HL Deb 18 July 1989 vol 510 cc758-66

7.2 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I am very happy indeed that the noble Earl, Lord Arran, is responding for the Government because the Bill owes its origin to his department. I am glad of his support in carrying out a task which is not a very happy one or on a very happy subject.

The Bill is about dogs given a very bad name. In fact it is about dogs that have been convicted by magistrates' courts in England or a court of summary jurisdiction in Scotland of being dangerous. It deals solely with dangerous dogs and tightens up a law which for some reason that I cannot explain has been unamended since 1871.

While capital punishment has been abolished for dangerous people, it has not been abolished for dangerous dogs. This Bill makes more certain that a dog sentenced to death suffers the extreme penalty. It is as doom-laden as that. At present a sentence of death on a dog may not be carried out due to some stratagem or evasion undertaken by its owner or, in some cases, by the willingness of the owner to pay the fine laid down in 1871 of £1 per clay for each day that he fails to carry out the execut ion ordered by the court. I confess that if I had a dog of which I was very fond, and I did not believe that it was a bad dog, I would willingly pay £1 a day to keep my dog alive. Some owners probably do so. However, the Bill will now tighten up that part of the existing legislation.

Before I go any further with the gloomy subject of dangerous dogs—which in this Bill must be convicted and sentenced to one of two penalties: either to be kept under proper control or destroyed—I should like to say a few words about good dogs to get the subject in proportion. There are far more good dogs than bad dogs. Noble Lords will not deny that dogs are the most popular companion animals in our domestic life today. I am firmly of the opinion that dogs bring more happiness to more households than children. They are nothing like so much trouble, they are usually more obedient and they do not leave one as they grow up. Many pensioners and lonely people find their dog their lifeline and a relief from feelings of isolation and neglect. We must not minimise the therapeutic value of dogs for human beings.

On the whole I believe that we treat our dogs well and they deal with their owners pretty well too. We find it difficult to express sometimes the affection that we feel for our companion animals. I must express a word or two of sympathy for some dogs who are so ill-treated and neglected that it is difficult for them to remain good. The owners of dogs must take more responsibility in many cases for their animals. On the whole too I believe that the instinct of most dogs is one of friendliness, cheerfulness and a desire to serve their owners. We have many strays which are leading a very unhappy life. It is difficult for them to remain good when they are in extremities through lack of either food or care.

That is all that I wish to say about good dogs. I also wish to make clear that the Bill has nothing to do with the campaign for registration. It has nothing do with anything but dangerous dogs. The law regarding them is brief and explicit, and is to be amended in this Bill, and nothing else.

The Bill has no doubt been sparked off by recent publicity given to a few occasions when dogs of comparatively new entry into our realms of canine fear have been misbehaving and have done serious injury to children and others. Otherwise, the 1871 Act would probably have been left where it was. Since 1871 we have managed without bringing the law on dangerous dogs up to date or increasing the penalties in it. However, that certainly needed to be done. If noble Lords were to ask me what has happened to dangerous dogs in the past 100 years under the weakened law, at the present time my answer would be simply that I do not know. I am prepared to let sleeping dogs lie.

The Bill has a most respectable pedigree. It was sired by the Secretary of State and mothered by Dame Janet Fookes MP, a member of the council of the RSPCA. She has an enviable track record for end of Session successes with short, useful but non-contentious Bills of which this is one.

Another thing about the Bill is that it comes from the Commons on conditions which one might say reveal Parliament at its best: few Members in the Chamber, very little said about it, no noisy scenes, no controversy, a few nods round and about, and the Bill goes on its way—just like the House of Lords. We are repeating the best in our parliamentary practice again this evening.

I must obviously say something more about the Bill, although I hope that we shall refrain from moving amendments. There is no more private time available down the corridor and we now want the Bill to reach the statute book expeditiously. I hope that we can let it go as it is.

As regards the detail, the Bill enables a court to take a dog away from its owner so that it can be destroyed. That is not possible at present. The magistrates' court when sentencing a dog to be destroyed can appoint a person to receive the dog to kill it. It places an obligation upon the owner of the dog to deliver it up to the person who is nominated as the executioner. The penalty for failing to keep a dog under control, which is the more lenient sentence that can be passed on a dangerous animal, is stepped up. There is a pretty heavy fine and new power in the hands of the court to punish an owner who fails to deliver up his dog for the destruction that the court has decided that it should suffer. The fine for failure to deliver up is not a £1 a day but £400. Clearly that could amount to a very large sum for repeated failures to hand over.

