I beg to move,
That this House has considered police force and local authority guidance on dogs attacking other dogs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am delighted to open the debate, the aim of which is to raise the issue of dogs attacking other dogs and to call for effective legislation and guidance to help tackle the problem.
Dangerous dogs are clearly a serious problem. While we know that dogs can attack humans, sometimes with tragic and even fatal consequences, in recent years there have also been a number of high-profile dog attacks on other dogs, which are often caused by irresponsible owners failing to keep control of their animal. That is exactly what happened to one of my constituents, Jill Mayes, and her cocker spaniel, Ozzy. In 2013, Ozzy was set upon in a local park by two large dogs that had been let off their leashes. Thankfully, Ozzy survived the attack, but the experience has traumatised them both to such an extent that my constituent will no longer go to that park and Ozzy’s confidence remains shattered.
Sadly, another of my constituents has also been left traumatised, after her Jack Russell cross was killed by a Rhodesian Ridgeback while out for a walk by the Grand Union canal near their home in my constituency. To make matters worse, the owner of the other dog refused to take responsibility for the attack, leaving my constituent to cover all of the vet bills. Both of my constituents were told by police that the incidents were classed as dog on dog, meaning no criminal offence had occurred and therefore no criminal charges could be brought.
Those cases are in no way uncommon. At the end of last year, I put in a freedom of information request to all police forces in England for information on how many dog-on-dog attacks had been reported in the past two years—14 of the 39 forces that responded held easily accessible data on that type of incident. In those 14 areas, there were more than 1,700 reported dog attacks on other dogs. Sussex police alone recorded 828 such attacks in the past two years, while the force responsible for my constituency—Leicestershire police—recorded 32 incidents of a dog attacking another dog, and an additional 82 cases in which a dog attacked both a dog and a person in the same incident. That is clearly very concerning, and it is important that police forces and local authorities have the powers that they need to tackle the problem and reduce the number of attacks.
I have worked on this since becoming a Member of Parliament, and in 2013 I was delighted to support a campaign led by two of my constituents to highlight the problem. As part of that, we submitted a petition to the Government asking for the law to be tightened and calling for the same legal rights for dogs when they are attacked as currently stand for humans and guide and assistance dogs. The petition collected 2,080 signatures and received the backing of a number of animal charities, including the Dogs Trust, the Blue Cross, the RSPCA and the Kennel Club. I was pleased that the then Minister for Policing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), visited Fearon Hall in my constituency to hear first-hand the problems faced by dog owners and to collect the petition. His enthusiasm for the campaign was welcomed by local residents.
Since then, the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 has been passed into law, which provides police forces, local authorities and courts with greater powers to respond to cases of antisocial behaviour involving a dog before the situation becomes dangerous. When considering whether a dog is a danger to public safety, courts have to consider a number of relevant circumstances, including whether the owner or person in charge of the dog is a fit and proper person to look after it. I am pleased that that gives courts the ability to intervene earlier to prevent attacks on people and other dogs.
I recognise that the Act also strengthens the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and improves the response where a dog presents a risk to public safety. For instance, the offence of owning or being in charge of a dog that is dangerously out of control has been extended to all places, including the owner’s home.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing this timely debate. She will recall that, only a few months ago, police had to shoot a dog in the street because it was totally out of control. I am concerned by the number of cases of babies being attacked by dangerous dogs. In my view, the prison sentence—it is only six months—for allowing that should be extended a lot further. I support everything she has said.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support, which shows that, although the Chamber may not be packed, this is a great concern right across the country in all of our constituencies—I also know that from looking at social media. He is absolutely right, and I will come to sentencing and the fact that incidents can sometimes lead to personal injury or even fatality, particularly of young children. He makes an excellent point.
The amendments to the 1991 Act extended the maximum penalty in a case involving the death of a person to 14 years, to five years where a person is injured and to three years in any case involving the death or injury of an assistance dog. That is welcome, but it still does not give the legal rights to dogs when they are attacked that it gives to humans and guide and assistance dogs. It is important that all dogs have the same protections, and that local authorities and the police have the power to properly punish the owner of the dog responsible. I am interested to hear more about the Minister’s current thinking on that.
