[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
This debate was born out of an incident that probably lasted all of 30 seconds, but sadly such things happen every single day. In November 2010, I was a keen, young MP and decided to go campaigning with my campaign team. I walked down the street with a load of leaflets in my hand, went to a house and did the one thing that people are told not to do when they first join a political party and learn how to leaflet—I put my hand right through the letterbox. Without a word of warning, I felt something clamp on my hand and a low growl made me realise that a dog had me. When I pulled my finger out, I noticed what I thought was a small cut, but it developed into a deep gash that spurted blood out everywhere. I had to go to hospital and the treatment my finger received resulted in five stitches and a one-inch scar on my middle finger, which I will not raise, in case I am called to order by you, Ms Dorries. I had become one of the more than 100 people a week in the UK who suffer injuries so severe from a dog attack that they are admitted to hospital.
Of course, I was one of the lucky ones: my treatment amounted to a trip to A and E and a course of antibiotics. However, many people are not so fortunate. Sadly, some well-publicised cases have seen people severely injured or maimed by a dog. Having been bitten through a letterbox, I have sympathy with the 10,000 postal workers who have been injured by domestic dogs. The most upsetting statistic is that seven guide dogs a month are attacked by out-of-control dogs.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so early on in his speech. I have a partially sighted constituent whose guide dog was attacked and who is now afraid to set foot outside his door. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is completely unacceptable that blind and partially sighted people should feel like prisoners in their own homes? Does he not agree that the Government should heed Guide Dogs’ words about microchipping as soon as possible?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. I did a lot of research before this debate and one of the most harrowing things I found was a video on The Sun website, in which some sort of a dog had hold of a guide dog and the owner was kicking him to try to get him off. It was harrowing to see the guide dog’s reins. I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituent will have the confidence to go out in future and enjoy life once again.
I want to make it clear from the very beginning that I am pro-dogs. I would even say that I am a dog lover. I have been lucky enough to own dogs all my life. Anyone who has owned a dog will say how much they enrich life. I have great memories of a border collie cross called Pep that I grew up with. He lived until he was 19 and we all cried when he passed away. Moreover, when I arrive home from this place, I know that my dog will always be there, wagging his tail and happy that I am home—at least somebody at my house is happy when I arrive home.
I pay tribute to a number of animal charities and organisations that work tirelessly to raise awareness of the many problems with our current dangerous dog legislation. Groups such as Battersea dogs home, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Dogs Trust, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and the Communication Workers Union are all long-standing campaigners on the issue. Each in its own way does a tremendous amount of work promoting responsible dog ownership. In my constituency earlier this year, the Dogs Trust ran a three-day centre in Risca and provided free health checks. It also offered to neuter and chip dogs for just £10. The event was a major success and about 70 dogs were booked in to be neutered and chipped. Across Wales, the Dogs Trust has neutered more than 13,000 dogs and microchipped 46,000. Such work makes a real difference to responsible dog ownership. Speaking to charities and groups on the front line makes me realise how our dangerous dog legislation is just not good enough.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. A local newspaper of mine, News Shopper, is running a shop a dog campaign, which seeks to highlight the fact that we should primarily be targeting irresponsible owners, rather than the dogs themselves. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that?
That is the main thrust of my debate. This is not a dog-only issue; often it is a social and anti-social issue. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to carry on with my speech, I will develop that point further.
A couple of months ago, I visited Battersea dogs home and as I wandered around and heard about the problems it faced re-housing stray dogs that have been abandoned and often abused by their owners, I realised that our legislation for dangerous dogs must change. It made me realise that one of the biggest failures of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is that it is breed-specific. Despite banning types of dogs such as the pit bull, the law has not reduced their numbers, which have exploded. The Act simply taught us that demonising certain breeds makes them more attractive to the wrong types of people, who will not think twice about flouting the law.
The previous Labour Government’s 2010 consultation revealed that 78% of people wanted new legislation to promote the responsible ownership of dogs. Shockingly, it has taken two years for the current Government to respond and publish their own plans. In that time, I was one of the 5,000 patients admitted to hospital for injuries caused by dog attacks in England and Wales.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He says that it has taken us two years to produce new measures to tackle this scourge, but, while it is true that the previous Government introduced a consultation right at the end of their time in office, nothing was done in the preceding 13 years, so it is ungenerous to suggest that we have taken too long.
The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting point about the fact that the Act has not worked because irresponsible people have ignored it, and that those who continue to breed dangerous dogs are outside the law. Why would action by the Government have any effect whatever on those thugs and criminals who are ignoring the law?
I welcome the Government’s guidelines to crack down on such people, who are completely outside the law. To respond to the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), yes, we had 13 years, but two years is too long and the Government have a responsibility. We are where we are.
On average, 12 postal workers are attacked by dogs every day. Many do not return to their job because of the physical and psychological effects of the attack. Even Members of this House have been victims of dog attacks. When I came in with a big bandage on my hand, a number of people told me that they knew of party workers who had been chased or bitten by dogs. Everybody I spoke to had some experience on the doorstep of being chased by dogs, although I do not know whether the dogs were Tory or Labour. A recent RSPCA survey underlined that fact and found that more than half of MPs had been bitten or chased by dogs while delivering leaflets over the past five years, while almost 80% of Members have seen one of their constituency team bitten or chased. Perhaps it is unsurprising that, according to the same survey, more than half of MPs believe that the current dog legislation is ineffective.
To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), we often talk about dangerous dogs in the context of being bitten or chased, but the cost of dangerous dogs cannot be underestimated. Last year, police forces in England and Wales spent £3 million kennelling dogs seized under the 1991 Act. My concern is that, after two years of waiting for worthwhile legislation, the Government’s proposals do not go far enough. Frankly, they are a missed opportunity and we must wonder how much of a priority tackling irresponsible dog ownership really is. However, we have to be careful—it is no good blaming the dogs. In many cases it is often not so much problem dogs, but problem owners. Although it is important that we enforce new, more effective legislation, it will only work if a number of steps are taken to influence owners and better educate the public.
I appreciate and support the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the need to control dogs and want to add another important reason for doing so. I have been a sheep farmer for most of my life and the impact of irresponsible dog owners has been terrifying. Thirty-five of my sheep were killed one night—they were turned over and torn apart. That is a common occurrence. The hon. Gentleman is listing some of the many reasons to control dogs, and the impact on the livestock industry is another one.
I come from the south Wales valleys, where I am surrounded by farms. I know a local farmer, and the hon. Gentleman’s point is a massive issue. Dogs chasing sheep was always a feature of my life when I was growing up. The most important thing I was told when I first had a dog when I was very young was that I needed to keep him under control around livestock. That is very often overlooked. We often think of dangerous dogs as a city or urban problem, but it is also a serious problem in rural areas. I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
On my visit to Battersea dogs home, I learned that some 72% of the dogs that it looks after do not have a microchip, which makes it impossible to track down the owner. The Government have recently announced plans to combat that and have proposed the compulsory microchipping of puppies. However, in Battersea dogs home, I saw hundreds of dogs without a microchip who had been abandoned by their owners. It is no good the Government microchipping puppies when stray dogs are roaming the streets abandoned and neglected, with no hope of being reunited with their owners.
Battersea dogs home tells me that only 20% of the 6,000 dogs it homed in 2011 were microchipped and that one third even had the wrong details. Therefore, when the owner went along and asked for their dog, very often the dog had been rehomed. That demonstrates the scale of the problem. Microchipping is a start, which I welcome, but unfortunately that is all it is. It will take years to affect all dogs and will make little difference to the thousands of strays already wandering our streets.
