HL Deb 26 April 1983 vol 441 cc870-90

7.31 p.m.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (The Earl of Gowrie) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th March be approved.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the Dogs Order is designed exclusively to meet the special needs of Northern Ireland in relation to dog control. In Northern Ireland the problems caused by uncontrolled dogs are separate and much more serious than in the rest of the United Kingdom and were recognised as being so by the United Kingdom Working Party on Dogs in 1976. The extent of these problems makes it necessary to seek separate solutions in Northern Ireland. The order amends and restates the legislation governing the licensing and control of dogs in Northern Ireland and in certain instances brings Northern Ireland law into line with law in Great Britain.

In the Province there has been a great increase in the number of stray dogs aggravated by civil unrest and resultant movements of population as well as by the more usual phenomenon of urban redevelopment. Attacks on people and livestock are all too frequent with some 600 attacks on people and 820 on livestock being reported to the police in 1980 and, of course, many more go unreported. The magnitude of the problem is such that in Belfast hospitals alone last year nearly 2,000 people were treated for injuries caused by dogs. Old people and children are particularly vulnerable.

Attacks on livestock cause not only terrible suffering to animals (often ewes heavy in lamb) but cost the farming community an estimated £350,000 a year. Some farmers, especially those on the edge of large towns, have been forced to abandon sheep farming and others have been discouraged from expanding flocks. This is undermining a potentially very profitable sector of Northern Ireland agriculture. In addition stray dogs frequently cause traffic hazards, foul pavements and are a general nuisance. Perhaps more ominously, they can get in the way of the security forces while these are engaged on operations.

In recent years the police have been fully engaged in combating serious crime and terrorism in the Province and this has prevented the chief constable from giving as high a priority as he would wish to enforcing existing legislation on licensing. For example, the number of dogs licensed have fallen from 120,000 in the 1950s to only 45,000 in 1981. We believe that less than one-third of dogs owned in Northern Ireland are licensed.

The proposals in the order would relieve the police of the burden of dog control functions by transferring that responsibility to district councils. It is hoped that this, together with the other new measures proposed, will reduce the number of stray dogs and ensure the licensing and effective control of all other dogs throughout the Province.

The proposals are based largely on the recommendations of the United Kingdom Working Party Report on Dogs—I notice an admirable slip in my brief which describes that distinguished body as the "United Kingdom Worming Party". The proposals are based on the United Kingdom Working Party Report on Dogs, taking due account of the points made in the extensive and wide ranging consultations with the many interests involved. The Northern Ireland Committee of Members of Parliament also debated the order and their views are reflected in the version before your Lordships this evening.

I will now deal with some of the main proposals in the order. In relation to licensing it was originally proposed that licences would be issued through post offices with all revenue being channelled into a central dog fund operated by the Department of Agriculture and subsequently reallocated to district councils. Following the Northern Ireland Committee debate it was decided to transfer direct responsibility for licensing to district councils. Under this new arrangement, which has been warmly welcomed by the Association of Local Authorities of Northern Ireland, district councils would be responsible for arranging the issue of licences and the collection of licence revenue either directly from their own offices or, if they so wish, through other agencies such as the Post Office. In addition, councils will be responsible for operating the enforcement of licensing and collection of stray dogs.

The order provides for an increased licence fee of £5 which would cover part of the cost of the scheme with the remainder being met initially from the district rates. It is intended that the rates contribution will eventually be phased out and the scheme become self-supporting. The order also provides that a licence must be obtained before a person takes possession of a dog and it is hoped that this will make prospective dog owners think carefully about taking on the responsibility of dog ownership and discourage the acquisition of dogs on impulse.

Provision has been made for a half-rate licence fee for those people over 65 living alone, since in many instances such people rely on a dog for companionship. The case for any extension beyond this was carefully considered but it was concluded that there was no justification for extending the concession. The traditional exemption in relation to guide dogs for the blind will continue.

We have also considered those who have good reasons for keeping a number of dogs on their premises. We provide for a block licence in Article 8 to cover this group. That will be available at a cost of £12.50 to breeders who keep on the same premises three or more unsterilised bitches any of which is used for breeding, and to owners who keep on the same premises three or more dogs of either sex which are registered with the Kennel Club or other prescribed registering organisations covering, say, sporting dogs or greyhounds.

The block licence will also be available to operators of registered guard dog kennels who keep not less that three dogs which are used as guard dogs elsewhere. District councils will be responsible for registration of guard dog kennels and breeding establishments. These provisions are similar to those in Great Britain in the Guard Dogs Act 1975 and the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973. However, given the present security situation in Northern Ireland, it is not proposed to introduce immediately that main provision of the Great Britain Guard Dogs Act that a handler should be on premises where a guard dog is used. In the case of breeding establishments, the order would close certain loopholes in the Great Britain Breeding of Dogs Act which were highlighted by the Working Party Report in 1976.

The order also provides powers whereby dogs must be kept on a lead in designated pedestrian precincts and on land where livestock are present. This power may be extended in the future if the need for it becomes apparent. It also provides a penalty for a dog attacking a person, in addition to the penalty for worrying livestock. The order would bring Northern Ireland law into line with that in Great Britain in so far as shooting a dog which is worrying, about to worry or has been worrying livestock is concerned. Provision is also included for a fixed penalty procedure for certain offences under the order, for offences under the Control of Greyhounds Act (Northern Ireland) 1950 and for fouling offences where by-laws have been made under the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972.

There has been a sustained campaign from many interests over the years seeking more effective dog control legislation in Northern Ireland. We hope that this new response, which is designed to encourage responsible dog ownerships, will provide a solution for the serious dog control problems in the Province. I must reiterate that the dogs order is tailored to a specific local situation in Northern Ireland and the Government have no plans to introduce similar dog control legislation into Great Britain. The Northern Ireland Dogs Order should not therefore be seen as a precedent. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th March be approved.—(The Earl of Gowrie.)

