HL Deb 26 April 1995 vol 563 cc1003-11

8.25 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Houghton of Sowerby.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 1 [Discretion of court to deal with dog other than by destruction order]:

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

I beg to move that Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill.

In doing so, I wish to remind the Committee that we have all been here before and we have studied this matter with great care over a considerable length of time. It may be that from the point of view of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, these debates are becoming a little tedious; from my point of view they are becoming more dispiriting. This is a further attempt to ask the Government to look favourably upon some alleviation of the severity of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.

We are now in the fourth year of the operation of the Act. The Government have no wish, or no intention, of tabling any amendments to the 1991 Act. Therefore the attempts that are made to make changes in the Bill are met with blank refusal to entertain anything that means legislation to alter the terms of the Act. The truth of the matter is that the Government are politically too weak to face the possible criticisms they would meet from the tabloid press if they weakened the Act in any way. They want to stick to the doctrine that the greater the severity of the punishment, the greater the deterrent. That philosophy has governed the policy of the Home Office on criminal law for some time.

There are two views on that. It is arguable whether in fact members of the public who are owners of dogs which may come within the terms of the 1991 Act are disposed to use stratagems and arguments and devices to escape their obligations, unless one takes into account that there is a definite sentence of death provided for for offences under the Act. I do not believe that that is a greater deterrent than if we were to seek a little more co-operation.

This clause proposes to do one thing and one thing only: to remove the mandatory sentence of death from the 1991 Act, to sweep it away entirely from the mandate given to magistrates in England and Wales and to sheriffs in Scotland. Clause 1 of the Bill deals with the abolition of the death penalty and in particular with the alternatives that are provided in Clause 1 to mandatory destruction in Section 1 of the 1991 Act. It would still be possible for the court to issue an order for destruction but it would be in its own judgment, not under mandate. It would not be required to do it, as it is under the present Act. The power would rest with them in suitable cases to order the destruction of a dog. I am dealing now with the pit bull terrier aspect of the problem. Equally, in their own judgment, they could decide that an option should be given to the owner of exemption under the conditions already involved for the exemption index, and on completion of all the treatment necessary to qualify for that.

In those circumstances, it seems that a suitable alternative is on offer to those on whom otherwise a mandatory death sentence would be imposed. There are difficulties of administration about this, but I do not see any reason why they should not be overcome. For example, it would require that the index of exemptions which already exists and which was closed on 31st August 1991 should be available to be reopened for particular dogs on particular occasions on an order of a court. That responsibility for opening the index would rest with the Home Secretary. It is important that the Home Secretary should have the power to admit late entry to the index in order that such cases can be provided for.

We believe that the powers exist. At any rate, the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, will move an amendment to ensure that the power will rest in the hands of the Home Secretary to reopen the register to admit cases selected by the court for this treatment. This would be more humane and in particular it would be so appropriate to most of the cases that are coming to the courts at the present time. Those cases do not concern pit bull terriers: they are crosses. They are of the type provided for in the Act, and dogs of the type known as pit bull terriers face the same penalty under Section 1 of the Act as a pit bull terrier itself.

I think any expert will advise the Home Office that there is the greatest difficulty in many cases in deciding whether a dog is of the type of a pit bull terrier. If it is of the type, then at the present time an automatic issue of a destruction order is made. The courts, by a majority of magistrates at any time coming to the conclusion that a dog is of the type, are thereby obliged to issue a destruction order. That is the present position. The cases that are being fought in the courts at the present time are those where owners are disputing that their dogs qualify for the death sentence on the grounds of being of the type. It is in such cases where there may be actually a division of opinion in the court itself, and certainly in most cases a division of opinion between experts who believe they can identify dogs of the type and classify them with some confidence.

Some dogs are having destruction orders imposed upon them on the decision of a stipendiary magistrate sitting alone and hearing the case alone. It is a peculiar coincidence that on the occasion of the Second Reading of the Bill a message came from a court in Scotland which was making some very harsh criticisms of the Act. This morning in the Glasgow Herald we find another criticism of the Act by the sheriff court in a particularly difficult case where a young man pleaded guilty to being in possession of an unregistered pit bull terrier but later sought leave to change his plea, was granted leave by the High Court, went back to the sheriff court and has been acquitted of the charge made against him. It is an extraordinary situation which is arising and giving many grounds for criticism of the administration.

