HL Deb 16 November 1992 vol 540 cc488-96

5.20 p.m.

Read a third time; an amendment (privilege) made.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

The Bill does not yet qualify as a hardy annual but it is heading that way. It was first given a Second Reading one year ago and it was the first Private Member's Bill to be presented in the new Parliament in June. I then reintroduced the Bill and it has come full circle. I thank all noble Lords who have brought it to its present stage.

Since the Second Reading in June much has happened to strengthen the case for an advisory committee as is proposed in the Bill. Only last week the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons presented a new item for the committee's agenda; it has decided to outlaw the docking of dogs tails. I am old enough to remember the controversy about the docking of horses tails. That waged for years and ultimately the practice was outlawed and banned. However, this is a new development and we have yet to see what parliamentary controversy it will provoke. Awaiting treatment is a government decision, which presumably must be embodied in the law, making it an offence for anyone who is not a qualified veterinary surgeon to dock a dog's tail.

The Motion passed by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons bans unqualified and unjustified mutilation and states that it is unethical unless done for therapeutic or prophylactic purposes. What is to be banned is the docking of dog's tails for cosmetic purposes. There is some lovely drafting of law on the subject and I have no doubt that there will be controversy about it.

The first attack on the Dangerous Dogs Act in Parliament occurred on 4th November when the honourable Member for Brighton Kemptown, Mr. Andrew Bowden, opened an Adjournment Debate immediately following the great crisis Vote that night. He wished to draw attention to the injustices and the defects of the Dangerous Dogs Act and to plead for a review. He received a not unsympathetic answer from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Home Office and was asked to bear in mind that the Bill had been in operation for only a year. It was said that time should be given to see how it progressed in full operation. The Minister welcomed what his honour-able friend had done and promised that: The Government will continue to listen carefully to my hon. Friend and others who wish to comment constructively on the controls. But at the same time I would ask that they bear in mind the Government's overriding duty to ensure the adequacy of the law to protect the public".—[Official Report, Commons, 4/11/92; col. 392.] I question that as the basic philosophy of what the Government should do. I believe that the overriding purpose of Parliament is to protect the rights of the public—the civil rights of everyone concerned. To regard the single item of the protection of citizens against the minority problem of dog control is putting the issue rather high.

On 11th July another event of considerable importance took place. A legal conference of lawyers was held at Lincoln's Inn in order to look at the flaws and problems of the Dangerous Dogs Act. Mr. Bowden took the chair. The principal speech was made by Mr. Field-Fisher, QC, who is director of the Battersea Dogs' Home. I am sorry to say that I have not yet received a copy of the report of the conference, although it received a certain amount of publicity. I am glad to note that the Home Office is awake to the matter and has written for a copy. It will be of considerable importance. I mention the Dangerous Dogs Act because it stands to reason that any advisory committee appointed to assist the Home Secretary on matters of dog control and welfare would be bound to deal with that Act. Indeed, there is widespread belief that the Bill will foster the hope that a review of the Act will take place in the not too distant future.

Support for this Bill is growing continually. In addition to support from animal organisations such as the RSPCA, the National Canine Defence League, and so forth, a magazine called Our Dogs published a profile of me a few weeks ago. In the photograph I was not stroking my dog—I do not possess one—but I was cutting my roses, of which I possess quite a number. Flowing from that article I received the largest amount of mail that I have ever received during my 18 years in your Lordships' House. It was beyond my capacity to cope with that and I had to engage specialist assistance. The letters were not routine—they had not been signed at the behest of some organisation—they were revelations of human misery, unhappiness, resentment and anger at the operation of the Dangerous Dogs Act.

There is not the slightest doubt that there has been the most regrettable transgression of the liberties of the subject that I have encountered in my experience in Parliament. Although it may be early days for a review of the Act—its diabolical work is still in progress—preparation should be made for a review in the not too distant future.