7.43 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I wish to thank the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, for explaining this order; but I am certain that he will appreciate that a number of points arise, both as clarification and as comment on the various articles. We recognise right at the outset that there are special circumstances in Northern Ireland in this matter but that does not mean that we should automatically let orders go through without seeking views and clarification on a number of points. It is recognised, as the Minister has said, that the problem of stray dogs in Northern Ireland is more serious than that in Great Britain. But the problem still exists in Great Britain; it is a serious problem here also. It is also recognised that the Northern Ireland legislation need not always be the same as that for the rest of the United Kingdom, but any differences must be justified, and there are a few points on which I believe there is a need for justification. I shall elaborate on these in due course.

It has been emphasised that many of the proposals are based on the recommendations of the working party which reported in 1976. I, and I am sure other noble Lords, will await with interest the comments which I feel certain my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby will be making, as he was so closely associated with that review. I also appreciate that the matter was fully discussed in the Northern Ireland Committee, the report of which I read with considerable interest, but the order consists of 56 articles, some of which are, in effect, introducing primary legislation. This is only made possible in the order because of the situation that we have of direct rule with regard to Northern Ireland.

Although the Minister has emphasised that parts of the order will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, some of the measures in the order could well be adapted to Great Britain as well. Why have the Government not decided to introduce a Bill with some of these points which are not at present in Great Britain legislation to cover the whole of the United Kingdom, albeit with some sections primarily devoted to Northern Ireland, where that is necessary? This would have enabled various clauses to be considered in detail and amendments could have been made, as the House might desire. As it is, we have an order of 56 articles which we have to accept as it stands. The practice so far as these Benches are concerned is that we do not oppose an order which has been approved by the other place.

Generally, we support many of the provisions to meet the serious problem in Northern Ireland; but some of the other points in the order are questionable, and others need clarification. We first of all welcome the proposal that the responsibility for dog control shall be passed from the RUC to the district councils. I must assume that, although the district councils are to be encouraged to appoint dog wardens, the RUC will still have a part to play as part of its normal law enforcement duty.

I am certain that noble Lords will have noted what the Minister said with regard to the substantial drop in the number of licences taken out in recent years. I do not have any figures, but I am certain that the number of dogs unlicensed in Great Britain would also be seen to be a serious problem if we looked at the registration and licensing of dogs. Why is there such under-licensing of dogs at present? It is not because of the fee, which is 30p in Northern Ireland and 37½p in Great Britain. We all know that the licence fee in no way covers even the cost of collection. That is generally recognised throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. As the noble Lord indicated, the order proposes an important change in the cost of the dog licence: an increase to £5. The Government argument is that this will lead to there being fewer stray dogs about. But will it? It may well be that an increased fee will cause some people to think very seriously about having a dog, but bitches will have litters. One has to decide whether an increased fee will at the end of the day lead to fewer or more strays.

We also know that, generally speaking, living standards are lower in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the United Kingdom, for various reasons. A £5 fee will hit many poorer people. I am certain that there are poor families in Northern Ireland, as there are in England, Wales and Scotland, who have a dog as a loyal companion and sometimes it is their only joy. I am certain that this will apply to many families in Northern Ireland. The Minister of State, Mr. Adam Butler, in the other place, stressed that the licence fee will be only 10p per week. We so often hear that when a sum is calculated as a weekly charge it is only a small amount. That is argued for one increase after another. But one has to consider the aggregate. Article 31, paragraph (1), also provides that regulations may prescribe and regulate the wearing of collars with the name and address of the owner, which may in addition be another method of identification of the dog. That may be desirable, but this will be an additional cost over and above the £5 fee. It will be quite a burden on many of the poorer people in Northern Ireland society.

Admittedly, as the Minister has outlined, the order recognises that the increase will cause some hardship, and persons aged 65 and over who are living at home will get a rebate and pay at only half the rate. But the £5 will be a hardship to many poorer families, to the unemployed and to those on supplementary benefit. I hope that it will not be said—I am certain that the Minister will not say this—that such persons should not have a dog, because in many cases it is a great friend and a comfort to them.

The order provides that these persons who want a rebate will have to apply to the district council for the concession. It is not clear from the order whether a personal visit will be necessary. At the Committee stage in the other place the Minister said, in justification for the department giving this power to the district councils—which I welcome—if application had to be made to the department, that would mean that people might have to make long journeys, perhaps to Belfast, and would have to produce identification so that their eligibility could be established.

It is not certain whether or not the applications that will have to be made to the district councils will have to include the identification of the applicants. It is said that giving the matter to the district councils to handle will mean that registers will be available whereby a simple check can be made on whether a person is living alone and so comes within the category for a rebate. I assume that the reference there is to the electoral registers. I understand that in Northern Ireland, electoral registers are kept in post offices, as is the case in other parts of the United Kingdom.

I should like to ask why cannot application be made either by post, on a prescribed form, or at post offices? I would say that preferably application ought to be made at post offices, which would avoid people having to undertake journeys, and it would be easy for a local post office to check the identity of an applicant. Since I am sure that a post office will keep a register of electors, there should be no problem at all in checking whether the applicant lives alone. I make the suggestion in order to avoid inconvenience, since we are considering here persons who must be at least 65 years of age, and who live alone.

The point leads me to the method of payment of the licence fee. As the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, has said, the original intention was that payment could be made through any of the 380 local post offices. He has now indicated that district councils have welcomed the fact that they will be able to decide whether applications for licences should be made direct to their offices, or through some other agency, which might be the post offices. I should like to query the position in this respect. If a district council insists that an application for a licence must be made at its office, there will be considerable inconvenience. There could be a delay through the post—and I shall come to this very important matter in a moment—or people could spend a lot of time travelling; and we must bear in mind that many of the applicants will be older people.

