HL Deb 12 April 1989 vol 506 cc364-76

10.46 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel: rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the increasing number of stray dogs, and the abolition of the dog licence, they will introduce a national scheme of dog registration.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I fear that the hour is very late and I shall therefore do my best to be short in what I have to say. I venture to ask this Question because I think that it touches upon a social problem of great importance. I wish to draw the Government's attention to the serious social and humanitarian problem caused by the uncontrolled and increasing growth in the population of dogs. For example, this has resulted in the destruction of an estimated 1,000 unwanted, homeless dogs every day last year in the United Kingdom by the RSPCA, and other welfare agencies. It has also resulted in an increase in dog abuse to record levels whereby as many as 1,100 people have been convicted under the Protection of Animals (Amendment) Act 1988. I believe that much of this unnecessary suffering could be prevented by the introduction of a system of dog registration which the Government have the power to introduce under the provisions of the Local Government Finance Act 1988. They can do so by means of a simple administrative order, without the need for fresh legislation.

Public awareness, and concern, about this problem is growing rapidly. A recent opinion poll indicated that some 82 per cent. of the public would support the Government in any action they are prepared to take to remedy the situation. Registration is strongly advocated by the RSPCA. The society, I suppose, represents the conscience of the country so far as concerns animal welfare. However, it does not recommend—and neither do I—a return to the old dog licence. The dog licence was completely out of date and cost more to administer than the revenue which it brought in. Indeed, its abolition has made very little difference to the problem of the surplus dogs.

The Government's mistake at that time was to put nothing better in place of the dog licence when it was abolished. What is shown to be needed now is the earliest possible scheme for the compulsory registration of dogs, with a sufficient registration fee to fund the dog warden service of the local authorities, and to deter the irresponsible dog owner who will think twice before parting with the larger payment required.

The amount of the fee would obviously be related to the costs that it covered. There should be appropriate exemptions for the old and handicapped. There should also be a reduced rate for owners who neuter their dogs. If dogs were neutered, that would go a long way towards meeting the difficulty.

Registration would serve also to identify the dog and its owner. Identification is essential for law enforcement and for the return of stray dogs to their owners. It is sometimes said that this is impractical and could not be done. If it can be done in other countries, surely it can be done here. In France, for example, at the time of registration a unique identity number is tattooed on to the dog. The owner's name and address are recorded with the number. In the Republic of Ireland they use a silicon chip implant. Technology is used widely in the United States. That technology, I believe, will soon be available here.

There is of course the question of cost. The cost of registration should be set off against the cost to society of leaving things as they are. I take one item of social cost. It has been calculated that the cost of road accidents caused by stray or unescorted dogs is about £55 million a year. That is part of the total annual cost to society of about £70 million in terms of road accidents, hospital treatment for dog bites and injury to livestock resulting from savagery by stray dogs. That of course ignores the cost of police time and the work of voluntary agencies.

On the other hand, the cost of initial registration, the maintenance of a registration system and the administration by the local authority of a nationwide dog warden service is estimated to be about £44 million.

It is impossible precisely to set off the cost to society of irresponsible dog ownership against the cost of dog control and protection to the state and local authorities. However, it can be shown that a practical system of dog registration will be less expensive than the damage done now to society by leaving things as they are, let alone the costs as they will be if the situation continues to deteriorate.

The success of the new registration scheme would depend upon its effective enforcement by the district and borough authorities and on the degree to which it deterred irresponsible people from acquiring and later discarding dogs.

There is no doubt that many local authorities have an excellent dog warden service for the discharge of those responsibilities. But they represent less than half (probably about 200) the total number at borough or district level. Many more would employ dog wardens, and have said that they would, if they could afford it. That is why it is essential that the registration fee should cover most of the cost of a national dog warden service, even if the local authorities made a small additional contribution, as it would undoubtedly be, from the community charge.

One of the requirements of the new scheme would be to enable a local authority official to check to see that dog owners have registered. That requirement is obviously essential. There was little incentive for local authorities or the police to enforce payment of the old dog licence fee when it was so small. Nor was there an adequate designated body charged with so doing. There will be a much stronger incentive for the local authorities when their dog warden service depends upon the larger registration fee.

