HL Deb 17 January 1992 vol 534 cc504-18

1.6 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

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

The Bill is the one to which I referred in my speech on the humble Address in November. I informed the House then that I intended to bring the Bill forward in the hope of improving and strengthening the machinery of consultation which Ministers would wish to have on the growing complexity and political controversy over problems relating to dogs.

The Bill is short and it is simple. Its Long Title is confined to a single purpose. That purpose is to provide Ministers with a sound base for representative and responsible advice on controversial but nonpolitical matters, which seems to be strikingly absent at present.

When noble Lords have asked me what the attitude of the Home Secretary might be in relation to the Bill I have said that the Bill should be the answer to any Home Secretary's prayer. However, one cannot be sure whether Home Secretaries say their prayers. When they do not they get into serious trouble.

The provisions of the Bill will be familiar to all noble Lords who have any contact with the Farm Animal Welfare Council. The purpose is to bring the problem of dog control and welfare, with all its growing significance, controversy and social interest, into line with farm animal welfare, which has been subject to a similar advisory body for many years past. It is familiar territory in the field of government procedure and public administration.

Another link with the advisory system is provided through the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 which established a statutory procedures committee, which the Home Secretary of the day badly needed. The 1986 Act gave the Home Secretary powers of decision on the relative value of certain experiments in the light of the purpose of the experiment and the amount of suffering that would be caused to animals in the research. He felt that he needed some expert and responsible committee reporting in public, and especially to Parliament, to protect him by advising him on what decisions he should take in difficult cases. I am not suggesting that anything quite so difficult may arise in connection with dogs, though we got dangerously near it last year.

I do not need to go through the Bill in detail. It is almost a copy of the Farm Animal Welfare Council constitution, which incidentally is not a statutory body. It is to establish a body of up to 18 or so people representative of expert opinion, such as veterinary surgeons, lawyers, intelligent lay people and dog breeders: those who know what they are talking about and who can provide between them the kind of advice on which Ministers can rely.

The question arises: is there a case for bringing into operation machinery of this formalised character in place of the rather sporadic and disconnected kind of consultation that Ministers may be having on their difficult tasks? One of the complications here—and I ought to refer to it right away—is that this advisory council would cover an interdepartmental area. The Farm Animal Welfare Council is responsible to the Minister for Agriculture. But in this case we have the Secretary of State for the Environment, the Secretary of State for Home Affairs, the Minister for Agriculture, and, as a separate matter, the Secretary of State for Scotland, all interested in the position of dogs.

The long discussions that took place two years ago on a national registration scheme were frustrated by the fact that those talking to officials had to talk to representatives of three separate departments. That is a difficulty in moving that a committee be appointed by a Secretary of State. But the Bill envisages that the Government themselves would find ways and means of appointing an advisory committee that would be representative of the boundaries of the departments concerned.

The question is whether this Bill is needed. First, I am bound to say that what is proposed in this Bill does not require legislation at all. It is a non-statutory advisory committee that I have in mind, but I am introducing a Bill on the subject in order to establish a claim for the attention of the House and outside the House to the worries that I have had—and I have been deeply worried in the last couple of years—about the way in which the dog question is being handled. However, if the Ministers were so disposed, there would be no need to have a Bill at all. I shall come in a minute or two to the future of the Bill.

In the meantime I want to make out, to the satisfaction of your Lordships, the case for this form of formalised advisory machinery. Surely it lies in the experiences that we all so vividly remember in the last couple of years. I am not going to take your Lordships back over the controversy concerning the dog registration scheme, or indeed the Dangerous Dogs Bill of last year, but surely we all realise how distressing it was to see the Government in the kind of situation in which they found themselves.

