HL Deb 14 December 1977 vol 387 cc2172-94

5.23 p.m.

Lord DE CLIFFORD rose to call attention to the increasing prohibition by local authorities of the use of parks and open spaces for the exercising of dogs by their owners on the grounds of risk to public health which cannot be justified on the known facts; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I bring this matter before the House because after the mass banning of dogs in parks in Burnley a flood of protests came to my attention, and subsequently it was drawn to my attention that there were some 30 other councils who intended to do, or were going to try to do, the same thing. The problem which has brought about this intensive effort to ban dogs from public parks in towns appears to have arisen originally over a report by a Professor Woodruff which indicated that there was a considerable degree of risk to health from a worm called toxicara canis

My Lords, this is a most emotive subject. In this country, I suppose, about one in every three families owns a dog, and a large number of them live in very close urban populations. In discussing this matter I should like to draw a very clear division between the reason for banning dogs which is the question of fouling and the reason for banning dogs which is the question of health. I do not propose to discuss at any great length the fouling of footways by dogs; I should like to concentrate more on health, because at the moment whenever this matter is discussed it may be said that the health side gets submerged in the fouling side.

When we discuss the health hazard I think we must recognise, first, that dogs have been with us for many years; secondly, we should also recognise that it is now known that one can suffer health hazards from dogs. In the way of worms we have toxicara canis, we have the hookworm and the whipworm. We can go further than that; we can find ourselves under hazard from five types of salmonella. We can go even further than that; we can get ringworm and other forms of disease which I need not go into. But if you look at it in that way it astonishes me that there are many of us who are walking about healthy today.

If all these hazards are there and we can get these diseases, have we any estimates as to what additional burden on the National Health Service is caused by the breeders of dogs, the keepers of kennels, hound kennels—bassett, fox or any others—the greyhound fraternity, the keepers of gun dogs, or, if you like to go to the largest area of owners of dogs in this country, the farmers. If the propaganda which is put across by people who dislike dogs is correct, the burden on the National Health Service from all this large ownership of dogs, quite apart from the private owners of dogs, should be a tremendous one, but I have as yet to discover that this complaint has ever been made.

The original report on which all this business of health hazard was built up was really a very moderate report. If read in what I call a rather clinical way, it was most interesting; unfortunately, it was seized on by a number of people who transmitted it to the media and it made a very good story. From that moment onwards the people who dislike dogs—and I must admit there are a large number, but I myself am not among them—have used every opportunity to hamper and denigrate the value of dogs. Dogs have an enormous amount of value. Not only are they useful at work, they are also great companions; they give a sense of protection to elderly people who live by themselves. They are of assistance to health in a large number of cases. One of the greatest causes of deaths in this country is heart disease, and the regular exercise which the ownership of a dog entails, if it is to be looked after properly, is of great value. There are a large number of people who, where dogs are banned, find themselves in very great difficulties because they are not in a position, being rather elderly, to take regular exercise.

When we think about it, there are also a great number of people who suffer from the attempts to ban dogs in parks and public places. Many of us remember that not so long ago we fought a war for freedom. The banning of the use of public parks by a third of the population at any one time seems a gross interference with the freedom of the individual. Moreover, it is a source of great feeling and works up in local towns situations where law suits and goodness knows what else are pending. No one says that councils do not have the power to ban dogs for health reasons. However, if one looks through all the statistics on health, nowhere can one find that there are any facts which support that allegation.

The biggest health menace, if we can call it a health menace, is the toxicara canis. Unless we are to do away with the dog population altogether, that will never be eliminated. We must reduce the possibility of passing the infection, especially to children who are most vulnerable. No one would object to dogs being banned from playgrounds where children have a right, and a priority, to go. The Working Party on Dogs set up by the Department of the Environment specifically said that it had not been able to discover any risk from the ownership of dogs. However, it recommended that they should be kept away from children's playgrounds. This is one recommendation with which I entirely agree. I think that we can discount all the minor ailments which are caused by dogs. Recently there have been many surveys on dog ownership and whether people have been made ill through handling and owning dogs. The result appears to be that there are a very small number of such cases. Far more cases of illness are caused from human to human contact than there have been, or can be contemplated, from the ownership of a dog.

