I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter in a debate on the Adjournment of the House. I stress at the outset that I do not mean this debate to be a re-run of last night's debate. This debate will focus on a problem which was not at the centre of last night's debate—the threat that dangerous dogs and dangerous breeds of dog pose to human safety in this country today.
I readily acknowledge that we are dealing with what can only be a relatively small section of the dog population. The vast majority of dogs are properly looked after and present no real problems, but that in no way diminishes the importance of this subject. Many people, including children, have been seriously savaged and mauled—some have even been killed—by dogs of dangerous breeds. The House must do whatever is practical, reasonable and responsible to try to reduce the danger of such attacks to an absolute minimum.
We must first try to understand the nature of the problem. I do not believe that Ministers have yet been able to do that. We must consider the problem of guard dogs, which are now being kept as domestic pets. The Minister wrote to me recently estimating that there are as many as 500,000 such dogs in homes across the country. Under the Guard Dogs Act 1975, any guard dog used to protect premises must be under the control of a trained handler at all times or it should be tied up. Any failure to comply with that requirement is an offence which is punishable in law, but no such requirement applies to the 500,000 guard dogs being kept as domestic pets.
I wrote to the Library research department asking for the legal position in respect of dogs kept as domestic pets in Scotland. I received a long answer, which was summed up as follows:
In plain language, what this all means is that dogs are classified as domesticated animals and are therefore not regarded as being inherently dangerous. In normal circumstances, the owner or keeper is expected … to ensure that the dog is kept under proper control, but no more than that. It is only if the dog is known to be dangerous either to people or to other animals that the owner is strictly liable to keep it under control at all times.
I assume that that means that the owner is strictly liable in the same way that owners of guard dogs are strictly liable under the Guard Dogs Act 1975.
I do not believe that that is right. It cannot be right that guard dogs such as rottweilers, pit bull terriers or bull mastiffs should be regarded as so dangerous as to require strict control at all times, but are then considered to be so innocuous at home as to require only the same kind of reasonable care as is necessary for a poodle or a pekinese. In that respect, the law is completely inconsistent and indefensible. The law must be tightened up to take account of the inherently dangerous nature of a number of the new guard dog breeds that increasingly are being brought into this country and kept as pets.
I am not alone in being concerned about the danger posed to human safety by certain breeds of dog rather than by individual dogs that the courts have defined as dangerous because of incidents in which they were
involved. The Daily Record, Scotland's national news-paper, has been running a very effective campaign calling for tighter control of some of the new breeds of dogs. In a special edition on 1 June the Daily Record said:
Today, we list five breeds—named by RSPCA experts—which are potential killers. Danger is deliberately bred into them. And people buy them precisely because they are ferocious, naturally aggressive and frightening—to others.
The dogs to which the Daily Record referred were rottweilers, American pit bull terriers, doberman pinschers, German shepherd dogs and Neapolitan mastiffs. It is not just a question of a campaign in a paper such as the Daily Record drawing our attention to particular breeds of dogs that it believes to be inherently dangerous and that the RSPCA's own experts believe to be inherently dangerous.
The publication Dog World—which is very pro-dog—commented on the incident that led to the death of my own constituent, 11-year-old Kellie Lynch. On 21 April it wrote:
there are a number of general points which have to be made. Firstly, young children, however mature and apparently responsible, should never be left alone with any breed other than the most docile, and especially not with the big guarding breeds. Ninety-nine per cent. of the time there will be no problem, but the consequence of an unforeseeable accident are so appalling that the risk, however well trained the dog is, is not worth taking.
The article then went on to deal with children being allowed to take dogs for walks. It said:
Again, the dogs themselves may appear well-tempered, but it needs only for them to be distracted by, for example, another dog running free, then things can go terribly wrong … And it is asking for trouble to take out two dogs at a time … The dogs may not be intentionally violent; it only needs the child to trip and fall over for the dog's attitude to it to change immediately.
That description—by people whom, I assume, know what they are talking about and who know what are the characteristics of big guard dogs—is quite chilling. I regard such phrases as
the consequences of unforeseeable accidents are so appalling
it needs only for them to be distracted … then things can go terribly wrong
it only needs the child to trip and fall over for the dog's attitude to it to change immediately
as making an unassailable case for the Government to take steps to restrict the ownership of potentially lethal dogs of that kind. However, Ministers have made it absolutely clear that they are prepared to allow a completely free and unrestricted market in the ownership of dogs which have an awesome potential for creating havoc and injury among the population at large.
It is not just the rottweiler breed, which has received so much attention recently, that is a problem. There is the new phenomenon of the American pit bull terrier. That breed of dog is now beginning to appear in this country. According to one television report earlier this week, American pit bull terriers have killed 16 people in the United States of America in just two and a half years. Is that the kind of tragedy that the Minister wants to be repeated in this country, or does he intend to do something about it?
In the same edition of the Daily Record on 1 June Mr. Martin Sinnatt, the secretary of the Kennel Club, which is
no opponent of dogs in general, issued the following chilling warning to anyone thinking about owning a rottweiler. He said:
It's like buying a gun without realising that it might go off one day.
He referred then to the American pit bull terrier, and said that the Kennel Club is now
advising members not to deal with or own them. There is encouragement of the fighting characteristics of this dog by some people. In view of this, we have ruled that no recognition should be accorded to it under any circumstances and that activities involving such dogs should be actively discouraged.
We have to assume that the Kennel Club knows what it is talking about. When it advises its members to have nothing to do with the American pit bull terrier, it really is beyond me that the Government have consistently refused to try to bring the growth in the ownership of American pit bull terriers under control.
When I first raised this matter in the period immediately following the incident in which young Kellie Lynch was killed, the Leader of the House told me that
there has long been legislation to control dangerous dogs, and remedies are available once it is clear that a particular dog is dangerous.
He was referring to dogs that have been proven by the courts to be dangerous—dogs that have already attacked human beings and savaged or possibly killed them. When dogs have attacked human beings, the law can get tough. The Leader of the House then said:
We are therefore not contemplating legislation to control a particular breed or type of dog. However, I shall refer the matter to my right hon. Friend.
By "right hon. Friend" the Leader of the House meant the Home Secretary.
The matter was referred to the Home Secretary, who considered the position in the light of what had happened in Dunoon to my constituent. His answer was published yesterday in the form of a written answer. He simply confirmed the position that had been taken by the Leader of the House on 18 April. Having considered the problem for some time, the Home Secretary agreed with the Leader of the House that the penalties for individual dogs which have been proven to be dangerous would be toughened up. By that time it is too late to get tough with the dog. By then it has already created mayhem and attacked people. The Home Secretary went on to say that no action would be taken to control the ownership or the handling of increasingly fierce breeds of dogs which are now becoming more and more fashionable.
