HC Deb 19 February 1982 vol 18 cc501-20

Order for Second Reading read.

9.35 am
Mr. Jack Aspinwall (Kingswood)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

We are now in the Chinese Year of the Dog which I thought might improve my chances to get a reasonable passage for what has been justifiably called "the dog lovers' Bill".

I have been a dog owner on many occasions, but because of my transient life—commuting between Bristol and London—it would be impossible to provide the proper care and attention a dog would need. On drawing No. 5 in the ballot for Private Member's Bills, I found that there was a wide choice of subjects on which one could introduce a Bill. However, little did I know at the time that I chose to introduce legislation on dogs that I would arouse such hot passion throughout the country.

I have received literally hundreds of letters from people throughout the country expressing views on different aspects of dog ownership. I sincerely thank those who bothered to write, and I am also grateful to the many organisations which took the trouble to write and express opinions. Although I am unable to please everyone with this Bill, I have truly taken into account the representations made. I am grateful to my colleagues who have been kind enough to sponsor the Bill, some of whom were previously involved in promoting such legislation, although they were unsuccessful.

My thanks must go to the RSPCA which was part of the joint action committee on pets in society. The member organisations of that committee are the National Canine Defence League, the British Veterinary Association, the British Small Animal Veterinary Association, the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the National Dog Rescue Coordinating Committee, the Kennel Club and the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals.

I also thank the Association of Municipal Authorities, the Association of District Councils, the National Farmers Union, the Police Federation, the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, Pro Dogs, the National Association of Local Councils, the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, St. Andrew's Animal Fund, the Humane Education Centre and the many district and parish councils and private individuals who have provided useful and constructive information.

I hope that the House will see fit to give the Bill a fair passage. Although by no means perfect, it is a genuine attempt to make a contribution towards the tidying up of Edwardian and Victorian legislation. My original draft affected many Government Departments and Ministers. Because politics is the art of the possible, I eventually decided on a small, practical and useful Bill, which moved in the direction of helping to solve some of the problems that presently cause a great deal of difficulty for many people.

The Bill concerns 51/2 million dogs and a quarter of Britain's households. Shifting social structures and ever advancing technology constantly change attitudes in the community's lifestyle. Included in that change is the traditional role of pets in society. Increasing urbanisation has brought problems, both to pet owners and to pets, but it has also transparently increased the need for the companionship provided by pets.

Nowhere is that more true than in the family unit as children are no longer always able to provide companionship for elderly parents. The solitary old person increasingly turns to a pet and, more frequently, a dog for constant companionship. Such animals often give a sense of security which is manifestly needed. It is estimated that there are about 4 million lonely people in the United Kingdom. It is generally accepted that the working week will become shorter and, therefore, extend leisure time in which living things will be increasingly important.

It may sometimes be thought that responsible attitudes to pet animals and certainly relevant legislation have not kept pace with the evolution in pet ownership. Far too many owners believe that they provide adequately for their dogs, yet allow them to stray. Therefore, the animal welfare societies must bear the unwelcome but necessary humane destruction of an estimated 120, 000 unwanted animals each year. They neither want nor welcome that responsibility. Indeed, there has been some talk in these societies that unless the Government are prepared to act responsibly they will say "Enough is enough. Euthanasia is your problem, we shall have no more of it." Let us hope that it will not come to that.

The problems caused by uncaring attitudes are growing. Therefore, there is an urgent need for worktable able solutions if the dog is to occupy a proper place in society. There are many who believe that whatever the causes the relationship between man and dog has become seriously out of balance. It is clearly in the interests of neither that this should be so. In judging how serious the situation is it is helpful to have some assessment of the nature and magnitude of the problem. In 1980 the number of accidents involving dogs on the highway was 1, 603. There were 1, 915 injuries and 11 deaths. When we consider the number of casualties on the roads, about 328, 000, it seems that the number of accidents involving dogs is not significant. That is not to say that we should accept with equanimity the present level of deaths and injuries. I am merely saying that we should be prepared to make a balanced judgment.

Livestock worrying is another serious problem. The latest figures reveal more than 6, 000 such cases. That is an appalling figure and sheep suffer especially from the problem. I know that the Bill is welcomed by the National Farmers Union and by all hon. Members who have farming interests. Sheep worrying is without doubt a major problem.

Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)

My hon. Friend is right in saying that the National Farmers Union has welcomed the Bill, but he will be aware that it is concerned about an omission. In the published draft of the Bill my hon. Friend rightly included an exemption for blind persons who are dependent on guide dogs. However, there is no such exemption for working farm dogs that are kept to attend sheep and cattle. If and when the Bill reaches Committee—we all hope that it does—will my hon. Friend be prepared to consider an amendment along that line?

Mr. Aspinwall

I accept the NFU's representations and I feel that I shall be making allowances for them. I know that the NFU wants the Bill to go much further and to make the scheme mandatory upon all local authorities, with the Secretary of State deciding exceptions. Licence fees for working farm dogs have been in force for over a century. I shall be prepared to institute an amendment if the Bill reaches Committee. I know that it is a privilege that is highly valued by the farming community.

Statistics on injuries caused by dogs are difficult to evaluate. However, an analysis of the patients treated in an emergency accident unit over one year revealed that 2, 064 cases of dog bites were reported, which represented 3 per cent. of the total attendance. Only 20 per cent. of those cases required further treatment. The analysis did not take into account the reasons why the patients were bitten, how many attacks were unprovoked and the number of accidental bites, scratches and knock-downs. To my knowledge, no such survey has been attempted. I am sure that an analysis would make interesting reading. The cost to the taxpayer of providing Health Service treatment for those who have been injured by stray dogs must be enormous.

