I open this debate by thanking the Minister and his colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office. It would appear that not only are they highly competent and hard-working Ministers, but they have a crystal ball, because the majority of what I intended to call for in this debate was highlighted recently in the Home Secretary's announcement on Tuesday of the consultation to take place on toughening up existing laws to protect the public from dangerous dogs. Or perhaps Stourbridge just has a psychic MP!
I will begin by explaining how a reign of terror by two dogs, of the presa canario breed, in Stourbridge, and the increase in the west midlands of dogfighting and breeding for fighting, prompted me to call for this debate. Wollescote is one of the most ancient parts of my constituency, and one of the nicest places in which to walk and play is the green space by Rufford primary school. Presa canario dogs are Canary island fighting dogs and a relatively new breed to this country. Two such dogs have been allowed by their owner to run free on this field for some time, and have attacked other dogs and chased and frightened young children and parents on their way to and from school. On each occasion it has been reported, and the police have attended, but of course the incident is usually long finished.
I am sure the Minister can imagine that such dogs do not sit well with pensioners out for a stroll, responsible dog walkers and primary school children. The presa canario is classed as a dangerous dog in the USA, and quite recently two of these dogs killed a trainer in Los Angeles. Further details of the breed are available on the internet-it makes quite alarming reading. Although I know most people would agree that, as a rule, there are few dangerous dogs but many irresponsible owners, in this case I would like the Minister to investigate this breed and consider it for inclusion on the dangerous breeds list.
There have been several local meetings on this issue, because obviously my constituents are concerned by what is effectively antisocial behaviour of the worst kind. As a result of those meetings, local people have come up with a set of clearly defined requests. First, they are asking for clearer Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs guidance on prohibited dogs because there appears to be a great deal of confusion over cross breeds, in particular, as well as the protracted detention of such dogs while awaiting assessment. They would like stricter licensing of new breeds, and are asking how anyone could have gained a licence for a presa canario given that it is known to be a fighting breed.
Local people would also like irresponsible owners who allow their dogs to intimidate or harm others to be held responsible for veterinary or medical bills resulting from an attack. They are asking also for stricter legislation to enable the police to seize and detain any dog that attacks. Local people also asked for stricter law enforcement when a dog owner disregards police advice, and for a review of dog control orders and local council responsibility for their implementation in public areas, because the question of who is responsible for which area has made the problem quite difficult to sort out in Wollescote.
Whether such terrorising is due to the breeding of the dog or the irresponsibility of the owner goes right to the heart of the issues that Ministers need to consult on. I have spoken to many of my constituents about the proposals to tighten the law and to local police officers who deal with dangerous dogs, and I can tell the Minister that they are very keen to support the proposals.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals saw a twelvefold increase in complaints about dogfights between 2004 and 2008, and there are significant increases in the west midlands in particular. Dogfighting-both caged fights and rolling fights, usually organised quickly in parks and open spaces-is becoming extremely well organised and is seen as a great money spinner. The main focus is usually on pit bull-type dogs. They are bred to reach an extreme state of attack arousal much more quickly than other dogs and to maintain it for longer. That, coupled with their strong physical stature, makes pit bull-type dogs the dog of choice in such situations. They also attract a certain element of society who sees a status value in owning such a dog or regards them as so-called weapon dogs.
Dangerous dogs are widely used by gangs and criminals to intimidate and cause injury, and possession is associated with worrying elements of antisocial behaviour and gang culture. Sadly, the dogs are often victims too, suffering from cruelty, neglect or conditioning to encourage further aggressive behaviour. The RSPCA reports a recent explosion in the numbers of such dogs, particularly with indiscriminate breeding across cities. Exhausted bitches are regularly brought to animal hospitals, having been used as breeding machines, which has also led to a flooded market. The puppies that once earned their owners £200 to 250 now fetch only around £100, so many are now abandoned, which is an additional problem.
Part of the problem is that dogfighting is still legal in many parts of the world. It is important that people realise that dogfighting is most definitely unacceptable and against the law in this country; indeed, along with many of my colleagues, I regard it as cruel as fox hunting.
I would like to commend the west midlands dangerous dogs unit and the work that it does, particularly in identifying, investigating and seizing such dogs, and in bringing their owners to justice. I spent time with members of the unit when I participated in the police parliamentary scheme two years ago. I am filled with admiration for their dedication to duty and their skilled handling of complex and dangerous situations.
Let me turn quickly to the consultation. I am pleased to see that the Government want to update the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, to ensure that it works better and enables the police, local authorities and the RSPCA to take swift action to protect the public and other animals, and to stop abuse. It is particularly helpful that the Government want to extend legislation to cover private property, so that postal workers, engineers, health visitors and so on can be protected and allowed to do their job in safety. I have spoken to a midwife and a social worker this week who described how frightened they feel when visiting a home where such dogs are allowed inside or even allowed close to the babies or children they are attending. I have long felt that we surely owe a duty of care to such workers. We must protect them from fear or injury when they attend family homes in the course of their duties.
Along with many dog welfare institutions, I welcome the news that dogs should be microchipped and that insurance is to be considered. I would, however, like to flag up an area of concern. We must consider the cost of such items for pensioners and those on fixed incomes. We must also think about how we would enforce such measures, especially among those whom we consider to be irresponsible owners, who might be less likely to have insurance.
I was also pleased to hear that the Home Office is increasing funding to the Association of Chief Police Officers to help the police to train dog legislation officers, matching the funding from DEFRA last year. Alongside all this, it is essential that well-funded and targeted education programmes are encouraged, to assist in persuading dog owners to be more responsible for the care and control of their pets. I hope that the Government will take on board the wishes of my constituents during the consultation, so that the law relating to dogs can function better, and that the dogs, their owners and the wider public can cease living in fear or with cruelty.