Another provision that the Bill contains which is not part of the existing law is to ban an owner from keeping a dog after the court has dealt with the dog which he owned. At present an owner of a dangerous dog cannot be banned from keeping another dog unless the dangerous dog has been the subject of cruelty. The owner must have been guilty of cruelty to a dog. It seems as though a double penalty rests upon some of these dogs. First, the owner is cruel to them and they suffer a sentence of the court for being dangerous. However, the Bill provides that the court can ban an owner from keeping another dog. That provision is specifically aimed at the suspicion that some people are keeping highly dangerous animals so that they can use them for unlawful purposes. It concerns the marginal range of fighting dogs.

If the court is of the opinion that an owner is keeping animals which he ought not to have for any lawful or approved purpose it can ban him from keeping another dog for any period that the court may direct. However, the Bill provides that if the owner is banned from keeping another dog for a stipulated period he may appeal to the court to have the disqualification removed after a year.

The Bill contains a right of appeal to the Crown Court by the owner of a dog who wishes to contest what the magistrates court decides in England and Wales. The Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland and, as I have said, it is to be administered by a court of summary jurisdiction in Scotland.

This is what the Bill amounts to. In reading the Bill, I discovered how lucid it was; one can follow the detail of it easily. It is a short Bill and in some respects a small one, but it ties up the weaknesses of the existing legislation. It only takes a case or two which expose the weakness in our laws for the media soon to open up a huge campaign clamouring for something to be done. I believe that the recent publicity given to dangerous dogs and the haste with which the Bill has been prepared is due to some exaggeration of the real danger, grievous though the risk may be in some individual cases. I am not complaining but merely asking that we keep it in proportion.

There are about 6 or 7 million dogs and 99 per cent. of those are good dogs, so we must not get the whole thing out of proportion. There are some people with a macho disposition or outlook on life who must have a big dog walking at their side wearing a heavy collar; a dog from which passers by shrink from contact in case it is dangerous. What those people would really like to carry is a gun. They are not the kind of people who use a dog for ordinary purposes. Nevertheless, they have to be stopped if they are harbouring a dangerous dog.

There we are. I sincerely hope that my appeal for a swift passage for the Bill will be observed and that we can get this little Bill on the statute book. I am very happy to do something more for animals, even though it is on this unhappy subject. I am glad that I have been trusted with this task in your Lordships' House. Linked with two similar Bills last year—one on cruel tethering and the other dealing with the weaknesses in the law on dog fighting and now this one on dangerous dogs—I hope that I am not getting the wrong kind of reputation, but they all probably amount to animal welfare. I hope that one day soon the wider issue of the dog problem in Britain will be considered sympathetically and comprehensively by your Lordships' House. In the meantime, the target is small and clear and it is not likely to be improved by bringing in matters which are not relevant to it.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Lord Houghton of Sowerby.)

7.18 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I rise with diffidence after an expert such as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. Indeed my experiences with dogs have been somewhat mixed. My experience with children is unlike that of the noble Lord, although he made his remarks somewhat jocularly. I was bitten by dogs several times up to the age of 10. I do not think any dog bit me after the age of 10, but I was extremely nervous up to that age. I do not think I have been bitten by any child, certainly not by my own children. I have treated dogs with enormous respect. I love dogs. I do not have one myself but I have many friends who have dogs and most of them are extremely likeable. To my knowledge none of them is dangerous.

I accept the fact that 99 per cent. of dogs are perfectly well behaved, as the noble Lord said. I find no evidence to the contrary. I have heard that there are approximately 7.5 million dogs in this country. If only 1 per cent. are not well behaved that is still a lot of dogs.

I accept the provisions laid out in the Bill and I agree that we should not delay its passage through this House. It answers the development in this country of the breeding of dogs whose characteristics Members of your Lordships' House would not wish to see. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, covered that point very well. Some people in our community desire to reflect their own aggressive instincts and behaviour in their dog ownership. There are breeders who can satisfy that demand and we have seen the result of that. Recently there have been upsetting and tragic cases involving breeds of dog which have a reputation for instability and which can become fierce. I accept the noble Lord's comment that dogs generally behave in acccordance with the treatment given by their owners. Therefore we are dealing with the owners of a small percentage of the dog population.

The Bill covers all the points. Society has been greatly worried about the difficulty experienced by the courts in ensuring that owners destroy uncontrollable and dangerous dogs. The Bill not only makes possible a direct destruction order, rather than requiring the owner to comply with a court order; it also makes possible the banning of owners who have a bad record, which is all to the good.

It must be understood by members of the public, as it is understood in your Lordships' House, that dogs should not be subject to such legislation until there has been a proper court case. Therefore the Bill creates a proper safeguard: the owner of a dog which has savaged a child, or any other person, must go through the court.

The Bill reflects the Government's views. It has nothing to do with a dog registration scheme; it is about dangerous dogs. It separates them from other dogs, and that again is all for the good. The Bill is set against the background of a small country with 7 million or 8 million dogs. It is impossible to be precise because we do not have a dog registration scheme.

