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As I say, the Government deserve enormous credit for the many measures they have introduced that have had an impact on dangerous dogs. Antisocial behaviour orders, which have proved to be a very useful weapon to deal with dangerous dogs, are a case in point. Safer neighbourhoods teamsa constant presence on estatescan also play a useful role. Under the powers introduced in the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 dog control orders can be issued to put dogs on
leads, dogs are prohibited from certain areas such as playgrounds and owners who do not pick up dog mess may be penalised. It also restricts the number of dogs in any particular area.
Concern about dangerous dogs is exceeded by only one other issue in my areathat of dogs mess, which can in its own way be dangerous to children. Of course, the 2005 Act allows the issuing of an £80 fixed penalty noticemy local authority is currently considering itfor any breaches of its terms. A fixed penalty notice cannot be fixed on a windscreen and it must be served on the ownerI do not know exactly how the scheme works. The really important issue, identified by the Minister in his opening remarks, is enforcement. New legislation has a part to play, but most of the problem relates to enforcement.
Wandsworth has a dog control unit of sixone of the largest in the country. I pay tribute to Mark Callis, the senior dog control officer who is also a member of the study group that I mentioned, for doing such a good job. It is one of the bigger units in the country, but six people in a borough of 300,000 is a drop in the ocean. We must either expand those units or find another means of enforcement.
Mr. Hands: I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentlemans praise for Wandsworth council, but does he agree that six dog control officers are considerably more than most similarly sized boroughs have? The council does a pretty good job.
Martin Linton: Indeed. My point is that even though Wandsworth has one of the larger dog control units, it cannot check on all the dog problems in a borough of our size. The constant complaint that I hear is that people never see the dog control unit. That is not a criticism of the dog control unit at all, but it is, by its nature, very thinly spread.
We need to think more carefully about the role of other enforcement agencies in dealing with the problem. Safer neighbourhood teams have powers to deal with cycling on pavements, litter and fly-tipping, so perhaps they should play a bigger role, through the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, in enforcing the legislation, as it is impractical to expect dog control units, unless they were much bigger, to do so.
In conclusion, the trend in the past few years has been towards dogs being used for intimidation and crime by quite young, inexperienced dog owners who, because of their inexperience, sometimes let their dogs become quite aggressive and uncontrollable. It is sometimes said that dogs have become a fashion accessory. I fear that they will become a crime accessory and used more and more aggressively as weapons of intimidation, which will lead to public opprobrium on dogs and dog ownership in general and people calling for much more draconian legislation. Some further changes in the law, in the same direction in which the Government have already moved, would help to deal with the problem. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider those points.
We are supposed to be a nation of animal lovers. It can be argued that, in comparison with some other countries, we treat our animals in a civilised way. Perhaps hon. Members will correct me, but we do not eat dogs in this countryI have never been in a restaurant that served dog. The dog, of all animals, is held dearly in the hearts of everyone. As my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) said, for many people, their dogs are their lives.
Like my hon. Friend and others in the Chamber, I have a doga black Labrador called Michael. It was given to our family by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and came from the home of Rab Butlers son, so in every sense our black Labrador is a true pedigree. That said, Michael probably qualifies as the laziest dog in the world. However, he triumphed this year at the Westminster dog of the year show, winning two prizesthe reason he got two prizes was that I threatened the judges, but I shall not go into detail.
While I am talking about medals, I hope that the Minister will privately send me a note saying when the Land Army girls will receive their medals. I thought that it would happen in June or July, but I have not yet received a note from his office.
I very much agree with the remarks of the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey). He is not only a consistent champion of animals, but a distinguished member of MP4, whom I and others had the opportunity of enjoying a few weeks ago.
I have listened carefully to the criticisms of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Mr. Deputy Speaker and I are probably the only hon. Members present who were in the House when it was introduced. I remember it clearly, and [ Interruption. ] I do apologise; I did not see my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), a fellow member of the 1983 intake. He was certainly in the House in 1991, too. The noble Lord Baker of Dorking did the right thing at the time, because there was tremendous public pressure for legislation. Seventeen years on, I would be the first to admit that perhaps we need to look at the legislation again.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster said clearly and as the Minister knows, the problem is not with dogs but with their owners. As Members of Parliament, we are only too well aware of the problems of life today; what we need are solutions. As I gently said to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford, the proposals are splendid, but I am slightly concerned about how we will deliver them in practice.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing me into this debate, because he reminds me that the then Minister dealing with the matter, Angela Rumbold, was put under a lot of pressure to include Rottweilers in the category of dangerous dogs. As the owner of a Rottweiler, I was able to demonstrate to her that that would be extremely unjust.
My hon. Friend is right to remind the House of his love for dogs and the situation of Rottweilers. It is a difficult conversation to pursue, because we all have favourite dogs. I can understand why there is
perhaps a slight impression that a Rottweiler is quite a powerful dogwith which, I think, my hon. Friend would agreeand in the ownership of the wrong sort of person might display slightly aggressive tendencies. To label Rottweilers as dangerous, however, is absolutely wrong.
