HC Deb 04 November 1992 vol 213 cc387-92

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Arbuthnot.]

10.34 pm
Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

After such a momentous debate, it may seem somewhat of an anticlimax to talk about the operation of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991—in relative terms, it is. However, the Act is of great importance to some 6 million dog owners in our country.

I immediately declare my interest as the owner of three west highland terriers, named Tammy Hansard, Madam Speaker Hansard and Ben Hansard. I am also the chairman of the National Advisory Panel for Pro Dogs.

The 1991 Act was passed with perfectly good intentions, it was fully justified and it was supported by the public. It was designed to reduce the threat of attacks by dangerous dogs. I will prove, however, that its implementation has been unfair and a disaster for many responsible dog owners.

When the pit bull terrier first came to the United Kingdom in the mid-1970s, strong representations were made to the Government to ban the import of those dogs. The Government considered that request but said that they could not ban their import because there was no way in which one could define that breed. Surely a dog should be judged not by its breed but by its behaviour and record. For example, a cross-breed of a labrador and a boxer could look very like a pit bull terrier. How many people would have the expertise to identify it on that basis, be they police officers, dog wardens or even veterinary surgeons?

Section 3 of the Act could affect every dog in the country—including the many dogs that are owned by hon. Members. Let me give an example of what could happen as a result of the Act. Let us suppose that a woman peacefully walking her dog in the woods, enjoying an afternoon stroll and minding her own business, is suddenly attacked by a man who may attempt to rape, assault or rob her. The dog, devoted to its owner, immediately goes to her defence and bites the man. The man runs off but within a few hours is detained and charged by the police. He is sent to court and then to prison for assault or whatever. It is quite possible, however, that, as a result of the Act, that woman's dog will be destroyed and the woman will have a criminal record for life. That cannot be right.

Another specific example involved my wife. In the early 1980s—long before the introduction of the legislation—my wife was walking our dog in my constituency. A large, aggressive man came towards her and asked, "Are you Andrew Bowden's wife?" When she said yes, he verbally abused her and put his clenched fist right under her nose. He did not hit her, but my wife was very frightened. Our west highland terrier, which was at her side, growled and showed her teeth. The man turned around and ran.

As the Dangerous Dogs Act stands today, that man could go down to the local police station and say that that dog had caused him worry and strain and that he had felt threatened by it. He could demand action and the police would have to take action. Again, that cannot he right.

In view of the circumstances, it is not surprising that people have described the Act as a "dog haters' charter". Unless the Act is amended, it gives spiteful people every opportunity to settle scores against dogs and dog owners that they do not like.

I wish to make some positive suggestions to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who I know is listening sympathetically to what I have to say and will pay careful attention to my points. In view of the instances that I have outlined and the possibilities that can and will arise unless the Act is amended, I ask him to consider these amendments. First, the courts should be given discretion in dealing with cases, particularly in relation to the destruction of dogs.

Secondly, having heard all the evidence, they should have the power to make a judgment between a savage dog that is a danger to society—we all want those dogs dealt with—and a pet dog that reacts to a situation of the type that I outlined. The law distinguishes between common assault, grievous bodily harm and bodily harm. Why should not the same principle apply to the Dangerous Dogs Act?

Thirdly, the description of the type of dog known as a pit bull is open to misunderstanding, misinterpretation and abuse. The courts should have a power, in those circumstances, to allow late registration. They have no discretion at present.

Fourthly, under the muzzle and lead section, the courts should be able to consider pleas of "reasonable excuse". If a dog were wearing a muzzle and that muzzle were taken off for 30 seconds so that the dog could have a drink. or if the dog were sick and in danger of choking, that should be justifiable to a court. Is it reasonable to say that, if the muzzle has been removed, the dog could be taken and destroyed? I cannot believe that that was the original intention of the House when the Act was passed.

The case for review of the Act is strong. It is supported by Pro Dogs, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the British Veterinary Association, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the Kennel Club, a world-renowned animal behaviourist. Dr. Roger Mugford, many magistrates, and a leading QC, Mr. Thomas Field-Fisher, who is chairman of the Battersea Dogs Home. Those are just a few examples of people who believe that an urgent review and changes are needed.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister consider those points carefully? The Act can be—and has proved to be on occasions—unfair and cruel. As a result of the Act, there have been suicides. Families have been devastated by the loss of deeply loved pets. Many of those who have been brought to court are responsible dog owners. Their dogs have caused no harm, but they have been seized from their homes, gardens and even cars and destroyed. That is not true British justice. The law must be changed. I ask my hon. Friend to act quickly.

