Monday 6th June 2022

(1 year, 10 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Relevant documents: Correspondence between the Chair of the Petitions Committee and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, relating to breed specific legislation, reported to the House on 1 February and 22 March 2022.]
Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab/Co-op)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 603988, relating to breed specific legislation.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. The prayer of the petition states:

“We are not satisfied with the response to previous petitions making requests relating to breed specific legislation, and the recent report by Middlesex University, commissioned by the Government at a cost of £71,621, has now cast doubt on one of the core assumptions of the Dangerous Dogs Act: that certain breeds of dogs are inherently more dangerous. The Government should therefore immediately repeal breed specific legislation.”

Four breeds are banned under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. They are the pit bull terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro. Dogs suspected of being of a prohibited type are assessed against a standard, which describes what a particular type should look like. For example, pit bull terrier types are compared with a 1977 American Dog Breeders Association standard, and the dog is expected to approximately amount to, be near to or have a substantial number of characteristics described by the 1977 standard. However, the number of characteristics is not defined, and neither is the way in which the assessment should be conducted, which results in many legal breeds and cross-breeds fitting the standard regardless of the dog’s behaviour.

The petition that we are debating this afternoon was created by Anita Mehdi and, when I last checked, had attracted 114,557 signatures, including 113 from my Neath constituency. The closing date is 21 June, so those figures may increase. The House considered e-petition 300561, which called for reform of breed-specific legislation, on 5 July 2021. I am sure that hon. Members are familiar with that debate, so I intend to focus on the specific issues raised by Anita, whom I was fortunate to meet before this debate.

Anita told me that her dog, Lola, had been seized by the police in August 2019 because it had been brought to their attention that Lola could be of a banned breed. The dog legislation officer identified Lola as a pit bull type, based on her appearance, and a destruction order was made. Lola had never shown any aggression towards anyone and had never been involved in any incidents. Anita sought a court order so that she would be allowed to keep Lola. The court considered evidence put forward that Lola was not a risk to the public, and it agreed that Lola could stay with Anita, subject to the conditions that Lola was neutered, microchipped and always kept on a lead and muzzled in public.

Anita told me that before Lola was seized, she did not know anything about breed-specific legislation, and she was horrified to discover that dogs were being destroyed because of their appearance and not because they had harmed anyone. Anita believes that there should be legislation to take action in respect of dangerous dogs, but that it should not be breed specific. Many dog owners have contacted her about the adverse effect on their mental health when their dogs have been seized, and about the practical difficulties of owning a dog that has been exempted by court order. Anita wants to see breed-specific provisions repealed and the Dangerous Dogs Act amended to focus on dogs that are dangerous and on owners who mistreat their dogs, with increased penalties for offenders and possibly the reintroduction of dog licences.

Wayne David Portrait Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)
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It is clear that breed-specific legislation does not achieve its intended purpose, which is to reduce the number of serious attacks on humans by dangerous dogs. Does my hon. Friend agree that a fundamentally different approach is required to tackle all kinds of dangerous dogs, to look at the issues of licensing, which she has mentioned, and training, and to make sure that the illicit sale of dogs is prevented and that proper controls are introduced? That requires a totally different approach to legislation.

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees
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As usual, my hon. Friend has covered all the points that I am coming to in my speech. There is no collusion here, but I completely agree with him.

Before the debate, I met representatives of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the dog control coalition. The coalition was formed in 2019 with five members: the RSPCA, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Blue Cross, the British Veterinary Association and the Dogs Trust, whose operations of rehoming and promoting animal welfare had been detrimentally affected by section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. The Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Kennel Club subsequently joined the coalition. After 30 years of breed-specific legislation in the UK, those organisations joined forces to raise awareness of the ineffectiveness of the legislation in protecting public safety, and of its negative impact on dog welfare. They told me that breed-specific provisions in the Dangerous Dogs Act must be repealed because evidence shows that its approach to public safety is fundamentally flawed.

The progressive global trend is to repeal breed-specific legislation. The Netherlands introduced breed-specific legislation in 1992 and abolished it in 2008, after a study found that commonly owned dogs were responsible for more bites than breed-specific dogs. Italy introduced breed-specific legislation, which banned 92 breeds, in 2003 and abolished it in 2009 for similar reasons.

Using breed as a predictor of aggressive behaviour is not reliable. Human behaviour, including poor management and the inability to provide for a dog’s needs, are more likely to cause dog to be dangerously out of control. The method by which banned dogs are identified is inconsistent and can be subjective, because the degree to which a dog needs to match the characteristics of a banned type is not clearly defined. The RSPCA has looked at the science around incidents involving dogs that are dangerously out of control, and found that dogs of a banned type are not more likely than other dog types to be a risk to the public. It wants the UK Government to improve data collection regarding the UK dog population and incidents involving dogs that are dangerously out of control, in order to make evidence-based decisions.

Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP)
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The hon. Lady is outlining a fantastic evidence-based approach to this discussion. It is important that we look at the correct risk factors, but the more that the Government focus on breed-specific regulation, which has been shown to be unscientific in outcomes, the less likely we are to look at the real risk factors, such as puppy farming, trauma, abuse and lack of training, which need to be addressed to protect the public. That is the route that we should be taking.

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees
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The hon. Lady makes a really good point. I know that she is an animal lover and a champion of the cause, and I thank her for her intervention.

