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House of Lords

Friday, 24 April 2009.

10 am

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Ely.

Dog Control Bill [HL]

Main Bill Page
Copy of the Bill

Second Reading

10.06 am

Moved By Lord Redesdale

That the Bill be read a second time.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, this Bill has been brought about with the support of a large number of groups involved with dogs and animal welfare. I particularly thank the Dangerous Dogs Act Study Group for its help in drafting and bringing forward the Bill. The group includes the Kennel Club, the Dogs Trust, police, local authorities, vets, Battersea Dogs Home and Wood Green Animal Shelters. I am also grateful for the help of the RSPCA.

The purpose of the Bill is to deal with the problem of what is often cited as one of the worst pieces of legislation to have been taken through Parliament for a very long time. The Minister will, I know, say that we should just carry on and that Defra has just given guidance, but I find Defra’s guidance almost laughable due to its complexity and the fact that it compounds the problems of the Dangerous Dogs Act.

It is not really surprising that the Dangerous Dogs Act has failed. During the Second Reading of the Bill on 25 June 1991, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who I see is in his place, said:

“We very much regret the fact that the Government have once again missed an opportunity to deal with the problem comprehensively and properly”.—[Official Report, 25/6/91; col. 521.]

Unfortunately, in the period since then, neither Government have taken any significant steps to deal with the problems associated with the Act.

This Bill is intended to change the emphasis of the Dangerous Dogs Act, which was a piece of knee-jerk-reaction legislation to deal with pit bull terriers. Everyone who took part in it and spoke in the debates recognised that it was dealing with a current concern. It was meant to lead to the extinction of pit bull terriers as a breed in this country. Of course, if it had been successful, there would be no or only very elderly microchipped pit bull terriers alive today. However, research by the RSPCA shows that there are now more pit bull terriers in the country than there were when the Act was passed.

One thing that arose from the introduction of pit bull terriers was organised fighting with dogs. Research being undertaken by the RSPCA shows that there has been an increase in the number of organised dog fights in the country, at which large amounts of money are bet. This is a real concern. The level of fighting has increased to hundreds of cases and, indeed, Birmingham is now seen as a hot spot for dog fighting. This is unfortunate, because the Dangerous Dogs Act was meant to lead to a reduction in dog fighting.

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The problem is that dog fighting became breed-specific to pit bull terriers. However, because it is extremely difficult to define a pit bull terrier, there have been a great number of cases in which officers have tried to say that a dog is a pit bull terrier and an enormous amount of legal confusion has ensued. Indeed, the cost implications of the legislation are quite severe. The cost to the Metropolitan Police last year of kennelling dogs that are considered to be pit bull terriers stood at £1.3 million, and that is just the kennelling cost and does not include policing or court fees.

One reason why I believe that a new Bill is needed is that we should move away from looking at certain breeds of dog and deal with the root cause—that is, owners, who are responsible for dealing with their dogs. I know that this has caused a great deal of concern for those who own dogs. Indeed, Black Rod asked me on the way in whether his dog would be looked at under this legislation. My answer was of course no, because his dog is an extremely well behaved Labrador with which no one could have a problem. Funnily enough, in many countries that have introduced legislation relating to dangerous dogs, Labradors are included in the list of dogs considered to be dangerous because of the number of attacks that have taken place.

However, the real issue is that the Dangerous Dogs Act has brought about a change in society. Many people now own Staffordshire bull terriers, which give the impression of being pit bull terriers, because they are seen as a status dog. They can be seen on many estates. It would be difficult to find a Peer who has not come across one of these dogs and found them quite intimidating while walking around London. I have to say that Staffordshire bull terriers, if treated properly and well controlled, are fantastic dogs to own. However, the problem is that people own them because they are seen as intimidating, and those are the very owners who cause the problem. I saw this recently on an estate in Kentish Town, where a gang of young lads had a Staffordshire bull terrier puppy and were treating it badly, trying to get it to growl at people. These dogs are being used for intimidation purposes and, because they become unsocialised, they become problem dogs and thus a problem for society.

There is an open invitation from many dogs homes, including Battersea Dogs Home, for people to go down and see which dogs end up in the homes. There is a preponderance of such status dogs, because the owners cannot look after them. The dogs end up in places like Battersea and, as they have been desocialised, it is almost impossible to rehouse them, which leads to their eventual euthanasia.

