§ 5.35 p.m.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am deeply conscious of the fact that at this moment my noble friend and colleague of us all, the late Lord Willis, would have been rising to move his Motion regarding the life, work and influence of Keir Hardie. Lord Willis died with tragic suddenness and we deeply grieve his death. It was a pleasure and a comfort to read what my noble friend Lord Graham wrote in the recent issue of The House Magazine.
§ I was intrigued with my late friend's Motion. I wondered what he was going to say about Keir Hardie; what Minister on the Benches opposite he would expect to take ministerial responsibility for the life and work of Keir Hardie; and which of my noble friends would have risen on this side of the House to deplore the rise and fall of socialism and declaim that they were still of the faith. Noble Lords are aware that it is the centenary of the foundation of the Independent Labour Party. That was no doubt the basis upon which my noble friend intended to raise the matter. It was a more pleasant subject than the one I must now discuss.
§ The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is in my experience the most outrageous law ever passed in Parliament. It is probably worse in some respects even than the suppressive tendencies of war-time legislation and the defence of the realm Act (regardless of national security).
§ It has now been in operation for about a year. I have to raise a question regarding the working of the Act so far. My conclusion on the working of the Act is that it is working within the structure of law and an ethos of administration which has all the characteristics of a police state. Indeed, we have planted inside our tolerant and democratic community an isolation of neo-fascist conditions which would have fitted comfortably in the works of any authoritarian state but which is alien to our own traditions and thoughts regarding the way to run a country.
§ There is growing anxiety about the Act. Many people, quite apart from those grievously affected by 934 it, are beginning to complain. I suppose the difficulty is that the British people, by culture and experience, tend to look to the law for justice. But there is no justice in the Dangerous Dogs Act. It was not introduced to provide justice. It was introduced to suppress. It was the next best thing to the wholesale execution of dogs known as pit bull terriers. That was the sequel to the brainstorm which the then Home Secretary went through when he proclaimed that mass slaughter was a remedy for the danger of pit bull terriers to public well-being. It took a few sober-minded bodies to tell him that it was not on. The Act was what followed the reversal of his outlook.
§ The Act came as near as possible to being a programme of extinction of a whole breed or identification in the canine world known as the pit bull terrier. Everything in the Act is designed to make it difficult for those dogs to survive or to make their care tolerable to those who desire to keep them under the Act's harsh conditions.
§ I am not being extreme in my language when I say that those are the conditions of a police state. We have them all. We have the informer. Plenty of information has been given. Some officials of estimable societies have given information away. Police raids take place and the police turn up in riot gear with all the equipment to subjugate a lion, and possessing warrants to enter and forcibly remove dogs. The dog is taken away and one is told that one will hear from the police or the court later. One can wait 14 months and still not hear a word. During all that time one is denied access to one's dog; one is not even told where it is. The anxiety of waiting day by day, week by week for a summons from the court to enable one to appear to defend the life of the dog is a misery beyond belief.
§ I cannot contain my emotions when I read the innumerable letters that I receive from all over the country every day. Some were handed in only this afternoon. All that is not because of what the dogs have done, but because of what they are. It is a form of ethnic cleansing. It is the breed that is important. What matters is what they are or what we think they may do; it is not what they do.
§ I want to sweep away the Act and start on something more sensible. A year ago we were told that there was an emergency. Will the emergency last indefinitely? When the matter was raised in the House of Commons on 4th November by Mr. Andrew Bowden, a Member in another place, the Government said that they were not proposing to do anything. I do not know what the Government will say this afternoon. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, knows what he is going to say before he has listened to a word of what I say. That is how business is done here. It does not matter what one says; it is all written down on a sheet of paper. One is told, "That is it; not a word more or less". That is how one is treated. That is Whitehall taking care of Ministers and keeping them straight.
§ I shall not try and argue for the abolition of the Act of Parliament. Indeed, in present circumstances it would not be politic to urge that legislation should be introduced to amend it. It would raise too many problems. But I shall try and help the House and the 935 Minister to think of something that can humanise this inhuman regime and make the Act more tolerable and less of an outrage without seriously impairing its purpose.
§ What are the evils of the Act? First, as I have already indicated, there is the length of time between one's dog being seized and proceedings being taken. The British Veterinary Association tabled an admirable paper of proposals for changing the regime of the Dangerous Dogs Act. It suggests that a system of allowing a dog to be released on bail should be introduced. We know that it would need to be applied under strict conditions of security. But we let murderers out on bail. Many rogues and vagabonds are allowed out on bail, and there are presumably conditions under which dogs that have shown no disposition towards violence or crime could be kept waiting for their fate.
§ That is one course. Certainly there should be access to the dogs for their owners; they should be told where they are. What is the point of secrecy? When I ask the Minister, he replies that it is a matter for the courts. Therefore the courts should be aware of what we think of the matter. Some people have had to go to court recently and they have never been in a magistrates' court before.
§ The next point that arises concerns the mandatory sentence. As your Lordships are aware, under Section 1 of the Act, when an owner is convicted of keeping an unregistered dog, apart from the monetary fines which can be imposed at the discretion of the magistrate, an order for destruction must be imposed. It is referred to as a mandatory sentence. The only other such sentence that will occur to the House is the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for murder. One can therefore equate dangerous dogs with those who are accused of murder. They are both subject to mandatory sentences.
§ When the order for destruction is issued it may be executed immediately. However, there is sometimes a deferment to give the owner an opportunity of considering whether to appeal. Under the purposes of the Act at the present time I do not believe that there is any need to keep the mandatory sentence. I understand that it is difficult to vary that section in the Act without changing the law. I suggest that magistrates' courts which feel that a mandatory sentence of death would be unjust, and that something less severe should be imposed, should be given the power to suspend their judgments or to adjourn the hearing to give the owner the option of a late registration. Late registration is now refused and is part of the punishment. If you have not already registered you must bear the consequences.
§ Surely the regulations for the making of exemptions, which the Minister can vary by way of a negative procedure statutory instrument, mean that he can provide the option for registration at the present time or at a future date to be at the discretion of the court. If the owner is willing to accept registration to keep his dog, he should be allowed to do so even though the monetary fine might in consequence be increased. Better to take it out of the owner's pocket 936 than take it out of the dog's life. The suggestion is that there should be either a suspended sentence or an adjournment. I believe that a magistrates' court can do that already. I wonder that magistrates have put up with it until now. I know of no case where the discretionary power to sentence an offender has been removed from a court that has jurisdiction. To deprive a court of discretion in sentencing when it has the right and duty to reach a verdict is a serious matter. That was what we did under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.
§ I do not believe that at the moment we can do anything about the onus of proof that rests upon the offender; it will require a change in the Act. However, to humanise the mandatory sentence will be an enormous boon to a lot of people.