As well as the 2014 Act, Ministers have introduced new powers to help frontline professionals to tackle antisocial behaviour involving dogs. Police and local authorities can intervene and issue community protection notices if a dog is causing a nuisance by repeatedly escaping or acting aggressively, while the owners of such dogs can be required to take a range of remedial action, such as attending dog training classes, keeping the dog on a lead in public or repairing fences to prevent the dog leaving their property. Those are clearly steps in the right direction.
However, that brings me to the other reason that I applied for the debate: local authorities and police forces need to be made properly aware of the existing powers the Government have provided to successfully tackle the problem. I know the Minister is working on this. Last December, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs animal welfare team issued a voluntary survey to police forces, local authorities and social landlords on measures to address dog control and reduce dog attacks in England. The survey’s aim was to inform the team of the existing measures’ effectiveness, and to allow it to identify how intervention can be made more effective with minimal burden on enforcement agencies. I look forward to hearing the outcome of that survey.
Charnwood Borough Council in my constituency responded to that survey and raised some interesting points that I will raise with the Minister. First, it feels that the incremental approach to processing dog attacks, as well as the need to prove persistence, makes the process lengthy, which can often lead to frustration for the victim. The need to prove a breach of process means that a dog has to attack three times before the owner can face the ultimate sanction of prosecution. That is clearly concerning because it provides the opportunity for a dangerous dog to attack two further times with potentially tragic or fatal consequences for another dog, or even a child or adult, exactly as the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) has said.
Sadly, that is what happened in another case that I am assisting with. My constituent’s niece, four-year-old Lexi Branson, was killed by a dog at her home in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar). Her family had adopted the dog from a local rehoming centre and were unaware that it had previously attacked another dog. I will raise specific issues from that case with the Minister separately, I wanted to mention it today because it demonstrates the need for urgent action to be taken to ensure that a dangerous dog is not free to attack again. I cannot emphasise enough that, just because a dog has attacked another dog, it does not mean that there might not later be an attack on a human involving serious injury or potentially fatal consequences. One fatal incident is one incident too many. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I welcome the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home campaign to stiffen the sentences for animal cruelty. There are some truly horrific cases of animals being mistreated.
I do not intend to labour the point, but there is also the issue of irresponsible ownership. As candidates, I suspect we have all been in situations, and perhaps will be in the next few weeks, where we are walking up a path, intending to knock on the door or deliver a leaflet, and are faced with a rather angry looking dog. The owner may say it is friendly, but we are never entirely sure—I see you smiling, Sir Edward—whether it really is friendly or has a particular appetite for canvassers. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Coventry South speaks from personal experience.
Returning to the survey, Charnwood Borough Council finds the guidance provided helpful but feels that it can sometimes be too generic. For example, the advice on criminal behaviour orders is difficult to apply to a case involving a dog. The council has therefore suggested that it would be useful if the guidance were made more specific to dogs being living beings rather than property, and if it dealt with the issues that arise for the welfare and cost of keeping the dog once action—for example, seizure—has been taken. It would also welcome more advice on escalating cases when there is no other option but for the owner to forfeit the dog.
I am pleased that Charnwood Borough Council has a good compliance rate of around 91% when it issues a warning to owners at the first stage of a community protection notice. However, the council feels that there is a lack of clarity in the Government’s guidance on whether a case should be handled by the police under the Dangerous Dogs Act or as a civil case by the local authority. I note that all Leicestershire local authorities have a memorandum of understanding with the local police about who handles each type of dog attack, but the council has said to me that it would like to have more formal guidance. I would be grateful if the Minister would consider those points as part of his Department’s review.
It is clear that dangerous dogs continue to be a serious problem in our local communities. Of course, many tens of thousands of dogs are walked responsibly every day, and their owners take great responsibility for them and go about their daily lives with no incidents or trouble whatsoever, but there is a problem. The freedom of information numbers show that the level of incidents is serious, but I pay tribute to those who look after their dogs well, deal with any aggression and take responsibility.
I welcome the positive work that previous Governments and the current Government have carried out to help tackle this problem, but I believe that the law needs to be tightened further to ensure that dog attacks on other dogs are a criminal offence. That would bring the legal rights of dogs in line with those of humans and guide and assistance dogs. In addition, it is crucial that local authorities and police forces have comprehensive guidance available to them that details all the powers at their disposal to prevent the tragic consequences that can arise when dangerous dogs attack.
I am grateful to the House authorities for allowing me to bring this debate to the Chamber. I know the Minister is committed to animal welfare and all related issues, and I look forward to hearing his response.
