§ 8.17 p.m.
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. We are now in the fifth year of the operation of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and in a few days' time I shall have completed 46 years in both Houses of Parliament. To my mind no stain is so deep on the statute book as the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991.
When I go into the history of the matter, I realise that it was nothing short of a parliamentary frame-up which led to the 1991 Act being passed in another place in eight hours flat under a guillotine Motion which required all stages of the Bill to be completed in one day.
We lack information about the working of the Act because for some extraordinary reason the lines of communication and of information between the courts, the police and the Home Office are very fragmentary. What particulars we get of the operation of the 1991 Act relate to events up to the end of 1993. We have no information yet about what happened in 1994. We shall have to wait until the end of this year to get it and only then shall we be able to see any statistical rise or change in the number of proceedings in the courts and under what headings they occurred. However, we have to put up with that kind of inefficiency occasionally in our departmental administration.
The Bill deals with one part of the Act—and only one. Last year and the year before, I introduced more comprehensive Bills into your Lordships' House to reform the 1991 Act. For reasons which I need not go into but which have to do with our relations with Members of another place, this time attention is concentrated on the biggest evil of that disreputable piece of legislation, the mandatory death sentence in Sections 1 and 3 of the principal Act.
There are mandatory sentences in Britain today for treason, murder and dangerous dogs—that is all. Fancy having such a collection of mandatory death sentences on our statute book. Your Lordships have gone on record as opposing the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for murder, but for philosophical and deeply psychological reasons the Government have felt unable to accept the advice of your Lordships' House.
The Bill removes from the 1991 Act the mandatory destruction order of dogs convicted under Section 1—the pit bull terrier and pit bull terrier-type dog—and dogs of any kind which are guilty under Section 3 of an aggravated offence; that of being out of control and injuring any person.
I have corresponded with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. The outcome is a very long letter from her to me, for which I am very grateful. It represents probably the deepest and most thoughtful letter received from the Home Office on this subject. I shall, however, await her speech at the conclusion of the debate to see what I have to reply to on the Floor of the House tonight.
1558 It would be inconvenient if I were to pick out points from her letter and attempt to answer them now because not all noble Lords are familiar with the contents of the letter. I shall confine my remarks to explaining how we—"we" being the reform group—think. The group is of a very representative character and is advising me on the course of action to take in relation to the 1991 Act.
The case for removing the death sentence from the Act is that the sentence deprives the accused citizen of the right to justice. It interferes with our system of jurisprudence; it takes away from magistrates, and sheriffs in Scotland, the right to judge the accused before them by reference to considerations related to the decision that may be reached in his or her case. I therefore raise the Bill to the highest level of constitutional importance—the practice of our system of jurisprudence.
The biggest insult of all to the magistracy of Britain is to told, "You are not fit or will not be allowed, fit or otherwise, to pronounce your view on the nature of the offence committed by this accused person. You will not be able to take anything into account relating to his or her circumstances. If there is a conviction of a pit bull terrier-type dog, then you reach that conviction knowing, as the accused person knows, that a death sentence follows automatically." That is an outrage on our system of jurisprudence, but it looks as if it will go on for some time.
We were told in 1991 by the Home Secretary of the day, "This is an emergency." It was not. But the lie in the supposition of it being an emergency lives on; we are in the fifth year of it. As things are going, there is no end in sight. The emergency, such as it is, will continue indefinitely. When will it end? Will it continue until the last pit bull terrier has died? Or will we have to go on waiting in case another one appears? We are drifting towards a regime of oppression, suppression, injustice and cruelty which we should not tolerate in our society.
In matters of this kind we have to consider whose interests must be served. We have to balance interests; we have to balance rights. We cannot let one consideration take precedence over another without careful examination of what it is we are up to. The first duty of the state is the safety of the realm and within that to dispense justice and fairness to its citizens as best it can. If considerations have to be balanced as between the protection of the public and the sanctity of the system of justice in the country, then one has to see which is the most important and how each can be best served, at least up to a point.
I am not looking at the Bill wholly in terms of dangerous dogs; something far more serious has been imported into our judicial and social life. It is most undesirable that it should continue any longer.
Clause 1 relates to the pit bull terrier. A number of convictions have had nothing to do with the behaviour of the dog but solely with the identification of the breed of dog. There can be many difficulties. The Bill deals with such a case—or could deal with such a case—as was reported in the Glasgow Herald early in February. It was a case that came before the sheriff's court in Peebles. It was a case of identification. Expert evidence was given on both sides and, after hearing the evidence, the sheriff found in favour of the dog—that it was not a pit bull terrier—and it has since been released. He had 1559 to balance two sets of conflicting so-called expert evidence. The case lasted five days. In delivering his judgment, the sheriff said:The whole Act is designed to promote death. It is clear that there is a presumption of guilt".That was his verdict on the 1991 Act, having regard to the case of which he had just disposed. Such a comment from such a source is a reflection on our system of justice.
