Legislation on Dangerous Dogs — [Dame Caroline Dinenage in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at on 27 November 2023.

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[Relevant document: Oral evidence taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on 18 October 2023, on Pet welfare and abuse, Session 2022-23, HC 1123].

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation, Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation 4:30, 27 November 2023

Before I call Nick Fletcher to open the debate, I wish to make a short statement about sub judice resolution. I am sure Members have relevant constituency cases that they might want to raise in the debate. I remind them that under the terms of the House’s sub judice resolution, Members should not refer to any cases where there are ongoing legal proceedings; they should also exercise caution if raising matters that are not the subject of active legal proceedings, but where discussion could prejudice ongoing police or other law enforcement investigations.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petitions 624876 and 643611 relating to legislation in respect of dangerous dogs.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Caroline.

Jack was 10. His mum, Emma, described him as “our perfect boy”. On 8 November 2021, Jack went to call on a friend. He was attacked and killed by an XL bully. Jack suffered fatal injuries. He was 10 years old, and his life was over—absolutely tragic. Jack’s mum, Emma, told me that their lives will never be the same again. The community came together and showed huge support for Emma and her family, but sadly Jack is gone forever. I have had to lead petition debates on many subjects, often in circumstances where a life has been lost, but I do not believe that I have ever had to speak when there has been a loss of life in such horrific circumstances.

We have two petitions before us for debate. The first calls for the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 to be repealed; the second calls for the Act not to include the XL bully. Having heard Emma’s story and taken evidence before today, and having seen and heard of many of these attacks, I can understand why the Government have announced a ban, but before I move on to the arguments, I will make it clear that Emma never called for the ban, as she believed that it would never happen. Shockingly, since the announcement of the ban, Emma has received real abuse from people who disagree with it. Doing that to a grieving mother is abhorrent, and I hope that if those responsible are caught, they are dealt with severely. Emma has suffered enough. Her only goal is to ensure that no one else has to go through such an ordeal. My heart goes out to her.

I will turn to the position of the Government and the petitioners. Following a concerning rise in attacks and fatalities caused by XL bully dogs, the Government have added the breed to the list of dogs banned under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. To help current owners adapt to the new laws, the changes will come into force in two stages. From 31 December 2023, it will be against the law to sell an XL bully dog, to abandon an XL bully dog or let it stray, to give away an XL bully dog, to breed from an XL bully dog and to have an XL bully in public without a lead and muzzle. From 1 February 2024, it will be a criminal offence to own an XL bully dog in England and Wales unless the dog has a certificate of exemption.

There is help with getting an exemption certificate on the Government website. If people want to keep their dog, it must be microchipped, kept on a lead and muzzled at all times when in public, kept in a secure place so that it cannot escape, and neutered. The owner must be over 16 years old, take out third-party public liability insurance against their dog injuring other people, and be able to show the certificate of exemption when asked by a police officer or council dog warden, either at the time or within five days.

Photo of Luke Evans Luke Evans Conservative, Bosworth

My hon. Friend is making a good point about what the Government have laid out on their website. One of my concerns is about the ban coming in so quickly. Does he believe that the public have enough information, or know where to find the information, to enable conscientious owners who want to look after these dogs and protect them to make an informed decision? Is there enough time to ensure that the information about what is needed from responsible owners gets out?

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

My hon. Friend is right is right to raise that point, which I will come to later in my speech.

I have discussed these petitions with many friends and colleagues. Like me, after hearing of such horrific attacks, they found it hard to believe the numbers that support repealing the ban. We have banned other dogs in the past, and these dogs are obviously dangerous, so who would not want to ban them? What is the reason? Let us explore further. During my research, I spoke to many professionals in this field; I attended six evidence sessions, and I attended the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in October.

What has been said by the petitioners? Anita Mehdi, the creator of the main petition, states that she believes that adding another breed to the Dangerous Dogs Act is not the right way forward. She also believes that the media is to blame for fearmongering, and there is no official data on dog breeds and dog attacks. Anita hopes for a platform where accurate data can be recorded. Anita also believes that it is dangerous to class a dog by its type, when it is irresponsible owners that need to be targeted. She believes that the Calgary model is a good example that the Government should take into consideration when looking into responsible ownership. When asked about muzzles, Anita explained that responsible owners will comply and use them, but there will be owners who will not, and they need to be tackled.

Glyn Saville, a petitioner against the XL bully ban, who is here today, says that the number of XL bullies is in excess of 90,000 and that implementing the ban will therefore be very difficult. He also says that these dogs are not bred to be aggressive to humans—although some people may disagree—and that if a ban is brought into effect, families living in social housing will be at real risk of losing their pets if they wish to stay there, as landlords can refuse exempted dogs. Another petitioner, who has called for muzzles not to be part of the ban, said that her dog can now not defend itself and that it has being attacked by other dogs, since having to wear a muzzle.

Even the professionals have concerns. The British Veterinary Association stated that banning one breed will not work. The BVA representative compared it to the banning of a single weapon and explained that it may work in the short term but that the ultimate goal is surrounded by so many complex social issues that it would be difficult for it to last in the long term.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa)

Emma, whose son, Jack, was brutally killed by an XL bully dog two years ago, is my constituent. Emma is of the opinion that, whatever happens with regards to a ban on XL bullies—the hon. Member has touched upon the enormous difficulties and complications—it is vital that we place the emphasis on tackling the whole issue of dangerous dogs. A one-off action by the Government is not enough; it can never be enough. We need a thorough, wholesale examination of dog breeding and dog training practices, and we need to look at the specific question of responsible ownership. All of those issues have to be considered so that our society is truly safer.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

I will be coming to many of the points that the hon. Member raises. Hopefully, the Minister can shed some light on them, too.

Both the BVA, when I spoke to its representatives at the London Vet Show, and my hon. Friend Dr Hudson raised the fact that most fatalities have occurred in people’s houses, rather than when a dog has been out. Obviously, in the house, dogs are not muzzled or on a short lead. They also asked that the Dangerous Dog Act be reviewed and highlighted that section 3 of the Act gives scope for something to be done about controlling dogs. I often say that it is not always new legislation but enforcement of existing legislation that is needed. That also needs to be looked at.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals explained that it wants the Government to slow down the pace of the ban coming into force, mainly because of its implications and consequences. It also raised the fact that it is becoming incredibly difficult to ensure that everyone who owns an XL bully can do what they need to do before the deadline in order to keep their dog. The RSPCA mentioned that it is seeing abandonment and relinquishment of these types of due due to unexpected costs before Christmas.The BVA highlighted that the window for neutering should be extended for another six months for dogs under seven months old, as neutering has an impact on their growth. The RSPCA suggested that there be a campaign on responsible dog ownership but also suggested that stakeholders be brought together to see what dog legislation may look like in the next five years.

In addition to my research, The Mirror is supporting the proposed Jack Lis law, which calls for a different approach to dog legislation that will include all dogs and focus on the breeding, training and sale of dogs.

There is much interest in this topic, and rightly so. I do not think that anyone who signed these petitions should be vilified. Many people understand that something needs to be done, but when experts agree that there are problems, the Government should listen. We have to stop these incidents occurring, that is for sure. If we are to ban the XL bully, the timeline for neutering definitely needs to be looked at, and we must really push for responsible ownership.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

I am genuinely conflicted about this. I was on the EFRA Select Committee when it conducted a previous inquiry into the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which was rushed through and not fit for purpose. At the same time, my heart goes out to any family who has been affected by an XL bully dog killing someone, particularly a child. When we talk about responsible dog ownership and training courses or anything like that, my concern is that it will be the owners who are already responsible who take them up, and it is very difficult to spot an irresponsible owner until the dog has caused harm. Has the Committee looked at that?

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

The Petitions Committee has not looked at that, but I believe that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has done. I am coming on to that in the next part of my speech.

DEFRA has had a responsible dog ownership steering group, which published a report and confirmed that the recommendations would be shared later this year. Can the Minister say when they will be shared? The Calgary model was mentioned many times during my research, so we have something that we can copy, and improve if required.

Photo of Mark Logan Mark Logan Conservative, Bolton North East

I thank the hon. Member for giving way. In the light of the concerning incidents involving dog attacks, particularly those attributed to XL bully breeds, does he agree that the Government should shed light on their plans to implement DNA sampling and to adopt the Calgary model for dog classification in order to ensure accurate identification and classification of such dogs?

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. We should definitely look at the Calgary model. I know that the type and breed of dogs is a contentious area, and some work needs to be done on it, but I genuinely believe that people know what type of dog they have. They know whether they have an XL bully. We need to be really careful not to let classification be used as a way of not muzzling dogs that could cause harm. That is the last thing we want.

We are an animal-loving country, but we must encourage personal responsibility when making the decision to own a pet. We must choose a dog that fits our home, our family and our lifestyle. Dog owners must ensure that they understand the costs involved and that they train their dogs correctly—and themselves, for that matter. Some say that we need to enforce chipping of dogs and have a database that accurately records all pets and any bites that have occurred, no matter how minor. We must also look at breeders to see what can be done; many breeders are good, but not all.

We must never again have to hear of another story like Emma’s. In memory of little Jack, we should work collectively to come up with the right answers for the safety of the public and of our pets—and we must do it quickly.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck 4:44, 27 November 2023

It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Dame Caroline.

This is an extremely emotive issue, and I hope people understand the views of others. What Nick Fletcher and my hon. Friend Wayne David said about 10-year-old Jack is enough to make anyone despair—it is very, very sad. My constituency has the highest number of individuals who signed the petition—nearly 3,000—and the constituency next to mine, Blyth Valley, has the second highest, so the House can see that views are split.

It is a fact that more people—it seems to be mainly young people—are being injured in such incidents. According to the police figures, there were 11,373 incidents between July 2021 and June 2022, and 13,940 this year. This cannot continue; it is absolutely desperate stuff. Just a few weeks ago, little Kaiden Burn, my constituent, was playing in the street when he was mauled by a dog. It was not muzzled or on a lead; it was running rampant through the street, but the thing is that it had done it before. The police were aware of it, but nothing happened, and that wonderful young lad was mauled while playing in his own street.

As I say, this is a very emotive issue. As a dog lover, I understand that people are concerned about losing a much loved, well behaved pet because a Government regulation considers all dogs with a certain look to be dangerous and bans them. There must be a recognition that each individual dog has its own temperament, personality and character. I agree with a number of the comments made by the hon. Member for Don Valley, the RSPCA and other organisations: banning dogs merely based on what they look like is not the best approach. The latest breed to be treated in this manner, which is of course why we are here today, is the American XL bully. I understand the anxiety of responsible owners of those dogs or dogs that simply look like that breed, but we must recognise that there is a problem with dangerous dogs: they have caused far too many deaths and serious injuries, and the numbers are increasing. Not all owners have had the training or have the knowledge required to own certain types of dogs.