Certainly the Home Secretary cannot have taken any responsible advice about his first announcement of what he regarded as the remedy for the danger of the pit bull terriers. He was of the opinion that they should all be destroyed, and he made his intention to set about doing that public. It was only when those whom he should have consulted insisted on seeing him to tell him that it was not on, that this was outrageous and could not possibly stand as part of government policy on animals, that he had to begin the retreat. That should never have arisen, no matter what the emergency at the time. The emergency was a press emergency. It was a tabloid splash, and there is not the slightest doubt that it disturbed the cool and the temper of Ministers at the time.

It may be argued that, however bad things were then, they have been remedied since. For one thing the Dangerous Dogs Act of last year provides a statutory requirement for consultation between the Home Secretary and others on questions arising from that Act. There is a section in the Dangerous Dogs Act which requires that the Home Secretary undertake certain consultations. This Bill in its last clause provides that those consultations would be channelled into the proposed Dog Control and Welfare Council.

There is one aspect concerned with existing arrangements to which I should refer. Ministers may be satisfied that there can be adequate consultation and that they would exercise proper discretion in seeking the help that they might need. But what about the public? What about Parliament? The great advantage of formalised committees of advice and consultation is that they receive evidence, they make reports, and all concerned are told who was advising, and some account is given of the consideration that the committee gave to the problems before it. It is not enough for the Home Secretary or any other Minister to say, "I have consulted with representative bodies". One does not know how he has done so or what ground was covered in such consultations.

One cannot always be satisfied that the range of consultation should be confined to organised opinion whether in charitable or campaigning welfare organisations or in professional bodies. It is as well that it should be known by the public, whose dogs after all are involved in this, who gave evidence, what they said, and what attention was paid to it. It is much better, if one is going to establish a firmer foundation for democratic government and consultation, to get one's machinery reasonably formalised, well understood and commanding confidence; whereas consultations between Ministers and societies which are not made public, and are not required to be made public, do not always give people that confidence.

Therefore there is a strong case for this Bill. However, I do not think that I can ask the House to impose on Ministers a form of machinery that they are perfectly well able to provide for themselves, unless it is felt that it is in the public interest to do so. I should much rather that it were done by persuasion, as in the Farm Animal Welfare Council, or by ready acceptance, as in the Procedures Committee under the 1986 Act, and with general accord where advisory committees have been appointed in every field of public administration and ministerial contact, which have smoothed the path of administration and legislation. If the Government intend to say that they are satisfied that the present informal state of consultation with representative bodies is adequate and satisfactory, that proposition needs some examination.

In the time available to me I have not been able to complete all the necessary research into attitudes toward the problem. I have worked very much on my own because I did not want to feel that this proposal must have the consent of a large number of organisations before being introduced. I feel very strongly that it is in the interests of Parliament, the government and the public that matters of such deep concern to so many people should come to the surface and be openly discussed. There is much lacking in the field of information at the present time. There is an almost total absence of reliable statistics.

I read the Veterinary Record avidly every week and I should like to refer to two matters which I saw in a recent issue of that magazine. First, the verdict on dogs in relation to the events of the past two years is described as "unedifying", which is perhaps a dignified reproof from a veterinary body to Her Majesty's Government. Secondly, there is a reference to a report made by the Birmingham Casualty Centre on incidents in the past few years in which people who have been attacked by dogs have required plastic surgery.

The relative delinquency of different breeds of dog was examined. The statistics, which cover the serious cases and a particular area, are somewhat surprising. The kind of tabloid shock tactics used about pit bull terriers, for example, were not supported by statistics over that limited area of statistical record. Other dogs, such as Jack Russells, were involved. Pitbull terriers were not the principal culprits; yet they were the dogs which were marked down for execution. It so happens that the Staffordshire bull terrier came out top of the league in the Birmingham area. They probably had a near miss for execution but at least at the present time they do not feature in the Dangerous Dogs Act and there is no move to put them in it. Other dogs, such as rottweilers which bite now and then and get a lot of attention are not on the hit list.

