Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I apologise for the fact that the screen behind me is not working. We will have to manage with the two that are working, so do not rely on the other one. I am also sorry that, apparently, we cannot raise the blinds. It is one of those mornings.
Looking around the Chamber, although relatively few people have submitted an application to speak, it is clear that there is a lot of interest in all parts of the House. I will therefore give an indication now, which is unusual, but I think people need time to adjust, that I will impose a five-minute time limit on speeches.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered dog fighting.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and it is a privilege to bring this debate to the Chamber to highlight the extreme plight of those dogs around the UK that are subject to the cruel and callous animal abuse of dog fighting. They have no voice of their own, and we must give them a voice; I am heartened that so many hon. Members are present to contribute to the debate and to do just that—to give them their voice. I am proud that so many of my constituents and those of other Members have been in contact to emphasise the importance of the debate and the impact on animal welfare and our legislative process.
I am delighted that the hon. Lady chose this topic for debate. Is she aware that she has widespread support throughout the House and that some of us have tabled early-day motion 64, which calls for a national dog-fighting strategy to stamp out this awful crime?
To pick up on the point made in the previous intervention and the comments of the many constituents who have contacted me, the frequency of the occurrences of dog fighting in the country is the real problem and shows the urgent need for action, along the lines suggested.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Is it worth putting on the record from the start the excellent work of charities and rescue centres? We are a nation of dog lovers. The vast majority of dog owners, including those like myself who have rescue dogs, think that dog fighting is an extreme element that we must deal with.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point extremely well. I will come on to echo his words.
Events in recent weeks might have divided some communities and, indeed, the direction of the different countries in the United Kingdom, but what brings us together is our deep convictions about animal welfare. We are dog lovers and want to see the eradication of cruelties such as dog fighting.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Does she agree that we need to consider the wider context of sentencing for animal cruelty in this country? In the UK, we have a lax regime, because it is based on the fact that we think of animals, frankly, as chattels or property. That attitude has to change. Does she agree?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. No doubt she will comment on the fact that within the UK there is variability in the sentencing regimes. In fact, Northern Ireland has increased the sentence capacity to between two and five years, compared with six months in our own nation.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention. That is something of which Northern Ireland should be extremely proud. I hope to see similar progress in the rest of the UK.
I pay tribute to the many organisations involved in the field, including the League Against Cruel Sports, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Dogs Trust, Middlesex University, the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, and Marc the vet, to name but a few. Without their vital work, we would have little awareness of the existence of the hidden, heinous crime of dog fighting. They also work tirelessly for the protection and rehabilitation of dogs. I thank them for their work and for the recent reports bringing dog fighting to the mind of the public, including, crucially, our first national report on the state of dog fighting in the UK, from Project Bloodline, which was launched last year by the League Against Cruel Sports.
I also thank two of my constituents, Lisa Glasham and Paul Meecham, who are present today. They know the importance of the issue and of the debate. Lisa is never seen without her dog, although I understand she could not bring him in today.
Peter Egan, a vice-president of the League Against Cruel Sports, said:
“Dog fighting is a crime committed against our best friends, by humanity’s worst enemies, the criminals making money from indescribable cruelty. Where are we as a society if we allow our dogs to be abused in this way?”
I have had hundreds of emails from concerned constituents, and I am sure the hon. Lady has support in Wales. It is the absolute brutality that gets to me: cats are used as bait; dogs are trained to be absolute fighters; and it is so graphic. I have a little Staffie who is absolutely gorgeous, and timid and everything. The thought of him having his teeth ground down to become an object for brutality breaks my heart. The hon. Lady has my wholehearted support.
I thank the hon. Lady. Putting together my speech for the debate has been a traumatic process, and I am sure that constituency emails and her own experience have heralded the same feelings of disbelief and complete concern for the animals that are abused in such a manner.
Bill Oddie has said:
“Dogs are perhaps the most beloved and valued animal on earth. Humans look after them, and they look after humans. They represent companionship, affection and loyalty. I can think of few evils so perverted—and cruel—as dog fighting. This is humanity at its worst.”
Yesterday, I had the privilege to meet a United States military veteran with his assistance dog. Does my hon. Friend agree that it defies belief that, when dogs can be so positive and do so much good, people treat them in this cruel way?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. We have to remember that we have hearing dogs, dogs that work for the blind, dogs that help us in the police force and the fire brigade and dogs that help us in all aspects of our lives. That is why it is quite so unbelievable that some people treat dogs in such a way.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and for paying tribute to those dogs who have worked for this country in such an admirable way.
What are the facts as we know them? Research, including that from the influential Project Bloodline, indicates that a dog fight occurs somewhere in the UK every day. Dogs involved in fighting are pitted against each other, with the aim of inflicting as much pain and damage as possible. For dogs that fall into the hands of dog fighters, life is full of pain, suffering and violence. Dogs are left with horrific injuries, and rather than taking them to a vet and risk being caught, dog fighters perform crude surgeries without anaesthetic, adding to suffering. Most dogs used for fighting ultimately are killed in the fight, dying as a result of their injuries or just killed and discarded.
The hon. Lady is being generous with her time. She mentioned Project Bloodline, which is an excellent initiative by the League Against Cruel Sports. I see signs in my constituency on trees, where dogs have been hung from trees to strengthen their jaws, but dog fighting is done very much under cover and it is difficult to track down. Will she join me in congratulating the league’s initiative under Project Bloodline to offer a £1,000 reward to people in Luton under a pilot where people can come forward with any information they have about illegal dog fighting in their area?
That sounds like an excellent pilot, and I would like to see it expanded throughout the country if it is successful.
During training, dogs are usually kept penned or chained. They are raised in isolation, yet we know they are man’s best friend. They are starved and taunted to trigger extreme survival instincts and to encourage aggression. They may be forced to tread water in pools, to run on a treadmill, while another terrified animal is dangled in front of them as bait, or to hang, as described, from their jaws, while dangling from a chain or tree baited with meat. They are slammed against walls to toughen them up. Many may be injected with steroids. Some dog fighters sharpen their dogs’ teeth, cut off their ears to prevent latching during fights or even add roach poison to their food, so that their fur tastes bad to other dogs.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. What she has just outlined shows a massive scale of premeditation, planning, thought and—I hesitate to use this word—investment. Does she not agree that the people who put in that effort to cause such suffering to animals must have sentences that properly reflect the activities they have engaged in, not just in fighting dogs but in the planning for that?
I wholeheartedly agree. We know from research on psychology that individuals who engage in animal cruelty show traits of psychopathy and are then very much more likely to engage in cruelty against humans.
Dog fighting results in torn flesh, blood loss, disembowelment and death. Many dogs are found dead, dumped in the countryside. Dogs that win are forced to fight again. They are sold on to breed puppies for profit. Female dogs are strapped down on rape stands, while males impregnate them. There is new evidence of casual dog fighting, with offenders fighting their dogs in public places and then capturing that on mobile telephones.
