HC Deb 20 January 2003 vol 398 cc141-8

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

10.30 pm
Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity this evening to speak up for man's best friend and to bring the issue of dog welfare before the House. Millions of British people, including many of our constituents, either own or have owned a dog. There are an equally large number of dog lovers in Britain who recognise the importance of these creatures in the lives of humankind. I am therefore certain that hon. Members will agree that we all have a responsibility to be concerned for their well-being.

You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, of my close interest in dog issues over many years. During the past decade in particular, I have had the privilege of working with some of the most dedicated and committed campaigners on dog issues. Indeed, I would like to begin by paying tribute to some of those people and the organisations that they represent. They include Clarissa Baldwin of the National Canine Defence League, whose famous slogan, "A dog is for life, not just for Christmas", has probably saved the lives of thousands of dogs up and down this land, and Ronnie Irving, Phil Buckley and Caroline Kisko of the Kennel Club, whose work in the dog world goes far beyond the wildest expectations of any dog lover, ranging from welfare issues to dog shows, breeding and, of course, the Westminster dog of the year competition.

Juliette Glass of the "Fury" Defence Fund has been a personal inspiration to me. She is always there with an open ear and friendly advice to people all over the country who have problems in the dog world. Juliette has helped to save many dogs from immediate death, following the implementation of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, prior to its amendment. Battersea dogs home does miraculous work in looking after dogs that have been cast out by cruel and irresponsible people. Today I had the privilege of visiting the home. I met staff and volunteers, as well as some of their four-legged boarders, including Rex the singing collie, Teddy the Staffordshire bull terrier and Snoopy the greyhound. I am sure that I echo the views of hon. Members in paying tribute to Battersea dogs home for its caring work in helping to give deserted dogs a fresh start in life.

As a former owner of a Staffordshire bull terrier, I also briefly mention Staffordshire Bull Terrier Rescue, the Sussex branch of which is run by Joanna Mason—a more caring person I have yet to meet. I am also honoured to have been asked to become a honorary member of both the East Anglian Staffordshire bull terrier club, which includes the county of Essex, the Staffordshire bull terrier club itself, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier Welfare. The more I work with those organisations, the greater is my determination as a Member of Parliament to help to secure a better future for our canine friends.

I was also pleased last year to be asked to become the chief patron of Justice for Dogs, a charity that exists to offer free legal advice and assistance on all matters relating to canine welfare and to encourage the formation of groups throughout the UK working for better education on responsible dog ownership. I am sure that hon. Members will understand that groups such as this, which face no easy task, and work on a shoestring budget, are often the only hope for dog owners who have been trampled on due to breed-specific legislation, of which I will speak in greater detail a little later.

Dog ownership goes way beyond the daily walk and a bowl of water. The individuals and organisations I mentioned, as well as others too numerous to mention this evening, do a magnificent job in representing and protecting our canine friends. Dogs are inherently loyal creatures. They will always stand by us as our best friend. Most important, they never stab us in the back.

Hon. Members will be aware that until last year, I, too, owned a dog: a Staffordshire bull terrier called Spike. Sadly, he passed away on St. George's day. My hon. Friends know that Spike stood by me at every step of my political career. Dressed in his trademark Union jack waistcoat, he accompanied me on my first victorious campaign when I was elected a councillor in Romford in 1990.

As the hon. Members for Glasgow, Baillieston (Mr. Wray) and for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) will recall, Spike trudged the streets of Glasgow, Provan with me during the 1992 general election and in Thurrock in 1997. On both occasions, he shared my disappointment when I failed to be elected to Parliament. Finally, he stood by my side as I was elected Member of Parliament for Romford in June 2001—a Conservative gain.

Spike regularly caught people's attention with his outspoken column in my newsletter. He successfully campaigned to overturn the no-dogs policy at Havering town hall and made a justifiable effort to oppose the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. His proudest moment was when he greeted the noble Baroness Thatcher during her visit to Romford two days before the general election. Always full of energy and enthusiasm, Spike proved to me that a dog really is a man's best friend. Until the last day of his life, he remained reliable, committed to everything that I did and, above all, steadfastly loyal. Politicians could learn a thing or two from these creatures.

