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Dangerous Dogs and Jade Lomas Anderson

Volume 563: debated on Wednesday 15 May 2013

[Relevant documents: Seventh Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, on Dog Control and Welfare, HC 575, and the Government response, Session 2012-13, HC 1092.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Greg Hands.)

Jade Lomas Anderson was 14 on 9 March. On 26 March, she was savaged to death by four dogs. Jade was a very popular girl. She was full of life and loved to dance. The order of service at her funeral told us that she was the world’s biggest One Direction fan—Harry was her favourite. She entered and left the church to their music. At her memorial service and at her funeral, friends, family and teachers were full of praise for her. Her head teacher said that Jade was a lively girl who always had a smile on her face. Her friends and family said that she was beautiful, kind and a very good friend. She was the life and soul at family parties and was always first on the dance floor. She always had time to help and support other people. Her Facebook status said she was “in a relationship”, and her 13-year-old boyfriend Josh said that

“she was beautiful and wouldn’t hurt a fly”.

Jade had started at her new school only the previous June. Having come from a very small school, she made a tremendous effort to fit in and work hard at her studies. The school was very pleased with her progress and gave her a glowing end-of-term report. As a special treat for doing so well, her parents gave Jade permission to stay overnight at her friend’s house. It was a treat that ended in tragedy when Jade returned to the house alone and was savaged by four dogs.

The dogs were quickly shot by a police marksman but Jade could not be saved. It is still too early to know all the details of what happened that day, and indeed we might never know all of them because Jade was alone at the time of her death. I am certainly not going to speculate in this speech about the potential findings of her inquest. It is also too early to know for sure whether the owner of the dogs can be prosecuted under 150-year-old legislation, but it quickly became apparent that she will not be prosecuted under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, because the dogs were not a banned breed and because the attack took place on private property. It seems absolute nonsense that one of the first acts the police had to undertake was to test the dogs to see whether their DNA contained traces of any banned breeds. We should have legislation that reflects the deed of the dog, not its breed.

The Government’s proposals to amend the law to make dog attacks on private property prosecutable and to extend the legislation to cover attacks on assistance dogs are very welcome, but they simply do not go far enough. The consultation on dangerous dogs, started by the last Labour Government, closed in June 2010. Since then, there have been calls from organisations and charities, from Labour and from the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to introduce holistic legislation. Indeed, the Select Committee Chair, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), stated in February 2013:

“DEFRA should introduce comprehensive legislation to consolidate the fragmented rules relating to dog control and welfare. New rules should give enforcement officers more effective powers, including Dog Control Notices, to prevent dog-related antisocial behaviour.”

Tinkering with the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991—cited by many to be the worst piece of legislation ever produced—is simply not good enough. There are around 210,000 dog attacks each year and more than 6,000 people are admitted to hospital—often with life-changing injuries or terrible facial injuries, especially for children. On average, 12 postal workers are attacked each day. The NHS spends more than £3 million on treating the victims of dog attacks; local authorities spend £57 million on kennelling costs; and Jade Lomas Anderson was the ninth person to be killed since 2006.

In two separate incidents in West Lancashire in the past two months, a female adult and a four-year-old boy—he suffered nine scars to his face—have been attacked by dogs. One attack was in the street and the other on private property. Neither the dog warden nor the police were able to take any action over these incidents. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need tougher measures immediately to ensure that people of all ages are better protected, and that agencies must have the necessary powers to enforce that protection?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Since Jade’s death there have been thousands of further attacks on people, including one on a child in Bolton who had her eyelid ripped away and has terrible marks under her eye. Fortunately, the dog missed the eye altogether so her sight was saved. This is not an insignificant problem. It is an issue that affects the quality of life of millions of people and one that deserves the full attention of the Government, who should provide legislation that will really make a difference.

My hon. Friend is making a strong and passionate speech and paying a fitting tribute to Jade Lomas. My thoughts are with her family and friends. My hon. Friend will be aware that I recently witnessed a brutal attack by a Staffordshire bull terrier in which a cat was mauled to death in front of me and a man was injured—I only narrowly escaped injury myself. The family involved have been told that it would have been better if the dog had been running free in the street, because then something could have been done about it. That highlights again the issue of attacks taking place on private property. Does my hon. Friend agree that this simply has to change?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend has it absolutely right. I welcome the fact that the Government are going to extend the legislation to cover private property, but that in itself is not enough, because preventive measures are necessary, too.

