HL Deb 14 June 1995 vol 564 cc1857-61

7.18 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a third time.

It is just about four years since the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 passed through all its stages in the other place in one Sitting, in the space of eight hours. It received its Third Reading at three o'clock in the morning.

As we go into the fifth year of the operation of that Act, I hope that we are getting nearer to taking seriously the proposals that are being made in different quarters for changes to the drastic and hostile regime which the 1991 Act imposed on a lot of innocent citizens and innocent dogs and which caused anguish beyond measure, something which many people will never forget.

I shall not make a long and emotional speech. However, I shall persevere and I hope to be able to reintroduce the Bill in the next Session. I am hopeful of persuading your Lordships' House to set up a Select Committee to examine the working of the 1991 Act over four full years. It is astonishing that, in respect of a Bill which went through the House of Commons under a guillotine and which was unprecedented in peacetime for its brevity and its discipline, there is so little information about the conditions which it has created.

Information has been hard to come by. Statistics are always a year in arrears. The police have adopted a phraseology for court proceedings which is not easy to translate into actual events. For example, I do not believe that anyone studying the statistics is able to say how many pit bull terriers were slaughtered under the mandatory destruction order provided for in Section 1 of the Act. We do not know what progress has been made in any direction as regards either the accomplishment or the completion of a task set for attention in the interests of the public.

That omission needs to be made good. We want to know more about what has happened over the past four years. Government departments and the police should assist the Select Committee of your Lordships' House, if it is set up, to discover more about what has happened. I have made my application to the Liaison Committee, which, under our new procedure, examines applications for the reference of Bills to Select Committees and makes recommendations. I await its verdict on my application. If it is looked upon favourably, I hope that the Select Committee will start work later this year.

Sometimes I feel sorry for Ministers. They have a thankless task to carry out because frequently they must speak with a voice which may not be their own. In the interests of the unity of the Government and the co-ordination of policy they have to follow instructions. I sympathise with them when they must do a job which is not wholly to their taste. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, for attending the later debates on the Bill and I know how much personal attention she has given to the matter. I understand that later this month she will receive a delegation from the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act Reform Group. In my absence, its members will tell her what they feel about the situation. That delegation will be led by the president of the British Veterinary Association and distinguished members of the animal welfare world will give personal testimony of their experiences. I shall say no more about that.

As a precautionary measure, and without intending to pre-empt the consideration of my application by the Liaison Committee, I shall tell some people and some organisations to be ready to be called upon to give evidence to a Select Committee in order that it may have a short duration and come out sharply with reactions to the matter that it has inquired into.

I thank those who have supported me in the preparation of the Bill and who have been present during debates in your Lordships' House. I told my friends that I should be ready to stand alone and would forgive them if they kept engagements which they thought would be more rewarding than coming here again to listen to me. If they are not here in person, they are here in thought and I discharge my duty to them with grateful thanks.

One meets some very pleasant people from all parties who share one's views on particular matters in society, in life and in the world. It is a pleasure to meet such people. Politics can be a very narrow cabin in which to live, in particular if one listens only to those around one who agree with what one says. However, the Conservative Party is fortunately placed because it has a variety of voices which must be listened to. That makes life more interesting and exciting and it makes political life more dangerous.

On the Labour Benches we have only a single chorus in which everybody joins. We keep on listening to it and I shall not repeat the phrase. But it is not as interesting as it used to be. Recently I have been studying the life and work of Harold Wilson and what little part I played in it. That was the time for the reality of politics. I recall the vituperation to which I have listened in the course of party conflict and I realise that today things are very dull in the Labour Party. However, its time may come. It will be a very rough passage for any government who in present circumstances take over the reins of responsibility. The world is not only a changing place but something of a frightening place too. Why I want to go on living in it I do not know—but I do.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I conclude by saying that whatever we feel about the part of the Dangerous Dogs Act which refers to pit bull terriers, we must clear up the present duality of the treatment of other breeds of dog which are convicted under Section 3. It is extraordinarily difficult for the police and the courts to decide why a particular case comes forward with a charge under the 1871 Act and another case comes forward with a charge under the 1991 Act. Why the difference and who makes the choice? Of course the consequence is important because a conviction under the 1991 Act is followed by a mandatory destruction order. No questions are asked and no pleas are listened to by the Bench, which is struck dumb by the 1991 Act. Alternatively, the charge is brought under the 1871 Act, where a mandatory destruction order is no part of the provisions of the Act. That split position for dogs charged with being out of control and injuring persons certainly needs speedy attention.