10.43 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) on his success in obtaining this Adjournment debate and on raising such an important subject. As a near parliamentary neighbour of his in east Sussex, I know only too well what an effective spokesman he is on this important issue and on many other subjects. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Sproat), who is in his place, is also extremely concerned about the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown has raised.

It is a little over 18 months since we saw the horrific injuries sustained by Mr. Tempest and the young Rukhsana Khan resulting from attacks by dangerous dogs. No one who saw those photographs and the pictures on our television screens could deny the need for some action to safeguard the public. That is why the Government took some action to give the public increased protection against dangerous dogs.

The House will recall that there was particular concern about those types of dogs which are specially bred for fighting. These are not pets or companion animals in the normal sense of that expression. Dogs such as the pit bull terrier are characterised by their fighting nature and by the force and ferocity of their attacks. That is why the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 places special controls on fighting dogs. These controls apply to any dog of the types known as the pit bull terrier or the Japanese tosa, to the dogo Argentino and to the fila Braziliero.

Section 2 of the Act enables my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to apply restrictions to any other type of dog which he considers presents a serious danger to the public. But equally the Act also contains more general provisions aimed at dogs of any type which are dangerously out of control in a public place. The Act therefore deals with the specific problems of fighting dogs and the problem of dangerous dogs generally.

Before turning to fighting dogs, I remind the House of those general controls which apply under the Act to a dog of any type which is dangerously out of control in a public place.

Section 3 of the Act gives the public additional protection against any type of dog. All dog owners must be aware that they are responsible for their dogs' actions. It is for them to control their dogs in public. A dog need not have injured anyone for section 3 to apply. It is sufficient that, by its actions, there are grounds for reasonable apprehension that it will injure someone.

Where a dog causes injury, an aggravated offence is committed. These provisions should encourage dog owners, many of whom are ready to take their responsibilities seriously—indeed, most, I am sure—to exercise greater control of their dogs in public. Not everyone is a dog lover, but even those who are can be put in fear by a dog of any size or type which is dangerously out of control.

The Act also clarifies the courts' powers under section 2 of the Dogs Act 1871 to impose controls on dangerous dogs. A court may make an order on complaint that a dog is dangerous and not kept under proper control, whether or not the dog is shown to have injured anyone. An order under the 1871 Act may require a dog to be muzzled in future, kept on a lead, tethered or excluded from specified places like, for instance, a school playground or a recreation area. It can also apply in and around a private house. It thus enables, for example, action to be taken by a neighbour where a dog represents a particular menace. These are important and useful provisions.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown has allowed me to sketch out these matters before I deal with the issues that he has raised. Before I respond to them, I ask the House to recall that the ultimate objective of the legislation as it applies to fighting dogs such as the pit bull terrier is the elimination from this country of such dogs. The Government continue to believe that fighting dogs, of which the pit bull terrier is the best known, have no place in our society. The 1991 Act therefore makes it an offence, inter alia, to have a specially controlled dog. It is also an offence to breed from such a dog. The legislation does, however, allow owners to keep such dogs for the remainder of the animals' natural lives, provided that they comply with stringent conditions. It is against this background that the operation of the 1991 Act should be seen.

Owners who wished to keep their specially controlled dogs were required to notify the police by 12 October 1991 that they owned such a dog. They were then required to obtain a certificate of exemption by 30 November 1991 from the index of exempted dogs. To obtain a certificate of exemption, an owner was required to have the dog permanently identified by the insertion of a microchip and by having the dog tattooed, to obtain third party insurance, to have the dog neutered and to pay a fee.

It has been an offence for anyone to have an unexempted specially-controlled dog since 1 December 1991. All these provisions received wide publicity at the time. I have no doubt that some owners who were unsure about whether their dogs were specially controlled erred on the side of caution and sought certificates of exemption. Those owners of specially-controlled dogs who did not wish to have their dog exempted could choose either to have the dog destroyed or to export it. Those who chose to have their animals destroyed within the specified period were eligible for compensation.

The Government believe it right that there should be strict controls on fighting dogs, but they have not been inflexible. They responded to the difficulties which owners in some parts of the country had in getting their dogs tattooed within the deadline. We therefore extended the deadline for getting dogs tattooed until 29 February, although owners were still required to have completed the other steps for obtaining a certificate of exemption by that date.

We believe that the 1991 Act and the exemption scheme established under it are working well. It would, of course, be surprising if it did not take those involved in operating the Act on a daily basis—the police, the courts and others —a while to become familiar with the legislation.