Most members of the public and most people in parliament would agree that it is time that we had such a registration scheme into which this legislation would properly fit. We hope that in the next Session of Parliament the Government will reel that it is time for a move in that direction. That has been stated many times in your Lordships' House, but the Government's attitude towards the difficulties of a dog registration scheme are not clear. I have always understood Ministers who have answered Questions about the matter to say that the problem lies in enforcing the legislation on owners. Experience in other countries shows that that is possible. It can be made cost-effective by introducing a proper scheme.

I shall say no more about that, because, as the noble Lord said, it is not part of the Bill.

I welcome the Bill, as will all noble Lords. I hope that it has a speedy process through Parliament and that it will form an important part of the move towards dog registration which in time must be introduced. I hope that as a result of the Bill there will be a reduction in the number of tragic events, which have escalated over the past year, in which dogs have caused injury and sometimes death to young children.

7.25 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I should also like to thank my noble friend Lord Houghton for again bringing forward an important measure. In this case it relates to the problem of dangerous dogs. The Bill goes some way towards strengthening controls over such dogs. It allays the fears of some members of the public who are anxious about the more combative breeds of dog.

I am glad that my noble friend put forward the case that dogs are companionable animals and a great solace to many families, particularly to the elderly to whom they bring an escape from loneliness. It is important to say that at the beginning of a debate which is about the darker side of dogs. We must remember that in many cases they are regarded as part of the family and of great use.

I support my noble friend when he said that the Bill is a useful addition to the law. He has put forward all the points contained in the Bill and there is nothing else that I can add. There is a need for tougher controls following the recent tragedies concerning attacks on young children and adults by vicious animals which have received a great deal of publicity.

No doubt noble Lords read an account in the Sunday Times magazine of June 1989. The account may have been exaggerated but it gave some worrying statistics. It showed that recently the number of stray dogs has risen enormously, and a multitude of problems have arisen as a result. I was horrified to read the following statistics: stray dogs cause approximately 50,000 road accidents per year. Since the abolition of the dog licence last year the RSPCA estimates that as many as 1,000 dogs are destroyed each day. Illnesses caused by the fouling of parks and pavements are constantly increasing, as are attacks on livestock and people. It is clear that something must be done to make owners responsible for their dogs in order to control them and diminish the growing number of strays. That is an important purpose of the Bill.

There is an urgent need to bring forward the controls. According to the latest estimates, there were more than 7 million dogs in the United Kingdom in 1988. That was 500,000 more than in the previous year, so clearly the dog population is rising although care for them is not increasing. The increase in the number of dogs is forecast to continue, and no doubt the problems will continue to grow.

However, as the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, said, although I know that it is outside this Bill, nevertheless I think it is important to say this —we hope that there may be some movement made on the national dog registration scheme which has been asked for for so long from so many different quarters. It is quite clear that it would run very well in conjunction with the Bill. I shall not go on about the scheme because a great deal has already been said, and a great deal may well be said on the discussion of the Local Government and Housing Bill. Therefore, we must keep to the strict and narrow point of this Bill, as my noble friend said, and welcome what it is bringing us.

As my noble friend said, this Bill aims to make the owners of dangerous dogs more accountable. I should like to ask my noble friend about this. A matter of concern is that in the Bill if a person is found not to have handed over his dog then, as a consequence, he is banned from owning a dog. I should like to know who will monitor such people to check that they do not subsequently keep dogs as pets. I know that this Bill will not be amended, but I should like to ask my noble friend how he feels that that will work out and whether somebody will monitor those people in order to ensure that they do not keep dogs as pets in the future.

I support my noble friend's Bill and I wish it a speedy passage through your Lordships' House. I hope that in the future there will be further progress made towards a registration scheme which, as I say, would work in conjunction with the provisions of this Bill and make a big step forward in dealing with the problems which undoubtedly arise through stray dogs and the effects of them.

7.31 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I welcome the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in introducing this Bill this evening. This is a measure which has all-party support. The Government certainly unreservedly welcome it. In our view, it is a well-aimed measure to greatly increase the effectiveness of the sanctions which are available to courts to control dangerous dogs and to respond to public concern—a point mentioned by many noble Lords this evening. Your Lordships will need no reminding of Lord Houghton's expertise in this field and he introduced the Bill this evening in a characteristically eloquent way.

Your Lordships have heard how this Bill has three important elements, and I wish to underline those. The first is that it increases the penalty, which is on the face of the Dogs Act 1871, from £1 a day to Level 3, which is currently £400. That will bring the penalty back to a realistic level. In order to achieve this, the Bill makes failure to comply with a court order an offence, and this is a small but important change.

The second major element is that the Bill seeks to remedy the deficiencies in the 1871 Act which relies solely on the owner to destroy the dog. Under Clause 1(1)(a) the court can appoint someone else to take custody of the dog and have it destroyed. That closes a loophole in the present legislation.