There is another side to the picture. One must admit that there are a number of people who do not like dogs. I know quite a few such people, and I would never dream of taking a dog of mine to the home of someone who I know dislikes dogs. I would not take my dog to where such a person was exercising and so on. However, all dog owners must realise that the dog population has, at times, become completely out of control. We have for many years had over-breeding of dogs. The production of dogs has become a commercial business and the sales pressure on the population has been very high. The dog breeders have been greatly responsible for creating a standard whereby it is socially acceptable in one year to keep an Afghan hound and a couple of years later a beagle, and so on. That is one of the worst sides of the dog population.

We cannot do without dogs. However, we must see that elementary precautions are taken to ensure that we do not expose children or the population to health hazards. I have been into this matter extremely carefully. Dealing with toxicara canis, which is the worst hazard, I feel that everyone who owns a bitch which is going to have a litter of puppies must be absolutely certain that they know the correct drill. The people who like dogs, who are members of dogs societies, dog clubs, dog training and obedience classes, and clubs which hold shows—indeed, people who have anything to do with places where dogs are organised—must concentrate on conveying to everyone that the main source of infection is from the suckling bitch.

The veterinary profession is there to help. There must be regular worming of dogs. Once that is done the reduction of the risk will be enormous. It might well be contemplated by the Government that if, by any chance, they do take some action on the recommendations of the Working Party on Dogs, they might consider including in that action a requirement that before the issue of a licence, when puppies are sold, there should be a certificate from a veterinary surgeon stating that those puppies have been wormed.

It must be brought to the attention of all dog-owning and dog-caring people that there are people who do not like dogs and who do not wish the dog population to grow. Dog owners must not allow other people to suffer from their own thoughtless actions. If that is accomplished we shall reach a situation where the basic ownership of dogs is by people who love their dogs, care for their dogs and who will ensure that they do not become the casual stray, fouling the streets and generally disrupting the traffic and the life of an urban population. When the owners do that we shall be a long way towards solving the situation.

Meanwhile, there must be give and take. Let the local authorities join in with everyone who is trying to educate dog owners as regards how to behave and look after their dogs, and not impose these bans which affect the elderly whose life companion is probably their dog. If such bans are imposed, as in Burnley, many of those elderly people will be put in a position where they cannot exercise their dogs, due to their age, infirmities and other local hazards. Please, let us ask the Government to make quite sure, before they approve any further local orders allowing the banning of dogs, that, first, the whole of the local town clearly knows that this ban has been imposed—which was not the case, in fact, in Burnley—and, secondly, that they can make out an absolutely iron case before the Minister confirms such an order. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.40 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the House is very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, for having raised this subject. One can talk about dogs lightheartedly, passionately, full of affection or with deep prejudice. It is a subject on which apparently there is now a pro and an anti lobby, both expressing themselves in strong language.

I think that I should explain my credentials for having trespassed on the time of the House on this subject when I am already allotted further time later on another subject affecting animals; namely, horses. At the conclusion of our proceedings before the Christmas Recess we seem to be going through an animal phase. We have discussed otters; yesterday it was sheep, today it is dogs and a little later on today it will be horses; in between we have discussed trees.

About two years ago the British Small Animals Veterinary Association brought together all the voluntary bodies who had an interest in dogs—especially the aspect of dogs in society as part of our domestic scenery and our social life—in order to study the problems that seem to be arising from our very large dog population and the strong feelings that were developing about the nuisance and health hazards of some aspects of dog behaviour. They asked me whether I would become chairman and I consented.

For the first time, almost by a miracle, all the voluntary bodies of any substance in the area of canine welfare came together. Noble Lords will know that in the sphere of voluntary service, whether it is in human or animal welfare, one encounters the most dedicated and the most difficult people it is possible to meet. But we held together with a common purpose to try to work out some scheme which might solve the problems that we had to consider.

We were encouraged in our work because we had hardly begun when the Secretary of State for the Environment appointed an inter-departmental committee—the Working Party on Dogs—to traverse the same ground. So we then devoted ourselves to the preparation of evidence to be given to that working party, which was under the chairmanship of an official of the Department of the Environment by the name of Mr. Batho. Therefore, we really became a body representative of the canine world to give evidence to this working party. At the end of the day, when the report of the working party was completed, we were gratified to find that it had adopted many of our suggestions. Now we are awaiting Government action on the recommendations of the working party.