There are many problems, but one of the core ones is the horrendous increase in unscrupulous backyard breeders of dogs of this nature. Some people think they can make a few bob out of selling the dogs, but they do not have a clue what they are doing and it is causing absolute mayhem. Some of the legislation that has been put in place tackles that to a certain degree, but the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is inflexible, crude and fails to address the complex issues that many hon. Members have mentioned. As a consequence, it fails in its stated aim of protecting people from dog attacks, so a fresh approach and more sophisticated legislation on dangerous dogs is needed. We should recognise that this is not just about the XL bully; it is about dangerous dogs.

We talk about the XL bullies, but what is an XL bully? Basically, it is a crossbreed. We cannot just say, “Well that dog looks like an XL bully,” and make some measurement so it qualifies to be euthanised. That is not the right approach—it really is not. A lot of these XL bullies are absolutely wonderful dogs. I bet most people in here have a pet of their own, and they would not want somebody coming knocking on their door saying that their dog looked like it was of a certain breed, “So unfortunately, my friend, if you don’t have the papers required under the amendments to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, we will have to take it away and put it down.” That really is not the right approach, understanding the families who suffered so greatly because of dangerous dogs.

The information sent out says that if the dog meets certain characteristics, it might be considered as an XL bully—what does that mean? It is not about whether someone has an XL bully, but if their dog’s breed might be an XL bully. Mark Logan made a really fair point: there needs to be a bit of definition. I understand that if we check the DNA of any particular dog, it will go back to a million years ago and have different characteristics of different breeds. If we look at a dalmation, we know it is a dalmation because it has black spots and a white coat. However, things are not the same for XL bullies.

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Conservative, Stroud

The hon. Gentleman makes such a powerful point. I have been struck by how constructive the correspondence from both sides has been on this issue, given how emotive it is. As a mum, I find it devastating to think about children being mauled. But a constituent wrote to me and said:

“Although I do not own an XL Bully, family members and close friends own Staffordshire terriers, Labrador crosses, and other bully crosses, which have been proved by DNA not to be XL Bully’s, although, under the current guidelines, would incorrectly see them be classified as XL Bully’s.”

The issue is sending shivers up the spines of many pet owners, and it is incumbent on us to think it through very carefully.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck

The hon. Lady makes a positive and accurate point. My family dog—it is not mine, but my son’s—Olive, is a beautiful young puppy, but I am pleased that she has shorter legs. If she had had longer legs, I’m telling you that somebody would be saying that she was a dangerous dog. But she is one of the most wonderful animals ever. The hon. Lady makes a valid point.

Staffies—Staffordshire bull terriers—are fantastic animals. Anybody with any expertise in the dog world knows about Staffordshire bull terriers. There will be the odd bad one in any breed, by the way: there can be bad labradors and bad retrievers. But what is being said is that we need to look at dangerous dogs, not just XL bullies. I am wondering: who is going to police this? Who is going to be knocking on the doors with a tape measure? As has been mentioned, a lot of families are concerned that their dogs might be classified because they look like something. They might lose a loving pet—it is not right.

I urge the Minister to think about two main points. We have to ensure that people follow Government legislation and what has been put out there. It is essential that they do that. The Government have to pause and review this entire legislation and come forward with amendments to the Dangerous Dogs Act, not just focus solely on one potential breed that might be considered to look like something that it might not be. It is absolutely crazy. At the same time, please do not think that I do not want any legislation. I want to ensure that not a single person is mauled again by any dogs, anywhere in this country. I would support whatever we can do to do that properly—properly, man.

Another real point is the fear of dumping before the 31 December deadline. A huge issue is that people will dump these dogs, whether that is because they cannot afford it or they do not understand the legislation. We then have the issue that, if the dogs are put into an animal rescue centre after the 31 December, they cannot be removed—so the rescue centres could be inundated with dogs.

There is also a massive issue with the veterinary surgeons. If I was a vet, I would not be putting a healthy dog down. I would not. It is important that we put dangerous dogs to sleep, but I would not be putting healthy dogs down because the Government said so— I think that is really important.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa)

My hon. Friend has made a number of very good points indeed. Does he share my concern about the Government’s introduction of a ban on XL bullies? Many of the illegal breeders are quite unscrupulous individuals, as he has mentioned; if action is not taken against them, they will simply move on and create another kind of dog. As he says, the XL bully is not a distinct breed but an amalgamation of other breeds. The same thing might happen with another kind of dog if action is not taken against those illegal breeders.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck

Absolutely, that is so true. One of my final points is about unscrupulous owners and breeders. As I mentioned before, the breeders are crossbreeding these dogs with different types and what for? A lot of these owners love the fact that they can walk around with the XL bully and say, “Look at me—I’m big and I’m tough. I’ve got this dog, and I’ll set it on you.” But the vast majority of owners are responsible and they love their dogs. That is the huge issue in this debate today.

My final point is basically focused at the Minister. The letter from 31 October mentions that if an owner wants to put their dog down, the Government will give them £200 to do so. What about the people who are struggling, who have a dog, and who are looking after the dog very well? They might not be able to afford the insurance or the licence—the £92. What about the Government considering some sort of financial support to regulate and regularise good, honest owners and good, honest breeders?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 4:58, 27 November 2023

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Dame Caroline. As the Secretary of State who introduced this legislation—in fact, it was my last act in Government—I thought it appropriate to contribute to today’s debate.

The debate surrounding the ban on XL bully dogs under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is itself a complex issue that evokes strong emotions. I understand that very much, and the approach taken was carefully considered. I was also aware before your earlier ruling, Dame Caroline, that there are potential legal challenges against the Government, so I need to be measured and not reveal all the information that we considered during this time.

I have had three rescue dogs, and my mother and sister have another rescue dog at the moment. There is no doubt that an adorable pet brings a lot to people’s lives and hearts. I am also very conscious of the challenges faced by those people who have suffered from dog attacks, whether it be against their children, themselves, or indeed their own pets. They obviously can be very distressed by that.

In reality, there was no knee-jerk reaction; there were simply too many attacks happening, and the proportion of attacks by XL bully-type dogs was considerably higher than others. Yes, I am sure we have all read about how other dogs—whether a collie, Jack Russell or potentially a rottweiler—have also been involved in many attacks. The issue is about the proportion and seriousness of the attacks, and indeed about how they can be stopped—that is pretty difficult. It is about the fatalities as well.

Ian Lavery talked about how we define a breed, and some of the point is that this breed is not defined. I pay tribute to the chief veterinary officer and the many officials who have been involved extensively in this sensitive matter, working with animal welfare experts and experts from the police and, indeed, local councils, who will have to undertake a lot of this work. I want to assure the House that a lot of care has been taken over this approach, and that is also why a lot of this will be through guidance and there will be individual decisions.

I come back to the fact that, of course, many of these dogs are pets. They are not necessarily status symbols, but we know that they have been used for that. We see a lot of that in how the ears of these dogs have been cropped to give them a more aggressive feel and appearance, despite the fact that that is already illegal under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. It is not illegal to import the dogs, but we are talking about an extensive element where that is the case. Since the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, there have been some amendments along the way, partly driven through case law. That was back in ’97, and there were further regulations in 2015, but there was a specific reason for that. I suggest that the extent of the attacks is the reason why the XL bully is the first breed to have been added to section 1 since 1991.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

My right hon. Friend is an esteemed legislator of great repute. Does she agree therefore that in this Parliament we cannot legislate with imprecision? That is exactly what the statutory instrument does. It talks about “characteristics”, which it says may or may not be necessary for the definition. Surely we need to make the law clear beyond peradventure so that the people of this country know which side of the law they are on.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I would say to my hon. Friend that the guidance is as clear as it can be. It gives a number of physical characteristics, and I am sure the Minister will say more about that and the process being gone through. I suppose that in introducing the legislation, I very much wanted to put across that the issue is not being considered lightly and that a lot of care and attention has been given to the detail.

I must admit that I have had several death threats about this legislation and I am conscious that it is driving those strong emotions. What I will say is that the Government took an approach that would allow time for people to rehome an XL bully-type dog if they felt they could not keep it. Also, the situation is very different from what has happened recently, when people have had a pit bull or similar: owners can still apply to get a certificate and join the index of exempt dogs. The default here is that every person who registers their XL bully-type dog will get a certificate automatically and will automatically join the index. That is a significant difference, even though I am conscious it will cost some money to do that.

Photo of Luke Evans Luke Evans Conservative, Bosworth

I am grateful to the former Secretary of State, and the point she is making should be considered. From 31 December, breeding, selling, advertising, gifting and abandoning XL bully dogs will be illegal, but there is also the issue of rehoming. A Sky report over the weekend said that 246 of these dogs are waiting to be rehomed. I had a constituent stop me on the high street who wanted to rehome one of these dogs but was struggling to get the information on how to go about doing that. I am slightly concerned because rehoming is one way of saving these dogs by ensuring they get support from a responsible owner who will take on a licence. Could a carve-out for rehoming be considered, so that it is pushed back to 1 February in line with the rest of the exemptions coming in?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I am not in Government anymore, so that is a question for the Minister. I think that was done to bring to an end the opportunity for the transfer of dogs. It is admittedly on a rapid timescale, but we must remember the reason why we are taking this approach at all: to try to stop attacks. People read about attacks every week, and they are happening around the country. Somebody may absolutely want to help a dog by rehoming it, but they need a certain amount of training to look after such a strong animal.

If we think about an adult XL bully dog, we are talking about something that weighs about 70 kg. These are big dogs. They really have a lot of strength and, frankly, the only way to unlock their jaws once they latch on to somebody is basically to choke them. Do not kick them in the head or anything like that—that will only make them grab on even tighter. That is what we are dealing with. Sadly, some of these dogs do get out of control and it is their characteristics that lead them to have that physical strength. Also, we must not get away from the fact that they were originally parts of various bits of pit bulls, mastiffs and similar.

It is, of course, understandable why people who have their XL bully dog next to their children every night, with the dog probably licking the children to death—if that makes sense—think it will protect them. But there is the risk and the results of that risk are happening too often.

I am not planning to linger in this debate; I will just say briefly why I think this an effective piece of legislation. I am very conscious of the reviews that have happened and how different Select Committees have called for more extensive action. I am also very aware that the Dogs Trust, the RSPCA and similar charities do not think the legislation effective. However, the reality is that the number of attacks by pit bulls basically went away when this legislation was put into place. The muzzling and the different licence approach are things that we need to happen as quickly as possible for the existing XL bully dogs in this country.

As for alternatives, there has been a lot of talk about licensing. Well, licensing to own a dog was scrapped a long time ago. I do not think that councils would welcome having to take on the whole licensing of dogs right across the country. Of course there has to be enforcement on breeding and disreputable practices. In section 3 of the 1991 Act, there is a wider approach for all dogs; any dog can be dangerous. So far, however, five specific dogs have been singled out, because of their characteristics.