This is an animal welfare problem and a growing social problem. Intimidation by dogs is now seen as an anti-social behaviour issue. However, one can be arrested for owning a knife but not for owning a dog even though the dog may be used for exactly the same purpose. The clearest indication of that came when I discussed the issue with the Metropolitan Police, who have set up a status dog unit, comprising one sergeant and five PCs, to deal with the problem. The cost to taxpayers is considerable and is replicated throughout the country. The purpose of the Bill is to deal, in a

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more targeted way, with those who own dogs in a manner that leads them to being desocialised and used in that way.

I shall go through each of the clauses in the Bill. We found it extremely difficulty to gain consensus on the drafting. The fact that many groups have signed up to the Bill, although with caveats on certain parts of the wording, shows how important it is to them.

Clause 1 deals with responsibility for dogs. The purpose is to find out who is the owner of a dog. At the moment, we have a problem in discovering who is responsible for any nuisance dog that is picked up. This clause quite clearly ties it to one individual. Subsection (4) deals with those under 16 who own dogs. The parent or guardian of a 16 year-old is responsible for the conduct of that dog.

Clause 2 deals with the control of dogs, which is the main aspect of the Bill. If a dog, on public or private property, is deemed to be aggressive, the clause puts the responsibility on the owner. The Dangerous Dogs Act deals with public areas, but there is also a major problem in private areas, especially as recent cases in which children have been attacked by dogs have often taken place within the home. The clause also deals with those involved in the breeding of fighting dogs and the ownership of dogs used for fighting.

A controversial part of the Bill is Clause 2(e), which states that no person shall,

I know that a number of people from the hunting fraternity have been concerned about that but, for any prosecution to take place, the case would have to be seen as a serious offence. I do not believe that such a case would get past the magistrates. The subject of this clause is covered by other legislation, so there is case law to deal with the issue.

Clause 3 deals with control notices. One of the problems with the Dangerous Dogs Act is that it is extremely prescriptive: dogs that were considered to be pit bull terriers had to be taken away immediately and dealt with. That has led to vast numbers of court cases. In this instance, the control notices will enable officers and local authority representatives to sanction a number of remedial measures. Subsection (2) sets out certain steps:

“(a) keeping the dog muzzled when in public;

(b) keeping the dog on a lead when in public;

(c) arranging for the dog to be neutered;

(d) placing a microchip in the dog;

(e) arranging for the dog to undergo training; and

(f) arranging for the dog to be re-homed”.

Arranging for the dog to undergo training is extremely important because many of the dogs could lead happy and sociable lives if they underwent retraining. However, the owner would have to take responsibility for the training of the dog.

Clause 4 deals with prosecution. An issue with prosecution is that many of the owners of status dogs would not keep them in the same way if they realised that by doing so, and by using them in an intimidatory fashion, they might face penalties. Not only can a fine or prison sentence be imposed, but one can also

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ensure that such people are disqualified, as in subsection (2)(b), from keeping a dog in the future. Subsection (2)(c) deals with removing the dog from the owner and ensuring that it is not within their jurisdiction. Stopping people from owning dogs if they have proved themselves to be irresponsible owners is an important measure in the Bill. There are caveats in subsection (3) because dogs, in certain situations, will act in an aggressive manner; paragraphs (a) to (d) deal with that.

Clause 5 deals with powers to seize and destroy dogs and gives the police powers to take dogs out of circulation. The purpose of the Bill is not to specify that a large number of dogs should be seized and destroyed; it is to lead the police to deal with dogs that have been causing a problem.

Clause 6 deals with repeals and will cause a great deal of controversy. This is a new dog control regime and the Bill repeals the Dogs Act 1871, the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997. It will repeal the rulings against pit bull terriers. I am not a fan of pit bull terriers and do not believe that they have any place as pets. I remember speaking, as defence spokesman, against the war in Iraq and being called an apologist for Saddam Hussein. I am not supporting pit bull terriers, but the problem is that we have focused on a type of dog that is almost impossible to specify. The Minister should perhaps read out annexe 2 of the Defra guidance. It takes about 10 minutes to read and you have to be a Crufts show judge to be able to specify what a pit bull terrier is.