Dog control notices would give the authorities the power to intervene if concern has been raised about a dog. They would be able to instruct the owner to take a range of actions that could include keeping the dog muzzled, keeping it on a lead or keeping it away from children. The owner and dog could be made to undertake training. I believe, although not everyone agrees with me, that we should be able to order the owner to reduce the number of dogs in a household if the home is not suitable for the number and size of the dogs.

Dog control notices are supported by a wide range of organisations, including the Kennel Club, the Dogs Trust, the RSPCA, the Royal College of Nursing, the British Veterinary Association, The Blue Cross, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and the Communication Workers Union. They have already been introduced in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and they should be introduced across the UK. Their existence would provide a swift, flexible and proportionate way to deal with irresponsible dog owners. They would act as an early warning system and action could be taken to promote responsible ownership, rather than just prosecuting owners after a tragedy has taken place.

I welcome the Government’s intention to extend the legislation on out-of-control dogs to cover assistance dogs, but I do not understand why they have not included all protected animals. “Protected animals” are already defined under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and that would deal with the increasing problem of attacks on livestock as well as dealing with attacks on cats, which can often be the first sign that a dog is dangerously out of control. Why should not a responsible owner walking a dog on a lead be protected by law from an attack by a dangerous dog?

My constituent Ryan came to see me when his dog was attacked in a park. He not only had to deal with the trauma of the attack, but then had a huge vet’s bill to pay. He did not need to describe the attacking dog to the vet; the vet could tell him about the dog, because a series of people had come to him with their injured dogs. Another constituent, Beryl, came to see me after her two cats were attacked by a dog in her own garden. After much pressure, the police did take action, but it would be so much easier if there were clear legislation.

Dog charities and local authorities are reporting an increase in the number of abandoned dogs. Some are abandoned because their owners can no longer afford to look after them, others because their owners can no longer control them. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home told me that 41% of the dogs that came to its shelter last year were what it calls “bull breeds”, and 32% of those were Staffordshire bull terriers. The home has also seen an increase in the number of Akitas—Japanese fighting dogs—and Rottweilers. Like other charities, Battersea finds it difficult to re-home such dogs. Indeed, it was unable to re-home 28% of the dogs of all breeds that came to it. It was keen to stress that it does not destroy any dogs that can be re-homed, and places no time limit on the length of stay. In fact, the longest stay was by a Staffordshire bull terrier, who stayed for two years until the charity found him a new home.

We do need to take action on the indiscriminate breeding of puppies. The Blue Cross says that it would like hobby breeders who are flooding an already saturated market with puppies to be stopped. That could be done by decreasing the number of litters a year that a person is allowed before having to become a licensed breeder. Many organisations think that the number should be reduced to two a year; others, including the former chief vet for the RSPCA, believe that anyone who breeds dogs—even if by accident—should be registered. The Government are proposing the compulsory microchipping of all dogs. Why can they not require a register of breeders at the same time?

If microchipping is to be effective, there needs to be an obligation for the dog’s owner to transfer ownership officially. My local police tell me that they sometimes take a dog back to the registered address, only to be told that the owner gave it away some time ago. The old slogan “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas” needs to be brought to life by proper controls of ownership. The issues of dog welfare and community safety cannot be separated.

Replying to an intervention by me in a debate last week, the Home Secretary told me that the Government had not included dog control notices in their Bill because they believed

“that the other powers and orders we are introducing under this antisocial behaviour Bill will give sufficient power to the police to be able to deal with dangerous dogs without needing to introduce a separate—and yet another—notice.”—[Official Report, 9 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 170.]

I have to inform her that none of the experts agree with her.