I am very conscious that the job of politicians is to make law. I appreciate that one of my hon. Friends does not think this law is necessarily the right way. But this is what we do—one day something can be legal and the next day it can be illegal. We do these things because we believe they are the right thing to do.

It is of course open to Members to pray against this statutory instrument, but I really hope that does not happen because it is important that people get certainty and can take positive action. As I say, anybody who has an XL bully dog right now will be granted the certificate to join the index of exempt dogs. In effect, that will be automatic, as long as the conditions are complied with and they can say so on that register.

I am conscious that many people want to speak today. In conclusion, people must have time to rehome and everybody who loves their XL bully should be able to keep it. I commend the legislation, which is still passing through the House.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Independent, Neath 5:07, 27 November 2023

It is always an honour to serve under your chairpersonship, Dame Caroline.

It is a privilege to speak in this debate on e-petitions 624876 and 643611 relating to legislation in respect of dangerous dogs, and so admirably led by Nick Fletcher. I congratulate Cat Smith on her appointment as Chair of the Petitions Committee.

Currently, four breeds are banned under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991: the pit bull terrier; the Japanese tosa; the dogo argentino; and the fila braziliero. However, following the rise in the number of attacks and fatalities, the Government have added the XL bully to the list of banned breeds. From 31 December, strict conditions will need to be complied with and from 1 February 2024 it will be a criminal offence to own an XL bully in England or Wales without a certificate of exemption.

Dogs suspected of being of a prohibited type are assessed against a standard that describes what a particular type of dog should look like. However, the number of characteristics is not a guide and neither is the way in which the assessment should be conducted, which results in many legal breeds and crossbreeds fitting the standard, regardless of the dog’s behaviour.

I am shocked and saddened by the appalling reports of attacks and deaths that have dominated the news recently. Obviously, I share the public’s concerns and agree that current legislation has not prevented these serious dog attacks. Urgent action is clearly needed, but breed-specific legislation is not the answer. The Dangerous Dogs Act has failed to protect the public since it was introduced, and dog bite incidents have risen since then.

Animal welfare, and particularly dog welfare, is an issue close to my heart. During the past five years, I have worked closely with Vanessa Waddon of Hope Rescue in Llanharan, which is a dog rescue centre that often takes in dogs that have been seized from illegal breeders. Since the ban was announced on 15 September, it has been inundated with calls and messages from worried owners asking for advice, and especially from those who are not sure whether their dogs meet the standard because it is so wide.

Hope Rescue is receiving up to five calls a day from owners in all areas of the UK asking it to take in their XL bully. It is concerned that, as the date approaches, there is a risk that some dogs will simply be abandoned. The rescue holds several stray dog contracts, so there is a chance that those dogs will enter it as strays. Capacity is already under huge pressure due to the current animal welfare crisis, which has resulted from the increased number of dogs purchased during the pandemic and the subsequent cost of living crisis. In fact, the centre is over capacity and is having to pay for overflow kennelling to ensure that it can meet its stray dog commitments to local authorities. The likely abandonments will put additional pressure on a system that is already broken due to a lack of kennel capacity.

Hope Rescue has already seen an increase in the number of large bull breeds coming through the stray dog system—again due to the breadth of the standard. The predicted increase in the number of dogs coming through the system is likely to impact the centre’s ability to help other dogs urgently in need, especially through its work supporting local authorities with dogs seized from illegal and low-welfare breeders. That could lead to dogs being left to suffer longer in poor conditions, as there is nowhere for them to go. The centre is proud of the much-needed support it provides to licensing teams in Wales, and it is heartbreaking that it may not be able to help in the future.

Hope Rescue is also hugely concerned about the XL bullies currently in its care that it does not yet own. They have been seized from illegal breeders but have not been signed over through the section 20 court process. These are young, rehomeable dogs, and the centre has worked hard with them to prepare them for their new homes. It is worried that the court process will not be completed in time to rehome them before the ban comes in and that it will have no choice but to euthanise them. Hope Rescue is also worried about any XL bully types that come into its care as the 31 December deadline gets nearer. As a responsible rescue, it takes Hope Rescue time to properly assess a dog for rehoming, but after that date it will not be able to rehome them.

The wellbeing of staff is a huge and legitimate concern. These passionate and caring individuals have chosen a career in animal welfare because they want to make a positive difference to the lives of rescued dogs. Things are already tough for the staff due to the animal welfare crisis and the number of dogs coming into their care. Being forced to euthanise healthy, rehomeable dogs, which may never have put a paw wrong, will be devastating for them.

Photo of Conor McGinn Conor McGinn Independent, St Helens North

I have listened intently to the debate because, like many Members, I feel conflicted about it. My interest was piqued last summer when three women who were walking their dogs in a park in Newton-le-Willows in my constituency were attacked by an XL bully. Their dogs were badly injured, and they were injured and have been traumatised too. It is important to make the point that many who are in favour of the Government’s proposals are also dog lovers, and they and their animals deserve our consideration and protection as well.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Independent, Neath

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I really respect his view, which he put in a measured way.

On behalf of Hope Rescue, I urge the UK Government to consider letting rescue centres rehome XL bully types that, through no fault of their own, find themselves in a rescue centre.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa)

The hon. Member and I visited the Hope Rescue centre in Llanharan a few months ago, where we saw and heard many moving things. I was particularly moved by the number of deformed dogs that the centre had taken from illegal dog breeders, many of which would otherwise have had to be put down. That brought home to me how illegal breeding is such a menace and really needs to be clamped down on. Does the hon. Member agree?

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Independent, Neath

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. Not many people know this, but we were in school together many years ago at Cynffig Comprehensive School, so I always listen to his views, and I do agree with him on this.

On behalf of Hope Rescue, I urge the UK Government to consider letting rescue centres rehome XL bully types—that, through no fault of their own, find themselves in a rescue centre—subject to the exemption process and being assessed for suitable rehoming.

A friend of mine, Professor John Cooper KC, will be taking the legal challenge to the Government if the ban is not halted. Between 2016 and 2017, John and I served on the Bach commission, which was chaired by Lord Willy Bach and which provided detailed proposals on establishing the right to access justice as a fundamental and enforceable public entitlement. John has always been a staunch advocate of animal welfare both in and out of court, as well as being relentless in his representation of people who find themselves in the most vulnerable of situations. His work with dogs includes advising on the reform of the Dangerous Dogs Act—particularly the flawed breed-specific legislation regime—and advising on and drafting proposals for a more effective sentencing regime for pet theft. A former columnist for Dogs Today, John has a rescue lurcher called Lawrence.

Professor Cooper KC has stated:

“This is knee jerk legislation, which has neither maturely reflected on the wealth of evidence which is available or taken the time to reasonably consider the best ways to protect the public and act rationally in relation to the dog. It simply will not work.

Any proposed ban is no more than putting a sticking plaster over the issue as unscrupulous breeders simply move on to the next dog.

The answer according to the government’s own previous reports is an effective licensing regime, responsible ownership and stricter penalties and sentencing powers in the courts.

The law, maturely and carefully considered, can protect the public. This, tragically, goes nowhere near that.”

I cannot agree more with Professor Cooper’s words. Nor can I disagree with the heartfelt plea of Vanessa Waddon and her wonderful staff at Hope Rescue. For those reasons I call on the Government to halt the ban’s implementation, support responsible rescue centres, review the effectiveness of breed-specific legislation and carefully consider how to properly protect the public from serious and fatal dog attacks.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 5:19, 27 November 2023

Thank you, Dame Caroline. First, I thank my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for presenting this debate in a very balanced way. As Chair of the EFRA Committee, I can say that this issue has been on our radar for some time—indeed, we had an evidence session on it. We were particularly indebted to my hon. Friend Dr Hudson, who is a qualified veterinary surgeon and a member of the Committee, for the expertise he brought to bear. It was the Committee’s unanimous view that the ban is needed.

Why have the Government taken action? We have heard of appalling attacks. Fatal attacks are only the tip of the iceberg, and there have been many other reports in the media of people being attacked by dogs and of the police or members of the public having to intervene. And, of course, there are no statistics at all for dog-on-dog attacks, as we have heard.

The statistics do not make comfortable reading. Until the last three years, there were roughly three fatal attacks a year, but that number has now gone up to 10 or 11. More than half of those attacks are down to XL bullies; of the remainder, many are down to similar breeds.

I was lobbied to suggest, “Saying these dogs are dangerous is like saying red cars are dangerous, because there are a lot of red cars about,” but that does not stack up at all. The best estimate we got from one of the big veterinary groups is that there are around 50,000 of these dogs in the country. Using a simple, back-of-a-cigarette-packet calculation would indicate that, given the number of fatalities that are down to these dogs, they may be 200 or 300 times more dangerous than other dogs. Adding these dogs, as well as pit bulls and three other breeds, to section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is a sensible way forward. As we heard from the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Dr Coffey, that was an effective piece of legislation.

We are also told by a number of people that these dogs are hard to define—it is down to a characteristic, rather than a particular breed. However, interestingly, when the Committee went to Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and saw a litter of puppies, staff told us, “These are American XL bully puppies”—there was no doubt in their mind what this breed was. Indeed, when I looked this afternoon at a website where dogs are advertised, there were 458 dogs described as American XLs. In many cases, the parents and grandparents of these dogs were shown in photographs, and they were also described as XL bullies. I can understand why people may try to argue that their dogs are not of this breed, but the veterinary profession and people training these dogs actually understand fairly well what they are.

When I looked at this issue at the time of our inquiry, it was interesting that these dogs were trading at anywhere between £800 and £1,500. Now they can be picked up for £200 or are, indeed, “Free to a good home.” The concern about them being dumped on the roadside really has some bearing. There were also some interesting descriptions in some of the advertisements. One described the dog, saying:

“Fine with kids but does get excited quickly.”

It chilled my heart to think what might happen. Another said:

“Not fond of other dogs”— and that was a person trying to describe the dog in a positive way in an effort to find a market.

It is right that we recognise the concerns of owners of other breeds, which may get lumped into the same category as these dogs. I spoke today with my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns, who has a constituent with an Old Tyme bulldog, and there is a concern that it could fall into this category. It is important that we make sure not only that these dogs are registered but that people with other breeds have some reassurance that their breeds will not fall into this category. I hope the Minister will give us some reassurance.

Why do people have these dogs? We are told they can be good family pets but, as Ian Lavery said, if somebody wants to be big and tough, they have one of these dogs. I have heard it said that someone who carries a knife on the street will be arrested and searched by the police, but they can walk around with one of these dogs with impunity, and it can be used to intimidate other people. I saw a report in the paper—I will not refer to the specific case—where a dog was used in an attack, and the police have laid a murder charge. On the “Jeremy Vine” show, a breeder of these dogs specifically said he bred them to sell to drug dealers. That might have been a bit of bravado but, even so, it does indicate the sort of people—in some cases—who buy these dogs.