The 1991 Act has undoubtedly been responsible for a number of dogs being kept in kennels for yearscosting a huge amount of moneyor euthanased simply because of their breed, which the House agrees is wrong. Section 3 gives individuals the right to legal recourse against owners whose dogs attack them, but it applies only when the dog is in a public place, or a private place where the dog is not permitted to be. Individuals have no legal protection at all in a permitted private place. That is an inadequate part of the 1991 Act.
The Minister is not the sort to pay lip service to this topical debate; he will be a man of action and do something as a result of our hour-and-a-half discussion. The Dangerous Dogs Act study group has real expertise and I support its endeavours to replace the provision in the Act with the deed-not-breed principle. There is currently no provision for an owner to apply to a court for a seized dog to be returned. I agree with other Members about section 1, which predicts a dogs behaviour based on its physical confirmation. It placed on the index of exempted dogs those that had never been proven to be dangerous, which is wrong.
High-profile attacks against children have taken place, but they make the news for a few days and then seem to be forgotten. The approach of Members who are interested in animal welfare should be more robust and consistent to ensure that such tragedies do not happen in future.
Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): All Members appreciate that it is always difficult to legislate on the basis of high-profile and emotive cases, but the concern of our constituentsand certainly mineis the huge increase, to which previous speakers have referred, in the number of incidents, not just the high-profile cases.
Mr. Amess: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who makes an excellent point. I hope that something comes out of the debate, because, as he said, the danger posed by dogs whose physical and mental well-being is not cared for by their owners is seriously underestimated.
As someone who takes dogs for a walkit is the most gregarious activity that I know ofI am appalled by those owners who let their dogs off the lead knowing full well that it is likely to have a go at another dog. Time after time, the owners who are not responsible let the majority of responsible dog owners down.
More dogs are being bred in deprived urban conditions, which is leading to an increased threat of attack. I am advised that the number of dog attacks requiring medical treatment has doubled to 4,000 over the past four years. That is a huge number. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford wants a deed-not-breed policy, which I certainly agree with. I also agree that legislation should address the danger posed by certain dogs, but with the emphasis on their physical and mental well-being as the key, the responsibility for which should be placed squarely on the dog owner.
I end with a few positive thoughts. Like the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole, I hope that we do not lose the legislation; there must be a window of opportunity somewhere to amend it. We should consider the aggravating
element in attack cases by examining the breeding conditions and welfare provided by the owner. We should reduce unnecessary red tape in the 1991 Act, because it does contain a lot of it. We might have to convince the Minister of this, but we should open the index of exempted dogs to owner-led applications to prove that the dog is not dangerous. That would address the problem of dogs being bred for antisocial reasons and secure more prosecutions against irresponsible owners. We should also elevate the priority that local authorities and the police give to dealing with dangerous dogs and clamp down more vigorously on the terrible sport of dog fighting.
Finally, I and other hon. Members had the joy of meeting Bruce Forsyth in the Pugin Room recently, together with his daughter Debbie Matthews, who works for an organisation called Vets Get Scanning. I hope that at some stage we can have a meeting in the House with Bruce Forsyth and his daughter and that they will convince us of the value of Vets Get Scanning.
I join others in saying that the debate is welcome. I am putting a heavy responsibility on the Minister, who will be, as we all are, judged by his deeds, to ensure that something positive comes out of it.
Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): I want to talk about two aspects. The first is dog fighting. The second is some of the success that Hammersmith and Fulham council is having in combating dangerous dogs in general. I have already referred to an Adjournment debate that I had last May on dog fighting. At that time, Hammersmith and Fulham faced a crisis given the amount of dog fighting and ancillary activity that was going on in the borough.
The phenomenon has been around in London for a long time. It probably peaked about a year ago in my borough and came on to my radar screen about three years ago. It first arose from a chance encounter with the chairwoman of the Clem Attlee, Maton and Rocque tenants association, which represents one of the largest estates in Fulham, who mentioned the problem to me. At first, I was surprised and genuinely taken aback that this mediaeval practice could be going on in what is not one of the poorest London boroughs.
I was told about pre-arranged dog fights on the Clem Attlee sports pitch. It struck me as extremely strange and dangerous. Not only did it take out of action a precious community facility that is much needed on the estate, but it created a danger to both humans and dogs. As it turns out, the dog fights were relatively rare, but an awful lot of behaviour connected with dog fighting causes enormous difficulties in local communities. The problem was not only organised fights on the sports pitch, but intimidating activity before fights, which involved dogs being lined up inside and outside the pitch area to snarl at each other and to prospect for a fight in the future.
