HC Deb 22 May 1991 vol 191 cc945-58 4.27 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

With permission, I would like to make a statement about dangerous dogs.

As we are all aware, there have been a number of recent attacks by dogs which have left their victims very badly injured. The first of those was the horrific attack on 8 May by two pit bull terriers on Mr. Frank Tempest, which has left him with severe facial and other injuries. The second was an attack on a two-year-old child by a pit bull terrier owned by her grandparents. The third incident, which took place last Saturday, left a six-year-old Bradford girl, Rucksana Khan, very seriously injured. The whole House will wish to join me in expressing sympathy for the victims of those dreadful attacks and our wishes for their recovery. Those most recent attacks were of a different degree of seriousness altogether from the great majority of dog-biting incidents.

All three were carried out by American pit bull terriers. The American pit bull terrier is a cross-breed dog, specifically bred for fighting and, in many cases, trained to be aggressive. As has been tragically shown, it is capable of vicious and sustained assault without warning or provocation. Once a pit bull terrier has started an attack, it has been shown to be impossible for full-grown adults to prevent the dog from causing horrific injuries.

The public are increasingly concerned about attacks by those vicious dogs and are entitled to look to the Government to take action to tackle the problem. I have therefore decided to bring before the House as soon as possible this Session legislation which will ban the breeding and ownership of pit bull terriers and other dogs bred especially for fighting. Also included in the ban will be the Japanese tosa, a dog bred for fighting which, apparently, can weigh up to 17 stone. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, we have taken action to ban the import of those dogs, as from midnight last night.

I emphasise that the ban will initially apply only to those breeds of fighting dogs, but it is clearly important to prevent new and dangerous breeds coming in to replace dogs which have been banned from domestic ownership. I understand that there are three other possible breeds in the world today.

The legislation will therefore include powers to add other types of fighting dogs to those which are banned.

It is essential to rid the country of the danger from such dogs. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in the House yesterday, they have no place in our homes. Owners of those fighting dogs may be able to return them to their country of origin.

It has been put to me that it would be possible to make those dogs safe by neutering them. I am advised that that policy is unlikely to be effective. I am ready to consider further evidence on that point with experts, including the veterinary profession. If that will not be effective, the ban on dogs bred for fighting will mean, sadly, that those types of dogs have to be put down.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the veterinary profession have also suggested that there could be some specific and very tightly drawn exemptions to the ban, and I will be considering that suggestion. I am also considering the question of compensation for owners whose dogs are destroyed.

There were many attacks by dogs last year. The types of dogs responsible for those attacks are numerous, and include breeds such as alsatians, rottweilers, terriers and collies. Many of those attacks, unfortunately, can be laid at the door of irresponsible owners. The Government have always recognised that. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1989 made the law to control dogs more effective. Courts can now guarantee the destruction of any dog which has shown itself to be dangerous and, as a result, it is quickly put down. That is an important step forward.

Last year, the Government issued a consultation paper on the control of dogs and proposed a number of measures to bring about the safer control of dogs and powers to penalise the irresponsible owner. The response to the consultation paper shows an encouraging measure of support for such action. That includes a tougher criminal offence to penalise dog owners, whatever the breed, who fail to keep their dogs safely under control in public, as well as a power to allow a court to specify the control of a particular dog of any type. That could include muzzling.

The Leader of the Opposition indicated in the House yesterday that the Opposition would co-operate in getting such measures on to the statute book as quickly as possible. I hope that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) will confirm that in his response today.

Dogs, Mr. Speaker, can provide companionship, friendship and comfort, and they do that for many people, but there is a clear distinction in the public's mind between the domestic pet and a dog that is bred to fight and kill. I hope that our proposals to ban those most dangerous of dogs will therefore command the full support of the House and pass quickly into law.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

May I first join the Home Secretary in offering the Opposition's sympathy for the victims of dog attacks—about 10 a month—who have suffered over the past two years, particularly those to whom our attention was drawn this afternoon? May I go on to welcome the proposal to ban the import of specified categories of vicious dogs and the Government's intention to legislate for the prohibition of their ownership?

The Home Secretary will not be surprised to receive our support for a policy to reduce the number of attacks by such dogs. During the Committee proceedings on the Environmental Protection Bill in March 1990, the Opposition made comprehensive proposals that covered all that he has said today. Those proposals were rejected by the Government and voted down despite Opposition support.