My view is quite clear: these dogs are not a suitable family pet. They are a ticking time bomb. If my grandchildren—I have got to that age now—were going to play at a friend’s house where they had one of these dogs, I would forbid it. I also feel concerned about the safety of people in the home: we can muzzle these dogs and have them under control outside, but I am concerned that, in the family home, where some of these attacks have happened, children and other people may be at risk.

We have had reference to rehoming. My understanding is that most of the dog charities are not rehoming these dogs any more, because of the reputational risk—there was a case where a dog that had been rehomed was involved in an incident.

It is important that people who have these dogs and who comply with the law also take sensible precautions. If I was walking a dog and saw one of these dogs coming the other way, I would want to cross the road. Many of these attacks start off as an attack on a dog, but when a person tries to save their dog, it turns into an attack on the individual. I am particularly concerned about visitors to homes and communication workers, such as postmen, who are subject to dog attacks. Dog owners do not seem to take simple precautions, such as putting a cage on the back of the door, so that when people insert their fingers to deliver leaflets—as we often do as politicians—that is not a risk, or putting a postbox on the wall outside a property if there is one of these dogs there.

Many people are getting third-party insurance—if they join the Dogs Trust, they get automatic third-party insurance. One problem I hope the Minister will look at is whether it will remain possible to get third-party insurance for these dogs if we have further attacks and big claims on insurance policies because a person is severely injured or worse.

Ultimately, this debate is about the value of human life versus the value of canine life, and I think the Government have got the balance right: we must protect human life. If people feel that they cannot keep these dogs and that the restrictions are too onerous, there are lots of dogs in places such as Battersea and the Dogs Trust that do need rehoming, because the boom in dog ownership that we had during the pandemic is turning into a boom in rehoming.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament 5:26, 27 November 2023

I came to the debate to find out more about the issue and to give voice to my constituent Helen. She is caught by what my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope described as the imprecision of the rules on what actually constitutes a dog of this dangerous categorisation. The Minister is as kindly, compassionate and open to reason as any former Chief Government Whip could be, so I presume on the time of the Chamber only to quote a few extracts from a quite convincing letter from my constituent.

Of course, dangerous dogs legislation has a bit of a history. I was not yet a Member of Parliament when the original legislation was passed. However, I think I am correct that it became a bit of a byword for legislation introduced in a hurry on an issue that turned out to be rather more complex than initially seemed to be the case, and I fear that the same may be true of the present update to the Act. It is therefore with reluctance that I say that we of course all agree that the safety of human beings must come first, but if we propose to inflict severe restrictions on pet owners, we must at least be unambiguous in what we do.

Let me turn to what Helen wrote to me:

“I do not have an ‘XL bully’. My dog is, by DNA testing, an American Bulldog X Neapolitan Mastiff mix, with multiple breeds mixed on the mastiff side. In other words, I have your basic mutt, or ‘Heinz 57’ dog. He will be 11 in April and I have had him since he was 9 weeks old. He has never shown an ounce of aggression towards any humans, including at the vets during some incredibly negative procedures, none of which the vets have ever felt he needed to be muzzled for, including when he had to have a stent placed into his ear when he damaged a blood vessel”— a procedure she says he had done, “without pain relief!” She continues:

“So you can imagine my shock, my horror, at learning that the ridiculously vague ‘breed definition’ of the XL bully, very hastily and incredibly poorly formed by the Government ‘experts’, somehow seems to have incorporated every and any large muscular looking dog in the UK, potentially including my beloved boy.”

She says that according to the EFRA Committee discussion, the XL bully came to the UK in 2014, but her dog was born the year before, so she finds it hard to believe that he could so be categorised. She says:

“With such vague descriptors as ‘gives the impression of great power for size’, ‘blocky head’ and ‘neck is medium in length’, and the equally vague descriptor that the dog must meet ‘a substantial number of the characteristics’, I have no idea if he would fit ‘type’, and seemingly all that matters is what everybody else thinks!”

She then goes on to say, “Of course, you could recommend my taking a ‘precautionary approach’” and register him anyway, because it would just mean that he would have to be on a lead and muzzled in order to comply. However, apart from this costing her dog its freedom, which she feels is wholly undeserved, she says there is much more in the way of consequences than might be expected.

For example, she says that the health insurance, which she has had for the dog ever since she brought him home, would be lost to her. Without health insurance, it would have cost her more than £3,500 for a procedure that her dog had to undergo, but it actually cost her £800 with the insurance. She says that in the midst of a cost of living crisis, she now has to decide whether to register her dog as an XL bully when she does not believe that he is one at all,

“completely and pointlessly removing his freedom and drastically restricting his life, plus lose the financial backing that I have had his entire life just at the time when he will need it most…or I don’t register him as I don’t believe he is one and wait to see if someone else disagrees, reports me, and I wind up having him forcibly seized, taken away (at a point when I don’t know how much longer he has left with me) and, to top it off, become a criminal, when, as a middle-class, middle manager who has never been out of work I’ve had nothing more than a speeding ticket in my whole life.”

In this individual case, Helen is saying—very much in concert with many of the contributions we have heard so far—that this is a blanket approach insufficiently focused on the actual circumstances under which people should be deprived of their dogs. I agree that we need legislation, and that human life must come first, but I do not agree that the statutory instrument, as it stands, cannot be improved. I am therefore, not for the first time, throwing myself on the mercy of this particular Minister; I look to him to give us, when he comes to wind up, an undertaking that the Government, rather than rushing ahead in a blinkered way, will have another look at the formulation that they have come up with to see whether people like Helen, who by no stretch of the imagination pose a danger to the public with their beloved pets, cannot be excluded from a blunderbuss approach, when a rapier is the weapon we ought to employ in dealing with a very real problem.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border 5:34, 27 November 2023

It is a privilege to serve under your chairship, Dame Caroline. I declare my professional and personal interest in this matter: I am a veterinary surgeon and a fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

I fully understand the passion and emotion on both sides of this very important debate, but I have sadly come to the conclusion that the Government are doing the right thing in banning the American XL bully dog. We have heard accounts of recent attacks, and some of us have seen videos; we need to act swiftly. This has been a difficult decision, but the Prime Minister has called for a ban and the Leader of the Opposition has supported him, so the ban is coming and as legislators we need to ensure we get it right. As a veterinary surgeon and MP, I believe we can get it right, but we need to work with all stakeholders.

This is not a party political issue. How we think about human and animal welfare unites us in humanity across the House. We need to protect people and other animals. The ban is coming, and we need to make it work practically, sensitively and compassionately. As we have heard, we also need a longer-term piece of work in parallel to reform the legislation and look closely at responsible dog ownership.

The 1991 Act covers four types of dogs—the pit bull terrier, the Japanese tosa, the dogo argentino and the fila braziliero—and the American XL bully will be an important addition to that list. I am aware that many XL bullies are friendly pets in the right homes and with the right ownership, but sadly, because of their sheer size and weight, they can become uniquely dangerous. They are hugely powerful dogs, with a hugely powerful, muscular jaw structure, and they can weigh more than 50 kg or 60 kg.

We have heard public statements from consultant human surgeons about the severity of the wounds that these dogs can cause. The bites cause crushing or tearing injuries that are worse than the wounds from other types of dog bites; the statements back that up. The implications of being bitten or attacked by that type of dog, compared with a dog such as a French bulldog or a Jack Russell, are orders of magnitude worse.

Some of these dogs are bred for exaggerated conformation and extreme conformational features, and some have had their ears horrifically cropped. The breeding of these animals has been fuelled by the uptick in unregulated canine fertility clinics, which are not supervised by veterinary surgeons although acts of veterinary surgery, such as blood sampling and artificial insemination, take place in them. The EFRA Committee has looked at that issue closely in our “Pet welfare and abuse” inquiry, and we will be making recommendations about that. Unscrupulous breeders are fuelling the trade in these dogs, some of which are used as status symbols—I emphasise again that it is not all XL bullies, but it is a significant number.

Ear cropping is not clinically indicated in the dog; it is a cosmetic procedure that is illegal in this country, although there are loopholes that mean that the dogs can be imported. I am pleased that in this parliamentary Session the Government will introduce legislation to ban the importation of ear-cropped dogs, because that loophole means that some dogs are being illegally cropped horrifically—potentially in people’s back gardens because kits can be bought online. The procedure does not benefit the animal but it makes it look more intimidating.

Popular culture also has a role to play. Look at some of the really popular animated films: some of the dogs in “Up”, one of my favourite films that I have watched with my kids, were cropped; and one of the lead characters in the film “DC League of Super-Pets” from a couple of years ago had his ears cropped. People going to the cinema and seeing dogs with their ears cropped normalises the practice in society. People think, “Well, that’s normal” and “That’s what dogs should look like,” when actually the procedure is horrific and should be outlawed completely.

As we have heard, there is complexity in typing and defining. The Government have engaged closely with police, veterinary and animal welfare experts, and local authorities to produce guidance and advice, but I stress that this is an evolving, iterative process, and I urge the Government and stakeholders to continue to work together to stay around the table so that other types of dog are not inadvertently caught up in this ban.

I firmly believe that we need to be very careful about some of the language we use in this debate. We should not be talking about mass culls or killing of animals. Very early on, when this debate came to a head in September, the chief veterinary officer, Christine Middlemiss, spoke of this ban dovetailing with the humane and sensitive managing of the existing population of XL bully dogs. I stress that if these dogs are safe and responsibly owned, people can keep them. They can register them as long as they are neutered, insured, and kept on a lead and muzzled in public.

I urge the Government and local authorities to work with and support all the animal welfare charities. We have heard about the stresses and strains on the animal welfare sector. It was already under significant pressure, and the pandemic put it under much more. I also urge the Government to continue to work closely with the veterinary sector and look at expert opinion, such as that articulated by the British Veterinary Association last week in its letter to the chief vet, which talked about elements like neutering. I think the Government will get the veterinary profession to come along with them by having some flexibility and potentially extending the neutering deadlines, under which many of the dogs will be neutered when they are under 18 months—the age recommended for heavy types of dog. Extending the deadline until the end of June 2025 for dogs of this type that are under seven months at the end of January 2024 could help. It could benefit health and welfare, as there have been studies suggesting that neutering some of these heavy-type dogs too early can lead to an increased risk of developmental orthopaedic disease and some other medical conditions. It is important to try to work closely with the veterinary profession; working collectively will help.

That brings me on to some of the mental health implications of what we are talking about today: for the owners of these animals, the general public at large, the veterinary profession, and the animal welfare sector, which are taking some of the hit on this. We looked very closely at some of these issues in our EFRA Committee inquiry on pet welfare and abuse and in our rural mental health report, which we published this year. Many charities and veterinary professionals will become involved in euthanasia in cases where the dogs cannot be kept. We need to be cognisant of what that means for the veterinary profession, for the paraprofessionals and professionals working in it, and for the animal welfare sector, which works with them.

