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On what can be done to improve the situation, the Government must decide whether legislation is required, but more action must be taken to help when dangerous dogs cause problems in communities. There is a lot of call for something similar to an improvement notice, which is already a part of the 2006 Act and could be used in such circumstances. I go back to my original point: most dog owners—most animal owners—do not
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intend to have a dangerous or difficult animal; the problem arises because they do not know enough about what they are doing, or they did not look into the situation enough before they took a dog on.

Many Members have probably experienced going out with an RSPCA inspector and spending a day doing what they do. I remember going out in Hull with an inspector, and we called at a dog owner’s house because there had been a report, not of a dangerous dog, but of a dog that had not been adequately cared for. I found the situation striking, because when the RSPCA inspector turned up, all uniformed and all the rest, they found an elderly couple who owned the dog. The couple were petrified by that uniformed person knocking at the door and coming in, and they were fearful that the RSPCA was just going to take the dog away. In fact, they just required some help and support. They wanted to look after the dog; they just did not know what to do. The RSPCA wrote out an improvement notice, gave them some guidance and advice and then monitored the situation until the inspectors were happy that the dog was being adequately cared for.

Angela Watkinson: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that in some circumstances the RSPCA does not have enough powers when it finds an animal in a state of neglect and the owners unresponsive to its advice? The animal has to be in a very bad state or injured before the RSPCA has the power to remove it. Sometimes, even with repeated visits, the owners do not respond to the good advice that they receive.

Mr. Cawsey: We could probably all provide examples from our constituencies of such situations. However, the 2006 Act, with its five basic freedoms for animals, is a real step forward. The law now allows for intervention before an act of cruelty takes place, so we do not have to wait for it to happen. That is a big step forward. The hon. Lady is absolutely right, however, and more must be done.

Improvement notices in respect of potentially dangerous dogs might require owners to do all sorts of things, depending on what the inspector saw. Such measures could include muzzling, a requirement to keep the dog on a lead when it was out, or even re-homing, if that was necessary. Those things could be done at the intervention stage—before incidents have happened and before draconian measures have to be taken. Offences will have to be placed on the statute book, however, which is why I should be interested to hear more from my hon. Friend the Minister, if not today then privately at some point in the future. It strikes me that it must be made an offence to have a dog dangerously out of control in both a public and a private place. We have to cover both places; I can see no logic in the restrictions of the current law. There should also be an aggravating element if the owner or person in charge of the dog encourages it to be aggressive, or to intimidate people or animals.

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend talks about a dangerous dog on private property. We keep such matters under review, but I referred to a case earlier on. Often, the family dog is involved in such attacks, and in such tragic family circumstances, we do not then want to prosecute those people. The situation is bad enough as it is—the
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child has been disfigured by the family dog. Getting the legislation right is a complex task, but we do not want to make things worse.

Mr. Cawsey: I understand that. That is why I said that further consideration had to be given to the issue. However, I say to my hon. Friend—who genuinely is, as he knows, an honourable friend of mine—that an offence does not have to be prosecuted just because it is on the statute book. Common sense should always apply, and not only in cases involving dogs, before a prosecution is started. However, we could never prosecute in any circumstances if there were no offence on the statute book, so the issue is worthy of further investigation.

I do not think that there is any disagreement about the fact that in some cases a dog is so dangerously out of control that, however it became so, the only safe option is to put it down; our trust has had to do that. However, that option should always be the absolutely last resort, and I am not at all convinced that under the 1991 Act it is. I would like a list of punishments or actions that can be taken when there are concerns about a dog. There should be control orders requiring the owner to keep the dog muzzled or on a lead, or to get it neutered or re-homed—whatever is deemed appropriate for that particular animal. There could be disqualification orders, deprivation orders and, as a last resort, destruction orders.

Andrew Rosindell: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Does he accept that one of the flaws of the 1991 Act is how it has been implemented? Dogs have often been seized quite unnecessarily and locked up for long periods in cruel conditions, which has caused great distress to the families and the animal. Does the hon. Gentleman think that a reform is needed so that action can be taken in stages? In that way, small deeds could be dealt with by small penalties rather than, as has frequently happened, by having dogs seized, put down or taken away from their owners unnecessarily, which leads to great distress.

Mr. Cawsey: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. I am calling for a range of tariffs so that we can deal with the simple problems at the simple end of things. I suppose that punishments for owners at the horrendous end of the scale could go up to imprisonment and fines, but at the moment dogs are ending up in kennels for long periods, and there is no right of appeal for getting back a seized dog, even if the owner thinks that there has clearly been a mistake—after all, mistakes are made.

