HL Deb 04 December 1995 vol 567 cc867-80

5.53 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

A debate in your Lordships' House without the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, necessarily loses some of its colour. It is rather like having a general debate about boxing without Henry Cooper. I use that comparison advisedly because they are both heavyweights in their fields. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has on three separate occasions before today presented to your Lordships' House Bills to amend the Dangerous Dogs Act. The Bill which I introduce today on the noble Lord's behalf is a simple one, although perhaps deceptively so. It attacks what is seen to be the main fault of the dangerous dogs legislation, which was introduced in 1991, and it seeks to restore to the judiciary the discretion which is normal in almost every other form of jurisprudence in our land.

When the original Dangerous Dogs Bill first came before Parliament, it was welcomed in certain ways but viewed with some suspicion. It went through as quickly as the Government hoped at that time. A great deal of public concern had been brought about by attacks on members of the public, particularly children, by certain breeds of dog. The Government chose to target one specific breed. The word "breed" is important because it implies pedigree. The Government sought to target the pit bull terrier, or more correctly the American pit bull terrier, for what appeared to be good reasons—the attacks that I have mentioned but also the fact that the dogs were being used for fighting, a barbarous and archaic sport which is rightly banned within these shores. The American pit bull terrier was specifically bred for fighting. That was one of the main arguments put forward for the emphasis on the pit bull terrier.

Those of us who were familiar with the world of dogs knew that the pit bull terrier, or the pit bull terrier type, as the Government preferred to call it—they used that term in their legislation—was by no means the only or indeed the main offender in attacks on children, members of the public and the police. The legislation was hurried through. There were misgivings; but perhaps those misgivings were not voiced satisfactorily. As the months and years have gone by since the Act came into force, it has been what I would hazard to suggest as one of the most unsatisfactory pieces of legislation on our statute book. I can think of only one other piece of legislation during my time in your Lordships' House which is as unsatisfactory. I refer to the Government's Football Spectators - Bill, but fortunately for the country its provisions have never been fully implemented, for reasons which it would be inappropriate to dwell on here.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has taken up this cudgel with such force and—he will not mind me saying so—at such length because he feels not only that the legislation has been 'unfair and unjust to dogs and dog owners but also that it is constitutionally unsatisfactory in that it introduces a mandatory sentence, deprives the judiciary of their normal role and implies that they are unable to carry out that role. The House will know that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has not been in good health for the past weeks. I am sure all noble Lords will join me in wishing him a complete return to good health. The noble Lord has sent me a note which cheers me. The note wishes me luck and suggests that I might point out that these proposals are before the House for the fourth time and that the Bill might therefore be described as a well-seasoned one in your Lordships' House.

The main issue is the mandatory destruction of dogs without the court having a discretion. Because of the haste with which the Bill was brought in, that aspect has probably done just the opposite to what the Government intended at the time. They probably thought that it would reduce court time, simplify court measures and meet the anxieties of the public, the press and the general mood of the time in 1991 when the legislation was introduced. In fact it has done just the opposite. The Government did not seek advice from the right quarters and did not define the kind of dogs which they intended to curb, and indeed to annihilate—it has been said many times by members of the Government and their supporters that they wished to eliminate the pit bull terrier completely as the breed or type was a menace to our society. They brought in statutory measures which had to be met by the owners of these dogs, and your Lordships are familiar with them. It meant registration, muzzling in public, and chipping and castration where appropriate. A reasonable amount of time was given in which the dog owners were expected to comply with those requirements.

The problem has been that when the law came into force, predictably a number of people had not met the requirements. The police went about their normal duties and took into custody a number of dogs, which appeared to be what the Government describe as the pit-bull type. No doubt other noble Lords will be going into that in much more detail than I shall. These dogs were immediately taken before the courts and the only sentence was mandatory destruction. The courts became reluctant to convict; appeals were set in motion and the result was that many dogs were put into kennels for lengthy periods at great cost to the taxpayer. The chaos which ensued and which still exists, brought that law into considerable disrepute.

There are many anecdotes with which I shall not bore your Lordships, about the way in which the law has not worked or that it has worked unfairly and indeed tragically to dogs and their owners. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has related some of them to your Lordships many times. There have been many strange muddles in the courts. Indeed, the Home Office has been encouraging the prosecution services to use the 1871 legislation, amended in 1989, wherever possible, rather than the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. In many cases that has not happened. That may be because the circulars which the Home Office sent out have not been read or fully understood.

