The promoters of the Bill have circulated to hon. Members a document which deals with substantial parts of clause 19. I refer to page one of the briefing statement, which is headed:
Statement on behalf of the Promoters in support of the Consideration of the Bill as amended in Committee".
Paragraph 5 states:
This clause would permit a district council to specify beaches in its area where dogs are not permitted during the summer months. The clause and schedule 2 to the Bill prescribe a procedure for public consultation before a beach is specified, and it is a requirement of the clause that notice of the effect of the provision shall be given by signs displayed in conspicuous positions on the approaches to any such beach.
In paragraph 10 the promoters were open enough to say:
it is recognised that many dog owners act responsibly",
but in another part the promoters refer to the "minority who create unpleasantness". What I object to about clause 19 is that, because of the minority, the majority have to suffer. In our country, that is an unreasonable approach.
I fear that my hon. Friend may be right, but it does not mean that we should tolerate it when we do not have to. There are occasions when it works like that, but because it happens in some circumstances, it does not make it right that it happens in others.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) made great play of comments that I made to the House about dogs going on beaches. We were all highly amused by his remarks. However, we should examine a little more closely the proposals that I made. I represent a seaside constituency. I am conscious of the fact that too big a minority of dog owners are utterly irresponsible. If we imposed the right level of fines—severe fines—and the right controls on those who allow their dogs to foul pavements or the parts of the beach which the tide normally does not reach, the problem would rapidly disappear.
Exactly the same principle applies to people who let their dogs roam wild on the streets. Under the present law, the owners of dogs that are found running loose on the streets are liable to fines. That is so in Brighton and in other parts of the country. The problem is that the fine is so minuscule—the amount of money is of so little consequence—that it is no deterrent. Far too many people—again, a minority of dog owners—push their dogs out of their homes first thing in the morning and let them roam wild. The people then perhaps go off to work, and have the dog back in the house in the evening. That is nothing short of criminal. Apart from the danger to the dog, there is the danger to human life, which is much more important. Until we have a system of imposing fines of such a nature that they become a deterrent, the problem will exist.
In many areas around our coasts—I suspect even in parts of Cornwall—one can see clearly the areas where the tide reaches twice a day and where it does not. My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne referred to dogs and their owners standing by with their watches to see when the tide went out so that all the little doggies could move in. My hon. Friend was amusing, but there is a serious aspect to the matter. We are talking about a limited period before the part of the beach that is washed by the tide is available, as the tide ebbs, for dogs to use. Is there anything wrong in allowing the part of the beach that is washed clean twice a day to be used freely by dogs?
I have observed many owners in Brighton, as well as in other parts of the country, carrying a spoon and a plastic bag. I do it myself. It is easy to pick it up. That is what one should do, particularly if the tide is going out and it will be many hours before the beach is cleaned and it will be used in the meantime by families and people on holiday.
I believe that a compromise can be reached. The clause does not contain it. The promoters were fair to make the point in their statement to which I referred, but why penalise the majority because of the irresponsible minority?
I shall not repeat in detail the arguments that I made in my opening speech. I am sure that the House will receive that news with great relief We should be careful about providing these powers to two district councils through the Bill. I am not in any way casting aspersions on or making derogatory comments about the ladies and gentlemen who serve on the Cornwall district council. They give up their spare time, put effort and work into the community and are to be greatly thanked for it. There are times when authorities and district councils can be influenced by small organised minorities who present themselves as a majority. We are all aware of protest campaigns which give the impression of representing a massive proportion of the country, when time and time again they represent only a small but well-organised minority.
My final point relates to the companionship of dogs. For millions of people, especially a large number of elderly people, a pet is all that they live for. If they were denied the right — this could easily happen if these proposals were to spread widely throughout the country —to go for a walk on the beach with their pets, it would be scandalous. The lives of the elderly and the single often revolve round their pets and they often have little else to love or to be loved by. We should remove the clause, reconsider it and perhaps bring it back on another occasion.
It is not to our advantage to delay the proceedings, but I find it extraordinary that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) expressed those views. I do not understand why he is so worried about the clause. There are hundreds of beaches in Cornwall—not a dozen or a score, but hundreds. There may be a hundred in my constituency alone. By beach standards in Cornwall it is short of them compared with most other areas.
The clause merely seeks to give the district council the power to exclude dogs from a few of those beaches for six months of the year. I find it incomprehensible that the hon. Gentleman should regard that as a great removal of the freedom and right of people to exercise their dogs. It is amazing that anybody should defend the right of dogs to put excreta on every beach in Cornwall, rather than on 95 per cent. of beaches, as the Bill would provide.