It is not good enough for the Minister to say that this is not a new problem. Of course it is not a new problem. It can be traced back to alsatians, the German shepherd dogs first introduced into this country in the aftermath of the first world war. There are fashions in dogs as there are fashions in everything else that people own. At one time it was alsatians. They have now gone out of fashion. For a while, the alsatian was overtaken by the doberman pinscher, but that breed has now become unfashionable and has given way to the rottweiler. The rottweiler will eventually become unfashionable and give way to another breed of dog—the American pit bull terrier. And who knows what the next might be? There have already been advertisements in this country for animals described as wolf hybrids—they are 75 per cent. wolf—which can be openly bought on the market without any restriction. In America people are free to own pure wolves. Is that the direction in which the Minister suggests that we should go? Should we allow a completely unrestricted market to develop? Should we allow the unrestricted ownership of any kind of lethal and potentially dangerous animal? I hope that that is not the position. Something will have to be done. The Government's response so far has not been good enough. A growing body of informed opinion is calling for the Government to introduce checks arid controls over a problem that is now fast accelerating out of control.
The League for the Introduction of Canine Control publishes newsletters. In newsletter No. 27 it referred to a programme on BBC Radio 4—"Face the Facts"—on 23 February. It said:
the growth of one-man backstreet breeder trainers and thriving businesses selling large guard dogs; these 'security dogs' or 'attacker dogs' sell at £1,000 or more to anyone who can pay. One firm offers already trained Dobermanns, German Shepherds, 15 stone Rottweilers and also Pit-Bull terriers which are bred to bring down even a horse and 'not to give up till it's dead.' The danger of ordinary people owning such dogs is obvious and as Police Inspector Alan Clarke of Keston, said, 'a trained dog is as dangerous as a loaded gun'.
We should compare what was said in that BBC Radio 4 programme about individuals in back streets selling dogs of that kind, which present a lethal threat to other people in society, at high prices with what the Leader of the House said about the sale of such dogs. He said that the breeding of dogs for commercial sale is already controlled by legislation, but that legislation does not necessarily apply to back street sales. He added:
We do not think it sensible to try to extend these controls to private individuals who wish to sell the offspring of pets."—[Official Report, 18 April 1989; Vol. 151, c. 182.]
Is the Minister saying that it is not sensible to bring under control the kind of situation reported in "Face the Facts" and that he sanctions any individual selling American pit hull terriers regardless of the consequences? If so, that is totally unreasonable, and it is time that the Government took action.
It is not just the occasional radio programme, RSPCA inspector's report, or Daily Record survey that adds to the chorus of demand for Government action. Even people associated with some of the breeds involved, such as rottweilers, are themselves concerned. In a recent article in Dog World, rottweiler breeder Mary MacPhail stressed the need to socialise and train them, to enable them to fit into society. She commented:
Breeders must realise that they have a special responsibility to screen rigorously in order to ensure the proper placement of puppies in homes with owners who are able to understand their character and who have the time and inclination to train and exercise them.
The people who know rottweilers best acknowledge that not just anyone can own such dogs but only those who understand the responsibilities involved and who can ensure that their dogs live safely among us.
On the Saturday after my constituent was killed, the Exchange and Mart carried 20 advertisements for rottweillers. Only two suggested that ownership involved any special responsibility. The others said, in effect, "If you have the money, come along and we will hand one of these dogs over to you." Nothing done by the Government so far begins to confront the accelerating ownership of potentially dangerous dogs by people who cannot look after them responsibly. It is not good enough for the Government to say that they will act only when dogs get out of control. Steps should be taken before that happens to prevent pain and suffering being inflicted on totally innocent people.
Recently, I asked the Home Secretary whether he would establish a review committee to consider what could be done to bring the situation under control. He replied that he considers that there is no need for such a body. Perhaps the Minister will explain tonight why there is no need for a professional body to make recommendations to Parliament in respect of a dramatically changing situation. A host of ideas exists for the Government to explore, but that should not be done behind closed doors, between Ministers and civil servants. Those ideas should also be explored openly by public representatives so that they can be properly tested in the public arena.
One proposal, promoted by the RSPCA, is for a compulsory third party insurance scheme covering all dog owners, involving only a small premium for ordinary dogs and domestic pets of the kind that the majority of people own, but higher premiums in respect of rottweilers, alsatians and doberman pinschers, which might discourage casual ownership of certain breeds. Last night, the Secretary of State for the Environment ruled out a national registration scheme, but demand for one will not go away and eventually the Government will have to concede. Meanwhile, they should consider whether specific breeds ought to be subject to a special licence which only certain people would be allowed to hold. The Home Secretary could also consider whether certain breeds should be muzzled in public. Strict regulations should also apply to breeders to catch back-street sales by people knowing nothing about potentially dangerous dogs to others who know even less. Sales of dogs such as rottweilers should also be restricted to one per owner. If the Home Secretary reads about the history of rottweilers, he will learn that they are pack dogs, so if the leader turns on an individual, the others will follow.
The Home Secretary already imposes a requirement on local authorities to license the owners of kestrels or buzzards. Special permission is required to build an aviary for those breeds and to keep them in built-up areas. Yet, there is no restriction on owning a Neapolitan mastiff or a rottweiler, even though they pose a far greater threat to public safety than kestrels or buzzards.
My constituents Mr. and Mrs. Lynch are so concerned that they are organising a national petition to be presented to the Prime Minister. They wrote to the right hon. Lady asking whether she would receive the petition personally. One appreciates that the Prime Minister cannot accept every petition, but she replied that it could certainly be presented at No. 10. Her letter stated, in relation to the Lynch tragedy, that
if it were possible to prevent such an incident from ever occurring again simply by changing the law, I would not hesitate.
It may not be possible to prevent a similar incident, but steps can be taken to minimise the risk. It is incumbent on Ministers to encourage an open and comprehensive debate on methods of bringing the situation under control. Dog registration is a difficult subject, but there should be informed discussion and positive action.
I fully understand the reasons why the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) has chosen to raise the subject of dogs tonight. The whole country was shocked by the attack that two rottweiler dogs made on Kellie Lynch on 14 April. She lived in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to take back to her parents the sympathy of the House. I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already written to express her sympathy to Kellie's mother and grandmother.
My right hon. Friend asked for a review of legislation relating to dangerous dogs within a very short time of learning of Kellie's death. That review was quickly conducted, and the hon. Gentleman knows that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a statement yesterday as to his conclusions, to which I shall refer shortly.
First, I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman's points concerning the Guard Dogs Act 1975, because he may be under a slight misapprehension as to that statute's nature and purpose. That Act is primarily aimed at the use of guard dogs on commercial premises. It specifically excludes farms and domestic dwellings and is framed in terms of the function of the dog rather than, for example, the breed of the dog.
The Act is concerned solely with working dogs that are carrying out the functions of a "guard dog": that is, a dog being used to protect premises, property or, in very narrowly defined circumstances, a person. The Act ensures that those dogs are securely held. It does not control dogs while they are being kept as family pets.