We lack statistics. The Home Office has nothing and will not have anything worthwhile on the operation of that Act because they do not collect the statistics centrally. Questions that I have asked in order to obtain information have produced no results. So it is time to begin to prepare for a review. It will take some time and require a good deal of attention.

We are told that an advisory committee is not necessary because the Government have all the channels of consultation available to them. Indeed, they used them at the time that the Dangerous Dogs Act was before Parliament. I have heard first hand accounts of the consultations which the then Home Secretary had with various representative bodies on the Dangerous Dogs Act. People went in one after another. It was really a parade of delegations. The Home Secretary heard what they had to say and then did little or nothing about it. That is not what I call consultation.

I fear that we shall head for fresh trouble in that regard and in other regards because the Home Office have no record which gives any confidence whatever that it can look ahead and make preparations. I can understand the Home Office not being able to look ahead because it does not know what the problems will be for the Home Office. Its attention is frequently concentrated on matters which have arisen quite unexpectedly.

It is late in the day to begin to justify the case for an advisory committee. I can understand the Home Office not wishing to acknowledge that such a committee is necessary. If it does acknowledge that, it might be asked to pay for it. We are running into a regime when governments do not wish to pay for anything if they can possibly avoid it. So often they say that they cannot spend any new money. Extremely strict controls and a good many cuts are to be made in the field of public expenditure.

During the Summer Recess I canvassed ideas as to how it may be possible to meet that situation. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Home Office and the Home Secretary should be aware of ideas that I have had. One idea is that the Home Office should appoint an advisory committee and then privatise it —that would be in keeping with the Government's current policy—or perhaps encourage private interests to combine to fund an advisory committee of this kind, provided that the Home Secretary was satisfied as to its composition, authority and reliability in the giving of sound advice. The Home Secretary always needs sound advice; and some Home Secretaries need more of it than others.

It seems to me that there are ideas that we should look at in the field of change and in the relationship between public purposes and private provision. For example, I recall that years ago the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, set up a prestigious committee on the reform of charity law—or it was set up and he was invited to become the chairman. The Goodman Report was current thinking in the charitable world for a long time. One should not overlook my noble friend Lord Longford who in 1964 presented the Labour Government with a report of a committee of his own presided over by an archbishop. It was called Crime—A Challenge To Us All. It is still a challenge to us all but that report was a contribution on the subject.

Perhaps I may modestly refer to the fact that in 1975 I produced the first ever report, of which I am aware, on dogs in society. I did that under the auspices of the British Small Animal Veterinary Association. Shortly after I produced my report the government set up an interdepartmental committee of their own to which I gave evidence. When that committee produced its report, it was largely a copy of mine. I do not quarrel with that because it was the best report that they had. It stood as part of the policy of the political parties for some time. Times change and other policies come along.

I first conceived the idea of this Bill during the ridiculous goings-on both in your Lordships' House and in another place over the proposal for a national dog registration scheme. I thought, "If this is Parliament, it is time it was reformed". I remember the antics which the Government got up to in order to prevent the House of Commons doing what the House of Lords had done; namely, to amend the Environmental Protection Bill in order to provide for work to be done on a national dog registration scheme. On one occasion it cost tens of thousands of pounds to get all the Ministers and absent MPs back to London to vote against the rebellion on the Tory Benches, which nearly succeeded. The Government had only a single figure majority on the vote on the proposal for a dog registration scheme. In the end, the Government slung into the Environmental Protection Act a set of proposals about waifs and strays and local authorities in order to edge out the amendment on dog registration. Are we to go through all that again? The national dog registration scheme holds the field in the policy of at least one of our major political parties; and that may be extended as time goes on.

