HC Deb 23 May 1991 vol 191 cc1058-69 10.14 am
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I am grateful to have the opportunity for a debate on curbing dangerous dogs and on the control of those animals. Several of my hon. Friends wish to take part in the debate. However, I and, I am sure, my hon. Friends would have been willing to have had a few minutes knocked off this and other Adjournment debates if the Government had made a statement here about Robin Leigh-Pemberton's 17 per cent. pay increase this year which is part of a total increase of £20,000. He is one of the people appointed by the Government who have called on ordinary working people to make sacrifices. I say that by way of comment and it does not, naturally, form part of my main debate. I am just snapping at the Government's heels. It is appalling that people line their pockets in the way in which Robin Leigh-Pemberton has apparently done.

The debate stems basically from pressure generated outside because of a series of attacks by dogs, culminating in the saddest attack of all—that on Rucksana Khan, which has received much publicity. The problem does not solely concern pit bull terriers. I will list some of the recent attacks which were described in a recent edition of the Daily Express.

On 16 January, six-year-old Rachel Hetherington was mauled by a friend's pet lurcher near her Birmingham home. She received 26 stitches. On 18 February, William Roach, aged 38, was savaged to death by his alsatian at his home in Rusholme, Manchester, as his wife tried to rescue him. On 22 March, baby Steven Berry was mauled in his pushchair by a bull terrier at a Sheffield bus stop. On 7 May, five-year-old Michael Parkinson was savaged by two rottweilers near his Bradford home. He received 80 stitches. That incident stimulated me and other hon. Members to table an early-day motion calling attention to the need for the control of dangerous dogs.

On 8 May, three-year-old Natasha Thorpe's nose was almost bitten off when she was attacked by a collie at a neighbour's house at Craigmillar in Edinburgh. She received 40 stitches. On 8 May, Frank Tempest, aged 54, had his nose and ear ripped off by two pit bull terriers as he walked home from work in a Lincoln suburb. He needed micro-surgery. On 10 May, Karen Jowett, aged 21, was attacked by a doberman in Westgate in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire. She needed more than 100 stitches. On 13 May, two-year-old Paula Holmes was mauled by her grandmother's American pit bull terrier at her Bolton home. She suffered a broken nose and needed stitches for facial injuries. On 15 May, Pat Lord, aged 39, underwent micro-surgery after her right arm was chewed to the bone and broken by her pet rottweiler. Some pet! On 17 May, police constable John Cooper was savaged by a pit bull terrier in Newcastle. He received stitches in a throat wound.

The attack that especially caught the public's concern was that on Rucksana Khan. I quote from the front page of the Bradford Telegraph and Argus which says: Rucksana was tossed about like a rag doll by the ferocious dog for 15 minutes while onlookers struggled to free her from its vice-like grip … The six-year-old from Springfield Street, Manningham, Bradford, suffered 23 dog bites to her back and three deep bites to the left hand side of her chest where the dog gripped on for dear life. She has five other bites to her chest and lost two teeth in the attack … One doctor said today that the injuries were the worst of their kind he had ever seen. Rucksana was a hair's breadth away from losing her life in the attack. The paper carried a colour picture of little Rucksana resting in her hospital bed, and it was obviously a very bloody picture. I do not generally endorse such exploitation, but the Bradford Telegraph and Argus was right to use the picture, as the Yorkshire Post was right to use a black and white picture. Other papers were also right to use the picture because it has helped to jolt the Government into the awareness that millions have been urging on them for the past three or four years.

The Government have been warned time and time again. A clause was added to the Local Government Act 1988 allowing the Secretary of State to make regulations to enable local authorities—or such organisations as he may, after consultation, designate—to introduce a dog registration scheme. I shall return to that in detail in a moment, but the fact is that those powers have not been exercised, on the ideological ground that their exercise would produce an irrelevant and unwanted layer of bureaucracy. In ray view, and in the view of virtually all the animal welfare organisations, that is not the case. I shall refer in a moment to those who support a dog registration scheme and explain how such a scheme could help with the control of dangerous dogs.