Many of the dogs that do not fight, or lose fights, are used, as described, as bait animals. Undercover reporters from animal welfare charities have met dog breeders who offer pit bull puppies and dogs of the bully kutta breed for protection and fighting. The story of Cupcake, brought to our awareness by the League Against Cruel Sports, highlights the issue of bait animals. Cupcake’s life was basically torture: her teeth were ground down to prevent her from protecting herself and she was used as bait for other dogs. Kay, who is now looking after Cupcake, has said:
“Man up—if you have a lust for fighting go out and fight yourself… To victimise and torture a vulnerable creature…to create a status or an image…is…despicable”.
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home regularly takes in dogs bearing the physical or mental scars of dog fighting: traumatised animals with tell-tale bite marks and filed down teeth. Many have had their jaws wired shut. They are cast out, although, as we have described, many are never found or they are killed and discarded. We need to establish a simple message: people involved in dog fighting are cruel and callous, and they must be convicted. We ask ourselves: why does dog fighting happen? Who on earth would want to engage in this violent pursuit for pleasure or profit?
The RSPCA has identified a typology of dog fighting that helps to categorise those involved. There is traditional organised dog fighting, which involves working-class males and is an underground activity, where a large amount of money is gambled on dogs. Pit bull terriers are almost exclusively used for that type of fight. Individuals involved do not just happen upon it—they may well be involved in other forms of organised crime. They have a life of violence and torturing, and killing animals is an adjunct to criminal lives.
There is a cultural typology whereby individuals from differing cultures that do not prohibit dog fighting bring those activities to the UK despite their being banned. Those individuals require education. Chain street is described as a new trend for dog fighting, which is seen in inner cities, where young men in gangs or on the fringes fight dogs to settle scores or to try to assert their standing in their communities.
The League Against Cruel Sports identifies different levels of dog fighting. Level 1 is impromptu street fights, part of street culture. Level 2 is hobbyist—I cannot imagine dog fighting as a hobby—operating on a localised fighting circuit. Level 3 is professional sophisticated dog rings, with trained dogs from particular bloodlines, taking place in a pit, with high-stakes gambling, which is highly secretive and invitation-only.
Research by Middlesex University in November 2015 indicated that dog fighting has historically thrived on its ability to convince our society that it does not exist. There is a severe lack of information and data on dog fighting. Further research is therefore required. There are varied measures of recording such offences, which limits data analysis. The largest element of known and recorded dog-fighting activity relates to the possession or custody of fighting dogs, but data do not distinguish between possession and involvement in dog fighting.
There is also inconsistency in procedures between agencies when it comes to tackling the issue. Dog fighting may not even be identified if it is easier to address the issue under animal welfare legislation, so there is under-reporting and under-recording. There is a lack of recording between dog fighting and other offences. Such recording is very much needed now that we know it is recognised as a gateway crime.
Inadequacy in reporting, recording and prosecution is important, because it impacts negatively on the resources provided for dog-fighting enforcement. It also impacts negatively in appropriate convictions and the severity of sentences.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. The point she makes about dog fighting being a gateway crime is vital. Is it not the case that in the United States dog fighting is recognised as a grade A felony, and the FBI prioritises tackling it because of the impact that it has on detecting and preventing other offences?
I cannot emphasise that point enough: it is a gateway crime carried out by organised people who are involved in crime. They are callous towards animals, which research indicates leads them to a propensity to be callous towards humans. That must be tackled as a serious issue.
I think we are all astounded that we hear these points being made in 2016. This underground behaviour is being allowed and sustained through a combination of organised work and dog breeding, and people are making money off pets that should be looked after. That is abhorrent behaviour.
I pay tribute to Blue Cross, which rehomes animals in West End in my constituency, and I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this issue to the table. I have constituents who have been able to give dogs from the area a better life. We must not let dogs have the awful life that those dogs used to have.
I, too, pay tribute to Blue Cross. It is extremely important that we rehabilitate as many such dogs as possible, although, given their traumatic early lives, that is often not possible and they meet a sad end.
Dog fighting has been an offence since the 1800s. The current provision can be found in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. There are penalties of up to 51 weeks’ imprisonment and a fine in England and Wales, and up to 12 months’ imprisonment and a fine of up to £20,000 in Scotland. The Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010 was designed to highlight the responsibilities of dog owners by putting in place a regime to identify out-of-control dogs at an early juncture, and by providing measures to change the behaviour of dogs—and their owners—before they become dangerous. We need specific legislation on the issue, because we must focus on everything we can do across the UK and consider whether we are doing enough.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She outlined the different penalties. Does she agree that it would send out a strong signal, at a time when there are political divisions across the United Kingdom, if we could show the wider community that there is unity of purpose by increasing penalties in every nation of the United Kingdom for such heinous and unacceptable criminal activity?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I would like collaboration and agreement across the UK on the issue. I also want to highlight the fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly has recently increased maximum prison sentences from two to five years, and maximum fines from £5,000 to £20,000. That means that it will have the most stringent legislation in the UK on animal cruelty offences.
My hon. Friend is being extremely generous with her time; I apologise that I cannot stay to the very end of the debate. The League Against Cruel Sports has called for consistency in sentencing across Europe as well as in the UK. Does my hon. Friend agree that irrespective of the referendum result, dog fighting is an issue on which Governments should co-operate to ensure consistency across borders?
Further to that point, my Assembly colleagues in Northern Ireland are trying to secure the implementation of a register of those who are found guilty of this heinous crime. They should be forced to sign it—not that that would be a massive deterrent, but it would add to what has already been agreed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman; that is one thing that I am calling for. I congratulate the Northern Ireland Assembly on taking the matter forward.
Analysis of court reports by Middlesex University suggests that there were fewer than 40 convictions for dog fighting between 2008 and 2014. Given that we know that a dog fight happens every day, there is clearly something not quite right about our ability to detect and prosecute. Mike Flynn, of the SSPCA, has told me that the last conviction in Scotland was three years ago. Once again we need to ensure that we can tackle the issue appropriately and take things forward consensually with best-practice evidence from the many organisations that contribute.
Project Bloodline asserts that it must be accepted that dog fighting remains a major criminal issue in the UK, both in itself and as a gateway crime. Vital work undertaken in the area must be resourced and collaborative. It is recommended that a taskforce be set up to ensure that there will be action to tackle dog fighting through a national dog-fighting plan. That plan would be pinned on three key areas: prevention, understanding and prosecution.
Community working groups can assist with the education of people and communities that are vulnerable to dog fighting. The public require increased awareness and education about the signs to look for, to aid in prevention and detection. There is a need for increased awareness about reporting through, for example, the League Against Cruel Sports’ animal crimewatch line, which should be further publicised.
