HL Deb 26 July 1979 vol 401 cc2109-28

6.43 p.m.

Lord DE CLIFFORD rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are prepared to introduce legislation to implement either fully or in part the recommendations of the 1976 Working Party on Dogs and to consolidate the large number of Acts of Parliament presently covering the keeping, welfare and sale of dogs. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise at this later hour to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. At present, there is a rising feeling against the ownership of dogs. Indeed that has been the case for some considerable time. Although there are many Acts of Parliament in force covering the keeping, welfare and use of dogs, they appear to be completely unenforceable.

A working party was set up to consider the situation of dogs after it was discovered that there were 27 Acts of Parliament covering the keeping and control of dogs. That working party met in 1976. However the trouble is that to date nothing has been done. There has been a great deal of talk and discussion, and every time a matter is raised there are consultations with interested bodies. However, we have reached the stage when we must get beyond consultation.

The main recommendation of the Working Party on Dogs was that there should be dog wardens, and the payment of those wardens should come from an increase in the licence fee to keep a dog. No one objects to the raising of the licence fee to keep a dog, provided that the money which is raised goes towards the establishment of a dog warden service. The proposition which has been put about in the Press over the past few days is that the licence fee is to be raised to £2 to assist the rates. That is totally unacceptable to all dog owners.

It might be of interest to your Lordships to know that at present it is estimated that as regards dog foods alone, £29 million is paid in VAT, and with the increase in the rate of VAT this year approximately £15 million will be provided by VAT on veterinary services. One cannot complain about the increase in the rate of VAT as regards veterinary services or dog foods, but the point is that if someone is a farmer or has his own business he can get it back. However, a dog owner who simply owns one or a few dogs, and who is not in business, cannot get it back. Therefore, the dog owner is being penalised by the increase, with nothing coming back.

The idea of dog wardens is frightening to people. They should not have this frightening image because part of their duties must be educational. Apart from clearing strays off the streets and returning them to their homes, and apart from other associated matters, they must have an educational value as well. At present, the police have the duty of enforcing nearly all Acts of Parliament in this connection. It is my view, and the view of a large number of people, that it is not the duty of the police to do so. They have far more important things to do and should not be asked to carry out these duties.

At present the evasion of licences is enormous. It is said that if we were to increase the licence fee we would increase the number of evasions. I believe that that could be avoided by the proper installation of a dog warden service. The powers of the wardens could be cautionary. We do not ask them to be punitive; we ask them to be cautionary. Over a period we think that dog wardens will do far more good in that capacity than if they had punitive powers.

I turn to the question of licences. It still does not seem to be appreciated by the general public that no dog is licensed in this country. It is only the keeper of the dog who is licensed. Under the present licensing laws anyone who keeps a dog must have a licence for that dog. One must have a licence to run a boarding kennel and to run a breeding kennel. One must also have a licence for a pet shop. If, for instance, a boarding kennel has a licence to board 100 dogs—and at this time of year it will probably board 100 dogs—it should have licences to keep 100 dogs. It would be interesting to know how many people owning boarding establishments could cross their hearts and say that they have those licences.

It is also not fully appreciated that if two people live next door to each other and one asks the other to keep his dog while he goes to France on a fortnight's holiday, that person cannot do so unless he has a licence to do so. There was a case in Southampton about three years ago of two sisters; one asked the other to look after her dog. The sister did so, but the dog got out through a gate which someone had left open and caused a collision between two cars, resulting in extensive damage. That unfortunate woman then got clobbered, not only under the Animals Act but under the licensing legislation, because she did not have a licence to keep the dog.

I should like to see a basic change in the legislation as regards the licensing of dogs. It would be much better to license the actual dog than to license the keeper of the dog. At least then one would be able to ensure that dogs which were licensed took their licences with them wherever they went—that licence would last them for their lifetime. I appreciate that this would present certain technical difficulties, but that would be the ideal situation, and I hope it can be followed up. It would also ensure that on buying a dog the purchaser would, at the same time, have to take out a licence.

I am sure that my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton will give me the soft answer which " turneth away wrath". The previous Government did nothing much about this question; I confess that with a general election looming up, I should have been surprised if they had. The quickest way to lose a couple of million votes would be to increase dog licences just before an election. No doubt my noble friend is aware that he has considerable support and that he is liable to be in his place for four years.


