§ 3.47 p.m.
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
This Bill is a revival of that which I introduced into your Lordships' House in the last Session, which was given its Second Reading on 17th January last. For understandable reasons, that was hardly the occasion to continue with its Committee and remaining stages, especially as I had already said, when replying to the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, at the conclusion of the debate, that I would consult further with some of my friends on this matter. So, I reintroduce the Bill today. In fact, it was loudly acclaimed when it became the first Private Member's Bill to be introduced into your Lordships' House in this Parliament on 6th May.
I have not changed the text of the Bill in a single particular from the previous version. I thought it better to stick to the text of the Bill that had received 295 its Second Reading in your Lordships' House—and that is this Bill. I know that certain suggestions have been made, possibly about scope of the proposed advisory committee's terms of reference and about other matters that might have received some further attention. However, I thought that it was undesirable to begin to alter the Bill at this stage when we are still proceeding, I hope, towards an accommodation on the matter of establishing for Ministers and Government some consultative and advisory machinery on dogs.
One of the great handicaps of the canine population is that responsibility for it in certain areas is divided between three government departments: the Home Office, the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I can tell your Lordships from long experience in discussions with representatives of those three departments on matters affecting dogs that it is a very tiresome and frustrating situation. They sometimes have different points of view about a common problem; as was the case, for example, on registration. We cannot overcome that. The fragmentation over policy on dogs was carried still further by the Government themselves when at the end of a Session they tacked on to the Environmental Protection Bill a whole slab of a discussion document that they had issued previously and asked for representations on it. They did so in order to frustrate an amendment to the Bill which would have required the Government to study the matter of universal dog registration.
We are today in the position that dangerous dog matters, and matters giving rise to criminal offences, remain with the Home Office while matters relating to the environment, local authorities, parks, public places, stray dogs and so on are with the Department of the Environment. Then there is a special section of the dog population which is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We cannot get over that and we have to adjust our consultative machinery to that tripartite situation.
That is one of the reasons behind the idea of a dog control and welfare council. It is based almost exactly on the constitution, the reference and the activities of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which has been in existence for a long time and has done excellent work. There are multifarious matters arising from intensive husbandry and other factors affecting livestock that lead to the desire for a considerable cover of consultation on different aspects of farm animal welfare. It may be argued that dogs are not such a wide reference. I believe that they are.
In the debate on 17th January the Minister, the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, gave his reasons why the Bill was not welcomed by his department. He said: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".He went on to say: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 296 during the passage of the Dangerous Dogs Bill. Both before and since then there has been frequent constructive consultation on dangerous dogs".He added: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 some of the current arrangement. That would not be desirable".—[0fficial Report, 17/1/92; cols. 515–516.] He referred also to additional administrative work and unnecessary expense.Those considerations lie at the root of our consideration of the Bill. I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading because if we proceed to the Committee stage some of those considerations may have to be examined in more detail. I want to put it to your Lordships that a stable, representative, reliable advisory council would be of great help to a Minister who has diverse responsibilities that may require his mind to be switched from one subject to another.
This can be a highly controversial and emotional area. The Home Secretary is particularly exposed to crises, as we saw during the dangerous dogs controversy. He stood absolutely exposed. He had nothing to rely on. He had no consultative body to depend upon. He was there battling with the conclusions, which were adverse and even abusive, about his custody of the Home Office at that time. That was a great pity because to begin with it led to ill-considered action on the part of the Home Secretary, which he had to retract. He had to bring his proposals within some semblance of practicality and acceptability, even in that difficult situation.
There is another side to this problem. Let us consider the mess the Government got into over the proposals for national registration. That all started in your Lordships' House. It was the amendment to the Environmental Protection Bill that gave rise to all the subsequent problems between the two Houses, ending with a miserable conclusion to a long drawn-out dispute between the two Houses and between the Government and both Houses. That amendment could have received more sober consideration. It did not really create a crisis or arise out of one. It was an opportunist attempt to get something into the Environmental Protection Bill that would bring the question of dogs before Parliament in a bigger way than was possible using other means. That is what happened.
