Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 300561, relating to breed specific legislation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. The prayer of the petition states:
“Breed Specific Legislation fails to achieve what Parliament intended, to protect the public. It focuses on specific breeds, which fails to appreciate a dog is not aggressive purely on the basis of its breed. It allows seizure of other breeds, but the rules are not applied homogeneously by councils. We need a system that focuses on the aggressive behaviour of dogs, and the failure of owners to control their dog, rather than the way a dog looks. Reconsider a licensing system. The framework must be applied by local authorities the same, whereas currently some destroy dogs with no court order. It must be much more strictly controlled than it is currently. The system needs to be fairer for all, dogs and humans. We are touched by cases of people committing suicide over the current system.”
When it closed, the petition had reached 118,641 signatures, including 163 from my constituency of Carshalton and Wallington. As a dog owner and an animal lover, I feel strongly that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. I have owned breeds that have had a terribly unfair reputation, such as Staffordshire bull terriers. In reality, they have the sweetest temperament and make great pets, as anyone who has owned one will say.
However, certain dog breeds are banned, purely based on their breed, under breed-specific legislation. In the UK, BSL takes the form of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which bans the breeding, sale and exchange of four breeds of dog: the pit bull terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro. However, the law allows a person to keep an individual dog where a court has considered that it does not present a danger to public safety. The court will consider the temperament of the dog, whether the intended keeper is a fit and proper person, and other matters such as the suitability of the accommodation. Dogs placed on the index of exempted dogs may be kept by the owner under strict conditions, including that the dog is neutered, microchipped and kept on a lead and muzzle in public.
The Dangerous Dogs Act came in response to a spate of dog attacks, which it obviously intended to try to reduce. However, judging on the evidence and the discussions that I have been having since the petition reached 100,000 signatures, it is fair to say that the Act was not necessarily based on evidence or science in any great detail. It was really quite a knee-jerk reaction at the time. The aftermath of the Act has suggested that, actually, it may not have worked as intended. All major animal welfare organisations, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Blue Cross and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, as well as the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report of 2018, have expressed concern about breed-specific legislation, and I thank them for providing me with briefings prior to the debate.
The data suggest that the Act has, indeed, failed to achieve its intended purpose. The four breeds covered by the Act account for only a small fraction of legal cases brought under the Dangerous Dogs Act. Between 1992 and 2019, only 8% of cases involved those four breeds. At the same time, the number of hospital admissions since the Act was introduced has risen from 3,079 in 1999 to 8,859 in 2020—a 188% increase. Campaigners have also pointed to other areas where the legislation falls down. It fails to tackle the issue of irresponsible owners because the focus is on the breed, which detracts from the real problem of poor animal husbandry, welfare and training of a dog.
Every tragic fatality in the UK involving a dog attack has also involved some element of neglect. The law unfairly targets good dogs. It fails to recognise that any breed can be dangerous in the wrong hands and any large dog can cause horrific injuries. It produces a crime where the burden of proof is on a defendant to prove that their dog is not a banned breed. This leaves owners with the almost impossible task of proving a negative, which also seems contradictory to the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
In particular, the Act seems to fail in regard to the pit bull, because that breed is not recognised by the Kennel Club or other dog organisations in the United Kingdom, and therefore the seizure of these breeds has been very patchy and differently applied across the UK. Resemblance to an American pit bull seems to be the primary reason that this is happening. It is an injustice when a dog is held to be this type of dog when, in fact, it is a cross between, for example, a Staffordshire bull terrier and a Labrador—a common cross to be seized because of its resemblance to a pit bull.
There is also the issue of cost. The cost racked up for the taxpayer for kennelling seized dogs is tens of millions of pounds per year. Even when exempted, a dog cannot be transferred or left with others. It must remain muzzled in public, even when in a private car, and must be walked on a lead, even if there is no evidence that it is a danger to a human. That leads to stress for both the dog and the owner. Owners of seized dogs have reported high levels of stress, both for them and for their dog, because they are not sure if the dog will ever be seized again.
There have even been cases of a dog choking while it has been muzzled and the owner being prosecuted for removing the muzzle to save the dog’s life. Sadly, the law does not recognise the need of necessity, so such a dog would be liable to be seized and destroyed, even though it would have died had the muzzle not been removed. In my opinion, that cannot be fair.
There are also issues with the enforcement of the legislation. Evidence from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the RSPCA and Blue Cross, and that submitted to the 2018 EFRA Committee inquiry, suggests that the application of the law is often a postcode lottery, with different police forces and local authorities taking very varied approaches. However, there are a number of common themes.
