HL Deb 16 December 1993 vol 550 cc1481-94

4.48 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Perhaps I may say at the outset that if I tend to lean on the back of a Back Bench, it is for physical support and not for political comfort.

This is the third time that I have moved the Second Reading of this Bill. But I assure noble Lords that I have no intention of making a habit of it. Until now there has been a strategic purpose behind everything I have done on this Bill. And there will continue to be that purpose, unless the speech of the noble Lord on the Front Bench differs from what I think it is likely to be.

I can also promise not to be guilty of tedious repetition. I shall not take your Lordships over the speeches that I made before. Indeed they are somewhat irrelevant to our position today, which I hope to deal with very briefly. In fact I should have been very happy to be left alone with the noble Lord on the Front Bench who will speak for the Government. I hope that I can do business with him this afternoon. Whether he has any business to do with me is another matter. We shall see.

This Bill originated three Sessions ago but it did not arise out of any events connected with dangerous dogs. We had not heard of dangerous dogs at that time. We had heard a great deal about a national registration scheme for all dogs. Your Lordships agreed an amendment to the Environmental Protection Bill which staggered the Government because it instructed them to go into the question of a national registration scheme for all dogs and they did not like it. But the Bill went to the other place and gained so much support that the Prime Minister became gravely anxious. There was rebellion in the air.

There seemed to be a general desire in both Houses for a national dog registration scheme. The time came, on a crucial vote in the other place, when the Whips apparently advised that there were so many people in favour—Ministers and Back-Benchers—that they doubted whether the Government could hold a majority against the amendment on the Floor of that House. So enough money was spent to pay for two years for the Dog Control and Welfare Council in order to get back supporters from all corners of the earth. Even when that was done and the three-line Whip was dripping with ink, the Prime Minister had a majority of fewer than five. I do not know the exact figure, but it was a shocker. The smallest majority in the other place during her premiership was on the national dog registration scheme.

It struck me how futile it all was. Why was there so much debate about a national dog registration scheme without having some investigation into the need for it or its purpose? Should not evidence have been taken about it to find out what kind of consensus of opinion could be achieved? I then thought about how we had solved problems of that kind elsewhere. I recalled the time in 1979 when I went to see the chairman of the Conservative Party, who happened to be the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw. I went with a message from the Prime Minister at that time, my noble friend Lord Callaghan, to the effect that it was his intention, if returned as Prime Minister, to set up a standing Royal Commission on animal welfare and spread an umbrella over the whole area of animal well-being, their relationships with society and so on.

But the noble Viscount thought that it was better for each area of administration to find its own way into advisory machinery. He said that he would upgrade the Farm Animal Welfare Council and make it an effective body. He would also in the Home Office upgrade the Animal Procedures Committee under the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876. He did both. A department that is responsible for administering a controversial area of public affairs cannot expect to keep in close enough touch with the formation of opinion or go for the kind of advice that is needed in a developing situation.

This Bill is a copybook copy of the Farm Animal Welfare Council. In fact the Farm Animal Welfare Council did not need statutory support. It was done by regulation. But the Animal Procedures Committee set up under the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act is a statutory committee with powers embodied in the Act itself. They were very strong powers that we insisted on at the time.

Let me turn to the Home Office. The Home Office does not have complete responsibility for the care, welfare and control of dogs. To some extent its work has been hived off to the Department of the Environment because it is responsible for keeping the parks clean and dealing with other nuisances in the purview of the local authorities. As a sop the Government added to the Environmental Protection Bill at the end of that controversy a huge slice of new material on strays and animal behaviour in municipal parks and on pavements. It was a kind of compensation for having been frustrated over the national registration scheme.

In previous speeches I have tried to make out a case for the Home Office having at its disposal similar advisory machinery. It got into an awful mess over the dog registration scheme. Strictly speaking, it was not the Home Office that was in the mess but the Government, because the Department of the Environment was also heavily involved. We thought that this was an opportunity for the Home Office to bring the dog situation under better control. By that time the issue of dangerous dogs had arisen and we saw what was happening.

