HC Deb 11 June 1976 vol 912 cc2013-22

5.25 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. James A. Dunn)

I beg to move, That the Animals (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 1st April, be approved. The Order implements a number of the proposals of the Law Commission's Report on Civil Liability for Animals. The Law Commission recommended the imposition of strict liability in respect of damage done by animals belonging to a dangerous species or known to their keepers to have dangerous propensities, as well as liability for damage done by animals straying from unenclosed land on to the public road.

The Order does not codify the law on civil liability for animals. Much of the law rests on general bases of liability, like the law of negligence, the liability of an occupier for the safe condition of his premises or the law of nuisance. These remain unaffected, except that there will no longer be any exception from the normal liability in negligence where an animal is allowed to wander on to the public road.

Although the Order largely corresponds to the Animals Act 1971 which applies to England and Wales, there are some slight differences of drafting and detail from the English Act, and I shall refer to these where they occur. Apart from these few exceptions, the Order brings to the people of Northern Ireland the same rights and responsibilities as regards civil liability for animals as obtain in England and Wales.

Article 1 gives the Order its Short Title and indicates the operative date of 1st January 1977. This would leave adequate time to enable farmers, owners of animals and members of the legal professions to acquaint themselves with the new laws and to safeguard their interests. Farmers will wish to consider whether it is necessary to insure against their liabilities.

Article 2 defines expressions used, particularly in Articles 4, 5, 6 and 8, and also deals with the general interpretation of words used throughout the Order. The key definitions are, I think, those of "a dangerous species" and of a "keeper" of an animal. There are two tests which must be satisfied to bring an animal into the "dangerous species" category. The first is that the species is not commonly domiciled in the British Islands, and the second is that it must be shown that normally fully-grown animals of the species are likely to cause severe damage unless restrained or that if they cause damage it is likely to be severe damage. Paragraph (2)(b) imposes the responsibility of a keeper of an animal upon both the owner and possessor of the animal, and also makes the head of a household liable for animals belonging to, or in possession of, any member of his household under the age of 16. The Interpretation Act (Northern Ireland) 1954 applies to this Order as the Order relates only to Northern Ireland.

Article 3 introduces the rules on strict liability for damage done by animals which are set out in Articles 4, 5 and 6, and specifies the rules and provisions of the existing law which are to be replaced by them. The effect of this article, in conjunction with the ensuing articles, is therefore to abrogate or repeal the common law on liability for dangerous wild animals and animals known to be vicious or mischievous, the common law rules on liability for damage done by cattle straying on to neighbouring land and the statutory provisions regarding civil liability for injury done by dogs to livestock.

Article 4 is the article which imposes liability, irrespective of negligence, for damage done either by animals of a dangerous species or by other animals which have dangerous characteristics known to their keepers, and Article 5 imposes strict liability—this is the type of liability which does not depend on negligence—for damage to land or other property done by straying livestock. Article 6 sets out the exceptions from the strict liability imposed by Articles 4 and 5.

Article 7 abolishes the exception which exempts persons from liability for negligence in respect of damage caused by animals straying on to the public road and lays down certain guidelines for the courts in determining whether there has been negligence in allowing an animal to stray.

Article 8 deals with a problem which is, unfortunately, all too common in rural areas. I refer to injury to livestock by dogs—sheep-worrying is the kind of thing which comes immediately to mind. The Livestock (Protection from Dogs) Act (Northern Ireland) 1968 provides that the owner or person in charge of a dog which worries livestock on any land shall be guilty of an offence but does not make any provision for civil liability. This article will provide for civil liability and a summary procedure for obtaining compensation for the damage caused.

Article 9 also deals with a common problem in rural areas. It gives the occupier of land on to which livestock has strayed the right to detain them, even if he knows who the owner is. The occupier must give notice to the police within 48 hours and to the person to whom the livestock belongs, if the owner is known. If no steps have been taken to reclaim the livestock within 14 days, it may be sold at a market or at public auction. The detainer may then reimburse himself out of the proceeds, and the rest will be returnable to the person who owned the livestock. We hope that this article will have the effect of providing a speedy remedy by self-help whilst being subject to certain safeguards.

Paragraph 1 of Article 10 empowers a member of the police to impound an animal found wandering on a public road, if the owner of the animal is not known. The police officer may impound the animal with a suitable person and agree to pay that person for keeping and feeding it. The "suitable" person would probably be a local farmer. This helps to solve a difficult problem in Northern Ireland, where there are no pounds available.

