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House of Commons Hansard
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07 March 2019
Volume 655

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Ninth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Controlling dangerous dogs, HC 1040, and the Government response, HC 1892.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir James. I accept—

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Order. I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but the knighthood has not yet appeared in the post. No doubt it is on its way.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. It always has been, and I hope today will be no different. I see we are completely packed out this afternoon, with standing room only. We are discussing a serious issue, and the fact that parties have a one-line Whip on a Thursday probably does not help with attendance.

It is often said that the UK is a nation of dog lovers. As more than 9 million of us are dog owners, it is not hard to see why. Dogs are a huge source of love, comfort and companionship to so many of us. It is also good to see postal workers and others in the room. While we love our dogs, we have to remember that many workers have to come into or close to our homes, and we have to ensure that our dogs are under control. All those things need to be taken into consideration.

That love for our dogs is why it is so heartbreaking when relationships go wrong with dogs, when dogs are not treated with the care and compassion they deserve, and when they are not trained properly, or worse, when they are forced into aggressive and violent behaviour. Each year, thousands of dogs are seized under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Hundreds are subsequently put down. That might once have been described as a price worth paying to save people from vicious dog attacks, but I was concerned to discover that since the Act was introduced, injury and fatality rates from dog attacks have increased, not gone down.

More than 200,000 people are attacked by dogs each year in England alone. Between 2005 and 2017, the number of recorded hospitalisations rose by some 81%, from 4,110 to 7,461. It is heartbreaking to look at the hospital data, which shows that children under nine are statistically the most at risk. Metropolitan police figures for 2015-16 indicate that legal breeds accounted for 80% of section 3 offences under the Act, which relate to dogs dangerously out of control. Sixty-seven people have died following dog attacks in the UK since 1991. The issue is not only dogs on the dangerous dogs list; many of the bites are from dogs not on that list. We have to consider that, however well intentioned the 1991 Act, it is not addressing the totality of the problem.

The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs therefore launched an inquiry on 11 May 2018 into the adequacy of the Government’s approach to tackling dangerous dogs. It is good to see the new Minister in his place. We focused on the effectiveness of the breed ban and examined the actions needed to improve public safety and safeguard animal welfare. We received more than 400 written evidence submissions to the inquiry and held three evidence sessions in June and July last year. We are grateful to all those who gave us evidence in person or in writing, as well as to the substantial number of people who contacted the Committee in relation to our report and the Government’s response. Many were keen to help address the problems we face, and for that I thank them.

We have a great opportunity today to discuss how the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs plans to incorporate the Committee’s recommendations on dangerous dogs and make the system better for everyone, owner and canine alike. The lessons we learned during the inquiry and the themes I want to highlight today can only be summarised as legislation, trepidation and education. The existing legislation does not deliver the protection that society needs, and I will discuss that in a minute. The trepidation is that of the Department to change the status quo and act decisively in a number of ways. Education could save adults and children alike from dog attacks.

First, I will talk about the legislation. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was introduced to protect the public from dangerous dog attacks. The Act made it an offence to keep four types of dog traditionally bred for fighting, unless the dog was placed on the index of exempted dogs and kept in compliance with certain requirements. The dogs were the pit bull terrier, the Japanese tosa, Fila Brasileiro and Dogo Argentino. As of May 2018, 3,530 prohibited dogs were on the index, of which 3,514 were pit bull terrier-types. Only 16 of the dogs were not pit bull types.

Dogs suspected of being of a prohibited type may be seized by the authorities and held in police-appointed kennels pending examination by a qualified expert. Most dogs seized under section 1 are suspected pit bull terriers. If a dog is found to be a banned section 1 type, an owner wishing to keep the dog must go to court to determine that they are a fit and proper person and that the dog will not pose a risk to public safety. If successful, the dog is placed on the index of exempted dogs and the owner must comply with certain conditions, such as that the dog is neutered and microchipped, the owner purchases third party insurance and the dog is leashed and muzzled in public.

Section 3 of the 1991 Act makes it an offence for any dog to be dangerously out of control, regardless of its breed or type. That includes a dog injuring someone or an animal, a person believing the dog might injure them, and a person believing that the dog would injure them if they tried to stop it attacking their dog or animal.

During our inquiry, we heard substantial debate about the effectiveness of this breed-specific legislation and the impact on dog welfare. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 30 people died between 1991 and 2016 in dog-related incidents. The RSPCA told us that 21 of those dog-related incidents involved dogs of breeds not prohibited by law. One person dying from a dog attack is one too many. The Government are responsible for protecting the public from dangerous animals, so it is essential that the laws evolve alongside our understanding of what works. We investigated whether the Government’s current approach is having the desired effect and whether any changes are needed to ensure that the public are properly protected and that animal welfare concerns are adequately addressed.

The Committee looked at the effectiveness of breed-specific legislation, and identified several areas for improvement to protect the public more effectively. One of the saddest consequences of the 1991 Act is that, when someone has to give up a section 1 dog, the law does not allow the dog owner to be changed; the dog can be transferred only if the owner dies or is incapacitated. If a section 1 dog strays or was abandoned and is being kept in a rescue centre, or if its owner cannot care for it due to a change in circumstances, it cannot be rehomed and is liable to be put down. The dog will also be destroyed if the owner is judged not to be a fit and proper person.

At Battersea dogs home, I saw a dog that had been brought in because its owner could no longer look after it. As far as I could tell, it was a very good-tempered dog, but because it could not be rehomed it had to be checked by the police to assess whether it was of a pit bull type. When the policeman saw the dog, he decided that it was of a pit bull type, and it was put down. I felt that that was one dog too many put down, because its temperament was good. I will talk a little more in a minute about how, with proper care and attention, such dogs can be placed with an owner who understands the type of dog, can handle it and complies with the regulations regarding taking it out in public.

