Monday 16 July 2018
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
Dangerous Dogs Act: Staffordshire Bull Terriers
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 222419 relating to including Staffordshire Bull Terriers in the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.
It is a great pleasure to be here under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Walker. I admit that I am no expert on this subject; my only qualification to open the debate is that I have been bitten twice, both times while leafleting and both times by that breed of dog made famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—the ones that do not bark. I therefore intend to outline the arguments briefly to allow others with more expertise than me the time to speak.
The petition was started by those opposed to suggestions in some quarters that Staffordshire bull terriers should be included on the list of prohibited dogs maintained under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Those of us who are a bit long in the tooth will remember that the Act was introduced following a lot of reports in the press about dogs—in particular pit bull types—mauling people.
The Act forbids the keeping of certain breeds, unless the dog is granted an exemption certificate, adding it to the index of exempted dogs. In that case, the owner has a certificate of exemption for the lifetime of the dog, but they must comply with any restrictions placed on him or her, such as keeping the dog muzzled in public. It is an offence to breed from, sell or exchange any dogs listed in the Act—even an individual dog that has an exemption certificate.
Those of us who, again, have been around for a while know that legislation that gets passed quickly, with agreement from both Front Benches, is usually flawed, and many people have argued from the beginning that the Dangerous Dogs Act has serious flaws. It was intended to prevent people from keeping and breeding dogs for fighting, but for a long time it has been argued that it is easy to get around the legislation—for example, by claiming that the dog is a Staffordshire bull terrier or an American bulldog, or by having a crossbreed, which is perfectly legal.
Other people have argued that such breed-specific legislation, or BSL, is the wrong way to proceed anyway. For example, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has said that whether a dog is dangerous is
“influenced by a range of factors including how dogs are bred, reared and experiences throughout their lifetime”.
The British Veterinary Association states:
“we are opposed to any proposal or legislation that singles out particular breeds of dogs”.
Is my hon. Friend leading to the key criticism of that piece of legislation, which is that the police, and particularly the courts, ought to be taking on irresponsible and vicious owners, instead of showing such reluctance, as they have done on so many occasions?
I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend that there are a lot of irresponsible and vicious owners about, and I shall come on to that.
Another flaw in the Act was that the penalties for having a dog that is dangerously out of control applied at first only if the dog was in a public place or in a private place where it had no right to be; in other words, the Act did not apply to dogs that were at home, so to speak. That was remedied under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, apart from exemptions involving people who were trespassers and who were in or about to enter a home.
We come down to two questions. Is breed-specific legislation the right way to proceed? If so, should Staffordshire bull terriers be included under that legislation?
I have fond memories of my family’s childhood pet, Roger, who was a Staffordshire bull terrier of great character. I wanted to get him into Hansard because he deserves it—he gave us a lot of pleasure as children. To add the breed to the Dangerous Dogs Act would be a travesty. Does the hon. Lady agree that the problem is that people create dangerous dogs? People, not dogs, are the problem.
That is often the case, and I am glad the hon. Gentleman managed to get Roger into Hansard—let us all hear it for Roger! That is the argument that organisations such as the RSCPA put:
“Breed is not an appropriate criterion to assess a dog’s risk to people.”
However, the RSPCA also argues that the existing legislation does not promote animal welfare. It had to put down 232 dogs in two years, many of which it says could have been rehomed—I have reservations about the “many” because I am not sure how many people want to take on dogs listed under the Act. The RSPCA also said that, over the time we have had the legislation, admissions to hospital for injuries inflicted by dogs have risen. In fact, they rose by 76% between 2005 and 2015. There is also no scientific evidence to tie those injuries to the prohibited breeds.
As someone who is fairly neutral in the debate, I would like more information about that, simply as a precaution. Are we admitting more people to hospital than we used to? Are non-prohibited breeds causing the injuries? Or are too many dogs being kept in less than ideal conditions? All of us have met such dogs when canvassing—big dogs kept in small houses or flats without enough space to exercise and so on. Perhaps those conditions make the dogs more likely to bite.
We have to take the matter seriously. After all, about 21,000 people a year in England suffer a dog bite, and most of them are going about their normal business—for example, postal workers or delivery drivers. We need to find a way to protect them. In fact, 37 people have died in dog attacks since the Act was introduced.
The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is chaired so ably by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), is looking at the issue. The evidence it has had so far from animal welfare organisations and dog behaviourists—I did not even know that that was a job until I started to look into this—has been overwhelmingly in favour of looking at deed not breed when considering dogs.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, however, supports a different approach. PETA has argued that Staffordshire bull terriers and American bulldogs ought to be added to the list of prohibited breeds. Its argument—if I may summarise it—is that those breeds are abused and neglected to make them fiercer, and it cites a number of incidents involving attacks. For example, last year an owner was killed in an attack by a Staffordshire bull terrier, and earlier this year, two of those dogs turned on a smaller dog and ripped it to shreds. PETA also recalled a 2012 incident when five police officers faced a pit bull-type dog. One of them ended up requiring skin grafts, two others were hospitalised, and three bullets were needed to stop the attack.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Before she moves on, I must say that I find it surprising that we give any credence to that ridiculous organisation. Its main intervention previously has been attacks on anglers in the United Kingdom, which would not find favour with the huge number of anglers in the west midlands or indeed with you, Mr Walker.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his sterling defence of anglers.
I am simply trying to sum up the various views on this issue. Our petitioners say that these dogs make very loyal and loving pets and faithful companions—the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Jack) mentioned his dog. On the one hand, the RSPCA promotes a more holistic view of dealing with dangerous dogs, with more education—especially for children—a better legal framework and greater enforcement of the law, along with more research into what makes a dog bite in the first place. By contrast, PETA would say that these breeds are kept, abused and fought because of their breed, and therefore should be banned. I am fairly agnostic in all this. We need much better information on which breeds are responsible for many of the injuries. Is there a pattern?