We continue apace and the police go around apprehending dogs that they consider should be put into custody. That creates a prolonged and distressing problem. A rather timely article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday. It summarised a recent case in the High Court before Mr. Justice Rougier. He saw fit to order the release of a dog which is well known. It has a name which is almost as well known as that of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. It is called "Dempsey". Mr. Justice Rougier said that the Act bore the hallmarks of a badly thought-out piece of legislation and was no doubt drafted in haste in response to pressure groups. He added to that by saying that observant and zealous policemen were going about their duties sending perfectly inoffensive animals to their deaths and that, It would take the pen of a Voltaire to do justice to this situation".

It is unusual for a judge in court to make such a swingeing attack on a piece of legislation of this kind. So it is not just an emotional outcry by a lot of dog lovers and people who feel that they prefer dogs to human beings, or who are soft in many ways or have no sympathy with those who have suffered serious injury from attacks by dogs in the past. Anyone who reads the newspapers knows that dog attacks continue.

Other issues are perhaps not as well known. Some dogs are kept in custody for months and months. I believe that Dempsey ran up kennel costs of £60,000 before his order for release. That is not unusual, as arguments rage about the identity of a dog. Some dogs even find themselves in a sort of limbo. They are taken into custody by the police and orders are given by the court for their release or there may be technical reasons why the case cannot go ahead. But the police feel that they cannot release the dogs so they stay in custody. It is a most incredible result arising from hastily conceived and drafted legislation being put on the statute book. Yet the Government remain adamant.

The noble Earl is a relative newcomer to this subject and perhaps he has not heard some of the much more eloquent speeches than mine which have been given in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. Perhaps I may return to the boxing analogy. The noble Earl and myself are relative lightweights, although not physically, but certainly as regards the affairs of dogs. The noble Earl will have his brief and I am pretty convinced that I know what he will say. He will say what has been said before and perhaps tell us that the legislation was conceived as necessary to save the lives and physical wellbeing of children, and that something had to be done. He will no doubt say that it was necessary to reduce the number of these dogs in these islands as quickly as possible.

In Saturday's Daily Telegraph there is another interesting article. Although one seldom believes what one reads in the newspapers, on this occasion I believe that one can. The Home Secretary who introduced this legislation, Mr. Kenneth Baker, wrote his autobiography. I must confess I have not yet got round to reading it, but I look forward to it. It is called The Turbulent Years, and was published in 1993. He took a rather cavalier view about the legislation which he had chauffeured through Parliament. I had not thought of this particular point and noble Lords may take it whatever way they will. He admits in the book that class played a part. He said that Rottweilers, Dobermanns and Alsatians were examples of the dogs which were causing a great deal of the concern as regards everyday attacks on people.

He said, To put Rottweilers, Dobermans and Alsatians in the same category as pit bulls …would have infuriated the 'green welly' brigade.

He added: However, the 'pit bull lobby' came to my aid by appearing in front of TV cameras with owners usually sporting tattoos and earrings while extolling the allegedly gentle nature of their dogs, whose names were invariably Tyson, Gripper, Killer or Sykes".

Admittedly, Dempsey does not fall out of that group of names—

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, Jack Dempsey!

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, yes, exactly. Joking apart, does not that suggest to your Lordships that pit bulls were an easy target for the Home Secretary at that time? That need and feeling of having to do something that appeared strong was at a time when the Conservative Party was beginning to doubt its own strength, although we did not doubt it. Certain doubts were beginning to show among Conservative ranks at that time, and he needed to show what he thought was strength. This legislation was a result of that move. Although we must allow the Home Secretary some licence for being jocular in his book, his words show the lack of seriousness behind the legislation. There certainly was not seriousness to the degree that was needed to produce decent and effective legislation.

The reasons and complexities behind the objections to this legislation—the discretion of the courts is only one concern—are obvious to all of us. Almost all magistrates and judges express their absolute contempt for the Act. I have not yet met one magistrate or judge who has had to deal with a dog case who does not find it risible that this law continues on our statute books in its present form. However, the legislation is still on the statute book and I have no doubt that the noble Earl will tell us that it is still the intention of the Home Office to stick to its guns.

