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I have become increasingly concerned about dogs that are kept as status symbols or fashion accessories. Anyone on the streets of Hammersmith and Fulham
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can see the phenomenon. The phrase most often used by residents who contact me about the problem is “blinged-up Staffs”. Given the nature of the hours of the House, I often emerge from Fulham Broadway tube station at about 11 pm, or roughly chucking out time. That is often a hazardous time on the broadway because one needs to get past hordes of tipsy or drunken people spilling out of the concentration of pubs there. However, a few months ago, I was surprised to see a new hazard in the late-night scene on Fulham broadway. Two male teenagers were walking their dogs in the dark. The dogs were Staffs and they were blinged up, as it happens. The teenagers were not walking the dogs in the sense that hon. Members would understand, but strutting around with them and looking proud as peacocks with their new and terrible fashion accessories.

In many other cases, the dogs are kept not as fashion accessories, but to intimidate other people, for impromptu dog fights on estates or in parks, or even to guard stashes of illegal substances. Such animals will typically become guard dogs for drugs that are concealed in homes and cars. Thankfully, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is aware of those phenomena. It says that

It tells me that the problem exists in all our large cities, but especially in London. The problem is associated with not just white working-class males—the RSPCA tells me that youths of Pakistani origin breed so-called bully cutters for fighting. Those huge dogs are apparently bred and trained for fighting and can be extremely aggressive.

The RSPCA worries especially about the use of dogs as status symbols and participants in impromptu, but none the less illegal, dog fights. It tells me that the phenomenon is growing rapidly throughout the UK. Sometimes the fights are recorded with mobile phone cameras, like the canine equivalent of happy slapping. The RSPCA particularly urges action against the breeding factories, which are most typically located in lock-up garages, warehouses and disused buildings. Smaller versions appear in individual flats on estates or streets across Britain.

Turning to the legislative environment, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 had a number of important provisions on dog fighting that I welcome. It is now an offence for anyone to arrange an animal fight, to knowingly participate in making or carrying out arrangements for an animal fight, to make or accept a bet on the outcome of an animal fight, to take part in an animal fight, to knowingly receive money for admission to an animal fight, to keep or train an animal for use in connection with an animal fight, to keep any premises for use in an animal fight, or to knowingly supply, publish or show a video recording of an animal fight. That list sounds extremely comprehensive, but the key, as ever, is in the enforcement. There are one or two other matters that require legislation, but generally most of the attention should focus on enforcement in future.

One of the weaknesses of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was its focus on breeds rather than behaviour. According to people who know far more about dog breeds than I do, these days, there are very few
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pure-breed pit bull terriers, but there is a huge and increasing number of cross-bred pit bulls. Pit bulls are bred with Irish bull terriers and other breeds, mainly so that people can get round the law prohibiting pit bulls. I agree with the RSPCA that the legislation needs changing to create more control over the behaviour of dogs and how they are trained. Responsibility should be placed on the owner, and there are strong arguments for specific offences of encouraging a dog to show aggressive and intimidating behaviour.

In the past 10 years, there has been a huge decline in the number of prosecutions under section 2 of the Dogs Act 1871, which relates to having a dog that is dangerous and not kept under control, and under section 1(3) of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which relates to being in possession of a prohibited dog without an exemption. For example, in 1992, there were 209 prosecutions under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, but that declined to just one in 2003, before rising to a mere 11 in 2005. As I mentioned, there were new offences relating to fighting in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, but the new offences do not capture the breeding of dogs for fighting. RSPCA officers have raided what could be called breeding factories, where different types of dog commonly used for fighting are being cross-bred to produce stronger and more aggressive animals.

The RSPCA has 80 dogs in kennels in connection with dog fighting offences, and it is rare for cases to come to court less than a year after the intervention. It costs the RSPCA about £300 a month to maintain a dog in kennels while it waits for the case to come to court, and that is before any veterinary fees are taken into consideration. Taking action is expensive for the RSPCA, which is often left to pick up the bill while trials are awaited. Clause 8 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 does not make it a criminal offence to breed dogs for the sole purpose of fighting, and that means that unscrupulous breeders cannot generally be prosecuted, and that needs to change.

The provisions in the Dogs Act 1871 that make it an offence to possess a dog that is dangerous and out of control cover both private and public places. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 applies to public places only. I am not often in favour of the police, or local authority or RSPCA inspectors, having new rights of access to private homes or other private places, but there is an argument for providing such rights in the case of those suspected of training dogs for fighting.