In the past two years dogs have had a very bad time at the hands of Parliament. They have been downgraded. We have seen headlines such as "Devil Dogs", "Killer Dogs", and "Horror Dogs". They have had a very bad press indeed. Indeed, if we were all saddled with the crimes of the few we would have a bad, black record of conduct ourselves. But in the canine world everyone is tarred with the same brush. It was all very miserable.
I put this point to the House. There are almost as many dogs in the homes of Britain as there are children. There are 6 million dogs, and most of them are companion animals in the homes of people. That is of long tradition. Indeed, long before history began man and his dog came together and they have never been separated since. They are part of our society; they are part of the companionship of the home; they 297 are part of the training of children; and they are part of the fun of life. Yet, when misbehaviour or danger occurs, the upsurge of certain sections of the press and the media concentrates on delinquency and blackens the whole lot.
I want to raise the prestige of the canine population. They are as much entitled to be here as we are. No one has given man—at least, I do not believe so—primacy by reason of his genes or origins over any other species. It is all part of the natural world. We are all part of the animal kingdom. Therefore, we are now beginning to talk about the rights of animals. The dog has a very special relationship with man. Noble Lords who have dogs, or who have owned them, do not need to hear any further talk from me about what they mean to them and their families.
I think it is right that we should regard dogs as being in a very special category of animal life for special study, sympathetic understanding, protection and control. That is what the Bill proposes an advisory committee should do, with a wide-ranging reference to have regard to all the matters that affect dogs. I see no reason at all why such a committee as that proposed should not inquire into some very special sections of dogs; for example, show dogs, police dogs, foxhounds and greyhounds. There are many dogs being used in commercial life which, it seems to me, may also require some protection.
Therefore, on the principle of the matter, I am saying that I really do not think that it can be sustained that the existing flexible arrangements are adequate. They are not; they are pick and choose. When Ministers pick and choose their sources of consultation they cannot always satisfy us that they have contacted all of them or taken notice of those that should have been consulted.
There is nothing in the proposal which ties anyone's hands. It does not increase the bureaucracy. However, it is certainly true to say that it adds a little to public expenditure. I shall give your Lordships an idea of the perspective when any Minister begins to talk about expense. The most expensive advisory committee that we have is the Commission for Racial Equality. It costs over £14 million. The Equal Opportunities Commission costs nearly £5 million. We also have the Broadcasting Standards Council which costs £1.5 million.
The difference between those commissions and committees, and other bodies, depends largely on whether or not the members are paid. Some of the commissions are very well paid. In my view, we pay heavily for the purification of television and radio broadcasting. But the Animal Procedures Committee, which is there to safeguard animals from unnecessary suffering and which was established under the 1986 Act, costs only £29,000. The Farm Animal Welfare Council costs £80,000. There is no expense factor in the proposal; indeed, it is so negligible as not to be reckoned as part of the debate. None of the people involved will be paid any more than the members of the Farm Animal Welfare Council are paid. They receive travelling expenses and give their services voluntarily. The proposed council would be in no better a position.
298 As regards the main issue, I do not want to find myself stumbling over the niceties of flexibility of consultation, bureaucracy or the form of consultation. I want to secure stability, representativeness and an obligation on the part of the Minister to consult and to take opinion into account when reaching decisions on controversial matters. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 requires the Minister to consult representative bodies (which are not specified) before coming to the House with draft orders for extended action. But, there again, it is completely up to him where he goes for his consultation. He decides whether to see such bodies in conjunction with others or separately. It is for him to decide whether he places more reliance on one piece of advice than on another. That selective form of flexibility does not appeal to me. It should not be regarded as the normal relationship and form of consultation between Ministers and interests in controversial and continuing matters. Everything can be brought together, discussed and looked at in perspective.
