HL Deb 09 February 1994 vol 551 cc1641-57

7.40 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is not exactly a maiden speech although it is beginning to feel very much like one. Everything is so strange about my present location. I feel as if I have been dragged off my platform of many years and dropped into the internal mechanism of the Table. However, I must adapt myself as best I can under the compulsion of the afflictions which old age can impose upon one. If work in your Lordships' House is to continue it has to be done under different conditions but my main point, as I feel it, is that never before have I opened a debate without a leg to stand on! I speak from a position of weakness in that regard.

This is the first attempt to amend the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. The amending Bill, however, has little to do with dangerous dogs. It has much to do—almost everything to do—with the deeds of dangerous Ministers who created the 1991 Act to deal with what they said was an emergency. The first question I must ask is: what about that emergency? The Bill was created with excessive demands upon the loyalty of citizens and the people generally to meet the exceptional circumstances of the time. But emergencies are not everlasting. What has happened to the emergency now? Is it still on? Is the 1991 Act needed any longer in full to meet the emergency of 1991? I may point to some figures later which suggest that a considerable change is taking place of which we know so little in the general trend of affairs in the administration of this legislation.

The Bill deals solely with two of the most objectionable excesses of the 1991 Act which come very close indeed to being matters of the constitution, of the rights of the citizen and of the administration of justice through the judicial system. Noble Lords will notice what strong and influential backing the Bill has received. Never before in my time has the accumulation of organisations interested in canine life come together so speedily and with such purpose to get an Act changed. I have sponsors on the Floor of the House who I am glad to see will speak later. They represent distinguished interests in your Lordships' House. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, would be here but for the fact that he is in South Africa. However, we have a remarkable array of influence not only in your Lordships' House but outside it and I think the Government will be foolish if they do not heed this. We are no longer a demonstrating body in Whitehall or elsewhere. We represent the sober and intellectual side of a very important question in our society; that of the relationship between man and his dog.

The Bill itself concentrates on two questions only. One is the mandatory sentencing requirement of Section 1 of the Act. The other relates to the conditions in which the citizen has been virtually deprived of his property rights the moment the police have seized part of his property, which is his dog. I shall come to the disgraceful conditions that that has led to in the administration of the Act itself.

Have these mandatory sentences a place in the Act any longer? Mandatory sentences are probably objectionable in principle. They are a denial of some part of the judicial system to which the citizen is entitled to go. If he is denied that, there is possibly a part of the justice that is due to him which he is denied. I think also that mandatory sentences leave behind one of the strongest and deepest feelings of bitterness that any contact with the judicial system can bring about.

There is a suggestion in correspondence that has been taking place with Ministers about the value of the mandatory sentence. A Home Office letter which I have before me states that it is the Government's view that the mandatory sentence, provides a powerful incentive to owners to comply fully with the requirements of the law". If the severity of a sentence is to be a strong incentive to compliance with the law, why do we not have more of them? Surely the statute book should be littered with a list of crimes and offences for which the sentence is unduly severe. But it is there to provide the incentive to comply with the law.

If this is the general philosophy of what inspires people to comply with the law, I think that the Government are sadly mistaken. Instead of leading a lot of people to comply with the law it leads many people to feel that they want to defy it. Moreover, there is an aspect of the draconian measures taken to control pit bull terriers that comes into this. One talks about the incentive to dog owners to comply with the law. Some dog owners would like to comply with the law. They missed complying with the law when the register for exemption closed on 31st August 1991. They missed it for some reason, good or indifferent, but nevertheless a reason which may well have to be considered if justice is to be done in the future. A person who failed to register by 31st August 1991 cannot get into the register now, so he cannot comply with the law in that regard. So no severity of sentence will help him to comply with the law. The more severe one makes it, the more he is determined to avoid the law. He will do anything not to have to go to prison himself when he finds that he does not have a remedy to comply with the law.

If complying with the law depends on severity and if mandatory sentences are of great value, why have we not got more of them? What we have already is a mandatory sentence of death for treason and a mandatory sentence of death for assault on the person of Her Majesty. We have a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for murder which used to be a mandatory death sentence. What is the other one on the list? It is for dangerous dogs. We have mandatory sentences of death for treason; for an offence affecting the Queen's bodily safety, murder and dangerous dogs. Then they say that the British have no sense of humour or of looking ridiculous. Surely, that is the most absurd list of mandatory sentences that one can imagine, bearing in mind that your Lordships' House has decided against a mandatory sentence for murder and is in favour of fixed periods of sentence; not imprisonment for life as there is, literally, no such sentence.

