HC Deb 11 June 1986 vol 99 cc472-8

Motion made, and question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Donald Thompson.]

12.55 am
Miss Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)

The House will be aware of my long-standing interest in matters affecting animal welfare, and I rise now to inquire about Government policy on the control of dogs.

The debate has been sparked off by two recent occurrences. The first was the widespread reports that the Government intended to abolish the licence fee for dogs, although I understand that no such decision has yet been made. It was also sparked off by the investigations of the television programme "That's Life" into the scandal of puppy farms.

I would first like to give a brief sketch of the problems relating to dogs and then to give a short summary of the measures that animal welfare groups have taken in the past and also to offer a package of proposals for the Government's urgent consideration.

The scale of the problem of dogs is staggering. It is estimated that there are some 6 million dogs at any one time in Britain and half of those are unlicensed. That is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs, although it is not surprising in view of the very low licence fee of 37p. I am not surprised that the Public Accounts Committee has commented on the absurdity of that, as it is costing far more—about £3 million more—to collect the licence fee than the revenue obtained.

The problem of stray dogs is especially distressing. I am closely linked with the RSPCA and the National Canine Defence League. I also know a fair amount about the work of Battersea dogs home and the work of local cats and dogs homes in Plymouth. According to the latest annual report, the RSPCA dealt with 103,000 abandoned or stray dogs. However, the RSPCA estimates that that is a measly 20 per cent. of the full number of such unfortunate animals. Half the cruelty cases dealt with by the RSPCA inspectors relate to dogs.

The stories that we hear about abandoned dogs are heart-rending and it is unfair to expect the animal welfare societies to put so much time, effort and money into a problem which the Government ought to tackle. However, apart from the dogs themselves there is the problem caused by dogs that are out of control and which cause a nuisance in society. That problem is especially worrying when it affects livestock. The National Farmers Union has recently suggested that there are about 10,000 cases a year of livestock which are killed or seriously injured by the depredations of dogs out of control — for example, in sheep worrying. There is also the problem of the fouling of pavements, beaches and parks, which understandably causes public outrage.

I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has embarked on a campaign against litter. I suggest that dog fouling is a particularly offensive form of litter and my right hon. Friend would undoubtedly welcome any enforcement of the law on fouling.

There is also over-production of puppies, often in horrendous conditions. That was the subject of the "That's Life" programme. Miss Rantzen has been kind enough to send me a dossier, which I will pass on to my hon. Friend the Minister, outlining some of the cases which were seen on the programme. I am told that, following the programme on puppy farms, hundreds of letters and telephone calls were received from viewers—some 500 by the time that I received the dossier, but I gather that more were coming in each day.

Today newspaper has also made its own investigations, which would repay further study by the Minister. Many people have bought puppies from puppy farms, only to find that the poor little creatures are very sick and have a miserable and short life. They frequently die, perhaps after the owners have spent a great deal of money on veterinary bills. Many of the problems arise from the non enforcement of the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973. It ought to be tightened up. On re-reading it, I noticed that local authorities, which are responsible for licensing breeding establishments, may inspect them. I suggest that they should have a duty to inspect them before a licence is granted and that there should be far more follow-up visits than there appear to be.

No longer do we want dogs to be subjected to so much disease and infection and the likelihood of being separated from their mothers far too soon. Anyone who, like me, saw the Esther Rantzen programme will have been horrified by the details that were revealed. They were familiar to me as I work in animal welfare, but I think that, for many members of the public, it was a terrifying insight into the difficult conditions in which some animals are born into the world.

The problem is not new. In 1973, so difficult were the problems relating to dogs that an organisation which rejoices in the name of JACOPIS—the Joint Advisory Committee on Pets in Society—was set up. It produced a comprehensive report in 1975, which was followed by a report by the Department of the Environment in 1976 which bore a remarkable resemblance to the proposals made by JACOPIS. There was an attempt at a private Member's Bill in 1982, and conditions in Northern Ireland were so serious that the Government introduced an order at the end of 1983 which contained many of the principles which were advocated by JACOPIS.

The efforts that have gone into producing a different set of proposals for dealing with dogs have quite a long history. I hope that the Government will not suggest that they need much more time to consult, investigate and the rest — the standard excuse for doing nothing. Forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I sound a little cynical, but one gets used to Governments saying that they need more time when they are trying not to make any decision at all.

