Second Reading

Dog Control Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 2:14 pm on 9th July 2010.

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Moved By Lord Redesdale

That the Bill be read a second time.

Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Liberal Democrat 2:26 pm, 9th July 2010

My Lords, it is quite useful to carry on from the previous Bill in this Second Reading debate because we are also considering changing legislation that is slightly flawed. I refer to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. I was looking round the Chamber trying to work out how many Peers were here in 1991. I know that the Minister was. Actually, everyone speaking today was, apart from the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. This was one of the first Bills I ever saw go through the House as a young 23 year-old.

The Bill at that time was enacted as a result of a very unfortunate dog attack, but it was a knee-jerk reaction and many people say that the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act is one of the worst pieces of legislation on the statute book. To put that in context, the Metropolitan Police said that in the past three years £10 million has been spent trying to kennel dogs that are seen to be pit bulls and prosecute their owners.

The legislation has not worked. The issue was to make everybody safer but in 2008-09 NHS costs in A&E were £2.7 million for dog attacks. They are rising year on year. In London they have gone up 79 per cent and 43 per cent in the rest of the country. The attacks on young people last year went up 119 per cent. If we had legislation on dogs that worked I would have no difficulty in not introducing this Bill. But that is not the case.

More importantly, the Dangerous Dogs Act created half of the problem. By saying that anything that looks like a pit-bull terrier is a dangerous dog has created status dogs. There has been a massive rise in dogs that people believe are dangerous. We can see them in every street in London. I am afraid I was not here for the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, but I was in Kentish Town the other day, and we can see these dogs there and in all parts of London. There is a real issue not about the type but the behaviour of dogs. The Bill deals with the deeds of the dog, not the breed of the dog.

We can make sure that dogs on our streets are safe. That is a social issue, because people should not feel threatened on the streets, but it is also an animal welfare issue. Many animal welfare issues are associated with those people who do not look after dogs, who do not treat them properly and who desocialise them.

I think that the Government will like the Bill for another reason. They have spoken about "One piece of legislation in, one piece of legislation out". The Bill is "One in and four out". It would get rid of the 1871 Act, the 1989 Act-that is not in the Bill at the moment but we will add it as an amendment-the 1991 Act and the amendment to that, the 1997 Act. People who have read the Bill who have no specialist knowledge understand the concept of what is proposed. That is important, because we have so many pieces of legislation that, often, those who are enforcing them do not understand what they are supposed to do.

The purpose of the Bill is quite clear. It can be set out in three areas. The first is owner responsibility. That is key. Dog ownership is about owner responsibility. There are tens of thousands of strays on the street, but you do not hear about people being attacked by strays. Almost all the attacks-including, distressingly, the large number of attacks on children-are by dogs owned by people's relatives. It is about owners' responsibility. Anyone who has owned a dog will understand that owning a dog is not just a right, it has responsibilities associated with it.

The second fundamental aspect of the Bill is that it is targeting behaviour. It is not breed-specific; it covers any dog that can be dangerous. Quite a few laws around the world mirror our dangerous dogs legislation, and they contain a large list of breeds. It is interesting that in many places, many breeds are on those lists that people in this country would not associate with dangerous dogs, but, in other countries, they look at the number of dog attacks and say, "That is a dangerous dog". The real issue is that any dog can be a problem if it is desocialised and not trained properly. The Bill focuses on ensuring that owners understand their responsibility for ensuring that dogs are well looked after and trained properly.

The third aspect is that the Bill provides a better level of protection for the public. The purpose of the Bill is not to introduce yet more legislation that may do something. We know that a large number of dog attacks, and the worst dog attacks, come from dogs which have a history of anti-social behaviour which culminates in attacking people or-the worst thing-a child. We are trying with the Bill to start at the basic level to ensure that there is help for owners who have difficult dogs. The notice orders can start with very basic measures: ensuring that the owner keeps the dog on a lead or muzzled, but the Bill also covers prevention. One way to do that is to ensure that owners are pushed into having dog training. The dog training is not just aimed at the dog; it is also aimed at the owner. Dog training is as much about training the owner as about training the dog. Of course, there are further measures for those who break those provisions and for more serious attacks, leading to prison sentences or fines.

We need to start preventing dog attacks. We know that what we have at the moment is not working because the number of dog attacks is rising. The Bill addresses the issue of private property. I know that that is a very vexed area, but cases where children have been mauled-I could go through them, but I do not have time and people have read the papers-often happen on private property. It is unacceptable in today's society, when a child is attacked in a house, to say, "But it is private property. Therefore, there is no measure under the law by which we can bring a prosecution". As a former dog owner, I would find it difficult to leave a baby or a young child alone with almost any dog because there are risks associated with that. The owner has responsibilities. He cannot walk away and say, "God! I never knew that would happen. It was a lovely dog". Any dog can be very nice and have a bad day, especially when the child pokes it in the ear with a pencil.

There are a couple of issues that the Bill is not about. We have tried to be as transparent as possible. This is not a covert way of introducing a hunting ban. This is focused on dogs attacking other dogs or people. One reason we are particularly concerned about dogs attacking other dogs is that that is a good indicator of dogs that are out of control. If you are a dog owner, you talk to everybody else in the areas where you walk the dog, especially in parks. You often find out that dogs that are not under control often attack other dogs, which can be a precursor for them attacking people. If we can get in at that stage, it would be a good preventive measure.

This is a difficult area. I must commend the work of all the groups we brought together to work on this. To mix my metaphors, talking about dogs legislation is a bit like herding cats. There are certain grey areas that will need to be looked at. I am happy to talk to Peers about working dogs so that we can make sure that we have not left any gaping holes in the legislation and that any changes made by the Bill would not be used as loopholes by anyone who misuses such amendments.

