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As amended, considered.
To be read the Third time.
Bill read the Third time, and passed.
Tees (Newport) Bridge Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Order for Third Reading read.
The Bill is promoted by Cleveland county council, of which my constituency forms part. Its purpose is to remove the statutory obligation on that council to provide for the Tees-Newport bridge to be raised whenever a vessel wishes to pass beneath it.
Column 1177The bridge was opened in 1934 and has a central roadway span which can be lifted vertically by approximately 100 ft in the space of two minutes or less. The machinery and other equipment required to facilitate the raising of the bridge is very expensive to maintain and given the fact that the bridge has not had to be raised for a commercial vessel since 1984, and is unlikely to be raised again, the financial burden imposed on the county council is considerable and can no longer by justified. If the statutory obligation to raise the bridge can be repealed, the council estimates that it will save approximately £1 million over the next 10 years.
I assure the House that, even with the bridge in its lowered position, there is approximately 6 m clearance for vessels at high water. That compares with a clearance of5 m for the Victoria bridge up river at Stockton and a minimum clearance of 5.5 m for the proposed new road bridge which would be constructed if and when the River Tees Barrage and Crossing Bill is enacted. I commend this Bill unreservedly to the House.
Bill read the Third time, and passed, without amendment. Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Bill ( By Order)
Order for Third Reading read.
The Bill is promoted by the Tyne and Wear passenger transport executive which operates the Tyne and Wear metro system. I have been asked to move this Third Reading by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) who is the Opposition Deputy Chief Whip and who cannot carry out this important task because of his position. However, he has been most helpful in ensuring that the Bill has reached this stage.
The Bill will extend the metro system from the present terminus of the Bankfoot branch to the Newcastle international airport. As well as serving the airport, the extension will provide park and ride facilities with a bus interchange which will increase the use of the metro system and reduce traffic congestion in Newcastle.
Column 1178Since its opening a decade ago, the metro system has been most successful in meeting the transport requirements of the area and has contributed to the revitalisation of the local economy. This metro extension is essential to local and regional communications in the north-east and will provide the missing link between our air bridge to Europe and other parts of the United Kingdom and overseas, and a modern urban rail network serving the area directly and via connections at Newcastle Central station with British Rail's local and InterCity networks. The creation of the single European market and the opening of the Channel tunnel both emphasise the need for the highest possible quality of transport for our region.
As vice-chairman of the northern group of Labour Members, it gives me considerable pride to move this Third Reading, which I commend to the House.
Bill read the Third time, and passed.
Isle of Wight Bill ( By Order )
Order for Third Reading read.
Bill read the Third time, and passed.
Football Spectators Bill
Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe) : I beg to ask leave to present a petition to the House on behalf of my constituents and Nottingham Forest football club and the Nottingham Forest football club's supporters' association. There are 8,500 signatures on the petition which begs the Government to think again about the Football Spectators Bill and the requirement to carry identity cards to gain entry to football matches.
My supporters who have signed the petition believe that the identity cards Bill is complicated, costly and bureaucratic. They therefore pray that this House will think very carefully before proceeding with the Third Reading of that Bill in the House of Lords.
To lie upon the Table.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Fallon.]
Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East) : I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter in a debate on the Adjournment of the House. I stress at the outset that I do not mean this debate to be a re-run of last night's debate. This debate will focus on a problem which was not at the centre of last night's debate--the threat that dangerous dogs and dangerous breeds of dog pose to human safety in this country today.
I readily acknowledge that we are dealing with what can only be a relatively small section of the dog population. The vast majority of dogs are properly looked after and present no real problems, but that in no way diminishes the importance of this subject. Many people, including children, have been seriously savaged and mauled--some have even been killed--by dogs of dangerous breeds. The House must do whatever is practical, reasonable and responsible to try to reduce the danger of such attacks to an absolute minimum.