During our debate on the Local Government Act 1988, as reported in Vol. 124 of Hansard at columns 933–35, I cited the sort of accidents that were taking place then, in 1987. The headmaster of a first school in my constituency took a small boy home because he was feeling ill—a generous and helpful gesture on the part of that headmaster. What was the outcome? When the headmaster got to the house where the little boy lived he found that there were four dogs, one of which, a rottweiler, broke loose and attacked and mauled him, breaking his arm. The headmaster was so badly injured that he was off work for three months. It took two dog wardens, who were hastily called, to keep the dog off him. As is the usual rule, there was no prosecution because the dog was destroyed and the Dangerous Dogs Act 1989 does not close that loophole. The following day, the irresponsible dog owners, at whose hands the headmaster had suffered grievously, bought a doberman to replace the dog that had been put down. People can only stand by, helpless.

A constituent of mine who lived near the house in question had a baby daughter. The family had rather a nice small back garden, but they could not leave their baby daughter in it in her pram because they were frightened that the doberman or the rottweilers would leap over the fence and savage her. Why should people have such limitations placed on their freedom and enjoyment? Once one's baby daughter has grown up, one cannot go back. During that cherished period, the family were denied many happy moments in their garden because the irresponsibile family living nearby owned four savage dogs. Mercifully, that family has now gone and the problem has disappeared.

Bradford has one of the best dog warden services in the country, but it does not have the money to operate a seven-day service. It would like to, but, like all local authorities, it is short of cash. So what happened at weekends while my constituent was in that predicament and wanted to take her baby daughter out in the pram? Sometimes the doberman and the rottweilers were allowed to roam loose and she did not dare go out. She could not call the dog warden service on Saturdays and Sundays because it does not operate at weekends. That is the sort of encroachment on people's pleasure, freedom and happiness to which irresponsible dog ownership can lead.

On 21 May, I received a letter from a woman, who wrote: I have three children aged 3, 6, and 8 years, and there are a lot more young children living and playing on the same street. I really believe it is only a matter of time before these dogs do harm someone. My correspondent is referring to two pit bull terriers owned by the occupiers of the house next door—a house in Bradford. She continues: We have reported the problem to the police but they cannot do anything unless someone is harmed by the dogs. The dog warden seems to have his hands tied also. After so many recent attacks surely it would make sense to make stricter laws as a matter of urgency, before another child or adult is attacked by these dogs, and this time killed. I happen to be in a position to know that dog bites are a frequent occurrence and sometimes it can be the fault of the victim for teasing the dogs. But these dogs just attack for no reason at all. They wag their tails and look friendly at first but then they just turn fierce … even in the garden. I am terrified that these dogs will jump over the fence one day and in so doing end up in our garden. If this did happen and mine or any other children are hurt, I would never ever forgive Mr. Baker. He has done enough damage in his previous role to children without killing them off altogether. That is a succinct review of the position.

As I said, the Dangerous Dogs Act 1989 did not alter matters significantly because, although it increased penalties, it did not provide for them to be applied to owners whose dog is killed following an attack. The owner cannot be fined if the dog is dead.

There is a real need to extend protection to include not only pit bull terriers but dobermans, rottweilers and alsatians—the breeds mentioned in the list of attacks that I gave at the beginning of this brief debate. They are all unpredictable and potentially highly dangerous animals. Yesterday, when I suggested to the Home Secretary that we might consider classifying them under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, the right hon. Gentleman responded by suggesting that that Act specifically excluded dogs. On my reading of the Act, stored in the No Lobby, that is not the case, although I suppose that it may have been amended by a subsequent measure which has not been brought to my attention. In any case, a narrow amending Act—I have presented a Bill to Parliament for that very purpose—could lead rapidly to the application of that Act in respect of dogs. My guess is that such a measure would receive overwhelming support in the House.

The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 provides for local authority licensing, for powers to inspect premises to ensure safety, and for the refusal of a licence if there is any danger to the public. Any breach of conditions or failure to obtain a licence is a criminal offence and the provision is self-financing because a charge is made for the licence fee.

Bradford has an excellent dog warden service with six staff. Such local authority services could certainly provide help and guidance for owners. Some owners buy fluffy puppies, which, a few months later, turn into big, savage rottweilers. Some people are simply helpless in the face of such dogs and they need the help and guidance that the dog warden service can provide.