The idea of maintaining a mandatory sentence as a powerful incentive for dog owners to comply with the law is quite mistaken. Why then do we have to keep it? The Bill is not to disturb the general structure of the definition of the offences in the Act. The Act creates 10 new criminal offences and the mandatory destruction of the dog is involved in six of them. That is the mischief we are trying to deal with. That measure relates not only to pit bull terriers but to all dogs who are covered by another section of the Act; namely, that of being out of control and injuring any person, for which there is a mandatory sentence of destruction.

The maintenance of the mandatory sentence is of very great importance although probably of diminishing importance as regards pit bull terriers. We want to provide some way out of the deadlock which people are in if they are barred from the register and there is no way in which they can bring themselves within the law. Even if they offer to give up the dog, the police will probably tell them: "You cannot give up your dog; we are going to seize it and charge you with unlawful possession of a prohibited animal". There is no escape for a person who has missed the registration date of 31st August 1991.

The Bill provides that, where suitable, at the discretion of the magistrates, they should offer to the dog owner the opportunity of bringing his dog within the scope of registration by fulfilling the conditions and by adding his name specially and specifically to the list by order of the court. That is the way out for a number of people who are in the wilderness. They are in possession of a prohibited animal and they cannot do anything to get rid of this incubus around their necks. In the Bill which we have presented there is something of special value. It humanises the regime. Surely it has not to be kept at the level of 1991 emergency conditions.

The second point of the Bill relates to the shambles which followed the Government's policy of at first raking in the dogs and then housing them, identifying them and bringing them to court. The result was that many more dogs were seized than the police could possibly deal with. They had nowhere to put them; they certainly could not get them before the courts and they did not have any experts to identify a pit bull terrier. The dogs accumulated in large numbers under appalling conditions.

I had a letter from a woman who was employed in some kennels in the north of England. She left her job because she could no longer stand the appalling cruelty imposed on dogs in these kennels. Dogs were put in cages which were far too small for them. They were scratching on the wire until they had pulled their claws out of their front paws trying to escape. She said that it was appalling. That was the way in which the danger of the pit bull terrier was being lifted from the public; namely, by cruelty of unforgivable severity imposed on the animals.

That situation has eased in the course of time because kennels have been built and dogs better housed. However, the appalling fact is that a citizen whose dog is seized ceases to have all the rights of property ownership. They are taken away from him by the 1991 Act in respect of the dog. He cannot get it back and he has no right to go and see it. He cannot get information as to what is being done about it and he is kept in ignorance.

I have dozens of cases of a most lamentable kind. A woman was raided on Boxing Day and the dog was taken away. She asked: "What are you going to do now?" The reply was: "We shall let you know". They did not let her know. Easter came and then she was told she was going to be charged. It was August before the case reached court. That kind of delay is not at all unusual. The longest period for the kennelling of a dog is two years and three months, and that is not awaiting trial. The trial came on months after the dog was taken, but the prosecuting authorities made such a mess of it that the prosecution was withdrawn.

The man then asked for his dog back. The charge had been withdrawn and there was no charge against the dog. He was entitled to have the dog back, but the authorities did not let him have it back. He went to court to get his dog back and the court ordered that the dog should be returned to its owner. The police said: "Come to the police station and we shall hand it over to you", which they did. The dog was brought down in a cage and put on the pavement. The police said: "Here is your dog: sign for it", which he did. Then they said to him: "We are now going to take it back because we are going to bring charges as the dog is a pit bull terrier". The dog was taken away from his owner and he has never had it back. That kind of treatment which citizens have received at the hands of the police is quite disgraceful.

The second part of the Bill provides that innocent dogs awaiting trial and being kept for long periods in kennels, should be released on the application of the owner, if the court so decides, and under strict security conditions and probably with very substantial monetary assurances. That is quite reasonable.

A case came before a Croydon court earlier this week, which was referred to in Auberon Waugh's column of 5th February. It was widely talked about on television and radio today. A dog had been 18 months in captivity and the Croydon magistrates, after a nine-day hearing, decided that it was not a pit bull terrier and it was released. Fancy that! Nobody takes any account of the cost. Justice is not supposed to have any money value; justice is justice for justice's sake.

But let us consider the expenditure. The man who owns the dog in the case to which I referred earlier said that his case has already cost the state at least £70,000. Therefore, this is not an unreasonable request to make: that a person whose dog is being kept for trial—it has not been convicted; it is an innocent dog awaiting trial —should be allowed, after a certain minimum period, to go to court to ask for the dog to be returned home to him on bail. That is a reasonable request.

