With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 21, in clause 68, page 56, line 12, at end insert—
'(5) After subsection (1) of that section insert—
''(1A) Where a stray dog taken to a local authority is ill or injured, treatment should be sought by the appropriate local authority at the earliest possible time.''.'.
No. 22, in clause 68, page 56, line 12, at end insert—
'(6) After subsection (6) of that section insert—
''(6A) In this section a ''stray dog'' is one which is unaccompanied by either owner or person responsible for it in a public place or any other place without the permission of the owner of the land or premises where it is found.''.'.
No. 99, in clause 68, page 56, line 12, at end add—
'( ) It shall be the duty of the local authorities to provide a twenty-four hour dog warden service'.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but is it not normal to hear the prosecution before the case for the defence?
Well, the Minister may be right, but he will notice that this amendment is No. 18 and was tabled early in the process to establish that funds would be transferred. Since then, both in the debate and in a letter that he kindly copied us in on, he has said that the transfer of responsibility will not take place until the transfer of funds. In a sense, we have got the reassurance that we were seeking, but it may be opportune if he enlightens the Committee—although he may be somewhat constrained—as to the possible scale of the funding, since there are two widely differing figures.
The Local Government Association believes that the cost will be £13.2 million. That estimate is based on having one 24-hour full-time post, which is probably excessive for many councils, so for once I will not say that the LGA is absolutely right. I am sure that that is a negotiating position, as I am also sure that the Home Office's estimate of £1.8 million is a negotiating position, since it seems too low. Given that the Minister is from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs rather than the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister or the Home Office, what will he do to facilitate the meeting of those two widely different minds?
I am delighted to be back in my place and I apologise for my inexcusable absence on Tuesday. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) was able to make such good progress. [Hon. Members: ''So are we.''] I am not used to such extremely good humour in this Committee, which I am delighted to record.
Amendment No. 21 addresses our great concern about the vulnerability of stray dogs, particularly ill or injured animals. It has been drawn to our attention that stray dogs are especially vulnerable to being run over by cars and lorries, because they are not on a lead and therefore not under control. We are probing the Government to find out what arrangements will be made as a result of the consultations, which perhaps the Minister will be good enough to confirm are ongoing; I know that he met one of the dogs bodies—perhaps I should rephrase that—one of the bodies representing dog interests as recently as this week. We suggest that treatment should be sought by the appropriate local authority as early as possible.
Stray dogs do not respect office hours and are unlikely to stray only between the hours of nine and five. The police are open all hours, but what arrangements will be made, not just for injured stray dogs, but for all strays? The police have a long and proud record of looking after stray dogs so they have proper facilities, such as kennels. How quickly will councils put arrangements in place to ensure that they have an adequate number of kennels?
Where a stray is particularly badly hurt, they may be no alternative but for the animal to be put down. Many strays are put down, although fortunately not too many. According to the Library research paper, in 2002-03 only 11 per cent. of the 104,879 strays were put down. Those are the most recent figures and they are almost the lowest of the last 10 years. There is a concern that stray dogs will be destroyed either because they are injured or because they are particularly violent and aggressive.
What facility will there be to police the kennels to ensure that people such as animal rights extremists will not attack those who are doing the excellent work that we ask them to do? The police kennels were unobtrusive and attracted little attention. Obviously one would hope that similar arrangements can be made for local authority dog kennels. The growing extremism of animal rights people is worrying.
Is my hon. Friend aware that rural local authorities are concerned about the long distances that will have to be travelled and the large areas that will have to be covered? In my constituency in rural Lincolnshire, stray dogs are an issue due to the activities of illegal hare coursers. When dogs are no longer fit enough to chase the hares across farmers' land, they are often dumped and left to fend for themselves. The Minister and I have exchanged correspondence on this matter. I hope that the rural local authorities' concerns are being taken into account in the changes proposed in the clause.
My hon. Friend raises a pertinent point. As hare coursing is illegal, rather than be caught, the perpetrators of that crime prefer to dump their dogs. There is the additional problem that local authorities have to drive further in rural areas to find an appropriate kennel. That will obviously be a cost consideration. I am aware of the Minister's concern for animal welfare, and that of the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment. The Library research paper describes the response to the Government's consultation on this as follows:
''The threat of attacks on kennels from the public and organisations to prevent injured strays being put down was also a real fear for some respondents. For many it is not solely a matter of capacity for stray dogs but ensuring that the welfare of the animals is protected.''