Dog wardens could also help to enforce a dog registration scheme. The Government say that irresponsible owners would not register. But what about the decent owners who would welcome registration, who want to look after their dogs and who gain great pleasure from dog ownership? Should they suffer as a result of that attitude of irresponsible dog owners? Saying that we should not have a registration scheme because irresponsible owners would not register is like saying that it is no good having criminal sanctions in respect of burglary because burglars do not like them. That is nonsense. Under a registration scheme, if dogs are a menace, their registration details can be checked and their owners brought to account. Guidance and help can be given where necessary and dogs can be put down if they are out of control.

I shall place on record what a dog registration scheme would do and quote a briefing paper prepared by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for a debate in the Lords in June 1990, of which the RSPCA sent me a copy: The knowledge of an owner that a particular dog can be identified back to that particular owner promotes responsible ownership. So, for example, people are less likely to let a dog stray to get injured or create nuisance. The link between the dog and a named owner is important for effective enforcement: e.g. 95 per cent. of stray dogs caught by Bradford dog wardens are disowned. Both cruelty and attack prosecutions have failed through lack of the proven link. Media attention on the most prominent cases has generally brought a result in terms of finding owners, but a very large, unrecorded number of cases never get to court. The Minister of State, Home Office has set her face against a dog registration scheme for some reason that is beyond human intelligence. A young woman constituent of mine was attacked in Manningham park by a terrier. She will have scars on her legs for the rest of her life. The owner who encouraged the dog to set upon that young woman was approached by the police. They would have prosecuted under the Town Police Clauses Act 1847, which, as the Minister is aware, provides penalties including imprisonment for people who encourage dogs to attack others or fail to have a potentially fierce dog muzzled in a public place. However, the police will prosecute only when they have clear proof of ownership and that is precisely what a dog registration would achieve.

When the police approached the young man who had set the dog on that woman, he said, "It's not my dog. I've given it away to my friend." On the basis of that, the police said that they could not prosecute. Although I pressed them to prosecute, they said that they would have difficulty proving the case in court. That is an important aspect of a dog registration scheme. The young woman who is scarred for life thinks very little of the Government who, after I wrote to them, said that there was nothing that they could do.

The level of the dog registration fee depends on whether it is meant to pay for registration only or for a complete control and welfare package. The Association of District Councils has suggested a £15 to £20 once-only fee and the London School of Economics suggested £10 annually for an entirely self-financing scheme.

Why should all owners have to pay? While other Department of the Environment policies are increasingly based on the "polluter pays" principle, proposed dog control duties for local authorities are to be funded only from the poll tax. The benefits for responsible dog owners include speedy recovery of stray dogs and the perception by non-dog owners that dog owners are paying their way.

Surveys show that dog owners generally do not begrudge helping the less well-off. A fee will also help to deter impulsive acquisition and the giving of dogs without due consultation. There can, of course, be proper exemptions for the blind and disabled. Such a system works successfully in Northern Ireland. The Ulster Farmers Union reports that sheep worrying cases have decreased markedly against the background of a growth in the sheep flock from I million to 2.3 million in December 1989 mainly in the lowlands and often near town fringes where the problem of worrying is greatest.

The Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has reported a dramatic reduction in roaming packs of dogs which are of great concern to many people. It has also reported that there are fewer stray dogs on the streets. The director of the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals challenged many points made by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment in the debate in April 1980.

In France, the Netherlands and West Germany, where compulsory dog registration schemes are in force, the stray dog problem is small. The highest percentage of dogs returned to their owners occurs in West Germany, where 66 per cent. are returned. West Germany has a nationwide licensing scheme coupled with compulsory registration and tattooing of pedigree dogs. The greatest stray dog problems are found in Italy, Portugal and Spain where compulsory registration and identification schemes are not in force—and also on the United Kingdom mainland.

In Sweden enforcement of the compulsory registration and licensing laws has resulted in a 90 per cent. reclaim rate with very few strays. London is 10 times the size of Stockholm, but Battersea Dogs Home receives 88 times more strays than the one stray dogs home in Stockholm, which never fills its 50 cages. It is clear that stray dogs always represent a potential danger.

Registration would help to curb dangerous dogs by promoting education and training through its national database targeted at problem areas, by discouraging ill-advised acquisition, by encouraging neutering and by providing a properly resourced and effective dog warden system to enforce banning orders. While a hard core of the most irresponsible owners may fail to register, the threat of penalties is likely to cause them to exercise greater control. Registration enforcement also gives an extra sanction to dog wardens who are often aware of particular problems.

