Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Nicky Morgan.)
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
Responsible dog ownership may not be at the top of everyone’s political agenda, and it might not be at the top of every party’s political agenda, but, nevertheless, it is of national importance. I look forward today to addressing a number of issues that have been raised over the past few years.
The UK is a nation of dog lovers. I dare say that the majority of dogs are kept as pets by loving owners and families. Children adore the tricks and licks of their loving pets. Of course, the elderly generation often keep dogs for personal affection and constant companionship.
Following the last general election, the coalition Government said they would
“promote responsible pet ownership by introducing effective codes of practice under the Animal Welfare Act, and will ensure that enforcement agencies target irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs.”
That has not happened. This morning’s debate will accentuate the weakness of the coalition’s recent proposals and announcements on dog ownership, and hopefully provide a robust framework for cross-party agreement on much stronger and more detailed legislation to be introduced sooner than the Government currently anticipate. There is cross-party agreement on most parts of the announced legislation, and there is not much difference between the parties other than perhaps on the timing of the required legislation’s introduction.
The statement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 6 February was described by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as “belated” and “woefully inadequate.” The Committee called for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs urgently to introduce a Bill to consolidate fragmented legislation on dog control and welfare.
Additionally, the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), said:
“Current laws have comprehensively failed to tackle irresponsible dog ownership. DEFRA’s belated proposals…are too limited.
Since 2007 dogs have killed seven people, including five children, in private homes…More than 100,000 strays are found each year; incidences of cruelty and neglect are rising and many dogs are out of control due to the irresponsible or deliberate actions of a minority of owners.
The evidence we received from DEFRA and the Home Office did little to reassure us that either Department is giving sufficient priority to dog control and welfare issues.
The Home Office approach to tackling antisocial behaviour is too simplistic; and fails to reflect the impact that poor breeding and training by irresponsible owners can have on a dog’s behaviour…New rules should give enforcement officers more effective powers, including Dog Control Notices, to prevent dog-related antisocial behaviour. Local authorities need to devote more resources to the effective management of stray dogs.”
The hon. Lady has done terrific work on dog ownership, which is an important topic, and she is much in line with the views of Opposition Members. Dog ownership is a massive issue, and the responsibility that comes with ownership increases almost daily.
Mr Gray, may I gently stray ever so slightly to the issue of stray and loose horses? I do not often get the opportunity of having both the Minister and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), in the same room. In my constituency there is an issue with wild and loose horses. Mr Gray, I see that you are shaking your head to suggest that I should not stray on to that ground, but perhaps the Minister will agree to meet me to discuss that out-of-hand legislation. [Interruption.] Thank you, Mr Gray. [Laughter.] I have in my notes, “will not be accepted by the Chair.”
Dog ownership is an important issue, and I have some key facts and figures that are quite enlightening. There are approximately 9 million dogs in the UK. Every year 250,000 people attend GP surgeries, minor injury units or accident and emergency departments after being bitten by dogs, and there are more than 6,000 hospital admissions resulting from dog attacks. The cost of dog attacks to the NHS is probably some £10 million. There are some 5,000 dog attacks on postmen and postwomen each year, of which 70% are on private property where irresponsible owners are immune from prosecution. That is obviously another major part of the debate.
The number of dogs dangerously out of control continues to increase. Police, local authorities and animal welfare groups work together in a few areas to promote responsible dog ownership, but only on a voluntary basis. Fourteen people have been killed in dog attacks since 2005—eight children and six adults—and hundreds of children received life-changing injuries and disfigurements during the same period. Enforcement action and the number of prosecutions remain low, as do court penalties.
Some 8 million dogs are kept as pets in the UK, yet there are many stray dogs running wild on our streets. Experts suggest that during 2011-12, nearly 120,000 stray dogs were found, of which 7% were destroyed. Having 120,000 dogs running wild hardly demonstrates responsible ownership. Despite our dog-loving culture, many people seem to be afraid of loose dogs, which is understandable. A pack of dogs running towards someone is a frightening experience, and I am sure it has happened to most people in this room. Whether or not the dogs appear vicious, people tend not to enjoy such an experience. Many of those animals are quite domesticated; they are not wild dogs or banned breeds, but they are set loose to God and good nature by their irresponsible owners or get loose by other means.
This year, a survey on stray dogs conducted by Dogs Trust reported a 24% rise in the number of individuals convicted of cruelty and neglect to dogs, which is shameful. There was a 22% rise in convictions related to dogs and a 21% rise in disqualifications from keeping animals. Again, those are hardly the signs of a dog-loving nation. The figures are frankly unacceptable in any civilised society. Due to many problems and many more false dawns, progress on responsible dog ownership and regulation has been slow.
The announcements made earlier this month by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs set out the Government’s proposals concerning dogs. They include measures on the compulsory microchipping of dogs, the seizure of dogs and the extension of the law to cover private property. On 15 February 2013, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published a report following its inquiry into dog control and welfare. As I mentioned, the report—“Dog Control and Welfare”, HC 575—made a series of recommendations and was critical of the Government’s approach. Concerns are rife about the poor condition of many dogs, including those bred for sale and those connected to pedigree breeding.
As I mentioned, incidences of out-of-control dogs have been increasing in the UK. Statistics show that 210,000 people are attacked by dogs in England annually, including 6,000 postal workers. It is not just postal workers but visitors to people’s properties: people going in through the back door or the back gate, doctors, nurses, postal workers and other communication workers. All those people are suffering greatly because of the current legislation on public and private land.
Since 2005, 14 people have been killed by dogs, the majority in their own homes. Many organisations are working assiduously on responsible dog ownership, and there are some shining examples, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Dogs Trust, the Communication Workers Union, Blue Cross, the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Retired Greyhound Trust and many others. They deserve credit, as I am sure we will agree throughout this debate. Without their assistance, I am not sure where we would be on welfare and responsible dog ownership.
The RSPCA believes that prevention is better than cure. It says that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had a golden opportunity finally to tackle the big issues, but instead merely tinkered with existing legislation rather than making the comprehensive reform called for by dog law enforcers. The RSPCA believes that preventive measures, such as dog control notices, are required, as well as the introduction of dog registration to improve ownership, and education on dog welfare and safety. Such measures could prevent suffering to animals as well as protecting public safety where there are concerns that owners are failing to control their dogs or do not know how to do so effectively.
