My Lords, this Bill has been brought about with the support of a large number of groups involved with dogs and animal welfare. I particularly thank the Dangerous Dogs Act Study Group for its help in drafting and bringing forward the Bill. The group includes the Kennel Club, the Dogs Trust, police local authorities, vets, Battersea Dogs Home and Wood Green Animal Shelters. I am also grateful for the help of the RSPCA.
The purpose of the Bill is to deal with the problem of what is often cited as one of the worst pieces of legislation to have been taken through Parliament for a very long time. The Minister will, I know, say that we should just carry on and that Defra has just given guidance, but I find Defra's guidance almost laughable due to its complexity and the fact that it compounds the problems of the Dangerous Dogs Act.
"We very much regret the fact that the Government have once again missed an opportunity to deal with the problem comprehensively and properly".—[Hansard, 25/6/91; col. 521.]
Unfortunately, in the period since then, neither Government have taken any significant steps to deal with the problems associated with the Act.
This Bill is intended to change the emphasis of the Dangerous Dogs Act, which was a piece of knee-jerk-reaction legislation to deal with pit bull terriers. Everyone who took part in it and spoke in the debates recognised that it was dealing with a current concern. It was meant to lead to the extinction of pit bull terriers as a breed in this country. Of course, if it had been successful, there would be no or only very elderly microchipped pit bull terriers alive today. However, research by the RSPCA shows that there are now more pit bull terriers in the country than there were when the Act was passed.
One thing that arose from the introduction of pit bull terriers was organised fighting with dogs. Research being undertaken by the RSPCA shows that there has been an increase in the number of organised dog fights in the country, at which large amounts of money are bet. This is a real concern. The level of fighting has increased to hundreds of cases and, indeed, Birmingham is now seen as a hot spot for dog fighting. This is unfortunate, because the Dangerous Dogs Act was meant to lead to a reduction in dog fighting.
The problem is that dog fighting became breed-specific to pit bull terriers. However, because it is extremely difficult to define a pit bull terrier, there have been a great number of cases in which officers have tried to say that a dog is a pit bull terrier and an enormous amount of legal confusion has ensued. Indeed, the cost implications of the legislation are quite severe. The cost to the Metropolitan Police last year of kennelling dogs that are considered to be pit bull terriers stood at £1.3 million, and that is just the kennelling cost and does not include policing or court fees.
One reason why I believe that a new Bill is needed is that we should move away from looking at certain breeds of dog and deal with the root cause—that is, owners, who are responsible for dealing with their dogs. I know that this has caused a great deal of concern for those who own dogs. Indeed, Black Rod asked me on the way in whether his dog would be looked at under this legislation. My answer was of course no, because his dog is an extremely well behaved Labrador with which no one could have a problem. Funnily enough, in many countries that have introduced legislation relating to dangerous dogs, Labradors are included in the list of dogs considered to be dangerous because of the number of attacks that have taken place.
However, the real issue is that the Dangerous Dogs Act has brought about a change in society. Many people now own Staffordshire bull terriers, which give the impression of being pit bull terriers, because they are seen as a status dog. They can be seen on many estates. It would be difficult to find a Peer who has not come across one of these dogs and found them quite intimidating while walking around London. I have to say that Staffordshire bull terriers, if treated properly and well controlled, are fantastic dogs to own. However, the problem is that people own them because they are seen as intimidating, and those are the very owners who cause the problem. I saw this recently on an estate in Kentish Town, where a gang of young lads had a Staffordshire bull terrier puppy and were treating it badly, trying to get it to growl at people. These dogs are being used for intimidation purposes and, because they become unsocialised, they become problem dogs and thus a problem for society.
There is an open invitation from many dogs homes, including Battersea Dogs Home, for people to go down and see which dogs end up in the homes. There is a preponderance of such status dogs, because the owners cannot look after them. The dogs end up in places like Battersea and, as they have been desocialised, it is almost impossible to rehouse them, which leads to their eventual euthanasia.
This is an animal welfare problem and a growing social problem. Intimidation by dogs is now seen as an anti-social behaviour issue. However, one can be arrested for owning a knife but not for owning a dog even though the dog may be used for exactly the same purpose. The clearest indication of that came when I discussed the issue with the Metropolitan Police, who have set up a status dog unit, comprising one sergeant and five PCs, to deal with the problem. The cost to taxpayers is considerable and is replicated throughout the country. The purpose of the Bill is to deal, in a more targeted way, with those who own dogs in a manner that leads them to being desocialised and used in that way.