I refer now to the problem of the review of the Act, which we are told the department has been conducting regularly. We are told that the Act is under constant review. On what is the department conducting the review? Very few statistics are available about the way in which the Act is working. Over Christmas we received the first lot of statistics on the working of the Act. They related to the first full year of the working of the Act; that is, 1992. However, 1993 has now gone by and it looks as though we may have to wait until the end of this year to get those vital statistics about the second year of the working of the legislation. Knowing what is happening makes an enormous difference when one is considering what one requires the legislation to do.

I shall give your Lordships just a few figures from that list. The original register contained 8,600 dogs. On 1st January 1993, that figure had fallen to 5,000, so the register is being reduced all the time. The idea that registering a few more dogs in exceptional circumstances will weaken the operation of the Act is absolute nonsense. Another thing that we notice is the gap between the number of dogs that are charged and the number that are convicted. One wonders why that gap exists. I shall give your Lordships another figure. In 1992, the number of pit bull terriers that were charged was 423; the number convicted for sentence was 219. The extraordinary thing is that all the figures show a serious gap between the number charged and the number convicted. It runs at a ratio of roughly 2:1.

Another trend that we must watch is the reactions of the magistrates' courts to the continued severity that is shown to people who are charged under the Act. Under Section 3, dogs that run amok and bite somebody are liable to a mandatory sentence of death if convicted of that serious offence. It is called an aggravated offence of being out of control. However, I have noticed that a strange thing happens after conviction: 60 per cent. of those convicted are given absolute or conditional discharges. How does that come about? Are the magistrates in a sense revolting against the absurd severity of the death sentence for some of the offences for which the dogs can be convicted?

We need from the Home Office a considered statement of what the statistics imply. The statistics for 1993 should be made available urgently so that we can see just what is happening. Already the number of charges under Section 3—that is, the biting animals—exceed the number of charges against pit bull terriers. The number of charges against pit bull terrier owners will fall. In 1992, only 209 people were charged with unlawful possession of a prohibited animal. That number is falling. Actually, although 209 people were charged only 204 were convicted. That must be examined. The implication is that the 1991 Act must be relaxed in the interests of the good administration of this problem.

I finish by saying that there will be no sense in our policy on dogs in this country until we get a dog control and welfare council. The Home Office is not fit to be in charge of dogs. It knows nothing about dogs. It has no responsibility for the welfare of dogs. In fact, no single department has any responsibility for the welfare of dogs. We have an enormous population of dogs of all breeds and types in families which cherish their company and affection, yet we treat them in this manner because we are scared of the pit bull terrier. One cannot easily say what the real risk was, but I think that it was greatly exaggerated during the campaign for the legislation.

Therefore, I hope that your Lordships will give the Bill its Second Reading. Let us go forward with the opportunity that may exist in connection with the Criminal Justice Bill, which is now before the House of Commons, or in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, which is still before your Lordships' House, and have a go at grafting these amendments onto Government Bills, thus ensuring that they can have a free run in the House of Commons. We will get it done somehow. We are not prepared to go on with the present situation. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.

—(Lord Houghton of Sowerby.)

8.6 p.m.>

The Viscountof Falkland

My Lords, I shall be brief, which will be a relief to your Lordships' House, following the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, who, as usual, has covered the topic on which he speaks so well, which tonight is the Bill that he has introduced. I do not think that my voice will last for even a small percentage of the time that the noble Lord took to describe his Bill so ably.

We on these Benches have been opposed to the original legislation for all the reasons on which the noble Lord has touched. We felt—I still feel this very strongly—that the Act was a typical case of legislation in reaction to press pressure which came about as a result of some tragic events when severe injuries were caused to children as a result of attacks by pit bull terriers.

The problems which the noble Lord did not touch on in great detail, but which still remain, are the difficulties of the sure identification of a pit bull terrier. There are many problems, particularly for the police, who are not necessarily dog experts. They usually act on information that is given to them. Unhappily these days, bodies from the social services to the Inland Revenue seem to be moved into action on the receipt of such information. When the police are given such information, they have to act on it. A dog is then brought into custody and, if the owner has not complied with the legislation, it has to face the mandatory sentence, as the noble Lord described. That has led to appeals and to dogs being put into kennels for prolonged periods, often in conditions which are far from satisfactory and which lead to a great deal of unhappiness and anxiety for the owners. I do not think that those are the results which the Government intended to flow from the legislation although they were warned that this would happen. The mandatory sentencing seems totally unsatisfactory. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some comfort on that point.

The issue of late registration should be dealt with in all humanity. All people who for one reason or another do not register their dogs according to statutory requirements are subject to the same sanctions of the law which give them no possible way out. The way in which the Government view dog ownership is highly unsatisfactory for a nation as advanced as ours. We do not know the total number of dogs in the country—but that leads to the ticklish subject of dog registration to which, for reasons often expressed in this House, the Government are bitterly opposed. I do not believe that they have grasped even the most basic facts about dogs and their danger to society.

