Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con):
I am pleased that this topic been brought before the House today, as will the millions of people throughout the United Kingdom who, like me, are responsible dog owners. It is a debate that we need to have. Many people across the country are concerned that the laws we have in Britain are
ineffective in protecting the public from those dogs that have the potential to cause harm to humans and to other animals.
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): I know that my hon. Friend might be a little anxious as this is his debut at the Dispatch Box, but I thought it was usual for hon. Members to declare their interest. Will my hon. Friend now declare his interest?
Andrew Rosindell: I have no direct interest to declare other than that I own a Staffordshire bull terrier called Buster, but he is not dangerousexcept to the opposition at election time when he campaigns with me in Romford. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
Many people are concerned that the laws in this country are ineffective and do not have the potential to deal with this serious problem. As a nation of animal lovers, we also have great compassion when it comes to ensuring the welfare of mans best friend by encouraging the responsible ownership of dogs. Indeed, as so many organisations that are engaged in this debatesuch as the Kennel Club, Dogs Trust, the RSPCA and otherswill tell us, promoting responsible dog ownership, education and training is by far the best means by which to ensure the protection of the public.
Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Staffordshire bull terriers make good family pets and that there is no reason to discriminate against the breed? Does he disagree with the suggestion from the leader of my local council in Wandsworth that a £500 dog licence should be applied to specific breeds, namely Staffordshire bull terriers?
Andrew Rosindell: As the owner of a Staffordshire bull terrierit might be that I am biasedI certainly do not think the breed is dangerous in any sense. Of course, any dog has the potential to be dangerous, but I am wholly opposed to any persecution of any breed. The deed is what counts and responsible dog ownership is what matters, not the breed of dog. I certainly sympathise with the hon. Gentlemans comments.
In recent years, we have witnessed a series of tragic incidents involving dogs, and quite rightly, with every high profile attackparticularly when it involves a childthere is a natural demand for Parliament to take a fresh and serious look at the issue of dangerous dogs, to review whether the law is working to best effect in the protection of the public and to examine how things can be improved.
Her Majestys Opposition understand and share the publics concerns. We also share peoples fears about the deliberate use of dogs for illegal and sometimes violent purposes, and we are committed to ensuring that the protection of the public is paramount. However, we are also committed to high standards of animal welfare: dogs are mans greatest and most loyal companions, and they too must be protected from abuse and cruelty. Our laws must reflect that.
Angela Watkinson: Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating all the organisations that re-home dogs that have been abandoned or need to find a new family for various reasons? They go to enormous lengths to ensure that the new homes are suitable, and they make follow-up visits to ensure that a dog has settled in properly and that the new relationship is successful.
Andrew Rosindell: I certainly commend those organisations as they do a splendid job. There are many of them around the country, with volunteers making use of private donations to look after the welfare of dogs and re-home them in happy family environments. I have worked closely with organisations that re-home greyhounds, something that I know my hon. Friend is especially interested in.
The Minister will be aware of the danger posed to the public by dogs whose mental and physical welfare is not catered for by their irresponsible owners. The alarming increase in the number of dogs being bred for antisocial and aggressive purposes such as fighting is deeply worrying. With greater sophistication and more investment being channelled into the breeding of aggressive dogs, we have more dangerous dogs in this country than ever before. They are bred primarily in deprived urban areas and are often insufficiently restrained by their uncaring owners. As a result, an alarmingly large proportion of the publicnotably childrenis at risk of attack, and the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has failed to prevent the existence of dogs belonging to what are described as dangerous breeds. It has certainly not led to a decrease in attacks: nearly 4,000 people received treatment for bites or dog-related wounds last year, twice as many as four years ago.
The police have spent an enormous amount of time and valuable resources in attempting to enforce the law, but to what effect? The Dangerous Dogs Act has also had a detrimental impact on the welfare of those dogs that have been kept in kennels, in some cases for many years, or euthanased simply because of their breed or type. There have been countless cases since 1991 of dogs that have been held in police kennels for long periods. That costs large sums of money and causes huge stress to the animal and heartache to the ownersoften when the dog has shown no signs of aggression whatsoever. How the police handle situations involving dogs must also be reviewed and tightened up, as all of us, including the police, have a duty of care under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
The law should allow the police to focus their resources where they are needed most and where they will be put to best use in protecting the public. We need to question whether the current breed-specific legislation really is the best way of doing that. The police and local authorities might be more effective if they were able to target cruel and irresponsible owners, regardless of the breed of dog involved.
As the shadow Minister with responsibility for animal welfare, I have been liaising closely with the Kennel Clubs Dangerous Dogs Act study group, which represents animal welfare organisations, local authorities, police and veterinary professionals. There is a consensus that the 1991 Act needs to be reviewed, and I can tell the House today that that is precisely what the next Conservative Government will do.