The reason I say the matter could be covered by the Bill is that in removing the compulsory death sentence in such cases we do not propose to return the dog to the owner as if nothing had happened. It is not a dismissal of cases; there is an option which the court alone can offer to an offender. Before convicting, the court could say, "We should like to give you the opportunity of considering whether you want to have your dog registered under the exemption system. If so, we will grant you a period of time during which you can obtain the necessary treatment for the dog. After that, come back to us and the dog can be classified as exempt and rejoin you in your home". That gives an opportunity to register a dog exempt in cases the courts think appropriate. The old register closed at the end of November 1991; since then not one dog has been registered as exempt. There are cases where a doubt about what a dog is could be resolved by saying, "If you claim exemption and the dog goes through the necessary treatment we can leave aside that argument and you can have back your dog."
With regard to Section 4 cases, there are already two Acts. One is the Dogs Act 1871 and the other the Dogs Amendment Act 1938. Those Acts were not repealed when the 1991 Act provided a tougher regime for dogs which become out of control and possibly injure a person. Under the Bill, a court in such a case is given power to issue control orders and other non-fatal options which enable the dog to be released and kept under proper control.
I emphasise that the option is the court's option and not that of the accused person. If the court is of the opinion, in both Section 1 and Section 4 cases, that the case is so bad that the dog's destruction is justified, it will be entitled to retain the destruction order. The option is one to be offered by the court to a person charged with an offence, having regard to all the circumstances the court has heard in connection with the dog, such as those I read out in relation to the recent case in Peebles.
That is a reasonable proposition. It puts an element of discretion into the magistrates' hands. It does not give them absolute discretion. If they come to the conclusion that the dog should be acquitted, they must acquit it. There may be a case in which the arguments flow to and fro, and the magistrates think it much better to reach a settlement by having an exemption claimed. In all the circumstances, that is a step that can be taken without, in my judgment—it is a matter of judgment—weakening the existing legislation. I warmly commend the Bill to the House. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time—(Lord Houghton of Sowerby.)
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to support the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in his attempt to amend the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. His tenacity in persisting with in this issue from 1991 to the present is well known. I must declare an interest as a member of the Dangerous Dogs Act Reform Group of which the noble Lord is the convenor. There can be no question but that in 1991 the majority of public opinion had little doubt of the need for the strict control of dangerous dogs, and, in particular, a ban on those dogs bred specifically for fighting with, eventually, their elimination in the United Kingdom.
The horrendous incidents affecting small children who were savaged, sometimes to death, by such dogs, out of the control of their owners, demanded a response from the Government. I do not wish to persuade my noble friend the Minister that the introduction of legislation to deal with that problem was wrong in principle. On the contrary, it was right. I shall attempt to persuade her that the problems lie in the operation of the details of the legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, detailed several of them.
It was said last month by the president of the British Veterinary Association that while 85 per cent. or more of the population was in favour of the Act in 1991, in 1995 85 per cent. is convinced of the need to amend or repeal the Act. I do not agree with a proposal to repeal it. The problems lie in the operation of the present legislation, which have been rehearsed by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. They centre around the problems of identification—what is or what is not a pit bull terrier or a pit bull terrier type —and the prolonged detention of dogs while determining that. In some cases, the dogs have committed no offence other than to have been a look-alike of a criminal, even though neither of the dog's parents has been of pit bull terrier ancestry. Should they be determined to be of pit bull terrier type, a mandatory death sentence is imposed upon them, as the noble Lord said.
Other problems lie in the long-term detention of dogs, its cost, and the effect of such detention on the dogs and their owners. One needs only to read the press to learn of the problems in that area.
What is being asked for in the amended Bill is a change from mandatory destruction to allow for discretion on the part of the courts. I do not believe that these amendments will weaken the intent of the Act, which is to protect the public from dangerous dogs and the irresponsible actions of those in possession of such animals, and eventually to eliminate such dogs from the United Kingdom. All of the aims and principles of the original Act can be retained with these amendments. The clear messages that are conveyed by the 1991 Act will still be there and will be even more appreciated, understood and complied with than hitherto. The Bill will also encourage much more responsible dog ownership. Despite the very good intentions of the Act, it has fallen into disrepute for a variety of reasons.
1561 If one looks at the proposed amendments, the major issue is the replacement of Section 4 with several alternates to the mandatory destruction of dogs. The first is that where an offence under Section 1 or 2 is committed destruction may well be ordered. The principle of the Act is being upheld by the first subsection. Clause 1(1) (b) of the Bill allows for an offender to be disqualified from having custody of a dog. I have long argued in various places in the wider context of dog ownership and control that a system to license owners as custodians of dogs is an effective way to control many aspects of dog nuisance. The licence can be withdrawn should the person not live up to the licensing details. That proposal was published in 1988 by a working party, which I had the honour to chair, under the Council on Companion Animals in Society. But the suggestion that owners should be debarred from keeping dogs in this way is, I believe, highly commendable. The rest of the subsection allows courts discretion in a range of circumstances.
I do not believe that these amendments in any way weaken the original principle of the Dangerous Dogs Act. On the contrary, I believe that they strengthen it and allow for the dispensation of justice with wisdom and compassion.