The law is inadequate. I am the first to acknowledge that all sorts of improvements can be made without running to the statute book, but I wonder whether that applies to what we are discussing. No doubt the Minister will inform me about what he is willing to do. The problem of dangerous dogs will not go away; if anything, it has got worse since the 1991 Act—the incidents have got worse and the numbers of dog fights and trophy dogs have increased. It is incumbent on all of us in the House—particularly those here today, who all care about dogs—to ensure that there are fewer dangerous dogs and that the law protects the public from dangerous dogs but is not draconian toward dog owners, who in nearly every case simply want to do the best for their best friends.

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2.47 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I declare myself to be a dog lover and the president of the Cheltenham branch of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The situation that we face seems grim. The statistics obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) show a dramatic rise in hospitalisation resulting from dog bites. In 2002, there were fewer than 3,000 such incidents, but in 2006-07 there were 3,787. The rise in my strategic health authority area in the south-west is even greater: the number of such incidents there has gone up by 53 per cent. in those four years.

The RSPCA statistics on calls relating to dog fighting are also dramatic. In 2004, the organisation had 24 such calls. By 2006, the number had risen to 137 and in 2007, the organisation received a staggering 358 calls specifically about dog fighting. Behind those statistics lie some terrifying individual examples, some from my constituency. When I visited Cheltenham animal shelter last year, I saw an American pit bull-type dog called Benny. One of the problems with the 1991 Act is that the breeds are often difficult to identify precisely. That dog had attacked a series of other dogs and had left a number of them—possibly as many as four—dead. It had then attacked and badly bitten an owner who had tried to defend his own pet. It proved rather difficult to identify the owner of the dog that attacked the others, but the animal was retained as evidence by the Cheltenham animal shelter, apparently while still alive, but it said that if the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute because the case was not strong enough, or if the prosecution failed, the dog would have to go back to the apparent owner, even though the experts at the animal shelter were quite convinced that it was a threat to other animals and to human beings.

There was an even more widely publicised case in Cheltenham involving Alfie, an American bulldog cross; again, that is not one of the breeds specified in the Act. The dog was being set on passers-by by people who may or may not have been its owner. It finally hospitalised my constituent, Martin Merenko. The dog was shot, but it had already paid three visits to the Cheltenham animal shelter, which was unable to retain the dog because it did not have the power not to return the dog to the owner, as the dog had not, at the time in question, done the requisite amount of damage. However, the animal shelter staff could tell, as experts, that the dog’s behaviour was such that it was a danger.

As an hon. Member has said, the problem is not just the most extreme cases, but those lower-level incidents that are warning signs and precursors to other attacks. My constituent Derrick Pepperell had to defend his terrified four-year-old granddaughter, Emily, from three fighting dogs in Hatherley park in my constituency. Again, apparently no action could be taken in that case. That was obviously a warning sign that something more dangerous might happen in future. My constituent Sharon Martin wrote to me about her dog being repeatedly attacked. The animal responsible had not at that stage attacked a human being. She said:

When I questioned the police about that case, they told me that their practical notes said that

which is apparently what the case was,

That is not in the realm of reality.

We need drastic reform of the dangerous dogs legislation, and as the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), the RSPCA and the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare have rightly said, a key factor must be shifting the emphasis from the breed—there is a rather obscure list of breeds that many people have never seen—to the deed. I would take the advice of the Cheltenham animal shelter and the RSPCA a step further and reintroduce dog licensing, based on a self-financing microchip scheme.

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he intervened on me two or three times. The hon. Gentleman can get a leaflet that we have published, which provides all the names of the breeds. The issues that he raises on behalf of his constituents are of great concern, and if he provides me with the details, I will happily look into the cases, because I am concerned that the law is not being properly enforced.

Martin Horwood: I am very grateful for the Minister’s comments, and I will pass on the details. The problem with the list is not that it is difficult to identify which dogs are on it, including the Japanese Tosa and the Dogo Argentino, but that in many cases people have never seen those dogs in their areas. Most of the damage is done by cross-breeds and other such animals that are quite difficult to identify, hence the need to emphasise dangerous behaviour, and to empower local agencies, such as local councils, the police and the Cheltenham animal shelter, to impound dogs that exhibit behaviour that they know will cause those animals to be a threat to individuals and other animals. Local bodies must be given that power.

As I say, we should move to a self-financing microchip licensing scheme. The Minister expressed doubt about the cost of that. The Dogs Trust administers a scheme for, I think, £10 a dog. Even if a national scheme charged three times that, £30 is still an affordable cost for dog owners. In fact, if a dog owner cannot afford £30 for a licence, how could they possibly afford to keep and feed a dog of the kind that we are discussing? We face a terrifying rise in injuries and incidents, and that rise must be stopped. The hon. Member for Romford suggested that we wait for a Conservative Government to take action, but I suspect that that might be some time coming. If this Government were to take drastic action, we would certainly support them.