I shall go through each of the clauses in the Bill. We found it extremely difficulty to gain consensus on the drafting. The fact that many groups have signed up to the Bill, although with caveats on certain parts of the wording, shows how important it is to them.
Clause 1 deals with responsibility for dogs. The purpose is to find out who is the owner of a dog. At the moment, we have a problem in discovering who is responsible for any nuisance dog that is picked up. This clause quite clearly ties it to one individual. Subsection (4) deals with those under 16 who own dogs. The parent or guardian of a 16 year-old is responsible for the conduct of that dog.
Clause 2 deals with the control of dogs, which is the main aspect of the Bill. If a dog, on public or private property, is deemed to be aggressive, the clause puts the responsibility on the owner. The Dangerous Dogs Act deals with public areas, but there is also a major problem in private areas, especially as recent cases in which children have been attacked by dogs have often taken place within the home. The clause also deals with those involved in the breeding of fighting dogs and the ownership of dogs used for fighting.
A controversial part of the Bill is Clause 2(e), which states that no person shall,
"keep a dog that has attacked a person or another animal".
I know that a number of people from the hunting fraternity have been concerned about that but, for any prosecution to take place, the case would have to be seen as a serious offence. I do not believe that such a case would get past the magistrates. The subject of this clause is covered by other legislation, so there is case law to deal with the issue.
Clause 3 deals with control notices. One of the problems with the Dangerous Dogs Act is that it is extremely prescriptive: dogs that were considered to be pit bull terriers had to be taken away immediately and dealt with. That has led to vast numbers of court cases. In this instance, the control notices will enable officers and local authority representatives to sanction a number of remedial measures. Subsection (2) sets out certain steps:
"(a) keeping the dog muzzled when in public;
(b) keeping the dog on a lead when in public;
(c) arranging for the dog to be neutered;
(d) placing a microchip in the dog;
(e) arranging for the dog to undergo training; and
(f) arranging for the dog to be re-homed".
Arranging for the dog to undergo training is extremely important because many of the dogs could lead happy and sociable lives if they underwent retraining. However, the owner would have to take responsibility for the training of the dog.
Clause 4 deals with prosecution. An issue with prosecution is that many of the owners of status dogs would not keep them in the same way if they realised that by doing so, and by using them in an intimidatory fashion, they might face penalties. Not only can a fine or prison sentence be imposed, but one can also ensure that such people are disqualified, as in subsection (2)(b), from keeping a dog in the future. Subsection (2)(c) deals with removing the dog from the owner and ensuring that it is not within their jurisdiction. Stopping people from owning dogs if they have proved themselves to be irresponsible owners is an important measure in the Bill. There are caveats in subsection (3) because dogs, in certain situations, will act in an aggressive manner; paragraphs (a) to (d) deal with that.
Clause 5 deals with powers to seize and destroy dogs and gives the police powers to take dogs out of circulation. The purpose of the Bill is not to specify that a large number of dogs should be seized and destroyed; it is to lead the police to deal with dogs that have been causing a problem.
Clause 6 deals with repeals and will cause a great deal of controversy. This is a new dog control regime and the Bill repeals the Dogs Act 1871, the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997. It will repeal the rulings against pit bull terriers. I am not a fan of pit bull terriers and do not believe that they have any place as pets. I remember speaking, as defence spokesman, against the war in Iraq and being called an apologist for Saddam Hussein. I am not supporting pit bull terriers, but the problem is that we have focused on a type of dog that is almost impossible to specify. The Minister should perhaps read out annexe 2 of the Defra guidance. It takes about 10 minutes to read and you have to be a Crufts show judge to be able to specify what a pit bull terrier is.
We should not be specifying a particular type of dog because other dogs have been brought in to act as fighting dogs. While we have been focusing on pit bull terriers, in the past few years other dogs have started to be used in fighting. They include Cane Corsos, an Italian-type mastiff, Presa Canarios, which were originally bred for fighting in the Canary Islands, Bully Kuttas, dogs bred for fighting originally from Pakistan, and Japanese Akitas. Unfortunately, Rottweilers and German shepherds are also quite popular in dog fighting. We have focused on pit bull terriers—indeed, the Dangerous Dogs Act was passed because of an incident with a pit bull terrier—but we should not underestimate how dangerous dogs that are bred for fighting are.
My Lords, that is a difficult question. If the noble Lord wishes to become an expert on this issue, he should look at the numerous court cases in which people have tried to define a pit bull terrier. It is not possible to do it by DNA because pit bull terriers are a cross-breed. You could conceivably have a pit chihuahua, if those two types of dog were crossed, but that is a different point, although I was thinking that it would make those handbag dogs quite dangerous. The issue is not along those lines, but the noble Lord's question goes to the heart of what we are dealing with. It is almost impossible to check on pit bull terriers. A vast amount of money has been spent on experts who have tried to deal with this.