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I apologise for being unable to stay for the whole debate; I need to speak in the House. As the Committee inquiry highlighted, the prohibition on the transfer of dogs is utterly ludicrous. There was a very high profile case in Bristol on this matter. The dog can be transferred if the owner dies, but not if they move abroad because of work, as happened in one case, or if they lose their home and have to move into a flat where they are not allowed animals. It seems completely ludicrous that in some situations the dog then has to be destroyed when it might be, as the hon. Gentleman said, a perfectly well-behaved, acceptable dog.

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The hon. Lady is a very good member of the Committee, and I am delighted to see her this afternoon, even if only for a short while. She makes a really good point. We should look at the dog and its temperament. If the original owner could keep it, and take it out muzzled and on an a leash in public, why can it not be rehomed? As she stated, such a dog can be rehomed if its owner dies, but not if it goes into a rescue centre either because it was left to stray or its owner could no longer look after it. I am sure that the Minister, being a very sympathetic and thoughtful man, will give that due consideration, because that is an anomaly. I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention.

This is an unfortunate situation, which is surely simple to resolve. The Government have the opportunity to improve the lives of these innocent animals. Our report called on the Government to avoid imposing an unnecessary death sentence on good-tempered animals. We therefore call on the Government to remove the ban on transferring section 1 dogs to new owners. That simple amendment could be accompanied by adequate checks and balances at animal rescue centres and appropriate safeguards to ensure that the rehoming of section 1 dogs is conducted responsibly and safely. They say, “It’s a dog’s life,” but in this case it really is. Good-natured dogs are being killed under section 1 of the 1991 Act. I understand that they have to be rehomed carefully, but if a dog can be rehomed after somebody dies, why can it not be rehomed when it has been brought in for other reasons? Two dogs could have the same temperament, but one would be destroyed and the other rehomed.

The Government’s response noted that

“it would be irresponsible to amend the breed ban immediately without adequate safeguards”

and stated that the prohibition

“should remain in place for reasons of maintaining public safety.”

When we began looking at the matter, I originally thought that the Committee would call for the repeal of the breed-specific legislation. However, we fell short of that because, although 80% of dog bites and attacks come from dogs outside those specific breeds, the number of pit bull type dogs that bite is quite high given their total number. We therefore do need to have legislation in place regarding those dogs, but it has to be fairly administered.

What we want is for the legislation to be amended. Unfortunately, the Government told us that they do

“not consider that it is a priority to amend legislation at this time.”

We understand that any change in the law would have to consider the implications for public safety, the potential increased burden on the courts, and the extra work for rescue and rehoming centres. The Committee was clear that any amendments to the legislation would need sensible safeguards to be put in place to protect the public. However, those are achievable goals. Too often in politics we are faced with what appear to be insurmountable problems—heaven knows we are at the moment—but this is not one of them. This problem can be sorted. A simple change to the law would ensure that a good-natured dog, such as the one that I saw, could be kept safely. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity today to reconsider the Government’s position.

From looking at evidence against breed-specific legislation during our inquiry, the Committee was not convinced that there was enough independent evidence to justify the current approach to controlling dangerous dogs—something that we all want to see done more effectively. It was clear to us that, in order to do that, DEFRA needed more information. One of our key report recommendations was that

“the Government should commission an independent review of the effectiveness of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and wider dog control legislation… We expect this review to take account of the concerns and recommendations raised throughout this Report.”

Particular breeds are potentially very dangerous, but they account for only 20% of the bites and attacks. The Government need to review how we protect workers and others who enter homes where there may be other dogs that are potentially dangerous. Just sticking to the four breeds on the dangerous dogs list is not working.

Our second recommendation was:

“Defra should commission a comprehensive independent evidence review into the factors behind canine aggression, the determinants of risk, and whether the banned breeds pose an inherently greater threat… These results must then be used to inform the Government’s future dog control strategy.”

Any dog can bite, but the larger the dog, the more chance of the attack being a vicious one. Should we therefore ban every large dog that we come across? The answer is that of course we will not. In that case, do not just pick on particular breeds.

We were pleased that in their response to the Committee’s report the Government committed to commissioning research to review the effectiveness of current dog control measures. I do not know whether the Minister will be able to give a timescale for that. In November 2018, DEFRA commissioned Middlesex University to conduct research to assess the effectiveness of current dog control measures, and to identify and examine the causes of dog attacks, how to address dog behaviour problems, how policy might need to develop, and how to promote responsible dog ownership.

DEFRA committed to updating the Committee “later this year”—I wonder how late in 2019 that might be. I welcome the excellent news, but we cannot let the Government off the leash too quickly—sorry for that one. I ask the Minister to give us more details today about the review that he has commissioned of the dog control measures. What are its terms of reference, when will it be completed and who will be consulted? Will it examine whether the current Dangerous Dogs Act is fit for purpose?

There is much work to be done to create a truly fair system. I assure the Minister that the Committee will follow progress closely, and I promise that we will co-operate in any way to make the situation better. There needs to be more focus on the owner, not the breed. The destruction of a dog based purely on its breed is cruel and often unnecessary.

My second theme is trepidation. Although the Government’s response recognises the importance of improving the identification and control of dangerous dogs, they have so far lacked the confidence to take any decisive action. A degree of trepidation is understandable—some might even call it wise. It is always difficult when a dog is of good temperament but a potentially dangerous breed, because it might turn. When a dog turns after being allowed to live, there is always a big inquiry. I understand the trepidation and even have some sympathy for the Minister, but I still think that we need to take action.

No one wants to make the situation worse. The Metropolitan police told us that they would be open to a new approach to addressing dangerous dogs, but they stressed the importance of having a full system in place before any of the legislation is amended. Things are difficult for the police under the current legislation, because when they inspect a dog at Battersea, Blue Cross or any of the rescue centres that do good work, they have to decide whether it is of good temperament; if they say it is, but then it bites somebody, the responsibility will come back on them. That is why it is so important that the re-homing of these dogs be proper and thorough.