§ 8.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Wharton
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, for introducing the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Bill. I have gone through all of the previous debates in which I have taken part and have nothing new to add. My view remains unchanged. The 1991 Act is the only one that puts the onus on the defence to prove its case. In the case of Section 3, which involves dogs of other breeds, i.e. not pit bulls, extenuating circumstances are hardly if ever taken into account.
I give an illustration. I wonder what would have happened to my dog, a mild-mannered Labrador who went for an intruder. I am grateful that the incident in question did not occur after the passing of the 1991 Act. I answered my front door to an extremely unsavoury character who promptly put his foot inside the door and started to push it open. My dog was lying on the floor behind me. On impulse, I pulled the door wide open and shouted to my dog, "Get him!" That docile Labrador leapt up, chased the man down the drive, caught his leg and tore his trousers. My dog was protecting me. I believed that I was in danger. Dogs are very sensitive to human behaviour. I suspect that if that happened today, I would be in court having been charged under Section 3. To date I have not seen a clear definition of "aggravated offence". What do owners and their dogs do when there is clear provocation, or when animals react in self-defence when under attack as a result of human cruelty? Dogs are companion animals and continue to remain loyal in spite of being subjected to repeated assaults. When such incidents come to court they are "extenuating circumstances", are they not? However, under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 it is difficult to take that into account.
1562 I hope that the Minister will look sympathetically upon the Bill which goes a long way to try to address some of the wrongs of hasty legislation. We on the Dangerous Dogs Reform Group have never at any stage tried to dilute the inherent strengths of the Act. We accept that the public must be protected from dangerous dogs; but humans must play a part, too. Common sense should prevail. To ease the burden of having to impose a mandatory death sentence in some cases and to allow courts discretion will go some way to restore the balance.
Failing a shift in government policy, can there not be a concerted effort by Her Majesty's Government to persuade courts to charge offenders under a different Act, for example the Dogs Act 1871? Under Section 2 of that Act the court may, upon the complaint of any person that a dog is dangerous and not kept under control, order the owner to keep it under proper control or order its destruction, provided there is sufficient evidence. Under the 1991 Act, the prosecution does not have to prove anything. I believe that that brings British justice into disrepute.
I have no doubt that the Act will have to be amended eventually to correct the inherent injustices in it. I just hope that it happens sooner rather than later.
§ 8.48 p.m.
§ Lord Rennell
My Lords, it is an honour to speak in any debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. As my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior has already said, his staying power and compassion is truly phenomenal. He has all the qualities of the great British bulldog. Thank goodness that neither he nor it has been branded a dangerous dog.
When the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was passed, my first thought was that it was somewhat panicky and a political sop to public opinion. Today, I know far more about the pit bull terrier than I did four years ago. I am glad that the Government took the firm measures that they then did. The number of severe injuries from dog aggression may not have fallen by very much, but the Act has achieved its aims: first, it acts towards removing pit bull terriers from this country; and, secondly, it creates a meaningful deterrent to ensure that dog owners keep their dogs of all types under control. At the time of the Act, critics said that it did not go far enough. I disagree. I thought that it did what it set out to do, and quickly. But, having had a four-year run, the Act needs amending.
The problems and wrongs of the Act have been highlighted very well by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, by my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior and the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton. Those problems must be addressed. We should amend the mandatory destruction order. As it is, the law is far more likely to punish the good rather than the bad owners. As we have heard, there are too many unhappy but good owners who are not receiving justice from the Government.
Let us face it, in all probability bad owners would shed few tears at the prospect of having their dog destroyed; but they may not wish to pay for the 1563 neutering, tagging and registering of the dogs. Let us allow a further short amnesty time for registration and all that goes with that. It would do everyone a favour: guilty owners would come out of hiding; dangerous dogs would be neutered, tagged and registered; and the public would be safer. The Bill would surely be enhanced in that way. The argument that either of those measures show weakness in the legislation or that they might encourage bad owners to somehow import new pit bull terriers into this country will not wash.
My children ask me why a dog is man's best friend. I say to them, "Have you ever come home and not been greeted by our two dogs, Bennie and Charlie, with their tails wagging? They always love you". The British are a country of animal lovers. As a result of this Bill, pit bull terriers will continue to be eliminated from the country; dog owners will continue to have to keep their dogs of all kinds under control; the public will continue to feel safer; but, in addition, it will be fairer to owners and to dogs. I ask the Minister not to ignore the unfair areas of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 as it stands, which have been highlighted so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. I support the Bill.
§ 8.52 p.m.
§ Lord Glenarthur
My Lords, I apologise to the House and to my noble friend for not having put my name down to speak in the debate. But over the past few years, I have listened to most of the debates which have taken place in your Lordships' House on this subject, nearly all of which have been introduced in one form or another by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby.
I speak from the point of view of one who, for a few years, was a Minister at the Home Office. Therefore, to some extent, I understand the difficulties of legislating and, indeed, going back on legislation which the Home Office has put forward. But I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, said when he introduced the Bill and with what has been said by all noble Lords who have spoken. In principle, the Bill was right. I do not believe that anybody would argue about that. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, said, the detail at least was a knee-jerk reaction to an understandable but very emotional issue which provoked lurid photographs on the front pages of the newspapers. We remember it all too well. Therefore, it was quite understandable that publics anxiety was expressed in the way that it was.