The CWU has campaigned hard and is continuing to do so, because its members are experiencing increasing problems with dogs and the irresponsible actions of their owners. The CWU launched its “Bite Back” campaign in 2008 following two horrific attacks on postal workers in Sheffield and Cambridge, when both victims were nearly killed. Some 23,000 postal workers have been attacked in the last five years. The “Bite Back” campaign has achieved dangerous dog law changes in Scotland and Northern Ireland and secured the introduction of the Control Of Dogs (Wales) Bill by the Welsh Assembly, with full cross-party support.
The CWU is seeking similar positive changes here in England. There is a worry that for whatever reason, England has been left behind in those positive national changes. The public have a picture in the back of their mind of a postie being chased around the garden, which they find quite humorous—it has been the focal point of many jokes and cartoons—but it is not really funny when we scrape the surface. Let us look at the frightening statistics involving ordinary people. Some 23,000 postmen were attacked by dogs in the last five years, or 5,000 every year. An average of 12 are attacked every day, and as I just explained, two were nearly killed in 2007-08. Dog attacks peaked at 6,500 in 2008. Action is required now to introduce legislation not only to promote responsible dog ownership but to enforce it legally.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He is giving comprehensive statistics on ownership and problems with dogs, but so far he has not mentioned irresponsible dog breeding, which lies at the heart of the issue. As long as there are irresponsible dog breeders, we will always have irresponsible dog owners and dogs that get out of control.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have mentioned dog breeding, but only slightly, and I agree fully with those sentiments. There are so many issues involved in responsible dog ownership. That is a main issue, and I hope to cover the rest later in my contribution.
The first of the three main issues arising from the written ministerial statement was a requirement that dogs be microchipped with the owner’s details. The second was a change in the criminal law, in section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, to extend the offence of a dog being dangerously out of control to all places, including private property. The third was to allow owners of dogs seized as suspected dangerous dogs or prohibited types to retain possession of their dogs until the outcome of court proceedings.
The Secretary of State said that microchipping makes a clear link between a dog and its owner. More than 100,000 dogs stray, are lost or are stolen each year, and many must be kept in kennels before being re-homed. A microchip allows them to be reunited quickly with their owners, reducing stress for dog and owner alike. It will also lead to substantial savings for local authorities and welfare charities, which spend some £57 million a year on kennelling costs, and will mean that fewer dogs are destroyed. Up to 6,000 are put down each year because their owners cannot be found.
The Government announced the introduction of regulations to require the microchipping of all dogs in England from 6 April 2016. After that date, owners will need to have their dog microchipped and registered on one of the authorised commercial databases available, and they will have to register the details of any new owner before they sell or give away a dog. Owners will be required to keep their contact details up to date on the microchip databases.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I fear that I might be about to incur the wrath of the Chair, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is imperative that any database, and the registration of changes of ownership, must be absolutely robust so that we do not end up with a situation like the passporting of horses? There are 75 passport issuing organisations, and nobody has confidence that a given microchip and passport link to the right horse. Does he agree that in the case of dogs, we must ensure that the system is absolutely robust?
Yes, of course. I fully agree, and will probably cover the issue in the next few minutes. If we are to have microchipping, it is extremely important that it is absolutely robust and foolproof. If we cannot guarantee that, we will be wasting our time.
The progress made on microchipping has been well received by all parties; it is one of the most important parts of the statement. There is still a lack of clarity, and some might say an undoubted dragging of feet, on the potential introduction of legislation in 2016.
In the Minister’s response, I should be delighted to hear further clarity on microchipping: the age at which dogs will be required to be microchipped, whether there will be any exemptions, how the law will be enforced, who will carry out the enforcement of the law and how it will be funded. Does the Minister expect enforcement to be proactive or reactive? Will microchipping a dog actually prove ownership of the animal? That is important. If a local authority receives a stray dog that is not microchipped, and if it is not claimed but in kennels, will the local authority be able to microchip the dog and re-home it? Will the requirement to keep contact details up to date on the database be cheap for dog owners? Will there be a maximum fee, to ensure that the introduction of microchipping, although most welcome, is not cost-prohibitive for many people? A lot of vulnerable people have dogs and cherish them. What education and awareness- raising will DEFRA do over the next two years to encourage compliance with the microchipping regime?
The second major issue is the suggested amendment of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Extending section 3 to cover all places, including private property, is a major step forward, and will be welcomed on both sides of the House. It will extend the law and give better protection to people in their own homes, as well as to those I mentioned previously who enter private property, such as postal workers. Again, however, more clarity is required. For example, will the extension cover going inside a private dwelling, or will it remain at the front door and just cover the front garden? What private property will the law cover? Will there be a defence for dog owners protecting their property and, if so, what will it be?
Any amendment is important because the legislation is important. To effect the change in the law, DEFRA is to introduce amendments to the Dangerous Dogs Act as soon as parliamentary time permits. Put simply, there is not much disagreement in the Chamber this morning, but I disagree about the timing: it is not good enough to say that the legislative changes on private property will be introduced when there is parliamentary time. We need a guarantee that the legislation will be introduced at least in this Parliament. Indeed, we need to ensure that the legislation is introduced as soon as possible—this week would be fine as far as many people up and down the country are concerned. The Dangerous Dogs Act is seen by many as extremely poor legislation and as wholly ineffective, so it would be better to have consolidated legislation covering everything, rather than tinkering with other pieces of legislation.
The third major issue is the seizure and kennelling of suspected dangerous dogs. To ensure the welfare of suspected prohibited dogs that have become the subject of court proceedings and to ease the substantial cost to the police service, the Government have decided that the police will no longer need to seize and kennel such dogs pending the outcome of court proceedings if they do not consider the dog to present a risk to the public. The police will have the discretion to release a suspected prohibited dog when they are completely satisfied that it is in the care of a responsible owner. They will be allowed to put extra restrictions on the owner, such as requiring the dog to be muzzled and on a lead when in public. Such changes will be made by way of amendment to the exemption scheme, and can be done through secondary legislation. Someone mentioned this being the animal equivalent of an antisocial behaviour order, an ASBO, suggesting it should be a DOGBO. I have not seen that before, and I am not personally convinced, but the cross-party line is fully supportive.
