HC Deb 28 July 1982 vol 28 cc1097-105

'(1) Notwithstanding the terms of subsection (3) of section 43 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1966

  1. (a) the duty payable for a licence under the Dog Licence Act 1959 shall be £5 or such other sum as may be fixed from time to time by the Secretary of State by order, and
  2. (b) subsection (1) of section 2 of the said Act of 1959 shall be amended by the addition of the following "except on change of ownership of the dog, at which time duty shall be payable".

(2) Subsection (1) of section 12 of the said Act of 1959 shall be amended by the substitution of the words "25 pounds or five times the duty determined under section 2(1)(a) hereof, whichever is the greater" for the words "ten pounds".

(3)(a) The District or Islands Council responsible for the issuing of licences in terms of section 7 of the said Act of 1959 shall provide each licence-holder at the time of issuing the annual licence with a tag or identification mark which shall be valid for the currency of the licence with which it is issued.

(b) The said tag or identification mark shall be displayed or worn by the dog by means of a collar at all times when the dog is in a public place; any person in charge of a dog in a public place not displaying or wearing a valid tag or identification mark shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £50.

(c) The District or Islands Council shall make available on demand replacement tags or identification marks at a charge determined by the Council.'.—[Mr. Dewar.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Dewar

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following: New clause 6—Registration of dogs'All dogs will require to be registered and a licence obtained 12 weeks after birth. The dog will also have an identification number indelibly marked on the inside thigh as this area is lacking in pigmentation and would be suitable without causing pain to the dog. This code marker would be applied by a veterinary surgeon and would be recorded on the licence.'. New clause 7—Stray dogs`Each island or district council shall have powers to pass byelaws for the specific purpose of appointing persons or firms with acceptable qualifications who will undertake the duties of catching and removing to a compound, stray dogs, or dogs causing a nuisance or annoyance to the ratepayers and their families, and subject to section 32(2) of the Local Government (Scotland) Act of 1962, the costs of such services shall be met, notwithstanding the terms of subsection (3) of section 43 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, by increasing the duty payable for a Dog licence fee under the Dog Licence Act 1959 to a sum of five pounds per annum. No increase shall be made on the licences for guide dogs, work dogs, and dogs owned by persons over 60 years of age.'.

Mr. Dewar

I now approach somewhat diffidently the problem of dogs and dog licences. This issue invariably gives rise to a great deal of ribald comment and it is somewhat easy to slip into grotesque arguments.

It was common ground in Committee that the control of dogs is a matter of genuine concern in our constituencies, and I certainly receive many representations about that. The clauses that are already in the Bill, which greatly strengthen the position of the local authorities in terms of the Dogs Licence Act 1959, will be welcome. We will come to other amendments which I shall be able warmly to welcome and which will further help with the general problem of control.

I have tabled new clause 4 as an invitation to the Minister to give us a report on the aftermath of the extensive debates in Committee. I do not intend to rehearse exhaustively arguments that were deployed fully in our earlier debates. However, as a courtesy to the House and so that those who wish to read of our proceedings will know the argument, I shall briefly describe the contents of new clause 4. It represents a distillation. I have taken several items from the much more comprehensive reform that was urged on the Minister, largely unsuccessfully, in Committee. The first and most basic suggestion in the new clause is that the dog licence fee should be increased from 37½p to£5.

The House will appreciate that the matter is somewhat controversial and, no doubt, strong views are held. However, it is an indefensible anomaly that a licence fee that was set in 1878 should remain at that level. Would that many more of our costs had done the same. If the 1878 licence fee of 7s. 6d.—37½p—which even predates the office of Secretary of State for Scotland, were brought up to date it would constitute a substantial sum.