This is the Bill's second outing. I took it through the previous Parliament. I think that is an extremely good process because legislation that passes the first time can have many problems. We learnt a lot from taking the Bill through the first time and from talking to people. It is a bit like young men failing their driving test the first time; I think it should almost be obligatory because they tend to be better drivers the second time around.

There is a Defra consultation taking place at the moment, so the fact that the Bill will not come back to this House until after the summer will be useful because there were 4,000 responses. If Defra believes that the Bill reflects the view of the general public and the organisations that contributed to that consultation, it will be very positive.

This is not groundbreaking legislation. The Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act, introduced control notices in Scotland and has proved to be quite successful. You can tell that an Act is reasonably successful when there are not masses of complaints when it is brought in and people believe that it is workable legislation.

I must now run through the clauses of the Bill and outline briefly its general aims. The Bill is promoted by the Dangerous Dogs Act Study Group, which comprises the leading animal welfare and veterinary organisations. It repeals all current legislation relating to dangerous dogs-thereby removing breed-specific legislation-introduces dog control notices in a legal sense and strengthens previous legislation to cover dog attacks in private as well as in public places to protect workers going about their business and families in their homes. I stress "workers going about their business". The CWU, which represents postal workers, reports 6,000 attacks on its members last year, which is a worrying statistic, particularly as some of the attacks were extremely serious.

Clause 1 defines the individual who is considered to be responsible for a dog. Clause 2(1) explains the actions that are prohibited when keeping a dog under control and extends responsibility to private property as well as public land. It sets out that encouraging a dog to be aggressive or to intimidate or attack a person or a protected animal or to behave aggressively or to be dangerously out of control without reasonable cause is an offence and may result in the owner being issued with a dog control notice.

Clause 2(2) cites reasonable cause and is not exhaustive. It includes dogs provoked by a person or other animal used for lawful purposes, or dogs protecting their owner or property from a person who is entering a place that they are not permitted to be while committing an offence. Obviously that list is not comprehensive or exhaustive, but we have to base this Bill on common sense. These are common-sense defences for any dog acting in a certain way if provoked.

Clause 3 explains cause for issuing a dog control notice. It outlines that local authority officers will implement the law, but that they must have some previous knowledge or experience of dogs. I should say that we will be introducing an amendment which will not focus on just local authority representatives. We talked about local authorities because of the cost implications. Many issues will be based at a local level. However, we will introduce an amendment whereby the Secretary of State will be able to specify those parties which can issue control notices. Of course, the police will be included in that. Only the police will be able to carry out certain aspects, including entering private property, and there is a level of training that we will need to make sure is implemented.

Clause 4 outlines the requirements placed on an owner of a dog if he or she is issued with a dog control notice, the data that must be on the dog control notice and the requirement to permanently identify, via a microchip, the dog involved in the incident. This is one of the important aspects of the Bill. At the moment, one of the problems is linking dogs to their owners. The microchipping of the dogs will link dogs with problems to owners.

Clause 5 details the appeals process which must be followed by any person wanting to contest a dog control notice and outlines the court procedure should this take place. Clause 6 makes provision to local authorities regarding maintenance of the dog control notice database and sharing information with other relevant bodies. Clause 7 details penalties for non-compliance of a dog control notice, including criminal conviction, a fine, disqualification from owning or keeping a dog, or further dog control notices.

Clause 8 explains the conditions by which an authorised officer or local authority can vary or remove a dog control notice. Obviously, we will add a section about the "authorised officer" in the amendment. Clause 9 details the process by which a person is issued with a dog control notice and may apply for it to be varied or removed. Clause 10 imposes penalties for failure to comply with Clause 2, including a dog control order, a disqualification or deprivation order, a destruction order, a fine or a prison sentence. It also outlines the procedures that must be followed when issuing a deprivation, disqualification or destruction order.

Clause 11 outlines the police, local authority and court procedures when seizing or disposing of a dog involved in an offence with the focus being on best protecting the animal's welfare. Clause 12 repeals all previous legislation regarding dangerous dogs with the intention of taking the most effective elements of each Act and placing them in one clear piece of legislation. Clause 13 deals with citations and sets out the definition of certain expressions used in the Bill.

I believe that this is a first step. Many people talk about going a lot further than this. However, we believe that this is a proportionate response. We know that the present system is not working. It has been given almost 20 years to work. It was amended once and still there are escalating costs. I remember the debates. If it had worked there would not be a pit bull in this country. We now know that there are far more legally owned pit bulls than there were when the Act was introduced. It has failed.

Some people would say that we need dog licensing. There is a problem with this. In a time of fiscal restraint, dog licensing would be an extremely expensive measure, and I do not believe that many people would take it forward. The Dogs Trust carried out a survey on the dog licensing regime in force in Northern Ireland and worked out that only around a third of dog owners actually have a dog licence. Responsible owners will take out a licence, but it will be ignored by others. Moreover, the real issue is that under the present legislation the dog licence could not be ring-fenced, so we could not pay for the licence using funds from dog owners, it would have to come out of general funding. I think that the Treasury would have an issue with that.

This Bill is supported by the Kennel Club, the Dogs Trust, Blue Cross, the British Veterinary Association, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Country Land and Business Association and many representatives from a number of local authorities throughout the country. Its purpose is simple. Under the old legislation, we put the responsibilities at the wrong end of the lead. This is about making sure that the responsibilities are not put on the dog, but on the owner at the other end of the lead. If people cannot be responsible for their dogs so that they are a danger to other animals and to people, they should not own a dog. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Mancroft Lord Mancroft Conservative 2:45 pm, 9th July 2010

My Lords, I will keep my remarks as short as possible because, like other noble Lords, I like to get away to the country to walk my dogs. I recognise fully and agree with the purpose of my noble friend's Bill, and as I am sure are all noble Lords, I am grateful to him for the care and courtesy with which he has introduced it to us. It is perfectly clear that too many people in this country are attacked by dogs. What my noble friend did not mention is that there has been an incredible increase over the past year or two in attacks on horses by dogs. Again, that is unacceptable.