I should like to ask the Minister whether he has any further thoughts on the matter, because I have. He may wish to know what they are, but I cannot enlarge upon them this afternoon because I am in the course of further talks with my friends in that connection. However, I have something to say—that is, if there is a Minister of the requisite rank to listen. I want to do business on the matter. I hope that the response of the Government will be a willingness to listen to what that business can be. Therefore, I await what the Minister has to say about his receptiveness to anything that may come his way, or the way of other Ministers, in the very near future.
I believe that the reinforcement of the position by giving the Bill a Second Reading this afternoon is very important. I do not want to burn my boats entirely by going into the clutches of ministerial consultation, but I am most anxious that something new should come out of this debate. I believe that I may have a new model of consultation which may well be a replacement for much of the conventional type of consultation that we have had in the past. However, I shall have to leave the matter there. I am sorry that I cannot round it off. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response and, if he encourages me, then I may advance a little further.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Lord Houghton of Sowerby.)
§ 4.8 p.m.
§ Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
My Lords, perhaps I may first apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, and to the House for my late arrival in the Chamber which caused me to miss the first part of his speech. However, one must admire the noble Lord for his sincerity of purpose in proposing the Bill and also for his determination—if I may say, his dogged determination—in bringing forward once again the issue of the control and welfare of dogs.
It is well acknowledged that the noble Lord has a strong attachment to many organisations that are concerned with dogs and animal welfare. Throughout the years he has put forward very powerful arguments 299 for organisations to do more than they do for dog welfare. I have in mind such organisations as the British Veterinary Association, the RSPCA, the Kennel Club and the national Canine Defence League, of which I believe he is a vice-president.
In a previous debate on this Bill I was able to give it only qualified support since I felt that the proposed council was merely an additional organisation among the many which exist and which have much common ground on the question of dogs and dog control. I am not sure that I have moved from that position, although possibly I have moved a little in the noble Lord's direction rather than in the opposite direction. If the Bill succeeds or there comes out of it something of use in terms of a council, it could well draw together a number of loose threads in the field of dog welfare and control which would benefit the dogs individually and our society in general.
The dog's role in society must be an important one since there are some 7 million of them in the country and there are 5 million households which own a dog. That is some indication of the role of this animal in our society. There is every indication that that number will increase substantially over the coming decade.
Should there be some kind of council as proposed by the noble Lord, one of its first tasks might well be the consolidation of the legislation concerned with the dog. There are somewhere in the region of 30 pieces of legislation scattered somewhat disparately over the legislative network and it is at times difficult to draw them all together. A second area could well be the fostering of research on the role of the dog in society. With such a substantial presence we need to know much more about the role that the dog plays in companionship and in the health of the community.
Much attention has been focused over the past few months and years through the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 on the dangers of dogs—for instance, the transmission of disease such as visceral larva migrans (the nematode of dogs causing eye disease in children) and hydatid disease in Wales and so on. But a vast amount of good results from the presence of the dog in our society which we are only beginning to understand. For example, recent work has shown that the ownership of a dog results in an individual having a significant reduction in minor illnesses over a period of time; and of course there is the well-known work in the United States that indicates that the possession of a companion animal will substantially and significantly increase the lifespan of an individual who has had a heart attack.
One particular area that this council could facilitate is that of research into the dog—not only of dog diseases but dog welfare too. I recognise that the noble Lord is not proposing that this be a funding agency. There are other agencies that one goes to. But there is no natural home for a research proposal on dogs in this country other than the charitable institutions. Here one must pay tribute to organisations such as the Wellcome Trust and the charitable arms of various organisations such as the British Veterinary Association which have funded research into animal disease.
300 Of particular note about this research is its comparative aspect, where much of interest to human health can derive from the study of naturally occurring entities in the dog. They are the natural components of the dog; they are natural examples of disease, shall we say. They are certainly sentinels of the environment in which we live because dogs generally share that environment, sometimes very closely indeed.
A further area which still requires urgent attention is that of breeding and what might be referred to as the mutilation of dogs for fad and fancy. Fortunately the dog show world is coming to terms with the more objectionable aspects of breeding or the alteration of normal conformation of an animal for cosmetic purposes. This House has already debated that some time ago. This is a distortion of the proper and responsible stewardship that we should show to dogs.
