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Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): It is obviously a good thing that the Minister for the Cabinet Office has chosen to make this statement, but may I explore
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when and for what reasons he decided to do so? Was it his decision to make a statement or was it the Prime Minister’s? For what reason has the statement been made? Is it because the document went missing? Is it because it was returned? Or is it because it was publicised by the BBC?

Edward Miliband: It was my decision—a decision with which the Prime Minister agreed. I think that this is a serious matter, and it is right that I inform the House about what I know of the circumstances and about the action that I plan to take.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I declare a constituency interest and, indeed, a past family connection. Does the Minister agree that members of the British Secret Intelligence Service have had an exemplary record of care and confidentiality over a century of service to this country? Does he also agree that the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman’s loose language of “low morale” and “laxity” was profoundly inappropriate? Does he also agree that it is vital that responsibility is taken, that current procedures are enforced, and, if necessary, reviewed further, and that our Secret Intelligence Service is not denigrated by party political point scoring?

Edward Miliband: I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the civil service. It is one of the jobs of the Opposition to pounce on situations where there is human fallibility and where human mistakes are made and make them a party political issue. That is part of our political culture, and I would not expect anything else of the Opposition Front-Bench team. I believe that when most Members of this House, including the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), think about this issue, they will want to associate themselves with the remarks that the hon. Gentleman makes about members of the intelligence services, the vast majority of whom do an incredibly important job for our country.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I was very disappointed by the remarks made by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood); he did himself a disservice. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) has gone on record praising this nation’s security services, so we should let the record stand.

Is the Minister completely confident that the BBC or the passenger did not take further copies of these documents? Given the Government’s shambolic record on data security and managing risk, is it not time that they perhaps tried to manage reward and give incentives for people who return Government property? I am thinking of things such as the 1,000 laptops that have gone missing in recent years.

Edward Miliband: On the hon. Gentleman’s first question, all those matters are for the police investigation and I shall not comment on them, for reasons that he will understand. Obviously, we will think further about the question of rewards.

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Points of Order

1.56 pm

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am concerned that the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) has just attributed to me words that I did not speak and sentiments that I certainly do not feel. He attributed to me disparaging remarks about our intelligence services and about our civil servants more generally that I certainly did not say or mean. I would be grateful if you would give him the opportunity to retract his comments. As one of my hon. Friends mentioned, I am on record as having said that I think we get fantastic service from our civil servants. However, there is a genuine issue to be addressed about the state of morale in large parts of our civil service, for which I do not blame civil servants; I think that it is attributable to the Government.

Martin Horwood rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Is it further to that point of order?

Martin Horwood: I am in your hands, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I attributed to the right hon. Gentleman only the words “low morale” and “laxity”, which were exactly the words that he used.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: We obviously cannot continue —[Interruption.] Order. We cannot continue further with that statement, which we are in danger of doing. I think that both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman have put their points firmly on the record. We must leave it at that.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have already mentioned this point—indeed, I mentioned it in advance to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House. You will know the importance of business questions: it gives Back Benchers an opportunity to raise matters of concern to them or their constituents. The time available is inevitably limited, so it is important that the Front-Bench spokesmen should not occupy too much time. This morning, the Front-Bench spokesmen took up between 22 and 24 minutes of business questions, which is intolerable to many Back Benchers. As a result of that, many Back Benchers were not able to intervene, although happily, I was able to do so. May I ask you to raise with Mr. Speaker how we can deal with this issue? I have privately raised the matter on previous occasions within my party, but I suggest that the prolixity of the contributions by Front-Bench spokesmen, especially in business questions, is intolerable.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I very much understand the points that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is making. I think that it is incumbent on all Front Benchers to be very conscious of the proportion of the allowed time that they take. I think that Ministers and Opposition shadow Ministers should think about that, and that all of us should lend our attention to it. May I say that I think that it is also incumbent on Back Benchers to ask one question when they are supposed to ask one question, if that is possible, and to make it brief? If we could all achieve both those objectives, that would be highly satisfactory from everybody’s point of view.

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Topical Debates

Dangerous Dogs

1.59 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I beg to move,

This is a very opportune moment to have a debate on dangerous dogs. I know many people feel strongly about this issue and my colleague in the other place who leads for the Government on dangerous dogs just last week gave a speech to a very well attended RSPCA conference on the issue. Therefore it may be useful if I set out at the start of the debate the Government’s position on dangerous dogs and dangerous dogs legislation.

