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Dangerous Dogs Act 1991: New Breeds

Volume 832: debated on Thursday 14 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to amend the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 to add new breeds, in view of recent attacks.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and refer to my interests on the register, including the fact that I am an honorary associate of the British Veterinary Association.

My Lords, we take dog attacks very seriously and are making sure that the full force of the law is applied. This ranges from lower-level interventions to more serious offences under the Dangerous Dogs Act. The Government have commissioned urgent advice on what steps they can take on dangerous dogs. As a critical first step, we are immediately convening police experts and other stakeholders to define the breed for the purposes of the Dangerous Dogs Act.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer but it is clear that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is not working as it was intended. Dog attacks are on the increase, the public are feeling threatened and the Act is putting huge pressure on veterinary professionals and animal welfare charities. Can I urge my noble friend to use his good offices to take this opportunity to have a complete overhaul of the Act; to focus not on the breed but the deed; and to look increasingly at anti-social and aggressive behaviour on the part of dog owners, which should not be tolerated?

Every single one of these attacks is a tragedy. So often, they happen in the home, and some of the people involved really should not be in charge of a dog. We are concerned about the breed that people are concerned about now, XL Bullies, because we see from the available data we have that they are disproportionately involved in serious dog attacks. There is a divergence of opinion on this. My noble friend mentions organisations that campaign on this and are unhappy about the breed-specific nature of it. They have one view; another view is that none of the fatal attacks that have taken place in recent years were carried out by a prohibited breed that was registered under the Act. We want to get this right. That is why we are talking to everyone, including the police, vets and campaign groups. We want to make sure that we are keeping people safe.

My Lords, in the United States, the National Rifle Association argues—spuriously, in my view—that it is not the firearm that is the problem but the person carrying it. In this country, we control dangerous firearms and have very few mass shootings—the opposite of what we see in the United States. Does the noble Lord agree that a dangerous dog that is bred to fight and is inherently dangerous is rightfully being looked at as being banned?

I entirely understand the noble Lord’s point. Most of us who keep a dog can know its breed precisely because there is a breed registration book and it is perfectly easy to describe it. There is no evidence of how you define some of these “fighting dogs” or “status dogs”, as some people call them. I am not making some bureaucratic excuse for not taking action because we are taking action but, in order to make the law effective, if we are going to ban a breed, we have to really ban it and not allow people to get round it by having some nuance of that breed.

My Lords, I was chief constable in Merseyside when a five year-old child in St Helens was murdered by one of these awful breeds. As the Minister said, there are difficulties in defining the breed; I think a Labrador can be regarded as one of these breeds on some occasions so it is really not straightforward. One of the things I instigated at the time, with the agreement of the CPS, was an amnesty for owners of illegal breeds because the main thing is to get these dogs off the streets and not leave them in position. Of course, it is hard for the owners to hand them over voluntarily because they are declaring that they are an illegal animal; it is hard for neighbours to declare it, too. At a time when the Government are considering what to do next, might they consider a national amnesty for the present illegal breeds to get the dogs off the street rather than worrying about, as has been explained, the consequences?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. Under the Dangerous Dogs Act, there is an exemption procedure whereby the person can keep the dog provided that they stick to various conditions, such as it being taken out on a lead and wearing a muzzle. Of course, that does not solve the problem entirely. We want to see these dogs removed. There are ways of doing that and very serious penalties, including up to 14 years in prison, for people who break those rules. We are talking to the National Association of Police Chiefs and making sure that we are doing everything in the realm of the possible but our priority is to get dangerous dogs off the streets.

My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend is taking such urgent action on this. I suggest that he should be more radical when looking at the Dangerous Dogs Act. It is time that that was sent to the knacker’s yard and a new system instituted altogether. I say this with some regret because I was the one who introduced it in the other place in the first place.

I know that the Act is sometimes held up as a poster boy for the malign effect of knee-jerk legislative reaction to a terrible incident. However, as I said, the pit bull terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro—the four species banned under the Act—are not breeds that have been involved in these awful attacks. One could therefore argue that there may have been more attacks if they had not been banned, but we are looking to make this effective and we want urgent action.

My Lords, the phrase that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners, is patchy as breeds vary considerably. Spaniels are excellent at identifying victims in earthquakes; border collies are excellent at working with sheep. Labradors are brilliant assistance dogs; Alsatians and Rottweilers are brilliant guard dogs. For all, it is part of their inherent nature. The DDA should be reviewed bearing this in mind. Will the Minister give assurances that, if such a review takes place, it takes account of more evidence than just a single video clip?

I absolutely can give that assurance. We in government are lay people in this. There are real experts who understand animal behaviour and lawyers who can advise us on what will stand up in court. If we are to review this Act, we must make sure that we do not lose any benefits we have had from it and that we keep this House informed of every stage of the process.

My Lords, in view of the great increase in pet dogs in recent years, particularly during the pandemic, should we not reconsider reintroducing dog licences?

I love agreeing with my noble friend but I cannot in this case. It was a very bureaucratic document that cost more than it amounted to and was no more than a tax on dog owners. It would not deal with this problem effectively because the people who keep the predominant dog species involved in these attacks would not, by and large, have bothered getting a licence anyway.

My Lords, we know that the American bully is easily recognisable but concerns have been raised that it would be hard to define it within the framework of the Dangerous Dogs Act as it exists at the moment. The breed is not recognised by the Kennel Club, for example. The Minister and other noble Lords have talked about the importance of replacing or updating the legislation. It is not working at all for cross-breeds. The Minister has talked about the fact that many of the attacks are not done by dogs that are covered by the legislation, so I really do urge him to commit to updating the legislation because I cannot see how we will move forward without it.

I am very happy to have a discussion with the noble Baroness and any others about what precisely they mean by updating this legislation. Many campaign groups, such as the Dogs Trust, want us to get rid of its breed-specific nature as part of any reform. I am concerned about that because it might remove some of the elements that work, but we are open to those discussions.

My Lords, two weeks ago, the “Today” programme interviewed a leading professor, I think from Chicago University, who specialises in the behaviour of dangerous animals in contact with human beings. She said that, in America, they are breeding these specific dogs and changing their genes to increase the chance that they will fight. She was asked for her opinion—“What would you do?”—and said, “Ban them totally”.

I totally understand my noble friend’s point; that may well be what comes out of this urgent review. It is of concern right at the top of the Government. He is absolutely right that these species are bred for purposes that we do not want to see in this country, in our homes and certainly not on our streets. Since 2022, there have been 16 fatalities, nine of which involved some form of cross-breed bully dog. The clue is in the name.