Finally, should the Bill go forward, or something come out of it such as a council, I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, might accept a wider definition of the dog than at present and perhaps include cats as well, since so many of his intentions with the Bill affect companion animals as a whole, not only the dog. Therefore there is a wider issue than merely dogs with respect to companion animals in society.
I hope that this does not die as a concept and though my noble friend the Minister may have ideas of not letting the Bill go forward, I hope that some positive development may occur as a result of the noble Lord's Bill.
§ 4.17 p.m.
The Viscount of Falkland
My Lords, we on these Benches support the Bill in the main as it has been presented by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. I should like to say how well and how comprehensively he introduced it. I absolutely agree with him that dogs have had a rough ride in recent times. The problems have been misunderstood and misrepresented in the media. There has also been recent legislation, and most of us in the Chamber today took part in the debates during the progress of the Dangerous Dogs Bill. That Act can hardly be viewed as entirely satisfactory. Indeed, there have been several cases of injustice as a result of its implementation. It was far too limited in its scope. That could be something to be considered by the council which is suggested in the noble Lord's Bill.
The major problem, as I think most noble Lords agree, that strikes the public concerns the strays and abandoned dogs which appear in increasing numbers on our streets. This implies a lack of responsible ownership in many quarters. Again that is something which a council could look at in detail and which could, when required, advise the Government when they are considering legislation.
That dovetails in with what the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, has just said in what was an interesting and, as one would expect, well informed speech. I agree with him that one of the major roles of a council of this kind would be research into, as I think he expressed it, the role of dogs as pets in society. As 301 the proud owner of two Abyssinians, I am glad that he added cats. In a family environment pets are extremely valuable. I remain to be persuaded of whether they prevent minor illnesses or diseases, but I take the noble Lord's word for it. I know that it is a happy and enjoyable experience to have a pet in the family, whether it be a dog or a cat. The lack of responsibility and the selfishness of many pet owners may have something to do with the falling apart of the family structure. The way we treat our children and our dogs may have some relevance. That is also a point which the proposed council could address.
The council could tackle the whole business of identifying stray dogs and returning them to their owners. The case was fought long and hard in your Lordships' House and in another place for the introduction of some kind of registration scheme. Such a scheme has been steadfastly resisted by Her Majesty's Government, mainly, I fancy, on the grounds of cost. Of course cost is a factor, as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, said, but it is a cost which will somehow have to be borne sooner or later.
The means of identifying dogs are becoming more sophisticated. The tagging of dogs by microchip technology is being perfected. I believe that we shall see on the market in the near future a cheap and effective way of implanting a minute tag into a dog so that it can be scanned by the appropriate authorities to identify it and its owner. That database might contain other information such as whether the dog has been immunised against various diseases. I would not omit rabies. In France, the law requires that a dog is vaccinated by a veterinary surgeon, and that information goes on to a computer. That in itself forms a kind of registration of dogs.
We have discussed the iniquitous area of puppy farming. There is cruelty in some cases, but not all. There are unscrupulous puppy breeders who breed dogs in deplorable conditions. They are passed on to pet shops, where the environment is unsuitable for keeping dogs humanely. That again is a subject which could be dealt with.
All in all, from these Benches we agree that there is a need for the Government to be better informed about dogs and pets generally. The proposal would be an excellent way of moving ahead. More information would be at the disposal of government to ensure that when legislation is necessary it is the right legislation which may be more effective than Acts such as the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.
§ 4.23 p.m.
§ Lord Morris of Castle Morris
My Lords, as is usual in the case of a Private Member's Bill, the Labour Party takes a neutral stance, and so I speak for myself alone. Perhaps I may again remind your Lordships of the words of the poet Juvenal when he writes in his seventh satire "crambe repetita", which for the benefit of those of your Lordships who did not pay close attention in their Latin lessons at school I may translate loosely as yesterday's cabbage warmed up and served again. The poet Juvenal did not like "crambe repetita". I find that it can be made palatable, but I mention it only to illustrate that almost 302 everything which can be said about the Bill was said on its previous Second Reading and was said extremely well. But since what we on these Benches regard as a little local difficulty intervened on 9th April, we have perforce to reconsider it before—as I hope we may—we assist it on its way.
My noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby has, with his customary clarity and power, laid out the principal reasons why the Bill would assist in the control and welfare of the nation's estimated 7.4 million dogs. I quote the figure received this morning from the RSPCA. There is no need to adduce evidence that such measures are increasingly necessary. The RSPCA estimates that some 1,000 dogs have to be killed every day, and I for one fully support the shock tactics that it was forced to use in its advertising to bring that horrific fact home to the public conscience. Similarly, the regular media reports of terrible acts of cruelty inflicted on dogs, and the almost routine peril of dogs abandoned on motorways after Christmas each year require us, as a civilised nation, to do all that we can for the welfare of our dogs; and the proposed dog control and welfare council will be a simple but powerfully effective and cost-effective step in the right direction.
As my noble friend Lord Houghton pointed out on 17th January, the very existence of such a council would point the way towards a calmer and more considered approach to the issue of dog control and welfare. Dogs are a very emotive issue in this country, and they always have been. Problems such as the treatment of stray dogs and the activities of dog wardens rouse high passions in the populace very quickly, and all too often precipitate action takes place which might not have taken place if there were calmer and more considered thought.
An expert, trusted, accountable, visible and, above all, disinterested council along the lines proposed would be an excellent way to deter precipitate and rash action (on the part both of individuals and of Her Majesty's Government) and to allow wiser counsels to emerge and eventually to prevail. At the very least, a council would permit the Government, when under violent attack from an outraged public on some matter of canine concern, and when the radio, television and newspapers are in a ferment about what the Government are going to do, to perform the classic rugby football manoeuvre and "kick it into touch".
Such an issue might well be the existence and regulation of puppy farms, as the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, said. From time to time public fury erupts when some spectacularly cruel or negligent example comes to light, and the authorities, local and national, are bidden to do something about it. The trouble is that any single example can be dealt with, and almost invariably is, and then the matter slips from the pages of the newspapers and from the forefront of the public conscience. But cruel puppy farms continue to exist and to proliferate. There is no overall solution to the problem. I should be interested to know how many Home Office officials are permanently or principally involved with regulating an often dubious trade. If the Minister has an answer 303 to that question—he does not seem to have an answer to many of the questions that I have asked this afternoon—I should be pleased to hear from him.
A dog control and welfare council could, and would of necessity, keep an issue such as puppy farming under continuous and vigilant review. Nothing would deter bad rearers of puppies more certainly than the knowledge that there was the vigilant eye of a regulatory body perpetually kept upon them.
Again, should we not learn a lesson, as the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, wisely said, from the passage of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991? It was a textbook example of legislation conceived as a result of a public outcry which was prepared in haste and amended on the hoof. In this case perhaps I should say "on the paw". At one time we were threatened with a great slaughter of dogs which would have made Herod's massacre of the innocents look like a chimpanzees' tea party. Then everything that was potentially dangerous had to be muzzled. One owner found himself in peril of the full majesty of the law when he took off his dog's muzzle to let the poor beast drink.
It must be admitted that there were injustices and absurdities which could have been avoided if the problem had been approached in a calmer, more informed and more rational fashion. Just such qualities would be the hallmark of the council which this Bill proposes. What is more, such a council would be able to anticipate likely causes of concern and identify problems needing legislative intervention. It would not simply follow with a knee-jerk reaction something raised by the newspapers or bawled out on television. It could be proactive in these matters and advise the Government in advance of trouble likely to occur.
To take one small example, I am informed that at the moment it is entirely unclear who, if anyone, is responsible for ensuring that a dog injured in a traffic accident receives veterinary attention. Precisely because this question falls between the responsibilities of the police, the driver and the veterinary profession, it will not be addressed or solved. A dog control and welfare council could be required to advise the Government on the best solution, after having consulted those concerned dispassionately, disinterestedly and on the Government's behalf.