Fouling was one of the major issues that I encountered, especially the depositing of excreta in public open spaces and children's play areas and on footpaths and verges. I am sure that some hon. Members will want to talk in greater detail about the human health risk. I have been surprised by the many responsible dog owners who have expressed concern about the image that they portray, which is related directly to the fouling problem. There is one organisation which I feel has an extremely sensible attitude. It advertises in its literature a product that consists of a small shovel and a plastic bag—it is commonly known in the United States as a "pooper scooper". Responsible dog owners use such items. In certain parts of the United States one is liable to a $100 fine for allowing a dog to deposit excreta on the pavement without removing it.

I have studied many worthwhile schemes where local authorities, in spite of present legislation, have established dog warden schemes and promoted campaigns for responsible dog ownership. A number of authorities have expressed strong support for the Bill.

The problem of dog packs is also important. Packs of strays—they are sometimes called latch-key dogs—run wild in some areas. I am sure that measures to encourage owners to spey bitches would be welcomed by many animal welfare organisations and the veterinary profession. There is a strong body of opinion that believes that there should be a reduced licence fee for a speyed bitch. Such a provision is not in the Bill, but the House should be aware of thinking on this matter.

There is much public anxiety about the possibility of rabies spreading to the United Kingdom from the Continent. The disease has been moving steadily westwards since the end of the First World War. Rabies is extremely dangerous and is usually fatal once the virus has reached the brain. Comprehensive controls and quarantine policies have operated for many years in the United Kingdom. As a result, in the past 50 years there have been only two cases of animal rabies outside the quarantine period. The United Kingdom is one of a handful of countries that can boast of such a record.

An outbreak of rabies in Britain would result in a radically altered lifestyle, especially for our dog population. A committee was appointed in 1970 to consider the issue and its main recommendations have been put into effect. Controls, quarantine arrangements and the necessary powers to deal with outbreaks of rabies have been strengthened. Contingency plans have been drawn up for dealing with infected animals that get into the country. Plans for dealing with an outbreak of the disease are hampered enough by a growing urban fox population, but equal difficulties are envisaged with the many stray dogs throughout the country. In the event of a case of rabies the existence of a large number of uncontrolled dogs in any one area would increase the chance of transmission of the disease to other domestic animals and hence to man. Although not designed for the purpose, the measures proposed by the Bill to achieve greater control over the dog population would significantly improve the chances of dealing with the disease should an outbreak occur.

Statistics do not give a clear indication of the extent of the problems associated with dogs. A thoughtless owner of one dog can give rise to much more anxiety and create far more ill will than several owners of well trained and well cared for dogs. Control is of the greatest importance. Dogs that are allowed to stray together with dogs that have no owners are contributors to the various nuisances that I have outlined. If the problems caused by strays can be dealt with adequately, everything else will fall much more easily into place. Imagine a society that refused to acknowledge the car and which provided no legislation covering garages and roads. However, that is what society has done to the dog. It is ridiculous, but unfortunately that is the fact.

Society benefits greatly from pets. Britain has always been a nation of dog lovers. There are more than 5.5 million dogs in the United Kingdom. The benefit of the animal-human relationship is considerable. We are only just beginning to unravel the complexities and the importance of the relationship. The track record of police dogs, sheep dogs, guide dogs for the blind and, more recently, for the deaf speaks for itself. There are also the more complex and considerable physical and psychological benefits.

Companionship is usually cited as the most important benefit offered by a pet. Interactive pets such as dogs satisfy people's need for affiliation with others. Improved self-esteem is associated with dog ownership. This is especially important for guide dog owners and disabled pet owners. For many, especially the elderly, a dog offers protection. Many people believe that a tin of dog food on the window ledge is more likely to act as a deterrent than a red alarm mounted high on the wall.

Pets play an important role in the development of children. A dog can teach a child about aspects of life such as care and responsibility towards other living creatures. Dogs provide a stimulus for exercise and play in both children and adults. Their ability to invoke such a response from man has meant that they have been used extensively in pschotherapy with excellent results. Recent work in this fascinating area has produced astonishing results. Pet ownership has been found significantly to improve a patient's survival rate following major surgery.

The benefits of pets in society is considerable and heavily outweighs the nuisance factor. The answer to the dog problem lies not in the banning of dogs from parks and housing development but in providing a dog warden service so that those who care about and are trained in animal welfare may be made responsible for the welfare of dogs in their locality. The finance for such a scheme would be provided by the dog owners themselves in the form of an increased, though not punitive, dog licence fee.

The irresponsible attitude of some dog owners has resulted in dogs becoming strays. By "stray" I mean a dog that is not under the control of its owner or handler. Such a dog is a nuisance to society. Strays perpetuate the crimes for which the rest of the responsibly owned dog population is blamed—fouling, roaming in packs, and damage to property. Some owners appear to be quite unconcerned about the habits of their stray dog. In a survey, one in 10 past and present dog owners admitted that their dogs strayed. Why do owners allow their dogs to stray? Changing lifestyles have meant that some dogs have to fend for themselves during the day, only returning home for food and shelter.

Many owners are unable to cope with a dog's sexual habits. They do not adequately restrain bitches in season or dogs that have a strong mating instinct. The increasing number of permanent strays are now being handled by the animal charities. These dogs have been taken into a household and then rejected, usually because the full responsibilities of dog ownership were not realised when the cuddly puppy was brought into the home. Local dog wardens could alleviate the distress that abandonment causes to dogs and they could advise dog owners about choice, training and care of the dog. In general, that would increase the local community's appreciation of the dog and the many responsibilities involved in ownership.

The basic statutory provisions regarding the seizure and disposal of stray dogs are contained in the Dogs Act 1906, as amended by subsequent legislation. At present the police are responsible for enforcing the Act. It includes such measures as the maintenance of a register of all dogs seized, and the provision that prior to the dog being transferred to suitable kennelling a brief description of each dog, its place and date of seizure should be noted, together with details of the ultimate disposal of the dog. Dogs seized under the Act are kept for seven days, after which they can be sold or destroyed. Dogs detained under this Act are properly fed and maintained.