If anyone treats dogs lightheartedly, he or she has only to talk of the dog licence fee to realise that we are in politics in a very big way. When I was a member of the Government, the late Mr. Crossman brought forward a whole list of antiquated licence fees for various things which had been in existence for many years—for example, ferrymen, coachmen, and other historical survivals of the period when we taxed everything that we could lay our hands on, including windows. These licence fees—many of them only two shillings or two shillings and sixpence a year—were quite out of date and it was proposed that they should be substantially increased. I believe that we increased them right across the board with one exception—dogs. That was too hot a potato to touch at that time with a majority of three in the House of Commons, and with the RSPCA uttering, quite properly, the warning, "Who will deal with the consequences of any substantial increase in the dog licence fee? We are a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, not a Royal society for the destruction of Britain's unwanted dogs". That caused us to pause and to consider whether, just like that, we had better touch the dog licence fee at all. We decided that we should not. It has remained untouched to this day.

One of the proposals of the working party is to link the dog licence fee with other proposals regarding dog and social welfare, so that the whole area can be dealt with as one. Dog owners will then understand why they are being asked to pay more, and for what. That is all very sensible and I thought that great wisdom was shown by the various departmental representatives on the working party.

What is proposed? Basically, it is a universal dog warden system in urban areas which are above a certain size. A duty would be imposed on local authorities to have such a service, and a substantial part of its cost would fall upon the dog licence fee. It would involve transferring to the local authority, with the dog warden scheme, a number of powers which are now in the hands of the police. The idea behind all this is that there would be a designated officer who could help the community to regulate the behaviour and the control of dogs.

The suggestion was also made that we should tighten up the payment of the licence fee. None of us really believes that the number of people paying the dog licence fee represents the total number of dog owners throughout the country. The fee seems to be too small for people to bother to pay, and there is no doubt that there is widespread evasion of it at present. Therefore, it may be that dogs should carry some evidence that they have been legitimised by the payment, on their behalf, of the dog licence fee. All this is in the report of the working party, and I have no doubt that noble Lords who are interested in this subject have already studied the proposals. The particular question is: Where do we go from here? When shall we embark on this new deal, as it were, this more civilised provision for dogs to live in close proximity with human beings in urban areas?—where there can be a good deal of quite proper objection to nuisance and possibly to health hazards caused by dogs.

The particular matter that the noble Lord has raised is one aspect of the whole problem. A local authority apparently has powers under a general provisions Act to introduce a by-law which excludes dogs from public places. In this case the statutory announcement was published in the local Press that the council had passed the necessary resolution and were applying to the Minister for the necessary sanction to the introduction of the by-law. But, of course, few people read the small print, and even if they read it they did not quite know what it meant. Then one day—all of a sudden, as it were—dogs found themselves excluded from public parks. Their owners were forbidden entry, and those who tried to go in were stopped. Then people began to demonstrate and lead their dogs into the park in protest. The local authority said, "We are not putting up with this. We are not having anarchy as well as dogs, and we really must bring law and order into the community, having fulfilled our statutory obligations."

There has been such a rumpus indeed that some people have been lying very low in this controversy in this particular area. But still it can happen elsewhere, and I understand that other Bills that will later come before your Lordships' House will contain powers to apply for by-laws of a similar kind. It may be that this exclusion of dogs from public places may spread like wildfire, and dogs will be protesting, as well as their owners, all over the country at being excluded from their playgrounds. But it is quite a serious matter. Elderly people in this particular area were complaining that they could not go into a park to which they could walk, but were told that they could exercise their dogs in another part of publicly-owned property that was almost a bus ride away. I need not dwell on the state of mind of a great many people in this particular area. It was mentioned a moment ago by the noble Lord, and it would be sad if that were repeated in other towns in the near future.

The dog warden system, while not solving all the problems, would at least be able to advise people on the care of dogs, responsible ownership, dogs on leads, how to behave with a dog, and also deal with this grievous problem of stray dogs, abandoned dogs, and other distressing aspects of dog ownership. There is an enormous area of consideration here: breeding; pet shops; puppies being sold we do not know what for. I have seen advertisements in papers in Wales, "Puppies bought. Any quantity. Best prices. Will come and look at them". You wonder what they are all being bought for and where they are going. In many cases they are hardly fit to be taken away from their mothers. The Kennel Club, the National Canine Defence League, and other bodies concerned with the welfare of dogs have put forward many proposals to reduce the abuses of animals which take place in this as well as in other fields.

