HL Deb 20 July 2004 vol 664 cc114-20GC

6.52 p.m.

Baroness Amos

I beg to move that the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Dangerous Wild Animals (Northern Ireland) Order 2004.

This order would introduce provisions broadly in line with those already in force in Great Britain by the enactment of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, as modified by the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 (Modification) Order 1984. The main purpose of the order is to address public safety and animal welfare concerns through the introduction of a licensing, inspection and enforcement scheme to regulate the keeping of dangerous wild animals by private individuals. The scheme will be centrally administered by the Department of the Environment.

The main provisions of the order will require any person wishing to keep a dangerous wild animal as defined in the schedule to the order to obtain a licence from the department prior to taking ownership of the animal. A licence will be valid for a period of 12 months or such longer period as the department shall determine. The keeping of a dangerous wild animal without a licence will be an offence and persons under 18 years of age will not be able to apply for a licence.

It will require the department to perform a range of checks on all applications. These checks will relate to the applicant, the accommodation and the conditions in which the animal will be kept. In addition, the department will also he required to receive a report from a veterinary surgeon or other person deemed suitably competent by it.

It will require the department to set a number of mandatory conditions for any licence it may grant. These will relate to matters such as the welfare of the animal, the person or persons entitled to keep the animal, the number or type of animal that can be kept and the place where the animal is to be kept. The department will also be free to apply other conditions as it sees fit.

The order provides applicants with a right of appeal to a magistrates' court against any decision by the department to refuse a licence or against any conditions imposed on the grant of a licence. It will create an offence where the requirements of a licence are not complied with. It will also give the department powers of entry and inspection for the purposes of assessing an application or determining if the requirements of the legislation or of an existing licence are being complied with.

The order will give the department powers to seize any animal where the requirements of the legislation or of a licence are not being complied with. The department will also be given powers to destroy a seized animal, under veterinary supervision, or otherwise dispose of it. It will give owners the right of appeal within 21 days to a magistrates' court against seizure and prohibit the department destroying or otherwise disposing of a seized animal before the appeal has been determined. It establishes penalties for any person found guilty of not complying with the requirements of the legislation. Courts will be given power to cancel existing licences or disqualify any such person from keeping dangerous wild animals.

It will provide transitional arrangements for existing owners to make arrangements to apply for a licence. It will also provide for the legislation to come into operation by way of a commencement order so that all supporting administrative arrangements are in place to ensure public safety. It will give the department the power to modify the schedule that defines dangerous wild animals.

Following strong representations from key respondents during the consultation process, two provisions not included in the original draft order have now been added. These additional provisions are set out in Article 8, which makes it an offence to give or sell a dangerous wild animal to any person who has not produced a valid licence to keep the animal in question, and paragraphs (4) to (15) of Article 9, which provide for a transitional voluntary surrender scheme for existing animals for a period of three months after the coming into operation of the main provisions of the order.

This draft order fills an important gap in the Northern Ireland statute book in relation to both public safety and the welfare of dangerous wild animals in private collections. It will provide a robust licensing and enforcement regime to control the keeping of these animals. It will also bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom while including other provisions which reflect the particular needs and circumstances of Northern Ireland.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Dangerous Wild Animals (Northern Ireland) Order 2004.—(Baroness Amos.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, we have nothing inherently against this order. However, it is a detailed and heavy-duty order that encompasses a lot of restrictions and rules. I wonder, therefore, and challenge gently the proof of the need for this legislation—other than in zoos and so forth, which I think I am right in saying already have their own licensing and regulatory regimes. I am concerned that we are perhaps legislating for the sake of legislating. I accept the need to protect the public and the necessity to protect animals of any type, let alone wild and dangerous ones, so I find it strange that at this particular juncture in time someone has thought that we need this legislation.

I have only two questions. I imagine that if someone wants a licence to look after a dangerous wild animal, they will have to pay something for it. Has that been considered and what might be the cost of such a licence? Do the Government anticipate making a profit? Against that, I wonder what will be the cost of administering the order. Is it possible that the Government will find themselves landed with considerable extra costs?