The Home Secretary asked for the Opposition's specific agreement to facilitate the passage of necessary legislation. Of course he has that assurance. The problem is that none of us can be clear what the Home Secretary means by the intentionally imprecise phrase "such legislation", other than the specific ban on a limited number of species. Other action is necessary, but the Home Secretary simply says that there may be legislation providing tougher penalties for owners whose dogs are not kept under proper control. He says that there could be a law requiring muzzling.

Today's statement was disappointingly vague, and will be seen as inadequate by all who have already complained that the Government are not acting with sufficient speed or resolution. This is no time for doubt or prevarication. With 10 serious attacks taking place each month, action is urgently needed, and I shall tell the right hon. Gentleman what that should include, in addition to the general prohibition announced today.

Of course, the responsibility for preventing attacks must lie with the dog's owners. My questions are about the Home Secretary's willingness, or will, to take the necessary action to ensure that dog owners behave responsibly.

First, will the right hon. Gentleman introduce stringent safety rules requiring all owners of potentially dangerous dogs to keep them in secure conditions and to allow them into public places only under such control that the safety of the public is assured? That must usually mean their being kept on leads and muzzled.

Secondly, does the right hon. Gentleman understand that there are some breeds of dog which, although they are occasionally dangerous, it would be wrong to prohibit altogether? Nevertheless, we believe that there must be some safety standards for their ownership, so I ask the Home Secretary to introduce substantial penalties for any infringement of the safety rules that I have described. Will he provide the necessary resources to ensure that those rules are enforced?

Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman place an obligation on owners of specified potentially dangerous breeds to take out third party insurance cover so that those whom such dogs damage can be compensated? In one other respect, the right hon. Gentleman was less than precise. Why are rottweilers not to be included in the prohibited category? They are often advertised as having an aggressive temperament, and in the past they have been responsible for vicious attacks. One was responsible for an attack on two police officers only yesterday.

Finally, the Home Secretary knows that virtually all authorities on the care and control of dogs insist that protection and prohibition cannot work successfully without the introduction of a national registration scheme. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Such a scheme would be good for the welfare of dogs as well as for the protection of human beings. It would reduce the number of dogs obtained casually and callously abandoned within a few days. It would enable the Government effectively to enforce their other proposals. Why does the Home Secretary object so much to the idea? He was a great enthusiast for a register of people so as to implement the poll tax; why should we not have a register of dogs to protect the welfare of animals and the safety of citizens?

Mr. Baker

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the broad thrust of what I have said about our proposals to deal with fighting dogs. I understand that he believes in and supports our proposal to prohibit not only import but ownership. I welcome that.

I welcome, too, the right hon. Gentleman's support on other matters relating to general legislation on dogs, and I should make it clear that I intend the Bill to make it a criminal offence. with a severe penalty, to have a dog dangerously out of control in a public place. That would apply to all breeds. I also hope that the Bill will clear up the definition of the word "control" and allow the courts specifically to require muzzling of certain dogs in some circumstances. That can be effectively policed. I hope that we can agree on those matters, too.

The right hon. Gentleman specifically asked about compulsory insurance. I have some sympathy with the idea, and I understand that many household insurance policies cover injuries caused by owners' dogs. However, measures relating to insurance may be rather more complicated than the other measures, and may not be ready in time for the Bill, which I hope to introduce shortly after Whitsun. I do not rule out the idea for further legislation.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether rottweilers should be included. In defining the group of dangerous dogs bred to fight and kill, I sought to draw a clear distinction between such dogs and other dogs. Rottweilers are not bred to fight and kill. Of course, I discussed the matter with the Kennel Club, the RSPCA and the veterinary associations yesterday. They said that there was a clear distinction between dogs bred over decades, or in some cases centuries, to fight and kill, and other pedigree dogs.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman argued again for registration, and I believe that a scheme will be in the Labour manifesto when the election comes. I do not believe that a general registration scheme would have had any effect on the dreadful incident last weekend. If that dog had been registered for £5 and had had a computer number on its collar, it would not have been prevented from attacking that little girl. Moreover, the argument for a registration scheme is that it would identify the owner with the dog. In all the recent incidents, the identification of the owner has not been the problem. The owners have been known in each case.