I have spoken with many in the sector. As has been mentioned, a couple of weeks ago I spoke at the London Vet Show, where I heard significant disquiet and distress among some vets and practices. I firmly believe that if we take that on board, work collectively and responsibly with the sector to see whether we can evolve some points such as the neutering guidelines, and think about the capacity issues with regard to euthanasia, that will help us to get a more practical and sensible ban moving forward. Responding to some of those concerns will get more vets on board. Vets do not like doing things to animals if they do not think there is a clinical benefit for those animals, so some movement would help—the neutering extension would be only six months. From December, it will be illegal to breed from these animals. We want to get the existing dogs neutered so that no more of these dogs come into being, but having a little bit of flexibility in working with vets may help.

Equally, I have spoken to some vets who agree that we need to go ahead with this. There are views very much on both sides of the debate. We need to work together to get through this—it is not an easy thing to do. I do not believe that it is a politically expedient issue: the Government and, now, the Leader of the Opposition have backed it. It is a tough thing to do, but it is the right thing to do.

Some vets and charities will disagree with my view. People talk about judging the animal by the deed and not the breed. As far as I am concerned, once that deed is committed, it is too late: that child or adult is maimed, or worse. We therefore need to look at this in the round and think about the deed and/or the breed. In the short term, however, adding this type of dog to the list is the right thing to do.

Photo of Luke Evans Luke Evans Conservative, Bosworth

My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech, and I will be grateful for his expertise on this question. Currently, there are no legal ramifications for a dog that attacks another dog. Are there any precedents for introducing such legislation or for starting to collect data on whether that is predictable; and, in his professional opinion, is a dog that attacks another dog predisposed to attack further dogs or even humans?

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

My fellow clinical colleague—in a different profession—makes a strong point. During the Select Committee inquiry, we found that there is a paucity of data on this. We have certainly seen an uptick in attacks on people, but there is a lack of data on dog-on-dog attacks. Part of this legislation is very much about keeping people safe, but part of it is about keeping other animals safe. The more data we can get in order to make evidence-based decisions, the more it will help.

As other Members have mentioned, a longer piece of work needs to be done in parallel with this short-term legislation. We need to look at responsible breeding, responsible dog ownership, responsible training and responsible socialising of those animals, and we need to tackle some of the issues that have been raised, such as the iniquitous existence of puppy farms and unscrupulous breeders.

We also need to tackle puppy smuggling, and again I am grateful to the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Dr Coffey, who has been supporting—as the Minister will be doing—private Members’ Bills to take elements of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill through the House in order to tackle some of the issues and ultimately to help us to improve animal welfare.

The longer-term changes to address the people who are working with these dogs will not happen overnight. That is why the Government are right to carry on with the short-term ban while the longer piece of work is done. We need to make people better at looking after their dogs, but, in the meantime, we need to keep people safe from this particular type of dog.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa)

The hon. Member is making a very good case, but does he recognise the danger that, by putting the focus on this one piece of legislation and by talking generally of other issues in the future, the impression will be given that one statutory instrument will be sufficient to tackle the problem? Is there not a danger that people will come to believe that, even though we know it not to be the case?

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

The hon. Member makes an interesting point. He also made the point earlier that once we ban this type of dog, people will look to find another type of dog. I acknowledge that some unscrupulous breeders will try to develop the next status-symbol type of dog, but that should not stop us from trying to stop such attacks on people and animals. This legislation is not perfect, but what we have seen in recent times means that something needs to be done now—in addition to a holistic piece of work to address some of the issues that he has rightly raised.

I fully recognise that this is very difficult for many owners. It is very difficult for the animal welfare charities and the veterinary sector as well.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck

As a vet, is the hon. Member not bound by some sort of oath? Vets should not be putting down any animals that are fit and healthy, when there is no reason whatsoever to put them down. He has said he feels that it is necessary. What is his personal view?

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

I have raised many points about vets being uncomfortable with doing some of this. A lot of veterinary practices and companies have surveyed their staff and will not force vets to do things they do not want to do. That said, I come back to the point that if some of these dogs are safe, they can be kept. As we heard from the Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend Sir Robert Goodwill, it is not feasible for rehoming centres to rehome dogs that are not eligible and put them into an environment where they could hurt someone. Sometimes we need to make professional and clinical judgments.

Sadly, some of these dogs will have to be put down, but I come back to the language that we need to be using. This is not some form of mass cull; actually, we are keeping dogs safe. If dogs are not deemed to be safe and cannot be registered, we must try to keep people and other animals safe. I recognise the difficulties on both sides, but I believe that the spate of attacks we have seen in recent months means that the Government and Parliament are right to act, but we have to get it right. We have to do it practically, sensitively and compassionately to protect people and other animals.

Photo of Paul Bristow Paul Bristow Conservative, Peterborough 5:51, 27 November 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Caroline, and to speak in this emotive and hotly contested debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher on his opening speech and on introducing the debate. I was appalled to hear that Emma—the courageous mother of 10-year-old Jack, who was sadly killed—has been issued with death threats. That is completely appalling. I was very saddened to hear that, and I pay tribute to her for her courage and for making a contribution to the debate after suffering such a horrendous loss.

Like my right hon. Friend Sir Julian Lewis, I feel that it is my duty to speak on behalf of a number of law-abiding constituents who have emailed about this issue—people who would never dream that they could become criminals or be on the other side of the law. It is important that their voices are heard, so I will talk about some of the emails I have received from such individuals.

Marie Angell emailed me to say that she has owned two American bulldogs—a father and a son—since birth. One is seven and the other is three, and they are not just pets; they are members of the family, and she truly loves them both. They have been good animals, and her little boy has grown up with them. They both provide emotional support to the family. She and her parents have suffered from mental health issues in the past and have at times been homeless. Over the years, their dogs have been the only things that got them through hard times. Having finally secured permanent accommodation and settled down, news of the potential ban has had a devastating impact on the mental health of Marie and her family. She cannot sleep or eat and keeps breaking down, as she is so scared about what might happen to her beloved animals. These are important voices, which are sometimes being missed in the debate. The dogs are not just animals; they are actually members of the family, and to lose them will be heartbreaking.

Another constituent of mine, Rumi, talked to me about the special creature that has transformed his life. It is not just a dog; it is the child of his family and a source of endless joy and unconditional love—an incredible companion that understands his joys and sorrows and is always there to provide comfort when needed. The email I received from him is very emotional. I feel that it is part of my duty to speak on behalf of law-abiding people who cannot fathom the idea that they could become criminals. They have been experiencing immense stress and depression as a result of the proposed ban, and they have asked me to raise their cases in today’s debate.

Another constituent of mine, Dimitar, talked about the loss and despair he has experienced over the past months. He is without a family and is here in the UK on his own. His mother died 16 months ago, and his father passed away shortly thereafter. Dimitar is suffering from immense grief and loneliness, and he feels that the only thing that has got him through this difficult time is the friendship and unconditional love that he has had from his dog. The prospect of losing that animal is immensely overpowering.

Another constituent of mine, Cathy Bibby—a grandmother of six, a law-abiding citizen, a homeowner, and one who has worked all her life—cannot countenance the fact that she could become a criminal for owning two American bullies; she feels that she is being treated like a criminal just for her choice of dogs. These dogs are not just the life of her, but the life of her family. She cannot countenance the fact that she could possibly be made a criminal. She said to me in her email that this has been incredibly tough to come to terms with and that her mental health is suffering.

Laura Creed, who led the campaign in Peterborough, is a decent and upstanding member of the community. I know she does not have a bad bone in her body, but she too has been made to feel that she could become a criminal. She has had her girl—a dog called Lady—for over 15 years. Lady is a rescue dog, who had suffered abuse. Lady has been kicked and abused but she has a gentle nature, and Laura cannot possibly think of losing her. We do not know how long they have left with Lady. She is not an XL bully, by the way, but she may fall under the characteristics set out in the legislation. The idea that Laura could lose Lady is just heartbreaking to her. At the end of the email, Laura says that there must be another way.

That is what I wanted to raise in this debate. Those are important voices. In my mind, these people—law-abiding, responsible dog owners—do not present a danger to the public. There has to be a way other than, effectively, giving people the choice of losing these dogs, placing further restrictions on the ownership of these dogs, or making these owners criminals. There are good intentions behind what is being proposed. No one can hear about the tragic incidents and deaths that have occurred and not want to act. The intentions are good, but are we to pass bad legislation as a result of those good intentions?

That is all I really wanted to say in the debate today. I urge the Minister to think and to listen to the voices of those law-abiding citizens—people who have never been in trouble with the law at any point in their life. Are we not doing something that, in a few years, we will look back on and regret?

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West 5:57, 27 November 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Caroline. I congratulate my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for so ably leading today’s Petitions Committee debate. In my constituency of Southend West, 192 of my constituents signed the first e-petition, 642876, and a further 693 signed the e-petition ending in 611.

[Mr James Gray in the Chair]

It is that first petition that I particularly want to speak about today. Specifically, I want to speak about the need for early intervention to prevent dog bites and other dog-related issues. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I am going to focus on dog-on-dog attacks.

Recent estimates show that there are some 13 million dogs in the UK; we are literally a nation of dog lovers, with nearly half of all households owning a dog. We all know that dogs are not just pets; they are much loved members of the family and true companions. That was very much the case with a much loved bichon frisé called Millie, who was the constant companion of one of my constituents, Michael. The Minister knows that Millie was viciously attacked in Chalkwell Park in Southend-on-Sea. It is really as a result of that vicious dog-on-dog attack that I wished to speak today.

Most dog owners are responsible, but there must be consequences for the small minority who are not. It is clear to me that normally it is not the dogs that are the problem—although there may well be a legitimate need to single out the XL bully dog. Most dogs in themselves are not a problem, but dogs have owners, and every dog owner has a responsibility to ensure that their dog does not fatally attack another dog; they certainly have a responsibility to ensure that their dog does not attack a human being, let alone fatally attack someone. A growing cohort of evidence suggests that if we tackle dog-on-dog aggression and attacks, we might well prevent dogs from going on to attack other animals, adults or even children.

In recent years, laws both civil and criminal have been strengthened to protect the public when a dog poses a risk to public safety, whether in a public or a private place. It remains the case, however, under section 3(1) of the Dangerous Dogs Act, that a dog owner is not liable to any form of criminal prosecution when their dog fatally attacks or seriously injures another dog, unless that dog is a guide, assistance or service dog, unless their dog bites a human in the course of the attack, or unless—to quote guidance—there is “reasonable apprehension” that the dog will injure a person. That is not always the case, and certainly not when a larger dog, such as a boxer-type or XL bully dog, makes a beeline for a much smaller dog. That is exactly what happened in the case of my constituent.