A 2021 independent report by Middlesex University, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, found that dog bite data is lacking and is inconsistent. However, it was used by the UK Government to underpin a breed-specific approach to public safety, which casts doubt on the evidence that certain breeds of dogs are inherently more dangerous. Breed-specific legislation means that dogs identified as a banned breed cannot be rehomed and strays of these breeds must therefore be put down. The RSPCA has put down 310 dogs in the past five years because of breed-specific legislation. Reforms would allow dogs that are not a risk to the public to be rehomed rather than put down.

Breed-neutral legislation that contains measures to effectively protect the public from dangerous dogs is needed. This would consist of a single dog control Act that consolidates the current complex legislative framework in a breed-neutral way. Dog control notices should be used proactively to help prevent incidents involving dangerous dogs, and there should be stronger penalties for irresponsible owners.

Anna Firth Portrait Anna Firth (Southend West) (Con)
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Does the hon. Lady agree that it is not just these four breeds that are dangerous and it is not just this section of the Dangerous Dogs Act that needs amending? If another breed of dog kills someone’s dog, that owner is not liable for any form of prosecution, unless the dog is an assistance dog or unless another human being or the owner fears injury themselves.

Dog-on-dog attacks should become a criminal offence and that owners should be criminally liable if their dog attacks and kills another dog. The case for this was painfully demonstrated to me by an incident in my constituency at Christmas, when a beautiful, tiny Bichon Frise—a little white dog called Millie—was torn apart in Chalkwell Park by two boxer-style dogs, which is a breed not on the list of dangerous dogs. The owner did not fear any injury for himself, because it was clear the dogs were going for the tiny dog and not him. He had no choice but to carry his dog with its guts hanging out to the vet, where the dog was put down.

Understandably, Michael was traumatised by this event, as many dog owners are up and down the country. We hear about these dog-on-dog attacks pretty much on a weekly basis. Would the hon. Lady agree that section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act needs to be amended to make it a criminal offence if an owner allows their dog to kill another, irrespective of whether that dog is an assistance dog or whether injury is anticipated by the owner? The discrepancy between five years for a dog theft—

George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth (in the Chair)
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Order. The hon. Lady is making an important point, but I think she needs to take her seat. An intervention is not the same as a speech; interventions should be short and to the point. The hon. Lady has made her point and asked her question, and I am sure that the hon. Member who moved the motion will respond accordingly.

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees
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I am very sorry to hear of the hon. Lady’s constituent’s trauma. I am an animal lover and a dog lover. When something happens to someone’s pet, it is very traumatic. The hon. Lady made a lot of valid points, and I am sure the Minister was listening.

As I was saying, we need a single dog control Act that consolidates the current complex legislative framework in a breed-neutral way, and we need to use dog control notices proactively to help prevent incidents involving dangerous dogs. There should also be stronger penalties for irresponsible owners.

Dog welfare is compromised on a daily basis as a result of breed-specific legislation. Dogs are put down, kept in kennels for long periods, especially when a decision about whether a dog is a banned type is challenged, or subject to restrictions after the granting of an interim exemption order. Under such orders, which are recommended by DEFRA, the dog owner is assessed as being a “fit and proper person” and the dog is assessed to be of good temperament, allowing the dog to be returned to its owner under exemption conditions. The dog must be microchipped, neutered and kept on a lead and muzzled while in public spaces until the case is heard in court.

There should be new provisions to ensure that the welfare of dogs kept in kennels is safeguarded. The UK Government’s responsible dog ownership steering group is welcomed. It is hoped it will lead to useful changes around education, data and enforcement, but it is disappointing that breed-specific legislation is not included. Such legislation is ineffective at protecting public safety and results in the unnecessary suffering and euthanasia of many dogs. It should be repealed and replaced with positive interventions that do not compromise dog welfare.

There is no mandatory requirement to report dog bites, but research suggests that people are more likely to report a bite from a suspected prohibited type. The Office for National Statistics lists 78 deaths from dog bites in England and Wales between 1981 and 2015. The RSPCA found from media reports that, of the 34 fatalities between 1989 and 2017, only nine involved pit bull types. Of the 35 reported and registered dog bite fatalities in the UK between 2005 and 2013, specific breeds were reported in 11 cases, but only two involved pit bull types. Between 1992 and 2019, only 8% of dangerously out-of-control dog cases involved banned breeds.

The coalition believes that identifying certain types of dogs as dangerous can create a false sense of security by over-simplifying the situation. Aggression in dogs is a complicated behaviour, involving a range of factors such as breeding and rearing, experiences throughout a dog’s lifetime and, for some dogs, being continually kept on a lead and muzzled in public, which can inhibit natural behaviours and, in some cases, increase aggression.

I also met with Jayne Dendle, who set up the south Wales charity Save Our Seized Dogs to help owners who have had their dogs taken from them under the Dangerous Dogs Act. Jayne started her charity after she came across a story about a therapy dog that had been seized as a potential pit bull type without being involved in any incidents. The owner was a local authority tenant who discovered, after her therapy dog was assessed as an exempt dog, that she was not allowed to keep her dog in her property. Jayne got involved because she wanted to help.

Jayne told me that the costs of challenging a decision about a dog being a pit bull type are prohibitive, so her charity can help only a small number of owners. The legislation requires the owner to prove that their dog is not one of the four banned breeds, which is an onerous reversal of the burden of proof. When a dog does not conform to the proportional measurements and appearance of a banned breed, Jayne recommends that the dog owner obtain an independent assessor’s report. Such reports are comprehensive and run to several pages, while police evidence is often one paragraph setting out why they think the dog is one of the four banned breeds. The cost of an independent assessor’s report is between £800 and £1,500, but it is often the only method that will save a dog.

