HL Deb 27 March 1996 vol 570 cc1816-26

10.35 p.m.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee (on Re-commitment) on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee (on Re-commitment).—(Lord Chesham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee (on Re-commitment) accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Brougham and Vaux) in the Chair.]

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

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

Lord Templeman

On the Motion that Clause I shall stand part of the Bill, I understand that this is an appropriate and courteous stage to draw the attention of the Committee to the report of the Select Committee which was appointed to consider the Bill and has done so. I understand also that the Minister is in attendance to give the views of the Home Office and the Government, which, at present at any rate, are adverse to the views expressed by the Select Committee. I must therefore spend a few minutes, even at this late hour, outlining the report of the Select Committee. The first thing I must say is how pleased we all are to see the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, back in the House this evening.

Noble Lords

Hear! hear!

Lord Templeman

Secondly, I must express the gratitude of the Select Committee for the oral and written evidence which it received, and in particular to the Home Office which provided all the statistical information on which the report is based. I must also thank the Clerk, Mr. Tom Mohan, and his staff, who were of the greatest assistance to the committee and organised us, and without whose work we would have spent longer and achieved less.

The Bill is a simple one. It does not aim to alter the law at all. What it does is this. Under the Dangerous Dogs Act, if there is a breach of the provisions of Section 1 or Section 3, the owner of the dog in question has committed a criminal offence. He can be prosecuted and, on conviction, he can be sent to prison for six months or be liable to a fine of £5,000. The Bill does nothing to alter that. But the Act provides that when the owner is convicted the dog must be destroyed. It is that which the Bill proposes to alter by substituting for the draconian and mandatory requirement that the dog should be destroyed a discretion in the magistrates' or Crown court before which it comes to allow the dog to live. Apart from that, the Bill makes no alteration.

The Bill arises out of the fact that there have been cases in which the courts have chafed at the Act's mandatory requirement that the dog must be destroyed because courts, in certain circumstances, have been satisfied that it will be safe for the public if the dog is allowed to live. The most notorious case—others were brought before the House on Second Reading—involved the offence of having a pit bull terrier in public without a muzzle, but the muzzle had been taken off because the dog was choking. There have been one or two other cases where the courts have been convinced that the dog was not a danger to the public and, if they had power to do so, they would have allowed the dog to live. The Select Committee concluded that to give the courts discretion in those circumstances would not be adverse to the public interest.

There are three instances in which discretion may be exercisable. First, the Act provided that all pit bull terriers and like types should be eliminated. It did that by making it unlawful for anybody to keep a pit bull terrier unless it was registered and exempted by 30th November 1991. To gain exemption, the owner had to consent to the dog being neutered so that no progeny could result, and obey the rules relating to third-party insurance. More particularly, the owner had to ensure that as long as the dog was in public it was muzzled and kept on a lead. That provision has been successful. The committee was reluctant to do anything that might be against the policy of the Act in getting rid of pit bull terriers. There were 8,600 registered. At the end of 1994, the figure had fallen to 3,600. They have all been neutered. Therefore, as far as concerns registered dogs, they will die by natural causes by the end of the century. That has been wholly successful, and nothing in the Bill will modify that situation.

If one of those dogs which is exempted has been brought up as a pet and is docile and yet by an accident gets its muzzle off, or it is found in a public place without a muzzle or lead, the law at the moment is that the dog must be destroyed. The Bill will empower the court to allow the dog to live. But the report is mindful of the very real evils which the 1991 Act was designed to avoid. In paragraph 40 it is recommended as guidelines to magistrates—which no doubt the Home Office will draw to their attention if the Bill is passed—that discretion should be exercised to preserve the life of an exempt dog only in circumstances where the court is satisfied that the protection of the public does not require the destruction of the dog. Thus, if the owner of an exempt dog, far from complying with the Act, allows the dog to roam and takes off the muzzle and lead, without extenuating and mitigating circumstances, no doubt the magistrates will exercise their discretion by condemning the dog to death, not because it has done wrong but because the court cannot trust the owner. The discretion will be exercised if the destruction of the dog is not required because the court is satisfied that, not only is the dog docile, but the owner is responsible and that the breach has taken place by accident. The owner can still be convicted and fined or sent to prison.