The problem that the Bill seeks to address is an animal welfare one. I hope that this issue will be dealt with by a Government soon enough because in a time of recession, when we are trying to save money at every stage, it cannot be a good use of public resources for the Metropolitan Police to spend £1.3 million just on kennelling. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a follower of field sports and as an owner of working dogs. This is a brief Bill, and I shall be pretty brief in my comments. My concerns come from the perspectives of farmers, shooters, gamekeepers, land managers and ordinary dog owners. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on this dog's breakfast of a Bill, but any legislation that repeals and replaces the Dangerous Dogs Acts must be worth while and an improvement on the current situation. I have received a brief from the RSPCA, whose concerns relate mainly to dog fighting, a quite disgusting activity, and the use of aggressive-type dogs as status symbols, mainly by the criminally inclined and usually in urban areas. I share those concerns.
However, the Bill is badly drafted and requires substantial amendment. The bona fide dog owner, together with many groups of people who own and use working dogs, will be seriously affected by the Bill. To begin with, there is a lack of definition in Clause 4(3)(d) about what is a service dog. I presume it is a dog that has been trained for a specific purpose, such a police dog or a sniffer dog or for other purposes. Does the term include guide dogs for the blind? Does it include gun dogs that have been specifically trained to flush and retrieve game? Does it include terriers used to control vermin? The Bill is unclear on this. Indeed, is Black Rod's dog a service dog? If not, it probably should be.
Clause 2 sets out the principal offences under the Bill. Clause 2(b) states that no person shall,
"encourage a dog to be aggressive or to intimidate people or other animals".
Therefore, if I am using a dog, such as a terrier, to flush or hunt a rabbit, I am according to the Bill using a dog to intimidate other animals. That clearly cannot be right. If I am using a dog to kill rats or other vermin, I am similarly caught by the Bill. Would I be guilty of the offence of keeping a dog that has attacked another animal because the Bill states that a dog,
"shall be regarded as having been in an attack if it has bitten, mauled or injured a person or another animal"?
There are many such scenarios where I could be guilty of an offence and my dog could be seized and destroyed. The Bill needs a great deal of clarification. I am sure that it was not intended to incorporate legitimate and lawful activities within its scope, but it is far too widely drawn. It also opens the door to malicious private prosecutions from quarters that might disapprove of a certain lawful activity. That is totally unacceptable.
My Lords, I am delighted to welcome the Bill on behalf of my colleagues. We congratulate our noble friend Lord Redesdale not only on bringing forward the Bill at this topical time but on the way in which he has managed to bring together an amazing collection of people. Many of us will have experienced some of those who take an interest in these issues. We should warmly congratulate our noble friend on gathering them all together and achieving some sort of consensus. While I understand the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, and they will need to be addressed when the Bill is in Committee, it is important that we should be having this debate at this stage because there is considerable concern about the inadequacy of the present legislation.
Reference has been made to Black Rod's black Labrador, Sugar. This is a good opportunity to say that not only will we miss Black Rod in the House in a few days' time, but we will also miss Sugar. As an extremely well behaved dog with, obviously, an extremely responsible owner, she is a model for this legislation because the Bill is not about breed, but about behaviour. The sad thing about the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was that it concentrated almost entirely on a breed-specific approach to legislation rather than on the behaviour of the dog or its owner.
As my noble friend said, the Dangerous Dog Act 1991 is cited by political students, not just in this country, but all over the world as a classic case of the danger of a knee-jerk response to events producing a law that seeks to remedy a situation at speed. Legislate in haste, repent at leisure. As my noble friend also emphasised, the emphasis in that Act was entirely on breed rather than behaviour. Clearly, that should not be the basis for such legislation.
I cannot claim a particular interest; I am not a dog owner; but I have been a victim. I remember walking along the tow-path of a canal in north London some years ago and suddenly being attacked from behind by two Rottweilers, who took a large chunk out of my suit—it was quite a good suit, too; not this suit I hasten to say—but, more seriously for me, quite a large chunk out of the back of my leg. The significant point was that almost immediately the dogs were called back by their owner but owner and dogs disappeared without trace in a matter of seconds, so there was no way that I could achieve any remedy or report the incident to any good effect.