Following detention of dogs by the police, the dogs are kept for the statutory seven days in local establishments:those of a local animal charity, premises owned by the police and administered by an animal charity or private kennels. All expenses incurred by the police, including the payment of the kennels, where appropriate, is defrayed by the police fund. Income from the sale of dogs is paid into the police fund. Many dogs that find their way into police custody are never taken to dogs' homes, as they are claimed by their owners or cared for by the finder.

The present situation is intolerable. It has remained unchanged for the past 76 years, with our police force being responsible for the initial boarding of lost and stray dogs as well as for the provision of veterinary attention. The police force is already over-worked. The police can certainly do without the added burden of running round the country acting as dog catchers. They have wished to end that activity for some time. Time spent in this way must cost the police dearly in resources and manpower. How much more economically viable is a system whereby local authorities can introduce a dog warden when and where there is need, wherby trained specialists would be responsible to their local authority for the collection of strays and the education of the public in responsible pet ownership. This problem will not disappear. It has to be faced now.

A charge for keeping dogs was first levied in 1796. It was replaced in 1867 by an excise duty of 5s, and later increased in 1878 to the present level of 371/2p. Today's equivalent would be between £8.50 and £9.50. During 1979 and 1980, the dog licence fee in England and Wales raised £1 million in revenue compared with the cost of collection of £1.8 million. A major weakness in the present system, as indicated by the working party report in 1975, is that it is unenforceable; only 50 per cent. of the dogs in the country are licensed.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

Will my hon. Friend clarify one point? Under clause 3 of his Bill the setting of the level of the licence fee is a matter for the local authority. How does that tie up with legislation under which the Secretary of State imposes, or at least sets, the licence fee? How do the two marry?

Mr. Aspinwall

Under the Bill, a local authority may determine the level of the licence in keeping with the costs that are involved.

Mr. Hogg

What about the Minister's power? He already has the power to set the licence fee. How do the proposals marry?

Mr. Aspinwall

I should like to deal with that point later. Under present law, a dog is required to have its owner's name and address attached to its collar when it is in a public place. That requirement is not being kept. The working party considered that all dogs should wear colour coded tags or similar identification to show that they had been licensed. That would enable the dog warden immediately to recognise licensed dogs.

The Bill would allow individual councils to set the licence fee for their areas at the level that they felt was justified. More importantly, it would enable them to provide a dog warden service that would enforce the system and so remove the present ridiculous situation in which only 50 per cent. of the country's dogs are licensed and the cost of collecting the licence fee exceeds the revenue produced. If a citizen wishes to be patriotic and is a dog owner but fails to apply for a licence, he saves his country 221/2p. What nonsense!

The licence fee recently suggested by the Joint Advisory Committee on Pets in Society is £5, with the exemptions provided in the Bill. Clearly it is up to local authorities to decide the level that they consider to be reasonable, but care should be taken that the level set for the licence fee is not punitive. In calculating the licence fee, councils should take into account the cost of financing and administering a dog warden service, including the cost of purchasing a vehicle, equipment, uniforms and the provision of an adequate number of kennels. It should also consider running costs and an allowance should be made for the dog warden's salary and for a contribution towards the administration of the service. The cost of Post Office administration should also be taken into account.

Once set, I suggest that the licence fee should remain at the same level for three years and should therefore include a built-in inflation element. The figure of £5 per annum is widely accepted by local authorities as a minimum figure. The Bill seeks to implement the recommendations of the 1976 report of the working party on dogs. It seeks to give local authorities some of the responsibilities that are placed on the police under the Dogs Act 1906 and to enable local authorities to finance appropriate schemes by levying a sensible licence fee and to assume responsibility for issuing, recording and administering the licence.

Money derived from this source could be used to finance a local authority dog warden service. I recognise that those who support the Bill hold different views. The Joint Advisory Committee on Pets in Society and the National Farmers Union believe that the system should be mandatory for all district councils, unless the district council can make a sufficiently convincing case to the Secretary of State for an exemption. Another difference between my views and those of the Joint Advisory Committee on Pets in Society is that the latter believes that the licence fee should be universal, not variable. No doubt some hon. Members will pursue such points in greater detail in Committee.

I have tried to embody points within the Bill that will provide us with the substance of a service and that can be improved upon at a later date. The Association of District Councils has been extremely helpful and co-operative in passing on its experience and representations. Local authorities that do not have dog warden services will seek help through the association from organisations such as the Joint Advisory Committee on Pets in Society. A great deal of research has been carried out on the details of the warden schemes that should successfully operate at district level and such information is available from those councils that have already developed a system.

It is imperative for the success of any scheme that full publicity should be given to the dog warden service and to its activities and objectives. Full stress should be laid on the dog warden's advisory and social welfare role. I am mindful of the success of independent contractors in local government—I think of Southend-on-Sea as an example—and I am also aware that the private sector currently provides a full-time, fully comprehensive dog warden system on a contract basis to seven local authorities in the North. I see no reason why a district council should be unable to delegate its administrative functions under the Bill to a third party.

Perhaps it is worth spending a few moments to clarify the role of the dog warden. It is to reduce the number of stray dogs on the streets by locating the keeper and returning them without delay, or by taking them to the local pen and making every effort to trace the owners. Additionally, as I have stressed, the dog wardens must inform the owners of their legal responsibilities—that their dogs should be kept under control, that they should be licensed and that they should wear a collar and address tags at all times on the streets. The dog warden should become the friend of dogs and dog lovers and should have an important role to play in any locality, giving advice and attempting to co-ordinate and marshal the resources of the various animal welfare organisations in the district. The warden should be approachable, able and competent to give advice on all dog problems.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Can my hon. Friend describe a typical circumstance in which a dog warden either is aware of the dog having fouled the pavement or is made aware by a member of the public? How would the dog warden follow that up? What would be the procedure?