The League Against Cruel Sports says that the number of reported dog fights has risen sharply, from 72 in 2013 to nearly 500 last year. I do not doubt the figures, but I think we need to look behind them and find out whether they are increasing or whether the public and the police are getting better at reporting and dealing with these things. After all, dog fighting was rife in the 19th century, but there were no reports of it because there was no law against it.
The fact is that an organisation wishes to blacken the name of Staffordshire bull terriers, but this is—I say this as, I think, the only Member here from the old Staffordshire county—a very popular breed. As has been said, these can be, and often are, extremely good, friendly family dogs, and they are wonderful with children. It is absurd that this organisation is trying to ban them, rather than deal with the vicious owners and those who get involved in dog fighting. That should be the priority—not damning a breed that is so appreciated by so many in the west midlands.
My right hon. Friend is right that there are strong arguments on the other side of the issue. Although it is undoubtedly true that we have made progress since 1991—all dogs now have to be microchipped, and we have extended the legislation to cover attacks on private land—we need to do more. What the animal welfare charities are putting forward will work very well with responsible dog owners.
The problem, as my right hon. Friend points out, is that many people who have these kinds of dogs are not responsible dog owners, but criminals. They use the dogs to fight, to defend themselves and sometimes to terrorise their entire neighbourhood, as we have seen. That is why the police have said in evidence that they are not prepared to move away from breed-specific legislation at the moment, although they might be prepared to do so in future. If we are going to do that, we will need much more evidence of what has caused the increase in dog attacks. We will also need a much stronger legal system and a better system of enforcing the law. There is no doubt that, when a number of people have these kinds of dogs, they abuse them deliberately to make them fearsome. [Interruption.]
I see I am no longer the only Staffordshire MP in the debate. My hon. Friend talks about the enforcement of the law. Perhaps that should start with the enforcement of microchipping—taking people to court and dealing with them when they have animals that are not microchipped or when they have damaged the microchip to make it undetectable.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. There are all sorts of things that we should do, because we say we are a nation of dog lovers, but what is happening out there actually shows that many people are not dog lovers at all—they abuse animals, whether unintentionally or through malice. Dogs are often abused through being kept in unsuitable conditions and not being given enough exercise. Others are abused deliberately to make them more likely to attack. We need to look at that.
I am unconvinced about whether we should have a list of prohibited breeds at all, and certainly about whether Staffordshire bull terriers should be on it. I look forward to the other contributions to the debate and to the Select Committee’s report, which I am sure will be of great use in deciding how we move forward, both to protect animals from abuse and to protect the public.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), who put the case very well. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is about to bring together our report, so I must be quite careful not to say exactly what I expect will be in it, but I will set out quite clearly the evidence that we have taken so far.
I want to start with my experience of three weeks ago, when I visited Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. I came across a crossbred dog that was of a pit bull variety. I went into the pen with it—the dog was of good temperament. It had come in as a stray and had to be investigated by the police to see whether it was part pit bull terrier. The police officer decided that it was and that dog was put down. I really was quite shocked by that.
I am a farmer and I believe that any animal that is vicious and cannot be put right should be put down, but not a dog of really good temperament. Deciding whether a dog has pit bull terrier in it is not an exact science: measurements are made of the length of its nose and its conformation. The Minister is also a farmer; he knows very well that when animals are crossbred, sometimes they come out looking exactly like the parents and sometimes they look totally different. I found it shocking that the police officers went through the various measurements and worked out that there was pit bull in a dog, when the dog was of really good temperament. It should be up to Battersea to rehome that dog very carefully. While that dog is out on the street, it may well be given an exemption order to allow the owner to keep it, but the moment that dog comes in to a rescue centre, it has to be inspected and if it considered of a pit bull type, it must be put down irrespective of the dog’s temperament.
The issue is the deed not the breed. I believe that a dog of any breed in the hands of the wrong person can be made vicious by that person beating it, burning and doing all sorts of horrible things to make the dog vicious. Pit bull terriers and pit bull types account for about 20% of the total bites in the country, but a bigger percentage of them bite than do other breeds. Is the dog breed the problem, or do particular owners for particular reasons take those breeds on because they know they can be made to be dangerous and to bite?
I understand the Minister’s point of view. If we said, “Let’s abolish all breed-specific legislation,” the next time a pit bull or any of the other four banned breeds inflicted a really nasty bite, he would be rolled out on to the television and Radio 4 and asked, “Why did you do this, Minister?” Without second-guessing the Select Committee, I suspect we will recommend not total abolition of the breed-specific legislation, but an arrangement where the temperament of the dog can be given much greater consideration. In the Netherlands, for instance, dogs with good temperament can in certain circumstances be rehomed from rescue centres, provided that the new owners are made aware of the dog’s breed and the potential for danger. We can go somewhere with that. Also, there must also be a better way in the 21st century of deciding how much pit bull terrier or any other banned breed there is in a crossbred dog, whether through DNA testing or various measurements of weight and so on. The science is very inexact at the moment, which is also a problem.
Another problem for the Government is that if we are to have breed-specific legislation—I am fearful of mentioning this—we need to add breeds to the list, because other, equally vicious breeds are coming in from Canada and elsewhere as people try to get round the legislation. We need to look at all breeds of dogs and work out which are potentially dangerous and must be watched, and react to that.
I cannot stress enough the importance of the dog’s temperament. We need to come down even more heavily on people who are vicious to their dogs, who breed dogs to be dangerous and who take them out in the streets to be dangerous. It is not really the dogs who need to be sorted out; it is the people. Of course, for the postmen and others who have to go on to people’s properties, recent legislation that makes owners more liable for the actions of their dogs on their own property is very much a step forward and all good stuff.