My other interest is that when I was a constituency Member of Parliament, two ladies in Newquay in my constituency of North Cornwall were extremely anxious about mistaken identity in the control of dogs. I notice from my list of correspondence that I corresponded with about 20 authorities, including authorities in Germany because there was a case in Germany, but also with our Foreign Secretary. In that case, Staffordshire bull terriers were the victims of a case of canine mistaken identity. It was assumed that all bull terriers were much the same, which of course is absolutely not true. As my noble friend said, the problem with breed-specific legislation is that it is extremely difficult to define particular breeds precisely, because there is a lot of cross-breeding.
There had been a case in Germany where a Staffordshire terrier had apparently been responsible for an attack on a small child, but the Staffordshire bull terrier in that case was of the American breed, quite different to anything bred in this country. The German authorities understandably made a silly mistake: how were they to know? When it was suggested that that definition should also be applied in this country, we had to make it clear that the British version of the breed is much lighter and cannot be trained to be as aggressive as the fighting dogs that the Americans tend to favour.
Breed-specific law is bad law; it simply does not work. There has been greater recognition over the years that the basis on which the 1991 Act was set was a most ineffective and inappropriate way to base any legislation. It happens that the Staffordshire bull terrier as bred in the United Kingdom is among the most reliable with children. Out of 170 breeds registered with the Kennel Club, it is one of the only two especially noted to be safe with small children. The Kennel Club, with which I also held discussions then and now, is absolutely determined that there should be an improvement in the law. That is why the Bill is particularly topical and relevant today.
The problem with the 1991 Act, even as amended in 1997, is that there is still an improper emphasis on breed and insufficient emphasis on behaviour—behaviour of both dog and owner—hence the relevance and attraction of my noble friend's Bill. There is also far too much emphasis in that legislation on action post-problem and not nearly enough on preventive action. My noble friend's Bill has great attractions in that respect, too. The previous legislation has unfortunately cost vital resources for the police which could be put to much better use. It contains no power of seizure in advance of a problem that is obviously about to occur. There are also other considerable problems with that legislation.
The basic attraction and strength of my noble friend's Bill is that it is not breed-specific. I know that the Kennel Club, among all the organisations to which my noble friend referred, welcomes the Bill on that basis. The 1991 Act has proved unworkable. It has not dealt with the problems identified then, and it has certainly not met the needs of either dog owners or those who may be at risk from irresponsible breeding of fighting dogs. Difficulties have occurred because of the lack of effective definition.
The emphasis on the owner, the person who is in control, is critical to my noble friend's Bill. That is surely a huge improvement on the previous legislation. Those of us who have owned dogs in the past, and those of us who have witnessed how dogs are controlled and trained, must surely recognise that it is the human being who should carry responsibility, rather than us relying on the definition of a particular breed of dog. Instead of banning specific breeds of dogs, the dog's behaviour, the behaviour of the owner and the behaviour of those who have responsibility for its training must surely be the central concern of any effective legislation in this field.
I very much look forward to Committee sittings on the Bill, when we can deal with any problems of definition that may still need resolution. In the mean time, I warmly welcome the Bill, and I am very grateful to my noble friend.
My Lords, at the outset, I should declare that I am a dog owner and either am or have been a member of the RSPCA and the Countryside Alliance. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on slipping his leash this morning and bringing the Bill to the House. His intentions must be applauded and I agree with much of what he says.
I start with the existing legislation. The Dogs Act 1871 allows for a civil remedy when a criminal offence has not been committed. One advantage of that Act is that it can be applied everywhere—on private property, not just in public places. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was hastily introduced following two horrific incidents of attacks on small children. If I remember correctly, one child died. Prior to that Act, there were no criminal offences to protect people from attacks or fear of injury from dogs. Section 1 of the Act prohibits the ownership of certain types of dogs and specifically names four breeds, the pit bull and the toser among them. It is important to remember that the intention behind the legislation was to protect people. One criticism of the Dangerous Dogs Act is that criminal proceedings can be brought only if an offence took place in a public place. However, it should be remembered that if the offence took place on private property, civil proceedings can still be brought under the Dogs Act 1871.
One problem with the Dangerous Dogs Act is that of unintended consequences, the way in which the wording of the Act has been interpreted so widely. Section 1 deals with the type of breed or breed types that might be dangerous or appear to have dangerous characteristics. Obviously, a great deal of ambiguity and subjectivity can creep in—and indeed has. If the dog fits the type, it can be seized and/or destroyed. As the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said, that has led to thousands of dogs being seized based on someone's opinion. Banning a type of dog breed is impossible to get right. Without change, dogs will continue to be seized, owners persecuted and dogs registered as dangerous based solely on their looks. We certainly would not arrest humans based solely on their looks, so why dogs? Surely a dog should be judged on its temperament, its disposition and its behaviour.