My Lords, five years.


My Lords, five years, if he is lucky. Therefore, even if our noble friend is not prepared to do something about this problem now, perhaps we can look forward to something being done about it within the next few years.

There are an enormous number of Acts of Parliament which deal with animals. For example, there is the Boarding of Dogs Act and the Breeding of Dogs Act, which was the biggest disaster ever to go on the statute book; there is the Pet Animals Act and the Animals Act. I believe that altogether there are 27 Acts of Parliament to control dogs and to enforce the decent, honest use of dogs. However, those Acts are unenforceable. Only recently there was a case in Kent where someone was running a shambles of a breeding establishment. The local council went for this man under three or four Acts of Parliament, but the man got away with everything. The only way the council could get him was under planning legislation, which has nothing to do with dogs. When we have all these Acts of Parliament to control the keeping and the use of dogs, it is ridiculous that we have to go to planning legislation to force a man to keep a decent breeding and sales establishment.

I could speak for a considerable length of time on these Acts of Parliament. Whether the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor would be very happy about this I do not know, but I should like the Government to consider overhauling these Acts of Parliament and producing one consolidation Act, so that we would know where we stood as regards the ownership of dogs. The dog is an unfortunate creature. He can be much loved and cosseted and can be the most faithful animal. He can be more than useful, as the guide dogs for the blind have proved. He is a working dog on farms, herding cows and sheep. Dogs can be absolutely wonderful.

I am a great dog lover, but I have a great dislike of people who do not know how to look after dogs. One of the main causes of all the dislike of dogs is that people do not look after their dogs properly and do not keep them under control. In the large urban areas a situation arises where people who go out to work and who own a dog say: " Right, out you go ", before they go to work, having fed and watered the dog. They say, " See you tonight ". The dog says " Right, now I'll go and join my friends ". The next thing that happens is that there is a pack of dogs making the pavements quite disgusting for miles around. The owner returns home at 5.30 p.m. and there is the dog sitting on the doorstep, saying, " Hallo, how nice to see you. Come on, I want my food ". That man is not a dog owner; he should never be allowed to own a dog. If you cannot look after a dog properly, stop it annoying your neighbours and fouling the streets; and if you are unable to keep it under control, you should not be allowed to have a dog.

That brings me back again to the subject of the dog warden, who would be supremely useful in such a situation. I hope that I am not being tedious in returning, once again, to the dog warden. I do not want to see the licence fee for a dog raised to such a limit that it would pay for the provision of dog wardens. One does not want to see such a service set up in one district and not in the next: one council may put the licence fee towards a reduction in rates, while another would provide a warden service which would ultimately introduce some sense into the keeping and control of dogs.

Finally, as I say, my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton will probably give me the soft answer. I must accept his soft answer. I shall listen to what he says, but I warn him that over the course of the next few years I shall not leave this subject until he and his right honourable friend do something about it. I refuse to believe that we must go on as we are now. I am absolutely certain that the only people who can proceed properly, efficiently, and with speed are the Government, and that they should abandon this principle, which all previous Governments have had, of leaving any dog legislation to the Private Member. I beg to ask the Question.

7.1 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to begin by making a protest about the printing strike. I do not know whether noble Lords who live in London are aware that if you live in the jungle, as I do, the absence of any Minutes over the last three or four weeks has meant that I never even knew until I got here on Tuesday that this Question was going to be asked by my noble friend. I feel that that should go on record. I do not believe that the way in which this so-called industrial action has affected the work of your Lordships' House is fully appreciated.

Having said that, I should like to support everything that my noble friend has said except in one regard. I think he is being pessimistic in thinking that he will get a dusty answer from the noble Lord who is to reply. I hope he will not. Otherwise I support everything that he has said. Indeed, as another devoted dog lover with a great deal of experience over a number of years with dogs of various kinds and in various countries, I feel that I can embellish some of the things that he said and help with your Lordships' consideration of this matter.