Our inquiry heard compelling evidence from the RSPCA and animal behaviourists, who argued that dogs should be judged by deed, not breed. The Government must do more to recognise in legislation the temperament of the dog. We also know that human safety is paramount, so we need effective dog control measures that focus on the deed, not the breed—I repeat that 80% of dog attacks are not carried out by any of the four dangerous dog breeds—and put reasonable safeguards in place for dogs that are judged to be dangerous. I emphasise that such measures need to address dangerous owners as effectively as they address dangerous dogs. Dogs are not born dangerous; they are made dangerous by not being cared for, and sometimes by actually being brutalised. Sometimes we do not recognise that enough.

That brings me to my final theme: education. A common theme throughout our inquiry was the need for a fundamental shift towards a more holistic approach to dog control that prioritises prevention through education, responsible ownership and early intervention. Witnesses from animal welfare charities felt that existing efforts fall short of what is required, and they called on the Government to develop a new approach—a call that our report echoes. It is clear to us from the evidence that human factors play a prominent role prior to the majority of dog attacks and that any systematic attempt to reduce the number of incidents needs to place a greater emphasis on education.

There are now charities that take dogs into schools, particularly primary schools. That should be encouraged, because some children do not have access to dogs and do not know how to handle them; they may approach them too quickly, grab their tail and ears or do things that they think are fine but that make the dog react badly. Unfortunately, there are some homes in which dogs are treated cruelly, but the charities that go into schools can make a real difference by showing children how dogs should be properly treated.

There is no requirement for schools to make use of the readily available materials on dog safety. That is a missed opportunity. Although education is not the Minister’s responsibility, I know that DEFRA works with the Department for Education and I think more could be done. Young children are at the greatest risk of dog attacks, and many suffer injuries that are horrific and in some cases avoidable. That is unacceptable, when education could help to prevent such life-changing injuries. I accept that we can never stop all dog bites, but we must do all we can to reduce the number of avoidable incidents. Teaching children how to stay safe around dogs is essential to that.

Our report further notes:

“A consistent approach is needed across the country to avoid the current post-code lottery of intervention.”

Naturally, resource implications differ among councils. Some councillors, of whichever political party, may feel that dealing with stray or potentially dangerous dogs is an essential part of a council’s work, while others may not feel the same. That inconsistency needs to be addressed.

Our witnesses told us that targeted initiatives to educate children on safe human-dog interactions are key. Some of them advocated adding such information to mandatory childhood education. The RSPCA said that having a Government policy would avoid the

“piecemeal and sometimes duplicated approach”

that is currently being delivered by the charitable sector across the country. Our report therefore calls on DEFRA to

“commission a childhood education plan from experts and charities to determine the most effective education measures and how these could be implemented consistently across the country.”

We also concluded, based on the wide-ranging evidence we received, that DEFRA

“should introduce a targeted awareness campaign to inform dog owners and the general public about responsible ownership and safe interactions.”

Most people who have dogs are good owners who know how to handle them, but there are some who choose to treat them badly. There are also some who, because of a lack of education, just do not have the ability to look after their dogs properly. Those are the people who need our help.

We recommend that DEFRA

“should further develop proposals to help local enforcement bodies increase engagement among hard to reach demographics. This should involve a thorough assessment of the merits of mandatory third party liability insurance and training classes for dog owners.”

We were struck by the evidence that third-party insurance is not actually that expensive. It could certainly greatly help to compensate workers and others who are bitten. Responsible owners act responsibly. We need to reach out to those who are not responsible.

The Government’s response stated that they

“will develop a plan of action with stakeholders on the most effective way to reach children across the country”.

I am aware that the new Minister is keen to bring sensible change in this area. I and the Committee will very much support his endeavours. Will he update us on the progress that the Department has made since January? The sooner we teach children how to be safe with dogs, the better. We could save a life. We could save many lives. It is worth taking action.

With young children at risk of serious injury, Ministers should support wider dog awareness training for schoolchildren. The report recommended a targeted awareness campaign for dog owners and the general public on dog safety. New dog control legislation should be introduced to consolidate the existing patchwork of legislation, with dedicated dog control notices to allow for early intervention in incidents. All dogs can be dangerous, and we cannot ban all dogs that might one day bite someone, but we can take every sensible step to ensure that the law and Government policy is fit for purpose and effective. That means recognising the threat and dealing with it comprehensively.

The Government’s current strategy for tackling dangerous dogs is well intentioned, but in some cases misguided. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that and that DEFRA’s policy will be revised so that it is truly fit for purpose. I hope to meet the Minister and charities to facilitate a way forward, and to look at ways that a dog can be rehomed when the owner can no longer look after it. I do not want to hound the Minister, but we really need to see some action.

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It is a great pleasure and privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I have two points to declare—they are not declarations of interest, but they are points of relevance. I have been the owner of two dogs, which came to me as a pair, inherited from a friend and constituent who died. One dog, whose name is Tweed, is a bull terrier cross—a rescue dog found wandering in the streets of Weeton in Lancashire, and taken to an animal shelter, where my constituent and her husband fell in love with her and took her home.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and the Committee on such a comprehensive set of proposals and summary of how they came to them. The proposals are quite specific. The report, published on 17 October, spurred me to ask the Prime Minister 10 days later what the Government’s response was going to be. Having said to the Prime Minister that I was going to give her some brief relief from Brexit to talk about dogs instead, I said:

“Last week, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, with its specific breeds definition, was not fit for purpose, as hundreds of pit bull-type dogs are confiscated yearly and destroyed, with no impact on dog bite numbers. Will she ask the Secretary of State...to act urgently on the Committee’s recommendations and not take the approach of the Lords Minister, who told the Committee that even a good-tempered dog had to be put down as ‘collateral damage’? My wonderful bull terrier-type dog was rescued from the streets, and to think of her being destroyed because her face did not fit in court is chilling.”