I am in favour of defending minority rights. Some people are afraid of dogs, perhaps on irrational and unreasonable grounds. I remember a tragic case in which a young girl of about eight was killed by an alsatian on Perranporth beach. The Bill would give that minority a few beaches—not hundreds or scores—where they could with reasonable certainty take their families and exercise and enjoy their leisure free from dogs.
The hon. Gentleman is being ridiculous, and he knows it. It is not difficult to notice a dog wandering on to a beach. If the clause were passed and one saw something with four legs on a beach, the local council would have the power to remove it. We cannot educate our dogs to read, to understand the Bill and obey the law, but if such powers existed, at least people could remove dogs and dogs could not be taken freely to the beaches involved. That is all that this clause, paraphernalia, talk and nonsense is about.
My constituents will not understand what is happening. The proposal is supported by the county council, the district councils, the chambers of commerce, the parish councils and all their elected members. Yet two hon. Members, one from Brighton, where people do not know what a beach is, and one from Birmingham, who does not even claim to know what a beach is, seek to oppose this limited power being given to a community whose main industry is tourism. It is extraordinary.
It might assist the House if I intervene at this stage to indicate the Government's attitude towards clause 19, which seems to be the only contentious clause in the Bill.
Our main concern is that this provision extends the criminal law, albeit with local effect. In general, we are opposed to the creation of new offences by local Bills when it is open to the promoters to use powers available to them under the existing public general legislation.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) put his finger on the problem when he said that we should look at section 82 of the Public Health Acts Amendment Act 1907. That section gives district councils extensive powers to make byelaws to regulate the seashore for the prevention of danger, obstruction or annoyance to users of the shore. We believe that this power is sufficiently wide to enable byelaws to be made to exclude dogs from beaches in approproate circumstances. Although no local authority has yet applied for the confirmation of a byelaw to exclude dogs from beaches, byelaws, have been confirmed banning dogs from parks and leisure grounds — in other words, in analogous circumstances. In considering applications for such byelaws we take into account the reasonableness of the proposed offence, bearing in mind the need for dog owners to have facilities to exercise and enjoy their animals, and the prospects for enforcing it. We also normally require evidence of adequate alternative facilities for dogs and for the area in question to be enclosed in order to exclude strays. We would apply these criteria to any application for byelaws to exclude dogs from a beach.
When the Cornwall County Council Bill was being considered in another place, the Committee had before it a report submitted on behalf of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary drawing to its attention the byelaw-making provisions of the 1907 Act and recommending that the promoters be required to justify the creation of a new substantive offence when there were existing legislative powers available. I should, however, add that when the report was being prepared we considered making a recommendation that the clause should be disallowed. But, as I have said, no byelaws to regulate dogs have so far been made under the 1907 Act and, in the absence of any such experience, we felt that it would have been unreasonable to make such a recommendation. For the same reason, we did not pursue our argument when the Bill came before a Committee of this House.
I should perhaps mention that since the Cornwall County Council Bill emerged from its Committee, a Committee in another place has disallowed an almost identical provision in the Bournemouth Borough Council Bill. The beaches of Bournemouth are different from most of those in Cornwall — there are no coves in Bournemouth—and that factor may have influenced the Committee. The Home Office has since been in correspondence with the Bournemouth borough council, and we have undertaken to give sympathetic consideration to an application to regulate dogs on beaches. If the council is able to satisfy our criteria, and subject to the consideration of any public representations, we may in due course have a scheme of byelaws which will test the suitability of that type of control.
The Government neither commend nor strenuously oppose the clause. It will create a precedent which other coastal authorities will doubtless wish to follow. In those circumstances, I believe that the House should consider carefully whether the evidence that has been submitted on the promoters' behalf is sufficient to justify the creation of a new criminal offence, when the public general law already provides powers which would enable them to deal with the nuisance of dogs on beaches.
I thank the Minister for his useful contribution to our debate. It has highlighted a number of issues which are of concern to some of us. I make it clear again that in no way do I wish to encourage irresponsible dog owners not to look after their dogs properly. It will not surprise hon. Members to hear that I have had many representations from Cornwall, including one from a Mr. Langmaid, and I accept it when he says that he receives 20 to 30 complaints a week over dogs fouling beaches. Mr. Langmaid is chairman of the Looe town trust. That backs up a statement made in a brief which the promoters were kind enough to send me, which states that the problem mainly arises
from packs of dogs or individual dogs running loose and causing annoyance and alarm and dogs fouling beaches.
