Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Vara.)
At the beginning of January this year, a little girl, aged six, who lives in my constituency, was viciously attacked by a dog that was out of control. Her ear was partially bitten off and she was covered in bites. Her mother was also badly injured while trying to rescue her. The dog’s owner was prosecuted and found guilty. He was given a three month suspended sentence and 200 hours of community service, and was ordered to pay compensation of £450. That was not an adequate penalty, and its imposition was not an encouragement to others to control their dogs properly. The way in which the case was handled has done nothing to prevent such a tragic incident from happening again.
I know that there is a lot of strong feeling about this issue in the House, and I commend the efforts of many hon. Members who have recently raised it here, in Westminster Hall debates and elsewhere. In particular, the House ought to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) and for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and the hon. Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), each of whom has made considerable efforts to bring the matter to the fore.
I also commend the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice), and his colleague in another place, Lord Taylor. I know that the Government have carried out an extensive consultation and are trying to balance the various interests involved in the issue of controlling dangerous dogs. I understand that the consultation has recently closed, and I hope that the fact that I have secured the debate will give the Minister the opportunity to put certain matters before the House.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate at exactly the right time. Does she agree that legislation must be consolidated and updated as soon as possible to shift the emphasis to preventing the type of attack that she has eloquently described and that has triggered the debate?
Yes, I entirely agree. The emphasis has to be on prevention. The House will be pleased to know that in the case I described, the little girl and her mother are now recovering. The little girl is having to endure a series of long operations, effectively to rebuild her ear. It is a dreadful thing for her to have to endure. We must all have in our minds the thought that the next child who is attacked by a vicious dog might not be fortunate enough to escape with injuries that the medical profession can put right.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate and on the work that she has done. Does she agree that criminal injuries compensation must be examined? I had a young constituent who suffered very bad injuries, and unfortunately she has not received any compensation whatever because it was deemed that there was no intent. Nobody set the dog on her, so she has had no compensation.
That is a very valid point, and when the Minister and his colleagues examine the consultation responses that they have received, I hope that they will consider the possibility of requiring insurance for dogs. The totally inadequate compensation that is being paid to my constituent’s family—£450 at a rate of £50 a month—does not even begin to cover the loss that they have endured through both the mother and father taking time off work, the costs of going to hospital and so on. Of course, they are thinking not about the money but about the health of their little daughter, but it is our duty to consider that side of things as well. I hope the Minister can give those matters adequate consideration.
I pay tribute to the many charities and organisations that campaign on such issues and that have taken part in the Government’s consultation. Since it was known that this debate would take place, I have been flooded with information by well-meaning and well-organised institutions that have taken the matter seriously for some time. I acknowledge their help and am sorry that I cannot mention all their points in the time available—I note that we have another hour and three quarters to go, but I shall limit my remarks to a reasonable length.
I pay tribute in particular to the Dogs Trust, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Kennel Club, and the Communication Workers Union and its “Bite Back” campaign. Not surprisingly, there are calls from all sectors of society that we must do something.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this matter to the House. I mentioned to her before the debate that new dog legislation is being introduced in Northern Ireland in April. It will introduce many changes, including the compulsory microchipping of dogs. Will the hon. Lady comment on that? Dog owners in Northern Ireland already pay for an annual dog licence, but The Daily Telegraph columnist and former vet, Pete Wedderburn, stated:
“It seems to me that the Northern Ireland”
“might be effective at achieving some of DEFRA’s key goals: to allow better enforcement of the law and ensure that dog owners take responsibility for their animals.”
Is this the time to put Northern Ireland’s legislation into what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is doing and to put matters right?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for educating the House on what is happening in Northern Ireland. I entirely agree with the points he has made and will come to them shortly.
I have paid tribute to my colleagues in the House and the professional organisations involved, but I also pay tribute to Mr and Mrs Smith, the parents of the little girl who was attacked. They have set up a campaign to stop other children suffering in the way their daughter suffered. They have also set up a petition, which is gathering an enormous amount of support, which I am glad to see.
Not surprisingly, the incident gave rise to an outcry in the media. People are rightly asking: “Why do we put up with laws that are so ineffectual?” I was shocked to discover that some 6,000 postal workers are attacked by dogs every year.
The hon. Lady is generous in giving way to me once again. I would add to what she just said. Given the sheer number of postal workers who are attacked every year, is it not therefore necessary to extend the law relating to dog control to private property, and recognise that many children die in the home as a result of attacks by dogs that are out of control?