Unfortunately, when an owner declares that they will pay privately for a second opinion, the option of an interim exemption order is often withdrawn, and some police forces do not even use the interim exemption order scheme. However, there are many benefits of an interim exemption order: kennelling costs are kept to a minimum; kennel space is freed up for dogs that are of genuine concern; a dog is not away its from home for a long period; there is less pressure on courts to provide a hearing date, and I am sure that Members know about the massive backlog of court cases; and breed-specific cases are of low priority.

Jayne found cases where police forces had encouraged an owner to sign over their dog, which had been identified as being of a banned type, so that the dog could be put down and the owner could avoid facing criminal charges. She believes that training for dog legislation officers is insufficient and should focus more on identifying banned breeds.

The welfare of seized dogs is of great concern. When they are returned to their owners, they are often underweight, have sores from sleeping on concrete floors, have damaged teeth from chewing on the bars of the kennel cage, and have parts of their tails missing from wagging them in an enclosed space. The police keep their kennel and vet costs to a minimum, which leads to poor welfare of seized dogs. Jayne has dealt with several cases in which young dogs that were previously healthy were found dead in police-approved facilities. Puppies are often seized when they are under eight weeks of age because there is a suspicion that one or both of their parents may be of a banned breed, but how can the assessment be accurate when good practice suggests that adult dog maturity is only achieved at around nine months of age? Jayne recently dealt with one such case where the puppies were released at eight months, having been declared to be not of the banned breed type. The puppies were under-socialised, not familiar with living in a household environment, and very scared. Jayne suggests that puppies could be allowed home on a similar scheme to the interim exemption order scheme until they reach maturity, when they could be properly assessed.

In conclusion, I have some questions for the Minister. Will the UK Government commit to implementing the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s recommendation that there be an independent evidence review to establish whether the banned breed types are an inherently greater risk than any legal breed or cross-breed? Will the Government ensure that all dogs affected by the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 have their welfare needs met and safeguarded? Will they ensure that all police forces use the interim exemption order scheme? When police forces do not use the interim exemption order scheme, the Government must protect dogs by developing and applying evidence-based, up-to-date kennelling standards.

Will the UK Government allow the rehoming of all dogs seized under the Act by responsible, reputable, rehoming organisations that are assessed through robust procedures? Will they permit independent assessors to review the welfare of dogs that are being kept in kennels pending a court hearing? Will they ensure that there are no contingent destruction orders, and no requirements placed on exempted dogs, such as a requirement to be muzzled in public, when it has been established that a dog seized under the Act does not pose a danger to the public? Will they explore alternatives to breed-specific legislation? Those could range from promoting and fostering responsible dog-ownership communities and allowing for early and preventive interventions, such as dog control notices, to imposing severe penalties on owners who use their dogs to frighten or intimidate. Finally, I should be very grateful if the Minister would meet the petitioner.

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir George. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for her comprehensive introduction.

My constituency has contributed the second highest number of signatures to this petition, which shows that my constituents have a great interest in animal welfare matters. In a nutshell, they believe that the breed-specific legislation is flawed, outdated and ineffective, and means that dogs are euthanised simply because of the way they look. No other option is available, and no assessment is made of whether the dog is actually a danger. It is argued that there is no specific research demonstrating that the dogs in question pose more of a risk than other types of dog.

I am a dog owner, and I regularly take our Labrador Mellie on walks through Rivacre valley in our constituency, where we meet lots of constituents, of course, and lots of other dogs. They all have different personalities, and it is very apparent that a dog cannot be judged by what it looks like or its breed. Focusing on four breeds only is ineffective; that is shown by the fact that the breed-specific legislation has not improved public safety as intended.

My hon. Friend gave a number of statistics, and I want to refer to a couple. In the past 20 years, dog bites have increased by 154%, but only 8% of dangerously out-of-control dog cases involved banned breeds. What is happening with the other 92% of out-of-control dog cases? Why have all the legislative eggs been put in one basket, which accounts for only 8% of the problem?

As we know, hospital admissions due to dog bites continue to rise year on year, so it is clear that the law has significantly failed to do what was intended. It has not reduced dog bites, and it means that innocent dogs continue to be put to sleep. Tragic fatalities as a result of dog attacks continue, so it is clear that the law needs re-examining. Public safety must be paramount, and we absolutely cannot have dangerous dogs coming into contact with the public, but if that is what the legislation is meant to prevent, it is failing.

As my hon. Friend said, recent research from Middlesex University London was instructive. It found that data about dog bite incidents is lacking, and record keeping across the country is inconsistent. The university’s report said:

“Participants almost unanimously cast doubt on the idea that breed was a cause of dog attacks noting either that dogs are not inherently dangerous if properly socialised and engaged with using appropriate behaviours, or that all dogs could be dangerous if placed in the wrong situations and handled inappropriately.”

It noted studies that indicated that dog bite incidents should not by themselves be taken as an indication of dog aggression that requires a regulatory response. Statistical data on the extent of dog attacks therefore needs careful interpretation, and there should be an examination of all the other factors in play.

A dog’s behaviour can very much be influenced by its owner, as well as by other environmental factors. All dogs can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and action to tackle canine aggression should focus on the animal’s training. That would be better than the current crude and ineffective focus on what the dog looks like.

