[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
Thank you, colleagues, for attending. As you know, there are now hybrid arrangements in place. Suffice it to say that Members who are attending physically—all of us—should clean our spaces before we leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has asked that masks be worn. I suggested before the debate that there will be Divisions at some point. If that is the case, we will adjourn until five minutes after the last vote.
It is my pleasure to call Elliot Colburn to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 300561, relating to breed specific legislation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. The prayer of the petition states:
“Breed Specific Legislation fails to achieve what Parliament intended, to protect the public. It focuses on specific breeds, which fails to appreciate a dog is not aggressive purely on the basis of its breed. It allows seizure of other breeds, but the rules are not applied homogeneously by councils. We need a system that focuses on the aggressive behaviour of dogs, and the failure of owners to control their dog, rather than the way a dog looks. Reconsider a licensing system. The framework must be applied by local authorities the same, whereas currently some destroy dogs with no court order. It must be much more strictly controlled than it is currently. The system needs to be fairer for all, dogs and humans. We are touched by cases of people committing suicide over the current system.”
When it closed, the petition had reached 118,641 signatures, including 163 from my constituency of Carshalton and Wallington. As a dog owner and an animal lover, I feel strongly that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. I have owned breeds that have had a terribly unfair reputation, such as Staffordshire bull terriers. In reality, they have the sweetest temperament and make great pets, as anyone who has owned one will say.
However, certain dog breeds are banned, purely based on their breed, under breed-specific legislation. In the UK, BSL takes the form of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which bans the breeding, sale and exchange of four breeds of dog: the pit bull terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro. However, the law allows a person to keep an individual dog where a court has considered that it does not present a danger to public safety. The court will consider the temperament of the dog, whether the intended keeper is a fit and proper person, and other matters such as the suitability of the accommodation. Dogs placed on the index of exempted dogs may be kept by the owner under strict conditions, including that the dog is neutered, microchipped and kept on a lead and muzzle in public.
The Dangerous Dogs Act came in response to a spate of dog attacks, which it obviously intended to try to reduce. However, judging on the evidence and the discussions that I have been having since the petition reached 100,000 signatures, it is fair to say that the Act was not necessarily based on evidence or science in any great detail. It was really quite a knee-jerk reaction at the time. The aftermath of the Act has suggested that, actually, it may not have worked as intended. All major animal welfare organisations, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Blue Cross and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, as well as the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report of 2018, have expressed concern about breed-specific legislation, and I thank them for providing me with briefings prior to the debate.
The data suggest that the Act has, indeed, failed to achieve its intended purpose. The four breeds covered by the Act account for only a small fraction of legal cases brought under the Dangerous Dogs Act. Between 1992 and 2019, only 8% of cases involved those four breeds. At the same time, the number of hospital admissions since the Act was introduced has risen from 3,079 in 1999 to 8,859 in 2020—a 188% increase. Campaigners have also pointed to other areas where the legislation falls down. It fails to tackle the issue of irresponsible owners because the focus is on the breed, which detracts from the real problem of poor animal husbandry, welfare and training of a dog.
Every tragic fatality in the UK involving a dog attack has also involved some element of neglect. The law unfairly targets good dogs. It fails to recognise that any breed can be dangerous in the wrong hands and any large dog can cause horrific injuries. It produces a crime where the burden of proof is on a defendant to prove that their dog is not a banned breed. This leaves owners with the almost impossible task of proving a negative, which also seems contradictory to the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
In particular, the Act seems to fail in regard to the pit bull, because that breed is not recognised by the Kennel Club or other dog organisations in the United Kingdom, and therefore the seizure of these breeds has been very patchy and differently applied across the UK. Resemblance to an American pit bull seems to be the primary reason that this is happening. It is an injustice when a dog is held to be this type of dog when, in fact, it is a cross between, for example, a Staffordshire bull terrier and a Labrador—a common cross to be seized because of its resemblance to a pit bull.