Therefore, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, thought that the only way in which he could give this important subject the right kind of scrutiny was to submit it to a Select Committee of your Lordships' House. I believe that that decision is right, but more of that anon, and I hope that your Lordships will agree with us on that.

Little is known about dogs generally in this country. We have no foolproof system of knowing the number of dogs in the country. We certainly do not know how many dogs are being held nationwide. We have had some indication from the Home Office, under pressure exerted by my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich and others, of the costs of keeping dogs in custody while appeals are going through, while vets argue one way or the other and while experts and groups get more and more het up about the condition of the dogs and the state of their owners. In the answer to my noble friend's question, it was revealed that the cost to the electorate in the Metropolitan Police area alone has been £2.8 million since the legislation was introduced. If one extrapolates that to give the cost to taxpayers around the country, one sees that it is a considerable figure and a high price to pay for this hurried legislation.

I shall not go further because other noble Lords will have interesting and informed speeches to make. Noble Lords who are not speaking in the debate should not be misled by the small number of speakers. All those who have put down their name to speak are experts and are familiar with the subject. I am sure that they will follow excellently the framework that I have introduced.

However, perhaps I may draw your Lordships' attention to something which most people do not take sufficiently into account, especially those who are not pet owners. I refer to the effect of the legislation on those who have suffered because of it. I am not talking now about the dogs, but about dog owners. Anybody who knows about pet owning, and particularly about clog owning, knows of the close relationship that builds up between an owner and their pet. There is a terrible effect on an owner when their dog is taken away, killed, destroyed or run over—let alone trapped by a policeman with a long pole with a noose on the end who then takes it away for a period. The psychological effect of that on owners has been drastic. It is well recorded in the NHS that doctors have had to refer for psychiatric treatment dog owners who are showing signs that one would normally associate with bereavement. That situation is often forgotten.

It is not just a question of dealing with dogs which are dangerous or with people who sometimes appear ill-equipped to deal with their dogs—and there are plenty of those. We are talking about people and their pets and the emotional effect of depriving someone of their pet or of accusing them, perhaps unjustly, of certain behaviour with their pets. That is often resented and can have deep psychological effects. Other noble Lords may not mention that point, but it is something about which I am concerned.

Finally, perhaps I may thank all noble Lords who have put down their name to speak. I hope that the points that I have made will be fleshed out so that we can reinforce the case against the Act which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has made so powerfully over such a long period. On his behalf, I introduce this minor amendment which will have such a fundamental effect upon the legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(The Viscount of Falkland.)

6.15 p.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to support the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in what I understand is his fourth attempt to amend the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and in his attempt to commit the Bill to a Select Committee. It is also a pleasure to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for eloquently taking the lead in this debate during the ill health of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton.

Much has been said about the unfortunate Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991. If there was ever a piece of legislation which started off in good faith and with approximately 85 per cent. of the public in support of it but which in four years has come to the point where 85 per cent. of the public are against it, it is the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. The public are not against the intent of the Bill, but they are against the way in which it has been used. The administration of it has run into great difficulty.

As the noble Viscount said, most recently Mr. Justice Rougier, who ruled that the dog called Dempsey should be reprieved after being in detention for three years under the death sentence, said: It needs the pen of Voltaire to do justice to the situation".

The position was also put succinctly by Mr. Paul de Vile, the senior vice president of the British Veterinary Association, who said: Buster dies—Dempsey lives—sums up the inconsistency, muddle and distress caused to humans and canines since the Act came into force in 1991".

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, has clearly delineated the reasons for the original Act. I shall not bore your Lordships by rehearsing them again. What is asked of this amending Bill is a simple thing; namely, that magistrates be given the discretion to decide whether an animal accused of being a dangerous dog should be destroyed or whether alternate measures should be taken against it. I assure your Lordships that there is no intention of weakening the Act. There is no intention of lessening the protection of the public against truly dangerous dogs. The Bill rightly allows that to happen. Like many of us, I believe that the Bill would strengthen the Dangerous Dogs Act while allowing for the dispensation of justice with wisdom and compassion. It is wisdom and compassion which many people, including the judiciary, the police and the owners of pets which are not dangerous dogs, perceive as lacking from the Act.