We should not be specifying a particular type of dog because other dogs have been brought in to act as fighting dogs. While we have been focusing on pit bull terriers, in the past few years other dogs have started to be used in fighting. They include Cane Corsos, an Italian-type mastiff, Presa Canarios, which were originally bred for fighting in the Canary Islands, Bully Kuttas, dogs bred for fighting originally from Pakistan, and Japanese Akitas. Unfortunately, Rottweilers and German shepherds are also quite popular in dog fighting. We have focused on pit bull terriers—indeed, the Dangerous Dogs Act was passed because of an incident with a pit bull terrier—but we should not underestimate how dangerous dogs that are bred for fighting are.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, is it possible to identify a breed of dog by DNA?

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, that is a difficult question. If the noble Lord wishes to become an expert on this issue, he should look at the numerous court cases in which people have tried to define a pit bull terrier. It is not possible to do it by DNA because pit bull terriers are a cross-breed. You could conceivably have a pit chihuahua, if those two types of dog were crossed, but that is a different point, although I was thinking that it would make those handbag dogs quite dangerous. The issue is not along those lines, but the noble Lord’s question goes to the heart of what we are dealing with. It is almost impossible to check on pit bull terriers. A vast amount of money has been spent on experts who have tried to deal with this.

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The problem that the Bill seeks to address is an animal welfare one. I hope that this issue will be dealt with by a Government soon enough because in a time of recession, when we are trying to save money at every stage, it cannot be a good use of public resources for the Metropolitan Police to spend £1.3 million just on kennelling. I beg to move.

10.24 am

The Earl of Shrewsbury: My Lords, I declare an interest as a follower of field sports and as an owner of working dogs. This is a brief Bill, and I shall be pretty brief in my comments. My concerns come from the perspectives of farmers, shooters, gamekeepers, land managers and ordinary dog owners. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on this dog’s breakfast of a Bill, but any legislation that repeals and replaces the Dangerous Dogs Acts must be worth while and an improvement on the current situation. I have received a brief from the RSPCA, whose concerns relate mainly to dog fighting, a quite disgusting activity, and the use of aggressive-type dogs as status symbols, mainly by the criminally inclined and usually in urban areas. I share those concerns.

However, the Bill is badly drafted and requires substantial amendment. The bona fide dog owner, together with many groups of people who own and use working dogs, will be seriously affected by the Bill. To begin with, there is a lack of definition in Clause 4(3)(d) about what is a service dog. I presume it is a dog that has been trained for a specific purpose, such a police dog or a sniffer dog or for other purposes. Does the term include guide dogs for the blind? Does it include gun dogs that have been specifically trained to flush and retrieve game? Does it include terriers used to control vermin? The Bill is unclear on this. Indeed, is Black Rod’s dog a service dog? If not, it probably should be.

Clause 2 sets out the principal offences under the Bill. Clause 2(b) states that no person shall,

Therefore, if I am using a dog, such as a terrier, to flush or hunt a rabbit, I am according to the Bill using a dog to intimidate other animals. That clearly cannot be right. If I am using a dog to kill rats or other vermin, I am similarly caught by the Bill. Would I be guilty of the offence of keeping a dog that has attacked another animal because the Bill states that a dog,

There are many such scenarios where I could be guilty of an offence and my dog could be seized and destroyed. The Bill needs a great deal of clarification. I am sure that it was not intended to incorporate legitimate and lawful activities within its scope, but it is far too widely drawn. It also opens the door to malicious private prosecutions from quarters that might disapprove of a certain lawful activity. That is totally unacceptable.

10.27 am

Lord Tyler: My Lords, I am delighted to welcome the Bill on behalf of my colleagues. We congratulate our noble friend Lord Redesdale not only on bringing

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forward the Bill at this topical time but on the way in which he has managed to bring together an amazing collection of people. Many of us will have experienced some of those who take an interest in these issues. We should warmly congratulate our noble friend on gathering them all together and achieving some sort of consensus. While I understand the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, and they will need to be addressed when the Bill is in Committee, it is important that we should be having this debate at this stage because there is considerable concern about the inadequacy of the present legislation.

Reference has been made to Black Rod’s black Labrador, Sugar. This is a good opportunity to say that not only will we miss Black Rod in the House in a few days’ time, but we will also miss Sugar. As an extremely well behaved dog with, obviously, an extremely responsible owner, she is a model for this legislation because the Bill is not about breed, but about behaviour. The sad thing about the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was that it concentrated almost entirely on a breed-specific approach to legislation rather than on the behaviour of the dog or its owner.