There is also the issue of cost. The cost racked up for the taxpayer for kennelling seized dogs is tens of millions of pounds per year. Even when exempted, a dog cannot be transferred or left with others. It must remain muzzled in public, even when in a private car, and must be walked on a lead, even if there is no evidence that it is a danger to a human. That leads to stress for both the dog and the owner. Owners of seized dogs have reported high levels of stress, both for them and for their dog, because they are not sure if the dog will ever be seized again.
There have even been cases of a dog choking while it has been muzzled and the owner being prosecuted for removing the muzzle to save the dog’s life. Sadly, the law does not recognise the need of necessity, so such a dog would be liable to be seized and destroyed, even though it would have died had the muzzle not been removed. In my opinion, that cannot be fair.
There are also issues with the enforcement of the legislation. Evidence from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the RSPCA and Blue Cross, and that submitted to the 2018 EFRA Committee inquiry, suggests that the application of the law is often a postcode lottery, with different police forces and local authorities taking very varied approaches. However, there are a number of common themes.
Well-behaved dogs suffer at the hands of this law because often the seizing itself is a traumatic experience, which is handled brutally and heavy-handedly. The dog is then held in kennels for many months, which has an adverse effect on its temperament, and many good-natured dogs have been reported as being returned to owners with serious behavioural issues, the most common being separation anxiety. There has been photographic and video evidence of the injuries and severe malnutrition that dogs kept by the police have suffered, but when information about the kennel that they were kept in is requested, no legal information is forthcoming to allow dog owners to bring forward any prosecutions or legal challenges.
The law does not tackle public safety effectively and is damaging for dogs and their families in many ways. There are reports of children being traumatised by watching their best friends being dragged away by the police. Scientific studies have shown that young people often form incredibly strong bonds with a family dog, sometimes stronger than with their siblings. Removing an innocent dog from the home can have an incredibly negative effect on a child.
Some owners have been misled as to the nature of the seizing of their dogs and have signed a document that was not properly explained to them. The dog has consequently been destroyed, only for the owner to claim that they were not aware that that was what they were agreeing to. There have been many accusations that the police have wilfully misled owners in order to get a dog destroyed. On some occasions, a dog has even been destroyed without a court order or the informed consent of the owner.
When a dog is seized, it is not allowed to have familiar objects around it, such as favourite toys. It is an incredibly stressful situation for a dog to be seized and put in a kennel, so to further add insult to injury by denying it something familiar seems to me to be cruel. Tragically, there have been cases, as is referred to in the prayer of this petition, of people committing suicide because they could not afford to apply to have their dog exempted. The experience of having the dog removed and not knowing whether it will ever come back has led them to make the decision to take their own life. No one should be put in that position. There should be adequate signposting so that those people are put in contact with the myriad charitable organisations that might be able to help, but the evidence is that it is not forthcoming.
I appreciate that the Government set out strongly in their response to the petition why they do not want to repeal this legislation, which has the support of the police, and frankly I see the political difficulty in doing so. If changes are made to the Dangerous Dogs Act and an attack follows, the political fallout would be severe. Even if there were little to no evidence that the attack was related to the decision, it would not look good.
However, the petitioners—particularly the lead petitioner, Gavin, who I had the pleasure of speaking to before the debate—have suggested a number of options to improve the legislation, not all of which would need primary legislative change. I hope the Minister will take some of them back to the Department. I know that Lord Goldsmith has primary oversight of the enforcement of the legislation, so if the Minister is willing to take some of the suggestions back to see what can be done, that would be very welcome indeed.
The suggestions include reversing the burden of proof and requiring the prosecution to prove that the dog is a banned breed, rather than the other way round. The petitioners suggest ensuring that the law requires dogs to be released in a timely fashion, and enforcing a strict time limit. They suggest ensuring that owners are fully informed of the process and that the police do not accept an agreement for destruction at the point of seizure. The police should ensure that the owner has received any advice that they want and is fully informed of their rights. The petitioners suggest ensuring that those assessing the behaviour of dogs are independent of the police.