I had an extraordinary case in my constituency that runs parallel to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I would like to highlight the case and am fascinated to hear what he has to say about it. A mother, father and small girl were asked to a tea party at a private residence next door. They went and the child, who was aged five, offered something to a Scottish terrier who jumped over the child’s hand, latched on to her face and tore half her face off. The eyeball had to be surgically put back and God knows what else, but because that happened in a private house, apparently the law cannot intervene. What does the hon. Gentleman feel can be done, if anything, in that sensitive area of the law?
That is an absolutely harrowing case. I cannot think of anything worse happening. The hon. Gentleman says that the dog was a Scottish terrier. That is why we need to look again at the dangerous dogs legislation. We also need to ask a very important question in relation to the complicated issues surrounding dogs. We have a problem there. A number of people buy dogs for guarding purposes. When they take out a burglar, that is good; but when they are attacking a child, that is bad. We need to be very careful when framing such legislation.
I hope that we can have a debate on that matter because there is a grey area. On the one hand, if a person walks in and trespasses on someone’s property, the dog would be celebrated as a hero. On the other hand, the hon. Gentleman has mentioned an absolutely tragic and terrible situation. I hope that the family is returning to a semblance of order. I know that when I was bitten on the finger, I found it quite traumatic. I was a bit nervous around other dogs. I cannot think of anything worse.
As I said, the owners of dogs that are abandoned and demonised need to be held accountable. In Wales, the Welsh Assembly has taken the lead on the microchipping of dogs and is currently consulting on the compulsory microchipping of puppies and on whether the ownership and information about a dog should be recorded on an approved database. The idea is that owners with microchipped dogs will be encouraged to put the welfare of their dog first, as well as to take more responsibility for the animal’s behaviour.
In Northern Ireland, the microchipping of dogs will become a compulsory condition of someone being issued a dog licence. What is more, the compulsory microchipping of all dogs has widespread public support. Not only do groups such as the Dogs Trust, Battersea dogs home and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health support the measure, but a recent Dogs Trust survey found that 83% of the UK population believe in compulsory microchipping. If the Government want to introduce worthwhile dog legislation, they have to extend microchipping beyond puppies.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has to say. I quite understand that compulsory microchipping might help with stray dogs being rehomed and returned to their owners. However, I cannot imagine what possible connection there is between the compulsory microchipping of dogs and either the Scottie dog that very tragically attacked a child or, indeed, a perfectly normal dog that is microchipped and attacks a canvasser sticking leaflets through a door. What relationship is there between microchipping and controlling these dogs?
That is a different case. When I was bitten through a letterbox, I did not know who owned that dog. I could not track that person down. I knocked on the door and there was no answer. Somebody’s dog bit me and I do not know who owns it. If we are going to introduce major measures, we need to know who owns these dogs.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having secured this important debate. I would like to highlight the information I was given by the Hampshire police dog unit to assist him with that point. One of the biggest problems it has after a dog attack has occurred is identifying which dog did it. As a very experienced dog handler of many years said to me, one brindle Staffie-type dog looks very much like another. He went as far as to say that if he looked at Hampshire police dog unit’s entire dog stock, he would struggle to identify anything other than his dog and that it is very difficult indeed to tell the other 11 apart.
I absolutely agree. That is exactly what I have experienced. When I walked around Battersea dogs home, I felt that if I had seen one Staffie, I had seen a thousand. To be honest, I could not tell the difference between them.
Another element of responsible dog ownership not tackled in the Government’s proposals is the rise of what is known as status dogs among gangs and young people, contributing to antisocial behaviour and illegal activities. Sadly, the victims of those gangs tend to be Staffordshire bull terriers. In 1996, Battersea dogs home took in 380 Staffies. Last year, that figure rose to 1,869, which accounts for 37% of all dogs at the home. It tells me that, between 1996 and 2009, the number of Staffordshire bull terriers at the home increased by 850%.
Battersea dogs home is now seeing a trend towards different breeds, such as the Siberian husky. The number of Siberian huskies at the home has increased by 28% in the past year. Those dogs are often taught to be violent and as a consequence struggle to be rehomed. The problem is made even worse by the rise of backstreet breeding and the sale of dogs over the internet. Such dogs are often abandoned and become stray.
Some 40% of all the Staffordshire bull terriers taken into Battersea dogs home are two years old or younger. Many of those dogs are labelled as pit bulls when they are nothing of the sort. The thing I found most interesting when I finally came face to face with a pit bull terrier was that I realised I did not know what a pit bull looked like. When I thought about what a pit bull looked like, the dog I was thinking of was an American bull dog, which is a far bigger dog and a different breed.
The online quick sale of puppies often takes place, and many of those sold online are banned under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Those negative aspects of dog ownership are not tackled in the Government’s proposals. It is highly unlikely that a puppy that is bred illegally and sold over the internet will end up in the hands of an owner who will make the effort to microchip them.
There has been success in recent years with the introduction of dog control orders, which prevent the movement of dogs on certain areas of land. Those orders are particularly helpful in safeguarding children’s play areas and parks from overly playful dogs that may scare or injure a child. However, dog control orders are at the discretion of the local authority, and there are playgrounds across the country where dogs are still allowed to roam.
When I spoke to Battersea dogs home about the issue of dog control orders, it told me that it was important for a balance to be struck. Of course, it is important that parents can take their children to parks without fear that they may be approached by a dog. However, at the same time, parks are obvious places for dog owners to walk their dogs.
In Hackney, three new dog control orders were introduced as of 1 April. Does my hon. Friend agree that the challenge is having the resources to police those orders? Although they send out a signal, without the dog wardens on the ground, they do not have as much value as we may think.
Absolutely. Unless dog control orders can be enforced and policed, they do not mean anything.
Therefore, instead of dog control orders, the Government could have followed the example of the Scottish Government who have introduced dog control notices. The Northern Ireland Assembly has also introduced control notices as a way of monitoring the behaviour of dog owners.
Is the challenge not that, under the Government’s current proposals, microchipping will happen only to new puppies and, therefore, millions of dogs will not be microchipped? We will have to wait years until the entire British dog population has a microchip.
That is why it is important that we follow the Northern Ireland example and have compulsory microchipping.
From speaking to groups such as Dogs Trust, it is clear that their favoured way of introducing legislation is as a preventive measure. They believe that improvement notices should be issued to dog owners rather than notices being linked to pieces of land. Such notices work preventively to ensure that owners take certain steps to control their dog in public, and allow local authorities to force owners to use a muzzle or lead if there is a risk to public safety. A breach of a dog control order is an offence that risks a fine of up to £1,000 and disqualification from owning a dog, but there was nothing about that in the Government’s recent proposals.
Stray dogs are an important issue in any discussion of dangerous dogs legislation, as they are linked directly with dog attacks. Despite that, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs considers the control of strays as a local authority matter. With local authority budgets feeling the strain and more local services being cut, the budget for animal welfare is not high on many councils’ list of priorities. Some have merged their animal welfare function with pest control, while others claim that they have no budget at all to deal with stray dogs. The issue has not been dealt with adequately by the Government.