We will study all the evidence on how best we can protect the public from dog attacks and how police resources can be used in the most effective way, while at the same time ensuring that the welfare of the animal is fully taken into account. Policy must be developed that addresses the danger posed by certain dogs to the wider community but that at the same time reasserts the enforcement of the law in emphasising that a dogs mental and physical welfare is the owners responsibility.
Owners must retain the principal control of and responsibility for their dogs, but there should be no interference from new regulations: the experience of owning a dog must remain liberating and rewarding. There is a clear need to shift the focus of the available penalties towards dogs specific actions and the failure by owners to act responsibly, and away from penalising the ownership of certain breeds as a whole. That approach is generally accepted by all dog organisations as a much more effective way forward.
It is unfair to penalise a small minority of dogs solely because of their breeding history: all dogs can attack when trained to do so, just as all breeds can produce friendly, good natured dogs when the animals are trained responsibly. Consideration should also be given to opening the index of exempted dogs to allow owner-led applications, as that would give owners a chance to prove that their dogs do not pose a danger to the public. In cases where illegal dogs are successfully registered and proved to be safe, their welfare will have been maintained, with the result that they will not be seized and placed in police kennels unnecessarily. The police would then have more freedom to focus their resources on real cases involving irresponsible dog owners and dogs that pose a genuine a danger to the public.
In summary, we must implement the deed not the breed principle, and the support and protection of responsible owners must also be addressed. We should retain the offences connected with serious aggression, and their potentially severe penalties, but safeguards must also be introduced for owners so that they can prove that their dog was provoked into being aggressive. Owners should also be able to prove that their dog attacked in self-defence or as a means of preventing a physical assault on its owner.
The issue of dangerous dogs seems to have eluded many local authorities across the country, despite the growth in frequency and severity of reported incidents. I want the subject to be made a priority for local authorities and police forces, so that the harsh penalties available for dealing with crimes of this nature are communicated successfully to people. Resources need to be invested in opposing the so-called sport of dog fighting. Public awareness of the problem needs to be raised and a widespread clampdown encouraged. As with many other crimes, only by focusing on prevention and asking for public as well as police-driven help can we properly attack the root causes.
The issue of dangerous dogs ties in very closely to another growing concernthat of stolen and stray dogs. Dogs are often stolen for the purpose of fighting, and stray dogs can indeed become dangerous when left to fend for themselves.
Mr. Amess: I am listening to my hon. Friends proposals very carefully, and I hope to be lucky enough to catch Mr. Deputy Speakers eye later, as I want to say something about the 1991 Act. Where does the support for the Conservative partys proposals on these matters come from? Where has my hon. Friend sought advice, and how does he think the proposals would work in practice? I agree very much with what he is saying, but I am concerned about the practical implementation of the policies.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have liaised closely with the Kennel Club, Dogs Trust and all the major dog welfare
organisations in this country. I am sure that the Minister is also in contact with them. They share the concerns I have set out this afternoon, and much of what I am saying is based on the advice that they have given to me and to the Conservative party. We believe in dog welfare and in protecting the public, and any legislation that we bring forward must strike the right balance.
Dog theft is a great concern, and one of the fastest growing crimes in the UK. In most cases, the dogs are sold on, sometimes to completely innocent and unsuspecting members of the public. In the vast majority of cases, by the time the dog is in the possession of a third party it is completely untraceable. However, that need not be so. Through the simple use of a nationally recognised microchip system, whereby information on a chip is scanned and stored on a national database, many such cases could be solved or even prevented in the first place. I commend the work of the Vets Get Scanning appeal, and especially that of Bruce Forsyth and his daughter Debbie Matthews.
Crimes involving mans best friend are cruel and heartless, and in the extreme they threaten the freedom of individuals to enjoy the everyday leisure activity of dog walking in public areas without fear of theft, violence and intimidation.
Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on his debut on the Front Bench. He is a good supporter of dogs, for which he was known even before he entered the House. I am pleased that he has been given a position to which he will bring much experience for the benefit of other Members and the House.
I begin with a declaration of interestbefore the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) tells me I have not made one. I am a vice-president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, an honorary member of the British Veterinary Association, a trustee of the Jerry Green dog rescue trust and the proud owner of Ben, a very elderly but loveable Labrador, and China, a rescued ex-hare coursing lurcherboth of which have their own page on my website, which is often more popular than I am.
I welcome the debate, which has been a long time coming. For seven years, I have had the great honour of chairing the all-party group on animal welfare. I have worked with colleagues on both sides of the House and with animal welfare groups on all aspects of the topic, which has come up time and again over the years.
Early in his speech, my hon. Friend the Minister said that in his and the Governments view there was no need for new legislation. Perhaps we might return to that point later. I attach no blame to the Government who introduced the 1991 Act, because, as Members may recall, a number of horrendous incidents had occurred in quick succession and there was much pressure for the then Government to act. I am the first to accept that the Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced with the best of intentions, but I am not certain about its outcome. With the clarity of hindsight, which of course we all wish we
could have at the time, I am not convinced that the Act has had the effect that many of us in the dog and animal welfare world hoped it would.
