed, just to make people conscious that other breeds are available. To ditch that approach after a certain amount of effort has been put into it would be unnecessary.

I have covered the personal injury compensation scheme and micro-chipping. Tougher penalties for and punishment of irresponsible owners should be applied through the criminal law. That would be the single most important legislative action we could take to influence owners’ behaviour, which is clearly what we must do.

I will now open the debate to others who wish to take part. All I am saying is this: it has come to the point when we owe it to ourselves, our constituents and the young children and adults who have been scarred for life by these dogs, to deal with such legislation properly. We need to produce something that is comprehensive, clear and up to date. That is the minimum we can do to prevent such scars from blighting people’s lives in future.

Order. Two Members are indicating that they want to speak. I will call the Minister at 11.20 am, so they can share the four minutes between them. They can do the maths.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) on securing this important debate. I agree with much of what he has said, particularly about the criminal law needing to be much tighter on the irresponsible ownership of dogs. In most cases, it is the humans who are at fault, not the dogs. Possession of a violent dog has caused catastrophe in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency in Coventry. If it can be proven that an owner has trained that animal to be aggressive, it should be an aggravating factor and fall under the criminal law.

I shall offer a slightly different view on the issue of “deeds not breeds,” which I am erring in favour of. The breed issue is not clear. The pit bull terrier is not a single breed of dog; it is a generic name and a grouping that contains several breeds of dog, including the popular Staffordshire bull terrier. If handled in the correct manner, the Staffordshire bull terrier is an affectionate and loving family pet. A dog bearing just one or two of the physical characteristics associated with a pit bull terrier can be classified in law as a pit bull terrier. The implication of that for anyone who complains to the police about a neighbour with an animal bearing just one of the characteristics of that dog type is that the police are mandatorily enforced to take that dog away from that owner. My visit out with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals the week before last to mark world animal day confirmed that such an approach can be very unfair indeed, because unfortunately many of the calls the RSPCA get from members of the public are malicious. I ask the Minister to take that into account.

Just briefly, I support and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) on his call for the consolidation of existing laws into a new statute. I will not repeat everything that he has said and instead make two further points.

First, I found out today from a written parliamentary question that 892 people were admitted to hospital last year in Yorkshire and the Humber alone as a result of dog attacks. If we can establish the average cost for those admissions as opposed to accident and emergency attendances, I am sure we will find that, overall, there is a significant multi-million pound cost in England to the Exchequer. That underlines the argument that I have always made, which is that the improvement of existing legislation and an addition to available resources, particularly to local authorities to enable them to enforce legislation and engage in education and prevention activities with dog owners, will be an investment that will actually result in a reduction in public spending. At the moment, we spend a great deal of money on treating people who have suffered in the way mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West.

The consultation finished in June 2010. It is now October 2011. The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice) pointed out in July in this Chamber that action must be taken, yet we still have no response from the Department. We must have an answer to the consultation soon. I hope that the Minister will today give us a date for a response to the consultation.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) on raising this important subject. When the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice) replied to the debate on dangerous dogs in July, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), he made it clear that the Government were sympathetic to hon. Members in all parts of the House who feel that the existing law is in need of an overhaul.

The Government recognise the difficulties faced by those who find themselves in the front line dealing with irresponsible dog ownership in communities. No one can fail to be shocked by the savagery described by the hon. Member for Coventry North West, the savagery of dog attacks that we have all seen in the media and by the several deaths in the past few years that have been mentioned by hon. Members. We understand the very real concerns about safety and the impact on communities. We also recognise the immense pressure on dog rescue centres as they see an ever-increasing rise in the number of Staffordshire bull crosses—so-called status dogs. I wish that we could somehow get away from using that phrase, as it indicates some sort of status for the people who use dogs in a malign way. Calling them “stupid people’s dogs”, or something like that, might be more relevant. Very often, these dogs are cruelly abandoned by their owners, and we often forget that in this debate.

There are no easy answers to this problem. We do not want to rush into changes to the existing law without giving thought as to whether they will work. We want to be sure that any changes will have a real impact on reducing instances of irresponsible dog ownership, particularly dog attacks.

I would like to update the Chamber on the progress made since July, and I hope that that will answer the point raised by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith). Ministers and officials have continued to work across Government and with key stakeholders such as the police, local authorities, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Dogs Trust, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and the Kennel Club. Contrary to what has been said, those organisations do not all share precisely the same view on how the law should be changed. Indeed, differences have been suggested in the Chamber today. However, they have all been very helpful in letting us know their views and helping us to refine our thinking about what should be done.