§ There is the troublesome question of identification. Various suggestions have been made. The BVA has a whole document about it which is of interest. The RSPCA has also made an effort. At present a great deal of advice is forthcoming. In terms of the scope of humanising the regime, short of fresh legislation there is room for consideration of this matter by the Government. If they decline to consider it, alternative steps will have to be taken. I sincerely hope that we shall get a response on this occasion and that the Government are prepared to consider this matter a year after the main purpose of the Act has been fulfilled, and that we are now on the downward slope. If we do not do something the emergency Act of 1991 could continue for another decade. There will still be registered dogs around 10 years from now; they could be in breach of the law 10 years hence. The Government do not think 10 years ahead; they do not think that anything a week after next is worth consideration. I think it is about time that they got the message.
§ The message to me is that I should resume my seat, although happily time is a little more flexible than usual in this debate. I am glad of the opportunity of a little extension.
§ This is a serious matter and in some respects a constitutional one. I do not understand why the lawyers did not burst into froth and protest at the time that the Dangerous Dogs Bill was going through Parliament—they could not have done it in the Commons but could have done it here—at the deprivation of the discretionary rights of a court in the treatment of an offender within its jurisdiction. I believe it was a great shame that that right was taken away. Magistrates whine and complain that they have no option; they feel ashamed at what they have to do. The police do not enjoy what they have to do. Everybody is unhappy. This is the unhappiest Act of Parliament that we have had for very many years. The Government should have the courage to realise that the Bill passed through all its stages in the House of Commons in four hours flat. This was not a considered Act of Parliament; it was an emergency measure created by the situations I have described. All emergency legislation is likely to be flawed. Nearly all legislation overkills the problem it has to deal with, and the time for reflection and flexibility has surely come. My Lords, beg to move for Papers.937
§ 5.56 p.m.
§ Lord Soulsby of Swaffliam Prior
My Lords, we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, for the opportunity to debate the functioning of the recently-passed Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. That Act followed and was stimulated by a number of horrendous attacks on members of the public, particularly children, by American pit bull terriers and other dogs. We are periodically reminded of this situation by the press. Even today there is a newspaper report about a pit bull terrier viciously attacking another dog. The intent of the legislation was obviously to protect the public from such attacks. A welcome corollary to that was that it might assist in the prevention of the awful sport of dog fighting or dog baiting. In the long run, it was a humane path to eliminate from Britain dogs of the pit bull terrier type by requiring that such dogs be registered, neutered, permanently identified, muzzled and kept on a leash in public. If any of those conditions was contravened the dog would be seized and destroyed and the owner prosecuted. Several months ago an example of that could be found in the newspapers. A dog had its muzzle removed for a minute or so, in order to quench its thirst and was immediately seized. That dog is now under threat of destruction for that misdemeanour.
The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has addressed in particular the question of what one may call the civil liberties aspect of the legislation. I cannot and do not even attempt to muster the adjectives and phrases that he has used to describe the legislation. I wish to address how it impinges on dogs in this country. At present the law allows little or no discretion, as to the fate of a dog that is accused of being "of a type known as a pit bull terrier". A major problem is the confusion as to what is a pit bull terrier type. There is no such recognised breed in Britain.
This difficulty was adumbrated at the Third Reading of the Dog Control and Welfare Bill several months ago. There is no clear breed standard for such dogs. As a result, dogs bearing a resemblance to the pit bull terrier, regardless of their ancestry, are at risk of being seized if they put a bark out of place, so to speak. There have been some quite horrendous and remarkable errors of judgment in the identification of dog types, where their pedigree has been beyond question and yet they have been regarded as a pit bull terrier type. As a result, some 250 or more cases of dogs under appeal on this basis are in kennels in the metropolitan area awaiting a decision.
The British Veterinary Association, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and in which I declare an interest as a member, has been much concerned about the functioning of the Act. It has produced several suggestions which I believe, along with the noble Lord, would greatly improve the functioning and avoid the hardship on the part of dogs and indeed their owners where there is doubt about the identity of the dog while maintaining the intent and thrust of the legislation. I am grateful to the British Veterinary Association for giving me sight of its recommendations which I understand are to be brought to the attention of the Home Secretary.
One aspect which the association emphasises is that 938 there must be a much clearer definition of the import of the word "type". Indeed it should mean dogs which can be clearly and indisputably identified as pit bull terriers or which are known to have a parent that is a pit bull terrier. Behavioural characteristics must also be taken into consideration. If there is any doubt, the dogs should not be found guilty merely on the appearance alone that they resemble a pit bull terrier, as indeed is now happening. It has been reported that one puppy of a litter was identified as a pit bull terrier type while the other six litter mates were not. Surely that kind of instance is quite unacceptable.
If this broad interpretation of the law is to continue, resulting in a variety of dogs being categorised as pit bull terrier types, then the BVA suggests—I agree with it and with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton—that the index of exempt dogs which has now closed should be reopened to allow owners to comply with the requirements of the Act.
However, perhaps one of the more distressing aspects of the functioning of the Act is its impact on the welfare of individual dogs accused of being of the type known as pit bull terriers but which have not behaved dangerously and may have been seized by the police and been kept in kennels in isolation distinct from their owners for many months before being brought to trial. There are reports of this period extending from nine months even to beyond a year. This may cause serious temperamental changes in the dog. It is certainly inimical to the welfare of the animal and is particularly distressing and costly to the owner.
The following proposals have been made by the British Veterinary Association. Dogs seized by the police should be immediately identified by a microchip; they should then have a health inspection by a veterinary surgeon; and, as the noble Lord has indicated, the owners should be advised that they can apply for bail for their dog except in the cases of aggravated assault. This bail would operate in the same way as bail operates for humans. Failure to present the dog for trial would result in forfeiture of the bail and of course prosecution of the owner who was in charge of the animal.
Once bail had been granted the dog could be returned to its owner pending trial. It would thereby reduce distress for the dog and any change in character and performance since it would be in its home. It would obviate a number of welfare problems that occur with animals that are put in kennels on a long-term basis without access to their owners. The dog could be examined by a panel of experts to determine its provenance so to speak. This would greatly reduce the expense to the public purse, since the fees for accommodation in kennels are paid out of the public purse where legal aid occurs. It would also reduce the expense to the private citizen. Animals denied bail would be kept in kennels conforming to the Animal Boarding Establishments Act 1963, but would be allowed periodic supervised visits by their owners. Finally, and as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has suggested, there should be a removal of the mandatory destruction section of the Dangerous Dogs Act. The BVA emphasises the need to give courts trying these cases discretion to decide 939 the appropriate punishment for an owner in non-aggravated cases. It would seem unrealistic that there is only one condition that can be applied in all cases.