The Prime Minister was positive in her response:

“I had not looked at the detail of the Select Committee report on that particular issue, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State is a keen dog owner, as indeed is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is sitting next to me, and that the Secretary of State will be looking at this issue very carefully.”—[Official Report, 24 October 2018; Vol. 648, c. 273.]

I come to the debate today to ask the Minister what the Secretary of State has done to fulfil the Prime Minister’s assurance to me last October, and to make some observations on what has happened since.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton has drawn attention to the need for checks and balances and to the difficulties involved in any Government dealing with this broad range of issues. I want to be positive about one or two parts of the Government’s response, such as the approval for the need for a central database for dog bites and the speeding up of court cases, and their general support for and assurance with respect to the principles of education. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, that is for other Departments, and as a shadow Education Minister, I might be able to take it up with the Department for Education myself.

What I found distressing, disheartening and difficult to understand was why, having heard all the information, the response was so negative in this particular area. I place a great deal of store by what Select Committees do—I declare another interest: I was on several of them, for about 10 years. As the hon. Gentleman said, most of the time they are very cohesive and collaborative, and they and the Government should work on the basis of evidence-driven policy. Unfortunately, in this Government response, that approach seems to be notably lacking.

It is slightly beyond belief that nowhere in the response did the Government address the issues of consultation. That is what the Committee was asking for. I can well imagine the “Yes Minister”-style conversations that might have gone on in the Department: “We do not want to address the substantial evidence in the Committee’s report, Minister, that shows mission creep, which sometimes condemns a wide range of pit bull dogs in this area. Minister, we have a perfectly reasonable argument—there are so many other things to think about in the context of Brexit—so why do we not just try to ride it out, with the usual excuses about it not being a priority or not having enough legislative time?” Perhaps that is why that is exactly what they did.

On page 7, paragraph 22, on the very modest proposal by the Committee

“to amend the law to allow prohibited dogs which have no previous court approved owner to be rehomed, or to transfer a prohibited dog to people who have had no contact with the dog”

the Government said that that

“would require an amendment to the DDA and the supporting secondary legislation. The Government does not consider that it is a priority to amend legislation at this time.”

I can only say that given the stasis that there has been in the House in the last few weeks, they might want to revisit that particular reason for doing nothing. That was one of the Committee’s modest proposals.

We have had no consultation, as well as the complete ignoring of what the Committee had said, but, so that the Department did not appear to be ignoring the Committee’s thrust entirely, perhaps it thought, “What can we cherry-pick that suits us and means we do not have to do anything?” In paragraph 15, we have a classic twisting of something that the Committee never suggested, but which allows the Department silkily to slip in—tucked away, and without further justification of the policy—the fact that the Government “notes and agrees” with the Committee that it would not be right to implement the process immediately. The Committee never considered implementing it immediately, but on that basis:

“The Government considers that the prohibition on possession of such dogs should remain in place for reasons of maintaining public safety.”

That is an absolutely classic non-sequitur and it has not impressed the various animal charities that have given focused and comprehensive evidence to the Committee. In response to Members of Parliament on that debate and the Government’s response, Blue Cross said:

“We were… disappointed that Defra’s response failed to address some of the key welfare issues surrounding dangerous dogs and responsible dog ownership, and its refusal to consider repealing section 1 is an issue of great concern to Blue Cross and many members of the public.”

It went on to mention that even dogs that are in the index of exempted dogs are sometimes likely to suffer long-term welfare implications as a result of the conditions that are put on them and their owners.

Dogs Trust said something very similar. It is

“highly concerned about the impact of the current legislation on dog welfare”

and the protracted periods dogs could spend in kennels during the court process. It had serious concerns about how subjective the interpretation of the standard for identifying pit bull terriers can be, and about how a dog can be deemed dangerous based on physical appearance in itself. Battersea dogs and cats home said it was disappointed that the Government had chosen to disregard the Committee’s recommendation to review breed-specific legislation and whether breed is a factor in causing dog fights.

In the evidence session involving the Lords, the Minister’s colleague, Lord Gardiner, and the deputy director of DEFRA were quizzed very strongly on section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Their answers clearly did not impress the Committee, and in response the Committee stated at paragraph 22 of its report:

“We were concerned to hear that the Government considered the Dangerous Dogs Act to be successful on the grounds that it was impossible to tell how many attacks would have occurred without the law. This is not convincing… The increase in attacks—most of them from legal breeds—clearly indicates that the current approach is failing to protect the public adequately.”

The hon. Gentleman supplemented his concerns about the welfare of dogs with his concerns about the welfare of humans. This is not just an unevidenced and disproportionate application in the Act; it is missing some of the main points that are necessary to give the public confidence. That is why the Committee asked for the independent review of the Act’s effectiveness, which the Department has studiously ignored. It is also why the comments in the report came down rather hard on the Department. The Committee stated:

“We are concerned that Defra’s arguments in favour of maintaining Breed Specific Legislation are not substantiated by robust evidence. It is even more worrying that non-existent evidence appears to have been cited before a Parliamentary Committee in support of current Government policy. This lack of clarity indicates a disturbing disregard for evidence-based policy-making.”

It goes on to talk about the independent review.

I said that there were aspects of the Government’s evidence that were chilling, and I want to quote one of them. It might be the same one that the hon. Gentleman, who chairs the Select Committee, referred to earlier—the case of the Battersea dog that was put down. On this occasion, after the Committee had heard evidence of how difficult it is to classify or identify pit bulls genetically, and that seizure could sweep up other dogs simply on the basis of appearance, the Chair of the Committee said:

“To get to the point about the Battersea dog that was put down, as far as you are concerned, that is just collateral damage. It was a pit bull type and it may have been good-tempered, but as far as you are concerned, just put it down. Is that where you are?”

