Epping Forest MP Eleanor Laing backs family’s campaign for tougher penalties for dangerous dogs after girl was savaged in attack
Epping Forest MP Eleanor Laing is supporting a campaign launched by a local family after their daughter was attacked by an out-of-control dog.
Mrs Laing spoke in a parliamentary debate on options for further legislation governing the control of dangerous dogs including micro-chipping, compulsory leads, dog-free areas, insurance and penalties.
Mrs Laing highlighted the case of a six-year-old girl who, in January, had part of her ear bitten off and was covered in bites when attacked by a dog.
The girl is now recovering but faces a series of operations to rebuild her ear.
Her mother was also badly injured while trying to rescue her.
The dog’s owner was prosecuted and found guilty and was given a three-month suspended sentence, 200 hours of community service and ordered to pay compensation of £450.
Mrs Laing said: “That was not an adequate penalty, and its imposition was not an encouragement to others to control their dogs properly.
“The way in which the case was handled has done nothing to prevent such a tragic incident from happening again.”
The Government has undertaken extensive consultation and is trying to balance the various interests involved in the issue of controlling dangerous dogs, Mrs Laing said.
“I hope the fact that I have secured the debate will give the Minister the opportunity to put certain matters before the House. The emphasis has to be on prevention.”
Mrs Laing called on the Government to consider the possibility of insurance for dogs.
She said the compensation being paid to the girl’s family was “totally inadequate” -£450 at£50 a month – and “does not even begin to cover the loss that they have endured through both the mother and father taking time off work, the costs of going to hospital and so on”.
She added: “Of course, they are thinking not about the money but about the health of their little daughter, but it is our duty to consider that side of things as well.”
Mrs Laing added: “What we really need to do is change public attitudes... Controlling dangerous dogs falls into the same category as wearing seat belts in cars or smoking in public places.”
My constituent’s campaign, which has received an enormous and growing amount of support, has come up with the slogan, “Chip them, lead them and give kids freedom”- I think that is quite good.
“Micro-chipping, the use of leads and muzzles, and creating dog-free areas in parks are certainly possible ways forward. However we must put the emphasis on prevention.
“I know there are arguments against compulsory micro-chipping. Like everything else it is a question of balance. I would argue it would be perfectly reasonable to phase in a system of micro-chipping new puppies before they are sold.
“The cost would be minimal. I am told the cost of inserting a microchip is often less than £10 - and some 60 per cent of dogs are already micro-chipped.
“Charities that look after dogs already microchip them, and many would offer to microchip the dogs of those who could not afford to do so should a compulsory system be introduced.”
“Anyone in charge of a dog that did not have a microchip would be subject to a strict liability penalty for breaking the law, rather like a parking ticket.
“The advantage of such a system is that it would bring speedy resolution, rather than involving long court cases in which evidence needed to be brought and people prosecuted.
“It would be easy, and it would give the RSPCA and local authorities the power to intervene. If a dog was not being properly trained or looked after and was viewed as a potential problem, the authorities could intervene simply because it was not micro-chipped.
“Another possible solution is the compulsory use of a lead or muzzle.”
Mrs Laing added: “Penalties imposed on people who have let their dogs get out of control and injure other people should be severe so that they have a deterrent effect. The current penalties are not taken seriously.”
FULL TEXT OF ELEANOR’S SPEECH
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): At the beginning of January this year, a little girl, aged six, who lives in my constituency, was viciously attacked by a dog that was out of control. Her ear was partially bitten off and she was covered in bites. Her mother was also badly injured while trying to rescue her. The dog’s owner was prosecuted and found guilty. He was given a three month suspended sentence and 200 hours of community service, and was ordered to pay compensation of £450. That was not an adequate penalty, and its imposition was not an encouragement to others to control their dogs properly. The way in which the case was handled has done nothing to prevent such a tragic incident from happening again.
I know that there is a lot of strong feeling about this issue in the House, and I commend the efforts of many hon. Members who have recently raised it here, in Westminster Hall debates and elsewhere. In particular, the House ought to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) and for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and the hon. Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), each of whom has made considerable efforts to bring the matter to the fore.
I also commend the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice), and his colleague in another place Lord Taylor. I know that the Government have carried out an extensive consultation and are trying to balance the various interests involved in the issue of controlling dangerous dogs. I understand that the consultation has recently closed, and I hope that the fact that I have secured the debate will give the Minister the opportunity to put certain matters before the House.
Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate at exactly the right time. Does she agree that legislation must be consolidated and updated as soon as possible to shift the emphasis to preventing the type of attack that she has eloquently described and that has triggered the debate?
Mrs Laing: Yes, I entirely agree. The emphasis has to be on prevention. The House will be pleased to know that in the case I described, the little girl and her mother are now recovering. The little girl is having to endure a series of long operations, effectively to rebuild her ear. It is a dreadful thing for her to have to endure. We must all have in our minds the thought that the next child who is attacked by a vicious dog might not be fortunate enough to escape with injuries that the medical profession can put right.
Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate and on the work that she has done. Does she agree that criminal injuries compensation must be examined? I had a young constituent who suffered very bad injuries, and unfortunately she has not received any compensation whatever because it was deemed that there was no intent. Nobody set the dog on her, so she has had no compensation.
Mrs Laing: That is a very valid point, and when the Minister and his colleagues examine the consultation responses that they have received, I hope that they will consider the possibility of requiring insurance for dogs. The totally inadequate compensation that is being paid to my constituent’s family—£450 at a rate of £50 a month—does not even begin to cover the loss that they have endured through both the mother and father taking time off work, the costs of going to hospital and so on. Of course, they are thinking not about the money but about the health of their little daughter, but it is our duty to consider that side of things as well. I hope the Minister can give those matters adequate consideration.
I pay tribute to the many charities and organisations that campaign on such issues and that have taken part in the Government’s consultation. Since it was known that this debate would take place, I have been flooded with information by well-meaning and well-organised institutions that have taken the matter seriously for some time. I acknowledge their help and am sorry that I cannot mention all their points in the time available—I note that we have another hour and three quarters to go, but I shall limit my remarks to a reasonable length.
I pay tribute in particular to the Dogs Trust, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Kennel Club, and the Communication Workers Union and its “Bite Back” campaign. Not surprisingly, there are calls from all sectors of society that we must do something.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this matter to the House. I mentioned to her before the debate that new dog legislation is being introduced in Northern Ireland in April. It will introduce many changes, including the compulsory microchipping of dogs. Will the hon. Lady comment on that? Dog owners in Northern Ireland already pay an annual dog licence, but The Daily Telegraph columnist and former vet, Pete Wedderburn, stated:
“It seems to me that the Northern Ireland”
“might be effective at achieving some of DEFRA’s key goals: to allow better enforcement of the law and ensure that dog owners take responsibility for their animals.”
Is this the time to put Northern Ireland’s legislation into what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is doing and to put matters right?
Mrs Laing: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for educating the House on what is happening in Northern Ireland. I entirely agree with the points he has made and will come to them shortly.
I have paid tribute to my colleagues in the House and the professional organisations involved, but I also pay tribute to Mr and Mrs Smith, the parents of the little girl who was attacked. They have set up a campaign to stop other children suffering in the way their daughter suffered. They have also set up a petition, which is gathering an enormous amount of support, which I am glad to see.
Not surprisingly, the incident gave rise to an outcry in the media. People are rightly asking: “Why do we put up with laws that are so ineffectual?” I was shocked to discover that some 6,000 postal workers are attacked by dogs every year.
Angela Smith: The hon. Lady is generous in giving way to me once again. I would add to what she just said. Given the sheer number of postal workers who are attacked every year, is it not therefore necessary to extend the law relating to dog control to private property, and recognise that many children die in the home as a result of attacks by dogs that are out of control?
Mrs Laing: I agree with the hon. Lady. One anomaly in the current law is that the owners of a dog that behaves in a threatening, vicious, bad way on private property cannot be prosecuted. I hope the Minister comes forward with Government plans to correct that anomaly, if not today, in the near future. I have not heard anybody say, or read any evidence suggesting, that the contrary is the right way forward.
I was genuinely shocked when I discovered how many people suffer from dog attacks every year.
Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the hon. Lady for graciously giving way and for securing this debate on this crucial issue. Since 2006, 11 people have lost their lives because of dangerous dogs, and around 5,000 are hospitalised every year. She mentioned the Smith family, but she may know of the tragic death of John-Paul Massey in my constituency. Like the Smith family, Angela McGlynn, John-Paul’s mother, has campaigned on the issue. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need urgent legislation and changes so that the police, local authorities and dog wardens can take preventive action so that we see no more needless deaths?