According to the latest data from the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, about 200 leading behaviour experts found that socialisation is the most critical factor: 86% said that the way a dog is brought up by its owner is the most important reason why some are more aggressive towards people than others, and 73% said that the dog’s upbringing by the breeder before they are sold determines behaviour. It is clear that that is where the focus ought to be.

I understand that a steering group has been set up to look at the recommendations from the Middlesex University London report, but it will not look at the legislation, despite there being serious questions about whether it does what was intended. As we have heard, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Dogs Trust, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Blue Cross, the British Veterinary Association and the Kennel Club all want the introduction of what they call breed-neutral legislation that better protects public safety and dog welfare. We need to look at what the evidence and the science are telling us and what the experts say. I would like the Government to commit to a review of the legislation as soon as possible, and to engage with local authorities, the police and experts from other countries. As we heard from my hon. Friend, we can learn from experiences abroad and use them to develop a deeper understanding of what works in this area, because we have seen that the legislation does not stop dog bites and is bad for animal welfare. It is obvious that we need a more rounded approach to dog control that focuses on prevention through responsible ownership and education.

Finally, I want to talk about how breed-specific legislation plays into the wider legislative framework around dogs. A number of constituents have contacted me with their concerns about the increasing number of artificial insemination clinics; unqualified people are able to call these places clinics. Some people will think that their dogs are being dealt with by a professional when the person may have no qualifications at all. There are real concerns about whether these clinics are safe. We certainly cannot be sure that breeding is not going on there, and that needs much closer examination. That is another example of how our legislation is well behind the curve on developments in animal welfare. We need to regulate these clinics and ensure professional standards; that is in the interests of the public and animal welfare.

In conclusion, we want to be a world leader in animal welfare, so we need to keep legislation up to date, follow what the science and expert advice tells us, and base our approach on that.

Margaret Ferrier Portrait Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Ind)
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It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir George. I thank the almost 116,000 members of the public, including 149 of my constituents, who signed the e-petition on breed-specific legislation. I congratulate the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) on her opening remarks.

I am pleased to see the clear public support for reforming these outdated laws. I understand the aims of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, and protecting the public is, of course, vital, but it is clear that the Act is not serving its intended purpose. In the vast majority of cases, a dog is moulded by its owner. While some breeds may be genetically more predisposed to aggressive traits, the way a dog is raised, trained and cared for has a huge influence on its temperament and behaviour. Any dog with negative experiences or irresponsible owners could show traits that have seen breeds banned under the legislation. The opposite is also true: dogs of banned breeds that are raised and cared for properly could be harmless.

In January, the Government said in their written response to the petition that repealing the legislation when there was no alternative in place was something that they were “unwilling to do” because of the increased risk to public safety. That is a somewhat lazy response. The Government have time and again stated that animal welfare is a priority for them, so why leave this legislation in place when it unnecessarily has a direct, negative impact on the welfare of certain dog breeds? Ministers have set out an ambitious legislative programme in this space in the form of the animal welfare action plan. Indeed, some of the legislation has already been passed. There is some argument that other aspects of that plan have since been watered down, but a reform of breed-specific policies through the repeal and replacement of the current legislation could be the perfect middle ground. It is not an issue that the Government should merely be ignoring.

The legislation has not reduced the number of dog bites in the UK. In fact, the number of bites continues to rise yearly. DEFRA’s own stats on the breakdown of bites by breed are notably unreliable, and there is no obligation to report dog bites. Lots of the data around dog ownership is based on estimates, and an independent report commissioned by DEFRA found that dog bite data is lacking and inconsistent. The dog control coalition asked 45 police forces for dog bite data covering the period from 2016 to 2020. Only four of the forces that provided a response could give details of the breed or type of dog involved in incidents. There just is not the evidence to prove that the legislation is effective. In fact, one could argue the opposite; an undue focus on the limited number of banned breeds has meant that we are not looking at the bigger picture.

The worst part of the legislation for me is that whether a dog is banned or not does not even come down to their breeding. The Government guidance says:

“Whether your dog is a banned type depends on what it looks like, rather than its breed or name.”

That means that dogs that are not even of a banned breed can be seized and, in many cases, euthanised based solely on a physical characteristic. To be clear, we are not just talking about aggressive dogs, or dogs that have attacked someone. These can be perfectly friendly, loving pets that someone deems to look illegal. Dogs seized under the Act will go through really traumatic experiences. Seized dogs are put into kennels for months, or even years. They are confined to small spaces and will have a much lower quality of life. Those environments can make a dog more likely to behave aggressively; it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some dogs will get exemption status from the courts, having been found to be a limited threat to the public, but those dogs do not get to move on and live a normal, happy, fulfilled life. They are subject to conditions such as always wearing a muzzle outside, or always being on a lead. Often these dogs are big and energetic, and it is unfair that they will never be allowed to run around, burn some energy, and play with other dogs in the park. Muzzles can be problematic if worn for a prolonged time, and can cause discomfort and sores.

The law prohibits charities from rehoming banned dogs—or, as I say, dogs that look as though they might be of a banned breed. Regardless of the dog’s temperament or personality, they cannot go to one of the many willing and loving homes across the UK. Sadly, that means that euthanasia becomes the only option. Veterinary surgeons, staff and charity employees see huge numbers of dogs put down needlessly—dogs that would have been suitable for rehoming. It is traumatic and awful for everyone involved. It is astonishing that a 30-year-old piece of legislation that we know to be ineffective continues to be applied without scrutiny.

