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Rosindell launches debate on dog welfare

CONSERVATIVE MP and dog lover Andrew Rosindell instigated a short debate on dog welfare in the House of Commons last week, highlighting various issues affecting dogs, including the Greyhound racing industry and the Dangerous Dogs Act, of which Mr Rosindell has been a long-time critic. Mr Rosindell proved himself to be a friend ton dogs when, as Chairman of the Young Conservatives in 1992, he bucked the Party line and spoke out against the injustice of the newly-enacted Dangerous Dogs Act, describing it as "a most un-Conservative piece of legislation."

Later, Mr Rosindell contested Glasgow, Provan at the 1992 General Election and Thurrock at the 1997 General election, before finally being elected to Romford in 2001, overturning a Labour majority and this becoming one of the few Tories to take a seat from Labour. On each occasion, Mr Rosindell was accompanied by his faithful Staffordshire Bull terrier, ‘Spike’ who sported a Union Jack waistcoat. Sadly, Spike died last year, having attained the grand old age of 14.

The Adjournment Debate began at 10.30pm on the Monday night. Mr Rosindell began his speech by outling the value of dogs to the British public, saying: "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."

He then paid glowing tribute to the many campaigners within canine charities and organisations, adding: "….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 world of dogs 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.

Inspiration

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."

Mr Rosindell then praised Battersea Dogs’ Home, where he had paid a visit earlier that day, meeting staff, vounteers and several of the dogs in the Home’s care.

He went on to pay tribute to two more campaigners in the forms of Joanna Mason of Staffordshire Bull Terrier Rescue South East and Ann Harpwood of the charity Justice For Dogs, of which Mr Rosindell is now chief patron.

The loyal Spike was mentioned in detail, with Mr Rosindell cimenting shrewdly: "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 those creatures."

The benefits given by dogs to Society was covered in detail, when Mr Rosindell praised the work of Guide Dogs, Assitance Dogs and PAT Dogs, as well as those who work in the police force, mountain rescue and Search and Rescue.

Needless to say, the DDA came in for serious criticism by Mr Rosindell, who robustly condemned the Act for its many failings:

"…12 years ago, sadly, 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. "
Mr Rosindell then threw the gauntlet down to the Government by seeking assurances on a number of points concerning dogs and related legislation, which have caused concern to dog owners throughout the UK:

"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 earlier in my speech."

Animal Welfare Ministter Elliot Morley had remained in the House at the late hour, specifically to hear Mr Rosindell’s speech in a demonstration of how seriously he must view the issues raised.

Mr Morley praised Mr Rosindell for his speech and raising the matter of dog welfare, saying: "…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….

"...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."

Mr Morley answered the specific points raised by Rosindell on behalf of the Government, being unequivocal in declaring his commitment to animal welfare and maintaining close co-operation with the world of dogs on issues affecting dogs and dog ownership, saying: "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.

Strong support

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. "

Mr Morley paid close attention to the contentious issue of the DDA, saying: "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.

Mr Morley added that a great deal of the problem relating the Pit Bulls concerned organised dog fighting: "….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…

"…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."

Irresponsible

Mr Morley concluded his reply by saying that the DDA provided necessary protection for the public, but recognised that there were problems with its application, which his department were hoping to address: "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 future 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."

Kennel Club Press Officer Phil Buckley paid tribute to Mr Rosindell for raising the issue, whilst welcoming Mr Morley’s reponse, saying:

"The Kennel Club is delighted with the content of Andrew Rosindell's Adjournment Debate, which took place on Monday. Of particular interest to us was The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Elliot Morley's response to the 'dangerous dog' issue, as he has promised consultation with various groups such as the KC, prior to introducing further legislation on dogs, and also flagged up DEFRA's strong support for relationships with other groups. "Mr Morley also genuinely seems to have a thorough understanding of the workings of the DDA and is also aware of areas of potential abuse.

‘It would also appear that, by the end of April, his department will be issuing a leaflet to assist enforcement agencies with guidelines on identification to help them to deal with some of the problems outlined by Mr Rosindell. Mr Morley concluded that if there are specific problems about the workings of the 1991 Act, that he would be only too pleased to consider them on their individual merits.

‘Readers will be aware that the Kennel Club and other like-minded organisations such as the NCDL, RSPCA and Blue Cross, are continuing to focus and give a great deal of consideration to the DDA 91, through the Dangerous Dogs Act Study Group, special meetings of the Dog Legislation Advisory Group and continual liaison with the Metropolitan Police Service.

‘We are very pleased with the discussion that took place on Monday and will be taking this issue forward with DEFRA shortly. "Mr Rosindell is to be congratulated for his continued interest and support for 'dogdom' and it will be the KC's intention to continue to try and 'find' more MPs like him!"

The full text of the Dog Welfare Debate can be seen in Hansard online at:

http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200203/cmhansrd/cm030120/debindx/30120-x.htm