Article 11 amends and re-enacts in modern form the penal provisions of Section 19 of the Summary Jurisdiction (Ireland) Act 1851 and Section 85(1) of the Summary Jurisdiction and Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1935. Paragraph 10 of Section 19 of the 1851 Act made it a criminal offence to rescue any animal from a pound or to break down or damage a pound. Section 58(1)(g) of the 1935 Act applies paragraph 10 of Section 19 to animals impounded under that section. As pounds are now obsolete, this article makes it an offence to take any livestock out of the custody or control of any person entitled to detain it under Article 9 or 10 of the Order.

Article 12 ensures that the provisions of the Fatal Accidents Acts (Northern Ireland) 1846 to 1959, the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act (Northern Ireland) 1948 and the Limitation Acts (Northern Ireland) 1958 and 1964 apply to liability arising under Articles 4, 5 and 8, and Article 13 applies the Order to the Crown. Article 13 introduces the schedule of enactments which are to be repealed.

I commend the draft Order to the House.

5.33 p.m.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

I am glad to rise if only to congratulate the Under-Secretary on his appearance at the Dispatch Box and to express pleasure that his high qualities are now at the service of Ulster. We thank him for taking us so carefully through the order, which is in broad conformity with legislation for Great Britain and, therefore, I suppose, can be called a parity measure. In general we welcome the approximation of legislation on both sides of the water.

Is the great evil of the worrying of sheep increasing in Northern Ireland? Will the Minister say something about the Department of the Environment's report on dog control? It is relevant to this question. I understand that Northern Ireland is under study, or has been studied, by those preparing this report. Are we likely to be presented with any further legislation as a result of the report or for other reasons?

I was interested in Article 10 and what the Minister said about members of the public being entrusted with animals that are taken into detention. Do we understand that as a result of this order no extra facilities and expense will be needed at Royal Ulster Constabulary stations?

There are other points that I should like to raise but the hour is late and I know that the order will be thoroughly covered by the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross), so I conclude by giving a welcome to this measure.

5.36 p.m.

Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

May I, too, on behalf of my colleagues congratulate the Minister and welcome him to the Dispatch Box? Long may he reign there, or at least until such time as we have a devolved structure in Northern Ireland and his post becomes obsolete.

There are one or two matters that I should like to clear up. One, which the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) mentioned, is fundamental. Article 4(2)(c) refers to another keeper of the animal who is a member of that household". That seems to be in direct contradiction to the statement in Article 2(2)(b)(ii) that the keeper of the animal is the head of a household", regardless of whether anyone else in that household may have the ownership of the animal. This is a matter which the Minister may care to consider further because there seems to be a certain ambiguity. It may be regarded by some as a small point, but it might not be such a small point if a solicitor were to get his hands on it in a court.

The Order is widely welcomed by the farming community, and we welcome Article 8 in particular because it refers to the serious problem of attacks and injury caused by dogs to livestock, and especially to sheep. I speak as a former stock master who suffered from the activities of dogs—not only stray dogs, but sometimes dogs that were kept in the best of condition, and even sheepdogs. I am very much aware of the tremendous losses that can be caused to flock masters and to sheep owners as a result of the activities of dogs.

The damage is not limited to the animals that are killed or mutilated at the time of the attack. If ewes are carrying lambs, there can be a high percentage loss among the flock. This cannot he put down to a particular cause, but it is often due to the worrying and chasing of sheep.

I welcome the fact that someone can take the owner of the animal concerned in an attack to court and seek compensation. I hope that this provision will be considered in much more detail because, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest said, a report is expected shortly from the Department of the Environment on the whole problem of dogs. I hope, too that when that report is received it will be widely circulated and there will be full consultations about it. I trust that the views of those who suffer as a result of the activities of dogs will be seriously considered, rather than a lot of attention being paid to the views of the do-gooders who think that every dog is a darling little puppy and do not realise what a savage creature it can be at times. People who hold that view should be taken to see the results of a dog having attacked a flock of sheep.

Article 2(2)(c) says that where an animal is taken into and kept in possession for the purpose of preventing it from causing damage or of restoring it to its owner, a person is not a keeper of it by virtue only of that possession. From Article 5(2) on the liability for damages we learn that: any livestock belongs to the person in whose possession it is. What is the position under Article 10 if a person has been asked by the police to take an animal into his possession for safe keeping to restrain it from wandering into the road?