I thank the Scottish SPCA for its excellent briefing on this subject, and for taking the time to show me around the Lanarkshire animal rescue and rehoming centre a couple of weeks ago, where there are a lot of loving dogs looking for a new home. The Scottish SPCA’s work is incredibly important, and I completely back its “No Bad Breed” campaign, which has a petition that is nearly at the 25,000-signature mark. Anybody looking to support it should go online and find the campaign page.

This complex issue cannot be boiled down to breed. I pay tribute to Chief Superintendent Mike Flynn, who has been urging the Government to review the legislation, as it is not fit for purpose. He has done a lot of work in this area. I hope that the Minister can today acknowledge that there is work to be done on this issue and a need for reform, and can bring it forward. That would be not only in line with the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the public, but would improve public safety in the round and prevent the unnecessary death of innocent dogs.

Toby Perkins Portrait Mr Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) on introducing the debate, and on the way in which she opened it. People from right across the country feel strongly about the issue, and I am sure that many will have appreciated what she said. I am pleased to speak today on behalf of the dozens of constituents who have contacted me on this issue. In fact, at the latest count, 286 people from Chesterfield had signed the petition. There is no doubting that there is very strong opinion on the subject. As is often said, we are a nation of animal lovers. I receive more emails and letters regarding animal welfare than on almost any other issue. My inbox is full of messages from people who are concerned about badgers, bats, birds, butterflies, improving welfare standards in food production, and protecting animals across the world from poaching or the destruction of their habitat.

Even stronger than our passion for wild animals is our love for our pets. Our pets, particularly our dogs and cats, are very much part of the family. We love them and we protect them like a family member. That is why people feel so passionately about how unfair and ineffective the legislation is, and why over 115,000 people signed the e-petition that generated today’s debate.

I have the great privilege and honour of sharing our house with the family cat, Basil—a tiny bundle of energy who many colleagues of mine may have seen appearing on Zoom calls over the last couple of years—and also the family dog, Laurie, who is very old and increasingly smelly, but very much adored by the family none the less. We would all be devastated if anything happened to them, which is of course how people across the country feel, but it is a particular agony if our animals are attacked. The consequences can be very serious for the whole family when dogs get out of control and attack other dogs, and obviously when, tragically, children and others are attacked. Dangerous dogs are a menace that absolutely must be clamped down upon. Today’s debate is not about whether action needs to be taken against dangerous dogs, but about whether we are currently taking the right action.

Wayne David Portrait Wayne David
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In the five months to February, there were 69 dog attacks in the Gwent police area, which is relatively small, and that figure can be extrapolated right across the country. Nothing highlights more how ineffective the current legislation is.

Toby Perkins Portrait Mr Perkins
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I agree with my hon. Friend entirely. We have heard from other hon. Members about the importance of recognising the need for legislation that targets dangerous dogs and dangerous dog owners. When 92% of all attacks are by dogs not covered by the legislation, it is clearly ineffective, as his experience in Gwent demonstrates.

We all have pets that we love, or pets that have died who we still miss. I am sure everybody understands the distress and extreme upset it causes dog owners who have their pets—animals that may be well trained and have never harmed anyone—confiscated and euthanised simply because of their breed or type. I recently met my constituent Annie Littlewood to discuss her dog Frank, who sadly died recently. Annie always suspected that Frank might be of a pit bull-type breed and lived in fear that he would be confiscated and put down. Frank was quite a local celebrity in the Brookside area of Chesterfield. He was a gentle soul who was loved by everyone who met him. When he was out on walks, people from across the community went up to speak to him and give him a stroke. He was always well behaved and never harmed a person or any other animal, but under the current legislation he could have been deemed dangerous and euthanised.

That is clearly why so many have signed this petition. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has often been held up as an example of poor-quality legislation that was created in haste, without proper scrutiny or consultation. While no one wants anyone to be the victim of a dog attack, we need to ensure that laws to address that are effective and to be certain about what they are achieving. As the current legislation is not reducing dog attacks or improving public safety, it is clearly not fit for purpose. I therefore hope that when the Minister responds she will show a little more open-mindedness about addressing this law and recognise that a wide variety of organisations with real passion in this area believe that it is failing to improve public safety.

The RSPCA, the British Veterinary Association, the Kennel Club and many other animal welfare groups all seem to agree that a review is urgently needed and that the current law is not working, so I hope the Government will listen to these groups. Evidence from the RSPCA suggests that the four breeds selected by the legislation 30 years ago are no more prone to aggression, and do not pose a more significant risk, than many other types of dogs.

The hon. Member for Southend West (Anna Firth) spoke about the importance of ensuring that dog owners take responsibility for dog-on-dog attacks, and she made an important point about aspects of the legislation that need to be reviewed. I know that is felt particularly passionately by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, because guide dogs are bred and trained to be gentle, for obvious reasons. It is incredibly important. When they come under attack, they are ill equipped to defend themselves. It massively impacts on their ability to do their job—they are working dogs—and it is terrifying for the blind person accompanying them to experience those kinds of attacks, so dog-on-dog attacks should be capable of being prosecuted in the way that the hon. Lady spoke about.

When it comes to the creation or amendment of laws, it is vital that we look at the evidence and listen to the experts, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) said. I know that listening to experts is not always something that the Government have chosen to do, but it is our responsibility as legislators and representatives to make sure that laws are evidence-based. The Government should see this as an opportunity to improve public safety by creating a system that focuses on the aggressive behaviour of dogs, and on owners who either fail to control their dogs or deliberately try to make them more aggressive, rather than on the very blunt instrument of breed, which is how the legislation is currently formulated.