I turn to the question of dogs which are not registered. It is apprehended that for a variety of reasons a good many dogs were not registered and have since been concealed. It is impossible to know how many there are. Of course, as long as they are concealed they are not a danger to the public. The minute that such a dog appears in public the fact that it has not been registered and exempted means that the owner can be prosecuted and convicted and the dog must be destroyed. The police say that there are three types of dog which may have been concealed. One is those dogs which criminals have used to terrify the police and security guards. The police believe that as a result of the Act they have disappeared entirely. They have no reason to believe that those dogs still exist. If they do, if any dog appeared from concealment and terrified the police or security guards, no doubt the magistrates would order its destruction. The discretion would not be exercised in favour of keeping that dog alive.

Similarly, there are still some dogs—not many—kept by their owners as fighting dogs. They are travellers and difficult to track down, but if they are tracked down, I cannot conceive that any magistrate would exercise discretion to maintain the life of a dog which had been trained to fight and was clearly a danger.

Then there are dogs which are kept because they are docile, notwithstanding the fact that they are pit bull terriers. They are pets and they are docile. They are concealed because their owners are attached to them, and they are terrified that if they bring them out into the open they will be ordered to be destroyed. In that case, the magistrates would have a discretion to exercise. They would have to be satisfied, as the courts were satisfied in certain instances, that the dog was docile and not a menace. Under the Bill, they would be obliged to register the dog and to have the dog neutered; in other words, the dog would be subject to the same conditions and restrictions as were imposed on dogs under the Act.

Again, we think that no harm can result, and, again, the committee has recommended that discretion should he exercised only where the court is satisfied that it can trust both the dog and the owner; in other words, it would have to be proved to the court that, notwithstanding that the dog is a pit bull terrier, and has been concealed, the attachment between the dog and the owner is such, and the evidence is such, that the court believes the owner to be responsible; that he would keep the dog muzzled and on a lead; that the dog is docile; and that the dog as well as the owner can be trusted.

In Clause 3 there is a provision which applies to all dogs, and not merely to pit bull terriers. That clause provides that if any dog is in a public place, out of control, and causes personal injury, it must be destroyed. That offence can be committed in relation to any dog. Again, the owner can be convicted of an offence, and can be punished. In addition, as the Act now stands, the dog must be destroyed.

The difficulty about having a mandatory sentence which no one has the discretion to alter is that that never allows for extraordinary and mitigating circumstances. Let us suppose, for example, that a dog is provoked. The dog's master or mistress may be attacked and the dog goes to defend its master or mistress. Or let us suppose that someone may be foolish enough to take a bone away from a dog when he was enjoying British or foreign beef. That would not be the dog's fault, and the court could be satisfied that the dog presented no danger to the public.

The committee recommends that there should be the discretion, set out in the guidelines to the magistrates, that the court should not exercise the powers proposed by the Bill unless the court were satisfied that in the result the public would be adequately protected, and that the destruction of the dog in question would be unnecessary and unfair. It is in those cases where unfairness results in the future, as it has resulted in the past, that discretion would be exercised.

The Home Office's objection, as I understand it, is that the Act was a good thing; it had a good effect on pit bull terriers. With all of that, the committee agrees. The Home Office takes the cautious view that any alteration in the Act's provisions weakens its operation. With respect, I do not agree.

Let us take the case of an exempt pit bull terrier. At the moment, if the pit bull terrier appears in public without a muzzle and without being on a lead, the dog must be destroyed. Under the Bill the magistrates would have that limited discretion to allow the dog to live.

The owner of the pit bull terrier will know that if he produces his dog in public unmuzzled and not on a lead, the magistrates have power to order its destruction. He will know that unless there is a very good excuse, the dog will be destroyed. It will be the duty of magistrates to destroy the dog in circumstances in which, in effect, the owner was flouting the law. The owner will know that it will be only in the extraordinary circumstances which I have mentioned and which could happen again—namely, that without fault of the owner, the dog has lost his muzzle or the muzzle has broken away from the lead—the magistrates have a discretion, but even so they might not exercise it. The discretion will be narrow and will be narrowly construed, and in the unanimous view of the Select Committee there will be no weakening of the provisions of the Act.