All those major problems still exist despite the Government’s recent proposals. The charities concerned with dangerous dogs legislation that I speak to have been left frustrated by the reluctance of the Government to go further. This was a chance to reform the legislation on dangerous dogs and include preventive measures to stop dog attacks before they start. By introducing compulsory microchipping of all dogs, recorded on a single national database, owners will be encouraged to take responsibility for the behaviour of their dogs. Banning the sale of dogs in newspapers and on the internet and introducing a list of approved breeders would help to prevent the illegal breeding of dogs. With more than 5,000 people hospitalised due to dog attacks in the past two years, it is time the Government realised that the law must change. Sadly, the Government’s proposals look like a missed opportunity.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.
As you know, Ms Dorries, the press can sometimes be very cruel. A few years ago, one of my dogs, a pug, won the Westminster dog of the year competition. The Times showed a photograph of the pug and me, and said that the pug was the one on the right. I thought that that was pretty cruel in the circumstances, but I was consequently invited to join the Kennel Club. I think I am one of the few Members of Parliament to be a member of the Kennel Club, so I feel an obligation to speak on this subject.
I agree almost entirely with the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), with one exception. Clearly, we need action to ensure that dogs do not attack people on private land. We need to ensure that it is an offence for dogs to attack other dogs, such as guide dogs. I think that everyone agrees about microchipping. Every organisation—the Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club and so on—is agreed on that. The only issue is whether microchipping will be compulsory for every dog, or whether to start with puppies and move up. All I ask of those right hon. and hon. Members who say that it should be compulsory to microchip every single dog immediately is that they reflect on the number of cases in each of our constituencies of elderly constituents who will say, “The trauma of taking my elderly dog to be microchipped will be too difficult.” Having every local newspaper carrying such stories about that will soon undermine confidence. I think I am one of the few hon. Members who was here during the progress of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. It fell apart like a two bob suit soon after it was implemented because of all its internal contradictions.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising an issue that I missed in my speech. I should have said that if we are to go ahead with compulsory microchipping we should consider some sort of scheme for the elderly, for whom dogs provide great companionship—access to free microchipping, or something similar to the Dogs Trust scheme, which charges £10. The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I must apologise for not mentioning it in my speech.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate. Nobody has mentioned the legislation introduced by the Northern Ireland Assembly, which makes provision for elderly people who cannot afford to have their dogs microchipped. Perhaps the Northern Ireland example will be cited by the Minister, who is very knowledgeable on this issue, as a way to bring everybody on board and to not make people feel disadvantaged financially.
Of course. We will come on to a number of points on Second Reading or in Committee about exemptions and exceptions to compulsory microchipping of the entire dog population.
Universal, compulsory microchipping is not the immediate panacea that it appears to be. There are complexities that need to be teased out during the course of debate on any Bill. I hope that whatever legislation is introduced will be more enduring than the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991—I think everyone agrees on that. If we start microchipping puppies, because they are easy to identify and so on, there is nothing to stop local authorities and other organisations, such as the Dogs Trust, encouraging people to microchip their own dogs. Indeed, if strays are taken in, they might be given to owners on the understanding that they undertake to microchip them immediately.
I think the whole House agrees on the need to take action to prevent dogs attacking people on private property, and to stop them attacking guide dogs. I think that everyone agrees on the need for microchipping. However, having gone through all the difficulties of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, we need to ensure that we get the next piece of legislation right. That will require us to work hard on the detail of any Bill that is introduced.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.
I welcome the debate and come to it with a number of interests. As a criminal defence solicitor for more than 14 years, I have defended many a so-called dangerous dog and have seen for myself the failings of the legislation. The winners are either the lawyers or the animal experts who deal with the not so simple issue of whether a pit bull is a pit bull. I have employed the wisdom of many such an expert in many a long trial. The legislation often fails the victims of the attacks that we have heard so much about.
I have a more immediate interest in the debate, as two weeks ago my Labrador was attacked in our local park by a Staffordshire bull terrier. My Labrador ended up in the local animal hospital. My family were around at the time. Thankfully it was only the dog who was attacked, and no one else. I have great respect for Staffies, which are great family pets, and I do not wish to demonise them. Indeed, it is important not to demonise breeds—sadly, a result of previous legislation. The owner of the Staffy had said, “He may look ferocious, but he is a lovely family pet and no problem at all.” No sooner had he said that then his dog set upon our Labrador.
The owner was shocked that his dog was capable of the attack, which reminds us that the heart of the debate is responsible dog ownership. Any dog is capable—given the moment, time or provocation—of causing injury. There needs to be particular responsibility for some breeds, such as some terriers and Staffies. That is why this issue goes far beyond legislation into our culture and attitude towards dogs. We all know that in many cases we are dealing with a dangerous owner rather than a dangerous dog, and we need to find ways to tackle the issue.
I also speak on behalf of my constituents. Increasingly typical in the constituencies represented in the Chamber, particularly in London, are a growing number of so-called status dogs roaming around parks without proper responsible ownership. Many of our constituents, whether families with young children or responsible dog owners, will not go into parks because they are worried about being attacked. That is unacceptable and we need to do something about it.
I want to draw my hon. Friend’s attention to some work done by the Dogs Trust over the past few years encouraging responsible dog ownership, improving education and particularly working with disadvantaged young men to encourage them to have their dogs neutered and microchipped, and to learn how to handle them. Better education has a massive role to play.
I pay tribute to the work of the Dogs Trust, which works locally alongside owners, housing associations, police, schools and across the board to carry out projects, including pilots that need to be extended. In Enfield, in the Parkguard project, two dedicated parks officers make it their business to encounter intimidating-looking dogs—and intimidating owners, probably—and work with them to try to encourage them and teach them how to handle their dog properly. More of that needs to happen.
We need a change in legislation. As a lawyer, I welcome the extension to the definition of private places, having argued the case over whether a place is private or public. I heard recently from the council leader in Enfield that, during the London elections, a German shepherd opened a door into a yard and attacked a canvasser, seriously injuring their arm. That change is needed and makes sense, as does microchipping. The measures must be dealt with proportionately but carefully. Local discretion needs to be inbuilt to enable more dogs—not just puppies—to be chipped.
This is a good start. As a lawyer, I know that identity is a key issue. Many an argument has been had about who really owns a dog and we should not underestimate that issue. However, it is important to go beyond legislation, into prevention. That is why local projects are good. We can develop a general culture about how we handle our dogs carefully.
This is still a nation of dog lovers. However, we must recognise that the nation has changed over the years, especially in London, with different cultures comprising our metropolis. In my patch, for example, many people in the Turkish community have a particular view about dogs, which are not traditionally regarded as pets. We need to show respect and develop people’s education early on, so that they understand how to look after dogs carefully and own them, so that we can truly be a nation of dog lovers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans)on securing today’s debate, which is timely given the Government’s recent announcements. I apologise, Ms Dorries, because I will not be able to stay for the end of the debate; I have to leave early to attend a meeting with a Minister on a constituency matter.
All hon. Members in this Chamber know about irresponsible dog ownership: we see it at first hand in our constituencies. The British Medical Journal estimates that every year in the UK, 250,000 people are bitten by dogs. Since 2006, six children have tragically lost their lives in dog attacks, including the tragic death in 2009 of John Paul Massey in my constituency. Some 400 telecoms workers and more than 6,000 postal workers are attacked by dogs every year in the course of their work.
It is not just people who are victims. Hon. Members have mentioned dogs attacking other dogs. Some 100 instances of guide dogs being attacked by other dogs were reported to the Guide Dogs charity last year, affecting some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. I shall ask the Minister three questions in the light of the recent announcement by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and of the announcement by the Home Office yesterday on antisocial behaviour. First, I welcome DEFRA’s statement on extending the law to cover attacks on private property. With 70% of dog attacks taking place in a private home or garden, it is important that the law is extended. However, I am keen that the Minister should say when those measures will be put into force. Will we have to wait until the consultation on microchipping has ended before the law is extended to cover private property? The Government should not wait. I should like them to act now.