Details of individuals who have been banned from keeping dogs should be held by statutory agencies on a national register. Those people should not be allowed to keep animals, and their activities should be monitored. Local environmental auditing of hotspots should be undertaken by a multi-agency taskforce, to identify and remove environmental factors that enable people to engage in dog fighting. We must ensure that, where possible, dogs used for fighting, whose lives have been utterly miserable and full of pain and suffering, and bait animals such as Cupcake, survive and are rehabilitated. Dog licensing should be considered. Reports on dog fighting as a gateway crime indicate that it must be treated seriously and that there should be intelligence crossover between agencies and across countries.
The League Against Cruel Sports and the RSPCA have called for changes to how dog fighting is tackled, including increases in penalties, which we have discussed. The RSPCA welcomed a statement made in 2015 by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that the Government recognise the seriousness of fighting offences and are looking at legislative opportunities to increase maximum penalties. We need a review of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, and I request an inquiry by the Government. I will also write to the Scottish Government on that matter.
The League Against Cruel Sports recommends that dog fighting should be recorded as a specific offence. We need to improve data quality and assess the scale of the problem and the resources that we require. It does not consider that the existing offence of animal fighting should be changed entirely, but it does believe that some modification should be considered. The penalties should be brought in line with those in other EU countries, to achieve consistency—if there is now something on which we can achieve consistency across the EU. Penalties are two years in France and three years in Germany and the Czech Republic. The recommendation is two years, which would be consistent with Law Commission reports on other animal offences.
Politicians need to continue to raise awareness of dog fighting, assert our view that it is unacceptable in the UK, and promote the steps that are required to address such a heinous crime.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing forward this important matter for debate. There are Members present who have spoken in the House on the matter many times, and some who have introduced Bills.
We all advocate increasing sentences, but another aspect of the matter is education, not only of those who engage in the practice in question, but of people who serve in courts administering and levying fines or dealing with imprisonment. The question is what levels of sentencing will stop people. We all know from research—our own or that of the League Against Cruel Sports, the RSPCA or other bodies—that such practices happen predominantly in certain areas throughout Britain. They go on time and again, and we all know where they are. The police try hard but are under-resourced, as are the animal welfare organisations in those areas. We need to get the Government to understand that more investment is needed in the police, local authorities and animal welfare organisations in those areas to eradicate something so pernicious.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I agree that we do not need a one-pronged approach. We need to address the issues that have been raised, and we should recognise that if those involved are also involved in organised crime and are making large amounts of money from dog fighting, a small fine and a slap on the wrist will not be a deterrent. We need a deterrent in this case.
Dog fighting awareness day is on 8 April, which also happens to be my birthday. I had not been aware of that coincidence before I researched the debate. The day was established by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. As I mentioned, it has been traumatic for me, as an animal lover, to research and speak about the issue. I am sure that dog lovers and ordinary people across the country who have listened to the debate will have been sickened. Dog fighting is a cruel, barbaric, abhorrent and violent crime with no place in the UK. It is one of the most extreme forms of animal cruelty. I am pleased and heartened by the number of Members who have come to the debate, and I urge that we work together to eradicate dog fighting once and for all.
On a point of order, Sir Roger. You are in the Chair and are therefore properly impartial, but is it not appropriate that we place on record the work you have done and continue to do on animal welfare matters? We know that if you were not up there, you would be down here.
My right hon. Friend is most generous: I could not possibly comment. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) has been very generous in giving way. I hope that hon. Members will not seek to rise to make speeches unless they have indicated already to the Chair that they will do so, because I am afraid there is no opportunity for me to facilitate that. Because of the time available, I will now have to reduce the speaking time to four minutes. If hon. Members can limit themselves to less than that, we might get everybody in, but it is a big might. I always do my best, but I cannot guarantee it.
Thank you, Sir Roger. I reiterate the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight). I know what a great animal lover and dog lover you are. I thank and praise the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for securing this debate.
There are so many dog lovers out there, and this debate is bound to touch people’s hearts. I was not going to make a speech today, because I have to go and speak on climate change in a few minutes, but I felt I had to because I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for animal welfare. As a television reporter and environment correspondent for a long time, I reported on awful dog-fighting incidents and badger baiting before that, where dogs were also used. This subject is therefore close to my heart.
I applaud all the excellent charities that do such great work to look after rescue dogs. That is partly what prompted me to speak today. I recently visited Battersea dogs home and was deeply moved by the awful stories of dogs that have either been dumped outside it or picked up on the streets. They have been thrown out and are deeply scarred emotionally, because they were either fighting dogs that have had their teeth ground down, as the hon. Lady referred to, or poor bitches that have been used for constant breeding.
I thank the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for securing this debate. Does the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) agree that all these things—third-party puppy sales, puppy farming and illegal imports—are interlinked, and that something properly has to be done by Government? We need not warm words, but actions.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes a very good point—all these things link up, and I will refer to a few of those issues in a minute.
It is horrific that something like dog fighting still exists in our society. It is almost impossible to believe that that is true. I will make a few brief points that I hope might be constructive. One is about sentencing. Magistrates in this country can give a penalty of up to about six months for someone caught dog fighting, but they rarely even do that. There are so few cases where someone is actually caught and penalised, whereas in Europe the sentences are about two to three years. I reiterate the call to review the sentencing guidelines; that is crucial. Much more stringent fines would also perhaps be a disincentive.
I agree that people have an all-encompassing view of these dogs. They are regarded as status dogs and weapon dogs. I have seen such dogs when I have been out canvassing and been quite nervous about some of them. Some get wrongly labelled, but others are used as symbols. Somehow, we have to try to change the public perception that these dogs are a good, macho thing to have. That is all about education. We need to go into our schools and educate our children, teach people about respect for animals and how to care for them and love them—and not to have animals unless they can do those things. I personally do not have a dog—my children have never forgiven me for it—even though I love dogs, because I feel I would not be there enough to look after it, and that it would have psychological problems as a result.
Education is really important, and we must educate people at a very young age to be responsible dog owners. I commend the Llys Nini centre in my constituency and the work that the Dogs Trust has done by going into young offenders units and prisons to teach offenders to be responsible and to develop better personalities, so that they can be caring individuals.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. That is a really good point. Evidence shows that those who abuse dogs often go on to abuse humans, including children and the elderly. There is a direct link, so we have to try, as a society, to stop such things happening.
Finally, I want to talk about breeding and call for a reduction in the threshold required for dog licences from five litters to two. These animals are truly being used as breeding machines. Often, the breeding starts far too young, so that the dogs are worn out and on the scrap heap very quickly. I saw some of those dogs at Battersea, and they are in a desperate and terrible state. Battersea dogs home has to not only nurture these dogs physically but also get over the awful psychological problems that those poor creatures have from the way they have been abused. That needs to be looked at.