Another article in the order provides that a person shall not acquire a dog without first obtaining a licence; and yet another article provides that a person shall not sell or give a dog unless a licence is produced. Those provisions seem to me to be eminently sensible. But what is their practical effect when considered together with the question of obtaining a licence? Let us assume that a person visits a pet shop, a dog pound, or even a friend, and sees a dog that he likes. He cannot take it away because he does not have a licence. Either there will be some days' delay while the licence application is dealt with through the post, or the person has to make a journey, perhaps of some miles, to a district council office. It would be much better if the licence application could be made at the local post office. The applicant could get there and back very quickly.

I am certain that people in Northern Ireland are no different from my own sons and daughters who normally acquire dogs through dog pounds. At a dog pound you can see the dog which you like, and see, too, whether the dog likes you. But a person will not be able to take a dog away from a pound because he must produce a licence. Therefore the method of payment of the licence fee is a very important question, and perhaps the noble Earl will comment upon it.

Article 8 provides that there shall be a block licence costing £12.50 where there are three or more animals. I should like to ask how is the figure justified. I assume that I am reading the order correctly. If I am not, no doubt the noble Earl will put me right. Let us suppose that an establishment has 25 dogs. How can a licence fee which works out at only 50p for each of the dogs be justified? There may be kennels with hounds, or guard dog establishments. Such places will have to have a licence; but, presumably, on the basis of Article 8, the cost per dog would be much lower than it would be for a person who might have only two dogs at home.

One argument put forward for the amount of the fee is that it should cover the cost of collection, but that could be achieved by perhaps a doubling of the present fee. Until now the costs of administration in the issue of licences have been met by the Exchequer throughout the United Kingdom; that is, by the taxpayers. Now Northern Ireland is to be treated entirely differently from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The argument is also advanced that the cost of the dog control schemes, including the appointment of wardens, should eventually be met from the amount of the licence fee. I would ask, why? In effect, this is a tax on dog owners. Is it fair that those people who treat their dogs properly and keep them under proper control, and whose dogs are in no way a nuisance, should have to contribute towards the cost of controlling those dogs which might be committing a nuisance? Surely, the control of dogs benefits the whole of the community; and, as is the case with other nuisances, the whole of the community should accept full responsibility for the cost. What is being proposed will mean in effect assigning a particular tax to a particular purpose. As noble Lords know, I deal very much with transport matters, and I have always strongly opposed the idea that taxation of cars and petrol should be assigned to a particular purpose. In this case—admittedly a minor one—it would be a tax for a particular purpose.

During a debate in the other place the question was asked whether a person who takes a dog from the Irish Republic or Great Britain to Northern Ireland as a temporary visitor will be covered. I cannot see that a real answer was given to the question, except that when the matter was raised again on another occasion in the other place the Minister said: I hope that my hon. Friend will visit Belfast and, by all means, he may bring his dog".—[Official Report, Commons, 21/4/83; col. 473.] I should like to ask a question arising from that. Article 6(1) refers to licences being issued to residents in the area of the particular district council. What is meant by the word "resident"? Will it include a person who is visiting Northern Ireland from Great Britain for a period of months, and who takes his dog with him, as the Minister said he hoped might happen? If a person moves from one local authority area to another, will he have to re-register the licence in order to cover the new area in which he is resident?

Article 40 makes it mandatory on a district council to establish dog pounds and appoint officers to carry out enforcement. What will be the situation if a district council receives a fairly substantial revenue—far in excess of the cost of collection—and does nothing, or very little, with regard to the appointment of officers or wardens, or in the way of enforcement? Is that a matter which will be dealt with by the Ministers concerned?

There are a few other specific questions which I should like to ask of the noble Earl, mainly for the purpose of clarification. Article 5 lists exemptions from licences. Under Article 5(e) the exemptions include any dog used for police purposes. There is no reference to any dogs which may be used by the armed services in Northern Ireland—and I presume that they do use dogs. Should such dogs also be exempted, or has that matter been overlooked?

Article 6(3) does not lay down the period of the licence. It will be for a period which will subsequently be prescribed. The Minister has said in another place that the intention is that it should be an annual licence. Why is that not mentioned in the order? There must have been a departmental reason for not stating the actual period. If the period were to be three years, or five years, then life would be far different in terms of my criticism of the fee of £5. It looks as though it is intended that the fee should be £5, but that is not prescribed in the order.

Article 7(3) makes provisions for exemptions from payment of the £5 fee. Will these exemptions be additional to those listed in Article 5, and is there any particular reason for this further provision for other possible exemptions?

Article 21(1) provides that an officer may require the production of a dog licence. Under the order the officer is defined as an officer of the district council. Will an officer of the RUC be covered by general police powers, or should a police officer also be included in the order as being empowered to require the production of a dog licence? I have a particular reason for asking this question because under Article 15(2) it is considered necessary that an officer of the RUC be listed among those who may inspect the district council register of licences. So, in one place, that is laid down. In the other place, it is not mentioned.

I am pleased to see in Article 25(1) that the roads where a dog must be under control—this was emphasised by the noble Earl—are confined to pedestrian precincts and that any extension to other roads will be done by affirmative resolution. I find, on the other hand, that any additional exclusions from keeping a dog under control will be done by negative order. I fail to see why one should be affirmative and the other the negative procedure.

Articles 35 to 39 make provision for certain offences to come within the fixed penalty procedure. I see no objection to this. It may be an advantage in many ways. However, it means that apart from the substantial change of the licence fee, additional law is being introduced by an order and not by a Bill. A new fixed penalty offence is introduced by order and not by primary legislation. If there had been a Bill for the United Kingdom relating to this and other matters, the issue could have been dealt with, and, if necessary, amendments made.