Mrs Laing: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution. I am sure that the whole House sends its heartfelt sympathy to the family of those little children who have died.
It is tragic. If in any other area of life we discovered that in the past three years or so six children and two adults had been viciously killed, we would take action, but because we are a nation of dog-lovers, we say, “Oh, but we must think about the dogs and look after the dogs.” Yes, of course we must look after dogs, but six little children have died, and we must look after the children first and the dogs second. I know that I will get hate mail from subscribers to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for saying that, but I will say it again: we must put the safety and lives of children and other vulnerable people first, and dogs second. Having said that—I will deal with this in more depth later—it is dogs that are badly treated by their owners that behave badly towards other people. Dogs that are cared for, looked after and loved do not normally cause the sort of trouble that we are discussing.
I was also shocked to discover that blind people, who depend on guide dogs, are suffering as a result of the increase in the number of vicious dogs in our country today, because guide dogs are being attacked by vicious dogs that are badly behaved and out of control. What worse situation can anyone imagine than a blind person, dependent on a loving and caring labrador, having that little labrador attacked by a pit bull-type dog that is out of control? It is totally unacceptable, and action must be taken sooner rather than later.
Luciana Berger: Does the hon. Lady share my concern that the number of attacks on guide dogs has more than doubled in the past year, having risen from three to seven attacks every month? The training and cost of a guide dog over its lifetime is about £50,000. That training is run by a charity, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, that receives no state support for the work it does. Does she share my concern about the cost of those attacks to those people who depend on their dogs and the charity?
Mrs Laing: I certainly do. We all, in one way or another, raise money for good causes, and Guide Dogs for the Blind is one of the best. I think of an excellent organisation in my constituency that raises money for Guide Dogs for the Blind. People put a lot of work into that. More than anything, however, those poor guide dogs themselves, trained to be calm and not to fight other dogs, are being attacked by other dogs. It is an utterly tragic situation, and one on which action must be taken. In saying that, however, I am quite sure that the Minister will tell us that action will be taken, because the Government cannot possibly ignore these dreadful situations, which are occurring every day in parts of our country.
Let us consider first the problem and then possible solutions. The problem, as we have just agreed across the House, is not that well-trained, well-cared-for dogs suddenly turn upon children, postmen or other dogs. The problem is that increasing numbers of dogs are being deliberately bred and trained as so-called status or weapon dogs. This has been recognised, and in London alone, about 1,000 such dogs were seized last year. I am pleased to note that Boris Johnson and Kit Malthouse, at the Greater London authority, have taken this matter very seriously and have set up a unit to deal with status dogs. I should also say that both Boris Johnson and Kit Malthouse have met the family of the little girl who was attacked in my constituency and have spoken to them very sympathetically. I have every confidence that action is being taken in London to combat what is a growing problem. I commend Boris Johnson and Kit Malthouse for their understanding and their efforts, but let there be no misunderstanding: we are talking about a growing problem of deliberate bad behaviour, often associated with drug dealing and crime. This is not about old ladies with cute little spaniels or children with labradors. Any laws would have little effect on responsible dog owners, but would make life very difficult for irresponsible dog owners.
What we really need to do, however, is change public attitudes. Being something of a libertarian, I am always against state interference when it is not absolutely necessary. However, controlling dangerous dogs falls into the same category as wearing seatbelts in cars or smoking in public places. I was one of those who argued against the restrictions on personal freedom that the laws on seatbelts and smoking in public places imposed. I spoke against those laws on the grounds that we should not interfere with personal freedom, until I saw the proof that the evil done by the imposition of the rule was a very much lesser evil than that which resulted from not imposing it. In order to change public attitudes, the Government have to give a lead. First, we need a system that is simple to implement, and cheap and straightforward to enforce. The police and local authorities need to have adequate powers, adequate resources—preferably self-financing—and public support.