We have had contact—and I shall not detain the House more than two minutes more—with the Minister. His difficulty at the moment is to find the necessary legislative time to introduce a Bill on this subject. We have been considering whether there is any interim step that could be taken that would at least meet some of the problems in the meantime. I would, however, urge that the Government should regard this as an important matter upon which large numbers of people are highly sensitive, and upon which something ought to be done rather urgently. Otherwise, the two sides of the co-called "dog lobby" will drift further apart. The sooner we can bring the dog into society on terms which are acceptable to the community, and endurable to the dog owner, and make for a better life for many dogs in the community at the present time, the better. So I hope that my noble friend who is to reply later will be able to give some reassurances on these points.

My final word is this: all Governments have tended to regard some subjects as unsuitable for Government legislation but very suitable for what is called the Private Member's Bill. My former colleagues in another place will know that if you wait for reforms first to go through the hazard of the ballot, you can ballot for 10 years for a Private Member's Bill in another place and not come out high enough in the list to get any effective consideration of your Bill.

Fancy important reforms having to depend on a ballot which is no better than a football pool! That is not the way to run a country. That is not the way to legislate. Many good Bills have fallen by the wayside because, even though you get them through, even though you get a Second Reading without a Division, and even though it goes to the Committee upstairs and the Bill is substantially unamended and comes back to the Floor of the House, you find yourself on the final Friday for Private Members' Bills and the "chopper" is going to fall at 4 o'clock; and it only requires one, two or three persons to get up and talk and talk just long enough to wait for the clock to strike four and that Bill is dead.

This is a reproach to Parliament. I hope that the Government will take on board as a Government responsibility, and not as a Private Member's responsibility, legislation dealing with important social questions. There are millions of dogs; millions of dog owners; and millions of people in retirement. Woe betide any Government who make it more difficult for lonely people to keep their companion dog. I believe that Governments must assume their responsibilities. I hope that they will have courage and not regard this as a sideshow. There are many matters, if I may say so with great respect to another place, that they are discussing at the present time which scarcely take precedence over an important social matter of this kind. I sincerely hope that this message will go through to Ministers, and that this House will show, by its interest in the debate now, that we are dealing with a serious matter that requires serious attention from Her Majesty's Government.

5.57 p.m.


My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, I too should like to thank my noble friend Lord de Clifford for having introduced this debate, and also for the detailed and interesting way in which he has introduced it. Let me say what a great pleasure it is to follow the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and be in total agreement with everything he has said. I think that this must be the first time that such a pleasure has come my way. Let me also say how thoroughly disgusted I am with both noble Lords who have spoken before me because they have taken from me almost every point that I was going to make. Nevertheless, I have my notes and I shall go on with some of them, just underlining what has already been said so eloquently and well by the two previous speakers.

As I have indicated, I am in total agreement with the Motion on the Order Paper. Having said that, I take the view completely that local authorities have the most important duty of ensuring that dogs are not allowed to become a nuisance to the public. I am not going to deal too much with this aspect because, with the owners' help, and reasonable by-laws, this I feel, can be contained. I should, however, like to see these by-laws very much strengthened. I could not agree more with what the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said on that matter. I should like more action taken over the problem of the hundreds of dogs—some no doubt waifs and strays, but many with good homes—which are allowed to roam the streets unaccompanied, and therefore subject to no control whatsoever.

The Motion deals specifically with the public health aspect. Some two years ago I was an interested spectator and got slightly involved when the local residents' garden association of the square where I live when attending this House got themselves interested in this question. Despite the fact that Professor Woodruff of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine took tests and found that ova of the toxicara canis parasite were present in the garden, the majority of the garden committee took the view, I think correctly, that the banning of dogs would be far too drastic a step hearing in mind the minuteness of the health hazards to children. I should add that in this particular case dogs have never been allowed off the lead in these gardens and are not allowed on the made lawn in the centre of the gardens.

Since that time we have had the report of the Working Party set up by the Department of the Environment and which was issued in August, 1976. Much of the report dealt with by-laws and regulations on dog control and the fouling of pavements, about which I think we should all like to see tougher action taken. On the health side, the Working Party had the advantage of expert medical advice on the subject and in paragraph 2 of Section 14 they categorically said that they were convinced, … that while it is undesirable for people to be exposed to health risks, dogs which are correctly managed and cared for constitute only a small hazard to human health". As noble Lords have heard and doubtless know, toxicara canis is a roundworm very common in dogs and is dealt with by regular de-worming; in particular, as has been pointed out, this should be done to suckling bitches. As the ova in the resulting faeces may remain alive for several months, it goes without saying that in designated children's playgrounds it is vitally important to have an absolute ban on dogs.