We can be justifiably proud of our reputation as a country that cares about animals. However, we cannot allow the present situation to continue and to get worse. The only way to check the disastrous consequences of an increasing dog population, without an increased sense of responsibility and care on the part of dog owners, is for the Government to intervene by the use of their power to introduce a compulsory registration scheme, and the sooner the better. I need hardly say that animal welfare is not, and has never been, a party issue. Perhaps I might draw the Government's attention to an Early Day Motion, tabled in another place, in the name of Dame Janet Fookes and over 250 MPs of all parties, pressing for a national dog registration scheme. There is widespread support for such a scheme in both Houses by animal welfare organisations throughout the country and by public opinion when it has been tested.

I shall not have another opportunity of speaking in this debate so I should like in advance to thank my noble friend Lord Irving who has had long experience of matters connected with dogs, and any other noble Lords who may wish to speak in the debate, for their contributions.

10.55 p.m.

Lord Colwyn

My Lords, I feel sure that we are all very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord. Listowel, for bringing this subject to our attention, this evening. Despite the very late hour, I feel he has raised a subject that needs discussion: a subject on which many of us have strong views.

I personally am not an expert on dogs, I have never owned one, and as long as I remain a resident in London, it seems unlikely that I would ever inflict the life that many city dogs have to lead on a pet of my own. Your Lordships and most members of the public cannot have remained unmoved by the recent advertising by the RSPCA explaining that there are currently 500,000 stray and unwanted dogs roaming our streets with many thousands more in animal homes across the country, and that the RSPCA—an organisation dedicated to the well being of animals—has to destroy about 1,000 dogs every day.

It is not necessary for me to repeat the statistics for road accidents, damage to farm animals, the cost of cleaning up the mess made by dogs, as mentioned by the noble Earl. But I want to add my voice to those of other noble Lords who support the introduction of a dog registration scheme. The arguments in favour are overwhelming, and I should have thought that the prospect of saving some of the estimated £70 million a year (or I read in the current edition of the RSPCA journal that it is now £78.6 million) of public money spent on dealing with stray dogs, would have been a most attractive initiative to the Government.

Living as I do in central London, I find the avoidance of dog mess is a daily problem. In residential areas, the roads and pavements are contaminated and it is impossible to take young children for a walk in any of London's parks without having carefully to watch each step one takes. I do not know anyone with a young family who does not regard this as a major problem. Having two young daughters myself who regularly use the London parks, I find it is an aspect which causes me great concern.

Experts have tested soil samples taken from parks and play areas in London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Belfast, Liverpool, Hull, Exeter, Cardiff, Newcastle and Bristol and have found that at least half of these city centre parks are dangerously contaminated with the toxicara canis parasite, which is spread by dog excrement. These results were achieved on the basis of three small scoops of earth from each park, and it seemed likely that the negative result at the other five sites may only mean that they are less heavily contaminated.

The parasite eggs, which can survive very adverse conditions, can remain in the soil for many years. If these eggs are ingested by humans, they can cause various disorders, including stomach pains, liver damage and in the worst cases blindness. A paper published in The Lancet on 26th March 1988 found that 137 members of 30 families attending the National Children's Hospital were seropositive for toxicara antibodies.

The clinical features most commonly found were abdominal pain, liver damage, anorexia, nausea, vomiting, lethargy, sleep and behaviour disturbances, pneumonia, cough, sore throat, headache, limb pains and fever. These are all common childhood complaints.

The parasite cannot reproduce in humans, but if its eggs hatch, the tiny larvae easily penetrate the stomach wall and can cause damage and inflammation to nerves and body organs. Unlike some other countries, Britain has not made the disease a notifiable one and researchers believe thousands of people, especially children, suffer unexplained, hidden illness every year. About 100 cases of blindness are attributed to it annually, half of which are among children.

With considerable foresight, this House introduced an amendment to local government legislation to allow councils self-financing dog registration schemes which would pay for wardens, street cleaning and the education of dog owners. I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm this fact and say whether all local authorities have powers to enforce regulations to prevent dogs having unlimited access to all areas in city parks, and to make it compulsory for owners to clean up the mess their dogs make in the parks and on the streets.