Lord Gardiner, the Minister in the Lords, replied, “Yes.” So, it is not surprising that 80,000 people have signed a petition to this House—hopefully for the removal, but certainly for the examination, of what seems to be an extraordinarily defective part of the law.

The hon. Gentleman made the point that, when changing the law, Governments have to be very careful about unintended consequences and so on. However, it is worth remembering the climate that brought about the Dangerous Dogs Act. I will not go into the details, but in my view this is a perfect illustration of hard cases making bad law.

There is a way out for the Minister to rid himself of the incubus of complacency and callousness that he has been lumbered with in trying to defend the shameful response from his Department to the Select Committee’s measured and humane representations. The Department’s response largely ducks the Select Committee’s call for an independent evidence review on the factors behind canine aggression, because that would mean admitting the inadequacies in the evidence base for the original Act.

The defence given in the Select Committee’s report included a reference—the hon. Gentleman has referred to it—to the Middlesex University research that has been commissioned by the Department. Why not use this commission, which has already been set up, to widen the terms of reference for that research and review the adequacy of the breed-determinant evidence that justified four types of dog being included in the Act in the first place? That would cut the Gordian knot the Department has tied itself up in. Why not give a deadline before the end of the year for there to be some answers to what the Select Committee is asking? If the Minister and his Department need a face-saving mechanism and a deadline, let this be it. That would be far better than continuing the evidence-poor status quo on breed determination, which has condemned thousands of dogs in those categories for 30 years, and which the Select Committee’s report shines such a poignant light on.

This issue has aroused strong passions and it affects many personally. One of my constituents, Helen Harris, supports an end to breed-specific legislation. In an email sent to me on 1 March, she gives her perspective on what she saw when the Act was introduced:

“I worked in a pet shop in 1991 and we had quite a few customers with pitbulls and I remember the devastation this law caused. We allowed people to bring dogs into the shop and every pitbull I met was friendly and happy. Once the law came in and the dogs were no longer allowed off the lead in public places and had to wear a muzzle the dogs noticeably changed. I did not live with these dogs and only saw them when they were brought into the shop but they all went from calm happy dogs to very unhappy dogs in a few weeks, some of them were very hyperactive because of the decrease in exercise. They had done nothing wrong and did not know why they were being punished. Breed specific law is not working.”

I understand that that has to be weighed up against all the other issues, but this issue will not go away. Dogs might have been man’s best friend, but man has not always been dog’s best friend. In this case, the Department has certainly not been dogs’ best friend. It is crucial for us to reduce the terrible toll meted out to children and adults year after year, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but this is actually being aided and abetted by the misidentification of the causes of this particular position.

We are taking about statistics, but we should be talking about individual animals. Blue Cross cited the case study of a section 1 dog called Duncan:

“Duncan was brought to us as an injured stray. Unfortunately the Status Dogs Unit (SDU) confirmed he was of type and would have to be euthanised after serving his stray days. Staff who dealt with Duncan described him as a gentle giant who was very well behaved. He knew basic commands and had he been another type of dog would have made a great companion to someone. Duncan was put to sleep at our central London hospital after the mandatory period of seven days, during which no owner came forward.”

That should lie heavily on the Department’s conscience; the Minister should consider it.

My dog Tweed was fortunate, as she was picked up from the animal shelter within seven days. Duncan was not. Perhaps we need a Duncan’s law to rectify some of the problems and injustices that this excellent Select Committee report has highlighted.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am sure that hon. Members will remember that last July we had a similar debate in this Chamber, on breed-specific legislation and Staffies. Many of the concerns that have been discussed today were raised then. Following that debate, I am pleased to see such an excellent report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. I thank its Chair, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), for clearly outlining the report and the Committee’s concerns about the current legislation. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) for making such an important contribution and for making some interesting suggestions to the Department about how we can move the situation forward.

There are two main issues in the report that we must address. The first relates to public health. The Government’s current approach to dog control is failing to protect people adequately. The second relates to animal welfare. Too many harmless dogs are being destroyed simply because they are a banned breed—because of what they look like—regardless of their temperament. There can be no denying that, since the Dangerous Dogs Act came into force nearly three decades ago, more people have been killed by dog attacks, and more people are being admitted to hospital due to dog bites. I have spoken to the Communication Workers Union, and I understand that about 3,000 postal workers are attacked by dogs every year. The union has very much welcomed the Committee’s report.

The hon. Members who have spoken have given examples of dogs that have been put down when they were in rescue centres. Last year I launched the Labour party’s animal welfare plan. When I visited the RSPCA’s Harmsworth animal hospital, I met Bailey—a really lovely dog who could definitely have been rehomed to the right owner. I actually asked whether I could take him home myself, because I could not bear the thought that that beautiful dog was going to be put down, but sadly that could not happen because he had been typed. Tragically, he was put to sleep the week after my visit. I personally find that very hard.

We had a consultation after we launched our animal welfare plan, and we had a huge response to it. Many of the responses referred to breed-specific legislation, which we had not actually put in the plan. Dog owners and rescue centres asked us to consider looking at the issue in any future policy documents that we put out on animal welfare.

We must be a lot more pragmatic when it comes to banning certain dogs based just on their breed. As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, we must recognise that all dogs can bite. Any dog can be dangerous in the wrong hands, regardless of breed or type, or the fact that they look a certain way. Any action to tackle dog bites, and all other instances of canine aggression, as the hon. Gentleman said, must focus on the deed, not the breed.

The RSPCA told the Select Committee that it believes that breed-specific legislation is ineffective in protecting public safety, and results in the suffering and euthanasia of many dogs unnecessarily. It believes that breed-specific legislation should be repealed, and that issues surrounding human safety should be tackled using education and effective legislative measures that do not unnecessarily compromise dog welfare. The RSPCA told me that in recent years, in order to comply with the legislation, it has euthanised hundreds of dogs. We have heard that many other rescue centres have had to do the same. Many of those dogs, like Bailey, would have been suitable for rehoming.