My vet, who is a perspicacious Irishman, told me that when dogs are brought into his surgery he looks first at the owners. He says that pit bull terriers, or pit bull-type terriers, are of particular anxiety to him as a vet. If during his work he is bitten by a dog, even a large dog, he may suffer discomfort for perhaps 24 hours. However, if he is bitten by a pit bull terrier, with its massive muscle formation, he is likely to be out of action for two weeks or more. They are dangerous dogs. I have had many conversations with owners of such dogs and it may surprise your Lordships to know that the dogs are affectionate and make good pets.

It is interesting to note that recently there have been tragic attacks by dogs other than pit bull terriers. It happens all the time and involves small dogs in the park. Anyone who walks in the park with children, as I do, is always cautious of dogs. It does not matter whether it is a small terrier no higher than one's ankle or whether it is a Great Dane or an Alsatian. One must always be careful and look at the owner. The owners are the problem and not the dogs, but the Government do not seem to have grasped that basic fact.

My voice is disappearing and I shall conclude by saying that we on these Benches support the Bill. It is modest in its scope and rights an injustice, which will be acknowledged by the Minister. There have been well-documented cases such as that mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, of the small boy who took off his dog's muzzle temporarily in order to give it a drink of water from a puddle in the road. He was spotted and the dog was taken. There is only one course that the courts can take and that is to condemn the dog to death with all the heart-breaking deprivation that results.

On behalf of Members on these Benches, I give the Bill my full support and I hope that it will be given a fair wind by the Government.

8.13 p.m.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in his Amendment Bill to the Dangerous Dogs Act. I also congratulate the noble Lord on his maiden speech from the Table, but point out that he is not the one who is Strange. There can be nobody, dog-loving or otherwise, who does not admire the noble Lord for his doggedness and, indeed, pugnacity in the defence of dogs. No matter that his Motions are always put at the end of business at a very late hour; no matter that many—dare I say younger—noble Lords have departed home, still at whatever hour, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, is there to defend dogs.

I am not here to howl like a cynic in the defence of dogs but merely to yap. And I can assure your Lordships that I shall be brief. This Bill proposes two essential changes to the Act. First, that the death sentence should not be mandatory and that the ancient right of discretion should be restored to magistrates. In Ecclesiastes it states: a living dog is better than a dead lion". I am sure that anyone who saw the expressions of Toffee and her owner on this morning's television will know how they both feel. The Magistrates' Association is also behind this, for it is yet another of the insidious ways that power is being removed from the judiciary.

The noble Lord's second point seeks to alleviate the distress of dog owners and of the dogs themselves when they are removed for long periods awaiting trial. I know myself how unhappy and desperate I feel when my dog is not with me. And one must also remember that the dog loves his owner too and is not only bereft of his owner, whom he loves, but is taken to a strange, uncomfortable place with no familiar faces. The dog cannot explain how he feels nor how he suffers. It is of course right that we prevent dogs from ill-treating people. Conversely, we must not allow people to ill-treat dogs. It would be a sad world indeed if we did not stand up for our friends and those who love us. I support the Bill.

8.16 p.m.

Baroness Wharton

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Houghton for bringing the Bill before us tonight. I congratulate him not only on his maiden speech but for bringing together so many dog organisations and animal welfare agencies for the sole purpose of working together to improve this Act.

I would like to make it clear that I am not in favour of fighting dogs, be they pit bulls or any kind bred solely for fighting. The Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Bill does not alter the protection of the public in that respect. However, I do understand that a considerable number of pit bulls are still unregistered and probably many of them live in squalid conditions, hidden from public view. I echo the noble Lord in saying that if the magistrate has discretionary power to allow a dog to be added to the index of exempt dogs, provided that all the conditions are met, the owners of unregistered dogs will, I hope, come forward and plead guilty.

Pleading not guilty results in lengthy court cases and high kennelling costs which are met by the taxpayer. Both the Magistrates' Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers are extremely anxious about the time spent in long court cases arising from not guilty pleas and the large number of expert witnesses who have to be called. I have to confess that I am more concerned for the welfare of the dog, but I suspect that there are many ignorant owners out there.

It is worth mentioning at this time that many Staffordshire bull terriers are caught up under Section 1 and wrongly identified by sometimes non-experts. The consequence is lengthy detention, often in solitary confinement, with an eventual change in the dog's character, not to mention a substantial cost to the taxpayer. Many have not committed a crime; they are simply wrongly identified. The trouble is that by the time they are returned to their stressed owners the damage has been done. With discretion restored to the courts many dogs could be reunited with their owners much sooner.