My constituent Mr Smith’s campaign, which has received an enormous and growing amount of support, has come up with the slogan, “Chip them, lead them and give kids freedom”—I think that is quite good. Microchipping, the use of leads and muzzles, and creating dog-free areas in parks are certainly possible ways forward. However, as other hon. Members have said, we must put the emphasis on prevention. I know that there are arguments against compulsory microchipping—the hon. Member for Strangford gave us a good example of how it is about to work well and is supported in Northern Ireland. There are arguments against microchipping, restricting freedom and imposing more red tape on yet another walk of life.
However, like everything else, it is a question of balance. I would argue that it would be perfectly reasonable to phase in a system of microchipping new puppies before they are sold. The cost would be minimal—I am told that the cost of inserting a microchip is often less than £10—and some 60% of dogs are already microchipped. Charities that look after dogs already microchip them, and many would offer to microchip the dogs of those who could not afford to do so should a compulsory system be introduced. I did not know much about what microchipping meant, but it might surprise the House to know that the microchip is about the size of a grain of rice. All that happens is that this little thing is injected into the scruff of the neck when the dog is about six weeks old. I am told that it does not hurt, and that it is simple and cheap.
Let us look at the benefits. It could be argued that making microchipping compulsory would have no effect, because the good dog owners already do it and the bad ones would simply ignore the law, as they do now. However, that is the very point of a compulsory microchipping system. We need a system that is simple for the police and local authorities to administer, and that will give an officer of the law or of a local authority an easy way to impose a penalty if the law is broken. That is why I propose that the imposition of a microchip in dogs born after a certain transition period should be a strict liability matter. Anyone in charge of a dog that did not have a microchip would be subject to a strict liability penalty for breaking the law, rather like a parking ticket.
The advantage of such a system is that it would bring speedy resolution, rather than involving long court cases in which evidence needed to be brought and people prosecuted. It would be easy, and it would give the RSPCA and local authorities the power to intervene. If a dog was not being properly trained or looked after and was viewed as a potential problem, the authorities could intervene simply because it was not microchipped. That is what I call the Al Capone effect. Hon. Members will remember that Al Capone was a notorious gangster and, no doubt, a murderer and torturer, but he was arrested for tax evasion. People who breed dogs for nefarious purposes might not be brought to justice for drug dealing or extortion, but they could be arrested for non-payment of the fine for not chipping their dog. That would give more power to the police and other authorities to take serious preventive action.
I understand that some local authorities are considering making microchipping a condition of allowing a dog to live in local authority accommodation. Could that not be extended? Preventive action could be taken, rather than reactive action; it would be simple to achieve, and would require no long drawn-out court proceedings. We license our cars, after all, and some dogs are just as dangerous as cars. We should have to register our dogs and accept responsibility for them.
Another possible solution is the compulsory use of a lead or muzzle. Again, I appreciate that most responsible dog owners would not dream of taking their dog into a public place without putting it on a lead. I can see the argument for not requiring a lead or a muzzle in all places at all times, but in certain designated areas—especially around children near schools and play parks, and in other obvious places—it would be perfectly reasonable for the law to require a dog to be kept on a lead or muzzled.
I am sure that the Minister will make the point about not bringing in more and more regulations and laws that are difficult to enforce, but I do not see the way forward as involving the placing of more burdens on the enforcement authorities or on law-abiding citizens. If he is reluctant to introduce a law requiring the use of leads and muzzles, would he consider a public information campaign to educate people about the benefits of keeping their dog on a lead, and the responsibilities involved? Once again, I am talking about changing public attitudes so that, instead of it being normal for a dog to run around and for people to have to accommodate the dog, it would be normal for a dog to be on a lead and for people to look at it suspiciously if it were not.
Angela Smith: I completely agree with the hon. Lady’s comments about the need for a public information campaign, including perhaps information and advice about not leaving a dog alone in a house with a child, for instance, which is one reason why we have had some casualties and fatalities. Would it not also be useful to have a system of dog control notices in place, which would mean that when a dog is obviously out of control, local authorities could implement this system to encourage better behaviour, such as by putting the dog on a lead or muzzling it?
Mrs Laing: I understand the hon. Lady’s point about dog control notices. I suspect that they would work rather like dog ASBOs or antisocial behaviour orders. That might work, but I am and always have been rather sceptical about ASBOs in the first place, and my scepticism about them spills over to the idea of having dog control notices. Because we are talking about preventing serious tragedies from occurring in future, I would say that almost anything the Government could do would be welcome.