One expects from advisory machinery of this kind proper statistical information. I am told that no such information will be available earlier than the end of this year because it has not been collected. Nobody knows how many dogs there are in this country. Since the abolition of the dog licence fee nobody has known or cared how many dogs there are. There was no chance given to the public to have their dogs brought within the scope of "reasonable appreciation of danger" or welfare or anything else. Statistical information is badly needed and this advisory committee could set about obtaining it.

But there is much else which needs attention and which does not come within the scope of the Home Office or the Department of the Environment. That includes education in dog care. Where is dog welfare in the administration of government at the present time? Who is responsible for dog welfare? There is no dog welfare ministry. There is probably a very strong case to be made for a minister for animal welfare, but that is a different constitutional matter. I suggest that such a council would have standing and a range of operations which would be much more adequate for our requirements than anything we have at the present time.

I wait to hear what the Minister says before I make my comments on what is to be done subsequent to today's debate. I confidently hope that no noble Lords wish to obstruct the Bill's Second Reading in the House this afternoon and that we can go on from there. How we go on is a matter which will require my attention a little later, after the Minister has spoken. I have various ideas on what might be done in the near future to advance this matter in circumstances which probably could be more fruitful than banging at the door of legislative opportunity in the final session of a Parliament.

We all believe that there will be many matters of pressing importance coming before us between now and the general election. We must be realistic, especially about a Private Member's Bill in the House of Lords, which has no right of entry into the House of Commons. I shall not be surprised if the Home Secretary says, "For heaven's sake, don't let us have a dog Bill in the House of Commons at this stage in this Parliament. Let sleeping dogs lie". While the lying dogs are sleeping and while there is something of a lull on dogs in the sense of mental disturbance ministerial-wise, I want to see a little more rational consideration of the problem. I beg to move the Second Reading of the Bill.

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

1.28 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, if there is one matter that the Government have failed to address or on which they do not have any coherent policy, it must be dog welfare and control. Certainly that must come top of the list for ineptitude. When I say "the government", I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, will agree that that does not mean simply the government in power today but governments in the past. Therefore I welcome the noble Lord's endeavours today, and indeed over a long period of time, to try to drive a little sense into the Home Office's incompetence regarding dog control and welfare.

My criticism is considerably more fierce than the veterinary publication from which the noble Lord has just quoted. My noble friend Lord Astor may say that there is no need for either this Bill or the formation of a Dog Control and Welfare Council. I agree that there is no need for the Bill for the reasons which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has just given. However, I very much hope that my noble friend will be able to say that the Government will give serious consideration to setting up such a council.

There is a need for a continuing long-term look at our dog problem. Certainly the public are and have been demanding it. The last time that I was involved in your Lordships' House on issues concerning dogs, I received over 500 letters criticising the Government's ineptitude. It is absolutely no good for my noble friend to say that everything is fine, that the Home Office understands the problem and receives plenty of advice. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The actions taken by the Government each time have been of the knee-jerk type. The latest horror was the Dangerous Dogs Act. The noble Lord described its weakness. Indeed, some of the reactions by Ministers and departments over dogs have suggested to me that there must be a rabid dog wandering around their department.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has suggested a Dog Control and Welfare Council to provide continuing advice. The council would be able to warn of problems and suggest a sensible way forward. I hope that my noble friend will give the noble Lord's suggestion careful and sympathetic consideration.

1.31 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, we on these Benches support the philosophy behind the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, today. Most of the speakers in the debate today have spoken at some length on the subject of dogs on various occasions. The last occasion was during the passage of the Dangerous Dogs Bill through your Lordships' House.

Criticisms of the Dangerous Dogs Bill were made during debates on the Bill which arose out of public reaction. The Bill was conceived in haste and as a reaction to some regrettable incidents which took place in which people, notably children, were attacked by dogs which had not been kept under proper control. Most legislation on dogs originates from Private Bills in Parliament.