There is no doubt that insufficient time and research were devoted to how the legislation should be brought forward. It may be that all the aspects and factors were not examined properly. Four years later, we have a much better picture of how the benefits of the Bill can be taken forward but also, how the real holes in it have become fully exposed. They are not merely weaknesses. As has been illustrated this evening, they are plain nonsenses. I hope that those mistakes will be put right. Without them being put right, Parliament is at best made to look fairly stupid; and, indeed, it reflects badly upon the Government and upon the Home Office.
1564 I agree with my noble friend Lord Soulsby that amendment is necessary but that that will not weaken the principle of the Bill. Indeed, it will strengthen it. The 85 per cent. who now believe that the tide should be turned the other way will feel that there is a much more balanced and representative view countrywide. I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will accept from somebody who spent some time in her shoes in the Home Office that there is a clear need to change and that she will certainly find some reluctance. But at least on the question affecting both dogs and humans, I hope that she will find it possible to agree to the changes.
§ 8.56 p.m.
§ Lord Lester of Herne Hill
My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, whose powerful speech exemplifies that combination of courage, compassion, common sense and an abiding sense of justice to which several noble Lords have referred. Every noble Lord who has spoken has expressed gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, for introducing the Bill. Every noble Lord has recognised the need for dangerous dogs legislation but has recognised also the need to ensure that the legislation operates fairly, rationally and in accordance with the rule of law. The contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, was particularly important because of the ministerial experience and detachment which he was able to bring to the subject.
I am glad to have an opportunity to participate in this well-informed and conspicuously moderate debate and to reinforce the support for this fresh attempt to ameliorate some of the unfair effects on responsible dog owners and their dogs of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.
I should declare an interest. I act in proceedings in Strasbourg under the European Convention on Human Rights as counsel for the owner of a dog, Otis, whose destruction has been ordered by a magistrate under a mandatory destruction order. Of course, I shall not describe the legal issues arising under the convention; but your Lordships may find it useful to know the background facts of the case as an example of the real need for the enactment of this very modest but important amending Bill. What I say represents my personal beliefs and not submissions made in any way as a professional advocate.
Before I turn to those facts, I should like to remind the House briefly that in the authoritative report of the Hansard Society Commission on The Legislative Process, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Rippon of Hexham, the passage of the 1991 Act was treated as a case study of defects in the parliamentary processes of law making.
The Bill was guillotined in another place before any debate but was considered more fully in this House. There were only four working days between the publication of the Bill and its debate in another place. That gave very little time for Members, interest groups and the public to respond. There were a further 11 working days before Second Reading in this House; 10 more days before Committee; a further six days before 1565 Report stage; and there were another four working days before another place considered the amendments made by this House.
That well-intentioned but, in some respects, unfair, costly and unworkable measure received Royal Assent just over two months after the Government announced their intention to legislate. I agree respectfully with the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, that there can be no objection to fair, workable legislation to deal with the real problems created by dangerous dogs. But fair and proportionate means should, I suggest, be used to achieve the Government's and Parliament's wholly legitimate aims. In his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, accurately referred to the 1991 Act as a knee-jerk reaction. I agree with the noble Lord.
I should also emphasise, as all speakers have, the fact that I strongly support fair, rational and effective legislation to protect the public against dangerous dogs and to require the owners of all dogs, including myself, as the owner of a rather elderly golden retriever, to be responsible for their health and welfare and for their not being allowed to be dangerously out of control.
I turn briefly to the facts of the Otis case. I do so, simply because it always seems to me that the facts of one case may be illustrative of a general problem. Henry Bates owns a dog named Otis. It is not suggested that his dog ever attacked, injured or endangered anyone. In December 1991, Mr. Bates was driving his car through Blackwall Tunnel late at night. Otis was in the car, unmuzzled and not held on a lead. Mr. Bates was stopped by two police officers, and was charged with having a dog of the type known as the pit bull terrier in a public place unmuzzled. Otis was seized by the police and remained in police custody until the trial seven months later. The only issue explored at his trial before the Thames stipendiary magistrate was whether the back of a motor car travelling along a public highway was "a public place" for those purposes.
Mr. Bates called no evidence and was convicted because of the reversal of the burden of proof. The magistrate imposed a fine of £100 and ordered, as he was compelled to, that Otis should be destroyed. That is because Section 4(1) (a) leaves no discretion to the courts in such a case, but makes the dog's destruction mandatory. Mr. Bates then sought unsuccessfully to persuade the higher courts that the inside of a car is not a public place for the purposes of the Act.
At the time of the offence, Mr. Bates believed, on the basis of what he had earlier been told by the police, that Otis was a pit bull terrier type. However, in August 1993, Mr. Bates was informed by the police that, despite their exclusive control over Otis since December 1991, neither the police nor the prosecution had at any time between the time of the dog's seizure and Mr. Bates' conviction caused Otis to be viewed, even cursorily, by any person competent to pronounce on the question of whether he was,a dog of the type known as the pit bull terrier".The prosecution sought to justify its general policy and its neglect in the present case by reference to the reversal of the burden of proof and of the presumption of innocence in Section 5(5) of the 1991 Act.