The Government consider that allowing suspected prohibited dogs to be exempted from seizure in those circumstances strikes the right balance between protecting the public from potentially dangerous dogs and ensuring that the dogs are safely and properly looked after and not unnecessarily removed from their homes. There needs to be clarity on the issue. I am concerned that one or two dogs might slip through the net. I am not sure that the police are properly qualified to identify vicious or dangerous dogs. A beautiful white poodle could be totally vicious, and the biggest dog in the world could be quite placid and not vicious at all. Let us be honest about that: categorisation is difficult. The police are extremely talented at deciding about individuals and personalities from how they react, but I am not sure that they are well qualified to determine which dogs may be vicious and what owners must do to retain possession of their dog during a court case, if indeed they want to.
Further clarity is required. For example, is the Government’s proposal to allow dogs to remain with their owners effective at the point of potential seizure, or at the discretion of the police once the dog has been seized and kept in kennels? Has DEFRA made an estimate of the percentage of dogs seized each year that are likely to be affected by the proposal? If so, what is that percentage and how did the Department arrive at it? Why has DEFRA not looked at the court processes more closely, to require a time limit on expert witness exams for all dogs seized? I have already posed a whole number of questions, to which I have added more, but many issues need clarification, probably on all sides, to continue constructive dialogue.
With the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee highlighting the need for a more fundamental approach to dog control, will the Government commit to updating and consolidating all dog control legislation? Will DEFRA commit to asking the Law Commission to conduct a review into dog control legislation, as per the Select Committee recommendations? Will DEFRA be providing any new money for training and education? The money that was mentioned in the written statement and subsequently, which I have not discussed yet, appears to have been spent already, as far as the Opposition can see. There is no new money.
I want to place on record my congratulations to my own authority, Northumberland county council: the public protection service’s animal welfare team has been awarded a gold footprint in this year’s RSPCA community animal welfare footprints scheme. The team at Northumberland county council ensure the highest standards of stray dog welfare during the collection and kennelling process; they carry out proactive work to educate owners and preventive measures to reduce strain and long-term stays. Although some north-east councils have achieved the silver and bronze awards, Northumberland was the only council in the north-east to achieve the gold footprint award in 2012, so good on it. It is good to see that in my region we are being proactive in putting the right resources into responsible dog ownership.
Members might be aware that I have an interest in greyhounds—indeed, I have owned and raced a number of them in recent years, with varying success—and I have been a very responsible owner. The greyhound is a truly remarkable athlete. It is one of the oldest breeds in the world: it is mentioned in the Bible, in Chaucer and in Shakespeare, no less. It is arguably the most protected of all canine breeds. The introduction of the Welfare of Racing Greyhounds Regulations 2010 under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 was a major advance, helping to raise welfare standards across greyhound racing, and we can take a leaf out of that book. All the 30 or so greyhound tracks in England must be licensed and inspected, as must their owners and their owners’ properties. That is about responsible ownership. The Greyhound Board of Great Britain is the regulator and looks after greyhounds’ welfare in the UK.
A few years ago, I was involved in a campaign about the horrendous disposal of greyhounds after their working life. Greyhounds are given to people who kill them and bury them. One person was found to have buried hundreds in a field that he owned. Greyhounds may be looked after when they are running, but, sadly, their welfare after they finish running is really suspect.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. That is a wholly different issue. I have been involved with greyhounds all my life. There was an horrendous episode in Seaham, in the north-east; it was like the killing fields of greyhounds. That spurred the Government to introduce the regulations that I mentioned, so that every greyhound must be microchipped, and every greyhound is now microchipped. That is why I suggest that we should take a lead from the greyhound legislation and ensure that all dogs are microchipped. The case that my hon. Friend mentioned was horrific, and it was symptomatic of the times, but things have changed greatly. That is why I mentioned greyhound racing. There was a huge problem, but it has now been rectified because of legislation.
Before my hon. Friend moves on, I should say that an organisation in Scotland homes former running greyhounds, and I have been involved in its campaign. Retired greyhounds make wonderful pets; they are very loving and sensitive. Everyone who has homed one has been absolutely happy with it.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman answers, I should say, as the resident “Gray-hound”, that we are straying slightly from the topic of the debate. Quite a number of people are seeking to catch my eye, and it might be courteous to them if we keep our remarks reasonably short.
Thank you, Mr Gray. In reply to my hon. Friend, I would say that the issue is microchipping. I agree that greyhounds make fantastic pets. My point is that, because of the disasters involving greyhounds, legislation introduced microchipping immediately. That has had a great impact, and we should look at it. That is why I mentioned the welfare of greyhounds and the regulation of greyhounds and their owners.
Like many other re-homing charities, the Retired Greyhound Trust is committed to promoting responsible dog ownership, and it does a fantastic job. Members will want to join me in paying tribute to the wonderful work of many re-homing organisations. They are leading the way on promoting responsible dog ownership. Without their efforts, this country could not declare itself a nation of dog lovers. So, good on the Retired Greyhound Trust. We should look at best practice and try to convert it without delay into national legislation for all breeds of dogs, as well as regularly monitoring dog owners.
Many other issues relate to responsible dog ownership, and I am sure that they will be covered in the debate. They include the absence of dog control notices, the status of dog ownership and the £50,000 funding for innovative local community projects to encourage responsible ownership. There is also legislation—we really could have done with this, although that is a separate issue—on attacks on guide dogs, which everyone here utterly deplores. What penalties can be imposed on the owners of dogs that attack guide dogs? Can owners be treated as though their dogs had attacked an individual, because such attacks cause individuals huge distress?
We still have no timetable for the proposed legislation. There should be no further delays in implementing any of the measures. I welcome the progress that has undoubtedly been made, but I emphasise the need to act now, not later, to avoid more people being injured and to protect the welfare of dogs themselves.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, it might be worth saying that six hon. Members are trying to catch my eye. A quick glance at the clock indicates that they will have something like six minutes each. There is no formal limit, of course, but, as a courtesy, it might be helpful if Members keep that in mind.
I think I am the only Member of the House who is a member of the Kennel Club. That came about when one of my pugs won the Westminster dog of the year award. Rather cruelly, The Times carried a photograph of the pug and me, saying that I was the one on the right. Following that, I got an invitation to join the Kennel Club.