The Home Office courteously sent me a letter dated today. It stated that the Act would be weakened because the exempt dogs would not disappear at the rate now contemplated. As I have said, the number of exempt dogs fell from 8,000 to 3,000-odd by the end of 1994. All exempt dogs have been neutered and so if one or two were kept alive, they would die in the normal course of events and would die out by the end of the century, as is now provided.

The Select Committee considered that it was not contradicting the views of Parliament expressed in 1991; that the Bill does not undermine the efficacy of that Act; that it does not increase the dangers to the public; but that it would be right to have a discretion which would be exercised when fairness ever required that the dog should not be put down. Those are the views of the Select Committee which I had the honour to chair.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

I am under the impulse of deep emotions about this matter. I have been working hard for four years to get the public, the magistrates and the police to understand the way in which the Government of 1991 defrauded the public as regards the extent of the danger and the problems which the nation faced. Most were totally untrue and they have not been proved otherwise.

We have tried hard to get some deeper consideration of the various civilised aspects of the matter. I am sure that we are all most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman, and his colleagues on the Select Committee who devoted their time to the study of the problems at first hand and in detail. We are on the eve of consideration of the final outcome of the Select Committee and just prior to the Third Reading of the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Bill tabled for next Tuesday. We are treated, as everything connected with this issue is treated by the Home Office, with the utmost contempt and indifference. We have had to put up with it for so long that in some quarters, patience is becoming very much exhausted.

I am grateful—as I am sure are all Members of the Committee—to the noble and learned Lord for the statement which he made a few moments ago. We thought that such a clear and positive line for change brought forward unanimously by the Select Committee would be sufficiently impressive to convince the public and many others that we are endeavouring to find a better answer to our dog problem than we have.

No other country in the world has in existence a mandatory dog destruction system. Other countries have found different ways to solve the problem. We were rushed into this and both Houses sacrificed their full responsibilities at the time. That left an Act of Parliament containing such excesses as those which have been described which are regarded as commonplace to our system of dog control.

However, we may have passed the point at which we can expect to achieve any change of circumstances this side of a general election. One cannot say how soon that may come. But I am quite sure that there are some elements in this which will have a considerable political influence. Animals and their welfare has become one of the primary considerations of the public mind. One only has to look at what is taking place at present to understand how deeply people feel about those matters. Before very long, there will be a moral wave of great force and intensity sweeping over the country which demands that we find a different answer to the uncivilised way in which we are conducting our affairs and relations with other species.

Therefore, I am profoundly grateful to be here to listen to the noble and learned Lord. I hope that many people will be influenced by what he said. I also thank other members of the Select Committee and, in particular, my noble friend Lady Mallalieu. We shall persevere so far as we can in order to have this change brought about. That is all I have to say. I hope that I shall speak again on Tuesday when we shall have the Third Reading debate. We shall see what happens.

10.59 p.m.

Baroness Mallalieu

I know that I speak for those on all sides of the House—but in particular for those on these Benches—when I say that it is a real pleasure and privilege both to see and hear the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in his place this evening.

When the Dangerous Dogs Act passed through this House in 1991, the noble Lord warned that its mandatory destruction orders would cause injustice. His words were not heeded by the Government at that time. Time has proved him right in that, as in many other respects, during his long, political career.

That the Select Committee has recommended to the Committee of this House that the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, should now proceed without amendment is in large measure a reflection of his tenacity and determination to correct what he perceived to be an unfair law which others now believe needs to be changed.

The depressing response from the Home Office, of which I have received information only this evening, indicates that there is still some considerable way to go. However, if it is of any reassurance to the noble Lord, he is not now a lone voice; indeed, I believe that he is no longer even in a minority. In due course, I hope and believe that this House and another place will come to admit that the noble Lord was right all along.

I had the honour of being one of those who served on the Select Committee. I would also like to pay tribute to its chairman, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman. His questioning of the witnesses who gave evidence before us was, I could not fail to notice, of an altogether gentler style than that which he customarily employs when questioning members of the Bar appearing before him in the Judicial Committee. However, he was as characteristically searching and revealing for all that. The chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord enabled the arguments of both sides to be fully and fairly presented to us and properly considered. That makes the response of the Home Office all the more disappointing.