I think it is appropriate for me to add one word. If we do not get from the noble Baroness an indication of a more favourable approach to this matter, we shall have to seek other means of getting this issue brought before the public and before your Lordships' House. I refer in particular to the idea of a Select Committee of your Lordships to inquire whether this Bill should make progress. In the circumstances, we should then have evidence and we should be able to get information about the practical side of what has been going on for four years. In those circumstances, we should abandon the Bill later.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Baroness Wharton moved Amendment No. 1:

After Clause 1, insert the following new clause:

("Amendment of power to make exemption scheme

. After section 1(5) of the 1991 Act (which enables the Secretary of State to make a scheme exempting, subject to compliance with certain conditions, persons from the absolute prohibition against having possession or custody of pit bull terriers and other designated types of dogs) there shall be inserted— (5A) A scheme under subsection (5) above which specifies a time limit for the making of an application for exemption in respect of a dog shall make provision for an application to be made out of time in any case where a court has granted leave under section 4(1) (c) below for such a late application to be made." ").

The noble Baroness said: I beg to move Amendment No. 1. Clause 1, which we have just passed, cannot become effective if there is any doubt about the powers of the Home Secretary to reopen the list of exemptions in the case of particular dogs in certain cases which could be spared mandatory destruction by the provisions of this Bill. This amendment removes any doubt as to the powers of the Home Secretary to accept late entries to the list of exemptions—that is, dogs which comply with the conditions of Clause 1 and are ordered by the courts to do so. I should like to make it clear that dogs will only be given late entry to the exemption list by the courts from whom this Bill removes mandatory sentencing under the principal Act and returns to the courts their historic right to exercise some discretion within this area of their jurisdiction.

No dog dealt with under this Bill will be returned home without satisfying all the conditions which apply to all other dogs granted exemption under the 1991 Act. Only neutered dogs given the full treatment for exemption will be returned to their owners. The dogs concerned will be given late entry to the exemption list under this Bill. This amendment makes sure that the Home Secretary has the necessary power to enable that to be done when he receives an order from the court to that effect. For the removal of any doubt about that, I beg to move this amendment.

Lord Hayter

In supporting the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, in a way my thoughts go back to an earlier part of this evening when we had a debate on the relationship between local government and the national government. In the context of this Bill we are really debating the relationship of local magistrates with that of the national government once again. It has been made clear that we are trying to do the best we possibly can to make sure that there will be no repetition of appalling accidents which sometimes happen in the context of dangerous dogs. That is why we have gone out of our way—I am told, perhaps unnecessarily, legally—to make sure that the Secretary of State has a position in relation to this Bill. I am glad to support the amendment.

Lord Leigh

Speaking as an owner of a Staffordshire bull terrier, occasionally mistaken as a pit bull terrier, the whole point of not giving discretion against the mandatory death sentence is that it penalises the good owner as well as the bad. No breed of dog can be classified as bad. More often than not it is the owner who should be put down, not the dog.

Pit bull terriers are in fact an outcross of Staffordshire bull terriers who are reared and kept by the Staffordshire miners—who are now few and far between—especially for fighting. It is how the dog is brought up that determines how its character is going to develop. My "Staffy" is called Sir Caspar Weinberger, who I got as a four-month old puppy from Grantham, so perhaps I should have called him, "Thatcher". But with all due respect to the noble Baroness, I thought at that time it was too obvious and so I called him "Caspar Weinberger" after the American senator who was very popular then and in all the news bulletins.

A fellow American who claims to be a cousin of mine, alleged that he knew the real Caspar Weinberger and took back a photograph of my dog to show his namesake. I did not then hear from my cousin, who had previously been a regular correspondent, for nearly three years; but out of the blue he sent me a card last Christmas. There must be a lesson in that somewhere. I am trying to reply to him and other overseas friends, with a general letter to cover Christmas, etcetera, but I admit that I have not managed it yet. Perhaps this speech will prod me into action.

Be that as it may, my Caspar Weinberger has the sweetest nature and in Putney, where I am now domiciled, it is not me or my health who the locals enquire after, it is always Caspar, which makes his owner feel quite jealous. In fact, many of the locals call out his name at distances up to 100 yards or so when they see him approaching with me, provided he is loose on the common. I try—I do not always succeed —to greet everybody I see on a regular basis. Sometimes strangers approach me and ask, "Is he dangerous?" or similar words, to which I always reply, "He will not hurt you, but he might kill you with kindness". He has a fearfully long tongue, but all he wants to do is lick you.

Caspar has been police guard dog, trained by a top professional dog trainer who has won the Grand National of dog training on several occasions. He had never trained a Stafford before, but he told me that Caspar had the hardest grip of any dog he had ever trained. The dog trainer reckoned that if anyone attacked me, or any member of my family, they would be dead in a minute-and-a-half if Caspar got a grip on them.