1566 When the dog was examined by an independent and eminent expert, it was apparent to him that Otis is not in fact,of the type known as the pit bull terrier",but appears rather to be a Great Dane cross-breed. Since that examination, three further independent experts have prepared reports on Otis, all of whom have concurred in that view. The prosecution adduced evidence to the contrary from one witness whose competency to pronounce on this question of expert evidence was and is not accepted by Mr. Bates.
Despite the existence of fresh, cogent and compelling evidence that the conviction had been tainted by the failure of the prosecution to take any steps to examine the material facts about an essential element of the offence, Mr. Bates could not apply for leave to appeal out of time to the Crown Court because, for reasons that I need not detain the House with, such a course is statute-barred under the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980. Therefore, he applied unsuccessfully for judicial review to quash his conviction. When that failed, he brought proceedings under the European Convention on Human Rights which are now pending before the European Commission. By that time, Mr. Bates, who is a mechanic, had incurred legal costs amounting to over £17,500—none of which, I should emphasise, was for myself because I was not involved in any of those proceedings.
The destruction order has yet to be carried into effect. It was stayed initially pending the outcome of the English legal proceedings, and now pending the disposal of Mr. Bates' application complaining of breaches of his rights under the convention.
Since Otis was first seized, more than three years ago in December 1991, Mr. Bates has been allowed to see him twice. Otis is now five years old. For the past seven months, since July 1994, Mr. Bates has been charged £8.81 per day for Otis's upkeep. If the case goes all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, Mr. Bates will have to find some £3,215 a year, at the current rate, to pay to keep his dog alive meanwhile, without having any right to see him or to be with him.
I have taken the time of the House to describe the salient facts of that case to illustrate the pressing need to give the courts some discretion to deal with a dog such as Otis, other than by being compelled to order its destruction regardless of the particular circumstances involved. I respectfully suggest that the facts of the case speak for themselves.
The vice of a mandatory death penalty is, as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, indicated, that it is a denial of the due process of law, contrary to ancient common law principle. It deprives the courts of any discretion and does not enable the courts to have regard to the particular circumstances of the individual case. Therefore, it results in cases with profoundly unfair consequences.
The 1991 Act is a classic example of a well-motivated measure which is also a disproportionate and unfair response to a perceived social evil. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, said, the 1991 Act does, I believe, bring British justice into disrepute. The 1567 Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, would not undermine the 1991 Act in any essential: it would remove a source of real injustice to some dog owners and to their canine companions. That is why I very much hope that the House will feel able to give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 9.5 p.m.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, as always, I preface my remarks by saying that anything I say from the Dispatch Box on a Private Member's Bill is my own opinion and not the position of my party, which takes no collective view on such Bills. I should also like to join in the tributes paid by all noble Lords to my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby for his persistence and eloquence in support of a cause which he believes in with such evident passion.
When considering such a matter, we must be open about our emotions and we must try to discount them in order to ensure that we take a rational view of the issues which are before the House and before Parliament. I shall confess straight away what my emotions are on the issue. I do not like dogs; I am frightened of large dogs; and, if there is any balance to be held between the safety of children and what is perceived by my noble friend and others as injustice to dogs, I would give hundreds of times more weight to the safety of children than I would to any perceived injustice to dogs or their owners.
I have said that I do not like dogs, and in particular that I do not like fighting dogs. I do not like the owners of fighting dogs either. They always seem to me to be people with inadequate personalities who compensate for their own inadequacies by having fighting dogs. There are many dangerous fighting dogs on the streets, not only pit bull terriers. They are usually looked after, or towed around, by inadequate young men. I should like to see an end to all of that. That is my emotion out of the way.
Let us look at the issues of fact. I have enormous difficulty with the issues of fact because I am speaking before the Minister and I do not know, and nobody has set out in this debate, what the effect of the 1991 Act has been. Let us all agree that the 1991 Act was arrived at in haste and that the procedures that were adopted, particularly in another place, were inadequate for proper legislative consideration. But that is in the past. The Act is on the statute book. Has it worked or has it not?
With this amendment Bill we are concerned only with the issue of the discretion of magistrates. How have magistrates fulfilled the obligations placed on them by the 1991 Act? In particular, we must recognise two entirely different cases. Section 1 of the 1991 Act refers to pit bull terriers and pit bull-like dogs. Section 3 refers to dogs of any breed which have already attacked and an aggravated offence.
Do we know what has happened to pit bull terriers? Are they dying out? Do the Government know? Can the Government tell us what is happening to pit bull terriers? Is there any resistance to this legislation by the owners or would-be owners of pit bull terriers which means that the legislation is not effective in relation to pit bull terriers?