Confirming the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) , it continues:
''Respondents from remote towns and parishes thought that the proposed measure may not be practicable due to the distance stray dogs would have to be transported to be housed. For many the nearest suitable facilities would have been at the police station.''
Trying to find alternative facilities and incurring additional transport costs will put up the overall costs quite dramatically. It should be noted, as it was in the responses, that the present system operated by the police works extremely well. That is important.
My next point is probably the most sensitive one for the Minister to answer; it was touched on by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green). I appreciate that discussions are ongoing and I am sure that the Minister is being patient about hearing all sides of the argument, but if there is to be a transfer of resources, what assurance can he give the Committee and thus the Kennel Club, Dogs Trust and the National Dog Wardens Association that sufficient funds will have been transferred as of the date on which the Bill takes legislative effect?
My hon. Friend is making a very good series of points. Does she share my concern that the Government have a track record of giving local authorities additional responsibilities without providing sufficient funding to allow them to cope with that, which has a direct impact in that local people pay increased council tax? [Interruption.]
The Chairman: Order. Could the continuous conversations on the Government Benches please be curtailed?
Alun Michael rose—
Will the hon. Lady kindly slap down the intervention from her Back-Bench colleague, who ignores the massive cuts that are promised in local authority funds and services under Conservative proposals, and will she note that it is—
I hear what the Minister said, but the prospect of slapping down such a kindly and courteous gentleman as my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness fills me with horror. On the Minister's other point, in approximately 10 weeks' time we shall have ample opportunity to discuss—
Well, I think that the announcement as to when the forthcoming election will be will come from the Government Benches.
Undoubtedly there will be costs for council tax payers, and I shall come to that. The Minister will know that I try to be constructive, co-operative and positive in our deliberations on the Bill. Will he look kindly on our attempt in amendment No. 22 to draft a definition of a stray dog? Close reading of the Bill discloses that there is no such definition, and I think that it is incumbent on us all to provide one. Having been brought up in a family in which we had dogs as youngsters, I know that male dogs in particular have a propensity to wander off to have a good frolic or for reasons of a more amorous nature. It is therefore important to have to hand a readily available definition as to the length of time—
Is the hon. Lady aware that legislation on stray dogs has existed for some 98 years without the need for a definition, and that the intention of dogs in going to places other than where they should be has existed for much longer?
I note with interest the points that the Minister makes, but just because something has existed without a definition for 98 years does not mean that it makes good law. It is important to put it on record that the Bill is riddled with such omissions. We have already identified at least two in earlier proceedings. We have tabled the amendment purely in a helpful and constructive way. We believe that our definition of a stray dog as
''one which is unaccompanied by either owner or person responsible for it in a public or any other place without the permission of the owner of the land or premises where it is found''
would work. That leads to the matter of the microchip. There has been some disappointment that only a small percentage of animals that have been fitted with a microchip, at considerable expense, are returned to their owners? Will the Minister comment on that? Why are fewer strays reunited with their owners, even though dogs can now be fitted with microchips?
Perhaps I am being slow, but could the hon. Lady tell me where in her amendment is the reference to microchips?
It is not in the amendment. We are keeping an open mind on the subject; I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman.
Our modest amendment No. 22 would help the Minister. The fact that a dog had a microchip or a collar with its name and address—the sort of detail that can identify the owner—would lead to the presumption that the dog was not a stray.
We urge the Government to accept amendment No. 99, which states:
''It shall be the duty of the local authorities to provide a twenty-four hour dog warden service''.
It might seem blindingly obvious what the Government are asking local authorities to do, but it is well known and understood that the police operate a 24-hour dog warden service and that kennels are open for 24 hours, too. Council offices are usually open only between 9am and 5pm and only certain councils will operate a 24-hour service. Will the Minister elaborate on the additional responsibility of providing an entirely new dog warden service? What estimate has his Department made of the cost of providing a 24-hour service and of the transfer of resources from the Home Office to local authorities? As has already been established in Committee, this will be additional funding for local authorities. Does the Minister envisage that central taxation will fund the 24-hour service which amendment No. 99 makes clear is a de facto requirement of the Bill?