In my noble friend's introduction to the Bill there was an assumption, which I think is shared across the House, that the 1991 Act introduced by my noble friend Lord Baker, who sadly is not in his place, no longer works. I am not absolutely certain about that. No piece of legislation works perfectly, particularly in the area of criminal law. If it did, we would not have had two criminal justice Bills every year for the past 13 years-indeed, I am told by my noble friend on the Front Bench that we have had more than that, and I am sure he is right. The fact is that these laws never work perfectly, and I accept that in the 1991 Act there was a significant problem with the incredible costs involved in the kennelling of dogs.

One attack by a dog is one too many, particularly on children. But I am not entirely convinced that these attacks have increased in number, although I am certainly clear that the sensationalist reporting of dog attacks has done so. I am not sure that the measure of increase indicates that the existing legislation has not worked. I am also not sure that the reason it has not worked as well as it should is that, as with so many other things, there has been poor enforcement. I am not wholly sure that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service across the country have used all the legislation they could-we have the 1871 Act, the 1991 Act, and the amendments introduced in 1997-which is a problem. Indeed, that is what the police sort of admitted when the previous Government looked into this before my noble friend introduced his Bill a year or so ago and therefore, indeed, before he was my noble friend. That is my suspicion, but we shall see as time goes by.

I turn to the primary offence set out in the Bill. As so often with these things, I am worried about the law of unintended consequences. Noble Lords should look at Clause 2, from which I will give one or two examples. Imagine that, as I often am, I am out walking with my dogs and it chases a squirrel or a bird. I can assure noble Lords that my dogs do that from time to time. Does that count as allowing a dog to be aggressive in a public place? I should have thought that it might do so. Imagine that I use dogs to kill rats, or to flush or hunt a rabbit. Does that count as allowing a dog to be aggressive in either a public or private place? It is not the private place I have a problem with. Would that count as encouraging a dog to be aggressive or intimidating with other animals?

Imagine that I am using dogs to flush animals for shooting, for falconry or indeed to retrieve birds. Am I encouraging my dog to be aggressive in a public place or to intimidate other animals? It is clear that on the ordinary meaning of the word "aggressive", using a terrier to kill a rat would be aggressive behaviour. Similarly, to intimidate another animal is to scare it, and dogs are used to flush or move other animals by causing them to be scared and therefore to engage their natural flight response from a perceived danger. Ultimately, it will be for the courts to interpret the meaning of the words "aggressive" and "intimidate", but their ordinary meanings would suggest that they could be widely applicable in the scenarios to which I have referred. In all those examples, I could be guilty of an offence.

The implications for the use of dogs in connection with shooting, agriculture and pest control are extremely serious. Unless an exemption is made for these lawful activities, the use of dogs in the situations I have mentioned would be difficult. My noble friend has said that he is prepared to look at this issue-I would be very happy to work with him on it-but it is a difficult area.

Unless the Bill is suitably clarified it would render liable to prosecution the owners of dogs behaving in a perfectly natural way when out for a walk or when used in pest control, shooting and land management. I accept that the noble Lord's intention was not to incorporate legitimate and lawful activities in the scope of the proposed legislation-he and I have talked about this and so I know that is right-but at the moment the Bill is too widely drawn and needs amendment before ordinary dog owners, farmers, gamekeepers and shooters can feel secure in using their dogs without fear of the risk of prosecution.

It must also be remembered that private prosecutions could be brought under this legislation. Those could be malicious or motivated by disapproval of an otherwise lawful activity. It could also lead to complaints to police and local authorities, representing an additional burden on them and on the courts.

I received with great interest the brief from the Kennel Club and the Dangerous Dogs Act Study Group, to which my noble friend referred. It is a helpful and constructive letter and guides us on the way in which we should consider the Bill. In its letter of 28 June-which I imagine other noble Lords have also received-it states:

"Any new legislation should also embody the principle of 'deed not breed' and oppose breed specific legislation on the grounds that a dog's behaviour is influenced more by its environment, the training it receives and the responsibility of its owner, than it is by genetics (i.e. its breed or type)".

I am not absolutely certain that that is right. Environment and training are, of course, important, but do not discount genetics. My dogs are charming, affectionate and reasonably well trained, but I would not of dream of walking them off a lead in a field of sheep because any amount of training I have given them would go straight out of the window. I am a responsible owner and I make sure that I do not do that but, however carefully I train them, the genes will take over and they will go.

Let me give a couple of examples. However carefully you train it, a Chihuahua will not make much of an attack dog; the genes are not there and nor is the size. On the other hand, however much you train it-and it is easy to train in many ways-you could not get a Rottweiler to flush or retrieve game because the genes will not allow it; it has been bred for different things. And you will never teach a greyhound to round up sheep-kill them, yes, but not round them up-because the genes will take over from the training. To discount the genetics and say that it is all about environment is simply not right.

As to the attacks to which my noble friend referred and quite rightly seeks to deal with in this Bill, when we drive around the streets of London we do not see these clearly thuggish people with huge chains, collars and leads walking Chihuahuas; they have pit bull-type terriers. I understand the difficulty of the breed route down which the Bill of my noble friend Lord Baker went, but breed is a significant factor. My noble friend referred to a small dog being poked with a pencil by a small child. Many people have said to their children, "If you do that he is going to bite you"-and, if they continue doing it, they usually do get bitten. It may be a nice dog-it is usually a nasty child, but that goes with the territory-but all dogs will do that. No matter how nice they are, some dogs will always chase cats. However much your Lordships would like to, we cannot legislate against nature-dogs bite-and we need to be careful about how we manage this issue.