DEFRA’s figures show that no dogs on the index of exempted dogs have actually been involved in an attack. As the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said, this is not working. Why are we putting down healthy, innocent dogs from rescue centres simply because they are a particular breed when we have no evidence to prove that there is a problem? We must look at the reform of dog control legislation. We should introduce education to ensure that high-risk behaviour towards dogs is avoided. All severe and fatal dog bites must be properly investigated.

I visited Battersea dogs and cats home and, like the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, saw a beautiful dog that the home said was perfectly able to be rehomed, waiting for the police to come to take it away to be euthanised. Battersea said very strongly to me that the Dangerous Dogs Act is completely ineffective at protecting the public. It is arguing for the abolition or reform of BSL, and has called it a sticking plaster that does not prevent harm. It wants the Government to amend the legislation to ensure that dogs are not put down simply because of the way they look.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South said, the current law is not supported by scientific evidence. The Select Committee criticised the Government about that, stating that their lack of clarity when it comes to robust evidence

“indicates a disturbing disregard for evidence-based policy making”.

I think that is extremely worrying.

It is absolutely right that we have proper engagement processes and education in place to help the public to understand dog behaviour and responsible ownership much better. The Chair of the Select Committee talked about getting people into primary schools to teach children about how to behave with and understand dogs. That is incredibly important.

I have a dog—my family has always had dogs—so I know at first hand that being a pet owner is terribly rewarding but a huge responsibility. Anybody taking on a pet needs to recognise that. The dogs that I have had have always been large dogs, from Irish wolfhounds to Dalmatians, and I currently have a Labrador. It is really important to train and socialise big dogs properly, because in the wrong hands every dog has the potential to injure either people or other animals. We must focus on ownership, rather than on the type of dog.

Prevention through education, responsible ownership and early intervention is clearly a better, more holistic approach than slapping a blanket ban on certain dog breeds and saying that that is the way to protect the public. As the rising figures show, it is not. Evidence presented to the inquiry shows that human factors play a prominent role in many dog attacks, so we must ensure that dogs have responsible owners.

I want to talk briefly about livestock worrying, which the Committee’s report touches on. This is an issue about which the National Farmers Union, and farmers generally, are very concerned. It is a particular problem in my constituency in Cumbria. It is thought that, in 2016, 15,000 sheep were killed in livestock attacks. The cost to the farming sector is about £1.6 million a year. Sheep worrying can have a devastating impact on small hill farmers, such as those in my constituency. Responsible ownership is critical. Livestock worrying often happens because a dog has escaped or because the owners simply do not believe that their dog will be dangerous when it is around sheep. People say, “My dog is Labrador; it is not going to do any damage.”

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I thank the shadow Minister for talking about sheep worrying. Many members of the general public do not always understand that the dog does not actually need to be dangerous; it just needs to run through the sheep. The sheep will run from it and very often wind up in a ditch. The sheep might be heavily in lamb. If there are several dogs together, they actually think that they are playing half the time, and although they may not actually be vicious, they still have a hugely detrimental effect on that flock of sheep.

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In an area such as Cumbria, where I live, many visitors are perhaps not used to being with their dogs in the countryside and around sheep. The education aspect of the issue is absolutely critical, because I do not think that those people appreciate the damage that can be done simply by allowing a dog to run amok among a flock of sheep. We really need to raise awareness of the issue and look at how we can tackle it. I know that the all-party parliamentary group on animal welfare produced an excellent report last year on livestock worrying, and I ask the Minister to look at it and consider its recommendations on how to tackle the problem.

The Select Committee’s report is very clear in its recommendation that changing the law is widely desirable but also achievable, and that it will protect the public much better than the status quo. Let us get the legislation right in order to protect both the public and dogs. We need the right education in place, and we need to focus on how we can tackle irresponsible dog owners, not just the dogs. I look forward to the Minister’s response. I hope that he has paid close attention the recommendations of this excellent report. It would be good if we could finally start to move the issue forward.

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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for determining as the subject of the debate the EFRA Committee’s report on controlling dangerous dogs and the Government response to it. I am also grateful for the thoughtful and considered contributions that have been made in this debate, which although not one of quantity, has certainly been one of quality. I know that those contributions have been made with conviction, first-hand experience and considerable passion, not least that of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Paris), which is characteristic of him.

I will provide some information on the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and the Government’s position on breed-specific legislation. The 1991 Act does two things: it provides offences in connection with fighting dogs and offences in connection with dog attacks on people and other animals. Section 1 prohibits four types of fighting dogs: pit bull terriers, Japanese tosa, Fila Brasileiro and Dogo Argentino.

Pit bulls have been associated with a number of serious attacks on people and it was decided that action should be taken against their ownership. Fundamentally, the 1991 Act is about public safety. Under that Act, it is an offence to breed from, sell or exchange those dogs. Courts can allow owners to keep prohibited dogs if they are not a danger to public safety, taking account of the dog’s temperament and of the intended keeper, who must have had substantial prior responsibility for the dog.

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The Minister is addressing the crux of the matter. When courts deal with dangerous dogs that have owners, they look at the temperament of the dog and say, “That dog can be kept by the owner as long as it is properly muzzled, leashed and handled.” The problem occurs when the same type of dog, with the same temperament, turns up in a rehoming centre that can no longer look after it. It has to be checked, but nobody will actually take the case to court, meaning that the dog will potentially be destroyed. That is exactly the type of dog that could be saved if it still had an owner. Instead, it is put down because it has gone into a rehoming centre. That is the real problem.