The Dangerous Dogs Act has also been criticised because there is no appeal system for owners to regain their dog. The Bill does not address that. With the best of intentions, the Dangerous Dogs Act is not working as intended. Since that Act, I understand that dog attacks have not diminished. If anything, they have increased. Thousands of dogs have been seized or destroyed because of their looks, not their behaviour, and at a cost of millions of pounds and to the distress of thousands of families. There is a need to put something more concrete in its place, so I welcome the introduction of this Bill, which puts the onus on the owner, or rather the irresponsible owner, rather than on what a dog looks like. It is essential that the Bill achieves what is intended, that the wording is not open to a broad interpretation, and that there are no unintended consequences as a result of the Dangerous Dogs Act.
With this in mind, I want to discuss various parts of the Bill to seek clarification. At this stage, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury on his excellent speech. His points were well made. To some extent, he has stolen my thunder. Clause 1(4) says that,
"a person shall be treated as responsible for any dog for which a person under the age of 16 years in their care and control is responsible".
If a 15 year-old meets a friend in the high street, who asks him to hold on to his dog while he whips into the stop to buy a packet of fags or whatever, the dog then slips its leash and attacks a passer-by, does the clause mean that the 15 year-old's parents are treated as responsible, even though they were nowhere near the scene, or have I misinterpreted the meaning?
Clause 2(a) and (c) seem to be fairly straightforward, but Clause 2(b) says:
"No person shall ... encourage a dog to be aggressive or to intimidate people or other animals".
On the question of intimidating people, if someone makes a house call—they might be a postman—and if the door is open and three Chihuahuas rush out yapping, this might be considered rather cute. However, if three Alsatians rush out barking, they might be seen as aggressive. By allowing the dogs to rush out, it could be argued that the owner was encouraging their behaviour and would therefore fall foul of this Bill, even though, in my example, neither the Chihuahuas nor the Alsatians caused any actual harm.
On the question of being aggressive or intimidating other animals, this seems to be a minefield of unintended consequences. First, if a dog chases a rabbit, a cat, a rat or indeed a grey squirrel, is the dog being aggressive or intimidating towards other animals? Under Clause 2(b), the answer will probably be yes. However, no harm has been done and I really cannot believe that it is the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that the dog and the owner in these circumstances should become criminals. I am tempted to say, "For goodness' sake, let the dog chase the rabbit".
Secondly, what if the dog was kept specifically to kill rats and mice? The owner and the dog would most certainly fall foul of Clause 7(4) in that,
"a dog shall be regarded as having been in an attack if it has bitten, mauled or injured ... another animal".
It seems that it is all right for a cat to kill a mouse or a rat, but not for a dog. What about dogs that are used to flush out game or vermin? To do so requires intimidating the game and vermin, otherwise they would not flush them out. What about sheep dogs moving sheep? The sheep would not move unless there was an element of intimidation, but anyone who has watched "One Man and His Dog" will know that no harm comes to the sheep.
Clause 2(d) says:
"No person shall ... keep a dog that has been used for fighting".
Does this mean that it is an offence for a person to give a good home to any dog that has been involved in a dog fight? What is a dog fight? Clearly, two dogs scrapping in a back alley over a bone would fall foul of this Bill, but I do not believe that that is the sort of dog fight which the noble Lord envisages. Surely he means organised dog fights, which I believe is covered under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
What does the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, mean by a service dog in Clause 4(3)? Does he mean a dog that has been specifically trained to carry out a particular function, for example a police crowd-control dog or a drug-detection dog? Does the clause include the sheep dog, the gun dog, the rat catcher: in other words, dogs that have been specifically trained to carry out a perfectly lawful activity? Clause 7(3) says that this does not include,
"any case in which the dog has been used for a lawful purpose by a constable or a person in the service of the Crown", but this clause does not make it obvious what the definition of service dog is. If someone could prove that his dog was a service dog and it then attacked a child while off-duty, so to speak, it would seem, as subsection (4) is currently written, that being a service dog is a sufficient defence. That is surely not the noble Lord's intention.
Clause 2(e) says:
"No person shall ... keep a dog that has attacked a person or another animal".
On the question of attacking a person, the noble Lord's intention is no doubt obvious, but let me give noble Lords a scenario. A child tries to take a bone away from her Chihuahua and the little pooch bites his hand. The child cries, is given a cuddle and is told that he should not do it again because it is a natural reaction for the dog to protect his bone, but what if the dog had been an Alsatian? Might that not be classed as an attack? It would under Clause 7(4); or is it a defence that the dog was provoked into an attack?