I think everyone agrees that this is a disgusting and appalling habit that we have allowed to carry on in our society. We have to crack down on it. I know much can be done. Lots of ideas have been mentioned today, and I press that we continue to look at them. I hope the Minister is listening and will give us some answers. I also hope that some of the points raised will be referred to in the current Government’s response to the animal licensing consultation that is under way at the moment, which we are waiting to hear back from. I support the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow on this issue, and would like to be one of the people speaking up for our lovely dogs.
I will now give some slightly conflicting advice. Members will be aware that every intervention adds a minute to the speaking time of the person who has the floor, and they must bear that in mind. The last two people on the speakers list are Patricia Gibson and Margaret Ferrier. We will do our best to accommodate you, but you might feel it more appropriate to intervene. I will try to accommodate everybody and ensure everybody has a say. We are down to three minutes, I am afraid.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on her important and forthright contribution. Northern Ireland was unfortunately, until very recently, found wanting when it came to animal cruelty. Cases in Northern Ireland have been extreme, with 4,000 animal welfare cases investigated every year and 114 convictions for animal cruelty between 2012 and 2014, only 15 of which resulted in custodial sentences.
The Northern Ireland Executive brought in bans against the breeding of certain dogs, yet the practice continued. The problem lies in the fact that no dog is born bad or born dangerous. Some dogs may have more attributes that make them susceptible to having dangerous tendencies, but it is ultimately who owns the dog and how the dog is treated that decides the dog’s outcome. The fact that a simple blanket ban on certain dogs did not work shows that we need a combination of legislation and information, and Northern Ireland has led the way on that. The public need to be informed of the problem so that they can assist to eradicate it, and awareness and education is needed so that this behaviour is regarded as totally unacceptable.
A raft of legislation has been brought in by the Northern Ireland Assembly, first to ensure that people cannot do this. There have also been prominent awareness campaigns highlighting the issue and making the public aware that they should not tolerate it, let alone take part in it. Just this month, the Director of Public Prosecutions was given stronger powers to fight animal cruelty by the Northern Ireland Justice Minister. The Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, which will come into force this summer, will introduce fines of up to £20,000 and maximum prison terms of between two and five years.
However, the action does not stop there. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) referred to an official register of people convicted of animal cruelty offences. Northern Ireland is going to the next stage to protect animals from being victims of those people’s sick behaviour. It all started a few years ago with a case in east Belfast, as Northern Ireland MPs will be well aware. The people involved in the case were ignorant of animal welfare and of the law; they filmed the abuse, posted it on social media and gloated about it afterwards, and then got off with a suspended prison sentence. I and many other MPs wrote at that time asking for that to be changed to a custodial sentence. Unfortunately, that was not possible under the legislation.
Let us make it clear: we need registers and to ensure that those who look after animal sanctuaries are able to know who have done things wrong. The prospect of a register should be looked at, as it could start to address the problem at its root cause. The current strategy is not having all the desired effects, but Northern Ireland is leading the way, as it often does, and doing something different to protect dogs from being hurt or killed.
Championing policy against animal cruelty, whether it be dog fighting or similar sickening behaviour, is what we all need to do. We need to be sure that we always consider the voiceless—man’s best friend—and give them the voice that they need and deserve.
I am grateful to be able to speak in this debate, Sir Roger, and I know how important this debate is to you personally. I recently toured Birmingham dogs home—a newly created facility in my constituency—which had 90 dogs brought in on the day I went round. I was in pursuit of finding a new companion, having taken advice from the police, following the tragic events that befell one of our colleagues, that a dog might actually keep me safer, but I was appalled to see just how many of those animals are victims of this terrible crime of dog fighting and being used, essentially, as weapons. It is clear to me, as a former Secretary of State, that the measures that have been on the statute book for 175 years are not addressing the cultural change that we need to achieve in our society.
Successive Governments have done a number of things; the Animal Welfare Act 2006 was reformed in 2008, and when I was Secretary of State we reviewed it again in 2010. However, an undertaking was given in autumn last year that the Government would try to find a legislative opportunity to toughen the sentences for these kinds of offences, and we would very much like to hear from the Minister that such an opportunity will present in this parliamentary year, however eventful it may ultimately turn out to be.
I am also very conscious of another aspect of this and I commend it to colleagues: as part of the cultural change, there was a significant programme of re-educating offenders. As Secretary of State, I somehow found new money to give to police constabularies and to Battersea dogs home to try and change the minds of people who perpetrate this hideous crime. I say to colleagues that one visit to the RSPCA hospital in Harmsworth to see the appalling injuries that those fighting dogs suffer—those that survive the fights—would be education enough to turn any human being off the idea that man’s best friend should be used as a weapon in a fight.
Sir Roger, may I shock assembled company, and possibly some of my constituents, by saying that I am not generally a dog lover? In fact, I have spent much of my political career dodging dogs, and my cats, Arthur and Wilson, wish me to put that on the record, but I an admirer of dogs’ qualities—their loyalty, their bravery and so on. I come from an area of Merseyside where there is an unsavoury subculture—a very small, but very troubling one—of dog fighting.
Dog fighting is only one of the aspects here. We have talked about trophy dogs, which are clearly a more obvious thing for most people. They are selected, bred and trained to be vicious and are subject to deliberate neglect. Quite how horrible that is has been well described by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), who so movingly started the debate. Such dogs are often discarded. I was told that the average life span of the average Staffordshire bull terrier is something like three years, as nobody wants from the RSPCA a dog that has been badly trained.
Dogs are becoming part of a testosterone-fuelled culture. It was put to me by experts, including a policeman who trained dogs for many years, that just as some people with a criminal or violent background should not have access to guns, they should also not have access to certain breeds of dogs. I think there is a case for licensing both dogs and ownership.
Dog control has at times been seen as a slightly marginal and difficult issue for Government. Legislation in this area has not been wholly successful—attempts to outlaw breeds, for example—but it seems to me that the Government have to take this issue very seriously. Issues such as dog fighting, out-of-control dogs, packs of dogs marauding through neighbourhoods and poor welfare of dogs generally are proxy for a wider range of issues, such as violent and socially disturbed neighbourhoods, drug and alcohol abuse and, importantly, serious family issues. I had a long conversation with the RSPCA at its last event here and I spoke to some of the inspectors who went into homes. They said that often when they went into homes apropos a dog and got access where social workers could not, they saw troubling instances of families and children in neglect as well.
We have made a lot in this Parliament of the issue of troubled families. It has been a high priority for the Prime Minister and everybody right through Government, but troubled families usually have troubled pets as well. Antisocial dog behaviour is often the most evident signal to the outside world of antisocial behaviour in general, and poor and disturbed families. I want to make a very simple point: although this issue may seem marginal and almost on the fringes of political debate, it is actually central to social policy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing a debate on such a vital issue, and I agree with what the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) has just said. In the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs we are conducting an inquiry into animal welfare, and there seems to be a direct correlation between dog fighting, the abuse of animals and the culture in neighbourhoods that frightens off people but is also destructive to animals.