I am keen that the Minister should lay out a timetable for the coming into force of the proposals announced yesterday by the Home Office and say what steps he will take to ensure that that proceeds with all urgency. It is vital that, having made such commitments, they are brought in as soon as possible. Every day, we read newspaper stories about attacks in the UK. Delay leaves the public at further risk.
Secondly, with regard to resourcing, including cuts to policing, I am concerned about how effective the DEFRA announcements will be without proper enforcement. Changing policy and giving enforcement agencies the powers that they should have had for a long time is one thing, but it is equally important that the police and others have the resources to enforce the law and deliver results on the ground. Under the 20% police budget cuts, some 16,000 police officers will be taken off our streets. In Liverpool, that will translate to 350 police officers by 2015, which will leave our police force in Merseyside stretched.
What is the Minister’s, and his Department’s, assessment of the impact of police cuts on the enforcement of the new dangerous dogs legislation? What work has the Department done with the Home Office to ensure that, despite the cuts, police forces will still be adequately equipped to tackle irresponsible dog ownership? Thirdly and finally, on compensation to victims, I hope that the Minister is aware that the Ministry of Justice proposes to end criminal injuries compensation scheme payments to dog attack victims in cases of irresponsible dog ownership. Only in cases where the dog is purposefully set upon a victim will CICS claims be allowed in future. That means that in cases where the dog owner is uninsured and has no money or assets, postal workers and children who suffer horrific injuries will receive no compensation from any source. Will the minister confirm that this is so? If he cannot, will he engage with colleagues at the MOJ on that?
Does the hon. Lady know about the recent and welcome criminal justice legislation, which gives a presumption of compensation for all victims of crime that will extend, particularly in respect of the legislation to cover private property, to most people who are victims of dog attacks? We must prosecute these people and get them before the courts, then people will receive the proper compensation.
As I said earlier, I welcome the Government’s extension of the legislation to cover private property, which hon. Members from all parties have been calling for for a long time. However, if such an attack happens and the owner does not have any assets, under the new proposals advanced by the Ministry of Justice, they will have no recourse to compensation, except in the specific instance where a dog is purposefully set on a victim, as outlined in the document. I am concerned that, under the proposals, someone who sustains an injury—a child or a postal worker—will not be eligible for any criminal compensation, even if there is a prosecution. That text is buried right at the end of the document. I can share a copy of it with the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate, if he would like to see it. I hope that the Minister responds to the specific points that I have made about the timetable, about the police being able to enforce the new legislation, and about criminal injuries compensation.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this stimulating debate and on the measured, thoughtful way in which he introduced the topic.
I cannot compete with some of the horror stories that have been mentioned, but no politician is far from this issue. This year, I was accosted by two amiable Alsatians that did not quite wish me to canvass the house that I had intended to visit. In my constituency this year, a councillor has been bitten and a caseworker has lost part of a finger. Hon. Members might like to speak to my good friend the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr Benton), who to this day bears the marks of a serious attack by dogs.
Fundamentally, the problem is dogs’ bad behaviour, but that is associated with the problem of neglect and poor training, which is worsened a great deal by the contemporary cult of the status dog, which people use as a potential deterrent or threat. Hitherto, the resolution, which has been fairly straightforward, has been to ban so-called uncontrollable, savage dogs that are naturally disinclined to behave themselves in a civilised fashion. The view has also been that owners of dogs that are out of control should be charged by the courts, and guidelines have been issued in that regard over time. There is general consensus that such measures are not sufficient and that more is needed.
All hon. Members have acknowledged the fact that we cannot legislate for the genuinely unpredictable. Occasionally, even well-behaved dogs go beserk and do strange, unpredictable things, even if owners wish them not to do so. Hon. Members are probably aware of such cases. However, much of what people are anxious about is, sadly, predictable. The fundamental drive behind all our contributions today is the desire to see dog owners made more genuinely responsible for their dogs. Otherwise—something suggested to me by police dog handlers—there ought to be some restriction on who can own certain sorts of dogs. That idea was put to me seriously by a man who has had a lot of experience breeding dogs and working with the police with dogs. If we do not allow someone with a criminal record of some length to own firearms and the like, why would we allow him to own a dangerous or potentially dangerous dog?
That is a separate point from the drive to increase owner responsibilities, and I have no particular view on which of a number of different suggestions along that line would be best. I favour microchipping, but one might want to look at insurance, which has not been mentioned so far; at obliging owners to muzzle or keep dogs on a lead; and at neutering certain dogs, if they are to be owned in certain circumstances, almost as a precondition of sale, although none of that gets around the issue that is dogging the whole affair, which is the problem of genuinely irresponsible owners. They do not even shoulder their current responsibilities and, if asked to do more, will discard the animals that they have taken on. There seems to be a lot of evidence that that is happening—a large number of Staffordshire bull terriers end up in pounds throughout the land and are destroyed. The other day, the average life expectancy of a Staffordshire bull terrier was cited as about four years, because people take them on but discard them when they become troublesome.
I am genuinely convinced that the threshold for the ownership and breeding of dogs needs to be raised, either generally or for specific breeds, but that will only be an effective remedy if coupled with sensible plans for realistic enforcement. Without enforcement, no proposal will be worth while, but there is the question of how enforcement will be funded, which drives us back to the issue of whether a licence is a viable idea.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries—for the first time, I believe.
It is almost exactly two years since I made my maiden speech to a half-full Chamber—or half-empty, depending on how we look at it—and one of the issues that I highlighted was that of dangerous dogs, largely because as a candidate in the few years running up to the election so many cases had been brought to my attention.
Two years on, we seem to be making some progress, which I am delighted about, but we are not there yet, and I welcome some of the measures that the Government are at last proposing. Top of the list has to be extending protection to private land, with appropriate exemptions if dogs are protecting property from illegal forced entry or whatever. For far too long, many of our hard-working postal workers, delivery staff, carers and health visitors—the list goes on—have not been protected by the law from dog attacks if those occur on private land.
As I pointed out in a previous speech, it is patently ridiculous that at the moment, if a hand puts something through a letterbox and gets bitten by a dog on the other side, that would not attract any prosecution but, if it was the owner of the house who was sitting behind the door and bit the hand, that would. Such a situation seems rather ridiculous, but is at last being remedied, although I understand that we are still awaiting a change in the law to allow such prosecutions to take place. I hope that that will happen soon—it cannot happen too fast, in my view.
I am also pleased that we are consulting on microchipping, and I have listened with interest to some of the remarks about that. We need to find the right balance; there is the issue of pushing for full implementation to further the cause of responsible ownership, but I do not want to see elderly grannies with their 14-year-old poodles being marched down to wherever it is and told that they must get their animals microchipped at that late stage. I hope I am making clear my point about the need for balance.
The most sensible course is to start with young pups that are taken to vets for early health checks. A decent percentage of people already microchip their animals, but there will always be that law-ignoring minority who will simply take no notice. We can get our numbers up, however, by encouraging early microchipping. Local authorities could do something to help by using their tenancy agreements to insist that animals living in council properties are microchipped.