Dogs that are used as weapons may come to the attention of the police, and the owners could become subject to the new antisocial behaviour orders, but dogs like those that killed Jade would never come to attention in that way. The only complaint about those dogs appears to have been a complaint about noise. If that could have been investigated with dog control notices in place, maybe—just maybe—action could have been taken; or maybe the people who were scared to walk past the garden would have felt it worth while to lodge a complaint because something could have been done.

Jade’s was not the first case of dog attack to arise in my constituency, and if the Government do not take action, it will definitely not be the last. We need holistic legislation to deal with both dog welfare and dangerous dogs, because the two issues are inextricably linked. A well-trained, well-socialised and well-looked-after dog is far less likely to be involved in an attack. However, we also need to educate people about both care and respect for dogs. Even the most well-mannered dog may behave differently around children.

Many owners have spoken to me in the past few weeks, and have told me that they would never leave their dog unattended with children. Why can we not support the voluntary sector in its efforts to train children and adults to care for dogs and take responsibility for them? Why can we not encourage secondary schools to make that part of personal, social, health and economic education, and encourage primary schools to educate their children about care for their pets? The current proposals will not protect our children, and they will not protect our communities from the blight of dangerous dogs.

I would be the last person to suggest that if we had had legislation in place, Jade would have been saved, but one thing is sure: if we do not take comprehensive action there will be more Jades, and more people’s lives will be ruined by out-of-control dogs. Jade’s parents, Michael and Shirley Anderson, are fighting for Justice for Jade. They are determined to campaign to change the law so that no other family has to suffer in the way in which they are suffering. The Minister has the power to listen to them, to the many hon. Members who have raised the issue, and to the experts, and introduce comprehensive legislation. Will he do so?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) on securing the debate and on speaking with genuine eloquence and passion on behalf of her constituents. I salute her for doing so. Nothing I can say or do will fill the void in the lives of the family and friends of Jade Lomas Anderson, but I do want to send my condolences to them. The tragic circumstances of her death will, I hope, not be repeated, but they ought to make every Member mindful of whether we have the right legislation in place and what we can do. Such tragic incidents serve to remind us of the importance of responsible dog ownership and the far-reaching consequences of irresponsible dog ownership, which can affect all of us, regardless of whether we own a dog. I hope that that message will strike home.

The Government continue to take the matter of dangerous dogs extremely seriously, and the hon. Lady kindly set out some of the measures we have put in place. The previous legislation was passed in haste and was inadequate in many ways. It has been seen not to be fit for purpose and we must close some of the loopholes and gaps.

On 9 May, provisions amending the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 were introduced into the House with the First Reading of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. That follows the announcement on 6 February of the intention to amend the 1991 Act. Our legislating in this directed way, having taken the advice of many people, makes it clear that the Government are serious about tackling the issue of dangerous dogs and irresponsible dog ownership.

The key element of the amendments addresses the issue of dog attacks on people. Sadly, such incidents are on the rise, and 15 people have died in this country as a result of dog attacks since 2005. That is totally unacceptable. To address that, and to toughen the laws in this area, we are giving the police more powers to deal with attacks that happen on private property—a specific lacuna in the law—in order to protect the thousands of children, postal workers, health visitors, social care workers and others who are attacked each year. That has been widely welcomed by key bodies such as the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Royal Mail, which recognise the danger to their employees. The message from the Government is clear: owners must be responsible for their dog at all times and in all places.

This Government recognise that there are many responsible dog owners, and we support them. It is for that reason that the clauses amending the 1991 Act contain an explicit exemption from prosecution for householders whose dog attacks a trespasser who is in, or is entering, a home, whether or not the householder is present. That reinforces the Government’s position that it is right that householders should not be at risk of prosecution for reasonable actions taken in self-defence or in defence of property.

We have also made sure that irresponsible owners have to face up to the consequences of their actions. Last year, the Sentencing Council published new guidelines for judges and magistrates on sentencing for dangerous dog offences, including increasing the recommended sentencing range for an offence of allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control and injuring someone from six to 18 months’ imprisonment. According to the Sentencing Council:

“The new guideline will mean more offenders will face jail sentences, more will get community orders and fewer will receive discharges.”

Those new guidelines came into effect in August 2012.