I am grateful to the Minister for trying to explain the difference. Does he accept that there is an increasing fashion, particularly in inner cities such as London and peripheral estates in Scotland where people fear burglary and attack because of the lack of law and order, for keeping dogs specifically to guard their houses and themselves? In those circumstances, would the Guard Dogs Act apply to those dogs?
It is a matter of interpretation. It might be of assistance to the House if I were to go through the Act at some length. That would enable the hon. Gentleman to form a view.
The primary section of the Guard Dogs Act is section 1. It might be helpful if I refresh the memory of the House as to the terms of that section. Section 1(1) of the Guard Dogs Act 1975 provides:
A person shall not use or permit the use of a guard dog at any premises unless a person ("the handler") who is capable of controlling the dog is present on the premises and the dog is under the control of the handler at all times while it is being so used except while it is secured so that it is not at liberty to go freely about the premises.
Section 1(2) continues:
The handler of a guard dog shall keep the dog under his control at all times while it is being used as a guard dog at any premises except—(a) while another handler has control over the dog; or (b) while the dog is secured so that it is not at liberty to go freely about the premises.
Subsection (3) provides:
A person shall not use or permit the use of a guard dog in any premises unless a notice containing a warning that a guard dog is present is clearly exhibited at each entrance to the premises.
It is important to bear in mind that a guard dog has a narrow definition for the purposes of the Act. That definition is to be found in section 7:
'Guard dog' means a dog which is being used to protect
The hon. Gentleman asked me whether the Guard Dogs Act would apply to a dog which is used to guard domestic premises. That is a matter of interpretation, but my initial response—I do not pretend that I am expressing more than a layman's view—is that it could do. If a person was using a dog for any of the purposes set out in the interpretation section of the Act, it might well be that, notwithstanding the fact that the premises being guarded were domestic rather than commercial, the dog would be a guard dog for the purposes of the Act. Ultimately, that is a matter for the courts. I can only give a not particularly well informed view, but that is my view. It is a matter for the House to reflect upon, and it may be that the Guard Dogs Act 1975 would apply.
I realise that neither the Minister nor myself is a legal expert, but is the Minister seriously suggesting that the 500,000 guard dog types which are being kept as domestic pets should be individually tested through the courts to see whether they come under the auspices of the Guard Dogs Act 1975? That is not a realistic proposition.
The hon. Gentleman does me a considerable injustice. I was not suggesting that the matter should be adjudicated in the instance of every single dog which might or might not be a guard dog. That is not the question. The question is whether any old dog is capable of being a guard dog when being used as a guard dog for the purposes of guarding domestic premises.
The answer to that question, at first blush, is yes. If a dog is being used to guard premises that fall within the scope of the 1975 Act—and that does not appear to be confined to commercial premises, subject to what I have already said regarding the interpretation of section 1(1)—it is possible that the dog is a guard dog. But that is subject to one important proviso, which is that the Act expressly excludes farms and domestic dwellings. That proviso limits the scope and the application of section 1, so I ought to modify the opinion that I have previously expressed.
The Act would not apply to most flats, which are clearly domestic premises. It would depend on the flat and on the circumstances in each case. The Act would not apply to domestic premises, and flats arc domestic premises, but it might apply to other premises.
As I have said, the Act is concerned solely with working dogs that are carrying out the functions of a "guard dog": that is, a dog being used to protect premises, property or, in very narrowly defined circumstances, a person. The Act ensures that those dogs are securely held. It does not control dogs while they are being kept as family pets.
Pausing to make a point which must be self-evident, any dog is capable of being a guard dog. I suppose a pekinese is capable of being a guard dog. I had an extremely attractive Welsh springer spaniel, not the kind of dog that one would contemplate as a guard dog, yet he performed most admirably in that role, whereas my rather nice black labrador, which looks formidable, is probably not the kind of dog that one would choose as a guard dog. The definition of a guard dog has nothing to do with the breed but relates to the function that is being performed by the dog at the relevant time.
I foresee many difficulties in following the path which the hon. Gentleman suggests. There is a very great difficulty in defining a guard dog once one has departed from the simple definition used in the Guard Dogs Act, which I have endeavoured to summarise. The Act is not concerned with breeds or type of dog.
Breeds and types of dog have no status in law. The reasons for that are probably self-evident. The evidential problems are great, and cross-breeds are extremely difficult to define and identify. In any case, the evidence of the last few weeks and the tragic attacks which have occurred suggest that dogs of a whole variety of breeds can be dangerous.
We have seen attacks by rottweilers, dobermans and alsatians. We must bear in mind that many alsatians are used as guide dogs. However, I must come back to the fact that spaniels, of which I am particularly fond, are sometimes rather vicious animals. I had a pleasant Welsh springer spaniel of which I was very fond. However, that does not alter the fact that, from time to time, he could be extremely vicious. I am ashamed to say that on one occasion he caught a postman. Worst of all are the Jacks—Jack Russells. My father has had many Jack Russells and they have all been nasty. One Jack Russell—I forget its name—bit my mother three times. The last time was its last bite because it was put down. My point is that Jack Russells can be nasty. My daughter had the misfortune to be caught by another Jack Russell and her face was rather badly bitten.
So there are problems with dogs of all kinds. One must not suppose that the problems are confined to the big and obviously dangerous dogs. I had the misfortune to be bitten twice last year by the same dog on the same evening. It was not a rottweiler, a doberman or an alsatian but a bad-tempered old cross-breed which probably had some terrier and some labrador in it. That dog was very disagreeable. It was guarding a garage. It bit me when I got out of the car and when I went to the garage mechanic's back door, it bit me again. Therefore, one cannot define dangerous dogs by any definition known to the law. Indeed, it was difficult to recognise that dog. One could speculate as to its breed, but one could do no more than that. It certainly could not have been defined in law.
We have to face the fact that there have been attacks by terriers, collies and mongrels and that such attacks are very commonplace. We do not know how many occur. I have heard estimates of 250,000 a year—about 700 a day—or even 1 million a year: nobody really knows. Most dogs present no risk at all. I do not think that there is anything to be gained by trying to define dangerous breeds.
The Minister is missing my point. I am not suggesting that we can define comprehensively what constitutes a dangerous dog. Some dogs will always be dangerous. I am suggesting that some breeds, which have become much more common in recent years, present an entirely different degree of threat to human safety. I do riot believe that a Jack Russell is capable of bringing down a horse and killing it but an American pit bull terrier is. Is the Minister seriously arguing that the American pit bull terrier is not a qualitatively more dangerous and different type of dog from the dogs we traditionally have in this country?
I shall finish my point about the Guard Dogs Act 1975 and then I shall deal specifically with the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, because they require serious and considered attention.
