My Lords, we are close to finalising a package of measures to tackle irresponsible dog owners, and intend to make an announcement soon. In putting the package together, we have considered and set out the pros and cons of various approaches towards compulsorily microchipping dogs. The final package will cover future government handling of the issue, as well as plans to improve standards of dog ownership.
I thank the Minister for that reply. It is very helpful in itself. Taking the old adage that there are no bad dogs, just bad owners, microchipping would certainly make for more responsible dog ownership. It would also make it easier for dogs that have strayed to be found by their owners. It would cut down on the number of stolen dogs. As a Government who are seeking popularity, it would be highly popular, as 83 per cent of the public who have been surveyed support this.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his support for what may indeed be included in the package. It might help the House to know that the cost of rehoming each stray is £1,100. The economic cost to this country of irresponsible dog ownership is enormous, let alone the human damage that can be caused by out-of-control dogs.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that attacks on guide dogs are now running at over seven a month? The person who first drew this to my attention said, "What on earth are they doing putting a tax on guide dogs? Whatever next?". But actually it is a very serious problem. It can mean a vulnerable person being left alone, in need of assistance, and without a dog for a considerable period of time. The dog may need to be treated, retrained or even withdrawn from service altogether. As each guide dog costs £50,000 over its lifetime, this has huge financial implications. Will the Government consider making attacks by dogs on assistance dogs a punishable offence in the same way as attacks on human beings?
I assure the noble Lord that we take this very seriously. It is an increasing problem. As the noble Lord said, there seven attacks a month on guide dogs. Sometimes, of course, the dogs carrying out these attacks are out of control; they are not even on a lead. The whole purpose of the policy will be to try to encourage responsible dog ownership. I am very pleased with the contribution the noble Lord has made to the issue by asking his question today.
My Lords, the number of stray dogs in this country has risen to 126,000 and has been steadily increasing for the past four years. Does my noble friend agree that compulsory microchipping would help local authorities with the spiralling costs of kennelling, and help them reduce the number of healthy dogs they have to put down each year, which was 6,000 in 2011?
Yes, my Lords, I drew the House's attention to the enormous economic cost of stray dogs; £57.5 million is spent by charities and local authorities in caring for and finding new homes for stray dogs. That is part of the thrust behind our proposals, which, as I say, we will be announcing shortly.
My Lords, I think that the mood of the House is that the noble Countess, Lady Mar, has been waiting. Perhaps my noble friend Lord Renton might speak after her.
My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that if all puppies were microchipped before they were eight weeks old, it would ensure that they could be traced to their breeders, which would prevent much of the iniquitous practice of puppy farming?
My Lords, perhaps I may suggest to my noble friend that the Government consider very carefully before insisting on the compulsory microchipping of dogs. Many dogs take badly to having a chip in them; they get very sore and so forth. Surely anyone who cannot control a dog should not have one; that should be the course.
I am not sure that the respondees to the consultation share my noble friend's view on the matter, and I am not sure that the Government share it, either. We see microchipping as one measure we can take to address an increasing problem. The cost of stray dogs is something that we have discussed. The human cost of dog attacks is another matter that the House should bear in mind in considering these measures.
My Lords, the House has heard many times before from the noble Lord that these matters will be dealt with soon. May I press him again on when "soon" may be? I was told that microchipping had already started and that six databases were up and running. The information on the databases will be useful only if it is up to date and accurate. What plans do the Government have to ensure that this will happen?
Some 58 per cent of dogs are already microchipped on a voluntary basis. The noble Lord asks about timing. When I say "very shortly", I do mean "very shortly", but the timing is not within my gift. I have clearly flagged up the possibility of an expansion of microchipping in the responses that I have given today, and we are working with everybody to make sure that this will happen.
My Lords, as a former chairman of the RSPCA, perhaps I may point out that it has been the wish of that society and many others that there should be compulsory registration for dogs, as this is the only way to deal with manifold problems. May I remind the noble Lord-although he will probably not know-that in the House of Commons I tried twice to get this introduced, well over 20 years ago?