I should like now to consider the package of proposals which I should like the Government to adopt. The control of stray dogs and the law relating to dogs generally should be placed entirely in the hands of local authorities, and not with the police, who have other and more important tasks than dealing with stray dogs. There should be a mandatory dog warden system in each district. The duties of dog wardens would not be simply the obvious ones such as dealing with strays. They would include advising the public of their duties, being generally helpful and ensuring that the law is enforced, including that concerning the fouling of footways.

To make that possible, there should be a substantial increase in the present ridiculous licence fee. Although the Public Accounts Committee wishes to end the fee entirely, I believe that it should be increased to £5 or £10. The licence would have to be bought on the acquisition of the dog or when the dog reached the age of four months, whichever is the sooner. It is important to stop impulse buying, and if the acquisition of the licence must come at that point, and it costs substantially more than it does now, it might deter people from buying animals without sufficient thought. As one welfare society says, one has a dog not simply for Christmas, but for life.

Furthermore, it would be desirable to reduce the licence fee for any animal that was spayed or neutered to discourage the overproduction of animals and thus reduce the stray dog population. The Government might wish to consider exemptions for working dogs or for needy retirement pensioners. That would be possible under the scheme that I suggest. As a means of enforcement, I suggest that every dog should wear a disc, which would be not only a form of identification but a sign that the licence fee had been paid. It could even be colour-coded so that one could see at a glance whether the licence was current or out of date.

If sufficient funds were available through an increased licence fee, one could ask local authorities to undertake much more inspection of breeding establishments, pet shops, puppy supermarkets and the like, and enforce the conditions which exist theoretically, on paper, but which are too often flouted, as we saw from the "That's Life" programme.

I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to give me definitive answers on all those points tonight, much though I would wish it. But I must tell him that the patience of the animal welfare organisations with which I am connected is running out, and my patience is nearly at an end, because we have made constructive proposals for many years but still the Government are stalling. For this purpose, it does not matter whether they are Labour or Conservative Governments. Both have been united in shilly-shallying and failing to take positive decisions.

I hope that the Government will give serious and urgent thought to the points that I have made in this brief debate, remembering the long history of decisions made by the animal welfare organisations about what might be practical and prudent. My request is in no way unreasonable. It is clear that we have a serious problem of too many dogs coming into the world, many of them leading a miserable existence, and the welfare societies almost having to clear up the mess that should be dealt with by the Government.

Britain is still free from the dread threat of rabies, but it must be an ever-present worry to all those concerned with the disease. It would be far easier to cope with rabies if we had fewer animals wandering round unwanted and if there were far greater controls through licensing and enforcement and a proper dog warden service. I hope that, if nothing else, it will make the Government think carefully about the proposals that I have made, which I warmly commend to my hon. Friend and to the House.

1.9 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

I begin by paying tribute to the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) has done, both in the House and outside, for animal welfare. She has been a prominent member of the parliamentary animal welfare group and also a past chairman of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. As she referred to tonight, she is also vice-president of the Joint Advisory Committee on Pets in Society, which brings together many important and influential organisations with an interest in the control and welfare of dogs. Dog owners, dog interests and indeed dogs are fortunate to have such a formidable champion available to them. My hon. Friend has put forward this evening an eminently sensible manifesto, which is no less than I would have expected from her.

I apologise to my hon. Friend for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Mordern (Mrs. Rumbold), who takes a particular interest in canine matters within the Department. She has slipped her leash and is in Luxembourg for a European Community Council of Ministers meeting. Indeed, all Ministers in my Department who have any interest in dogs seem to have fled the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey), the Minister with responsibility for sport, who I assume looks after greyhounds, is in Mexico, where his presence has had the desired stimulus on the English football team, and the Minister for Environment, Countryside and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), is also in Europe.

I make it clear at the outset that the Government have taken no final decision on the future of dog licensing. My hon. Friend the Member for Drake referred to speculation in the press a few weeks ago that the Government intended to abolish the licence. That is one possible course open to us, but I stress that a final decision has yet to be made and before we do so we shall consider carefully what my hon. Friend has said tonight.

I understand my hon. Friend's feeling of impatience, indeed cynicism, at the length of time that it has taken to reach a decision on the future arrangements for the licence. There is, as my hon. Friend said, a large measure of consensus between a number of the very influential bodies concerned with dogs, their welfare and control. However, as the failure of successive Governments to take any action perhaps shows, it is not that simple.