There is another problem with the restricted nature of the Guard Dogs Act. It applies only at the premises on which the dog is held and used. A guard dog outside those premises ceases to be a guard dog within the meaning of the Act. It is a guard dog only when it is employed in that capacity. It is for that reason and the others I have outlined that I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's ingenious solution is the right one.
The hon. Gentleman made two suggestions that are capable of sitting together or of being seen as alternative approaches. His first proposition was that certain classes of dog can be identified and prohibited. His second proposition is that one could set up a licensing system whereby some individuals are authorised to possess dogs which are deemed to be dangerous and some are not. Those two separate propositions need attention, and I shall deal with both.
The hon. Gentleman's first proposition, that some dogs can be defined and prohibited, does not run, for a variety of reasons. Who will determine and by what criteria whether dogs are so dangerous that they should be prohibited? One could say that Parliament should do that, but somebody would have to advise Parliament. What does one do about changing dogs? One of the facts of life which people do not like to remember is that all dogs are man-made; they are no longer natural. If we were to pass a prohibition order on, for example, the American pit bull terrier, it would not be long before somebody developed a dog which had all the characteristics of an American pit bull terrier but which was something different. Therefore, we would have to have an extraordinarily precise and quickly responding system for identifying and translating into the prohibited classes dogs which are manufactured—I make no apology for using that word.
There is another problem associated with the policy of prohibition. What does one do about cross-breeds and half breeds? One might take the view that a dog with one American pit bull terrier parent is an American pit bull terrier, but there would be many problems of identification. Would it be defined by temperament or appearance? What would happen if one parent was an American pit bull terrier and the other was a Newfoundland? At what point would the definitional test bite—if I may put it that way? Should a dog that is one quarter American pit bull terrier fall within the prohibited category?
Is the Minister suggesting that, because it is possible to cross-breed the terrier, he is happy to allow into the country dogs with a record of killing 16 people in two and a half years? Is he prepared to tolerate that simply because it might be difficult to define that dog? It would he possible to say that any American pit bull terrier or any dog sired by an American pit hull terrier should be prohibited in this country.
I am against nonsense. I am trying to explain why the hon. Gentleman's proposition is manifest nonsense. It sounds splendid to say that one should prohibit the American pit bull terrier. Standing by itself, that proposition has appeal. However, when one begins to examine it, one sees that it is nonsense. When does an American pit bull terrier cease to be an American pit bull terrier? A dog with one American pit bull terrier parent is partly an American pit bull terrier. However, would it fit that definition for the purposes of the prohibition orders?
Of course it might, but we have to have a legal system that is capable of identifying and prohibiting an animal and enforcing the law against it.
That is a different point. I shall deal with registration if the hon. Gentleman wishes me to do so. It might be a good thing if I did.
But just for the moment let us focus on the question of the half American pit bull terrier. Is it an American pit bull terrier for the purposes of a prohibition order? What happens if a parent mated with a particularly docile breed of dog, so that the puppy had no aggressive characteristics? Is it then an American pit bull terrier? What happens if it has but one eighth in it? Is it an American pit bull terrier? The hon. Gentleman must work such points out before he commends the prohibition order to the House.
The Minister must realise that it is not justifiable to sit back and do nothing because it is difficult to do everything. Just because it is difficult to identify cross-breeds does not mean that pure bred American pit bull terriers should not be prohibited. It may not solve the problem entirely, but it would be a significant step towards solving it, and it may save a number of lives in Britain. Is that not worth trying for?
Yes, of course it is worth trying for. As I shall explain to the House, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has brought forward a range of proposals which will do quite a lot and upon which I hope the House will legislate in due course. But we must not pass nonsense simply because we have a problem. Problems must be confronted in a sensible and rational way, not in a silly way. I hope that I have persuaded the hon. Gentleman—I rather think that I have—that the idea of simply prohibiting an American pit bull terrier is a non-runner.
The Minister has in no way persuaded me that to prohibit one breed of dog is a non-runner. It may not be possible to prohibit every dog in the country with a strain of that breed in it, but it is possible to prohibit the pure breed itself. I am suggesting that, although it would not solve the problem entirely, it may be of some significance and it may save the occasional life, and for that reason it would be worth trying.
The hon. Gentleman has just explained clearly why such a prohibition would be rubbish. He said it may not be possible to prohibit the cross-breed; it may be possible only to prohibit the pure breed. At that point, no pure breed will be imported, only cross-breeds, which are not caught by the prohibition. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman will have achieved a prohibition which applies only to pure breeds and has no relevance to cross-breeds simply because cross-breeds are not capable of definition in law. That is the problem.
Let me embark upon a consideration of the other interesting argument advanced by the hon. Gentleman:that we should set up some licensing system which would enable somebody—I shall explore who in a moment—to give or to deny specific individuals the right to own certain classes of dog. That is another proposition to which the hon. Gentleman referred obliquely, which, on occasion, has been canvassed publicly by others.
Let us contemplate what is being discussed. First, let us come back to the old question of, which dog? Presumably the licensing system will not apply to all dogs. Or are we to have a licensing system that applies to all dogs, so that a person has to go to somebody before he can buy a pekinese? I do not suppose that the hon. Gentleman is recommending that. Therefore, we start from the proposition that the licensing scheme which the hon. Gentleman is considering applies only to some classes of dogs. What classes? We are back to where we started. What is to be done about cross-breeds, half-breeds and quarter-breeds? The answer is that dogs cannot be defined in such a way that they are capable of identification in statutory terms. If the parentage is altered to some degree, a different animal will be created. Therefore, that approach is clearly unsustainable.
The next question—although one does not need to deal with it because the premise is unsound—is, who will be responsible for the licensing? I sincerely hope that the hon. Gentleman will not tell me that the overworked police force should he responsible for licensing. Goodness knows how many hundreds of thousands of people would apply to possess a variety of dogs—for example, alsatians, dobermans, collies or mongrels. Who will grant the licence? Will it be the police, the local authority, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or you, Madam Deputy Speaker, in your spare time? Those are the kinds of questions that one must ask oneself before advancing such a policy.
What about the criteria? Let us assume that dogs to which the licensing procedures apply can be defined and that somehow some long-suffering village constable can be prevailed upon to issue licences in his village. What standards is he to apply? Are they to have regard to the comfort of the dog or the comfort of the house where the dog is to live, to the character of the owner or to the purpose of use?
One of the criteria to which they could have regard would he whether the owner was capable of keeping the dog in a safe pen or stockade at night, and if he was not capable of providing such a facility, he would be denied the right to own that dog. The Minister is arguing for completely free and unrestricted ownership of any kind of animal. Is he suggesting that, because a wolf hybrid is a cross-breed, he would encourage people to own them and use them in public in Britain?