Mr. Aspinwall

First, may I answer the inquiry from my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). The Secretary of State's power to fix the licence fee is repealed by section 36(3) of the Local Government Act 1966. The power is transferred from central Government to local authorities.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

The Bill suggests that the Government would have no involvement at all. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that that was not the view of the various bodies which took part in the deliberations of the working party? Does he take a hard line on that matter, because it is something on which his important and valuable Bill could founder?

Mr. Aspinwall

I do not take a hard line on that point. Many organisations that discussed the matter with me felt strongly that the scheme should be mandatory and that the licence fee should be fixed nationally.

As I said at the beginning, the Bill will affect a quarter of the households in Britain. I am not seeking radical changes. I wish merely to introduce an enforceable system for the control of dogs, which can be a serious nuisance in the hands of an irresponsible owner but which can also be constant companions and a source of security to the old and the very young. I am ever mindful of the enormous contribution of dogs to our society. By introducing a sensible licence fee, local authorities could provide local dog warden services in areas where it was deemed necessary, thereby enabling human beings and dogs to live harmoniously in our towns and cities.

The matter has been the subject of debate for the past 10 years. My Bill is not pro-dog or anti-dog. It is an attempt to project a balanced and sensible view of a subject that I recognise can arouse deep emotions. To that extent, it is not the ideal Bill for which some of my hon. Friends who have worked with me in preparing for today's debate would have asked. I agree that it has flaws, but they can be dealt with in Committee, if the House so wishes. However, the Bill provides a framework for the future that can be built upon as we move forward from what is seen as a totally unsatisfactory position.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)

Am I right in supposing that my hon. Friend is aiming at controlling stray dogs? If that be right, what is the definition of "stray dog"? Is the definition in the Dogs Act 1906 adequate for the purpose?

Mr. Aspinwall

I gave the definition of "stray dog" before my hon. and learned Friend came into the Chamber.

If, after all this debate and discussion and the considerable support that the Bill has received from many different organisations, both lay and professional, the House determines to jettison the proposals, the only sensible alternative will be to scrap all legislative control of dogs. How can a licence system that costs more to collect than it produces be logical?

I am a great believer in the freedom of the individual. I do not wish to impose on one section of the community, but there must come a time when the large number of stray dogs must be controlled. The nuisance that they cause—fouling, traffic accidents and livestock worrying—must be curbed. I am sure that a self-financing warden scheme run by local authorities, providing an informative and educational service to dog owners and paid for by increasing the licence fee, is the answer.

That is the essence of my modest Bill. I hope that I can count on the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House, and my hon. Friend the Minister, to facilitate its progress through the House.

10.5 am

Mr. Thomas Cox (Tooting)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Aspinwall). The Bill, as can be seen from his comments and the correspondence that he has received, has already caused much discussion. As with many other Private Members' Bills, it has certain teething problems, but those can be sorted out in Committee. I hope that the Bill will be given a fair run and will become law, because there is much merit in what the hon. Gentleman is trying to introduce.

We are very much a nation of animal lovers, and I suppose that dogs must come high on the list. Dogs are not only great assets to many people, but great friends. Sadly, however, when they get out of control, they can present many problems. Stray dogs come into that category, and the setting up of a dog wardens scheme could be valuable in trying to curb the number of stray dogs.

I am in no way critical of the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, but we should ask why dogs become strays. Since Christmas, how many young dogs have become strays? We know that pets bought as presents for young children—Christmas is the most appropriate time—soon lose their glamour as small, warm and cuddly animals. They begin to grow and in some instances, because there is no concern for their welfare and training, they become a problem in the home, so out they go. I am sure that we have all had that experience with our children or those of our relatives for whom a dog is often high on the list of the sort of pet that they wish to have. I am sure that a responsible dealer in dogs will make the purchaser aware that dogs grow up and need looking after.

What concerns me, and some Conservative Members who are present today, are the conditions of sale of animals, especially dogs, in street markets. In London we have Club Row, of which I am sure many hon. Members are aware. At present, no law controls the activities of the dealers there. Very few of them, if any, could be called responsible dog dealers. Anyone who goes to Club Row on a Sunday will see the pitiful conditions of the animals waiting to be sold. Unfortunately, that is not mentioned in the Bill.

Mr. Marlow

The hon. Gentleman will have noticed the provision in the Bill that, when a dog changes ownership, a licence must be acquired. Will that not to a large extent inhibit the problem that he is worried about? The hon. Gentleman mentioned cuddly dogs being bought for Christmas. In future, the act of buying a dog will have to be more deliberate because a licence will need to be acquired.

Mr. Cox

I take note of what the hon. Gentleman said. I welcome his comments. I hope that the provisions that he mentioned become law.

In street markets proper conditions for the sale of dogs are sadly lacking. People view with utter disgust the way in which dogs are sold in such markets. Often those markets must be the cause of stray dogs coming on to our streets.

Certain standards should be set. Amendments can be made in Committee. Anyone who sells dogs should be registered by the local authority in the area where the dogs are being sold. It would be for the local authority to set standards and to see that they were complied with. Standards should be set for places where dogs are kept prior to being sold. One sees terrible conditions in Club Row in East London. Anyone who sees those conditions says that there must be certain standards for the places in which dogs are kept. There must be conditions on places where dogs are kept and to whom they can be sold. If those points were looked at in detail in Committee, and amendments made, if necessary, they would go a long way towards meeting the aims of the hon. Member for Kingswood.

Miss Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)

Perhaps I may seek to help the hon. Gentleman. When I asked the Government why they would not allow the Bill introduced by Lord Houghton in the other place to go through, the stock reply was that it was already covered by the Act covering pet shops. If so, the local authority operating in the Club Row area is miserably failing in its duties. I am aware that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, with which I am closely connected, has tried to make that local authority carry out its duties. The Government have told me that they cannot force the local authority to carry out its duties. Therefore, I suggest that pressure there, even under the current law, might be helpful.