As a consequence, we need to be a bit wary of totally abandoning the 1991 Act at this stage. Much of what my noble friend proposes in his Bill is very good. He talks about going for the irresponsible owner as opposed to the type of dog. I think that a combination of those might be the way to go. I have not been able to develop that thought, because it occurred to me only on the way down from Wilmslow on a train this morning. I can see some merit in that. I am wary of throwing out legislation wholly and putting new and untried legislation in its place. There is a significant number of dogs in this country which, however well trained, are very large, very frightening and extremely difficult to control. It is the people who get those kinds of dog that that my noble friend's Bill attempts to address.

I have read horrible stories in the newspapers, as we all have. It appears that those people want to go off in the evening to do something and leave those dogs with a friend or a relative, who may-God forbid-sometimes have a child in the house. When something goes wrong in the heat of the late evening, the adult with whom the dog has been left-they may or may not be a responsible adult but, more importantly, they may not know the dog or dogs generally-cannot control it. That is when children get so horrifically injured. I know quite a lot about dogs and have spent most of my life with them, but I would not be able to control those kinds of dog either. So let us not abandon the breed-type of legislation wholly in favour of this approach. Can we in the mean time think about whether we could put them together in some way?

My final point, because I have gone on too long, is on prevention. Of course, we would like to prevent these things happening. Whether we stick with the old legislation or go with my noble friend's new legislation and, in a year or so, have a new Act on the statute book, I do not regard as prevention prosecuting the person after the event and taking the dog away. I should like us all to spend a little more time working out how we stop irresponsible people owning difficult dogs in the first place. The ideal would not be that we punished people after an attack had taken place; it would be that the attack did not take place. This Bill, much as I applaud my noble friend's efforts, does not address that.

Photo of The Earl of Shrewsbury The Earl of Shrewsbury Conservative 2:57 pm, 9th July 2010

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Redesdale on bringing this Bill to the House. I should declare an interest as an owner and keeper of working dogs, and I am a member of the Countryside Alliance, BASC and a number of other bodies which support field sports.

On 26 June, an article appeared in the Daily Mail. It referred to my noble friend Lord Redesdale and this Bill. I quote part of the article as follows:

"One evening this week he"- that is, my noble friend-

"was walking home in Tufnell Park ... when a Staffordshire bull terrier"- hold on, I come from Staffordshire-

"leapt from the shadows and made to bite him on the bottom. The dog's owner looked on blithely, while the noble Lord hopped about the place like a cider-fuelled Morris dancer".

What a wonderful sight that must have been. Since reading that article, I now view my noble friend in a completely different light and I understand fully why he wishes to promote his Bill.

The last time I made a speech, I missed out page 3 and nobody noticed. I shall try not to make that error today.

While broadly welcoming my noble friend's Bill, I have a number of concerns about how, if enacted, it would work. I recognise that there exists a problem with dangerous dogs-we all know that-and especially status dogs, particularly, but not exclusively, in urban areas. Current legislation is adequate in general to deal with the problem-I agree with my noble friend Lord Mancroft that something must be done about preventing those accidents and attacks. I acknowledge that the real difficulty is in the enforcement of the legislation, a view which I believe is accepted by the police.

The Bill as currently drafted could well have unintended consequences for ordinary, responsible dog owners. For instance, Clause 13 states:

"For the purposes of this Act, a dog shall be regarded as having been involved in an attack if it has bitten, mauled or injured a person or another protected animal".

What about a sheepdog, which as part of its work nips a sheep on the hock? That sheep is quite difficult to get into a pen, but it is also a protected animal, and under this Bill it will be judged to have been in an attack. What about a Lancashire Heeler, whose method of herding cattle is to nip its heels? Under this Bill, it will be judged to have been in an attack-and so the list widens. For instance, if I am walking my dog along the River Dove in Derbyshire, where I fish, my dog, Missed, usually impeccably behaved, chases a rabbit, will I be guilty under this Bill of having allowed my to be aggressive in a public or private place, as stated in the wording of the offences in Clause 2?

I am certain that my noble friend's intention was not to incorporate legitimate and lawful activities into the scope of this Bill, but, as drafted, the Bill is far too widely drawn and is in need of very substantial amendment, which your Lordships will no doubt address in Committee, if this Bill receives its Second Reading. Furthermore, this Bill removes all responsibility from the police and places the duty of enforcement on local authorities, while making no provision to allow either the police or other bodies to enforce the law and providing no additional financial support for local authorities. In these days of massive financial constraints, how on earth will local authorities be able to cope with that extra financial burden? Their animal welfare and dog warden services will already be hit hard by cutbacks, even before the consequences of this Bill land on them. The police are the acknowledged experts in this type of enforcement, so I was delighted by what my noble friend said about this in his opening remarks. Under this Bill, too, the courts will be clogged up when they are already under very severe pressure, and with even more financial consequences for the public purse.

I could go on, but it is late, it is a Friday, and I want to get home to my wife and my dogs, absolutely in that order. I finish with a quote from Bertie Wooster, when he recalls Stiffy Byng's Scotch terrier, Bartholomew. He says:

"Stop me if I've told you this before, but once when I was up at Oxford and chatting on the river bank with a girl called something that's slipped my mind there was a sound of barking and a great hefty dog of the Hound of the Baskervilles type came galloping at me, obviously intent on mayhem, its whole aspect that of a dog that has no use for Woosters. And I was just commending my soul to God and thinking that this was where my new flannel trousers got about thirty bobs' worth of value bitten out of them, when the girl, waiting till she saw the whites of its eyes, with extraordinary presence of mind opened a coloured Japanese umbrella in the animal's face. Upon which, with a startled exclamation it did three back somersaults and retired into private life".