I agree with the hon. Lady. One anomaly in the current law is that the owners of a dog that behaves in a threatening, vicious, bad way on private property cannot be prosecuted. I hope the Minister comes forward with Government plans to correct that anomaly, if not today, in the near future. I have not heard anybody say, or read any evidence suggesting, that the contrary is the right way forward.
I was genuinely shocked when I discovered how many people suffer from dog attacks every year.
I thank the hon. Lady for graciously giving way and for securing this debate on this crucial issue. Since 2006, 11 people have lost their lives because of dangerous dogs, and around 5,000 are hospitalised every year. She mentioned the Smith family, but she may know of the tragic death of John-Paul Massey in my constituency. Like the Smith family, Angela McGlynn, John-Paul’s mother, has campaigned on the issue. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need urgent legislation and changes so that the police, local authorities and dog wardens can take preventive action so that we see no more needless deaths?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution. I am sure that the whole House sends its heartfelt sympathy to the family of those little children who have died.
It is tragic. If in any other area of life we discovered that in the past three years or so six children and two adults had been viciously killed, we would take action, but because we are a nation of dog-lovers, we say, “Oh, but we must think about the dogs and look after the dogs.” Yes, of course we must look after dogs, but six little children have died, and we must look after the children first and the dogs second. I know that I will get hate mail from subscribers to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for saying that, but I will say it again: we must put the safety and lives of children and other vulnerable people first, and dogs second. Having said that—I will deal with this in more depth later—it is dogs that are badly treated by their owners that behave badly towards other people. Dogs that are cared for, looked after and loved do not normally cause the sort of trouble that we are discussing.
I was also shocked to discover that blind people, who depend on guide dogs, are suffering as a result of the increase in the number of vicious dogs in our country today, because guide dogs are being attacked by vicious dogs that are badly behaved and out of control. What worse situation can anyone imagine than a blind person, dependent on a loving and caring labrador, having that little labrador attacked by a pit bull-type dog that is out of control? It is totally unacceptable, and action must be taken sooner rather than later.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern that the number of attacks on guide dogs has more than doubled in the past year, having risen from three to seven attacks every month? The training and cost of a guide dog over its lifetime is about £50,000. That training is run by a charity, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, that receives no state support for the work it does. Does she share my concern about the cost of those attacks to those people who depend on their dogs and the charity?
I certainly do. We all, in one way or another, raise money for good causes, and Guide Dogs for the Blind is one of the best. I am thinking of an excellent organisation in my constituency that raises money for Guide Dogs for the Blind. People put a lot of work into that. More than anything, however, those poor guide dogs themselves, trained to be calm and not to fight other dogs, are being attacked by other dogs. It is an utterly tragic situation, and one on which action must be taken. In saying that, however, I am quite sure that the Minister will tell us that action will be taken, because the Government cannot possibly ignore these dreadful situations, which are occurring every day in parts of our country.
Let us consider first the problem and then possible solutions. The problem, as we have just agreed across the House, is not that well-trained, well-cared-for dogs suddenly turn upon children, postmen or other dogs. The problem is that increasing numbers of dogs are being deliberately bred and trained as so-called status or weapon dogs. This has been recognised, and in London alone, about 1,000 such dogs were seized last year. I am pleased to note that Boris Johnson and Kit Malthouse, at the Greater London authority, have taken this matter very seriously and have set up a unit to deal with status dogs. I should also say that both Boris Johnson and Kit Malthouse have met the family of the little girl who was attacked in my constituency and have spoken to them very sympathetically. I have every confidence that action is being taken in London to combat what is a growing problem. I commend Boris Johnson and Kit Malthouse for their understanding and their efforts, but let there be no misunderstanding: we are talking about a growing problem of deliberate bad behaviour, often associated with drug dealing and crime. This is not about old ladies with cute little spaniels or children with labradors. Any laws would have little effect on responsible dog owners, but would make life very difficult for irresponsible dog owners.
What we really need to do, however, is change public attitudes. Being something of a libertarian, I am always against state interference when it is not absolutely necessary. However, controlling dangerous dogs falls into the same category as wearing seatbelts in cars or smoking in public places. I was one of those who argued against the restrictions on personal freedom that the laws on seatbelts and smoking in public places imposed. I spoke against those laws on the grounds that we should not interfere with personal freedom, until I saw the proof that the evil done by the imposition of the rule was a very much lesser evil than that which resulted from not imposing it. In order to change public attitudes, the Government have to give a lead. First, we need a system that is simple to implement, and cheap and straightforward to enforce. The police and local authorities need to have adequate powers, adequate resources—preferably self-financing—and public support.