I know that some hon. Members feel that we need a new dangerous dogs law, because the current law is ineffective and flawed. We disagree. I am aware from the letters we receive that parents have concerns about their children being attacked by dogs, and those whose work involves them going on to private premises, such as postal workers, also have concerns about the current powers available.

Several hon. Members are calling for a review of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. I assure the House that the Government are well ahead of the game here. In the aftermath of the shocking death of Ellie Lawrenson in January 2007, my Department conducted a detailed review of the dangerous dogs legislation. We wrote to police forces in England and Wales at the beginning of last year to ascertain whether there were problems with the law and to judge how it was enforced. We then discussed the results of this consultation with the Association of Chief Police Officers. Members may be interested to know that a summary of the responses received from the police has been placed in the Library.

The outcome of the review has guided the Government’s policy in this area. The three main findings were that there are sufficiently robust yet proportionate powers within current legislation to tackle irresponsible dog ownership, including incidences in which a dog is being used as a weapon; that the police have not been making full use of the powers within the legislation and that enforcement around the country was patchy; and finally that Parliament was absolutely right to prohibit the ownership of pit bull terriers.

Our view is that the legislation now in place is robust and that new legislation is not the answer. Certainly over the past few months, we have heard a number of suggestions as to how we can change the law. We have considered these changes. They seem to range from either highly disproportionate responses to the problem or ones that would make the situation worse. One much publicised suggestion has been for a dog ownership test. That would involve setting up an executive agency—a doggie DVLA, perhaps—to run a licensing scheme for dog owners. All owners would need to pass a test before getting a licence. Other possibilities include licensing all male un-neutered dogs under a revised Breeding of Dogs Act 1973 and the introduction of a watertight dog registration system that would have all the necessary veterinarian/dog behaviourist checks to ensure that those who registered did not register dangerous dogs.

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Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): There is much public concern about dangerous dogs and a parliamentary answer earlier this year revealed that 4,000 people a year are treated in hospital for dog bites. That is double the level of four years ago. I appreciate what the Minister is saying, but what is difficult about ensuring that people are held responsible and accountable for the behaviour of their animal?

Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman brings a measured tone to the debate. I hope that I will be able to answer his point in my speech. People are rightly concerned by that increase, and that is why the Government have provided this opportunity for hon. Members to discuss this issue.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): The Minister might remember that I had an Adjournment debate on 8 May 2007 on the subject of dog fighting. I agree that we need better enforcement of the existing legislation and we do not need to create a huge number of new offences, but I suggested in that debate that we create a specific offence of breeding dogs for fighting. That could be an effective tool in closing down some of the dog breeding factories that are run specifically for the purpose of fighting.

Jonathan Shaw: I regret that I do not recall the hon. Gentleman’s Adjournment debate. I was in the Whips Office at the time, and Adjournment debates are not necessarily the focus of the Whips’ attention, as they tend to focus on votes in the House. He makes a fair point, and I hope to show that we have been through a process, in which we have talked to all the relevant agencies involved, including councils in London, the RSPCA and the police, about how we can enforce the legislation better.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): My local council, Wandsworth, was one of the local authorities that participated. My understanding was that recommendations were brought forward, but the working group was told that not enough parliamentary time was available to make any changes. Dangerous dogs are a massive problem in my area.

Jonathan Shaw: No, that is not that case. If I may proceed with my speech, I shall give examples of what is happening in Wandsworth and another London borough.

I was talking about the schemes that have been proposed and I am not saying that they have no merit, but if they are to be truly effective, there will need to be rigorous enforcement; otherwise they will be ignored by the irresponsible with only responsible owners obeying them. A key test of any new measure is whether it would disproportionately target the vast majority of responsible dog owners. I dread to think how much the schemes would cost, and that cost would have to be borne by responsible dog owners through the licence fee when they have done nothing wrong. It could end up being seen as a massive dog tax, borne by the vast majority of dog owners who are law-abiding citizens and out to promote the welfare of dogs.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The Cheltenham animal shelter has advised me that the microchips that could be used in a universal dog licensing system cost only about £2.60 per chip.