Before this Bill reaches its final stage, I ask the Government to respond to ideas put to them about a different form of an advisory committee with status, quality and opportunity for investigation and research. Can that be done? Is it something novel? It means that the funding of the work of an advisory committee would pass from the Government to private sources. Do the Government object to an advisory committee being funded by a combination of charities or a combination of individual and commercial interests? I can tell the Government where to get money from if they are ready to accept commercial interest in this matter—after all, the Government do not mind deserving purposes being funded by commercial interests. Every day on the television something is being funded or sponsored. That is now taken as a matter of course.

I shall not mention any names, either of charities or commercial undertakings, but I remind your Lordships how little money is required to fund such an advisory committee. I have given figures before but the Farm Animal Welfare Council costs less than £100,000 per year. The statutory advisory committee on animal experiments costs less than £50,000 per year. Of course, if you want to take care of the nation's morals and keep sex and violence on television away from people, you must be prepared to spend £1.5 million on the Broadcasting Standards Council. If you want racial equality, an advisory committee will cost £14 million.

Those amounts are really chicken-feed when one looks at the matter from the point of view of funding. The committee would give advice for nothing and, in certain circumstances, would not even claim its expenses from the Government. There are all kinds of sane ideas which I have been putting forward in the past few weeks to different people to get this committee set up. It would not be selected by the Home Secretary but approved by him as being a fair and quality advisory committee representative of the different interests on whose advice he will rely. Get that and we are home and dry and we need not bother any more about public expenditure on an advisory committee.

I have shown my hand to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. I do not know whether the noble Viscount has a hand to show; he usually has not. They will not let him have one. I am not really expecting any earth-shaking response from him. This Bill will be taken up elsewhere. I am very glad to say that we are getting friends in another place who feel that this is something which they should undertake.

This is a long speech to be made on Bill do now pass, but I have been waiting all summer to get this off my chest. I have been working very hard during the Recess. If any noble Lord wants a packet of my misery mail I shall be very glad to forward an instalment of it. If noble Lords do not weep then they are much harder hearted than I think they are. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Houghton of Sowerby.)

5.41 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, on a Private Member's Bill like this the Labour Party is neutral, and I speak not for the party but for myself alone. I was recently re-reading some of the poetry of Alexander Pope, and I came across a couplet inscribed on the collar of the dog which Pope gave to a member of the Royal Family. It read: I am His Highness' dog at Kew; Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you? I must say that on the matter of this Bill I feel a little like that myself, having been put on my lead and taken out for walkies around the arguments in favour of this modest measure on more than one previous occasion and quite unable to strain at the leash in pursuit of new and persuasive examples or statistics with which to attempt to convince the Government and soften the noble Viscount's stony heart.

Indeed, in re-reading the previous outings we have had on this topic, I found myself not only totally convinced by the excellence of the arguments in my own speech at Second Reading, but strangely impressed by the fact that no one, apart from the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, seems to have spoken against the Bill. The nearest to an objector was the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, who said that he had previously given it "qualified support" and had possibly moved from that position a little in the direction of my noble friend. Of the bodies usually consulted on canine matters only the Kennel Club was opposed to the Bill, and the chorus of support for it, from so many different quarters, has been as loud as it has been harmonious.

The great strength of the proposal, to my mind, is that it is based so firmly on the constitution, the functions and the work of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which has a long and distinguished record of useful achievement. The problems and the welfare of the nation's 7.4 million dogs could surely best be considered if we agree to follow the example created for the welfare of farm animals.

Perhaps I may briefly remind your Lordships of the view taken by that very responsible body, the RSPCA, when it prepared a briefing for the Second Reading debate on 18th June. It believed that the Dog Control and Welfare Council could play an invaluable role in providing independent expert advice to the various Secretaries of State responsible for dogs. The RSPCA quoted my noble friend when it said: This is an area which raises a number of complex and emotive issues, and the Council would, in Lord Houghton's words, 'point the way to a calmer and more considered approach'". That is every bit as true in November as it was in June. The RSPCA at that time noted the weight of support for the Bill and listed a number of the organisations in favour of it and even of dog registration which included the RSPCA and Scottish and Ulster SPCAs, the Association of District Councils, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Association of London Authorities, the London Boroughs Association, the National Association of Local Councils, the National Canine Defence League, the Battersea Dogs' Home, the National Farmers Union, the Country Gentlemen's Association, the Country Landowners' Association, the Institute of Environmental Health Officers, the National Dog Wardens Association and the British Veterinary Association —indeed, every front-line organisation concerned with dog welfare, except, for obvious reasons, the Kennel Club.