I am fascinated that the hon. Lady believes that councils will have to have a 24-hour service. In my constituency, which is about the size of greater London, stray dogs are few and far between. Most stray dogs are found on farmland and farmers have a brutally effective way of dealing with them. It would be an over-requirement on local authorities to require them to have a person sitting there for 24 hours a day, waiting for a call that might come once every three weeks.
If the hon. Gentleman had listened to the discussion, and to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness, he would know that the illegal activities that result in stray dogs often take place in the winter. If drag hunting is allowed to continue, there will be hounds that go astray. I do not suggest that there should be a 100-strong, 24-hour dog warden service, but a service should be available 24 hours day.
I have reserved one or two points that I would like to make on clause stand part.
Order. May I point out to the hon. Lady that I am minded to use my powers under Standing Order No. 68 not to allow further debate on clause 68 stand part?
Perhaps I could make those points on this group of amendments then. What powers will be transferred to the local authorities? This is not a discretionary power; it will be a duty. There will be resource implications. Will the Government ensure that sufficient resources are transferred from the Home Office to local authorities up and down the country?
The point of this group of amendments is to probe the Minister on whether amending the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which the Government are seeking to do under clause 68, is sufficient. Will he confirm that the powers that I believe exist already in London—will be transferred across from the police? In Swansea there is already a detailed record in that regard and substantial costs have been run up. It would be valuable to know from the Minister whether in his view the costs are sufficiently clear.
Will enough kennels be available? Will the Minister confirm that they will not be vulnerable to attack from animal rights activists and that any stray dog that is injured will be brought to the appropriate local authority at the earliest possible time? If there is not to be 24-hour cover, what is the maximum delay that his Department would countenance before such a stray dog was treated? If injured animals were not treated promptly, it would obviously reflect badly on the Government.
Apparently there are no comprehensive figures for the number of dogs impounded by the police across the country. In the city and county of Swansea, which has a population of about 225,000, during 2004 the local authority collected 925 dogs, while the police collected 397. The local authority in Swansea has an agreement with the local police to collect impounded stray dogs out of hours until 8.30 pm on weekdays and 24 hours throughout the weekend, which perhaps answers the point made by the hon. Member for Ludlow. There are substantial numbers of dogs running around during the weekend and out of hours.
The authority takes the dogs to private kennels, with which they have a contract agreement. It does not have its own kennels or reception centre and estimates that providing those would involve considerable capital costs in additional staff and administration. Does the Minister expect that individual local authorities will have to set up their own kennels or reception centres and what estimate has he made of that cost?
The hon. Members for Ludlow and for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) have both asked about the transfer of powers and resources. The hon. Member for Ludlow rightly said that we have already referred to this and that I had assured the Committee that there would be a transfer of resources between the Home Office and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to reflect the transfer of responsibilities from the police to local authorities. He went too far, however, with his scurrilous suggestions that the police might estimate a low level of expenditure to keep any transfer of funds to a minimum, and that the Local Government Association might effectively demand money with menaces by exaggerating the burden that would be placed on it. Any figures discussed between those organisations and between two Government Departments would involve an objective assessment of the responsibilities that currently fall on the police, and what would be involved for local authorities to make sensible arrangements to cover the requirements of the Bill. That discussion, especially when it reaches the highly intelligent and competent Ministers who have responsibility in the two Departments, will lead to a sensible and satisfactory outcome.
It must be pointed out that the Government and the Deputy Prime Minister have been keen to emphasise that when responsibilities are transferred, responses should follow. The new burdens approach is sensible from the point of view of an orderly movement—often a devolution—of responsibilities to local government from central Government, and for ensuring that appropriate resources are transferred. I am sure that that will happen in this case. However, as the hon. Member for Vale of York suggested, discussions are going on—I do not like describing them as ongoing, because that makes them sound disorganised and confrontational, whereas these matters are dealt with in an orderly manner—and I am certain that suitable arrangements will be made.