1568 Are attacks by dogs declining? The emotional impetus behind the 1991 Act was horrific attacks by dogs and the deaths of young children in the most horrible circumstances. Has the Act been successful in reducing the number of such attacks? If it has been successful, the question is whether it has been successful because those attacks were mainly by pit bull terriers and the numbers of pit bull terriers have declined. If that is the case, has it been successful because of the mandatory nature of the Act? If the Government defend the 1991 Act they have to show that the lack of discretion for magistrates' courts is justified by the numbers of offences which are identified and the number of attacks which take place, whether or not they lead to conviction.
If the Act has not been successful, and that again is a matter which the Government have to demonstrate to us, we need to know whether the Act should be amended in the way suggested by my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby. We also have to ask whether there should be other amendments and whether the Act should be strengthened. Should other fighting breeds be included in the Act in the same way as pit bull terriers? Should there be an extension of neutering, tagging, the requirement for muzzling and controls of that kind? Above all, should there be, as we argued at the time of the 1991 Bill, registration of all dogs? Should registration be used to provide other controls, in particular control of strays and certain fighting breeds of dog? In other words, now that we have had time to consider the operation of the Act, is there any evidence on which we could produce a new dangerous dogs Act that would achieve the objective which the Government rightly sought?
For my part, I do not know. Until the Minister replies I do not know whether the Act is working and, if it is not working, whether that is because of the defects adduced by noble Lords who have spoken in today's debate. If it is working, I do not know whether it is working because of the provisions within the Act which have been so strongly attacked by noble Lords who have spoken. I shall suspend my judgment until I hear what the Minister has to say.
But I must repeat, and perhaps I am in danger of reverting to emotion from an analysis of the legislation, that if there is any risk whatever of increasing the number of victims, in particular child victims, of dangerous dogs, we have to weigh that against the injustices which have been described by noble Lords. I know which side I am on. I am on the side of our species.
§ 9.14 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)
My Lords, the whole House acknowledges and respects the commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, to the cause of animal welfare. I know, too, that the Dangerous Dogs Act has caused the noble Lord, and indeed all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, much anxiety. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has been consistent in his opposition to the Act from the days of its original passage through your Lordships' House.
1569 Before dealing with the specific proposal in the Bill now before your Lordships, and the specific points that have been made in this debate, I want to remind your Lordships of the purpose of the Dangerous Dogs Act. In bringing forward the Act, the Government were responding to the very real anxiety that there was about the presence of fighting dogs in this country, as well as broader concern about dog attacks generally. There has to be an emphasis on fighting dogs. Those dogs were imported as fighting dogs. Parliament and the media wholeheartedly endorsed the need for firm action. The Act was a responsible recognition that something had to be done to meet the widespread concern and to protect the public. During its passage, the legislation received detailed consideration in your Lordships' House, not least through the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. The Act remains relevant and necessary, as I shall explain when I come to address the detail of the Bill.
I am, of course, only too well aware of the impact of the Dangerous Dogs Act in certain individual cases. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, seeks to address the issues raised by some of these cases through his Bill. I want to assure the House, however, that I do not wish to see the unnecessary destruction of any dog and I do not underestimate the anxieties which some feel about the legislation and the pain that some owners have experienced. Of course, there will be hard cases, when tough legislation of this kind has to be enacted. But the Government could not, and must not, shrink from their primary duty of protecting the public, no matter how difficult the consequences might seem to be in individual cases.
With those preliminary comments, I turn to the Bill now before the House. As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has explained, 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.
Under the Dangerous Dogs Act, owners of pit bull terriers and other dogs bred for fighting—that is, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Filo Brasiliera—were allowed to keep their animals on condition that they complied with the stringent conditions set out in the legislation by 30th November 1991. The mandatory destruction order applies in cases where the owner of a fighting dog has failed to comply with the requirements of the law, and where a dog of any type or breed causes injury to a person. In both cases, magistrates have no option—as has already been said tonight—but to order the destruction of the dog.
The Government have given very careful consideration to the proposals in the Bill. But I have to tell the noble Lord, and other noble Lords, that our view is that the provisions in his Bill would have two undesirable effects: they would undermine the incentives which the Act provides towards responsible dog ownership; and they would risk the perpetuation of fighting dogs in this country.
1570 I said at the beginning that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is consistent in his opposition to this Act. But if consistency is a virtue, as I believe it is, then I hope that the Government will be given some credit for their consistency over this issue. For we have been equally consistent in our view that there is no place in our society for fighting dogs, and that anything which reduces the tough incentives to comply with the Act's provisions 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, neutering and tagging requirements of the Act, by the due date, or, if caught, face the certain destruction of the animal concerned. And thereafter the message was clear: continue to observe the requirements of the Act—that is, maintenance of insurance cover for the dogs, and keeping them muzzled in a public place—or, again, face certain destruction of the animal. 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 proceedings are instituted under this legislation, face the certain destruction of his 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. And because there is not much point, taking the former category, in sparing the life of an unregistered pit bull terrier which cannot subsequently be registered and returned to its owner, the Bill provides for the courts to direct a convicted person to register his or her dog. That is presumably intended in essence to amount to the reopening of the index of exempted dogs for an indefinite period, albeit only in regard to certain dogs. I also accept that it is intended, under the noble Lord's proposal, that such dogs would continue to have to be neutered and so on. I have to say that to allow those owners who originally failed to register to do so now would suggest that Parliament has no longer a commitment to ensuring that the current generation of pit bull terriers is the last in this country since there would be nothing to prevent other dogs being imported into this country or bred unlawfully here and 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.
