HL Deb 22 May 1991 vol 529 cc262-9

4.33 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Reay)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on dangerous dogs which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

"As we are all aware, there have been a number of recent attacks by dogs which have left their victims badly injured.

The first of these was the horrific attack on 8th May by two pit bull terriers on Mr. Frank Tempest, which has left him with severe facial and other injuries. The second was an attack on a two year-old child by a pit bull terrier owned by her grandparents. The third incident, which took place last Saturday, left a six year-old Bradford girl, Rukhsana Khan, very seriously injured. The whole House will wish to join me in expressing sympathy for the victims of these dreadful attacks and our wishes for their recovery.

"These most recent attacks were of a different degree of seriousness altogether than the great majority of dog-biting incidents.

"All three were carried out by American pit bull terriers. The American pit bull terrier is a cross-breed dog, specifically bred for fighting and, in many cases, trained to be aggressive. As has been tragically shown, it is capable of vicious and sustained assault without warning or provocation. Once a pit bull terrier has started an attack, it has been shown to be impossible for full-grown adults to prevent the dog from causing horrific injuries.

"The public are increasingly concerned about attacks by these vicious dogs and are entitled to look to the Government to take action to tackle the problem. I have therefore decided to bring before the House as soon as possible this Session legislation which will ban the breeding and ownership of pit bull terriers and other dogs bred especially for fighting. Also included in the ban will be the Japanese Tosa, a dog bred for fighting which, apparently, can weigh up to 17 stone.

"As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said, we have taken action to ban the import of these dogs as from midnight last night.

"I emphasise that the ban will initially apply only to these breeds of fighting dogs, but it is clearly important to prevent new and dangerous breeds coming in to replace dogs which have been banned from domestic ownership. The legislation will therefore include powers to add other types of fighting dogs to those which are banned.

"It is essential to rid the country of the danger from such dogs. As my right honourable friend said in the House yesterday, they have no place in our homes.

"Owners of these fighting dogs may be able to return them to their country of origin.

"It has been put to me that it would be possible to make these dogs safe by neutering them. I am advised that this policy is unlikely to be effective. I am ready to consider further evidence on this point with experts, including the veterinary profession. If that will not be effective, the ban on dogs bred for fighting will mean, sadly, that these types of dogs have to put down.

"The RSPCA and the veterinary profession have also suggested that there could be some specific and very tightly drawn exemptions to the ban and I will be considering that suggestion. I am also considering the question of compensation for owners whose dogs are destroyed.

"There were many attacks by dogs last year. The types of dogs responsible for these attacks are numerous, and include breeds such as alsatians, Rottweilers. terriers and collies. Many of these attacks, unfortunately, can be laid at the door of irresponsible owners. The Government have always recognised this. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1989 made the law to control dogs more effective. Courts can now guarantee the destruction of any dog which has shown itself to be dangerous and, as a result, they are quickly put down. That is an important step forward.

"Last year the Government issued a consultation paper on the control of dogs and proposed a number of measures to bring about the safer control of dogs and powers to penalise the irresponsible owner. The response to the consultation paper shows an encouraging measure of support for such action.

"This includes a tougher criminal offence to penalise dog owners, whatever the breed, who fail to keep their dogs safely under control in public, as well as a power to allow a court to specify the control of a particular dog of any type. This could include muzzling.

"The right honourable gentleman the Leader of the Opposition indicated in the House yesterday that the Opposition would co-operate in getting such measures onto the statute book as quickly as possible. I hope the right honourable gentleman will confirm that in his response today.

"Dogs, Mr. Speaker, can provide companionship, friendship and comfort. But there is a clear distinction in the public's mind between the domestic pet and a dog bred to fight and kill. I hope that our proposals to ban these most dangerous of dogs will therefore command the full support of the House and pass quickly into law."

My Lords, that concludes the text of the statement.

4.38 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, we are grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. We on these Benches associate ourselves with the sympathy which the Minister expressed for the victims of the horrific attacks. We wish them a speedy recovery and extend that sympathy to their families.

We support the measures outlined by the Minister this afternoon. They are necessary in order to protect members of the public, in particular children, from attacks by such vicious dogs. However, I must ask the Minister yet again why the Government are resisting the all-round pressure to set up a compulsory registration scheme for all dogs.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

Does the Minister agree that the task of destroying a large number of fighting dogs, if that becomes necessary, will be made a great deal more difficult in the absence of a dog registration scheme? How will the Government identify such dogs and their owners? Will the Minister elaborate on how the venture which the Government are rightly introducing will be facilitated without the framework of a dog registration scheme? Is the Minister able to inform the House of the latest estimate of pit bull terriers, Tosas and Rottweilers in this country? Perhaps he can also say under what timescale owners will be required to dispose of their dogs.

Will the Government plug the loopholes in the present law which allow those owners who have their dogs put down immediately after an incident to escape prosecution? Will the law be changed by the measures which the Minister has brought forward?