I believe that these modifications to the 1991 Act would retain and achieve the objectives of protecting the public from dangerous dogs while allowing responsible dog owners to enjoy the company and the benefits of their animals.
§ 6.7 p.m.
§ Lord Hayter
My Lords, I would have been more fulsome in my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, for raising this subject if he had suggested any other way of ensuring that children and adults should not continue to be attacked by dangerous dogs.
How do I come to be mixed up with dangerous dogs? It is in a somewhat unusual way. In my own locality I was asked by the police to help them to ensure that police dog handlers, who in many cases are mixed up with these trials, could become expert witnesses. We took over the Croydon court, which is a magnificent place. We had 12 of these dog handlers in succession before us. In each case they had been given a dog to handle in one of these kennels and they were asked to provide for us, as magistrates, coloured photographs of the dogs. Two of the dogs in particular were vicious looking animals. They could not even get them out of the kennels. In the court there were two barristers, one to prosecute and one to defend. We also had expert witnesses to assess these dog handlers. I was impressed by this exercise and I am sure that it made sense.
I am the first to agree, as I believe everyone in the debate will, that the Act could be improved. I would disagree if anyone were to suggest that the police are responsible for any problem in this aspect. It is a difficult job. These dog handlers are almost by definition dog lovers. When the dogs are seized and taken to the kennels for contravening the Act they are seen by experts. They are examined by a vet, they are vaccinated, and if there is any doubt, outside experts are brought in to be consulted.
It will be remembered of course that when this Act was passed official guidance was given. That was issued by the Home Office, the Welsh Office and the Department of the Environment. We shall return in a moment to the additional guidance which has been suggested. When this Bill was debated in another place the Secretary of State countered the argument about the dogs being family pets and perfectly safe. He quoted Dr. Roger Mugford, the respected animal psychologist, who said,all pit bulls go bad. It is just a countdown from when they are 12 months old".He is also quoted as saying,there is very little we can do to stop that disastrous Mr. Hyde unfolding from this apparently Dr. Jekyll dog".Recently in a summing-up His Honour Judge Zucker went on to make a valuable point. He said:We reject Dr. Mugford's approach which relies principally on the behaviour or characteristics of the dog. We regard his approach as an attempt to subvert the provisions 940 of Section 1(1a) of the Act which requires the court to have regard to the type, and by necessary implication, not to have regard to the behaviour of an individual dog".That is the kind of point made when we are trying to instruct the dog handlers when they appear in court.
There are one or two points that have arisen in recent trials. I have already mentioned one. The other concerns His Honour Judge Zucker, when he said in summing up:In view of the concern felt about this case we can say that we also found that the dog fell within the very broad specification of the Staffordshire bull terrier type. But we found that the dog had sufficient characteristics to be of the type known as the pit bull terrier".That was why the appeal was dismissed.
In order to bring us right up to date—and it has already been mentioned—there are the suggestions of the British Veterinary Association. It is interesting to note that the BVA starts off by speaking about reducing the unnecessary suffering of pet dogs and their owners. I like the word "pet". It also clarifies the situation for the police and the courts. There is not a word about attacks on human beings and their sufferings. It concentrates on the question of type, which is a very difficult argument and which I shall not go into. I respect the views of the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, in that connection.
It has been suggested that regional panels comprising three or five experts could be set up to help the police to identify dogs before deciding whether or not to charge the owners. Who are to be those experts? That is the question which the police are wondering about.
Then the British Veterinary Association comes to the additional Home Office guidance. It says that it is concerned for the welfare of dogs suspected of being of this type. They are kept in kennels for many months. That is very true. But I point out that that is often the case because the defence has asked for an adjournment, as a result of which the trial cannot begin. When the trial has been concluded and the dog found guilty, so to speak, together with the human being in charge of it, the parties then go to appeal and after that decisions are often come to in this House.
I have with me details of a case which backs up something that the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, mentioned. On 30th November 1991 a dog owner was found guilty. The appeal was heard on 5th June 1992. The judicial review is still taking place at this moment, so we do not know the result. I believe that most people know that this is at tremendous expense. I understand that the cost of kennelling is between £7.50 and £9 a day, so that comes out at roughly £1,500 a year. Therefore, in this case the sum will be very substantial.
Choosing my words carefully, I add that it is not always the owner of the dog who wishes to prolong the proceedings. He is backed by professional people whose interests are quite naturally not averse to having another trial or an appeal so they can get the requisite fees. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, brought up again the point that owners should apply for bail. I am a cynic and so are my police friends. They say that any suggestion of failing to present the dog for trial means that the money would be forfeited and the owners charged. They would know almost certainly 941 that that dog would never be seen again. While it was out on bail it would be said that it had been run over, seized or lost. So that idea was dismissed altogether.
There is then the question of visiting the dog in the kennels. The whole point of the kennels being at a secret location is to prevent pet enthusiasts from raiding these places and releasing the dogs to the detriment of the country as a whole. That is nonsensical. However, perhaps I may now turn from that to the brief from the RSPCA which has been presented this week. I am much more happy about that. It says:Whilst the Act has clear weaknesses, the RSPCA supports the stated intention in the Act itself, 'to prohibit … possession or custody of dogs belonging to types bred for fighting'".I remind those who have perhaps not been so mixed up in this subject as others that it is the actual name of pit hull terrier that shows the origin of the dog. It was in the pit bull rings of ancient days when they were first bred in this country. They were sent to America. Incidentally, a bitch and a dog were brought over here in about 1970 and the dog was given the rather suggestive name of "Capone". Noble Lords will remember the man of that name who lived in the United States.
The RSPCA supports the principle that it is the owner rather than the dog who should bear the full weight of the law. I agree with that. As regards the compulsory destruction order, I believe that we probably have agreement among most noble Lords speaking in this debate. There is an inherent difficulty with this breed which has been mentioned before. Some owners who did not believe that they were pit bull owners did not consider registration. Therefore, from that time forth they have been keeping the dog at home. They dare not even take it to the vet in case a certain situation should arise. The fear of compulsory destruction has a detrimental effect on all these dogs.
I wondered how that problem was to be got round. I entirely endorse the suggestion and commend to the Government the idea that the problem can be overcome if the courts have discretion as to whether or not to destroy a dog. A guilty plea could, at the discretion of the court, be met with a fine and—this is the important point—the return of the dog to the owner only after tattooing, registering, neutering and insuring the dog at the owner's expense. To my mind that is very sensible and would obviate a great number of the problems which have been raised by people who have become mixed up in this very difficult Act.
