6. What her policy is on the control of dangerous dogs and tackling irresponsible dog owners; and if she will make a statement. (105408)
I am pleased to say that on 23 April, the Government announced a consultation on measures to tackle irresponsible dog owners. These measures include extending the existing dangerous dogs laws to cover all private property in England and a requirement that all puppies be compulsorily microchipped.
A number of residents in Stillington in my Stockton North constituency are angry that the police and everyone else feel powerless to deal with a dangerous dog in their village just because it has not yet attacked a human being. They fear that a child rather than an animal could be the next victim. Will the Minister explain to the people of Stillington how the proposed legislation will prevent an attack of that nature?
The dangerous dogs legislation already provides powers for the police, and local authorities have powers to tackle the problem of dogs that are dangerously out of control. The new measures will bring additional tools to the toolkit. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is absurd that policemen in that village have to think twice about going on to private property to investigate and pursue a possible dangerous dog case because they fear that they are not currently properly protected by the law on private property? The change in the law represents a significant step forward.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that many animal charities, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, share with the Government a determination to stamp out irresponsible dog breeding. Responsible dog breeders, who already chip their puppies, set an example to all dog breeders on the importance of chipping new-born dogs. The proposed way forward is to encourage chipping of puppies to ensure that at the point of sale we can identify where they have come from.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), it has taken the Government two years to introduce measures to tackle dangerous dogs. The consultation on dangerous dogs concluded in June 2010, and it is now April 2012. Nothing announced on Monday will prevent dog attacks in the first place. Clarissa Baldwin, the chief executive of the Dogs Trust, said that she was “extremely disillusioned” with the lack of preventive measures in the Government’s announcement. Further to what the Secretary of State has said, the powers that will be extended to cover private property can be applied only when an attack has occurred—they do not prevent an attack in the first place. Will she tell the House how many dog attacks will be prevented as a direct result of the proposals that she announced on Monday?
That is what I think is called a multi-part question. The hon. Lady is new, so she could be forgiven for not knowing that, while her Government recognised the inadequacy of existing legislation, there is a strong cross-party endeavour to deal with this terrible problem. It is complex, which is doubtless part of the reason why her Government did not get on and sort it out. We have proceeded with the consultation. What will help now is the £50,000 that I have given to animal charities and others to help to educate irresponsible dog owners on how to keep better control of their dogs.
I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that coverage of the recent dog attacks on police officers in east London was deeply shocking. When will she respond to the requests from the Police Federation and serving front-line police officers for dog control notices, which will help to prevent such attacks? Does she understand the deep frustration of the police at yet another lengthy consultation?
All of us want to make sure that the police and other professionals are properly protected when they go about visiting private property in the normal course of their duty. The package that we are proposing, which was set out on Monday, includes the extension of powers under the Dangerous Dogs Act to private land. The police have asked for help from the Government with training. I have provided resources to the Association of Chief Police Officers so that every constabulary in the country can have a trained dog officer. Local authorities have at their disposal dog control orders, which they can use to assist the police in dealing with this difficult and complex problem.
May I read the Secretary of State what Claire Horton of the Battersea Cats and Dogs Home has to say on the right hon. Lady’s disappointing proposals? She says:
“We question how much a priority tackling irresponsible ownership and improving public safety is for the Government. We fear this is just tinkering around the edges.”
Does the Secretary of State believe that Ms Horton and everyone else is wrong and that she alone is right?
Organisations such as Battersea Dogs Home have a terrible problem on their hands. Dogs homes are full to capacity with dogs that have had to be taken from the streets—100,000 strays a year and, tragically, 6,000 of those have to be put down. I am sure Battersea Dogs Home would agree that the measures that we have put in place, giving discretion to the police in relation to impounding a dog, and measures to educate irresponsible owners, as well as the resources that I have given the Battersea Dogs Home to help us tackle this problem, will all be welcomed.
I welcome the review and consultation. Will the Secretary of State extend the review to the Local Government Act 2010 to see whether the number of stray dogs has gone up since control passed to local authorities? Will she take the opportunity to close the current loophole with respect to attacks by dogs on other dogs and other animals, and extend the livestock provisions on worrying dogs to these other categories?
My hon. Friend, who chairs the Select Committee, makes some excellent points. Perhaps they are topics that the Select Committee might be interested in. The worrying of sheep, which is an understatement—it is often the death of sheep as a result of lack of control by the owners of dogs—is a very serious problem. I undertake to look at those issues.
As a member of the Kennel Club, I can say that the Kennel Club, the Dogs Trust and other responsible dog ownership groups have for a long time argued for microchipping, so my right hon. Friend will no doubt have the full support of all those organisations. Has she had a single constructive suggestion from those on the Opposition Benches on how she might deal with the issue?
The 2010 consultation did indeed show strong support in principle among the public for compulsory microchipping. We are asking people specific, practical questions about how that should be implemented, our preference being the compulsory microchipping of puppies because of the additional advantage that it tackles irresponsible dog breeding. Yes, it would have been nice to have a little more cross-party support for an issue that is complicated and which, I know, Opposition Members have regularly taken up, to their credit, requesting the Government to do something. Well, we have, and it would be nice to have that welcomed.
Despite the Secretary of State’s well-meaning proposals, does she agree that there is a risk that not one single criminal thug who breeds illegal dogs will go tripping into the vet to have his puppies microchipped, and that her proposals will result in a wonderful database of perfectly legal, decent, middle-class dog owners? It will have no effect whatever on illegal dogs and illegal owners.
Obviously we cannot legislate against every thug. When I visited the RSPCA’s hospital in Harmsworth, what struck me was the consequences of irresponsible dog ownership, both for animals and people. I am very sensitive to the concerns of Opposition Members such as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), whose constituent John-Paul Massey was lost as a result of a dangerous dog attack. Perhaps my hon. Friend would focus on the fact that it is the suffering of victims that we are trying to address in this package.
Who will have access to data on microchipped dogs?
I am not sure about the number of people admitted to hospital, but the cost to the NHS is £3 million a year. Let us not forget that among the professionals whom we currently ask to take risks by going into private property are midwives and health visitors, and they will be better protected as a result of the extension we propose.
I recently met the father of a little girl from Chingford whose ear was chewed off in a horrific attack in a public park. It was simply heartbreaking to hear how the unrestrained dog attacked, circled and attacked again—like a shark, he said. Victims of dog attacks, together with police officers, health workers, vets and postal workers, have specifically called for powerful new dog control notices that could, for example, force owners to muzzle and restrain aggressive dogs and prevent attacks. Will the Secretary of State explain, not only to the House but to that father and all the victims of dog attacks, why the Government have rejected these new powers that have been demanded, which could tackle irresponsible owners and save young lives and limbs?
Everybody in this House will want to express their sympathy for families whose children have either been maimed or lost their lives. It is tragic that four of the five most recent fatalities have been children under the age of five. I absolutely share the hon. Gentleman’s desire not to see that happen again.
With regard to the control of dogs in public places, the Dangerous Dogs Act gives the police powers to do that, including the ability to require the muzzling of dogs. These can be used as conditions for a dog owner retaining ownership of the dog. As I have said, local authorities can also use dog control orders.