The Government take little notice of problems relating to dogs in our country unless there is some public commotion which prompts immediate action. The Dangerous Dogs Bill was one such example. Effectively it dealt with only one breed of dog, the pit bull terrier. Most of us know of the problems with regard to the pit bull terrier, but it does not mean that all pit bull terriers are a menace to society. In retrospect that restriction has been shown as one of the drawbacks to the Bill. There was a sad case with regard to a pit bull terrier which was owned by a young person who, unwisely as it turns out, took the muzzle off that bitch in order for it to have a drink from a puddle in a street. He was observed by a police officer who took the correct action. The owner of the dog was taken to court and under the conditions of the Act the magistrates could take no action other than to order the dog's destruction. That seems to be a drawback of the Bill. Contrary to justice in this country, the Bill allows no discretion by magistrates with regard to infringements of that law. That factor was anticipated only by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, as I recall, in his speeches during that Bill.

We welcome the idea of a council, whatever may be the fate of the noble Lord's Bill. There are various aspects of dog life in this country, not the least being the education of people on the problems of owning dogs. The control of the population of dogs is important. We have dealt with various other aspects: for example, puppy farming and the potential evils of that trade.

If I quote the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, correctly, he said that what is required more than anything else is rational consideration of the problem. I agree with that. I believe that steps suggested in the Bill would lead to a more rational consideration of the problem of dogs and the ownership of dogs in this country. For anyone who reads Hansard or who listens in your Lordships' House, I hope that the debate will add to an understanding of the problem. Perhaps we have moved a small way towards a rational consideration of the problem.

1.35 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, began his speech by saying that no Bill was really necessary. I hope therefore that he will not press the matter. However, he is quite right—it has been echoed by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and my noble friend Lord Stanley—that dog control is a subject which has been ignored. We have made many attempts in this House to do something about that subject. The dog licence was abolished. However, the price of the dog licence should have been increased enormously. That would have been a single, simple issue. Inspired by my noble friend Lord Stanley, we attempted to introduce a dog register and the Government failed to do anything about it. I believe that they are culpable in that matter and will be for a long time to come. The issue needs to be addressed. Dogs are a problem, especially in the urban environment. The Bill has been couched in consideration of the agricultural scene. It has been based on the animal welfare scheme. One of the biggest single problems relates to dogs in the urban environment. On many occasions in your Lordships' House we have had discussions about the problem of dogs fouling pavements. It is not only insanitary and unsightly, it is extremely unpleasant. As it stands, the law seems incapable of doing much about the problem, which continues. I believe therefore that something has to be done about such problems. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, said that today provides an opportunity for rational discussion. I do not believe that it is an opportunity for introducing more legislation. The statute book is cluttered with a great deal of unnecessary legislation. Some of us seek from time to time to get some of it taken off the statute book. On occasions we feel a little like King Canute in our failure to get legislation off the statute book.

The issue of dogs in the urban environment in particular needs to be addressed. The only way to tackle it is either to have an increased dog licence fee at the proper price or to have a dog register. The cost of keeping dogs in particular in the urban environment is high. Anyone who owns a dog has to spend an enormous amount of money on feeding it. One has only to look at television to see the volume of advertising which is devoted to dog food. It indicates that that is a multi-million pound business. People who own dogs wish to look after them. They should be protected. No one would mind paying a fee for a dog registration. That is what we should have done in the first place. It is a great tragedy that it never happened. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has done the House a service by drawing our attention to the matter today. I hope that the Government will pay some attention to his ideas.

1.39 p.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, one should not doubt for one moment the sincerity of purpose with which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, brings forward the Bill on dog control and welfare. It is well acknowledged that he is associated with a large number of organisations concerned with the welfare of' animals, in particular with the welfare of dogs. Indeed, as has been mentioned by other noble Lords, there is a plethora of organisations concerned with the welfare of dogs such as the British Veterinary Association, the Kennel Club, the RSPCA, the National Canine Defence League and so on.