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Jonathan Shaw: We would also have to take into account the bureaucracy, and I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has factored that into his equation—

Mr. Hands: That does not sound very liberal.

Jonathan Shaw: It would be liberal with other people’s money.

Martin Horwood rose—

Jonathan Shaw: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, and I expect that the cost will go up even more now.

Martin Horwood: Cheltenham animal shelter provides and administers a chipping system for a fee of £8 per dog, which includes a charitable donation to the shelter.

Jonathan Shaw: I am sure that the organisation in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is run and organised by excellent people, but obviously we do not legislate just for Cheltenham. The system would have to be rolled out, and I doubt that such organisations would be universal across the system. Any system introduced to Parliament would have to be accountable and we would have to ensure that the scheme was in operation. Otherwise, it would fall into disrepute.

As I have said, many just do not have the money to pay for such schemes. We do not want to penalise people on low incomes who enjoy the companionship of their dogs. We also wonder how many dogs would end up in re-homing centres.

Another more controversial suggestion is that we should open up the index of exempted dogs to owner-led registration. For those Members who not aware of this fact, the only pit bull terriers legally owned in this country must be registered on the index of exempted dogs. Only a court can add a pit bull to the index and only when it is satisfied that the dog does not pose a threat to public safety and that the owner is an appropriate person to own such a dog. Let me make it clear that we believe that that is absolutely right. Pit bulls are not suitable animals to be kept as pets unless a court has determined that they are not a threat. The index is purely an administrative agency. It issues exemption certificates for those dogs that have been seen by a court. It is not within the scope of the index to make a judgment on either a dog or its owner.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Does the Minister agree that this debate would be better entitled “Dangerous Dog Owners”? It is not the dogs that are at fault but the owners. If owners train or breed them to be aggressive, they will be. A lot of kennels, breeders and pet shop owners are very responsible and go to great lengths to ensure that people who take on puppies have the right temperament to train them and the right environment to bring them up in. Can we not place more responsibility on kennels and pet shops so that those that are not responsible are made to ensure that the people who buy their puppies are fit to do so?

Jonathan Shaw: The first part of the hon. Lady’s intervention, on dangerous people and what they do when they abuse animals, is absolutely right. I am sure that the whole House will agree with that sensible point.
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On her second point, the standard of practice in ensuring that a dog goes to a good home will vary across the piece. There are agencies that ensure that kennels, breeders and pet shops put good practice into place. We have the RSPCA and local authorities to do that and, importantly, the animal welfare registration system that we have introduced ensures that we can take steps to prevent cruelty. That was groundbreaking legislation, which had the consent of the House, and it was an important development.

To open up the index to owner-led registration would remove those important checks and could allow unsuitable owners legally to hold dangerous dogs. I suspect that it would also encourage dog fighting, as it might enable dog fighters to sell more easily any surplus dogs that they produced. That said, we recognise that there is an increasing problem of irresponsible dog ownership. We are sensitive to the fact that there have, in the past few years, been a number of high-profile and tragic incidents involving children. Some have been tragic domestic incidents in the home where a dog has suddenly turned on a child, but in some cases there has been a clear link with dog aggression and the wider problem of antisocial behaviour. We are also aware that hospitals report an increase in patients needing treatment for dog bites, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone).

I assure the House that the Government take the problem seriously. We believe that it would be far better tackled through more effective enforcement of the existing law, ideally through local solutions. We are already seeing a number of successful local initiatives developing around the country, such as the work done by Merseyside police in immediate response to the horrific chapter of events that led to the death of Ellie Lawrenson. Their swift action reassured the local community that the police were responsive to the feeling of worry and outrage in Merseyside.

Other initiatives are geared not only at raising awareness of the law but engendering a spirit of responsibility in local communities, a good example of which is the Brent Action for Responsible K9s initiative—or BARK, as it is more commonly known. BARK is an excellent example of a number of agencies working together, sharing information, offering advice to the public and dealing with irresponsible owners to tackle the irresponsible use and mistreatment of dogs. BARK comprises the Metropolitan police, the RSPCA, the Mayhew animal home, Brent council, Brent antisocial behaviour team and Brent Housing Partnership.

BARK was set up in January last year as a result of a significant increase—70 per cent.—in all types of incidents involving dogs. BARK offers—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am afraid that the Minister has had his allocated time.

2.16 pm

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