I do not have time to refer to the long list of local authority and welfare organisations, hygiene associations, the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, farming organisations and dog welfare organisations that support a registration scheme. However, that support clearly exists.

Legislation is required to control a wider range of dogs than just pit bull terriers, whether the Government use existing legislation—of which there is a plethora—or whether they introduce new legislation. Action must be taken as a matter of urgency.

The Yorkshire Post and the Telegraph and Argus have campaigned vigorously over the issue and the Yorkshire Post has referred to the Animal Health Act 1981, which gives widespread powers to the Minister to control dangerous dogs and to ensure that they are muzzled. The Minister should consider that act with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

It is also important to introduce a compulsory insurance scheme against third-party accidents. The dog registration scheme is important. The Telegraph and Argus does not always endorse my point of view, but in a useful editorial it stated: It should not be forgotten Ministers are responsible for the fact that the law over dog control is in a mess. Nicholas Ridley, when Environment Secretary, abolished the dog licence because the fee had been left unchanged for so long that it was costing more to collect than it brought in for the Government … Because of their obsession with cutting official controls"— the Government— opposed the alternative of modernising the dog licence by raising the fee to a sensible level with a national computer register of owners and exemptions for special cases like guide dogs for the blind. The money would have been given to local authorities to employ more dog wardens to deal with the growing menace. The Telegraph and Argus conducted a telephone poll which showed overwhelming support for that point of view. Such a scheme is eminently sensible and I strongly urge the Government to consider all my points and the points that my hon. Friends will make and then introduce legislation as a matter of urgency.

10.37 am
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) on introducing the debate, and as I agree with everything that he said, I will be extremely brief.

My hon. Friend referred to the picture of Rucksana Khan which jolted the Government, after 12 years of inaction, into trying to do something to control dangerous dogs. Many of my constituents have been concerned about dangerous dogs and the control of dogs in general for a very long time. They suspect that Cabinet Ministers are not seized of the urgency of the problem because many of them do not come into daily contact with dogs, certainly not with stray dogs, and most definitely not with dangerous dogs.

My constituents and the constituents of every hon. Member in the Chamber today come into contact with such dogs. Every day they must run the gauntlet of stray and dangerous dogs. They have to live next door to dangerous dogs. Indeed, one of my constituents lives in a block of flats where there are dangerous dogs. A mother rang me recently to tell me that she is too terrified to visit her daughter who lives in a block of flats because the tenant downstairs has three dangerous dogs. Her daughter is too terrified to go out or to allow her child to go out because they must pass the dogs which live below them. In the case of Rucksana Khan's attack, the owner of the dog lived in a one-bedroomed third-floor council flat. I do not think that such a situation can be tolerated any longer.

I warn the Government that, unless they do things that have the popular support not only of the overwhelming majority of the public but of dog owners, their efforts to tackle the problem will fail, and fail sadly and miserably. We saw with the poll tax that, if the Government seek to do things that do not have the popular consent and support of the overwhelming majority of citizens, they are bound to fail. The Government must take action that commands general support, and in particular the general support of dog owners.

There is no doubt that the central issue to success in this matter is the early introduction of an effective dog register. There are 8 million dogs in this country. There are 10,000 American pit bull terriers, it is believed, and 1,000 are thought to be in the city of Bradford. We must know where those dogs are and who owns them. If we are to take effective action, a dog register is vital.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South referred to the poll that was conducted by the Telegraph and Argus. It is very revealing. When asked whether they supported a dog register, 785 people said yes, and only 47 said no. When asked whether they supported muzzling, 873 people said yes and just 60 said no. When asked whether they supported import bans, 740 people said yes, and just 16 said no. When asked whether they supported the humane destruction of extremely dangerous dogs, 824 people said yes, and 130 said no.

Therefore, I urge the Minister at least to say that the Government are willing urgently to reconsider introducing a dog register. That is the central pillar on which we can build effective and comprehensive legislation to deal with the control of all dogs and tackle the menacing problem of extremely dangerous dogs. If when they present their Bill the Government do not respond to public opinion, I and many other hon. Members will seek to amend it to introduce a dog register. I hope that we can do that on a free vote. I have no doubt that, if that happens, a dog register will be supported and introduced. However, I would much prefer that to be done with Government support and through Government legislation. I hope that the Minister will say that the Government are beginning to change their minds and to come into line with public opinion.