There is also an abundance of legislation. According to present reckoning, there are about 30 pieces of legislation dealing with dogs and that makes life difficult in terms of understanding the law. When I first read the Bill I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, wished to add another piece of legislation to that number. Although he wishes to create a body which is non-legislative it would add to the mass of directions that already exist on the statute book or in a non-legislative form. The noble Lord said that there would be a similarity between it and the Farm Animal Welfare Council. I submit that the circumstances that led to the setting up of the FAWC were somewhat different from those which now pertain. When the FAWC was set up there were few if any bodies concerned with farm animals as opposed to domestic animals or domestic pets. It was necessary for the FAWC to draw up guidelines and codes of conduct for the treatment of farm animals. Those have been particularly effective. I am not sure that the situation now relating to dogs is the same as that which then related to farm animals. One wonders about the wisdom of adding another body to the list in order to do the type of work that is already done by a variety of voluntary organisations.

After reading the brief that the noble Lord kindly provided in respect of the Bill I wish to emphasise certain points that are already being attended to. For example, there is mention of the need to monitor and review the emergency measures for rabies control in the event of an outbreak. They already exist under legislation relating to the diseases of animals and extensive programmes will be put into operation should rabies enter this country. The Ministry of Agriculture's animal health division is well prepared for that event. Similarly, there is an extensive programme of spaying and neutering of dogs by the RSPCA, another issue mentioned in the noble Lord's brief for the new body to take up. Again, that is already under control and the aims and objectives of the RSPCA coincide with those of the noble Lord.

Nevertheless, there is a substantial amount of common ground in the general philosophy put forward in the Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. A particular point which curiously he has not mentioned but which has been mentioned by other noble Lords in the debate is the need to consolidate the legislation dealing with dogs in this country. There are already some 30 pieces of legislation. They are widely disparate and urgently need bringing together. An effort to do so would clarify the situation in respect of dogs. We could then go forward and see what needs to be done because it is difficult to find one's way through the mass of legislation.

That area of common ground does not extend to a level at which I could give full support to the noble Lord's proposition for a welfare council for dogs. However, I believe that certain action should be taken by the Minister concerned in order to solve some of the problems identified in the Bill, in his speech which introduced the Bill and by other noble Lords. Although not being able to support the Bill in full, I believe that action must be taken in respect of some of the issues. I hope that that will be done.

1.45 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, this is a Private Member's Bill. Therefore I do not speak on behalf of the Labour Party which maintains a neutral stance on such matters—I speak for myself alone. The Bill appears to me to be necessary. To be more precise, I believe that something should be done about the situation which the Bill seeks to address. For example, recent legislation on dangerous dogs has made it clear that a far wider and more comprehensive overview needs to be taken on the whole issue of dog control and welfare. That point was made clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, and the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery.

Your Lordships will recall that last year in our debates on dangerous dogs we ranged far and wide beyond the immediate questions before us. We wandered all over the place and became tangled up with issues such as local and national registration schemes, breed definition, import control regulations and so forth. We might easily have lost our way and lost sight of the original issue were it not for the wise and calm guidance given to us by the Minister, which I recall with considerable admiration. Our confusions and excursions were clear evidence of the need for an advisory body of some kind. The model put before us is the Farm Animal Welfare Council. I take seriously the reservations of the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, who has forgotten far more about veterinary science than I shall ever know.

What little I know of the FAWC and what little I have seen with admiration proves that it was needed at the time. It can point to real and helpful activity in pursuit of its aims and objectives. Advisory bodies of that kind, provided that they are never allowed to swell and develop into some bloated quango which they were never originally intended to be, are a useful and characteristic feature of our national life. They allow voluntary expertise to be at the disposal of government departments. That can be achieved over a reasonably extended period of time. Therefore they can be more valuable than the type of quick, professional consultants employed for specific tasks who are here today and gone tonight.