When your Lordships debated the Bill on 17th January, we heard a rousing, nay, almost ferocious speech, from the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley. He said, among other things: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".—[Official Report, 17/1/92; col. 509.]The noble Lord has a most powerful bark and I wish he had been here this afternoon to bark again. On that occasion, he declared his hope that the Minister,will be able to say that the Government will give serious consideration to setting up such a council".Though he did not go so far, the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, gave then and has 304 reiterated today his qualified support for my noble friend's Bill. I take comfort from the noun, though I wish he could have done without the adjective. Nevertheless, the support is welcome, even when it is qualified. He expressed the hope then that the Government would do something to consolidate the legislation dealing with dogs in this country. He pointed to 30 pieces of legislation which already exist, a point which he made once again strongly this afternoon.
I argue that advice and guidance on such consolidation would be exactly what the proposed council would be best placed to give. However, all in all, those who spoke on 17th January had considerable sympathy with the philosophy behind my noble friend's Bill. No one spoke flatly against it and no one has today.
On 17th January, in his reply at col. 515, the noble Viscount considered the Bill to be unnecessary,in that it would create a statutory body to fulfil functions already carried out effectively through existing channels of consultation".I make no apology for repeating the words already quoted by my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby because they are important. If I may say so with the gravest and most profound respect, those words represent a statement which tastes blandly of the smoothest and most perfectly puréed complacency of which our superb Civil Service is capable. That the functions are not carried out effectively is proved by the perpetual dissatisfaction of so many who care about animal welfare. That the channels of consultation have become blocked by the detritus of the traffic through them, with no one available to pull the flush but my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby, can equally be demonstrated.
The noble Viscount went on to say, again at col. 515: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".I am sure that the noble Viscount will agree that we on these Benches always try to be helpful to the Government in their pursuit of truth and justice. I have in that same spirit tried to be helpful on this occasion. I have caused all four of those bodies to be consulted at official level very recently on the question of whether or not they support my noble friend's Bill. I hope that the noble Viscount will find the results of my inquiries helpful and definitive, though he may also find them surprising.
It did not surprise me to learn that the Kennel Club was not in favour of my noble friend's Bill since it is known that it regards it as a movement in the direction of dog registration, to which it is opposed. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons said that it had not been consulted on the Bill, but one of its administrators said that he thought that the college would not be opposed to it. The British Veterinary Association supports the Bill wholeheartedly and thinks it a good idea: and the RSPCA is in print as saying that it,Wholeheartedly supports Lord Houghton's Dog Control and Welfare Bill".305 So, of the organisations which the Home Secretary usually consults, 2.5 support my noble friend's Bill and 1.5 either oppose it or seem neutral. Thus, 62.5 per cent. of those consulted are in favour of the Bill; and I hope that the Government, who were elected to power on 9th April by 42 per cent. of the vote, will have no difficulty in agreeing to my noble friend's Bill and giving it a fair wind, which I now invite the noble Viscount formally to do.
§ 4.36 p.m.
§ Lord Clifford of Chudleigh
My Lords, before the noble Viscount replies, perhaps I may express support for the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. It is interesting to hear statistics about how many dogs there are in the country. Between 1990 and 1995, a 20 per cent. increase in the dog population is expected. Although during the past few years we have been discussing dog legislation including what became the Dangerous Dogs Act, as well as the necessity for dog wardens, over 200 district councils do not have a single dog warden. I totally support the Bill and hope it becomes law.
§ 4.38 p.m.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to have the opportunity again to discuss animal matters, particularly dogs, with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. As your Lordships have reminded us, he has long been an effective advocate on behalf of the animal kingdom in your Lordships' House.
The Bill before us today is identical to that introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, during the last Parliament. That Bill was debated in your Lordships' House five months ago and received its Second Reading. However, the Government felt unable to support it. In the Government's view, nothing has happened in the intervening period which suggests that they should change their attitude.