I do not know whether guidance will be given to the district councils that will be setting up the dogpounds. I presume that the shelters operated by the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals can continue to be used by agreement with the district council as agents for the council. How far will councils be encouraged to find homes for stray dogs? The Department will determine the minimum price at which dogs will be sold. I hope that the emphasis so far as possible will be placed on trying to find decent homes for dogs that are controllable.

I am sorry to be quoting a number of these points. However, the order consists of 56 articles, and a number of issues arise. Articles 28 and 29 are concerned with attacks on persons and livestock. It is made clear that both shall not apply to a dog while it is being used for police purposes. Should this not also be the position while a dog is being used for guard work? Again, under Article 33, the power to order the destruction of dogs shall not apply when there is an attack by a dog being used as a guarddog or on police duties. In one place, it is emphasised. In the other place, there is no reference at all.

When is it intended that the various provisions shall be brought into force? There are limited provisions that, according to the order, will apparently be brought into force two months after the order is made. There is also the intention, according to the Minister, to monitor the provisions that may require a definition of what is an attack upon a person. This point was stressed in some detail in the Northern Ireland Committee of another place. I was surprised to note that the Minister in the other place was not prepared to make a commitment to come back to Parliament in a year's time. He suggested that there were means available to question Ministers or to raise matters on the floor of the House. I would have thought that, as the order introduces a number of new features, an undertaking would be given that the Minister will report on the monitoring of the entire order—not just the points to which I have referred—if not in one year's time, in two years' time, to see what have been the effects.

While, in general, we support the proposals for control, there are points of criticism that I have emphasised. There is some clarification needed. Above all, it is vital that any control measures should be enforceable. It would be a tragedy if the order was passed and then found at the end of the day to be unenforceable in some parts. It is for that reason that clarification on various points is needed.

8.5 p.m.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, I was glad to hear my noble friend the Minister of State say that the order would not be regarded as a precedent for bringing in legislation for the rest of the United Kingdom. I hope that his prognostication is right. It is often the case that where we have a precedent in one part of the United Kingdom, we eventually find that a Bill is introduced that covers the rest of the United Kingdom.

I do not know how many dogs there are in Northern Ireland. We have been told that only 45,000 licences are issued. I understand that the dog population is falling drastically throughout the United Kingdom. It rose to its height in 1973 when the figure was 5.83 million but it is now considerably reduced. This follows the education of many owners of dogs and bitches who are having their animals neutered. I understand that, at the beginning of this year, 21 per cent. of the dog population was neutered compared with a figure of 2 per cent. in 1962.

What worries me is how dog wardens—I suppose that is the right name—will be chosen. Have they any qualifications? It is surely a reversal of British law to appoint so-called officers to fine people on the spot. We might as well say that traffic wardens should be able to fine people on the spot. Why should dog wardens be able to do this? It seems to me that dog owners will regard this as high-handed.

I agree with much of what is contained in the order, especially the licensing of dogs. However, the effect of the order for old-age pensioners seems to me absurd. It is correct that they have to pay only half the licence fee. But it would save much form filling and administration if they were charged only £2.50 when they buy the licence. Why should they have to pay £5 for a licence and then ask for a rebate? That seems an unnecessary waste of paper and unnecessary form filling. No doubt civil servants like that, but, apart from anything else, it means that the old-age pensioner is wasting a stamp and his time.

I have not read the entire order but I understand that dog owners will be allowed only five days to find a lost dog. In this country the statutory period is seven days. I regard five days as too short a time for someone to find his lost dog.

I agree with much that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has said about Part IV dealing with a court order for destruction of a dog if the dog attacks a person. That is not qualified. What does an attack on a person mean? Some people, especially those brought up in urban areas, are frightened of dogs, almost to the extent that if a dog came up and sniffed them they would say that they had been attacked. There appears to be no qualification of "attack". There must presumably be a fair amount of physical damage to the person. I should like to have the situation clarified a little more.

A dog may be defending his master or his mistress from a criminal. The dog may perhaps be defending his mistress from a rapist. Because a dog attacks a criminal, is it to be destroyed? I know that in this country the law favours criminals to a very great degree, but surely not in this case. As we know, there are a great number of people who dislike dogs, and I am sure they would make every excuse to have a dog destroyed and to say that a dog attacked them.

I do not want to say a great deal more because much of what I was going to say has already been said. However, I quite agree that in urban areas too many dogs do cause a problem, especially large dogs. As regards dogs in public places, I would like the expression "public places" defined. For example, a park in a big city is a public place, but will dogs be debarred from that? I should like to know the answer. If the owner of a dog in an urban area has only a flat or a small house—which will be the situation in the majority of cases—and he does not have a garden, how will he exercise his dog? He dare not take it out on the pavement because it might foul the pavement. If he takes it on to the main road he and the dog might be knocked over. There are two or three matters like that which I would like to have defined.

As regards old-age pensioners, I understand—and this applies not to Northern Ireland only but to the whole of the United Kingdom—that there are now 10 million OAPs, which is a very big lobby when it comes to the electorate. If this order is followed in the United Kingdom it will encounter a lot of snags. It will be very unpopular legislation. I agree that one has to be very firm when it comes to the killing of sheep and the chasing of livestock. But we must remember that dog owners overall throughout the United Kingdom contribute a great deal to the economy. I understand that the Inland Revenue collects £3 million in VAT alone from dog owners. So I would advise the Government that, if they introduce this legislation for the whole of the United Kingdom—as no doubt they will—they should tread warily regarding dog owners, who comprise quite a considerable section of the population.