Perhaps your Lordships will pardon a personal example. I have had 15 years' experience of a successful advisory body called the Museums and Galleries Commission. It assisted the Government in planning and legislating for the art galleries and museums of the United Kingdom. Although trying to achieve a united opinion among the nation's 3,000 and more museums is closely akin to the problem of trying to herd cats, successive governments were kind enough to say that they found our reports, our monitoring and our suggestions useful. Above all, the commission was remarkably cheap and excellent value for money. The same would obviously be true for the proposed dog control and welfare council.

I believe that it is necessary for some such body to be set up to look at our partial and piecemeal legislation. It should be proactive in suggesting cohesive and coherent ways ahead in the matters of planning and policy. Clearly there is no body already in existence—not the Kennel Club nor even the RSPCA—which goes anywhere near fulfilling that kind of role. Yet stray dogs roam our streets, dangerous dogs attack and kill small children, research into health problems caused by dogs is in its infancy and there are frequent allegations that dogs are stolen and maltreated in the interests of so-called research into cosmetics and tobacco. As my noble friend pointed out, no one can give adequate and accurate statistics showing how many dogs this country has.

I point briefly to three areas in which a Dog Control and Welfare Council would be helpful. First, there is the vexed and difficult matter of a national dog registration scheme. If I remember correctly, our debates last year were enlivened by the history of the dog belonging to the noble and learned Lord Lord Hailsham. That sticks in my memory and I am sorry that he is not here to tell us more about his dog today. Those debates showed that on that issue we are divided about the advisability of a national scheme. Surely it would be advantageous for a highly qualified, expert, well-informed, objective, dispassionate body to take away that question, to consider it in depth and, if necessary, at length. We could then return to the matter with the relevant research evaluated and the options considered. We may then reach a sensible conclusion.

Secondly, the council would be best placed and well able to build up a relationship with the local authorities, many of which have introduced various dog warden schemes with varying degrees of success. The council could well devise guidelines and descriptions of best practice which would extend the scheme, lower the cost and go a long way towards solving the problem of stray and unwanted dogs at a national level.

Thirdly, the council could act if not as a policeman then as a kind of traffic warden to help to regulate some of the dangerously unpleasant abuses to which dogs are liable. I am thinking in particular of abuses in breeding and selling practice, especially in the matter of puppy farming. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, referred to that and I have some experience of it. In west Wales a year or so ago reports flooded the newspapers of unbelievable cruelty and neglect on puppy farms which had obviously been set up by hard-pressed owners of farms and small holdings purely and simply as a means of avoiding bankruptcy, to make a quick profit and to keep the wolf from the door. They were run by people who had no professional training, no professional veterinary advice, no expertise, ludicrously inadequate facilities and no love for animals. It may well be that a Dog Control and Welfare Council could prevent abuses of that kind, to say nothing of the commercially arranged dog fights about which one hears so much in rural areas—and they are far more common than we know. It would be a signal service to the community if a Dog Control and Welfare Council were able to sponsor research into those scandalous matters which are at present the concern only of the police and the understaffed inspectorate of the RSPCA.

As proposed, the council would be an expert and professional body. It would be effective and cheap. As regards dogs, the need is great. It is clear that the Government have, by their recent legislation on dangerous dogs, accepted a degree of responsibility for the welfare and good treatment of dogs kept as pets. The establishment of a council for control and welfare seems to me an obvious and praiseworthy next step forward. At all events, I suggest that the onus is on Her Majesty's Government to propose solutions to the problems which confront us here and to tell us, if they do not like this proposal, their suggestions and when should they be implemented.

1.52 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, this is a day in your Lordships' House which is very much a Home Office day. Fortunately, no noble Lord has yet suggested a Bill to prevent car theft with a dog on a Sunday so we are lucky that we can deal with those three matters separately. I suppose that the Sunday trading law discriminates against dogs because one can sell horse fodder on a Sunday but not dog food. However, that is a different matter.

The commendable interest of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, in animal welfare is well known to your Lordships' House. Indeed, it is less than two months since I last had the opportunity to discuss animal related matters with him. That was in the context of the annual report of the Animal Procedures Committee. Last year we also discussed badgers and, of course, dangerous dogs at some considerable length.