The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, will therefore not be surprised to hear that the Government's reservations about the need for a statutory council and the amendment to Section 2 of the Dangerous Dogs Act as proposed by the Bill still remain. Accordingly, much of what I can say is a re-statement of the Government's position and our reservations about the Bill.
It is the Government's view that the existing statutory-based flexible arrangements for consultation on dog related and other animal matters work well. I am not persuaded that the replacement of the non-statutory arrangements by a statutory body would be an improvement on the present arrangements. The Home Secretary already consults—this has been pointed out today—with organisations such as the RSPCA, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the British Veterinary Association, the Kennel Club and others as necessary to ensure that he has access to expert opinion on dog related matters. Indeed all the aforementioned were among those consulted during the passage of the Dangerous Dogs Bill last year.
306 Those bodies and others with an interest in dog issues have over the years offered advice to the Government. The Government value this contact. I have no doubt that the bodies will continue to approach the Government on particular issues of concern to them. The setting up of the dog control and welfare council would result in much additional administrative work and added expense. It would introduce a further layer of administration into the existing arrangements which we are not convinced would be offset by any potential benefit.
As the Government have made clear, we consider that the present arrangements operate well. We shall continue to consult as we do at present with appropriate bodies on dog related matters. All the bodies that care about these matters are quick to approach the Government when they are concerned about certain issues. I am sure that the House will be aware of the Government's continuing work on dog issues. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, when he says that dogs have been downgraded. As noble Lords will be aware, since the beginning of this year when a similar measure came before the House, the dog related provisions of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 have come into operation. From 1st April 1992 local authorities have had a new duty to collect and detain stray dogs and to enforce the existing requirement for dogs to wear a collar and tag when in a public place.
There has for the first time been a national government initiative in England and Wales to promote responsible dog ownership and to encourage owners to clear up after their dogs. The local authorities do much already but the Government felt that this needed a national boost. Accordingly the Government, working in conjunction with the Pet Advisory Committee, of which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, is president, the Tidy Britain Group and the Pet Food Manufacturers Association have provided campaign material for use by local authorities and others. Those are examples of recent government initiatives in the area of dog welfare which we shall continue to pursue.
As was the case when the Bill last came before the House, noble Lords have raised a number of interesting points. My noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior made particularly interesting points. My noble friend has great expertise in animal matters, particularly animal health matters. I am sure we all welcome the valuable contribution he always makes in these debates.
The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, started with a quotation in Latin about the desirability of yesterday's cabbage. I always thought cabbage was used to make bubble and squeak which is a delicious dish. Today, the noble Lord has both bubbled and squeaked, as well as barked perhaps. He has made a number of points. I was interested in his comments on polls. The noble Lord mentioned the poll he had conducted of interested parties. I now understand how the pollsters were entirely wrong as regards the election result and why the party of the noble Lord was so totally misled by the findings. The noble Lord 307 asked about regulating dog breeding establishments. That is a matter for local authority inspectors rather than Home Office officials.
As I made clear, we do not claim that the present consultation arrangements on dog related matters cannot be improved; nor do we claim that we are inflexible in these matters. We are not instinctively attracted to the idea of even a non-statutory standing committee which could be expensive to run and the need for which we do not believe has yet been demonstrated. It could simply generate unnecessary work and distract attention from the other important issues in the field of animal welfare with which the Government are concerned.
But our minds are not closed. We are ready to discuss the matter further with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. I repeat the undertaking I gave on the previous occasion the Bill came before your Lordships' House to consider any suggestions for improvement that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, or any other noble Lord, may wish to make to us. Indeed earlier this year in this House the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said he hoped that informal contacts could be established with the Government to see how to take the matter forward. We would be delighted for that to happen and we look forward to the noble Lord and his representatives coming to see us. Dogs are special, and so are cats. In view of what I have said today I hope that the noble Lord will consider this approach.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
My Lords, I am almost moved to say that the Home Office is incorrigible, but there seems to be a glimmer of light in the response that the noble Viscount has made that leads me to want to pursue this matter. I have been on this long, long trail for 18 years now and I have experienced many disappointments and frustrations on the way. I have said on previous occasions that there are some things in parliamentary affairs that prove almost too much for the patience even of one who has been in this business for as long as I have. The noble Viscount has a brief that was prepared for him before he had heard a single word said today. There is something about our form of administration which requires pulling apart. When the noble Viscount talks about the Government I should like to know who in the Government has taken the decision.