Finally, Clause 6 repeals the existing dogs Acts. If we do this, there is a grave danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water. By repealing the Dogs Act 1871, people will lose the ability to bring civil proceedings against the owners of aggressive dogs. It might be desirable to do so if, for instance, the authorities refused to bring criminal proceedings for one reason or another. By repealing that Act, it would then become legal to import, own and breed the four named breeds that are currently in the Act. I am not sure that this would be seen as a desirable outcome.
I am afraid that I may well have irritated the noble Lord by nitpicking my way through this Bill. I genuinely applaud his intention to bring changes to Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act. It cannot be right that dogs are seized because of how they look rather than how they behave. The Bill quite rightly puts the onus of responsibility for a dog's behaviour fairly and squarely on the owner. One of the criticisms of the Dangerous Dogs Act is the unforeseen consequences due to the authorities' wide interpretation of the wording of the Act. We certainly do not want to make the same mistake with this Bill, whereby the natural, legitimate, and in some cases central activities of dogs throughout the country are criminalised because of the wording of the Bill and the wide interpretation of it.
I have no doubt that we shall return to some of the issues raised today when the Bill goes through the House.
My Lords, like other speakers in the debate I appreciate this important Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, which seeks to discuss issues which we all know are significant to the nation. He will have identified already from the contribution and pertinent questions from the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, and those from the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, who raised interesting points about service dogs, that he is in for quite a lively debate in Committee. The Government also have detailed reservations in certain areas but that, too, is a matter for Committee.
I am sorry that I cannot give the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, a great deal of comfort but the Government's problem is that we are not sure whether this Bill is in principle the way to tackle the issues that it identifies. We just do not think that repeal of Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act is the way to go. None of us who were in public life in 1991 could fail to recall the rapidity with which that legislation went through. Nor could we forget the nation's shock-horror at the pit bull attacks that were occurring or the nation's demand that action should be taken. The action was knee-jerk in the sense of immediacy of reaction. However, I do not think that the Act should be condemned as ineffective. The Government contend that the issues lie a great deal more in effective enforcement, an issue to which I shall turn in a moment, rather than in the nature of the legislation itself. We are therefore not convinced that the Bill is premised on an accurate consideration of how to tackle these issues.
As the noble Lord will appreciate, even if an Act is subject to criticism, we should all be anxious about removing it if that might increase the risk to the public. Defra almost daily receives letters from the public about dangerous dogs and we are frequently pilloried in the press for not having tighter dog control laws. When reading what the public and the press say I am struck by the fact that there is a strong body of opinion that criticises the current breed-specific legislation on the basis that many more breeds should be added to the list. If we were to run a consultation on this issue, I do not have the slightest doubt that we would have additional lists of dogs that should come within the framework of existing legislation. Dogs such as the Akita and the Rottweiler obviously spring to mind.
We are of course in regular contact with the police, and in 2007 we consulted every police force in England and Wales. Their view was that without the prohibition on the pit bull terrier-type of dog there would have been many more dog attacks in this country. The view of the vast majority of police officers is that pit bull terrier-type dogs are not suitable animals to be kept as pets unless they are kept under strictly controlled conditions and a court has assessed whether the dog poses any threat to public safety.
It is often rightly said that any dog can attack someone. However, it would be irresponsible to pretend that some dogs are not far more capable of inflicting serious injuries when they attack than others. Some dogs have the physical and mental capacity to inflict horrific and sometimes fatal attacks. It is no surprise that people who are interested in dog fighting—a practice which has been condemned by every contributor to this debate—concentrate on certain breeds of dog. Dog fighting is a despicable activity. The issue is that the pit bull was used primarily for and bred for that purpose. There is a danger that breeds in other parts of the world could be brought to the United Kingdom and would present similar threats. But we have to ask ourselves why these people tend towards only one type of dog.
I know that pit bulls can be cross-bred with other dogs. The law is effective in that respect. It covers any dog that has the characteristics of a pit bull. If a dog is the offspring of a pit bull and another type of dog, it is likely to have the characteristics of a pit bull and be caught by the Act. It is not the case, as is sometimes suggested, that breeding development renders the Act ineffective and nugatory. It is the view of others, including the RSPCA, that the Act has been successful in preventing three specific types of dog with the characteristics of fighting dogs from being introduced into this country—the Japanese tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro. These dogs are not suitable for general pet ownership and we are protected against their import.