I understand that Professor Ketcher has said that dogs are very good for the health of human beings, especially for old people. I understand that he has carried out some experiments and found that if somebody is stroking or patting a dog his blood pressure goes down—though, of course, if the dog bites him it would go up! But it is good for people to have a dog, especially if they are old people who have no relatives and are all alone. In such cases a dog is essential and a great companion. Having said that, I only hope that if this legislation ever comes to the rest of the United Kingdom it will not follow letter for letter the statutory order now before us.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, the two noble Lords who have spoken have produced a veritable washing list of points to be raised on this draft order, and matters which in other circumstances would occupy the Committee stage of a Bill. I want first to make some comments on procedure. This order really emerges out of the twilight of parliamentary democracy in relation to Northern Ireland. If it applied to any other part of the country it would require an Act of Parliament because this order contains substantive new law, and, as my noble friend Lord Underhill pointed out, there are 56 articles covering 29 pages. This shows the problem of the governance of Northern Ireland by this instrument.

This is a draft order of the Privy Council. It is true, of course, that extensive consultation has taken place between the Secretary of State and Ministers and various interests in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. The caravan has gone around. It went to the Northern Ireland Committee of another place; it went to the Assembly at Stormont; it came back to the Floor of the House of Commons; and it has come here, its final destination. Nowhere along the route has it been possible for this order to be amended in a single particular by vote and decision of the respective instruments of government.

The Government have had experience only this afternoon of what votes may mean in your Lordships' House, in Parliament, where a principle of considerable importance, especially one which has an emotional content, has aroused widespread interest. Similar matters can be raised on this order. This order contains new law which is not at present in the primary law of the realm. It invents new offences, new forms of collecting fines and new punishments in relation to the treatment of dogs. For that reason alone it is very undesirable that matters of this complexity and importance should be dealt with in relation to one part of the United Kingdom not requiring legislation, instead of bringing a Bill before Parliament in the normal way.

This order is treated as delegated legislation, subordinate legislation. It is also relegated legislation, because it is the Cinderella of our parliamentary procedure. In another place the Standing Orders give this order one and a half hours after ten o'clock: that is its normal place in the parliamentary day. In your Lordships' House it is brought in during the supper interval, as if we were engaged to drown the clatter of feeding time. I hope noble Lords who are having their supper will get a message from us now that they need not hurry over their meal because the Committee stage of the Housing and Building Control Bill cannot be resumed at 8.30. I am glad to be assured by the Government Chief Whip that I need not feel harassed by the clock. Therefore, while, in another place, instead of an hour and a half they managed, by the fluke of business, to have three hours, in your Lordships' House, by representations to a reasonable Chief Whip for the Government, we are going to have what time we need on this draft order. So we can all sit back and relax, and send the message to the supper house to tell their Lordships that they can take time over their coffee.

The noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, has been at pains to say that this, of course, is an order specially for the conditions in Northern Ireland, which I am sure is true, and that it is not intended to introduce anything like this in the rest of the United Kingdom. But for that judgment to some extent he relies upon what the working party said in 1976 about differences in Northern Ireland. I think that if something is to be introduced for Northern Ireland alone, containing the important provisions of this draft order, some justification for doing that specially for Northern Ireland, as distinct from the rest of the United Kingdom, has to be advanced for our consideration.

I believe that the conditions in Northern Ireland are certainly different from those in the rest of the United Kingdom. It would be very surprising were it not so. But are the differences of degree, not of principle? The question is whether some of the contents of this order are justified to deal with differences in degree.

The Government have been very obstinate in saying that they do not intend to apply the recommendations of the working party to the rest of the United Kingdom. Their record over the last 12 or 18 months has been quite deplorable in this regard. They allowed a Private Member's Bill in another place, introduced by Mr. Aspinwall, to be the victim of a procedural ploy. The Government resisted the attempt in your Lordships' House to introduce on a voluntary basis into the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill some provisions for better dog control. But no, the Government were so keen on sex shops that they had no time and no room to deal with dogs. I believe that the Government should have introduced a substantive law into the United Kingdom as a whole and should then have introduced the marginal differences to meet the special circumstances of Northern Ireland.

The Minister has said that the working party of 1976 drew attention to the differences in Northern Ireland. What did they say? In paragraph 2.7 they said: Sheep worrying is a serious problem and we accept that special measures might be necessary there". That was a reference to Northern Ireland. Then in paragraph 17.4 they said: Sheep worrying in Northern Ireland has reached such proportions that the Northern Ireland authority might wish to strengthen its own laws on livestock worrying… beyond the existing limits which the working party find acceptable for England and Wales". So their approach to this was that they had recommendations to make for England and Wales, but they believed that Northern Ireland would need to go further into dog control than they were recommending for the rest of the country.

What the Government have done is to go against the context of the report of the working party and to do it the other way round. They have introduced a substantive law into Northern Ireland, with the declaration that they do not intend to introduce the substantive law anywhere else. I think that that is part of the mischief of the way in which we are having to govern Northern Ireland at the present time.

References have been made to the voluntary schemes which have been introduced by a number of local authorities in England and Wales. But these voluntary schemes have neither teeth nor the capacity for service, because the law has to be changed in England and Wales before they can match up to the recommendations of the working party. No local authority in England and Wales can increase the dog licence fee to pay for anything. Under the 1906 Act no local authority in England and Wales can transfer the control of dogs to local authorities without a change in the law. In fact, it is quite misleading to suggest that the situation has been met in England and Wales by local authorities adopting voluntary schemes. Therefore, my judgment on this is that the procedure is wrong; the approach is mistaken because the working party wanted the substantive law for the rest of the country first, with marginal differences for Northern Ireland.

Now let us look at what the order contains. My noble friend Lord Underhill and the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, have both raised a number of points, but curiously enough neither of them referred to the fact that a new offence is being created in Northern Ireland—the offence of the stray dog. Under Article 22 of the order it is now an offence—which, on summary conviction, can be punished by a fine of up to £200—if a dog is found straying and not accompanied by its owner or keeper. That is a new crime. At the present time a stray dog can be seized, can be detained, and can be disposed of if it is not claimed within the stiuplated period. The working party never recommended that a straying dog should expose its owner to a fine of up to £200 on summary conviction. Many people can inadvertently become separated from their dogs, to their great distress, and if their straying dog is picked up and taken to the authorities, that can be followed by a prosecution for the dog being allowed to stray.