I have met two pit bull terriers and their owners on separate occasions. One was nasty and vicious, and his owner appeared the same. The other pit bull was a lovely dog and the owner, on brief acquaintance, appeared a nice chap, too. Some dogs have a blemish or a quirk in their character. I also had a Rottweiler called Argos B. Eagleburger—I was heavily into the American Senate at that time—which I brought up from a puppy with Caspar and they were inseparable. They were both full dogs and they used to spend most of their time buggering each other.

Unfortunately, although he was like a great cuddly bear most of the time, he had a quirk which is common to that breed—so I was told by my vet—which meant that he occasionally went berserk. After he had attacked a third blameless dog in the park in the space of two years, I had to have him dispatched to his forefathers as I feared that it might be a child next.

There must be an escape clause in this Bill to protect the innocent owner. I hope that I have shown by my action in the case of my Rottweiler that responsible owners should be given discretion from the wholesale slaughter of their friends and pets. After all, dogs are said to be man's best friend and Caspar Weinberger vies with my wife as mine.

8.45 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

From these Benches I support the main drift of this clause which is that the Act should have, by common consent throughout the country among people who have any interest and care about dogs, a discretion given to the courts in order to decide whether dogs, in both Part I and III of the Act, should be destroyed.

What the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, just said is very useful because when this legislation came about—prompted, quite rightly, by an enormous outcry in the popular press because of unfortunate incidents involving very serious injury to people, and in particular children—there was a general feeling that all was not well in the dog world and that legislation was required.

Personally, I do not argue with the motivation behind the Government's legislation in this area and neither do I disagree with the RSPCA which has expressed publicly the view that they wish that pit bull terriers did not exist. Understandably, the Government were much moved by the fact that many of the pit bull terriers were brought here expressly for fighting and were often used by criminal and irresponsible elements in quite improper ways, such as a form of protection against police raids in search of drug dealing.

As has been shown, the reality is that there are responsible owners like the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, who own pit bull terriers and who are responsible owners. They have little or no trouble with them, particularly as they are now subject to the provisions of the Act, which are very rigorous and, some may say, draconian.

I would only disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, when he says that the Government must be concerned about the reaction of the popular press if they accept the new clause. I do not agree with that because most of the popular newspapers which previously urged the Government to act are now carrying stories expressing great concern about cases where dogs have been taken into custody and given the mandatory sentence for infringements where there has been evidence that certain special situations arose, such as a muzzle being removed or a dog not being registered according to the Act. In the view of most people, that is where discretion should have been allowed to apply. That is what the new clause is all about. I support it, and I hope that the Government will do likewise.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The procedures of this House allow for debate between Second Reading and the Motion that the Bill do now pass only on specific issues: amendments before the House and, at Committee stage, the Motion that the clause stand part of the Bill. Therefore, I must ask for the indulgence of the Committee if I take the opportunity of this amendment to refer back to something that my noble friend Lord Houghton said on the Motion that Clause 1 stand part of the Bill because I think that it is important and raises an issue that has arisen since Second Reading. Specifically, my noble friend said that he thought that the issue behind the Bill ought to be referred to a Select Committee of the House in order to enable the issues to be considered in a way that is not easy to achieve through Public Bill procedures.

I am advised that on page 95 of the Companion is the provision that Public Bills may be committed to Select Committees other than Public Bill Committees at any stage between Second and Third Reading. There is no Motion of that kind before the House, but I thought that it would be as well for me to put on the record the fact that my noble friend would be entirely within his rights if he sought at any stage between now and Third Reading to move that the Bill be committed to a Select Committee. That would be entirely in order.

Following that, I think it would be helpful if that were the case because I have had the benefit of an enormously helpful letter from the Minister, dated 20th March, following Second Reading and my request that there should be better statistics about the practical workings of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. I express my gratitude now to the noble Baroness—I have not done so in the form of a written reply—for the care that she and her officials have taken in seeking to provide such evidence as is available. However, at the end of that exercise, the evidence is not conclusive. It indicates to me that, on the whole, the Act is working well and that the provisions—the "draconian" provisions, as they have been described—may well have proved necessary. However, there is enough room for doubt and enough room for discussion of the evidence to make me say that if my noble friend were to move at any time that the Bill should be committed to a Select Committee other than a Public Bill Committee, I personally, speaking from this Dispatch Box, would support him.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