Responsible dog owners such as my constituent Annie, who have made sure that their dogs are well trained, balanced and passive, should not have to live in fear that their much-loved family pet could be destroyed because an inspector with a tape measure has determined that it is an illegal type. Let us listen to our constituents and the experts, and let us work together to create an ethical system that genuinely improves public safety and does not needlessly destroy safe, well-behaved pets.

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan (Angus) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I thank the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for securing the debate.

I rise to speak in favour of the views that many of my constituents have expressed regarding breed-specific legislation, and I am very pleased that we have one of the SSPCA’s rescue and rehoming centres in Angus. I was lucky enough to visit it for the first time after covid a number of weeks ago, and I met a gorgeous pit bull bitch who may be rehomed—I hope that she is—but so many of that breed face a different fate thanks to the legislation, which simply does not work. The evidence is not there to uphold the legislation. It probably was not there 30 years ago, and it certainly is not there now.

I hope the Minister recognises the neutral, supportive and non-partisan tones with which we are all coming at the debate. I do not hear anybody swiping at the Government in the name of this priority. This is not about dogs’ rights versus people’s right to feel safe in the public realm. It is about decency towards animals, which people in these islands have a justifiable reputation for upholding across the years, and about making sure that people are protected from dangerous dogs.

Focusing on the four breeds set out in the legislation gives an easy ride to dangerous dogs that are not one of those breeds. The SSPCA is clear on this point and says that it is fully supportive of legislation to protect the public, as we all are. It believes that any breed of dog that is out of control is a dangerous dog in the wrong hands, and that the legislation does not really reflect this. In essence, the SSPCA wishes to see section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act amended so that dogs are judged on the deed, not the breed, which is a helpful way of encapsulating the situation. It would mean that dogs are put to sleep only if they pose a demonstrable risk to the public, rather than because they are a certain type of dog, which is an arbitrary qualification.

While the four banned breeds are detailed in the way that they are, it puts an unnecessary burden on legislative bodies, the courts, law enforcement and police forces up and down these islands. It cannot be easy for professionals in those roles to follow the law down a cul-de-sac that puts an otherwise healthy animal to sleep.

We need to protect the public, as I have said, and we should not deal in anecdote, but I was bitten by a dog when I was a kid and it was not one of those four breeds, and I know people who have made the painful decision to put their own pet down because it had a temperament issue, and it was not one of the four breeds. I am not a small person, but I was knocked clean off my feet by an out-of-control Labrador. It was about 10 stone, right enough, and its accelerator worked better than its brakes. Nevertheless, it was nothing to do with these four breeds. I think it is time, 30 years on from the legislation, to take a much fresher look at this issue.

I want to impress on the Minister the fact that evidence makes better legislation than reputation does. I look forward to hearing what she says to these points.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir George. This has been a very focused and consensual debate, and I am pleased to say a few words from the Opposition Front Bench. This is the second time in just a few months that I have had the opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for opening a debate in the House, and I do so again today.

I would like to acknowledge the colleagues who have spoken in today’s debate and all those who signed this petition. Involvement and engagement with our democratic processes can at times seem difficult, so I am pleased that at least 114,000 people from across the UK, including more than 150 people in my own constituency of Newport West, signed the petition. I thank them for ensuring that their voices have been heard and I hope that the Minister responds in detail to the points raised in this debate.

The benefit of a very focused debate is that there is no excuse for rambling, dithering or delay, so I shall be as brief as possible. I start by reiterating, as I do at every opportunity afforded to me, that those on the Opposition Benches believe in honouring animal welfare and we will always push for the strongest possible animal welfare policies. Those are not just words. Colleagues across the House had the opportunity to help us to put our pledges into action during the passage of the Bill that became the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022. Alas, Tory Members of this House voted down every single animal welfare-related amendment, opposed every single suggestion and ignored even the most anodyne points from Opposition Members. That is a matter of deep regret.

Many people out in the country, including those who have signed this petition, believe that the current approach to dog control is misguided and does not adequately protect people, or animals for that matter. I agree with that and I hope that the Minister will be crystal clear about her view and that of Her Majesty’s Government.

It is important that we consider some of the background to this important issue. Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act, also known as breed-specific legislation, makes it an offence to own, breed from, sell or exchange four dog breeds: the pit bull terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro. The police or local authority can take away a banned dog even if it is not acting dangerously and there has not been a complaint. It is important to note, as hon. Members have done today, that owners can apply for an exemption order. I would be grateful if the Minister told us how many owners have applied for an exemption in each of the last five years. I hope that, if she does not have access to that information today, she will write to me with it. This is important, because if the court finds that the banned dog is not a danger to public safety, it will be put on the index of exempted dogs and the owner will be allowed to keep it—in compliance with certain conditions, which we have heard outlined today. I think that it would be helpful to colleagues if the Minister outlined whether she thinks that the said conditions as they stand are suitable and effective. If not, how does she think they can be improved, and what work is she doing to improve them?

The Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced to protect the public from attacks by dangerous dogs. More than 200,000 people are attacked by dogs in England alone every year. The Act prohibits breeds traditionally bred for fighting, and makes it an offence for any dog to be “dangerously out of control” in our communities. However, since the Act was introduced, the number of fatalities from dog attacks each year has risen. Up to August 2017, there had been 73 fatal dog attacks in England and Wales since the Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced. Hospital admissions, as we have heard today, have increased by 81% since 2005. Therefore this is not something that we can ignore.