Time is short, so let me just tell the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) that the phrase “when parliamentary time is available” does not mean that legislation will not be introduced in this Parliament; it just means that it has not been introduced in this Session. I strongly suspect that the Minister will make it clear, when he responds, that the Government intend to introduce legislation as soon as the Leader of the House and the business managers make parliamentary time available.
The EFRA Committee has just produced an extremely good report, which made 30 recommendations. It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate, when he winds up, which of them the Government do not agree with. It might be more helpful for the debate to focus on the issues of contention, rather than the issues on which we all agree. The Committee’s report was really good: it deals with attacks on postpeople and on guide dogs, it talks about the need to reform the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 and, I think we all agree, it rightly raises the need for the compulsory microchipping of all dogs.
I want, however, to focus on irresponsible ownership and dangerous dogs. Some of the genuinely saddest evidence given to the Select Committee was that of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger)—I hope she will catch your eye, Mr Gray, and that my comments move her up the list of speakers—and her constituent Angela McGlynn. A relation of Angela McGlynn’s had been killed by a family pet—a pit bull. She told the Committee that it had not bitten anyone before, adding:
“We do not know why it did it, but it did.”
It is very tragic that this family pet had suddenly turned and killed a baby.
The most disturbing evidence given to the Committee was that of PC Keith Evans, who was representing, and an adviser to, the Association of Chief Police Officers. Talking about the pit bull, he said that:
“it is the best breed of dog, pound for pound, for killing what is in front of it. It does this through hundreds of years of selective breeding.”
Effectively, one has years of selective breeding of muscle, weight and jaw strength, which is very frightening.
Everyone in the debate has rightly been disparaging of the Dangerous Dogs Act. I think I am probably the only person here who was a Member of the House in 1991, when hon. Members will recall that a series of really nasty attacks on people by pit bull terriers took place, and both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers carried stories of such attacks nearly every day. Quite rightly, the Government of the day sought to introduce the best legislation possible in the time available, and they were advised to focus on the breeds and types of dog that were causing the attacks. It was clear from the evidence that Mr Evans gave to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that the police and the Association of Chief Police Officers still believe that certain breeds should be on the list of dangerous dogs, but more needs to be done. In its report, the Select Committee recommended the introduction of
“Dog Control Notices, using as a model Dog Control Notices introduced in Scotland. This will provide the police and local authorities with a comprehensive and tailored set of powers for tackling all aspects of dog-related crime and antisocial behaviour”.
PC Evans told the Select Committee that the pit bull is
“without doubt, the breed of choice for certain elements of the criminal and irresponsible dog owners within our communities. It has become quite a status symbol.”
As the hon. Member for Wansbeck made clear, one can have a vicious poodle, and other breeds of dogs may be quite vicious.
I believe that hon. Members are 99% agreed on the matter, and if this were a Second Reading debate, we would be broadly in agreement. The hon. Gentleman made some good points for interrogation in Committee, such as whether cases of trespassing involve the front door. I suspect that we need to do a lot more on the reform of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 to be confident that when legislation is introduced, it will command the greatest possible public support and not simply cause people to say, “The 1991 Act was rubbish and this one is not much better.” I do not think that the matter merits a Green Paper, but especially given that the legislation might not necessarily be introduced in the next Session of Parliament, it would be helpful to have a discussion paper detailing the Government’s thinking on the matter. That would focus all our minds on what we can do collectively to deal with dangerous dogs.
It is not responsible dog ownership that we need to be concerned about. The vast majority of dog owners are responsible and love their dogs. We need to be concerned about irresponsible dog ownership and the serious issue of dangerous dogs, and of dogs increasingly being used in crime, in antisocial behaviour and to intimidate people. As hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber will testify, there is nothing more intimidating than seeing dangerous dogs being paraded around the streets as status symbols by those who seek to intimidate others.
Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell us how the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs managed to get the lead on dogs? The Home Office and subsequently of the Department for Communities and Local Government used to be responsible for dogs, and I am not sure how, in the great lottery of life, DEFRA ended up with that responsibility. Although that is a question about the boring machinery of governance, it is quite interesting. Will the Minister also tell us how we might focus not on the issues on which we all agree, but on those that still cause contention, such as how to deal most effectively with dangerous dogs?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on securing the debate, which gives us another opportunity to discuss such an important issue. As my hon. Friend made clear, there are more than 9 million dogs in the UK, and the number of our fellow human beings who are attacked by dogs is startling. Every year, 250,000 people are bitten by dogs and attend GP surgeries, minor injuries units and A and E, and more than 6,000 people are admitted to hospital with more serious injuries. The annual cost to the Exchequer is more than £9.5 million.
In addition to the drivers, health visitors, midwives and doctors whom my hon. Friend has mentioned, about 5,000 postmen and women are attacked each year, or 12 each day. My hon. Friend mentioned Paul Coleman, a postman in Sheffield who nearly lost his leg when he was attacked by a dog in 2008. That attack triggered my involvement in the campaign to improve dog control in this country. To this day, Mr Coleman makes regular contributions to the local radio station because he is still traumatised by the attack and he feels strongly that we need to improve dog control law. Since 2005, 14 people—eight children and six adults—have been killed, which is a truly appalling statistic.
There is another story to be told concerning animals. We have already heard about the increasing incidence of attacks on guide dogs by other dogs, and I was pleased to see that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee considers that attacks on guide dogs should be taken as seriously, and given the same status, as attacks on their owners, and that the Committee recommended the introduction of jail sentences of up two years for attacks on guide dogs. I support that recommendation, and I hope the Government will act on it. In addition, the number of dog-on-dog attacks and attacks by out-of-control dogs on other animals has increased.
More generally, we need to improve welfare standards and attitudes towards dog control in this country. The local newspaper The Star reported yesterday that a dog walker in Sheffield found
“a beaten dog which had been tied to a tree, its legs broken”.
The report stated that the dog’s head was “smashed in” and it was “set on fire”. I am ashamed to report that incident in my home city, but it underlines the extent of the problem in this country. Someone, somewhere is responsible for this, and such an incident underlines the fact that the problem is not only one of dog control but dog welfare and attitudes towards dog ownership, which is why this debate is so important.