The hon. Gentleman has once again demonstrated why the proposition will not run. He has suggested that one criterion—not the only one—should be the ability of the dog's owner, or its prospective owner, to keep the dog in secure circumstances at night. That means that the licensing authority, whoever that might be, will have to go along at night, or some other convenient time, to see the accommodation, to look at the fences and see how secure they are, what the locks are like, where the dog will be, and what will happen when the owners go out for a drink at the pub.
We heard yesterday that there were about 7·5 million dogs.
The hon. Gentleman fairly reminds me that it was an estimate. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman wants to extend the licensing system to all 7·5 million dogs, but let us assume that he wants to extend it to, say, half.
The Minister is being offensive in the light manner in which he is dealing with this serious subject. If he had listened to my contribution to begin with, which most of the time he did not, he would have heard me say that RSPCA experts had defined five breeds of dogs which are particularly dangerous and to which such a system could apply.
The RSPCA is not the final arbiter on the matter. If we are to have a licensing authority and a licensing system, it must be just and the House must decide to which dogs it applies. We would probably all agree that it should apply to a rottweiler. We are told that there are between 90,000 and 180,000 of those. We would probably agree that is should apply to dobermans. I suspect that people would probably urge us to apply it to alsatians. If I judge correctly, there are several hundred thousand of those. I am sure that a Staffordshire bull terrier would be caught in the net. I remember that my housemaster at school had a particularly beastly one called a hog dog; it was an extremely fierce animal which certainly could not be excluded from the licensing system. Many other dogs would have to be subject to control if one went down that road.
One cannot say that control would apply to three or four well known breeds, because that would not rub. One must enlarge the category for licensing so that a lot of dogs are caught by it; otherwise, it is not reasonable. Once one has gone down that road, one is faced with an absurdity because one is regulating the possession of certainly hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of creatures. One simply cannot impose on any central authority the burden of that type of licensing role.
You may recall, Madam Deputy Speaker, that last year I had the responsibility of dealing with firearms. That was a serious issue and we had to consider whether it was possible for the local constabulary to carry out proper inquiries into the ownership and safe keeping of, for example, large-magazine self-loading shotguns. Many people told me that we were putting an impossible burden on to the police. I never accepted that, but it was said by many, including Opposition Members. If it was considered impossible to have control over a few tens of thousands of shotguns, surely we are talking about a total impossibility in respect of the many hundreds of thousands, not to say millions, of dogs that fall into the category we are currently discussing.
It would not necessarily be the police who were given this responsibility. Many hon. Members have been trying to press the Government to establish a properly funded registration scheme. That would mean that dog wardens could be employed by local authorities to take on the responsibility for operating the system.
I am perfectly prepared to contemplate that possibility. Last night, the hon. Gentleman commended to us a dog registration scheme, but let us consider what the hon. Gentleman has just said.
What he is proposing as a possibility is that a clog warden employed under the scheme should have the responsibility to determine whether particular individuals should or should not have the right to own a particular class of dog. All right, but what kind of person will be employed as a dog warden? To whom is that dog warden to be accountable? Would most people want to have their right to possess a particular animal determined by the kind of person who is likely to be employed as a dog warden? That is a serious question to ask.
We would have to have an appeal system, because, once one decides to refuse someone the right to have a dog, one must set up an appeal system. After all, that is what we do in the case of firearms. You will bear in mind from your intimate knowledge of the firearms system, Madam Deputy Speaker, that, when one is refused a section 1 certificate, or in certain circumstances a shotgun certificate, one has the right to go to the Crown court to appeal. One could not do less in respect of a person who had been refused ownership of a dog. That person would have to have the right to appeal to the Crown court, with all the paraphernalia that that would entail.
I referred to this, but obviously the Minister was not listening. Local authorities already have the right to refuse to let someone keep a kestrel in a built-up area. That person, however, can appeal to the elected members of the authority. There would be no need for anyone to go to the Crown court or anything else. If we had a properly run, effective dog warden scheme at local authority level with funds provided by a proper licensing system, none of this would be a problem.
Come, come. If a person was denied the right by a dog warden to possess a dog, that could hardly he the final decision. One could hardly allow a dog warden, whoever that person may be, to have the final say-so as to whether another individual should possess a dog.
The Minister has totally missed the point. This House would lay down the guidelines that dog wardens would be asked to apply locally. The House would set down the criteria that would have to be met before someone could own a dog. It would not be the decision of the dog warden, but the decision of the House, after a proper informed debate, as to what criteria could be applied. I plead with the Minister to get this matter sorted out in the open rather than in an obscure Adjournment debate when no one is here.
A most bizarre proposition is coming from the Labour party. It is suggested that we should lay down a code of practice, or at least guidance, for the instruction of a dog warden, who would then be able to interpret that guidance or code of practice as he thought fit, without being subject to any external intervention. That is a form of tyranny.
Of course it is. If one allows some official—I regret to say that he is unlikely to be highly paid or particularly well qualified—to interpret a range of rules without a right to appeal, one has set up a tyranny.
That is absolute nonsense. The Minister is blethering a load of rubbish. The Minister knows that local authorities undertake a series of activities, and if individuals feel that they have been in any way tyrannised by any local authority official, they can appeal to the ombudsman system for justice. That prevents such tyranny, and the same could apply in relation to dogs. There is no question of tyranny.
We are now getting rather close to the true voice of Socialism. In this connection, some official, probably not a senior official, should have the right, without any appeal or redress, to tell ordinary people that they can or cannot possess a dog. If one does it in respect of dogs, why not do it in respect of everything else? One could decide that certain people should not have a car or that someone should not have a firearm because Mr. Bloggins down at the county council thinks they should not. Once one starts to look at that proposition slowly and carefully, one sees that it is rubbish. The proposition that the hon. Gentleman must grasp is that if one gives to a dog warden the ability to refuse or grant a licence, that must be the subject of some appeal mechanism.
Various mechanisms could be applied short of going to the highest court in the land to sustain an appeal. The Minister is talking nonsense. Yesterday, the Home Secretary said that he would take the power to ban certain individuals from having the right to own a dog. The same applies to people's right to own a car if people have shown that they are not capable of accepting the responsibility of that ownership. The Minister is defending the right of individuals to own whatever animal they want, but what about the rights of parents? Surely they have the right to know that their children are safe when they play in the parks. Does the Minister want to give them certain rights—for example, the right to life?
Of course, and I shall tell the House of the propositions that the Home Secretary has in mind. First, however, we must dispose of the nonsense that we have heard tonight. Incidentally, I do not want to rub it in, but the Crown court is not the highest court in the land. It is the court that is frequently used for the purpose of appeals in circumstances such as this. That is why I selected it. It is the court, for example, that deals with appeals in the case of firearms, with which there is an analogy. Under section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968, as amended by the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, a person must establish a good reason to possess a rifle or pistol. If the certificate is not issued, that person has the right to appeal to the Crown court. That bears a close analogy to what we are discussing now.