The Bill proposes to replace the prohibition of types of dog with the characteristics of fighting dogs with a ban on breeding dogs for fighting or keeping a dog that has been used for fighting. The Dangerous Dogs Act already makes it an offence to breed from any of the four types of dog that are prohibited. The pit bull terrier is still the dog most often used in dog fighting, so in effect it is already an offence to breed from the majority of fighting dogs. I therefore do not think that current legislation is ineffective. We also recently strengthened the law on animal fighting. Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is now an offence to keep or train an animal for use in an animal fight. We are satisfied that the current law on fighting dogs is more than adequate. The current prohibition seeks to prevent the worst attacks by restricting the ownership of pit bull terriers. To take this restriction away would be a significant reduction in public protection. We are therefore not able to support the Bill, premised as it is on that significant stance.
The Bill would make it an offence to own a dog that had attacked a person or another animal. However, courts already have the power to disqualify irresponsible owners from keeping dogs and the power to order the destruction of dogs that have attacked. We believe that the courts are in the best position to reach these judgments. I therefore come back to the point that our concern should be reflected in effective action under existing law rather than rethinking and redrafting the law, which is what the noble Lord seeks to do.
The noble Lord's second major theme is the introduction of control notices. We are not aware that any of the control measures suggested in the Bill are not already readily available under the Dogs Act 1871 or the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. If the noble Lord is concerned about enforcement then I share that concern. We need to improve enforcement and ensure that police officers are well acquainted with the law. Every police force should have a specialist on dog law who is able to advise other officers on enforcement and to ensure that the force does its job effectively. We should also make the public aware of just where the law stands so that we inhibit the dangers of dogs becoming a problem for the public.
Under the current law it is only a criminal offence to allow a dog to be dangerously out of control in a public place or in a private place where it is not allowed to be. But where the dog is allowed to be, it is of course the responsibility of the owner. I am concerned about the Bill's provision—the noble Earls, Lord Cathcart and Lord Shrewsbury, also referred to it—regarding private premises. To make the obvious point, Parliament does not want to create a situation where a house owner could be prosecuted if the household dog bites a burglar. One is all too well aware of the sharp public reaction that would occur if the law permitted that. We have to be extremely careful about such an eventuality if the law is not clear about the position of a dog in a private place where it is entitled to be.
We are not convinced that changing the existing law in this area would help those who enforce the law or administer justice, or reduce the number of attacks that take place in domestic premises. However, I emphasise that my officials will keep this area under close review, and if necessary we will make changes to the law if we believe that it would reduce the number of distressing incidents that occur within a family context. However, in the worst instance—that is, the family pet savaging a baby—there would normally be horrendous consequences for the family and, as we have seen in previous cases, the courts would have to reach difficult judgments on whether to convict a family member when the family has often suffered from the dog going out of control.
Under the Dogs Act 1871—which of course preceded the Dangerous Dogs Act by 120 years—a dog can be considered dangerous even if the only danger shown is to other dogs and not to humans. Under that Act, being dangerous reflects the dog's disposition and not its acts. In some cases an owner can be liable for any damage that a dog causes under the Animals Act 1971. We have substantial existing legislation which addresses itself to the issues against which the noble Lord suggests his Bill would provide additional defence for the public.
The noble Lord mentioned the threat of gangs employing dogs as a weapon against the public or against other gangs, which can lead to disorder. This is an important issue. I can assure him that he has pressed us in an area where we share with him exactly the same anxiety. The Policing and Crime Bill, which at present is in Committee in the Commons, will have provision for an injunction to be made upon gangs to prevent gang members from being in charge of an animal in a public place if it can be established that it appears threatening to the public.
Of course the Government share the noble Lord's anxiety with regard to the safety of the public and the effectiveness of the law. We will all enjoy an interesting Committee stage when we debate the Bill. However, the noble Lord will appreciate that the Government's concern leads us to press for the more effective operation of existing legislation—with the additional point I have made about gangs, where the law is to be changed—against a problem which the noble Lord is quite right to bring to the attention of the House.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. In one respect, I am quite glad that, although the issue is high on the public agenda, the Bill is not in response to a specific attack. Too much legislation is enacted in that way and, of course, the original Act was the result of a specific attack. But we should not be under any misapprehension: there have been a large number of dog attacks over the past few years. These have had different causes and therefore need to be covered by legislation dealing with such issues.
Let me deal with some of the questions that have been raised. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, raised the issue—
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Earl. The noble Earl raised the issue of the control of dogs falling under other legislation dealing with animals. I am quite prepared to drop that section from the Bill in Committee because it is covered in other legislation. I think that would satisfy many of the objections.