As my noble friend said, the Dangerous Dog Act 1991 is cited by political students, not just in this country, but all over the world as a classic case of the danger of a knee-jerk response to events producing a law that seeks to remedy a situation at speed. Legislate in haste, repent at leisure. As my noble friend also emphasised, the emphasis in that Act was entirely on breed rather than behaviour. Clearly, that should not be the basis for such legislation.

I cannot claim a particular interest—I am not a dog owner—but I have been a victim. I remember walking along the tow-path of a canal in north London some years ago and suddenly being attacked from behind by two Rottweilers, who took a large chunk out of my suit—it was quite a good suit, too; not this suit I hasten to say—but, more seriously for me, quite a large chunk out of the back of my leg. The significant point was that almost immediately the dogs were called back by their owner but owner and dogs disappeared without trace in a matter of seconds, so there was no way that I could achieve any remedy or report the incident to any good effect.

My other interest is that when I was a constituency Member of Parliament, two ladies in Newquay in my constituency of North Cornwall were extremely anxious about mistaken identity in the control of dogs. I notice from my list of correspondence that I corresponded with about 20 authorities, including authorities in Germany because there was a case in Germany, but also with our Foreign Secretary. In that case, Staffordshire bull terriers were the victims of a case of canine mistaken identity. It was assumed that all bull terriers were much the same, which of course is absolutely not true. As my noble friend said, the problem with breed-specific legislation is that it is extremely difficult to define particular breeds precisely, because there is a lot of cross-breeding.

There had been a case in Germany where a Staffordshire terrier had apparently been responsible for an attack on a small child, but the Staffordshire bull terrier in that case was of the American breed,

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quite different to anything bred in this country. The German authorities understandably made a silly mistake: how were they to know? When it was suggested that that definition should also be applied in this country, we had to make it clear that the British version of the breed is much lighter and cannot be trained to be as aggressive as the fighting dogs that the Americans tend to favour.

Breed-specific law is bad law; it simply does not work. There has been greater recognition over the years that the basis on which the 1991 Act was set was a most ineffective and inappropriate way to base any legislation. It happens that the Staffordshire bull terrier as bred in the United Kingdom is among the most reliable with children. Out of 170 breeds registered with the Kennel Club, it is one of the only two especially noted to be safe with small children. The Kennel Club, with which I also held discussions then and now, is absolutely determined that there should be an improvement in the law. That is why the Bill is particularly topical and relevant today.

The problem with the 1991 Act, even as amended in 1997, is that there is still an improper emphasis on breed and insufficient emphasis on behaviour—behaviour of both dog and owner—hence the relevance and attraction of my noble friend’s Bill. There is also far too much emphasis in that legislation on action post-problem and not nearly enough on preventive action. My noble friend’s Bill has great attractions in that respect, too. The previous legislation has unfortunately cost vital resources for the police which could be put to much better use. It contains no power of seizure in advance of a problem that is obviously about to occur. There are also other considerable problems with that legislation.

The basic attraction and strength of my noble friend’s Bill is that it is not breed-specific. I know that the Kennel Club, among all the organisations to which my noble friend referred, welcomes the Bill on that basis. The 1991 Act has proved unworkable. It has not dealt with the problems identified then, and it has certainly not met the needs of either dog owners or those who may be at risk from irresponsible breeding of fighting dogs. Difficulties have occurred because of the lack of effective definition.

The emphasis on the owner, the person who is in control, is critical to my noble friend’s Bill. That is surely a huge improvement on the previous legislation. Those of us who have owned dogs in the past, and those of us who have witnessed how dogs are controlled and trained, must surely recognise that it is the human being who should carry responsibility, rather than us relying on the definition of a particular breed of dog. Instead of banning specific breeds of dogs, the dog’s behaviour, the behaviour of the owner and the behaviour of those who have responsibility for its training must surely be the central concern of any effective legislation in this field.

I very much look forward to Committee sittings on the Bill, when we can deal with any problems of definition that may still need resolution. In the mean time, I warmly welcome the Bill, and I am very grateful to my noble friend.

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10.36 am

Earl Cathcart: My Lords, at the outset, I should declare that I am a dog owner and either am or have been a member of the RSPCA and the Countryside Alliance. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on slipping his leash this morning and bringing the Bill to the House. His intentions must be applauded and I agree with much of what he says.

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