Sadly, it was the introduction of pit bulls to this country and the subsequent attacks on people by them that brought about the Dangerous Dogs Act. Perhaps I may quote from the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. He stated: If the import of those two dogs had been banned at the time when they were introduced into this country, it is very likely that we should not be debating the Bill today. That makes it all the more important that the Government should have clear powers to ban the domestic ownership and import of any other new types of fighting dog which may emerge in the future".—[Official Report, 25/6/91; col. 512.] I agree with that, but it is worth noting that the RSPCA recommended a ban in the 1970s. Section 3 of the 1991 Act provides that a dog out of control in a public place that causes injury, irrespective of the circumstances of the attack and no matter how minor, must be destroyed. I refer to dogs of any breed. Those dogs could be guarding their owner's home or be even in a locked car, which is deemed to be a public place. I have to confess that I did not know until recently that a car was a public place. Dogs only need to appear to be aggressive to cause fear in the on-looker, with the result that they end up in court. What happens when a dog in a house bites a burglar, or if uninvited intruders enter a private fenced garden or backyard while the owner's dog is there? I am not sure. It is very important for magistrates courts to have discretionary powers in cases like these.

I should like to give your Lordships another quote, this time from Andrew Bowden in an adjournment debate in another place. He said: Section 3 of the Act could affect every dog in the country —including many dogs that are owned by hon. Members. Let me give an example of what could happen as a result of the Act. Let us suppose that a woman peacefully walking her dog in the woods, enjoying an afternoon stroll and minding her own business, is suddenly attacked by a man who may attempt to rape, assault or rob her. The dog, devoted to its owner, immediately goes to her defence and bites the man. The man runs off but within a few hours is detained and charged by the police. He is sent to court and then to prison for assault or whatever. It is quite possible, however, that, as a result of the Act, that woman's dog will be destroyed and the woman will have a criminal record for life. That cannot be right."—[Official Report, Commons, 4/11/91; col. 387.] It makes you think, does it not?

Prior to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, there was already legislation in place which dealt with dogs that were out of control in a public place. Under Section 2 of the Dogs Act 1871, a magistrates' court may, upon the complaint of any person that a dog is dangerous and not kept under proper control, order the owner to keep it under proper control, or may order it to be destroyed, if the evidence proves that the animal is dangerous. Prosecution under the 1871 Act allows the magistrate discretion and does not impose the mandatory death sentence on an animal, which if prosecuted under the Dangerous Dogs Act would have to be destroyed. Many owners would far rather keep their dogs muzzled while out walking, than lose a much loved pet, and the 1871 Act allows the magistrate full discretion while giving the option for destruction in more serious cases.

Finally, could we not encourage more education in schools about how to cope with pets which, if properly handled, bring great rewards? After all dogs have been called "man's best friend". They have on many occasions saved our lives. They have given us love and helped to stave off loneliness and depression. They rarely answer back and amazingly put up with a great deal of abuse, intentioned or otherwise. We are supposed to be a nation of dog lovers. I pray that we remain so.

8.22 p.m.

Lord Hayter

My Lords, I am in a somewhat interesting position. If your Lordships look at the list of members of the reform group in favour of the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Bill, your Lordships will find that there are 15 organisations and seven individuals. With the exception of me, I believe that the whole lot are dog lovers. I am not. To be honest, I do not like dogs. Therefore, I represent a dispassionate view in connection with the amendment.

I wish to see that dogs receive a fair deal. In just the same way, when the reform group was considering the wording of the amendment Bill, in its turn it wanted to ensure the safety of the public. For example, your Lordships may notice, when going through the Bill, that there are 13 "mays" and only one "shall". How many times have we had to consider those words in this House? Therefore, we are agreed in principle that everybody connected with the Bill does not like the mandatory sentence.

On the other hand, we must make sure that there is confidence in the courts and in the police; for example, a police dog handler who is giving his opinion as an expert witness as to whether or not a dog is a pit bull. The courts need to be sure, when releasing or imposing conditions upon an owner of a dog, that it will not return to its owner and be allowed to breed again because the whole point of the Act is to eliminate all pit bulls in due course.

The same applies—and this is rather more controversial to my mind—to releasing a dog while proceedings are pending. The court can impose conditions; it says so in our Bill. The court must be mindful not only of the public safety but of all the implications that there may be of releasing the dog back to its owner. I believe that I am right to say that the police believe they will never see the dog again or if they see a dog, it will not be that dog. But electronic tags can be put on the dogs so that there can be certainty in that regard.