Aside from those queries, I have no particular feelings about this order.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

As we have heard, there have been controls on the keeping of wild animals in all parts of the UK except Northern Ireland since 1976. I understand that at the time it was felt that such legislation was not needed in Northern Ireland. But, with the passage of time, it appears that it might now be necessary. I understand that large cats have been sighted and that they have affected livestock, so perhaps it is now necessary to introduce legislation for Northern Ireland.

I too have only a few brief questions. The order will require the department to perform a range of checks on all those who apply for a licence. Will a vet undertake those checks? What is meant in Article 3(5)(a) by "other person authorised"? Also, are the Government satisfied that the age of 18 is appropriate, given that we are considering reducing the age of consent in many areas? The age of 16 would appear to be more appropriate. I wonder why the age of 18 was chosen. Finally, can the Government be more specific about the cost of the licence?

Other than those queries, we think that the order is acceptable and we are happy to support it.

7 p.m.

Lord Kilclooney

I welcome the order. When I was a Member in the other place, in my constituency of Strangford we had a gentleman who took a lion out for a walk every evening at five o'clock. It certainly was not the appropriate time to go canvassing because everyone cleared off the streets. I had many complaints from constituents that on this matter Northern Ireland was out of line with the rest of the UK. It is ridiculous that you can keep a pet corgi and must have a £5 licence, but you can have a lion and need not pay a licence fee whatever.

I have one question. What happens to these wild animals when they are seized? Are they put down? Does the USPCA keep them until they die naturally? Are they handed over to the zoos for proper care and attention?

Lord Rogan

I, too, welcome the order. It has been a long time coming. Criminal legislation for Great Britain has been in place since 1976. The Northern Ireland Assembly was consulting on the matter when it was suspended in the autumn of 2002.

I have one question. The schedule names pure breeds, but what about cross breeding? I am reminded that a few years ago someone bred a wolf and an Alsatian. One of them killed many sheep in County Fermanagh, including some on the estate of my noble friend Lord Brookeborough. There was also great fear for humans in the county.

People who mistreat animals or release exotic pets into the wild need to be made culpable under the law and the order is therefore greatly welcomed by us.

Lord Lyell

I am grateful that the Minister has found time to allow us to debate this matter. I did not think that I would get back from a visit to the Farnborough air show in time. I was invited to examine this and another order. When I looked at the explanatory memorandum to this order I was startled to find on page 1, paragraph 5, the statement, a continuing trend for keeping DWAs as pets". That may be.

I then looked in the schedule. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will be equally sad to discover that under Article 2 the Department of the Environment is responsible. I am sure that the Minister will know that during my time and that of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, animal health was one of the prime concerns of the so-called Department of Agriculture.

I looked at the animals listed in the schedule. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, mentioned a lion and I thought of cats and other domestic creatures. The Minister will not necessarily have scanned pages 12 to 15, but when reading them one or two things came to my mind.

Pages 14 and 15 list reptiles. Mole vipers and certain venomous snakes are mentioned. We then see listed Elapidae and Viperidae, including certain front-fanged venomous snakes, including cobras, adders, fer-de-lance, rattlesnakes and vipers. I suppose that one has to be comprehensive with such legislation, but I was astounded that such a list appears in the schedule.

One thing concerns me; that although such animals might be kept in a pet shop under adequate conditions, suppose that they get out. If there is a problem, what will be the result? Suppose that someone is bitten?

I was glancing at the exemptions and see that Article 7(3)(b) states that Article 3(1) shall not apply to a dangerous wild animal, which is kept for the production of food, wool, skin, hair or feathers or for such other purpose as the Department may by order prescribe". I also saw in Article 5(12) various measures which might relate to one of the lovely creatures listed on page 15. If one of them escaped, would someone he able to retain it and extract serum—anti-snake-bite serum? I hope that the order will allow whichever department is responsible to get hold of these lovely creatures and extract the serum so that treatment can be available in a hospital. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, wondered what happened to these happy creatures if the department finds them—including some of the Sydney funnel-web spiders or their close relatives? Are they destroyed or what?

I commend the noble Baroness on the thoroughness of the order, but I am astounded by the vast array of creatures. I hope that it is replicated in Great Britain.

Baroness Amos

Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, that I have read all the pages in the schedule, which make very interesting reading. When I read them, I was glad that I did not recognise most of the species listed.