We entirely agree that something has to be done about those dogs which are trained as fighting dogs and which do not have it in their make-up to be friendly to a child or adult. They are not pets. They should not be allowed to mingle with the public as they do at present.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord for repeating the Statement, may I join him in expressing deep regret that children have been hurt. The reason, I believe, why the Statement has been made now, and why it was not made months ago when other children were savaged by dogs, is that on this occasion a photograph appeared in a number of tabloid newspapers demonstrating the scale of the injuries. That is why legislation is to be introduced.

I do not believe it sensible, following a Statement of this sort, to respond in detail to every proposal that the Government are making. After all, the Government have had several days to consider what to do: some of us will want to consider the matter also for a number of days before coming to a final conclusion on the proposals. Quite apart from anything else they are not in final form.

In the Statement the noble Lord indicated a number of matters on which the Home Secretary has not made a final decision—the question of compensation and the question of tightly drawn exemptions, as they are described. It would be helpful if the noble Lord could tell us when the Bill will be presented.

At first glance it seems that one of the most urgent matters, apart from the question of imports on which the Government have rightly taken immediate action, is the crucial question of the owners, not of the dogs specified this afternoon but of the other dogs such as alsations which also attack children and cause horrific injuries. It seems clear that the criminal penalties involved should be increased, and some form of third party insurance should be considered so far as the owners of all dogs are concerned.

On the substance of the measures announced, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, in saying that the Government have adopted an extraordinarily rigid view in the past on the question of a dog registration scheme. If the view of this House had prevailed, we would have had dog wardens in the streets and some of these attacks would not have taken place. It is as simple as that.

In conclusion, there are slightly ominous words in the Statement about the co-operation of the Opposition. We shall do everything we can to ensure that the legislation is discussed seriously in this House. I hope however that we will not be presented with the suggestion that the legislation should be put through in one day or two days. The fact is that when we had a previous piece of legislation dealing with alcohol at sports grounds—not one of the most sensible pieces of legislation presented to us—we were asked first to do this in a single day. Only as a result of the support of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, did the Government retreat from that position and agree to more time.

All I am asking of the noble Lord, Lord Reay, and the government business managers, is an indication that this House will have a proper opportunity of discussing this matter with a Second Reading, a Committee stage, a Report stage, if necessary, and a Third Reading, and that we will not be presented with the suggestion that anyone who insists on detailed consideration of the Bill is in some way trying to prevent it reaching the statute book.

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am grateful at least to the noble Baroness and to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for implying that they will be supporting the legislation when it is brought before this House. If I may take up immediately a Question on which we are bound to differ—the Question of registration—I do not believe that registration would make dangerous dogs any less dangerous. The justification for a registration scheme is that it enables one to trace dogs. But in the last three incidents, there was no difficulty in tracing the owners. Therefore registration would not in this case have added anything to the situation.

I recognise that there are strong views on the subject of registration. However, I hope that that issue will not sidetrack us from the problem that we face now, which is how to get rid of fighting dogs that are in the country. That is not a matter which now can be advanced by a registration scheme.

The noble Baroness asked whether there was to be a period of grace when the legislation was introduced. Obviously there will be a period of time to allow pit bull terrier owners to bring in their dogs for putting down. The noble Baroness also asked me about the numbers. We do not have exact numbers. We are talking of between 3,000 and 10,000 pit bull terriers on the best estimate. To put that in context, it should be borne in mind that the RSPCA destroys some 40,000 dogs a year. So far as Tosa dogs are concerned, so far as I know there is only one such dog in the country but that is no cause for complacency. They are large and dangerous dogs, and we know from experience of pit bull terriers that the numbers of fighting dogs can multiply very quickly.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, raised a point about other dogs which will not be covered by the legislation but which may nevertheless cause bad injuries. There is a clear distinction between dogs which are bred to fight and those which, if not adequately controlled, can be dangerous but are not bred for fighting purposes. Responsible organisations, such as the RSPCA and the Kennel Club, who support a ban on the ownership of pit bulls, would not support a ban on Rottweilers which are a recognised breed of dog. We are not convinced that Rottweilers fall into the same category of unpredictable viciousness as the pit bull terrier. But we recognise the concern, and that is why my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has proposed a power to allow courts to impose a muzzling order on a dog of any type which they judge potentially or actually dangerous.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, may I have a reply to the question I put about the amount of time that will be available in this House to discuss the legislation?

Lord Reay

My Lords, the noble Lord asked me about the promised legislation. All I can say is that it will be introduced after the Whitsun recess. I cannot answer now any of the other questions which the noble Lord has raised.

4.49 p m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the length of time frittered away last year on this subject through indecision and dilatoriness? Does he recall the debates we had on the protec:ion of the environment Bill? Does he recall what this House decided on registration? Does he recall ..what happened in another place on the same subject? Does he recall the crisis that occurred just before the Christmas recess when the Government were trying yet again to resist the views of this House?