In the previous Session, I had the privilege of promoting a ten-minute rule Bill that would have required a person in charge of a dog to take all reasonable steps to ensure that their dog did not fatally injure another dog—in other words, early intervention. It was called Emilie’s law. Sadly, the Bill fell when the House was prorogued, but that loophole still needs to be plugged. I have been inundated by emails from people all over the country expressing concerns about dangerous dogs attacking their dogs. I urge the Government to initiate an immediate review of existing legislation on dog attacks, with a view to amending the law to afford pet dogs the same protections that exist already under the law for service, guide and therapy dogs.

In preparation for my ten-minute rule Bill, I submitted freedom of information requests to all 43 police forces in the UK to ask if they record dog-on-dog attacks as a separate offence, and if they do, how many they had recorded over the past five years. I was shocked that only 14 police forces record dog-on-dog attacks as a separate incident and that, in those 14 areas, the number of dog-on-dog attacks has increased exponentially. In 2016, the 14 police forces reported and recorded 1,700 dog-on-dog attacks; in 2021, five years later, those same forces recorded 11,559 attacks. That is a 700% increase, with a shocking 2,264 attacks in London alone. I intend to resubmit those freedom of information requests, because I suspect that with all the media coverage of such incidents, the number will have increased still further.

I urge the Government to take notice of some of these terrible stories, in particular those of Millie and Michael in my constituency, because of the long-standing mental-health issues that such attacks cause. Even though it is now nearly two years ago since Millie was savagely attacked by an off-the-lead, out-of-control dog while on a walk on the lead in a rose garden in Chalkwell Park, Michael is still deeply affected by the attack. He still comes to see me and is very upset that Emilie’s law has fallen.

That is not atypical. Such attacks, when people irresponsibly allow their dogs to become dangerous and to attack other people’s dogs, have a lasting impact. It is the responsibility of owners to take necessary steps to ensure that we do not have such horrendous, unnecessary attacks. Millie was pretty much torn apart in front of Michael’s eyes. He had to carry her, bleeding and with serious open wounds to her abdomen, to the nearest vet to be euthanised. He had no recourse whatever, because he did not feel that he himself was at risk. It was obvious the dog was going for Millie; he did not feel under any reasonable apprehension of injury. The test is worded as an objective test, but it is interpreted by police forces as a subjective test, and that is the essence of the problem.

Part of my Bill would have required all police forces to record incidents where a dog has attacked another dog. Recording such incidents remains hugely important, because until we have the full picture and can assess the true impact of dog-on-dog attacks, we cannot take the next step of predicting whether attacking another dog is the first step towards attacking a human, including children, or another pet.

Protect Our Pets, which is a large Facebook campaign group, advises me that dog-on-dog attacks are nearly always the precursor to an attack on a human or another pet, so reporting in this area will allow for early intervention. Hopefully, it will also allow us to prevent some of these awful attacks, some of which are fatal. I urge the Government once again to look closely at the provisions of Emilie’s law and to work with me to make sure that we have all the necessary measures in place to prevent dog-on-dog attacks, so that people like Michael do not have to suffer the unnecessary loss of their beloved pets.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 6:06, 27 November 2023

It is a pleasure, Mr Gray, to serve under your chairmanship and to participate in this excellent debate.

What concerns me is that 600,000-plus people have signed the main petition that we are debating today, and on 31 October the Government laid a statutory instrument under the negative procedure, so unless the Government agree to a debate under that negative procedure, this will be the last opportunity for Members of this House to express an opinion on this sensitive subject.

To try to prompt the Government into holding a debate, I have today tabled an early-day motion praying against the statutory instrument. It asks:

“That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Dangerous Dogs (Designated Types) (England and Wales) Order 2023 (S.I., 2023, No. 1164), dated 31 October 2023, a copy of which was laid before this House on 31 October 2023, be annulled.”

When my right hon. Friend the Minister responds to this debate, if he does not agree to withdraw the order and think again in the light of this debate, I hope that he will allow a debate on this very sensitive statutory instrument. We are a lawmaking body and at the moment we have a statutory instrument that has been laid and that will come into force automatically, the drafting of which leaves much to be desired, not least because it does not have any clear or precise definition of what an XL bully dog is and a requirement under the 1991 Act is that there should be such a definition in any subsidiary legislation.

This whole debate takes me back to 1991 and the circumstances in which the dangerous dogs legislation was introduced. I was a junior Minister at that time and I owned a rottweiler, which frequently used to come into the precincts of the Palace of Westminster, in the days when there was no ban on dogs, of whatever breed, coming into the Palace. My wife, who worked for me then and continues to work for me, and I used to look after this rottweiler within the precincts of this House when we were here working.

In 1991, the late Dame Angela Rumbold was charged as a Home Office Minister to make an urgent reaction to public concern being expressed about dog attacks on children, largely by rottweilers, that were being reported in the press. It became apparent that a distorted picture of the pattern of dog attacks and the dog breeds responsible for those attacks was emerging. I think there are 22,000 incidents of dogs biting humans every year, and if the dog concerned in an incident was of a particular breed that was under focus at that time, then that resulted in a report in the newspapers, which would not happen otherwise.

As a result of pressure put on the Minister from within Government by the late Alan Clark—he was the only other member of the House who had a rottweiler and he was also a Minister at the time—and I, we were able to persuade Dame Angela that, as she could see from our rottweilers, they were not inherently dangerous dogs that should be banned and whose owners should be effectively criminalised if they did not take action. I remind the House of that.

What happened after that? In the context of that debate, Alastair Campbell—when he was running the Daily Mirror—thought it would make a very good story, because he found out that I had rottweiler, to show me going out with my rottweiler and walking on Southampton common, and thereby endangering everybody else on the common. He paid for one of his junior staff to camp outside my house in Southampton—I was then representing Southampton, Itchen—to try and see me, or somebody else, going out on to Southampton common with our rottweiler so that he could take a picture of it. He failed to do that because we were alert to the risk, but that did not stop him putting an article in the Daily Mirror referring to me and describing my rottweiler as a “Minister’s devil dog”, with a picture of our dear rottie.

That was the emotion at the time, and it was being played up by what was then Her Majesty’s official Opposition. I think that contributed to the Government rushing into what was essentially emergency legislation. I fear that, with the Prime Minister’s announcement and the announcements that have followed, the current Government are similarly being pushed into doing something perhaps against their better judgment, in a rush, and without thinking it through properly.

Particularly, if we are going to ban a particular type or breed of dog, then we need a robust definition. We cannot leave it to individual owners to decide for themselves whether their dog complies with the new definitions. The Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend Sir Robert Goodwill, said that there are people whose XL bullies fit that: their parents were registered as XL bullies, and so on. That is fine, but what we are discussing today is a situation where a lot of dogs, which were never bought or officially described as XL bullies, may well be caught by this legislation because it is so vaguely drafted. To then have guidance that says, “If you think that you may be in this category, then you should self-police and report yourself to the authorities, because you think you may have what is described as an XL bully-type”—that is just not the way in which we should be legislating in this House.

I also fear that this debate is undermined by the lack of data. There is no hard data on how many dog bites, resulting in either fatality or serious injury, in this country have come from different breeds of dog. I used that great resource, the internet, and came across a website, askadamskutner.com, that gives us these statistics for what happens in America. The most recent statistics by breed for dog bite-related fatalities included the following: pit bulls, 284 deaths; rottweilers, 45 deaths; German shepherds, 20 deaths; mixed breeds, 17 deaths; American bully dogs, 15 deaths; mastiffs, 14 deaths; and Siberian huskies, 13 deaths—the list goes on. After those statistics, however, the major finding is that Adam Kutner believes that irresponsible ownership to be responsible for most of these dog bite-related fatalities.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

We have statistics in the UK showing that 12 of the last 23 deaths were from American XLs. Other breeds are not blameless. In fact, on 8 August, a 77-year-old gentleman, Mr Vic Franklin, was bitten by two rottweilers and had to have an arm, leg and part of a finger amputated following the attack. There are other breeds, but they do not feature disproportionately in the statistics.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The problem is that the statistics are of a moment. My right hon. Friend is talking about the statistics over recent months, but if one looks back at statistics since 1991, they might be able to show that there have been a number of rottweiler attacks, and rottweilers were exempt from the dangerous dogs legislation in the circumstances that I have described. We are now picking on a particular breed—and not even a precise definition of that breed—instead of doing what all informed opinion has been asking for, which is to look back at the legislation itself and legislate against those who have allowed their dogs, of whatever breed, to get out of control and attack other dogs or humans.

It is telling that about a year ago, in response to a petition asking for the Government to review the dangerous dogs legislation, the Government set up a review because they recognised that there might be a problem with the current legislation. However, as soon as there were a few headlines about XL bullies, in what I think was a knee-jerk reaction, the Prime Minister decided, “I must take action on this and so I must announce a ban.” That ban comes into effect on 31 December, with, as I have described, the legislation laid and no opportunity whatsoever for the Government or Parliament to consider the detail of it.

My hon. Friend Dr Hudson said that we need to continue to look at these issues and ensure that there is an iterative process. There is no iterative process now. The statutory instrument has been laid and will come into law on 31 December, unless or until this House forces the Government to bring forward a motion so we can then vote it down, or the Government themselves decide to withdraw it and think again.

We are talking about desperate measures, imposed in an autocratic style over a short space of time, with challenging consequences for our constituents up and down the country. Members on both sides of the House have referred to individual constituents who have written to them. A number of mine have written to me in very persuasive and emotional letters and emails explaining why their particular dog should not have to be muzzled, or ultimately even euthanised, as a result of this legislation, which they think is totally disproportionate.

One particular person who wrote to me is the owner of a mastiff cross, which he and his wife believe may satisfy the definition of an XL bully as contained in the guidance issued by the Government. Why should somebody with a mastiff cross find their dog defined as an XL bully type when it is not? It just happens to be a large and thickset dog. That family took the dog from a rescue centre about five years ago following a family disaster, and it has been their way out of a difficult, mentally stressful situation. Given that they may find that their dog will no longer have the freedom to walk through the New Forest, on beaches, or in the hills of Dartmoor as a normal dog would, one can understand how upset they are. The dog, who is called Ronnie, is not an XL bully but could be classed as one under this vague and imprecise legislation.

My daughter was born in 1990, and when she was one— at the time of the Dangerous Dogs Act—she was living with our rottweiler. I think that was another factor that Angela Rumbold took into account, because here was a rottweiler—a so-called dangerous dog—living a perfectly quiet existence in the same household as one of Her Majesty’s Ministers.

I do not know whether it was because of the legislation, but my daughter ultimately became a member of the esteemed veterinary profession. She is now part of the cohort of experts who are saying, “This is not the right way forward.” They have said that the Government’s legislation is completely the wrong way to go about it, so why are the Government not listening? It is perhaps—dare one say it?—the arrogance of having too large a majority, or deference to the Prime Minister, who decreed that this will happen on the basis of little evidence at the time. In scrambling to get the evidence together, Ministers perhaps feel that they have to deliver on the Prime Minister’s will, rather than stand up to him and say, “Hang on a minute. I think your knee-jerk reaction was wrong.”