We must first try to understand the nature of the problem. I do not believe that Ministers have yet been able to do that. We must consider the problem of guard dogs, which are now being kept as domestic pets. The Minister wrote to me recently estimating that there are as many as 500,000 such dogs in homes across the country. Under the Guard Dogs Act 1975, any guard dog used to protect premises must be under the control of a trained handler at all times or it should be tied up. Any failure to comply with that requirement is an offence which is punishable in law, but no such requirement applies to the 500,000 guard dogs being kept as domestic pets.
I wrote to the Library research department asking for the legal position in respect of dogs kept as domestic pets in Scotland. I received a long answer, which was summed up as follows :
"In plain language, what this all means is that dogs are classified as domesticated animals and are therefore not regarded as being inherently dangerous. In normal circumstances, the owner or keeper is expected to ensure that the dog is kept under proper control, but no more than that. It is only if the dog is known to be dangerous either to people or to other animals that the owner is strictly liable to keep it under control at all times."
I assume that that means that the owner is strictly liable in the same way that owners of guard dogs are strictly liable under the Guard Dogs Act 1975.
I do not believe that that is right. It cannot be right that guard dogs such as rottweilers, pit bull terriers or bull mastiffs should be regarded as so dangerous as to require strict control at all times, but are then considered to be so innocuous at home as to require only the same kind of reasonable care as is necessary for a poodle or a pekinese. In that respect, the law is completely inconsistent and indefensible. The law must be tightened up to take account of the inherently dangerous nature of a number of the new guard dog breeds that increasingly are being brought into this country and kept as pets.
I am not alone in being concerned about the danger posed to human safety by certain breeds of dog rather than by individual dogs that the courts have defined as dangerous because of incidents in which they were
Column 1180involved. The Daily Record, Scotland's national newspaper, has been running a very effective campaign calling for tighter control of some of the new breeds of dogs. In a special edition on 1 June the Daily Record said :
"Today, we list five breeds--named by RSPCA experts--which are potential killers. Danger is deliberately bred into them. And people buy them precisely because they are ferocious, naturally aggressive and frightening- -to others."
The dogs to which the Daily Record referred were rottweilers, American pit bull terriers, doberman pinschers, German shepherd dogs and Neapolitan mastiffs. It is not just a question of a campaign in a paper such as the Daily Record drawing our attention to particular breeds of dogs that it believes to be inherently dangerous and that the RSPCA's own experts believe to be inherently dangerous. The publication Dog World --which is very pro-dog--commented on the incident that led to the death of my own constituent, 11-year-old Kellie Lynch. On 21 April it wrote :
"there are a number of general points which have to be made. Firstly, young children, however mature and apparently responsible, should never be left alone with any breed other than the most docile, and especially not with the big guarding breeds. Ninety-nine per cent. of the time there will be no problem, but the consequence of an unforeseeable accident are so appalling that the risk, however well trained the dog is, is not worth taking."
The article then went on to deal with children being allowed to take dogs for walks. It said :
"Again, the dogs themselves may appear well-tempered, but it needs only for them to be distracted by, for example, another dog running free, then things can go terribly wrong And it is asking for trouble to take out two dogs at a time ... The dogs may not be intentionally violent ; it only needs the child to trip and fall over for the dog's attitude to it to change immediately."
That description--by people whom, I assume, know what they are talking about and who know what are the characteristics of big guard dogs--is quite chilling. I regard such phrases as
"the consequences of unforeseeable accidents are so appalling" and
"it needs only for them to be distracted then things can go terribly wrong"
"it only needs the child to trip and fall over for the dog's attitude to it to change immediately"
as making an unassailable case for the Government to take steps to restrict the ownership of potentially lethal dogs of that kind. However, Ministers have made it absolutely clear that they are prepared to allow a completely free and unrestricted market in the ownership of dogs which have an awesome potential for creating havoc and injury among the population at large.
It is not just the rottweiler breed, which has received so much attention recently, that is a problem. There is the new phenomenon of the American pit bull terrier. That breed of dog is now beginning to appear in this country. According to one television report earlier this week, American pit bull terriers have killed 16 people in the United States of America in just two and a half years. Is that the kind of tragedy that the Minister wants to be repeated in this country, or does he intend to do something about it?