I should like to know what rights a private citizen has to help enforce the regulations concerning dogs. Every time I have tried to reason with dog owners that it is not fair that their dog make a mess directly outside my house or on the grass where my children are playing, it is not uncommon to receive a tirade of verbal abuse to which there is no polite answer.

Finally, I should like the Minister to comment on the incidence of infection with toxicara canis and whether he could recommend that it become a notifiable disease. If over 100 people a year were being blinded by a food additive, a new drug, or by airborne pollution, there would be a massive public outcry. There would be demonstrations and demands for government action. Why is it that the effect of this parasite, which could so easily be controlled, is considered so unimportant?

If this debate had not been taking place so late in the evening I am sure there would have been many more noble Lords speaking in favour of registration for dogs. I am only sorry we could not hear the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. I hope that the Minister, who, I know, has had a very taxing and heavy day looking round sewerage works, has seen the excellent notes from the RSPCA. The society makes a clear and concise case for registration, and I hope the Minister can say that the Government are going to take that advice.

11.2 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I wish to thank the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for giving us the opportunity, albeit at this very late hour, to debate a problem that has been discussed previously in your Lordships' House. There was recently a Starred Question on the subject.

I wish to commiserate with the noble Earl. The lateness of the hour has obviously reduced the number of speakers. The name of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has been mentioned. We miss too the contribution of the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene of Ferrard, a tremendous expert on animal welfare.

It seems to me, as it must seem to millions of people, a very extraordinary and rather ironic situation that we, who pride ourselves and are known and in some cases ridiculed for our attitude to animals and our care of animals of all kinds, particularly domestic animals, find ourselves in a situation where, as has been mentioned by the noble Earl who introduced the debate, 1,000 unwanted animals are killed every day because they have been allowed to stray, have been abandoned or have been dumped. The cost of this in terms of road accidents, farm killings of sheep by stray dogs, often in packs but singly too, the damage done in public places such as parks—here again, this is often in packs, dogs being pack animals—and other costs, principally the cost of rounding up stray dogs wherever possible, amounts to some £75 million each year. That is a not inconsiderable sum.

It seems odd that in some quarters it should be considered not to be cost-effective to introduce a scheme of registration for dogs, such as has been recommended by previous speakers. Such a scheme would undoubtedly reduce the appalling scandal of the number of stray dogs and the resultant killing of those dogs. It would also reduce the costly accidents and the damage on farms which I have already mentioned.

In addition, the registration of dogs by sensible modern methods need not be very expensive. Technology has advanced to a stage where it is possible to plant a small microchip on a dog. That could be scanned easily by people authorised to do so and would give information about the ownership of the dog in order that the authorities could bring the owner and the dog together. Often it may not be necessary for a prosecution to be brought or for someone to be brought to book for dumping their dog. It may be that people's dogs have strayed. Many dogs stray, dogs which are owned by responsible and caring dog owners. Dogs stray for all kinds of reasons and the present difficulty in tracing them is unnecessary when we could apply modern technology to make reuniting them with their owners easier.

The main cause of dogs being dumped is irresponsibility. There may be exceptions, but usually the reason is the irresponsibility of the dog owner. Is it not time to make the trouble and cost of registering a dog a hurdle which a potential dog owner has to get over? It is far too easy, in these days of easy access to consumer items, for people to regard dogs as an appendage to their lifestyle. Then when they get bored they discard them. I believe there should be such a hurdle to the ownership of dogs.

I do not know what the cost of such a system would be or what the Minister would consider to be an appropriate charge. It may be £5; it may be £10 or £40. After all, the cost of a television licence appears to be within the reach of most people. Of course there would be exemptions for those who are crippled with blindness or deafness, but such exemptions should not be too difficult to administer.

A number of points have been mentioned, and I was particularly impressed by the emphasis of the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, on cleanliness in our cities. The situation in this city is appalling. I do not know what conditions are like in other cities in Britain, but in certain parts of London the streets are an absolute disgrace. In my experience that does not happen in cities in Europe. I believe that in France there is already a registration system which requires compulsory inoculation against rabies.

