Dangerous Dogs Act

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:45 pm on 12th March 2010.

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Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Marine and Natural Environment) 2:45 pm, 12th March 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Lynda Waltho on securing this very well-timed debate. She is not only psychic but assiduous in her work on behalf of her constituents, and not least on this issue, which has caused widespread concern throughout the United Kingdom. The debate provides an opportunity to discuss dangerous dogs legislation. I present my apologies to the House for the absence of my colleague Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick. I give him credit for bringing forward the timely consultation on this issue, and he would have loved to be here today, but I will happily try to fill his shoes.

The debate is well timed because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge mentioned, only this week the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office launched a wide-ranging public consultation on dangerous dogs legislation. Let me explain why we have done that now. We are responding to the genuine and widespread public concern about the problem of dangerous dogs, and to the question of whether the law in this area is adequate. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has reported a twelvefold increase in complaints about dogfighting between 2004 and 2008 in London alone, and 719 dangerous dogs were seized by the police between April 2008 and April 2009. That recent increase in the numbers of attacks and prosecutions show that we should consider the matter urgently.

Members of Parliament will shortly be using the services of postal workers. The postmen and women will go about the country, delivering our leaflets that will seek to persuade people to get out and vote, one way or the other. The Communication Workers Union has campaigned assiduously for the law to be amended, the better to prevent attacks on postal workers. I have certainly come close to some full-frontal confrontations with a variety of dogs in my time, as I am sure have other hon. Members. We try to do our best, but postal workers have to do that every day, so we must take their views into account.

The Government share the concerns about dangerous dogs, including dogs that are being used to threaten and intimidate people, as well as those that present a risk because they are just not being controlled properly. That is totally unacceptable, and in the consultation we are asking those who enforce the law as well as animal welfare organisations, the general public and Members of Parliament for their views on what needs to be done. We are asking about a range of measures aimed at dealing with the problem.

The press has, perhaps understandably, tended to major on dog control notices and third party insurance. I would therefore like to say a quick word about microchipping. This is already done by responsible dog owners, and it can be done quite cheaply. I know that many police officers and local authorities feel that if it were to become mandatory, they would be better equipped to trace and deal with irresponsible owners.

I was a little surprised by comments made over the last few days by the Opposition Front-Bench team stating that the Government have been slow to pick up on a problem that has been around for years. On the contrary; the Government have responded very quickly to what I have just described as a problem that in the scale of its escalation is very new.

Five years ago, the Metropolitan police seized just 42 dogs under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. In 2009-10, the figure is likely to exceed 1,100. There are similarly depressing figures on the kennelling costs incurred by the Metropolitan police, showing that the problem is not just the capture and identification of these dogs, but the fact that they have to be kennelled. Somebody has to pay for that; it is the taxpayer, through the police. In 2008-09, £1.35 million was spent on the kennelling of seized dogs; this year, the figure has risen to £2.65 million, and it has been necessary to allocate £2.85 million for the next financial year. Those figures show a rapidly and recently deteriorating system, which is why the Government are determined to act now.

Changing the law is only one aspect of solving the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge remarked on that herself. Much more important are changing attitudes and fostering responsible dog ownership. We should not forget, however, that despite all the tabloid headlines, there are a lot of responsible dog owners out there in the country. In this context, I am particularly heartened by the fact that a growing number of community-based projects during the last few years have been aimed at encouraging responsible dog ownership. They involve the police, local authorities, community groups and animal welfare organisations going out into particular areas where there are problems in order to encourage responsible dog ownership. What do they do? These initiatives involve talking to people to encourage a responsible attitude to dog ownership and they offer practical help, including with regard to microchipping and neutering.

It would be unfair and invidious of me to single out particular welfare organisations that are in the vanguard of encouraging responsible dog ownership, but I must take the opportunity to pay particular thanks to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Dogs Trust, the Mayhew Trust, the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals and the Blue Cross for the fantastic work they do to encourage people to give their dogs the care that they deserve.