This Bill needs such an enormous amount of improvement that maybe it should be retired into private life.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 3:02 pm, 9th July 2010

My Lords, legislation about dogs seems to be something of a parliamentary graveyard, to be perfectly honest. We have tried it several times and we have got it wrong on several occasions. My noble friend's Bill has one underlying merit; it acknowledges the fact that it is an incredibly difficult field and tries to deal with what we have got wrong before. It addresses the primary problem that was raised last time. I was not quite so new to the House, although I believe that my noble friend had taken over from me in the role that I always defined as "baby Peer" in the days when the hereditaries were in more of a majority-although this debate is a bit of a throwback to those days.

We did not really take on board the fact that the owner is the main control mechanism for a dog. The fact of the matter is that a dog is an animal that works with dominance and in packs. We are allowed to keep them because they accept us as dominant members of their pack. Thus you have a dog that will do roughly what you want it to do, if you are prepared to control and discipline it. That is why the emphasis in the Bill on the owner as controller of the dog is probably a more sensible approach that gives greater scope for getting it right. I hear what my noble friend Lord Mancroft says-that the genetics of the dog are important. We have spent we do not know how many tens or hundreds of thousands of years making dogs fit certain roles by selective breeding, but certain dogs will always be worse at certain things. Labradors may bite people but they do not do as much damage as Rottweilers.

There is certainly a degree of logic in my noble friend's approach, but the fact is that even a comparatively soft and small dog like a Spaniel can still do a lot of damage if it clamps on to you; they have incredibly powerful jaws.

On the points made by my noble friends, and by other noble Lords who are friends, about what constitutes a dog "being aggressive", anyone who knows anything about animals would say, "Oh, that couldn't possibly be included". Then you think about how legal action has been taken; there have been vexatious or uninformed cases. Greater clarification might be needed here.

The basic thrust of my noble friend's Bill may actually allow us to make progress and produce better law. My personal preference would be for a licence fee with some dedicated enforcement process behind it involving people who were informed and trained. However, I do not think that that is possible with the current financial situation; indeed, it is outwith the scope of a Private Member's Bill.

Having got that off my chest, I want to say that my noble friend's approach on this probably has a line that we can follow. Let us not pretend for one minute that any piece of legislation will stop people occasionally getting bitten by dogs. I have seen children who regarded dogs as animated teddy bears and think that giving them a nice, big, friendly cuddle around the throat is a good thing. Then, when it growls at them to stop, they think they have hit the play mechanism inside it and that is clearly powered by a battery. Most dogs will growl, run away or occasionally nip. If the dog does something more or catches the child in the wrong way, damage will be done. We must bear in mind that people should supervise both the dog and the child in those situations.

We must take into account that, as has been said before, dogs chase things. I own an enthusiastic terrier that knew that bunnies' heads were detachable the minute it first saw one. Although she is an enthusiastic member of the breed, she is not unique. We must bear this in mind in legislation.

When the Minister replies, I hope that he will have some information about the Government's approach to this and whether they are prepared to back any form of fine tuning of the current legislation in the foreseeable future. If they have a major complaint about the approach in my noble friend's Bill, I would be interested to hear it. What we currently have has not worked.

The status of dogs seems to be mentioned in law to prohibit them. I had a little exchange about fashion history a couple of days ago in this Chamber. The fashion in what looks tough walking on four legs in the street beside you is equally applicable here. When I was young, Rottweilers were not on the scene but Dobermans and Alsatians certainly were. We should be looking to move forward to something that will lead to the streets being slightly safer, is enforceable and takes into account the nature of the dog. My noble friend's Bill certainly points the way to an achievable goal.

Photo of Lord Grantchester Lord Grantchester Labour 3:09 pm, 9th July 2010

The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has attracted notoriety as a primary example of flawed legislation. It bears the hallmarks of being produced as a hurried response to a public outcry for action following a number of dog attacks, largely by Pit Bull-type dogs. Despite this, nearly 20 years later we are still trying to find a better answer to regulate the interaction between man and his best friend, the dog. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his constant championing of a better control regime over many years. I declare my interest as a farmer in Cheshire, albeit one without a dog, although I have worked with farm dogs in the past.

Since the law has fallen into disrepute here, it behoves us to improve matters. The Dangerous Dogs Act has failed to ban the ownership of four extreme types of dog. Indeed, through the index of exempted dogs, it sends out a mixed message. Under Section 1, the number of convictions for ownership has risen from 17 in 2004 to 115 in 2008, while the number of dogs added to the exempt list has risen over the two years from 2007 to 2009 from 185 to 396. This position has arisen as a consequence of the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997, which repealed the mandatory destruction orders, provided that certain necessary conditions are met.

Following yet further high profile dog attacks in 2006, the legislation was reviewed by Defra in 2007. After extensive consultations with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Dogs Trust, it was concluded that the current legislation was sufficiently robust to deal effectively with the problem. This was despite the cogent championing by many organisations that the Act's basis of targeting breeds or breed types was the wrong approach, and the deed of the dog-from a lack of control or the irresponsible action of the owners-was the nub of the problem.

Since 2007, there has been a further explosion of attacks and ownership, brought about by the trend in gang culture to own such dogs as status dogs and use them in gang-related crime, drug dealing and anti-social behaviour. In response, the Metropolitan Police set up the Status Dogs Unit in March 2009. Defra announced funding in July 2009 to train designated dog legislation officers and issued extensive guidance and best practice notes to a wide range of audiences, including the courts, local authority officers, housing officers and the police, as well as pet owners. It has been difficult to obtain information and figures to reveal the extent and size of the problem as there are no centrally collected figures on the number of dogs seized or destroyed. The costs of law enforcement are also difficult to obtain as police forces do not appear to have separate budget provision for dealing with dangerous dogs. However, there are significant costs associated with inspecting premises, transport, veterinary fees, kennelling, prosecution and expert witness costs, as well as extensive court time.

