Parliament debates dangerous dogs
THE HOUSE of Commons devoted a large chunk of Parliamentary time last Thursday (June 12th) to the first major discussion on dangerous dogs and associated legislation in over 11 years.
The Topical Debate was opened by Jonathan Shaw. the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who said: ‘This is a very opportune moment to have a debate on dangerous dogs. I know many people feel strongly about this issue and my colleague in the other place [Lord Rooker in the House of Lords] who leads for the Government on dangerous dogs just last week gave a speech to a very well attended RSPCA conference on the issue.’
Mr Shaw went onto state that several MPs and other concerned parties had called upon the Government to amend the DDA and other dog legislation, but that the Government disagreed. Mr Shaw added: ‘Several hon. Members are calling for a review of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. I assure the House that the Government are well ahead of the game here. In the aftermath of the shocking death of Ellie Lawrenson in January 2007, my Department conducted a detailed review of the dangerous dogs legislation. We wrote to police forces in England and Wales at the beginning of last year to ascertain whether there were problems with the law and to judge how it was enforced. We then discussed the results of this consultation with the Association of Chief Police Officers…
‘The three main findings were that there are sufficiently robust yet proportionate powers within current legislation to tackle irresponsible dog ownership, including incidences in which a dog is being used as a weapon; that the police have not been making full use of the powers within the legislation and that enforcement around the country was patchy; and finally that Parliament was absolutely right to prohibit the ownership of Pit Bull Terriers.
‘Our view is that the legislation now in place is robust and that new legislation is not the answer. Certainly over the past few months, we have heard a number of suggestions as to how we can change the law. We have considered these changes. They seem to range from either highly disproportionate responses to the problem or ones that would make the situation worse….’
Mr. Greg Hands (Conservative - Hammersmith and Fulham) referred to his own Adjournment debate in May 2007 on the subject of dog fighting and agreed that better enforcement of the existing legislation was needed, rather than create ‘a huge number of new offences’. He went on to say: ‘I suggested in that debate that we create a specific offence of breeding dogs for fighting. That could be an effective tool in closing down some of the dog breeding factories that are run specifically for the purpose of fighting.’
Perhaps inevitably during the debate, the thorny subject of compulsory dog registration and licensing came up. Martin Horwood (Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham) said: ‘The Cheltenham animal shelter has advised me that the microchips that could be used in a universal dog licensing system cost only about £2.60 per chip…Cheltenham animal shelter provides and administers a chipping system for a fee of £8 per dog, which includes a charitable donation to the shelter.’
Mr Shaw responded: ‘The system would have to be rolled out, and I doubt that such organisations would be universal across the system. Any system introduced to Parliament would have to be accountable and we would have to ensure that the scheme was in operation. Otherwise, it would fall into disrepute.
‘As I have said, many just do not have the money to pay for such schemes. We do not want to penalise people on low incomes who enjoy the companionship of their dogs. We also wonder how many dogs would end up in re-homing centres.’
The Minister went on to point out, however, that the Labour Government still advocated the use of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) as enshrined ion the DDA, saying: ‘Another more controversial suggestion is that we should open up the index of exempted dogs to owner-led registration…. Only a court can add a pit bull to the index and only when it is satisfied that the dog does not pose a threat to public safety and that the owner is an appropriate person to own such a dog. Let me make it clear that we believe that that is absolutely right. Pit bulls are not suitable animals to be kept as pets unless a court has determined that they are not a threat… It is not within the scope of the index to make a judgment on either a dog or its owner.’
Andrew Rossindell, (Conservative, Romford) felt that the onus in penalties for dog-related incidents should rest with the owners: ‘Owners must retain the principal control of and responsibility for their dogs, but there should be no interference from new regulations: the experience of owning a dog must remain liberating and rewarding.
There is a clear need to shift the focus of the available penalties towards dogs’ specific actions and the failure by owners to act responsibly, and away from penalising the ownership of certain breeds as a whole. That approach is generally accepted by all dog organisations as a much more effective way forward.
‘It is unfair to penalise a small minority of dogs solely because of their breeding history: all dogs can attack when trained to do so, just as all breeds can produce friendly, good natured dogs when the animals are trained responsibly…. In summary, we must implement the “deed not the breed” principle, and the support and protection of responsible owners must also be addressed.’
*A full report of the debate will appear in next week’s OUR DOGS.