In defence of the present situation, I say this: my police friends tell me that in the 15 months before this Act was passed there were 903 incidents with dangerous dogs in London. Fifteen months after the Act only 143 dogs had been seized in London, so there has been a very considerable improvement. When dealing with this Act we have to consider the question of priorities. Are we thinking of humans or dogs or are we trying to find a solution which caters for both aspects? I know where my sympathy lies, but there is something for the other side. Therefore, I commend to the Government the suggestion that compulsory sentencing should be abolished.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ Baroness Wharton
My Lords, I too join noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, for drawing attention to the pitfalls of the Dangerous Dogs Act. I certainly share the noble Lord's concern.
Before I express my own reservations as to how this Act has been interpreted, I must stress that I am totally in favour of eliminating fighting dogs from this country. Of course we the public should be protected from potentially dangerous dogs on the loose, and I suppose the Act does attempt to deal with this. However, having said that, I do not agree with wholesale destruction. The Act was rushed through Parliament in the summer of 1991 as an understandable—I repeat "understandable"—response to growing public demand following the horrific injuries to young Ruskhsana Khan and Mr. Tempest.
Registration of these pit bull terriers has created a number of problems. The application form had to be accompanied by proof of neutering, microchipping, tattooing and third party insurance; and in addition there was the expense. Then, finally, an exemption certificate was issued. I do, however, understand that the 30th November deadline was extended to 25th February 1992, for tattooing only. Nevertheless, quite a few procedures had to be followed.
In the early days of this Act a number of mistakes were made over identification by members of the general public. We all read about the sad tale of the Staffordshire bull terrier bitch who was clubbed to death by men who unlawfully entered the flat where she lived with her owners. Also we have read stories of terrified owners whose dogs were attacked by strangers who could not properly identify them. Then of course there was the Dempsey case. That concerned a young man who was walking his aunt's dog, Dempsey, and who removed its muzzle to allow it to be sick after coughing. A court appearance followed and, with it, a conditional discharge. However, the end result was a destruction order. Fortunately, to date the order has not been carried through, but that unfortunate dog has been in custody for eight months without seeing its owner.
It is worth mentioning that when cases do come to court and the plea is "not guilty", the result is often that much time is spent at huge cost to the taxpayer and the inevitable destruction order for the dog is made at the end. It seems that the only punishment the magistrates have available to them is destruction. When it is an innocent dog which is in question this punishment seems rather draconian, to say the least.
A modest amendment to the Act to allow courts to have discretion over sentencing rather than compelling them to issue destruction orders would go a long way towards improving the operation of the Act. Responsible owners who are guilty of error or omission should have a chance to be treated with sympathy. For example, in one case a dog whose owner had completed all other stages required for registration but who temporarily could not afford the £25 for insurance was faced with a destruction order. The owner then offered to pay but was refused.
In another case, a young nanny was given a puppy for Christmas without knowing its breed. When she 943 discovered that the dog resembled a pit bull terrier she took the dog to the police, to the Wood Green Animal Refuge and to a vet (who incidentally diagnosed the dog as a mongrel). She had the dog microchipped, tattooed and spayed but, unfortunately for her, she was too late to register it under the terms of the Act. Then the dog escaped and was taken to a police station. She, the owner, was prosecuted and a destruction order followed. That is now under appeal but it means that yet another dog is in custody.
These two illustrations show that responsible owners can get caught out by the Act, with no opportunity to bring themselves within the law. Surely there must be some discretion for those people who, through ignorance, fear or sheer inability to understand the procedure in order to obtain an exemption certificate, find themselves in a Catch-22 situation. Fearing the consequences, some owners hide their dogs, which of course means that the dogs do not get the necessary attention, not to mention exercise. The fear of prosecution is great, as it is a criminal offence, and if they are discovered the inevitable result again is a destruction order, rather than a fine and a chance to register, albeit late.
I am not referring to the rotten owners at the other end of the scale who breed dogs solely to fight and kill. I suspect they are known to the police and to the RSPCA, and dealt with accordingly. I think it is the grey area in the middle that has to be addressed. What is needed is the possibility of a compassionate reprieve to flush out these people and help them to register and play their part so that they can be assisted to keep within the letter of the law.
Another point I should like to make concerns Section 3(3) (b) of the Dangerous Dogs Act. This concerns the ability of an individual to complain that a dog has given him or her grounds for reasonable apprehension, and not that he or she has actually been attacked. Now, if I were a dog-hater, how tempting it would be to embellish the truth, because after all it would be my word against the owner. Truly I do not believe that it is the intention of this Act to give an opportunity to an intolerant person to use the law to his or her own advantage.
Finally, as I said before, I do support the primary intention of this Act, though not its interpretation. I hope that the Government will modify it, humanise it, and recognise that in its wake it has created unnecessary suffering to owners and pets alike. It has cast a stigma on certain owners, made criminals of others and made some feel like social outcasts. In the light of experience, some flexibility incorporated into this Act would strengthen it, would improve its operation in the courts and would encourage responsible dog ownership. In conclusion, I hope that Ministers in another place will give a sympathetic hearing to my noble friend's Bill to establish a proper dog control and welfare council.
§ 6.26 p.m.
The Viscount of Falkland
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, for giving us yet another opportunity to discuss the 944 problem of dangerous dogs. Of course we discussed it before the legislation came onto the statute book, and I think that he and I now share views on the way in which the legislation has worked. I would not put it quite as strongly as the noble Lord, but then I do not have as much experience of legislation as the noble Lord has acquired over his long and distinguished career.
In the relatively short time that I have been in your Lordships' House, this is one of the most ludicrous pieces of legislation. Of course it was a missed opportunity, because in an island such as ours, with so little space and with a population which generally has a great affection for pets of all kinds, it is certain that trouble will develop sooner or later and the dogs have to be kept under control. Also, the owners of pets have to be kept under control.
This legislation was rushed through, probably in reaction to a good deal of newspaper comment, particularly in the tabloid press, about some very distressing events which took place, resulting in serious injuries to people, including children. The Government took those unhappy events, together with the problem of fighting pit bull terriers, and tried to deal with the whole problem at the same time. That was probably a mistake. The noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, mentioned the evils of fighting dogs. I agree absolutely with her and I think that the Government was right to seek to legislate for that. However, the problems of protecting the public against dangerous dogs which are out of the control of their owners go much wider than the incidents involving pit bull terriers, whatever a pit bull terrier may be.
Of course, the problem with this legislation, as we foresaw—and the results have been even more drastic than we expected—is that it has been virtually impossible for anybody, even an expert, with any certainty to identify a pit bull terrier. An enormous amount of money and time has been spent on deciding what these dogs look like.