A petition to the UK Parliament that was entitled “Replace Breed Specific Legislation with a new statutory framework” received more than 118,000 signatures and was debated in Parliament on 5 July 2021. The petition stated that BSL

“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.”

It further stated:

“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.”

It called on the Government to “Reconsider a licensing system.” Opposition Members believe that safety must be our top priority, without unnecessarily punishing responsible dog owners or harming dogs that are not necessarily a risk. In other words, we need a realistic and objective approach.

Since the Dangerous Dogs Act came into force, more people have been killed by dog attacks and more people are being admitted to hospital due to dog bites. We all know the feeling of horror when we receive the news of a child or young person killed by a dangerous dog, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David). Our sympathies and condolences go out to all those affected by this issue.

At the same time, it is important and fair to note that too many harmless dogs are destroyed simply because they are a banned breed, regardless of their temperament, behaviour or surroundings. We must be more pragmatic when it comes to banning certain dogs based on their breed. All dogs can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Action to tackle dog bites and canine aggression must focus on the deed, not the breed, and that requires proper resources, focus and attention, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) so eloquently stated.

In 2018, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee carried out an inquiry into breed-specific legislation, and called for a full-scale review of current dog control legislation and policy to ensure the public is properly protected and animal welfare concerns addressed. It said that changing the law on BSL is

“desirable, achievable, and would better protect the public.”

I would welcome hearing the Minister’s view on that inquiry. I would like to know whether she supports the recommendations and what progress has been made on introducing and implementing them. What cross-nation engagement has taken place with the devolved Governments of the United Kingdom?

Like my colleagues on the Opposition Benches, I believe we must follow the science and evidence. I call on the Minister today to commit to a review of breed-specific legislation and the Dangerous Dogs Act as soon as possible, and to engage with local authorities, police and experts from other countries to develop a deeper understanding of different successful approaches for the UK.

Government-commissioned research by Middlesex University into dog control measures published in December 2021 concluded that dog ownership is insufficiently regulated. The Government have said that they remain concerned that lifting restrictions could lead to further tragedy, but they have indicated that they are considering the recommendations, which included improved recording of dog attack data and characteristics, and new legal requirements on dog ownership. It would be good to have a further update from the Minister today if possible.

Breed-specific legislation does not stop dogs biting children, young people and adults. It is bad for animal welfare because the dogs cannot be rehomed in a controlled environment. Thousands of dogs are being euthanised. That simply is not a sustainable or fair solution; not if we want to say that this country takes animal welfare seriously. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) highlighted eloquently how people the length and breadth of the UK love their pets. I wish his cat and dog a long and happy life. We want a more holistic approach to dog control that focuses on prevention through education, responsible ownership and early intervention, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly stated. As with so much of our national life since 2010, we can solve things if we want to. I hope the Minister will instruct her officials to start making progress on the many points that have been made today. We have no time to waste.

Jo Churchill Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jo Churchill)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I thank the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for introducing the debate and all hon. Members for their contributions, which have all been extremely well thought out and articulated, and have highlighted the pain for animals and owners on both sides of the equation. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) highlighted eloquently how we value our pets, but also how that cannot be at the expense of ensuring that safety is paramount in our minds.

I hope today to give a little encouragement about how we are already on the way to some of the things to which hon. Members have referred, but I would be the first to say that we are still gathering the evidence. That is important, because we work with many of the partners mentioned today, whether that be academics and the veterinary profession, or our police, local authorities and other stakeholders. They are all key to ensuring that we have the right evidence base with which to move forward.

Neil Hudson Portrait Dr Neil Hudson (Penrith and The Border) (Con)
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I am encouraged to hear that the Government’s response is to look at the evidence when reviewing such legislation. It is a sensitive area that people feel passionately about, and we have heard some powerful interventions and speeches today. Sadly, some dogs and some behaviours are dangerous to people and to animals, as we heard. In combination with powerful jaw structures and dog bodies, that becomes quite frightening. Some, including the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), talk about how we should be looking at the deed, not the breed, and I am sympathetic to that. However, as we know, some breeds are dangerous, and I suggest to the Minister that a middle ground might be to think holistically and to consider breed and/or deed.

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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My hon. Friend speaks both as a Member in this place and as an esteemed member of the veterinary profession, pointing out that we are not looking for an all-or-nothing approach here. That is very timely, and I thank him for it.

Sadly, we have seen a number of tragic fatalities from dog attacks in recent months. Many of them have involved children, but not exclusively so. The Government are already taking action to address that. I will set out what we are doing, working with the other stakeholders that I mentioned. Indeed, I was heartened that the hon. Member for Neath referenced how some of the work is beginning to get under way.

We have been working with stakeholders, including the police, local authorities and—a couple of hon. Members asked about this—the devolved Administrations, in order to develop simple key messages to promote safer interactions, in particular between children and dogs. The dog safety code launched last week highlights three key messages to all dog owners and families with children. As the hon. Member for Chesterfield said, and as we know in our home, a family pet is a great asset but has its own needs, and those needs have to be cared for. Dog owners should be alert and always keep an eye on their dog when it is around children. They should not leave them alone together. They should be aware and get to know their dog—dogs use signals to tell us when they are stressed. Be safe, because any dog can bite and accidents happen very swiftly.