Another point about the stray dog is that elsewhere the stray dog is one which is straying unaccompanied on a highway or a place of public resort. But under this order the area upon which a dog can be regarded as a stray is extended to cover land which is not that of the owner-occupier who owns the dog or its keeper; in fact, if it is on any land that does not belong to it, so to speak, the dog can be regarded as a stray. There is provision in the order for the area of catchment of stray dogs to be extended by further orders under Article 24.

Another provision of the order is that any person who finds a stray dog which is unaccompanied can detain it. Any person can act as a detainer of a dog. He is under no obligation to find the owner; he is under no obligation to get in touch with the owner, even if he knows who it is. He is required to report it to the police or other authority within 24 hours, when it will be collected. The dog can then be dealt with as a stray and the owner, if found, can be fined on summary conviction up to £200.

I will not dwell on the possibilities for mischief and hostility between neighbours to which those conditions could give rise. There is no obligation on the police or other authorities to contact the owner even if they know his name, whereas in the 1906 Act the police cannot destroy a dog without notifying the owner if they find his name on the dog's collar. There seems to be no provision in this order that the police have to do so. I believe that Articles 22, 23 and 24 are more heartless than any previous legislation on this subject, and certainly more harsh than the working party of 1976 recommended.

To make matters worse, the period of detention of the dog is reduced from seven to five days, a point already referred to by the noble Viscount. It is true that this was a recommendation of the working party but there was widespread opposition to this recommendation when it was made. I should have thought that in Northern Ireland with all the social disruption and the possibility of dogs being scattered around, losing their homes and owners, there was a case for the longer rather than the shorter period. I should have thought that in Northern Ireland there was a much stronger case for seven days being allowed before a dog could be destroyed or disposed of, rather than the five days recommended by the working party, which is included in the draft order.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has given me some details of its own experience of the length of time taken by owners of lost dogs to claim them. These are the particulars for the year 1981 for Birmingham, Chobham in Surrey, Bradford and York. The proportion of owners who claimed their dogs on the fifth, sixth, seventh or even the eighth day was 9 per cent. in York, 20 per cent. in Chobham and 16 per cent. in Birmingham. That is a very high proportion of claimants of lost dogs in the period after the fifth day. A point I mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Cottesloe, is that Battersea Dogs' Home does not keep statistics on the same basis as the RSPCA, and I can only tell your Lordships that there the average time for collecting dogs is three and a half days. That might suggest that dogs are claimed more easily after only a few days in the London area than elsewhere.

I want now to refer to Article 25. Reference has been made to the fact that a dog owner must keep his dog on the lead when taking the dog on any land where livestock are and have the right to be. This was described by the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, as meaning that a dog owner would have to take his dog for a walk on the lead. It is very difficult to know whether on land where there are public footpaths it would be necessary to keep a dog on the lead even though there were no cattle in the field. I certainly feel that some of these provisions in relation to Northern Ireland need to be carefully monitored to bring out how they are going to work, especially in the unsympathetic atmosphere which appears to be created by this draft order.

When we come to the destruction of dogs the provisions of Article 33(1) are quite monstrous: Where it appears to a court that a dog has—

  1. (a) attacked any person; or
  2. (b) attacked or killed livestock"
the court shall impose a mandatory penalty of destruction. There is no provision in Article 33(1) for an order to be made by the court in those circumstances for the dog to be kept under proper control. The court must give an order for destruction. Then, the question is: what is an attack? The noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, mentioned this a few moments ago. The word "attack" in relation to a person is covered by Article 2(2)(b) and may mean: behaving in such a manner so as to cause a person apprehension of being attacked". That is what may be an attack; and if the court are satisfied that the dog behaved in such a manner as to cause a person apprehension of being attacked, the court must order its destruction. There is a right of appeal in paragraph (7) of Article 33 but that applies only if there is an owner to make an appeal on behalf of the dog. Otherwise, when the court are satisfied there is no more to be said and down that dog will go. That is much too harsh.

The 1871 Act which is repealed by this order makes provision for an order to be made for proper control in all cases but in Northern Ireland they are going to distinguish between a mandatory order for destruction in the case of an attack on persons or animals; and in Article 2(2)(a) there is provision for what is to happen to a dog that chases livestock.

I will quote now from Article 33(1): Where it appears to a court that a dog has chased livestock in such a way as might reasonably have been expected to cause injury or suffering to the livestock or to result in financial loss to the owner of the livestock the court shall—

  1. (a) make an order directing the dog to be destroyed; or
  2. (b) make an order directing the dog to be kept confined in a building, shed, yard or other enclosure from which it cannot escape".
So there is a less harsh punishment for the dog that is chasing livestock than for the dog which makes as if it is attacking a human being. These are important matters of substantive law and it is quite undesirable that some of these things should be introduced in an order relating to Northern Ireland.

I finish by saying that, taking the draft order as a whole, its foundations were laid in the report of the working party and in my own report in the same year, but happily our recommendations coincided. Both committees came to similar conclusions and were for discipline developed by a helpful and sympathetic dog warden system under which dog owners could feel that their companions had a respected place in society and would be protected as well as disciplined by the new and enlightened form of dog control. There is nothing at all like that in this order. Dog owners in Northern Ireland are being asked to pay £5, not for any service to the dog owners. There may be service to the community and to the authority but the £5 is not for service to dog owners. There is little or nothing in this order which is a service to the dog owners.

Personally, I feel that the order contains features which I, for one, would have strongly to oppose if they were being applied to this country. I am very sorry that the framework of a scheme of discipline of dogs which I described with a proper warden system, has been distorted and turned into the harsh set of proposals for Northern Ireland, a number of which I find extremely distasteful.