As a matter of fact, I had read the report, and I have got another copy in my drawer. The notes I made on it, of course, are in my desk at home. But it struck me as being essentially urban, metropolitan, and towny. The noble Lord's points about dog wardens, and the like, apply particularly to populated areas. They can hardly apply to rural considerations. At the same time, the idea of an increased licence is reasonable. You cannot continue with this very small sum. I do not know whether £5 is going to be enough, but that is for the Government to find out. I hope, with my noble friend Lord de Clifford, that they will apply themselves to these problems raised in the appendix to this report indicating the legislation which is necessary.

I do not know whether the increased licence suggested is reasonable—it may require to be more—but I feel that there are not sufficient exceptions. Obviously, the guide dog for the blind should not require a licence. But I believe that there should be further consideration given to the position in the rural economy which the dog occupies, not only as the companion but the workmate of the shepherd. None of your Lordships who has seen those " One Man and His Dog " programmes on television can fail to wonder at the skills which the dogs show in helping in the profitable production of an agricultural product.

However, they do not show the hours, days, years of thought and training, of breeding and heredity, which play an important part in the production of the right dog. The sheepdog is a highly skilled worker, as is his master. I believe that he should be free of licence. The same applies to the gamekeeper. The dog is part of a gamekeeper. Some people seem to think that a gamekeeper is a sort of entertainer. He is nothing of the sort. Admittedly, much of his duty is connected with sport, but sport is now part of the harvest, part of the revenue, of agricultural property. The keeper's dog is part of his work. His duties are not only concerned with the production of pheasants but include the control of vermin and predators. Ecologically, he and his dog are part of the balance of the countryside.

When the Government apply themselves to this problem—as I hope they will; and if they do not I hope that my noble friend will torment them—in the few years, perhaps many years, that lie ahead of them on the Front Bench on this side, I hope they will take these factors into their reckoning. I should like to make only one other point on the report, and that is on page 17. Having myself been bitten by a mad dog and undergone the treatment, I was struck by the last sentence in paragraph 15.3: Although not designed for the purpose, the measures proposed in this Report to achieve a greater control over the dog population would significantly improve the chances of dealing with [rabies] should an outbreak occur ". That is an important factor which we should bear in mind. I have detained your Lordships too long. I should like to repeat my support of what my noble friend has said.

7.7 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I must say that I thought we had exhausted over the years all the things there were to say about dogs and the Working Party on Dogs. I confess that the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, has raised some new points today. I shall look forward to the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, in his reply from the Dispatch Box and see whether he is able to satisfy him more than I was able to in the last four years. I am sure we are indebted to the noble Lord for bringing to the attention of the new Government the need to implement all, or part, of the recommendations of the Working Party on Dogs. This working party was set up in 1974, and there were eight different Government departments involved and represented, together with representatives from the local authority associations and the various police associations, and their very comprehensive report was published way back in 1976.

The committee took oral and written evidence from 91 different organisations, and they made, in their report, some 25 specific recommendations. They also set out to help the Government of the day with the legislative implications of those recommendations they had made. The recommendations about increasing the annual licence fee to £5, and about requiring a licence when a dog is six months' old, or there is a change of ownership, are recommendations which can be implemented by a variation of order. The recommendation that the dog warden scheme should be set up by local authorities to deal with problems of the stray dogs can also be implemented under the general provisions of Section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972.

What is interesting is that the charge for keeping dogs was first levied in 1796 as a normal revenue raising tax, and the rate varied from time to time. But in 1867 it was replaced as a revenue raising tax by an excise duty, at that time of five shillings. This was increased in 1878 to seven-and-sixpence, or at present 37½p, and there it still stands in 1979, 101 years later. The present licensing scheme makes exemptions for guide dogs for working dogs and hounds, and if changes are to be made I should like to see continued exemption for the guide dogs and the working dogs but, for the life of me, I cannot see on what grounds hounds can be exempted. If changes are to be made, then I hope that the Government will accept that to many elderly people their dog is often their only real and constant companion, and will perhaps be able to ensure a reduced rate for pensioners.