The most difficult problem to tackle, but also one of the most urgent—certainly in my constituency—is irresponsible owners who use their dogs to menace their local community, hanging around in parks or on streets. Police are often reluctant to intervene, unless there is a clear-cut case of an unprovoked attack in which someone is badly injured. Even attacks on other pets do not seem to be a reason for police to interfere.
I want to make a point salient to the issue of people who hang about in parks with dogs. Another such issue is with gangs who hang about with dogs, and a multiplicity of people with dogs is a real threat—if we see them, right away we are fearful. Do we now have the chance to address that?
That absolutely needs addressing. Often, too, drug dealers use dogs to protect them in their trade. Yes, indeed, we need to look at how we can break such gangs up. In fact, I was about to say that the Home Office is bringing forward some new measures that can help.
First, I like the suggestion of an acceptable behaviour order, which could enable the police or other agencies to require someone whose dog is proving to be a menace to sign up to certain conditions, such as muzzling the dog, having it on a lead or accepting some education from, for instance, the Dogs Trust or the RSPCA about proper dog ownership; if the owners do not fulfil what they sign up to, they are left open to further penalties. We would be getting involved with such people early on, hopefully before serious injuries happened. I like the early intervention possibilities and how owners are put on notice that, if they do not start looking after their dog properly, they could be in trouble.
We are also looking at something called the community trigger, which allows concerned residents to insist that the police or other agencies take action after three complaints. Again, that could involve people who are consistently worried about a gang of people hanging around with a threatening dog in a particular park. There are also criminal behaviour orders, which I understand could be attached to those convicted of certain crimes, including violence, and which could in certain circumstances ban someone unsuitable from being in control of a dog in a public place. That will all help, and the tougher sentencing guidelines are also welcome, although belated.
Finally, I want to flag up something that can make a difference in the medium to long term: local authorities getting much more involved in enforcing housing tenancy agreements, which seek to control pets in council properties. Wandsworth has led the way, and my own local authority of Ealing has also been setting up new agreements, although I am told that those are yet to be properly enforced; I have raised the issue with the council and been reassured that it is being looked at. Obviously, it makes no sense to adopt a new policy if it is not then implemented. I would like to see London councils and the Greater London assembly do much more to push those new housing tenancy agreements, which could make a real difference.
In conclusion, real progress is being made at last, which I welcome, but there is more to do, in particular to ensure that new measures are properly implemented and enforced. We need to remember the dreadful attacks on young children, as well as on many others such as postal workers, that go unreported. There are no guarantees, but we should be minimising the chances.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. Congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing the debate.
I simply wish to echo some of the points made by my colleagues from London who have spoken already, in particular about gangs and dogs used as weapons. I quote from one of the e-mails that I have received from a constituent:
“I no longer come across normal breeds now”—
this is his impression—
“just staffies and pit bull types. They are everywhere! In the parks where small children play, the dogs are hung on to the trees to strengthen the jaws. They are walked around by intimidating owners and quite frankly it is an epidemic.”
That is only one e-mail, but in the time that I have been an MP I have had a number of constituents contacting me, in particular people who are fearful even of going out of their front door, let alone into a park, because of the aggressive behaviour of some owners, with their deliberate training of dogs to be aggressive and weapon-like.
Hackney council has sought to deal with the problem in a number of ways. It, too, has introduced some controls into the tenancy agreement on the number of pets that people own, although that alone is not a solution. Any irresponsible owner will find ways around most of those measures, which is a point that we must all bear in mind.
As a result of situations such as the one I cited, Hackney council has introduced three new dog control orders, which came into effect from April. One is a dog exclusion order, which enables the council to stop dogs entering certain areas, including children’s playgrounds, sports courts, multi-use games areas and marked pitches when games are in play.
A second order requires dogs to be on leads and prohibits owners from exercising their dogs off the lead on roads, in small parks and gardens, on the canal towpath and in car parks and churchyards. That is an example of how irresponsible dog ownership has affected responsible dog owners. Many dog owners are quite able to control their dog on the canal towpath or in churchyards, for instance, without causing a problem for children at play or other adults. Hackney has felt the need to introduce the orders because of the fear factor and some irresponsible dog owners. We will see how that plays out, but it is a worry to me that we must go that way. I still welcome the move, however, at this point.
A third order requires dogs to be on leads when a request is made to owners. That gives officers the power to request that dogs should be put on leads if they are not under appropriate control or if they are causing damage or acting aggressively. That latter point is the most important, but the key issue, of course, with the new or even with existing powers, is enforcement. We already have the powers in Hackney to issue fines for dog fouling in public, for instance, but when I talk to constituents about that there is a certain cynicism about the likelihood of enforcement. Some of the people who are intent on using their dogs as weapons will not be where the dog wardens are. If they see the dog wardens, they will tend to disappear.
Good dog owners will do all the things that are required anyway. I am in favour of microchipping and think that the arguments have been well put today. Microchipping is a good thing. On its own, it is not a solution; it is something that good owners will do, but the bad owners, who breed and sell, will not play that game.
There have been proposals about exclusive dog breeders, and about being able to buy only from some licensed dog breeders. I would be wary of that approach, which it seems to me would create a sort of cartel. It would be difficult to control what happened, especially in rural areas where dogs are born without being, shall I say, planned and bred in the same way as elsewhere. I mean that I know farmers here who tell me that one in seven dogs is likely to become a sheep dog; they do not know which, when they are born, so of course they tend not to keep them all.
I welcome the fact that Hackney has taken on such important powers; however, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) has made some sensible and reasonable points about what Parliament needs to do. There is clearly cross-party support for some measures, but we need to work, as the hon. Gentleman said, on ensuring that the Bill is put together properly. We have seen what seemed like the benefits of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. There was a lot of support for it. The danger is that we chase the headlines and pick up the bad examples, without thinking of the consequences.
We need to tease through every consequence to see what the impact will be on different areas of our constituencies, and on our constituents. It may be early for the Minister to reflect on this, but there can be a danger of including in primary legislation things that can be changed only with further primary legislation. The legislation may need to be adapted for the future use of dogs, and we need it to enable minor changes to be made through regulation, once the basic principles are established. That will give the Government and Parliament the freedom to change the law and adapt and adjust it as new breeds come to fruition, or as people try to use dogs in new ways. I feel strongly about that. We cannot wait for primary legislation if we do not get things right, or the situation changes.
I welcome the points that the hon. Lady has made, about things that affect London communities as well as the rest of the country.
The Government have made a proposal about kennelling costs, and ways to make the action that is taken proportionate. I know as a solicitor how long dogs effectively await trial. The cost of that, just in London, is £2.75 million. If we can deal proportionately with dogs that will not be a risk, that must be welcome. If dogs are a risk they need to be on bail conditions, so to speak, of muzzling and a lead, and so forth.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was just about to move on to the issue of the cost of kennelling. Responsible owners—and irresponsible ones—can contribute to that, but it is a cost to Londoners, and I think the money would be better spent on enforcement. We need to consider all the consequences. At the moment, because of the breed-based nature of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, it is difficult for the police to establish what they need to, and it takes them a long time. In my constituency there are higher priorities for police funding than kennelling, so we need to think about how the issue is tackled.
We clearly have a cross-party consensus and agree that we want to proceed positively. I hope that the Minister will take our suggestions in good part, and work with me and others who have an interest in ensuring that responsible dog owners can enjoy their dogs, and that other people will not be made afraid because of those who are irresponsible.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for securing the debate.