That was the point that I put to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), who was rather rumbustious in the way that he responded to me. One of the major problems arises from the activities of stray dogs. Whether the Bill goes through or not, the second problem hinges on the way in which the various councils will police the measures provided in clause 19.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can help me. We know that people are employed to clean beaches, and they may be the ones who will be given the enforcement responsibility. Is it proposed that the beaches designated under the clause are to have virtual full-time dog wardens to patrol them, although they will not necessarily have to sit on every beach for every minute of the summer? That sounds like a good job.
Enforcement would be carried out by local authority staff, who would be carrying out other duties on those beaches at the time. They would be supervised by lifeguards, who often occupy an elevated watch tower and are in a far better position to see what is going on.
I should like to reply to a point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) and I apologise for addressing this to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett). One of the enforcement problems has often been that the witness is a lay person on holiday who is unwilling to come forward to court with evidence. That would be obviated by having local authority personnel responsible for enforcement.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for that intervention. I wish to pick up a point which the Minister was kind enough to make. One of the other anxieties that I have about the clause is that it creates a precedent. I find it puzzling—I do not want to dwell on this—that there have been no applications to deal with the problem if it has been of such concern as it would appear to have been for many years. This is not a new problem. One wonders why the authorities did not pursue that solution. I do not want to berate them over that, however; I just want to underline my anxiety about the precedent that the clause will undoubtedly set — the Minister has confirmed that —against the background — this was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) in an earlier debate—of the Government's proposals to try to effect better control of dogs.
I have heard nothing that dissuades me from the view that the impact of the clause will be to treat the responsible dog owner — someone whose dog is licensed and properly on a lead and under control, and which does not go around frightening other people on a beach and would not be allowed to foul the beach—in the same way as it seeks to deal with the irresponsible dog owner. There is no argument in the House about the need to deal effectively with those who irresponsibly neglect their dogs, through we may argue about the best way to do it.
I believe that the promoters have gone over the top with this proposal. The Minister was kind enough to make the point that in clause 19 we are dealing with a criminal offence. It is serious to seek to turn this matter into a criminal offence. It may be a nuisance, dangerous, disgusting and all the rest of it, and one acknowledges the hazards that it creates for those trying to enjoy a holiday, but to turn it into a criminal offence, which the Bill's promoters would have us do, is a bit of overkill. I hope that even at this stage there will be some better and later thoughts about the clause. It will be a welcome sign if those involved with promoting the Bill have taken on board some of the points that we have tried to make and say that they are prepared to withdraw clause 19.
I have considerable admiration for my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden), who is well known as a compassionate man, but I think that he is on the wrong tack tonight. I came in at the tail end of the last discussion and listened to the arguments. This seems an eminently sensible proposal.
My hon. and learned Friend the Minister, in effect, says that other councils might catch on and do the same thing. It will be very good if they do. It seems to be an advance which will be appreciated by many people. I am not anti-dog, but I am aware that a significant number of dogs owners abuse them, to the detriment of the environment and to the health and living standards of other people. The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) in his brief intervention, said that not all the beaches in Cornwall would be affected. I believe that the coastal regions would be far better places if such a prohibition were placed on them.
My hon. Friend the Minister hedges his bets. He does not advise that we should support or vote against the clause. He draws our attention to the fact that there are byelaws which local authorities may invoke, but we are all aware that few councils do that, whatever their political complexion. They realise that dogs are a hot potato. There are no votes in them. A great deal of controversy arises when any effort is made to restrict them or allow them greater access to different areas.
If large numbers of byelaws are ignored, I should have thought that a county council such as this, which is putting forward a proposal to restrict the admission of dogs to certain beaches, was to be admired and supported. I hope, from what I have heard, that other local authorities and coastal areas will follow suit.
I believe that the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith) failed to understand the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) was advancing. As the Minister confirmed, we are talking about a criminal offence. The difficulty, as I am sure all hon. Members will agree whether they like dogs or not, is that a substantial number of people should perhaps not have dogs or should look after them a great deal better than they do. The responsible dog owner, whose dogs do not contribute to the nation's problem, may well make a mistake when he visits Cornwall. He may, unlike the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden), be a stranger and find himself unwittingly committing a criminal offence. We must be careful about that.
I was grateful to the Minister for his contribution, and it was appropriate that he spoke early in this brief debate to express the Government's hesitation. However, the Government should understand that we are hesitant, not because of the Cornwall county council's efforts, but because of the Government's failure for almost six years to enact the proposals placed before Ministers in the late 1970s by the advisory committee.
