Sir Julian Lewis: I came to the debate to find out more about the issue and to give voice to my constituent Helen. She is caught by what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) described as the imprecision of the rules on what actually constitutes a dog of this dangerous categorisation. The Minister [for Food, Farming and Fisheries (Mark Spencer)] is as kindly, compassionate and open to reason as any former Chief Government Whip could be, so I presume on the time of the Chamber only to quote a few extracts from a quite convincing letter from my constituent.
Of course, dangerous dogs legislation has a bit of a history. I was not yet a Member of Parliament when the original legislation was passed. However, I think I am correct that it became a bit of a byword for legislation introduced in a hurry on an issue that turned out to be rather more complex than initially seemed to be the case, and I fear that the same may be true of the present update to the Act. It is therefore with reluctance that I say that we of course all agree that the safety of human beings must come first, but if we propose to inflict severe restrictions on pet owners, we must at least be unambiguous in what we do.
Let me turn to what Helen wrote to me:
“I do not have an ‘XL bully’. My dog is, by DNA testing, an American Bulldog X Neapolitan Mastiff mix, with multiple breeds mixed on the mastiff side. In other words, I have your basic mutt, or ‘Heinz 57’ dog. He will be 11 in April and I have had him since he was 9 weeks old. He has never shown an ounce of aggression towards any humans, including at the vets during some incredibly negative procedures, none of which the vets have ever felt he needed to be muzzled for, including when he had to have a stent placed into his ear when he damaged a blood vessel” –
a procedure she says he had done,
“without pain relief!”
“So you can imagine my shock, my horror, at learning that the ridiculously vague ‘breed definition’ of the XL bully, very hastily and incredibly poorly formed by the Government ‘experts’, somehow seems to have incorporated every and any large muscular looking dog in the UK, potentially including my beloved boy.”
She says that according to the EFRA Committee discussion, the XL bully came to the UK in 2014, but her dog was born the year before, so she finds it hard to believe that he could so be categorised. She says:
“With such vague descriptors as ‘gives the impression of great power for size’, ‘blocky head’ and ‘neck is medium in length’, and the equally vague descriptor that the dog must meet ‘a substantial number of the characteristics’, I have no idea if he would fit ‘type’, and seemingly all that matters is what everybody else thinks!”
She then goes on to say,
“Of course, you could recommend my taking a ‘precautionary approach’”
and register him anyway, because it would just mean that he would have to be on a lead and muzzled in order to comply. However, apart from this costing her dog its freedom, which she feels is wholly undeserved, she says there is much more in the way of consequences than might be expected.
For example, she says that the health insurance, which she has had for the dog ever since she brought him home, would be lost to her. Without health insurance, it would have cost her more than £3,500 for a procedure that her dog had to undergo, but it actually cost her £800 with the insurance. She says that in the midst of a cost of living crisis, she now has to decide whether to register her dog as an XL bully when she does not believe that he is one at all,
“completely and pointlessly removing his freedom and drastically restricting his life, plus lose the financial backing that I have had his entire life just at the time when he will need it most…or I don’t register him as I don’t believe he is one and wait to see if someone else disagrees, reports me, and I wind up having him forcibly seized, taken away (at a point when I don’t know how much longer he has left with me) and, to top it off, become a criminal, when, as a middle-class, middle manager who has never been out of work I’ve had nothing more than a speeding ticket in my whole life.”
In this individual case, Helen is saying – very much in concert with many of the contributions we have heard so far – that this is a blanket approach insufficiently focused on the actual circumstances under which people should be deprived of their dogs. I agree that we need legislation, and that human life must come first, but I do not agree that the statutory instrument, as it stands, cannot be improved. I am therefore, not for the first time, throwing myself on the mercy of this particular Minister; I look to him to give us, when he comes to wind up, an undertaking that the Government, rather than rushing ahead in a blinkered way, will have another look at the formulation that they have come up with to see whether people like Helen, who by no stretch of the imagination pose a danger to the public with their beloved pets, cannot be excluded from a blunderbuss approach, when a rapier is the weapon we ought to employ in dealing with a very real problem.