Page last updated at 11:53 GMT, Friday, 4 December 2009

Pledge Watch: Dangerous dogs

By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News

Politicians love announcing new initiatives. In this series we pluck a pledge from the archives and see what happened next...

Pit bull terrier
Pit bull terriers raised serious concerns for ministers

Dangerous dogs are back in the news after four-year-old John Paul Massey died from head and neck injuries in an attack by pit bull dog at a house in Wavertree, Liverpool.

But what of the controversial piece of legislation that was meant to end such attacks forever, the much-maligned Dangerous Dogs Act?

Did it ever come close to achieving its aims or will it go down in history, as some have claimed, as one of the most misconceived and ineffective pieces of legislation ever to pass into British law?

To trace the origins of this legislation, we must travel back to the spring of 1991.

John Major had recently become prime minister, the country was in recession and had just fought a war against Iraq.

But another menace was gripping the UK, particularly readers of tabloid newspapers.

Reports of "killer" dogs attacking children were everywhere.

Pit bull terriers in particular were made a frightening symbol of a society becoming more aggressive, with people displaying a dangerous disdain for their neighbours' welfare.

Some especially gruesome cases made the headlines.

The government's tipping point seemed to come on Saturday 18 May 1991, when a dog attacked six-year-old Rukhsana Khan in Bradford.

A witness described her being shaken like a "rag doll", suffering 23 wounds to her back and eight to her front, including her face.

'Urgent action'

The following Tuesday, Mr Major told the Commons: "Everyone will have been shaken by the attacks during the past few weeks, particularly the horrific attack on Rukhsana Khan at the weekend.

"I have discussed the matter with my right honourable friend the home secretary and we are persuaded that urgent action must be taken."

Supported by Labour, the government banned, from midnight, the import of several breeds of fighting dogs.

The next day, Home Secretary Kenneth Baker introduced the Dangerous Dogs Bill to Parliament.

It proposed banning the breeding, sale or exchange of four "types" of dogs: pit bull terriers, Japanese tosas, the dogo Argentinos and the fila brasileiros.

Kenneth Baker in 1990
Kenneth Baker denied he was over-reacting

Ministers chose "types" rather than "breeds", meaning courts would decide whether dogs fell into the dangerous category, by making a judgement on their physical characteristics.

If found to be illegal, they would be destroyed and the owner could face up to six months in jail.

Cross-breeds of the banned types were also covered by the law, as were other dogs that appeared to have been bred for fighting.

Meanwhile, a dog of any type which became dangerously out of control in a public place could be destroyed.

During Parliamentary debates, Mr Baker said some people thought he was "over-reacting to the problem, that eliminating the fighting dogs is not the answer and that there is no such thing as a bad dog, only a bad owner.

"But there is clear evidence that these dogs are a danger and a menace and are a type to be set apart from other dogs."

Law amended

The Dangerous Dogs Act passed into law on 12 August 1991.

In 1997, another Parliamentary act amended the law, removing the compulsory destruction orders and giving courts discretion over this and over sentencing of owners.

Yet the ultimate sanctions from 1991 remain in place and every time someone is injured or killed, their value is debated.

Critics say the Dangerous Dogs Act is among the worst pieces of legislation ever seen, a poorly thought-out knee-jerk reaction to tabloid headlines that was rushed through Parliament without proper scrutiny.

But its supporters argue that it was necessary and has improved the situation.

It was a case of legislating in haste and repenting at leisure.
Kennel Club spokeswoman

Every injury or death is a truly terrible event but the question, 18 years on from John Major's promise of "urgent action", is whether the law works - and, just as importantly, whether it is being implemented.

People living in the UK's inner-cities will have noticed groups of youths parading around with pit bull-like dogs.

And NHS statistics released at the beginning of 2008 suggested safety had not improved.

'One step closer'

They showed the number of people attending accident and emergency wards in England after a dog attack had risen by more than 40% in the previous four years to nearly 3,800 a year.

Young people, the findings said, were particularly at risk.