We are contemplating a dog warden, not a police constable I note—the hon. Gentleman does not want to involve the police, but dog wardens, whoever they may be for that purpose—granting licences. The least the hon. Gentleman could do is to accept that there should be a proper right of appeal. I hasten to add, however, that I am reasonably content that the appeal should be to the justices. For the purposes of consistency of approach I was referring to the Crown court, but I am perfectly willing to use the justices.
The most difficult issue that faces the hon. Gentleman is the number of dog wardens who must be employed. He and I remember the debates of last night about the cost of a registration scheme. I remember one figure, given at about 2.30 in the morning, of a one-off payment of £60 to £65 in respect of each dog registered. The other approach was an annual charge of £15, again in respect of each dog registered.
However, that assumed that the sole function of dog wardens would be to collect strays. If, as we are told, one of the important functions of a dog warden would be the licensing of the many thousands—probably tens of thousands—of eligible dogs within the area of that district council, we will not be talking about one warden, 50 wardens or even 300 wardens; we will be talking about needing thousands of dog wardens, especiallyif they have to work at night looking at the safe-keeping arrangements that the applicants are proposing to put in place.
There would be no need for thousands of wardens. My suggestion was simply a possibility. The licensing committees of the local authorities could decide whether such licences should be issued, just as they decide about other licences for other purposes. There are millions of cars in this country, but we do not need thousands of wardens to check whether everyone has a licence. There are ways of making sure that a licence system operates effectively without involving thousands of wardens.
Surely it is not beyond the wit of the Minister or his civil servants to come up with something along those lines. They should be looking at that. I am simply suggesting that the Government should acknowledge that further action is required. They must look closely at how they can bring the ownership of such dogs under some control, because if they do not, other people will be killed.
I have noticed that the hon. Gentleman's approach to this matter is to put up a suggestion and then, when I have knocked it down and destroyed it, to say, "I didn't mean that. Perhaps something else could be thought up." Then we go through the same procedure all over again. That approach is nonsense.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue for a moment with the issue of dog wardens.
About 1,000 dog wardens could be needed in the south Keston district area, especially if they have to visit the home of every applicant. Let us be generous and say 500. In that instance, we would certainly not be talking about £60 in respect of each dog as a one-off charge or about £15 per year. We would be talking about hundreds of pounds.
The Minister is setting up coconuts on stalls just to knock them down. Nobody is suggesting anything of the kind. The Minister has no evidence or data to sustain his argument. He is simply saying that if he says it, it must be the case and that the argument follows from that and that is nonsense. The hon. Gentleman is the Minister responsible for something that is causing a lot of pain and suffering to people outside this House. He should get rid of the flippant attitude that he has shown throughout this debate and start to tackle the problem seriously. He should stop setting up Aunt Sallies just to knock them down and talk about what he can do to bring the problem under control.
I have simply been responding to points made by the hon. Gentleman. I never suggested, in the first instance, that dog wardens should be the licensing authority. That was the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. Similarly, it was his suggestion that there should be a licensing authority. The hon. Gentleman has made a proposition, and I have had the courtesy to examine it. He must not blame me for making the status of dog wardens an essential part of the debate when he raised that point in the first place. I should never have been so silly as to think of that idea.
The hon. Gentleman thought that there was an analogy between cars and dogs and that these licences could be granted on the nod. However, the hon. Gentleman has forgotten two things. First, one has to pass a test to have a car. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that there should be tests for the ownership of certain classes of dogs?
The Minister has argued throughout on the basis that there will be tests for the ownership of some dogs. Deciding whether the applicant meets the criteria is in itself a kind of test. Although the Minister has made that assumption throughout, he is now treating it as if it were a revolutionary idea that has just been thought up. The Minister is not suggesting that, because we have tests for cars, we need thousands of instructors in every city. The people who carry out the tests are small in number, but they seem to cope.
Let us look at the criteria. Car tests comprise a test in skill in driving. There are not all that many driving test applicants each year. However, we are talking about potentially 2 million to 3 million dogs being the subject of the licensing and about somebody having to apply and monitor the criteria and then having to grant a licence.
The Minister is assuming that there will be between 2 million and 3 million dogs. My only suggestion was that made by the RSPCA's experts, who identified five specific breeds. The Minister is spreading the argument beyond those five breeds simply for the convenience of his own argument and so that he can produce a figure of between 2 and 3 million dogs. Neither the Minister nor I knows what the number is because nobody in this country knows the true number of dogs. However, whatever the number, the initial licensing process will occur only once.
This issue should be examined in detail and not be the subject of a flippant exchange between the Minister and myself. There should be expert committees. However, when I asked the Home Secretary whether he would set up such a committee to consider the problems and the suggestions, he said that he did not see any need for it. Why does the Minister think that there is not a need to examine these things in detail, and why does he treat them as a matter for light debate in this place?
I am not treating these issues lightly. I am responding to specific suggestions made by the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Gentleman has rightly said that the RSPCA has identified a number of breeds, but it has certainly not identified all the dangerous breeds, and it has not even begun to address the question of cross-breeds or quarter-breeds, because it cannot.
Is the hon. Gentleman considering a one-off licensing system or an annual licensing system? In the nature of things, people's circumstances and conditions change. Would a person who moves house have to apply for a new licence? The hon. Gentleman has himself told us that one important criterion—indeed, the only one that he mentioned—is the ability of an applicant to keep his or her animal securely at night. The ability of a person to do so will clearly depend on the conditions in which he or she is living. When someone moves house, those conditions change, so would a further application be necessary?
Why does the Minister always find a reason or excuse for taking no action in this matter when, in relation to the poll tax, for which local authorities will find thousands of people's circumstances changing every week, local authorities are expected not only to register the changes but to send out notices to the individuals concerned about those changes in their circumstances? I have discovered today that, in Tayside region, 5,000 changes will be made to the poll tax register every week. If the Minister does not find that a problem, why does he think that there will be a problem with notifying changes in a system for trying to keep dangerous breeds of dogs under control?
The hon. Gentleman has made two points. I am not commending that we do nothing; I am commending—as I shall outline when the hon. Gentleman permits me to do so—that we do what the Home Secretary says that we should do. My right hon. Friend has made his statement in a written answer.
There is no analogy between what the hon. Gentleman has been forced to consider—an annual licensing system for dogs—and the community charge. Of course, when somebody moves house, they notify their change of address to the authorities. That is the beginning and the end of it. However, in the context of the licensing scheme that the hon. Gentleman is considering for a number of dogs that are incapable of definition, the criteria have to be re-examined when the change of address occurs, because the applicant's circumstances then become different. If one moves from, for example, a house in rural Lincolnshire to the middle of Grantham, one's circumstances change. Although one could very well keep a range of big dogs in rural Lincolnshire, that might not be possible in the centre of Grantham in a block of flats.