My constituent Mr Smith’s campaign, which has received an enormous and growing amount of support, has come up with the slogan, “Chip them, lead them and give kids freedom”—I think that is quite good. Microchipping, the use of leads and muzzles, and creating dog-free areas in parks are certainly possible ways forward. However, as other hon. Members have said, we must put the emphasis on prevention. I know that there are arguments against compulsory microchipping—the hon. Member for Strangford gave us a good example of how it is about to work well and is supported in Northern Ireland. There are arguments against microchipping, restricting freedom and imposing more red tape on yet another walk of life.
However, like everything else, it is a question of balance. I would argue that it would be perfectly reasonable to phase in a system of microchipping new puppies before they are sold. The cost would be minimal—I am told that the cost of inserting a microchip is often less than £10—and some 60% of dogs are already microchipped. Charities that look after dogs already microchip them, and many would offer to microchip the dogs of those who could not afford to do so should a compulsory system be introduced. I did not know much about what microchipping meant, but it might surprise the House to know that the microchip is about the size of a grain of rice. All that happens is that this little thing is injected into the scruff of the neck when the dog is about six weeks old. I am told that it does not hurt, and that it is simple and cheap.
Let us look at the benefits. It could be argued that making microchipping compulsory would have no effect, because the good dog owners already do it and the bad ones would simply ignore the law, as they do now. However, that is the very point of a compulsory microchipping system. We need a system that is simple for the police and local authorities to administer, and that will give an officer of the law or of a local authority an easy way to impose a penalty if the law is broken. That is why I propose that the imposition of a microchip in dogs born after a certain transition period should be a strict liability matter. Anyone in charge of a dog that did not have a microchip would be subject to a strict liability penalty for breaking the law, rather like a parking ticket.
The advantage of such a system is that it would bring speedy resolution, rather than involving long court cases in which evidence needed to be brought and people prosecuted. It would be easy, and it would give the RSPCA and local authorities the power to intervene. If a dog was not being properly trained or looked after and was viewed as a potential problem, the authorities could intervene simply because it was not microchipped. That is what I call the Al Capone effect. Hon. Members will remember that Al Capone was a notorious gangster and, no doubt, a murderer and torturer, but he was arrested for tax evasion. People who breed dogs for nefarious purposes might not be brought to justice for drug dealing or extortion, but they could be arrested for non-payment of the fine for not chipping their dog. That would give more power to the police and other authorities to take serious preventive action.
I understand that some local authorities are considering making microchipping a condition of allowing a dog to live in local authority accommodation. Could that not be extended? Preventive action could be taken, rather than reactive action; it would be simple to achieve, and would require no long drawn-out court proceedings. We license our cars, after all, and some dogs are just as dangerous as cars. We should have to register our dogs and accept responsibility for them.
Another possible solution is the compulsory use of a lead or muzzle. Again, I appreciate that most responsible dog owners would not dream of taking their dog into a public place without putting it on a lead. I can see the argument for not requiring a lead or a muzzle in all places at all times, but in certain designated areas—especially around children near schools and play parks, and in other obvious places—it would be perfectly reasonable for the law to require a dog to be kept on a lead or muzzled.
I am sure that the Minister will make the point about not bringing in more and more regulations and laws that are difficult to enforce, but I do not see the way forward as involving the placing of more burdens on the enforcement authorities or on law-abiding citizens. If he is reluctant to introduce a law requiring the use of leads and muzzles, would he consider a public information campaign to educate people about the benefits of keeping their dog on a lead, and the responsibilities involved? Once again, I am talking about changing public attitudes so that, instead of it being normal for a dog to run around and for people to have to accommodate the dog, it would be normal for a dog to be on a lead and for people to look at it suspiciously if it were not.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady’s comments about the need for a public information campaign, including perhaps information and advice about not leaving a dog alone in a house with a child, for instance, which is one reason why we have had some casualties and fatalities. Would it not also be useful to have a system of dog control notices in place, which would mean that when a dog is obviously out of control, local authorities could implement this system to encourage better behaviour, such as by putting the dog on a lead or muzzling it?
I understand the hon. Lady’s point about dog control notices. I suspect that they would work rather like dog ASBOs or antisocial behaviour orders. That might work, but I am and always have been rather sceptical about ASBOs in the first place, and my scepticism about them spills over to the idea of having dog control notices. Because we are talking about preventing serious tragedies from occurring in future, I would say that almost anything the Government could do would be welcome.