The people concerned about the ban, including vets, are in the Dog Control Coalition, which is made up of the RSPCA, Blue Cross, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Dogs Trust, Hope Rescue, the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Royal Kennel Club and the British Veterinary Association. They say:

“The Dog Control Coalition agrees that urgent action needs to be taken to protect the public from out-of-control dogs”— not specific breeds—

“but we are disappointed that the Government hasn’t taken the opportunity to completely overhaul the Dangerous Dogs Act. With its continued focus on specific breeds, rather than a focus on prevention and implementation of tougher penalties for those owners not in control of their dogs, it is not fit for purpose.”

Those organisations say that this legislation is not fit for purpose, and yet the Government—unless we hear something to the contrary from the Minister—will not even allow the House to have a vote on it so that Members can be held to account by their constituents and express whether they think it is good legislation or not.

Even if the intention of the legislation is good, surely we should look at the detail, because we are talking about new criminal penalties that will affect people’s freedom. Do we want to criminalise owning or handling dogs of a description so vague that people will not be certain in advance whether they will be offending by not registering their dog as being an XL bully type?

In my view, this is one of the worst pieces of legislation brought forward by this Government—that is quite a high bar to get over, given what has happened since the 2019 general election. I thought my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher introduced the debate in such a mild, rational way that he would single-handedly persuade the Government to think again. My style is perhaps slightly different from his, but I hope that between us we will be able to persuade the Government and, ultimately, the Prime Minister, because nothing can be changed unless he says so, to change their view and listen to the voices of the 600,000-plus people who signed the petitions.

Mr Gray, you and I know how difficult it is to get people to sign petitions, so to get 600,000 signatures is no mean feat. We ignore that mass of opinion at our peril, unless we are able to show that we have done everything possible to examine alternative ways of dealing with this problem and introduced proper safeguards in terms of definitions. Ultimately, we must recognise the plea that has been there ever since the 1991 legislation that we should not legislate in haste, but should actually deal with the underlying problem. That problem is just as bad as it has ever been, which is that there is a significant number of dog owners who are irresponsible.

Some people have talked about having a licensing system for dogs. Perhaps we should have a licensing system for dog owners in the same way that we have one for car drivers. Why not have a licensing system for dog owners? I put that forward as a proposition. I do not normally campaign in favour of more legislation and regulation, but I put that forward as a reasonable alternative to the rotten legislation we have here.

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member) 6:26, 27 November 2023

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I thank all everyone who added their names to the petitions and thank Nick Fletcher for leading the debate today. We have heard passionate and emotive contributions from across the House, and those present will know that this matter has caused genuine concern across all quarters of civic society, with strong feelings on all sides. Those who think the breed should be banned, those who do not, animal lovers, academics, animal charities and welfare groups, and many more stakeholders have all had their say on the proposed ban.

The proposal comes in the wake of what has been an undeniable spate of attacks on other animals and people. Of course, we all share the horror of any dog attack, especially with higher numbers of reported cases of XL bully-related incidents. Some of those reports, as we have heard, have been truly horrific and have resulted in fatalities. As outlined by the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Sir Robert Goodwill, our Committee has heard hours of oral evidence and read hundreds of pages on the matter, as well as receiving many constituent inquiries. It is apparent that the rushed nature of the ban has only exacerbated public concern. The Dangerous Dogs Act is, in the view of many, a flawed piece of legislation, and adding the XL bully to it in this rushed fashion has caused concern for many stakeholders and interested parties.

The Scottish Government have fully and carefully considered the UK Government’s decision to ban XL bully dogs and whether similar changes to ban the breed will be applied in Scotland. Having listened to the advice given by advisers—experts in the field, of course—it has been made clear by the Scottish Government Minister in a recent letter to Lord Benyon that the ban will not be brought into force in Scotland on the current timescale the UK Government have implemented. The Scottish Government keep all dog control legislation under constant and consistent review, including the banned breeds list, and will continue to do so going forward.

The focus in Scotland for some considerable time has been on dog control policy. Supported by the Scottish SPCA, the view is that responsible dog ownership, whatever the breed, is the key to safer communities. However, if the long-standing list of banned breeds can have a role to play in keeping communities safe, the Scottish Government will of course consider that, using the evidence of what may work without having any unintended consequences. It is those unintended consequences, such as mistyping a dog, that could see innocent, well-trained, well-looked-after and much-loved family pets caught up in the ban as the legislation is rushed through this place.

Defining exactly what breed types should be covered by a ban is the key challenge facing the UK Government. They have set up an expert group on this very subject, which will also help inform decision making in Scotland, and any departure from the current position will be considered fully. Again, those of us who sit on the EFRA Committee will have heard all about the implications of attempting to type a dog and how difficult it is, even for experts. Ian Lavery raised many valid concerns about typing dogs, and it reminded me of reading a book by the English rugby player Lawrence Dallaglio. His family pet was a Rhodesian ridgeback, which attacked his eight-year-old son way back in 2008. They are big dogs with have excessive weight, and if they lock on, it will lead to the same consequences as what happens when an XL bully-type dog does so, so we have concerns about targeting specific breeds.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Is the hon. Gentleman not concerned that this sort of attack also happens in Scotland? In Motherwell last month, the 18-year-old owner of an XL bully was savagely attacked and needed surgery, and two council officials were also attacked. Pepper spray needed to be used on the dog before it was put down.

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member)

Of course I share the concerns. I do not think anybody in this Chamber or, indeed, across the whole House does not share the concerns about irresponsible dog ownership and what can happen, including fatalities, when somebody is not acting responsibly —of course we share those concerns. Motherwell is my local town, by the way, so I am deeply concerned about that incident, but the Scottish Government have carefully considered the evidence-based suggestions from experts to help improve community safety, including keeping the prohibited breed list under constant review. We will continue to engage with all stakeholders on the concept of a ban and how it might be implemented in England and Wales.

The Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010 was designed to highlight the responsibilities of dog owners by putting in place a regime that identifies “out of control” dogs at an early juncture and provides measures to change the behaviour of such dogs and their owners before they are deemed dangerous. The UK Government should perhaps look to follow the approach taken by the Scottish Government. We in Scotland have also introduced a national dog control database, which helps independent enforcement agencies, such as local authorities and Police Scotland, to access information on dog owners who allow their dogs to be out of control in a public place.

The Scottish Government also carried out a marketing campaign on dog control in conjunction with the Scottish SPCA in 2021. That campaign has since been rerun on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all other available outlets on a number of occasions. It directs the public to information about the law on controlling dogs, which is available at mygov.scot/controlling-your-dog. That website makes it clear that dog owners are responsible for the actions of their dog, and sets out potential penalties for those failing to control dogs. These actions are not reactions to a spate of dog attacks by Dobermanns or rottweilers, as Sir Christopher Chope outlined. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was rushed legislation following a spate of dog attacks, and that is what we are seeing from the UK Government again. This is not consistent. Scotland is not reacting to a spate of dog attacks, and a consistent and continuous body of work has been, and continues to be, undertaken in Scotland that can not only help to react to trends, but actively prevent them.

It is regretful that the Government have brought forward this ban in this manner, without, again, any prior conversation or consultation with the devolved Government. It is also important to emphasise to those concerned that a dog being classed as a banned breed will not automatically mean that the animal will be put down. If conditions are met, such as having a dog neutered or spayed and keeping that dog muzzled in public, a dog could be placed on the new index of exempted dogs.

More generally, it is important to put on record just how much we in the SNP value the work of Police Scotland, Scottish local authorities and the Scottish SPCA, which all work closely with the Scottish Government to help keep our communities safe from the small minority of irresponsible dog owners and their dangerous dogs. The Scottish Government will, of course, continue to work closely with the United Kingdom Government on their intentions for a ban of the XL bully breed, while continuing to lead on several regional engagements to look at ways for partners to work collaboratively to improve the operational response, enforcement and community engagement to promote more responsible dog ownership across our communities. Here at Westminster, we in the SNP will continue to call on the UK Government to return the kept animals Bill to Parliament, to restrict unethical puppy farming and imports from abroad, and to improve our welfare standards for all animals.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Shadow Minister (Flooding, Oceans and Coastal Communities) 6:36, 27 November 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate on behalf of the Opposition. As everyone can see and hear, I am not Ruth Jones—I do not have the same beautiful Welsh accent. My shadow Department colleague is in the Chamber due to a clash of business, so I am speaking for the Opposition today. My hon. Friend sends her good wishes to one and all here, and I know she will read Hansard tomorrow.

I thank Nick Fletcher for opening the debate on these two important petitions, and for setting a considered and careful tone, which has been continued throughout the debate—my congratulations on that. I also acknowledge all the colleagues who have spoken, particularly my hon. Friend Ian Lavery, whose contributions I always enjoy. He recognised how emotive this issue is and how much these pets mean to so many people, and that although views are different, we cannot base any kind of ban just on what a dog looks like. That point has been echoed throughout the debate. My hon. Friend Christina Rees shared her upset over the attacks—I am sure we all echo that— and spoke of her concerns about the current legislation not working. An important point was made about the problem of whether the definition we use is too woolly.

I enjoyed some of the comments from Government Members, particularly the point made by Sir Christopher Chope that the Government, with too large a majority, may appear overly arrogant. I promise that the Opposition are doing everything we can to deal with that, one by-election at a time. More seriously, he made an important point about the imprecision of legislation. The expertise of Dr Hudson, as a vet, has really contributed to the debate. It was the first time I have heard of ear cropping and I share his horror at that awful, awful practice.

I pay tribute to Dr Coffey. Despite our various disagreements, she should be commended for coming here, having faced death threats over her stance on this issue, to defend the legislation that she brought forward. I am utterly appalled by any Member of Parliament—anybody—facing death threats for standing up for what they believe. There might be differences of opinion, but surely we are here to debate them all in a calm and considered manner. That, of course, always comes from Sir Julian Lewis, who also mentioned the problems around definitions. So thank you, everyone.

Very importantly, I acknowledge and thank all those up and down the country who signed this petition. When I first started drafting these remarks, more than 600,000 people had signed e-petition 624876, and more than 100,000 people had signed the alternative one. I pay tribute to the person who started the petition. It is very important that these issues are debated. It shows that the petition system is working effectively for our democracy. It is healthy that people can use a petition to share their views and that we bring it here to debate it, and I commend every person who signed it. It is important that we take the time to acknowledge the issues that our constituents really care about.

I also note that a number of Members from across the House have a keen interest in this issue and have campaigned and worked on it for many years. I mention especially my hon. Friend Wayne David, who has been a doughty and loud campaigner. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West is very grateful for his advice, experience and work.

My hon. Friend, the shadow animal welfare Minister, said that

“the Labour party believes in honouring our animal welfare promises, and we will always push for the strongest possible animal welfare policies.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2023;
Vol. 725, c. 135WH.]