That brings me to the question of what the position in Britain will be with regard to rabies when the Channel Tunnel is completed. I should be most interested to hear, if the Minister has time, how the Department of the Environment views the future. Perhaps we shall be forced ourselves to bring in compulsory inoculation of our dogs. Perhaps we shall be forced to follow the French—something we do not like doing—and bring in a sensible system of registration.

The present situation is a scandal. It is no good our pretending that the deaths of dogs and the damage that stray dogs cause is a matter that we can ignore and that we can let the market forces decide what is to happen. We ought to show the will to act now. It would be interesting to know whether the Minister can show that his department has the will if someone can come up with the ideas. I am sure that ideas abound to bring in a sensible scheme to stop this terrible situation in the country, which is a scandal compared with what happens in some of our fellow member countries of the European Community.

The hour is late so I will leave it there. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

11. 11 p.m.

The Earl of Buchan

My Lords, I address you briefly wearing two separate hats: one as an owner of dogs, and the other as vice-chairman of the Battersea Dogs Home. We have strong views on the subject. I think that I can fairly say that we have considerable experience of dealing with the easy side of the problem, the dogs; and with the much more difficult side of it, the humans.

We calculate that 10 per cent. of stray dogs in the country pass through our hands. We receive from the police every year 15,000 stray dogs. In our view, the dog problem must be dealt with by a nation-wide education policy on how to behave to dogs. They should not be presented as a joke, a "nice little furry thing", but there should be a discouragement of indiscriminate breeding. Neutering should be carried out on a large scale.

There should be an implanting programme. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, referred to this. I have with me an implant and, rather more interesting, an X-ray of a small dog with an implant. I shall be happy to show this to noble Lords if they so wish.

At Battersea Dogs Home we are pioneers in implanting policy. However, it is not an easy answer to the problem. The technique is not perfected yet; nor is it generally acceptable to the public, so far as we can see.

I therefore strongly support the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in the policy of trying to persuade the Government to do something about stray dogs. If I were not able to claim as charitable a disposition to humans as properly goes to dogs and all animals, I might be wondering whether Her Majesty's Government had a policy towards dogs similar to their policy in regard to schizophrenics, which I noticed in the earlier debate: they rather wish that it would go away. They have a policy of neglect, and not necessarily a particularly benign neglect.

On behalf of dog owners and the Battersea Dogs Home, I strongly urge the Government to introduce some form of dog registration scheme.

11.13 p.m.

Lord Irving of Dartford

My Lords, first I thank my noble friend Lord Listowel for giving us the opportunity to debate this matter, and for what he had to say.

The debate exposes a number of inconsistencies, if not incongruities, in government policy. The first fact that no one can avoid in the debate is the horrendous one that in this country of pet lovers—and there are 5.3 million homes with dogs—in 1986 240,000 dogs were declared stray dogs, with a total from all sources of 350,000 dogs, and 1,000 dogs a day were destroyed. That is an appalling fact. Not only have the Government not been prepared to do anything about this problem, in withdrawing the dog licence if anything they have made it more difficult to maintain dog warden schemes as the money previously available from the licence, although not much, is now not even available to local authorities.

The second fact is that five years ago the Government introduced a dog warden scheme in Northern Ireland on the lines recommended by JACOPIS (the Joint Advisory Committee on Pets in Society) of which I am chairman and of which my noble friend Lord Listowel was the previous chairman. JACOPIS involves almost every major animal welfare organisation—the RSPCA, the Small Animal Veterinary Association, the Veterinary Association, the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, the Pet Food Manufacturers' Association and a whole range of others.

In Northern Ireland everyone associated with animal welfare believes that that scheme has been very successful. Although the Government themselves have said that it is working well, they have steadfastly refused to entertain a similar scheme in Britain. On the contrary, they have withdrawn the dog licence without, as my noble friend said, putting anything in its place to deal with the serious problem which remains of stray dogs as a menace to our local people.