10.42 am
Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue. I shall make just a few remarks and will reserve my other comments for the Second Reading debate.

As someone who has worked as a voluntary supporter for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for many years and has owned Staffordshire bull terriers, I endorse the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, South and for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden). The debate is not only about fighting dogs. Dangerous dogs are in a number of categories, including those that are specifically bred for fighting either as breeds or as cross breeds.

For 10 years we in the animal welfare movement warned that the Government's inactivity in banning the introduction of American pit bull terriers would lead to a massive overproduction by breeders for the purpose of supplying the dog-fighting market. Breeders cannot tell a bitch to have one or two pups. Each time a breeder breeds dogs for the dog-fighting market, a huge surplus finds its way into the open market for those who want such dogs for a macho image and for those who, unfortunately, believe that such dogs can, with training and control, act as normal family pets, but that has not been and never will be the case.

Straying feral dogs are dangerous. For millions of years, dogs have had instincts of aggression, territorial packs and scavenging. When dogs stray or become feral, those instincts become even more apparent. Because of those instincts, they become dangerous and regularly attack many hundreds of people. Many estates and communities are being terrorised by large packs of stray and feral dogs. There is also the problem of family pets that become dangerous because of a lack of training and control or the social environment of their owners.

It is no solution to isolate American pit bull terriers and fighting dogs in the short term. We cannot deal with the problem of dangerous dogs if we do not introduce a dog registration scheme. How can we tackle the issue of those who breed for dog fighting and those who breed for financial gain if we do not have a registration scheme to identify dog breeders, owners and fighters who are responsible for the problem in the first place? How can we tackle the issue of stray feral dogs if we do not have a dog registration scheme? A dog registration scheme would bring accountability to those who irresponsibly get rid of their animals or who, through lack of training or control, allow their animals to become dangerous to themselves and others in the community.

The isolation of the pit bull terrier and other fighting breeds will not resolve the issue. Hon. Members will have to discuss the matter again in five years. People involved in dog fighting will simply switch to the cross-breeding of English bull terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers. If we are interested in protecting the traditional dog breeds of the United Kingdom, we must introduce a registration scheme. Without such a scheme we shall see a switch to other dogs and aggression being bred into other breeds. Pit bull terriers are already being used for fighting and badger baiting.

The matter is complex. Unless the Government are prepared to take on wider issues than that of registration, hon. Members will debate dangerous dogs again and again. People will be killed, accidents will proliferate and people will be damaged for life. People involved in dog fighting and badger baiting will continue the evil and awful trade that they call a sport. Family pets such as the Staffordshire and English terriers will be exploited for dog fighting and badger baiting.

I plead with the Government to make registration an essential core of the legislation. Without that central core, the issue will not go away and will become worse. In the end, the British public will decide. The public are sick and tired; they have had enough. They often cannot go safely about the streets of London because of the dangerous animals that roam our streets. It is time to take action against such animals.

10.47 am
Mr. Peter Hain (Neath)

I welcome the excellent initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) in promoting this issue. I wish briefly to draw attention to the plight of 130,000 postmen and postwomen throughout Britain. In Wales last year, 600 postmen and postwomen were attacked by dogs. Nationally, the figure is 7,400, causing 5,300 days lost in absence at a cost to the Post Office of £0.5 million; that is an increase in days lost through absence of 12.5 per cent. Those attacks are increasing relentlessly, making Postman Pat's life a misery. Postmen and postwomen are worse off than sheep. At least farmers have rights of redress in respect of dog attacks on sheep. Postmen have absolutely none.

I ask the Minister to respond to two issues. First, the proposals that the Government have introduced are confined to public places. Postmen complete their deliveries on private property. Will the Government protect them?

Secondly, only a handful of attacks on postmen and women in recent years have been committed by pit bull terriers. The overwhelming majority of attacks were by other breeds of dog. The Government's case is unsustainable. We need not their piecemeal proposals, but a comprehensive system to make dog owners accountable, to protect postmen and women and to protect the general public. Until a dog registration scheme is introduced, the Government's proposals will be seen as nothing more than a public relations exercise.