Put in the simplest terms, if the fee is left at 37½p it will hardly be worth collecting. Given the inflation that has taken place since the original fee was set, our suggested increase is modest. We propose a licence fee of £5. Some hon. Members may recall that a working party on dogs resulted in a Department of the Environment report being issued in 1976. The Scottish Office was well represented, as were Scottish local authorities. That report suggested a fee of £5 largely on the basis that it would allow for the employment of one dog warden per 50,000 of the population. I do not necessarily suggest that that is the proper basis for the calculation, but the fee of £5 is not unreasonable. Indeed, I am told that if was appropriate in 1976, the figure should probably be more than £9 now. The Minister will recall that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities suggested that the licence fee should be £9. However, £5 is a sensible sum.

It is anomalous that the licence fee should have remained at a purely notional level. I do not wish to suggest that I am generally embracing a Conservative approach to this problem, but Ministers have long urged us to accept that all local authority licensing and planning systems should be self-financing. They have introduced extensive legislation to enforce that view for planning. Therefore, it is ridiculous to leave the fee at such an unrealisic level. I am told that a fee of £5 is being discussed in Northern Ireland. Therefore, there is a precedent and we should consider it.

An increased licence fee would at least allow the bureaucracy—to use that word in a neutral sense—of local government to be self-financing. More important, it might bring home the fact that dog ownership involves certain responsibilities which should be taken seriously. If the dog licence fee remains at its 1878 level, we may well encourage those who adopt a somewhat cavalier approach to the responsibilities of dog ownership.

The second, smaller proposal is that we should update the Dog Licence Act 1959 which states that a dog licence must be obtained when the puppy is six monhs old. We suggest that if the dog is sold, or passes to a new owner before that period is up, the first licence should be obtained then. There is also a penalty if someone does not bother to obtain a dog licence. It is suggested that it should be £25 or five times the current fee, whichever is the greater. That suggestion came from the working party, although the figures have been varied.

The final proposal is that the law should state that dogs should have identification tags on their collars. That is self-evidently sensible. I accept that it may be difficult to enforce, but the present law is extremely unsatisfactory. The report of the working party on dogs states: A dog other than a working dog or hound is required under the present law to have its owner's name and address permanently attached to its collar when it is in a public place. That provision is now honoured almost entirely in the breach. The new clause will, I hope, draw the Minister's attention to the clear need either for restating that provision and trying to enforce it, or for taking it from the statute book altogether. If there is to be some control, it might be better to make some effort towards making the law a reality.

These provisions were extensively debated in Committee. At that time, the Minister did, as always, an extremely pleasant and fairly agile job of stonewalling. He invented some interesting arguments such as that there was no unanimity in the Committee. However, there was almost complete agreement. I believe that the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) was the only hon. Member to believe that we should abolish licences and have no nonsense with them. I find myself in an unlikely, if not unholy, alliance with the hon. Members for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker), Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie), Bute and North Ayrshire (Mr. Corrie) and Aberdeenshire, West (Sir R. Fairgrieve). They all believed that the Government should take some action to bring the present dog licence fee into the land of the living, or at least into the currency of contemporary society. To suggest that there is no unanimity is ingenious, but it hardly bears the most cursory examination.

On 29 June the Minister said: Certainly, I give the hon. Gentleman my assurance that I will clearly express to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the points made in Committee, but it would be unreasonable for me to suggest, in the light of the debate, that I can go any further now."—[Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee, 29 June 1982; c. 850.] Fair enough. However, it was worth tabling the new clause because it has merit in itself and because I know that we can rely on the Minister's word and that he means what he says. Therefore, he will have consulted the Secretary of State and will be in a position to give us a much more definitive and positive statement one way or the other on the Government's intentions.

In that expectation, I commend the new clause to the House, at least for discussion.

Mr. McQuarrie

I listened with considerable interest to the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) on new clause 4. However, new clauses 6 and 7, which stand in my name, seek to rectify a serious problem for all local authorities, which is of the greatest concern to many electors in Scotland. Not only do many thousands of stray dogs roam and foul the streets and play areas, but it is estimated that there are at least 6 million dogs in the United Kingdom, many of which have never been licensed.