We then move on to something about which I imagine there is universal agreement—that is, the care of dogs while they are under surveillance. The Bill provides that such dogs must be kept in licensed boarding establishments. I confess that I found it strange to learn of the existence of such establishments. As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, suggested, it may be that as the situation has improved, such circumstances may not arise again. But I am in favour of the provision in the Bill that all such dogs should be kept in licensed boarding establishments.

It is true that the original 1991 Act was passed in a hurry. Its prime object was to safeguard the public. I am told by the police that it has been partially successful. This amending Bill is reasonable, sensible and essential. We can review the situation in Committee. Therefore, I support the Second Reading of this Bill.

8.27 p.m.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, if anybody is entitled to say to this Government, "I told you so", it is the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in relation to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. As I remember it, time after time during the progress of that Bill in the long, hot summer of 1991, he warned the Government of the futility of the exercise upon which they were embarking, and he spoke all too prophetically as to the likely consequences of the hasty and ill-advised legislation which they had started.

Sure enough, the sky is now black with pigeons coming home to roost. It is not surprising that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, a chief keeper of the pigeon loft, and his noble assistant, the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, who dealt with the original Bill, have fled the coop and have left the unfortunate and noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, to do the best that he can this evening with a mop and bucket.

The Dangerous Dogs Act must have been conceived by the Home Secretary of the day, whoever he was—and there have been so many holders of that office in recent times that it is difficult to be sure upon whom to place the blame—in a moment of bathtime inspiration. The newspapers had carried several distressing stories of young children badly bitten, and in one case killed, by large and powerful dogs. But instead of looking carefully at the real causes and looking for solutions to what is a genuine and continuing problem, the Bill was raced through both Houses of Parliament that summer in the face of objection from all sides of the House so that this Government could be seen to be taking instant action in relation to a topical matter.

What has the Act achieved in its two or more years in existence? Has there been any reduction in dog attacks? If there has, I should be glad to hear about that from the Minister. Ironically, since the amendment Bill received its First Reading, there have been two serious attacks by dogs on young children which have received national coverage. Has there been any reduction in the keeping of potentially dangerous dogs? One has only to drive through any of our major cities or to drive out of London in any direction to see over and over again large and powerful dogs which are wholly inappropriate as town pets towing their owners along pavements and scattering pedestrians at their approach. If there has been any reduction in the keeping of inappropriate dogs in inappropriate places, it has not been apparent to me.

Nor has the Act done anything for the countless dogs who live their lives on the end of chains, kept as living burglar deterrents and made fierce and even vicious by lack of exercise and an unnatural way of life which is often forced upon them. What is it exactly that this Act has achieved? Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act has proved immensely beneficial to the legal profession and to a selection of the veterinary profession also. The courts have seen nothing quite like it since the obscenity trials of the 1970s when a panel of self-proclaimed expert witnesses used to go from court to court testifying to the merits of various publications alleged by the Crown to be obscene. There was, as I recall, a doctor from Sandwich, a psychiatrist and a vicar from East London. They were in much demand to defend Linda Lovelace's memoirs and other similar works of literature.

Today a panel of veterinary surgeons, ready to argue in court over the parentage of any suspect pit bull terrier, has taken their place. Such experts have to be paid, of course, and more often than not paid by legal aid, as do the prosecuting barristers and solicitor, and the defence solicitor and banisters who appear for the family of the dog. Indeed a cottage industry has grown up around Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act. It is, unhappily, an industry which is paid for largely out of the public purse.

While they await their trial the dogs themselves are also kept at public expense. The Daily Mail recently carried a story giving an example of one such case where the dog in question had apparently been blessed with puppies while in custody. There had been delays of the sort to which both the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, and the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, have referred; and total costs, including legal fees, kennelling and dog food, amounted to something of the order of £26,000 and were still continuing. I have no means of knowing whether that was accurate; and I should be grateful if the noble Minister would tell us, if he can, how many dogs are currently detained at Her Majesty's pleasure under the various provisions of this Act, and what the total cost of keeping such dogs has been in the period since this Act came into force.

Section 3 of the Act dealt with keeping dogs under proper control, and two of its subsections created aggravated offences where injury was actually caused by dogs. In other words, two of those parts of Section 3 went to the heart of what this Bill was supposed to be about.

The 1992 figures—they are the most recent ones as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, pointed out—indicate that, in relation to those matters, offences where injury was caused by dogs resulted in a total of 131 convictions in magistrates' courts throughout the whole of England and Wales. Only eight were of sufficient seriousness to reach the Crown Court. In other words, a total of 139 dogs that caused injury were the subject of successful prosecutions under this Act in 1992. It would perhaps be interesting to know from a Government who speak constantly about value for money as regards all aspects of their programme, what the cost per dog of those convictions amounts to.

The amendment Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is to be welcomed in that it gives a court discretion as to whether or not to order destruction. Surely where a dog is not at fault, even though the owner may be, as a matter of plain fairness destruction should not be compulsory. Surely also the provisions of Section 3 of the Bill, which permit the court to allow the dog to be returned to the owner pending the conclusion of a case, in a suitable case, is a sensible and (dare I say it?) cost-saving, value for money measure which should appeal to the Minister. Similarly, the same arguments should appeal to him as regards late registration.

The Dangerous Dogs Act has brought about no noticeable improvement in the mischief that that Act was intended to cure. This Bill modifies some of its unfairness. It was a case of an Act which was conceived in haste. We on these Benches hope that the Government have now had sufficient leisure to repent and will at least give a fair wind to the noble Lord's sensible amendment Bill.

8.34 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, for the second time in recent months I return to the Chamber to debate the subject of dogs with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. It is perhaps appropriate that we should debate this subject today because at lunchtime I ate a pleasant Chinese meal to celebrate the Chinese New Year. This year happens to be the Year of the Dog. I have brought with me an astrologer's guide to try to discover the Chinese symbol which corresponds to the year in which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, was born. I am sure that the noble Lord is proud of the age that he has reached. However, the astrological chart does not go back sufficiently far to record the year of his birth. But, if I am right, and if the system is logical—those are two quite big "ifs"—I believe that the noble Lord was born in a Year of the Dog. That is appropriate. However, the bad news for him is that I was born in the Year of the Tiger and I am not too sure whether tigers and dogs are totally compatible.

I know, as indeed does the whole House, that the Dangerous Dogs Act has caused the noble Lord much anxiety. He led the opposition to the Act during its original passage through your Lordships' House.

Before dealing with the specific proposals in the Bill now before us and the points that have been made, I want to make plain the Government's position. We introduced the Dangerous Dogs Act because we recognised the very real anxiety there was about the presence of fighting dogs in this country, as well as broader concern about dog attacks more generally. This was not a panic reaction, as some noble Lords have from time to time suggested, but a responsible recognition that the public demanded action and that it was our duty to take it. No one who is a parent, or dare I say more likely in your Lordships' House, a grandparent, can be other than horrified at the instances where dogs have savaged and killed small children. No government worth the name could have done otherwise than to take action.

It is interesting to note that I am the first person who has referred to some of the horrendous attacks that have taken place in any detail. Finding the right approach was not easy, but nothing that I have heard tonight, or which has happened since the Act was passed has persuaded us that we were wrong in taking the action we did, either in principle or so far as the details of the legislation are concerned. The need for public protection and reassurance is as real today as it was when the Act was passed. In saying this, I do not underrate the anxieties which some feel about the legislation, or indeed the depth of the noble Lord's conviction that changes are needed in the Act. I understand the pain that some owners must have felt at realising that their animals were covered by the legislation. But that pain is nothing to the pain and suffering of the young victims attacked by those dogs or of the parents of those young victims. I am happy to be their advocate rather than an advocate for the dogs. The first duty of government and of a civilised society was, and remains, the protection of human beings.

With these preliminary comments, I turn to the Bill now before the House. As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has explained, its objectives are threefold. First, it seeks to give the courts discretion in sentencing where there is presently no option but to order the destruction of a dog. Secondly, it seeks to allow owners of dogs which have been seized by the police and local authorities to apply for custody of their dog pending a court hearing. Thirdly, it seeks to oblige the police and local authorities to keep dogs which have been seized in licensed boarding establishments.

The underlying principles of the Dangerous Dogs Act are to eliminate fighting dogs from this country and to protect the public from dangerous dogs. Under the Act owners of pit bull terriers and other dogs bred for fighting were allowed to keep their animals on condition that they complied with stringent conditions by 30th November 1991, including registering their dog and keeping them on a lead and muzzled when in a public place.

The obligations in the legislation were very widely publicised. The Bill received a great deal of publicity during its passage through both Houses. A clear message was sent out that conforming with the obligations of the legislation was the only way in which owners could lawfully retain their animals. In those cases where the owner of a fighting dog has failed to comply with the requirements of the law, or where a dog of any type or breed causes injury to a person, magistrates have no option but to order the destruction of the dog. And rightly so.

The reason Parliament gave the courts no option in these cases is clear. The provision is there in the Act in order to provide a powerful incentive to owners of fighting dogs to comply fully with the requirements of the law, and to ensure that people who fail to do so do not remain in charge of potentially dangerous dogs. There would be an outcry if a dog which had attacked were returned to a convicted owner and attacked again. Similarly, if the courts were given discretion on sentencing and decided not to order the destruction of the dog, then the dog would have to be returned to an owner who would already have shown that he was not sufficiently responsible to observe the clear requirements of the legislation.

Clause 1 of the Bill before the House this evening would give the courts a discretion on sentencing that would include the re-opening of the Index of Exempted Dogs for an indefinite period. To allow those owners who originally failed to register to do so now would, I am sure, bring justified criticism from those owners whose dogs have already been put down because they failed to comply with the registration requirements. Furthermore, it would suggest that Parliament was no longer committed to ensuring that the current generation of pit bull terriers is the last in this country, since there would be nothing to prevent fresh dogs, imported into this country or bred unlawfully here, from benefiting from this method of retrospective legalisation. I repeat that the object of the legislation is to make sure that the current generation of this type of dog is the last in this country.

I do not agree with the proposition advanced in Clause 3 of the Bill that the courts be given a locus in the decision whether or not to allow dogs back into the custody of their owners pending the full court hearing. That is a matter for those holding the animal.

Section 5 of the 1991 Act states that a police officer or an officer of the local authority may seize a dog which is believed to have committed an offence under the Act. There is therefore no obligation on the police or local authority to impound a dog and to hold it pending trial. That has to be an operational matter for the agency concerned. The police or local authority have to consider the safety of the public and the likelihood of the animal being surrendered again to custody at the appropriate time. There would be justified criticism if the police were to leave a dog with its owner or to release a dog which then caused injury to somebody.

Returning dogs to their owners "on bail" pending the outcome of proceedings could well lead to enforcement problems. For example, owners might be very reluctant to return a dog to custody when they knew that the result of the proceedings could be an order for its destruction. The temptation might be very great to claim that the dog had been lost or involved in an accident while in their custody.

Clause 4 of the Bill proposes that dogs which are seized by the police or the local authority dog warden should be kept in boarding establishments approved and licensed by the local authority. I do not believe it to be right or necessary for us to seek to prescribe detailed practices in that way. The police and the local authorities have the responsibility for deciding where seized dogs should be kennelled, and there may be all sorts of security and other considerations which they must bear in mind.

The Government remain convinced that the provisions of the Dangerous Dogs Act were a necessary and justified response to public anxieties about dangerous dogs. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, believes that his Bill is concerned only with matters which he regards as the more extreme aspects of the 1991 Act. However, the Government consider that the mandatory destruction order and the one-off nature of the registration scheme are matters which are integral to the provisions of the Act and to the objective which Parliament agreed and with which I am sure the bulk of the people in our country agree—the elimination of these particular types of dog. We believe that it would be wrong to seek to modify the provisions of the Act as the noble Lord proposes. I am sorry to tell the noble Lord that because one cannot but admire his spirit on these matters, but I am afraid that the Government cannot support the Bill. Of course, it is a Private Members' Bill and, as such, we would not propose to vote against it.

The Government consider that what is needed are not changes to the Act, but whatever help we can give to those responsible for its implementation. The Home Office will shortly be issuing a circular to the courts, prosecutors, police and local authorities about a number of aspects of the Act, which we hope will meet some of the concerns that have been voiced about its operation. This will reflect suggestions that have been made to the Home Office for improving the welfare of detained dogs in custody, which is one of the items in the Bill before us this evening, and will draw attention to the panel set up by the Kennel Club and the British Veterinary Association. This consists of people willing to give advice on whether or not a dog is a pit bull terrier. I hope that that will prove a helpful contribution to the fair but effective operation of the Act.

The Government do take seriously the problem of dangerous dogs and the need for responsible dog ownership. We shall continue to listen to the views which are put to us, and I hope that the circular that I mentioned will demonstrate our commitment to that process.

But I have to say again that protecting the public against dangerous dogs—and let us not forget, as I have said before and make no apology for saying again, that on occasion such dogs have done the most appalling damage to people—has to be the Government's paramount responsibility. Were the provisions of the Act to be modified in the way envisaged by the Bill before your Lordships today the protection afforded to the public would be very seriously weakened.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I wish to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and the Front Bench spokesman for the Government. Not for the first time in a reply to a debate on this subject, he has clarified the issues and enabled us to consider what is the measure of the difference that will exist in the later stages of the debate. I shall therefore regard this as an important statement by the Government on a matter which will be the subject of continual debate for the rest of this Session. It will arise in more than one place and there is no point in keeping the House late tonight to continue the discussion.

The Minister has given us the starting point for the next debate. We shall have to deal with that and with the Government's record of negligence and indifference on the dog issue for years before this matter broke out in 1991. I commend the Bill to the House.

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