In the same edition of the Daily Record on 1 June Mr. Martin Sinnatt, the secretary of the Kennel Club, which is
Column 1181no opponent of dogs in general, issued the following chilling warning to anyone thinking about owning a rottweiler. He said : "It's like buying a gun without realising that it might go off one day."
He referred then to the American pit bull terrier, and said that the Kennel Club is now
"advising members not to deal with or own them. There is encouragement of the fighting characteristics of this dog by some people. In view of this, we have ruled that no recognition should be accorded to it under any circumstances and that activities involving such dogs should be actively discouraged."
We have to assume that the Kennel Club knows what it is talking about. When it advises its members to have nothing to do with the American pit bull terrier, it really is beyond me that the Government have consistently refused to try to bring the growth in the ownership of American pit bull terriers under control.
When I first raised this matter in the period immediately following the incident in which young Kellie Lynch was killed, the Leader of the House told me that
"there has long been legislation to control dangerous dogs, and remedies are available once it is clear that a particular dog is dangerous."
He was referring to dogs that have been proven by the courts to be dangerous--dogs that have already attacked human beings and savaged or possibly killed them. When dogs have attacked human beings, the law can get tough. The Leader of the House then said :
"We are therefore not contemplating legislation to control a particular breed or type of dog. However, I shall refer the matter to my right hon. Friend."
By "right hon. Friend" the Leader of the House meant the Home Secretary.
The matter was referred to the Home Secretary, who considered the position in the light of what had happened in Dunoon to my constituent. His answer was published yesterday in the form of a written answer. He simply confirmed the position that had been taken by the Leader of the House on 18 April. Having considered the problem for some time, the Home Secretary agreed with the Leader of the House that the penalties for individual dogs which have been proven to be dangerous would be toughened up. By that time it is too late to get tough with the dog. By then it has already created mayhem and attacked people. The Home Secretary went on to say that no action would be taken to control the ownership or the handling of increasingly fierce breeds of dogs which are now becoming more and more fashionable.
It is not good enough for the Minister to say that this is not a new problem. Of course it is not a new problem. It can be traced back to alsatians, the German shepherd dogs first introduced into this country in the aftermath of the first world war. There are fashions in dogs as there are fashions in everything else that people own. At one time it was alsatians. They have now gone out of fashion. For a while, the alsatian was overtaken by the doberman pinscher, but that breed has now become unfashionable and has given way to the rottweiler. The rottweiler will eventually become unfashionable and give way to another breed of dog--the American pit bull terrier. And who knows what the next might be? There have already been advertisements in this country for animals described as wolf hybrids--they are 75 per cent. wolf--which can be openly bought on the market without any restriction. In America people are free to own pure wolves. Is that the direction in which the Minister suggests that we should go?
Column 1182Should we allow a completely unrestricted market to develop? Should we allow the unrestricted ownership of any kind of lethal and potentially dangerous animal? I hope that that is not the position. Something will have to be done. The Government's response so far has not been good enough. A growing body of informed opinion is calling for the Government to introduce checks and controls over a problem that is now fast accelerating out of control.
The League for the Introduction of Canine Control publishes newsletters. In newsletter No. 27 it referred to a programme on BBC Radio 4--"Face the Facts"--on 23 February. It said :
"the growth of one-man backstreet breeder trainers and thriving businesses selling large guard dogs ; these security dogs' or attacker dogs' sell at £1,000 or more to anyone who can pay. One firm offers already trained Dobermanns, German Shepherds, 15 stone Rottweilers and also Pit-Bull terriers which are bred to bring down even a horse and not to give up till it's dead.' The danger of ordinary people owning such dogs is obvious and as Police Inspector Alan Clarke of Keston, said, a trained dog is as dangerous as a loaded gun'."