Even the money realised from the ludicrously inadequate fee of 37p has been withdrawn. The job of educating people, particularly children, in responsible dog ownership has been made more difficult. From January 1984 in Northern Ireland every keeper of a dog has had to have a licence. All the district councils have pounds and warden schemes and there have been some very positive trends. Between 1980 and 1983 47,500 licences were issued. Since then the number of licences issued has jumped by well over 60 per cent. The number of stray dogs impounded, together with the number of prosecutions for livestock worrying, although reaching a peak in 1985, are now declining. That peak was due to the establishment of the dog warden scheme by district councils. The decline in the number of strays continued in 1987. Cases of livestock worrying have fallen considerably. The Ulster Farmers' Union has commented that: Sheep are now being kept in areas close to built up communities where for many years past it has not been possible due to the fears of attacks from dogs". According to the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals there are fewer strays roaming unrestrained in Northern Ireland and many more dogs are walked on leads. In the view of that society the scheme has been a great success. The director says: Not only are dogs looked after better but fewer are suffering from irresponsible and uncaring dog owners. I feel personally that the changing attitude towards dogs in this country is encouraging". The general conclusion is that it has been a resounding success which makes the Government's action in abolishing the licence but putting nothing in its place in this part of the United Kingdom quite inexplicable. But the licence is not an end in itself. It is the foundation of a system of regulation that has been proved in Northern Ireland. The abandonment of the dog licence has reduced the sum of money available to local authorities because, as I have said, they will no longer receive the money collected from the licence. The Government will save the £3.5 million which they had to pay to collect the licence. The Government will gain, local authorities will lose and in addition they will be expected to find money from hard pressed resources for dog warden schemes.

As a member of a local authority I know well the pressure on finance for local government. Even when some money was available from the dog licence not every authority was able to maintain a dog warden scheme. In my view the chances of further local authorities being able to maintain schemes is very limited. One of the central difficulties is that unless one can identify the owner of a dog, enforcement of the 30 Acts which relate to dogs is almost impossible. The present requirement that every dog should have a collar is not precise enough proof of ownership to enforce the law against those who are cruel to dogs or those whose dogs worry sheep or bite postmen; nor is it sufficient to enforce the by-laws which the Government themselves have promulgated in respect to the fouling of pavements. It is necessary to know not just the house but the owner against whom action has to be taken.

If there is no dog licence, we need the registration scheme. That will give this information clearly, With this information, it is hoped that, as in Northern Ireland, the number of strays in these circumstances, and the number of dogs that are slaughtered, would be much reduced. However, this can be done only if there are dog wardens, as in Northern Ireland, to supervise and enforce the law, to encourage responsible dog ownership by education, to encourage the neutering of dogs, and to take strays back to their owners as quickly as possible, thus reducing the number of dogs—nearly 1,000 a day—that have to be put down.

Ideally, a registration scheme should be a national scheme in which an owner would register with his local council. The details would be transferred by the local council to the register. The details on the register would lapse after 15 years on the assumption that that is the natural life of a dog. A national registration scheme backed by law could provide a once and for all registration fee and provide money for a dog warden scheme. It would avoid the necessity for Government to have to spend money and it would raise standards all round. Because of the once and for all nature of the registration, it would not need a large bureaucracy, as would be the case if there were to be an annual payment for that purpose.

We are not aware of any real resistance to this scheme. On the contrary, responsible dog owners and non-owners alike both welcome it and think that it would be an improvement. As has been said, 250 Members of another place have signed an Early Day Motion demanding such a scheme. The Prime Minister has spent a good deal of time lately in trying to show her commitment to the environment. Yet here is a problem affecting everyone in which the Government have, if anything, taken a step backwards, leaving problems that exist and which affect everyone in the community. The Minister has also emasculated the by-laws which were approved in the pilot schemes, reducing the areas to which they would apply and where owners would be required to remove the faeces deposited by their dogs. This nuisance by fouling is becoming increasingly distasteful to more and more people and, as the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, said, to say nothing of the health hazard. Not only has rhetoric not matched action, but it has fallen further behind than it had reached previously.

One or two private schemes of registration are springing up. To be effective we need a national scheme, or at least guidelines should be laid down which would regulate these schemes, so that if a national scheme were required in future this would be possible without too much difficulty. This is an urgent problem. If the Government are serious about their concern for the environment, it is one with which they should deal speedily.