There are general guidelines to police officers, who are already under a good deal of stress, because their time is taken up with many duties. Police officers who are not adequately trained for the job have to decide whether a dog is of the kind specified in the Act. They have very little to go on. They know that, by and large, pit bull terriers have wedged shaped heads, bristly coats and a certain conformation, which can be recognised, but which they share with Staffordshire bull terriers. Originally, some 12 or 13 years ago, three American pit bull terriers were introduced into this country and inevitably bred with other dogs. Pit bull terriers are, in any case, cross-breeds, so the problem of identification is compounded. Therefore, any certainty in identification is now impossible.
Under the Act, a responsibility is placed upon an owner whose dog has got itself into trouble through not conforming with the very strict requirements of the Act to prove that his dog is not a pit bull terrier. In one local authority, five dogs have been taken by the police and are awaiting appeal procedures. The kennelling costs have now risen to about £10,000. Quite apart from the cost, it surely cannot be right to keep dogs in kennels awaiting such results. It is hardly 945 right to keep human beings for the length of time that they are often kept when awaiting trial. Apart from the welfare of the dogs (which was mentioned in the extremely authoritative speech that one would expect from the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby) the effect that the Act has had on the reputation of the Staffordshire bull terrier has been quite frightening. There is enormous alarm among respectable breeders of Staffordshire bull terriers about their dogs and possible mistakes with identification.
Apart from the difficulties encountered by the police, local authorities have no statutory obligation to ensure that the Act is enforced within their areas. Some enforce it and some do not. Part of the problem is that some areas have good dog warden schemes, whereas others do not. Some local authorities make this a priority and have funds at their disposal for this purpose; but some do not. I have received a good deal of information from West Yorkshire where an extremely effective scheme is in progress.
I know that I shall get the same answer from the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, as I get from the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, because, if I may say so, both have an urbane and extremely agreeable way of dealing with such questions. Although I know what answer I shall get, I should still like to ask the noble Viscount whether it is not now clear that the very adamant and intransigent attitude of the Government to suggestions that we should have a registration scheme needs to be looked at again. It is essential that owners and dogs are related one to the other. One can do that only with a registration scheme. I know what the noble Viscount will say because it is always said. Indeed, it is probably written on his briefing papers. He will say that the problem is that the people whom one is interested in do not register. I have it on very good authority from Bradford in West Yorkshire that some 10,000 people have subscribed to the voluntary registration scheme there, and that quite a number of those dogs have been involved in one problem or another. Therefore, although I do not accept the Government's view that only respectable people will register their dogs and that the others will go underground, I should like to know whether the Minister can give me any encouragement on that subject.
As it stands, the Act is unfair. As was said or at least implied by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, it condemns a dog for being what it is and for being in the hands of an irresponsible owner. That is not the way to go on. I suppose that the noble Viscount will say that the Act has been successful because there has been a great reduction in the number of cases involving pit bull terriers. However, the draconian nature of the legislation means that many of these dogs are kept out of sight. If they come out, it is at night and people are terrified. But attacks on people still continue—but by other breeds of dog. It is not just the pit bull terrier. Failing to recognise that fact is one of the great flaws of the Act.
I try these days to be practical and constructive, so if the noble Viscount cannot give me any comfort on the question of registration, does he agree with me on this point: that we should at least go part way towards 946 registration, and that if an owner has been convicted of an offence (in other words, if he has been convicted of having a dog that is out of control), he must have that dog registered and identified? That dog and that owner can then be kept under observation. It is important to note that if a dog is either electronically tagged or is tattooed, everybody will know about its history even if it is passed to another owner. That part-registration would satisfy me although I hope that it would lead to a full registration scheme in due course. That is what I am offering as a constructive suggestion this evening.
It is not the dogs which are at fault; it is the people who are involved with them. That is always the case. I am afraid that this legislation is almost as laughable as the football legislation which did not reach the statute book because a terrible disaster occurred and created a situation which led to recommendations that it should not reach the statute book. If there had been a terrible tragedy, such as a child being eaten in Richmond Park by two rottweilers, one wonders whether this legislation might not have gone through in its present form; but it has done so. I hope that the Government will react to the universal criticism of it, and that they will get down to modifying it and making it more sensible.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby has an unrivalled record of crusading for libertarian causes and it has been my privilege on occasion to be associated with him in those crusades, and particularly in relation to animal welfare. Those who have followed his career and his crusades will not have been disappointed by the speech with which he introduced this debate.
If we are to debate these matters rationally, we must remember the origins of the Bill and the almost universal revulsion that was felt in the Summer of 1991 at particular cases, especially that of young Rukhsana Khan, who was savagely mutilated by a fighting dog. One must remember the almost irresistible wave of revulsion which led the Government to introduce this undoubtedly hasty and undoubtedly inadequately considered legislation. However, one must also remember that the revulsion was very precise. People felt, and the Government were persuaded (and most Members of both your Lordships' House and of another place were persuaded that they were right) that something had to be done before a dog bit or mutilated a child instead of waiting for that to happen and hoping that it could be put right afterwards, because it cannot be put right.
The inevitable conclusion was that an attempt had to be made to identify types of dog. It is not enough to identify an individual dog which is known to be aggressive or dangerous; there has to be an attempt to identify a type of dog which is liable to be aggressive or dangerous. That gets us into very difficult waters. In its considered views on the operation of the Act, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has made it very clear that there are no simple solutions to legislation which attempts to be specific about breeds. They are not discrete and finite; there 947 are mongrels between breeds. It is not always possible to say with clarity what is not a particular breed. The noble Lord, Lord Hayter, described the valuable work undertaken in helping the police to identify dogs of a particular breed and he outlined some of the difficulties involved. But the public required that the attempt should be made. Nothing that I would wish to say from this Dispatch Box would in any way seek to reopen that issue. No longer can we accept that dogs bred for fighting can be allowed without control onto our streets or anywhere where people are vulnerable to attacks.
The second issue that we should examine is the working of the Act. It is disappointing that there has not been a debate on the subject this afternoon. We have heard a great deal of anecdotal evidence but we have heard no evidence about such simple issues as the number of cases brought, the number of dogs destroyed and the number of exemption orders made, let alone evidence about the number of attacks on people by dogs of fighting breeds. I hope that the Minister will remedy that fault.
The matter was raised by Mr. Andrew Bowden in another place on 4th November last year. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Home Office did not seek to bring evidence of the effectiveness or otherwise of the Act in terms of any decline in the number of attacks or the statistics of the operation of the Act. He pursued the same anecdotal line which Mr. Bowden had pursued in his attack on the workings of the Act. I should like to see many more facts before being persuaded that there are any benefits from the Act. If there are benefits, I should like to see more detailed evidence of its operation before being persuaded that there should be particular changes to it.