I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, with respect to his getting here on time, he is obviously not a regular in the consideration of Northern Ireland business. We are extremely thorough in our consideration of Northern Ireland business, which is why we are still here.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked why the legislation is required. In the absence of regulation, the department cannot be certain about the number and species of animals presently being kept by private individuals. The absence of this baseline information makes it difficult to respond to reports of sightings; for example, by checking for escapees.

Reports of incidents or nuisance caused by dangerous wild animals continues to be rare, although there have been a number of recent reported sightings, plus reports of injuries to livestock. However, each reported incident, no matter how minor, tends to attract significant public concern about the potential risk to public safety and the draft order addresses this concern by introducing a suitable regulatory regime.

On the cost, the draft order provides for the department to recoup the full costs of administering the scheme by charging licence fees. Fees will be set to recover all direct and indirect costs incurred as a result of a licence application and not with the intention of deterring ownership of dangerous wild animals or as a means of raising revenue. So at this point in time it is not possible to say how much each licence will cost, but once that is determined I am happy to write to Members of the Committee.

Lord Glentoran

I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. We need an undertaking that the cost of the licence is highly unlikely to become a deterrent to those wishing to keep certain species. They may be unable to afford the licence.

Baroness Amos

I repeat that we will he setting fees to recover all direct and indirect costs, but not with the intention of deterring ownership of dangerous wild animals and certainly not as a means of raising revenue. I can assure the Committee on that.

The department may also incur costs in accommodating and caring for animals voluntarily surrendered. The extent of these costs will depend on the number of animals involved and rare species.

The cost of a licence will be broken down in four elements: the department's administrative costs in processing applications; the costs for inspection by a suitably competent person; the costs of obtaining suitable insurance against liability for any damage which may be caused by an animal; and any costs associated with upgrading accommodation to comply with all the licence requirements.

On the specific point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady. Harris, on the departmental discretion to appoint a suitably qualified person, we are thinking of those with experience of zoos. It may not be a vet, but a person who has extensive experience having worked in a zoo.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, asked specifically about hybrids, in particular wolf hybrids. They are an increasing source of concern to the public and some respondents to consultation in the draft order have recommended that wolf hybrids should be included in the schedule of animals which will come within the remit of the legislation. However, the definition is complex both from a scientific and administrative viewpoint. It is generally recognised that there are no scientifically proven methods which will withstand legal challenge to differentiate wolf hybrids from other canines. This inability scientifically to isolate wolf hybrids makes breed specification difficult, if not impossible, to administer effectively and equitably. It is an issue that many other countries also face.

The Defra consultation paper on changes to the 1976 Act proposes to define hybrids in the schedule as animals which have 8 per cent or more of the pure listed animal DNA. Should this definition be adopted in Great Britain, we intend to amend the schedules to the draft order accordingly. This can be done by subordinate legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, asked what happens to seized animals. The animal will be passed to a designated person or body to keep on behalf of the department. The department has the power to dispose of or destroy the animals 21 days after the seizure date or until the outcome of an appeal.

The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, asked which department would be responsible. I note his views about it being environment or agriculture, but the most important point is that the regulatory regime should be effective.

As regards serum and snake bites, even with regulation, venomous snakes can still pose a risk, not least to their owners. There has been at least one such incident in Northern Ireland. The Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast has procedures in place for dealing with snake bites, including measures to minimise venom absorption, and the availability of expert advice on the need for anti-venom administration and access to anti-venom stocks which are held in Liverpool and in London.

I recognise that the recent review in Great Britain raised concerns about the effective control over venomous snakes and I also recognise the dangers posed by these animals which, by their very nature, are easily transported and concealed. But I believe that the proposals in the draft order will provide an effective regulatory regime for venomous snakes, as for other dangerous wild animals. I hope I have addressed the points.

Lord Lyell

I am grateful to the Minister. I hope that she is convinced that Liverpool, let alone London, is near enough for the rush that might be necessary. I thought of an accidental bite from the Minister's pet cobra or rattle snake. I have flown from Belfast to Liverpool and the Isle of Man, with unfavourable climactic conditions and I am sure that the noble Baroness has taken all the necessary steps. Her word will reassure those who have a trillion-to-one chance of being bitten by one of these snakes that Liverpool will deliver what the Royal Victoria Hospital needs.

Baroness Amos

Of course, the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast is the first stop.

On Question, Motion agreed to.