This Bill presumes that the expense of the council will be borne by the Government. It does not provide for it. If the Bill goes to another place it will be there that the financial provision will be made. When I first raised the matter I was told that public expenditure was under review and things were getting very difficult. I was told that it was not a very favourable atmosphere for public expenditure on a matter of this kind. The second time round I received that message rather more strongly. In the intervening informal approaches that I made, it came firmly from the Government that there was no more money for this measure. Indeed, it was suggested by the Home Office that it did not think that the Bill was really necessary, the need was not as strong as I had made out, and it had plenty of advice at its disposal.

If noble Lords want to read a rather appalling account of what a Home Secretary can go through and what he can do, perhaps I may suggest that they read Mr. Kenneth Baker's chapter on dangerous dogs in his recent memoirs. He believed himself to be the hero of the piece, of course, and not the victim of the tabloid press, which in fact he was. I must not spend time on that; your Lordships can read it for yourselves. If anyone gets any comfort at all from reading the confessions of a Home Secretary in that situation, I shall be extremely surprised.

But there is more to come in regard to dogs than Members realise. Trouble is looming in relation to dogs. For one thing, there are so many of them; for another, they matter so much to individuals; and, finally, they arouse emotions for and against the canine world which stray into political attitudes.

I must come to the point of what I want from the noble Lord opposite. There is to be no money from the Government. But they add, "If you want to embark on the creation of a dog control and welfare council yourselves, not requiring any government money, you are welcome to have a go". That is the position that I bring to the House this afternoon. It is said that there is no Government money available. That is why the matter was not taken up in the House of Commons when the Bill went through all stages and was duly passed on 16th November 1992. The Bill has already been passed by this House. Why then do I have to bother again? It is because I cannot put it into effect except on the basis of what I am now saying to the Benches opposite.

Where is the money to come from and on what terms will we be able to use it? What is, in general, the attitude of the Government to the novel way in which they suggest we proceed? I know of no standing advisory committee of the prestige that we seek which is sustained on non-governmental resources. Yet this will have to be sustained on non-governmental resources. We shall have to obtain the money from some-where—we have a good idea where we can obtain it but that is beside the point. If we do that—we have reached the stage where, if we are going to do it at all, we shall have to embark on it soon—what will be the attitude of the Government towards this "chicken" created especially by private effort to give good advice continuously to the Home Office, which is always in need of it?

What we are offering is the prospect that, free of charge, the Government will have the facilities of a standing advisory council of the quality outlined in the Bill. It is not a fly-by-night; it is not a cook-up to enable the animal liberation people to sit on a government committee. Our privately created and financed council would be the one stipulated in the Bill. Our scheme would fit neatly into the Bill and that is why I continue to bring the matter before the House. I shall keep bringing the Bill before the House for as long as I can or for as long as I need to. It is like the Ark of the Covenant that we carry around with us and say, "This is the advisory committee that is on offer. What use will you make of it?"—but more important—"what will be your attitude towards it?"

I will suggest a few words to the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite and see what he says. He need only utter the right word and I shall sit down. Will the attitude of the Government be cordial? Will it be encouraging? Will it incorporate the spirit of goodwill? Will it offer co-operation? Will it establish a relationship which, although no money changes hands, will nevertheless be the sort of relationship where two parties come together in a common effort?

The noble Lord may wish to use other words that may be in his mind—indifferent, an intrusion, hostile, a nuisance. There are plenty more words if one looks in the dictionary. They are all there and he is free to choose whichever one he wants. I want from the Minister a suitable word of encouragement regarding this non-government funded council to enable us to go with confidence to those who will be asked to put up the money. They will not want to donate the large amount of money needed without obtaining some assurance that when the council is provided—no doubt based on a charitable foundation with some of the principal sponsors being trustees, who will appoint the officers of the council and its members—a suitable relationship will be established.

Would it help if we said that we are prepared to pay for the blessing of the Government if they do not rob the council of its independence? I throw out a few ideas. Perhaps it would help if we said to the Government, "You appoint a chairman", or "Would you like to approve the members that we select? What do you want from us to make the council acceptable as a partnership?" How big are the Government and how big can they make the council? That is what I am after.