Here we are back to the problem of unaccompanied dogs, who do not understand the notices. Again, therefore, I emphasise the importance of some sort of concentrated effort against owners who cannot be bothered. I suggest that the main annoyance of the public who are worried about these inter-related problems should be directed against irresponsible dog owners, not against the innocent dogs themselves. Personally, I feel—I agree here with Lord Houghton and some of the societies—that there should be a higher licence fee for keeping dogs so as to discourage the irresponsible owner who casually, without thinking, takes on a dog. This fee, as Lord Houghton pointed out, could be used to bolster local authorities in the provision of other services. I would go along with the noble Lord to see whether it were possible to ensure that new owners were required to show a licence before buying. That might help. I would of course exempt from these or any fees, but not from registration, blind people and others who need dogs, including those who use them in the course of their work, such as shepherds and guard people.

It is worth considering whether the police and traffic wardens should be encouraged to report cases of dog owners who let their dogs misbehave and who make no effort whatever to do anything about it. I also believe that if local authorities were allowed or encouraged to have some form of dog wardens, as Lord Houghton pointed out, that would be a help; they could not only advise but help to take action and, if they were armed with a little brush, could they not help to keep the pavements clean? Dog wardens might also have access to a van for rounding up strays. Anything that might help to bring home to owners their duties to their pets and to the public is to be encouraged.

Because, as Lord Houghton said, there is probably widespread evasion of the licence fee, the figures are probably underestimated. However, it is believed that in Britain today there are about 5,830,000 dogs. Curiously, we do not have as many per head of the human population as either the United States or France, where the comparative figures of dogs to humans are 1 to 6.8 and 1 to 6.2 respectively, whereas in this country we have only one dog to 9.4 humans.

It is, of course, in the cities where our canine friends need protecting from their natural inclinations and where the arguments mainly rage. I deplore the example of Burnley, who in the main part of the centre of their city have banned dogs. As has been pointed out, this brings great hardship to people who live in the centre and, apart from defined playgrounds, it is not necessary on health grounds, which are the grounds on which local authorities act. In terms of the reason they are giving, this is not a reasonable action on their part. Let the blame lie squarely on bad owners, and let them be fined or even banned from keeping dogs.

Like small children, dogs need continual attention. I deplore the owner who is away at work all day and either leaves his dog locked up until he returns, when he shoves it out in the street, or who goes to work and leaves his dog sitting in a basket in an open garage or toolshed alongside the house so that the dog cannot get into the house until he returns from work.

My Lords, like the two previous speakers, I deprecate local authorities using the bogus excuse of danger to health to ban dogs. I recommend them to activate themselves to proper controls in the way that I and previous speakers have indicated. Above all, I should like to see local authorities encouraged to prosecute irresponsible owners. There are no bad dogs; there are only bad owners.

6.8 p.m.


My Lords, my intervention will be very brief indeed. The noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, expressed concern about local authorities which have restricted or regulated the admission of dogs into parks because of the danger to children from toxicara canis. However, I am concerned not just about the exclusion of dogs from parks because of this disease but, more especially, because of the general question of hygiene, particularly bearing in mind the many children who use confined parks in the middle of urban areas, and I was pleased to note Lord de Clifford's complete agreement with that concern.

The problem is not confined to children; it affects those who use parks for recreational purposes, and they are many. We must also bear in mind the employees of local authorities who work in parks such as gardeners. We must take an interest in their welfare, too. As a result of the by-laws introduced in the borough of Burnley, it is apparent from the inquiries of many local authorities throughout the country that great concern exists. I am afraid that the by-laws in Burnley have been unfairly and incorrectly represented as invoking a complete ban. This is not true, and the Press should endeavour to correct that impression. There is not a complete ban in Burnley. The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, apparently has been under that impression.


My Lords, I said only in the centre of the city. Most of the places allowed to dogs are on the outer parts of Burnley.


My Lords, I would very much doubt whether the Home Secretary would confirm by-laws where a complete ban is proposed, and the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, should be happy with that thought. Most local authorities would wish to give the public a choice between those areas where the public can go free of dogs and those where dog owners can exercise them. Your Lordships should note that in Burnley only 120 acres out of 600 acres are restricted. In the light of what I have said, I oppose this Motion.

6.12 p.m.


