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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, before the Minister leaves the issue of the evidence, perhaps she can tell us about the trend in the number of convictions under the Act and the number of destructions ordered as a result of the Act, and whether they are as a result of Section 1 or Section 3. That, too, is an important issue in considering whether the Act is working properly.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I shall produce a very comprehensive picture of the current data, from the beginning of the Act to the present day, or to the most recent statistics on which we can put our hands. I will make sure that that information is available to the noble Lord and to all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, and I will place a copy in the Library.

I offer the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, my apologies that he was kept waiting so long for a reply. I am grateful that he thought the reply comprehensive when I did in fact make it. It was because a great deal of agonising took place in the backroom while we considered the impact of the noble Lord's Bill. With his permission, if he thinks it would be helpful, I shall make both his letter and my reply available to all those who have spoken in the debate and place copies in the Library. I shall wait for him to give me permission to do that.

This time, the Bill is shorter in order to concentrate on the two areas that caused the noble Lord the most concern. As I have made clear, the Government considered the mandatory destruction order and the one on the nature of the registration scheme. We consider that they are matters that are integral to the provisions of the Act and to the objective that Parliament agreed. I recognise and understand the noble Lord's motives for the provisions in his Bill. I am sorry to have to tell him that the Government cannot support the Bill. This is of course a Private Member's Bill and, as such, I do not propose to vote against it.

9.27 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby: My Lords, I am very grateful indeed for noble Lords' contributions to this

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debate. In the remarks that have been made, coming as they do from a collection of Peers of great wisdom and experience, there should be some message to the Government tonight. The time will have to come soon when there is a stock-taking of how far we have come and where we think we are going in this very troublesome area.

My noble friend Lord McIntosh asked a great number of questions. The truth is that the Government know the answers to hardly any of them. They are so lacking in statistical evidence, and what we have is a year in arrear. Therefore there is no basis whatever on which to examine trends. There is no basis whatever for forming an estimate of what effect on the pit bull population the Act has had up to now. One might begin to ask: where have all the pit bull terriers gone? We know broadly speaking how many there were to begin with. We know that about 8,000 were registered under the opportunity that was given in 1991. The number on the original register has since been halved. The additions that would be made to the register under concessions which are contained in this Bill would be very small indeed. In fact, I do not know what the prospects are of further discoveries of pit bull terriers. We have no basis whatever for reaching a judgment on the retention of the extremely irksome and undesirable regime that we have in our social, police and judicial systems at the moment in that regard.

Are we justified in carrying a regime which gives more power to the state, a great deal more power to the police and rides roughshod over the normal rights of citizens? It can adopt methods which are deeply wounding and keep animals in conditions which are extremely cruel. It is a most undesirable area in which much that we value in our society in freedom and consideration are set aside. But for what? What danger is there? How can the state put to the public that a danger exists in the two or so cases a year which arise while at the same time suppressing so much else in our liberties?

The state is inflicting indignities upon many people which are scarcely bearable. Under the present regime a person can be walking down the street with a dog on a lead. A policeman can approach and say, "What sort of dog is that?" The owner may say, "It is a Staffordshire bull terrier". The policeman says "It looks very much to me like a pit bull terrier". The owner says, "I can assure you that it is not". The policeman replies, "We had better take it away and get the experts to examine it. We shall let you know in due course whether or not we intend to make any charge against you for being in possession of a prohibited animal. I will now phone for a van. Your dog will be arrested. It will be taken away. You will not be told where it is. You will not be given access to it. You will have to wait for weeks and months to hear from us and there is nothing you can do in the meantime". That is outrageous.

I doubt whether the Minister realises what is happening in relation to the impositions being made on the public. Powers of entry, search and arrest exist in connection with the risk of a dog being dangerous. It is a protection of the public against dangerous dogs that

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the Government cannot provide for the citizen against dangerous people. If the regime that we are employing for the control and elimination of dangerous dogs were to be applied to human beings, there would be demonstrations of protest, as there were in relation to the Criminal Justice Bill.

Somewhere, some time soon, there must be an examination of the situation, and facts which are not available today must be obtained. The police are a law unto themselves. A person who asks to see a dog that he has not seen for nine months and does not know where it is will receive a letter from the chief constable which says, "It will be tiresome for us to allow you to visit your dog. We will have to transport it under secure conditions for you to see it, and if you will send us a cheque for £120 to cover the expenses, we will arrange for you to see your dog". When one asks what authority there is for that, one is told, "It is part of the police administration". The waste of money which is taking place in this area is quite astonishing. I know that one does not have to economise on justice, but one should economise on injustice. There is no economy on the injustices which are going on at the present time.

While this spirit exists in a considerable section of the community, there can be no health in society. There is a rift in society at the present time between those who have dogs, love them and want them and who believe that they add to the quality of their lives, and those who believe that all dogs should be on a lead and muzzled if taken into a public place.

The Home Office is saddled with the full responsibility for this great amount of trouble. It cannot stand it because it is not equipped to look after it. Who are these people in the Home Office who can provide the experience and the basis of assessment of public rights and police duties and all the rest of it? I should like to know what goes on in the Home Office in these matters. I suggest to the noble Baroness that very soon this Government or any other will have to appoint a committee of inquiry into the workings of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and related matters. I have been trying for years to get the Government interested in a dog control and welfare council.

Let us get to grips with the problem of the canine population and the place of dogs in our society. The Government do not want to touch it. It is another quango. The Minister of State—the predecessor to the noble Baroness—said, "You can have what you like so long as you find the money''. How long does one expect a section of the public to stand for this isolation from everybody else? They are undergoing in the name of security and safety of the public treatment at the hands of the state which is quite intolerable.

Balances have to be struck. One cannot protect all the people all the time. Some people are so foolish about children and dogs. The only statistic which I have as regards serious incidents of bites from dogs is that children suffer 50 per cent. of those serious bites. For example, far too much licence is taken with dogs in homes where parents should exercise a great deal more care.

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However, I shall have to consult with my friends and see what we do next. We have had a solid brick wall erected tonight against all the representations which we have been making to the noble Baroness. We cannot let things go on as they are. Some time soon we shall have to have the judgment of an independent body which can tell us more than we know and find out more information than the Home Office at the present time is in a position to obtain. The police must come clean. As regards the vital statistics, no central records are kept at all. In some police areas no records are kept of the number or the identity of the dogs they destroy.

All this leaves the end of the debate in a very unsatisfactory state. The noble Baroness must await the judgment of my responsible friends to see where we go from here. In the meantime, I am greatly obliged to the

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noble Baroness for the help and trouble that she has been taking lately to get the facts and the Government's viewpoint together. We are nearing the point where a decision of some kind has to be made. I am suggesting that we have not long to go before we must act and get more information in order to look at this matter more realistically and dispassionately.

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

Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation Bill

Order of commitment discharged.

        House adjourned at twenty-one minutes before ten o'clock.

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