The working party also made recommendations about setting up dog warden schemes operated by the district councils, and about the impounding and disposal of stray dogs. This is a service which would cost money which may not easily be raised by the local authorities. Can the Minister tell us to what figure the licence fee would have to be raised to enable local authorities to provide this kind of service? The report suggested an increase to £5 at 1975 prices, but I doubt if that would be anything like adequate at today's prices and I doubt if local authorities would be prepared at this time, or indeed if the public would accept, an obligation to provide this service unless local authorities retained the fees and unless such fees were adequate to meet the full costs involved.

It appears that public expenditure cuts will result in drastic curtailment of local authority services and a reduction in standards right across the board. While the electorate were lulled or gulled into voting for these cuts, it is becoming increasingly obvious that they did not really believe the Tory Manifesto and never thought it would really happen.

Even so, I doubt very much if the ordinary ratepayer would take kindly to subsidising a dog licensing and warden scheme when social services, services for the elderly and the under-privileged, the education of our children are to be savagely cut, when unemployment is likely to rise, when health charges, fares, gas, electricity and postal charges are all going up and when inflation is heading towards 17 per cent. and maybe higher. Can the Minister indicate what would be the appropriate fee to cover all the proposals of the working party?

In a recent debate my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby referred to the fact that the working party wanted the licensing fee to be linked to other proposals regarding dog and social welfare, so that the whole area could be dealt with as one. I have had to argue from the Dispatch Box opposite that Government time was not available for such legislation, but now that we are at the beginning of what we are promised will be either a four or five year Parliament—though noble Lords opposite seem to have some difference of opinion about that—surely now, at the beginning of a Parliament's life, is the time to be undertaking this type of legislation if the Government deem it to be necessary.

I think basically the working party took the view that the problem was not so much in the adequacy of existing legislation as in the difficulty of enforcing any legislation. They recommended that local authorities should be encouraged to make use of their existing powers and that perhaps the best way of getting any improvement lay in educating the public in the care and control of dogs and in the care of our parks and recreation grounds. It should be possible to make by-laws and exercise controls so that dogs and people can share harmoniously the facilities that have been provided for all of us.

I remember two specific items from our last debate on this subject just before Christmas. One was a contribution by my noble friend Lord Willis on behalf of his dog " Lucky " who wished us all, first of all, a very happy Christmas and then implored noble Lords to cease persecuting a creature which had been on earth as long as us and had given great love and service to mankind. The other contribution I remember was from the noble Lord who is to reply to this debate, who commented: " There are no bad dogs. There are only bad owners." That being his view, it will be interesting to learn how he and his Government are proposing to deal with the problem.

7.14 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful, as other noble Lords will be, to my noble friend Lord de Clifford for raising this subject, and I must tell the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, that now that I am tethered in the stable in which she was a year ago and previously, no doubt she may smell a certain amount of similarity in the answers I may be giving.

Baroness STEDMAN

I am sure I shall, my Lords.


My Lords, I am also grateful to my noble friend for informing me of some of the points he might be raising, and my gratitude is also due for the same reason to Lady Stedman. We in the Government are well aware that the question of dogs and their place in our human society touches very deep feelings, and the Government have no intention of neglecting these problems, although we have many other pressing ones to deal with, as Lady Stedman hinted. We are proud to be a nation of dogs lover, but people who love dogs can be justifiably angered by the actions and omissions of irresponsible dog owners; they are truly antisocial. Even granting due allowance for ignorance in some cases, I am sure noble Lords agree that irresponsible dog owners deserve every censure and I was glad the noble Baroness quoted some words I used in our last debate.

Lord de Clifford has been admirably consistent in pressing in this House for action to follow up the report of the Interdepartmental Working Party on Dogs, which has of course been public for nearly three years. The report suggests a number of interesting options in a field in which legislation is complex. I am glad to hear that he is going to keep us on our toes, and I have every hope and wish that we will be able to meet all the things he would wish, and, as my hoble friend Lord Ferrier said, I hope my answer will not be too dusty. However, it must be borne in mind that the Government have had less than three months to consider the matter in the broader context of our overall programme.

The complexity of the relevant legislation reflects the fact that dogs have to be considered from the point of view of amenity health, livestock worrying and so forth. Before the Government can come to final conclusions on the suggestions and recommendations in the report, several of my right honourable and honourable friends will have to consider it very carefully, and I am sure my noble friend appreciates that. But I would add that the great value of his Question is that his speech and those of other noble Lords today will have served to clarify many of the issues and I am certain my right honourable and honourable friends will find this very helpful in their consideration of what is to be done.