It might be of interest to the House to know that in 1980 the total revenue gained from the purchase of dog licences was £800,000, while it cost the Government £1 million to collect it. As the hon. Member for Garscadden pointed out, the main reason for that is that the dog licence fee has not been increased since 1878 and stands at 37½p. In terms of today's purchasing power it is equivalent to £8.50 to £9.50 per annum. It could be left to the Secretary of State to decide what new fee should be charged, while giving exemptions for guide dogs for the blind, work dogs and dogs owned by those aged over 60.

New clause 7 would give an island or district authority the power to pass byelaws for the specific purpose of appointing persons or firms with acceptable qualifications who will undertake the duties of catching and removing to a compound, stray dogs, or dogs causing a nuisance or annoyance to the ratepayers". That would remove a burden from the police, because they usually collect stray dogs at present. The clauses will give island or district authorities the power to create firms that would collect the stray dogs. Small businesses would be created. People could be suitably trained, purchase vans and dog handling equipment and collect the dogs, thus saving the ratepayer money. The cost could be met from the increased fee which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Garscadden.

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As the hon. Gentleman said, in 1974 the Labour Party set up an inter-departmental working party on dog control. Its report was published in 1976, but has never been implemented. That report covered licence fees, fouling and nuisance, road safety, livestock worrying and controls over breeding. It dealt with all the aspects of dog control that affect the public. We know that the Bill that we are discussing has taken cognisance of parts of that report.

The clauses that I have tabled are supported by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It has stated that hundreds of thousands of unwanted dogs are destroyed every year because the homes do not exist for the number of animals that are born. One of the main problems is the number of illegal breeders. I ask the Minister to take cognisance of that factor.

I can give the House the example of an elderly lady who keeps 44 dogs, which include four stud dogs and eight breeding bitches. How many of those dogs are ultimately thrown on to the streets and become strays is unknown, but that is an example of the dog control problems that we must grasp.

Organisations such as the British Small Animal Veterinary Association, the National Canine Defence League, the Petfood Manufacturers Association, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the National Dog Rescue Co-ordinating Committee, the British Veterinary Association, the Kennel Club, the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals and the RSPCA have produced comprehensive reports that cover every aspect of the dog control problem in the United Kingdom. They all ask that the Government should grasp the nettle, which all Governments have failed to do.

It is accepted that any question of dog control is a highly sensitive political issue, but we should not run away from it when it has reached chaotic proportions. The health dangers that are apparent to human beings resulting from diseases transmitted from dogs cannot be underrated. Some form of control must be implemented. A child can give his love to a dog. An adult, particularly one of the 9 million pensioners, can keep a dog as a companion and a watchdog. The guide dog is indispensable to the blind. The handicapped have every reason to be grateful for the affection that a dog can show during a period of loneliness.

On the other hand, having tired of a dog as a pet, many families put their dogs on to the street to wander and gather in packs, which become a danger to the public, roaming wild, injuring people and fouling streets and public areas. The public are entitled to be protected from that. My new clauses would go some way towards giving that protection.

Subsection (3)(b) of the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Garscadden refers to a dog tag, or identification mark. In new clause 6 I have asked that the House should consider that the identification mark should be indelibly marked on the inside thigh as this area is lacking in pigmentation and would be suitable without causing pain to the dog.[Interruption.] This is no joking matter, as the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) seems to think. The clause states further: This code marker would be applied by a veterinary surgeon and would be recorded on the licence. That suggestion was one of the results of the report that was brought out in 1976, which was not implemented. No pain would be caused to the dog. The important factor is that that identifiable mark indelibly placed on the body of the dog would be better than the use of a tag, when someone could undo the dog's collar and take away the dog, causing a problem of identification, when the dog might be considered a stray.

Mr. Norman Hogg

If the dog was kept for breeding purposes and was valuable, would it not be possible for someone to add another letter or numeral to the indelibly printed mark on the thigh, thereby rendering it useless from the point of view of identification of the dog? The hon. Gentleman's suggestion does not seem to provide for proper identification.

Mr. McQuarrie

The mark would be put on by a veterinary surgeon under strict supervision of the district council. Therefore, it would not be possible to superimpose other letters on the identification mark.