Of particular importance is one of the alternatives to mandatory destruction. It is described in Clause 1(1)(b), and it allows the offending owner of a dangerous dog to be disqualified for having custody of a dog. Many will argue that it is not the dog which is at fault but the dog's custodian, who, in many cases, is responsible for the offence committed by the dog under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. I have long argued that a system of licensing owners as custodians of dogs would be a most effective way of controlling many aspects of dog nuisance, including dangerous dogs.

Much of the criticism of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has been rehearsed in previous debates. I shall not try your Lordships' patience by going on again at length. I wholeheartedly support the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, who moved the Second Reading, and the Motion that the Bill be committed to a Select Committee.

6.21 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, your Lordships will be pleased to know that in addition to the letter which the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, has received, we have good news of my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby. He is in St. Thomas's Hospital. It has been discovered that what was wrong with him was caused largely by anaemia, and blood transfusions have made him very much better. He has written to my noble friend the Chief Whip saying that he expects to be here and on his feet for his 100th birthday which is in less than three years' time.

When the Bill was debated in the previous Session, I took a certain amount of stick from my noble friend because I had to say—it is still the case—that when it comes to sympathy between a species, I am, on the whole, very much on the side of the human species. I have no particular affinity with dogs. I needed to be convinced that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was working or not working. To be convinced of that, I needed much better statistics than had been made available. When I explained that in more detail to my noble friend, we resumed our normal affectionate relationship, and any bad feeling between us was quickly dissipated.

The result was that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, the Minister responsible, wrote to me on 20th March this year and gave me all the statistics available on the subject. The trouble is that the statistics are grossly inadequate. There are some statistics on the number of people, in particular children, injured by dogs, but very little information on the breed of those dogs. There are some statistics from some police forces on cases dealt with by the police and brought before the courts under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, but not all police forces have collected the evidence. Most of the evidence comes from the Metropolitan Police and a few other police forces; we lack national figures.

On this matter, as on all Private Member's Bills, I am of course speaking for myself and not for my party. It seems to me that four years after the passage of the Act there should now be a substantial reduction in the number of cases of injuries caused by dangerous dogs, a reduction in the number of dogs requiring treatment under the Act, and a reduction in the number of dogs held in custody pending appeal against their destruction. From the statistics that the Minister gave to me and other people, that appears to be the case. There appears to be a reduction because the dogs which were alive in 1991 are four years older, and the older ones are presumably dead. So that would happen of its own accord.

Therefore, in a sense, if the Act is working, each year that we go on debating it the problem becomes that much less acute. I do not know whether the statistical information available since then bears out what would seem to be a natural progression over a period of time. In any event, if we start from the position that mandatory sentencing, whether for human beings or dogs, imposed upon magistrates' courts or any other part of the judiciary is of itself undesirable and has to be thoroughly justified, and we carry on to question whether the mandatory sentencing imposed by the 1991 Act is justified, we lead ourselves rapidly to the conclusion that the noble Viscount is right to propose that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee rather than be dealt with in a Committee of the Whole House. Above all, we need valid, reliable information about the whole country on the operation of the Act, and, in particular, the mandatory destruction element of the Act, which is the part which is in question now.

I welcome the Bill. I welcome the fact that it is to be referred to a Select Committee. I hope that the Select Committee will, once and for all, uncover the facts about the treatment of dangerous dogs and come to a rapid and final conclusion.

6.26 p.m.

Baroness Wharton

My Lords, I too thank the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for introducing the Second Reading debate in place of our friend, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. Discounting the original debate we had on the workings of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, this is the third time we have had a Second Reading debate on the Bill which has so far been unopposed in the House. There have been one or two amendments to it along the way.

As noble Lords will be aware, all the Bill seeks to do is to restore discretion to the courts by removing the sentence of mandatory destruction. I know that the Home Office has made repeated attempts to encourage the use of the Dogs Act 1871, but the message does not appear to be getting through to the courts or the police.

Dogs other than pit bulls are locked up under the 1991 Act, with their owners having little or no access to them. As the noble Viscount and the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, said, some dogs are in a legal limbo: not identified conclusively as pit bulls and not charged because they have not committed any offence. In such situations, the police have no power to release or to destroy them. It is a most unsatisfactory situation for all parties involved.

