24.It is clear to us that a full independent review of the efficacy of present dog control legislation is needed. We expect that this review would, at its heart, examine the issue of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) and whether this represents an appropriate response to the problem of dog attacks. Key to this would be a comprehensive assessment of the evidence base and studies supporting the arguments for and against BSL. Below, we set out an indicative summary of the main issues on which we took evidence.
25.Defra told us the BSL provisions of Section 1 “remain important because of the heightened risk [certain breeds/types] pose”. In support of this claim, the Department referred to data from the Metropolitan Police Service, which provided a breakdown of the types of dogs involved in ‘dangerously out of control’ incidents across London. These figures were also supplied to us by the NPCC. According to the 2015–16 data, of the 468 recorded cases in which a dog was seized, prohibited Pit Bull Terriers accounted for 19.3 percent of offences, followed by legal Staffordshire Bull Terriers (17.6 percent) and other bull breeds (15.5 percent). These figures could be interpreted in two ways; either that the current legislation is right to prohibit Pit Bull Terriers given the level of representation in incidents from a comparatively small population size, or that the ban on four breeds is misguided because around 80 percent of incidents involved legal types of dog.
26.Defra said the figures indicated “a large number of serious cases from a very small population of dogs in circulation, and that is striking evidence that there is an issue with this particular type of dog”. The Department further highlighted its evidence on the 31 dog attack fatalities since 2005, in which seven Pit Bull types were involved in six of the cases: “seven pit bull terriers represents a far higher proportion involved in fatal attacks than would be expected from the proportion of such dogs in the dog population as a whole, which underlines the heightened risk these types of fighting dog pose”.
27.This argument was challenged by some of our witnesses. The RSPCA argued that there were no accurate demographic data on dog numbers or the Pit Bull population size, and therefore Defra’s claim that Pit Bull Terriers were over-represented “simply cannot be substantiated and it is both misleading and erroneous to do so”. The British Veterinary Association similarly cautioned that there were no accurate data on bite rates and dog population sizes, which would be required to determine which breeds or cross-breeds presented the greatest public risk.
28.The RSPCA also drew attention to low correlations between offences under Section 1 (for possessing a banned dog) and Section 3 offences (for incidents involving an injury or risk of injury). Evidence provided by one expert assessor indicated that between 2007 and 2018, only 13 percent of 198 dogs alleged to be Pit Bull Terrier types were also under a Section 3 charge for being dangerously out of control. Figures provided by the Chair of the London Police and Crime Committee showed similarly low correlations: out of 1,031 dog seizures by the Metropolitan Police in 2016–17, only 56–or 5.4 percent of the total–were seized under both Section 1 and Section 3. These figures suggest that only a small minority of dogs were seized for being both banned and involved in incidents posing a risk to public safety.
29.The Government’s contention that the four prohibited breeds were inherently dangerous because they had originally been bred for “their fighting attributes” was also repeatedly challenged. The RSPCA said that “such selection cannot infer inherent aggression in these types of dogs or guarantee that these attributes will be expressed”, and that the Government’s contention was not supported by scientific evidence or data. Evidence submitted to our inquiry cited a wide variety of studies concluding that breed was not a good predictor of risk.
30.The British Veterinary Association told us that a dog’s behaviour is complex, arising “partly as a result of its inherited characteristics, but more importantly is a result of the socialisation, rearing and training provided by its owner, the environment in which the dog is kept and a given set of circumstances”. Blue Cross said the notion that Section 1 dogs were inherently more risky was “fundamentally flawed”, as “any dog has the potential to be dangerous and pose a risk to the public regardless of their breed”. According to the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, risk levels can vary more within a particular breed than between different breeds. In a survey of professional canine behaviourists conducted by Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, almost three quarters of respondents viewed breed as either not at all important or only slightly important in determining dog aggression levels. Socialisation and upbringing of the dog were instead considered critical factors.
31.A 2009 Defra-funded evidence review found that “despite considerable speculation of a role for breed as a risk factor for human-directed dog aggression, insufficient evidence exists to draw firm conclusions”. It noted that there was “some evidence” that human directed aggression could be inherited. The review highlighted however “the absence of high quality evidence relating to risk factors” and cautioned that available data “does not provide firm evidence of causal relationships and, in a number of cases, the results are contradictory”.
32.We questioned Defra on this and whether the evidence base in support of Breed Specific Legislation was sufficiently robust. We were told “that was almost 10 years ago, so there has been fresh evidence since then”. We were keen to see this fresh evidence and requested a copy of the data held by the Department. Following communications with the Department it transpired that no further reviews or formal studies had been conducted since 2009.
33.During our evidence session we became increasingly concerned that the Department was ignoring the weight of scientific evidence, and relying solely on a piece of data from the Metropolitan Police which was being extrapolated to apply to the whole of England and Wales. We questioned Defra on whether this was a credible, evidence-based approach. We were told that “you could say this relates to London and it is a particular year” but that “these Met statistics, in isolation, set the alarm bells ringing”. Defra’s Deputy Director for Animal Welfare and Exotic Disease Control insisted that “it is credible to look at these figures and to form a conclusion that it is justified in retaining the controls we have on pit bulls”.