Mr. Neil Carmichael (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a £5 licence fee. How much does he think that it would cost a pensioner to have his dog taken to the vet and tattooed? Would not the fees be high?

Mr. McQuarrie

No, Sir. I said that the expenses would be met from the licence fee. I did not say that the fee would be £5. I said that the fee had not increased since 1878 and stands at 37½p. Based on the value of that sum of money in 1878, the fee today should be £8.50 to £9.50. The amount could be set by the Secretary of State in accordance with the powers granted to him under section 43 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1966.

The three new clauses justify the House giving serious consideration to them. The hon. Member for Garscadden was right. The Minister cannot say that there was a difference of opinion in Committee. With the one exception that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Garscadden, there was unanimity that something should be done about the problem. We do not have to be required to wait until the Chancellor of the Exchequer has decided what he wants to do because the Secretary of State for Scotland has the power to increase the cost of the licence.

I ask the House to accept my new clauses. They will mean that at long last the Government will be seen to have had the courage to bring in legislation to control dog problems. The Angus report in 1978, which was brought out by the Scottish Canine Consultative Council, pledged its support to the need for new legislation. The report suggested that the council had the support of all responsible dog owners in Scotland as well as the majority of district councils. The failure of successive Governments fully to grasp the problem justifies my new clauses.

The Minister should take cognisance of this most important factor. When I introduced my Dogs (Miscellanous Provisions) Bill 18 months ago, I received 300 or 400 letters from local authorities and individuals which all supported the Bill. Everyone complained bitterly about the problem of dog control in the United Kingdom, particularly in Scotland. I ask the Minister to give us an assurance that he will take this matter under his wing and accept the new clauses.

Mr. Home Robertson

The hon. Member fur Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie) implied that I was taking his suggestion less than seriously. I make it clear that I—and I am sure other hon. Members on both sides of the House—take this matter seriously. However, I was a little concerned about the practical aspects of the means of identification that he suggested. In my constituency, which includes both urban and rural areas, I am aware of the problems created by stray dogs and dogs, which have owners, but which act as if they were strays. Stray dogs present a danger to traffic, a danger to the health of children in the playground and, as is well known, a major danger to sheep in rural areas. An alarming number of sheep are killed by stray dogs every year. We all hope that rabies will never come to Britain, but in that unhappy event the large number of stray dogs wandering about the countryside and towns could accentuate the problem.

East Lothian district council has taken the matter seriously. It has introduced new byelaws and sought powers to control dogs there. Nevertheless, we always return to the same problem—how will local authorities finance the provision of dog wardens and the administrative services connected with controlling stray dogs in their areas? We return to the Secretary of State for Scotland's statement of a cut of rate support grant in real terms. There is no way that local authorities can be expected to carry out those responsibilities unless they get the funds. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) has presented the House with a serious proposal that would make sufficient funds available to local authorities to administer that type of scheme. I hope that the Minister will respond to it positively.

Mr. Allan Stewart

I accept what has been said about the importance and seriousness of the topic. We debated it fully in Committee. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie) was indisposed then.

I can tell the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) that clause 130, which was originally proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Myles) and which relates to the rural problem, has been widely welcomed.

I shall deal first with dog licensing. I emphasise the point that was rightly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East. The new clauses are not required in order to increase the dog licence fee. As the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East have said, the Secretary of State has powers to amend the provisions of the Dog Licence Act 1959 with respect to the time for payment of duty, the age of a dog and the period for which a licence is to be enforced, in addition to having the power under section 43 of the 1966 Act to increase the licence fee by order.

It has been suggested that funds that are raised by increases in the licence fee could be devoted to the operation of the type of identification system that was advanced by the hon. Member for Garscadden and the operation of the dog warden scheme suggested by the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian. There could be no guarantee that such funds would be used for dog control. The House knows the difficulties, both in principle and in practice, about hypothecation of revenue.

As with our debate in Committee, today's debate has confirmed that there are genuine differences of opinion on procedure. The hon. Member for Garscadden suggested a system of identification tags. That would involve administrative cost. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East suggested a system of tattooing. Opposition Members' response to that system showed that it also involves difficulties.