11.23 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Hesketh)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for the opportunity of debating the emotive subject of dog welfare and control and the view of many that to deal with these matters we need a scheme of dog registration. Many people, myself included, care deeply about animals, and dogs have a very special place in over 5 million households in this country. Dogs provide companionship for the old and lonely, pleasure and enjoyment for the young, and invaluable help to the blind. Sadly, however, there is also the neglected and the unwanted dog which is allowed to stray or to cause a nuisance because its owner is irresponsible.

I would remind the noble Lords of the reasons why we decided to abolish the dog licence in the Local Government Act 1988. There was, of course, the fact that the licence cost about £3.5 million to collect, which was far greater than the sum of £1 million that it raised in revenue, as the noble Earl pointed out to your Lordships' House. But that was not primarily the reason why we decided to abolish the dog licence. Our conclusion was based on the premise that the dog licence was an anachronism which did nothing to assist dog welfare or control and that there was no case for the retention of a bureaucratic licensing system which was costly and, more importantly, impossible to enforce. Similarly we do not accept that there is a case for the establishment of a national dog registration scheme, or that it would be any more successful than the licensing system that it is proposed that it would replace.

Let us consider what might have happened if, instead of abolishing the licence, we had substantially increased the licence fee. Responsible dog owners might be willing to pay £5 or £10 or even £20; and it is, of course, true that this is a small amount compared with the cost of keeping a dog.

However, responsible dog owners are not the problem. They are not the ones who are likely to cause suffering to their animals or allow them to be a nuisance. Those who acquire a dog at Christmas without sufficient thought for the long-term commitment involved, or who are prepared to turn their dogs out of doors all day while they are at work, are hardly likely to be willing, or to take the trouble, to pay a substantially increased fee. Even if they did, payment of such a fee would not make them any more responsible or caring as dog owners.

Stray dogs are the result of irresponsible ownership. Irresponsible ownership will not be changed by the imposition of a registration scheme which would, in effect, simply be another tax on dogs or their owners, just like the dog licence. There is absolutely no evidence that the number of stray dogs has increased or is increasing as a consequence of abolishing the dog licence. In fact, according to published RSPCA reports the number of dogs it puts down each year remained roughly constant during the 1980s. Dog licences provided no mechanism whereby a stray animal, without a collar bearing the owner's name, could be linked to its owner.

There is a considerable body of legislation relating to dog welfare and control which is unaffected by abolition of the licence and which does not depend on the existence of a licensing or registration scheme for its effectiveness. I cannot emphasise enough that it remains a legal requirement that a deg should wear a collar with a plate or disc showing the owner's name and address when in a highway or public place. Any caring owner will wish to ensure that his dog can be reunited with him if it wanders or, unhappily, is involved in an accident. It is irresponsible owners who allow their animals to roam the streets without any means of identification.

General legislation exists which provides powers to require a dangerous dog to be brought under control or destroyed. There is also legislation which makes owners liable for livestock worrying by their dogs. The protection of dogs from cruelty or unnecessary suffering is covered by general legislation.

I assure noble Lords that the plans to deal with rabies—this matter was raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland—should There be an outbreak in this country, are not at all dependent on a licensing or registration scheme.

Apart from the general legislation I have mentioned, local authorities have a wide range of powers to deal with dogs and it is they who are primarily responsible for many important aspects of dog control. In fact, we increased their powers on abolition of the dog licence.

That was brought to the attention of the House by the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn. I should like to point out some of the by-laws which are enforceable by local authorities. There are four types of by-laws for controlling the incidence of dog fouling. They are: a ban on dogs from certain areas; a requirement that owners should clear up after the dogs; a ban on fouling in certain areas; and a ban on dogs on beaches. A dog owner who commits an offence against any of those by-laws is liable to prosecution and a fine of up to £100.

Home Office statistics on prosecutions under local authority by-laws on dogs do not differentiate between the different offences, but statistics which are available for all dog by-laws are as follows. In 1985, 60 people were found guilty in the courts. There were 58 people in 1986 and 79 in 1987. According to the Home Office, many local authorities have by-laws banning dogs from parks.