We should compare what was said in that BBC Radio 4 programme about individuals in back streets selling dogs of that kind, which present a lethal threat to other people in society, at high prices with what the Leader of the House said about the sale of such dogs. He said that the breeding of dogs for commercial sale is already controlled by legislation, but that legislation does not necessarily apply to back street sales. He added :
"We do not think it sensible to try to extend these controls to private individuals who wish to sell the offspring of pets."--[ Official Report, 18 April 1989 ; Vol. 151, c. 182.]
Is the Minister saying that it is not sensible to bring under control the kind of situation reported in "Face the Facts" and that he sanctions any individual selling American pit bull terriers regardless of the consequences? If so, that is totally unreasonable, and it is time that the Government took action.
It is not just the occasional radio programme, RSPCA inspector's report, or Daily Record survey that adds to the chorus of demand for Government action. Even people associated with some of the breeds involved, such as rottweilers, are themselves concerned. In a recent article in Dog World, rottweiler breeder Mary MacPhail stressed the need to socialise and train them, to enable them to fit into society. She commented :
"Breeders must realise that they have a special responsibility to screen rigorously in order to ensure the proper placement of puppies in homes with owners who are able to understand their character and who have the time and inclination to train and exercise them." The people who know rottweilers best acknowledge that not just anyone can own such dogs but only those who understand the responsibilities involved and who can ensure that their dogs live safely among us.
On the Saturday after my constituent was killed, the Exchange and Mart carried 20 advertisements for rottweillers. Only two suggested that ownership involved any special responsibility. The others said, in effect, "If you have the money, come along and we will hand one of these dogs over to you." Nothing done by the Government so far begins to confront the accelerating ownership of potentially dangerous dogs by people who cannot look after them responsibly. It is not good enough for the Government to say that they will act only when dogs get out of control. Steps should be taken before that happens to prevent pain and suffering being inflicted on totally innocent people.
Column 1183Recently, I asked the Home Secretary whether he would establish a review committee to consider what could be done to bring the situation under control. He replied that he considers that there is no need for such a body. Perhaps the Minister will explain tonight why there is no need for a professional body to make recommendations to Parliament in respect of a dramatically changing situation. A host of ideas exists for the Government to explore, but that should not be done behind closed doors, between Ministers and civil servants. Those ideas should also be explored openly by public representatives so that they can be properly tested in the public arena.
One proposal, promoted by the RSPCA, is for a compulsory third party insurance scheme covering all dog owners, involving only a small premium for ordinary dogs and domestic pets of the kind that the majority of people own, but higher premiums in respect of rottweilers, alsatians and doberman pinschers, which might discourage casual ownership of certain breeds. Last night, the Secretary of State for the Environment ruled out a national registration scheme, but demand for one will not go away and eventually the Government will have to concede. Meanwhile, they should consider whether specific breeds ought to be subject to a special licence which only certain people would be allowed to hold. The Home Secretary could also consider whether certain breeds should be muzzled in public. Strict regulations should also apply to breeders to catch back-street sales by people knowing nothing about potentially dangerous dogs to others who know even less. Sales of dogs such as rottweilers should also be restricted to one per owner. If the Home Secretary reads about the history of rottweilers, he will learn that they are pack dogs, so if the leader turns on an individual, the others will follow.
The Home Secretary already imposes a requirement on local authorities to license the owners of kestrels or buzzards. Special permission is required to build an aviary for those breeds and to keep them in built-up areas. Yet, there is no restriction on owning a Neapolitan mastiff or a rottweiler, even though they pose a far greater threat to public safety than kestrels or buzzards. My constituents Mr. and Mrs. Lynch are so concerned that they are organising a national petition to be presented to the Prime Minister. They wrote to the right hon. Lady asking whether she would receive the petition personally. One appreciates that the Prime Minister cannot accept every petition, but she replied that it could certainly be presented at No. 10. Her letter stated, in relation to the Lynch tragedy, that
"if it were possible to prevent such an incident from ever occurring again simply by changing the law, I would not hesitate." It may not be possible to prevent a similar incident, but steps can be taken to minimise the risk. It is incumbent on Ministers to encourage an open and comprehensive debate on methods of bringing the situation under control. Dog registration is a difficult subject, but there should be informed discussion and positive action.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg) : I fully understand the reasons why the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) has chosen to raise the subject of dogs tonight.