The RSPCA also noted that every European member state save Belgium and Luxembourg now has full registration schemes as do many states in the United States of America, Australia and now Denmark. One virtue of the Bill which could perhaps be re-emphasised with profit is that it creates a body capable of taking an overview on the many aspects of both dog control and dog welfare in our society. The RSPCA, the Canine Defence League, the Kennel Club, the PDSA, and other such organisations all do excellent work, but there is, as yet, no body with direct links to government which looks at all the issues, from dog licensing to dog breeding and dog training, and advises government on them all. My noble friend's Bill co-ordinates and simplifies the transfer of information and advice in the most effective way possible, while at the same time ensuring that that advice is of the highest and most reliable quality.

Over the past weekend I have carefully re-read, with all the sympathy that I could summon up, the reply given on behalf of the Government by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, at Second Reading. I am sorry to say that I found it, with all the goodwill in the world, still deeply unconvincing. His strongest point seemed to me the argument that to set up a Dog Control and Welfare Council would create additional administrative work and added expense. And yet neither he, nor anyone else, so far as I can see, has established how much additional administrative work would be required. How many civil servants would need to be recruited? How many person-hours are estimated to be necessary to service such a council? Indeed, has anyone ever seriously calculated what would be involved, and costed it? If so, who, and when, and what is the estimated expense?

As my noble friend pointed out at Second Reading, the Farm Animal Welfare Council costs something like £80,000. A Dog Control and Welfare Council could hardly cost more than that, and in the carefully considered opinion of very many of us, all across the country, it would be money well and wisely spent. I hope that on this final occasion the noble Viscount will feel able to agree.

5.49 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to have a further opportunity to discuss dog-related matters with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. I believe that he and I have discussed dogs on a number of occasions—about five or six in the past few years. This Bill received its Second Reading in your Lordships' House some five months ago. Since then I know that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has been exploring how effect could be given to the aims of the Bill without the need to establish a statutory council. I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for keeping the Government informed of the developments as to his discussions with animal organisations and how they have progressed.

When your Lordships last discussed this Bill, I set out the Government's reservations about its purposes and the reasons why we felt unable to give it our support. I know that this has disappointed the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, who introduced the Bill from the very best of motives.

However, before responding to the particular points which he has raised today, it may be helpful if I were to explain briefly why the Government have still not felt able to support the establishment of a statutory council as the Bill envisages. The Government welcome advice from many quarters on matters for which they are responsible. This applies no less to the subject of dogs. Indeed, this is an area in which we receive an abundance of unsolicited advice, in addition to the advice which we receive from our contacts with the very many organisations which have an interest in dog-related matters. Perhaps I may advise the noble Lord, Lord Morris, that my officials met only last week with their opposite numbers in the RSPCA when dog matters were discussed among other things.

I understand the concerns of both the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. Both feel that there is a strong case for having a body—not dissimilar to the Farm Animal Welfare Council or the Animal Procedures Committee —which can consist of people who are expert and knowledgeable in dog matters which not only can take the breast of objections or proposals of existing or new legislation but which can advise my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and to whom my right honourable friend can turn for advice.

I do see that there is a force in this argument, but I am bound to tell your Lordships that any new statutory body is inevitably bureaucratic. It would also be expensive to run and, at a time when we are trying to avoid additional public expense and to avoid the increasing desire to legislate on everything, we do not feel that this is the appropriate time to set off down this road. We are, at the moment, kept alert to the many and varied opinions on dog issues by the flexibility of other existing non-statutory consultation arrangements. We do not feel, therefore, that there is quite the urgency for a statutory council as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, proposes. The Government are not alone in this view. The Kennel Club also doubts the need for the Bill. I do not want the noble Lord, Lord Morris, to have to read out again his long list of those who are for such a statutory council if, indeed, he can. There are differing views, but the Government's position remains the same.