Mr. Cox

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments, I join her in her criticism of the abysmal lack of action by the appropriate authority in that area of London. I do not dispute that that criticism is true. As a member of the London group of Members of Parliament, I shall seek to bring the hon. Lady's comments to its attention so that it can put pressure on the local authority in the Club Row area, which, if it has the powers to act, has not tried to enforce them.

One of the points that concerns me was touched on by the hon. Member for Kingswood. I am not sure whether this is a requirement in law. Responsible dog owners ensure that at an early age their dogs have collars, which give their names and addresses—and often the dog's name. Often one does not see dogs wearing collars. do not believe that anyone can say that it is an infringement of anyone's liberty if a clause in the Bill states that there is a legal requirement that dogs should wear collars. That would help, because not all dogs deliberately become strays. Some dogs get lost. Some get over fences or go out of front doors and become lost. If such animals wore collars, they could be returned to their rightful owners more quickly than at present. Owners become greatly worried when they lose pets that they treasure so much. The Committee could look at that point.

Clause 3(3)(a) refers to licence rebates to those who are in receipt of supplementary pension. I suggest, with respect, that that clause does not go far enough. To an elderly or disabled person, a dog can be more than a pet. I know elderly people who see their dogs as a means of keeping more mobile. The elderly person says that he has a duty to take the dog out for a walk, which is often as much exercise for the elderly person as it is for the dog.

We often discuss this point in the House. Many people are not in receipt of supplementary benefit because they are borderline cases. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the sum of £5 for a dog licence, which is not unreasonable. However, let us be realistic. That sum could present problems to those who are watching every penny of their weekly income. Therefore, I hope that he will extend the provision to all those who are in receipt of a State pension, because there could be problems. I should not like the Bill to make people say that they would love to have a dog, but would find it difficult because of the cost of feeding it and paying the £5 fee. Many of us would say that E5 is neither here nor there, but it is quite a lot of money to many people on low fixed incomes.

Unfortunately, every day there are many complaints, irrespective of where we live, about the appalling problems caused by dog mess. Youngsters especially are affected. I am aware that in some parts of the country the problem has led to a great deal of conflict between the local authority and the community. Many local authorities have open spaces in their areas. They are responsible for allowing certain areas of their open spaces to be used as dog runs. A local authority might argue that it would like to do that, but the cost would be too high. However, we know that when mums or dads take out their youngsters to open spaces, especially when the weather is nice, they like to let the kiddies run and fall around. Indeed, that is how they like to play and enjoy themselves. The children do not look to see whether there is any dog mess before they start running around. If local authorities were required to provide dog runs for people to exercise their dogs, young children, their parents and other adults would feel that the rest of the open space was clear enough for walking or playing on.

I close on that point, because many other hon. Members wish to speak. I return to the point that I made at the beginning of my speech. I welcome the Bill. There may be technical points that hon. Members with legal knowledge consider need to be tidied up. Once this tidying-up is achieved in Committee, hon. Members can help to ensure that what the hon. Member for Kingswood is seeking to do soon becomes law.

10.20 am
Miss Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Aspinwall) on promoting the Bill of which I am a sponsor, and on so ably and comprehensively presenting the measure to the House. I take his point that he has modified the Bill in the hope of obtaining support so that it may become law. I should like to make a general observation on the difficulties faced by hon. Members introducing Private Member's Bills of any scope and size. Nearly 10 years ago, in an animal welfare debate which I introduced, I said that it was wrong for Governments to duck their responsibilities in this matter and that it would be far better if legislation were not left to the initiative of private Members so that truly comprehensive Bills could be introduced.

I should have liked to see—I do not intend any disrespect to my hon. Friend in his excellent endeavours—a Bill that not only introduced dog wardens but updated the law on dogs in one measure that everyone could examine. I realise that I shall not see that today. We must make the best of what we have. I put on record my protest at the failure of successive Governments to tackle the problems of animal welfare.

Strangely, this kind of Bill, for the better protection of dogs, brings together two entirely different strands of opinion—first, those who dislike dogs or regard them as a nuisance for various reasons and, secondly, those who care deeply about dogs' welfare and who are concerned about much needless suffering. I hope that those two strands of opinion will unite and support the Bill, irrespective of its possible shortcomings.

I know that statistics can be boring but it is worth emphasising a few figures to demonstrate the scale of the problem and the necessity of dealing with it. I understand, according to the best estimates or, perhaps, guesstimates, that there are about 51/2 million dogs in the country. Of these, about 500, 000 in any year are strays. Probably only one-half of all dogs are licensed. That is massive evasion. It means that animal welfare societies face major problems of resources in coping with the care of unfortunate animals which, at best, they put in new homes and, at worst, they humanely destroy.

Most hon. Members will know that I am closely connected with the RSPCA. Not so many know that I am also connected with the National Canine Defence League. Those two organisations bear the brunt of dealing with the irresponsibility of others. If I may speak wearing their hat, we are sick and tired of doing society's dirty work for it. A great deal of effort goes into keeping animals and trying to find homes for them. I can think of innumerable dedicated voluntary workers who spend a great deal of time on this delicate job. Unless the dogs go to good homes, the whole miserable cycle of irresponsibility starts all over again.

I invite any hon. Member sceptical of the need for reform to accompany me to one of the homes or kennels belonging to those two organisations. If they fail to come away feeling moved and distressed by the sight of so many dogs and other animals, they are harder and more flint-hearted than I had imagined anyone could be. It is depressing, indeed, to see the look of expectation on a dog's face when it thinks it is to be taken into a new family home only to find that no one wants it. I have been very much depressed over the years by the innumerable dogs that seem to be unwanted. In the last year for which full figures are available, the RSPCA found homes for no fewer than 40, 000 dogs but it was also reluctantly obliged to destroy a large number.