The third possibility is to have dog-free areas. Local authorities already have the power to make certain areas dog-free. Would it not be sensible—I am thinking about a particular park in Buckhurst Hill in my constituency where Epping Forest district council is currently considering this matter—to say that a small part of a park that is set out as a children’s playground should be dog-free, and that no dog should be allowed in that part? Another part of the park is perfectly okay for dogs, as they are not likely to come across children, so no tragic incidents would be likely to occur there. Where children are playing in a designated play area, however, it makes sense to say that there should be no dogs. Once again, I am ready for the hate mail from dog owners who will say that my suggestions would penalise those who look after their dogs. I honestly believe that people who train and care for their dogs responsibly would find somewhere other than a children’s play area to take their dogs for a walk. We need to put the children first and the dogs second.
The fourth suggestion for the Minister is that there should be some sort of system of compulsory insurance, coupled with compulsory chipping and registration of dogs. I am told that this could be done at minimal cost to the individual and that subscription to one of the dog charities could cover a block insurance for all dogs. If an incident occurred, proper compensation could then be paid to the injured party.
Finally, I turn to the question of penalties. Penalties imposed on people who have let their dogs get out of control and injure other people should be severe so that they have a deterrent effect. The current penalties are not taken seriously. They must be easily enforceable and sufficiently serious to act as a deterrent. Once again, I put it to the Minister that a system of strict liability fines along the lines of parking tickets could work. The last thing any of us want to do is to give the police even more work or to place even more burdens on their time. However, strict liability fines would make the system much easier to enforce. At present, anyone who parks on a yellow line a car that is registered as being in their care is given a penalty charge notice, and if they do not pay the charge, they are dealt with by the criminal justice system. A similar penalty charge notice could be issued to those who allow their dogs to behave in an unacceptable way—to threaten other people, for instance, or to enter a dog-free area.
I know that the Minister must consider cost. I put it to him that the cost to the national health service—which is some £10 million a year—and the cost to businesses of the working time that is lost as a result of dog attacks are far greater than the administrative costs of a licensing scheme would be.
Luciana Berger: We should also consider the cost to the police of kennelling dogs while investigations are under way. According to figures that I obtained through a freedom of information request, the kennelling costs incurred by just 26 of our police forces in a single year were close to £4 million.
Mrs Laing: I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. It is utterly appalling that taxpayers’ money is wasted on a scheme that is not having the right effect. It is not controlling the number of so-called status dogs and weapon dogs, it is not preventing 6,000 postmen and 5,000 ordinary citizens from being attacked every year, and it is not saving the lives of children. I know that the Minister is sympathetic to my view. I hope that the impassioned pleas that are being made this evening will increase his power when he negotiates with his colleagues, and will enable him to act quickly to deal with all the matters that I have raised.
Jim Shannon: There are more than 10 million dogs in the United Kingdom. If DEFRA adopted compulsory microchipping, coloured tags and dog licences, as Northern Ireland has, £125 million of income would be created.
Mrs Laing: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I have not had time to go into the details of the microchipping scheme this evening. I hope it will be noted that, although I have spoken for about half an hour, I have given way to all who have sought to intervene because I appreciate the support that they have given.
I believe that a properly organised system would be self-financing. I also believe that all responsible dog owners would consider the small extra expense a very small price to pay for the protection of their dogs—and other people—from dogs that behave badly. The people who ignored the law, those who would not bother to microchip their dogs and would not register them, are the very people who neglect their dogs and train them to behave wrongly and viciously, and they are the very people who would be caught after breaking the law.
I appreciate that the new laws will work only if they are simple and can be easily and quickly enforced. I hope that the Minister will take some encouragement from what has been said this evening as he considers, along with his colleagues, the results of the Government’s long, detailed and very worthwhile consultation.
I conclude by saying once again that what we have to do is change public attitudes. That has worked in respect of wearing seat belts, using a mobile phone while driving a car and smoking in public places. Some Members and others said those changes could never happen, but they have happened, because public attitudes do change. At present, the balance of public opinion says, “My dog can go where he likes and do what he likes, so you’d better control your child.” From now on, we ought to say, “My child should be safe wherever he goes and whatever he does, so you’d better control your dog.” Dogs are never the problem; it is the owners of dogs who are the problem. All we want is to require all dog owners to behave as good dog owners have always behaved.