HC Deb 29 March 1994 vol 240 cc810-1 4.14 pm
Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to allow local authorities to permanently identify a stray dog before returning it to its owner; and for connected purposes. The Bill addresses one of the most common problems in Britain's cities—the problem of stray dogs—and seeks to give local authorities assistance in dealing with it.

The House is well aware that Britain is a nation of dog lovers. Over one in four households have a dog. As The Times revealed last week, there are 7.3 million dogs in Britain, which represents an increase of almost 2 million in 12 years. For most people the dog is a treasured member of the family. They care for it, give it exercise and do not allow it to stray or be a nuisance to others. Most dog owners recognise that the freedom to own a dog involves responsibility to that dog and to their neighbours.

Unfortunately, there are those who do not accept their responsibilities, and who allow their dog to stray and become a nuisance to others. We all know that a stray dog may cause road accidents, may foul indiscriminately and, with other dogs, may become a menace to other people, causing fear and alarm.

The experience of my local authority, Bristol city council, is that the majority of stray dogs are what could be described as "latch-key" strays—dogs that are let out of the house to wander and return home later. In response, Bristol city council has an excellent dog warden scheme, dealing efficiently with strays. The wardens are dedicated to the welfare of the dogs and work closely with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to find homes for dogs whose owners do not wish to have them back.

Unfortunately, some of the dogs cannot be found new homes, and inevitably have to be destroyed. Many of the owners who adopt this casual attitude to their dog will no doubt acquire a new dog, which may well suffer the same fate.

In 1991–92, Bristol handled more than 1,800 stray dogs. It costs Bristol over £9 per day to kennel each of the dogs, which, by law, have to be kept for at least seven days. An unclaimed dog costs the council tax payers of Bristol up to £70 in kennelling costs, and a further £10 if the dog has to be destroyed. In 1991–92, more than 450 dogs were not claimed by their owners, costing Bristol council tax payers an estimated £31,500. Some authorities are destroying more than 1,000 dogs each year.

As anyone can see, dealing with strays is a costly business, and most authorities are not given the power to tackle the problem more effectively. Bristol city council encourages owners to have their dogs permanently identified. It is a sort of vaccination against loss, and is as painless as any other injection a dog will receive. It places a small microchip under the skin at the back of the dog's neck. The chip can be read by a hand-held reader carried by a dog warden, an RSPCA inspector and some police officers. The individual number given to each dog can be used to trace, by a simple telephone call, the name and address of the owner.

Bristol city council microchippped more than 800 dogs in the past year alone. It has increased the number of dogs that can be returned to their owners within hours, and sometimes within minutes, of being found. A dog returned to its owner on the day it is found saves dog wardens precious time, and the council and the council tax payer considerable sums of money. Furthermore, a council that finds a dog whose owner does not want it back will get the owner to sign over ownership of the dog to the council, allowing it to be rehoused without having to be kept in kennels for seven days.

The Bill merely allows authorities such as Bristol, which handles large numbers of stray dogs each year, permanently to identify a stray dog before it is returned to its owner. Although the law requires dogs to wear a collar and tag when in a public place, in reality most strays do not have a collar and tag. Unlike a collar and tag, a microchip cannot get lost.

The Bill is not a dog registration Bill. It does not require compulsory registration for all dog owners. But it does give the authority the option of targeting the offending owners and ensuring that their dog, which has been allowed to stray, carries permanent identification.

Furthermore, many of Britain's councils will not have a significant stray dog problem, and will not require to take such steps; but I believe that local authorities throughout Britain will increasingly use this simple procedure to reduce the stray dog population and save precious public money. Already, between 1992 and 1993—just one year—Bristol has seen a decline in its strays of more than 400, which represents a fall of 20 per cent. This has been achieved by persuading owners to have their dogs permanently identified. The number of stray dogs being kennelled will fall even further if the Government allow the Bill to become law.

Finally, the Bill does not affect the responsible dog owner. It will not add to the burden of local authorities or the taxpayer in general; nor will the Bill place an extra duty on any local authority. It will merely add a valuable option for local councils to tackle a problem that is visible daily on our streets and in our neighbourhoods. The Bill is better for the welfare of the dog, better for people, better for children in parks and playgrounds, better for our urban environment, and much better for the taxpayer. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Jean Corston, Ms Dawn Primarolo, Mr. Elliot Morley, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mr. Tony Banks, Mrs. Ann Winterton, Mr. Alan Meale, Mr. Terry Lewis, Mr. Bill Etherington, Mr. Roger Berry and Mrs. Bridget Prentice.

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