There should be no doubt about the scale and problem of the misery that is caused. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood described the difficulties that can arise through traffic accidents, sheep worrying and the possibility of the introduction of diseases such as rabies. I shall therefore not dwell on those matters. I endorse heartily the comments of my hon. Friend and the need for control for reasons other than the welfare of the dogs themselves. There has been a singular lack of activity, despite all the efforts of the voluntary organisations. It is worth reminding the House that the Joint Advisory Committee on Pets in Society was unique in bringing together various strands of animal welfare organisations and others, such as the local authority associations, to try to reach some conclusion over the best approach to the matter. The expertise available to the committee and those who support it is immense. The veterinary services, the local authority organisations, the welfare organisations and the Kennel Club have all come together. In 1975, they produced an excellent report, mentioned by my hon. Friend, the heart of which was the proposal for a dog warden service and supporting suggestions.

It is noteworthy that the Government of the day set up an interdepartmental working party to examine the same problem. The working party reported in 1976. The views in the report produced by the outside bodies and that produced by the Government bore an extraordinary similarity. One might have imagined that, in the face of such unanimity, action would follow. There has been no action whatever except, perhaps, the willingness of various Ministers of various Governments to meet deputations and to put them off with specious arguments.

I am sorry to have to say that the record of Governments of both parties has been deplorable in their failure to meet the problem. They seem to have been united in inertia. I hope that the Government now will give a fair wind to the proposal in my hon. Friend's Bill. I look for support, not just benevolent or even malevolent neutrality, or indeed downright opposition. If I do not see any support from my Government, I give warning here and now that I shall tear them in shreds on this issue wherever I can and at every opportunity. I think that my hon. Friend the Minister will know that I mean what I say.

I now wish to turn to the features of the Bill. I am a supporter of the Bill but I am disappointed that my hon. Friend has not felt able to go the whole way with the Joint Advisory Committee on Pets in Society and the other organisations to make the scheme compulsory for all district councils to carry out with a uniform licence fee fixed centrally. That would be the best and neatest solution. However, if that is not possible, half a loaf is better than none, and it would certainly be an improvement if local authorities—district councils, generally speaking—were encouraged to provide a dog warden service to carry out duties in place of the police. It is an essential feature, I hope, of the Bill that dog wardens should not be simply dog catchers; they should have not only a control function but an advisory function, in an effort to help to promote responsible pet ownership.

It is important for the package to be closely interlocked. For example, it is no use permitting the licence fee to rise if action is not taken to enforce it. I say that because I know that at least half the dogs in this country are not licensed. A back-up is therefore most important. It would be a good start if a dog warden were given the power to ask people to present their licences.

One omission in the Bill, which I hope will be put right in Committee, is that dogs should have attached to their collar a readily identifiable means of showing that a licence has been paid. Various experiments have been carried out in other countries in this connection. The most practicable solution appears to be a coloured disc which changes from year to year so that people can tell whether the licence has been paid or is out of date. That would be less easy to organise if it were done on the basis of an individual authority's own wish, and that is another reason why I would prefer a uniform system throughout the country. However, I imagine that it is not impossible to have an arrangement whereby those local authorities which decide to go ahead with the service and opt for a compulsory disc, or something similar, can agree on the details through their associations. The need to enforce is most important, and it is a matter that I hope will be carefully thrashed out in Committee.

The other matter that I wish to raise concerns the amount of the licence fee. Again, I foresee difficulties and dissension arising from a variable fee, depending on the whim or the suggestion of each district authority. This springs from what I shall call the basic error in the Bill of not making the whole scheme uniform. It would be sensible, even if the matter were left to district authorities to decide whether to introduce a warden service, if the decision to increase the licence fee were still taken centrally and the fee increased substantially. Only those local authorities which were prepared to provide the service could claim fees, and that might encourage authorities to introduce such a service.

Mr. Hardy

I am largely in agreement with what the hon. Lady says, but I am a little anxious about what she is saying now. She said, and I agree, that the fee should be centrally determined, and she said that the fee should be increased substantially. Is she saying that the fee should be increased to such a point that the dog warden scheme and all related expenses were covered by the fee paid?

Miss Fookes

I hope that it would be fixed at a level that would cover costs. I am very much aware of the difficulties of placing a further burden on local authorities, and I hope that the fee would be pitched at such a point that one could reasonably expect to have a sum sufficient for the purpose for the foreseeable future. Various calculations have been made, and I suggest that, even now, a fee of £5 would be reasonable. If the matter were left in the hands of the relevant Secretary of State, the fee could be raised at any future time.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food sets the fees.

Miss Fookes

I thank my hon. Friend, who I know is always eager to give advice.

Mr. Hogg

I would be willing to give my services free of charge.

Miss Fookes

I thank my hon. Friend, who I know is very eager to help. However, if I had to pay for services I am not sure that I would seek the services of that particular hon. Friend.

I am aware that other hon. Members are anxious to speak. I conclude, therefore, by saying that although the Bill has its imperfections, it represents the best opportunity that we have to deal with a problem that has existed for a long time, shows no sign of going away, and on which the House should take action. I hope that if the Bill is properly implemented it will considerably reduce the number of stray dogs, because of the better controls, and—to echo a slogan from another organisation—that we shall be in a position to say that every dog is a wanted dog.

10.36 am
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

It gives me considerable pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes), because I agree with almost everything that she said. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Aspinwall) on the Bill and on the way in which he introduced it. I agree with the hon. Lady in her criticism of the Government for not being prepared to take action. In my view, a measure of this nature should have been introduced in 1976 as soon as the working party had reported, because the report that it produced received widespread acceptance.

I have tried to introduce two Ten-Minute Bills on this subject, and I am therefore conscious of the strong feeling about it throughout the country. That widespread feeling gives rise to a consensus, in that people are now demanding legislation because they recognise the extent of the problem.