In a recent letter to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, my honourable friend Mr. Fox said there was little prospect for legislation to implement the working party's proposals in the present Session. Lord de Clifford is anxious for a Government dogs Bill to give effect to the working party's proposals and to take up the working party's suggestion for a measure of consolidation of existing legislation on dogs. I regret that I must tell your Lordships that there is little or no prospect of such a Bill in the present Session, for simple reasons of parliamentary time if for no other. I realise that this will be disappointing for noble Lords and for many outside the House who regard the working party's report as a sound basis for some useful legislation, but we have to be realistic and honest about allocating legislative time.

In the absence of a dogs Bill it will not therefore be possible to meet my noble friend's point about consolidation, but we should not exaggerate the scope for consolidation. As he has said on a previous occasion in this House, and as he reminded us today, there are 27 Acts of Parliament affecting dogs. By no means all those Acts apply only to dogs and some Acts do no more than amend earlier legislation. In the absence of the possibility of a dogs Bill, the question arises of what can be done in a more limited way. The working party looked at a wide range of questions, but their main proposals for legislation were in the areas of the control of stray dogs and dog licensing. This reflected their belief: … that the problem of strays is not only a predominant cause for concern, but is also a major element in almost all aspects of the dog problem ". It is worth considering that the working party were conscious of the difficulty of defining a stray. It could seem an abandoned, ownerless dog, but could also cover any other dog which was wandering unattended, perhaps only a few yards from its owner's home. They proposed a broad definition and their remarks about strays must be seen in that light. But I doubt if the working party saw the ownerless stray dog as a major contributor to the dog nuisance problem, though it is perhaps an animal welfare problem. The working party mentioned police records for 1974 which suggested that about 200,000 dogs a year were taken to the police as strays. This is a very difficult statistic to interpret. However, the underlying situation is one in which a large number of dogs are owned by people who cannot, or will not, control them properly. The total number of dogs is greater now than ever before, and as a result there are greater problems of fouling and other nuisance caused by dogs whose owners are inconsiderate or irresponsible.

The problem has probably been exacerbated by the larger number of households where nobody is at home during the day. This has led to the phenomenon of so-called " latch-key dogs ". This is a rather vivid phrase, but not an entirely accurate one. Unlike children, who at least have the option of letting themselves in, dogs in the similar position are obliged to wander around all day and possibly make nuisances of themselves, whether or not they want to.

While this is a new element in the dog problem, we should not allow it to get out of proportion. The problem of nuisance caused by dogs is not new. It was probably already present when men first started living in permanent settlements and brought their hunting dogs to live with them. I suspect that our view of the dog problem is influenced by our rising standards of hygiene, and at the same time a lowering of a sense of social responsibility. However, we are considering what action would be most effective.

The working party's answer to the problem of strays was to give local district councils specific discretionary powers to appoint dog wardens. To provide money to offset the expenditure they proposed an increase in the dog licence fee to whatever sum would generate the necessary revenue. As the noble Baroness and my noble friend have said, their estimate for that sum—which has been criticised as being on the high side—was £5 at 1975 prices, equivalent to about £8 now. They made various supplementary proposals on licensing, including some designed to reduce licence evasion, estimating that at present only one in two dogs is licensed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, may be pleased to hear that not all local authorities reckon that that figure of £5 was necessary even at that time—and that was based on one dog warden per 50,000 people. Many local authorities think that that was too generous. So, although I understand her remarks on inflation in the context in which she made them, looking at the situation in terms of a broader picture it may not be quite as bad as we might fear. In regard to licences and wandering dogs, my noble friend Lord de Clifford mentioned a problem which arose when people go on holiday, and he thought that one may be breaking the law if caring for another person's dog. The advice that I have been given since he spoke is that this is not the case, and that the man or the lady concerned would not be breaking the law, provided it could be proved that the dog belonged to someone else. However, I shall write to my noble friend on that point.