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I thank my hon. Friend for clarifying. He spelled that out very well in his speech and, with his permission, I will come to that specific point later, but I think it is important to set the context before getting into the meat of the issues that have been raised.

Prohibited dogs that owners are allowed to keep are placed on the index of exempted dogs, which is managed by DEFRA. In addition to restrictions on certain fighting dogs, under section 3 of the 1991 Act it is an offence to allow any dog to be dangerously out of control in any place. Severe penalties are in place for allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control. Those penalties were increased 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 someone is killed. We realised from the tragic cases that we had seen that the sentences needed to be more in line with the crimes committed.

Both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) were absolutely right to raise the issue of postal workers. We need to get the balance right between public safety and animal welfare. The number of attacks on postal workers is absolutely to be regretted. It is unacceptable that people are unable to go about their business because of fear or actual attacks. We therefore work closely with police and local authorities to see how we can best respond to those attacks. I am sure that many MPs have worked with their local postal workers at Christmas or at other times of the year to better understand those situations and to make representations.

The Government are committed to public safety and to tackling the issue of dangerous dogs. We believe that communication and co-operation between the police and local authorities is vital. That is why we have endorsed initiatives such as the early intervention and partnership working scheme, Local Environmental Awareness on Dogs, or LEAD—that is not one of my hon. Friend’s puns, but the name of the scheme.

The scheme encourages police and local authorities to co-operate and share information when there has been a minor incident, provide advice to a dog owner on dog control issues, improve public safety around dogs and help to improve dog welfare. There have been strong endorsements of the initiative. The then deputy chief constable of North Wales police and recently retired National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on dangerous dogs, Gareth Pritchard, said:

“Problems regarding dogs can cause a great deal of anxiety in some communities. The new LEAD initiative aims to allay some of these fears to help educate dog owners and residents further by promoting responsible dog ownership.”

The Government also support an increase in awareness at all levels across society. We are aware, for example, that many police forces and welfare charities, such as the Dogs Trust, visit schools to raise awareness of responsible dog ownership. We fully endorse that work and I will come to how we will do more on the back of the EFRA Committee’s excellent report. I want to make clear that the Government are keen to tackle irresponsible dog ownership. As I have explained, a number of changes were made to the laws and powers available to enforcement agencies in an attempt to improve responsible ownership of dogs. The Government acknowledge that the number of people admitted to hospital as a result of being bitten by a dog has risen from 6,836 in 2013-14 to 8,014 in 2017-18.

A number of concerns have been raised about whether it is fair to put particular focus on pit bulls, but as a nation we are not alone in doing so: France, Spain and Germany have also put restrictions on keeping a number of types of dog, including pit bulls. It is also worth looking at some of the evidence that I have seen and that has been submitted to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton in his capacity as Chair of the Select Committee, about section 3 incidents—the particularly difficult ones—involving pit bulls. There were 92 such cases in 2015-16, and those pit bulls were not on the dangerous dogs index. In comparison, there were 84 attacks by Staffordshire bull terriers.

We could say, “Well, there is not much difference,” but I think we would all accept that the number of Staffordshire bull terriers in the UK is sizeable—around 300,000, according to the latest estimates—whereas, although we do not know the exact number of pit bulls, there are about 3,000 on the DDI. We probably need to get more evidence, but the evidence that is to hand points to the fact that there is a greater likelihood of incidents involving pit bulls.

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That is what the Department says, but is it not ludicrous that it does not openly address the issue—it is an issue, and one that was put forcefully to the Committee—that it is very difficult for police on the ground to determine genetically what is a pit bull and what is not? The Minister spoke about Staffordshire bull terriers. What is the logic for having an investigation into attacks by pit bulls, which are covered by the Act—albeit many of us dispute that—and not into attacks by Staffordshire bull terriers?

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Order. Interventions should be brief.

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If the Minister looks only at the issue of the breeds in the 1991 Act, he will of course come to the same conclusion, because he is not examining the broader evidence.

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I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. When I appeared before the Select Committee, I said that we should remember that the Dangerous Dogs Act is trying to deal with two things: fighting types, which are bred specifically to fight, and dangerous dogs. That is my worry. The hon. Gentleman might have had cases of this in his constituency and, as I said at the meeting, I certainly did in Macclesfield, where a few years ago pit bulls were being trained to hang from tree branches. That is not what most people do with a normal dog. Certain types of dog are bred for a specific purpose, and that needs to be tackled, because there are people who carry out that practice, which I abhor. Dog fighting is a separate issue, and we could have a separate debate on it. The legislation tries to recognise both those aspects. I understand his point, but I hope that he understands at least that there are differences in why dogs are being bred. As long as dog fighting goes on, there will such challenges.

We understand the concern about dog control and the need to reduce the number of dog attacks. People are of course not the only victims of dog attacks; other dogs and animals can be the victims of such attacks. Dog attacks on livestock have caused suffering to animals and misery for farmers, and we want to reduce all such attacks and to improve responsible ownership of dogs. That point was made well by the hon. Member for Workington and my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton.

I emphasise that section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 also applies to attacks on other dogs, livestock and any other animal, and the High Court and the Crown Prosecution Service have made that clear. There has been a lot of talk about amending the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, but our advice is to use the Dangerous Dogs Act because it is more up to date and applies anywhere. We are working with the CPS and the police to ensure a universally accepted position on that, which we will promote.

The Government do not want to reduce dog ownership. Dogs have been a part of our lives for hundreds of years, and we certainly do not want to change that. However, owning a dog comes with responsibilities. Ownership means that we have to provide a dog with its welfare needs—at all times—and that a dog must be trained. The owner is responsible for looking after the dog as well as its behaviour. The more irresponsible ownership of dogs we have, the more calls we and local authorities receive to introduce restrictions such as banning dogs from parks and beaches. The Government therefore agree with the vast majority of good, proper owners and stakeholders that we need more responsible ownership of dogs if we are to see a reduction in the number of dog attacks.