I said that I was not going to speak for long. I have not been contentious. I am feeling very grateful for the attention that has been given to this matter. I am not downhearted. I feel fit enough to go on and I shall return to your Lordships later in the year. In the meantime, I beg to move that the Bill he now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time.—(Lord Houghton of Sowerby.)

7.30 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not intend to delay the House. I merely wish to confirm what I said from the Front Bench at an earlier stage of the Bill; that I agree with my noble friend that there is not enough evidence about the implementation and effects of the 1991 Act for us to be able to draw a firm conclusion.

I am grateful to the Minister for writing to me and giving me such information as she has. But I think she will agree that that is not sufficient for us to draw a firm conclusion. I support my noble friend in his efforts to obtain more information and to have it considered in a more rational way by the House.

I do not know how many of your Lordships are members of the Wine Society. In the Wine Society, tables of fitness of vintages move from "ready soon" to "drinking well" to "showing age". My noble friend is drinking well. Long may he continue to do so.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, your Lordships will recall that during Second Reading of this Bill I set out the Government's reservations about the purposes of the Bill and the reasons why we felt unable to give it our support. I acknowledged the consistency with which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, had opposed this legislation, and indeed all your Lordships will be well aware of the genuine concern he feels on these matters.

I hope that I shall not sound patronising if I say that I stand in admiration of the contribution which the noble Lord makes to matters in this House. I am deeply sorry that I cannot accede to his impassioned plea on this occasion, because I know that this matter is felt very deeply in the mind of the noble Lord.

But, as he knows, this Government have been equally consistent in their view that there is no place in our society for fighting dogs; that the 1991 Act was needed to deal with a real and pressing public concern; and that anything which reduces the tough incentives contained in the Act would amount to a weakening of the protection which the Act affords. That, as your Lordships know, is a risk which we cannot take.

I do know that that was a disappointment to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and I have to say to him—I do not think it will come as a surprise—that nothing that has occurred since we last debated the matter causes the Government to change their view. We simply cannot take chances with the safety of the public and, in particular, with the safety of children. Only today in my post, I received information about a dog attack on a person.

In our view, the mandatory destruction order and the one-off nature of the registration scheme are both integral to the provisions of the Act and to the objectives that Parliament agreed. In the course of the Second Reading debate, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, asked for statistics about the practical workings of the Dangerous Dogs Act. As he has recognised, I wrote to the noble Lord on 20th March with the data that were available, and I copied my letter to all noble Lords who spoke in the debate, and placed a copy in the Library. I note the noble Lord's comments at Committee stage on the value of the information, and I hope that others of your Lordships found the information useful as well.

However, I take the point made by the noble Lords, Lord McIntosh of Haringey and Lord Houghton of Sowerby. We should continue to press for better information about this matter. I understand that information is now being collated rather differently and more efficiently. I shall bring whatever information I can as speedily as possible to the House.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, invited the Government to try to persuade enforcement bodies to proceed under legislation other than the 1991 Act; for example, the Dogs Act 1871. I can tell the noble Baroness, although I see that she is not in her place, that we hope shortly to be issuing guidance to practitioners on the considerations which may determine which statute is the most appropriate in any given situation. We have offered some advice on this issue before, but we agree it might be helpful to strengthen the message. Your Lordships will appreciate that there are limits to what we can say, without trespassing upon the discretion of the prosecuting authorities. But I hope that the issue of the guidance will prove a helpful further contribution to the fair operation of the Act.

In our view, the provisions of the Bill run counter to the Government's absolute responsibility to protect the public from dog attacks. But, since this is a Private Member's Bill, as is the convention of the House, I shall not, of course, oppose the Third Reading of the Bill.

On Question, Bill read a third time.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Houghton of Sowerby.)

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