Perhaps I may respond briefly to the helpful point which has just been made by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. It would be wrong of me to pre-empt the response of the House to such a Motion and, in the absence of such a Motion, I do not wish to do that at this stage. The noble Lord is absolutely right—it would be for the House to make a determination. As is the convention in your Lordships' House, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government I shall not oppose the amendment.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

I think that we are getting into a bit of a tangle in terms of order. The Question before the Committee at present is, as far as I can gather, that relating to the new clause which is to follow Clause 1 and which was moved by my noble friend Lady Wharton. The Question that the new clause be added to the Bill has not yet been put, so we are diverting from the mainstream of the discussion on that new clause to deal with other matters—and I am bound to take responsibility for having raised them myself. The new clause that we are considering at the moment is intended to give the Home Secretary the power to reopen the index of exemptions which was closed on 31st August 1991 by opening it on an order of a court given to him for particular cases brought forward under the new Clause 1 of the Bill—

Baroness Blatch

I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. As I made it clear that I shall not oppose the amendment, it is my understanding that the Committee will probably accept it. But, again, it would be presumptuous of me to pre-empt the outcome of the decision.

Baroness Wharton

Finally, perhaps I may thank the Minister for her response and all noble Lords who have spoken. I commend the amendment to the Committee.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 2 agreed to.

The Viscount of Falkland moved Amendment No. 2:

After Clause 2, insert the following new clause:

("Transitional provisions

.—(1) This Act shall apply in relation to cases where proceedings have been instituted before, as well as after, the passing of this Act.

(2) In a case where, before the passing of this Act—

  1. (a) the court has ordered the destruction of a dog in respect of which an offence under section 1, or an aggravated offence under section 3(1) or (3), of the 1991 Act has been committed, but
  2. 1010
  3. (b) the dog has not been destroyed,
that destruction order shall not have effect but the case shall be remitted to the court for reconsideration and the court shall make any order in respect of that dog (including an order for its destruction) that it has power to make under section 4 of the 1991 Act, as amended by section 1 above.").

The noble Viscount said This new clause follows logically on the new clause that we have just debated. It gives the owners of dogs who have already been sentenced by the courts at the time when the amended Act comes into force the right to seek the discretion of the court under the terms of the amended Act. That will achieve a total absence of mandatory destruction—not only for new cases, but for cases which are already going through the courts. I beg to move.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

The new clause deals with the transitional arrangements. They are new to this Bill, but they were included in the Bill that was passed by the House last Session. The reason why the transitional arrangements were left out of this Bill was that we decided to shorten the Bill in the hope that in the ballot for Private Member's Bills in the House of Commons an honourable Member would take up the Bill and ventilate its provisions in that House. We thought that it might help if the complications of the transitional arrangements were not included in the Bill originally, but introduced at Committee stage. Therefore, we have to introduce into this Bill the transitional arrangements that were in last year's Bill. They are set out in the new clause which we seek to insert after Clause 2.

We must have transitional arrangements otherwise we shall not be able to deal with the dogs which are already in police custody or going through the courts. The transitional arrangements provide that all dogs which are in police custody, which have been tried and upon which a verdict has been given shall not undergo the sentence of death whatever stage their case has reached. They shall have the right to return to the court for consideration of applying to them the option that Clause 1 proposes to give to all future cases involving pit bull terriers.

Under the transitional provisions, no further mandatory destruction orders shall be carried out. Any destruction orders that are issued will be dealt with by the courts to which reference was made in deciding whether the mandatory destruction order should be confirmed in the independent judgment of the court or whether the option of being granted exemption under Clause 1 should be applied to them.

The process sounds more complicated than it is, but it amounts to the following. Anyone on whose dog a mandatory death sentence has been pronounced should be able to appeal against that and seek the option that is given to all new cases that the courts decide. That is a simple act of justice and not of retrospective action under the conditions of the old law.

My noble friend Lord Falkland, who moved the amendment, provides for that and there is no need to vary the measure as provision is provided for all cases. Nothing is automatic. The decision of the court would be needed to decide the future of dogs already waiting on death row and so bring to an end some of the most tiresome and grievous cases that have been before the courts for many years. Tomorrow a case will come before the court involving the dog, Dempsey, who has been in police custody since the end of 1991. The case is not finished yet.

If the Bill had been passed and were available for action we could have asked for such a case to be referred back to the court to decide whether the death penalty should be reimposed or whether the option of being made a registered dog should be applied. I hope that the Committee will support Amendment No. 2, which contains the transitional provisions.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 3 agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported with amendments.