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Dangerous Dogs

Volume 717: debated on Thursday 7 July 2022

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

Last November a 10-year-old boy, Jack Lis from Pen y Bryn, Penyrheol, in my Caerphilly constituency was killed by a vicious dog. The dog attacked and killed Jack in a neighbour’s home. The dog was an American XL Bully. In the trial, which concluded last month, one of the defendants, in whose home Jack died, was sentenced to three years. The other defendant, the owner of the dog, received a sentence of four and a half years in a youth offender institution. The dog, called Beast, had been bought on the internet only a few days earlier.

There can be no doubt that the dog had huge behavioural problems and was not going to be kept as a normal pet. Indeed, the previous owner of the dog stated that he was selling the dog because he could not cope with it anymore, and the dog was described as “aggressive” in its “For sale” advert. Moreover, CCTV recordings showed how the dog threatened and tried to attack people on the street. It is worth noting that during the course of the trial, the man who owned the dog breached his bail conditions in a blatant way.

It is the view of Jack’s mother, Emma, who has been incredibly brave, that the sentences given to the two defendants were far too lenient. That is also the view of the local community in Caerphilly, and it is my view, too. An e-petition has been launched by Jack’s mother, and it clearly expresses the view of so many people about the leniency of the sentences that have been handed down. In response to the representations that Emma has made to the Attorney General’s Office, she has been told that it is not possible to refer these sentences to the Court of Appeal. Although the Law Officers have the power to ask the Court of Appeal to review certain sentences that appear to be unduly lenient, the power does not apply to sentences under the piece of legislation applicable here. I understand, however, that the Secretary of State for Justice has the power to add legislation to the scheme where a review can take place. Will the Minister therefore speak to her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice so that they can give active consideration to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 being included in the scheme?

It has to be said that even if the sentences in this case were referred to the Court of Appeal, the sentences of the two defendants could not be changed, as there could not be a retrospective change. It is nevertheless important that we learn the lessons from what has happened in this terrible situation when we look to the future. It follows from what I have said that the sentencing guidelines should be rewritten and strengthened in the light of this case.

Another important lesson from this terrible case is that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is woefully inadequate and inappropriate to deal with the issue of dangerous dogs. The attack on 10-year-old Jack Lis is truly tragic, but attacks by dangerous dogs are not a rare occurrence. In the past 10 years alone, more than 20 people have died after being attacked by a dog. Each year, some 200,000 people are attacked by dogs in England alone. In Wales there have been more than 200 incidents involving dangerous dogs during the last six months or so. In Gwent, which includes Caerphilly, between September 2021 and February 2022, 69 dog attacks were reported to Gwent police, three of which were on children aged 17 or under.

The main piece of relevant legislation is the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which applies to England, Scotland and Wales. It was under that law that the two defendants I referred to earlier were convicted and sentenced. They were found guilty of keeping or allowing a dog dangerously out of control where death is caused. As I said, the operation of that part of the Act could be significantly improved by strengthening the sentencing guidelines, but there also needs to be a fundamental rethink of the law as it applies to dangerous dogs.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this debate. He rightly says that the law is specific to England, Scotland and Wales; it is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland, but the situation is similar. For example, about six or seven weeks ago, a constituent of mine was out walking with their young dog, which was attacked by three or four other dogs. The dog had to be put down. That is another example of legislation that does not work. To address that issue, my constituent had to bring a private court case against the person, which added to the trauma.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman is trying to bring forward a change in the legislation, which hopefully the Minister can review and consider. When that is done, will he share the information with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the devolved Administrations, so that we can all have better legislation, not just for his constituents—I am sorry to hear their tragic story—but for all of us across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Member for his support. Although the Act does not apply to Northern Ireland, there are arrangements in place. It is a serious issue in Northern Ireland, as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. I will certainly liaise with him when I pursue the matter further.

