Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:26 pm on 10th January 2005.

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Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup 6:26 pm, 10th January 2005

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate. I shall concentrate on the animal welfare aspects of the Bill, about which I questioned the Secretary of State during her opening remarks. Many colleagues in the House know me best for my partiality to cats, as I have been chief executive of the largest feline welfare charity in Britain. I am delighted to see Dr. Palmer in his place. He is a distinguished supporter of cat protection. However, the subject of my remarks tonight is dogs.

As a result of my work with cats, I have frequently come into contact with the dog welfare charities in our country, particularly the larger ones, such as the Dogs Trust and the Kennel Club. Because of that contact, a number of them have raised with me their concerns about the content of the Bill. They are not against the Bill and they are not cynical about it, but they have concerns, which they have also expressed to my hon. Friend Mr. Amess, who is a remarkable champion of animal welfare. I am delighted that he is present, and I hope that he will catch Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye to raise our concerns.

The Minister kindly wrote to us during the parliamentary recess. His letters during a recess are always welcome and make relaxing reading. On page 2 of his letter he extolled the fact that the Bill would bring in a "simplified system" for dealing with stray animals. The Bill repeals section 3 of the Dogs Act 1906, which gives the police power to seize stray dogs in public places. The Bill also amends section 150 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which gives the opportunity for dogs to be taken to police stations when they are found. The responsibility will pass from the police—not that they were dealing with it exclusively—to local authorities. That may well work, but a number of us have reasonable doubts. I hope that my hon. Friend Miss McIntosh, who will represent the Opposition in Committee, will press the Government in detail. I wish I could be there to support her, but as I shall be chairing the Committee considering the Identity Cards Bill next door, I shall have to wait for the breaks to find out what progress she is making.

The council dog warden scheme is remarkable. There are many dedicated men and women out there in the most dreadful conditions and weather, in poky little vans, doing a great deal to round up stray dogs and find their owners or, if they cannot, have the dogs taken into care. The dog wardens, who are represented on a number of animal welfare charity forums, do a splendid job for pretty poor pay and in dreadful working conditions. They do that job pretty well 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. There are exceptions, but not many.

Out-of-hours cover is necessarily provided by the police. Although the Government will doubtless elucidate this in Committee, I can find no reference in the Bill to what will happen after 5 pm or before 9 am and on Saturdays and Sundays, when council dog wardens are not available. No doubt the Minister will also tell us the cost involved, but that too is not really dealt with in the Bill.

Where will a wandering dog be taken? If a dog is worrying children in a park, who will come? Most people would think of calling the police, for not enough dog wardens are floating around local authority areas for them to be on patrol as often as the police should be. In many of our constituencies, there is likely to be confusion over who is responsible for controlling stray dogs that worry children in public play areas.

In an excellent briefing, which I hope will be given to those appointed to the Committee—if not, I shall ensure that they receive it—the Kennel Club poses a number of very good questions about that, and about the cost issue. A 1998 independent study estimated the council cost at some £15 million, but the O'Dowd report on police costs suggested £1.8 million. I am no mathematician, but even I can work out that there is a bit of a gap between £1.8 million and £15 million. Clearly it is difficult to put a figure on this, but it is incumbent on the Government to do so if they expect the House to change arrangements that have been in force for so many decades. I hope that the programme motion will give the Committee an opportunity to consider the issue in some detail.

It is not clear whether, once the police arrangements have gone, enforcement of care for strays will become a local authority responsibility 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is no such requirement in the Bill. I hope the Minister will tell us whether he will issue guidance to councils, and what enforcement will be possible if councils have neither the money nor the will to carry it out themselves.

Animal welfare charities do a phenomenal job in caring for stray dogs. Obviously everyone knows about the RSPCA: I do not think we need blow its trumpet too much. Dogs Trust is undoubtedly a leader in the field, but excellent work is done by the Blue Cross, by a wonderful organisation called Wood Green Animal Shelters, and of course by the Kennel Club, which is the oldest such charity. They have come together in a forum called the Pet Advisory Committee, in which local authority dog wardens are also represented. I hope that, on Report if not in Committee, the Minister will assure us that he and other representatives of his Department have met members of those welfare charities—as well as the Pet Advisory Committee and dog wardens—to establish that the proposals in the Bill will work.

This is a big problem. Dogs Trust, known to many as the National Canine Defence League, helps more than 12,000 dogs each year in its 15 centres. That is an awful lot of stray dogs. It also spends £2 million a year on neutering dogs whose owners receive state benefits. More bodies than just local authorities are trying to cope with the problem of unwanted dogs, and Dogs Trust in particular helps council dog wardens. The fact remains, however, that there are more than 5 million dogs in this country—although the 8 million cats are clearly in the lead—of which about 105,000 stray. That is of course a natural instinct; they are not yobboes, and should not be subject to antisocial behaviour orders. They foul pavements, which is also natural. In some respects they even emulate the House of Commons: they make a noise, which for many of us is a natural function. The general public, however, understandably want to see some control, especially those who do not like dogs.

I appreciate that the Minister is trying to do something about those problems, but I am sure he will bear it in mind that dogs, in particular, provide an enormous amount of companionship for many of our constituents. They give huge enjoyment, especially to children, and I think they genuinely improve the human lot. When society seeks to control this wonderful species, as it seeks to do in the Bill, we have a duty of care. I have known the Minister for 20-odd years and I believe his intentions are good, but I regret to say that I do not think he has addressed that duty of care in the Bill. As it stands the Bill is simply a shrug, which is not good enough. I hope that he will deal with the issues I have raised—if not tonight, in Committee and on Report.