The Minister will probably talk about microchipping. That is good, but again anyone who goes to Battersea will find that only about 30% of the dogs there have accurate microchips. A dog may have a microchip, but often what is on it is largely fictitious. That is another problem.
The Minister has a problem in that the law on breeding and dealing with dogs works only for the law-abiding. If we are not careful, we will make the laws stricter and stricter for those who microchip their dogs and rear and look after them properly, but those who want to be outside the law will still be outside the law. I suspect that the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), who in his place, will talk about dog fighting, which has been a real problem in Northern Ireland.
There are all sorts of issues around dangerous dogs and there is a reason for breed-specific legislation, but a key requirement is much sounder science for working out breed, especially of crossbreeds. We must also be able to consider the temperament of the dog, and those of good temperament, irrespective of breed, should be allowed to live. Likewise—this is the other side of the argument—a thoroughly vicious dog of any breed should be put down. As 80% of all dog bites are from non-banned breeds, we could argue that by concentrating on breed-specific legislation, we are missing the real point. We should be bringing in antisocial behaviour orders, more penalties and five-year sentences for those who are cruel to animals. Let us get all that on the statute book and deal with the people out there who are making their animals vicious. Then, quite rightly, we will deal with vicious dogs when they appear.
I was a bit concerned when a Minister in the House of Lords suggested to the Select Committee that we were being soft on dangerous dogs. That is not our point of view. A dangerous dog needs to be dealt with. If its temperament cannot be changed it must be euthanased, but there must be a way for dogs with good temperament to survive and prosper, not be given a death sentence just because they are of a certain breed. That is where we can learn from countries across Europe. Even Scotland now has different laws in this area—the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), the spokesman for the Scottish National party, is a good member of the Select Committee. We must all work together and look at what is happening across the United Kingdom, because we could do a lot better.
We may not have to repeal the legislation, but we must look at how it is enforced and administered. The police told us in evidence that they want some changes. There is a big responsibility on a police officer who has to work out whether a dog lives or dies, and often different officers will make different decisions because the science is inexact. One officer may say that a dog is perfectly fine and should live, but another will say that there is too much of a banned breed in it, and it must be put down. We must clarify the position.
This is not an easy situation, but at the moment I am very concerned. I do not want to go to Battersea Dogs Home again and see a dog of really good temperament being put down. That is absolutely wrong. We need to find a way to protect social workers, postmen and everyone who needs to go into people’s homes to work.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one simple way to protect postal workers and others would be to ensure that those with dogs running free in their house have either an outside post box or a cage behind their letter box? Any dog can bite if it feels threatened.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. The postal workers’ unions that gave evidence to the Committee talked about that—especially the cage behind the door. All of us in the Chamber who have canvassed and pushed letters through letter boxes will know that on reaching some doors it is possible to hear the dog barking, but the most terrifying dog is the one that waits behind the door without making a sound. The moment the leaflet is put through the door there is a tremendous whack, and the dog either bites the person’s fingers or gets the leaflet and tears it to shreds. That might be a bonus if it is one of my leaflets.
This is a serious issue, because postmen have to go to those houses. We are changing the rules on that. When dogs have bitten—hopefully before that—putting in a cage would protect the post. If dogs are protecting the property, but that makes it difficult for anyone to go there, there should be a letter box positioned outside the entrance, so that it is not necessary to go in. A dog is territorial and likes to protect its owner and their property, so when people enter that property it is one of the most difficult things for any dog—a collie or any other type. I have had to retreat from a number of farms using a dustbin lid to fend off the dog as I got out. I have then thrown the dustbin lid back in the garden, saying “By the way, you will find your dustbin lid in the garden, because I had to protect myself from the dog.” The dog might not be vicious, but it might still nip and protect the property.
We have to deal with all those things, and I digress a little. I wish the Minister well, and it is good that the petition is being debated, because there is a problem, but if we sit down and deal with it calmly we can sort it out. We need to do cross-party and cross-departmental work on it, with the Home Office as well as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Education is also relevant, as we need to educate children in school about animal welfare and explain to children and young people that, although there are families in which dogs are treated badly, there are better ways to handle them.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). I do not propose to detain the House long, as so much common sense has been spoken so far.
I rise to defend the honour of Staffies and Staffordshire, as the House would expect—not as the owner of a dog but as someone who has had the great pleasure of encountering many wonderful dogs including many wonderful Staffies. As the petition says:
“It would be a terrible tragedy for the dog lovers of the UK to lose the right to own one of these great companions. We are calling on Parliament to save our staffies and not have them banned as dangerous dogs, because they are not. People create dangerous dogs, people are the problem.”
I entirely agree with those sentiments. I also speak on behalf of my fellow Staffordshire Members of Parliament, who could not be present for the debate—in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), who has asked me to say some things for her. As might be expected, there are a substantial number of signatories to the petition from Staffordshire—and, indeed, from across the border in south Cheshire. For instance 400 people signed in Crewe and Nantwich and 270 signed in Congleton. There were 458 signatures from my constituency, and Newcastle-under-Lyme, the constituency where I live, came top with 485.
As can be imagined, the Staffie holds a special place in people’s hearts, and I want to say a few words about the mascot of the now disbanded—but hopefully to be reinstated in the future—Staffordshire Regiment. The mascot in question is called Watchman V. The mascot tradition in the regiments of south Staffordshire stretches back to the 19th century. In 1882 the South Staffordshire Regiment was ordered to march with Lord Wolseley to the relief of General Gordon, who was besieged in Khartoum. They entrained at Cairo with their Staffordshire bull terrier, Boxer. Unfortunately he leaped from the moving train and was seen lying unconscious or dead—or so they thought—at the side of the track. A few days later the regiment was encamped at Assiut, awaiting orders for the final phase of the march, when a thin and bedraggled dog staggered into the camp and collapsed. Boxer had walked more than 200 miles along the scorching desert railway track to rejoin his regiment—a true soldier.