Some of the comments made have almost been contradictory, which is reasonable enough if hon. Members are trying to probe exactly what is intended. For example, the provision of dedicated kennels or a 24-hour service is not the only way to deal with stray animals. Appropriate local arrangements must be made, not least because the extent of the problem differs considerably across the country—it may be a major problem in one city, but a relatively minor one in another. As the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness pointed out, there are big differences between dealing with the problem in an urban area and a rural area, where occasional problems may arise and distances may be considerable. That is why we want a degree of local flexibility.
It may make far more sense to have a contractual arrangement with a vet to provide overnight cover, or with a charity or commercial organisation, as already happens in both rural and urban parts of the country. One of the representatives who came to speak to me about these issues when the Kennel Club and the Dogs Trust came in was a vet who had provided such cover as part of his practice arrangements. It is important that the service is effective and is appropriate for the area, that it deals with the nuisance and that it is carried out in a way that deals with the animal welfare issues.
The point has been made about strays causing a nuisance or being injured in a car accident. I will not regale the Committee with all my experiences in the 1989 Vale of Glamorgan by-election. There were many interesting experiences, but one of them involved a cat in the early hours of the morning, and a lot of cleaning up having to be done in the car when we had finished our journey.
We know that, on the ground, dealing with such issues is complex; that is also the experience of the police. One of the examples given by the Dogs Trust and the Kennel Club in their contributions, which I believe have been circulated to members of the Committee, described what has happened in Cardiff. Last Friday, I met the chief superintendent and some of his colleagues in Cardiff and discussed some of the problems that the police have had there. They include having to hold animals in wholly inappropriate circumstances, such as in the back of a van, because facilities are not available, the disruption of activities and vehicles therefore not being available for police use, perhaps at times of pressure. That is clearly is not a sensible use of resources.
Against that background, the hon. Member for Vale of York referred to the amendments that she had tabled. I was a little surprised by those drafted in conjunction with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, so I spoke to the RSPCA last night. It seems to have woken up from an uncharacteristic slumber in order to rush in a couple of amendments at the last minute, without thinking about them properly, and without discussion.
The hon. Member for Ludlow spoke about the transfer of resources. However, the lead amendment—amendment No. 18—would delete part of the Bill and would therefore retain a power given to the police under previous legislation. I think that that is due to a misunderstanding, which I would like to clarify.
The Minister will also notice that when I spoke, I made it clear that the amendment had been tabled to provoke a discussion on the transfer of funds, because that seemed the appropriate way of doing so. The Minister will understand that various techniques can be used in Committee, and that that is one of them. He therefore does not need to go into great detail as to why the amendment might not work—he can spare the Committee that.
Well, I do not know whether the Committee should be spared. The hon. Gentleman's amendment was not about the transfer of resources; it was about what police powers will continue to exist under the new legislation. I want to make it clear that the police will retain their existing powers to deal with dangerous dogs. Section 5(1)(c) of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 enables a constable or an officer of a local authority to seize any dog that is dangerously out of control in a public place. The fact is that the police have the same right as anyone else to take charge of a dog that does not have an obvious owner; that is why I oppose the hon. Gentleman's probing amendment, which would delete that power.At present, under section 150(1) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, anyone who takes charge of such a dog has to return it to the owner or deliver it to the police or local authority. When the Bill is enacted, the police and others will have to take the dog to the local authority or return it to the owner.
I shall give an assurance. The question might arise as to what happens when there are no local authority representatives to deal with a stray. If it is clear that the situation needs to be dealt with immediately for the benefit of the local community, the police would be able to get hold of that dog. They could, if appropriate, use their power under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. However, the Association of Chief Police Officers has also confirmed its view that the police do not require specific statutory power to seize stray dogs. The police regularly round up strays of other species such as horses and sheep, without having a specific statutory power to do so. I will ensure that the guidance needed to spell out how these parts of the Bill should be enacted will point to the existing powers and practice so that there is no misunderstanding or a feeling that the police cannot do anything about this as a result of the Bill. That is not the case and I hope that that provides the clarity that the hon. Gentleman sought.