As the consultation that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs held last year showed, the issue of dangerous dogs covers a range of concerns, from thoughtless and irresponsible ownership, up to deliberately using a dog as a weapon to intimidate and harass others. As a result, a number of agencies and interested parties are involved. Earlier this year, the Home Office concluded a consultation on a more effective approach to antisocial behaviour. That new approach is intended to reform the toolkit available for tackling antisocial behaviour, including that relating to dogs.

When launching the consultation, the Home Secretary made it clear that the Government expect everyone to have a right to feel safe in their home and in their neighbourhood. She said that antisocial behaviour should be a priority for local agencies, including police, councils and social landlords. She underlined the fact that we need a new approach to problems that are fundamentally local. The proposals include streamlining the toolkit used to tackle antisocial behaviour, so that police and partners have faster, more flexible and more effective tools; sweeping away a swathe of statutory powers, so that the police have simple, intelligible powers that they can use when necessary; and giving victims and communities the right to force the authorities to take action, where the authorities have failed to do so.

I realise that there are concerns that a simpler approach by the Home Office will somehow overlook the problem of dogs being used to intimidate others, but that is simply not the case. Ministers and officials are continuing to work closely with the Home Office to ensure that dogs are not overlooked in the new framework and that the police, local authorities and local communities continue to be able, where appropriate, to develop their own solutions to dog problems that do not necessarily involve the courts and criminal sanctions. That may answer the point made by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge. In the next month, we expect the precise details from the Home Office about how it feels this should be taken forward. We will then be able to involve that in what we are saying.

Will the Minister cover the issue of private property and the loophole in the law that allows 4,000 postal workers to be attacked without any prosecution being brought?

I am coming on to that precise point. Ministers have made it a priority to see how this issue is being dealt with on the ground in the communities that are affected. We are keen to learn the lessons of what works—and what does not—from local projects in areas where there is a high incidence of dog-related problems. Our view is that local action is key to tackling the problem of irresponsible dog ownership. We are keen to support local people, charities, the police and local authorities, so that they can jointly tackle local issues. We are also looking at what more Government can do to support the police, local government and the courts in dealing more effectively with dog problems. We have already facilitated the production of guidance for the police, the courts and the public. We have also provided financial support for the training given by the Association of Chief Police Officers to police dog legislation officers. Ministers are keen that we build on this support in future.

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I am coming to the point that he raised earlier.

A number of people support the idea that if breed-specific legislation is not repealed, then owners should be allowed to apply to the courts to have the dogs added to the index of exempted dogs. I want the police to have the final say on whether a dog is seized, and there may also be scope for not kennelling other types of dogs that are not a danger. In all cases, the police would need to be satisfied that the dogs are in the care of a responsible owner. That idea would undoubtedly save money for the police who, under the existing law, must first seize the dog pending the outcome of court proceedings. However, we also need to consider whether such a proposal would allow for the public safety factor of each application to be properly considered.

On the point raised by the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), another proposal under consideration is to extend the criminal law on dangerous dogs to all private property. That would allow the police to investigate dog attacks on private property, and we have sympathy with that desire. That may, on the face of it, be an easy thing to do, but we should consider the effects of, say, a trespasser with criminal intent who is attacked by the home owner’s dog. Do we really want a trespasser successfully prosecuting a home owner because the home owner’s dog has acted in a way that many people would consider only natural? I point that out as just one example of where it is not a simple binary decision. There are some major implications in extending the law into the home. Before going down this route, we would need to be sure that all the potential risks are understood and can be addressed, but I assure the hon. Lady that we get the problem and are very keen to move position, which I think all hon. Members would—

The Minister said a moment ago that not all organisations agree about every detail—that is true, and they never will. However, what everybody agrees on is the extension of criminal law, and everybody agrees with a natural exemption if there is a trespasser or a burglar. That happens in all criminal law. It is not a real problem, unless the Minister wants to make it one. We have no timetable for any sort of legislation to deal with the issue.

We are mindful of that point. We believe that we can get through it, but it indicates how the issue is not straightforward.

Turning to the point made by my hon. Friends the Members for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and for Romsey and Southampton North about microchipping, I worked closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Romford on this issue before the election. There are obvious side benefits to the compulsory micro-chipping of dogs, one of them being the ability to identify the owner of a dog that has become dangerously out of control even if the owner is not present at the time of the incident. Better traceability of owners could discourage them from letting their dogs run loose, and hence reduce the likelihood of attacks. However, I consider that the principal benefit is that it would enable the police, local authorities and rescue centres to reunite lost and stolen dogs with their owners. It may also help where dogs have been stolen, which is a big issue in my constituency. That is an important step forward, and one that I believe that we can support, but would it reach the problem owners we are talking about? That is a fundamental point that we have to consider.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I have just a few seconds left, and I want to say that the Government take this issue very seriously. It is a complex issue that spans many areas of undesirable behaviour from thoughtless and irresponsible dog owners.

Sitting suspended.