From then on the tradition of having a Staffordshire bull terrier as a mascot continued with the South Staffordshire and North Staffordshire Regiments and eventually the combined battalions of the Staffordshire Regiment. Watchman V continues his duties today as part of the Staffordshire Regimental Association, holding the rank of colour sergeant. In 2016 Staffordshire MPs as a group entered Colour Sergeant Watchman V in the Westminster Dog of the Year competition. I am glad to say he overwhelmingly won the public vote, so as you can see, Mr Walker, his is a popular breed. Watchman visits schools to teach children about safe interaction with dogs. There is a campaign at the moment to build a life-size bronze statue of him in Tamworth, as a tribute to the mascots, the handlers over the years, and the Staffordshire regimental family.
A positive view of Staffies is widely held. The animal welfare sector, including the Kennel Club, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Dogs Trust and Blue Cross, is united in its view that Staffordshire bull terriers should not be added to the existing list of banned breeds under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, the Chairman of the Select Committee, has expounded in detail and extremely wisely what should be done. The Committee is considering the matter at the moment, so I will not go into detail about it, but I believe we need to deal with dangerous dogs effectively and sensibly—not, from now on, in a breed-specific way such as the proposal to put Staffies on the list of dangerous dogs.
The law was reformed under the coalition Government and, rightly in my view, greater emphasis was put on tackling irresponsible dog ownership. The truth is, as many have said, that dogs of any breed can become dangerous if they are not trained, or if they are put in the wrong hands. Owners are responsible for their dogs’ behaviour. Vilifying an entire breed goes against scientific evidence and is not good policy, so I am delighted by the clarity of the Government statement. It is great to see such a brief Government statement. It says they have no intention of prohibiting the keeping of Staffordshire bull terriers. Would that all Government policy could be as clear and brief as that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton has said, the Dogs Trust has concerns about breed-specific legislation in general. He also said that a number of countries, including the Netherlands, have moved away from that approach. I believe that DEFRA is currently reviewing the issue and I look forward to seeing the conclusions. It would be a terrible tragedy for the dog-lovers of the UK to lose the right to own one of the great companions we have been talking about. I am delighted that the Government have no intention of bringing that about. It has been an honour to speak in the debate on behalf of Staffies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), who led the debate so well on behalf of the Petitions Committee. She said that she is no expert, but she put forward good arguments. As hon. Members will find out, I am no expert on the subject either, but I am a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is considering the relevant legislation, which is why I have been given the pleasure of summing up for the Scottish National party.
In a way it is strange to be having this debate about a petition against a suggestion from an animal rights organisation. People are so concerned about the suggestion that they are getting their retaliation in first by launching this petition. Usually, petitions are launched because of Government intentions or something the Government have already done, so it is certainly unusual that it is not the Government getting a bashing today.
I am a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and it sums up this place for me that—as the Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), has said—we have already had a Minister in front of the Committee to discuss the existing legislation, but that Minister is a Lord in the other place, and therefore we have another Government Minister here to respond to the petition, rather than the Minister who is responsible for the legislation itself. It seems a bit outdated, to say the least.
Turning to the contributions, we heard first from the hon. Member for Warrington North. She started off talking about dangerous dogs and her experience of being bitten twice while out leafleting or canvassing. I share her experience because I have had the same thing. As the Chair of the Select Committee said, the problem is the silent dog that lies in wait and manages to pounce way, way higher than anyone would ever expect a wee dog to be able to pounce. It was amazing how quickly I moved my finger, even though it was too late. I also discovered that trying to soldier on and do further leafleting was a bit of a lost cause when I was dripping blood on to the next door that I went to and on to the leaflets. I thought, “That’s no way to win votes,” so unfortunately I had to give up that day.
The hon. Member for Warrington North is also right about what happened in 1991. There were some high-profile cases and the media demanded some action, which resulted in rushed and flawed legislation. That legislation is still on the statute books, and it should certainly be reviewed. She said that from her perspective there are two questions that we must address: whether breed-specific legislation is the correct tool and, if so, whether Staffordshire dogs should be added to that. However, running through her contribution and those of others was the idea that it is not necessarily the dogs themselves but irresponsible owners who need to be tackled.
The Chair of the Select Committee said that he would not give away any preview of what will be in the Committee’s report, but it might have saved me a bit of work if he had done that. He highlighted the harrowing visit to Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, which illustrated to him the risks of breed-specific legislation and how it is interpreted, and the fact that dogs with good temperaments are being put down. That is inhumane, it makes no sense and it is illogical, and it underlines the flaws in the breed-specific legislation.
The hon. Gentleman gave an interesting statistic that, while 20% of bites can be attributed to terrier-type dogs, they make up a greater percentage of the dog population. That in itself shows that other considerations apply. He said that we need to look at the matter in the round, which I would suggest is a hint of what might end up in the report, because looking at it in the round would suggest to me perhaps having a risk register rather than breed-specific legislation that completely outlaws breeds. I may be wrong, but that is certainly something I am thinking about. He also highlighted the important issue that not all dogs are microchipped and the information in the microchips may not be valid; that is also something we need to look at to ensure that it is done correctly.
In a light-hearted anecdote, the hon. Gentleman also finished with a story about visiting a number of farms where he had to retreat using dustbin lids to fend off dogs. It reminded me of the Billy Connolly joke that what tigers fear most in the world is chairs, because that was what was used to control them in circuses of old. With recycling and the fact that our bins have changed, I worry about how the hon. Gentleman will now arm himself against dogs; I am sure that a wheelie bin is awkward to wheel at speed.