I congratulate the noble Lord opposite on coming from the back seats to the Front Bench in one leap. But I am quite sure that he has not come with any licence to utter a single word that has not already been written for him by the Home Office. I do not want to tell any secrets, but other Members of your Lordships' House sitting in his seat have come to me at times and said, "I must see whether the officials will agree to that". They must see whether the officials will agree to it. To what depth has ministerial representation come when he has to run like that to the officials?

I know too much about how those matters work behind the scenes. The office line is laid down, probably from higher up. It does not want to bother with it any more so the officials are given the right to supervise what junior people are allowed to say.

When looking at what comes out of the Home Office we need to look at what has been going into the Home Office over the past 10 years. At the beginning of the present Administration we had the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, as Home Secretary, then followed Leon Brittan; then followed Douglas Hurd. They in turn occupied the seat of Home Secretary for the first 10 years of this Administration—stalwart, steady, stable. Then the rot set in. The Prime Minister wanted to get rid of Geoffrey Howe. He offered him the position of Home Secretary even when Douglas Hurd still held it and had not heard a word about it, but he refused. But Douglas Hurd did move and then look what we got!

We have had four Home Secretaries in the past four years. First, the period of office was four years, then two years and then four years among the saviours of the Home Office whom I have described. Now we have tenure of one year or one and a half years. The new one may last. His head is full of crime. He wants to look at all the prisons he can so that he knows how to make more of them.

One wonders what 'direction one is getting from the Home Office as regards its great variety of worries and troubles at present. Kenneth Baker was Home Secretary for 18 months. There was something in the good old chestnut story that the worst Ministry to be posted to was the one which Kenneth Baker had just left. There was a good deal of truth in that. Kenneth Clarke was only in that position for a few months before he was being talked about for the Prime Minister's job.

The Home Office has now become a staging post. It is a junction at which people meet on their travels elsewhere even though they may be travelling out. So what confidence can we have in that set up? Then one must consider all the junior Ministers and permanent officials who have changed. An official can go from animals to prisons and then immigration. Just consider the list of things which the Home Office is dealing with from time to time. These officials are pushed around in order to get experience so that an experienced animal man is promoted to be a deputy secretary or something of that kind, and he moves off. The new man comes in, knows nothing and has to start afresh.

We have to train these fellows and we do not charge for it. We have to let them into the secrets of their new profession. There is no comfort in the Home Office at the present time. I wonder whether the noble Lord on the Front Bench will have the opportunity of lifting our hearts on this matter. Much will depend on what he says in a few minutes. We then have to decide what to do: do we manage without this measure altogether or try another route?

I have spoken partly for business reasons and partly for entertainment. I like the House to be buoyed up a little on virtually its last day and to have a bit of fun. I am glad that we had a little fun this afternoon. I am obliged to my noble friend on the Opposition Front Bench for appearing to be in support. I have to apologise to a number of my friends in all parts of the House who cannot be here this afternoon.

On 17th January we are calling together for the fourth time the most representative body of organisations representing dogs that we have ever seen in this country—there will be 22 of them. Everyone who knows anything about dogs is a member of our new dog law reform group. What is more, money came rolling in. We only had to say that we wanted money to draft new laws for dogs and we received a large measure of public support.

The bitterest moment as regards dogs is to come when I have to introduce the Dangerous Dogs Act (Amendment) Bill in the New Year. Then I shall not be so entertaining. Indeed, I shall look at my dictionary for a few new words which I can use about the events of 1991. I have spoken for far too long, but if noble Lords have not felt that it is long, then the strain on my ageing legs has been borne with happiness and contentment.

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

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Wharton

My Lords, I rise to support this Bill in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. This is a very simple Bill, barely two pages long, but with very clear objectives in mind. I shall not dwell on its contents, which have already been outlined by the noble Lord, except to say that its aim is to work closely, not only with government, but with all the groups in the canine world.

I would like to say a word or two about the deregulation Bill which is due next year and particularly about the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973. The potential abandonment of that Act really is a cause for concern. It is becoming increasingly obvious that there are puppy farming establishments in Wales which are very substandard and which have no regard to the welfare of the animals in them. Some puppy farmers do not even have a licence to run an establishment. Some local councils do not appear to be very concerned and do not even make regular checks on the ones they do license. Sadly, it is left to inspectors, who have to cover a wide area, to check not only the licensed premises, but also to track down the unlicensed ones. This makes their job doubly difficult. I am not saying that all puppy farms are bad, but a great many are. Without the Breeding of Dogs Act what hope is there for the unfortunate dogs trapped in these situations?