I am glad that I shall have the support of the right hon. Member and the Labour party on much of the legislation, although I cannot agree with the right hon. Gentleman on his last point.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I draw to the attention of the House the fact that there are 27 groups of amendments to be debated on the subsequent Bill and that there is an order after that. I shall allow questions on this matter to continue until 5.15 pm. I ask those hon. Members who are called to be brief because it will enable as many hon. Members as possible to be included.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

While expressing our sympathy to the victims of these appalling attacks and welcoming the Government's proposed ban on two species of fighter dogs, does not the Home Secretary recognise that, in proposing his Bill in such vague and uncertain terms, he betrays the Government's unwillingness to tackle the problem of dangerous dogs at root? He has not even made it plain that, in respect of the two breeds to be banned, he is prepared to take the advice of those who say that neutering would be adequate.

Why has the Home Secretary set his face against measures more comprehensive than those which will apply to the two breeds? Of the 465 cases of serious dog attacks in the metropolis of London in the past year, only 111 were by American pit bull terriers. The Home Secretary may believe that it is adequate to tackle a quarter of the problem, but many people in Britain will feel that the Government are falling sadly short.

Mr. Baker

The measures that I have announced represent a comprehensive package affecting all breeds of dogs. The measures on dogs which are out of control in a public place and on control orders involving muzzling of specific dogs have the strong support of the Kennel Club and the RSPCA.

The hon. Gentleman asked why I did not take the advice that the specified families of dangerous dogs should simply be neutered. I have discussed the matter with the various interests. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that, if dogs can be made safe by neutering, I shall be prepared to consider it. However, my advice is that a neutered dog can be just as vicious.

The important point to appreciate about pit bull terriers and other cross-breeds is that they are completely unpredictable. That marks them out from other dogs. They can be friendly and docile one minute and complete killers the next. After the last three incidents, the owners said, "Our dog could not possibly have done that. It was friendly." I shall, of course, consider neutering, but I would have to be satisfied that it would secure safety.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the words of Mr. Roger Mugford, one of the most highly regarded animal psychologists in Britain and a writer on dogs. He said: All pit bulls go bad—it is just a countdown from when they are 12 months old.

Mr. Robert Hayward (Kingswood)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of a tragic case in my constituency last year. When the case ultimately came to court, the magistrate did not order the destruction of the dog, even though the hospital had to place 100 stitches in a young girl's face and upper body. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, in the legislation and in his discussions with the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General, magistrates are given strict and clear guidelines that dogs should be destroyed in such tragic cases?

Mr. Baker

I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern about that incident. He has seen me about it. It would be wrong for me as Home Secretary or, I suspect, for the Lord Chancellor to comment on the sentence passed by a court. However, I am sure that the fact that he has mentioned it in the House will be noticed by many people.

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

I welcome the Home Secretary's statement this afternoon, especially as two of the items in it were clearly addressed in early-day motion 840, which I tabled before the three tragic accidents last weekend. May I go further with the Home Secretary and reiterate what my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said about a dog registration scheme? I shall certainly support today's announcement when it is translated into a Bill. However, it does not go nearly far enough. It does not address other problems with dogs in society, which the Home Secretary must tackle.

We need a comprehensive Dogs Act and a neutering programme, we must stop puppy farming and we must engage in an exercise to promote responsible dog ownership. That can be done only through a dog registration scheme. Only the fossilised remains who run the Kennel Club are opposed to such a scheme. Every other organisation in the land which has the welfare of animals and especially dogs at heart is in favour of a scheme. We shall have a scheme in Britain. If the Home Secretary is not forced by the political consequences of the dithering that has taken place to introduce a scheme before the general election, we shall introduce one after it.

Mr. Baker

I will say to the hon. Gentleman what I said to the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook. I do not believe that, if a registration scheme had been in operation, it would have had any effect on the recent incidents. Many of the owners of these breeds of dog would pay scant regard to registration. I must be frank with the House on that. When I talk to police forces about some of the people who own such dogs, they tell me that such people would not register. I appreciate that the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook would try to enforce this scheme, but I remind him that, in the Republic of Ireland, where there is a dog registration scheme, in spite of attempts to enforce it, the authorities have managed to register only a third of dogs so far.

Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement today. He may not be aware of a recent case in my constituency in Yardley Wood, in which a young girl was severely attacked by the family pet, which was not one of the dangerous breeds that he has specified. The attack happened while the dog was being fed. Therefore, I welcome the emphasis that my right hon. Friend has placed on responsible ownership. I hope that he will do all that he can further to promote responsible ownership of dogs.

Mr. Baker

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. Fortunately, the great majority of dog owners are responsible. One can never exclude the possibilities of incidents in the home with any sort of dog. One only hopes that the dog has been trained by the owner to ensure that incidents do not take place.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Does the Home Secretary accept that his announcement is welcome but belated? If it were not for Rucksana Khan's tragic accident, the Government would not have taken action, despite a long list of similar accidents. Why does not the Home Secretary take immediate action to add such breeds as rottweilers and dobermans, which are also responsible for serious accidents, to the schedule of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976? That would immediately give powers to local authorities to license owners, inspect premises and ensure that proper standards are maintained, bearing in mind public safety.

Why does not the Home Secretary ensure that the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 and the provisions of the Animal Health Act 1981 on muzzling are enforced as a matter of urgency, rather than wait for the legislation to come to the House, when a dozen more accidents might take place in the meantime?

Mr. Baker

The hon. Gentleman has not studied it in enough detail. If he had studied the Act a little more carefully, he would have discovered that canus familiaris is specifically excluded from the Act. Therefore, I could not designate certain dogs. That is the reason why we are introducing a measure to identify a group of dogs. We cannot call them a breed. They are a species of dogs and a series of cross-breeds that have to be defined as carefully as we can to ensure that we cover them properly and make sure that the courts will be able to take action against them. One thing that is agreed between the RSPCA, the Kennel Club, the British Veterinary Association and ourselves is that we want those types of dogs to be removed from our society permanently. They made that very clear to me yesterday. What we are examining is the way in which that can be done.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

My right hon. Friend will have heard the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) criticise the Government earlier this afternoon for not introducing a Bill next week. Those of us on this side of the House who are members of the all-party animal welfare group are heartily relieved that my right hon. Friend is not adopting a populist or knee-jerk reaction. We are very grateful for the level of consultation that has taken place so far. May we hope that that consultation will continue, that the level of flexibility that has already been shown will continue and that my right hon. Friend will be open to suggestions before the Bill is brought before the House?

Mr. Baker

I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue to consult the various dog interests. I had useful and interesting meetings with them yesterday. As I have already said, there is an identity of interest. It was clear that the RSPCA, the Kennel Club and the British Veterinary Association want to see the elimination of these dogs from our country. They do not want them. It is a question of how we achieve that. They do not want them because these dogs are unpredictable. They can be very gentle one moment and killers the next. We cannot judge their behaviour in future by their behaviour in the past. We have made it very clear that we want to achieve the same objective.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, South-East)

As a Bolton girl was involved in one of these incidents, I join those hon. Members who have expressed sympathy for the relatives and for all those who have been injured in these attacks. How does the Minister propose to deal with crossbreeding? Does he accept that, although we would agree to the putting down of animals, it ought to be a measure of last resort?

How does the Minister propose quickly to make this a criminal offence so that people have easy redress? It is bad dog owners who are responsible. We can put down the dogs but not the owners. If the Minister does not intend to have dog registration, does he accept that people who own potentially dangerous dogs that are not on his list should register them at the police station, in the same way as lethal weapons are registered?

Mr. Baker

By identifying these dogs and putting them into this category, one would be eliminating these types of dog. Those who favour neutering will realise that that is the end of the species; if the dogs are all neutered there can be no future puppies. I have already said that I will examine all this, but it would inevitably lead to a large number of dogs being put down. I must ask the House to remember how vicious and deadly these dogs can be. They are trained to fight and to kill. The pit bull terrier has a pressure in its head of 1,000 lb per square inch. It can pull several weights weighing several thousand pounds. They are trained to do that by chasing live cats that are then fed to them.

Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that he moved with commendable speed— I must confess almost electric, in Home Office terms, in being able to do so quite so quickly? Will he advise on whether or not the problem about bringing an owner to prosecution is affected by the fact that the dog itself has been destroyed? I understand that, if the dog is destroyed, no proceedings can be brought against the owner. Can that be put right?