The change is too late for the hon. Lady’s constituents—I recognise that—but it will ensure that any future cases are treated as a criminal matter. In addition, there are existing powers available to deal with any dog that is dangerously out of control or being used to intimidate people. Those powers have been and are being used, but it is right to extend the protection to people in all places, including their homes, so that owners know they will be held accountable for the behaviour of their dogs, wherever those dogs may be. We therefore look forward to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill moving through the House and being properly debated before it receives Royal Assent.

The Government consider that owning a dog is a serious undertaking and should not be done lightly. We are working closely with the animal welfare charities to encourage people to take more responsibility for their own actions and their pets. The hon. Lady made some very sensible points about education, because a lot of dog owners simply do not recognise what they should be doing. Whether through ignorance, neglect or malice, it is simply unacceptable for dogs to be kept in circumstances in which they remain a danger to other people. That is what we need to address.

Early intervention is vital in preventing poorly trained or poorly socialised dogs escalating to serious and ultimately dangerous attacks. As well as amending the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, the Bill introduces six flexible tools designed to be used by local enforcement agencies, including the police and local authorities, to respond effectively to individual and local situations that may or may not involve dogs.

I thank the Minister his assurances, particularly on increased police powers. One of the challenges I discovered when I engaged with the police over the incident I mentioned was that the police said that even if they had they been able to go on to private property to remove the dog, they had no facility in which to house the dog afterwards. The incident happened over an Easter weekend and no pounds were available—there was no place to take the dog. What assurances can he give about the facilities available to house dogs that are causing such distress?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and it is something we have been discussing with ACPO, because it is essential that if we give powers to the police, they can exercise them properly. A range of sanctions will be available to the police to deal with dogs. Some dogs, I am afraid, will have to be destroyed straight away—that is the reality—and others will be impounded, so it is important that there are facilities available to keep those dogs safely until they can be assessed or retrieved, as appropriate.

Returning to the proposals to amend the Dangerous Dogs Act, we hope that they will provide a set of flexible and effective tools and powers to enable the police and local authorities to tackle a wide range of antisocial behaviour, including dog-related incidents. The amendments to the Act, bolstered by the new antisocial behaviour measures, will provide the framework for tackling irresponsible dog ownership, from low-level incidents to more serious dog attacks. That will help to encourage a more responsible approach. The focus should also be on ensuring proper enforcement, which can only be helped by engaging local communities, who understand local problems and can report them, combined with educating owners on responsible behaviour, as the hon. Lady said.

If the Bill really does as the Minister says and offers that holistic approach that could be summed up with dog control notices, why are all experts in the field saying that the Bill does not go far enough? There is still real concern about not having the ability to intervene early and the particular things that we can instruct the owner to do, including having training for both the dog and the owner. Without those, it is hard to see how this will be a holistic, preventive measure, because it is not enough. I appreciate that there will be actions to take after the event, but we have to do things to stop the problems in the first place.

The hon. Lady is right. It is not good enough to deal with problems after the event. We need a preventive measure—an injunctive measure, which will be provided by the antisocial behaviour provisions that I am describing. She raises an important point, which I hope my colleagues in the Home Office will have the opportunity to discuss during the Bill’s passage through the House. They are confident that the measures they are introducing will have the desired effect. Obviously, the hon. Lady is not quite persuaded of that view yet. I hope we will have that debate and get the right solution.

It is unnecessary to devise new labels and new measures that replicate the existing ones, so I hope the hon. Lady she will approach the measures with an open mind and listen to what my colleagues in the Home Office have to say. If she is not persuaded, she will no doubt argue for strengthening the Bill when it comes to the House, but I hope she will be persuaded, as we believe that the flexible approach adopted in the Bill provides a suite of measures which can be used not just for dogs but for other antisocial behaviour practices which need to be addressed. That is not a subject for this debate but I refer, for instance, to the flag racing of horses, which I am very concerned about. I would like to see antisocial behaviour measures which deal effectively with that.

Let us have that discussion in the context of the Bill. I certainly hear the hon. Lady’s concerns; it would be foolish not to, and I will take them back to colleagues. Nevertheless, let us have the debate when we get to the appropriate stage of the Bill.