The point that I am putting to the hon. Gentleman, and which he is so unwilling to grasp, is that under his scheme, when there is a change of circumstances, an inquiry would have to be made about the ability of the applicant, whose circumstances had changed, securely to house the dog at night in those new circumstances. What happens if the authority decides that the applicant cannot house the dog securely at night in those new circumstances? Is it to be put down? I wonder what the RSPCA would have to say about that.
I am not speaking on behalf of the RSPCA; I am simply trying to press the Minister to take some sort of action to control a problem that is becoming ever more dangerous. His alternative is to do nothing—to let dogs be kept by entirely unsuitable owners who do not keep them under control but let them loose in the community, putting others at risk. That is not good enough.
The hon. Gentleman is rather confused. I understand that: most members of the Labour party are normally fairly confused. The hon. Gentleman is merely confused in particular, whereas they are confused in general. That, however, is not an excuse for not remembering what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment said at some length last night, what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said yesterday in a parliamentary answer and what—when the hon. Gentleman permits me—I am going to say this evening.
The intellectual quality of the hon. Gentleman's stance—I trust that I am putting this gently and courteously—is not terribly appealing. He is really saying that it is better to do nonsense than to do nothing. When driven into a corner he admits, at least implicitly, that what he has been saying is nonsense. When pressed on a specific point, he will say, "I did not really mean that; I had something rather different in mind."
Let us move on to what I suggest should be done. We should consider with some care how we are to control dangerous dogs. A number of statutes provide protection against dogs: I shall deal primarily with England and Wales, because, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, I do not answer for Scotland, and Scottish legislation in this regard is different.
In England and Wales there are three primary statutes. The Town Police Clauses Act 1847 makes it an offence to have an unmuzzled ferocious dog at large—that is, off a lead—in a street, park or open place in most urban areas. Thus, if a dog is ferocious and does not have a muzzle, its owner commits a criminal offence, for which the penalty is a fine of up to £400.
Let me pause there to make a serious point. I think that it is at least possible that some classes of dog would be deemed by the courts to be ferocious without the necessity to prove any particular propensity to violence in a particular dog. I suggest—this is just an idea, not a legal opinion—that in the case of the American pit bull terrier, which was pure-bred and manifested all the characteristics of that breed, the court might be prepared to treat it as a ferocious animal even if there was no evidence that that animal had threatened or injured anyone. The 1847 Act, where it applies—which is primarily in urban areas—may be a remedy that is already available in respect of the dog to which the hon. Gentleman drew attention.
Obviously, if a rottweiler had threatened or injured a person, it would then become a ferocious animal for the purposes of the 1847 Act. I do not think that a rottweiler per se—that is, without proof of some previous injury or propensity to injure—would be treated as a ferocious animal, but once there was some reason to think that it was dangerous or likely to injure someone it would, I think, become one.
The reasons for the distinction are those that the hon. Gentleman has himself advanced in his many interesting interventions. I think that an American pit bull terrier is essentially a fighting dog, bred for that purpose. No one would say that that was true of a rottweiler: rottweilers are guard dogs.
I had the pleasure of meeting representatives of the Council of Docked Breeds recently, one of whom was the secretary or chairman of the Rottweiler Society. There are 90,000, and although some may be fierce and clearly are, it would be wrong to regard the majority of the breed in that way. That is probably not true of the American pit hull terrier, although it is probably fair to say that the majority of that breed have a propensity to violence, which might well classify them as ferocious animals within the meaning of the 1847 Act. It is at least quite likely that the 1847 Act would prohibit someone from keeping unmuzzled in a public place an American pit hull terrier—or, for that matter, any dog that could be properly regarded as ferocious by reason either of its breed or its past record or present circumstances.
Allowing a ferocious dog off the lead without a muzzle is a serious matter which I do not think that people fully appreciate. They should know that the courts already have powers to deal with them severely. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that, in Scotland, similar powers exist—although expressed in a more modern form—in the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982.
Civil liability in respect of injury or damage caused by dogs in Scotland is regulated by the Animals (Scotland) Act 1987. In England and Wales it is regulated by the Animals Act 1971, which provides that the keeper of an animal is liable for any damage that it causes if he knew that the animal was likely to cause such damage or injury if unrestrained. The two Acts allow those who have been attacked and injured to claim damages.
It will, of course, depend on proof of knowledge on the part of the defendant, and that knowledge flows from the defendant's knowledge of a particular dog and of the way that it is likely to respond in specific circumstances. I fully appreciate that no amount of compensation could make good the loss of the daughter of the hon. Gentleman's constituents, but those Acts apply in a number of cases of injury.
I wish, however, to focus on a third piece of legislation, which is of critical importance. It is legislation that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is hoping that the House will amend, preferably soon. I refer to the Dogs Act 1871, which applies throughout Great Britain. Under that Act, anyone can complain to a court—
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for that indication. With your permission, I have it in mind to outline not very detailed proposals of the legislative kind but broad trends of policy.
Order. I hope the Minister will not do that. That would be in breach of our Standing Orders, and I could not allow him to do that.
May we see how far I can go, Madam Deputy Speaker? I should like to give an indication of what we have in mind, without in any way breaching the rules of order. Perhaps we can inch along on this matter, and you will tell me if I have gone too far.
Order. I have listened carefully to all that has been said throughout the debate and I shall continue to do that. The Minister can rest assured that I will call him to order immediately he gets close to the mark.
You are, as ever, most gracious in these matters, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I shall do my best not to go too far.
Let us examine the foundations of the statute. The principal legislation is the Dogs Act 1871. Under that measure, anyone can complain to a court that a dog is dangerous, or simply report the matter to the police. If the court is satisfied that the dog is dangerous and not kept under proper control, it can make an order for the dog to be controlled or destroyed. So far so good, Madam Deputy Speaker, because that is descriptive only of the present legislation.
I, too, am concerned with that, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I hope that we can proceed in a state of accord.
As the House knows, the Home Secretary has decided that the powers available to the court on a complaint under the Dogs Act should perhaps be extended and the penalties enhanced. That is a general statement of intent. The problem is that, as the Act stands, if a dog is to be destroyed, that must be carried out by the owner, who may decline to carry out the order. The only penalty currently available for that is a fine off £1 a day. In 1871, that fine was considerable. It is manifestly not considerable today.
One could take the view that that was a gap in the law. The Home Secretary is also minded to think that it is a gap in the law and, speaking generally and without, as it were, expressing a precise view on how the legislation should be changed, one way to deal with such a problem might be to give the court power to designate a third party as the person to carry out the destruction order.
Thus it would be possible under such an approach—not that I am proposing legislation on this occasion—for a court to designate, say, an officer of police to carry out the destruction order. That would avoid the problem that can arise under the present legislation. If one were to adopt that approach, it would ensure that dogs which needed to be put down were put down.