The history behind the debate is extensive. The current situation is primarily the result of the work that the Communication Workers Union has undertaken, in conjunction, initially, with the RSPCA, on the “Bite Back” campaign since 2008. In a private Member’s Bill that I secured in 2009, we called for the extension of the existing law to private property. Work on the campaign continued, and the CWU worked very hard with the RSPCA and the Dogs Trust. We secured a consultation from the outgoing Labour Government in early 2010, mainly because Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales had already indicated that they were going to legislate. The Government and the Prime Minister, therefore, wondered why on earth, if the rest of the UK could do it, England could not do the same. The same question remains today. Those three countries—the other parts of the Union—have consolidated and updated their legislation, so why cannot we do the same?
We had the consultation, but we then had a significant wait for a response from the incoming coalition Government, and that response was frankly inadequate, although I acknowledge that there was progress. There was agreement to extend the law to private property and on the principle of microchipping. We then had a further consultation, which many of us thought was unnecessary, but we are where we are. Two weeks ago, we heard the outcome of the consultation, which was a commitment to legislation but with no timetable. That is not good enough. We need a timetable for implementing the Government’s proposals. Delay is not good enough. We have waited four years for action.
The number of dog attacks on other animals and on human beings is increasing year on year, and the cost to the Exchequer is £9.5 million annually. Surely, it has to be recognised that not only should the current proposals be put into legislation, but we must implement the EFRA Committee’s recommendation that the Law Commission should look at the overall issue of dog control legislation with a view to comprehensively updating and consolidating it as Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have done.
I am convinced that in the long run, savings can be made for the Exchequer if we get dog control legislation right because, more than anything, if we build prevention and education into that legislation, primarily with the use of dog control notices, that is the principal means of securing savings for the Exchequer.
The Government have some questions to answer, which my hon. Friend dealt with in detail, so I will not go through them again. I look forward to the Minster’s response. More than anything, I want to know when the agreed proposals will be implemented and, beyond that, whether the Government will ask the Law Commission to look at consolidating and updating the legislation?
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on obtaining this important debate. I did not intend to make a contribution, but I want to make a few points.
Just before Christmas, I attended a conference with about 150 local authority dog wardens. It was addressed by the shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh). The unanimous view there was that if the problem of dangerous dogs is to be addressed, identification of dogs is particularly important. Everyone agreed that microchipping is a good thing, but other issues were raised, including the cost of microchipping. More than 2 million dogs in this country are microchipped, but the less responsible owners are least likely to microchip their dogs, and those with limited resources might find the expense of microchipping too burdensome, and that problem should be addressed. The main question at the conference was about the database. Who will hold and maintain it, who will pay the cost of running it, and who will have access to it? I suspect that local authorities, the police and the RSPCA will have access, but will it be open to a wider range of organisations?
The hon. Member for Wansbeck and other hon. Members have referred to the sort of damage that dangerous dogs do to human beings. That may be traumatic at the least and sometimes, unfortunately, fatal. Some young children and babies have, sadly, been killed by dangerous dogs. I want to pay a little attention to livestock worrying. I come from a livestock rearing area and am a livestock farmer. During the last two years, the person who runs my farm experienced baby lambs aged between one day and a week being killed, perhaps 20 at a time. They knew who owned the dog, but the owner maintained that they did not know the dog was guilty of the crime. When considering dangerous dogs, we also must take account of livestock worrying.
The hon. Lady makes the point that not just commercial livestock are affected, but pets. However, I must emphasise that the problem with livestock worrying is not just the financial loss, but the terrible task of having to clear up dead bodies that have been pulled apart by dogs that are out of control.
From my side of the coalition, I would only say that if the practical difficulties of putting the plans in place can be overcome, and if setting up and maintaining a database with access for responsible organisations can be achieved, there is no reason why the legislation should not be introduced so that it is on the statute book before the end of this Parliament instead of leaving it until the next Parliament.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Gray. I have no financial interest to declare, but as an organising secretary of the Communication Workers Union group in Parliament, I have worked on the issue for many years when it was not so much in public view.
We must face facts. On this issue, we have a do-nothing Government. They have been provoked into re-announcing exactly the same promise they made last year and perhaps the year before. In 2010, the then Leader of the Opposition assured the Communication Workers Union’s health and safety representative, David Joyce, who has done a massive amount of work on this, that legislation would be introduced if he was elected. The Government have not done so.
The provocation came from a critical Select Committee report, and I suppose that another promise from the Government is better than the Liberal Democrats’ standard response—I note that a Liberal Democrat Minister will respond to the debate—which is to apologise for ever having made the promise, and then reneging on it. I hope that the Minister will recover some credibility for himself, if not for his party, which is a lost cause, by giving a fixed timetable for implementing the legislation in this Parliament instead of yet another vague promise.
The Select Committee’s report is not a bad effort by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), who is part Scottish and perhaps knows that in Scotland, Ireland and Wales legislation has been implemented to give people there better protection than in England. The Committee referred to the welfare of dogs. English people may have a soft spot for dogs, but perhaps they should have a soft spot for victims because clearly much needs to be done.
The report says that if a breeder has more than two litters a year from a bitch, they should be licensed. No. They should be banned. No dog owner should be allowed to breed from a dog more than twice a year, but that is what causes many of the deficiencies. There are weaknesses in the report.
One of the first people to be called by the Select Committee was Mr David Joyce, health and safety officer of the Communication Workers Union. Many of the responses, even to the Government’s present plans, are in line with those of the “Bite Back” campaign, which was formed in 2008 after two postal workers received life-threatening injuries in dog attacks; one in Sheffield, I believe, and one in another area.
The facts cannot be restated often enough: 23,000 postmen and women have been attacked in the five years since the “Bite Back” campaign started—that is five years of inaction by the Government to change the law—and 5,000 postal workers are attacked every year. It is worth calling Parliament’s attention to the fact that, as more parcels are now delivered by postal workers, more people have to go up to the door, knock on it and have it opened. The possibility of further attacks is increasing all the time, and we must therefore do something about it.
The Government’s proposal is welcome, and they will extend it—if they do bring in a timetable and it is not just another open, weak promise—to introduce legislation for attacks on private property and for compulsory microchipping. However, why are the Government not proposing to introduce—as has been done in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and is proposed in Wales—to have dog control orders, which are very important? Why are the Government not introducing compulsory insurance for dogs?
