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Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate. I shall concentrate on the animal welfare aspects of the Bill, about which I questioned the Secretary of State during her opening remarks. Many colleagues in the House know me best for my partiality to cats, as I have been chief executive of the largest feline welfare charity in Britain. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) in his place. He is a distinguished supporter of cat protection. However, the subject of my remarks tonight is dogs.
As a result of my work with cats, I have frequently come into contact with the dog welfare charities in our country, particularly the larger ones, such as the Dogs Trust and the Kennel Club. Because of that contact, a number of them have raised with me their concerns about the content of the Bill. They are not against the Bill and they are not cynical about it, but they have concerns, which they have also expressed to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who is a remarkable champion of animal welfare. I am delighted that he is present, and I hope that he will catch Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye to raise our concerns.
The Minister kindly wrote to us during the parliamentary recess. His letters during a recess are always welcome and make relaxing reading. On page 2 of his letter he extolled the fact that the Bill would bring in a "simplified system" for dealing with stray animals. The Bill repeals section 3 of the Dogs Act 1906, which gives the police power to seize stray dogs in public places. The Bill also amends section 150 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which gives the opportunity for dogs to be taken to police stations when they are found. The responsibility will pass from the policenot that they were dealing with it exclusivelyto local authorities. That may well work, but a number of us have reasonable doubts. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who will represent the Opposition in Committee, will press the Government in detail. I wish I could be there to support her, but as I shall be chairing the Committee considering the Identity Cards Bill next door, I shall have to wait for the breaks to find out what progress she is making.
The council dog warden scheme is remarkable. There are many dedicated men and women out there in the most dreadful conditions and weather, in poky little vans, doing a great deal to round up stray dogs and find their owners or, if they cannot, have the dogs taken into care. The dog wardens, who are represented on a number of animal welfare charity forums, do a splendid job for pretty poor pay and in dreadful working conditions. They do that job pretty well 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. There are exceptions, but not many.
Out-of-hours cover is necessarily provided by the police. Although the Government will doubtless elucidate this in Committee, I can find no reference in the Bill to what will happen after 5 pm or before 9 am and on Saturdays and Sundays, when council dog wardens are not available. No doubt the Minister will also tell us the cost involved, but that too is not really dealt with in the Bill.
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Where will a wandering dog be taken? If a dog is worrying children in a park, who will come? Most people would think of calling the police, for not enough dog wardens are floating around local authority areas for them to be on patrol as often as the police should be. In many of our constituencies, there is likely to be confusion over who is responsible for controlling stray dogs that worry children in public play areas.
In an excellent briefing, which I hope will be given to those appointed to the Committeeif not, I shall ensure that they receive itthe Kennel Club poses a number of very good questions about that, and about the cost issue. A 1998 independent study estimated the council cost at some £15 million, but the O'Dowd report on police costs suggested £1.8 million. I am no mathematician, but even I can work out that there is a bit of a gap between £1.8 million and £15 million. Clearly it is difficult to put a figure on this, but it is incumbent on the Government to do so if they expect the House to change arrangements that have been in force for so many decades. I hope that the programme motion will give the Committee an opportunity to consider the issue in some detail.
It is not clear whether, once the police arrangements have gone, enforcement of care for strays will become a local authority responsibility 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is no such requirement in the Bill. I hope the Minister will tell us whether he will issue guidance to councils, and what enforcement will be possible if councils have neither the money nor the will to carry it out themselves.
Animal welfare charities do a phenomenal job in caring for stray dogs. Obviously everyone knows about the RSPCA: I do not think we need blow its trumpet too much. Dogs Trust is undoubtedly a leader in the field, but excellent work is done by the Blue Cross, by a wonderful organisation called Wood Green Animal Shelters, and of course by the Kennel Club, which is the oldest such charity. They have come together in a forum called the Pet Advisory Committee, in which local authority dog wardens are also represented. I hope that, on Report if not in Committee, the Minister will assure us that he and other representatives of his Department have met members of those welfare charitiesas well as the Pet Advisory Committee and dog wardensto establish that the proposals in the Bill will work.
This is a big problem. Dogs Trust, known to many as the National Canine Defence League, helps more than 12,000 dogs each year in its 15 centres. That is an awful lot of stray dogs. It also spends £2 million a year on neutering dogs whose owners receive state benefits. More bodies than just local authorities are trying to cope with the problem of unwanted dogs, and Dogs Trust in particular helps council dog wardens. The fact remains, however, that there are more than 5 million dogs in this countryalthough the 8 million cats are clearly in the leadof which about 105,000 stray. That is of course a natural instinct; they are not yobboes, and should not be subject to antisocial behaviour orders. They foul pavements, which is also natural. In some respects they even emulate the House of Commons: they make a noise, which for many of us
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is a natural function. The general public, however, understandably want to see some control, especially those who do not like dogs.
I appreciate that the Minister is trying to do something about those problems, but I am sure he will bear it in mind that dogs, in particular, provide an enormous amount of companionship for many of our constituents. They give huge enjoyment, especially to children, and I think they genuinely improve the human lot. When society seeks to control this wonderful species, as it seeks to do in the Bill, we have a duty of care. I have known the Minister for 20-odd years and I believe his intentions are good, but I regret to say that I do not think he has addressed that duty of care in the Bill. As it stands the Bill is simply a shrug, which is not good enough. I hope that he will deal with the issues I have raisedif not tonight, in Committee and on Report.
Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester) (Lab): I can assure the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), on the basis of dealings I have had with my right hon. Friend the Minister on animal welfare issues, that my right hon. Friend will be assiduous in considering the animal welfare implications of the Billas he has been in the case of other Bills that have come his way.
I welcome the key provisions of the Bill, which are intended to drive up local environmental quality. The Bill will also play an important part in tackling antisocial behaviour in places such as my constituency. I want to focus on the aspects that will benefit constituents who have raised problems with me over many years.
Gating orders are an urban issue. Planners seem to have designed short cuts and public access routes to facilitate easy escape from the police rather than easy access to local facilities. An example is the alley backing on to the Fairway in Worcester, which links Otley close to Tolladine road. The pathway is unlit and contains two 90-degree turns, so people cannot see from one end to the other. Certain individuals have used that footpath to push over brick walls, damage fences and urinate into people's gardens. That is unacceptable behaviour, and gating orders might enable us to end such problems.
I am, however, acutely aware of the potential conflictraised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping)between those who suffer from antisocial behaviour, who are victims of crime, and law-abiding people who just want to go from their homes to local facilities. I would like to know how the Minister expects local authorities and crime reduction partnerships to deal with that conflict. Who, ultimately, will have priorityvictims of antisocial behaviour, or those who argue on libertarian grounds that they should have the right to use a footpath? If time limits are imposed, allowing gates to be closed in the evenings or whenever it gets dark, who will be responsible for the prompt closing and opening of the gates?
Gating could perhaps be used as a way of tackling antisocial behaviour on the part of older youths abusing children's play areas. There is a play area in Barley crescent and Tolladine road, and another in Great Oaty gardens, Warndon Villages. They are designed for
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children of five, six and seven, but tend to be occupied late in the evening by teenagers and older young people. Those whose homes back on to the play areas are subjected to the throwing of bottles into their gardens, and to fireworks and noise. Playgrounds are set on fire, and unwanted waste is generated. The play areas also attract individuals who seek to capitalise on the presence of groups of young people who may be particularly vulnerable to the selling of drugs and other illegal substances. The detached youth team in Worcester has worked hard, but the local council has failed it in not recognising the problem and in taking so long to establish a strategy.
I think that we would all accept that the antisocial behaviour and crime that abandoned cars tend to attract and promote are a real problem. A notice placed on a windscreen is like a green light for vandals, who think, "No one cares. Let us have some fun and damage that car." I welcome the fact that we will have speedier action on such behaviour.
In Worcester city last year, 414 abandoned cars were dealt with by the local council, so the issue affects areas that are perceived to be nice and middle-class and middle England, as well as more challenging areas. Therefore, I was dismayed to read a month or so ago that the local Conservative ruling group on the city council decided that dealing with abandoned vehicles was not a priority area for action. The Conservatives are trying to put over a party political argument in their motion, but it is one that my constituents will fail to understand.
Nuisance parking is not a recent phenomenon but it is a growing problem. For example, it is dangerous to sell cars on busy highways such as the London road going in and out of Worcester, and cars parked on the grass verges of streets such as Windermere drive are an eyesore. They reduce and devalue the amenities of the land in that area.
Litter cleaning notices will be a much welcomed, more flexible approach. We can start to enforce more responsible behaviour, so that wider communities are not disadvantaged by irresponsible individuals. I have walked Teme road and Avon road with the chief executive of the city council. Those areas are a disgrace and certain individuals are letting down the neighbourhood. Although one-off measures such as bulk waste or refuse collection are used to make an immediate clear-up, within a few months the area goes back to its normal state because there is no regular enforcement.
That is why I welcome the fixed penalty notice scheme and the different treatments that the council can apply. If the litter and waste are seen to be detrimental to the amenity of the locality, the local authority can take action, rather than having to wait to see whether an environmental health hazard is posed by all that litter and waste. The work of good local councillors such as Geoff Williams and Roger Berry in those areas can be supported by the Bill.
On graffiti, Worcester city has had the benefit for a number of years of a local benefactor, Mr. Cecil Duckworth and the services of his Duckworth Trust in helping to clean up the city and to rid it of graffiti. He is particularly keen to see graffiti dealt with and the problems caused by chewing gum highlighted because
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those are the two main problems that his group of workers has been working on. He was surprised, as I was, at Liberal Democrat opposition to provisions in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 to restrict the sale of spray paints to those aged under 16. It is rewarding to see the Liberal Democrats' conversion on that matter, which I believe is what we heard this evening. I welcome the pressure that will be put on local authorities to ensure that the Anti-social Behaviour Act provisions on spray paint sales are enforced.
On the issue of future changes to local government structure, the Minister needs to be aware of changes that will increasingly need to be made to introduce more local community involvement. In Worcester, we have a two-tier local government structure, which has become increasingly outdated and needs to be changed, but the move to a unitary authority would create a larger local authority body responsible for the enforcement of many of the matters that are raised in the Bill. Therefore, I ask the Minister to consider, as the Bill makes progress, how powers can be delegated to the equivalent of parish and town councils in urban areas or to local area forums.
In summary, I welcome the measures, which are long overdue. I believe that they will help local government to reconnect with local communities, so that my constituents no longer hear the excuse that legislation does not allow local government officers to deal with the problems that they see day in, day out.
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