At first, I thought that the problem might be a one-off that was restricted to the Clem Attlee estate, but following further research I found that it was happening in various places across Hammersmith, including the White City estate, the William Church estate and De Palma court. Partly due to the good work of Hammersmith and Fulham federation of tenants and residents association,
I also found out about a couple of dog-breeding factories in my constituency, one of which was discovered in Adam walk and the other in Flora gardens.
A lot of criminality and unpleasant behaviour surrounds dog fightsfor example, gambling takes place. Sometimes the dogs are traded, and they can fetch between £1,000 and £2,000 on the secondary market. Many of the fights are recorded, which is the canine equivalent of happy-slapping, and the DVDs and videos are sold around the place.
The training of dogs for fighting causes grave damage to community facilities. Such dogs are generally trained in parks and woodland, and one practice involves hanging a dog from a tree in a effort to strengthen its jaws for fighting. If one went to Wormwood Scrubs, or even to Ravenscourt park in Hammersmith, a year ago, one would have found a lot of damaged trees that had been used for training dogs. Dogs were even hung from the horizontal crossbar of childrens swings. I am no expert on play equipment, but I imagine that that can only have done harm to play equipment in addition to its being an extremely intimidating activity for anybody using it. Furthermore, the practice is extremely harmful to the psychological and physical well-being of the dog.
Fortunately, Hammersmith and Fulham council introduced a full set of dog control orders last year, and I have been told that they have been extremely effective. Our council takes the phenomena surrounding antisocial behaviour extremely seriously, and, as with almost everything else involving the council, things have improved enormously in the past two years.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): We are discussing not only antisocial behaviour, but, given the circumstances that my hon. Friend has described, animal cruelty. Is there not a good case for ensuring that owners who hang their dogs from trees are prosecuted and, let us hope, banned from keeping animals for a certain period of time?
Mr. Hands: My right hon. Friends intervention takes me to my specific proposal, which is to make it a criminal offence to breed dogs for fighting. He is right to say that such practices involve more than antisocial behaviour and should be made a criminal offence.
We have heard about BARK in Brent, and we have our own BARKBorough Action for Responsible K9sthat takes a multi-agency approach to the problem and involves the council, the Metropolitan police, housing associations, the RSPCA and the Mayhew animal home. In the past few months, it has nipped several cases in the bud. For example, a pit bull terrier was found, photographed and sent off for seizure and, in other cases, owners have agreed to take training classes for their dogs. These are early days, but we are turning the picture round in Hammersmith and Fulham, although a number of serious incidents still happen.
My only specific recommendation is the introduction of the offence of breeding dogs for fighting. More generally, we should cut bureaucracy around the issue, which is the point that the council has stressed to me most stronglyI know that other hon. Members have also made that point. Taking action on dangerous dogs is expensive given the kennel fees, and it can lead to an awful lot of paperwork for police officers and local authority officers.
Jonathan Shaw: I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, which has been measured. They have provided constituency experiences, passion and a proud history on animal welfare. I did not congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box for the Opposition, which was remiss of me, so I now extend my congratulations to him.
One of the key themes running through the debate has been that of enforcement of the existing rules. The hon. Gentleman said that the Opposition will have a review. As I said in my opening remarks, we have had a review in which we had a discussion on the matter with the police and agencies, and it is clear that there is a lack of enforcement, which is patchy across the piece. We have done two things: first, we have published a leaflet for members of the public to provide them with clarity about the law; and secondly, we have worked with the RSPCA and stakeholders, including some of the councils referred to in the debate, as well as the Association of Chief Police Officers. With financing from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that group will produce a guidance leaflet for enforcement agencies so that we can get that important uniformity we need across the piece.
We understand that ACPO is looking to form a police-wide group because it believes that the infrastructure is in place for the police service and local authorities to join up more. That is what hon. Members have asked for. We want that approach to develop, so we are looking forward to ACPO forming that group to assist us in that. The police would be the first to admit that enforcement of legislation could be improved, and I very much welcome the formation of that group. We could be motivated to rush to legislate, but we need that
group to be formed. We need to give it time to consider the question of uniformity of enforcement across the piece.
Examples have been given of where things are working well. The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) said that there was a problem, but that the powers are now being used and things are better. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) said the same thing. I was very concerned about the cases in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), and I shall look into them. Everyone agrees that enforcement is patchy, but before we rush to legislate, let us ensure that the rules on the statute book are clear and that the enforcing authorities have the means to put them to the test properly.
Many hon. Members made some important points; as I said, I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) talked about options available in the courts; they have a range of different measures available to them. For example, the Dogs Act 1871 allows a court to impose any order it thinks fit, and I can bring other orders to his attention. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea campaigned on the issue in his constituency, and he raised the issue of microchips. We think that enforcement of such a policy would be problematic, but we want to improve the situation.
The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) talked about his lazy dog, and I will tell him about the land-girls. He also received a Rottweiler intervention from the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). Both of them were around when the previous dangerous dogs legislation was introduced. The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham gave some good examples of where his council is working well.
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