The government is aware that dangerous dogs have not gone away.

In April it produced guidance for police forces, recommending that each should have a dedicated officer dealing with the issue.

Then, in July, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gave £20,000 "to help deliver the training which will ensure officers have a thorough understanding of current dangerous dogs legislation, as well as best practice enforcement techniques".

It was, critics might say, hardly a fortune and perhaps a bit late in the day.

But animal welfare minister Jim Fitzpatrick said: "I am determined to crack down on irresponsible dog ownership and ensure that those who use dogs to injure people are dealt with rigorously. I know that this training will get us one step closer to better enforcement of dangerous dogs laws.

"When we undertook a significant review of dangerous dogs legislation with the police in 2007 it was clear that, while the legislation was sound, more needed to be done to raise awareness of the law and improve enforcement."

However, The Kennel Club, which is among organisations pushing for a review of the Dangerous Dogs Act, says the emphasis on banning certain breeds is wrong and even counter-productive.


A spokeswoman said: "The law was passed in a few days, as a piece of emergency legislation. It's considered all over the world to be possibly the worst piece of legislation that's ever been passed.

"It was a case of legislating in haste and repenting at leisure."

She added: "There are more pit bulls now than there have ever been before, but there are lots of pit bulls that have responsible owners. There are also lots of cross-breeds.

"There's a bit of a misconception. Any breed of dog can be dangerous with a bad owner.

"The Dangerous Dogs Act just pushed the whole issue underground. Making some dogs illegal made them more attractive to some groups, such as gangs, who used them to intimidate others or as weapons in fights.

"The law placed the emphasis at the wrong end of the lead. The emphasis should be on trying to change the culture of ownership."

'Watered down'

Unsurprisingly Mr Baker - now Lord Baker of Dorking - disagrees with his critics.

He says the UK has become a "safer place" as a result of the DDA, with fewer attacks on people.

Lord Baker was unavailable for comment, but in an article for The Guardian in 2007 he wrote: "There had been [in 1991] many attacks by pit bulls, not only on humans but on other dogs, and I had support for my proposals from the Kennel Club, the RSPCA and a body of vets."

He added: "Unfortunately the act was watered down in 1997 when the argument was put that it was the owners and not the dogs that were at fault - so dogs were given a second chance. This was a mistake."

Lord Baker wants the law toughened up to beyond pre-1997 levels and to extend its scope.

He said: "I would now give to a committee of three, say two dog wardens and a vet, the decision as to the determination of whether a dog is a pit bull-type and their decision would be final...

"I also think the act could also be strengthened as regards certain other breeds."

These should include compiling a register of the owners of Rottweilers, German Shepherds and all types of bull terriers, he argued, with orders being made to muzzle these when out of the home.

Lord Baker added: "Children have a right to play in safety in our public spaces."

Few would disagree with that sentiment, but - after 18 years - the effectiveness of the Dangerous Dogs Act is as controversial as ever.

Thanks for all of your comments. Here is a selection of them:

Several people are killed in the UK each year by dogs. London parks are dominated by pit bulls and other bull terriers. Cowardly politicians have shied away from tackling the problem as they fear the power of the dog-owners lobby. All dogs and dog owners should be registered by law so that owners can be identified and prosecuted if their dogs are not controlled. All potentially dangerous breeds should be destroyed.
James Clarke, London, UK

As a dog owner, I think the dog licence should be brought back. All dogs owners should need a licence, and all dogs should be microchipped and registered.

Regulating dog ownership would be better for canine welfare, dog owners, and children.

I would happily pay a fee for this service.

I consider myself a dog-lover at heart, so if something can be done by targeting the owners, rather than the breeds, to minimise the incidence of dog attacks then this should clearly be looked into. However, should experts find a direct link between specific breeds and their unpredictability, or likelihood to attack humans of any age, then what sane person would fight efforts to stop these dogs appearing on our streets? If comprehensive studies have been performed then cite them. Otherwise our government should invest in this research and act according to the results. Something that is perceived as rushed legislation is not, by default, bad legislation. I would imagine the general public are more than happy for the Dangerous Dogs Act to stay in place, or even return to its original state, until it can be proven to be necessary or otherwise.
Adam Lewis, London, UK

The Home Secretary's department should issue a point by point instruction to the Association of Chief Police Officers on how to proceed if information comes in about a dangerous dog(s).