The path ahead is not free of hazards and the Government are anxious not to tread on them. The issues are indeed complex and span the responsibilities of a number of Departments. Some of the courses involve primary legislation, which might be time-intensive and we are anxious to find the right conclusion before we embark on that process.

The arguments are not about the end to be achieved but about the means to achieve a happier co-existence between dogs and society. It is easy for the arguments to be seen in terms of dog-lovers against dog-haters. In fact, few people, whether or not they are fond of dogs, would deny that owning a dog can bring benefits in terms of companionship, comfort and security, particularly to those living alone and to the elderly. It can add a new and enjoyable dimension to family life and teach children a sense of responsibility to dependants. Dogs have an important role to play in the police, sniffing out drugs and explosives, and they are of benefit to the blind and the deaf.

On the other side, there are those who are concerned about dog nuisance. They are in fact concerned about the irresponsible owner who allows his dog to stray, to hark for long periods, to foul public places or to run uncontrolled intimidating others, or who keeps a large dog in a city in a restricted space and with inadequate exercise.

It is the same irresponsible owner who causes suffering and distress to his dog. The strays that my hon. Friend talked about are frequently not well-cared-for animals. The real villain of the piece is the unthinking, uncaring owner. It has been said with some justification that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners.

What are the options? As my hon. Friend has said, the current licensing arrangements are absurd. The Government bear the Post Office's charge for issuing licences, which in England and Wales amounts to some £3.5 million and substantially exceeds the revenue that local authorities receive of about £0.9 million. On the grounds of financial prudence alone, some change is clearly called for.

We acknowledged that in our consultation paper. The criticism has been made, as my hon. Friend said, by the Public Accounts Committee and the Select Committee on the Environment and we said in our paper, that the present situation does not allow any Government who value good administration to do nothing.

We issued a consultation paper which set out three main options — a simple increase in the licence fee, giving local authorities discretion and the abolition of the licence. The response was not conclusive.

Many organisations and individuals have argued to us, as my hon. Friend has, that an increased licence fee would provide funds for local authorities to devote to dog welfare and control measures. Our postbag leaves us in little doubt of the strong feelings which many people have about the dirt, nuisance and fright which can be caused by dogs which are not properly controlled, and my hon. Friend highlighted concern about the welfare of strays.

On the other side of the argument, there are those who feel that it would be wrong for individual dog owners to bear the financial burden of dog control. They argue that the vast majority of dog owners are responsible, care for their pets properly, and prevent them from being a nuisance to others. It is a minority, who would not in any case purchase a licence at a higher cost than at present, who are irresponsible. Some suggest that the number of strays might even increase, were there a higher licence fee, since more dogs would be abandoned. The value of a dog as a companion or protector carries with it the suggestion that some groups might find the cost of a higher licence fee particularly difficult to find, and my hon. Friend suggested some exemptions.

The message to emerge is that there is real concern about the control and welfare of dogs. What is not so clear is how the Government might best tackle these problems and bring to an end the absurdity. My hon. Friend put forward one strategy tonight. We are aware of the views of the joint advisory committee which she has outlined. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden will shortly have the benefit of meeting a deputation from the advisory committee to hear the views of its constituent organisations at first hand. It would be completely wrong not to take seriously the experience and wisdom of those in the front line of caring for dogs, such as local authorities, vets and the RSPCA, which do such important work in dealing with strays and in many other fields.

However, the thought I wish to leave with my hon. Friend is that a higher licence fee is not the only way in which concern about control of dogs and dog nuisance can be met. The Government would need to reflect carefully before abolishing the licence without taking some positive steps to ensure that local authorities and other agencies can carry out the valuable work they already perform in relation to dogs. The importance attached to this by local authorities is shown by the number—almost 200—which already provide a dog warden service for important educational as well as enforcement purposes. I understand that they would welcome the additional revenue that an increased licence fee would provide.

However, there are administrative costs with any licensing system and it can he argued that scarce resources should not be diverted from tackling the problems directly by educating owners in their responsibilities and dealing with the consequences of the irresponsible minority's thoughtlessness. I repeat that no decision on the future of licensing has yet been taken. However, we shall not ignore the concern about dog nuisance when we come to that decision.