I would like to begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) on securing this debate on police force and local authority guidance on dogs attacking other dogs. I understand that it must be incredibly traumatic for owners whose dogs are attacked by other dogs, particularly as the owner is often a witness of the attack. She described two incidents, and I would like to express my sympathy for her constituents, the owners of Ozzy the dog and of the terrier that was attacked by a Rhodesian Ridgeback. I completely understand that it is an incredibly distressing time. It is completely unacceptable for owners to allow their dogs to be dangerously out of control, whether it is around people or animals. Attacks of this sort can affect animals’ confidence and lead to dogs changing their behaviour and becoming afraid of going out.
Over recent years, the law on out-of-control dogs has been strengthened, and the Government looked at that area in the previous Parliament quite closely. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 now applies the offence of allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control to all places, not just public places or places where a dog has no right to be. That means dogs need to be under control in all places and at all times. As my right hon. Friend said, that is of particular relevance to those of us who will be delivering leaflets and going on to people’s property. I am sure we have all had experiences of dogs in those circumstances.
The law also makes it a specific offence to allow a dog to attack an assistance dog, for which the maximum penalty is three years’ imprisonment. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, we introduced that provision recently. The reason for specifically including an offence in relation to attacks on assistance dogs was to emphasise people’s dependence on them. It was considered that an attack on an assistance dog in these circumstances was an aggravated attack and almost an attack, by extension, on the individual person.
There are real problems with attacks on assistance dogs. A huge amount of work goes into training those dogs. There have been many sad examples of assistance dogs that, despite all the work to train them, lose their confidence to do their job as a result of a one-off attack and have to be retired from duty. That is why we took the view that assistance dogs were a very special case.
Other penalties under the 1991 Act were also increased significantly. In particular, the maximum penalty for allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control was increased from two years’ imprisonment to 14 years’ imprisonment in cases where it results in the death of the victim, and five years’ imprisonment where the victim suffers serious injuries.
Other laws were introduced as preventive measures. Measures under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 allow police and local authorities to take action in low-level incidents of antisocial behaviour, including those that involve a dog, where the dog is causing a nuisance but no offence is committed under the Dangerous Dogs Act. In such circumstances, police or local authorities can take action by issuing a community protection notice to the owner or person in charge of the dog at the time, ordering them to control the dog and stop the nuisance behaviour. Failure to comply with a CPN can lead to a fine of £2,500. That power means the police and local authorities can take action before a dog becomes dangerously out of control. A criticism of the Dangerous Dogs Act was that it dealt with issues only after they had happened. Many animal welfare organisations, dog-keeping groups and veterinary organisations campaigned for the introduction of those types of notices.
For more serious incidents of antisocial behaviour, such as using a dog to actively intimidate someone, there is the criminal behaviour order. A CBO would be used in cases where a court was satisfied that an individual had engaged in behaviour that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress. Finally, for more general matters, there are public spaces protection orders, which place restrictions on dogs using clearly defined areas such as children’s playgrounds or sports fields. PSPOs are aimed at all dogs rather than individual dogs.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough reported that Charnwood Borough Council wants to see dog-specific guidance on the antisocial measures. In October 2014, to assist local authorities and the police, DEFRA published a practitioners’ manual entitled, “Dealing with irresponsible dog ownership”, which provides practitioners with guidance on how to use the antisocial behaviour measures specifically in relation to dogs. I was a Minister in DEFRA at the time. I did not have responsibility for this part of the portfolio, but we had a debate in 2014 in which a number of people said that we should adopt measures similar to those in Scotland, where there are specific dog protection orders. Our legal analysis was that community protection notices served the same function, but because a number of people had raised concerns about whether they could be applied to dogs, I asked my noble Friend Lord De Mauley, the then Minister with responsibility for dogs, to address the issue, and that prompted the guidance sent in 2014, almost three years ago, to all local authorities.