Just recently there have been yet more tragic cases of dog attacks. I am indebted to Constable Kerr of Merseyside Police, who put me in touch with Chief Inspector Martin Woosey to update me on the position on Merseyside. In recent years, Merseyside Police have started recording information. Seizure of dogs averages around 150 dogs a year. Since 30 November 2009, under Section 1, "Ownership", and Section 3, "Dogs Dangerously Out of Control", Merseyside Police have received 988 calls from members of the public, and there have been a further 1,000 dog-related incidents where search warrants were obtained to enter premises. On 30 November 2009, John-Paul Massey, a four year-old boy, was mauled to death at his grandmother's house, while she was babysitting, by a dog belonging to the boy's uncle who lived with the boy's grandmother. Less than three years earlier, a five year-old, Ellie Lawrenson, died in similar circumstances in St Helens. These are tragic circumstances.

In 2009, 69 dogs were destroyed and in the period since the death of John-Paul Massey, of 311 dogs seized, 105 have been destroyed. At any one time around 80 dogs will be in kennels, with many having been kennelled for over 12 months, not only at considerable cost but with increasing welfare fears and associated veterinary attention. Merseyside Police have nine specially trained dog legislation officers. In comparison, the Metropolitan Police have seized 1,152 dogs in the 2009-10 financial year. In the four-year period 2004 to 2008, the RSPCA reported a 12-fold increase in reports of dog fighting, which can range from accidental scraps to organised fights, with the majority of incidents concerning anti-social behaviour with dogs.

The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association reports that, sadly, 61 per cent of attacks on guide dogs occurred when the guide dog was in harness by other dogs overwhelmingly off the lead and in public places. At present, dog-on-dog attacks usually come under the Dogs Act 1871 when only civil sanctions apply.

The problem legislation has to contend with is that this is not a single issue. Dogs that show aggression in the home, dogs that present a danger to the public and other dogs in accessible places and dogs that are kept as a status symbol pose differing risk analyses and demand differing solutions. While primarily an urban issue, dog control is becoming a more pressing problem in rural areas, with a lack of appreciation by walkers that their dogs can cause disease as well as distress to livestock. Neospora Caninum is spread by dog mess, increasing the chances of abortion in affected cattle, and more crucially leading to a 95 per cent chance that the disease will be vertically transmitted in-utero from cow to calf, rendering the breeding potential of the female virtually worthless. However, the legislation must not inadvertently affect the legitimate activities of working dogs on farms.

Dog control notices were introduced by the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, and relate to any dog being in a certain public place and being prohibited from doing certain things. Control of dogs, although covered in a variety of ways, is thus at best a patchwork; at worst, it results in poor dog welfare and in extreme cases poses a real risk to public safety.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, has admirably spoken to his Bill. It very logically follows the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act of April 2010 passed by the Scottish Parliament. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, will remove the focus from breeds and instead will make owners responsible for the behaviour of their dogs by focusing on "deed not breed". It also extends the coverage of the 1991 Act to any place rather than just public places. It will build in England on the new regime of dog control orders, which will enable local authorities to impose requirements on the dog owner where that person has failed to keep the dog under proper control. Where failure occurs, dog control notices will provide a range of sanctions, including destruction of the dog and disqualification from ownership and keeping an animal.

On behalf of these Benches, I largely support these provisions. In drawing up his Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, has been very ably supported by the Dangerous Dogs Act Study Group, made up, I believe, of organisations including the animal welfare charities of which he has spoken, the British Veterinary Association, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and Wandsworth Borough Council.

In response to the growing concern over public safety issues and to improve animal welfare, Defra went out to consultation in March 2010, which has only just recently closed. The DDA study group has largely been in unison with its submissions. However, in drilling down into the detail of further measures to control dogs, there is a divergence of views regarding the use of licensing, micro-chipping and guidance improvements. The responses to the consultation have also revealed a sharp divergence of views between the DDA study group, the RSPCA and ACPO. This was highlighted as well in the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010. This Act, in contrast to the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and along with the RSPCA/ACPO position does not remove the ban on the four breed types included under Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Furthermore, the RSPCA, in conjunction with ACPO, has submitted to Defra a rival Bill which is seriously divergent in its provisions from the Bill before your Lordships today. From these Benches, we would need to examine in some detail the discrepancies between the two Bills. For this Bill today to proceed through Committee, comprehensive analysis would need to be undertaken to assess whether there could be a "hybridisation" or joined-up approach to the issues. Would the Minister in his reply clarify what policy would guide his department, what cost analysis would be undertaken in regard to the various submissions, and whether and to what degree it would be necessary or advantageous to have a common regime with the devolved Administrations?

I have identified a few crucial differences between the Bill today and the RSPCA draft Bill. They are, first, the retention or not of Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 regarding the banning of various breed types. I have sympathy for the view that although breed-specific legislation is incorrect and unjust, it provides a preventive framework and effective approach against this extreme type of dog that can cause death and severe injury.

The second fundamental difference between the Bills relates to responsibility for administration of the control regime. The noble Lord's Bill places responsibility in the hands of local authorities, whereas the RSPCA draft Bill has as an "authorised officer" either a police constable or local authority officer. The noble Lord outlined in his introduction that he would bring in an amendment to reconcile these two positions. In his reply, will the noble Lord explain whether and how wide he consulted among police authorities and local authorities on the provisions of his Bill?

Thirdly, there are discrepancies regarding the reintroduction of a dog licence and consequential databases, whether to cover all dogs, pedigree dogs with a breed characteristic with health issues or only dogs under control notices.

The fourth difference is the extent to which microchipping will be applicable to dogs and, lastly, there is a difference in the level of fines for breaches between the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, which imposes fines up to level 3 on the standard scale, and the RSPCA draft Bill with fines at level 5. Will the Minister explain the difference between the two levels? These are the immediately recognisable discrepancies which would give these Benches cause to proceed with caution. Upon deeper analysis, there may be more discrepancies.