We heard from the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) who, not surprisingly, defended the honour of Staffordshire terriers, as the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) also did. It was interesting to hear how the Staffordshire dog came to be the mascot of the Staffordshire regiment. I noted the hopes of the hon. Member for Stafford that the currently disbanded regiment would be reborn in the future. Unfortunately, given the cuts we have seen to the armed services, I think that is a forlorn hope, but I wish him well in lobbying the Government on that.
Importantly, the hon. Gentleman also highlighted the fact that the RSPCA, the Kennel Club, Dogs Trust and Blue Cross are against Staffordshire terriers being added to breed-specific legislation. Given the quality of the work those organisations do and their reputations, it is important that we listen to them, and their views underline the case. He concluded by saying that we should not vilify an entire breed.
I apologise that I was not here for the start of the debate; I was chairing a Delegated Legislation Committee. I have owned two Staffordshire bull terriers—in fact, I have had Staffordshire bull terriers for 25 years of my life—and they are the most amazing, gentle dogs. The very suggestion that they should be added to the flawed Dangerous Dogs Act—which should never have been brought in in the first place and which, in my view, has had no effect in making things safer for people in this country—is extremely foolhardy. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that legislation on animal welfare and the safety of the public regarding dogs should be based on dealing with the deed, the action or the use of the dog by irresponsible owners, not on picking on Staffordshire bull terriers, or for that matter any other breed?
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. As he said, he has had Staffordshire bull terriers for 25 years. Loving, caring dog owners create loving dogs. That is how it is. Dangerous dogs are created by irresponsible owners, sometimes through neglect and sometimes through wilful behavioural training to create a dangerous dog, which is alarming in itself. We need to tackle those people, rather than worrying about specific dog breeds.
I will touch briefly on some of the evidence I picked up on in the Select Committee inquiry. This might or might not find its way into the report, and I might be at odds with other Committee members, but it seemed to me that the police have said that they are open to changes to breed-specific legislation. They say that other measures are needed to allow controls to be put in place and allow people to tackle dangerous dogs, but they are certainly receptive to changes to BSL.
There needs to be greater information-sharing between various local authorities and individual police forces across England and Wales, so that anyone who is banned from owning dogs because they have had dangerous dogs is tracked if they move from one area to another. That is something that needs to be looked at. Resources for local authorities seem to be an issue, and in some cases, a clearer understanding is needed between the polic and the relevant local authority as to who has most responsibility for enforcing the legislation on dangerous dogs.
As the Chair of the Select Committee said, the Scottish Government have introduced additional legislation in Scotland, the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010, which touches on the general theme of this debate—looking at deeds rather than individual dogs. That Act was,
“designed to highlight the responsibilities of dog owners by putting in place a regime that will identify ‘out of control’ dogs at an early juncture”.
It includes measures to try to change the behaviour of these dogs and, of course, their owners, because owners need to be able to train their dogs and implement the change before the dogs become dangerous. It is about early intervention. That buzz phrase is used quite a lot in politics, but it is clearly important in ensuring the welfare of dogs. The 2010 Act also created a dog control notice regime that permits officers—appointed and authorised by the local authority—to issue dog control notices to irresponsible owners of any dog found to have been out of control, while also setting out what “out of control” means.
The general theme of the debate has definitely been about tackling owners, rather than vilifying individual breeds. There is certainly a case for looking at the existing legislation and bringing forward improvements. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for introducing the debate. There has not been a huge number of speakers, but those who have spoken feel strongly about this issue. It has been an excellent debate, with some really good information shared.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who chairs the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, was particularly interesting and well informed. I was pleased by a lot of what he said, because I started to become interested in this topic on a visit similar to the one he described. I was also particularly interested by what the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) said about the regimental mascot, which I was not aware of. I wish him all the luck in the world in getting a statue in place. That would be a fantastic tribute.
I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown)—I remembered his constituency—said about the 2010 Act. I was not aware of it, so I will be interested to take a look at it. I was also interested to hear his idea of using a chair, rather than a dustbin lid, to fend off dogs. When I go canvassing, I fill my pockets with dog biscuits, which I find can be very useful.
I would like to talk about an experience I had that was similar to the one the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton had. I launched Labour’s animal welfare plan in February from the RSPCA’s Harmsworth Hospital, in north London. As part of that visit I was introduced to a lovely dog, Bailey, who had a great temperament. The hospital staff and I believed that he could have been rehomed, but because he had been typed as a pit bull, that, sadly, could not happen, and, tragically, he was put to sleep the week after my visit. I told the staff that I would take him because he was such a lovely dog, although I did not tell my husband. I was deeply shocked that this dog, which had never done any harm to anybody, was to be put down because of what he looked like.
The shadow Minister makes a very good point: the dog had done no harm. It was of good temperament and did not have a record of biting people. In this country, we are usually considered innocent until proven guilty, whereas these dogs are considered guilty because they are of a particular breed, and they are then put down, irrespective of temperament. That is exactly the point.
That is exactly the point: the dogs are found guilty before having done anything wrong. We have heard that people can secure exemptions from the law in court. However, I said that I would take that dog, that I was a dog owner and that I had always had dogs, so those exemptions are clearly not in place for dogs in rescue centres. Many dogs are being put down entirely unnecessarily.
We heard that we have to ensure that legislation to keep people safe from dangerous dogs has to jointly prioritise public safety and animal welfare. We need to be a lot more pragmatic when it comes to banning certain dogs based only on their breed. As has been said, all dogs can bite and all dogs can be dangerous in the wrong hands, regardless of breed or type or whether they happen to look a certain way. It is therefore clear to me, and to the many animal welfare charities quoted, that any action to tackle dog bites and all other instances of canine aggression must focus on the deed, not the breed.