The sheer inflexibility of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 creates confusion and distress to all concerned. Judges and magistrates are now beginning to ask questions about its operation. Arrests by over-zealous policemen for minor offences and charging owners under Section 3 of the Act rather than using the Dogs Act 1871 only create more confusion because, under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, the unfortunate dog is not usually released. The release of Dempsey whose muzzle was removed to allow him to be sick restores some sort of sanity to the legal process but that took three years which is a long time for an innocent dog to be locked up. I hope that the CPS will not decide to pursue court proceedings against that dog and its owner. If it did, it would bring the law into disrepute. It would destroy much of its credibility. There are many cases of dogs having been seized as a result of mistaken identity. They have attacked no one. They are held for months before their cases come to court. Their condition deteriorates. I sometimes doubt whether there is any proper concern for their welfare. Let us hope that at this third attempt to restore justice and common sense the Government will think again. The public know that this amendment Bill does not take away their protection. They wish justice to be restored to what before 1991 was man's best friend.

6.30 p.m.

Lord McConnell

My Lords, I wish to make only a few short points. First, I wish to join other noble Lords in saying how much we look forward to seeing the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, return soon to his accustomed place in the House.

The Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland. However, if precedent is followed, a similar order will be made on similar terms applying to Northern Ireland. Therefore, from our point of view and from the point of view of those in Northern Ireland, it is essential that the Bill is passed. Indeed, I wonder whether it should contain some provision to allow the making of an order amending the 1991 Northern Ireland order on dangerous dogs, which more or less repeats the 1991 Act.

I am not against the destruction of really dangerous dogs. We have heard of horrendous cases and we all support the destruction of dogs who do such damage and viciously attack human beings, in particular children. However, it is wrong to put so many different dogs into the same category. I object to mandatory sentences, whether in the Dangerous Dogs Act or any other Act. They are seldom included in an Act of Parliament. Indeed, nowadays there is talk as to whether the mandatory nature of life imprisonment for murder should be done away with and left to the discretion of the court. Certainly, as regards dogs, it is absurd to have mandatory legislation. It is a function of the courts to apply the law to the facts and then to impose an appropriate penalty. It is ridiculous that that discretion should be taken from them.

Section 1(2)(d) of the 1991 Act provides that it is an offence to have one of the prescribed types of dog in a public place without a muzzle and without being kept on a lead. If the muzzle is taken off, as was said to be the case with Dempsey, but the lead is still on to restrain the dog, the court must order the destruction of the dog. That seems to be a quite inappropriate penalty.

Furthermore, Section 5(5) of the 1991 Act provides that if the prosecution alleges that the dog is one to which Section 1 applies, that is presumed unless the accused proves otherwise. In other words, the normal onus of proof in any prosecution is reversed and the onus of proof lies with the owner of the dog. That shifting of the onus of proof is most undesirable in any prosecution. I support the Bill and commend it to the House.

6.34 p.m.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I wish to associate myself with the comments which have been expressed about the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. I am glad to hear the news of his improving condition. We all hope that he will be back with us again very soon. The whole House acknowledges his commitment to the cause of animal welfare.

I should also say that my noble friend Lady Blatch has asked me to say how sorry she is not to be here for this debate. She too shares my hope that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, will be back with us soon.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, in introducing the Bill on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has explained that its objective is to lift the mandatory destruction provisions of the Act and to give the courts discretion in sentencing where there is presently none. Additionally, it enables the courts to give convicted owners the opportunity for late registration on the Index of Exempted Dogs and to review all current cases where a destruction order had been made but not yet carried out.

Your Lordships will recall the shocking events which led the Government to bring forward the Dangerous Dogs Act and the very wide support which the proposals received. Our belief was—and remains—that there is no place in our society for fighting dogs and that the existing generation of such animals should be the last. The principal provisions of the 1991 Act were all designed to achieve that object. 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, by 30th November 1991, with the stringent conditions set out in the legislation. The mandatory destruction order applies where the owner of a fighting dog has failed to comply with these requirements or fails subsequently to keep the dog muzzled and on a lead in a public place, and where a dog of any type or breed causes injury to a person. In these cases, magistrates have no option but to order the destruction of the dog.