The RSPCA has written in its briefing that it cannot support the Bill before your Lordships as it believes that it would be a retrograde step for human safety and animal welfare. It comments that the Bill does not have a genuine preventive approach to ensure that owners of dogs would be more responsible. The provisions of the Bill are reactive-they relate to when an incident has occurred. The RSPCA believes that early intervention is crucial in improving standards and preventing serious and fatal incidents. Speaking more generally, what assessment have the exponents of this Bill undertaken in regard to its effect on magistrates' courts? One of the major concerns relates to the potential impact on welfare and costs, should all appeals and prosecutions be taken through the courts.

For these Benches therefore, this Bill faces severe challenges. It would be unwise for the law on dog control to be brought into further disrepute by being pressed into a partial solution by the hasty consideration brought about by this Bill.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:23 pm, 9th July 2010

My Lords, I offer my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Redesdale on introducing the Bill, on giving us an opportunity to discuss these matters, and on his detailed explanation of just what the Bill does. I should also remind the House-as the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, did, and as I did the other day on a Question on this matter-that there has been a public consultation on dangerous dogs which focused specifically on whether the current laws need to be changed. That consultation was issued by the previous Administration on 9 March this year. It closed on 1 June and we have received in the order of 4,250 responses. The most important point I have to make is that we will carefully consider those responses before deciding what action the Government need to take to deal with this problem. For that reason, I will make it clear now that, as is traditional, although we will not oppose this Bill, we will not offer it our support.

I turn now to the specific points. The first is the question of whether we should have breed-specific legislation and whether the 1991 and 1997 Acts should be repealed. We believe that it is not necessary to remove breed-specific legislation. We often hear the cliché-it was repeated by my noble friend-that that was a knee-jerk reaction that has failed to prevent people owning such dogs. However, the provision on pit bulls and other dogs identified as having characteristics bred for fighting is necessary. I appreciate that there are a number of very vocal critics of breed-specific legislation, and I respect the sincerity of their views, but I am not convinced by the assertion that Parliament was wrong when it agreed to a ban on the keeping of pit bulls and that removing the ban would not result in any additional risk to the public.

We are as Ministers frequently criticised in the press-as were previous Ministers-for not having tighter dog control laws, and we regularly receive much correspondence requesting that all bull breeds, for example, are added to the list of prohibited breeds. This request is frequently mirrored in the media. Questions about both extending and repealing breed-specific legislation were raised in the consultation that I and the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, referred to, and it would not be appropriate at this stage to offer detailed comment on what was said in the responses. However, we are in routine contact with the police. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, that Defra consulted every force in England and Wales in 2007, and both the Association of Chief Police Officers and a number of individual forces have responded to the most recent consultation. The view of the police is that without breed-specific legislation, and more specifically the prohibition on pit bull terrier-type dogs, there would have been many more attacks.

As my noble friend Lord Redesdale put it, any dog can attack anyone. That is absolutely right and no one would dispute it. That is why Section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act applies to all dogs regardless of breed. However, it would be irresponsible to pretend that some dogs are not far more capable than others of inflicting life-changing injuries when they attack.

I will deal briefly with a number of problems in the Bill that have been highlighted, in particular by my noble friends Lord Mancroft and Lord Shrewsbury. My noble friend Lord Redesdale's Bill would also make it an offence to own a dog that had attacked a person or a protected animal. Making it an offence to own a dog that has attacked a person or a protected animal might criminalise a great deal of very minor incidents. My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury made the point that a very small dog nipping someone's fingers might have to be destroyed merely because someone brought an action as a result of that. The current law allows each case to be assessed individually, and we believe that that is correct. As I have said, all dogs can bite. It is unfortunate but, even with the most responsible owner, it can happen. The balance of the current law, which allows each incident to be judged individually, is probably correct, and I would need further persuasion before I could support a proposal that would trigger a disproportionate action for every minor incident. Nevertheless, it is a matter that we will bear in mind when we look at what has been said in the responses.

The noble Lord, echoing the Scotland Act, would like to introduce dog control notices. I will make two important points about that Act. My noble friend Lord Redesdale said that the Scotland Act had not received much opposition, but I remind him that it does not come into force until February of next year, and one might see a slightly different attitude to it when that happens. The other point is that the Act does not repeal the 1991 Act and retains breed-specific legislation. Those two points should be borne in mind when anyone considers that Act.

As I said, the Act comes into force next year and will introduce a provision similar to that proposed by my noble friend on dog control notices. We accept that such notices have the potential to be a useful tool that could provide an intermediate step preventing a dog from becoming dangerously out of control. Likewise, they could also provide a way of monitoring those who persistently have problems controlling their dogs.

Again, however, it is important that we review the consultation responses on this matter. We should also use the opportunity to observe how these notices are implemented in Scotland before deciding on their appropriateness for England and Wales. This is one of those occasions when, if the devolved Administrations move in one direction, there is no reason why we should move too fast; we can watch what they do and see how it works.

The Bill would also make it a criminal offence to allow a dog to be dangerously out of control in a private place where the dog is permitted to be. That is another option that was raised in the recent consultation and which we are considering seriously. Various noble Lords rightly mentioned that point, which we will look at carefully. When the 1991 Act was debated in Parliament, attacks on private premises where a dog was permitted to be were not deemed to be suitable to be made a criminal offence. That was because Parliament did not want to create a situation where a home owner could potentially be prosecuted should the household dog bite a burglar. In the main, we think that biting burglars is no bad thing, but others might have different views. I appreciate the fact that the Bill attempts to remedy that by proposing an exemption in the event that a dog attacks with "reasonable cause". That "reasonable cause" is then given further definitions, one of which is,

"if ... the person attacked was in a place where the person was not permitted to be and was committing an offence for which the penalty could be a custodial sentence".