The third possibility is to have dog-free areas. Local authorities already have the power to make certain areas dog-free. Would it not be sensible—I am thinking about a particular park in Buckhurst Hill in my constituency where Epping Forest district council is currently considering this matter—to say that a small part of a park that is set out as a children’s playground should be dog-free, and that no dog should be allowed in that part? Another part of the park is perfectly okay for dogs, as they are not likely to come across children, so no tragic incidents would be likely to occur there. Where children are playing in a designated play area, however, it makes sense to say that there should be no dogs. Once again, I am ready for the hate mail from dog owners who will say that my suggestions would penalise those who look after their dogs. I honestly believe that people who train and care for their dogs responsibly would find somewhere other than a children’s play area to take their dogs for a walk. We need to put the children first and the dogs second.
The fourth suggestion for the Minister is that there should be some sort of system of compulsory insurance, coupled with compulsory chipping and registration of dogs. I am told that this could be done at minimal cost to the individual and that subscription to one of the dog charities could cover a block insurance for all dogs. If an incident occurred, proper compensation could then be paid to the injured party.
Finally, I turn to the question of penalties. Penalties imposed on people who have let their dogs get out of control and injure other people should be severe so that they have a deterrent effect. The current penalties are not taken seriously. They must be easily enforceable and sufficiently serious to act as a deterrent. Once again, I put it to the Minister that a system of strict liability fines along the lines of parking tickets could work. The last thing any of us want to do is to give the police even more work or to place even more burdens on their time. However, strict liability fines would make the system much easier to enforce. At present, anyone who parks on a yellow line a car that is registered as being in their care is given a penalty charge notice, and if they do not pay the charge, they are dealt with by the criminal justice system. A similar penalty charge notice could be issued to those who allow their dogs to behave in an unacceptable way—to threaten other people, for instance, or to enter a dog-free area.
I know that the Minister must consider cost. I put it to him that the cost to the national health service—which is some £10 million a year—and the cost to businesses of the working time that is lost as a result of dog attacks are far greater than the administrative costs of a licensing scheme would be.
We should also consider the cost to the police of kennelling dogs while investigations are under way. According to figures that I obtained through a freedom of information request, the kennelling costs incurred by just 26 of our police forces in a single year were close to £4 million.
I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. It is utterly appalling that taxpayers’ money is wasted on a scheme that is not having the right effect. It is not controlling the number of so-called status dogs and weapon dogs, it is not preventing 6,000 postmen and 5,000 ordinary citizens from being attacked every year, and it is not saving the lives of children. I know that the Minister is sympathetic to my view. I hope that the impassioned pleas that are being made this evening will increase his power when he negotiates with his colleagues, and will enable him to act quickly to deal with all the matters that I have raised.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I have not had time to go into the details of the microchipping scheme this evening. I hope it will be noted that, although I have spoken for about half an hour, I have given way to all who have sought to intervene because I appreciate the support that they have given.
I believe that a properly organised system would be self-financing. I also believe that all responsible dog owners would consider the small extra expense a very small price to pay for the protection of their dogs—and other people—from dogs that behave badly. The people who ignored the law, those who would not bother to microchip their dogs and would not register them, are the very people who neglect their dogs and train them to behave wrongly and viciously, and they are the very people who would be caught after breaking the law.
I appreciate that the new laws will work only if they are simple and can be easily and quickly enforced. I hope that the Minister will take some encouragement from what has been said this evening as he considers, along with his colleagues, the results of the Government’s long, detailed and very worthwhile consultation.
I conclude by saying once again that what we have to do is change public attitudes. That has worked in respect of wearing seat belts, using a mobile phone while driving a car and smoking in public places. Some Members and others said those changes could never happen, but they have happened, because public attitudes do change. At present, the balance of public opinion says, “My dog can go where he likes and do what he likes, so you’d better control your child.” From now on, we ought to say, “My child should be safe wherever he goes and whatever he does, so you’d better control your dog.” Dogs are never the problem; it is the owners of dogs who are the problem. All we want is to require all dog owners to behave as good dog owners have always behaved.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who deserves great credit for having secured this debate. I assure the Minister that I will try to be reasonably brief so we do not break any records for marathon achievements in Adjournment debates.