Of course there remain serious public concerns which are reinforced each time someone, particularly a child, is attacked by a dog, concerns which we on this side all share; namely, that dangerous dogs should not be permitted to present a threat to members of the public, especially children, and that proper control should be exercised over them by their owners.

If accepted, the recommendations made by the Select Committee to the House would not, I believe, detract from the powers of the courts to order destruction of a dog in any case where it was merited; but it would, I hope, empower the courts to avoid doing so in cases where a real injustice would result to an otherwise responsible dog owner and, of course, his dog.

The written response from the Home Office makes depressing reading. It concludes that the Government do not believe that it would be right to weaken the message of the original Act. I could say a great deal about the suggestions that it makes and about the report, but I shall not do so because the report has been covered in detail by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman; and, indeed, the hour is late.

However, if that is to be the response of the noble Earl, it will be clear that the Government are not prepared to listen to the message which has come back from almost every body and organisation which is directly concerned with the legislation—for example, the vets, the magistrates, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the police, to name but a few. That message is that hard cases make bad law. This Act, whatever its intentions and whatever its benefits, has proved to be unfair in relation to parts of its application. It is also unfair because it makes no distinction between the responsible dog owner and the irresponsible one; and it makes no distinction between the dangerous dog which attacks a child and a well-behaved one which is technically in breach of the Act.

If the Government refuse to listen to that message, reinforced as it now is by the report of a Select Committee which has heard and considered a great deal of evidence and expertise in the field, the message which they send back to the country will indeed be one of weakness. To refuse to admit when you have got something wrong and then to refuse an offer to put it right—made, in this case, by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton—is a classic sign of weakness, not simply in men but also, I am afraid, in this Government.

11 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I shall be brief. I have spoken on the subject on a number of occasions; and, indeed, I had the honour to introduce the Bill in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, who was ill at the time. Like other speakers, I am delighted to see the noble Lord back in your Lordships' House this evening and to hear him speak with his usual vehemence on the subject. I only hope that his pessimism is something which will not be reinforced in the medium and long term.

As other speakers have said, I believe that the Government are bent upon digging in their toes on the issue. I do not know why. They seem to do so on many issues, but it appears to be just pure obstinacy on this occasion in the face of almost universal support for the views expressed both by experts and the public.

I should like to thank the noble and learned Lord, for his excellent chairmanship of the Select Committee. I should like to thank Lord Houghton for making it possible for the Select Committee to take place and, again, to thank the noble and learned Lord for tonight giving us such an expert and concise summary, not only of his Select Committee's views but, indeed, of the problem which the Select Committee addressed.

It was on a fairly narrow issue—the issue of discretion—that the Bill was brought before your Lordships, and it was on that issue of discretion that the Select Committee deliberated. In another place another committee is looking at the wider issues in the Bill. All this will be brought to bear on the Government, and we await their reactions with interest—I cannot say with any great hope. I am looking forward to the noble Earl's reply this evening.

It has been a great privilege to read the report. Anyone who is interested in this particular Bill and the working of the Act which brought about this amendment Bill can do no better than to read the Select Committee's report. It is all in there. II: goes beyond the actual subject of discretion. If you want to know about dangerous dogs, read the Select Committee's report. The hour is late and I am hoping that the noble Earl's reply will be more cheerful than I anticipate.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman, and to the members of the Select Committee for their report on the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Bill, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton.

Before dealing with the substance of the report, I wish to associate myself with the comments which have been expressed about the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and say how glad I am, as my noble friends are, to see him in this place tonight.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman, has explained, the committee's conclusion is that the amendment Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, should pass Committee stage without amendment. In effect, the committee has supported the Bill's central proposition, that the courts should be allowed discretion in each case where the 1991 Act currently provides for mandatory destruction.