The third major element is that the Bill, for the first time, enables courts to disqualify someone who owns a dangerous dog from being able to have custody of a dog in future. That is an important power. The ban can be brought in either on first complaint, under Clause 1(1)(b), or if the person against whom the order is made fails to hand over the dog subsequently. It is an offence to have a dog when you are disqualified by the court and the penalty for that offence has been set at Level 5, the maximum available, and this is currently £2,000.

The effect of the ban is twofold. First, it is an important sanction and deterrent. People who own dogs which are dangerous can be denied the right to have a dog of any sort. The dog may have become dangerous because the owner neglected or trained it that way. It may have become dangerous because the owner failed to take proper control in its training. It is right that people who cannot keep dogs, control them and stop them being dangerous should be banned from having a dog.

But the ban can also be used to reinforce the court's powers in enforcing its order. When it is imposed under Clause 1(3) because someone has failed for instance to hand over a dog for destruction, that person will be holding on to a dog while banned from doing so. That immediately renders him liable to the higher level of penalty.

I should perhaps explain to the House a small technicality in this Bill. The Dogs Act 1871 is an example of 19th century administrative legislation. It does not create an offence. It simply prescribes a penalty for failure to comply with an order from the court.

This means that the initial test as to whether a dog is dangerous and not kept under proper control is not the test used in the criminal case of "beyond reasonable doubt" but the test more commonly used in civil cases of "balance of probabilities". Someone who fails to keep a dog under proper control, on first complaint, will not be convicted, under the Dogs Act 1871 or the Dangerous Dogs Bill which we are discussing tonight, of a criminal offence. This Bill does not seek to vary that, and there are some advantages in this position.

What this Bill says is that, after it has been established by a court that a dog is dangerous and not kept under proper control, it should be an offence not to obey the order of the court. Anyone who seeks to defy the court will be guilty of an offence and will attract a criminal conviction. It is at that stage that the criminal law starts to take effect, naturally with the test of "beyond reasonable doubt". Your Lordships will see that the Bill contains strong sanctions for those who seek to defy the orders of the court. And, because failure to comply with the court order is an offence, we can use the formula of Level 3 and Level 5 penalties. We can inflation-proof the Bill for another 110 years or more.

It follows from the structure of this Bill that it needs subsections to deal with appeals. Appeals against conviction by a magistrates' court of an offence are of course routinely to the Crown Court, and there is no need to specify that. But there is a need to provide for appeals against an order made where no offence has been committed. At the moment, this is provided by the Dogs (Amendment) Act 1938 and it has been reprovided in an extended form in this Bill so that someone can appeal against an order not only for the dog's destruction but also against having to keep it under proper control or, more importantly, a ban.

These appeal procedures are required not merely for fairness but to ensure the courts do not hesitate in imposing a ban where they consider it necessary in all the circumstances. The Bill also contains a provision for an applicant to go back to the court, if necessary years later, to ask for a ban against him to be lifted. These provisions will ensure that the Bill is applied fairly but firmly.

I end as I began. The Government welcome the measure of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, and congratulate him on introducing it to the House tonight. We share your Lordships' desire to see this measure become law. We share your Lordships' keenness to see this measure enacted. The Bill introduces a new way of addressing the problem of dangerous dogs. I share the view of noble Lords that this is an effective way. But we should perhaps recognise that this is an area in which legislation is not the answer by itself. Legislation helps to create the climate of opinion which persuades people not to go in for the kind of misbehaviour it is aimed at, as well as providing sanctions against people who remain unpersuaded.

As I have said, I think the noble Lord's Bill stands a very good chance of making a significant change in the law, and its novel provisions will certainly change the way which courts and the police approach these problems. I am glad that the House has given it such a warm welcome. And I am glad to be able to say that the Government unreservedly add their support to this measure.

7.38 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, to my noble friend and to the Minister for the remarks they have made about this Bill. I am glad that I left the noble Earl plenty of scope to describe this Bill with greater clarity and precision; and to give an edge to it which, with my softer approach to these animal matters, I probably did not do. The noble Earl is absolutely right about the powers in the Bill and how important they will be if applied to cases which otherwise would be regarded as a scandal or a danger to public welfare.

This is an important Bill. Although it may deal with a very small number of grievous cases, it will be enough to prevent public concern about the effectiveness of the protective measures taken.

There is nothing that I can add; and if my noble friend does not so far have everything that she wants, a brief Committee stage will enable us to clear up any remaining doubt. I do not think that we need to hold up the proceedings tonight. I hope that the Committee stage can be a very brief one. We must do something about this matter. I leave it there. I am grateful to all noble Lords. I hope that this Bill will receive a very speedy passage.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.