The hon. Lady makes entirely the right point. When I was the Lord Mayor of Belfast, there was the case of a dog called Lennox, which hon. Members can look up online. It led to 200,000 complaints to the council, death threats to council officers and ammunition technical officers defusing a suspect device in city hall. Lennox was lifted because of his breed and appearance; his temperament was absolutely fine. Having been moved from secret location to secret location during two years of detention, Lennox developed behavioural issues that ultimately led to his destruction. There is a role for councils and those involved in looking after the welfare of dogs, but they should not do anything of detriment to family dogs with otherwise perfectly good temperaments.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. We absolutely have to remember that it is often how we treat an animal that creates certain behaviours.
The RSPCA tells me that, year on year, Staffordshire bull terriers are the one breed that ends up in its centres most often, through no fault of their own. They can often be overlooked because of the preconceptions many people have about them, which, in the overwhelming majority of cases, are simply wrong. As we have heard, Staffies can make great pets, with the more than 150,000 signatures to the petition demonstrating how strongly Staffordshire owners feel. Like any dog, with the right owner, they make great pets.
In evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s ongoing inquiry into dangerous dog legislation, the RSPCA said that it believes breed-specific legislation—BSL—is ineffective in terms of public safety and results in the unnecessary suffering and euthanasia of many dogs. It says that BSL should be repealed, and issues around human safety tackled using education and effective legislative measures that do not unnecessarily compromise dog welfare.
The RSPCA goes on to say that BSL fails to deliver what it was designed to do. It has not reduced hospital admissions from dog bites, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North. It has not improved public safety, and it has not reduced the numbers of dogs of the breeds or types it legislates against. The RSPCA wants dog control legislation reformed such that BSL is repealed and replaced, education is put in place to ensure that high-risk behaviour towards dogs is avoided, and all severe and fatal dog bite incidents are properly investigated.
Just before Easter, I was lucky enough to visit Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, and I again met an abandoned dog that was about to be put down after being typed. Staff had exactly the same concerns that we have already heard about. I also visited another rescue centre—Oak Tree, near my constituency, in Cumbria—and had the same situation again. This is not unusual; every time I visit a rescue centre, I am presented with exactly the same situation. Battersea Dogs & Cats Home believes that the Dangerous Dogs Act is ineffective at protecting the public, because, as we have heard, there has been no appreciable reduction in dog attacks since it was passed.
I am pleased to hear the hon. Lady say that. She is coming at this from exactly the right angle. The Dangerous Dogs Act was brought in in 1991 and was a knee-jerk reaction. It has never been effective and has always been completely flawed. There should surely be cross-party consensus to review this legislation so that we have an effective law that protects the public and is not cruel to animals—that have committed no crime and have never bitten anybody—because of their appearance or breed. As the shadow Minister for animal welfare prior to the 2010 general election, I championed reviewing the legislation; sadly, this Government have not yet looked at it properly and dealt with it. Will the hon. Lady work with the Minister to try to find a consensus? The current legislation has to be reviewed and changed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I would be happy to work with anyone to improve the legislation, because this is about animal welfare and treating dogs fairly, but also about protecting people. At the moment, the legislation does not work for either of those.
Battersea argues for the abolition or, at the very least, reformation of BSL. It calls it a sticking plaster that does not prevent public harm, and it wants the Government to amend the legislation to ensure that dogs are not put down simply because of their appearance.
It is also right that proper education and community engagement processes should be in place to help the public better understand dog behaviour and to encourage responsible ownership. I am a pet owner—I have a dog, a cat and all sorts—and being a pet owner is so rewarding, but people need to understand, particularly when taking on a dog, that it is a huge responsibility. People need to be better educated when they buy their dogs in the first place. It is clear that, in the wrong hands, any dog has the potential to injure either people or other animals. I have a Labrador, and when I was researching this issue, I was horrified to find out that many Labradors carry out attacks. My dog is so soft that I cannot imagine that it would do that. It just shows that, in the wrong hands, any dog can be dangerous.
To sum up, we need to ensure that we focus on ownership rather than on a particular breed or type of dog. I say to the Minister that it is really important that the legislation has a proper, thorough review. It would be good if that were carried out by DEFRA and we could have some timescales as to when he will be able to look into this issue, because it seems to me, from this debate and from discussion further afield, that there is a pretty broad consensus that what we have on the statute book at the moment simply is not working to protect either people or dogs.
I am very pleased that the Government, in their response to the petition, have said that they have no plans to ban Staffies. I look forward with interest to the EFRA Committee’s report and hope that the Minister will pay close attention to its recommendations.
I shall finish with a plea to the Minister from dog owners everywhere. Let us get the legislation right to protect both the public and dogs. We need the right education to be in place, and we need to focus on how we can effectively tackle irresponsible dog owners, not just the dogs themselves.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on the way she introduced the debate. The petition has attracted more than 160,000 signatures, which shows how strongly people feel about this issue. I understand that the petition was a reaction to a submission made by PETA to the ongoing inquiry on dangerous dogs by the EFRA Committee. Today, we have heard a number of quite powerful and detailed speeches, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who, appropriately, stood up for this breed, which hails from his part of the world. I, too, was very interested to hear the history of the Staffordshire bull terrier as a mascot for the Staffordshire Regiment and the fascinating story of the genesis of that.