Turning to the Bill before us today, it is only right to say at the outset that the Government have some reservations about the need to create a statutory council as the Bill proposes. Many of our reservations were raised at the Committee stage of the Dangerous Dogs Bill when the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, tabled an amendment requiring the Home Secretary to consult with a body along the lines of the Dog Control and Welfare Council before deciding whether to use the reserve powers in Section 2 of the Act to apply controls on types of dog which he considers present a special danger to the public. I will not, therefore, rehearse our anxieties at great length on this occasion. However, I should just like to bring a few points to the attention of your Lordships' House.

The Bill appears to us to be unnecessary in that it would create a statutory body to fulfil functions already carried out effectively through existing channels of consultation. As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has already outlined, the Bill provides for the establishment of a council to advise the Secretary of State on matters concerning dog welfare and control.

The Home Secretary already seeks and receives advice from bodies such as the RSPCA, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the British Veterinary Association and the Kennel Club. All those bodies, and others, were consulted during the passage of the Dangerous Dogs Bill. Both before and since then there has been frequent constructive consultation on dangerous dogs and other animal matters. I am not persuaded that the creation of the new Dog Control and Welfare Council would improve upon the flexible non-statutory arrangements that are already in place and which work well as they stand. Rather, I fear that the establishment of a permanent committee could lead to a great deal of additional administrative work and unnecessary expense. Indeed, all that might actually make the process of consultation overly bureaucratic and reduce its effectiveness. It could result in the loss of some of the flexibility that characterises the current arrangements. That would not be desirable.

The current scheme of things works well as it is and I can assure your Lordships' House that we have every intention of continuing our practice of consulting expert bodies as necessary on a whole range of dog and animal welfare issues generally. We shall also continue to receive, with interest, representations from such bodies if they wish to bring matters to our attention.

As an example of recent co-operation I am able to advise noble Lords that it was partly as a result of representations from the British Veterinary Association and other animal welfare bodies that it was decided to give owners of pit bull terriers, and other specially exempted dogs, an extension to arrange for their dogs to be tattooed in view of some problems which had been reported to us. The British Veterinary Association was able to pass on the anxieties of its members directly to the Home Office. There was no need to wait for the next pre-arranged meeting of a council or to organise hastily an extraordinary meeting. Instead, those most closely involved made direct representations and recommendations which were received, considered and acted upon. That seems to be an eminently sensible way of going about matters.

I should also say that animal welfare issues prompt one of the largest post bags of the Home Office and a good deal of these letters from the public are about dog-related matters. All these letters are read and the views expressed in them are noted. We are, therefore, very much in touch with what the public think and say on dog issues.

I turn now to the amendment to Section 2 of the Dangerous Dogs Act, which this Bill proposes. As noble Lords will be aware, Section 2 already requires the Home Secretary to consult bodies concerned with breeds of dogs, animal welfare, veterinary science and practice before deciding whether to impose restrictions such as muzzling and leashing on a whole breed or type of dog which he considers presents a serious danger to the public. Section 2(4) of the Act, therefore, acknowledges that specific consultation is desirable before decisions about a particular breed are taken.

Moreover, the sort of interests that he must consult as envisaged by the proposed amendment to the 1991 Act are virtually identical to those which the Home Secretary must consult under present arrangements as set out in Section 2(4). All this indicates to me that when considering the Bill Parliament had in mind consultation with the same group of experts as is proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. That leads me to conclude that it would be unnecessary to amend Section 2 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.

To conclude, while I understand the intentions of this Bill, which I take to be to ensure that the Government continue to be fully briefed and properly advised on matters concerning dog control and welfare, I do not think this Bill is necessary to achieve those ends. As I said, consultation with relevant bodies already takes place as necessary. I can assure your Lordships that we will continue to consult and receive representations from the kind of bodies which the Bill proposes will make up the council, and many others.