To conclude, I will set out the legislative changes that may be needed. First, we should make breeding dogs for fighting a criminal offence. Secondly, we should provide inspection rights in relation to properties in which it is suspected that dogs are bred and/or trained for fighting. Thirdly, offences should be behaviour-specific, rather than breed-specific. Fourthly, offences should include an element of aggravation if the owner intentionally caused the dog to be aggressive, for example through its training. The latter might be difficult to prove, but punishments should be severe for those who breed and/or train dangerous dogs to fight each other, or even worse, to attack humans. The enforcement of existing laws is more important than creating new laws. The number of prosecutions has fallen dramatically in the past 10 years, and I look forward to hearing what the Government intend to do to combat this terrible and dangerous scourge.

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10.29 pm

The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) for raising the issue of organised dog fighting. It is a barbaric activity, which has no place in a civilised society. Parliament first passed laws to stop it in 1835, and it is a sad reflection that nearly 200 years later we are still debating the same problem.

In many cases, dog fighting is associated with other crime. Organised fights can be highly organised. People may travel hundreds of miles to attend, and large sums of money are placed as bets on the outcome. Fighting dogs may change hands for £1,000 to £2,000. Recordings of fights are often made, and may be supplied to people who either take perverted pleasure in watching animals suffer or are in the business of buying and selling fighting dogs and need evidence of their “gameness” to keep their price high. There are worries, too, that pet dogs are being stolen to be used in the training of fighting dogs, and I should like to thank the Dogs Trust and others for raising public awareness of the issue.

Robust laws are in place to deal with any form of theft, but the loss of a dog always causes immense heartache. I urge dog owners to be vigilant and to make sure that their pets are kept in secure areas as far as possible. I join the hon. Gentleman in applauding the work done by the police and the RSPCA in investigating and prosecuting offences related to fighting. I recognise, too, that a lot of effort, particularly with regard to intelligence gathering, has to be put in to bring the culprits to justice. Recently, the issue of dogs being bred for fighting has been given media attention following the tragic death of Ellie Lawrenson on 1 January after being attacked by a pit bull-type dog in Merseyside. As hon. Members know, dog fights normally involve pit bulls, and the keeping of such dogs is banned under the Dangerous Dogs Acts. The action taken by the police in the wake of Ellie’s death to combat the keeping of pit bull-type dogs, which included an amnesty that resulted in 107 dogs being seized, has confirmed that a significant number of those dogs are still held illegally. They are kept for a variety of purposes—not just fighting—and I would not want to draw any rushed conclusions as to whether the problems that have occurred in Merseyside indicate that dog fights are about to become as commonplace as they were in the 1980s before the Dangerous Dogs Acts came into force.

The hon. Gentleman highlighted a number of his constituents’ concerns about problems in his area. I have not had the chance to reflect on them, but my initial response is that many of the problems that he outlined sound illegal. They would, in my view, be illegal. If they have not been reported, they should be reported both to the police and the RSPCA. He said that in many cases the police, the RSPCA and his local street wardens had already taken effective action in Hammersmith and Fulham to help to tackle the problem. He said that pit bull terriers were exercised in communal gardens and spaces. The mere possession of such dogs is illegal, so if that phenomenon has not been reported to the police already, I suggest that it should be. If he has not already done so, he may wish to seek a meeting with his local police or, indeed, the
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Metropolitan police, to press his view that dog fighting and the keeping of illegal dogs should be taken more seriously.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that dog control orders had been, or were in the process of being, introduced by his local authority, which I very much welcome. Those are new measures that the Government introduced to help local authorities clamp down on problem dogs and problem dog owners in a particular area without having to go through too many bureaucratic hoops and loops. He mentioned the problem of blinged- up Staffs outside Fulham Broadway—I think that that is how he described it—being walked after dark as status symbols. One has to be careful—and he alluded to that later in his speech—not to blame the dogs themselves. Staffs are a perfectly legal breed, and many people tell me—like the hon. Gentleman, I am not a dog owner—that they can make extremely lovely, loyal and well-behaved pets. In the wrong hands, however, they can be intimidating and unpleasant for bystanders. The fact that they are dressed up may be a fashion statement but it does not, in itself, cause offence. Obviously, if the dog then causes problems or the owners behave aggressively, that may contravene the laws to which I have referred. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, there has been a decrease in the number of prosecutions brought for pit bull ownership under the dangerous dogs legislation, but I would expect that to happen after the Acts were passed. In the immediate aftermath, more prosecutions would be brought in relation to pit bulls and pit bull-type dogs than in relation to other species.

Mr. Hands: The Minister is right, but that does not explain the decline in prosecutions under the Dogs Act 1871, which has obviously been in place for more than 130 years.

Mr. Bradshaw: I will address that issue, because I think that I may have misunderstood one of the hon. Gentleman’s points and should correct the record. Under some elements of the 1871 Act, there has been an increase in prosecutions over the past 10 years or so. In 1992, for example, there were 310 prosecutions under the section that makes it an offence to allow a dog to be dangerously out of control in a public place, injuring a person. There were 645 prosecutions in 2005, the last year for which figures are available. Similarly, as regards prosecutions of a person in charge allowing a dog to enter a non-public place and injure a person, there were 20 prosecutions in 1992 and 44 in 2005.