It is a travesty that the Government are proposing to end criminal injuries compensation scheme payments for dog attacks in the case of irresponsible dog owners—it is already a Government proposal—and yet they are not going to introduce compulsory insurance. If someone registers their dog with the Dogs Trust, for £20 a year, they get third-party liability insurance for the dog, with up to £1 million cover. That cost of £20 a year is less than one week’s food for a dog. It is estimated that, over a dog’s lifetime, a dog owner can spend up to £16,000—in fact, some estimates even put the figure at £31,000, when looking after high-quality breeds that are taken off to Crufts, and so on. It seems that the insurance costs less than the dog’s inoculation for flea and worm treatment, but the Government do not intend to introduce it. If they are taking away criminal compensation payments, surely some kind of compulsory insurance for dogs must be introduced, so that anyone attacked by a dog is compensated for their injuries in a proper manner.
We have heard about the children that have been killed. Four of those have been killed since 2008, when the “Bite Back” campaign started, and Governments have not responded to that. Five adults have been killed since 2008, and nothing has been done about it. How many people have to die or be injured seriously by dogs before the Government do something about it? Irresponsible dog ownership will only be controlled by the Government imposing a serious penalty on people who have such dogs in any area and use them in any way, whether that involves attacks on guide dogs—and I totally support the idea of an aggravated attack: attacks on caring dogs should be treated as though they are attacks on the owners. The Government must do more. Their offer is not enough at this time, and responsible dog ownership requires not only microchipping, but dog owner control orders and compulsory insurance for dogs, as well as many other things.
Finally—I know that other Members want to speak—Dave Joyce sent round a portfolio for people to read, and I wonder how many people took the trouble to open it, to see the type of dog we are talking about, and the injuries to a child. They should look at that if they have not seen a victim face to face, and realise that we are talking about saving people—it is not just about nips or a torn piece of clothing—from serious, vicious dog attacks. It is time that the Government lived up to their responsibilities, kept their promises and delivered a timetable for legislation.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I thank the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) for securing the debate.
I am saddened by the comments made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), because until then we kept the debate fairly non-party political. It is a bit rich to say that nothing happened and no people were bitten in the 13 years that Labour were in power, and had time to do something, and to blame everything on the coalition Government. However, because of limited time, I will not rant and rave about that for too long.
I say to the Minister that I very much welcome the fact that the Government have listened since the first consultation. Originally, only puppies were to be microchipped, which would have taken an awfully long time, but the Government have now said, quite rightly, that all dogs should be microchipped. I would like to see that come in sooner rather than later.
The Committee took evidence from postal workers, and I have every sympathy for all postal workers—as well as other workers who go into homes, such as midwives—who have been bitten, especially where particular dogs are known to bite. That is also one of the conundrums: it is not only about which dog bites and whether it is vicious, because many people know that their dogs bite yet they still do not lock them up, keep them out of the way, or keep them under control. That is what we have to emphasise. I am a farmer by background, and I know that animals will sometimes turn, as will dogs. It is unfortunate when animals turn, but it is not the same penalty as for dogs that are known to be dangerous. I welcome, therefore, what we can do to help with measures on private property. I also welcome the fact that we will have universal microchipping, but we must have an accurate database. At Blue Cross or Battersea dogs home, they can only identify the owners of about 30% of the dogs that come in and are microchipped. An up-to-date database must be put together.
However, let us deal with dangerous dogs in particular, and with people who breed dogs to be dangerous, and beat them to make them dangerous. It is not the dogs that are at fault, but the people. They will not get their dogs microchipped, and they will not get insurance, because they do not want their dogs linked to them. They want to ensure that they run beneath the radar screen, which is why we have to be careful when bringing in legislation that we do not make things more onerous for all the people who legitimately own dogs, while not getting to people who breed dogs to be dangerous, and beat them up to make them even more dangerous. Whether it is a DOGBO, an ASBO or whatever sort of BO, we have to proactively get those people. It is not only about legislation. People can legislate as much as they like; we can legislate in Parliament until the cows come home, but it does not mean that the law will be enforced. Very often, there is enough legislation, but it is not being enforced.
I turn to the issue of breeds. Either we keep the Dangerous Dogs Act in its entirety, and we add to the breed-specific legislation, or we scrap it. A lot of dogs are crossed with Japanese breeds, Canadian breeds, and all sorts of breeds, which can actually mean that a dog is just as vicious as a pit bull. Again, that is done to get round the legislation, and the people doing it are not the nicest people in society. They do not go to Sunday school; they are out to cause damage to people. Other Members mentioned what has happened to guide dogs. We have had the evidence. I cannot imagine being blind, because fortunately I have my sight, but it is bad enough for someone who is sighted to have their dog attacked as they are walking along the road. However, if a blind person is walking along the road and their dog is viciously attacked, it is hugely upsetting, dramatic and traumatic. Not only is it traumatic for the owner, but if the dog is destroyed or killed, or maimed in such a way that it can no longer carry out its function and help the blind person, there is a huge financial burden, because it probably costs £1,500 to £2,000 to train a dog on the routes the person takes. We have to take such matters seriously.
We also have to take seriously the internet sale of puppies, not only from this country, but from eastern Europe and the Republic of Ireland. A lot of puppies are coming into the country, and many of them are not only dangerous, but potentially very ill. People who are sold such puppies have enormous vet bills in order to put the dogs right, and sometimes the dog dies and, again, there is huge trauma.
We need not worry too much about the cost of microchipping, because many of the charities that deal with dogs, such as Blue Cross and Battersea, are happy to put in the microchips to help people who cannot afford them.
I think the Minister is sympathetic to the cause, and I really want to hear from him what we will do about tracing people who are breeding and training dangerous dogs, and inflicting them on innocent individuals and other dogs.