There is no doubt that the British Veterinary Association and the RSPCA have studied the issues in detail. I know that a number of lawyers have also paid great attention to them. No doubt due to the haste with which the Act was produced there are a number of aspects which are offensive to those who wish to see a satisfactory criminal law. Mandatory sentences are unsatisfactory unless there is absolutely no alternative. When I hear the RSPCA arguing that there is an effective alternative to the mandatory destruction order, and that there might be advantages because it would avoid pleas of not guilty and it might increase the respect for the law, I believe that the Government should seriously look at that.
I listened to the arguments about the length of time in which dogs are held in detention. I listened to the arguments about dogs being released on bail. I am bound to say that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hayter, and suspect that it is too easy for those dogs to disappear, or to be reported as lost or dead, and never turn up again. There is no particular advantage in that kind of remedy. There are delays in the law but that is a general problem. Delays in such cases appear to be caused by continuing appeals lodged by the dog owners.
On practical grounds there may well be a case for reopening the index of exempt dogs and the 948 Government should take that seriously. In 1991 it was right that there should be a time limit because that was the stick which was needed to force registration. It could no doubt have been extended for months and years. It is not unreasonable to expect that there were some errors and that for genuine reasons some people failed to obtain an exemption order. A limited reopening of the index would be perfectly consistent with amnesty principles.
Hasty legislation will always be difficult and there will always be problems with its detailed drafting. If there are to be changes, my sole plea is that the Government should bear in mind the fundamental principle on which the legislation was based; that there should not be dogs bred for fighting in this country. The object of the legislation should be to make dogs bred for fighting extinct. The protection of the people of this country should be the first priority.
§ 6.45 p.m.
My Lords, your Lordships will be grateful to the noble Lord. Lord Houghton of Sowerby, for raising this important matter in this short debate. It is a subject on which he has always shown a particularly keen and knowledgeable interest. I know from recent discussions with him about his Dog Control and Welfare Bill, which received its Third Reading in your Lordships' House just two months ago, that he has been following closely the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and how it has been operating.
I should like to make it clear at the outset that I fully appreciate the depth of feeling and concern which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has expressed about the Act. However, it is important to remember why the Government decided that such a measure was necessary.
In 1990, as a result of substantial public concern about irresponsible dog ownership and increased numbers of attacks by dogs on the public, the Government issued a consultation paper on the control of dogs. The document proposed a number of measures to bring about better control of dogs and penalties for irresponsible dog owners. The responses showed support for such measures.
The following year a number of serious and horrific attacks by dangerous dogs on both adults and children demonstrated that the Government needed to take action to give the public protection against that danger. There was particular concern about types of dogs specially bred for fighting, such as the pit bull terrier. The attacks carried out by those types of dog demonstrated their ferocious, unpredictable and savage nature and made it clear that special controls had to be introduced on fighting dogs.
The Act places special controls on any dog of the types known as the pit bull terrier, the Japanese tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the fila Braziliero. Under Section 2 of the Act the Home Secretary may introduce restrictions on any other types of dog which are considered to be specially dangerous. Section 3 of the Act deals with any type of dog which is dangerously out of control either in a public place or in any other place where it is not permitted to be. It is 949 not necessary for a dog to injure a person in order for Section 3 to apply. That section applies where there are grounds for reasonable apprehension that it will injure someone.
Taken as a whole, the Act deals with the particular problem of fighting dogs and also with dangerous dogs. The aim of the Act is to provide adequate protection to the public from any dog which is a danger and to encourage more responsible dog ownership. I readily acknowledge that many dog owners take their responsibility seriously. But, equally, there are some dog owners who do not show the same degree of responsibility. The Act should encourage all owners of dogs to exercise proper control of their dogs while in public.
The 1991 Act also clarifies the powers of the court to make an order under Section 2 of the Dogs Act 1871 to control dangerous dogs. Where a court receives a complaint that a dog is dangerous and not kept under proper control, it may make an order irrespective of whether the dog has injured anyone. An order under the 1871 Act can specify the measures to he taken for keeping the dog under proper control. This could be by muzzling, keeping it on a lead or excluding it from certain places. A particular advantage of the 1871 Act is that it applies everywhere, even in and around a private house, and it is especially useful for action on behalf of postmen and women who are regularly at risk from attacks by dogs in front gardens.
As the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, reminded us, it is important not to forget the anxiety which motivated this legislation. The attacks which had occurred underlined the presence of—and the threat from—fighting dogs in this country. We took the view—and I believe there was resounding support for it—that such animals have no place in our society. Breeding them is cruel to the dogs themselves, as well as to anyone (man or beast) who may have the misfortune to get in their way. Vigorous action was needed.
We could, broadly, have decided to go in one of two directions. One would have been to seek the immediate destruction of all such animals, to end the problem once and for all. But we chose instead the more compassionate approach: existing animals would be allowed to remain alive, provided that they were neutered and kept under strictly prescribed controls. For that policy to be effective, it was necessary to have tough sanctions on those who ignored the specified controls, and a stringent registration and marking system. There had to be no possibility of pit bull types being perpetuated. The noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, agreed that fighting dogs must not be bred.
Under the 1991 Act, it is an offence to possess a specially controlled dog or to breed from, sell, exchange or make a gift of such a dog. However, the law does permit owners of specially controlled dogs to keep them on condition that they comply with the strict requirements contained in the legislation.
The 1991 Act makes it an offence to have a specially controlled dog, such as the pit bull terrier, unless a certificate of exemption has been obtained in respect 950 of it. The exemption scheme provided that owners could keep their dogs on condition that they obtained a certificate of exemption. In order to obtain a certificate of exemption, owners had to have arranged for the dog to be neutered, permanently implanted with a microchip, tattooed and covered by third party insurance, and have paid a fee. The certificate of exemption lasts for the lifetime of the dog provided that the requirements of the certificate are met, including a requirement that the dog must be muzzled and kept on a lead in a public place. If any of the requirements are breached, the certificate lapses and the dog is no longer exempt. Owners of these dogs who did not wish to have their dogs exempted under the law were given the choice of exporting them or having the dogs destroyed. Those people who had their dogs destroyed by a specified date were eligible for compensation.
At the time the legislation was being prepared, it was estimated that there were between 5,000 and 10,000 pit bull terriers in the country. In the event, over 8,000 dogs were notified to the police and the index of exempted dogs. Some 5,300 certificates have been issued of which 5,000 are currently valid.
The Government believe that the provisions of the Act and the exemption scheme are operating well. We remain convinced that we were right to respond to public anxiety in this way. I know of no evidence to suggest that the public believes that children, adults and animals are now any less worthy of protection against dangerous dogs than when Parliament agreed the measure. The public quite rightly continues to look to the Government to provide protection against dangerous dogs.