Mr. Baker

If a dog is destroyed under the changes that we propose to make, and if the owner is found to have been guilty of having it dangerously out of control in a public place, proceedings will be taken against the owner. It is always possible, of course, for civil actions to be brought against owners, if negligence can be proved.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

Does the Home Secretary realise that, although he has named breeds of dog, his real problem is not breeds of dog but types of dog that are bred with the blood lust in them to kill? How will he deal with that problem if he has to go to the court with each individual dog to get that dog muzzled? Surely the only sensible way to deal with the problem is to have a licensing authority that has the power either to grant or to deny a licence to keep a particular dog. Such a licence should not be granted for any dog unless the owner also has insurance against the damage that the dog might cause.

Mr. Baker

As I said, we are dealing with a particular group of dangerous fighting dogs. It is not a question of licensing them and letting them go on. The dog interests in the country clearly want these types of dog to be removed from our society. That is the purpose and the intention. The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point about definition. All dogs are of the same species. It is not possible to determine the type of dog by a method such as DNA fingerprinting. The existence of pedigree allows us to distinguish certain breeds, but the cross-breeds are very difficult to define scientifically or legally.

I have consulted experts about the definition. We plan to specify in the ban the type of dog commonly known as the pit bull terrier and the Japanese tosa, together with other dogs that appear to have been bred for fighting. I believe that these definitions can be made to stand up. We shall also take powers in the Bill to ensure that they can be tightened up should scientific knowledge in this area change and should it become easier to define dogs.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

As a former breeder and show judge of great Danes— [Interruption.] I know that we all look like our pets, but do not be rude to me— and also as a former boarding kennel owner, may I say that the vast majority of the big breeds have lovely natures? It is only a tiny minority that are bred by irresponsible breeders. Bona fide breeders will not use bad temperament in their breeds to produce puppies. I am sure that the Home Secretary has heard that from the Kennel Club.

In the case of the pit bull terrier, we are talking about exterminating the complete breed. Whether we call it a breed or a species, we have a problem. Some of the pit bull terriers will be used to produce half-breeds and three-quarter-breeds. It will take an expert to decide whether it is a pit bull terrier. Notwithstanding that fact, I honestly feel that, because some of those dogs are real pets and have been with their families for many years, we ought to give their owners a reasonable time to find homes for them in countries where it is not illegal to have them. That would be a humane approach. We should not give them too long, but they ought to be given long enough, if we are to be humane.

Mr. Baker

I had not appreciated that my hon. Friend was a big breeder. [Laughter] I said "breeder". I have some sympathy with his point. If some of these dogs have been imported and the countries from which they came are prepared to take them back, a reasonable time should be allowed. However, most other countries in the world are introducing legislation that is very similar to what we are doing in the United Kingdom about these dogs.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

May I remind the Home Secretary that one attack every third day in the London area alone would have been avoided if only the Home Office had responded to an early-day motion tabled by 50 of us on 1 May 1990 warning of the nature of just these animals and the need to ban them.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman more precisely about compensation? That is crucial. This breed of dog is possessed all too often by people of an irresponsible disposition. There are over 10,000 of these dogs. Does the Home Secretary recognise the danger that, if just 10 per cent. of them were to decide to abandon their dogs instead of destroying them, we should have 1,000 of these vicious dogs loose on our streets? Therefore, we need to know more about compensation, which will cost about £5 million. Will the Government pay that, or will it be paid by the councils?

Mr. Baker

On the question of owners abandoning their dogs, that would be an act of criminal irresponsibility, and I am therefore making it a criminal offence to permit a banned dog to stray. Those who act in that way would risk going to prison and would thoroughly deserve it. We are certainly considering a compensation scheme and will possibly allow some time for owners who wish to bring forward their dogs in that period to receive it.

Yesterday, I asked the RSPCA what it thought about the matter. It favours a compensation scheme, and when I asked about the level of compensation the RSPCA thought that for one of these fighting dogs with the fighting value taken out compensation should be about £20 to £25.

