Ministers give evidence to Dangerous Dogs Act inquiry
Defra has been criticised for its stance on breed specific legislation (BSL) – which bans four types of dogs in the UK – after showing support for the law as it currently stands.
Animal welfare minister Lord Gardiner and senior civil servant Marc Casale gave evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee, which is currently running an inquiry into the legislation.
BSL has come under fire from vets, behaviourists and animal welfare charities, who say it is failing to protect the public, whilst resulting in innocent dogs being euthanised. Under section one of the Dangerous Dogs Act, it is an offence to keep four types of dog, which are determined by their appearance, not DNA or behaviour.
Calls to soften the law
Committee members argued in favour of softening BSL, to prevent dogs with good temperaments from being euthanised. This would shift the focus away from the ‘type’ of dog, to its behaviour and the owner’s responsibility for its behaviour.
Efra chair Neil Parish said: “It may not be wise to repeal the Dangerous Dogs Act and Breed Specific Legislation, but what I would say to you quite clearly is that there is good reason for looking at that, where a dog is good tempered, that it isn’t necessarily put to sleep.”
However, Lord Gardiner said pitbull type dogs pose a threat to public safety.
“I remain to be convinced that with these four breeds, we should send the signal that they are now acceptable as pets and, in effect, to encourage the idea that there is no particular problem with these types…
“I’m surprised that here we are talking, when I have a list of men, women, children, killed by this breed, disproportionately,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to go out and see the families of people killed by any dog and say the legislation wasn’t important.”
Referring to a case at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, where the charity was forced to euthanise a pitbull type dog because of its appearance, not its behaviour, Mr Parish asked: “As far as you’re concerned that is just collateral damage,” to which the minister replied, “Yes”.
Concerns over ‘extrapolated’ data
Lord Gardiner and Mr Casale were criticised for quoting statistics from the Metropolitan Police and extrapolating the findings to the rest of the UK. According to the figures, around 20 per cent of fatalities from dog attacks in London are caused by pitbulls, which the ministers said is a “disproportionate” amount, considering the small number of pitbulls in the country.
Labour MP Angela Smith argued that it is “not credible” to apply these figures to the whole of England and Wales.
“London is not North Wales, it’s not rural north Lincolnshire,” she said.
Evidence supplied to the committee shows that most dog bite incidents in London involve bull-type dogs. Furthermore, evidence suggests that non-banned bull or mastiff types also have immense jaw pressure, physical strength and the persistence and ‘gameness’ of types that were bred to fight or guard. Similarly, Ms Smith said legal crossbreeds can prove even more powerful than pitbulls.
However, Lord Gardiner said it was not the government’s intention to increase the number of banned breeds.
Responding, Ms Smith said: “This is very contradictory. You’re defending the current legislation on the basis of the types of injury inflicted and yet the evidence that we’ve heard suggests that the problems presented – that you’re suggesting are presented by the banned breeds – are also being presented by cross breeds and other breeds. So where’s the logic in this? It’s not a logical position to hold surely.”
Mr Parish also pointed out that, under the legislation as it stands, the same dog could be treated differently depending on whether it is owned by an individual or given to a rescue charity. Owned dogs identified as pitbull types may be added to the Exemption List if they have a good temperament and their owner is deemed fit to care for them. However, the same dog given to a rescue centre would be euthanised.
In response, Mr Casale said banned types cannot legally be rehomed, as the aim of the legislation is to eliminate the breeds from the country.
Response from charities
Animal welfare charities have expressed dismay over the comments from Defra officials. Becky Thwaites, head of public affairs at Blue Cross, said: “A wealth of scientific evidence has been put forward to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of this law and the number of innocent dogs who are losing their lives. In the face of this, representatives seem happy to stick to the mantra about some breeds being inherently dangerous; something which is simply not true.
“We would welcome a more concise piece of Dangerous Dogs legislation which would be easier to enforce and allow them to concentrate on the deed of the dog rather than the breed. This would help them to focus on securing swifter prosecutions of irresponsible dog owners and ensure a consistent approach by police forces, local authorities and courts across the country.”
A Dogs Trust spokesperson said: “Dogs Trust believes in deed, not breed. It is important to remember that the majority of dogs in the UK live happy, peaceful lives with their responsible owners.
“Dogs Trust strongly believes that problems associated with aggression or dangerous behaviour can be preventable through the provision of appropriate advice for owners on behavioural needs and training. This is why we have invested in projects such as Dog School, which aims to provide dog owners with the knowledge and skills to avoid common problem behaviours, and Be Dog Smart, which gives key messages to young people and the wider community about how to behave around dogs.
“We believe that clear, targeted legislation is needed to identify and deal with those owners who fail to take appropriate action to control their dogs. We’ll continue to look for reform in existing dog control laws until we are satisfied that any new measures are preventative and effective, and ultimately protect both dogs and people alike.”