It is good to have the Minister here. We are all very much in favour of microchipping, and I want to ask him about the database in particular. Microchipping is all very well, but the database must be right and it must work. The information must be correct. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs launched its inquiry at Battersea yesterday, and we found out that for a third of microchipped dogs the information is not accurate or up to date.
It is right to make sure that we have an accurate database. When a puppy is sold, the first owner or breeder must be responsible for ensuring that the information about where the dog then goes is correct. Thereafter, somewhat as with the licensing of a car, it is possible to follow the dog through its life. Otherwise it will disappear off the database. The idea is also good from a breeding point of view. It will make it possible to be sure that the breeding is correct, without in-breeding or the breeding of bad aspects into a certain breed of dog—so that the buyer gets a healthy dog. From all those points of view, the proposal is a good thing.
People always say, however, that the law works for the law-abiding, and we must be careful that we do not just make it more onerous for the law-abiding to get their dogs microchipped. We need to be able to tackle the other dogs out there, whose owners will never want to have them microchipped.
As to problems with postal workers and social workers, if someone is inviting someone to push a letter through their door and knows that their dog is likely to bite the person who puts it through, they are responsible for the dog and should take action so that that does not happen. The same is true if a social worker comes into their house. That is a key point. As a farmer, I know that occasionally—and this would be more difficult in law—a dog that has never turned before will turn suddenly. That will probably make for interesting cases, and we cannot get everything right, although we must try to.
I want to mention status dogs, quickly. Having looked around Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, it is clear to me—in relation to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991—that breed-specific legislation does not work, for the simple reason that, as we were told, some of the cross-bred dogs that are now being bred weigh 8 stone. We can imagine that once a dog of that kind has been trained to be vicious, it will be a hell of a weapon. To be blunt, that is what some criminal elements do: they breed those dogs in the back streets, and train them to be vicious weapons. The other problem is that if they abandon those dogs, most of them are so vicious that they cannot be rehabilitated and rehomed: there is a death sentence on those dogs, because of the way they are brought up.
It is not often the dogs that are to blame—it is the individual or gangs who bring them up. That is probably the most difficult aspect of the measures to get right. There is currently law enabling the police to act in relation to dangerous dogs. We need to be able to allow the RSPCA and others to take up the cudgels. We need to act when a dog is obviously starting to get vicious, when that is obvious from the way that it is being taken around—whether the owner is hanging around the parks with it, or whatever they are doing—and from the behaviour of the dog and the people around it. Even before the dog has viciously bitten anyone, that is the time to pounce on it, and at least try to get it microchipped, so that a link back can be traced. In films where gangs use such dogs as weapons, the one great advantage that they have is the fact that the dog cannot be traced back to an individual member of the gang.
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that if aggressive behaviour is witnessed by the police they should have the power in law to enforce microchipping of the dogs? I would support that; it might tackle some of the irresponsible dog owners that we agreed about.
That is exactly what I am suggesting, because we must try to take action. If someone has been bitten, or a dog has been used as a weapon—as an attack dog—we have failed. If we get hold of the dogs before that happens, and link them to their owners, those owners who want to use them as a weapon will be much less likely to be able to do so. We must send a clear message to those people that the situation cannot continue. It destroys not just our society, but many healthy dogs who should not have ended up as they did. I strongly believe that in most cases it is the fault not of the dog, but of the way in which it was brought up. That is why we must pin the dog to those who perpetrate the problem.
I know that it is difficult to get everything right, but I urge the Minister to ensure that we have an accurate database that will continue into the future, that we target not breeds but the behaviour of dogs, and, most importantly, that we make sure that when dogs are used as a weapon we use all the powers we have to link them back to their owners so that they can be properly prosecuted. That will send the message to everyone else.
I am the organising secretary of the Communications Workers Union group of liaison MPs, and I am proud of that. I compliment the CWU’s Bite Back campaign, which has put some steel into the issue since 2008—particularly Dave Joyce, who is the health and safety officer. Trade unions do good work for people.
Some 23,000 postal workers have been attacked by dogs in the past four years, and 6,000 go to hospital for treatment every year because they have been seriously attacked by dogs. Twelve deaths have been recorded in the UK since 2005—seven children and five adults. Nothing that we do is good enough if another life is lost. I have here a photograph of Lena Gane, a postman who was attacked by a dog in Bristol on Thursday 3 May 2012, and whose hand was almost severed. That is not uncommon for postal workers and other direct-contact public workers.
The union’s assessment of the present consultation is that it is yet another fudge, and a missed opportunity. A two-year consultation has just finished, and there are no proposals other than to consider extending the legislation to dogs on private property.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) mentioned microchipping. If people were compelled to microchip and insure their dogs, they would think twice about buying a dog and the responsibility involved. The Dogs Trust says that too many dogs are given as presents and then abandoned. Some, having not been controlled and trained, become a problem for the owner and the public, but many are kept on as family pets. I have seen someone in the park across the road from where I live releasing a dog—an Alsatian or German Shepherd—when children were playing in the small child’s play park. I quake when I see that, because no one knows what that dog will do, no matter how good the owner is.
It is important to put on the record the measures that the Bite Back campaign wants. Until they are granted, the Government—any Government, because the campaign started in 2008 under the previous Government—will be under pressure from those who want the problem solved. The campaign says that those measures should include UK-wide consolidated and strengthened dog control legislation, not tinkering, to prevent attacks on children and the general public, postal and telecom workers, and other public-contact workers who may go to places where there is a dog.
There should be dog control legislation that applies everywhere, including on private property. Preventive dog control notices, which exist in Scotland, should be introduced. The fudge of a wrap-around general control order will not do. The notices must be specific, as in Scotland and, I believe, Northern Ireland. All dogs should be compulsorily microchipped, so that people who take on a dog know that that will be recorded. I accept the good points that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) made about the database being kept up to date and compulsory. That happens for cars, and if someone forgets to make a statutory off road notification, they are fined. I know farmers who have been fined for having cars abandoned in their fields, because they forgot to register that they had been abandoned.
There should be compulsory third party insurance cover for dogs and better criminal compensation orders. The Government must reverse their appalling proposal that people will not receive criminal injuries compensation if they are attacked by a dog when someone has been proven to be irresponsible with the dog. There should be good local authority dog wardens with powers for them and the police to intervene immediately if they think a situation needs investigation, and to have the dog removed.
There should be harsher sentences by the courts for irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs. There should be better information and education, but the question is how much should be spent to get that education. It should be compulsory for people to train and control their dogs. There should be large public information campaigns to persuade people not to take on dogs if they are not willing to be responsible for them in every situation, and to generate compliance.
The Bite Back campaign is supported not just by the postal workers, but by all law enforcement agencies, the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, the Dogs Trust, Blue Cross, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Kennel Club, the Royal College of Nursing and the British Veterinary Association. That is a large body of opinion. Some 250,000 people are bitten by a dog every year. That means a lot of dogs that are not controlled. Some of the bites are severe, as we heard from the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax)—he has now left the Chamber—who told us about a young girl who was bitten in the face. The problem is common and endemic, and the Government have a duty to do something about it.
It was wrong to make the existing legislation breed specific, and I have said that time and again. We must do better, do it right, and do it all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on relating to us in graphic and harrowing detail the incident that inspired him to apply for this debate. It is rare to hear a contribution that warrants an 18 certificate.