My Lords, this is not the first time that this subject has been discussed and it always seems to raise a certain amount of heat. In the light of Mr. Benn's energy conservation, I do not know whether we should do something to conserve it. Personally, I hope that it will be dispersed by the end of the debate. Local authorities' opposition to dogs is based on a threat to health, but they have produced no proved evidence whatsoever that dogs are anything more than a minimal or almost theoretical threat to health. There are health hazards all round us. I believe on medical authority that the very air we breathe is full of germs and viruses of one kind or another and it is only because we happen to be strong enough to resist them that we do not succumb to them.

I wonder why it is that local authorities always seem to attack the unfortunate dogs. I notice that they do not say anything about uncontrolled small children, of which there are many, who go into food shops sucking their fingers and then go round handling the food. I consider that to be far less hygienic than a dog just sniffing. However, that is presumably their opinion. So many people do not realise that the keeping of a dog is a responsible job. One has got to learn how to manage him, how to train him, and how to provide the proper conditions for him. To think of exercising a dog on the open streets is fantastic. For those who live in built-up areas, he has to have somewhere like a park where he can have his proper exercise. A dog that does not get exercise is not healthy. The trouble is that there are far too many irresponsible owners.

On the question of licence fees, I agree wholeheartedly with what the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said. For many years I have held that the licence fee for a dog is absolutely absurd and that it should be far more difficult to own a dog. All the animal welfare societies are united in the realisation that the reason why there are so many stray dogs which have to be rescued by these kennels and given a pro tern. home is that so many owners buy a small puppy in a pet shop for their child. They think that will be very attractive, and no doubt it is. Until the puppy has reached a certain age they do not have to pay any licence fee. When the time comes that they have to pay a licence fee what do they do? The responsible ones will pay it, but I am sorry to say that there are only too many who take the dog out in the car and dump him miles away so that he will not know where he is and he is just left.

That situation could be avoided perfectly well by doing two things. First, it is not unreasonable to ask for a licence fee of £5. After all, if you are not willing to pay for your dog the same fee that you paid for your radio set, I do not think you are a fit person to keep a dog. Secondly, one should have to get that licence before buying the dog. You should produce it as evidence at the breeder's or the pet shop or wherever you are getting it from, and until then you should not be allowed to own him. Renewal of the licence could probably be shown by a coloured metal disc which the dog could wear on his collar. That question could be decided later.

Of course, there would have to be exemptions: working dogs have been referred to and guide dogs for the blind—the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Sourton, mentioned them. Those are essential exemptions which would have to be made. There are many shepherds or old blind people for whom a fee of £5 would be a heavy burden. That would be very simple to adjust.

Instead of constantly attacking the dog, who apparently is the cause of such frightful lack of hygiene and disease, let us for a change attack the irresponsible owner. He is the person who is really responsible for any risks to health there may be. I do not think there are any risks to health other than purely theoretical ones. But let us see to it that we do not have these enormous crowds of stray dogs in our streets. Incidentally, strays are a hazard in many ways other than health. They are terrible hazards to motorists. They are a great cause of accidents on the roads, and if we could do something to help that it would be a very good thing.

6.20 p.m.


My Lords, I want to intervene in this debate only briefly, if I may, to speak, not so much on behalf of myself but on behalf of a golden retriever called Lucky, who happens to be a member of my household. It is a race between myself and Lucky every morning as to who opens the post. The other morning Lucky happened to open the post and discovered that your Lordships were debating this particular subject. His view on it was, I must say, rather dim. "How typical", he said, "of the House of Lords that, just before Christmas, they should be so un-Christian as to criticise dogs". His view can be summed up very simply. He believes that human beings are a health hazard to dogs. It has been mentioned, for example, that stray dogs are a danger to motorists. He points out, I think with some sense on his side, that motorists are a grave hazard to dogs. He would suggest to your Lordships' House—and I speak very sincerely on his behalf—that noble Lords should cease persecuting a creature that has been on this earth as long as we have and has given great love and service to mankind, but, rather, that we should look at the mote or beam in our own eye rather that at the mote or beam in the dog's eye. With those words, Lucky asked me also to wish your Lordships a very happy Christmas.

6.21 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Harris I am replying to Lord de Clifford's Motion. We are both of us grateful to the noble Lord for giving us the opportunity to discuss the questions of dogs in parks. Although this is only one aspect of the wider questions raised by pets in our society, the use of parks is an issue that affects us all, whether or not we are dog owners. There are very basic differences of attitude to dogs in public places, and some of these have obviously been aired here tonight. What I hope to do this evening is to explain the background and mechanism of those controls which exist at present. I should perhaps begin by explaining that, while my Department, the Department of the Environment, has a central interest in the issues raised by dogs in our society, the prime responsibility within the Government for control of dogs in parks lies within the purview of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, who is the confirming authority for local authority by-laws for parks, pleasure grounds and open spaces.