However, there is, of course, room for improvement. There may be an argument for a forum in which issues of dog control and welfare could be filtered, assessed and passed on to government. That need not —and indeed should not—be at the expense of our existing valuable, informal arrangements. If the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, were to be successful in obtaining agreement with the bodies with which he is consulting to the establishment of a non-statutory forum, the Government would naturally be willing to consider any advice that it might offer.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, mentioned the operation of the Dangerous Dogs Act. Your Lordships may be aware that this was discussed on 4th November in an Adjournment debate in another place. The Government made clear that we believe that it is right that the operation of the Act should be closely examined and that we will continue to listen carefully to constructive comment on it.

The noble Lord also talked about tail docking. The Government amended the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 last year to remove the right of an unqualified person to dock puppies' tails. That change takes effect on 1st July 1993. The Government are waiting to see the details of the recent deliberations of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

I must repeat that the Government remain ready to discuss any proposal which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, might wish to put to us on how his ideas for a non-statutory council might be taken forward. We are always ready to receive what he might call "the Houghton Report" although we shall not necessarily agree with all the conclusions.

5.54 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I must thank the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, for the most informative speech that he has yet delivered to your Lordships on this subject. He must have gone back to his officials and said, "A repetition of what I said before won't do." Anyhow, it may be that he has triumphed over more forthcoming advice that he has already received. I am sure that the noble Viscount has personal resources that have not yet been revealed to your Lordships' House, and I thank him for what he said. I do not think that I should go into any more detail now.

My noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris, speaking from our Front Bench, put up a spirited and complete case for the Bill. However, on the practical points that he mentioned in response to my suggestion of other arrangements for establishing working advisory machinery on which the Home Office could rely and the existence of which it would acknowledge, I remind him that the Farm Animal Welfare Council is not a statutory body. It is appointed by regulation by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It may well have been that any such committee would not have needed a statutory sanction. It could probably be established under regulations which the Home Office may already have the power to make.

I shall pursue what I have embarked upon because I think there is one thing missing from all that the noble Viscount said—and that is, listening to collective advice. I have had experience of this. One can listen to everybody coming separately to state views and, when they have gone, one has great difficulty knowing how to select the advice that one should follow. In my connections with the teachers' organisations—a difficult lot, if you like—I said, "I shall see you altogether. I shall take your advice when I hear it from you altogether." That proved the most successful part of the work that I had to carry out on behalf of teachers.

However, during the passage of the Dangerous Dogs Act, the Home Secretary had the various bodies involved in one at a time. They were waiting in the waiting room. One would have thought that they had all gone to the dentist. They went in one by one, and the Home Secretary called upon particular officials to explain the Home Office point of view on various contentious items in the dangerous dogs legislation. If one examines the Dangerous Dogs Act, one can see what is not there and the flaws that are there. One can see why respectable bodies such as the British Veterinary Association in particular and the RSPCA are putting forward the urgent need to restore the rights of the citizen to appeal in a judicial procedure, but those rights are not there. I do not think that the public fully understand how authoritarian it all is and how the various safeguards against injustice have been withdrawn in order to allow no respite in the pursuit of what are believed to be dangerous dogs. As I said at the time, it is a fiendish Act.

I have said all the things about the legislation to which I think that the House would wish to listen. So, I shall persevere. I hope that in due course I shall come up with something which will convince a future Home Secretary—if the present one is not still in post. Let us see what we can do. I repeat that to review this requires collective action on the part of considerable interests, and I think that they should be encouraged. That is all that I have to say for the time being.

On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.