I have to tell the House that the Government's view is that the provisions in the Bill would have two undesirable effects. First, they would undermine the incentives which the Act provides towards responsible dog ownership and, secondly, they would risk the perpetuation of fighting dogs in this country. In our view, they would amount to a weakening of the protection which the Act affords.

The decision to deny the courts discretion in sentencing was quite deliberate. Section 1 was designed to face owners of fighting dogs with a clear choice: comply with the registration and associated requirements of the Act by the due date, or (if caught) face the certain destruction of the animal concerned. Section 3, which applies to dogs of any type, contains an equally clear message. An owner whose dog commits an aggravated offence—that is, being dangerously out of control and attacking someone—will, if convicted under this legislation, face the certain destruction of his or her pet. These are very tough incentives. And the provisions ensure, furthermore, that dog owners who fail to act responsibly do not have any chance of regaining charge of their animals. There would be wide criticism if an owner who had ignored the provisions of the legislation were to regain custody of the dog concerned—especially if that dog were subsequently to injure any person.

The Bill before the House gives the courts a discretion on sentencing in relation to both pit bulls and dogs of any type or breed which are dangerously out of control. As regards the former, it recognises that allowing discretion in the case of conviction for non-registration is pointless if the dog concerned cannot be got onto the index. So the Bill provides for the courts to direct a convicted person to register his or her dog. In essence this would amount to the re-opening of the Index of Exempted Dogs for an indefinite period, albeit only in regard to certain dogs.

I do accept that under the proposal in the Bill such dogs would continue to have to be neutered and so on. I have to say, however, that to allow those owners who originally failed to register to do so now would suggest that Parliament was no longer committed to ensuring the elimination of pit bull terriers since there would be nothing to prevent fresh dogs, imported into this country or bred unlawfully here, from benefiting from this method of retrospective legislation. It would be a dangerous invitation to some people to risk bringing new dogs into this country, knowing that there was a back door route to registration if they were caught. It would mean, perversely, that to legitimise one's position as an owner of an unregistered dog one would first have to be prosecuted and convicted of owning it unlawfully. Section 4 of the Bill would go further by enabling the court to review all current cases where a destruction order had been made but not yet carried out.

The Government accept that mandatory destruction is a severe measure but we do not believe that this is any less important now than when the Act was passed. Pit bulls and other dogs which go dangerously out of control and injure a person are no less a threat today than when the Act was introduced.

I shall now try to deal with some of the specific points raised in the course of the debate. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, asked why pit bulls have been singled out. All dogs are unpredictable, but the reports of dog incidents and the reports received by the Home Office suggest that pit bulls are especially so. They are also extremely powerful as they were bred for fighting. I am sure that noble Lords do not need reminding of the horrific picture of injuries caused by pit bulls. The 1991 Act also deals with dangerous dogs of any breed, but the particular provisions in relation to pit bulls were and are necessary to deal with the dangers caused by that breed of dog.

The noble Viscount referred also to criticism by the judiciary of the 1991 Act. We are aware of comments in a few cases about the operation of the Act. However, Parliament decided to eliminate pit bull terriers and to make owners more responsible for their dogs.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, also mentioned the case of Dempsey. I understand that in a judicial review of the case on 22nd November, the High Court' upheld the conviction of the person who had been in charge of the dog at the due time but decided that natural justice had been denied to the owner because she was not told of the original hearing and was not able to make representations before the destruction order was imposed. The destruction order was quashed and the dog was ordered to be returned to its owner. The Crown Prosecution Service, which has been given liberty to restore the hearing in the magistrates court, will decide what further action, if any, to take. In the circumstances, it would not be sensible for me to say more on that subject.

The noble Viscount referred also to the cost of operating the Act. Those costs will vary considerably from case to case. Many cases have gone through the courts without undue problems and with prosecution costs amounting to no more than those for other cases of comparable gravity. I understand that the cost to the Metropolitan Police of keeping dogs has reduced from £1.3 million in the 1992–93 financial year to £0.5 million in the last financial year.

The House has agreed in principle that there should be a Select Committee on this Bill. I therefore invite the House to agree with that Motion.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, and the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, mentioned also prosecutions under the 1871 and 1991 Acts. In the past three years, there were 1,972 prosecutions under the Dangerous Dogs Act and 2,051 prosecutions under the 1871 Act.

