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6.16 pm

The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing this debate. I congratulate both him and his dogs on their success in winning awards as dogs and owner and for their sartorial elegance—that is the dogs, if not the hon. Gentleman. I also congratulate him on his courage for taking his late Staffordshire bull terrier into Glasgow wearing a Union flag. That was a brave thing to do as a prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate.

At the end of his speech the hon. Gentleman asked me to assure him that we would not rush into legislation without consulting interested groups and parties, that we would build good relations with the organisations that he mentioned in his speech and review existing legislation. I can give him assurances on all three counts. As a result of some of the horrific attacks that we have seen over the past six months, including on Merseyside, we are undertaking a review of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. He stressed that he did not want to major on that issue having spoken on that on at least one previous occasion in the House, but I urge him and the groups that he mentioned to respond to our consultation. In
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the first place we have asked police forces throughout the country for their views as they are in the front line of trying to enforce the legislation, but we are keen to receive the views of all hon. Members on what we should do. He is right to say that it is the deed not the breed, but it would be difficult to row back significantly on that legislation, especially when one casts one’s eyes to its genesis and some of the attacks that were taking place. He is, however, entirely right to say that the main responsibility for dog behaviour must rest with responsible owners and I endorse what he said about that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the “Vets Get Scanning” scheme. I was not aware of this and I consulted my officials. It sounds like an interesting idea and we should like to hear more about it if he would care to write to me or suggest that the organisation behind it writes to me. We certainly encourage as many owners as possible to microchip their dogs. I think that only one dog welfare organisation thinks that it should be made compulsory, but we would certainly endorse the encouragement of doing so voluntarily, not just for security but for reasons of disease and the other factors that he mentioned.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the welfare of greyhounds. I am sure that he will be aware that we recently saw the entry on to the statute book of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. It is a huge advance not just in dog welfare but in all animal welfare because it introduces for the first time a duty of care that will apply immediately to all greyhound racing. We are reviewing greyhound racing and we have given assurances that we will introduce either statutory or some other form of regulation for the greyhound industry. I think that I am right in saying that the associate parliamentary animal welfare group is also conducting an investigation into greyhound welfare, as is the former agriculture Minister, Lord Donoughue.

If the hon. Gentleman has not already spoken to the parliamentary group, and to Lord Donoughue, given the expertise that he has gained from his constituency as someone who is interested in dog welfare and greyhound racing, he will be well placed to feed into all those discussions to ensure that we have a credible system. I acknowledge that there is a lot of concern out there that the regulatory regime for greyhound racing is not fit for purpose—I hate that phrase—in the modern age. It certainly needs improving. We have made it absolutely clear to the greyhound racing authorities that if they do not get their act together, we will not hesitate to introduce statutory regulations to secure the welfare of greyhounds.

The hon. Gentleman was right to encourage more people to adopt greyhounds and look after them when their racing life has finished. Sadly, I do not own a dog, but if I had a pet, I would have a dog. I am sorry to disappoint Cats Protection, but I would go for a dog rather than a cat. The league was very nice to nominate me for an animal welfare award this year, which I won, but I was open with it that I was a dog person rather than a cat person. My partner recently bought me a pet stuffed dog as compensation for the fact that we do not really have a lifestyle that is conducive to having a real one, but one day I hope that we will. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we all have a
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responsibility to ensure that greyhounds have a decent life both when they are racing and when they are retired. Some of the measures that we will introduce on greyhound racing will help us deliver that.

Electric shock collars were debated at considerable length during the passage of the Animal Welfare Bill. In that context, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) has introduced a private Member’s Bill that is due to be debated next Friday. If the hon. Gentleman was not already aware of that, he may want to have a look at his diary to see whether he wants to be around for that debate. We have not given a commitment to ban all the devices that people generally refer to as electric shock collars, partly because we have listened carefully to some owners and trainers who say that, as a last resort, to prevent an animal from having to be put down, they can serve a useful purpose. The invisible fence types are particularly useful for people living in the countryside to prevent their dogs running away or worrying farm animals such as sheep and so on, which could lead to the dog being shot. They also may prevent dogs running on to a road and causing an accident.

I am aware of the concerns of the Dogs Trust and other animal welfare organisations that we should take action on electric shock collars, and we are in the process of commissioning some research. One of the difficulties is that there is no real scientific research on the welfare problems associated with such collars and whether they outweigh the advantages that those who advocate their use claim. I hope that people who use them do so responsibly. The cruelty clause of the Animal Welfare Act contains powers to prosecute people who abuse them. It is something that we keep under review. I had a long conversation with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North about the issue when she came to see me to raise some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raised and that have been raised with him by the Dogs Trust.

As someone who takes an interest in these issues, the hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that as part of the Animal Welfare Act we shall introduce a dog code of practice, which will help to address a number of things, including the concerns he raised about information for prospective dog buyers before they embark on a choice of breed and his concerns about puppy farming. The code is likely to be based on the five needs detailed in the Act and provided for us by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It is intended that it will be completed in draft by the end of 2007, with a view to its being made available to the public in 2008. It will be introduced to Parliament through the negative resolution procedure, and we are working with colleagues in Scotland and Wales to make sure that we have a joined-up approach in the three countries.

I hope that I have not missed out any of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised and that I have reassured him that the Government take the welfare of dogs seriously, both through animal welfare legislation and other measures. I welcome his interest in the matter, as, I am sure, do his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Six o’clock.

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