34.We are concerned that Defra’s arguments in favour of maintaining Breed Specific Legislation are not substantiated by robust evidence. It is even more worrying that non-existent evidence appears to have been cited before a Parliamentary Committee in support of current Government policy. This lack of clarity indicates a disturbing disregard for evidence-based policy-making. Defra should commission a comprehensive independent evidence review into the factors behind canine aggression, the determinants of risk, and whether the banned breeds pose an inherently greater threat. We expect to receive regular progress updates on the evidence review, and to be provided with the results no later than Easter 2019. These results must then be used to inform the Government’s future dog control strategy.
35.In our evidence session, Defra argued that the ferocity and damage potential of prohibited breeds/types justified the ban and measures to limit the population size. Many members of the public wrote to us highlighting concerns about the potential of banned breeds, specifically Pit Bull Terriers. According to the BVA and RSPCA, however, hospital data show that attacks from large Mastiffs or Rottweilers can be just as damaging as bites from Pit Bull types. David Ryan told us that legal large bull or Mastiff types had substantial jaw pressure, physical body strength and the gameness of a dog type previously bred for fighting or guarding, and could be even more powerful than banned types. This would seem to suggest that more breeds should be included on the banned list for public safety.
36.We explored with witnesses whether the Government’s ‘risk-based approach’ required such a move. We heard there were myriad problems with this. First, owners desiring a strong and aggressive dog could easily switch to another legal cross-breed and avoid the ban. Second, as David Ryan highlighted, banning breeds and crossbreeds based on risk level would generate a snowball effect:
you would never stop [...] If you then add American bulldogs to it, for example, you would then need to add crosses of American bulldogs. If you added Akitas to it you would need to add Akita crosses. You end up encompassing everything.
37.Third, because breed popularity waxes and wanes, prohibitions on the most prolific biters today would become outdated as fashions and preferences changed. Finally, studies conducted abroad where dog population and bite rate data are available indicated that an impractically large number of dogs would need to be eradicated to prevent just a single bite incident.
38.Lord Gardiner told us that the Government did not intend to increase the number of banned breeds/types. We queried whether this was logically consistent with a risk-based approach, given that the majority of bites came from legal breeds and some legal breeds possessed just as much damage potential as banned ones. Lord Gardiner denied Defra’s position was illogical:
I do not think so, because the overwhelming amount of what we are talking about in terms of numbers is dealing with it through Section 3, which is that we need to deal with dangerous dogs. It has been a position, and the Government are not moving from that position, that there are four prohibited breeds.
39.Defra says it has adopted a risk-based approach, but its justification for maintaining the breed ban in its current form is incoherent. Some legal breeds can pose just as great a risk to public safety as illegal breeds, and yet there are no legislative restrictions on their ownership. This inconsistency undermines the logic of the entire Act. We do not support extending the breed ban, as we do not believe it to be effective. However, if the Government feels the ban is a valuable tool in reducing numbers of dangerous dogs, it must clarify why other dogs which can be just as dangerous should not be prohibited. We recommend that such a statement be provided in the response to this Report.
40.There is no recognised ‘Pit Bull Terrier’ breed in the UK, under Kennel Club classifications. Dogs suspected of being a banned Pit Bull Terrier are therefore assessed according to the 1977 American Dog Breeders Association standard. Parentage and DNA are not taken into account. Dogs are assessed instead on their physical characteristics, measured against a 100-point scale, of which 10 points are allocated to the dog’s attitude and behaviour. Defra guidelines state that there need only be a “substantial number of characteristics present so that it can be considered ‘more’ PBT [Pit Bull Terrier] than any other type of dog”.
41.Battersea Dogs & Cats Home said this approach “failed miserably” as it targeted a dog based on “the way that it looks rather than its propensity to cause harm”. Battersea further highlighted that:
the Courts can regard a dog to be as a Pit Bull Terrier ‘type’ even if the dog does not have Pit Bull Terrier genetics in its ancestry [...] This makes no sense, given that these dogs were outlawed as Parliament believed they were genetically dangerous.
42.The RSPCA, Kennel Club, Blue Cross and the BVA similarly said the focus on appearance rather than temperament or aggression did little to protect the public. The RSPCA noted that it had cared for Section 1 dogs that gave birth to three separate litters. In two of the litters, none of the dogs was subsequently identified as being Section 1 upon reaching adulthood. In the other litter, only half were determined to be Section 1.
43.The prohibition on transferring Section 1 dogs prevents the re-homing of banned dogs found by rescue centres; they are instead euthanised. Owners who are no longer able to care for their Section 1 dog due to a change in circumstance also may not transfer the animal to a new keeper, even though the animal had previously been found to pose no threat. We asked Defra whether this provision was necessary given that it led to the euthanasia of so many dogs:
Chair: to get to the point about the Battersea dog that was put down, as far as you are concerned, that is just collateral damage. It was a pit bull type and it may have been good-tempered, but as far as you are concerned, just put it down. Is that where you are?