The debate provides a timely opportunity to discuss the Government’s policy on tackling irresponsible dog ownership and strengthening dog control. It is worth saying at the outset that if the Government get this right, they will have our full support. It may be appropriate to mention briefly a former colleague. Until 2010, Joan Humble was the Labour MP for Blackpool North and Fleetwood. Last month, while campaigning for a Labour candidate, the tip of her wedding ring finger was bitten off when she posted a leaflet through a letter box. I know that the House will want to send its best wishes to her for a speedy recovery.
I note from a report on the BBC news website that the esteemed Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), began her political career by being bitten by an Alsatian during an early campaign, but I am sure that she has now recovered from that.
The Government announced their proposals to tackle dangerous dogs and irresponsible dog ownership on 23 April. Before speaking about them in more depth, I want to pay tribute to the work of two organisations that have already been mentioned and which have done some outstanding work in this field. First, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association spends up to £50,000 to train a single dog to a high enough standard to serve a blind person, yet every week those animals are subject to vicious attacks by aggressive dogs on the public highway, often dogs that are nominally under the control of their owners. Those attacks frequently result in the guide dog being injured, and even retired. By nature and training, they are passive animals, and their first instinct is to protect their owners, not themselves. Yet criminal sanctions against irresponsible dog owners are very rare, leaving guide dogs and their owners constantly at risk without the protection of the law. I hope that in his response the Minister will give a commitment to address that injustice.
Secondly, I pay tribute to the Communication Workers Union, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) has already referred, and to the Bite Back campaign spearheaded by its national health, safety and environment officer, Dave Joyce. The union has welcomed the recently reviewed sentencing guidelines for dog attacks, but makes the serious point that in future the law must apply to private property as that is where 70% of dog attacks on postal workers take place. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 does not cover attacks that take place on private property, which means that traumatised and vulnerable victims are forced to seek recourse through the civil courts. Like Guide Dogs for the Blind, the CWU is concerned at the low level of convictions as a result of attacks. If the Government intend to extend the law on that issue—and I understand that they do—I hope that there will be no further delay.
In government, Labour recognised that there were problems with the existing legislation on dangerous dogs, and in March 2010 we began a consultation on tightening the law. We worked with the police, veterinarians, canine and animal welfare groups and trade unions on a range of powers needed to tackle dangerous dogs and irresponsible owners. That consultation ended in June 2010, but it took nearly two years for the coalition Government to respond. During that time, more than 5,000 patients were admitted to hospital because of injuries caused by dog attacks in England and Wales, and nearly 10,000 postal workers were injured by domestic dogs. Each month, more than seven guide dogs have been, and continue to be, attacked by dogs that are out of control. Those figures are startling enough, but over the past year, police forces in England and Wales have spent more than £3 million on kennelling dogs that have been seized under the 1991 Act.
Between 2004-05 and 2010, the number of out-of-control dogs seized by the Metropolitan Police Authority rose from 27 to more than 1,100. Scotland and Northern Ireland have already implemented their own dog control laws, and Wales is reviewing the issue—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn is taking a close interest. There have been many traumatic and violent attacks over the past two years, most recently the case of five Metropolitan police officers who were savagely attacked by a dog, curiously enough named “Poison”, as they attempted to arrest its owner. My hon. Friends the Members for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) heard at first hand a horrifying testimony from the father of a little girl from Chingford whose ear had been chewed off in an unrestrained dog attack in a public park.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk pointed out, about 20 organisations, including the RSPCA, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Kennel Club, the CWU, the Police Federation and the Association of Chief Police Officers, want the Government to live up to the Prime Minister’s promise to target irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs. Labour, and all those affected by dog attacks, also want to see that promise fulfilled. This is about promoting responsible dog ownership and tackling irresponsible, incompetent and sometimes outright dangerous owners, as well as about the dogs themselves.
On 14 March 2012, my shadow ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore, wrote to the Secretary of State stating:
“I can assure you that Labour will support any measures that support animal welfare charities, unions, the Police and others in preventing unnecessary dog attacks and tackling the scourge of irresponsible dog ownership.”
Sadly, however, the proposals announced last month fell overwhelmingly short of expectations, and there were few who welcomed them with any vigour or delight. We have noted the announcements in the White Paper on antisocial behaviour, and I will return to that shortly.
Billy Hayes, general secretary of the CWU, summed up the mood perfectly when he questioned why there was another delay caused by yet another consultation. He said:
“We’ve had a comprehensive consultation, there’s cross-party support, now we need action.”
The chief executive of the RSPCA, Gavin Grant, said that the proposals “lack bite”, although I do not know whether the pun was intended. Claire Horton, chief executive of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, said that the proposals were a “wasted opportunity”, and Clarissa Baldwin, chief executive of Dogs Trust, claimed that the Government are
“just tinkering round the edges.”
We welcome the extension—albeit delayed—of the law to cover attacks on private property, and the Government are making the right noises about a phased introduction of microchipping. However, the fact that we are to have more consultations has been criticised heavily, not least in the debate today, and there is no clear timetable for the implementation of the proposals. Furthermore, there is nothing in DEFRA’s proposals to help prevent dog attacks.
I have a series of questions for the Minister. I shall try to be brief and I hope that he will address these points today. If not, I hope that he will make a commitment to write to me with the answers. A new and additional consultation on microchipping has been announced. When will that end and when will the proposals be put into action? It is only right that the Minister makes clear the timetable for implementation. There are four existing microchip databases. Will the Minister explain how it will be made easier for law enforcement agencies, vets, animal welfare charities and dog wardens to cut through that confusion? Will the databases be streamlined, and will there be any compulsion for bodies to co-operate and share information?
As we know, information currently stored on dog microchips is often out of date. Owners have passed away or moved on and not informed the database, or else they simply deny that the dog is theirs. What measures will the Minister introduce to ensure that microchips are updated on a regular basis, and that the last recorded owners take responsibility for their dog? If the legislation is not tightened up, then short of being useful for restoring dogs to responsible owners, the database will do nothing to tackle irresponsible owners.
What discussions has the Minister had with animal welfare charities and others to make microchipping low-cost or zero-cost, and to make it apply beyond registered breeders, thereby driving programmes into other areas where the benefits of and need for microchipping and wider animal welfare advice are clear? What effect will the proposals for microchipping puppies from legitimate registered dog breeders have on the wider issue of unregistered or back-street breeders, surplus puppies from accidental litters, and the sale of puppies on the internet? Does the Minister accept that a large part of the ownership problem, and the tide of untraceable dogs that wash up in animal welfare charities, is unlikely to be affected simply by microchipping the products of registered puppy farms? The proposals are a welcome development, but how will they deal with the wider issue? The extension of the law on dangerous dogs to cover private property will require changes to primary legislation. When and how will that be done? We need certainty and clarity, neither of which has been forthcoming in ministerial announcements or in the Queen’s Speech.
The broad coalition of groups to which I have referred made a specific demand for measures that will prevent attacks from taking place. Such measures would reduce the costs of kennelling and euthanasia, thousands and thousands of NHS treatments in A and E units and GP surgeries, as well as days of work lost by front-line workers. Part of that is to do with early intervention and educating owners about responsible ownership. The limited programme that the Minister has announced is welcome but it is pygmy-esque given the scale of intervention required.
The Home Office White Paper on antisocial behaviour includes proposals that are aimed at tackling irresponsible dog ownership. The Home Office has rejected any dog-specific power, but stated that it will continue to work with relevant groups, including the police, in finalising proposals that will be of maximum benefit in dealing with dog-related antisocial behaviour. We are studying the proposals closely, but will the Minister guarantee that they will not become a dodgy doggy ASBO to be flouted and ignored? Many people want to see specific dog control notices. Does the Minister know why the Home Office rejected that idea?