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to what he sees as particular problems with the operation of the Act. I will attend to some of those points in a moment. However, I must make it quite clear that the Government do not propose to relax the strict controls that the 1991 Act introduced. The need for strong action was acknowledged by the House at the time the legislation was introduced and we do not think it would be right to reduce the protection now afforded to the general public.

It has been suggested that the courts should be given discretion about whether to order the destruction of a dog whose owner has been convicted of one of the main offences under the 1991 Act, a point that my hon. Friend made eloquently. I understand the reasoning behind the proposal and I do not pretend that there will not be or have not been hard cases. The destruction of any dog is always a matter for sadness, but the Government believe that that must be the penalty for fighting dogs if the courts find that their owners have not complied with the relevant provisions of the law. If courts were allowed discretion to decide whether or not to order the destruction of a dog following the successful prosecution of its owner and if the court did not order the dog's destruction, the dog would have to he returned to the convicted owner. That owner, by his actions, would have already shown himself to be irresponsible. Similar arguments apply to destruction orders made in respect of a section 3 offence of having a dog dangerously out of control in a public place.

I also understand the view that a dog should not be liable to destruction simply, for example, for having its muzzle removed in public, a point made by my hon. Friend. However, it is not difficult to imagine what would happen if a dog in such a position were to attack. Less responsible owners would be encouraged to break the law and the public would rightly want to know why Parliament had thought fit to relax the strict regime. They would, with some justification, accuse us of contributory negligence. Incidentally, I understand that muzzles are available which allow a dog to drink without the muzzle having to be removed.

The problem of defining and identifying pit bull terriers was also discussed. This is not the time to enter into a debate about canine genealogy and the origins of the pit bull terrier. I shall just say that the pit bull terrier is not a recognised breed in this country and there are therefore no breed standards for the dog. It is not recognised as a breed by the Kennel Club. It can be misleading to talk in terms of pure pit bull terriers, as some do, as the dog of that type that we encounter in this country will be in almost all cases the result of the cross breeding of a bull terrier type with another type of dog to produce a fighting dog of strong build. It may be of interest to the House to know that the Dutch Animal Health and Welfare Act, which imposes controls on pit bull terriers in the Netherlands, refers to such dogs in the same terms as section 1 of our 1991 Act.

It was always recognised that there might be problems with the identification of pit bull terriers. It is a matter in the first instance for the police or local authority dog wardens to consider whether a particular dog is of the type known as the pit bull terrier where an offence under the 1991 Act may have been committed. If the matter proceeds to court and the owner disputes that the dog is a pit bull terrier, the owner has the opportunity to bring forward whatever evidence he or she thinks appropriate and may, of course, call expert witnesses. In the final analysis, it is rightly a matter for the courts to decide on the basis of the evidence brought before it whether or not a particular dog is one which is specially controlled under section 1 of the Act.

We are also aware that there has been concern that, to the untrained eye, a Staffordshire bull terrier may be confused with a pit bull terrier. Staffordshire bull terriers are not, of course, specially controlled by the Act. In view of the concern, a Home Office circular detailing advice about the operation of the Act was sent to the police and courts with a list provided by the Staffordshire Bull Terrier Breed Council of clubs and societies that are willing to give advice to the police, local authority dog wardens and the courts in cases where there is any doubt whether the dog is a Staffordshire bull terrier. That is further evidence that the Government have responded, where possible, to the concerns of the dog world.

However, I would not wish to give the impression that the Government do not understand the concerns that my hon. Friend has articulated so clearly. While I cannot give an undertaking that the Government will amend the Act as some would wish, we do keep the operation of the Act under review and my hon. Friend's comments will be borne in mind.

We are well aware of criticisms which are made of the Act. That is why, for example, when we issued further guidance during the summer on the operation of the Act, we reminded the prosecuting authorities of previously existing statutory provisions relating to the control of dogs, where the option of having a dog destroyed is either not available or is not mandatory. It is of course a matter for the prosecuting authorities to consider which legislation is the most appropriate in individual cases. We also draw attention to the desirability of expediting cases under the 1991 Act where the dog in question is being held in kennels.

The legislation is still relatively new and I am sure it is right that its operation should be examined closely, as my hon. Friend has done tonight. The Government will continue to listen carefully to my hon. Friend and others who wish to comment constructively on the controls. But at the same time I would ask that they bear in mind the Government's overriding duty to ensure the adequacy of the law to protect the public.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Eleven o'clock.