The Bill we are discussing could draw up guidelines and, with government backing, see them enforced. While on the subject of puppies, let us think about those exported to Hong Kong. They are only eight weeks old, unvaccinated and often, within a short space of time of arriving, they are ill. I am sure that that cannot be right. If we care about our animals at all we should do our best to stop this sort of trade in such very young animals.

The deregulating of the Pet Animals Act 1951 will allow those who already run a bad establishment to become even worse, with little fear of prosecution. Quite frankly, I would like to see the sale of pets from shops ended altogether. If one wants a pedigree dog, then why not buy it from a reputable breeder whose establishment has been checked or, preferably, from a dogs' home, thereby giving an abandoned dog a chance of a decent life?

With the increasing movement of domestic pets between the United Kingdom and Europe as frontiers come down, I suspect that sooner or later we shall have to inoculate all our dogs against rabies. Surely, some sort of record will have to be kept as the disease also affects humans. Perhaps the Government will look at the permanent identification of dogs in future.

The deregulation Bill addresses a number of areas of welfare legislation with a view to stripping away controls. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, will establish a body that can review these laws with a view to making them more effective, thereby ensuring that dog control and animal welfare legislation can be comprehensive. Finally, we hope that the Minister will give this Bill its due consideration.

5.19 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, on a subject he covers so well and so thoroughly, for putting the simple contents of the Bill so clearly to your Lordships. Whenever there are debates concerning dogs in your Lordships' House the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is always there, tireless as ever, supporting dogs. dog owners and groups who work for dogs. There is little for the rest of us to say except to give our support.

I know from past experience that, where the Government are concerned, arguments for dog registration fall, not on deaf ears, but certainly on unreceptive ears. A huge majority of people in this country favour some kind of dog registration scheme. The matter is further complicated by the opening of the Channel Tunnel. By and large neighbouring countries have sensible registration schemes of one form or another. But people whose journey with their dogs may have taken 25 minutes or thereabouts may then have to face something which they find frustrating and unnecessary. I refer to quarantine. Against the background of anarchy that prevails as regards dogs in this country, that could result in problems.

France has a tattooing system as part of its statutory vaccination requirement. Most people pay the fee which covers the registration. Some do not, but dogs found without the tattoo have only a very short period of time in which to be claimed; otherwise they are disposed of.

Governments in this country have always thought of registration as something bureaucratic, creating vast records and giving large numbers of bureaucrats the power to check on dog ownership. However, the large voluntary membership of registration schemes that already exist shows that there are other reasons for having a scheme. Dogs often stray. Even the most orderly dogs sometimes stray, occasionally over large distances. A registration scheme gives owners a much better chance of being reunited with their dogs. But enough said about dog registration.

All that this simple Bill seeks to achieve is that where decisions are to be made the Government shall consult the dog control and welfare council. Without putting it in perhaps such a dramatic way as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, I anticipate that dogs will be of concern to us for various reasons in the near future. It would be an enormous help to the Government, civil servants and all concerned if there were a body of the kind proposed in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, even dealt with the funding of the council in his admirable speech.

All that I would say from these Benches is that we welcome the creation of an expert body, however composed, with government participation and chairmanship, and with the participation of whoever the Government see fit to include. In our view, that would make any future legislation much more simple and effective. Without any feeling of rancour at this season, I feel bound to say that the dangerous dogs legislation, which was hurriedly introduced, proved a spectacular and expensive failure. If the Government had had available to them the kind of advice that such a council could provide when they reacted to the terrible scenes vividly depicted in the press, I am sure that they would have produced legislation other than that which is in place and which will eventually have to be reformed. I hope that the Government will look favourably on what is suggested in the Bill and that, sooner or later, we shall have some order in dog ownership in this country.