Only four specific breeds of dogs are banned in the Act: the pit bull terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro. Incredible though it may seem to many, the dog that attacked Jack Lis, an American XL Bully, is not listed as a dangerous dog—but I am not calling for that particular breed simply to be added to the list. There are many types of dogs, including cross breeds, that people could argue ought to be on the list, but there are two fundamental problems with that approach. First, because there is more and more cross-breeding, it is virtually impossible to maintain any kind of legislation that contains an up-to-date list. Secondly, proscribing certain breeds of dogs gives the erroneous impression that only listed dogs are dangerous, and it does not take into account how a dog is kept and trained. It has been said that most dogs have the potential to be dangerous if they are not trained properly.

We need to fundamentally change our whole approach to so-called dangerous dogs. Rather than relying on breed-specific legislation, which is clearly inappropriate, the Government ought to bring forward legislation based on a totally different approach to the issue. I know that the Government have done a lot of work on it, and I contributed to a Westminster Hall debate on it only a few weeks ago. The response of the former Minister, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), to that debate was encouraging, and I hope that the Minister will take us a bit further forward today.

The Government’s starting point has to be an acceptance that there is a lack of any real evidence to support a breed-specific approach to protecting the public. I believe that there is a large amount of independent research, funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which lays the basis for a quite different approach. It shows that simply looking at a dog’s breed is not an appropriate criterion for assessing that dog’s risk to people. I know that the Government are fully aware of the conclusions of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry, which states that the current dangerous dogs legislation fails to protect public safety and also harms animal welfare. This is also the view of a whole range of organisations that have come together under the dog control coalition. These organisations include the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Dogs Trust and the Kennel Club.

It is now over 30 years since the Dangerous Dogs Act was passed, and going beyond this Act, it has to be said that the legal framework for dealing with dog bite incidents is very complex, with a number of different laws applicable depending on the circumstances surrounding the incident. However, the breed-specific legislation has another fundamental weakness, which is the fact that it is to a large extent reactive in character. I believe that it is better to approach this issue of public safety before harm is caused, rather than responding to the consequences. Prevention has to be the watchword. That is why I want a comprehensive and fundamentally different approach to the issue.

A number of years ago, there were dog licences. The Government really ought to examine the possibility of reintroducing dog licences, but this time we should not simply see them as an easy way for Government to have an additional source of revenue. The money received should be used for a whole range of initiatives, including tackling the behavioural problems of certain kinds of dogs that lead to dog bite incidents. Resources could also be provided for dealing with stray dogs and for helping to fund dog training. Let us not forget that, at the moment, dogs have to have microchips by the time they are eight weeks old. Licensing could be an extension of this and a significant elaboration of it.

I am pleased that the RSPCA Cymru agrees with the approach I have outlined. As animal welfare in Wales is devolved to the Welsh Senedd, I look forward to having a constructive dialogue on this issue with Hefin David, the Member of the Senedd for Caerphilly, and the Welsh Government. Crucially, however, I also believe that an effective assessment needs to be made of potential and actual owners of dogs. At the moment, anyone in any circumstances can purchase virtually any kind of dog. I believe that local authorities should have a key role to play here. Local authorities also ought to have the statutory responsibility for ensuring that dogs are kept and housed properly, and that their owners are ensuring that their dogs are correctly and appropriately trained.

In addition, there needs to be firm control on the buying and selling of dogs. To return to the tragic case of Jack Lis, the dog that killed him was purchased on Facebook not long before the attack. Such purchases cannot be allowed to continue. That is why I would urge the Government to prevent the sale and purchase of dogs in this way.

Today, many of my remarks have focused on the tragedy of Jack Lis, and I want to pay tribute to his family, especially his mother, Emma. She has been enormously brave during this whole difficult time. Nothing can bring Jack back, but all of us need to do our utmost to prevent similar tragedies in the future. I look forward to the Minister’s reply and I encourage her to be as positive as possible.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) on securing this debate on such an important issue, and our usual Adjournment friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), on joining in. I have listened carefully and appreciate that this subject is of keen interest to the hon. Member for Caerphilly and his constituents. As he stated, he recently contributed to a Westminster Hall debate on breed-specific legislation and has spoken publicly about dangerous dogs on a number of occasions. I appreciate his strength of feeling on this topic and commend him for his diligent campaigning.