Column 1184The whole country was shocked by the attack that two rottweiler dogs made on Kellie Lynch on 14 April. She lived in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to take back to her parents the sympathy of the House. I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already written to express her sympathy to Kellie's mother and grandmother.
My right hon. Friend asked for a review of legislation relating to dangerous dogs within a very short time of learning of Kellie's death. That review was quickly conducted, and the hon. Gentleman knows that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a statement yesterday as to his conclusions, to which I shall refer shortly. First, I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman's points concerning the Guard Dogs Act 1975, because he may be under a slight misapprehension as to that statute's nature and purpose. That Act is primarily aimed at the use of guard dogs on commercial premises. It specifically excludes farms and domestic dwellings and is framed in terms of the function of the dog rather than, for example, the breed of the dog.
The Act is concerned solely with working dogs that are carrying out the functions of a "guard dog" : that is, a dog being used to protect premises, property or, in very narrowly defined circumstances, a person. The Act ensures that those dogs are securely held. It does not control dogs while they are being kept as family pets.
Mr. McAllion : I am grateful to the Minister for trying to explain the difference. Does he accept that there is an increasing fashion, particularly in inner cities such as London and peripheral estates in Scotland where people fear burglary and attack because of the lack of law and order, for keeping dogs specifically to guard their houses and themselves? In those circumstances, would the Guard Dogs Act apply to those dogs?
Mr. Hogg : It is a matter of interpretation. It might be of assistance to the House if I were to go through the Act at some length. That would enable the hon. Gentleman to form a view. The primary section of the Guard Dogs Act is section 1. It might be helpful if I refresh the memory of the House as to the terms of that section. Section 1(1) of the Guard Dogs Act 1975 provides : "A person shall not use or permit the use of a guard dog at any premises unless a person ("the handler") who is capable of controlling the dog is present on the premises and the dog is under the control of the handler at all times while it is being so used except while it is secured so that it is not at liberty to go freely about the premises."
Section 1(2) continues : "The handler of a guard dog shall keep the dog under his control at all times while it is being used as a guard dog at any premises except--(a) while another handler has control over the dog ; or (b) while the dog is secured so that it is not at liberty to go freely about the premises."
Subsection (3) provides :
"A person shall not use or permit the use of a guard dog in any premises unless a notice containing a warning that a guard dog is present is clearly exhibited at each entrance to the premises." It is important to bear in mind that a guard dog has a narrow definition for the purposes of the Act. That definition is to be found in section 7 :
" Guard dog' means a dog which is being used to protect (a) premises ; or
(b) property kept on the premises ; or
(c) person guarding the premises or such property ;".
Column 1185The hon. Gentleman asked me whether the Guard Dogs Act would apply to a dog which is used to guard domestic premises. That is a matter of interpretation, but my initial response--I do not pretend that I am expressing more than a layman's view--is that it could do. If a person was using a dog for any of the purposes set out in the interpretation section of the Act, it might well be that, notwithstanding the fact that the premises being guarded were domestic rather than commercial, the dog would be a guard dog for the purposes of the Act. Ultimately, that is a matter for the courts. I can only give a not particularly well informed view, but that is my view. It is a matter for the House to reflect upon, and it may be that the Guard Dogs Act 1975 would apply.
Mr. McAllion : I realise that neither the Minister nor myself is a legal expert, but is the Minister seriously suggesting that the 500, 000 guard dog types which are being kept as domestic pets should be individually tested through the courts to see whether they come under the auspices of the Guard Dogs Act 1975? That is not a realistic proposition.
Mr. Hogg : The hon. Gentleman does me a considerable injustice. I was not suggesting that the matter should be adjudicated in the instance of every single dog which might or might not be a guard dog. That is not the question. The question is whether any old dog is capable of being a guard dog when being used as a guard dog for the purposes of guarding domestic premises.