Of course, the introduction of pack hounds to hunt squirrels is extremely important. I say that as a joke because, as everyone knows, I am a great slaughterer of grey squirrels. I do not advocate that of course. Mind you, it is an idea.
The Bill seeks to deal with the issue of dogs being used—mostly in an urban context, although also in rural areas—as status dogs for intimidating young people. The noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, discussed the issue of intimidation. This has, I believe, been sorted out through case law in a large number of cases and would not be difficult for a court to understand. I thank him for his positive comments. I know that in another place his party has declared that it will repeal the Dangerous Dogs Act and introduce legislation along these lines. His comments will be very helpful in that purpose. The issue he raised about dogs being owned for use in fighting is covered by other legislation. I realised that, of course, but the Bill had gone forward by the time I had worked it out. I will be quite happy to take that section out of the Bill. Service dogs are covered by separate legislation. We have taken his concerns on that into consideration and, on reading the Bill more closely, we believe that they have been addressed. I hope that his party's support for the basis of the Bill, as expressed, will come forward at a future date.
The Minister stated that the Government have a number of problems with the Bill and that, although it is helpful to discuss this issue, enough legislation already exists. I would counter that by saying that although I am a dog owner—not at present, but I have been in the past and have always dealt with dogs—this issue was raised with me by several organisations: the Metropolitan Police, the RSPCA, the Kennel Club, the Dogs Trust, Battersea Dogs Home and others involved in dogs. I find the Minister's protestation that there is adequate legislation at the moment, and that I should not think of repealing it because it could cause more problems, slightly difficult to reconcile with the fact that all those organisations, which have to deal with this issue on a day-to-day basis, are calling for reform and have been doing so for a long time. In fact, through the setting up of the Dangerous Dogs Study Group, most of them have looked at this issue, which has not been addressed. There are more pit bull terriers in the country than there were before; indeed, the problem with the argument he was making is that under the Dangerous Dogs Act, so long as pit bulls were neutered and microchipped, they could carry on, and over 1,000 of them did. It is not the dog per se that was the issue, but the control of it. I agree that there a number of dogs which you could say we should add to the list, but that just adds to many of the inherent problems.
Obviously control orders exist, but as Clause 6 deals with repeal and would repeal those very measures, I had to reintroduce them. Rather than dealing with a patchwork of other pieces of legislation, the new legislation will make clear and understandable, for those enforcing it and for those who own and deal with dogs, what is acceptable and at which point they will be dealing with problems.
The Minister talked about private property. There was a case recently where that was an issue: a little girl, who was being looked after by her grandmother, was mauled by a dog but it was her uncle who was charged, although I think he was charged only with possession of heroin rather than over the dogs. Certain dogs are treated as dangerous animals and used in an intimidatory fashion. You could also see them as a dangerous weapon, and of course if you had a gun that was used in the same way and was then involved in an accident there would be a prosecution for that.
The Minister has talked about intimidation. Just about anyone who has walked around London or many other cities has their own personal stories of problems with a certain type of dog. No one would have difficulty with the sort of dogs that most dog owners own. Indeed, my mother's dog, which is a mongrel—or a Beverley whippet, as she likes to call it—is incredibly affectionate and talks to everyone and jumps up. That is not a form of intimidation. I think we are quite clear; many people who have walked around London delivering leaflets, especially on some of its estates, know exactly what type of dog we are talking about.
I have an issue with the new legislation. The Minister says that it is not clear, but I believe that it is. It talks about who owns the dog and who is responsible for it. If a dog is used by a gang, which member of the gang is responsible for the ownership of the dog? The police would find that the 15 people in the gang said that it belonged to someone else's cousin's brother's uncle who happened to be away on a fishing holiday at the time. Gangs use these dogs, but one of the problems of prosecution is actually nailing ownership of a dangerous dog to an individual.
The noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, talked about who would be responsible if someone were left in charge of the dog. The answer is the person who owned it. If it slipped its leash and went off and attacked someone, the reason it would do so is probably the way that it has been dealt with; it has been desocialised and will attack people. Many dogs slip their leash and do not attack people.
There are changes to be made to the Bill. There has been enormous discussion within the groups about what is acceptable in it. I see the Minister smiling because I know he will have been through the same process on many occasions. After listening to the concerns raised, I plan to bring back some amendments. While I realise it is quite possible that, even after amending it, it might not lead to legislation without the Government's support, I hope—considering that the main opposition party has declared that it will be doing something about this, and that would be with our support—that some future legislation will bring about a change in the problem. As all the organisations have stated, it is a problem that has to be dealt with.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.