The petitioners suggest ensuring that the ownership of seized dogs remains with the owner, who must be informed of all material aspects of the dog’s care requirements, veterinary treatment and so on. They suggest removing the requirement that a dog seized for reason of breed and not for anything it has done must be detained while its case is considered. That is a waste of public funds and causes unnecessary stress to the dogs and the owners. The dog should be able to remain at home if there is no evidence that it is a danger and there is no reason to believe that the owners would not co-operate with the authorities to ensure that reasonable arrangements are put in place.
The petitioners suggest that there should be an assurance that dogs detained for reason of their conduct have their cases heard and considered with the option of putting in place compulsory training and behavioural work. There should not be a jump straight to destruction. They call on the police to use the principle that the aim should be to keep as many dogs alive as possible within the limits of public safety; they should not be minded towards automatic destruction. The petitioners suggest prioritising the hearing of cases so that no dog has to remain in a cage for an inordinate period. They suggest working with an organisation to establish a facility where dogs can be detained, staffed by experts in canine welfare and behaviour, with complete transparency. That would reduce costs far below their current levels, and it should be partly funded by charitable donations.
I appreciate that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has received some new research from the University of Middlesex, which is currently being peer reviewed, so the Minister will want to wait for that to happen before she tells us what it says. I hope the Government will consider some of the suggestions that the charities, campaign groups and petitioners have made. The EFRA Committee inquiry was also pretty damning of the legislation. Those suggestions would improve it, even if primary legislation is not introduced.
Owning a dog is one of the most joyous and rewarding things that I have ever done, and I am sure many people would say the same. Dogs can bring such happiness into the lives of families but, like any animal, they can turn if they are in the wrong hands. The data tell us that breed is a poor indicator of the likelihood of violence. A dog is only as good or bad as the person who owns it. The legislation should reflect that, but it is clear that it is currently littered with issues. I hope the Government will commit to reviewing the evidence further and making improvements to the application of the Act.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for not just leading this important debate, but setting out the issues so clearly and fully. I suspect we may have read the same briefing notes, so he might recognise some of my statistics.
It is essential to our democracy that we here in Westminster make sure we are debating the issues that really matter to people. I thank the 118,641 people who signed the petition, including 127 from my constituency—not quite as many as from Carshalton. When I was a member of the Petitions Committee, I always enjoyed leading debates on issues such as this, not least because I am told that they are some of the most-watched debates in Parliament—they are often in the top 10 each year. I reflect that at the time I was doing that, I had absolutely no inkling that I might be recalled to the Front Bench at some point. I have therefore reread some of those debates with some trepidation, in case I said things within my brief that I might later regret. I issue that warning to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, but I am sure that members of the Petitions Committee are always suitably mindful, because we never know what the future holds.
The dangerous dogs legislation is, of course, routinely cited as an example of Parliament acting in haste in response to events.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
As I was saying, the Dangerous Dogs Act is frequently cited as a piece of legislation whereby Parliament acted in haste in relation to events—events I remember well, although I suspect that they may have been before the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington was with us. It was a long time ago. If there is any repenting, it has certainly been leisurely, and that is the force of the petition.
We need to get on with updating and revising the law. I am sorry that there are not more Members involved in the debate, but I do not think it is a reflection on the seriousness or importance of the issue. There are some pretty significant things happening in the main Chamber, and the announcements affect every citizen in the country, so it is not surprising that Members are focused on that today.
The issue of dangerous dogs is very sensitive. Labour thinks that we should start by making safety our top priority, but without unnecessarily punishing responsible dog owners or doing unnecessary harm to dogs that are not necessarily a risk. In our view and that of many people, the breed-specific legislation that we are discussing has fallen well short of what it was supposed to do. The time has come for reform, and we need DEFRA to lead the way.