The hon. Member for Kingswood talked about the number of strays and the number of dogs that had to be destroyed. The point is best made by reminding the House that today between 150 and 200 dogs will have to be destroyed because no one is prepared to look after them. If those 200 dogs were lined up at St. Stephen's entrance and photographed so that people could see how many dogs were being destroyed, I am sure that the demand for this legislation to cut down the misery and slaughter of dogs would be overwhelming. There are far too many stray and unwanted dogs and something must be done about them. It is disgraceful that we expect the animal welfare societies to destroy humanely that number of dogs each day.

Then there is the question of road accidents. In the time between the two occasions on which I sought to introduce Ten-Minute Bills on the subject there was an unfortunate accident in Stockport. A young person was killed as a result of a dog running onto the highway. A car swerved to avoid the dog and killed the person. There may not be all that many road accidents which result in fatalities because of dogs, but every one of them is a tragedy to the individuals concerned. We should do all we can to keep stray dogs off the roads. Anyone who drives down a motorway and sees a dog running loose, hears the squealing of brakes and the screaming from the dog when it is hit knows what a hazard a dog on a motorway is to itself and to everyone who uses the road.

Then there is the sheep worrying issue. It is a matter not simply of the 6, 000 or so sheep and other animals which are worried to death each year, but of the many animals which are injured, and the number of ewes, particularly at this time of year, that have miscarriages as a result of being chased round a field, through a gap in a hedge, or down a bank. It should be made clear that damage done to livestock, particularly on the urban fringes, must be stopped.

After I introduced my Ten-Minute Bills I received many letters from postmen, milkmen, paper boys and gas and electric meter men about the hazards that they experienced trying to carry out their daily work. They told me how often they were bitten by dogs, not necessarily owned by the people in the house that they were visiting. I had figures showing the large number of working days lost by postmen because of dog bites.

A child who is bitten by a stray dog might not have a serious bite, but the distress caused can be great and often the child is put off dogs for ever. Such children will probably never want a dog as a pet and will therefore miss a valuable experience. Hon. Members have referred to footpaths and grassed areas. I have received many letters complaining bitterly of how children come home from play with dog dirt on their shoes and deposit it on the carpet. The Bill will not solve all the problems, but it will be useful if it solves a few of them.

In some areas dogs raid dustbins. Some are half starved and they develop a technique of knocking off dustbin lids. Some dogs bite their way into bin liners. Some people so neglect their dogs that their barking and whining when they are locked up cause a nuisance to neighbours. A proper dog warden service might help.

As the hon. Member for Kingswood said, the person who buys a licence costs the country money whereas the person who avoids buying a licence saves the country money. Fees bring in about £1 million and cost nearly £2 million to collect. If we do nothing else, we must do something about the crazy licence fee system.

I welcome the Bill, but I regret that its promoter found it necessary to water it down and to omit many of the useful suggestions made by the joint working party. I hope that in Committee we can deal with some of the omissions.

If the message today is that we do not want the scheme to be left to the discretion of local authorities but that we want a national system with a national fee, will the Minister undertake to table the money resolution? I hope that he will not say that the scheme should be operated by local authorities. If it is left to local authorities, that will cause many unnecessary problems. The only people who will be pleased will be local newspaper proprietors who will be guaranteed that regularly they will be able to report a local authority row about the size of the licence fee and pensioners' concessions. If the Minister insists that a national scheme cannot be operated, chaos will ensue.

Living in two parts of the country does not make it easy to look after a dog, but unless there is a national system people who move about the country will be troubled about where to license their dog. It is often difficult to tell which is the main home of an individual who moves about. Would such people have the choice of licensing their dog in the cheapest local authority area? What would happen to people who move? Will they have to obtain a new licence when they move? All those problems could be solved if we had a national licence and national concessions for pensioners. Travel concessions already cause chaos. Do we want a similar chaotic system for dog licensing, with local authorities offering different concessions to pensioners?

The case for a national scheme with national concessions is overwhelming. If the scheme were national the same licence fee could apply for a long time. Most dog owners would be happy to pay a £5 licence fee if they knew that it was to stay at that level for five or six years. They do not want the fee to be £5 this year and for it to go up each year. They want firm assurances that the fee will apply nationally, that it will be at a realistic level and that it will not be pushed up each year. They want an assurance that the money collected will be spent on a dog warden service and on provisions for dogs. They do not want it to be a form of general taxation. We want a guarantee that the Government will fix the fee nationally.

I agree with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) that it would not be difficult to ensure that a plastic tag was attached to a dog's collar. The colour could be changed each year. That would make it easy to see whether a dog was licensed. A licence number could be printed on the tag so that a dog warden who found a stray dog could easily identify the owner of the dog. The name and address of a dog's owner is supposed to be attached to the collar, but I am told that such information is often difficult to read and sometimes not sufficiently comprehensive. A plastic tag of a colour which changed each year and which showed a number would be useful.

The licence should be purchased before possession is taken of a dog. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) talked about street markets. One of the best ways to eliminate the sale of dogs in street markets is to insist that a person has a licence before a dog is bought. It should be the duty of the person selling or giving a dog to check that a licence has been purchased. That would discourage impulse buying on which street market traders rely. We want people to realise that taking on a dog is a responsibility and that it is not a task which will last only five minutes, as happens with most Christmas toys. A person must accept that owning a dog costs money. Having to buy a licence first will ensure that people stop and think that becoming a dog owner is a responsibility.

It is suggested that a person with more than one dog and up to five should pay a licence for each. There is a case for saying that a dog owner should have a multiple licence. Insisting on a licence for each dog would penalise genuine dog lovers and people who showed dogs. Such people usually look after their dogs. We should be legislating for people who do not. I hope that we shall examine the possibility of offering a blanket licence to people who have many dogs. We could double the fee, but I do not think that we should charge £25.