Today is the start of Child Safety Week, and the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education are sharing that messaging, which will also be used by health visitors and child safeguarding professionals. We will continue that over the summer holidays, because we want the dog safety code to be embedded in future communications. At this point, I put on the record my thanks to Marisa Heath of the Canine and Feline Sector Group for her support in co-ordinating that work. As many have said today, others helping to get this right is what we need.

Members are well aware of the work that we commissioned from Middlesex University to explore measures to reduce dog attacks and to promote responsible ownership across all breeds of dog. We published that report in December last year, and in response to it we established the responsible dog ownership project with the police, local authorities and animal welfare stakeholders, to consider the report’s recommendations in detail, build on the evidence base and provide advice to the Government.

Four areas are examined, and I will go into some of the specifics, in particular to answer some of the questions of the hon. Member for Neath, although many Members present brought up areas such as enforcement. The project is looking at strengthening enforcement; developing and supporting education initiatives, which is seen as key; improving the quality and accessibility of dog training; and—I think this was brought up by virtually every Member who spoke, but certainly by the hon. Members for Neath and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth)—the importance of data collection right across the system, whether by hospitals when there have been attacks, veterinarians or the police, so that we know what we are dealing with. We expect that project to conclude its work in early 2023. The Government will then consider the advice and work through the next steps.

To address the point about breed-specific legislation not working, repealing the breed-specific provisions without other changes would not help public safety. That is why we are working on ensuring we have the right evidence base. We are not willing to repeal the breed-specific provisions contained in the Dangerous Dogs Act without other changes being made. We need to walk carefully through these things and make sure that we reach the right conclusions.

The hon. Member for Neath talked about rehoming exempted dogs. Current legislation only permits the transfer of keepership of prohibited dogs when the existing keeper has died or is seriously ill. Case law has also confirmed that a person with a pre-existing relationship with the dog can apply to place it on the index, even if they are not the owner or the most recent keeper.

The hon. Lady also raised the issue of putting down good-natured dogs. Any changes relating to rehoming must consider the signals that sends about the acceptability of keeping those types of dogs. We must ensure that we draw the right balance and find the middle ground so that legislation is both workable and enforceable, and cares for the animal in the best possible way.

Several hon. Members spoke about why the data is lacking. The report by Middlesex University highlighted that much more could be done about the recording of dog attacks. As I have said, we are working with the institutions I mentioned, as well as NHS Digital, to make sure we get that data in a timely way.

On the question of how we address dog attacks by other breeds, section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act makes it an offence to allow a dog of any breed or type to be “dangerously out of control” in any place. In addition, the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 includes specific measures to enable the police and local authorities to tackle irresponsible dog ownership before a dog attack occurs, including through the use of community protection notices. It is important that we know what legislation we have already, and why it is or is not working.

On dog-on-dog attacks, I extend my enormous sympathy to the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West. I have heard my hon. Friend talk about the attack on her constituent’s dog before and it sounded utterly horrific. Existing powers allow dog-on-dog attacks to be tackled, including through issuing community protection notices, as I just mentioned, and through prosecution under the 1991 Act and the Dogs Act 1871. The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill will bring in new measures to crack down on dog attacks on livestock. We do not want to bring in legislation piecemeal and we want to get it right.

The hon. Member for Neath asked what we can do to look at the time dogs spend in kennels. The interim exemption scheme allows dogs to remain with their owners in advance of a court hearing if the police determine that the dog will not pose a threat to public safety. I assure her that DEFRA officials are working with police forces across the country to increase uptake of the interim exemption scheme. Commercial kennels are required to meet the standards placed upon them and are licensed by the local authority.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield said that dogs should not be judged by their appearance. The Middlesex University report does not go so far as to say that we should move away from breed-specific legislation, but it recognises that a range of factors need to be considered. That is why I hope that when the project comes forward early in 2023 we will have the framework to move forward.

On responsible dog ownership, the report recommended that we look at additional legal requirements on dog ownership, including, as a basic standard, that dog owners must demonstrate a minimum standard of dog knowledge and be on a register attesting to that fact. We are also looking to improve the microchipping regime, because those databases are complex—I think there are 17, and they need to be brought into one place.

Wayne David Portrait Wayne David
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Will the Government at least look at the possibility of licensing dogs?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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When the evidence comes back, we will obviously look at it. We microchip all our dogs, and if a microchipping database works effectively and we have a good education programme, I would argue that that should be sufficient, but we are waiting with an open mind until the evidence comes back.

I understand the strength of feeling about breed-specific legislation, but the Government must balance the views of those who want it repealed with our responsibility to protect the public. We remain concerned that lifting the current restrictions may not be the optimal move forward. However, the responsible dog ownership project will explore these issues more widely, and if we make any changes, we will ensure that public safety remains the absolutely paramount point at the heart of the regime.

I hope that colleagues are reassured that we take this important subject seriously. I look forward to carrying on the collegiate conversation with them to ensure we get this right.

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees
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We have had a very good debate, and I thank all hon. Members for their excellent, thought-provoking contributions. There is agreement that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is not fit for purpose. I thank the Minister for her response, and I urge her—I know she is very magnanimous—to continue reviewing the legislation comprehensively and to act on expert evidence in order to find a middle ground that works, because it is not working at the moment. I think we need breed-neutral legislation that protects the public and safeguards dogs and responsible dog owners.

Finally, I thank the petitioner, Anita, for raising this very important matter and for her determination in campaigning to repeal breed-specific legislation and reform dangerous dogs legislation.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 603988, relating to breed specific legislation.

Sitting adjourned.