I felt rather upset last night when I received a telephone message from someone who was writing an article on this Bill for a newspaper. He said he had been talking to officials of fairly high standing at the Home Office who had made it clear that they did not want this Bill. I said I was aware of that. No Minister seems to be able to get through that attitude of not wanting the Bill. I say with great respect that I am not taking an answer on behalf of the Government which may represent only what the officials do not want.
It seems to me that the Home Office, and probably other ministries too, only respond when they are pressed or frightened. The former Home Secretary appointed more committees of inquiry than any Home Secretary I remember. Almost every other day he 308 appointed an independent committee of inquiry to look into something. A phrase used in ministerial circles that is becoming almost criminal is, "It must never happen again". There is no foresight, no anticipation of events and no vision on trends of what is happening in the world or in the country. Ministers pass from crisis to crisis and in the meantime are hard pressed to keep pace with current work. I am realistic. I have been in this business for a long time and I have seen this process happen. One cannot emerge from such dealings without a fairly strong streak of cynicism about how it all works. The public sometimes must feel as impatient as I do with the kind of response that comes from the combination of governmental responsibility and political expediency.
However, this is a non-party issue. We are dealing with a problem and we are all involved in it in the same way. The difference between us now seems to boil down to the following. There has to be consultation and there is consultation, but is it adequate? Can it be improved upon, and how can that be done? Until now I have prescribed the conventional response to the desire for closer, more stable and representative consultation by means of an advisory committee. Administration is littered with them, some more important than others. However, Ministers want advice and they cannot always obtain it from within the department. Therefore, they look for advice that they can rely on, but in some cases the advice comes from so many quarters, or there are so many interests involved, that it is desirable to bring the advisers together.
For years I wondered why the anti-vivisection organisations were so frustrated and engaged in such futile activities in their opposition to experimentation on animals. It was because they did not come together. A Home Secretary, who is now in this House, told me, "I will see a representative body but I will not see one body and then have to see half a dozen others". He almost insisted that they should come together before any business could be done with him as Home Secretary. It was then that I formed a body, which has continued ever since—the Committee for the Reform of Animal Experimentation. By bringing the individual organisations together we reached the Home Secretary, and having achieved that we began to make progress.
The bodies we have been talking about this afternoon have come together. I believe that they can remain together and become more effective in that way. It is that which I want to develop.
Of course, I shall accept what the Minister said, but I shall not enter talks with officials who are opposed to the measure. If I talk to the Government I want to do so at the right level, otherwise I do not have the time for it—nor the inclination. Therefore, I hope that the noble Viscount will convey to his superiors the content of this debate, which has been admirable. I am extremely grateful for the response of noble Lords this afternoon. Their speeches were all better than mine because they were better informed. It is their view, not mine, which should carry the day following the debate this afternoon. However, I am quite prepared to be the 309 spokesman or to introduce those who want the consultations initiated by the Home Secretary to be more representative.
The Home Secretary's record on dogs over the past two years has been deplorable. We should not forget that when we consider the future. The present policy has not worked satisfactorily. To begin with it did not work at all, as my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris pointed out a few moments ago.
I shall leave the matter there. I shall certainly take up the Minister's invitation—in a bigger way than the noble Viscount probably intended or thought possible. I shall push the door open wider than he has left it, and if it closes on me I shall try to kick it open. At any rate, I have a positive approach in mind and I hope to receive a positive response.
That is probably the last word that I need to say in this debate. I hope that your Lordships will give a Second Reading to this Bill and at least show that you mean business even if the Government do not.
On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.