I know that the Government did not want to incur unpopularity by introducing any change. They wanted that change to be introduced by a private Member, but they did not back that hon. Member, having, at least on one occasion, persuaded him to insert in his Bill that which they quietly wanted to see enacted. With the abolition of the halfpenny later this year the Government must now introduce legislation because the cost of the dog licence is 37 ½p. As a result of that misfortune the Government will find themselves on the receiving end of criticism which they have tried to avoid for the last five or six years. I welcome the Government's receiving criticism, but it is unfortunate for Cornwall county council that at this stage it has moved into the line of fire.
Clause 19 should be removed, first, because of the criminal offence that it would impose and, secondly, because we ought to wait to see what Bill is introduced during the next Session. A Bill will have to be introduced then. Such a Bill may please the Cornwall county council. even though it may not please those of us who do not wish the Government to pass all the responsibiliy on to local authorities so that British dog owners do not know whether they will be in a pro-dog or anti-dog area.
I am certainly not being dogmatic. My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) suggests that we abolish the licence. There is a great deal of merit in that, but those of us who are interested in this matter recognise that there is a defect with regard to protection of dogs and the control of those who are unfit to handle them.
The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon)—I am sorry that he is not in his place—was somewhat critical of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) and suggested that we might be interfering with Cornwall's tourist trade. I should not wish to do so. The traffic jams that one sees on television are, after all, a quite sufficient deterrent to a holiday in the south-west.
As a Yorkshireman, I hesitate to interfere in Cornish matters, but it seemed to me that the hon. Member for Truro was so eager to defend Cornwall's beaches against the nuisances which dogs could inflict that I wondered whether donkeys on which children can ride would be allowed on the same beaches.
I am glad to hear that, because my dogs, which are virtuous animals, cannot read.
I hope that Cornwall county council and those hon. Members who represent Cornwall with considerable distinction will reconsider the retention of clause 19, in view of the imminence of Government legislation. It would be a pity if the House were to legislate even for one part of the United Kingdom if in a few short months—and it can only be months—a national Bill with relevant clauses is to be placed before the House.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, with his great experience of conservation matters, particularly with regard to the Wildlife and Countryside Act, is not risking the possibility that the Government will do something in 12 months' time. Should he not accept what is being offered now?
I share the hon. Gentleman's interest in conservation. However, if the Government allow a mistake to get through the House now, that mistake will be compounded in legislation next Session. The experience of the hon. Gentleman and myself with the Wildlife and Countryside Act leads me to suggest that real thought and care are necessary. I should not wish to see the pitch queered by fairly careless and not necessarily nationally applicable measures of this sort.
The advice which the Minister hesitantly gave is relevant. I have never sought to interfere with legislation affecting another part of England, but, given the implications for other parts of England in the light of imminent legislation from the centre, I believe that the hesitation recommended by the Minister may be justified. I hope that those hon. Members responsible for the Bill in the House will consider the matter urgently.
My hon. Friend has offered those who promote and prepare private legislation a half apology for speaking on this subject. He should not do so. That will be used on later Bills. No hon. Member should offer an apology for speaking on or moving amendments to any Bill which affects any part of the United Kingdom. I have done so in the past and have never regretted it. Other hon.
Members have done so. We give a hostage to fortune if we make even half apologies for intervening in the legitimacy of such debates.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The difficulty is that he represents the west midlands. While that area has high unemployment, it has the capacity to recover from the ravages of the present recession rather more rapidly than south Yorkshire. My area is at present in appalling need, and I should not wish any hon. Member from the south-west to retaliate should there be a Bill from south Yorkshire designed to create jobs for those whom I represent. That is why I must be cautious before providing hostages to fortune.
I have spoken for longer than I intended, but I was anxious about the cleanliness of Cornish beaches and about the presence of donkeys as well as dogs. I am concerned to ensure that we do not take a decision now which could have serious implications when the House considers the Dogs Bill, or whatever it might be called, in the next Session.
It might be for the convenience of the House if I try to deal with some of the points that have been raised in this debate. I thank hon. Members for taking part in a fair way. I was afraid, when the debate began earlier, that there might be some attempts to spin it out and raise unnecessary points. I am glad that that has not happened, and in particular I thank the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) for the manner in which he has approached the subject. I agree that every hon. Member, whichever part of the country he represents, has an absolute right to intervene in private Members' business. I know that I speak for my fellow Cornwall Members when I say that we do not resent interventions by other hon. Members. We accept their right to intervene and applaud their interest in this subject.