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

My right hon. Friend's statement will be welcomed by the nation. Does he accept that it must not be used as the first step in a vendetta against dogs by dog haters inside and outside the House? Dr. Roger Mugford, to whom my right hon. Friend referred, and who is a distinguished dog psychologist, is, like me, a member of the national advisory panel Pro-dogs and believes that a dog registration scheme would not work. It is utterly irresponsible for some people to pretend that such a scheme is a magic panacea for dealing with all the problems. It is no solution to the problem of dangerous dogs.

Mr. Baker

I thank my hon. Friend for his support, and agree entirely with his comments. Those with the greatest enthusiasm for a dog registration scheme have great difficulty in arguing that it would have affected the events of the past few weeks. I do not think that it would have affected them and such a scheme would be exceedingly difficult to enforce.

I assure my hon. Friend that our proposed measure is not anti-dog. Many dogs in our country give great pleasure and comfort to their owners, and their owners are responsible. We are dealing with a particularly difficult type of dog that has been bred specifically to kill and to fight. Fighting in private is illegal here, although it is not illegal in some parts of the world. Our Bill is directed against such practices, and at the same time it will impose some general obligations with which the responsible dog owner would have no difficulty in complying.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that we have another 14 minutes on the statement. I hope to call most hon. Members who have been rising. I hope that they will be brief and will not repeat questions that have already been asked.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Will the right hon. Gentleman call for a report from Lothian police on the case of the pit bull dog that has been terrorising the Boghall housing estate in Bathgate? What is the scientific evidence to which he referred about the lust for blood and the very real dangers that girls face at obvious times?

Mr. Baker

I was not aware of the incident, and I shall certainly ask for a report. If the hon. Gentleman has any information about it, I would be glad to see it.

Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. Inevitably, there will be a lapse of time between the Bill's introduction and the implementation of its parts. Many people want to protect themselves against dangerous dogs. Has his Department carried out any evaluation of electronic hand-held devices which repel dogs? Such devices are widely available and are being promoted by mail order businesses. It is important that people who buy such devices know that they afford some protection and are not just completely useless toys.

Mr. Baker

We have not carried out any evaluation of these devices, but I am aware of them and shall certainly have them examined. I suspect that that is not really the ultimate answer to what we are dealing with. The ultimate answer has to be more responsible dog owners and the elimination of dangerous fighting dogs.

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Does the Home Secretary recall that, over the past two and a half years I, in common with some of my hon. Friends, have warned him in an early-day motion as well as in correspondence of the neigbourhood threat posed by pit bull terriers, and invited him to compel their owners to register them with the local police? It is evident to the entire House that he has been most reluctant to move in this matter. Now he is rushing towards a conclusion.

Although we accept much of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, some of us are entitled to doubt his judgment. He might get it wrong again. Is he justified in risking penalising the good, responsible owner? Is there no other way to deal with the breed? The right hon. Gentleman speaks with all the zeal of the convert, but what about alternative measures such as securing the dogs in a compound and muzzling them when they take exercise and, of course, registering them? Will he invite the neighbourhood watch schemes to incorporate in their terms of reference the reporting of such threats that arise in their areas?

Mr. Baker

The hon. Gentleman seems to think that registering dogs would have effectively stopped the savage attacks in Lincolnshire, when two pit bull terriers in a compound surrounded by a fence about 8ft high and a concrete floor jumped out of it, savaged a man, and destroyed his face. I would he happy to show the hon. Gentleman pictures of that man's face. It does not exist.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

When it comes to the method of removing the menace of the 5,000 or 10,0000 pit bull terriers in this country, will my right hon. Friend be careful about the argument that a programme of neutering would do the job? Does not the American record show that some of the 34 deaths and many hundreds of attacks in that country have been caused by pit bull terriers that had been neutered? Since that is the case, is there any alternative to a programme of humane extermination?

Mr. Baker

My hon. Friend may prove to be right. I said that I would be prepared to look into this matter. Neutering a dog does not necessarily render it less savage; it could still savage people or other dogs. My hon. Friend proffers wise counsel. Many people would like to believe that neutering is the solution and that neutered dogs would be able to live out their natural lives. They would have to be muzzled and kept in compounds with fences that are even higher than 8ft. Such controls and conditions could be introduced, but it would be a matter for owners whether to comply with them.

Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Why will not the Home Secretary accept that public concern is not confined to these two breeds? Public concern is about the irresponsible owner who keeps potentially vicious breeds, such as rottweilers and dobermans, not as family pets or companions but as potential offensive weapons. Such people can be seen every day swaggering up and down the streets of our inner cities. Such irresponsible ownership cannot be tackled without dog registration. How long will the Government set their face against public opinion in this matter?

Mr. Baker

The hon. Lady speaks of the problem of irresponsible owners, but they are the very last people to register a dog. I do not agree with her general condemnation of certain dogs. The dogs that she mentioned are not trained to fight and kill.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

In welcoming my right hon. Friend's statement, may I remind him how much the House dislikes retrospective legislation? We shall look most carefully at the Bill's provisions for exemptions. Will he ensure that any exemptions are coupled with adequate safeguards, such as muzzling and proper insurance? If he wants to know the sort of dog to which I refer, he has only to go to St. Stephen's entrance now and meet Mrs. Juliet Glass, who is there with three-year-old Holly, an American pit bull terrier. Holly has been spayed and my right hon. Friend and any other hon. Member who makes Holly's acquaintance will confirm that it would not hurt a flea, never mind a human being.

Mr. Baker

The three owners of the dogs which recently committed these appalling attacks all said that the dogs were very quiet, friendly and peaceful and that people could stroke them and play with them. The characteristic of these cross-breeds is their unpredictability. They can change very quickly, and when they decide to attack, the jaws cannot be prised open. They go on until they kill. They can be muzzled in a public place, but the second of the incidents happened when grandparents were with their granddaughter. It is unreasonable to think that a dog can be muzzled throughout its life.

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

The Home Secretary referred to different degrees of seriousness in attacks involving American pit bull terriers. I remind him that my constituent, Kelly Lynch, was killed in a savage attack by two rottweilers more than two years ago. Her family and friends will not be convinced that the right hon. Gentleman's statement shows that the Government have acted urgently or adequately.

Does not the right hon. Gentleman understand that, without the dog registration scheme, he cannot begin to know the true levels of ownership of dangerous dogs? Without an adequate licence fee, the resources will not be available to establish a national network of effective dog warden schemes. Without those two basic building blocks, the whole edifice of dog control that he has announced will be built on sand and will not survive.

Mr. Baker

I have commented on our views about the registration scheme, but I continue to be unpersuaded that it would have a significant effect. On the question of rottweilers, as I said, the RSPCA and the Kennel Club, both of which support a ban on the ownership of pit bulls, would not support a ban on rottweilers, which are a recognised breed of dog. I am not convinced that rottweilers fall into the same category of unpredictable viciousness as pit bull terriers.

Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)

As with dangerous weapons when carried in a public place, we have, in the public interest, reversed the presumption of innocence. Could we not use the same approach to deal with what will inevitably be the grey area of defining a pit bull terrier? The last thing that we want is for a smart alec lawyer to drive a coach and horses through much-needed legislation the first time that it comes to court.

Mr. Baker

I take my hon. Friend's comment, and I think that he makes a good point. If there is a dispute about whether a dog is of a banned type, the dog owner will have an opportunity to prove that the dog is not a pit bull, a tosa or another banned type by producing a certificate from two veterinary surgeons. That is an important safeguard, but in cases of doubt, the onus will be on the owner to prove that his dog should not be banned.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

Many of my constituents will be extremely disappointed that the Minister is again setting his face against a dog registration scheme, which is seen as the sine qua non of the control of many aspects of dogs' behaviour. Will he clarify how today's statement relates to Scotland? It is most unusual for the Home Secretary to give a statement that covers Scotland. Indeed, I understand from a note that I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland who has had to leave the Front Bench that the legislation will be amended under the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982.

As the Home Secretary is the only Minister to make a statement today, can he say whether, if there will be separate legislation for Scotland, it will be open to the Committee that deals with it to suggest separate proposals relevant to the Scottish experience as related by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) and by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan)? In Scotland, no more than a quarter of the deeply worrying incidents that take place would relate to the species covered by the announcement today. It must go wider, and I should like the Home Secretary's assurance that, in Scottish terms, it can go wider.

Mr. Baker

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has agreed that the legislation should extend to Scotland which shares much of its legislation for controlling dogs with England and Wales.