For those reasons, it is not necessary to retain the power that is being deleted in the Bill. The police will be most unlikely to make use of that power. Indeed, they have asked for it to be removed, despite having clarity about what they will continue to be able to do, which is referred to in the ACPO representations.
While I appreciate the reasons for tabling amendment No. 21, I can assure the Committee that it is unnecessary. Any local authority faced with a sick or injured dog would seek to have it treated immediately. It is worth reminding the Committee that this is not a new duty for local authorities, but the extension of an existing one. Local authorities are under a duty under sections 149 and 150 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 properly to feed and maintain stray dogs that they seize or that are delivered to them. That includes and covers treating sick and injured dogs. The provisions of the Animal Welfare Bill will make a seminal improvement to the way animals are treated in a variety of circumstances.
Amendment No. 22 is also unnecessary, although I note that it was moved in an extremely constructive manner by the hon. Member for Vale of York. As I indicated in my intervention, stray dogs have been provided for in legislation for at least 98 years. During that period, the lack of a legal definition of stray dogs has not created major problems for those dealing with them, and I do not think that we need a legal definition to describe what is a matter of common sense and normal English usage. I am sure that the hon. Lady, given her legal background, would accept that the injunction to legislators, ''If it ain't broke, don't fix it'', is useful. There are often unintended consequences in constraining the ordinary common-sense meaning of various words, which the courts and organisations such as the police and local authorities are well used to interpreting.
The hon. Lady referred to microchipping. This is comparatively recent technology. I have been at pains to encourage, but not to require, the use of microchips for horses, for instance. They can be very valuable animals. Use of microchips has also been encouraged by organisations such as the British Horse Society. It is required by some of the breed societies that deal with particularly valuable animals. This is a progressive arrangement. Microchipping of animals by owners and the use of microchips by authorities to identify animals is likely to continue and to accelerate. It is being used in Cardiff to deal with stray horses and I was discussing that with the police last week—
Indeed. I pointed that out in an intervention earlier. I was simply explaining that the issues raised by the hon. Lady are reasonable, although outside the scope of the Bill. This Bill is not the appropriate place to make a step change in requirements for microchips although I am sure that they will continue to be important.
It would not be appropriate to accept amendment No. 99. I will explain why. Clause 68 makes local authorities solely responsible for stray dogs. It will be for local authorities to make arrangements to ensure that there are facilities to deal with stray dogs at all times, including at night. It is up to local authorities how they do this. Providing a 24-hour dog warden service may be one way, but it could be costly. So could providing dedicated or council-owned kennels. Those are not necessarily examples of the right way to do it, although it is up to the local authority to decide. In a large rural district, those examples might well be an expensive way of providing the necessary cover. However, making arrangements with local vets would be one good way.
I made the point to police officers when I spoke to them last week that often, even though there may be a dedicated service, the first stop for many people will be to knock at the door of the police station or to ring the police. It fits well with the crime reduction approach that has been encouraged for arrangements to be made locally so that information is readily available. On all those grounds, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.
As I said, the amendment was designed to provoke a discussion, rather than to be pressed to a vote, because we do not oppose the measure to make the local authority the responsible party in this instance.
I am grateful for the Minister's comments, although my softly-softly, charming approach is not working quite as successfully as I thought, so I might try a more aggressive approach as the morning proceeds. I understood him to say that he thought that amendment No. 99 was the work of the RSPCA, but in fact it was suggested by the Kennel Club, because local authority dog warden services tend to operate a standard, nine-to-five working day, Monday to Friday, with no weekend cover. I understand that the Minister said that as recently as Friday he was still having discussions, presumably on the resources and on the level of cover, but we would still prefer the matter to be dealt with explicitly in the Bill.
We pay tribute to the Kennel Club, the Dogs Trust and the National Dog Warden Association for the work that they do. For the record, it is important that we accept that certainly the members of the NDWA already work long hours for modest pay. If local authorities are to rely on them, they will probably want more resources to be made available. I ask the Minister also to take note of the fact that Westminster city council believes that the consultation document and the Bill are still light on detail. It would prefer the responsibility to remain with the police. With those remarks, and given that we have had a lengthy debate, I shall conclude.
We have said far too much on this. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Question agreed to.
Clause 68 ordered to stand part of the Bill.