My hon. Friend mentioned the fouling of parks, pavements and so on. As I represent an urban constituency. I am aware that this is a genuine issue. It has been estimated that a dog population of 6 million produces 1 million gallons of urine and 1,000 tonnes of faeces daily.

There are already substantial powers available to local authorities for controlling the nuisance and annoyance that dogs can cause. My right hon. Friend, the Home Secretary is the confirming authority for such byelaws. At present a district or borough council can make byelaws which make it an offence for a person to allow his dog to foul footways or designated grass verges. Many authorities have adopted those byelaws.

Byelaws may also be used to ban dogs from enclosed recreation grounds which are in need of special protection, such as children's play areas, sports pitches and ornamental gardens. There are also bans which apply to certain areas of the beach during the summer months. These byelaws are carefully examined before they are approved to ensure that dog owners are not unfairly discriminated against.

A further power which is at the moment under examination is the so-called "poop-scoop" byelaw, which requires owners to clear up after their dogs when they foul public places. A pilot scheme has been running since September last year in four areas including, appropriately, the London borough of Barking, to test the effectiveness of the byelaws. The results are encouraging. Final conclusions cannot be drawn until the end of the trial period in September and then the Home Office will examine the working of the scheme and publish a report. If, as seems likely, the byelaws prove successful, it should be possible to offer these powers to other local authorities.

My hon. Friend mentioned puppy farms and I was distressed to hear her account of the poor conditions in which dogs are apparently being kept and sold by certain establishments covered by the That's Life programme and this week in the newspaper Today. The regulation of breeding and pet-selling establishments is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and I shall call to his attention the dossier my hon. Friend mentioned in her speech. I understand that so-called puppy farms will be subject to local authority licensing under either the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973 or the Pet Animals Act 1951.

The Breeding of Dogs Act requires that any person keeping more than two bitches for the purpose of breeding for sale should be licensed by the local authority which must satisfy itself that certain standards of health, welfare and accommodation are met. Any person running a business selling animals as pets must also be licensed by the local authority under the Pet Animals Act 1951. Appropriate conditions can be attached to a licence, which may include a condition about the age at which animals may be sold. That is a major concern in the cases to which my hon. Friend has referred.

There are extensive powers of entry and inspection in relation to premises covered by the Acts I have mentioned and I suggest that anyone who has reason to believe that dogs are being reared and kept in had conditions should. take up the matter with his local authority. As a further safeguard, the Protection of Animals Act 1911 makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any domestic or captive animal. I can well understand the widespread concern that these reports have caused, and will ensure that my hon. Friend's comments are relayed to my colleagues at the Home Office. Our view is that legislation provides suitably flexible controls over the breeding and sale of dogs, but we shall look at the suggestion by my hon. Friend that "may" might be replaced by "shall".

My hon. Friend spoke about strays. Responsibility for strays rests with the police and my hon. Friend suggested that the matter should be transferred to local authorities. The many and varied demands on police manpower and resources today mean that the police are not always able to give this as high a priority as they, and we, would wish. However, this is a matter for each chief officer of police who has operational responsibility in his force area. Voluntary organisations also play an important role in dealing with strays, as my hon. Friend knows. The requirement in the Control of Dogs Order 1930 for a dog on a highway or public place to wear a collar with the address of the owner inscribed on the collar or an attached plate can be a help in tracing owners.

If I am unable to deal with all the matters raised by my hon. Friend, such as livestock worrying and attacks on people, and rabies, I shall write to her. My hon. Friend mentioned Northern Ireland, where there is a £5 licence fee. We have, of course, kept in touch with experience of these arrangements, but it has long been recognised that the situation in the Province, especially in relation to strays and livestock worrying, is more serious than in Great Britain. I do not think it necessarily follows that what is appropriate for Northern Ireland is appropriate elsewhere.

I also appreciate my hon. Friend's interest in the possible role of a licensing system if an outbreak of rabies should occur. I am advised that dog licensing would have little or no relevance to the actions which would have to be applied in the event of a rabies incident here. We have drawn up contingency plans to deal with this. As I say, my understanding is that although it is under review, a licensing system is not of direct application.

My hon. Friend's concern about dog licensing may well have been heightened rather than allayed by what I have said. I can give her the assurance that the Government are fully apprised of the points she has made and of the widespread anxiety that undoubtedly exists about dog control. I hope that it will be possible to announce a decision about dog licensing in the very near future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty three minutes past One o'clock.