I am sure that all hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who also gave a personal account of his love of this breed, will be pleased to know that the Government have no plans at all to add Staffordshire bull terriers, or any other type of dog, to the list of prohibited dogs. Staffordshire bull terriers are a popular breed in this country and have shown themselves to be a good family pet. Like any dog, they should be socialised at an early age and be properly trained to avoid behavioural problems, but for anyone thinking of taking on a dog, there is no reason why a Staffordshire bull terrier should not be considered. My noble Friend Lord Gardiner, who leads on this policy area, has given evidence to the EFRA Committee and confirmed that there is no intention to add further types of dog to the prohibited list.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) suggested that it was disappointing that I am responding to the debate by virtue of the fact that the Minister responsible is a Lords Minister, but let me reassure him that I have been around DEFRA long enough to have had to go in to bat on most issues—indeed, I was the Minister responsible for companion animals and looked closely at this issue for about two years, and I will return to that point.
It should be noted that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is not just about banned breeds. Section 3 makes it an offence to allow any dog to be dangerously out of control. That is the case for all dogs, regardless of breed or type. There are also other preventive measures, which I will mention later, that are applicable to all types of dog.
As the hon. Member for Warrington North and others pointed out, the genesis of the 1991 Act was as a reaction to a series of serious dog attacks at that time. The Act prohibits four types of fighting dog—types traditionally used for dog fighting—and those are the pit bull terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro. Of the four types, the pit bull terrier was by far the most popular. Indeed, pit bulls had been associated with a number of serious attacks on people, and it was decided to take action against their ownership. The other three types of dog were added primarily because it was considered that, having been identified as either fighting types or as sharing the characteristics of fighting dogs, they should be prohibited to prevent people from turning to them instead of the pit bull terrier. However, I am told that we have very few of the other three types in this country and none of the Fila Brasileiro type.
Adding dogs to the list of prohibited types would need to be done on the basis of proportionate risk of harm to people. Under the Act, it is an offence to breed from, sell or exchange the four breeds of dog. That approach is supported by the police. It should be noted—perhaps not enough people are aware of this—that the courts can already allow owners to keep prohibited dogs if they are not a danger to public safety. Account must be taken of the dog’s temperament and whether the intended keeper, who must have had substantial prior responsibility for the dog, is a fit and proper person, with premises suitable for the dog.
Those dogs are placed on the index of exempted dogs, which is managed by DEFRA. Currently, about 3,100 dogs are on the exempt list. They are predominantly pit bull terriers, but there are also about 10 Japanese Tosas and three of the Dogo Argentino type. For a dog to go on the index, certain conditions have to be met. The dog must be neutered. The owner has to maintain annual insurance against their dog injuring third parties. The owner has to pay an initial fee of £92.40. Dogs on the list also have to be microchipped, muzzled and on a lead in public, and they must be in the charge of someone who is at least 16 years old.
It should be noted that, when the provisions were initially brought forward in 1991, they were largely considered to be transitional arrangements. The idea was that dogs that existed in 1991 could remain on the exempt list for the rest of their lives, but those of us who are familiar with dogs and the lifespan of a typical dog will be aware that none of the dogs on the list today was alive in 1991; they are exclusively dogs that have been born since. The Government have chosen to keep that option as a way of managing this situation and enabling people to remain with their dog where it is appropriate to do so and where the courts judge that it is safe to do so.
As I said, in addition to the restrictions on certain fighting dogs, it is an offence under section 3 of the Act to allow any dog to be dangerously out of control. There are severe penalties for allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control; indeed, we increased the penalties in 2014 to three years for allowing a dog to attack an assistance dog, five years if a dog injures someone and 14 years if a dog kills someone.
A number of hon. Members have talked about “deed not breed”. I am well aware of that campaign, which is being run by a number of animal welfare charities. I understand the superficial attraction of that approach, but let me talk about the evidence that supports the Government’s position. We consider the prohibition on the four banned breeds to be a valuable tool in the battle against irresponsible ownership of dogs.
The prohibition on the pit bull terrier is supported by the Metropolitan police’s own figures, which show that in 2015-16, over 19% of dogs involved in reported attacks were pit bulls. That is quite extraordinary, given that this is a banned and illegal breed. Despite that fact and despite the fact that dogs on the exempt list must be muzzled in public, that breed still accounts for almost 20% of all reported attacks. We know also that pit bulls have been involved in seven of the 31 fatal attacks that have occurred since 2005. That is highly disproportionate for one type of dog that is banned, and it underlines the need to be cautious about change in this area. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) acknowledged that, saying that to remove the restrictions would be a difficult decision for any Minister to take, knowing that, even with the ban, this breed of dog is responsible for so many attacks and that a subsequent increase in attacks may be inevitable. The issue is not just the reputational damage that a Minister might suffer, but that they would have to carry on their conscience attacks, injuries and deaths that might have been avoidable had a more cautious approach been taken.
The Minister is making a good point, but is there a direct correlation between the attacks he outlined and dogs that are on the register? My fear is that the irresponsible owners of dogs that carry out attacks are not complying with the law, not muzzling their dog in public, and not part of an official register. They are outside the law and the deterrents are simply not strong enough.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There are instances of attacks by dogs that are on the list, but were not muzzled in public, for example. I was aware during my time of pet dogs that were killed because people had failed to muzzle in public dogs that were on the exempt list. It is also the case, however, that the vast majority of attacks are carried out by dogs that are outside the system altogether. I do not think that gets us much further forward, because at the moment a dog that is not on the list is held illegally, and if the police come across that dog, they are able to get an order to have that dog destroyed.