2.54 pm

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): It may seem a strange reflection that hon. Members would not have to go far from the House to find places where dog fighting is a
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problem. I could take them to an estate within a mile and a half of the House, where I get constant complaints about the use of dogs for dog fighting, crime and intimidation. Residents on such estates queue up to sign my petition against dangerous dog owners, urging greater use of antisocial behaviour orders and enforcement of tenancy conditions to control the problem.

I have tabled an early-day motion, which I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister has seen, which deals with measures that the Government can still take. Although I praise many of the steps already taken, I still urge my hon. Friend to consider further measures. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) mentioned control orders for dogs to be destroyed, controlled, muzzled or re-homed, which are important, but I draw his attention to proposals for the compulsory microchipping of dogs, for a minimum age for dog ownership, and for powers to disqualify owners from having charge of a dog.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the reintroduction of dog licences would be ineffective unless it was backed up with enormous resources. I would be as sceptical as he and other hon. Members are about any proposal for further breed-specific legislation. The 1991 Act has already thrown up enough problems without our legislating further against other breeds. That is why I do not agree with the leader of my local council in Wandsworth, as I mentioned, when he suggested a £500 licence fee for owners of particular breeds, such as Staffordshire bull terriers. I think he mentioned four breeds.

It would be wrong to penalise the owners of those breeds in that way, and in any case it would be the responsible owners of Staffordshire bull terriers—I am sure that would include the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell)—who would pay the licence, and the irresponsible owners, of whom one has to admit there are quite a few, would try to get away without paying.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) mentioned microchipping. That is already automatic for organisations such as the Battersea dogs and cats home in my constituency, and it is routine practice for vets. I am sure it is strongly encouraged by the Government in their guidelines, which I understand are due out later this summer. The next logical step is to make microchipping compulsory. I realise that that could be described as a form of licensing, because the microchip would contain information about the dog’s home and owner, but it is a practical measure that does not involve the amount of paperwork that was necessary with the old licensing system or the kind of paperwork that was mentioned.

Microchipping would make everybody’s job much easier—the police, the RSPCA, the dogs home, the dog wardens. All of them would benefit greatly from being able to identify a dog’s owner and locate its home instantly. The charge often made for microchipping is £25, and it would be a hugely popular and practical move. I believe Wandsworth council is already considering making microchipping of dogs a condition of council tenancy agreements.

Angela Watkinson: I accept the advantages of microchipping and licensing that the hon. Gentleman has just explained, but the one downside is the many elderly people, perhaps on modest incomes, who rely on
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companion animals and get great pleasure from owning them. If the process was expensive, it could preclude those people from owning pets.

Martin Linton: If microchipping were made compulsory, it would have to be introduced gradually. It would apply to new pets to start with, and consideration would have to be given to the cost. Not every dog owner could be guaranteed to be able to afford it. The microchip itself costs only a couple of pounds, so the Battersea dogs and cats home and other refuges could help those who could not afford it themselves.

Martin Horwood: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the point that I made—that if a dog owner cannot afford £10, £20 or £30 for a dog licence, they are unlikely to be able to afford to keep and feed a dog properly?

Martin Linton: Indeed, it costs several pounds a week to keep a dog, but I do not see cost as something that precludes progress on microchipping.

Having a minimum age for dog ownership in a sense presupposes a licensing system because it means that every dog has to have a named owner who is above that stated age. Dog control units say that the major problem nowadays is with dog owners aged about 13 to 17—teenagers who, because they cannot have a gun or a knife without running the risk of enormous sentences, have an aggressive dog as the next best weapon. In some respects, a dog may be an even better weapon to use to intimidate, threaten and frighten people. I realise that a minimum age of 18 would, however, prevent parents from giving their child a puppy of their own to look after, which can be a very educative experience for a child. Of course, children who own a dog never really take full responsibility for it, so I would have thought that the law should recognise that dog ownership carries with it certain responsibilities that can be borne only by an adult. Having powers to disqualify owners from having charge of a dog obviously requires a legal owner, but legal ownership could be determined simply by the microchip in the dog rather than by some expensive national register.

I would like to pay tribute to the work of the Dangerous Dogs Act study group, which the Minister mentioned. It has produced some detailed proposals, which I hope he will consider carefully, because that serious and responsible group has sought the common ground between the interests of dog owners and the public and put forward proposals that respect the concerns of both. The group has rightly pointed out the flaws in breed-specific legislation, but has not called for the repeal of the Dangerous Dogs Act, which I think would be a mistake. Although it does not support a return to licensing, it supports the creation of a database containing the details of those owners found to be in breach of the Act.

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