Well-behaved dogs suffer at the hands of this law because often the seizing itself is a traumatic experience, which is handled brutally and heavy-handedly. The dog is then held in kennels for many months, which has an adverse effect on its temperament, and many good-natured dogs have been reported as being returned to owners with serious behavioural issues, the most common being separation anxiety. There has been photographic and video evidence of the injuries and severe malnutrition that dogs kept by the police have suffered, but when information about the kennel that they were kept in is requested, no legal information is forthcoming to allow dog owners to bring forward any prosecutions or legal challenges.
The law does not tackle public safety effectively and is damaging for dogs and their families in many ways. There are reports of children being traumatised by watching their best friends being dragged away by the police. Scientific studies have shown that young people often form incredibly strong bonds with a family dog, sometimes stronger than with their siblings. Removing an innocent dog from the home can have an incredibly negative effect on a child.
Some owners have been misled as to the nature of the seizing of their dogs and have signed a document that was not properly explained to them. The dog has consequently been destroyed, only for the owner to claim that they were not aware that that was what they were agreeing to. There have been many accusations that the police have wilfully misled owners in order to get a dog destroyed. On some occasions, a dog has even been destroyed without a court order or the informed consent of the owner.
When a dog is seized, it is not allowed to have familiar objects around it, such as favourite toys. It is an incredibly stressful situation for a dog to be seized and put in a kennel, so to further add insult to injury by denying it something familiar seems to me to be cruel. Tragically, there have been cases, as is referred to in the prayer of this petition, of people committing suicide because they could not afford to apply to have their dog exempted. The experience of having the dog removed and not knowing whether it will ever come back has led them to make the decision to take their own life. No one should be put in that position. There should be adequate signposting so that those people are put in contact with the myriad charitable organisations that might be able to help, but the evidence is that it is not forthcoming.
I appreciate that the Government set out strongly in their response to the petition why they do not want to repeal this legislation, which has the support of the police, and frankly I see the political difficulty in doing so. If changes are made to the Dangerous Dogs Act and an attack follows, the political fallout would be severe. Even if there were little to no evidence that the attack was related to the decision, it would not look good.
However, the petitioners—particularly the lead petitioner, Gavin, who I had the pleasure of speaking to before the debate—have suggested a number of options to improve the legislation, not all of which would need primary legislative change. I hope the Minister will take some of them back to the Department. I know that Lord Goldsmith has primary oversight of the enforcement of the legislation, so if the Minister is willing to take some of the suggestions back to see what can be done, that would be very welcome indeed.
The suggestions include reversing the burden of proof and requiring the prosecution to prove that the dog is a banned breed, rather than the other way round. The petitioners suggest ensuring that the law requires dogs to be released in a timely fashion, and enforcing a strict time limit. They suggest ensuring that owners are fully informed of the process and that the police do not accept an agreement for destruction at the point of seizure. The police should ensure that the owner has received any advice that they want and is fully informed of their rights. The petitioners suggest ensuring that those assessing the behaviour of dogs are independent of the police.
The petitioners suggest ensuring that the ownership of seized dogs remains with the owner, who must be informed of all material aspects of the dog’s care requirements, veterinary treatment and so on. They suggest removing the requirement that a dog seized for reason of breed and not for anything it has done must be detained while its case is considered. That is a waste of public funds and causes unnecessary stress to the dogs and the owners. The dog should be able to remain at home if there is no evidence that it is a danger and there is no reason to believe that the owners would not co-operate with the authorities to ensure that reasonable arrangements are put in place.
The petitioners suggest that there should be an assurance that dogs detained for reason of their conduct have their cases heard and considered with the option of putting in place compulsory training and behavioural work. There should not be a jump straight to destruction. They call on the police to use the principle that the aim should be to keep as many dogs alive as possible within the limits of public safety; they should not be minded towards automatic destruction. The petitioners suggest prioritising the hearing of cases so that no dog has to remain in a cage for an inordinate period. They suggest working with an organisation to establish a facility where dogs can be detained, staffed by experts in canine welfare and behaviour, with complete transparency. That would reduce costs far below their current levels, and it should be partly funded by charitable donations.
I appreciate that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has received some new research from the University of Middlesex, which is currently being peer reviewed, so the Minister will want to wait for that to happen before she tells us what it says. I hope the Government will consider some of the suggestions that the charities, campaign groups and petitioners have made. The EFRA Committee inquiry was also pretty damning of the legislation. Those suggestions would improve it, even if primary legislation is not introduced.
Owning a dog is one of the most joyous and rewarding things that I have ever done, and I am sure many people would say the same. Dogs can bring such happiness into the lives of families but, like any animal, they can turn if they are in the wrong hands. The data tell us that breed is a poor indicator of the likelihood of violence. A dog is only as good or bad as the person who owns it. The legislation should reflect that, but it is clear that it is currently littered with issues. I hope the Government will commit to reviewing the evidence further and making improvements to the application of the Act.