It is fair to say that almost no voices have been raised against the spirit of the proposals. There have been some misgivings about introducing a new category of local authority enforcement official, but the most controversial aspect has certainly been the proposition that the licence revenue should be sufficient to cover the cost of the dog warden service.

The previous Government, in an announcement last August by the then Secretary of State for the Environment, floated the idea of local determination of licence fees (which my noble friend has mentioned) as a possible alternative to prescription by central Government. The idea, and the job, of local authority dog wardens was first put forward by the independent advisory committee then under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, whom I am sorry was not able to take part in our debate this evening. I can understand the wish of noble Lords who have spoken this evening that local authorities should have a positive duty to appoint wardens. As the noble Baroness anticipated, we in this Government cannot of course contemplate a new mandatory local authority function at a time when local authorities arc having to make real and sustained reductions in the level of their expenditure, and the Government are committed to reducing the overall size of the public sector, as the noble Baroness mentioned.

In England and Wales dog wardens can be, and are, appointed by local authorities under general powers. Such wardens have no official status and rely on the co-operation of the police in booking in stray dogs under the provisions of the Dogs Act 1906. Nevertheless some 80 councils in England and Wales have voluntarily set up dog warden schemes. In Scotland, however, local authorities must at present have powers under local legislation before they may appoint dog wardens. Eight local authorities there have obtained such powers by local legislation, and a further nine are in the process of doing so. Against that background I am sure that we in the Government do not rule out a new discretionary power being conferred on local authorities at some appropriate time.

This brings me again to dog licensing. The present dog licence, first introduced I believe in 1796, was originally a form of taxation, and so it remains. The previous Government said about funding dog warden schemes that they would have to " pay for themselves "; that is to say from licence revenue. That was stated by the then Minister of State at the Department of the Environment in his foreword to the working party's report. The local authority associations have similarly been insistent that dog wardens should not be a burden on the rates. My noble friend raised this point and felt very strongly about it. I can understand the local authority view, as I can also understand the view represented by other noble Lords today: that responsible dog owners should not have to pay for a service made necessary by irresponsible dog owners, and of course a simple increase from the current fee of 37½ pence to anything approaching £8 would, to say the least, raise difficult transitional problems, as well as problems of effective enforcement. I should also add that under the present system of local government finance, revenue from any increase in the dog licence would accrue to a council's general rate fund for use as part of the overall revenue of the council.

The question of dog licensing is in fact a complex one. My noble friend Lord de Clifford has raised the question of altering the present basis of licensing to identify a particular licence with a particular dog. There may be a lot in this, and I should like to assure my noble friend that everything that he and other noble Lords have said on the subject today will be carefully taken into account. On the question of an increase in the dog licence, I have taken on board the point made by my noble friend Lord Ferrier regarding shepherds and keepers, and I have also noted the point made by the noble Baroness about old-age pensioners needing guide dogs, guard dogs, or dogs to act as companions.

One thing is clear: the dog licence cannot be allowed to continue much longer in its present literally antique state, with a 101-year-old fee. There are many possible ways of dealing with the present situation, including some increase in the licence fee under the existing arrangements, outright abolition, or an alteration in the existing arrangement, and I can assure your Lordships that we shall not hesitate in doing what we think is right regarding dogs.

Next, I want to say something on the related questions of fouling, health, and access by dogs to public open spaces. The working party did much work on these subjects and heard a great deal of evidence. However, they recommended no change in the present law. The question of by-laws governing the access of dogs to children's play areas, sports fields and so forth is one on which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary feels that it would be wrong to generalise. Every case should be looked at on its own merits, in the light of the local situation. Some areas, such as play areas for children, and perhaps sports fields, would appear to be good candidates for protection. But, as I am sure the House will agree, the rights of responsible private owners must also be considered. The working party said that they had more letters of complaint and expressions of concern about fouling than about any other subject. They seem to have come to the conclusion, however, that this is a problem which cannot easily be solved by law. I am not so sure myself. In my view dogs are, if anything, more likely to foul inconvenient places if they are under the control of an inconsiderate, irresponsible, and anti-social owner, than if they are free to answer to their own basic instincts to cover their tracks. I cannot emphasise too strongly that culpability can only be human culpability, and it is the proper and effective way of dealing with that which is the question the Government will be considering in this context.