First, I want to put on the record my appreciation of those organisations who have been working incredibly hard on this matter for a long time with very little public recognition. The work of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is well known, but I also want to express appreciation of—and I do not often say this—the Association of Chief Police Officers for the lead it has taken in this area. Gareth Pritchard, assistant chief constable of North Wales police, has done a huge amount of unsung work, and he has done so in a very consultative manner, working with a lot of other organisations to bring that work together. Rather than simply pushing his own line or claiming to speak on behalf of all police forces without having done the necessary groundwork to be able to do so, he genuinely does speak not only for all police forces across the country, but for a far wider range of stakeholders. We are all indebted to him for his work in this area.
I have changed my mind on dog legislation and regulation. I welcomed the abolition of the old dog licences, which I considered to be bureaucratic and to have little effect. I believe that at the time 15p had to be paid at the post office in order to register. However, recently I have come to understand the scale of the problem. After all, there are 6,000-plus injuries per year. I was really quite moved by the recent appearance on “Newsnight” of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). The seriousness with which she has addressed this issue and others has impressed colleagues across the House. I have no doubt that we must provide relevant regulation; indeed, I think there is almost certainly a need for primary legislation, which should be consolidating legislation that pulls together the existing patchwork of unsatisfactory legislation and provides a new, more effective approach.
The focus must move away from the proscription of particular breeds to the behaviour of those dogs. We should not introduce a big-bang change, however, until we are sure the new legislation is working. Therefore, for a transitional period at least, dangerous breed legislation may still have a part to play, and I certainly have respect for ACPO’s position on this issue.
Much greater focus must be placed on prevention. There must be a criminal offence. If someone is causing, encouraging or allowing a dog to be aggressive, or is using a dog to cause harassment, alarm or distress to another person or to attack a protected animal, that should be an offence. We need to consider circumstances where a dog’s behaviour, where the absence of effective restraint on a dog or where dogs acting in packs have given rise to an injury to a person or a protected animal. We also need to consider situations where a reasonable person would consider the behaviour of a dog or dogs to be antisocial, intimidating, irresponsible or dangerous. We need legislation to deal with those scenarios. If we go down the road of microchipping, a link could be presumed, through that microchip, between the registered owner and the behaviour of the dog. We could, thus, tie those things together and have effective legislation.
The criminal concept of mens rea is almost being applied uniquely here, because the dog is doing the action but what is the owner’s intention? Protection for the potential suspect in this area is difficult to retain. Where an owner is allowing a dog to behave dangerously, causing intimidation to people, there may need to be a presumption as to their responsibility—although there should be appropriate defences—unless they can show that they have taken the appropriate steps.
On prevention, I support the call that we have heard from Members across the House for something akin to dog control notices. My work on the Select Committee on Home Affairs and my knowledge of these areas has not convinced me that relying on the Home Office’s antisocial behaviour legislation, or on its replacement, will be appropriate in this field. I ask the Minister at least to consider whether something more specific is needed on dog control. Should we be allowing authorised officers, whether from councils or elsewhere, to take preventive steps to issue an order in respect of a particular dog or owner, so that things can be followed up, where necessary, in a given case without having to go through the full criminal procedure or bureaucracy on each occasion?
I wish to conclude by discussing a particular issue. I should declare a personal interest, because this happened to my wife before she became either my wife or my constituent. She was chased by boxer dogs while skiing on the hills above Edinburgh. These dogs assumed that she was prey and chased her as if she were a beast of which they were in pursuit. It was the most extraordinary, heart-rending experience for her and she never found that there was any effective action that could be taken on it. Those boxer dogs were part of a party of 13 dogs being walked by a commercial dog walker, who was profiting from purporting to control 13 dogs as the agent for other people. Surely no one can properly control 13 dogs, let alone 13 large dogs or dogs of that type of breed.
I hope that DEFRA will consider as part of this process whether particular arrangements applying to commercial dog walkers—where people are earning money—are justified. This is, if not a profession, at least something done for commercial return. We can talk about particular measures, but I suggest that someone walking four or more dogs should be over 18—it should be adults who do this—and should have appropriate public liability insurance. They should also stay away from areas where little children are playing. Regulation on that matter would be justified and I hope that Ministers will consider it. One particular model that works well is the byelaw developed by Wandsworth council, and it may well be an example that we can sensibly apply elsewhere.