Prosecutions for breeding have indeed declined since 1992, but that is comparable with prosecutions for possessing an illegal breed. One would expect prosecutions to decline as the clampdown kicks in and fewer illegal breeds are bred or owned. That is reflected in the fact that the number of prosecutions for possession of an illegal breed has fallen from 209 in 1992 to 11 in 2005. However, the overall number of prosecutions under the 1871 Act and the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 are still significant at 1,335 for 2005, the last year for which figures are available.

I hope that the attention that the hon. Gentleman has brought to this issue, and that several recent tragic cases have brought to it, will result in a new vigour by the police and enforcement authorities in taking this issue very seriously. However, I recognise that there are
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problems with enforcement, particularly when it comes to recognising pit bull-type dogs. In some areas, that may lead the police to give it a low priority.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are undertaking a complete review of the 1991 Act in light of the recent attacks. That was spurred initially by my concern that under the law in this country, in contrast to that in most other countries, the convictions and punishments available to the authorities for attacks that take place on private property are far less serious than those for attacks that take place on public property. When a human being is injured or killed, as some have been in certain circumstances, many people fail to understand why the matter should be treated much less seriously if it takes place on somebody’s private property than it would on public property. I simply draw the House’s attention to the fact that the ongoing proceedings in respect of the Liverpool case are for manslaughter, so clearly the Crown Prosecution Service and the police believe that there are existing powers to prosecute for serious offences when an attack takes place on private property.

We have written round to all the police forces, including the Metropolitan police, and to the Association of Chief Police Officers, asking for their views on the operation of the 1991 Act. I urge the hon. Gentleman, and any hon. Member who has an interest in this area, to feed into that review. We have also asked formally for the views of animal welfare organisations such as the RSPCA and the Dogs Trust. For some time, the RSPCA and, in particular, the Dogs Trust have been campaigning against the breed-specific bans contained in the 1991 Act passed by the previous Administration in the belief—I have some sympathy with this—that the deed, not the breed, is the real issue at stake.

I have to tell the House that it would be hugely controversial with the public, who have memories of those terrible cases in the 1980s that involved breeds that were far more terrifying, big and specifically bred for fighting than, for example, a Staffordshire bull terrier, to allow those breeds again. Indeed, most other European countries have followed the UK in introducing some sort of restriction on them. However, that does not mean that I do not fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the need to consider more carefully the behaviour that is associated with the sort of dog fighting that he describes in his constituency. It sounds as if it happens on a more ad hoc, less formal basis, although some of the more serious organised criminal gangs and syndicates are involved. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 is a commoner’s Act and it is therefore possible for any Member of Parliament, organisation or institution to take out a prosecution under it. I hope that the police
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and the courts use the new powers, some of which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, to ensure that the public are aware of how seriously we take the issue.

The penalties that are now available to the courts as a result of the 2006 Act have been increased. The maximum fine has increased from £5,000 to £20,000. The Act also provides for offenders to be jailed for up to 12 months. I hope that the courts will take seriously the offences that the hon. Gentleman described. As he also said, the Act contains improvements, which include repealing the vague and confused rules that enabled culprits to escape justice in the past. The law now clearly defines all the activities associated with dog fighting. They are not confined to people who actively manage the fighting ring or spectators at the fight, but also cover those who may not necessarily be present but are involved in promoting it. The RSPCA and others welcomed such changes to the law.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I deplore the current macho youth culture of keeping dangerous dogs as a status symbol. It is worrying, and clearly the law is being broken if the dog is of a banned breed. As part of our review of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, we want to examine whether there should be more training for police in recognising breeds. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that that can be difficult in some circumstances. More publicity is required for the public, a new generation of whom have grown up long since the introduction of that Act almost 20 years ago. They may not even be aware that what they are doing is illegal.

It is also illegal to keep a dog in a way that is incompatible with its welfare. I believe that that would cover some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. People who committed such an offence would fall foul of the cruelty provisions of the 2006 Act. Hanging dogs from trees to strengthen their jaws is in that category. It is also illegal to have aggressive dogs that cause harm to the public. It is important to convey the message from the House that those who break the law could be heavily fined and, in the worst cases, sent to prison.

I remind hon. Members that dog fighting, like any other criminal activity, can be effectively tackled only if members of the public are willing to come forward and tell the police when they suspect that a fight is being arranged or has taken place. I urge members of the public who are worried about dog fighting in their local area to do that. However good one’s laws, they can work only if we work together to end this abhorrent activity.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Eleven o’clock.

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