10.49 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) and to the hon. Members for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden), for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) and for Neath (Mr. Hain) for bringing this matter to the House this morning. I have every respect for the sincerity and depth of feeling of all hon. Members about the matter. The backcloth to the debate has changed markedly over the past day or two. In the first case, as the House will know, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced yesterday several measures aimed specifically at dangerous dogs. The principal and most important measure was a total ban on pit bull terriers and other fighting dogs. As the House knows, we propose to ban ownership of the American pit bull terrier, the Japanese tosa dog and any other dog of a type commonly bred for fighting. The ban on the import of such dogs is already in place.

The hon. Member for Makerfield warned us that the ban might not be sufficient in the future because other dogs may be bred for fighting. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already said that there will he a facility in his Bill to add to the schedule other dogs that are known to be bred for fighting.

The ban is aimed specifically at fighting dogs. These are dogs which have been bred to be aggressive, to care little about the pain that they suffer, to fight without regard for the injuries that they receive and to be entirely fearless. Once such dogs start to fight, they cannot be stopped and they are quite unpredictable. Many people in papers and discussions have likened the dogs to loaded guns. We are all agreed that there is no place for such dogs in our society. We must take urgent steps to rid ourselves and our society of the dogs once and for all. It would be irresponsible to equivocate because measures are needed urgently. I am grateful to Opposition Members and all hon. Members for being willing to see urgent measures brought before the House and action taken immediately.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

The Minister mentioned urgency. It will still take some time for a considered piece of legislation to be introduced in the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) said, it could have been introduced earlier. In the meantime, could not emergency legislation have been introduced yesterday or today to require the muzzling and keeping on a lead of dangerous dogs? If such a measure became inappropriate or was included in later legislation, it could be amended in the later legislation. But something could have been done. Nothing will change until the legislation is introduced.

Mrs. Rumbold

The hon. Gentleman is right that we have not been able to introduce legislation in the past 24 hours. However, we shall introduce the measure within a week or so. We are preparing the legislation as urgently as possible. It is important that the measures are as comprehensive as possible and that they achieve the support of as many people as possible.

Alongside the measures that we intend to introduce, the Government have decided to create a new criminal offence which will be along the lines of, and a development of, the offence outlined in the consultation paper. The Town Police Clauses Act 1847 does not apply to back gardens, as the hon. Member for Bradford, South rightly said. The Act applies only to public places. The hon. Member for Neath may be interested to know that, during consultation on the existing legislation, considerable support was expressed for making the offence under that Act apply to private property. I hope that we shall introduce such a measure. I hope that that will go some way to meeting the anxieties of the hon. Member for Neath about attacks on postmen and women.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South raised several points on the existing law as it relates to the types of dogs that we have discussed during the past few days. There is some misunderstanding about the criminal law as it stands. It seems that people do not appreciate that it is already an offence to allow unmuzzled ferocious dogs to be at large. It is with that offence, under the Town Police Clauses Act 1847, that many people are charged when their dog has ca used injury to others.

The new offence will apply more widely and I hope that it will be easier to enforce. it will attract higher penalties than the current offence. Those who allow their dogs to cause injury to others must know that they will be liable to the criminal law. It is essential that that is clearly understood.

However, there will be other cases where the law does not have the flexibility that perhaps it should have. There may be cases where it seems right to a court to order, not the destruction of the dog, but muzzling or some method of control suitable to the circumstances. We feel that it is right that the courts should have such additional powers and the Bill will provide them. I hope that that will meet the anxieties of the hon. Member for Bradford, West about dogs on housing estates. In my constituency, too, there are several housing estates where tenants own dogs that can cause anxiety to others.

Alongside those measures, the existing powers of the court, now reinforced by the Dangerous Dogs Act 1989, guarantee the destruction of any dog that is dangerous, regardless of whether a criminal offence was committed or can be established. These powers will remain in place. It is very important to be able to ensure that any dog that is dangerous, of any type or breed, can be put down certainly and without delay. Failure to bring in a dog for destruction renders the keeper of the dog liable for disqualification, as well as fines up to level 5, depending on the circumstances. In such cases it is not necessarily the owners who are at fault. If a dog becomes dangerous and is perceived to be so, that dog is a danger to other people and to human life. That dog is the weapon which must be destroyed. It is absolutely essential that all hon. Members and the public understand that.