Last year, the EFRA Committee conducted its review into controlling dangerous dogs. The review focused on section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. The report was welcomed by the Government and, again, I take the opportunity to thank my hon. Friend, the Select Committee Chair, and the rest of the Committee for publishing the report. We are all in agreement that we are not looking to increase the number of types of dogs that are named in the legislation, nor are we looking to remove any types.

The report made 16 recommendations to improve dog ownership and reduce dog attacks. The Government responded positively to the recommendations, which reflects how in tune the Government, the Committee and most stakeholders are on the issue of dangerous dogs. There are, obviously, a few exceptions, which came out in the debate today, but on the vast majority of issues we all want to see positive progress. The EFRA Committee’s report was published in September 2018 and the Government’s response was published by the Select Committee in January this year. Last month, the Committee had another sitting, also on dangerous dogs.

I will take this opportunity to update hon. Members on the Government’s progress with some of the recommendations. Rehoming of pit bulls is an emotive and difficult issue. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton—instead of Tiverton, I keep almost saying Tytherington, which is in my constituency—I do not want to see healthy and well-adjusted dogs being put to sleep. For the reasons I have set out, however, we are subject to what is legally possible. Recent case law has interpreted the legislation, so the court may decide to give possession of a pit bull to a person who has had some contact with it, such as taking the dog for a walk. Ultimately, the courts will make the decision on whether the dog is safe, and the prospective person is fit and proper.

The difficulty is putting a stray dog that has no owner with a person the dog has not met before the court case. That is not feasible under the law. We continue to discuss with stakeholders what can be done, and we will involve my hon. Friend in those discussions, as I promised following my recent evidence to the Committee. We are happy to meet him and relevant welfare groups for further discussion and greater clarity. It is a tricky area, but the case law needs to be explored fully. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept the invitation to meet as sincere. He knows that I want us to do all we can to address the concerns that he has expressed.

In the course of the debate, a number of specific issues were raised. If the owner of a dog dies, it can be transferred under article 12 of the Dangerous Dogs Exemption Schemes (England and Wales) Order 2015. If an owner moves and abandons a dog, it can be rehomed to a person who can be considered the person in charge of that dog for the time being—but remember that abandoning a dog is in the first place a criminal act. If someone got to know the dog before the owner moved—this is important, with an educational aspect—that person could apply to be the person in charge of the dog, and the new person would need to be considered fit and proper by the court. There are opportunities therefore for such dogs to be rehomed. We need to look through all such opportunities.

The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) asked why we are not recommending a change in the law. That would require primary legislation and, as I said, there are concerns about public safety. We need to explore the issues that we have just discussed. However, I point out that while there may be disagreement on that issue, the Government are absolutely committed to the welfare of dogs and cats: we have looked to increase sentences for animal cruelty, and are trying to find the right legislative vehicle to do so quickly; third-party sale has been banned; and we are reviewing our approach to the licensing of rehoming centres. All those issues are being taken forward with conviction.

Continuing the theme of preventive action, the EFRA Committee recommended more research on the causes of dog attacks. In December 2018, therefore, DEFRA in collaboration with Middlesex University commissioned further research into responsible ownership across all dog breeds, with a budget of more than £70,000. Middlesex has five main researchers to consider different approaches and the effectiveness of existing dog control measures.

The research seeks to identify and examine factors and situations that might cause dog attacks, and how to promote responsible dog ownership. The initial stage of the project, which is a literature review, is nearly complete. Middlesex has started initial stakeholder engagement to inform a number of focus groups, which is the next phase. We expect an interim report at the beginning of September, with a final report at the end of the year. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. The project, as I said, will include a review of dog control measures.

Related to that research is the need to educate children in particular, and the public more widely, about safety around dogs. The Government are committed to developing a plan of action with stakeholders on the most effective way to reach children across the country, in order to make them aware of dog safety. We have had early discussions with stakeholders and are developing the delivery plan, which is due later this year. We are working with the Department for Education, and are keen to ensure that that links with our wider work on communications and engagement about how to take forward responsible ownership and purchasing of dogs, and education regarding them.

Hon. Members can be assured that the Government will continue to take forward the actions I set out in response to the EFRA Committee with speed and conviction. I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for bringing this debate forward and giving me the opportunity to set out the Government’s position and proposals.

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I thank all Members who have spoken. I thank the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) for his thoughtful contribution and support for the report, as well as the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Workington (Sue Hayman). From the tone of the speeches, it is apparent that there is cross-party support for some change to the Dangerous Dogs Act. I thank the Minister for his very humane response, because this is a humane issue.

In the Select Committee we have tried not to be too demanding. We perhaps started out wanting to repeal the Act entirely, but did not end up with that conclusion. I restate that similar dogs to those that go to rehoming centres and are put down because they cannot be rehomed are allowed to be kept, under licence, but the original owners. Blue Cross, Dogs Trust, Battersea dogs home and the RSPCA need to be confident that there is a system that allows them legally to rehome that dog. That is why I look forward to meeting the Minister and officials to try to get a legal basis for that.

I do not think the Government are necessarily hiding behind breed-specific legislation, but those four particular breeds, mainly pit bulls, account for 20% of attacks. The other 80% are by other dogs. Therefore it is about education, management of dogs, responsible dog ownership and getting to those sectors of society that create dangerous dogs. They may not be pit bull types, because it is the way they are treated that makes them dangerous.

There is a lot of work to be done, because we do not want more postal workers to be attacked or for the number of dog bites to keep going up as they have. Again, I thank the Minister for his engagement. The Select Committee, the Opposition and the Government can make the law work much better, and I hope that fewer dogs of good temperament will be put down in future.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the Ninth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Controlling dangerous dogs, HC 1040, and the Government response, HC 1892.

Sitting suspended.

Backbench Business