We have heard from my hon. Friend about the Presa Canario breed. I can reassure her that the Government go into the consultation with an open mind on possible legislative changes. We have advanced for consultation a number of different ideas on changes. I would be interested to hear more of my hon. Friend's views and I am sure that both DEFRA and the Home Office would welcome from her a further detailed response to the consultation, representing the views of her constituents, which she does so well. The consultation opened on 9 March 2010 and will close on 31 May, so there is plenty of time for my hon. Friend to contribute her views. She will consult her constituents further and I know that she will seek out a wide range of views to present.

I am aware of campaigns to add more dogs to the list of types banned under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. The consultation will help me and my ministerial colleagues better to assess the case for adding more types and breeds to the banned list. However, we will also need to consider whether imposing bans is the best solution. Some hon. Members have made the point that the emphasis in new legislation should be on the deed-that is, the risk presented by any type or breed of dog-rather than the breed itself. That is one of the issues covered by the consultation.

The consultation is only the most recent evidence of the seriousness with which the Government take this issue. We have already taken a number of other steps that we believe will make an impact. My hon. Friend has already spoken about the sterling work of the West Midlands police force. I suspect that some of her insights have not only been gained from constituents who have been confronted by some of these dangerous dogs-and, occasionally, their owners-but have arisen from her service on the parliamentary police scheme.

I fully endorse my hon. Friend's comments about the West Midlands police. They are among the leading forces in tackling the problem of dangerous dogs. They work closely with the RSPCA in tackling the scourge of organised dogfighting. Who, in this century, could smile on that sort of activity? It is sheer madness. The police also deal with more general issues relating to antisocial behaviour involving dogs, and have developed effective policies and procedures to tackle problems caused by dangerous dogs.

My hon. Friend mentioned the difficulties that police officers can experience in identifying banned breeds. Last year the Association of Chief Police Officers introduced a programme of training for officers who are responsible for dealing with dogs, and I am pleased to say that it covers recognition of pit bull types. I am also pleased to say that-as my hon. Friend rightly acknowledged-DEFRA and the Home Office are contributing to the cost of the training.

DEFRA's policy has been to improve the way in which current legislation is enforced nationwide. We do not simply produce legislation and hope that the problem has been solved; we know that we must continue to learn. In 2008, we produced a clear and easy-to-read leaflet intended to better inform the public about current law on dangerous dogs. In 2009 we issued widely welcomed guidance on the law, aimed at those who enforce the legislation. The guidance, written in association with the police and the RSPCA as well as some local authorities, sets out the current law on dangerous dogs, and advises enforcers on how the law can be used effectively to tackle the problem of irresponsible dog ownership.

The guidance recommends that each force should have, or have access to, a designated dog legislation officer who knows the law and how it can be used to best effect. Last year, DEFRA provided £20,000 to help fund training courses for new DLOs. The West Midlands police force has played a central role in the provision of DLO training and the Home Office has just announced another one-off grant of £20,000 to fund further training.

But that is not all. In 2009, DEFRA commissioned new research on dog aggression against humans. The project will last for 15 months, and will entail an analytical study of the risk factors associated with past aggressive dog behaviour towards people. At the end of last year, DEFRA published a code of practice for the welfare of dogs. It provides advice on owning a dog and responsible dog ownership, and will come into force on 6 April. DEFRA has also worked with the Ministry of Justice, Her Majesty's Courts Service, the police and the RSPCA to produce new guidance for the courts on the handling of dangerous dog cases. The guidance has just been published, and we hope that it will help courts to improve the processing of cases involving dogs.

We are working across Government to tackle this issue, because it straddles several areas. The Home Office has recently sponsored the passage of the Policing and Crime Act 2009, which includes a new prohibition in the gang-related violence provisions to prevent gang members from being in charge of an animal in a public place if it has been proved that they have engaged in, or encouraged or assisted, gang-related violence.

I think it is a very good thing that there is to be wide-ranging consultation. The debate is timely: it will make not only my hon. Friend's constituents but the wider public aware that they need to submit their views to the consultation. The problem of dangerous dogs has been escalating, which is why we need to consider how we can reform the legislation and the way in which we deal with it.

I hope I have reassured the House that the Government recognise the seriousness of the problem and that they continue to take it seriously, to monitor it and, in line with the consultation, to consider useful suggestions of ways in which we can manage the situation better.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.