Dangerous Dogs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:26 pm on 15th June 1989.

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Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 7:26 pm, 15th June 1989

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.