Order. Before I call the shadow Minister, I apologise to the hon. Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), both of whom sought to catch my eye but unfortunately have been squeezed out because of the time.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on an excellent opening contribution to a wide-ranging debate, and I also thank all other hon. Members who have taken part in it. Let me point out not only the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck, but the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty). Although my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) was not called, she has taken part in many of these debates before. They are all fine campaigners on the issue. Hon. Members on the Government Benches have also been in these debates before. We have been here before. The need to tackle irresponsible dog ownership has been a consistent theme during the past three years.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) rightly said that it is not the case that dog attacks never took place before the current Government came to power, but we do know that in the final months of the Labour Administration, a consultation was set up specifically to consider the issue. It reported on 1 June 2010, and here we are now, nearly three years later, almost going into the fourth year of this Government.
I genuinely say to the Minister that I welcome the announcements that have been made. We do. We want to support him, but we sometimes feel—to stretch the analogy a bit—like a trusty old Welsh sheepdog, trying to herd the Home Office and DEFRA Ministers through the gate that is clearly identifiable at the other end of the field. The darn sheep keep wandering off into the long grass; they keep being distracted. We want to get the measures implemented. We want to move away from the good words and away from what I have to say are re-announcements. Many of the things we heard a couple of weeks ago were re-announcements.
I thank my hon. Friend for kindly giving way. Is it not the case that it is not just Labour Members who feel frustrated? Hon. Members on both sides of the House feel frustrated because we have not seen any movement since the consultation closed in June 2010. We are speaking on behalf of all our constituents who are affected. My constituent, Angela McGlynn, lost a child. She desperately wants action from the Government and instructed me to come here today on her behalf, to say, “Please—when is this action coming forward?”
My hon. Friend makes the point succinctly on behalf of her constituent and all the others. We are talking about families who have lost loved ones, in her constituency and elsewhere, in traumatic situations; families who have been attacked and owners of guide dogs and companion dogs who have been attacked. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) mentioned dogs that are out of control in rural areas. All those issues have to do with irresponsible ownership, rather than the type of dog. That is why, although we welcome the announcements and, indeed, the re-announcements that have been made, there is an element of frustration, which has been relayed in the debate today. We are saying, “Get on with it.” We will support the measures. We will rally behind the Government to the nth degree to get things done.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who has great experience of the issue, raised the possibility of the Minister beginning discussions on the overall issue of the dog legislation that is in place—a theme that was picked up by other hon. Members. I agree with the hon. Member for Banbury, but we are in year 3 and going into year 4 of this Government. We would have preferred to be doing things now and getting on with it. It is not as though we have been quiet on the issue. It is not as though the RSPCA, Dogs Trust, the CWU, the Royal College of Nursing, the Police Federation and others have been quiet; they have all been very streamlined on the issue.
One of the big problems previously was that Ministers would say, understandably, “Well, there isn’t any agreement.” Actually, there has been a tremendous amount of agreement. It is rare to get this level of agreement, and it extends to such things as dog control notices. It extends to saying that we should have a fundamental look at the overall complexity of the legislation and whether it should be overhauled. There is agreement on microchipping. I say to the Minister, “Go on. We’ll rally behind you on this. We need to do it. Let’s keep the cost low and the burden minimal. Let’s ensure that it works, that it’s efficient, that the technology is right and that the databases are secure and actually talk to one another.” Yes, there are technical issues, but let us get on with it. Let us deal with the internet trading and backstreet trading. Let us deal with the strays and the resulting kennelling costs for local authorities, the police and others. Thousands upon thousands of dogs are euthanised every year. That is appalling in a society that purports to love its animals—a pet-owning nation.
What is going wrong? It is a classic market failure in many ways. There is demand for the breeding of dogs and for the selling of dogs on the internet. There is demand for illicit trading in dogs. We must step in and take control. We must ensure that resources are in place and that there is enforcement. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, in his very good contribution, made the point well about enforcement, but enforcement carries resource implications. Whether local authorities, police or charities are doing the work, we need to find a way to do more with less—to pick up the phrase of the day—but also to ensure that enforcement is happening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck did a tremendous job of highlighting the challenges ahead. He talked about the £57 million a year of kennelling costs for local authorities. He talked about the cost to the police of kennelling dogs. More than 100,000 dogs stray, or are lost or stolen every year. Six thousand dogs are put down every year. What a tragedy that is in terms of animal welfare. There is also the impact on local authorities and others. There are attacks on communication workers, social care workers, home visitors and so on. It is an absolute tragedy. There are 5,000 attacks on postal workers every year. There was a 12% increase in the number of warnings issued by the RSPCA to dog owners last year because of poor welfare.
What is going on? It may be a result of the economic times we are in. I do not know. Certainly when I visit Battersea Dogs and Cats Home or other organisations, they tell me that more dogs are being abandoned, and it is not just breeds that are perceived to be dangerous; dogs across the board are being left. They are being tied to lamp posts; they are being left at shopping centres for someone to come along and pick up. There are major implications in what is happening, but I say quite genuinely to the Minister that he has our support in taking action, as well as saying the words.
We need to get on with it. There have been calls from hon. Members today for the Government to set out a timetable. As a former Minister, I am familiar with the form of words, “When parliamentary time allows”, but I am also familiar with Ministers then coming to this Chamber or to the main Chamber and saying, “What I mean by that is that we will do it within this parliamentary Session. We’ll have to work with the Whips; we’ll have to work through the usual channels, but we will do it.” That is the sort of commitment we are looking for. We want to know that action will be taken and when. We want to know when the Minister will ask us for our support—to wade in on his side.
I know that my hon. Friend on the Front Bench is trying to persuade the Government, rather than chastise them, but surely there is a major problem in this respect: if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have introduced or are introducing dog control notices and the Dogs Trust offers, at £20 a year, proper liability insurance for dog owners, should the Government not bring in those notices in England, and also make it compulsory for dog owners to insure their dogs under a scheme such as the one I mentioned so that victims can be compensated?
My hon. Friend raises a very good question for the Minister. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge said, if Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales can do it—the reforms are of different types, but they are moving ahead on the issue—why cannot England? My hon. Friend said that fundamental question remains today; we are still at the same point.
I tabled written questions for the Minister. I asked, pursuant to the statement that he made, whether the Government planned
“to bring forward in this parliamentary Session an amendment to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 to allow for the prosecution of attacks that take place on private property.”
The response from the Minister was:
“I will answer the question as soon as possible.”
Today is a good opportunity to do that. I also asked whether the Government planned
“to bring forward in this parliamentary Session amendments to existing legislation to allow for the introduction of compulsory microchipping in England.”