Before I move to the main focus of my speech. I ask hon. Members to reflect on the significance of dogs in our everyday lives. They are not just household pets; there are guide dogs for the blind and hearing dogs for the deaf. There are schemes that take dogs into hospitals where they bring relief and joy to the sick. Dogs bring happiness and often help to the disabled.

Dogs perform vital tasks in the police, Customs and mountain rescue services, as sniffers and in search and rescue. Indeed, more than 100 dogs were involved in the operation to find survivors in the aftermath of the tragic events in the United States of America on 11 September 2001.

Dogs are a great source of companionship to elderly and lonely people. There is no doubt that dogs contribute to society and play a significant role in all our lives, as is well demonstrated by the excellent work of organisations such as PAT Dogs, Dogs for the Disabled and, of course, Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Sadly, 12 years ago, the House committed an awful injustice to certain breeds of dog following the introduction of the Dangerous Dogs Act—which, to my regret, was introduced by a Conservative Government. The 1991 Act was a draconian piece of legislation that penalised some breeds just because of a handful of isolated but tragic incidents. It was a classic example of ill thought-out, rushed legislation at its worst. The Act has led to the unnecessary destruction of countless gentle family pets and criminalised many respectable dog owners. Especially before the 1997 amendment, that led to the compulsory death sentence of dogs. The legislation has also cost the British taxpayer millions of pounds. In a written answer to me on 8 May 2002, it was revealed that the total cost to the Metropolitan police, which hold the largest number of dogs under the 1991 Act, was more than £4.5 million. Multiplying that figure across the 451 police forces in the United Kingdom paints an expensive picture. I challenge any right hon. or hon. Member to prove that all those dogs are necessarily dangerous to society. Surely it is the deed, not the breed, that should be punished.

The Act's provisions fundamentally go against the grain of the British legal tradition. Under section 1 of the Act, it is for the owner of the seized dog to prove to the court that it is not of a banned type—hardly innocent before proven guilty. I am not asking for the handful of dogs that cause problems to go unpunished but as the Kennel Club correctly puts it, the deed should be punished, not the breed.

I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the work that must be done to promote responsible dog ownership. There are no problem breeds, just a handful of problem owners. The law punishes a dog simply for the way that it looks, rather than cracking down on the criminal and antisocial behaviour of certain irresponsible dog owners. Surely it would be more successful to refocus the law to deal with the irresponsibility that leads to problems—making the offence not the ownership of the dog but the handling of it—and rather than attacking entire breeds, properly to enforce laws such as those that prohibit unleashed dogs in public areas and compulsory muzzling orders.

As part of the drive to promote responsible dog ownership, dog awareness should be covered in schools. If children are taught from an early age how to respond when around dogs and to look after a dog properly, and are taught what a dog needs to lead a healthy and trouble-free life, when those children become dog owners later and enjoy them as pets in a family situation, they will be able to give their dog the care and attention it deserves.

I am fortunate in having a large greyhound stadium in my constituency that regularly plays host to many significant events in the greyhound calendar. Most recently, I was pleased to attend, together with colleagues from the all-party parliamentary greyhound group, the 2002 Coral Essex Vase final at Romford dog track. However, a significant problem is attached to greyhound racing, when some owners destroy their dogs when they can no longer run. I find it astonishing that anyone who works with animals could destroy a dog simply because its running days are over. I am advised by the National Greyhound Racing Club that its rules ensure that owners are responsible for the future of their greyhounds at the conclusion of their racing careers. A number of options are available for them to comply with the rules.

Greyhound racing is enormous fun but those who participate must surely consider the welfare of the dog during and after its racing days. That is why I am pleased to commend the efforts of the Romford retired greyhounds association, which is doing wonderful work in rehousing greyhounds at the end of their racing, and Greyhound Rescue, representatives of which I was delighted to meet at Crufts last year.