As the House will know, last summer the Government issued their consultation paper, "The Control of Dogs". The responses were many and various. However, on two points the general public were unanimous. The first was the widespread desire for the new general criminal offence which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced yesterday, together with increased powers for the courts to muzzle dangerous dogs. The second was the universal public dislike of dogs such as the pit bull terrier which represent such a danger to small children such as Rucksana Khan. We have taken up both points in our recent proposals and I hope that the House will welcome them with the same enthusiasm as the public expressed during the consultation process.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South had a particular interest in the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976. This is Department of the Environment legislation and I understand that there are the usual technical difficulties in adapting it to the purpose of keeping dangerous dogs. But I do not wish to dwell on technicalities. The purpose of this legislation is to control wild animals, wild in the sense that they live in the wild rather than that they are particularly aggressive. It provides for, in effect, private zoos in which animals can be kept for their own safety and the safety of the public.

Dogs such as the pit bull terrier are not wild animals in that sense. They are domesticated animals which have become fierce through breeding.

Mr. Madden

Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Rumbold

I shall give way in a moment.

I agree that the Dangerous Wild Animals Act sets down requirements which could be used to keep pit bull terriers in conditions of high security, but, I have to ask the House, why do people want to keep dogs like this?

Mr. Madden

Before the Minister completes her speech, will she make it clear to the House and the country that she is willing to test, in the House, support for and opposition to a dog register, which has been the central theme of every contribution to the debate?

Mrs. Rumbold

I cannot think what a dog registration scheme would have done to prevent Rucksana Khan from being savaged. I cannot think what such a scheme would have done to help those who have been seriously hurt, wounded or damaged as a result of violent acts committed by dogs that were out of control. The people who own the dogs to which we have been referring will never come forward to become the registered owners of dogs.

When our backs are turned, those who keep dogs such as pit bull terriers will take them to the pit or train them with heavy weights. They will use live cats as bait. They can use a zoo, as it were, to breed an even more dangerous dog. To put such people alongside those who would be responsible about animals is not to be realistic.

We should have no part in the breeding of dangerous dogs. The dog is a companion animal. It has been bred for hundreds of years to be responsive to humans, gentle and kind. We must give no succour to those who wish to change this breeding to make dogs fierce. As dogs are all of one species, fierce animals can be used to cross-breed with breeds of good temperament to produce fierce versions of dogs. We must do everything that we can to avoid that. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State introduces legislation, that is what we shall endeavour to do.

I hope that it is common ground that we all want dogs of any sort to be of good and reliable temperament. There is no place for dogs which have to be kept in what I would term, to refer to another part of my responsibilities, category A conditions. It makes no sense to have dogs kept in wire cages outside. I hope that there will be universal support for the measures that my right hon. Friend will introduce shortly.

11 am

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will recall that in the past two days there has been a series of points of order, raised especially by the hon. Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), about tabling questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health on national health service trusts. It was suggested by those two hon. Members that the Clerks in the Table Office were not allowing such questions to be tabled.

Mr. Speaker rightly told me yesterday that no hon. Member wantonly misleads the House. I am sure that you will have noticed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that in column 784 of Tuesday's Hansard Mr. Speaker made it clear that he would investigate with the Table Office whether the Clerks had given the indication to which the hon. Members for Huddersfield and for Copeland referred. As some of my hon. Friends, including the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick), have learnt most clearly that the Clerks did not give such an indication, and as inadvertently two hon. Members have misled the House, it would be immensely helpful to the House and to clear the good name of the Clerks, who are always completely neutral, independent and above party politics, if Mr. Speaker were to make it clear—not through you now, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but before the House rises—that the allegations made by the two hon. Members to whom I referred were entirely false.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for what he has said and especially for his reference to the Clerks. My recollection is that Mr. Speaker made the position clear in his statement yesterday. I shall, of course, cause investigations to be made in view of what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I shall take the hon. Gentleman's point of order, but the House is cutting into the time of the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess).

Mr. Cryer

It is a convention of the House—I am sure that the hon. Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) knows this—that when we name other hon. Members during points of order, or when raising issues in other ways, we give them notice so that they have the opportunity to appear in the Chamber to respond to whatever is said about them. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman troubled to do that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It is customary to do so.

Back to