The practitioners’ manual differs from the Home Office guidance document, which was aimed at the broader use of antisocial behaviour measures and perhaps is what Charnwood Borough Council has read and what my right hon. Friend has referred to. My Department’s practitioners’ manual can be found on the gov.uk website, but after this debate I will arrange for my office to send her office a paper copy of it.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to a debate that took place on that very matter a few weeks ago. The Sentencing Council recently issued new guidance, which took effect this week, that makes it far easier for courts to award custodial sentences at the upper end of the range for those sorts of offences. Obviously, sentencing is a matter for the Ministry of Justice, and I am sure that it keeps those issues under review.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough said that the police claim that there is a three-strikes rule and that unless a dog has attacked three times, prosecutions cannot be brought and a community protection notice cannot be used. I am reliably informed by my officials that that is not the case. There is nothing in the law that says that there must be three offences. The Dangerous Dogs Act can be used the first time there is an offence. There is nothing in the law that stipulates that there must be three offences before a CPN can be issued. I therefore think that there is an issue, which I was going to come on to, about enforcement. It may be that sometimes police forces that are reluctant to look at these issues because they want to focus on other things will come up with internal operational procedures of that sort and internal operational guidelines, but those are created by the police and are not a matter of law.
I thank the Minister very much for that clarification; it is really helpful to hear it. I will certainly pursue it with Charnwood Borough Council, but I have to say that I think Charnwood is a very responsible authority. As I said, it works closely, through the MOU, with Leicestershire police, so if they are labouring under misapprehensions, I suspect that that is very widespread among local authorities and police forces. One purpose of today’s debate was for MPs to express their concerns and for the Minister to show how seriously the Government take these incidents. Does he think that it might be worthwhile to write to local authorities to reiterate some of the powers that they have?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I very much welcome this debate, which is timely. As a Minister in DEFRA in 2014, I felt that we had addressed this matter by issuing the practitioners’ guidance, but although I accept that the powers are available for local authorities to use in all sorts of situations in which dogs are causing problems, I also accept that there are still many instances of dogs being out of control. That is why, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, my Department has been looking at whether the powers are being used by the police and local authorities and, if so, what effect they are having. And that is why, as she said, we issued a voluntary survey. We invited all police forces and local authorities in England and Wales to respond to the survey about the use of those antisocial behaviour measures.
We received many responses to the survey and are currently analysing them. I am told that we expect to complete that analysis by the end of May, so while we are all busy avoiding dogs on the doorstep during the election campaign, officials will be studying those responses, but I understand that initial indications and impressions from the evidence that we have received are that there remains some misunderstanding about the powers that are already available to local authorities and police forces and, if that is the case, we will obviously want to ensure that we raise their awareness of the powers that they have.
The focus of this debate is obviously dog-on-dog attacks. As I mentioned at the start of my speech, section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act makes it an offence to allow a dog to be dangerously out of control, regardless of where it is. It is a long-held belief among enforcement agencies that so-called dog-on-dog incidents cannot be dealt with under the 1991 Act. We do not believe that is the case. The 1991 Act provides a definition of when a dog must be regarded as dangerously out of control. That refers to a dog being dangerously out of control when there are grounds for reasonable apprehension that it will attack someone. However, that definition is not exclusive. The words of section 3 could include, for example, a case in which a dog attacks another dog or other animal.
There is case law in this area. In 2008, a Court of Appeal judgment specifically pointed out that the definition of “dangerously out of control” in section 10 of the Dangerous Dogs Act is not exclusive, and made it clear that the ordinary meaning of the words in section 3 should be applied to any given circumstances. The case in question was the Gedminintaite case. The Court said that it was inclined to go further than existing case law. It stated:
“In any event, the definition section, section 10, is not exclusive. It does not read as a matter of construction, ‘for the purposes of this Act, a dog shall only be regarded as dangerously out of control...’ and then proceed to the definition. Therefore we feel ourselves entitled to go back to the straightforward words of section 3”.
Our lawyers believe that that does indeed mean that there are instances in which the Dangerous Dogs Act could be used for dog-on-dog attacks, but I appreciate that there is a widely held view that it cannot. Our officials can of course consider that as part of their wider review of the evidence that we have received from the survey that I mentioned.
I again congratulate my right hon. Friend on this timely debate. I am sure that the contribution that she and others have made will be taken on board by my officials and considered as they reflect on the survey responses that they are looking at now. Although, as I have explained, I believe that the law already allows police and local authorities to take action in incidents involving dangerously out of control or even just nuisance dogs, I completely agree that there are some issues about consistency of enforcement. That is why the review of evidence and survey responses is going on. I look forward to seeing the results of that, and no doubt my right hon. Friend will also follow it closely.
Question put and agreed to.