To conclude, I seek some assurances from the Minister tonight: first, that the Government will not seek to introduce legislation without proper consultation with the main dog organisations and charities; secondly, that they will seek to form stronger relationships with those groups, giving support where it is needed; thirdly, that the Minister will consider promoting dog awareness and responsible dog ownership in schools and communities; and, finally, that the Government will seriously review those laws already on the statute book, the limitations of which I have highlighted. I truly believe that a dog is man's best friend, and I urge all hon. Members to join me in working to achieve justice for dogs.

10.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) on the way in which he has raised this issue. He made a number of important and serious points, and I shall reply in the spirit in which they were made. I can say that as a former dog owner—I owned German shepherds, although it was a long time ago.

I echo the hon. Gentleman's appreciation of the work of many charities and welfare groups, such as the National Canine Defence League, the Kennel Club, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Blue Cross and a range of dogs homes, not least Jay Gee Animal Sanctuary, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) and from which he obtained his very lovable Labrador, Ben, which I see quite regularly.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Staffordshire bull terriers, and I happen to know a great deal about them. In fact, I may know more than I care to know about them. He is not the only hon. Member with an affection for such dogs; at least one other has such an affection. He was very willing to pull from his wallet pictures of his dog, although he did not seem to carry a picture of his wife. He was certainly very keen on his Staffordshire bull terrier.

I understand about the very real loss of a pet. I sincerely express my sympathy with the hon. Gentleman because all of us who have pets, which become part of the family, feel that loss very considerably. Of course, the loss of a dog is no less than that of any other pet, particularly because of the loyalty that they display. I confess that, because of my current lifestyle, it is just not possible to own a dog because I could not give it the attention that it would rightly deserve, so I have become a cat owner because they are a great deal more independent. They are a bit different from dogs: it is often said that dogs have masters, but cats have staff.

I agree that dogs, like other pets, reduce stress. That is one of their great values. Dogs also fulfil many important roles—for example, working dogs. The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to enforcement and responsible ownership, and we take those issues seriously. I was very pleased that he mentioned greyhounds. A great many people are concerned, as he is, about greyhounds when they reach the end of their working lives.

By coincidence, I was talking to my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) before we entered the Chamber. He co-owns a greyhound, Sobers Maxine, and not only does he share the hon. Gentleman's views on the need to take care of retired greyhounds, but I understand that he intends to keep that dog as a pet when it reaches the end of its working life. I congratulate him on his responsible ownership.

There are some doughty campaigners on the issue of retired greyhounds, such as Annette Crosbie, who has also spoken on the subject to the associate parliamentary group for animal welfare on several occasions. I was delighted to hear about the Romford retired greyhound association, and I wish that there were many more organisations of that kind that took their responsibilities seriously.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to reply on three points, and I shall certainly do so. First, he asked me to give an assurance that the Government would not introduce legislation on dogs or animal welfare without consultation with the various groups and stakeholders. I freely give that commitment. He will be aware that we are consulting on a new animal welfare Bill, which is designed to consolidate the Protection of Animals Act 1911 and associated legislation in a new welfare Bill fit for the 21st century. Not only are we consulting on that but we have been through one round of consultation. We intend to respond, and we propose to produce a draft Bill on which people will be able to comment before we apply for parliamentary time. It is right and proper that we have such consultation with all the various groups, particularly on such fundamental issues as upgrading animal welfare legislation, which probably comes round only about once a century. It is therefore very important that we get the Bill right.

The hon. Gentleman also asked the Government to give strong support for relationships with other groups. Again, I am happy to give that commitment. I have attended the associate group on several occasions to talk to the various welfare organisations and interested Members from all parties who want to raise issues of animal welfare, including dog ownership.

