Topical Debates — Dangerous Dogs

Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 1:59 pm on 12th June 2008.

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Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Marine, Landscape and Rural Affairs) and Minister for the South East), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 1:59 pm, 12th June 2008

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of dangerous dogs.

This is a very opportune moment to have a debate on dangerous dogs. I know many people feel strongly about this issue and my colleague in the other place who leads for the Government on dangerous dogs just last week gave a speech to a very well attended RSPCA conference on the issue. Therefore it may be useful if I set out at the start of the debate the Government's position on dangerous dogs and dangerous dogs legislation.

I know that some hon. Members feel that we need a new dangerous dogs law, because the current law is ineffective and flawed. We disagree. I am aware from the letters we receive that parents have concerns about their children being attacked by dogs, and those whose work involves them going on to private premises, such as postal workers, also have concerns about the current powers available.

Several hon. Members are calling for a review of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. I assure the House that the Government are well ahead of the game here. In the aftermath of the shocking death of Ellie Lawrenson in January 2007, my Department conducted a detailed review of the dangerous dogs legislation. We wrote to police forces in England and Wales at the beginning of last year to ascertain whether there were problems with the law and to judge how it was enforced. We then discussed the results of this consultation with the Association of Chief Police Officers. Members may be interested to know that a summary of the responses received from the police has been placed in the Library.

The outcome of the review has guided the Government's policy in this area. The three main findings were that there are sufficiently robust yet proportionate powers within current legislation to tackle irresponsible dog ownership, including incidences in which a dog is being used as a weapon; that the police have not been making full use of the powers within the legislation and that enforcement around the country was patchy; and finally that Parliament was absolutely right to prohibit the ownership of pit bull terriers.

Our view is that the legislation now in place is robust and that new legislation is not the answer. Certainly over the past few months, we have heard a number of suggestions as to how we can change the law. We have considered these changes. They seem to range from either highly disproportionate responses to the problem or ones that would make the situation worse. One much publicised suggestion has been for a dog ownership test. That would involve setting up an executive agency—a doggie DVLA, perhaps—to run a licensing scheme for dog owners. All owners would need to pass a test before getting a licence. Other possibilities include licensing all male un-neutered dogs under a revised Breeding of Dogs Act 1973 and the introduction of a watertight dog registration system that would have all the necessary veterinarian/dog behaviourist checks to ensure that those who registered did not register dangerous dogs.

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Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

There is much public concern about dangerous dogs and a parliamentary answer earlier this year revealed that 4,000 people a year are treated in hospital for dog bites. That is double the level of four years ago. I appreciate what the Minister is saying, but what is difficult about ensuring that people are held responsible and accountable for the behaviour of their animal?

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Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Marine, Landscape and Rural Affairs) and Minister for the South East), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman brings a measured tone to the debate. I hope that I will be able to answer his point in my speech. People are rightly concerned by that increase, and that is why the Government have provided this opportunity for hon. Members to discuss this issue.

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Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Conservative, Hammersmith and Fulham

The Minister might remember that I had an Adjournment debate on 8 May 2007 on the subject of dog fighting. I agree that we need better enforcement of the existing legislation and we do not need to create a huge number of new offences, but I suggested in that debate that we create a specific offence of breeding dogs for fighting. That could be an effective tool in closing down some of the dog breeding factories that are run specifically for the purpose of fighting.

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Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Marine, Landscape and Rural Affairs) and Minister for the South East), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I regret that I do not recall the hon. Gentleman's Adjournment debate. I was in the Whips Office at the time, and Adjournment debates are not necessarily the focus of the Whips' attention, as they tend to focus on votes in the House. He makes a fair point, and I hope to show that we have been through a process, in which we have talked to all the relevant agencies involved, including councils in London, the RSPCA and the police, about how we can enforce the legislation better.

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Photo of Justine Greening Justine Greening Shadow Minister (Treasury), Vice-Chair (Youth), Conservative Party

My local council, Wandsworth, was one of the local authorities that participated. My understanding was that recommendations were brought forward, but the working group was told that not enough parliamentary time was available to make any changes. Dangerous dogs are a massive problem in my area.

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Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Marine, Landscape and Rural Affairs) and Minister for the South East), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

No, that is not that case. If I may proceed with my speech, I shall give examples of what is happening in Wandsworth and another London borough.

I was talking about the schemes that have been proposed and I am not saying that they have no merit, but if they are to be truly effective, there will need to be rigorous enforcement; otherwise they will be ignored by the irresponsible with only responsible owners obeying them. A key test of any new measure is whether it would disproportionately target the vast majority of responsible dog owners. I dread to think how much the schemes would cost, and that cost would have to be borne by responsible dog owners through the licence fee when they have done nothing wrong. It could end up being seen as a massive dog tax, borne by the vast majority of dog owners who are law-abiding citizens and out to promote the welfare of dogs.

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Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Cheltenham animal shelter has advised me that the microchips that could be used in a universal dog licensing system cost only about £2.60 per chip.