It should hardly need to be said that dog fighting has no place in any civilised society. The fear and pain that fighting dogs suffer on a daily basis are difficult to contemplate. It constitutes an appalling breach of the trust that dogs have in their masters and the responsibility that we all have as human beings. That criminal violence, which is what dog fighting is, goes on to hurt communities, promoting lawlessness and frightening people on their own streets, particularly in impoverished areas. Given the callous mentality it requires, it is no surprise that where we see dog fighting, we often see links to other kinds of criminality and abusive behaviour. That is something that all Members of this House—and indeed, the vast majority of the public—can agree on, but the League Against Cruel Sports estimates that dog fighting takes place in Britain and Northern Ireland at least once every day. That is completely unacceptable.
I pay tribute to the League Against Cruel Sports for the academic work it has done to establish clear evidence of the extent of dog fighting. Given the difficulty in extrapolating specific dog-fighting statistics from the general animal fighting statistics, without the League’s work this debate may not have been possible.
I will not, as I am anxious about the time because other Members want to speak, but I understand that the hon. Gentleman’s basic concerns will not be unlike mine and those of other Members from Northern Ireland. Even though we have certain, more restrictive legislation, it is only as effective as the enforcement that takes place.
It is important that the elements of the Wooler report are implemented quickly and effectively, and I look forward to the Select Committee report on animal welfare, which will concentrate on dogs, cats and horses.
When I came to the debate this morning I had not intended to make a speech, Sir Roger—only to make some interventions—but I feel so passionately about this issue that I had to try and catch your eye.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing this debate. I had a debate on the Floor of the House some months back about a not-unrelated issue, because while we say we are nation of dog lovers, where is the evidence? Illegal importation is not properly stopped at the border because the border agencies, understandably, have other pressures on them. There is the issue of third-party selling. To my mind, we do not need a licensing scheme because there should be no third-party selling. Breeders should sell dogs. If they want to buy and sell things as a commodity, they should be a commodity trader in coffee or whatever. They should not buy and sell dogs.
Puppy farming is wrong, whether it is obscene, massive, industrial-scale puppy farming or just somebody breeding in the back of their house because all they are interested in is making a few quid. On an international scale, an appalling atrocity—the Chinese so-called dogmeat festival—is happening in Yulin. All those things are interrelated and lead to a culture that thinks dog fighting is acceptable, that turns a blind eye or that does not have the resources to put into tackling it. We simply have to stand up and say, “No more.”
Dog fighting is linked to other things such as child abuse and domestic violence. If somebody thinks it is acceptable for one animal to tear another apart, they will think other things are acceptable as well. We say we are a nation of dog lovers. Let us start to see some evidence of that. There are other examples, such as greyhound racing, and what happens to the greyhounds afterwards. I could go on and on but, unfortunately, the 55 seconds I have remaining do not allow me to elucidate.
I know what a decent man the Minister is from before he became a Minister but, quite frankly, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has to step up. Warm words and platitudes are no good. We need action on importation, third-party selling, puppy farms, and all the related issues. We need firm action—not words—and we need it now. We have debated these things too many times. I do not want to be standing in this Chamber again in a year, two years or three years having the same debates. Let us have some action.
I am pleased to speak in this important debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for securing the debate, which has attracted so much interest across the Chamber.
Animal rights in Scotland are devolved to the Scottish Government, who keep a watchful eye on such matters because the public are concerned about the issues. We should all be concerned about the recent findings that one dog fight takes place every day somewhere in the UK. Dog fighting is a much bigger issue than an animal welfare issue, as important as animal welfare is. The crime does not operate in isolation; it is linked to serious and organised crime, particularly drug use and violence. Worse is the evidence that suggests that dog fighting is on the rise. Such barbarism must not go unanswered. The cruelty suffered by dogs in dog fighting is sickening, and we have heard some examples today. Dogs are often treated by so-called street surgeons with only superglue and staples. It beggars belief.
Much more can be done across the UK and all of Europe to promote animal welfare and to protect dogs and, indeed, the public from such exploitative owners. Perhaps one way forward would be to have a comprehensive register of those found engaging in the horrific practice, so that they are banned from ever having dogs again. That register could be shared across the UK and Europe. I urgently suggest that legislation is reviewed, revised and closely monitored. We must be unequivocal in our condemnation of dog fighting, which is a specific crime that carries punitive custodial sentences for offenders. The message must go out, loudly and clearly, that dog fighting cannot go unchecked in any society that considers itself to be civilised.
The vast majority of people in the UK have a great affection for dogs and we must help our citizens by educating them to identify the symptoms and signs of dog fighting to help us tackle the awful practice. The more that we and the public understand about it, the better placed we are to tackle and eradicate it. Dogs cannot speak for themselves so it is our job to speak up for them. Our compassion and civilised values mean that we must take dog fighting seriously, and it is heartening to see the support from our constituents and across the Chamber.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing the debate.
For the second time in a little over three weeks, I find myself in this room yet again providing a voice for the voiceless. Many of my constituents and staff have a keen interest in the treatment of man’s best friend. Unfortunately, the subject of the debate is troubling. As I am sure all hon. Members agree, the images and testimonies that are readily accessible online can only be described as harrowing.
The debate comes in the same week that, unfortunately and absurdly, 6,000 miles away in China, the annual Yulin dogmeat festival is taking place. The event was only launched in 2010 but has, unsurprisingly, garnered worldwide condemnation. We must be thankful that the international community has wholly rejected that so-called festival. However, we cannot be complacent about animal welfare on our own shores.
The problem of dog fighting is rife in the west of Scotland, and has been for years. The League Against Cruel Sports’ “Project Bloodline” report indicates that this abhorrent practice has had a major resurgence over the past few months. The report says that we need to educate the public about the scope and signs of dog fighting. According to the document:
“Greater understanding of the problem will lead to increased intelligence and more opportunities to prevent fights happening.”
We must ensure that dog fighting is portrayed not only as a rural problem but as one that is also found in urban areas. Will the Minister tell us explicitly how he plans to further tackle the issue rurally and in urban areas? No one here will disagree that dog fighting is a barbaric and cruel practice that is on a par with torturing animals. We must ensure that all relevant legislation is correctly implemented and possibly extended.
I am sure the Minister agrees that dog fighting is brutal and is no form of entertainment. From the stories that I have read and the evidence produced by the League Against Cruel Sports, it seems that one of the main methods used to facilitate the dog-fighting business is the selling of dogs online. What will the Minister do in conjunction with the police to tackle that growing online problem? Does he agree that dogs should be rehomed using renowned dog charities? I would much rather debate positive stories about dogs, but this is the world we live in.