I will start with the issue of safety. Whether it is about postal workers suffering from bites or dog walkers feeling intimidated by other dogs, let us not underplay the problem. I am very happy with dogs now, but as a child I was not. I remember my fear, day after day, when I was doing my paper round. A black Labrador would suddenly appear, give chase and jump up at me. It was not a real danger, but I have to say that it blighted every morning for me for years. Some children are not happy in that situation, which should be respected, just as I still respect dogs when I am out canvassing, quite frankly. They are our best friends, but there is a risk. That is what we as legislators have to find a way to help manage.
Looking at the evidence, the Dangerous Dogs Act is not quite fit for purpose, and it is time to have a further look. It was a swift and possibly panicky response to some particularly tragic events 30 years ago and to a very strong public reaction at the time, so we can see why Parliament acted quickly. Whether it acted entirely accurately, however, is now for us to judge. I will make a minor political point: we note that it was a Conservative Government at the time, and we feel the legislation was a touch reactive. We would like the Government to be a bit more proactive now, and we hope we can do better.
As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington outlined earlier, section 1 introduced the approach known as breed-specific legislation. I, too, will have a go at pronouncing the four types of dogs to which it applied: the pit bull terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Fila Brasileiro and the Dogo Argentino. Of course, the aim was to limit the number of those dogs and hopefully, in turn, to improve safety by reducing the number of bites. As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington has outlined, however, that is not the way it has turned out.
It is sometimes slightly dangerous to take just a few statistics and assume cause and effect, but the fact that there has not been a reduction in the number of dog bites raises questions about the effectiveness of the legislation. Between March 2005 and February 2015, the number of hospital admissions in England due to dog bites increased by 76%, from 4,110 to 7,273. In 2020, the figure reached 8,875. We are told by people who are able to calculate such things that, between 2009 and 2018, the healthcare costs for dog bites totalled £174,188,443. That is very precise, but it is fair to say it is a considerable sum. There is no robust scientific evidence to suggest that the banned dog breeds are more likely to be involved in instances of dog bitings or fatalities than any other breed or type of dog. Again, as the hon. Gentleman said, between 1992 and 2019 only 8% of dangerously out of control dog cases involved banned breeds. The legislation simply is not working; it is not stopping dog bites.
Of course, the animal welfare consequences are sad, as has been outlined. Dogs that do not necessarily pose a risk are being seized and placed in kennels. There is something self-fulfilling about that, because, as the hon. Gentleman also outlined, the physical and mental stress caused can mean that dogs then begin to act out and show aggressive behaviour, which might not have happened had they been kept with their original families.
The law does not allow animal charities and rehoming organisations, such as Blue Cross, Dogs Trust and the RSPCA, to rehome prohibited dog types to new owners. That does not take into account the individual dog’s behaviour, which then means that the only option is to euthanise. One wonders what vets feel about having to go through with that; they are people who have given their lives to protect and help animals, but have to put down perfectly healthy and friendly dogs. As the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee put it:
“Defra’s position is both illogical and inherently unfair. Whether a dog is euthanised or not can depend entirely on whether it ‘looks like’ a Pit Bull Terrier.”
That is a loose criterion for something so serious.
Breed-specific legislation does not stop dog bites, is bad for animal welfare, and because they cannot be rehomed in a controlled environment thousands of dogs are being put to sleep. The question of aggression in dogs is complicated, but I am told that there is a consensus forming in the scientific community that the breed of a dog is not a reliable predictor of aggressive behaviour. According to the latest data from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, over 200 leading behaviour experts were consulted and found that socialisation is considered the most critical factor; 86% said that how a dog is brought up by its owner is the most important reason why some dogs are more aggressive towards people than others. That rather chimes with my experience back on my paper round, as the indifference of those who kept the dog always seemed to me to be part of the problem—it comes as no surprise to me. Moreover, 73% of the experts consulted said that it is a dog’s upbringing by the breeder before they are sold that determines behaviour. There are a range of factors here and I am afraid that the rather kneejerk response of the Dangerous Dogs Act does not seem to take those factors into account.