As the Queen’s Speech approaches, I am not sure whether the pressure of legislation is as much as it might necessarily be in a normal year. We hope that we have at least three years of this coalition Government to run, and I hope that we take the opportunity to legislate in some non-contentious areas, where there may not be the major political impetus for a Government to make their mark but where there is agreement across the House and where there is a clear and pressing danger, as there is on this issue. I hope that we will use the opportunity to have proper consolidating legislation that puts a proper focus on prevention and can help to prevent at least some of these terrible incidents of injury that we see every year across the country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) on securing the debate. As she and many other hon. Members have said, the timing is very appropriate. I also congratulate her on the fact that she has clearly done so much research, not just into the tragedy that affected her constituents, the Smith family, but into much wider issues, including the thought she has given to potential measures to redress the situation.
I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s comments about many other hon. Members and the diligence with which they have pursued these issues. I am not saying that I agree with every aspect of their suggestions, but I fully respect and understand their genuine concerns. I am sure the whole House—and certainly the Government—endorses her sympathy for the Smith family, the family of John-Paul Massey and countless other families who, as Members have said, have been affected by out-of-control dogs.
The Government are aware that the issue is important to many people. I am a dog owner myself and I see it as both a privilege and a great responsibility. It should not be taken lightly by individuals, as it is a serious responsibility, and the owner is clearly responsible for how the dog behaves. Several hon. Members have mentioned that the owner is often at fault. We all know that certain breeds and crossbreeds are more prone to bad behaviour or attacking people, but in many cases the actions of the owner are responsible for how the dog behaves.
As a former owner of a boxer, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) that the vast majority of boxers are placid and quiet. The behaviour to which he referred, where dogs chased his wife before she was his wife—I am not in any way suggesting that it did not happen—was obviously horrendous for her and none of us would want to be in that situation, but it would be wrong to damn the whole breed because of those animals. We all know that some breeds are more prone to the problem, and pit bulls and their crossbreeds are a clear example of that.
Of course, I respect what the Minister has said, but does that not go to show that it is not the breed but the behaviour and the circumstances that matter? In my example, a commercial dog walker was purporting to control 13 dogs, including some significantly large breeds.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am jumping into specifics, but as far as the issue of commercial dog walkers is concerned—although I confess I do not have a particular note or brief on the subject—I do not think that anybody could dissent from what he has said. It defies belief that anybody could be in control of 13 dogs, however competent they were. No doubt somebody will write to me and say that that is possible, but I suspect that not many people would agree with them.
Having a dog that is out of control is clearly an issue of public safety. It is not fair on the dog if it is not being properly cared for and has not been trained to behave appropriately. Sometimes, one can witness examples of dogs that appear to be out of control and one wonders what care they are getting and whether the treatment the dog is receiving is fair.
My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest referred to the Smith case and she properly made the point that the owner of the dog has been prosecuted successfully and convicted. I fully understand her concern about the penalties imposed, but it demonstrates that even when an offence is committed, it does not always force people to do the right thing. I fully understand her comments about the penalty, but I must say that we have not had any pressure from the courts to increase the penalties. However, I fully understand and endorse her concerns.
I am also very much aware that I and other Ministers have said that we are close to making an announcement on a package of measures designed to tackle irresponsible dog owners. I confess that it is a matter of personal disappointment that I have not been able to make that announcement before today. I had very much hoped that that would be possible but I am afraid it has not been. If hon. Members want to intervene on me about this issue, I shall treat them with my usual courtesy, I hope, but for obvious reasons I will not be in a position to enlighten the House in great detail about what might be in the package. I know that many Members in the House and people outside it await our announcement with keen interest.
Perhaps the hon. Lady will enlighten me at some point as to what I have to do to make sure that she does not intervene. She will know that I cannot presage what will be in the Queen’s Speech. All I can say is that we are looking at measures that can be brought into play and are enforceable and effective. She cannot tempt me to go further than that in giving the detail.
I am happy to confirm that that is still our intention and desire.
The issue of irresponsible dog ownership spans a number of areas, with the police, courts, local authorities, dog re-homing centres, veterinary surgeons and charitable bodies, many of which are dog re-homing centres, all having an interest. It is therefore important to strike the right balance between penalising irresponsible dog owners and not placing unrealistic burdens on the majority of responsible dog owners. The serious implications that irresponsible dog ownership can have for individuals mean that we regard it as a form of antisocial behaviour. It is important that the police and other professionals have effective tools and powers to deal with antisocial behaviour. That is why the Home Office published a consultation document that proposed a streamlined set of faster, more flexible and more effective tools to allow practitioners to protect victims and communities and get to the root of the problem. The Home Office received more than 1,000 written responses to its consultation from the police, other front-line professionals, members of the judiciary, local authorities, interest groups and members of the public, and it has worked with DEFRA officials on the detail of the proposed new criminal behaviour order and the crime prevention injunction to ensure that they adequately cover dog-related issues and could apply to antisocial behaviour by dog owners.