I appreciate that such exemptions are a sensitive matter, but we do not agree with any legislation that would essentially legalise any dog being dangerously out of control and attacking somebody, albeit a burglar. Again, we will have to look at that.

There are one or two other matters about which we have some concerns. For example, Clause 2(1)(b) appears to tackle cases where dogs are used to intimidate people. I think that we can all agree that the use of dogs in such a manner is reprehensible. However, there are injunctions in the Policing and Crime Act 2009-my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury rightly drew the House's attention to the rather large number of policing, crime and criminal justice Acts that emanated from the party opposite, which we shall try not to emulate-that address that problem and can prevent gang members from being in charge of an animal in a public place where it has been proven that the gang member has engaged in, encouraged or assisted gang-related violence. Likewise, we can use more mature legislation, such as the well tried and tested Offences Against the Person Act 1861, where an animal is deliberately used as a weapon to injure somebody.

That is a fairly brief gallop through some of our concerns about the Bill. I entirely understand the thrust of what my noble friend is trying to do and the purpose behind the Bill. This is a serious problem and I assure the House that the Government continue to take the matter seriously. However, we do not think that this Bill is the right way forward. We will look at the consultation and see whether it is necessary to repeal the current law. At the moment, I do not see the case for that. However, we will come forward with the appropriate proposals when we have examined the consultation and the responses to it. For the moment, as I said, although I have no intention of opposing the Second Reading of the Bill, I cannot give it the full support of Her Majesty's Government.

Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Liberal Democrat 3:33 pm, 9th July 2010

My Lords, perhaps I should start with the Minister's response. I have put forward a large number of Private Member's Bills, many of which have failed to get through, but elements of many of them have been turned into law. The point that I want to make to all noble Lords is that the Bill is not being brought forward in a rush; hundreds and hundreds of hours have been spent in consultation with many experts in the area looking at the precise questions that the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, asked. Those are the real issues. We know what the problems are out there; many of our experts have looked at them and have asked what the potential solutions are.

The Minister made a number of points, one of which was the question of owning a dog that attacks someone without reasonable cause. However, the important point here is that we have to act in a preventive way. We have to try to intervene before these horrific attacks take place.

The Minister mentioned private property, which is an extremely vexed issue. However, I come back to the case raised by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, of John-Paul Massey. My first point is that the dogs involved in that case probably fall under Section 1 of the Act, so using it as an example of an attack shows how badly the Act has failed. The second point is that there were two instances where action could have been taken but was not. I am not saying that this Bill would have stopped the attack but it would have provided a point of intervention. The real issue that I have with many of the reasons that have been put forward for opposing the Bill is that, year on year, more and more attacks are occurring and they are costing an incredible amount of money, as is the Act itself.

As many noble Lords have said, the Act is failing. I am not saying that this Private Member's Bill is perfect, and I very much understand the Minister's point about looking at the Defra consultation and bringing forward the results. The Minister said that he was not going to make any decisions until he had read the consultation. Obviously, that consultation paper was drafted by another Government. However, I should very much like to know the results of it because I think that many of the points raised by the Bill will be central elements in the responses to that consultation.

The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, referred to the increase in the number of attacks, and I shall very happily write to him with that information. He also mentioned attacks on squirrels. I am well known for my genocidal activities towards grey squirrels. Squirrels and rats would not fall under this measure. Indeed, after the last outing of the Bill, we took a great deal of time ensuring that the views expressed, including those of my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury, were looked at so that such incidents did not fall under this Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, said that it was a matter of genetics, and I totally agree. You would not let a whippet run around in a field full of sheep but the point is that it is the owner who is letting the dog off the lead. Therefore, the Bill says that the owner is responsible and that it would be irresponsible to let certain dogs off the lead in a field full of sheep. That issue was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester and I totally agree with him. It is about making sure that dog owners are responsible. I have been shocked by how few dog owners in the countryside are responsible; they feel that they almost have a right not to be responsible for their dogs.

As the noble Earl, Lord Shewsbury, pointed out, there is an issue about dogs going about their duty, and that needs to be looked at. Clause 2(3) deals with reasonable cause. There has to be a level of common sense, as there has to be in implementing any legislation.

I thank my noble friend Lord Addington for supporting the legislation. A large number of issues need to be considered. However, we know that there is a problem. Pretending that it is not costing an enormous amount of money and that we cannot do anything is a failure. There will be more attacks. I was struck by the support of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and the concern about the increasing attacks on guide dogs by other dogs. The RSPCA has raised its own proposed legislation in the same way that I know the Minister has raised issues with this measure. I know that the RSPCA, which refers to licensing, would receive exactly the same response from the Minister. I am not disheartened by his view that the Government will not jump to support a Private Member's Bill.

However, elements of this Bill could be taken forward. After the summer and after the Minister has had the chance to read the results of the consultation, I hope very much that we will be able to meet some of his officials to work through some of the concerns that he expressed about the Bill. I think that we can come to the Committee stage to see whether the elements that we all know need to be brought forward to help to prevent attacks on people, dogs-and children-can be discussed. I have introduced a few Private Member's Bills in my time, especially on Fridays-not to a packed audience it has to be said-and I would love the Minister to say, "You have got it exactly right. We will have one of those and it will go on to the statute book".

That is not how legislation works and it is certainly not how legislation should work. It is very important that we listen to the views of noble Lords about where there are failings and how to avoid the law of unintended consequences. That was one of the major problems with the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Because people were scared of pit bulls the Bill moved through far too quickly. Anyone who talked against it was seen as almost dangerous and irresponsible. We know that that has failed and that something must be done. The Minister has said that provisions will be brought forward. I very much hope that many of the provisions in this Bill are part of the solution of making people safer and making dogs' welfare a priority.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at 3.42 pm.