8.40 p.m.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, with his very great experience, not only of the working party but also of the whole issue of legislation affecting animals in this country, has made a powerful case with which the Government can agree: the case being that legislation of this kind in respect of Northern Ireland would be inappropriate in the rest of the United Kingdom. In fact, there is no substantive difference between the noble Lord and myself on that.

He mentioned at the beginning of his speech, in a sharp phrase which I noted down—and I am quoting him—"the mischief of the way in which we are having to govern Northern Ireland at the present time". There, again, I do not find myself very much at odds with the noble Lord, in spite of his criticisms of the way we are proceeding in respect of this order. I would refer him to our White Paper which is called Northern Ireland—A Framework for Devolution, in which we acknowledge that the special interests and circumstances in Northern Ireland would be best catered for by elected representatives within Northern Ireland itself.

It is also important to recognise that legislation of this kind is very much responsive legislation. It is responsive to a particular set of difficulties and a particular set of requests by people in Northern Ireland that the Government should tackle them. We are proceeding by direct rule, as we regret, and, as I say each year as we renew it, which we do, that is the only method available to us. Therefore, I do not think that it is fair for the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, to suggest that the Govenment are, as it were, somehow legislating in a high-handed, unresponsive or undemocratic way, because this matter is governed by the limitations of the direct rule system which they are trying so hard to change in other aspects of policy.

There is another point I should like to make before coming to some of the substantive questions asked me. I would address it, as well as of course to the whole House, specifically to the noble Lords, Lord Houghton and Lord Underhill, who I think gave some suggestion that Northern Ireland should not be setting what they might see as a pattern and precedent for the rest of the United Kingdom in this regard. With respect to him, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, was a little more ambivalent here than the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, because he acknowledged that there might be differences in Northern Ireland, and as a spokesman on Northern Ireland affairs he is of course in a good position to judge that.

What perhaps both noble Lords are leaving out is the immense problem faced by the police in Northern Ireland. This is not the time to go into it, but we all know the kind of activities in which the police are engaged in Northern Ireland. No one regrets that more than I do as their sponsoring Minister at the present time. Nevertheless, it seems to me only responsible to try to relieve them, if we can, of a severe problem, though a problem which is less severe in kind than many of the problems that they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

We are not putting the police out of the picture altogether. Obviously in disputed issues, or where questions of criminal law are involved, the police will still be in play; but we believe that in this way we can perform something of the same function as the traffic warden system in Britain, when, as your Lordships remember, problems of traffic control were not taken out of the hands of the police but an extra body was added in order to try to relieve them for other important tasks.

Those are the sort of philosophical or Second Reading points about the order that I should like to make. May I now turn to some of the specific questions which have been put to me. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked about district councils in respect of the exemption for the elderly. The councils have to satisfy themselves that the person is over 65 and is living alone; and it will also be for them to decide whether or not to use the Post Office as an agent for collection here. If I might again revert to the more general political point, many people in Northern Ireland have asked that we should give back more powers and more responsibilities to district councils, and they have very much welcomed this move.

On the question of the review of the order, of course the position will be monitored. But, as was indicated in another place, we cannot give assurances to bring it before Parliament after any given period of time. Northern Ireland is not noted for reticence on matters which are important to it, and I would think it unlikely that either Northern Ireland MPs in another place or Northern Ireland Peers in your Lordships' House, or members of the Assembly or the district councils themselves, would not be monitoring these proposals in the light of how they turned out in practice.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked me why dog breeders and multi-dog owners should pay less. It was felt desirable to introduce the block licence system for those who had a good reason for keeping a number of dogs. Wherever the line is drawn in relation to multi-dog owners there will be some anomaly. We decided that the block licence should be available for three or more bitches any of which is used for breeding, or three or more dogs registered with a prescribed organisation.

The noble Lord also asked why the draft order does not state that licences should be valid for one year. An annual licence is proposed initially in all cases, but it may be that, as things evolve in the future, licences could be issued for longer periods so as to cut down on administrative costs. Therefore, in the interests of flexibility the duration of the licence will be prescribed in subordinate regulations. I can say to the noble Lord who asked how we could ensure that district councils would use their income under the order for proper purposes that the department will monitor income and expenditure on a countrywide basis through financial returns from individual district councils; and over a period of time the department will decide in conjunction with the councils and other interested organisations if adjustments are necessary.

On the issue of the licence fees, I think that licence fee costs should be borne by dog owners to encourage responsible dog ownership. There is always criticism with any increase of fee, but it is an article of conventional wisdom that the dog licence, like other licences, has become wholly uneconomic and, as a result, is something of a problem child where licensing generally is concerned. I do not think that the cost we are proposing is exorbitant even in relation to the economic difficulties faced by the Province, which the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, mentioned.

He asked me when the proposed order would come into operation. The provisions in Articles 28 to 30, which would give farmers greater protection against livestock worrying, will come into operation automatically two months after the order is made. The remaining provisions will be brought into operation by commencement orders. The timing of the implementation will be the subject of further consultations with the Association of Local Authorities of Northern Ireland. Since they are going to have these powers, obviously we want to be closely in touch with them about when the powers are to start being used.