Sadly, there have been a number of fatalities from dog attacks in recent months, many involving children. This of course includes the tragic death of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent Jack Lis last November. I note that the owner and keeper of the dog were both sentenced last month, under the Dangerous Dogs Act, to four and a half years and three years in prison respectively, and they have been banned from owning dogs indefinitely. Sadly, individual sentences are for the courts to decide, based on all the evidence presented at trial, so I cannot comment further on that specific point. Again, I pass on my condolences to the Lis family—to Emma, who is bearing up so well.

The Government are determined to crack down on irresponsible dog ownership and to promote safe interactions with dogs. We are already taking action on this, and I want to take the opportunity today to set this out in more detail. As colleagues may know, Middlesex University was commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to examine measures to reduce dog attacks and promote responsible dog ownership across all breeds. We published that report and its recommendations in December last year.

In response to that report, we have established the responsible dog ownership project, working with the police, local authorities and animal welfare stakeholders to consider the recommendations in detail and provide advice to Government. The project’s steering group is overseeing a series of specialist sub-groups that are considering the recommendations and gathering further evidence and expertise from relevant stakeholders, academics and experts. This will inform the project’s final advice regarding the report’s recommendations. Please be assured that I will make sure the hon. Gentleman’s speech today forms part of those consultations.

The responsible dog ownership project’s data sub-group will be considering the recommendation to improve the recording of dog attack data and incident characteristics. The group will be giving specific consideration to current data collection practices across enforcement, healthcare and animal-based sectors, and will identify how these could be improved to strengthen the evidence base relating to dog control incidents and dog attacks, including breed-related trends. In addition, the Middlesex University report recommended the introduction of new legal requirements on dog ownership. We will be considering this recommendation and any relevant evidence in more detail, including the merits of dog licensing, which I hope the hon. Gentleman will be pleased about.

The responsible dog ownership steering group will also be looking at the possibility of strengthening enforcement, improving the quality and accessibility of dog training and awareness courses, and developing and supporting education initiatives—again, it is as though the hon. Gentleman read my script, but I am pleased about that. All these areas will be looked at in detail and the steering group will then provide advice to Government as to how to take these forward. We expect the work of the project to be concluded next year, at which point the Government will consider the advice and decide on next steps.

In response to the recent tragedies involving children, we have also undertaken a rapid response, in collaboration with stakeholders, police, local authorities and the devolved Administrations, to develop simple messages to promote safer interactions between children and dogs. The dog safety code was launched in June and highlights three key messages that all dog owners and families with children need to be aware of. First, be alert—always keep an eye on your dog around children and never leave them alone together. Secondly, be aware—get to know your dog; dogs use signals to tell us how they feel. Thirdly, be safe—any dog can bite; accidents happen far too fast. During the summer holidays, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education will be sharing this messaging for use by health visitors and child safeguarding professionals. This was also promoted during Child Safety Week in June. We want the dog safety code to become embedded in future communications.

I will change tack slightly. I recognise the strength of feeling on breed-specific legislation. Simply repealing the breed-specific provisions in the Dangerous Dogs Act with no other changes would increase the risks to public safety. We must therefore balance the views of those who want to repeal the legislation with our responsibility to protect public safety. Any changes to breed-specific legislation that we may propose will need to ensure that public safety remains at the heart of the regime.

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. As well as that, the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 includes specific measures to enable the police and local authorities to tackle irresponsible dog ownership before a dog attack occurs, including through the use of community protection notices. To put the hon. Member’s mind at rest, we will explore the effectiveness of the current legislation and areas for improvement as part of the ongoing work of the responsible dog ownership project.

I hope that colleagues are reassured that we take these issues seriously and are committed to protecting public safety. I look forward to discussing the conclusions of the responsible dog ownership project with colleagues when they are available, and when the new Minister is appointed.

The whole House sends its condolences to the bereaved family. That was a very sad story. Our hearts go out to them.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.