We also want to encourage informal measures to tackle inappropriate behaviour before it escalates into something more serious. Such measures could include raising awareness of examples where local areas are taking a more informal approach to issues through, for example, restorative justice or working with potential offenders. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest mentioned that some local authorities could require dogs to be microchipped before their owners could have local authority accommodation. That struck me as a very good example of a local initiative that could be used without the need for legislation.
May I return the Minister briefly to the point I made in my intervention on the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) about criminal behaviour and the definition of criminal intent? She talked about victims. Will the Minister discuss with his colleagues in the Home Office and the Justice Department, if he has not already done so, the issue of criminal injuries compensation in circumstances in which innocent victims are severely injured through no fault of their own because of irresponsible dog owners?
I am happy to undertake to discuss that with my colleagues. My understanding is that the Home Office has considered the matter. I do not wish to presage what may or may not be announced by Ministers there. Suffice it to say that I do not think they are fully persuaded. I shall say a word in a moment about other financial aspects.
Currently dog control orders are available to local authorities, under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005. These allow local authorities to impose restrictions on the walking of dogs in certain public open areas. Typically, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest suggested, this allows child recreation areas in parks to remain dog-free and thereby helps to provide a safe area for children to play. It also allows local authorities to place restrictions in areas where there have been substantial complaints about unruly dogs in general causing problems. My hon. Friend rightly said that the part of a park where the children’s play area is should be free from dogs. I entirely agree. The powers exist and local authorities can ensure that. One would encourage them to do so in the appropriate situations.
As the House may know, dog control orders will be replaced by the new measures available under the Home Office’s proposed revised antisocial behaviour measures, but there are no proposals to remove the power to create dog-free areas. Another proposal being looked at by my Department is to extend the criminal law on dangerous dogs to all private property. My hon. Friend rightly made a great deal of this. The proposal would allow the police to investigate dog attacks on private property. However, we need to make sure that any new measure gets it right. There is an issue of balance here. Nobody would disagree with my hon. Friend’s comments about the Communication Workers Union. Clearly, someone going about their duties as a postman, milkman or anybody else who goes on to private property should not expect to be under attack from a dog. That, I hope, goes without saying.
My hon. Friend also raised the issue of children. None of us wants to see children attacked anywhere, but there is a distinction to be made between people who are legitimately on premises, whether a postman or postwoman, a child whose home it is or who is staying with their grandparents or whatever it may be, and somebody who should not be on the property—a potential burglar or other trespasser.
I am carefully trying not to lead the House into any conclusions about what may be announced. All I would say is that there is an issue of getting it right. We are discussing a first-class example in which haste does not get it right. I was here—I do not think anyone else in the Chamber this evening was—when the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was passed. We all realised that we as a Government, of which I was a very junior member at the time, acted in haste. Perhaps we could say that we have repented at leisure. We clearly did not get it right.
I do not support any cause for delay, but deliberation is required. I have therefore pointed out the balance that we have to strike between those who have a right to be on a property and those who should not be there in the first place. Do we really want to see a trespasser successfully prosecuting a home owner because a dog has acted in a way that many people would consider only natural towards somebody who the dog would not expect to be on the premises? There are major implications to extending the law into the home. We need to make sure that all the potential risks are understood and can be addressed.
The Minister rightly referred to postmen and women coming to homes, and the need to protect children, but the issue is broader than that. Social workers visit homes, as do health workers and health visitors, telecom workers and people coming to read meters. There is a plethora of people who have to enter someone’s property for one reason or another and who could be and have been under attack from dangerous dogs.
I fully accept everything the hon. Lady says. I referred to postmen and women only by way of example; it was not meant to be an exclusive list, as I am sure she appreciates.
A number of people, including some hon. Members, support the idea that if breed-specific legislation is not repealed, and frankly we have no intention of repealing it—as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood said, the police point to its benefits and do not wish it to be repealed—owners should be allowed to apply to the courts to have their dogs added to the index of exempted dogs. I would want the police to have the final say on whether a dog should be seized, and there might also be scope for not kennelling other types of dogs that are not a danger.