For example a really vicious looking one which is probably a pit bull comes along my road with some young bloke who brags that the Police have spoken to him. I bet the Officer took the easy way out because there are no firm written instructions for him to follow.

Daniel Crawley, London

In the area of Bristol I live in, the local park is full of "Pit bull" types. I believe many dog owners are irresponsible & a licence should be introduced. Being a jogger I am constantly chased by dogs, whose owners appear not to have the capacity to realise their dog should be under control in a public place.
Paul Hirst, Bristol

angerous dogs banned in 91, yeah right, like guns were banned too. Now the only folk to have both are criminals. What does that say about past and present governments.
Rob Bain, Derby

A registered list of all types of Bull Terrier? I believe the Staffordshire Bull terrier is the 4th most popular breed in the UK, so Lord Baker is proposing a register of millions of people who have done nothing other than own a breed of dog he ahppens to not like?

And public muzzling of German Shepards? I presume that would also apply to Police dogs?

Idiotic comments from the creator of a truly idiotic piece of legislation.

Ban Breed Specific Legislation and free the Pit-Bull Terrier!
Rod, Caerdydd

Interesting article. It sounds to me like Lord Baker does not understand a great deal about dogs and dog ownership. The problem is far more often at the handle end of the lead, than at the collar end. Anyone who has owned dogs for a length of time will be aware of this.

Most dogs are not agressive by nature unless they have been shown that agression is an effective technique for attaining their goals, by their owner/trainer.

This said, there are some dogs who do genuinely have agression issues and the law should require these dogs to be properly controlled and trained, with the onus on the owner to make sure this is done.

Dogs have been man's constant companions for thousands of years. They deserve love and respect in return, most provide a lifetime of unswerving loyalty, affection and companionship. We should not tar the vast majority with the few who are misfortunate enough to be mistreated and 'mis-trained' by their owners.
Ben, Farnborough, Hants

A very simple solution; no pets. The only people authorised to have animals are those who have a need for them i.e. seeing/hearing dogs, bomb disposal and search and rescue.

The "Love" that people percieve their pet gives then, and that they give to their pet, would be better shared with the rest of humanity.

Do I hate animals? No, I would just rather see wolves, for example, in the wild rather than inbred dogs living in our rather dysfunctional society.

I would presume that any dog owner, or cat owner for that matter, who reads this would take umbrage at my comments, however, until they realise that it is dysfunctional to have a pet, something passed on to the lower orders from the effete ruling elite of yore, then we will not have a grown up debate on the issue of dangerous animals and their proximity to potential prey, particularly children; who we are meant to cherish and Love, more than our pets.
David Bargh, New Brighton, England

The DDA was a knee-jerk reaction but it was a reaction that at the time was required. The problem does lie with the owners and not the dogs. Any dog can be dangerous in the wrong hands. The DDA does need a review to fit the current climate and tackle the problems we still encounter today. The DDA should be amended to focus on "Dangerous Dogs" and not "Dangerous Breeds" or "Breed Types". As with most things we require tougher sentencing and bigger fines. We also require a better enforcement of the DDA. Dog owners (myself included) should be held responsible for their dogs actions.

If you are unsure how your dog will behave off the lead, seek professional advice. If your unsure if your dog will behave on the lead get a muzzle.

Any careful owner will be ok with a little common sense. Anyone flouting the law should then be punished.

Simon Lloyd-Jones, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Mail Online UK MARTIN SAMUEL: Lazy coppers are the real social menace - 3 hrs ago
Telegraph Going Rogue: an American Life by Sarah Palin: review - 9 hrs ago

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific