HL Deb 07 March 1994 vol 552 cc1278-82

5.34 p.m.

Read a third time.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

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

This Bill is a unique one. It is the first attempt that has been made to amend the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. As I said on Second Reading in a somewhat light-hearted way, this amendment Bill is more about dangerous Ministers than it is about dangerous dogs. The matters that we have selected for debate on this Bill come very close indeed to the constitutional rights of the citizen and the liberties of the people.

A great deal has been happening since the principal Act was passed on 10th June 1991. The House of Commons had agreed to debate the Bill and pass it through all stages in a single day. The view was certainly not without support that there was an emergency that had to be met. The 1991 Act was the merciless vehicle which was introduced and passed through all its stages in a single day in another place to carry out the policy of the Government on matters relating to dangerous dogs.

Since then, all organisations which had any relationship to canine matters have come together to discuss what the future line of policy should be on the Act. It has been surprising to see the spontaneity with which so many diverse interests have come together. This Bill is the outcome of several meetings in conference of those various representatives in an attempt to find a common purpose. We readily did that. We found that we were all concentrating on the same two issues; they are the issues in this amendment Bill, the first of which relates to the mandatory sentencing provisions of the 1991 Act.

One of the most precious rights of British citizens lies in the independence of our judicial system and in its authority in the area of its jurisdiction. We took a very strong view in that respect in discussing the War Crimes Bill. Mandatory sentencing was introduced by the Act of 1991 on a wide scale in magistrates' courts throughout England and Wales and in sheriff courts in Scotland.

The 1991 Act created 10 new offences. Six of them were provisions for a mandatory sentence of dog destruction upon conviction. That has proved to be one of the most anxious processes in British law for a long time; namely the way in which, when a dog was judged by the court to be a pit bull terrier, it was automatically to be subject to a destruction order without any opportunity for the discretion of the court to be exercised. I do not know how many dogs have been destroyed under compulsory destruction orders. Particulars are very difficult to come by.

But the mandatory destruction of a dog in the circumstances provided by the 1991 Act was a grievous affront to many people both as regards justice and feelings for the citizen whose life was to be altered so dramatically by the intrusion of the law. It was not as though the dogs concerned had infringed the law or harmed someone. What happened was that on 31st August 1991 one was a lawful citizen owning lawfully a dog which had not caused any trouble and for which one was fully responsible. If one failed to register that dog for exemption before the end of August 1991, then on 1st September one was in unlawful possession of a prohibited animal. In many cases of unlawful possession of a prohibited animal the anger and grief caused by the Act were very great.

The Act has been in operation for two full years: 1992 and 1993. There are figures about the working of the courts in 1992 but as yet there are no figures at all about 1993. The figures for 1992 were received only at Christmas 1993 and it looks as though we shall wait a long time before we get any further information about how the Act is working out. My noble friends who joined me in promoting this Bill are to be thanked for taking the trouble to bring about a measure of cohesion and common purpose to make sure that our next debates on this subject are carried out in a somewhat different spirit.

The second aspect of this amendment Bill relates to the extraordinary position created by the Act when once the police have exercised their powers of seizure on suspicion of the dog being a prohibited animal. It seems that the citizen virtually loses all property rights so long as the dog is in the custody of the police. It may be there for weeks or months— many months— while the police decide whether or not the dog is to be considered a prohibited animal. I speak now of the waiting time from the seizure to the point of making charges to be answered in the court. There are, owing to the difficulty of getting the dogs properly and seriously identified, cases of six, eight or even 12 months elapsing between seizure and charges being made. That also has been a source of considerable grievance.

There seems to be no right of the citizen to see the animal once the police have seized it and very often he can get no information about it. He is left to wonder what is happening and what condition it may be in. One of the great problems in the introduction of the 1991 Act was that no preparation had been made to accommodate all the dogs that were to be seized very quickly after the Act came into operation. The dogs had to be put out to makeshift kennels and remain there for weeks or months until so-called experts could be found to come round and decide whether in their view there were grounds for proceeding with the charge of owning a pit bull terrier or type of pit bull terrier.

So the second issue in the Bill before your Lordships is that there should be some opportunity for a citizen, by application to the court, to exercise his rights to have access to his dog when it is in the hands of the police. Those are the two issues in the Bill. As I said, they both relate to the citizen's rights.

We propose that the magistrates' courts should be empowered to decide for themselves whether a destruction order should be issued in a particular case or whether, in the discretion of the court, an opportunity should be offered to the owner of the dog to obtain by leave of the court the protection of exemption under the registration procedures after the registration process has closed. No registrations have taken place since the end of August 1991. It is very difficult indeed to reconcile the number of people who missed the final date for registration and who have subsequently been charged with unlawful possession of a prohibited animal with the fact that they have no opportunity for redress and no opportunity to get any protection from any process that they may undertake.

I believe that this is the time to take note of the new movement to pay close attention to the working of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. I hope that it will be the beginning of a sympathetic and successful review of the ruthless regime which has existed since 1991. I wish to thank all my friends and supporters who have helped to bring the Bill to this state. I also express thanks to the Ministers who have taken part in all the discussions on dangerous dogs that we have had over the years. I commend the Motion to the House.

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

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Wharton

My Lords, before the Minister rises, perhaps I may remind noble Lords that I supported the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, in this amendment Bill right from its inception. This short Bill does not seek to weaken the protection afforded by the original Act of 1991 but rather to correct the injustices of that Act by restoring the right of magistrates to use their discretion with regard to less serious offences, particularly under Section 3.

Dog related problems will no go away. Most of us have owned a dog at some time in our life and all dog owners have now become vulnerable to these laws. Like the noble Lord, I fervently hope that when this amendment Bill leaves the House and goes to another place, the Government will find time to give it a fair hearing.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish)

My Lords, it is less than four weeks since your Lordships last debated the subject of dogs with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. The Bill that is before us today received its Second Reading on 9th February. Those noble Lords who were present on that day will remember that I reminded the House that it was the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Dog. I set out, appropriately enough on that day, the Government's reservations about the purposes of the Bill and the reasons why we felt unable to give it our support. I know that that was a disappointment to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and I must say to him— and I do not think it will come as a surprise— that nothing that has occurred since causes the Government to change their view.

The underlying principle of the Dangerous Dogs Act was to eliminate fighting dogs from this country. To allow owners who fail to meet the requirements of the law, for whatever reason, to keep their dogs would in effect undermine the purpose of the legislation. In the case of unregistered dogs, it would breach the fundamental objective of cutting off the flow of fresh pit bull terriers to this country. We said that there was a once-and-for-all closing date for registrations under the Act, and I am afraid that we meant it.

I mentioned in the course of the Second Reading debate that the Home Office will shortly be issuing a circular to the courts, prosecutors, police and the local authorities about a number of aspects of the Act. That circular was issued on 24th February and I understand that my noble friend Lord Ferrers sent a copy to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. I know that there has been concern about some cases involving pit bull terriers which have been long drawn out because of problems in deciding whether the dog in question was or was not a pit bull type. The noble Lord referred to that situation again today. One of the principal purposes of the circular is to give details of the joint Kennel Club/British Veterinary Associations' panel of people willing to assist with the identification of suspected pit bull terriers. We very much hope that it will provide an important new resource in the handling of those cases, and I wish to put on record our gratitude to the two bodies for the initiative they have taken.

The circular also reiterates earlier advice about the undesirability of delay in bringing cases to trial, leading to high costs for kennelling and disturbance to the dogs. It urges all concerned to do everything possible to speed the progress of those cases. The circular brings to the attention of the police and local authorities some of the suggestions that have been made for improving the welfare of dogs in custody. I hope that the issue of the circular will demonstrate to all involved in the operation of this Act that the Government take seriously the problem of dangerous dogs and the need for responsible dog ownership. I believe it should prove a helpful contribution to the fair and effective operation of the Act.

It will be plain from what I have said that the Government remain committed to the provisions of the Dangerous Dogs Act. We have continually to come back to the reasons why the Act was brought forward — the public concern that existed over dog attacks and the Government's absolute responsibility to take steps to address the problem. I do not believe that any responsible government— of any party — would have done other than we did. Debating the Dangerous Dogs Act may not be my favourite way of spending an evening in your Lordships' House, but I should infinitely rather be standing here defending the Dangerous Dogs Act than have to defend a government who had done nothing, especially if that defence had to be before the victims of dog attacks or, worse still, the parents of a child killed by one of those animals.

It remains our view that the provisions of the Bill would seriously weaken the legislation and we are determined not to do anything that would afford the public less protection than they have now. This is, of course, a Private Member's Bill and in keeping with the traditions of your Lordships' House we do not propose to vote against it. But I am afraid that we cannot give it our support.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, perhaps may make a final observation. What the noble Lord said is debatable. The opportunity may come if in another place an attempt is made through new clauses to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bills to include the proposals contained in this Bill. We are running parallel with the other place in these matters and it may be that it will come back to us under different auspices; or if it does not, we may wish to include it in the Government Bill. There are opportunities providing much room for debate on matters of detail, but our proposals are to moderate the severities of the law and not to alter its purpose.

When measures of this kind are introduced they can either be excessive or fully justified. Some parts of the Act are excessive and remain excessive and there is no reason for them to be retained as a condition of fulfilling the ultimate purpose of the Act. In those circumstances. I express dissent from what the Minister says. The debate will have to be continued at another time, but probably in the same place— your Lordships' House. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

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