That is why we need robust sentencing and actual deterrence. A notorious family in my constituency of East Belfast has been before the courts on a number of occasions and convicted of dog fighting. The Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee referred to this. They were convicted of dog fighting, badger baiting, stealing domestic cats to blood their dogs, having treadmills to train and strengthen their dogs, and using their dogs against live badgers, foxes and deer, to train them. All four members of the family were convicted and received a suspended sentence.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is because of atrocious cases of the sort that he has described that I have always wanted the maximum sentence for the most egregious cruelty to animals to be raised. It is now Government policy to increase the maximum penalty to five years. We have always had in mind that activities such as dog fighting would be one of the key targets for that maximum penalty.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton and others talked about Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. Back in 2011—long before my hon. Friend’s recent visit—I went there with him as a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. There was a similar case of a pit bull that had to be destroyed when the officers at Battersea thought that that animal could have been rehomed. I visited Battersea again about three years ago, when I held this portfolio, to discuss the matter with them. From memory, about 27 pit bulls had come in that year, all of which had to be destroyed under the current legislation, and more than 300 other dogs had come in, a significant proportion of which were judged to be not suitable for rehoming and also had to be destroyed. Given what we know about the breed, how often would a charity actually have the confidence to rehome a pit bull with a family? My hon. Friend said the science is not precise, and there is some truth in that, but there are police officers who are trained in typing, have expertise in this area and are actually quite good at ascertaining when a dog is a banned breed, particularly when it is a pit bull.
This is not the only area where we have what one might call breed-specific legislation. In the provisions around public rights of way, there are restrictions on farmers from having dairy breeds of cattle on a footpath at certain times of the year, because dairy breeds are judged to be more aggressive and more likely to attack people than beef breeds. We know that there is a link between the behaviour and temperament of cattle and breed. In my part of the world, we have breeds such as the South Devon, which is a very laid-back, west country breed, which is calm and docile. In Scotland, they have the Aberdeen Angus, which is a slightly more feisty animal. On the continent, there are some more unpredictable breeds.
There are other powers available to the police and local authorities to deal with this issue; the Dangerous Dogs Act is not the only resort. Both have the power to tackle antisocial behaviour with dogs and to intervene early to prevent a minor incident escalating into something more serious. For example, the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 introduced a range of measures to tackle antisocial behaviour, including that which involves dogs. This includes community protection notices, which aim to prevent unreasonable behaviour that is having a negative impact on the quality of life of the local community. These are being used to good effect by police and local authorities across England and Wales.
Many people report incidents, thinking they are acting in the best interest. The reaction, therefore, will be that a police officer or a council official will be asked to go along and lift a dog from a family home, because it has been identified as being a Staffordshire bull terrier. It might only be a very good family pet, but if some well-meaning individual in the community decides to do that, an officer will have to go in and identify whether it is a Staffordshire bull terrier. We have had the same legislation in Northern Ireland associated with American pit bulls and we have had all sorts of problems identifying what breed a dog is. I am a great believer in deed not breed. We should stop hounding those who have good pets that are not creating a problem, but deal with the ones that do.
To reiterate what I said earlier, the Government have no plans at all to add the Staffordshire bull terrier to the prohibited list. We have been clear about that in response to the e-petition. We have trained police officers who are skilled in identifying the breed and type of dogs, in particular the pit bull terrier, which is the main banned breed that we are concerned with.
In addition to the community protection notices, many forces use non-statutory letters and notices. Those can come in the form of “coming to notice” warning letters and voluntary acceptable behaviour contracts. The notices are simple to use and remove the need for a statutory notice or prosecution. The Government are also committed to public safety and to tackling dangerous dogs through communication and education. Co-operation between the police and local authorities is vital. That is why we have endorsed initiatives such as LEAD—the local environmental awareness on dogs scheme—which encourages the police and local authorities to co-operate and share information when there has been a minor incident, and to provide advice to the dog owner on dog control issues to improve public safety. We also support an increase in awareness at all levels of society, as the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) highlighted. We are aware that many police forces and welfare charities, such as the Dogs Trust, visit schools to help to raise awareness of responsible dog ownership, and we fully endorse that work.
As several hon. Members pointed out, we need to do more to ensure that dogs are properly socialised, whatever their breed. We have done a lot to tackle the online trading of dogs through our work with the pet advertising advisory group. Dogs that are advertised and sold online have often not been socialised or raised properly. We have also introduced new requirements on pet breeding, particularly dog breeding, and on the sale of dogs to tighten up the licensing regime for people who breed and sell puppies as pets.
We have had a good and thoughtful debate on this contentious issue. I do not pretend that the legislation is perfect, and I understand that some people consider elements of it arbitrary, but for the reasons that I have given, the Government do not believe there is a case for changing the legislation at this time. We believe that we can deal with some of those exceptional circumstances through the exempted index.
I thank the Minister for the assurance that Staffordshire bull terriers will not be added to that list, which will come as a great relief to Staffordshire bull terrier owners across the country. People like me who have owned Staffordshires know that they are fantastic, great British dogs that are not a danger to the general public.
The Minister says that he does not intend to change the legislation, but will he at least consider reviewing it to create a cross-party discussion about how we can move forward? The legislation is flawed, and if the Government say that it will never change, that will condemn many innocent dogs to death unnecessarily for a long time to come, which would be wrong.
I had thought we were going to finish on a note of consensus. We can all agree that the Staffordshire bull terrier should not be put on the banned list. The Government have been clear about that.
On my hon. Friend’s final point, the Government are not persuaded at the moment that there is a case for change. I discuss the issue regularly with Lord Gardiner and, as I said, it is complex. We recognise some of the arguments against the current provisions, but we also recognise the risks of deviating from the rules and laws that we have in place.
I thank all hon. Members who have spoken, particularly the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) for their sterling defence of Staffordshire bull terriers. The Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), also made an interesting contribution.
I thank the Minister for giving one of the clearest answers to a petition so far. We often have to send them back because they are not clear. His speech today was also very balanced in highlighting the need to get the legislation right and to protect people from attacks by dogs, and for that I am extremely grateful.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 222419 relating to including Staffordshire Bull Terriers in the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.