I end with a quote from one of the earliest proponents of the animal rights movement, Jeremy Bentham, who said that
“the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
Of course animals suffer, and when they do, we, in turn, suffer. We must continue to fight for them until their voice is heard.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. As you directed, I will be brief. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for securing the debate and other hon. Members for taking part with comprehensiveness, detail and enthusiasm. I thank all who have contributed.
Sentencing has been well covered in the debate, and most hon. Members agree with the call of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home to bring sentencing in line with the rest of Europe, which hon. Members from Northern Ireland have touched on. Dog fighting, at the most determined and organised end of the spectrum, is held nationally and internationally.
The League Against Cruel Sports is calling for an urgent review of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Battersea is opposed to all forms of breed-specific legislation. Last year, more than 70% of pitbull types that ended up being cared for by Battersea for various reasons would have been rehomeable if it had not been for the Dangerous Dogs Act. Dogs are not dangerous until they are specifically trained and maltreated to be. Dogs are abused and set against bait dogs, and that disgusting maltreatment must end.
The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who is no longer in his place, mentioned that in the United States, dog fighting is recognised as a grade A felony by the FBI, which understands the urgency of tackling this gateway crime. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow mentioned, dog baiting and fighting is a gateway crime due to its link with other serious crimes such as drug and gun dealing and domestic, child and elder abuse. I was utterly horrified to hear, only last week, that one of my constituents had lost their family pet to a dog that had escaped briefly from a life of being trained for hours on a treadmill to build up endurance for fighting. The dog had been treated so badly that it knew of no other reaction but to attack another dog on sight.
Although animal welfare is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, it is clear from the 2015 report commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports and produced by Dr Harding and Dr Nurse, “Analysis of UK Dog Fighting,” that much more has to be done to address this growing and utterly abhorrent crime. We must consider the issues raised in that research, particularly the recommendations for addressing the crime nationally, and we must be cohesive in our approach. We may not see the crime, but the evidence is there. Along with sufficient police funding, community engagement is vital to gaining intelligence, teaching young people responsible ownership and reducing opportunities for irresponsible breeders to sell to just anyone.
Finally, I urge everyone to read the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home briefing on dog fighting, which addresses the need for sentencing and education to end back-street breeding. That is the key driver in ending this disgusting practice. I am thoroughly encouraged by the all-party support for this debate, and I trust that the Minister will do the right thing.
I am grateful for this opportunity to consider the utterly barbaric practice of dog fighting. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing the debate, which has been intelligent and considered and had cross-party support. I also thank Marc Abraham, Blue Cross, the Dogs Trust, the League Against Cruel Sports, the RSPCA and the SSPCA for their briefing ahead of today’s debate.
Although dog fighting was made illegal by the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835—the humane Act—evidence suggests it is resurging across the UK. Indeed, it is now a highly codified and organised practice developed for the entertainment of spectators. It is also an extraordinarily brutal, cruel and unsympathetic practice, as my hon. Friend noted.
The welfare of animals is covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 in England and Wales, and by the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. Offences relating to animal fights were created by section 8 of the former and by section 23 of the latter. Despite being illegal, fights frequently take place.
I agree, and I will shortly make several suggestions as to how that might be addressed.
Several hundred, and possibly several thousand, organised fights take place each year, with hundreds of thousands of pounds changing hands in associated betting at some fights. Fights are organised in pits, on the streets and in parks, housing estates and fields—in fact, anywhere and everywhere. Three levels of fights are recognised. Level 1 fights are impromptu street fights, or “rolls.” Level 2 or “hobbyist” fights revolve around localised fighting circuits. Level 3 professional fights are highly organised, often internationally. Injuries sustained by dogs at fights often lead to their death through stress and shock. Fights take place to the death simply for people’s amusement. I understand from the SSPCA that the longest recorded dog fight lasted four hours and 12 minutes.
After such abuse the animals are ferocious. The injuries they inflict on other dogs are scarcely believable, and the notion that anyone would wish to participate in the breeding, training, fighting and/or sponsoring of such practices beggars belief—more so given that injured animals rarely receive veterinary attention. The crude analogy applied to such trained dogs is that of high-value pedigree racehorses, but in dog fighting, of course, the animals are expendable, and they are abused and abandoned if no longer match-fit. Grand champion fighting dogs are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds to their owners, with stud fees of £5,000 to £6,000 being common. The picture could not be clearer: dog fighting is big business and utterly horrific in every respect. We should consider dog fighting a serious organised crime.
The Scottish National party has been at the forefront of animal rights, both in this Parliament and in Scotland. Dog fighting should be seen as a gateway crime. Involvement in clandestine dog fighting leads to other crimes such as illegal gambling, the importation and exportation of animals, abuse of the pet travel scheme, animal theft and drug and gun crime. Strategies to address dog fighting should therefore follow the counter-terrorism strategy—engage and prevent.
The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 bans the ownership of a number of dog breeds, some of which are considered fighting breeds. The Act applies to England, Wales and Scotland, but it has been amended separately in Scotland and in England and Wales. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of which I am a member, has considered the Act’s application in the context of England and will report in the near future. Suffice it to say that the Act appears to be ineffective and must be revised, because it focuses on breed, not deed.
Prohibited breeds are difficult to identify and categorise, and dogs are cross-bred to develop strains more suitable for fighting. We know that there is significant underground market activity in the trade in fighting dogs, with puppies being sold for thousands of pounds. Breed-specific legislation is fundamentally flawed. It is a startling statistic that, of the 623 dogs seized as being of a prohibited type over a two-year period, almost a quarter were later found not to be of a prohibited type and were returned to their owners, bringing into further question the concept of what constitutes a dangerous dog. The Act must be reviewed as a matter of urgency.
Although dog fighting is illegal across the UK, specific dog-fighting laws do not exist. Offences are recorded within broader animal welfare and cruelty Acts, which make it illegal to co-ordinate and promote a fight; to keep, possess or train a dog for fighting; or to attend a dog fight as a spectator. Direct animal fighting offences are set in section 8 of the Animal Welfare Act. The law defines an animal fight as
“an occasion on which a protected animal is placed with an animal, or with a human”.
However, it can be argued that street fighting is spontaneous and, as such, an animal is not placed, meaning that such fights are not covered by the legislation. Legislation has had no apparent effect on either dog fighting or the recorded occurrence of injuries from dog bites.
Three important steps can be taken to address the problem: increased sentences and penalties as a deterrent, education as a preventive measure and policy changes to encourage engagement. Currently, the maximum sentence for animal fighting in the UK is a term of up to 51 weeks’ imprisonment. In reality, however, sentences are unacceptably low. The example set by Northern Ireland should be followed.
In the US, as we heard earlier, dog fighting is considered a felony in all 50 states, as well as a federal felony. In 2016, the FBI declared that it would track animal abuse in the same way that it tracks class A felonies for accounting, reporting and tracking purposes, and that felony-level penalties for repeat offenders would be enacted. We must recognise that the evidence shows links between animal abuse and other forms of abuse, such as battery, child abuse, domestic violence, grievous bodily harm, serious violent offences, the use of firearms and so on. As such, dog fighting should also be considered a signal crime.
