Breed-specific Legislation

Christina Rees Excerpts
Monday 6th June 2022

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.

Resolved,

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