Why is it that this shocking record of indecision and shiftiness on dogs should be brought to this kind of culmination? Why are the Government waiting to be pushed? Do the Government realise that I produced a report on dogs in society 16 years ago, which was followed by an inter-departmental committee on the same subject? Nothing has been done about what we said at that time, and now it is panic stations. The Government are up against it. There have been grievous and dreadful incidents. The Government are now going to determine the whole policy towards dogs. Does the noble Lord not think it a great shame that the Government themselves have built up an anti-dog ethos in the community which seriously prejudices our approach to legislation on this matter?

Lord Reay

My Lords, there is certainly no anti-dog ethos within the Government. The Government have had to take unpalatable action but we believe that it has been made necessary by the tragic events seen recently. Perhaps I may add to what I said previously to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, with regard to the legislation. We have no plans to rush it through in one day.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, will my noble friend congratulate my right honourable friend the Home Secretary on the Statement which has just been repeated? Will any legislation be extended to include a definition of owner responsibility as regards these dugs and any potentially dangerous dogs? Will he urge my right honourable friend the Home Secretary not to introduce legislation which is either unenforceable or which makes it so expensive that poorer members of the community and elderly persons will not be able to afford to keep dogs?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend makes wise cautionary remarks which I shall draw to the attention of my right honourable friend.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, will the Minister not accept that the prospect of paying compensation to the morons who have created this problem will receive very little support from many people? Will he not further accept that the distinction between pit bull terriers and other dogs is fallacious? All large dogs are potentially lethal. The problem lies not with the dogs but wits the breeders and owners of the dogs. Would it not be more efficacious to direct very severe penalties at those people who demonstrate their inability to control the animals they own and any persons connected in any way with activities involving any form of dog fighting?

Noble Lords

Hear, Hear!

Lord Reay

My Lords, I note the remarks of the noble Lord regarding compensation and the noises of support which he received from other quarters of the House. No estimate has been made of the amount of compensation involved. That is a Question which my right honourable friend is considering. He recognises that some people may have bought the dogs in good faith however one may Question their judgment in doing so.

We are not impressed by the argument that the dogs may be worth a lot of money. Much of that is due solely to their value as fighting dogs—an illegal and thoroughly deplorable activity.

Definition is not easy. Cross-breeds are very difficult to define scientifically or legally. My right honourable friend has consulted experts about definitions and plans to specify in the ban the type of dog commonly known as the pit bull terrier and the Japanese Tosa together with other dogs which appear to have been bred for fighting. That is the essential characteristic which they must have. Those definitions make sense to the layman. There are bound to be cases where there is doubt about a breed of dog but much will depend on the common sense of the police and the courts in enforcing the law. My right honourable friend will be given power by the Bill to change those definitions.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, I compliment the Government on the Statement apart from the compensation aspect. I hope that the Government will not be influenced by some of the discussions which I heard on the radio this morning about how sad it will be to destroy such dogs bearing in mind that every year we destroy thousands of innocent dogs which end up in Battersea Dogs' Home. The dogs under discussion should never have been in this country. When did the law change so that people in council flats are permitted to keep, perhaps, three dangerous dogs? When I was on the local authority people in flats were not permitted to keep cats, which are fairly harmless. When did the law change? We must take action. Monetary compensation can never compensate the mother of that child. The child will be scarred and terrified for life.

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her unequivocal support for the Government's present course of action. She is right that the animals are unpredictable fighting dogs and potential killers. Three people have been seriously injured. According to their doctors, they are lucky to be alive. The Government believe, therefore, that they must act on that situation.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, will my noble friend take on board that the tight definition of "fighting dogs" may not be wholly satisfactory to deal with the substance of the evil; for example, the exclusion of Rottweilers and other dogs? In Germany owners of such dogs are subject to compulsory insurance so that if the dog causes damage medical fees and so on are paid for. This is not the time to go into detail. However, I ask the Government to take on board that the tight definition of a "fighting dog" bred for fighting will not dispose of the danger to children.

Lord Reay

My Lords, I dealt with that when I referred to the action which it will be possible to take in regard to dogs other than fighting dogs to which the ban applies. I agree with my noble friend that the Question of definition is not easy in this sphere. We believe that we have found the right definition in the circumstances.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, before the Government settle all the details, will they bear in mind the probability that quite a number of owners of pit bull terriers will, before D-day, take their dogs 10 miles away, push them out of the car and lose them? They will thereby leave them free to savage children in another locality. Will the Government consider whether there is a way of reducing the danger which may be caused by that probability.

Lord Reay

My Lords, that would be an act of criminal irresponsibility. For that very reason my right honourable friend is making it a criminal offence to permit a banned dog to stray. Those who act in that way would risk going to prison and would thoroughly deserve to do so.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, did the noble Lord hear a police officer on the radio this morning say that the biggest problem is that if a dog is put down immediately after it has savaged a person, the owner cannot then be charged with any offence? Surely if an owner has been in charge of a dog which has done these terrible things, he should be charged as if the dog had not been put down at a certain time.

Lord Reay

My Lords, that is a matter for the police.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, surely it is a matter for the law.

Lord Reay

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a matter which will have to be considered when the Bill is before the House.