Under the Public Health Act 1875 and the Open Spaces Act 1906, local authorities have the power to make by-laws to regulate parks, pleasure grounds and open spaces under their control. Ever since the 1875 Act was passed, local authorities have used that power to make by-laws for a variety of purposes, including the control of dogs, The most common requirement is for dogs to be kept under proper control. I think it is self-evident that a by-law requiring a dog to be kept under proper control, and hence not to fight other dogs, worry children or chase other animals, is a useful and necessary one. But what concerns the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, and other noble Lords, is not this by-law, which has proved very useful and is adopted by nearly all authorities, but the more controversial question of the exclusion of dogs from parks.

I think it is probably true that, with the increase in the dog population and in public awareness of certain medical hazards which are associated with a large dog population, there have been a number of moves to ban dogs from parks. As we have heard tonight, people complain of their children being covered in dog excrement when playing on the grass, and other people dislike having to look carefully where they walk. The Working Party on Dogs—and I shall refer to this in more detail later—said in its report that the largest volume of letters it received concerned the nuisance caused by dog fouling, both in parks and on footpaths. This is not simply a matter of whether or not you would like to share your parks with dogs, but involves much more fundamental issues. The making of a by-law creates a criminal offence which can, like every other offence, involve prosecution and, for those found guilty, a criminal record. The creation of a by-law such as this is a restriction upon the liberty of an individual to go where he wishes in the company he likes, which may well include his dog. This sort of restriction should not be imposed lightly, and I must say that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has to be convinced of very special circumstances before he will allow a complete ban on dogs from a park.

The problem is essentially that people like to own dogs, and, once they do, any responsible owner will tell you that a dog needs to be exercised. In towns and built-up areas the local park is often the best place for a dog to be taken for exercise; and, as dog owners include many families with children and old people living on their own, then a park is a pleasant place to go to with one's dog. In many cases, too, it provides a meeting place for friends. It would be unreasonable to deprive dog owners, who form a substantial part of the population, of the right to enter parks which are provided for public recreation with their animals. The resolution of the problem must lie in the prevention of fouling and other nuisances, where dogs can do most harm, while retaining the freedom of most of our parks for everyone, dog lovers and dog haters alike.

There are certain areas that I think we would all agree are in special need of protection. The most important of these are children's play areas, which are often laid out with play equipment. These areas obviously attract a very high population of children, older children often being accompanied by mothers with toddlers, and it is right that, as far as possible, these areas should be kept free of dog excrement. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary will approve local authority by-laws to ban dogs from these areas provided that they are enclosed and that notices are erected to make it absolutely clear that dogs may not be admitted. Any area from which dogs are banned has to be enclosed, because without a perimeter fence it would be impossible to prevent dogs from just wandering in, which would defeat the object of the by-law. Other areas where special protection is needed are the highly ornamental gardens which are laid out in formal flower beds, or those areas which are devoted entirely to organised sports and are laid out as bowling greens, tennis courts, and so on; and many authorities have by-laws protecting such grounds.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, and others, have referred to the inter-departmental Working Party on Dogs which was set up by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Sport and Recreation. They considered this problem in some detail. Indeed, we have had a long discussion on it within the last year in your Lordships' House. That working party took the view that the problem was not so much in the adequacy of existing legislation as in the difficulty in enforcing any legislation. They felt that the main prospect of improvement lay in educating the public in the care and control of their dogs, and in the care of parks and recreation grounds. The working party recommended that local authorities should be encouraged to make use of their existing powers, which I have already outlined.

The working party also considered the human health risk involved, and they emphasised that, particularly in the case of toxicara canis, although risks exist, infection with overt symptoms is rare. The working party recommended that, as small children were the section of the community most at risk, dogs should be excluded from children's play areas. This is, as I have already explained, done in many areas at the moment. Local authorities have taken the recommendations of the working party on dogs seriously, and have been approaching the Home Office for various by-laws controlling dogs in parks. I think it is probably true to say that, particularly in the light of the publicity given to the dangers of toxicara canis in the last few years, more authorities have wanted to ban dogs from parks than ever before. However, each case is considered on its merits, and in the light of the criteria which I have given the House. In general, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary will confirm only by-laws banning dogs from those areas requiring the special protection that I outlined earlier, and in the absence of very special circumstances it would not be reasonable to ban dogs from the whole of a park.

The noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, asked whether I had any idea as to the cost of the health hazards and what they have entailed the country in costs to the National Health Service, loss of work et cetera. I regret that I do not have that information available this evening. I will check for the noble Lord and if the information is available I will write to him; but I think it would be difficult to be able to formulate exactly what the costs are in pounds, shillings and pence.

I should like also to support the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, in his comments about the veterinary surgeons, and to reaffirm the comments by the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton on the Working Party's report. The public awareness of health hazards could mean greater co-operation between the veterinary surgeons, the parents and the pet shop owners in the management of dogs. The Health Education Council has already drawn up a leaflet which gives practical advice to parents in the everyday health and safety of young children with regard to their pets.

I particularly said that in the absence of very special circumstances, it would not be reasonable to ban dogs from the whole of a park. I am aware of the case that noble Lords have mentioned, of the by-laws made by Burnley council in banning dogs from some of the parks and pleasure grounds of the town. This matter has caused great controversy. All that I can say this evening is that a test case is now before the courts; therefore the matter is sub judice and we cannot discuss it further on the Floor of the House. I should like to point out, however, that these by-laws were not made under the general powers I mentioned but were made under the Burnley Borough Improvement Act 1971, which is a local Act and which gives the council specific powers to prevent or regulate the admission of dogs to their parks.

Noble Lords will be aware that under the Local Government Act 1972 all existing local Acts will fall in 1984. There is no question of a ban as extensive as Burnley's being approved without specific authority in legislation or the special circumstances that I have referred to. There is no index at all as to local legislation, so it is not possible to say how many other authorities have the same powers as Burnley; but it is just possible that other local Acts of the same vintage as Burnley's might contain like powers. All I can say is that we have not received any other proposals in similar terms in recent years. I think it may give some indication of the change in Parliament's consideration of such matters that when in recent years Private Members' Bills have sought to put similar powers to those in this local Act in general legislation, none of them has succeeded.

My Lords, there is one further point that I should like to make, arising out of Lord de Clifford's comments, which would apply to any by-laws made by a local authority. The existence of a new by-law is advertised in local newspapers and the by-laws themselves are held for inspection at council offices. Anyone who is affected by, or concerned about, a local authority's proposals can see exactly what is proposed and, if he or she wishes, can object to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will then consider very carefully all the objections against the by-law before reaching a decision whether or not to confirm the by-law. If there is irreconcilable dispute between the local authority and the objections the Secretary of State can order an inquiry into the bylaws. It is in everybody's interests to be aware of the by-laws that their local authority is making and to make their views known to that authority; or, once the by-laws are made, to the Secretary of State. The by-law-making process is a complex one but it does afford the opportunity for local opinion to be aired.

I do not wish now to enter into any discussion with my noble friend Lord Houghton on the merits or otherwise of Private Members' Bills or the hazards of getting into the ballot for such a Bill. The Working Party recommendations are now being considered by various organisations and individuals. My noble friend will know that some of the recommendations require legislation and that that means finding Parliamentary time, which is in short supply at present. I understand that a decision is likely to be made soon, and I can assure my noble friend that I will see that my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State in both the Department of the Environment and the Home Office are aware of the content of this debate.

I can assure your Lordships that very great care is taken both at local and central Government level in the making of by- laws and in the way controls are exercised in an effort to find ways in which people and dogs can share harmoniously the facilities that have been provided for the benefit of us all. In conclusion, may I reciprocate, on behalf of the House, the good wishes for a Happy Christmas from Lucky.

6.36 p.m.


My Lords, may I thank noble Lords who have taken part in this debate and the noble Baroness who has just replied. We certainly do go backwards a little when we go back to 1871! It is a nice thought that we might be brought up to date in the foreseeable future, if some of us live that length of time. I am comforted by the noble Baroness's statement, which I must read with great care, on the confirmation of orders by the Home Secretary: that it will be in enclosed areas only that we may expect these bans in future. I do not think that any dog owner, unless we are going to enclose enormous areas, will possibly object to anything like children's areas and highly-cultivated areas.

I am not really asking the noble Baroness to expend a lot of time and energy on saying how much money these diseases of dogs have cost; I can tell her that from the word "Go" they are practically nil. I have specifically left out bites from dogs, which is a different matter altogether. May I thank noble Lords throughout the House for their support in this matter. I am delighted to find that I have had not one opponent who would disagree with the fact that the dog is not a health hazard to humans. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.