Labour has long been clear that the Dangerous Dogs Act needs reform; it was rushed in the first place and it is now seriously out of date. Will the Minister commit to commission an independent review of this legislation, in line with the recommendations made in the EFRA Committee’s report on the issue? As I have already outlined, the petitioners quite clearly feel that the breed-specific ban does not work. If the Minister and DEFRA are insistent that some such ban is needed, will she please outline why and present the evidence in such a review? Some legal breeds can pose just as great a risk to public safety as illegal breeds, yet there are no legislative restrictions on their ownership. That inconsistency undermines the logic of the legislation, so will she tell us why some breeds are banned and other breeds that are known to be dangerous are not?
As we get on to the world-beating animal welfare legislation that we have been promised so often, will the Department engage with those with experience from other countries, and with local authorities and police forces that have considerable practical experience, to develop a deeper understanding of different dog control models and successful approaches that could be used in the UK as part of the review? Also, will the Minister tell us whether she will investigate the possibility of a new dog control Act as part of such a review?
Although we believe that legislative change is the most necessary reform, we also think there is quite a lot more that can be done to educate people about the risks. It is clear that young children are most at risk of serious dog attacks and suffer horrific injuries, too. We think we need better childhood education on staying safe around dogs, to stop avoidable incidents, and that it needs to be consistent across the country. Will the Minister commit to commissioning a childhood education plan from experts and charities to determine the most effective education measures and how they can be implemented consistently across the country? Will she ensure that DEFRA supports a roll-out of such a plan, if it is developed, to help to ensure that fewer children are seriously hurt in dog attacks?
We absolutely recognise that most dog owners are responsible and do everything they can to stop their dog acting aggressively and to protect people around them. Even the most responsible owners, however, can do with a helping hand. Will the Minister therefore consider introducing a targeted awareness campaign to inform dog owners and the general public about responsible ownership and safe interactions? Also, will she consult colleagues to ensure that sentencing guidelines are observed properly in the courts and that consistently robust sanctions under existing legislation are being applied across the country?
In conclusion, we are convinced that arguments that DEFRA has used in the past to maintain breed-specific legislation are not backed up by robust evidence. They do not stop dog bites and, sadly, they lead to hundreds of family-friendly pets being euthanised unnecessarily after being seized and kept in kennels for months. The Dangerous Dogs Act was a knee-jerk piece of legislation responding quickly to public concern about specific incidents. This has become a well-worn phrase but, once again, we need to be led by the science and by evidence.
That is why Labour is clear: we need a review of breed-specific legislation and of the Dangerous Dogs Act as soon as possible. The Labour party has a proud record on animal welfare. We will always do what we can to protect our pets, but we are also always determined to keep people safe. It is an important balance to strike, and it is not being struck right now. The situation needs to be re-examined, and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to signal that she agrees and that the necessary leadership will be forthcoming.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for introducing the debate. I thank all those who petitioned and have made suggestions on how the law can be improved in this important area.
I also thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner): I agree that safety is our top priority. He made a characteristically thoughtful speech in which he mentioned how as a boy his morning used to be blighted by a dog on his paper round. I am sure that many of us, while enjoying the company of dogs, have sometimes been frightened by them. It is important that we take the issue of dog attacks extremely seriously. We must crack down on irresponsible dog ownership.
I understand the strength of feeling on all sides of the debate. Of course the behaviour of any dog—any animal—depends on several factors, including the training, the actions of the owner and the environment in which it lives. Hon. Members recognise that we have to balance the views of people who wish to repeal breed-specific legislation with our responsibility to ensure that the public are properly protected from dog attacks.
In this country, however, pit bull types have traditionally been bred for dog fighting, to accentuate their aggressive tendencies. That is not the fault of the dog, of course; people have chosen to do that. Data gathered about fatal dog attacks from 2005 onwards showed that pit bulls have been involved in about one in six of the incidents. That is despite the prohibitions that we have in place, which in themselves have significantly suppressed the number of pit bull types in the UK.
The Metropolitan police tell us that nearly 20% of the dogs found to be dangerously out of control in the area that they police were pit bull types. We have a very small pit bull population that contributes disproportionately to sometimes tragic incidents. That is why we remain concerned that lifting the restrictions, which might result in an increase in the breeding and ownership of pit bulls, could in itself lead to more tragedy.