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

With regard to third party insurance, my right hon. Friend might be reassured to know that most people who have comprehensive house insurance, whether or not they have a dog, will find that third party insurance for a dog's actions is already included so that there is no need to have an additional policy. My right hon. Friend is already undertaking consultation, but will he also consult the National Canine Defence League, of which I am a council member and which has a valid point to make about people, dogs and breeds, so that he has a complete consultation procedure with all those who take an interest in the welfare of dogs and in their continuation?

Mr. Baker

On the latter point, I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. On insurance, it is perfectly true that some insurance policies— but by no means all— cover damage caused by dogs. However, very few insurance companies will cover the insurance of fighting breeds and, indeed, specifically refuse to do so. The companies have no difficulty in defining a fighting breed to justify their refusal of insurance.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

Does the Home Secretary recall that after disclosures in the South London Press I put down a motion asking for an import ban on tosa dogs? At the time, I was advised that the powers to ban the import of those dogs did not exist. If the Home Secretary is satisfied that he has those powers, which he exercised from midnight, what exactly are they? If he is not certain about them, will he ensure that the law is amended so that he has the power to ban the import of dogs on the basis of breed and characteristics?

Mr. Baker

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the powers do exist under the Department of Trade and Industry's legislation and they were exercised last night. The difficulty has been to define the type of dog. It is easier to define a pedigree dog than to define a cross-breed. We now believe that we have a set of definitions which will stand up to scrutiny. It is important that we act— and I shall have the powers to do so— to ensure that new types of dogs can be added to the banned list.

I understand that there is only one tosa dog in the country, so we can take action now rather than 10 years on, when there would be debates about trying to eliminate a large number of dogs. Indeed, if we had taken the appropriate action with the American pit bull terriers in 1976, we should not be dealing with this problem today. I gather that at least three other breeds are being trained to fight and kill and we must ensure that they do not come to this country. As soon as we know and can define them, we can put them on the banned import list.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Having had the doubtful pleasure of being bitten by a rottweiler—

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Did the dog die?

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

No, the dog lived too.

There is a growing problem with guard dogs, of which rottweilers and dobermans are the well-known breeds. Although we talk about the savage injuries caused by the two dreadful breeds of fighting dogs, nearly all the injuries are caused by rottweilers and dobermans. The interbreeding of those dogs is a time bomb which is just about coming home. Many young people are now growing up fearful of big dogs. Unless we have a way to control the big breeds in public so that they are at least muzzled or controlled by their owners, a generation of young people will miss the great joy and pleasure of owning dogs which is experienced by many hon. Members.

Mr. Baker

The size of a dog does not necessarily have anything to do with its viciousness. Some large dogs are completely safe, such as the St. Bernard and the Irish wolfhound, which was once trained for hunting wolves but which has been bred over the centuries not to be a savage dog. I do not want to give the impression that a large dog is necessarily more dangerous and vicious than a small one. We had considered a definition of the size and weight of dogs, but it does not apply—one must examine the characteristics of a breed.

Mr. Hattersley

May I urge the Home Secretary to understand that he has been questioned about two different dimensions of the problem? The first is the specified breeds, and I believe that almost the entire House will support him in their banning and eventual extinction. The second dimension deals with attacks by dogs that are not the specified breeds. A dog's motives are hardly important— whether it was bred to fight is no consolation to the person who may be savagely and desperately attacked by a dog that was purchased for another purpose.

It is because of our concern to limit attacks by other dogs that we want to see a number of proposals to make the owners more responsible. The programme to make owners more responsible has at its heart a national dog register. There is widespread support for such a register. This is not an appropriate matter for party controversy — there is no ideology in the issue of a dog register. When the scheme comes before the House— as it will—will there be a free vote?

Mr. Baker

It is not for me to determine such matters, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman appreciates. I have made my views on dog registration known. I do not believe that it is the panacea that Opposition Members deeply believe it to be. However, I know that the right hon. Gentleman has sought to be helpful, and I appreciate that. I am grateful for his support of the proposals to deal with the dangerous breeds. As I said, I shall introduce wider measures to make it a criminal offence to have a dog dangerously out of control in a public place and measures to give court powers to be more specific in the control orders on dogs, which will extend to all breeds. I am anxious to put that package on to the statute book as quickly as possible.