The hon. Gentleman asked, too, about promoting dog awareness, which is a serious issue that we need to support through local authorities and dog warden schemes. Many councils have a very good record on this, in relation not only to dog enforcement but to promoting responsible dog ownership. We are keen to support that serious issue.

The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. I understand exactly his points, but even though that legislation was introduced under a Conservative Government, it was designed to address a serious problem. The Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997 was a great improvement, and many of us thought that it would have been sensible to include that commonsense amendment, which gave the courts discretion to decide whether an animal fell within the meaning of the Act, from the very beginning. Instead, the strict and rigorous interpretation of the Act, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, gave courts no discretion and caused a great deal of problems.

Under section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, the Secretary of State has the power to designate certain types of dog identified as primarily bred for fighting. Currently, four species of dogs are so designated: the pit bull terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Braziliero. Such dogs are banned in this country unless the owners have a valid certificate of exemption, which can be issued only at the direction of a court of law.

The main problem was the pit bull terrier, which became notorious not only for illegal dog fighting but for a number of well-documented attacks on individuals. It is a very broad, muscular, smooth-haired dog noted for its strength and determination: a very dangerous cocktail of characteristics and features.

There are concerns that organised dog fighting is still taking place. Unfortunately, pit bull types can go under other names: for example, American Staffordshire terriers, Irish Staffordshire terriers and American bull dogs. They may not be called pit bull terriers, but they are pit bull types and prohibited under the 1991 Act. That is an abuse, and it is unfortunate that people try to present and sell such dogs as some form of Staffordshire bull terrier, thereby encouraging illegal activities. That does no good to the reputation of the Staffordshire bull terrier breed, which is completely undeserved. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that, by the end of April, my Department will have published a leaflet to assist enforcement agencies, as well as those whose work may bring them into contact with dogs, with guidelines on identification to help them to deal with some of the problems that he has rightly outlined.

I make no apology for trying to protect the public and to prevent the appalling act of organised dog fighting in which dogs are encouraged to inflict as much injury on each other as possible. Organised dog fighting is an international problem and, sadly, websites advertise such dogs for sale with proud boasts about their "gameness", which is code for, and a clear reference to, their fighting ability. Because the dogs are bred for fighting, they are also a risk to people.

Although I deal with the dangerous dogs legislation, I also deal with the control of dogs. I receive many representations from hon. Members who are concerned about attacks on their constituents from the dogs held by irresponsible owners and about the damage that such dogs can do. We cannot be complacent. There are unscrupulous people who want to abuse the law and descriptions of breed, and who keep dogs that are dangerous to individuals. Such dogs are bred for the illegal and indefensible activity of organised dog fighting.

One proposal that we are considering for the proposed new animal welfare Bill is to raise the penalties for those involved in organised animal fights as well as to give the police greater powers to deal with those unpleasant events. As long as there is a threat that the number of dogs specifically bred for fighting could be on the increase and that members of the public could be placed in danger, there is not a credible argument for removing those dogs from section 1 of the 1991 Act. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman was arguing for that, as he was expressing worries about the confusion between breeds.

The 1991 Act does not just prohibit the possession of certain types of dogs. Under section 3, it is an offence to allow a dog to be dangerously out of control in a public place or in a place where it has no right to be. Again, we should not apologise for that. It is a necessary piece of public protection legislation. Although I accept that many dog attacks are caused by a lack of control, a lack of care and irresponsible owners, we must recognise that some people will breed dogs that can inflict terrible damage on people, particularly children, and that are linked with the illegal dog-fighting rings. For all those reasons, I believe that the legislation has a role to play. It has been applied as carefully as the courts can apply it, but there will always be difficult borderline cases in which it is necessary to identify a dog under the breed-specific provisions in the law. Overall, however, the legislation is justified.

The hon. Gentleman has made a very good case and a number of fair points, and I have listened carefully to him on behalf of the Government. In the animal welfare Bill, we intend to address some of the abuses and the penalties. If there are specific problems about the workings of the 1991 Act, I should be only too pleased to consider them on their individual merits.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Eleven o'clock.