It has been a useful debate and, as always, your Lordships have been most eloquent on the subject. My noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley attacked, if I may call it that, the Government's record on dogs brandishing what I might call a "verbal Bonio". He was a little unfair. The Dangerous Dogs Bill was brought in to meet the valid anxieties and problems that are arising in the dog world.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, referred to unmuzzled dogs. Obviously I am unable to comment in detail on the specific case referred to by the noble Viscount. However, I understand that the owner has appealed against his conviction under the Dangerous Dogs Act and it is yet to be decided whether that appeal will be heard. The noble Viscount also said that the Dangerous Dogs Act only applies to pit bull terriers. It is important to remember that Section 3 of the Act, which creates criminal offences of having a dog dangerously out of control in a public place, applies to all dogs whatever the breed. That is an important point.

My noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, who I know had to leave to attend a Select Committee, as always with his great expertise in the veterinary field pointed out that already a number of organisations consult the Home Office. I believe that he agreed with me that an extra organisation would not necessarily be the most useful answer.

My noble friend Lord Montgomery of Alamein and the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, referred to dog registration. Noble Lords will remember that in opposing dog registration the Government introduced positive measures for the control of dogs in the Environmental Protection Act. Those comprise the seizure and detaining of strays and a duty on the district or borough council to enforce the collar and tag law. The presence of a tag on a dog is the simplest and most effective means of identifying an owner and dealing with strays. The Government declared their commitment to bringing those provisions into force in April 1992. A draft of a joint Home Office, DoE and Welsh Office circular regarding implementation of the relevant sections of the Environmental Protection Act and a draft of the proposed regulations associated with the provisions have been published for public comment.

We already have in place more than adequate arrangements for consultation. I would prefer to keep our consultations on this more flexible basis rather than risk over-formalising arrangements by establishing the Dog Control and Welfare Council. However, your Lordships have made a number of valid points. It would, of course, be foolish for the Government to claim that there could be no room for improvement in the way in which we consult interested bodies on dog matters. The Government are not inflexible and I shall be happy to undertake to consider any suggestions for such improvements as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, may make to us, either in this House or outside.

I believe that that is as far as I can go. I know that it is not quite so far as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, would wish. However, we are aware of the issues involved and we will be happy to undertake to consider any suggestions for improvements that are made to us. In the light of that undertaking I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, will consider whether or not he wishes to move the Bill for a Second Reading.

2.4 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords on both sides of the House who have taken part in this discussion. I admire the forcefulness, brevity and competence of the speeches to which I listened. It has been a chorus of approval, if not complete very nearly so, for the Bill. It has come from quarters which the House will respect and the Government will feel are significant.

The Bill is an initiative on my part, of that there is no doubt. It is not the first time that I have taken an initiative in this field. I was the first chairman of the Joint Advisory Committee on pets in society. I produced the first report on dogs in society. That was followed by an inter-departmental committee which also produced a report under Mr. Batho which was closely related to my own. I have taken an interest in the subject ever since. I am president still of the Joint Advisory Committee on pets in society.

The debate gives me the strength I was hoping for to take my initiative further and bring together bodies with which I am directly or indirectly associated and to examine the whole question in the light of the debate. I hope that informal contacts can be established between one or two of us and the Government to see how we can move forward from here. In the meantime, I shall take no steps to take the Bill further in the House. However, I hope that the Bill will receive an unopposed Second Reading and establish the platform upon which the House may return to the matter at some future date.

In conclusion, perhaps I may say that I am trying, this time round, to guard against animal welfare being flung about in the election campaign in a manner which will only exacerbate feelings and do the causes no good. We have an opportunity in the lull between the emergency of 1991 and the future Parliament for the further study of the matter. If the House gives the Bill a Second Reading I shall defer further stages of the Bill and try to carry our joint discussions one stage further. I commend the Bill to the House.

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