There are, broadly, three situations in which mandatory destruction applies and I shall deal with each in turn. The first is in respect of offences under Section 1(2). This relates to pit bull terriers that may well have satisfied all the requirements of the exemption scheme, but in respect of whom other offences are subsequently committed—for example, being allowed in a public place unmuzzled or off the lead. The committee has argued that allowing the court discretion in these cases would not materially affect the deterrent effect of the provisions, because owners would be reluctant to take the risk of a destruction order still being imposed. The committee suggests that the question whether or not to order destruction of the dog would be decided by reference to other factors, including the behaviour of the dog, and the risk of future harm to the public.

The Government accept that amendment of the Act as proposed by Lord Houghton's Bill might mean that it still had a deterrent effect in some instances. But it is impossible to be confident that this would be so in all cases. Even under the present law, some owners have disregarded the provisions, despite mandatory destruction. The Government are concerned that the message that the Dangerous Dogs Act had been weakened (which is how the change would inevitably be perceived) would risk a general relaxation in standards of observation of the provisions. Such a change would mean, moreover, that an owner who had ignored vital provisions of the Act—for example, that pit bulls should be muzzled, not be abandoned or not allowed to stray—could regain ownership of his animals. The Government do not believe that this is a risk which should be taken.

In regard to the second situation in which mandatory destruction applies—that is, in respect of unregistered and unlawfully held pit bull terriers—the Government cannot accept the committee's argument that allowing discretion in regard to this category would not work against Parliament's intention of eliminating pit bull terriers. They recognise that the committee has confined its recommendation (for late entry onto the Index of Exempted Dogs) to cases covered by the amendment Bill and that it has not recommended a general amnesty for non-registered dogs. Nevertheless, allowing the court to direct late entry onto the register after a conviction for ownership of a non-registered dog would mean the possibility of some new dogs being bred or brought into the country. At present anyone contemplating the importation or illicit breeding of new pit bull terriers knows that there is no way that the dogs in question may be held lawfully (that is, be entered onto the index): conviction for owning such a dog must lead inevitably to the dog's destruction. The proposals in the amendment Bill would create a chance of the position of such new dogs being legitimised.

The committee has suggested that a general amnesty would be unfair to those owners who chose to have their dogs destroyed or to comply with the exemption provisions of the Act. In the Government's view, a selective re-opening of the index, as now suggested, would be no less unfair to such owners.

Mandatory destruction applies in a third area, under Section 3 of the Act, in relation to a dog of any type which is dangerously out of control and causes injury—what the Act terms an "aggravated offence". The committee has argued that it should be left to the court to decide whether a dog should be destroyed following conviction even for these very serious types of dog incidents—on the basis that it is the court which is best placed to decide whether mitigating circumstances might apply. The committee suggested that Section 3 would still act as an incentive to responsible dog ownership because, unlike proceedings under the 1871 Act, it carries the threat of a criminal conviction. I should add that there are also significant financial and/or custodial penalties.

The Government have considered these arguments carefully. But they believe that it is likely to be as much the fact of mandatory destruction as the risk of criminal conviction that is the real deterrent in these cases. The Government do not believe that Section 3 is used lightly, given the evidence of continuing wide use of earlier statutory provisions. And they believe that the prosecuting authorities pay due regard to possible extenuating factors both in determining the provisions under which to proceed and in the course of trials if new considerations emerge. Section 3 provides that a dog which attacks while dangerously out of control should not be allowed the chance of doing so a second time. The Government believe that this principle is the correct one, and that this was the appropriate signal to send to dog owners. They do not believe it would be right to weaken the message in any way.

It will be clear from what I have said that the Government consider that the mandatory destruction order and the one-off nature of the registration scheme are matters which are integral to the provisions of the 1991 Act and to the objectives which Parliament agreed. We are grateful to the Select Committee for its thoughtful review of these provisions, and have reflected very carefully on what it has proposed. But we are not persuaded that the Act should be modified. The Act remains relevant and necessary, and the Government cannot support moves to amend it.

I want to assure the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman, and the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that the Government have given the most careful consideration to the objectives of this Bill, in particular in the light of the recommendations made by the Select Committee which looked into this Bill. However, this is a complex matter and not one on which the Government feel they can give ground. The death of any dog is a matter of sadness. However, the safety of children and adults is of paramount concern, and the first duty of government is to protect the public.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.