Mr. Robert MacLennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

The Minister recognises the difficulty of hypothecation, but will he admit that a licence fee that does not cover its own administrative costs—I understand that this is the case with dog licences—is scarcely justifiable and that Goverment action on the matter is necessary?

Mr. Stewart

I confirm that the hon. Gentleman's understanding of the financial position is correct. I had not finished what I intended to say about dog licences.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East has tabled amendments dealing with the rounding up of strays. He will recognise that clause 129 goes a long way to provide local authorities with powers of the type that he regards as desirable. Moreover, clause 130 deals with the problem of dangerous or annoying creatures, including dogs.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East referred to employment and the possibility of private firms assisting with the catching of stray dogs. That is a matter for the councils concerned. I understand that there is a firm that offers such contract services in England.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has fully considered the points that were made in Committee. That was an extremely well informed debate. I hope that the House will recognise the improvements in the control of dogs that the Bill implements, both in urban and in rural areas. New clause 4 is unnecessary, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State already has the power to increase the licence fee.

Mr. McQuarrie

If the Secretary of State has those powers—we know that he has—is there any possibility of his implementing them in accordance with the terms of the Bill?

Mr. Stewart

I was just coming to my hon. Friend's point. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) also made that point. I assure the House that because, as the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland said, the system of dog licensing seems increasingly to be going into deficit in Scotland, we will keep the level of licence fee under review. The new clauses are not necessary in order to increase the fee. There is a wide divergence of view on the issue. I cannot, therefore, go any further than that now.

Mr. Dewar

The Opposition do not wish to push the matter to a Division. That would not be helpful. The Minister has made great play of the fact that new clause 4, or at least that part of it which refers to the amount of licence fees, is unnecessary. That is only so if something will be done about the matter.

The Minister made some cautious comments that were not exactly commitments—that would be over-optimistic—but at least he has assayed the view that the matter will be kept under review and consideration. Perhaps the matter has been under review since 1878. I concede that previous Governments have done nothing about it either. I hope that the Minister will take the review as a positive matter and will conclude it in the foreseeable future.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) was right to say that the problem becomes increasingly farcical as years pass by. Pargraph 16 of schedule 1 is common place enough. It sets out the provisions for the fees for all the other licensing that is being introduced by the Bill. It says: the licensing authority shall seek to ensure that from time to time the total amount of fees receivable by the authority is sufficient to meet the expenses of the authority in exercising their functions". That is now almost standard with almost all the licensing or planning permission systems that the Government regulate or are introducing. It is a startling anomaly that nothing has been done about dog licences.

The problem lies not solely with the level of the fee. Once again the law has fallen into disrepute. The law states that every dog must have the name and address of its owner attached thereto. I do not know how many prosecutions there are in a year for not doing that. I suspect that it is nil. I have never come across such a prosecution.

Without wanting to be too much of a purist, I believe that if the law has laid down an offence with a sanction attached thereto, we should either take it off the statute book or make an effort to update and enforce it. We should not leave it there as lumber, as a standing reproach to anyone who has the energy or interest to refer back to the statute book.

I am prepared to withdraw the new clause. However, everyone will have noted that a review is under way and the Minister may rest assured that his attention will be drawn to it and questions will be asked about its progress as the months go by. The best way for the Minister to dispose of that irritation is to do something about the cause of the complaint. He should bring the review to a reasonably speedy conclusion and introduce the reforms which everyone who has taken part in the debate thinks are long overdue and clearly necessary.

It is not a question of being anti-dog. There are probably more than 6 million dogs in this country. The figure has doubled since the mid-1950s. I accept that dogs are essential and valuable companions to many people. I have been part-owner of a dog—

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Kinross and West Perthshire)

Which part?

Mr. Dewar

I believe in co-operation and the co-operative movement. I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that it was a co-operative dog. I do not take the view that the ownership of dogs should be discouraged. Nevertheless, reform is overdue and I hope that the Minister will not allow the matter to drop from sight.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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