We call on the UK Government to review sentences under the Animal Welfare Act and introduce penalties that reflect the seriousness of such offences and the horrific abuse of animals, to ensure that punishments fit the crime. Dog fighting should be recorded as a specific offence, separate from animal fighting, to enable the scale of the problem to be more accurately assessed. Dog licensing should also be considered. There should be a presumption that court disposals use sentences at the upper end of sentencing scales—the maximum allowed by law, not the minimum.
The Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010 is designed to highlight the responsibility of dog owners by introducing a regime that identifies out-of-control dogs at an early juncture. Many animal welfare charities invest considerable resources in excellent work to teach young people and others about responsible dog ownership. Programmes specifically target young people, those in prison and others who own a status dog or live in a community where status dog ownership is a problem. Such programmes are aimed at increasing awareness of the issues involved and stimulating debate and discussion on responsible dog ownership, antisocial behaviour and the law.
Third-party policing involves persuading organisations, groups or individuals—including community centres, veterinarians, schools, local government and business owners—to take some responsibility for preventing or reducing crime and encouraging people to report animal crime. In that way, crime control guardians are created. Crime control guardians can also be described as a multi-agency taskforce. That approach has proved effective in a number of communities in the US on animal cruelty in general and dog fighting specifically. We are calling for education programmes like those to be commended, encouraged and enabled.
As a matter of policy, sentencing for dog fighting should reflect the object of deterrence relative to the spectrum of offending. The detection of animal fighting offences should become a performance indicator for police forces, adding an incentive to deal with the crime. Details of individuals banned from keeping dogs and other animals should be held on a UK-wide register by statutory agencies. That would help prevent those convicted of animal cruelty offences from being able to commit further offences, as well as increasing opportunities for enforcement action. Rehabilitation programmes should be offered as part of the sentencing disposal to encourage a strategy of education.
Nevertheless, human behaviour is ultimately responsible for dog bites. Breed-specific legislation to ban the ownership of certain types of dogs merely addresses a symptom of an otherwise unaddressed underlying problem. It is likely that dog attacks are rooted in deeper and more diverse socioeconomic causes, such as deprivation and a lack of education concerning the handling of dogs. All those factors contribute to the growth of dog fighting at levels 1 and 2. Clearly, repeated presentations for medical attention could indicate involvement in lower-level dog fighting and associated handling. We are calling for the disclosure to police of those seeking medical assistance for dog attack injuries, to allow investigation and tracking. It is also clear that mandatory reporting by veterinary professionals of dog-fighting injuries could help identify welfare issues and criminal activity and reduce crime.
Ultimately, we are calling for a senior law enforcement officer to be appointed to ensure that there is sufficient collaboration and action to tackle dog fighting across the four nations of the UK and internationally—including, dare I say it, across the EU. The individual should be responsible for integrating the three strands of increased sentences and penalties as a deterrent; education as a preventive measure; and policy changes to encourage further engagement on dog fighting and organised crime.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am also pleased to respond to today’s debate, which I thank the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for bringing forward. This is my first debate as shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The many excellent speeches and interventions we have heard today highlight the awful state we are in and the cruelty to animals experienced in our country. Today must move that debate forward.
Many of us are very proactive in campaigning for animal welfare. We all have a responsibility for good stewardship and wellbeing, but with our responsibilities, we in this place must also proactively address the real issues. For many years, I have represented RSPCA inspectors, so I know the real pressures they have come under. They have legal responsibilities, and in a time when resources are tight, they need our support to be able to fulfil their inspections. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) and others have said, those inspections identify not only issues related to animal welfare but wider domestic abuses and wider criminality.
While today’s debate will be responded to by the Minister, there are many pertinent issues for the Home Office and justice teams.
No, I am rather tight on time, so I will continue for now. Following a surge in dog fighting, we have seen the legislation change. There was the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835, and Labour introduced the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which has been referenced today. The 2006 Act sought to bring harsher penalties on violators of the law and included the option for short custodial sentences. As we have heard, evidence shows that that option is insufficient to deter people from engaging in this illegal pursuit, whether for so-called entertainment or for gambling.
The League Against Cruel Sports, which I thank for its campaigning, has looked at the wide range of environments in which dog fighting occurs. There is street fighting, which relates to street culture. There are unplanned, impromptu fights that people sometimes gamble on, although not always, and are often associated with status. There is also more informal gambling around local circuits or highly organised fights where stakes of hundreds of thousands of pounds can change hands. There is still a real issue here and overseas with the dog-fighting culture. We have to get on top of that and address it with the application of tighter rules.
A number of questions arise from the number of prosecutions. The most stark is the difference between the number of complaints received by the authorities and the number of prosecutions incurred. Less than 5% of complaints translate into convictions. In 2014, 766 complaints were received, but only 31 convictions resulted, with just three people receiving a custodial sentence. In all, the rise in the number of complaints and the leniency of the criminal justice system demonstrates that needs are not being sufficiently addressed.
Campaign groups believe that tougher penalties, including longer custodial sentences—we have heard evidence about that today—would provide stronger deterrence. What are the Government doing to look into the effectiveness of longer sentencing, and not just here in Britain? We have heard from the hon. Members for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and others about the experience in Northern Ireland of extending imprisonment. France applies a sentence of up to two years, and Germany and the Czech Republic apply a sentence of up to three years. We need to know the impact of that and whether the evidence is there that we should increase sentences, as so many Members have indicated.
We need to start looking at issues such as puppy farms, as the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) said, and breeding programmes. Tighter regulations would protect the interests and welfare of dogs. That is an issue for the domestic market, but we also need to control what is happening with dog fighting. In particular, we need to look at the breeds outlawed under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 that are still being bred, such as pit bull terriers. They are still in circulation and thousands of pounds is changing hands in breeding programmes. There are a number of things that we need to look at, and we have heard horrific stories of what happens in fights. We need to get on top of those abuses. We know that many of these things lead into wider issues.
My next question to the Government is on how they are supporting the inspectorate regime. From talking to RSPCA inspectors on the ground, I know that their ability is restricted by falling donations to their organisation. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that RSPCA inspectors are resourced sufficiently to carry out their statutory inspections and, likewise, that the police are resourced sufficiently in supporting those operations?
Next, I want to ask about breaking the culture. We have heard evidence about that. What steps have the Government taken to deter illegal dog breeding and fighting and what is their analysis of the effectiveness of those steps? What have the Government done to raise awareness of the whole issue of dog fighting, particularly among those most likely to participate in the activity? There may be good learning to pool from Scotland and Northern Ireland. The League Against Cruel Sports is calling for a national dog fighting action plan. Labour would support that plan, which would evolve around prevention, understanding and prosecution. What are the Government doing to address that, and are they willing to set up a national taskforce to address dog fighting? Will they keep a national register of those who have been found to be involved in dog fighting?