Sometimes an animal might be put into a farmer's field to prevent its going on the road. Will the person in whose field that animal is found be liable in law for any damage and what will be his defence? That is an important matter. A farmer could be doing a good turn to a neighbour or someone else but he could find himself in serious difficulties because of that provision. Farmers would like an explanation and if that explanation is as I think it is, I hope that it will be made widely known to the farming community.

I now turn to the fencing of farms and the quality of fencing that is needed to prove a defence against the charge that animals were deliberately allowed to stray. There is a long history to the fencing of farm animals and in Northern Ireland I understand that there is only a responsibility to fence against cattle, but that if sheep break through a fence, that is the responsibility of the owner of the sheep, who must pay for any damage. The problem is complex and I hope that the Minister will look at the matter again and that the results of his investigations will be made widely known to the farming community.

What is the position when a new road is being made? Who is responsible for fencing which is disturbed? I know that that is normally the responsibility of the public authority which builds the road. What is the position when an existing fence, bank or hedge is removed to give clearer vision on a bad corner, for instance? Is the erector of the fence or the owner of the fenced land responsible? What will happen if a car or other vehicle knocks down part of a fence and the driver leaps back into his car and leaves an unfortunate farmer with stock roaming on the road? Who will be responsible? I do not ask the Minister for a detailed reply today but I hope that he will write to me about the questions that I have asked.

5.43 p.m.

Mr. Dunn

I am obliged to hon. Members for their kind remarks. I have received many personal messages from hon. Members who have spoken today about my appearance at the Dispatch Box for the first time. I have done that on a day when a complex Order is being discussed which is more suited to those who follow the legal profession. The interpretations of the Order are difficult to explain in words which are easily understood by myself, and perhaps even more difficult for those who have to listen to me. However, I will make the attempt to explain.

There is one matter which I can clear up immediately in relation to the definition of a keeper or the responsibility of the possessor. For the purposes of Article 4 "keeper" is defined by Article 2(2)(b), which describes "keeper" as a person who owns the animal or has it in his possession—except where he has taken possession of it solely to prevent damage—or has in his household a person under the age of 16 who owns the animal or has it in his possession. The liability of a person for damage or injury inflicted by animals is discussed in some detail in paragraphs 74 to 80 of the Law Commission Report, published in 1967, on civil liability for animals, which forms the foundation of the Animals Act 1971 and the Order.

The working party set up by the Department of the Environment recently produced a report discussing the possible implementation of stricter measures for the control of dogs. In Northern Ireland the Department of Agriculture is responsible for this area, and, with the approval of Ministers, it is now carrying out talks with interested parties on the basis of the Department of the Environment report. The issue is not yet ready for public discussion because of the many complex issues, and it is not directly related to the question of liability which we are discussing.

I turn to the major issue of fencing of new roads. This is the responsibility of the frontager in all cases. The Department of the Environment normally fences its new roads, but where roads are built under private contract, the matter is complex. I shall draw the attention of the Department to it and have a detailed reply sent to the hon. Gentleman.

I cannot tell the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) whether the worrying of sheep is increasing, but, to judge from the voices I have recently heard, it appears that there are areas in which it is increasing. It has particularly increased in fine weather when people take their dogs out into the rural areas and let them run wild. I cannot give figures, but we are concerned about the matter, and the Department of Agriculture is seeing whether there are any other measures which could reasonably be taken to provide the protection sought by the farming community.

The other question concerned Article 2(2)(c), which qualifies the effect of a person taking possession of an animal for the purpose of preventing it from causing damage or of restoring it to its owner". Such possession does not of itself create the liabilities of the keeper. The provision is designed to protect from the strict liability which he would otherwise have as a keeper anyone who takes an escaped animal into his keeping. I am informed that the animal might be of a dangerous species. Such a person will not be absolved from the liability in negligence for failure to take reasonable care. Again, this is a complex matter, and I would prefer to write in detail to the hon. Members for Epping Forest and Londonderry (Mr. Ross) about it.

The Order places a responsibility upon the owner or possessor, and gives rights and responsibilities in such a way that those who may suffer damage can recover compensation and costs.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Animals (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 1st April, be approved.