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Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Marine, Landscape and Rural Affairs) and Minister for the South East), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We would also have to take into account the bureaucracy, and I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has factored that into his equation—

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Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Cheltenham animal shelter provides and administers a chipping system for a fee of £8 per dog, which includes a charitable donation to the shelter.

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Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Marine, Landscape and Rural Affairs) and Minister for the South East), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am sure that the organisation in the hon. Gentleman's constituency is run and organised by excellent people, but obviously we do not legislate just for Cheltenham. The system would have to be rolled out, and I doubt that such organisations would be universal across the system. Any system introduced to Parliament would have to be accountable and we would have to ensure that the scheme was in operation. Otherwise, it would fall into disrepute.

As I have said, many just do not have the money to pay for such schemes. We do not want to penalise people on low incomes who enjoy the companionship of their dogs. We also wonder how many dogs would end up in re-homing centres.

Another more controversial suggestion is that we should open up the index of exempted dogs to owner-led registration. For those Members who not aware of this fact, the only pit bull terriers legally owned in this country must be registered on the index of exempted dogs. Only a court can add a pit bull to the index and only when it is satisfied that the dog does not pose a threat to public safety and that the owner is an appropriate person to own such a dog. Let me make it clear that we believe that that is absolutely right. Pit bulls are not suitable animals to be kept as pets unless a court has determined that they are not a threat. The index is purely an administrative agency. It issues exemption certificates for those dogs that have been seen by a court. It is not within the scope of the index to make a judgment on either a dog or its owner.

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Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does the Minister agree that this debate would be better entitled "Dangerous Dog Owners"? It is not the dogs that are at fault but the owners. If owners train or breed them to be aggressive, they will be. A lot of kennels, breeders and pet shop owners are very responsible and go to great lengths to ensure that people who take on puppies have the right temperament to train them and the right environment to bring them up in. Can we not place more responsibility on kennels and pet shops so that those that are not responsible are made to ensure that the people who buy their puppies are fit to do so?

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Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Marine, Landscape and Rural Affairs) and Minister for the South East), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The first part of the hon. Lady's intervention, on dangerous people and what they do when they abuse animals, is absolutely right. I am sure that the whole House will agree with that sensible point. On her second point, the standard of practice in ensuring that a dog goes to a good home will vary across the piece. There are agencies that ensure that kennels, breeders and pet shops put good practice into place. We have the RSPCA and local authorities to do that and, importantly, the animal welfare registration system that we have introduced ensures that we can take steps to prevent cruelty. That was groundbreaking legislation, which had the consent of the House, and it was an important development.

To open up the index to owner-led registration would remove those important checks and could allow unsuitable owners legally to hold dangerous dogs. I suspect that it would also encourage dog fighting, as it might enable dog fighters to sell more easily any surplus dogs that they produced. That said, we recognise that there is an increasing problem of irresponsible dog ownership. We are sensitive to the fact that there have, in the past few years, been a number of high-profile and tragic incidents involving children. Some have been tragic domestic incidents in the home where a dog has suddenly turned on a child, but in some cases there has been a clear link with dog aggression and the wider problem of antisocial behaviour. We are also aware that hospitals report an increase in patients needing treatment for dog bites, as mentioned by Mr. Hollobone.

I assure the House that the Government take the problem seriously. We believe that it would be far better tackled through more effective enforcement of the existing law, ideally through local solutions. We are already seeing a number of successful local initiatives developing around the country, such as the work done by Merseyside police in immediate response to the horrific chapter of events that led to the death of Ellie Lawrenson. Their swift action reassured the local community that the police were responsive to the feeling of worry and outrage in Merseyside.

Other initiatives are geared not only at raising awareness of the law but engendering a spirit of responsibility in local communities, a good example of which is the Brent Action for Responsible K9s initiative—or BARK, as it is more commonly known. BARK is an excellent example of a number of agencies working together, sharing information, offering advice to the public and dealing with irresponsible owners to tackle the irresponsible use and mistreatment of dogs. BARK comprises the Metropolitan police, the RSPCA, the Mayhew animal home, Brent council, Brent antisocial behaviour team and Brent Housing Partnership.

BARK was set up in January last year as a result of a significant increase—70 per cent.—in all types of incidents involving dogs. BARK offers—

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Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 2:16 pm, 12th June 2008

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.

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Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

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?

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Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I have no direct interest to declare other than that I own a Staffordshire bull terrier called Buster, but he is not dangerous—except 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 man's best friend by encouraging the responsible ownership of dogs. Indeed, as so many organisations that are engaged in this debate—such as the Kennel Club, Dogs Trust, the RSPCA and others—will tell us, promoting responsible dog ownership, education and training is by far the best means by which to ensure the protection of the public.

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Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

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?

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j

I think that £500 is too small an amount for these kind of dogs for a licence fee,these dogs are very dangerous along with rotweillers.the licence fee foe all dangerous dogs should be £1,000 minimum.The Estate...

Submitted by janet mann Continue reading

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

As the owner of a Staffordshire bull terrier—it might be that I am biased—I 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. Gentleman's comments.

In recent years, we have witnessed a series of tragic incidents involving dogs, and quite rightly, with every high profile attack—particularly when it involves a child—there 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 Majesty's Opposition understand and share the public's concerns. We also share people's 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 man's greatest and most loyal companions, and they too must be protected from abuse and cruelty. Our laws must reflect that.

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Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

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.

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Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

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 public—notably children—is 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 owners—often 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 Club's 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 dog's mental and physical welfare is the owner's 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 concern—that 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.

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Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I am listening to my hon. Friend's proposals very carefully, and I hope to be lucky enough to catch Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye later, as I want to say something about the 1991 Act. Where does the support for the Conservative party's 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.

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Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

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 man's 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.

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. Gentleman has had his allocated time.

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Photo of Ian Cawsey Ian Cawsey Labour, Brigg and Goole 2:30 pm, 12th June 2008

I congratulate 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 interest—before 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 lurcher—both 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 Government's 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 circumstances—when 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. Gentleman's 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 animals—or, in some cases, simply hand them over—it 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 Member's 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 up—albeit many years later—in 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 Green's 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 dog—we suspect that in that case, the dog was going to be used for fighting—and secondly, because those people know that they will not get through the sanctuary's 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 Nawlockyi—I 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.

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 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.

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Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

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.

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Photo of Ian Cawsey Ian Cawsey Labour, Brigg and Goole

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.

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Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Marine, Landscape and Rural Affairs) and Minister for the South East), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

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 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.

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Photo of Ian Cawsey Ian Cawsey Labour, Brigg and Goole

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.

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Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

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.

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Photo of Ian Cawsey Ian Cawsey Labour, Brigg and Goole

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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Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:47 pm, 12th June 2008

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 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:

"My dog was not the only dog that day to be attacked by the same vicious dog. No-one is coming forward to claim this animal and I have now been told by the police (after many phone calls) that the animal will be destroyed...But there are still more of these animals out there. I see them every day. I alone have paid a £400 vet's bill, I dread to think of the other owners' bills. I want to know what you intend to do about these dangerous dogs."

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

"In a statement of complaint," which is apparently what the case was,

"the victim must identify the dog. It is usually necessary for the victim to then identify the dog in the presence of the owner and the investigating officer."

That is not in the realm of reality.

We need drastic reform of the dangerous dogs legislation, and as 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.

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Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Marine, Landscape and Rural Affairs) and Minister for the South East), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

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.

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Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

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.

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Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea 2:54 pm, 12th June 2008

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 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 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 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.

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.

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Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

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 companion animals and get great pleasure from owning them. If the process was expensive, it could preclude those people from owning pets.

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Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

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.

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Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

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?

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Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

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.

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 teams—a constant presence on estates—can 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 area—that 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 notice—my local authority is currently considering it—for any breaches of its terms. A fixed penalty notice cannot be fixed on a windscreen and it must be served on the owner—I 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 six—one 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.

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Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Conservative, Hammersmith and Fulham

I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman's 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.

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Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

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.

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Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 3:06 pm, 12th June 2008

I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew Rosindell on his debut at the Dispatch Box. In every sense, he was a howling success.

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 country—I 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 Angela Watkinson said, for many people, their dogs are their lives.

Like my hon. Friend and others in the Chamber, I have a dog—a black Labrador called Michael. It was given to our family by my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe and came from the home of Rab Butler's 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 prizes—the 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 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 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.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

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.

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Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

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 dog—with which, I think, my hon. Friend would agree—and 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 years—costing a huge amount of money—or 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 dog's 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.

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Photo of Paul Truswell Paul Truswell Labour, Pudsey

All Members appreciate that it is always difficult to legislate on the basis of high-profile and emotive cases, but the concern of our constituents—and certainly mine—is the huge increase, to which previous speakers have referred, in the number of incidents, not just the high-profile cases.

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Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

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 walk—it is the most gregarious activity that I know of—I 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.

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Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Conservative, Hammersmith and Fulham 3:17 pm, 12th June 2008

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 fights—for 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 children's 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.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

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?

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Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Conservative, Hammersmith and Fulham

My right hon. Friend's 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 BARK—Borough Action for Responsible K9s—that 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 strongly—I 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.

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Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Marine, Landscape and Rural Affairs) and Minister for the South East), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:24 pm, 12th June 2008

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 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.

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Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Marine, Landscape and Rural Affairs) and Minister for the South East), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

No, I will not.

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. Mr. Hands said that there was a problem, but that the powers are now being used and things are better. My hon. Friend Martin Linton said the same thing. I was very concerned about the cases in the constituency of 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 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.

Mr. Amess talked about his lazy dog, and I will tell him about the land-girls. He also received a Rottweiler intervention from 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.

We are grateful for the contributions of hon. Members. We take the matter very seriously. When we had that horrific case last January—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of the proceedings, the motion lapsed, without Question put, pursuant to the Temporary Standing Order (Topical debates).

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