The Act seems to have many shortcomings that need to be redressed. It is retrospective in nature, and although there will obviously always be a clamour to take action when an incident has occurred, we would all prefer an intervention to stop a dog becoming dangerous. There is nothing in the law that helps in that regard. Section 3 can be applied only in certain circumstanceswhen a dog is in a public place or in a private place where it is not permitted. In other words, if a person owns some land and has a dog that they may be making dangerous, through breeding and training, for all sorts of bad purposes, such as dog fighting, they cannot be prosecuted under section 3, because the animal is on their land. That seems to be a big hole in the legislation.
The law applies only when the dog acts dangerously towards people. However, if we want to reach a situation where we intervene before such incidents happen, we need to do much more. The hon. Member for Romford used the phrase, deeds not breeds, and those of us involved in these things hear that over and over again. We need to give that idea further thought.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Dangerous Dogs Act study group, which includes the Battersea dogs home, the Blue Cross, the British Veterinary Association, the Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club, the Metropolitan police, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the RSPCA, Wandsworth borough council and Wood Green animal shelters. That is an impressive group of people, who know what they are talking about. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will be talking to them, but I hope he listens to them, too. Although I realise that was not the hon. Gentlemans intention, in what he said about the study group there was almost an implication that it was briefing only the Conservative party on these matters. Having chaired the all-party group for several years, I know that all members of the group are extremely forthcoming in advising all politicians on animal welfare matters. If any hon. Members want further information they will find that the group is a good one with which to hold discussions. I am grateful for all the effort that the group has put in and for the briefings it has given me and others.
As has been said, we need to try to intervene to help owners. Most people do not want to have a dangerous dog. Sometimes, they do not have the necessary expertise or skills to handle the dog, and sometimes they do not understand what they are taking on. This might be too much of an animal pun, but it has always been a bit of a hobby horse of mine that we should involve younger people in animal welfare and responsibilities for animal care, which relate to wider issues than just dogs. Animal welfare should be part of citizenship education in schools. I realise that the school curriculum is burdened with all sorts of things, and I do not mean for a second that animal welfare should be a huge part of it, but as all schools are required to cover citizenship, something about the responsibilities involved in keeping animals would be welcome. People often take on an animal without being aware of the extent of the commitment.
When organisations sell animalsor, in some cases, simply hand them overit is important that they make adequate checks that the people taking the animal are responsible, have the right facilities to care for it and
know what its needs are. Even in the dog world, there are huge variations in the needs of different breeds, and people need information about that. Most kennels act responsibly; they have to be licensed, so I hope that requirements on checking are part of the licensing and registration process.
Members with good memories will recall that a few years ago, I promoted a private Members Bill to try to ensure that rescue centres and sanctuaries were covered by the laws that apply to kennels. I am a trustee of a rescue centre and although there is no requirement for us to abide by those provisions, we do so because we are a good trust. I am pleased that the provisions of my Bill were picked upalbeit many years laterin the Animal Welfare Act 2006, but one of the most frustrating things is waiting for secondary legislation to implement the measure. I understand why it was decided that not everything in the 2006 Act could be done straight away and that its provisions would be phased in, but ensuring that those who hand over dogs do the right thing is an important element if we want responsible dog ownership.
Recently published statistics show worrying growth in the number of dog fights. There has also been an increase in the number of trophy dogs, owned by people who parade in a macho way around their estates or town centres with a big muscular dog straining at the bit. That is a worrying trend and it is important that we have strategies to deal with it. The Minister may comment later on whether we need legislation, but something needs to be done.
Dogs are stolen, sometimes for various reasons to do with the breed, and sometimes for people who are involved in dog fighting. A dog was stolen a few months ago from Jerry Greens head sanctuary, which is based in my constituency. It is a sanctuary, so it wants people to have its dogs. There really is no need to break in at night and take them, so the people who do break in probably do so for two reasons: first, because they want a particular dogwe suspect that in that case, the dog was going to be used for fightingand secondly, because those people know that they will not get through the sanctuarys vetting procedures. In other words, we would not have allowed them to have a dog, so they broke in and took some away. Again, the Government must take action on dog theft.
I praise Dog Theft Action, an organisation that a number of hon. Members will know about. It does some excellent work trying to spread good practice, to trace dogs and to help people who have lost their dogs. I mention in particular Maggie NawlockyiI can already see the Hansard scribe writing a little note to me about how to spell that. She is one of my constituents, and she has done an excellent job of raising the profile of dog theft. It is a big problem that sometimes involves dangerous dogs and dogs that will be used in fighting. We need to do more about it.