5.23 p.m.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, is, sadly, something of a rarity. In a nation which is alleged to be composed of animal lovers, he is indeed a true friend of all animals. Unlike too many of those who loudly and publicly profess their concern for animals, the noble Lord has never been selective with his concern or confined his efforts only to those species about which public emotion can be easily stirred or political capital readily made. His concern for the laboratory rat and his efforts to improve animal welfare in spheres about which the public do not wish to know have been as great as for domestic pets or popular campaigns. He has never been afraid, unlike some of those who claim concern for animal welfare, to speak out against the causing of unnecessary suffering to animals in areas where it is politically incorrect to do so—for example, in relation to the ritual slaughter of farm animals. He has never shirked from exposing cruelty in areas about which the British public would rather not know, such as some of our abattoirs and farms.

Above all, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has never been one for gesture politics. Nothing is easier today than to appeal successfully on almost every animal issue to a proportion of the British public by using sentiment, prejudice and emotions instead of fact, reason and judgment. That is not surprising because our population is now largely urban or suburban. It has been brought up from infancy on a diet of books in which animals think, speak and behave just like humans. Most people, sadly, have had little or no contact with animals in their lives, save perhaps with a domestic pet, and the results are accordingly not always in the interests of the animals themselves.

However, the noble Lord's way has always been to consider the problem with care and reason and in depth, and then to make considered proposals. As a result, he has brought about real improvements in animal welfare—often through his personal efforts—which are and will remain a lasting tribute to him. For all those reasons, when he introduces a Bill which is designed to improve the welfare and conditions not only of the dog population but also of the human population, that Bill surely merits careful consideration by the Government and, in this case, strong support also.

As many of us see it, animal welfare must be taken out of the field of political posturing. Independent study by experts must replace instant legislation resulting from media hysteria or pressure group clamour. If better illustration were needed of what happens when sensational press coverage is allowed to dictate legislation in this area, one need look no further than the Dangerous Dogs Act, which was steam-rollered through Parliament in the face of ill-informed advice in the last Parliament. It will be very interesting to see what benefits the Government will claim have derived from that Act when the noble Lord's Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Bill is debated in the New Year. I wonder what reduction in dog attacks, if any, will be claimed and what we will be told has been the cost of that legislation.

The benefits, in so far as they are apparent at all, have been to the legal and veterinary professions. Dogs have been impounded and kept at public expense while lengthy legal proceedings are conducted, no doubt often funded by legal aid and attended by expert vets and lawyers arguing expensively and at length over the paternity and antecedents of a hapless canine. The Bill that we are now discussing will, I hope, go some way towards ensuring that such hasty, ill-conceived and inappropriate legislation for what is a real problem will not occur in the future.

Just as the Farm Animal Welfare Council has produced invaluable advice for the Government in relation to legislation and has brought about real improvements, of which there would have been many more if the Government had had the political courage to adopt more of the council's recommendations, so the proposed dog control and welfare council would act first as a prod to Government where legislation is really needed; secondly, as a sounding board where advice is required and, thirdly, as a brake when the Government might be tempted to introduce loony legislation of the dangerous dogs variety.

There are so many areas of real concern and problems in relation to dogs which the council could usefully address. The noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, has already referred to the indiscriminate breeding of dogs, especially on some puppy farms where dogs are produced simply as a cash crop often in very poor conditions and with little or no concern given to the suitability of the buyers. The keeping of dogs in unsuitable conditions is bordering on a national disgrace. It must be a matter for widespread education. Far too many large and powerful dogs are kept in unsuitable conditions. Small sporting dogs, which are bred and designed to travel 20 miles or more in a day, are often kept in small, town flats with inadequate exercise and with consequently disastrous effects on their temperament, rendering them noisy, a nuisance, destructive and ultimately dangerous.

The selection by owners of breeds for them to own is often manifestly unsuited to their circumstances; prompted, I suspect, all too often by a desire to project a particular image. There are dogs—some within a close radius of my home—which live their lives on short chains, effectively kept as living burglar alarms. Straying dogs, and an inability to identify their owners, present a constant problem in the countryside, by sheep worrying, of which I have been a sufferer, in relation to road accidents in towns and in the countryside and, worst of all of course, when that results in an attack, especially upon children.