Obviously familiarisation with the provisions has taken a little time—as with any new piece of legislation —but none of the difficulties calls in question the fundamental need for this law. It would be irresponsible to lessen the level of protection which the Act provides. We therefore have no plans at this stage to amend it.
The question of identifying pit bull terriers has been raised, and I appreciate that this is not as straight forward a process as one might wish. The pit bull terrier is not recognised as a breed in this country and so there is no breed standard for the dog. As a result the expression "type" is used in the Act. This was necessary since it was important for the legislation to cover all the animals with the characteristics of pit bulls, if we were to ensure full protection for the public.
We have always recognised that the identification of pit bull terriers may be complex. That is why we sent a detailed description of the pit bull terrier type to the courts and the police, when the Act came into force, and reinforced this with further advice in August last year.
The identification process may take place at a number of stages. It is initially a matter for the police or local authority dog wardens to take a view on whether a dog is or is not a pit bull terrier. The prosecuting authorities will have to decide whether the public interest is best served by bringing a prosecution. Where a case reaches the courts it is open 951 to either side to bring forward any evidence which they feel is relevant to the matter of identification. This may include calling expert witnesses. It is right, however, that the final decision about whether or not a dog is a pit bull terrier should lie with the courts.
The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, may be aware of the terms of a press release issued by the RSPCA last week, which called upon the Government to adopt the guidelines for identification of pit bull terriers, as drawn up by the American Dog Breeders Association. I understand that RSPCA inspectors, who are called upon to identify pit bull terriers, use those guidelines already. As the Government have made plain, we are always ready to listen to those who wish to offer constructive comments on the Act, and we shall certainly be giving serious consideration to the help which the guidelines may give. Officials will discuss these guidelines with the RSPCA.
I listened with great interest to what my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior said about the British Veterinary Association's suggestions on identification. Of course, that is a subject about which he knows a great deal. The advice which the Home Office issued when the Act came into force subsequently guided the courts on the various factors which might be taken into account. They included physical features, pedigree, behaviour and so on. That was fairly comprehensive advice but we should be grateful for any further suggestions. We shall consider whether any further advice might be appropriate in the light of any suggestions which we might receive.
Still on the subject of identification, we are aware of the anxiety which has been expressed by owners of Staffordshire bull terriers that their dogs may be mistakenly identified as a pit bull terrier. The Staffordshire bull terrier breed is not specially controlled for the purposes of Section 1 of the Act. That is why, as part of our recent further advice on the operation of the Act, we have included clarification on how the law affects pit bull crosses. We have also provided a list, provided by the Staffordshire Bull Terrier Breed Council, of clubs which are willing to give advice to police, local authority dog wardens or the courts if there is doubt about whether a dog is a Staffordshire bull terrier.
Another area where anxiety has been expressed is the absence of any discretion for the courts, which are required to order the destruction of a dog where one of the main offences under the Act has been committed. We are well aware of the view, advanced in the debate tonight, that the courts should be given discretion whether or not to order the destruction of a dog.
I do appreciate the arguments in favour of such a change, and why this matter is causing the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, particular anxiety. While the destruction of any dog must be a matter of regret, the Government remain of the opinion that this must be the result for dangerous dogs where the courts find that one of the main offences—an aggravated offence —has been committed under the Act.
I know that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, will be disappointed by that response. Once 952 again, we have to recall the underlying objective behind the provision—to provide a stiff incentive on owners to comply with the letter of the law, and to ensure that those who have shown themselves irresponsible by not doing so do not remain in charge of these potentially lethal animals. For the latter would be the effect if discretion were allowed. If the court had the discretion not to order destruction the dog would, of course, be returned to its convicted owner, who had shown that he had not been responsible enough to comply with the requirements of the Act.
Let us imagine the scenario for a moment. A dog is returned to an irresponsible owner, who again fails to comply with the strict requirements of the legislation, but perhaps this time the dog actually attacks a person and inflicts serious injury. Unpredictability is a feature of these animals. The public would ask with every justification why Parliament had decided to relax the strict controls. There would be demands for the controls to be re-introduced to avoid the situation arising again.
It has also been suggested that there should be an amnesty in order to allow owners of unregistered specially controlled dogs to register and obtain certificates of exemption for them. The requirements of the exemption scheme were widely publicised when the legislation was before Parliament, and subsequently. No dog owner could have been unaware of the provisions or of the time limits for registration and other action. In excess of 8,000 owners of specially controlled dogs registered their dogs with the police and the index of exempted dogs at the time. Because some owners were experiencing difficulty having their dogs tattooed within the deadline, the Government extended the date for tattooing by three months to enable owners to comply with the requirements. This demonstrates that we have listened and responded to difficulties.
We are being asked to introduce an amnesty to allow owners a further opportunity to obtain an exemption for their dogs. If we had an amnesty for late registration now, why not another one later for those who subsequently claim to have been unaware of the new deadline? And another one after that? The point is that the registration scheme was a concession prior to the coming into force of the full control regime. It would make a mockery of the legislation to allow for late registration. Given the publicity which surrounded the introduction of the Act and its provisions, no owners should have been unaware of their responsibilities towards their dogs.
The Government are very aware of the criticisms which are being made of the Act and of the calls for certain amendments to be made. I understand the anxieties which have been expressed in your Lordships' House during the course of this debate. But I cannot give the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, the undertaking which he would like—that the Government will introduce amendments. I have listened to noble Lords' views with interest. The operation of the Act is kept under review and the 953 views expressed by noble Lords today will be borne in mind, as are the views of all those who wish to comment on the Act.
I shall now respond to some of the specific points that have been made. My noble friend asked me whether veterinary surgeons should examine dogs when they have been seized. That is a matter for each chief police officer. I understand that as regards the Metropolitan Police each of the kennels used to house seized dogs has its own veterinary surgeon. All seized dogs are vaccinated on admission to the kennels. The Metropolitan Police employ independent veterinary surgeons to carry out regular checks of the kennels to make sure that each dog is in good health and properly cared for. In addition Metropolitan Police experts visit seized dogs to ensure they are being properly looked after.
The noble Lord, Lord Hayter, asked about the length of time seized dogs are kept in police custody. As I have said, a Home Office circular about the operation of the Act was sent to the police, the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service last August. It draws attention to the undesirability of delays in bringing cases to trial resulting in the need for dogs to he kenneled for long periods. The advice refers to the need for courts to give consideration to the well-being of the dog as well as to the resource implications where prolonged kenneling arises. The circular invites courts to consider how cases might be expedited.