We are, as was mentioned, a nation of animal lovers, and pets are part of all our families. That also means that ensuring that dogs are not left or encouraged to become a danger to themselves, their owners, other animals or other people, and it means, as has been mentioned, that owners are responsible and should care for their dogs and treat them in a humane and respectful way.

Like many on this side of the House, I have been deeply concerned by the rise in dog-on-human attacks in recent weeks and months. It is clear that action is needed to improve the Dangerous Dogs Act and for that action to be taken sooner rather than later. The point has come up many times in this debate that we should not look at the Act in isolation, but as part of a wider piece in regard to the legislation, because piecemeal legislation can result in unintended consequences.

It is obvious to us all that dog attacks have increased in number in the 32 years since the Dangerous Dogs Act came into force. Unfortunately, when we talk about the threats posed by dangerous dogs, the facts speak for themselves. From January to July 2020, 7,790 dog attacks occurred across the UK. Just two years later, for the same period, there were 9,834 attacks, which represents a 26% increase. The number of deaths caused by dogs is also very bleak: since 2013, there have been more than five deaths a year, yet last year, 10 people lost their life. I acknowledge the presence today of those who have lost loved ones and who desperately need common sense to win the day. I thank again the hon. Member for Don Valley for mentioning Emma and the death threats and abuse that she has faced. I agree that they are utterly appalling. She has been through enough.

There are a number of reasons why dog attacks have increased recently. It is also the case that dog ownership increased markedly during the covid pandemic. The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals stated that from February 2021 to February 2022, dog ownership figures increased significantly so that—this amazed me when I looked it up—27% of UK adults owned a dog and the UK’s dog population stood at 10.2 million.

Back in 2018, just a short period after my election to this place, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee launched a report that called for a full-scale review of current dog control legislation and policy to ensure that the public were properly protected and animal welfare concerns were effectively addressed. More specifically, the report made 16 recommendations to the Government, the most important of which can be summarised as follows. It called for an end to

“the prohibition on transferring a banned dog if it has been…assessed…and found to be safe.”

It called for a commission to be established to ascertain whether the four banned breeds presented a

“greater risk than any legal breed or cross breed.”

It called for a review of current legislation and policy relating to dogs, and for the development of

“an alternative model that focuses on prevention through education, early intervention, and consistently robust sanctions for offenders”.

I would be grateful if the Minister could give us a progress check on the response to that report and an update. It would also be helpful to know what discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales about their approach to this issue, because, as has been mentioned, the legislation covers only England and Wales. It is clear that a joined-up approach to handling this issue will be required and, more specifically, to how we respond across the United Kingdom, not just from an enforcement perspective.

I would like to touch on the first petition, on the American XL bully. As Members across the House will know, Ministers recently announced that they would add the American XL bully to the list of dogs that are banned under the Dangerous Dogs Act. There are currently four breeds on that list: the pit bull terrier, the Japanese tosa—I am going to say these terribly—the dogo argentino and the fila braziliero. The current approach to dog control in this country is misguided and does not protect people adequately. We in the Opposition believe that safety must be our top priority, but without unnecessarily punishing responsible dog owners or harming dogs that are not necessarily a risk. A common-sense approach is required, and it is for Ministers to make sure that they deliver one.

I pay tribute to the RSPCA for its work on this and on animal welfare more generally. I very much agreed when it said that, in light of recent serious dog-bite incidents, increased enforcement is necessary to improve human safety, and expressed deep concern for anyone impacted by those tragic incidents.

A knee-jerk reaction—calling for the speedy introduction of a ban on a particular breed—is all well and good, but there are wider implications that must be factored in. The Minister will have heard a number of comments regarding rehoming, and I am keen to know what discussions he has had about that. What will be done to make sure that dogs are not put down because they cannot be rehomed? How can we make sure that a ban will not lead to a very sudden and steep increase in abandonment and stray dogs because owners are worried about the cost of complying with the restrictions? As was mentioned at the beginning of the debate, how this is being communicated to current dog owners?

Will the Minister take a moment to address a specific point that has come up a lot? The RSPCA and other campaign groups are right to point out that the definition of XL bully is very broad indeed. I am extremely concerned about the number of healthy, much loved dogs that will unnecessarily be swept up in the ban. The Minister needs to get a grip on that. As he knows, the animal rescue and veterinary sectors are both under considerable strain and pressure following the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, and there are major concerns about costs and an increased number of animals coming into the sectors’ care. What support are we providing to vets to make sure that they are able to assist and respond to the impact of the ban?

There is much to do to get this right from both a public safety perspective and an animal welfare perspective. I urge the Minister to reach out, listen, and engage with campaigners, stakeholders and owners and the valid concerns that have been raised in this debate. Will he set out what meetings he has had with stakeholders and campaigners on this issue? Engagement and communication with the dog and animal welfare sector will be key to getting this right. The Minister needs to go further, do more, and listen harder.

I have already touched on the need for a real root-and-branch unpicking of dog legislation in this country. The year 1991 seems a very long time ago now. It is right to listen, learn, review and improve, and I urge the Minister to do just that. Will he commit to a full and total review of dog control legislation in this country? If he will, when will it happen? I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West will be very happy to have an answer in writing if the Minister is not able to answer that specific question or any of the others I have put to him.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 6:47, 27 November 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am responding on behalf of Lord Benyon, the Minister responsible, who sits in another place.

We have seen the House at its very best today. We have had an informed debate in which a series of Members have wrestled with the challenge the Government faces of keeping people safe in our communities while at the same time making sure we do not affect people’s much loved pets. The debate was informed and enriched, not least by the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend Dr Coffey, who added a great deal to the debate with her presence, and by the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend Sir Robert Goodwill, who has done a lot of work in this area. I knew when I saw my hon. Friend Anna Firth that I was about to be challenged on dog-on-dog attacks, as she is a tenacious campaigner. I know her constituent Michael will be very pleased to see her in her place representing poor old Millie, who suffered terribly in a dog-on-dog attack. I pay tribute to her for the work she does. We have had some great contributions.

We should stop and pause, as my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher did at the start of the debate, to recognise that dog attacks can have horrific consequences. The Government take that very seriously indeed. Sadly, we have seen an increase in serious and fatal dog attacks in recent years. The XL bully breed-type appears to have been disproportionately involved in that rise in attacks. That is why we have taken decisive action to ban the XL bully breed-type, to attempt to keep our communities safe. From 1 February 2024, it will be illegal for someone to be in possession of an XL bully breed-type unless they have a certificate of exemption.

We recognise the strength of feeling on breed-specific legislation, and that some people are opposed to the prohibition of specific breed-types. However, the Government must balance those views with our responsibility to protect public safety. We remain concerned that lifting any restrictions may result in more dog attacks. Therefore, there are no plans to repeal the breed-specific provisions in the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.

Police and local authorities already have a range of powers available to them to tackle dangerous dogs and irresponsible dog ownership across all breeds of dog. Those powers range from lower level community protection notices, which require dog owners to take appropriate action to address behaviour, to more serious offences under the 1991 Act, whereby people can be put in prison for up to 14 years or disqualified from ownership, or dangerous dogs can be euthanised. We are working closely with enforcers to make sure that the full force of the law is applied to incidents involving all breeds of dog.

Of course, we know that dog attacks are complex and that there is no single silver bullet. That is why, alongside the ban, we are taking a multi-factoral approach to reducing dog attacks through our responsible dog ownership taskforce. The taskforce is considering the role of education and training for both dogs and their owners, and how we can improve data collection, recording and enforcement practices. We expect the taskforce to make its final recommendations very soon. In the meantime, DEFRA officials have been collaborating with the police and local authorities to deliver sessions to share best practice in preventive dog control enforcement and to encourage multi-agency working. We have been co-ordinating communications—for example, we can co-ordinate communication pushes with key partners, so that families are equipped with practical tips about how to enjoy spending time safely with dogs. This messaging has been widely disseminated to parents, health visitors, school nurses, safeguarding professionals, police forces and local authorities.

More widely, we are actively considering whether action is required to further protect dogs in breeding settings. As part of that work, we are reviewing the regulations for anyone in the business of breeding and selling dogs, and we have commissioned a report from the Animal Welfare Committee on the welfare implications of specialised canine reproductive practices.

I hope that colleagues are reassured that the Government are taking this issue very seriously and that this wide-ranging action is necessary to ensure continued public safety. I look forward to discussing the conclusions of the responsible dog ownership taskforce in due course. I wish to put on the record my thanks to everyone who has contributed to the debate today.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Will my right hon. Friend the Minister facilitate a debate on the statutory instrument, which is obviously of great concern to many Members of Parliament and even more so to our constituents, before it comes into force on 31 December?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Of course he will be fully aware that it is for parliamentary business managers to arrange such debates, but I will certainly have a conversation with those business managers following this debate. However, I think the House is now more informed, thanks to this debate, and I thank Members from all parties for their constructive contributions to it.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley 6:54, 27 November 2023

I agree with the Minister that this has been an extremely well informed and well attended debate, which has obviously gone on for quite some time.

There is still work to be done, and concerns remain on both sides of the debate. I encourage all dog owners to be extremely responsible with their pets. When dogs bite, often the first thing that people say is, “Well, it’s never done that before.” Unfortunately with some breeds, even if it has never done it before, the first time can be fatal, and we really have to consider that.

There is a huge amount of interest in this issue. I know we are a dog-loving nation, but I do not want to have to sit in front of a parent who has lost a child, or talk to a father whose daughter has scars on her legs for the rest of her life, because of a dog attack. That is what we need to stop.

A great deal is being done, however, and I am pleased to hear that the Department is doing a lot of work on responsible ownership. I have spoken to many professionals, and whether they agree with the ban or not, they accept that it is going forward; however, they do not want to be in the same place in five or 10 years’ time because we have not done anything about responsible ownership.

We also need a database and we need to enforce the chipping of dogs. We need a register of every bite incident, because one of the concerns about banning the XL bully is that there is no real data on how many bites and fatalities are associated with the dog. If we have a database and this happens with another dog in five or 10 years’ time, we can turn around to the public and say, “Look, we’ve really got the facts.”

I thank everybody who has contributed. The debate will continue on social media, and I echo what others said about my right hon. Friend Dr Coffey: that behaviour really should not happen. To everybody watching this debate, let me say that Members of this House are doing this job for the right reason: they want to make this country safe and this world a better place for us all to live in. If we take away this arena for debate because Members have been threatened, that would be a travesty. We really must keep the dialogue respectful, and that includes the petitioners, the mums and dads of children who have been affected, and those on the other side of the argument.

I thank all hon. Members once again, and I thank you, Mr Gray. I also thank the Petitions Committee, which does a huge amount of work. It is an honour to lead these debates.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered e-petitions 624876 and 643611 relating to legislation in respect of dangerous dogs.

Sitting adjourned.