Dog fouling, as anyone who lives in a town or city knows, is a serious problem in many areas. It is clear that current legislation is inadequate. There is a need for a separation of play and recreation areas from dog lavatories, and for irresponsible owners to be made accountable. Then there is the major and growing problem, especially as we come up to Christmas, of lost, abused and unwanted dogs. Where I live, in Stokenchurch in Buckinghamshire, there is a large and excellent dog rescue centre. Every Sunday members of the public take dogs out for exercise in the neighbouring woods. The parade of those animals says more than words about the so-called nation of dog lovers.

There are, of course, the old, greying and ugly mongrels that were no doubt once appealing puppies but are no longer required. There are endless Dobermanns, Alsatians and other guard dogs—image dogs, if I may call them that—which are now no doubt too much for their owners. More than any other breed, there are discarded greyhounds—living examples of man's greed. They are all illustrations of man's failure to carry out his obligations to the animals in his care. We are not, in reality, a nation of dog lovers. If an animal is young, wide-eyed and appealing, we lavish affection upon it, until the time comes when it ceases to interest us and we turn our backs on it.

It takes a true animal lover like my noble friend Lord Houghton, with the tenacity and energy which he continues to display, to come forward with a sensible proposal like this to remind us all of where our duty and obligations lie, and the way forward in relation to all those problems. I hope that the Government will feel that the proposal deserves their support. I hope that the House, too, will give its support.

5.32 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, this is the first occasion upon which I have had the opportunity to discuss dog-related matters with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. I know that he has long been a most effective advocate, here and elsewhere, on matters pertaining to the animal kingdom. I am not sure whether I am giving a hostage to fortune when I say that I hope today will perhaps be the first of many occasions upon which we discuss these matters.

The noble Lord criticised some inhabitants of the Home Office over the past 14 years. Perhaps I should tell him at the outset that in me he may have drawn the shortest straw of all. I tread carefully in this debate as I am not keen on dogs, being allergic to them. In close proximity with dogs, I become unwell. I try to keep as clear of them as I possibly can. If it is any consolation to the Lord, cats are worse and rabbits worse still. Therefore to prepare myself for the task of replying to the debate I did some investigations in the Home Office about dogs and dog-related matters as they pertain to government. I proceeded to tread carefully in the field of dog-related matters. I discovered that—in the way only government can do—the Home Office is responsible for the front end of the dog and the Department of the Environment is responsible for the rear end of the dog. So I am more than pleased that I am not talking for the Department of the Environment.

On a more serious note, I agree with a great deal of what the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, said about the ill-matched ownership of many dogs. Even as someone who does not like too close a contact with dogs, I often marvel at the matching pairs I see in the nearby park. In my previous life, when I canvassed—occasionally I still canvass—I was always amazed at the large dogs which seemed to be locked up in small town flats when their natural environment is the countryside. As the noble Baroness said, at this time of year in particular, many people receive dogs as pets. They are cuddly little toys and they do not realise that they are living animals which require a great deal of attention. The giving of that attention is soon transferred from the child to the mother and then, unfortunately in many cases, from the mother to no one at all.

I am aware that twice before—the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, mentioned this—he has introduced a Bill identical to the one he moves today. Indeed, as he also said, on the most recent occasion he got the Bill beyond its Third Reading in your Lordships' House. The Government then felt unable to support it.

The Bill envisages the establishment of a statutory council. The council would consist of people who are expert and knowledgeable in dog matters and could advise my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. He could turn to it for advice. I know, as we heard this afternoon, the noble Lord uses the FAWC—he has done that today as he has done in the past—which I understand he helped to establish, as his model.

I understand the noble Lord's concerns and his motive in putting forward the idea of a council. I am bound to tell him though that the Government continue to have reservations about the establishment of a statutory council, as the Bill proposes. He has already told me that he will not be too surprised at that answer. I am sorry to disappoint him this close to Christmas, but I am afraid that I have to.

This of course is a Private Member's Bill, and, despite the Government's views which I am expressing, we do not propose to vote against it, as that would be against the tradition of you Lordships' House on Private Member's Bills.

We receive advice on dog issues from many quarters, both solicited and unsolicited. We consult the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the British Veterinary Association, the Kennel Club and others as necessary to ensure that the Home Office has access to expert opinion on dog-related matters.