What discussions has the Minister had with Home Office colleagues about these proposals, and does he know how acceptable behaviour order and community protection notices will be enforced? Has he made any assessment of what impact the proposals will have in preventing dog attacks? Does he know how many attacks will be prevented, and can he assure us that Ministers across his Department and the Home Office are working collaboratively to tackle out-of-control dogs and irresponsible dog ownership? In short, are Ministers barking up the same tree? [Interruption.]—Yes, I apologise.
We need joined-up government to make safety on the streets a reality, and I urge the Government to listen to the views of those who have come together to promote responsible dog ownership. Most importantly, I urge the Minister to get on with implementing the measures and put them in place as soon as possible.
It is a great pleasure to respond to this excellent debate and there have been some good contributions. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for raising this important issue with such commitment, and for continuing an ongoing dialogue on the issue. I entirely recognise the points that he raises. I pay tribute to the many organisations to which he referred: Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Communication Workers Union, the Dogs Trust and, of course, Battersea dogs home, which he recently visited.
There were other very powerful contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) pointed out the limitations of what many people—some of our constituents and some Members of this House—see as a panacea for solving this problem. Microchipping is only a partial solution. As was said in a number of interventions, it does not deal with the fact that unfortunately there will always be some people who fail to comply. The law can go only so far in catching them.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who informed hon. Members that she had to leave the debate to go to a meeting, which of course we understand, asked some specific questions that were also asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris). Incidentally, I should have started by congratulating him on his position and saying that I look forward to working with him. This issue is not my primary responsibility—it is, of course, Lord Taylor of Holbeach’s responsibility—but I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman on it and many others. The hon. Lady asked when the measures would be brought in, as did the hon. Gentleman. The introduction of microchipping would involve secondary legislation—an amendment to the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The elements of the measures that have been announced that would see current controls extending to private property and that relate to the requirements for kennelling and a number of other areas would involve primary legislation. I have no date for when those measures could be brought in, but we consider them urgent and hope that they can be brought in as quickly as possible.
The hon. Lady also raised the question of police resources. I can only say that these are local priority issues and will undoubtedly feature in the work of the new police and crime commissioners. When my neighbouring MP was Boris Johnson, we conducted a campaign with Thames Valley police on dog theft. We got that horrible crime treated as much more of a priority by the police force. It allocated resources and has done good work. A similar approach is being taken by other police forces. I know that hon. Members are still working hard with certain police forces to try to move this issue up the scale of their priorities. There will continue to be a debate and it will happen locally.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) is a long-standing campaigner on this issue, and I pay great tribute to her. She is pleased about what is being done, but quite rightly there is an edge to what she says. She wants to push the Government, and I will ensure that we continue to work with her.
There was an excellent contribution from the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). One very telling point that she made was about the irresponsible dog owners affecting responsible dog owners. That is entirely right. There are law-abiding people who are dog lovers or who do not have anything to do with dogs but whose lives are made hell by the irresponsible dog owners. Of course, that must remain a priority for us.
I will try to deal with as many points as I can in the few minutes that I have left. I certainly commit to writing to hon. Members if I fail to answer any of the questions put to me. Let us be clear: the announcement of 23 April set out a number of proposals. One is to extend to all places the criminal offence of allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control. That deals with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and a number of others about the terrible attacks that happen in the home and elsewhere that currently are not covered by legislation. The other proposals are: to remove the mandatory requirement that suspected prohibited-type dogs must be seized by the police for at least the duration of the court case; to require all puppies to be microchipped; and to increase the fee to have a dog added to the index of exempted dogs. The proposals are subject to consultation, and we welcome people’s views before the consultation period ends on 15 June. We want to take action as quickly as possible after that.
In addition to the proposals that I have set out, we are taking forward other work that we consider will help to tackle the irresponsible ownership of dogs. A number of initiatives are currently undertaken at local level. Some have been referred to in the debate. Those initiatives are designed to promote more responsible ownership of dogs. The Government welcome that. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have been giving great leadership to some of those local initiatives. We want to foster more of those projects and we feel that those who may be interested in setting up projects need to know what works well and in what circumstances. To enable that to happen, DEFRA is funding innovative projects in London and in dog hot spots outside London to provide learning that can be applied more widely.
In the past, one criticism has been a perception that enforcement of the law can vary between police forces, with some forces performing better than others. To redress that, we have already provided funding towards the training of more dog legislation officers—police officers specially trained in the law on dangerous dogs. That can make an enormous difference to a police force that is trying to tackle a problem but does not feel that it has the resources to deal with it. Those additional specialists will help police forces across the country to deal with dangerous dog incidents.
We also provide guidance to the courts, the police and the public on dangerous dogs. We are examining whether that guidance needs to be updated and have started to work with partners to see what changes need to be made.
On 15 May, the Sentencing Council published a new guideline for judges and magistrates on sentencing for dangerous dog offences. For example, the top of the sentencing range for the offence of allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control and injure someone has been increased from six months to 18 months. The Sentencing Council states:
“The new guideline will mean more offenders will face jail sentences, more will get community orders and fewer will receive discharges.”
The new guideline will come into effect on 20 August 2012.
As has been said, the Home Office has published a White Paper—it did so yesterday—containing proposals to simplify the antisocial behaviour toolkit. We have worked closely with the Home Office to ensure that the new antisocial behaviour measures cover irresponsibility with dogs. That includes people who deliberately use their dogs to intimidate other people and those who allow their dogs to stray and cause a nuisance—precisely the point made by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch. The Home Office is determined that those types of problem will be dealt with effectively in its proposed changes to the antisocial behaviour toolkit. The Home Office fully recognises the need to ensure that action can be taken to tackle antisocial behaviour problems proactively before they degenerate into more serious incidents, when action may have to be taken under existing dangerous dogs legislation. Many hon. Members have referred to the fact that certain dogs are used as a cover for other forms of criminality. That is of course a very big driver for the police and other law enforcement agencies.
I realise that a number of people wanted to see proposals such as the introduction of dog control notices. I can see why dog control notices may be viewed as a positive and preventive measure. However, I hope that I can reassure everyone that anything that could be achieved through such notices could be achieved through the new antisocial behaviour measures proposed by the Home Office. I see no reason to introduce dog-specific notices. They would not add value to what is already out there.
I hope that hon. Members will take the time to read the White Paper. It sets out a range of ways in which practitioners could use the new powers to deal with irresponsible dog owners, from using informal measures to deal with problems early, to taking proactive action through a community protection notice to tell an irresponsible owner exactly what he needs to do or else, and using the crime prevention injunction or criminal behaviour order to deal with more serious cases.
I understand that there is considerable support for microchipping to be applied to all dogs. Our consultation on microchipping includes four options, but our preferred option is to microchip puppies as opposed to all dogs. The Government consider that there should be a balance between linking dogs back to breeders and not imposing a burden on all existing dog owners. Many points were raised about the data and where they are held. There will be a real onus on the vendor of a dog to ensure that the data are changed. There will also be an onus on the purchaser. No one wants liability to remain with them. It is like selling a car.
The Government remain absolutely committed to resolving this problem as best they can. Let us face facts. There will still be dog attacks. Whatever legislation the House introduces, there will still be appalling incidents, but we must do everything that we can to provide the necessary protection to innocent people, who are currently too often the victims of appalling crimes and attacks by dogs that are not managed responsibly by their owners.