The burden of proof centres only on one simple fact: is the dog a pit bull terrier or not? That is not the same as in some other criminal offences where the burden of proof placed on the accused goes beyond facts to questions of intent and motivation. I do not think that there would be an injustice in requiring the owner rather than the prosecution to prove that question of fact.

This is the third occasion on which a Bill amending the Dangerous Dogs Act has been presented to the House, all in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. As I indicated at the outset, in introducing the Dangerous Dogs Act the Government were responding to very real anxiety about the presence of fighting dogs in this country as well as to broader concerns about dog attacks generally. The Act was a responsible recognition that something had to be done to meet that widespread concern and to protect the public. As I have made clear, the Government consider that the mandatory description order and the one-off nature of the registration scheme are matters which are integral to the provisions of the Act and to the objectives to which Parliament agreed. The Act remains relevant and necessary. The Government cannot support the Bill although, as is the convention as regards a Private Member's Bill, we shall not seek to vote against it.

6.44 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I do not know that I am in the same world as the Government on this subject. I listened to the noble Earl. He read out his brief to us. I do not know what he thinks personally about this matter and I do not know whether he has given any thought to the issues behind this amendment Bill.

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. They have made out a case for taking a strong view about the Bill as a whole, which can be done on a Second Reading of a Bill. They have also given very good reasons for supporting the concept of submitting the Bill to a Select Committee.

It is rather strange for the Government to seek to justify their actions by saying that the popular press was demanding this kind of legislation. I remind the Minister that those same newspapers are now condemning the legislation with double the vehemence which they used when it was introduced because of the unsatisfactory events which have taken place during the past four to five years.

I believe that the Government should have introduced a Bill to deal specifically with fighting dogs. That would have been a sensible course of action. There is no disagreement that dog fighting is an abhorrent sport, if it can be called that. American pit bull terriers were bred for that sport. At the time that the legislation was introduced, there was perceived to be a problem emerging in various parts of our country and that was something that we wished to eliminate. That could have been dealt with. All the concerns relevant to that particular subject could have been considered. Expert advice could have been sought. The Government have never been good at seeking or heeding such advice, but they could have done that.

Attacks on children receive the most publicity and there were some terrifying attacks on children. But those attacks can be made by any breed of dog. My vet tells me that when a dog comes in through a door he does not look at the dog but at the owner. He says that if he receives a bite from a dog, which is normal in his day's work, he may have to take a couple of hours off or he may be uncomfortable for a few days. But if he is bitten by a dog with massive muscle structure, such as a pit bull terrier, he will be off work for a fortnight. Therefore, he takes a very careful look not at the dog but at the owner. Experienced people know well that dogs behave according to the homes from which they come and the care which is given to them by their owners.

The Select Committee will consider all those matters. This is a very simple Bill. I am not a lawyer but this Act seems to be a reversal of the normal practice of jurisprudence in this country. It imposes a mandatory penalty of destruction on dogs found to be of a type. It is as vague as that. I can hardly think that any lawyer in the land would believe that a dog should be described in that way. A mandatory penalty is imposed on dogs which have caused injury, however minor, to a person, and quite irrespective of the circumstances. The courts cannot do anything about that. That is the only sanction that they have. It is no wonder that so many courts are now seeking to avoid at all costs imposing that mandatory sentence. The costs and the heartbreak that go with those procedures are terrifying to consider.

The reversal of the burden of proof is not satisfactory. I thought that the noble Earl's explanation was particularly limp. Is it really reasonable to expect an owner to prove that his dog is not of the type which the Government perceive to be so dangerous that it is to be obliterated from the dog life of our country, rather than expecting the prosecution to prove that it is the type, if it must be called that? I hope that the Select Committee will be able to consider those matters and that we shall have this nonsense put right once and for all.

It is this reversal of the normal practices of justice in this country, quite apart from the problems of dogs and their owners, which is so distressing. There is a complicated business behind the seemingly simple front of this Bill. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, on thinking that the best way of dealing with the matter for the good not only of dog owners and dogs but really of the country is to put it to a Select Committee and leave it, as it were, to a jury of people who can consider it objectively. I seek from your Lordships a Second Reading for the Bill.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Select Committee.

House adjourned at nine minutes before seven o'clock.