Lord Gardiner: Yes.
44.A series of court rulings have allowed a degree of latitude over the prohibition on transfers. In one case, an owner was unlikely to pass the fit and proper person test but the Crown Court allowed the dog to be registered to a kennel carer. In another case, a dog that had previously been on the Index of Exempted Dogs had its exemption invalidated because the owner emigrated. A dog walker at the kennel was however allowed by the High Court to re-register the animal.
45.Battersea Dogs & Cats Home said these cases demonstrated “confusion and contradiction” over how Section 1 should be applied, and called for the prohibition on transferring Section 1 dogs to be revoked. This call was echoed by a number of other organisations. When we raised the issue of re-homing with the police, Inspector O’Hara told us that:
On a point of principle, we would go by the view: nice dog, nice person, no problem. We would be reasonably happy, with some degree of relaxation, about whether a home could be found for that particular dog that did not cause us a problem.
46.While agreeing that increased re-homing would be desirable, witnesses highlighted that adequate regulatory controls would be necessary to ensure public protection, for example clearly defining or accrediting suitable animal sanctuaries and re-homing centres. Inspector O’Hara said that greater regulation of animal centres was desirable in any case, to ensure appropriate due diligence checks were being conducted on re-homing suitability.
47.If animal centres were allowed to re-home Section 1 dogs, prospective owners would likely be subjected to the provisions and procedures currently required to obtain a certificate of exemption and register the animal on the Index of Exempted Dogs. According to Defra’s evidence submission, these provisions have been highly effective at ensuring exempted Section 1 dogs did not pose a risk to public safety:
No dog on the Index has been involved in a significant incident such as a major dog attack or fatality, suggesting that the scheme has achieved its objective of protecting public safety.
48.Given this successful record, we questioned Defra on the logic behind the transfer ban in cases where the dog was good-tempered and had been determined by experts to pose no risk. The Department maintained there was a “non-zero risk” attached to Pit Bull types, and that the prohibition on transfers was “part of restricting the number of these dogs in circulation” to minimise the “aggregate risk”. Lord Gardiner subsequently wrote to us expressing concern that relaxing the prohibition would encourage the “casual transfer” of Section 1 dogs and signal that “the dangers associated with prohibited dogs are not as great as before”.
49.The prohibition on transferring Section 1 dogs has resulted in the unnecessary destruction of good-tempered dogs that could have been safely re-homed. Defra’s position is both illogical and inherently unfair. Whether a dog is euthanised or not can depend entirely on whether it ‘looks like’ a Pit Bull Terrier. It is unnecessarily cruel to forbid good-tempered dogs from being transferred to responsible owners willing to comply with the stringent provisions attached to keeping a Section 1 dog.
50.We do not accept Defra’s position that the destruction of dogs without owners is a necessary part of reducing risk. The Department told us that no dog on the Index of Exempted Dogs has been involved in an attack. This is a 100 percent success record. We are not clear why these conditions would become ineffective if extended to dogs in re-homing centres.
51.To avoid imposing an unnecessary death sentence on good-tempered animals, the Government should remove the ban on transferring Section 1 dogs to new owners. This should be accompanied by adequate regulation of animal centres and appropriate safeguards to ensure the re-homing of Section 1 dogs is conducted responsibly and safely.
52 Defra () para 27
54 NPCC () p.3
55 NPCC () p.3
58 Defra () para 13
59 RSPCA () p.7
60 British Veterinary Association and British Small Animal Veterinary Association () para 7
61 RSPCA () para 6
62 Dr Kendal Shepherd () para 4.i
63 Mr Steve O’Connell () p.2
65 RSPCA () para 6
66 See for example Dogs Trust () p.3
67 British Veterinary Association and British Small Animal Veterinary Association () para 10
68 Blue Cross () p.1
69 Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors () para 2
70 Battersea Dogs & Cats Home () p.3
71 Defra, pp.3–4
73 Defra (), and communications with Defra dated 20 August 2018
79 See for example Ms Karen Porreca () and DogsBite.org ()
80 British Veterinary Association and British Small Animal Veterinary Association () p.2, and RSPCA () para 8
81 David Ryan () para 13
84 Dogs Trust () section 3.3
85 Australian Veterinary Association, , p.11
89 The Kennel Club () p.4
90 See Pit Bull Gazette, Vol 1, Issue 3, 1977
91 RSPCA () para 7
92 Defra, , 2009, p.14
93 Battersea Dogs and Cats Home () p.3
94 Battersea Dogs and Cats Home () p.3
95 RSPCA (), British Veterinary Association and British Small Animal Veterinary Association (), Blue Cross (), The Kennel Club (), see also Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, oral evidence: Dangerous Dogs: Breed Specific Legislation, Wednesday 13 June 2018, HC 1040
96 RSPCA ()
97 Blue Cross () p.2
100 Battersea Dogs and Cats Home () p.4
101 Battersea Dogs and Cats Home () p.3
102 See for example RSPCA (), Blue Cross (), and The Kennel Club ()
104 Blue Cross ()
107 Defra () para 12
110 Defra ()
Published: 17 October 2018