The answer to that question, at first blush, is yes. If a dog is being used to guard premises that fall within the scope of the 1975 Act--and that does not appear to be confined to commercial premises, subject to what I have already said regarding the interpretation of section 1(1)--it is possible that the dog is a guard dog. But that is subject to one important proviso, which is that the Act expressly excludes farms and domestic dwellings. That proviso limits the scope and the application of section 1, so I ought to modify the opinion that I have previously expressed.
The Act would not apply to most flats, which are clearly domestic premises. It would depend on the flat and on the circumstances in each case. The Act would not apply to domestic premises, and flats are domestic premises, but it might apply to other premises. As I have said, the Act is concerned solely with working dogs that are carrying out the functions of a "guard dog" : that is, a dog being used to protect premises, property or, in very narrowly defined circumstances, a person. The Act ensures that those dogs are securely held. It does not control dogs while they are being kept as family pets.
Pausing to make a point which must be self-evident, any dog is capable of being a guard dog. I suppose a pekinese is capable of being a guard dog. I had an extremely attractive Welsh springer spaniel, not the kind of dog that one would contemplate as a guard dog, yet he performed most admirably in that role, whereas my rather nice black labrador, which looks formidable, is probably not the kind of dog that one would choose as a guard dog. The definition of a guard dog has nothing to do with the breed but relates to the function that is being performed by the dog at the relevant time. I foresee many difficulties in following the path which the hon. Gentleman suggests. There is a very great difficulty in defining a guard dog once one has departed
Column 1186from the simple definition used in the Guard Dogs Act, which I have endeavoured to summarise. The Act is not concerned with breeds or type of dog.
Breeds and types of dog have no status in law. The reasons for that are probably self-evident. The evidential problems are great, and cross-breeds are extremely difficult to define and identify. In any case, the evidence of the last few weeks and the tragic attacks which have occurred suggest that dogs of a whole variety of breeds can be dangerous.
We have seen attacks by rottweilers, dobermans and alsatians. We must bear in mind that many alsatians are used as guide dogs. However, I must come back to the fact that spaniels, of which I am particularly fond, are sometimes rather vicious animals. I had a pleasant Welsh springer spaniel of which I was very fond. However, that does not alter the fact that, from time to time, he could be extremely vicious. I am ashamed to say that on one occasion he caught a postman. Worst of all are the Jacks--Jack Russells. My father has had many Jack Russells and they have all been nasty. One Jack Russell--I forget its name--bit my mother three times. The last time was its last bite because it was put down. My point is that Jack Russells can be nasty. My daughter had the misfortune to be caught by another Jack Russell and her face was rather badly bitten. So there are problems with dogs of all kinds. One must not suppose that the problems are confined to the big and obviously dangerous dogs. I had the misfortune to be bitten twice last year by the same dog on the same evening. It was not a rottweiler, a doberman or an alsatian but a bad-tempered old cross-breed which probably had some terrier and some labrador in it. That dog was very disagreeable. It was guarding a garage. It bit me when I got out of the car and when I went to the garage mechanic's back door, it bit me again. Therefore, one cannot define dangerous dogs by any definition known to the law. Indeed, it was difficult to recognise that dog. One could speculate as to its breed, but one could do no more than that. It certainly could not have been defined in law.
We have to face the fact that there have been attacks by terriers, collies and mongrels and that such attacks are very commonplace. We do not know how many occur. I have heard estimates of 250,000 a year--about 700 a day--or even 1 million a year : nobody really knows. Most dogs present no risk at all. I do not think that there is anything to be gained by trying to define dangerous breeds.
Mr. McAllion : The Minister is missing my point. I am not suggesting that we can define comprehensively what constitutes a dangerous dog. Some dogs will always be dangerous. I am suggesting that some breeds, which have become much more common in recent years, present an entirely different degree of threat to human safety. I do not believe that a Jack Russell is capable of bringing down a horse and killing it but an American pit bull terrier is. Is the Minister seriously arguing that the American pit bull terrier is not a qualitatively more dangerous and different type of dog from the dogs we traditionally have in this country?