I was also asked about access to seized dogs. We feel this is a matter for the chief officer of the police force concerned. However, allowing owners to visit their dogs could raise serious security and other problems in some circumstances. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, talked about dog registration. The Government's policy on dog registration is clear. We regard it as an expensive, bureaucratic procedure which in practical terms will not assist in the control of dogs. Where instances involving attacks by dangerous dogs have occurred, ownership of a dog has not been at issue. Registration would therefore add nothing to the provisions of the Dangerous Dogs Act. I should tell the noble Viscount that the courts are empowered to disqualify a person from having future custody of a dog for a specified period under the Act.
It is only right that all areas of the law, particularly those which are still new, should be scrutinised. But I must ask noble Lords to remember why the special controls were introduced. The public looks to the Government to provide protection in this as in other areas. That indeed is one of the first tasks of government, and we should be failing in our duty if we did not afford it first priority. The Government remain of the view that the Act was necessary, and that it provided a fair balance between the interests of dog owners and those of society at large. We remain open to constructive criticism and suggestions, but I am afraid I must tell the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, we are not yet persuaded of the need for amendments. I always listen closely to what the noble Lord says, and I hope I have responded to his anxieties. He is a lion who will never be subjugated as he suggested.
§ 7.5 p.m.
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. Some speakers were able to speak for a little longer than they thought and some interesting light has been thrown on the administration of this Act. My noble friend on the Front Bench asked for facts and figures. There are no facts or figures, or very few. I have been trying to get facts and figures for a long time but the trouble apparently is that many of the statistics are in the hands of individual courts and are not centrally collected. I was hoping that we would obtain some indication from this debate of the factual material which the Home Office is gathering to enable judgment to be made on the working of the Act. When we make a closer examination of these matters—we shall certainly do so in the not too distant future—we shall lack information which is essential to a study of the issue.
We have heard about public concern in relation to dangerous dogs biting children. There is not the slightest doubt that the tabloid press belted and bullied the Home Secretary of the day until he completely lost his head. He blurted out to all concerned that mass execution was the solution. I believe that that disqualifies the Government from posing as a virtuous Government who guard the public against dangerous dogs.
I remind the noble Viscount that between 1971 and 1991 the governments of the day did not introduce a single Act relating to dangerous dogs. They regarded dogs as a matter for Private Bill procedures and they never introduced any measures of their own. I introduced into your Lordships' House the Dangerous Dogs Act 1989. That Bill had been cobbled together in consultation between the department and various dog interests. That Bill was put forward as a Private Member's Bill in the House of Commons. It received a reasonable passage and finally came to this House for approval. That was not the Government's initiative and they allocated no time to that Bill. It had to take its chance under the Private Member's Bill procedure in the House of Commons. We know what a hazardous life Private Member's Bills have in the House of Commons. No virtue whatever attaches to the Government as regards this matter. It was not until public opinion was being galvanised into deep concern by the tabloid press and the media that the Home Office began to wake up.
Therefore, I feel a little cross when the noble Viscount stands there and reads a brief which suggests that he has a gang of virtuous people behind him who have been doing their best to protect the public from dangerous dogs. That is not so. The Government would not move. One has only to remember the antics they went through on the registration scheme and the lengths to which they went to defeat the vote in the House of Lords on the registration scheme, which was tacked on to the Environmental Protection Bill. The Government spent an enormous sum of money bringing back Ministers from all over the world to defeat the intention of the House of Commons to 955 introduce a national registration scheme. Therefore, a little humility would be worth considering in this connection.
My next important point concerns the fact that there is no machinery for dealing with the problem publicly in any representative way. The Home Office is notorious for uncertain stability among its senior civil servants dealing with particular problems. I know for certain that the senior official who was employed mainly on the dangerous dogs legislation had been transferred from his work as secretary to the Procedures Committee set up under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. No one deals with such matters for long enough.
The House has already passed a Dog Control and Welfare Bill, which was modelled on the Farm Animal Welfare Council. That is a representative body and its members are hand-picked by the Minister who appoints it. It reports freely and publicly on its work. However, in the Home Office everything is secret. The Home Office says: "We are keeping the matter under review". That does not mean anything at all except that they keep on thinking about it. There is no review in progress. It is nonsense to say that the matter is constantly under review.
The Home Office says that it is constantly receiving information. If we had a dog control and welfare council, that body could review matters in a way which the public would understand. It would have to consider seriously whether there was adequate statistical material to work on. How many dogs bite how many people? Who bites whom? Which dogs are doing the biting? How many times do they bite? Nobody knows anything about the number of bites which dogs inflict on people.
The only information which I have in that respect comes from a survey undertaken by a veterinary surgeon in the Midlands of all the cases dealt with by a plastic surgery unit in the Wordsley Hospital in Bromsgrove, Birmingham, between 1982 and 1989. It covered the cases of people who had been bitten by dogs and whose injuries were sufficiently serious to require plastic surgery. The survey was representative of a comparatively small number; it revealed only 147 cases in seven or eight years. The figures were published in the Veterinary Record of 12th December 1991. However, the extraordinary fact to emerge from that survey was that most of the cases occurred in the dogs' own homes. That matter requires closer investigation because it may be that families are more at risk than the public generally.
956 The survey showed that more than half the people who had been treated at the hospital in those years for dog bites were children under 15 years of age. Of those children, more than half were bitten at their own home, or at the home of a neighbour or friend. Even a high proportion of the adults sustained the bites in the home. Therefore attention may have to be given to the types of dog which are kept in homes and how they are treated and whether they have any training.
We are ignorant about dogs. We are supposed to be discussing man's best friend and we assume that man knows how to treat his best friend. A good deal more advice and guidance is necessary on the place of dogs in homes and society, especially in relation to children. It seems that one of the main reasons why dogs bite children is that dogs are not taught how to treat children and children are not taught how to treat dogs. There is scope for a good deal of investigation there.
Your Lordships' House passed a measure approving a dog control and welfare council. The Government were not enthusiastic about it and said that they could not spare any more money. Millions of pounds have been spent in connection with this measure. One has only to think of all the expenses being incurred at present.
I have brought the matter before the All Party Group on Animal Welfare, which is representative of Members of Parliament and of both Houses, and we shall have to consider what we do next. It may be that in order to achieve further discussion of the whole subject, some of us should get together and draft a Private Member's Bill, introduce it into your Lordships' House and see what we can achieve in that way. I feel that the Government are not being straight, either with the public or with us, in relation to their ability and their desire to deal with the matter in any more liberal a spirit than they have adopted so far.
In all the circumstances, I shall reluctantly beg leave to withdraw my Motion. I assume that I am moving for Papers. Those Papers are very elusive; we never seem to see them. I thought that I might suggest that we had the Papers for a change, but I do not want to put the House to that trouble. There would probably be nothing on them if we had them or we would merely be handed the speech which the noble Viscount has just delivered.
I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers, and I promise that I shall be back.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
House adjourned at eighteen minutes past seven o'clock.