One issue that has not been raised today is cybercrime associated with dog fighting, whether the selling of dogs, which has been mentioned, online participation in dog fighting or the videoing or recording of fights. What steps are the Government taking on cyber to track participants in this activity and to break into those heavily coded sites?
As I have said, dog fighting has far wider implications. It is a crime that is linked to other forms of criminality; many speakers have alluded to that. We particularly recognise the work in the US on that agenda. Dog fighting can be linked to domestic crime, drug dealing, firearms sales, physical and emotional harm, robbery and other illegal practices. How are the Government working across agencies, especially with the police, to ensure a co-ordinated strategy to address dog fighting and its links to wider criminality?
There is also an impact on public safety, as has been mentioned. Some dogs have gone on to bite people in their communities. How comprehensively have dog fights been followed up to assess the source of potentially dangerous animals? In the past 10 years, the number of dog bites has increased by 76%. The source of those surely needs closer analysis.
Finally, the Labour party condemns dog fighting, as do other parties. We are grateful for the ongoing work of organisations, particularly the RSPCA, the League Against Cruel Sports, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and many others, in their development of evidence against this. The House has a moral duty to ensure that it does all it can to uphold the welfare of animals. The onus now sits with the Minister to set out further steps that must be taken to ensure that this form of animal cruelty and criminality is more comprehensively addressed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing this debate on what is obviously an important issue that the House cares deeply about, which is why we have had so many Members here. Dog fighting is an absolutely repugnant activity. As the hon. Lady made clear in her opening remarks, it has been banned in this country since 1835. It is certainly depressing to think that it persists to this day. The cruelty is not limited to the dogs directly involved in the fighting; the animals are sometimes used as bait, as various hon. Members have pointed out. One hears distressing anecdotes sometimes about older dogs that end up being used as bait after being advertised for rehoming by elderly owners. That is utterly appalling.
I pay tribute to the League Against Cruel Sports for its work in highlighting the issue and for its work in helping with enforcement to bring prosecutions against the evil people who engage in dog fighting.
Around five years ago, when I served on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I read a detailed academic study into the phenomenon of dog fighting, and other more recent reports suggest that the practice of dog fighting takes place at different levels, as various hon. Members have pointed out. They can range from one-off, one-on-one dog fights in urban parks and housing estates—sometimes called “street rolling” or “chain rolling”—to more organised events behind closed doors, often involving illegal gambling. As other hon. Members have pointed out, that is often linked to other crime. There is also the continued desire for certain individuals to acquire so-called status dogs, which has a link to this problem. They have no concern for the dog’s welfare or the safety of other people, including their own family members.
I want to touch briefly, however, on some good-news stories on dogs. In general, the trend for stray dogs is decreasing, and the latest figures published in September last year showed 102,500 stray dogs in 2015, down from 110,000 the year before and 126,000 five years ago, so we have made some progress. The successful roll-out of compulsory dog microchipping in April will help to reduce that further. We have now got 91% of dogs microchipped as of the end of April. Also, the number of stray dogs being euthanised is down to 5%, which is the lowest figure ever, down from a high of 16% around 20 years ago.
In addition, we have achieved a lot of success in our work with the Pet Advertising Advisory Group. Six of the main pet advertising websites have signed up to the PAAG minimum standards for adverts, which has led to a huge number being removed and no longer appearing, including adverts involving prohibited breeds. Gumtree reported to me that the number of pets being advertised on its website following its signing up to the code has gone down by more than 70%. PAAG members put filters on their websites to identify potentially problematic adverts, which are then tracked and removed. Information is also supplied to authorities such as the police and local authorities to assist them with enforcement action. Key words can range from obvious terms such as “pit bull” to less obvious references to “gameness”, “red-nosed dogs” and “Staffie cross”, which is often code for “pit bull”. Those are all now terms that flag alarms with the websites, and that is an important step forward.
In addition to this work, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 was strengthened to make it far easier to bring prosecutions for dog fighting. There is now a long list of things that make it an offence to cause an animal fight, receive money for admission to an animal fight, publicise an animal fight, provide information about an animal fight, make or accept a bet on an animal fight, take part in an animal fight, possess anything designed or adapted to be used in an animal fight, keep or train an animal for use in an animal fight, keep any premises used in an animal fight and be present at an animal fight. So a wide range of criteria make it easier to bring prosecutions. The maximum penalty for any of those offences is six months’ imprisonment or an unlimited fine, or both.
Before the Animal Welfare Act came into force in 2007, the maximum penalty for causing or assisting in an animal fight was reserved for the people arranging the fights and the fine for other related offences was capped at £2,500. A year ago, we removed the upper cap and there can now be an unlimited fine for animal cruelty. We changed that just a year ago.
I am told there are around 20 prosecutions a year and several custodial sentences, but I understand the calls for the maximum penalty for dog fighting to be increased. Several hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), made that point. I can say that in the closing stages of the previous Parliament we looked at this issue and considered the case for increasing the maximum sentence for animal fights, but we did not have a legislative vehicle to do so at that point. The view now—this is a Ministry of Justice lead—is that we should look at all animal cruelty because there may be a case for changing the sentences for other types of animal cruelty as well. The Government keep the issue under review, and my colleagues in the MOJ—
I will not give way; we are tight on time.
A second issue is equally important. As the hon. Member for Mansfield (Sir Alan Meale) pointed out, we need not only to have the maximum sentences set at the right level, but to give the right guidance to magistrates when sentencing, because we still only have a handful of custodial sentences. Such decisions are set by the independent Sentencing Council, and the guidelines on animal welfare offences, including those on dog fighting, are available on its website. I can tell hon. Members today that a review is ongoing. A consultation on sentencing guidelines for animal cruelty offences is now open and will close on 11 August.
I want to say a brief word on enforcement, which is carried out by the police, working with the RSPCA. The RSPCA has been tackling animal cruelty, particularly dog fighting, for years. It has a great track record. The threshold on puppies, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), is an issue we are looking at in an animal establishment consultation that has closed. We will respond to that shortly. On the register of people convicted of animal offences and banned from owning animals, the police are looking into that to see whether it will be possible, without publishing information, to give certain agencies greater access to it.
In conclusion, we have had a good debate and many important points have been raised. I am sure my colleagues in the MOJ and in the Sentencing Council will take on board some of the points raised today.
I thank everyone who took part in the debate, and I thank the agencies here today. I also thank the Minister for his comments. However, I think action is needed. If it is so easy to bring prosecutions, why are they not happening? We do not want the issue to be lost within other issues. There must be a timeline and a clear deterrent. Like many other Members in this House, I will not rest until dogs are protected.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered dog fighting.