In answer to another point that was raised, we are very much aware of the costs of kennelling not only to the Metropolitan police, who are the biggest example, but to many others, including some charities, and we are aware that those costs have risen steeply over the past few years. We are not aware of the police having any central records for all forces in England, but we might be wrong about that, so my officials will make inquiries with ACPO to see whether those central records exist. In all cases, the police would need to be satisfied that the dogs are in the care of a responsible owner, as there would be no point in putting them on the list of exempted dogs if they were then left in the care of someone who would not be responsible. The idea would clearly save the police money, which we fully appreciate.
Another proposal referred to by several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), is the compulsory microchipping of dogs. My officials in DEFRA keep in close and regular contact with officials in the Northern Ireland Executive. We are aware of what they are doing and are watching the development of their new initiative carefully. There are obviously benefits to the compulsory microchipping of dogs, one of which is the ability to identify the owner of a dog that had become dangerously out of control, even if they were not present at the time of the incident. Better traceability of owners could discourage owners from letting their dogs run loose and, therefore, reduce the likelihood of attacks. We have to consider the downsides. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest is probably right about the issue of cost, which some people raise, but updating the records is more important. Clearly, if a dog changes hands or its owner moves, the record becomes useless unless it is updated. Again, it is an example of not just a simplistic approach, but one that has huge merits.
We have made it a priority to see how the issue is being dealt with on the ground by many local authorities and are looking at how local community initiatives are promoting responsible dog ownership. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest referred to initiatives for local authority accommodation. One example is Ealing borough council’s “dog watch” initiative. I know that Waltham Forest district council has also carried out many initiatives in part of my hon. Friend’s constituency. I have a long list of initiatives and congratulate the council on its work. All of them are key to tackling the problem of irresponsible dog ownership. They can provide suitably tailored local approaches to local problems.
The guidance that my Department issued to law enforcers in 2009, under the previous Government, also reminds local authority housing providers and other landlords that they can play an important part in addressing antisocial behaviour in areas where they have jurisdiction, as we have discussed. Housing providers are strongly encouraged to have a clear and positive policy towards dogs, with sanctions and consequences if a tenant fails to adhere, and of course that applies just as much to housing associations as it does to local authority housing.
I said that I was going to return to the issue of finance and, in particular, to insurance, which my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest raised as one of her proposals. The previous Government considered the matter when they launched their consultation in 2010. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) is, I am pleased to say, nodding in agreement. At the time, however, the insurance business was not at all supportive of the proposition, and if the industry is not prepared to offer such policies it is difficult to see how one could make insurance compulsory, as my hon. Friend suggested.
I am also not sure that insurance is a necessary prerequisite, bearing in mind that the vast majority of dog owners would therefore pay for it to deal with the behaviour of a tiny but nevertheless significant minority of irresponsible dog owners, but I reaffirm that it has been a matter of consideration and interest for the Department. I should not want to discourage any individual who wanted to take out such insurance, but part of me wonders whether, if they want to take it out, they have doubts about their ability to control their dog.
I apologise to the House for not being able to be more specific about what we are proposing, but the House will be very much aware of the constraints on Ministers before decisions have been made. I reaffirm, however, that we are working on two separate packages of measures—although we hope that they will come together—in DEFRA and in the Home Office, and we are determined to take action.
I hear the Minister’s point about the issues regarding compulsion for every dog owner in the country, but before he leaves the issue of insurance entirely, will his Department consider the case of insurance for the much narrower category of commercial dog walkers, who earn money for supplying a service that purports to look after and control dogs?
Yes, of course. I am happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that we will look at that issue. My immediate concern is the definition of “commercial dog walker”, but I do not want to sound negative.
I apologise to the House for not being able to be more precise, and I hope that we can be in the not too distant future, but we want to be clear that we are not producing changes with a load of unintended consequences that we shall live to regret. We will continue to work up our proposals both to reduce dog attacks and on antisocial behaviour involving dogs, including the whole issue of trophy dogs and their use for intimidation. They might never attack anybody, but if they are intimidatory that can be just as antisocial.
We clearly want to promote responsible dog ownership, and I emphasise that the Government believe that the vast majority of dog owners are responsible, but we need to address the minority.
The hon. Lady asks me a question above my pay grade. I do not make those decisions, much as I should like to, but I hear what she says, and what she urges us to do.
What I can say is that once proposals have been finalised we will announce measures to tackle the issues that we have all discussed today, to make our communities safer and to make those who own dogs accept and respect the responsibility that is placed upon them partly for public safety and partly, as I said earlier, for dog welfare, which is an equal part of the matter.
Question put and agreed to.