In reaching their conclusions, the working party had the benefit of medical advice about the extent of the risks of infection transmissible through dog dirt, including the condition associated with the worm toxocara canis. The working party concluded that the risk of infection with overt symptoms was small. Nevertheless, the Government are well aware that there is continued concern about toxocariasis, and are reviewing the evidence given to the working party. If there seem any straightforward ways in which the use of existing by-law-making powers can be made more effective and enforcement improved, the Government would advise local authorities accordingly.

Before concluding, I should like to say a few words on a number of other subjects, such as controls over breeding, which have been mentioned today, Acts requiring inspection, and animal welfare questions. The working party looked at the legislation on dog breeding, and recommended some tightening up of the controls provided by the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973. There is a natural feeling that stricter controls over breeding for sale would help to prevent thoughtless acquisition of dogs. Unfortunately, I doubt this. I suspect that many dogs which later become strays in one sense or another are mongrels, given away as puppies.

The amendments to the 1973 Act proposed by the working party were intended to give local authorities a power to enter unlicensed premises where they suspected that licensable breeding was taking place, and to bring into the scope of the Act premises which escape inspection because not more than two bitches are actually kept there. The proposed power of entry would be controversial. Control over so-called "puppy-farms" and premises where breeding bitches are farmed out can be exercised, to some extent at least, under the Pet Animals Act 1951. However, I know that your Lordships feel that existing breeding controls are working less effectively than they should be—and examples have been given. The Government will consider whether there are ways of making the existing controls more effective. But I do not think that the question of breeding controls is really central to the problem of dogs as sources of nuisance.

The noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, has also asked that the Government should ensure that in any Acts requiring inspection provision should be made that a veterinary officer should be present. This suggestion applies to the inspection of boarding and breeding establishments and of pet shops. We will look at this, but I am bound to say that there could well be a problem of shortage of vets which would rule it out. As regards animal welfare, which is again mainly a matter for my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, I know that there is concern about humane methods of destroying stray dogs where this is necessary. This is a subject which closely occupies the attention of the Home Office. They regard electrocution as a suitable method of destroying dogs. The other widely-used method—injection—demands a good deal of skill, which cannot always be available.

My noble friend Lord Ferrier raised the question of rabies, mentioned in the working party report. Regardless of the outcome of our deliberations on the working party report, the rabies contingency plans which have been worked out by the agricultural department would take effect if required, and they are totally independent of the report. The contingency plans do not assume the existence of dog wardens. As to the Government's policy on animal welfare generally, noble Lords may wish to refer to an Answer given yesterday by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture to a Question in the House of Commons by Miss Janet Fookes, MP. This Answer referred her to the reconstitution by the Home Secretary of the Advisory Committee on the Administration of the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876, which is to be renamed the Advisory Committee on Animal Experiments. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, wanted to know what would be the cost of implementing the working party's recommendations. I think I really dealt with most of that earlier on, so I will not repeat myself on it.

I hope I have shown the House that the Government are giving serious and urgent consideration to the matters covered by the Working Party on Dogs. I have benefited greatly from listening to the remarks of noble Lords tonight, and I know that my right honourable and honourable friends will study them carefully, as I have already said. Although I have had virtually to rule out any early prospect of a Government Dogs Bill, there may none the less be scope, as I have said, in the fairly short term for some worthwhile action. I can assure the House that the Government would not lightly dismiss action on any of the matters which have been discussed today if they thought there was a case. The fact must be faced, however, that almost everything the working party proposed would involve local authority manpower and resources, at a time when constraints must apply to that sector.

This debate has been characterised by a well-balanced view of dogs in our society—of the benefits they confer, as well as of the irritation, and occasionally the harm, they can cause. I assure the House that in their consideration of the working party's report the Government will maintain that balance and do all they can to bring home to irresponsible dog owners the culpability of their antisocial behaviour. I feel that my answer is perhaps on the soft side, as my noble friend Lord de Clifford felt, but I hope (to use the words of my noble friend Lord Ferrier) it is not too " dusty " either, and holds out some hope of future action in future Sessions. In conclusion, I should like to thank my noble friend and all other noble Lords who have taken part in this debate tonight.