1571 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. As I indicated at the outset, the provisions of the Act are as relevant now as when it was introduced. Pit bulls or other dogs which were found to be dangerously out of control and injured a person are no less of a threat today than when the 1991 Act was introduced. The case in autumn 1993 of the boy killed by a dog subsequently identified as a pit bull sadly demonstrates this only too well. Just before last Christmas, there was the terrible incident of the fatal attack on a young baby in its own home.
I want to add one further point on the mandatory destruction provisions in Section 3 which apply to dogs of any type. The Government's concern here is that if the Act were to be modified in the way proposed in the Bill there is a very real chance that a dog which had attacked and injured a person could be released and returned to its owner. It is not difficult to imagine what would then happen if the same dog were to attack again. The public would rightly want to know why Parliament had thought it right to weaken the public protection which the Act affords. It would be a very heavy responsibility that we would be taking on ourselves if we were to do anything that threatened public safety.
A number of points were raised in the debate. First, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said that not a single dog had been registered since November 1991. That is absolutely right because the register was closed at that point. People were given an opportunity to register; if they had not done so then there is no opportunity to do it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, gave us the story of her own dog and the situation in which she found herself. We are all grateful that her dog did its duty on that occasion. She asked specifically where she would have stood if the Act had been in force at that time. I am not able to give her a totally definitive answer because much would depend on the Crown Prosecution Service who would take the details into account. It would decide whether to prosecute and which Act should be used for that circumstance. Thereafter, it would be a matter for the courts. However, if, after that, it were pursued through the courts under the 1991 Act, then the likelihood is that the dog would be caught by the specific section in the Act.
The noble Baroness also referred to appealing and the possible use of other Acts of Parliament, particularly the 1871 Act. The Crown Prosecution Service has already issued guidance and will re-issue the earlier guidance to prosecutors on the choice between using the 1991 Act and earlier statutes. The Home Office is considering what we might do to underline those points. We have recently written to Mr. Roger Gale who will be watching the progress of the Bill as it proceeds to another place.
The noble Lord, Lord Lester, referred in some detail to the case of Otis. I am not sure of the propriety, given that the case is perhaps sub judice in that it is awaiting an application to the European Court of Human Rights. I am aware of that and all I can say is that we will have to address any points that arise from a decision made in Strasbourg.
1572 The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, asked about the effect of the Act. Again, my understanding is that the police estimate that there are far fewer pit bull terriers now than before the Act was introduced. Clearly, neutering is having an effect. In terms of numbers, we are doing a trawl at the moment. I shall make sure that the data are made available to the House. I shall place a copy in the Library.
Three police areas, Merseyside, Northumbria and Kent, are showing reductions. In 1989, in Merseyside, there were 347 attacks; in 1993 the figure was 243. In Northumbria, the figure dropped from 246 to 175 in one year. The Kent police report a drop from 1,150 attacks to 853. So in each case the figures show a downward trend. But, as always, I have to say that the figures must be viewed with caution; it would be important to produce some figures to the House to show that the Act was having an effect.
This is the second occasion on which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has presented a Bill to amend—
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, before the Minister leaves the issue of the evidence, perhaps she can tell us about the trend in the number of convictions under the Act and the number of destructions ordered as a result of the Act, and whether they are as a result of Section 1 or Section 3. That, too, is an important issue in considering whether the Act is working properly.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I shall produce a very comprehensive picture of., the current data, from the beginning of the Act to the present day, or to the most recent statistics on which we can put our hands. I will make sure that that information is available to the noble Lord and to all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, and I will place a copy in the Library.
I offer the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, my apologies that he was kept waiting so long for a reply. I am grateful that he thought the reply comprehensive when I did in fact make it. It was because a great deal of agonising took place in the backroom while we considered the impact of the noble Lord's Bill. With his permission, if he thinks it would be helpful, I shall make both his letter and my reply available to all those who have spoken in the debate and place copies in the Library. I shall wait for him to give me permission to do that.
This time, the Bill is shorter in order to concentrate on the two areas that caused the noble Lord the most concern. As I have made clear, the Government considered the mandatory destruction order and the one on the nature of the registration scheme. We consider that they are matters that are integral to the provisions of the Act and to the objective that Parliament agreed. I recognise and understand the noble Lord's motives for the provisions in his Bill. I am sorry to have to tell him that the Government cannot support the Bill. This is of course a Private Member's Bill and, as such, I do not propose to vote against it.
§ 9.27 p.m.
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
My Lords, I am very grateful indeed for noble Lords' contributions to this 1573 debate. In the remarks that have been made, coming as they do from a collection of Peers of great wisdom and experience, there should be some message to the Government tonight. The time will have to come soon when there is a stock-taking of how far we have come and where we think we are going in this very troublesome area.