Despite the general prohibition on those types of dogs, individual prohibited dogs may be kept by their keepers if a court determines that the dog is not a danger to the public. In conducting the assessment, the court will consider the temperament of the dog, its past behaviour, whether the proposed keeper is a fit and proper person and any other relevant circumstances, such as whether the dog will be kept in a suitable environment.
If the court considers that the criteria may be met, the dog can be listed on the index of exempted dogs and kept under strict conditions, including being neutered and being kept on a lead and muzzled in public. We have 3,700 dogs on the index, nearly all of which are pit bulls. None of the pit bulls involved in the fatalities I referred to were registered on that index. The difficulty, of course, is with the animals not on the index.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington raised concerns that dogs being seized and typed as pit bulls are not actually pit bulls, and that the typing is being done inconsistently. I recognise that pit bull terriers are cross breeds, which is why we refer to them as a type rather than a breed. Identification of prohibited-type dogs is made by dog legislation officers, who are police officers specially trained for the purpose. The same standard is used by all those officers to identify a pit bull type. I have that standard here and I am very happy to share it with my hon. Friend—it is based on the American Dog Breeders Association standard of confirmation. A dog has to exhibit a substantial number of the physical characteristics listed before it will be considered more a pit bull type than any other type of dog.
In relation to rehoming, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Cambridge, current legislation permits the transfer of keepership when the existing keeper has died or is seriously ill. Case law has also confirmed that in some cases, a person with a pre-existing relationship with the dog can apply to put it on the index. If we were to make any changes such as on rehoming, we should consider the signals that might send about the acceptability of those types of dogs, which are owned illegally unless they are on the index.
I recognise that breed-specific legislation does not address the issue of dog attacks more widely. We have legislation in place to address that: section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act makes it an offence to allow a dog of any breed or type to be “dangerously out of control” in any place. There are significant penalties available to the courts on that.
We recognise that more needs to be done to support responsible dog ownership, to prevent attacks in the first place. That is why we commissioned research, in collaboration with Middlesex University, to look at responsible ownership across all breeds of dog. The research identifies and examines the factors that might cause dog attacks and how to promote responsible dog ownership. The report is still being peer reviewed, but we will publish it in the next couple of months. I am unable, therefore, to share it now, but I would like to share some parts of it with the House, because it is important and the hon. Member for Cambridge asked for further evidence, so it is right that I explain that the Government are seeking to look into this important matter fully.
The report will make recommendations on improving the recording of dog attack incidents so that we have a proper evidence base, as more data in this area is badly needed. We will develop a more consistent approach to enforcement. We will support preventive initiatives, such as the rather wonderfully named LEAD—local environmental awareness on dogs, which is a police-led initiative, partly in Sutton I am glad to say. We will also work on improving the quality and availability of dog training and dog awareness courses. I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about education and children being important in this space. That is an important step forward.
The recommendations in the Middlesex University report will provide the basis to consider further reform in this area. I look forward to future discussions on this important subject. It is very important that we proceed with caution on the basis of robust data.
There are a few minutes left—almost an hour—so if Mr Colburn like to make some final remarks, I think we could find some time.
I thank the petitioners once again for taking the time to sign the petition and for triggering this debate. In particular, I thank the lead petitioner Gavin for his time on Friday, when he talked me through why he started the petition and why he thinks it is so important. I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), for his contribution and the Minister for her response.
The petitioners will welcome the fact that the review should form a basis for further work to look into reviewing the evidence, which might improve the application of this Act if primary legislation is not forthcoming. I totally agree with both the shadow Minister and the Minister that safety must be the priority. The law must be effectively and evenly applied. It was mentioned many times that the Act was an example of where Parliament acted hastily. It was enacted a year before I was born, so even if it was a Conservative Government, I hope I escape some blame. It is right that the law should be effective and evenly applied.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 300561, relating to breed specific legislation.