Home Office officials met the chairman of the Kennel Club last month, and my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State met on Monday the Director General of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals when., among other things, dog matters were discussed. The Government value the contact which they have with the various organisations, because it enables us to hear, at first hand, a wide variety of expert views and we would not wish either to lose or to deny them the access now afforded to them. We consider that the present arrangements for consultation on these matters operates well. I fear that the establishment of a council, as envisaged in the Bill, may, in its operation, either subsume, or duplicate those consultation arrangements.

I do not expect the noble Lord to be too surprised to hear that the Government's reservations include the need for a statutory council and the amendment to Section 2 of the Dangerous Dogs Act, as proposed by the Bill. I know that the noble Lord has been exploring how effect could be given to the aim of the Bill without the need to establish a statutory council. He mentioned that point. The noble Lord recently met my noble friend Lord Ferrers, and, on behalf of my noble friend I should like to take this opportunity to thank him for keeping the Government informed of developments as to his discussions with animal welfare organisations and others.

I understand that the noble Lord's idea is to set up a charitable trust of a few people to administer a non-statutory council, with the council being funded entirely from outside government. If I heard him aright, he said that he had succeeded in making arrangements for that money to be available.

I admire the diligence with which the noble Lord is pursuing his idea. I can fully understand his desire to have an indication of the degree of backing which the Government would give to his proposal for a non-statutory council. I say to him that the Government cannot commit in advance to giving official backing to a body which is not a statutory body and to one whose reputation is as yet unproven. Recognition would afford it a special status not enjoyed by other organisations in this field and whose views it might or might not represent. I do not think we could treat the body as necessarily the only authoritative voice over all dog interests or afford it a special status over and above that of the individual organisations with which we are in regular contact already and which I mentioned earlier in my speech. That is not to say, though, that there may not be an argument for a forum through which those organisations that so chose could filter their views.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, was concerned about the effects of the deregulation review on animal welfare legislation. I assure her and the House that the Government's deregulation review is taking due account of animal welfare concerns. The general discussions on deregulation entail consulting all the major welfare groups in this field.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, will not be surprised when I say that our policy on registration remains as it has been in the past. We regard it as expensive and bureaucratic and we do not think that in practical terms it would assist in the control of stray dogs. In the context of dangerous dogs, your Lordships will know that in recent incidents the ownership of the dog in question has not in fact been doubted at any time. So registration would add nothing to the provisions of the Dangerous Dogs Act. In opposing dog registration we brought forward positive measures for the control of dogs in the Environmental Protection Act. Those comprise the seizure and detaining of strays and the duty on district and borough councils to enforce the collar and tag law. The presence of a tag on the dog is the simplest and most effective means of identifying the owner and of dealing with strays.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and all other speakers mentioned the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Your Lordships will be aware that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, introduced a Bill into your Lordships' House on 23rd November to amend the law relating to dangerous dogs. The Government will, of course, study carefully the content of that Bill and will listen closely to constructive comment on it. It would not be right for me to attempt to pre-empt any discussion which there might be. But I must say now that the Government do not intend to weaken the protection which is afforded by the Act. Recent tragic events have shown how wrong that would be.

I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, that should he be successful in his efforts to establish a council, or other similar body, the Government will certainly give full consideration to any advice which it may offer, and we would pay proper regard to it. However, I conclude by restating that, for the reasons which I have given, the Government cannot support this Bill.

5.42 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, there is nothing now for me to do except to thank the Minister for his especially well delivered and comprehensive statement. It does what I wanted it to do—it puts on the record where the Government stand on much that we have discussed on past occasions when the Bill has been before the House. For that I am very grateful.

I understand, but will not attempt to debate at this stage, some of the noble Lord's remarks. What is important is that the many supporters of the Bill and those who are gathering for other purposes of defence of animal welfare have established for them a more secure place in commercial and social activity. They want to know what lies before them and what reforms they may wish to embark on. For that I am especially happy. It is on the record now and has been explained to the House very fully and adequately. I hope that out of it all something will come.

In the meantime I shall leave the Bill on the Floor of the House so that if I need to turn to it later I can. But I am not prepared to go into the field of voluntary effort completely without a line of re-entry to the House on the matter. So thank you very much and a very happy Christmas.

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

House adjourned at sixteen minutes before six o'clock.