My noble friend Lord McIntosh asked a great number of questions. The truth is that the Government know the answers to hardly any of them. They are so lacking in statistical evidence, and what we have is a year in arrear. Therefore there is no basis whatever on which to examine trends. There is no basis whatever for forming an estimate of what effect on the pit bull population the Act has had up to now. One might begin to ask: where have all the pit bull terriers gone? We know broadly speaking how many there were to begin with. We know that about 8,000 were registered under the opportunity that was given in 1991. The number on the original register has since been halved. The additions that would be made to the register under concessions which are contained in this Bill would be very small indeed. In fact, I do not know what the prospects are of further discoveries of pit bull terriers. We have no basis whatever for reaching a judgment on the retention of the extremely irksome and undesirable regime that we have in our social, police and judicial systems at the moment in that regard.
Are we justified in carrying a regime which gives more power to the state, a great deal more power to the police and rides roughshod over the normal rights of citizens? It can adopt methods which are deeply wounding and keep animals in conditions which are extremely cruel. It is a most undesirable area in which much that we value in our society in freedom and consideration are set aside. But for what? What danger is there? How can the state put to the public that a danger exists in the two or so cases a year which arise while at the same time suppressing so much else in our liberties?
The state is inflicting indignities upon many people which are scarcely bearable. Under the present regime a person can be walking down the street with a dog on a lead. A policeman can approach and say, "What sort of dog is that?" The owner may say, "It is a Staffordshire bull terrier". The policeman says "It looks very much to me like a pit bull terrier". The owner says, "I can assure you that it is not". The policeman replies, "We had better take it away and get the experts to examine it. We shall let you know in due course whether or not we intend to make any charge against you for being in possession of a prohibited animal. I will now phone for a van. Your dog will be arrested. It will be taken away. You will not be told where it is. You will not be given access to it. You will have to wait for weeks and months to hear from us and there is nothing you can do in the meantime". That is outrageous.
I doubt whether the Minister realises what is happening in relation to the impositions being made on the public. Powers of entry, search and arrest exist in connection with the risk of a dog being dangerous. It is a protection of the public against dangerous dogs that 1574 the Government cannot provide for the citizen against dangerous people. If the regime that we are employing for the control and elimination of dangerous dogs were to be applied to human beings, there would be demonstrations of protest, as there were in relation to the Criminal Justice Bill.
Somewhere, some time soon, there must be an examination of the situation, and facts which are not available today must be obtained. The police are a law unto themselves. A person who asks to see a dog that he has not seen for nine months and does not know where it is will receive a letter from the chief constable which says, "It will be tiresome for us to allow you to visit your dog. We will have to transport it under secure conditions for you to see it, and if you will send us a cheque for £120 to cover the expenses, we will arrange for you to see your dog". When one asks what authority there is for that, one is told, "It is part of the police administration". The waste of money which is taking place in this area is quite astonishing. I know that one does not have to economise on justice, but one should economise on injustice. There is no economy on the injustices which are going on at the present time.
While this spirit exists in a considerable section of the community, there can be no health in society. There is a rift in society at the present time between those who have dogs, love them and want them and who believe that they add to the quality of their lives, and those who believe that all dogs should be on a lead and muzzled if taken into a public place.
The Home Office is saddled with the full responsibility for this great amount of trouble. It cannot stand it because it is not equipped to look after it. Who are these people in the Home Office who can provide the experience and the basis of assessment of public rights and police duties and all the rest of it? I should like to know what goes on in the Home Office in these matters. I suggest to the noble Baroness that very soon this Government or any other will have to appoint a committee of inquiry into the workings of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and related matters. I have been trying for years to get the Government interested in a dog control and welfare council.
Let us get to grips with the problem of the canine population and the place of dogs in our society. The Government do not want to touch it. It is another quango. The Minister of State—the predecessor to the noble Baroness—said, "You can have what you like so long as you find the money". How long does one expect a section of the public to stand for this isolation from everybody else? They are undergoing in the name of security and safety of the public treatment at the hands of the state which is quite intolerable.
Balances have to be struck. One cannot protect all the people all the time. Some people are so foolish about children and dogs. The only statistic which I have as regards serious incidents of bites from dogs is that children suffer 50 per cent. of those serious bites. For example, far too much licence is taken with dogs in homes where parents should exercise a great deal more care.
1575 However, I shall have to consult with my friends and see what we do next. We have had a solid brick wall erected tonight against all the representations which we have been making to the noble Baroness. We cannot let things go on as they are. Some time soon we shall have to have the judgment of an independent body which can tell us more than we know and find out more information than the Home Office at the present time is in a position to obtain. The police must come clean. As regards the vital statistics, no central records are kept at all. In some police areas no records are kept of the number or the identity of the dogs they destroy.
All this leaves the end of the debate in a very unsatisfactory state. The noble Baroness must await the judgment of my responsible friends to see where we go from here. In the meantime, I am greatly obliged to the 1576 noble Baroness for the help and trouble that she has been taking lately to get the facts and the Government's viewpoint together. We are nearing the point where a decision of some kind has to be made. I am suggesting that we have not long to go before we must act and get more information in order to look at this matter more realistically and dispassionately.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.