Clause 19 is unprecedented. Therefore, my hon. and learned Friend the Minister is right to say that it should be examined with some care by the House before we proceed to vote on it. I would describe the tenor of his remarks as slightly hostile neutrality. I was puzzled, because, if the Government feel that way, why did they not intervene at an earlier stage and make their views clear? If they had felt strongly about this clause, they could have opposed it. However, they did not decide to take that attitude to the Bill when it was before the other place. They asked the promoters to examine and justify clause 19 and that was done, to the apparent satisfaction of those who examined the clause. I do not think, with respect to my hon. and learned Friend, that it is good enough for the Government to suggest that, as they have sat on the problem of dog control for a long time and are now moving towards possible legislation, Cornwall county council should think again.
Let me make the Government's position clear. Although that last argument has been advanced by others, it was not advanced by us. On Report, the Government invited the Committee to look with great care at this provision, and pointed out that no such provision should remain in the Bill unless those on the Committee were satisfied that it was necessary, as there was the byelaw-making power.
I acknowledge that that is the position that my hon. and learned Friend put earlier. Apparently, in previous stages of the Bill, that satisfaction was given by the promoters of the Bill to those examining it, and the case was accepted at that stage.
Labour Members, particularly the hon. Member for Wentsworth, advanced the argument that, because the Government are approaching legislation on this matter, the promoters of the Bill should withdraw clause 19. I speak on behalf of my fellow Members from Cornwall in saying that, with respect, we should resist that invitation from the hon. Member and from others who take that point of view. We do so partly because we must recognise that Cornwall county council and the district councils have spent a considerable amount of money in promoting this Bill. They have not done this lightly but because they think that it is necessary. We do not know at this stage what legislation will be introduced by the Government on this subject. I also point out to hon. Members who are urging us to take this course that, if the Government bring forward legislation dealing with this issue, there is nothing in the Bill to prevent district councils, if they have designated beaches, from withdrawing that designation. I should expect them to do just that if there is satisfactory legislation to deal with this subject.
Let me return to the basic case for clause 19. It was not embarked on lightly by. the county councils and all six of the district councils in Cornwall. As has been said repeatedly on both sides of the House, Cornwall depends on tourism.
I am happy to confirm what my hon. Friend says. Many parish councils have written to us as individual Members. I am sure that they wrote to my hon. Friends long before I arrived at the House a year ago, and they have written to me since then. I accept that, on the other side of the argument, there are people living in Cornwall who do not want this. That is a safeguard.
There will be controversy when district councils implement clause 19, if it is passed. I can envisage the correspondence columns of the West Briton and Royal Cornwall Gazette, the Cornishman, the Cornish Times and the Falmouth Packet being full of letters on this issue. So again, the implementation of clause 19 will not be undertaken lightly. There will be controversy, but I have no hesitation in saying that the district councils and the county council want it and feel that it is necessary. In addition, the five hon. Members who represent Cornwall back it without exception. I therefore commend it to the committee.
|Division No. 435]||[9.07 pm|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Marek, Dr John|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Parry, Robert|
|Cox, Thomas (Tooting)||Skinner, Dennis|
|Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Hardy, Peter||Mr. Robin Corbett and|
|Lofthouse, Geoffrey||Mr. Andrew Bowden.|
|McKay, Allen (Penistone)|
|Adley, Robert||Kennedy, Charles|
|Alexander, Richard||Knight, Gregory (Derby N)|
|Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)||Knox, David|
|Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset)||McCurley, Mrs Anna|
|Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)||Madel, David|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Mawhinney, Dr Brian|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Miller, Hal (B'grove)|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||Miscampbell, Norman|
|Bruce, Malcolm||Mudd, David|
|Budgen, Nick||Murphy, Christopher|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Norris, Steven|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Onslow, Cranley|
|Cash, William||Osborn, Sir John|
|Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)||Penhaligon, David|
|Corrie, John||Pike, Peter|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Pollock, Alexander|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Rooker, J. W.|
|Dykes, Hugh||Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)|
|Forman, Nigel||Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)|
|Forrester, John||Sheldon, Rt Hon R.|
|Forth, Eric||Silvester, Fred|
|Fraser, J. (Norwood)||Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)|
|Freeman, Roger||Soames, Hon Nicholas|
|Glyn, Dr Alan||Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)|
|Greenway, Harry||Squire, Robin|
|Hannam, John||Stradling Thomas, J.|
|Hargreaves, Kenneth||Taylor, John (Solihull)|
|Harris, David||Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)|
|Haselhurst, Alan||Wallace, James|
|Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk)||Waller, Gary|
|Jessel, Toby||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Mr. Robert Hicks and|
|Jones, Robert (W Herts)||Mr. Gerrard Neale.|