There was the question put to me by the noble Lord about visitors bringing dogs into Northern Ireland. Article 6(1) provides that licences shall be issued by district councils for dogs kept by persons resident in their areas. As the draft order now stands, a short-term visitor to the Province is not exempt from the requirement either to take out a licence for the dog or to pay a licence fee, but there are powers in Article 5(f) to make orders to exempt from the licensing requirement dogs kept by prescribed persons. There are also powers in Article 7(3) to exempt from the payment of licence fees specified persons in specified circumstances. These regulation powers provide the necessary flexibility to deal with dogs belonging to visitors as the need arises. All parts of Northern Ireland are very keen on tourism, which is a major economic factor in the Province and which we wish to see increase as things, we hope, improve. I think that we must rely on the common sense of district councils to apply those provisions reasonably.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked about exemptions from payment of licence and whether the exemptions in Article 7(3) were in addition to the exemption from the requirement in Article 5(f). This is an additional exemption and it is needed to cover the situation where it is desirable to have a dog registered but, at the same time, to exempt the keeper from payment of licence fee. This provision could cover dogs currently licensed in the rest of the United Kingdom and brought into Northern Ireland for short periods only. So, again, it is a flexible provision. The noble Lord asked me if service dogs were exempt from licensing. Dogs kept by the Army, the Royal Air Force or the prison service would be automatically excluded from licensing by Crown exemption. It is necessary to include a specific exemption—and that is in Article 5(e)—for dogs used for police purposes by the Northern Ireland police authority because these may not be covered by the Crown exemption.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked if the powers of officers under Article 21 to require the production of licences include RUC officers. The straight answer to that is, No. "Officer" in this context means an officer of the district council authorised in writing by the council. As I have said earlier, the RUC have overriding powers in other legislation to enforce the law in relation to criminal offences. This could cover the production of licences if an offence was suspected. On the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, about offence provisions relating to attacks from dogs, guard dogs are not exempted directly in Articles 28 and 29 of the draft order but there is power to exempt dogs used for such other purposes as the department may by order specify and these orders would include guard dogs used by the forces and by the prison service. They could also exempt guard dogs used by private individuals and registered guard-dog kennels. I must tell the House that no decision has yet been taken on the latter aspect. I shall of course attend to the argument that the noble Lord made.

My noble friend Lord Massereene wondered how many dogs there were in Northern Ireland. We have not done a census but the varous interests with whom we discussed the legislation believe the figure to be in the region of 170,000. He asked, too, about the fixed-penalty system. This was also criticised by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. It is our judgment that the fixed-penalty system will not, per se, antagonise the public, who will be given an opportunity to avoid the inconvenience of a court appearance by the payment of a penalty. Therefore, the fixed-penalty system has advantages in reducing the burden on the rather overworked court service. We do not envisage that the dog control officers' main function will be the handing out of fixed-penalty tickets. We hope that he or she will also be playing a more positive role in advising and educating dog owners. My noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard asked about the selection of dog wardens. The district councils, I am sure, will take great care in the selection of wardens and the powers which are laid down are, on our judgment, the minimum necessary to deal with the specially serious problems in Northern Ireland which I outlined at the beginning.

Coming to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, I tried at the beginning to deal with some of the points of principle to which he objected. But, on specific issues, he questioned the sharp increase in fines in relation to straying offences and the maximum figure of £200. So many of our discussions over the last 10 years have been dealing with inflation that I would remind your Lordships that £200 is only a little over £40 in 1970 terms; although that may not be much of a consolation if you are fined it.

I would also point out that this is a maximum figure. There would be discretion in the penalties up to that figure. I am reminded that straying is an offence subject to the fixed-penalty procedure and, therefore, it is likely that the majority of offending dog owners would opt to pay the £10 fixed penalty to avoid the inconvenience of a court appearance and the possible risk of a £200 fine. Straying between sunset and sunrise is presently an offence; and there is a fine of £20. In Northern Ireland, between sunset and sunrise a dog must be confined in a building or shed and so on or effectively secured or accompanied by and under the control of the owner or other person. Straying, under existing legislation in Northern Ireland, is not restricted to a place of public resort.

Both my noble friend Lord Massereene and the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, asked whether five days were long enough to keep a dog in the pound to be claimed by its owner. It would seem to me that any caring, conscientious and responsible dog owner of the kind that we are anxious to encourage would make inquiries about a missing dog long before five days had passed. It may console both noble Lords if I say that the five-day period is a minimum period. It can be extended at the discretion of the councils and it is expected that maximum publicity will be given in each area to the location of pounds so that the conscientious dog owner will be able to trace his dog within that period.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, commented that in Article 33(1) the dog, as opposed to the owner, is put on trial and punished. That is true. But it is likely that in the case of attacks by dogs, the sanctions in Article 29 would also be invoked against the owner and he could be subject to a £200 maximum fine in addition to the deprivation of the dog if a destruction order were imposed. The powers to penalise dogs are not new, as I think the noble Lord acknowledged. Under the 1971 Dogs Act, courts could direct destruction or control orders against dogs which were proven to be dangerous. What is new in the Northern Ireland order is that, in the case of a dog attacking a person, the owner is guilty of an offence and liable to a fine. As the noble Lord acknowledged, there is an appeal if there is an owner. The court of appeal will also have the normal powers to confirm or quash the decisions of the original court or refer them back to that court; and there are no greater powers of discretion for the court of appeal between paragraphs 1 and 2.

Finally, both my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, questioned the mandatory powers of courts in Paragraph (1) of Article 33 to order the destruction of a dog which has attacked any person or behaved in such a manner as to cause a person apprehension of being attacked or who had attacked or killed livestock. There are mandatory powers in existing legislation to order the destruction of dogs where sheep are injured and it is simply proposed that under the order other livestock and, indeed, human beings should enjoy the same protection. It would seem to me that in the case of human beings, an attack might reasonably be avoided by the ingenuity of the person.

It is necessary to include the concept of putting in "fear" in the definition of "attack" but the courts will have to be satisfied that, in the circumstances, the dog had behaved in such a manner as to put a person in fear of actual attack. For example, the courts would have to be confident that the person was indeed fortunate to have escaped injury. I do not think that that would cover a nervous townsman or townswoman having his or her ankles sniffed at. The wording obviously allows the court considerable discretion and, as in all this legislation, we must trust the common sense and flexibility and also (I might close by saying) the well-known affection for dogs in Northern Ireland which we are liable to find in the courts as elsewhere there. I beg to move.

On Question, Motion agreed to.