I thank the Minister for giving way again. To me, the crucial question is where intervention can start. Many of these cases would never have reached anything like antisocial behaviour. If we look at the deaths and terrible injuries that have occurred, we find that many of them would never have passed any threshold other than someone saying, “I’m a bit worried about those dogs.” That stage is crucial.

There are other issues, such as the breeding of animals and their welfare. There has long been a need for all those aspects to be wrapped up in one Bill, but it feels as though we are just dealing with little bits and we will still have to come back and do more.

I do not entirely agree that it is necessary to have consolidated legislation in order to effect the suite of measures that the hon. Lady is looking for. There are many cases in criminal law where various provisions dealing with similar issues are contained in different legislation. Sometimes that has benefits. I agree that it makes it slightly more difficult for the lawyer or the police officer to find the necessary measure, but provided they know that there is a measure on the statute book, they can use it. This is fairly common in criminal law. There has been a great profusion of criminal justice legislation over the years, much of which deals with overlapping issues.

I do not entirely accept the hon. Lady’s criticism. In a perfect world we would have neat self-contained Bills on every subject, dealing with the entire statutory background to it. In reality, the House does not work like that. Also, there are provisions with respect to dogs and antisocial behaviour in common law as well as statute law, so even if we had a single statute, it would still not cover all the law that pertains. Nevertheless, I hear what the hon. Lady says.

To continue what I was saying, it is very important that we now work with practitioners, local authorities and animal welfare charities to produce guidance that clearly demonstrates how the new tools can be used to cover all that dog control notices do and more, and to take account of the needs of communities as well as dog welfare. One of the measures echoes the comments of the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). Local authorities will be required to provide 24-hour accommodation, but the police should also have such a facility if they are doing their job properly. We need to talk to them about that.

A number of commentators have asked who will enforce the controls on dogs. The Government understand the pressure on both the police and local authorities at this time. The split that we see is that the police will concentrate their time on more serious criminal matters, which will involve investigating dog attacks under the Dangerous Dogs Act, and not spend time dealing with stray dogs. That makes sense. Local authorities should be taking decisions on local priorities for action and allocate their resources accordingly. Some local authorities have been very proactive and imaginative in providing local solutions and approaches to dealing with dogs. For example, it is a requirement of Wandsworth’s housing tenancy agreements that any dogs on its properties are microchipped. That means that there is a direct link between the dog and its owner, which encourages more responsible behaviour and reduces dog-related incidents.

The Dangerous Dogs Act prohibits four specific types of fighting dog, and the hon. Lady mentioned the issues relating to bull terriers—the pit bull terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro. It has been suggested that we should add to this list of prohibited dogs. However, none of the key stakeholders, such as the police or local authorities, consider it would be very effective to add more types of dog to the prohibited list. In fact some stakeholders want the list taken away completely and for us to concentrate on what the dog does, not on the breed of dog. Like the police, the Government are not in favour of introducing new categories. We take the view that both deed and breed are important.

The four types of prohibited dogs are fighting dogs—dogs specifically bred for fighting—but the Act also recognises that any dog has the potential to be dangerous if incorrectly trained and left in the wrong hands, which is why there are offences for any dog to be dangerously out of control. It is why education for the public is so vitally important, along with early intervention that will allow the correct agencies, such as animal welfare organisations or local authorities, to intervene and provide advice in order to correct behaviour that could have a detrimental effect on the safety and welfare of the dog.

In addition to the extension of criminal liability to all places, the proposed amendments to the Dangerous Dogs Act will include, for the first time, a specific offence for a dog attack on an assistance dog. I am glad that the hon. Lady welcomes that.

The Government believe that irresponsible dog ownership is best targeted through a number of actions and initiatives. The hon. Lady will know about the microchipping initiative that we also have under way. We will debate this many more times during the next few months. I hope that we will get the right results this time, unlike the last time the House legislated. I can only assure her—and through her, her constituents—that we take the issue of dangerous dogs extremely seriously. We want to get the right answers and we are bending every sinew to make sure that that is the case.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.