We must consider how long stray dogs should be kept before they are destroyed. Under present legislation a dog must be kept for seven days before it is disposed of. Is that not too long? If a dog has a licence number on its collar the owner can be easily identified. If we reduced the period to five days, that would cut down the cost to the local authority dog warden service. Five days is reasonable. If a person does not know that he has lost his dog after five days, he cannot be looking after it.

We should also be considering the charge for reclaiming a stray dog. The Bill must make it clear that the local authority or any welfare group employed by it can charge the full cost of boarding the dog for the five or seven days until it is reclaimed.

There is also an argument for a small penalty when stray dogs are picked up month after month. I am told by dog wardens that there are, sadly, some owners who regularly kick their dogs out of the back door in the morning and take no further interest in them.

The Bill proposes a £10 fine for not possessing a £5 licence. That ratio is wrong. I am not in favour of high fines, but given a £5 licence fee it would be realistic to have a maximum fine of £25, and possibly £50. I do not expect magistrates always to impose the maximum, but at least the opportunity to do so should be available if they believed it could be afforded. The possibility of a heavy fine would encourage people to purchase licences.

If we have dog wardens it is important to involve them in the education process and not just use them to round up strays. The hon. Member for Kingswood stressed that. Local authorities should be in a position to make grants to groups which demonstrate to people how to train and look after their dogs. There are some extremely good training clubs, some of which do a great deal of work with youngsters to teach them to be responsible dog owners. Dog wardens should work with those groups and possibly the groups should be given financial assistance.

I welcome the Bill. It is long overdue. Much work needs to be done on it in Committee. However, there is a crying need for the proper control of dogs and for reform of the present chaotic system.

10.53 am
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I shall endeavour to be brief as I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery) hopes to have time to introduce his Restrictive Trade Practices (Amendment) Bill.

I welcome the Bill and add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Aspinwall) on his initiative and courage in attempting to do what successive Governments have run away from doing for so long. I say "courage" because it might be felt that the promotion of any Bill that attempted to impose even the remotest limitation on domestic dog owners and their pets—particularly one which enforced the licence and increased the licence fee—was risking votes.

My hon. Friend has nothing to fear. All responsible dog owners will welcome the Bill and be willing to hear the cost of an increase in the licence fee knowing that the present system is nonsense. Dog owners are even more concerned than the rest of us about the large number of stray dogs. More than 200, 000 stray dogs are handled by the police every year, and about 60, 000 have to be destroyed. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) spoke of 40, 000 dogs being destroyed last year by the RSPCA alone.

Miss Fookes

It is important that I correct my hon. Friend. I said that 40, 000 dogs have been found homes by the RSPCA and therefore saved.

Mr. Atkinson

Those are encouraging figures. But about 60, 000 dogs were destroyed by the police last year. That is an appalling figure.

The number of accidents and casualties involving dogs on the roads is also appalling. My hon. Friend said that 1, 600 accidents involving dogs had occurred last year, with 11 people killed and 1, 951 injured.

It is right that the responsibility for stray dogs should be transferred from the police to local authorities and that we should appoint dog wardens. That has the wholehearted support of my local council in Bournemouth. Moreover, it is exactly right that local councillors should decide the level of licence fee to cover the cost of the scheme and in line with local opinion. Once the Bill is enacted, I hope that the Association of District Councils will produce a national code of practice to ensure that there is no great discrepancy in the level of licence fees throughout the country and that it will also produce giudelines to owners on the keeping of dogs.

The interdepartmental working party report published in 1976 considered that all dogs should wear on their collars some form of colour-coded tag or similar identification mark to show that they had been licensed. I wonder why my hon. Friend chose not to include this provision in the Bill. It would be sensible for the warden to be able to know that any stray that he caught was at least licensed, without the necessity to check with the owner as required in paragraph 6 of schedule 1.

I also wonder whether my hon. Friend considered how the Bill could be used to reduce the appalling number of pet dogs and cats which are stolen and sold to laboratories for experimentation.

I noticed a report in the national press last week suggesting that owners should be encouraged to have their dogs tattooed—I hesitate to use the word "branded"—with their owners' post codes. Apparently one of the biggest problems encountered by the police when investigating cases of stolen pets is proof of ownership. An amendment along these lines could reduce the number of pet thefts and, more importantly, the police time spent investigating those thefts.

Of special interest to my constituents and to every visitor to Bournemouth or any other seaside resort is the vexed problem of dogs on beaches. Beaches should not be equated with any other open space such as parkland or woodland where perhaps it is more reasonable for dogs to be free to run, albeit within the control of their owners. Beaches are confined areas and, given a hot weekend, can become completely covered with people in various states of undress. Many of them will be children, and often they will be eating ice cream and other foods. Stray dogs roaming our beaches are a positive menace in those circumstances, and they can be very dangerous. They also excrete, of course, and so constitute a risk to health.

Most dogs are infected by worms. Just how dangerous some of the dog worms can be is not always appreciated. One such roundworm called toxocara carnis can result in the loss of eyesight in children and cause serious diseases of the liver and lungs. Another dog organism is called leptespira conicola. Once that is passed into the urine and a human comes in contact with it, possibly as a result of its being on car wheels, for example, it, too, can cause infection of the liver, kidneys and brain.

Most people will think twice about returning to a beach or seaside resort where they have found to their disgust that they have come in contact with dog dirt. Every holiday resort wants to ensure that its leisure and picnic areas are clean and safe—certainly Bournemouth does. Some years ago, my council attempted to insert a clause in the private Bill to restrict or ban dogs from local beaches throughout the year or for certain parts of the year. It was rejected in another place following Home Office opposition. More recently, the council approached the Home Office seeking approval for a similar byelaw but was told by the Secretary of State that he was willing to consider such a ban only for an enclosed part of a beach such as a children's playground.

The Bill will go a long way to reducing the problem of dogs on beaches. I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood every success.

It being Eleven o'clock, Mr. SPEAKER interrupted proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 5 (Friday sittings).