Local authorities can also make by-laws relating to the fouling of footways and grass verges, or requiring owners to clear up after their dogs in parks, recreation grounds and open spaces. They can also bandogs from certain areas of parks, recreation grounds or beaches. They can also make orders which designate roads on which dogs must be kept on the lead. All this armoury of controls exists and is there to be used. It is quite independent of dog licensing or registration.

The Government take the view that a registration scheme would be little more than an inefficient way of funding a local authority service. Local authorities already have extensive powers to deal with dogs and the resources to fulfil their responsibilities. It is for them to determine their priorities. If local authorities were to budget for £1 per head per year once the community charge has been introduced this would produce £37 million, much more than any dog licence or registration fee. It is a better way of raising the money than charging a fee to responsible owners to pay for the problems caused by irresponsible people.

The central argument of those who wish to see a registration scheme introduced is this: by assigning a unique number to each individual animal, it would be possible to link any dog with its owner, and vice versa. By doing this, it is claimed that a number of benefits would be obtained; for example, in dealing with strays or enabling other legislation or by-laws to be enforced.

I have already reminded your Lordships that it is a requirement under present law that in public places a dog must wear a collar and tag bearing the owner's name and address. A moment's reflection will reveal that adding an identity number to the tag will not in fact achieve anything. If a stray dog has a disc with the owner's name and address, what need is there for the identity number? And if it has no collar and disc, what would be the value of the register?

One would need to go further by requiring all dogs to be permanently marked, either by being tattooed or being implanted with a microchip from which the unique number could be read. I question whether such a proposal would really be acceptable to the population at large. Indeed I wonder whether the implications have really been thought through.

There would need to be a central registry; the creation of the data-base; the design of computer systems with a network of terminals throughout the country to input data; the requirement for people to notify the central record of changes of address and dog ownership; and procedures for dealing with queries. All these things add up to a massive and expensive bureaucracy. The costs, including the costs of tattooing or implanting, would be very considerable.

But even then, even if the practical problems could be overcome, and the costs accepted, how would the scheme be enforced? Irresponsible dog owners would be likely to remain irresponsible and would evade registration. Enforcement would be likely to require draconian measures and a degree of intervention in the life of the ordinary citizen which would be unacceptable.

Would dog wardens be empowered to stop an owner, peacefully taking his or her dog for a walk, to check whether the animal has been tattooed or implanted? Or even worse, could we contemplate giving dog wardens powers of entry into private premises in order to check up on whether a registered dog lived at the premises? Those are surely the sort of powers necessary to ensure full compliance with a registration scheme.

My noble friend Lord Colwyn asked about toxicara canis. I realise that the parents of young children in particular may be concerned about the possibility of damage to sight from that disease. The Department of Health believes that there are around 50 cases of eye damage per year, some contracted abroad. It has no evidence to suggest that the problem is increasing. Even one case of permanent blindness per year is one too many. The problem can be so easily prevented by regular worming of pets, clearing up their mess when it occurs in play areas used by very small children and by giving general attention to personal hygiene. Local authorities also have the power to ban dogs from children's play areas in public parks.

The noble Lord, Lord Irving, brought to your Lordships' attention the situation in Northern Ireland. However, my understanding is that the number of stray dogs impounded by the authorities remains roughly constant, as does the number of dogs destroyed each year according to the latest figures which I have to hand. The difficult though simple problem which exists is not with the responsible dog owner but the irresponsible dog owner who, in the same way that he evaded the dog licence, will avoid a registration scheme.

I hope that I have shown that a registration scheme is not only unnecessary but, more importantly, that it would probably not achieve its objectives. It would be costly, complex and, I fear, probably unenforceable.

Lord Irving of Dartford

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down will he explain why the Government pay tribute to the way in which the scheme in Northern Ireland works, and why almost everyone concerned with animal welfare pays tribute to its effectiveness? Whatever the number of stray dogs, which may have gone up this year, that was not the case only 12 months ago. Therefore, why is the noble Lord condemning the scheme out of hand when everyone else thinks that it is worthwhile?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I was not condemning it. I was presenting to the noble Lord, Lord Irving, the facts that have been presented to me. Although the scheme has been admired in many quarters the results have perhaps not been as impressive as the noble Lord feels they may have been.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, they have been sold a pup!

House adjourned at twenty-four minutes before midnight.