The Minister responded:
“I will answer the question as soon as possible.”
Again, today is a tremendous opportunity for the Minister to make clear when he will do that. We are looking to rally behind him. He will know that despite the initial warm response, there have been criticisms, from Blue Cross, Dogs Trust and the RSPCA, that the plans do not go far enough. I look forward to his response, including a definite timetable, so that across the parties we can rally behind action, not just words.
It is of course a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on initiating the debate. It has been a good debate in general, because we are all united over the broad principles of what we are trying to do.
Despite points of difference on occasion being expressed, there has been a very warm welcome to what the Government announced in the written ministerial statement and a firm view that we are going in the right direction. We are united, because we all want to encourage responsible dog ownership and to help to tackle irresponsible owners. The question therefore is, what are the right measures to achieve those objectives and how quickly can we introduce them?
We are absolutely clear that we will bear down on irresponsible owners who allow their dogs to attack people, and we will do specific things to address the appalling number of stray and abandoned dogs on our streets. I say that because the Government consider owning a dog to be a serious undertaking that should not be undertaken lightly. We are working closely with the animal welfare charities to encourage people to take more responsibility for their own actions and those of their pets. I speak for the Government, but I know that I speak for the House when I say that we care about dogs, about improving dog welfare and about protecting public safety.
The measures that we have announced—the compulsory microchipping of all dogs in England by 6 April 2016, an extension to the law on dangerous dogs to give the police powers to tackle attacks on private property and the ability for prohibited dogs that do not cause a threat to be returned to their owners under strict conditions—are all aspects of achieving the balance between protecting the public and the welfare of the animals people own. We have worked closely with the Home Office to ensure that there are measures to tackle antisocial behaviour that involves dogs—I shall return to that point. I hope that that will deal with the problems with dog control orders, because we can achieve the same objective through different routes in our criminal law system. We have a route available to deal with the issues.
I reject one aspect of the criticism: I want to make it absolutely clear that the measures are far-reaching. The Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), described them as “woefully inadequate”—they are simply not. They go to the root of the main problems associated with dogs and dog ownership. We are trying to tackle two issues here: to improve the welfare of dogs generally and to address concerns about public safety from dog attacks. The two issues need different but complementary solutions.
I shall deal with microchipping first, because the hon. Member for Wansbeck referred to it extensively. Compulsory microchipping is, in the first instance, a dog welfare measure. It will promote responsible dog ownership, by improving the traceability of owners, and help local authorities and charities to reunite more of the 100,000 dogs that stray or are stolen each year. Many such dogs have to be kept in kennels before being returned to their owners or re-homed. Having dogs stuck in kennels for any length of time is potentially detrimental to their welfare and costs animal welfare charities and local authorities nearly £60 million a year.
Microchipping will allow dogs to be reunited with their owners more quickly, and that is good for the dog and good for the owner. Indeed, 6,000 dogs have to be put down each year because their owners cannot be found. Quite frankly, that is a disgrace. Moreover, microchipping dogs will help to ease the burden on our charities and local authorities and allow more precious resource for other dog control and welfare work and for educating owners.
The Government’s proposal on microchipping has been widely welcomed by the police, local authorities, veterinary bodies and animal welfare charities. We have listened to their comments, and therefore, as was mentioned earlier, the initial proposal was different from what is now suggested. Following the consultation, we adapted our proposals in the light of the comments. From 6 April 2016, owners in England will need to have their dogs microchipped and registered on one of the commercial databases available. They will have to register the details of any new owner when they sell or give the dog away. Owners will be required to keep their contact details up to date on the microchip databases. My Department is working with database providers and microchip suppliers to ensure minimum standards of service for commercial databases and standards of microchips and that updated implantation guidance and training is available, as well as a one-stop 24-hour inquiry point for microchipped lost and found dogs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) referred to the cost of microchipping. I thank the Dogs Trust in particular for its very generous support, whereby a free microchip will be available for all unchipped dogs throughout England. Other animal welfare charities are offering free microchipping at their centres, including Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and Blue Cross, and the Kennel Club is providing free scanners for local authorities, which is also very welcome. I do not think someone not being able to afford the cost will be an excuse.
The hon. Member for Wansbeck asked what age of dog will be microchipped; veterinary advice is that eight weeks is appropriate. He also asked whether there were exemptions; the answer is, no, we do not plan to have exemptions, because as soon as we create exemptions, we create loopholes, and we do not want loopholes in the system. Let me be clear that enforcement is not about harassing responsible owners, but an offence will be committed if someone owns a dog that is not microchipped and the offender will be subject to prosecution.
The databases are already in place. They are available; they are being used and will continue. We do not propose to establish new databases. They will be available to the police and local authorities to access. There will be a single portal, which we are working on, so that no one has to worry about whether they use one database or another. Those databases will be used.
I have very little time to answer the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), because I want to move on to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which is extremely important.
The second key element of our proposals is to address the scourge of dog attacks on people. I will not repeat the statistics but simply say that regular attacks by dogs on people are totally unacceptable. We need to toughen up the law, and we propose to do so. Many hon. Members have asked when we will introduce the changes. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) was kind enough to accept that there are conventions in Government, with which he is familiar, whereby I cannot possibly commit to a particular time for the introduction of legislation. It will not happen this Session, because we are only a couple of months away from its end. Introducing new legislation at this point will simply not happen.
I will be equally clear and say that it is certainly our intention to introduce legislation in the next Session of Parliament—not before the end of this Session, but in the next Session. That is our intention. [Interruption.] A shadow business manager—the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith)—is cheering, but she knows the constraints under which I make that statement. I simply say that we intend to do so, because, subject to parliamentary approval, we want the proposals to be in place during the next year. I hope that answers the major question that hon. Members asked.
Other matters were raised about whether the Law Commission ought to deal with the legislation. I do not think that this is a case for the Law Commission; it is not complex law and there are no legal ambiguities. It is of course always better to consolidate legislation, but I am not sure whether it is necessary in this case. Look at what the Home Office is proposing on dog control orders and the antisocial behaviour proposals being introduced. They will provide a very firm vehicle for the control of dogs and the anticipation of such offences, which the Home Affairs Committee has been looking at—