I have mentioned that the fine is a problem. There is clearly a case for the House to consider whether we should change the law to a degree so that failure to comply with an order to control a dog or hand it over to be destroyed should be an offence carrying a significant penalty, certainly a penalty greater than £1 a day. A figure that might occur to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would be a fine of up to level 3 in the standard scale, which is £400. That is a thought that might occur to the House in considering possible approaches to legislation of this kind. If one wanted to do that, a penalty under the 1871 Act would make prosecution under the Act more worth while and greatly enhance the enforcement of the Act.
There is another possibility which I think would attract the hon. Member for Dundee, East. It is that there is no power under the 1871 Act for the court to prohibit a person from owning a dog in future for a specified period. Plainly, where there has been a finding under section 2 of the 1871 Act, there is a case for saying that a court should have the additional power to make an order disqualifying an owner from having custody of a dog for such a period as the court thinks fit. One would need to refer to the parliamentary answer by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to see exactly what he had in mind, because I must not say in the course of the debate what he had in mind. If that is what he had in mind, it would be a completely new power under the Act. Its effect would be to ensure that dangerous dogs which are not or cannot be controlled are destroyed.
Owners who failed to observe an order of the court would receive a substantial fine and the court would have the additional ability to ban such a person from having custody of a dog. If at some stage the House gave the court the ability to ban a person from possessing a dog in future, the House would have to consider what penalties should be imposed in the event of the person failing to comply with the disqualification order. I propose no legislation, because I am not permitted to do so. However, the House might well think that a level 5 penalty, which is presently set at a maximum of £2,000, might be appropriate.
Somebody who refuses to comply with an order to control his dog or hand it over for destruction may be banned. It follows that anybody who tries in such circumstances to resist the operation of the Act would, if the court so decided, become liable for the £2,000 fine or whatever the level 5 fine might be at the time. That would be a considerable extension of the court's powers under the 1871 Act.
In future, the House might well consider giving to the courts the power to ban somebody from possessing a dog, and it might also give the court a power to designate a third party to carry out a destruction order. The House might well decide that it wanted to increase the fine for findings under section 2 of the 1871 Act to a scale 3 fine. If the House decided on such a course of action it would undoubtedly constitute an important enhancement of the legislative powers that are available. If the House wanted to make the changes that I have contemplated in respect of the Dogs Act 1871, there would be a similar desire for a change in the legislation in Scotland. I suspect that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland would wish to see that, and no doubt other hon. Members would also like to see it.
I had hoped that the hon. Member for Dundee, East and the whole House would come to the view that the simple and effective changes to the Dogs Act that I have contemplated would be an appropriate response to the problem. I hope that, if this approach proves attractive to the hon. Member for Dundee, East and to the House, changes could be implemented as speedily as the House can manage. It would be good if a suitable legislative opportunity could be found to give the House an opportunity to contemplate the kind of changes that I have envisaged.
I cannot pretend to the House that the tragic circumstances which have brought about the debate and which helped to bring about our view of the dog legislation can be prevented by changes in legislation, however sweeping. If there is one lesson to be learned from our review of the legislation in England and Wales it is that the responsibility for the control of dogs rests much more on their owners than upon the framework of law.
The House can take legislative steps to control dogs, like anything else, but the effectiveness of those steps in practice depends very largely on how people respond to their responsibilities. It is therefore important to ensure that any legislative changes which we make this time are measured, sensible and well aimed. That is why I was quarrelling with the hon. Gentleman. It is not that I think that this matter is unimportant; it is that I am concerned that we should introduce only changes which are viable and not pomote changes which are simply unsustainable.
What I fail to understand is that the Minister qualified many of the other suggestions that have been made by people outside the House as unviable, and particularly suggested that the prohibition of certain species was unviable because of the cross-breed problem. How does that apply to the suggestion that American pit bull terriers should be muzzled in public? How does that come into the problem of the cross-breeds in that respect?
This is a slightly different point. If one is to have a prohibition order, one has in statutory terms to define the dog to which that order applies. For the purpose of an importation prohibition order, or for that matter a possession prohibition order, one cannot define the dog other than by reference to breed. One cannot simply say that everybody is prohibited from possessing a ferocious dog. One can say that, when a ferocious dog is kept in particular circumstances, an offence is committed. One cannot say that no ferocious dog shall be imported into the United Kingdom, because that is an unenforceable piece of legislation. One can say that Latin American pit bull terriers cannot be imported into the United Kingdom.
I do not want to go back to what I was doing previously with regard to the hon. Gentleman, but what is an American pit bull terrier? That is a serious question. Obviously, a pure-bred American pit bull terrier is an American pit bull terrier, but what about a half-breed or a cross-breed? How does one recognise a dog which has in it a sufficient quantity of Amerian pit bull terrier genes to give it the characteristics of an American pit bull terrier but also has different parentage? It loses the definitional character, and therefore the prohibition cannot operate because it is nonsense if one focuses on breeds.
It is the point about the 1847 Act that is troubling the hon. Gentleman. That Act provides in effect that where one has a ferocious animal one has to do certain things: for example, keep it on a leash and keep a muzzle on it. The question is: what is a ferocious animal? That is not a definitional question; that is a question of fact.
I think it is possible, although I do not express a definite view on this, that the courts would be prepared to say that an American pit bull terrier, having regard to its pedigree and essential characteristics, was per se a ferocious animal. I do not think that such a finding would be applied to many dogs, but it might be applied to an American pit bull terrier.
With that exception, one has to apply the test in the context of any dog that is capable of falling within it. Any dog is capable of being ferocious. Therefore, under the 1847 Act, I think it is true that a very small number of a breed may per se be ferocious, otherwise one is looking at the characteristics of the particular dog in respect of which the summons is issued.
If the hon. Gentleman will reflect on it he will see why, on the one hand, it is impossible to prohibit possession and importation by way of breed, while on the other it is possible to express the view that perhaps American pit bull terriers would per se fall within the 1847 legislation.
The point that I am making, therefore, is that it is essential that any legislative changes we make should be measured, sensible and well aimed. They must also, incidentally, command the support of the public and not act against the large numbers of dog owners whose animals present no nuisance and therefore no threat. We think that the kind of changes—not going into detail, Madam Deputy Speaker—
I know, but fortunately I am tacking, so I am not getting that close.
We think that the proposals which my right hon. Friend outlined yesterday meet these criteria. Courts are familiar with the 1871 Act, and it may well be that the House will wish to give the courts the powers and discretion that they require. I recommend that approach to the House. Those who have a dog which is uncontrolled and has become dangerous, whether it be a rottweiler, a doberman, an alsatian, a terrier or the indefinable mongrel that bit me twice last year, should be in no doubt that they will be dealt with by the courts. In such circumstances their dog could be destroyed and they could be banned from owning another.
I very much hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will feel that this is the proper way forward.