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Lord Leigh: Speaking as an owner of a Staffordshire bull terrier, occasionally mistaken as a pit bull terrier, the whole point of not giving discretion against the mandatory death sentence is that it penalises the good owner as well as the bad. No breed of dog can be classified as bad. More often than not it is the owner who should be put down, not the dog.

Pit bull terriers are in fact an outcross of Staffordshire bull terriers who are reared and kept by the Staffordshire miners—who are now few and far between—especially for fighting. It is how the dog is brought up that determines how its character is going to develop. My "Staffy" is called Sir Caspar Weinberger, who I got as a four-month old puppy from Grantham, so perhaps I should have called him, "Thatcher". But with all due respect to the noble Baroness, I thought at that time it was too obvious and so I called him "Caspar Weinberger" after the American senator who was very popular then and in all the news bulletins.

A fellow American who claims to be a cousin of mine, alleged that he knew the real Caspar Weinberger and took back a photograph of my dog to show his namesake. I did not then hear from my cousin, who had previously been a regular correspondent, for nearly three years; but out of the blue he sent me a card last Christmas. There must be a lesson in that somewhere. I am trying to reply to him and other overseas friends, with a general letter to cover Christmas, etcetera, but I admit that I have not managed it yet. Perhaps this speech will prod me into action.

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Be that as it may, my Caspar Weinberger has the sweetest nature and in Putney, where I am now domiciled, it is not me or my health who the locals enquire after, it is always Caspar, which makes his owner feel quite jealous. In fact, many of the locals call out his name at distances up to 100 yards or so when they see him approaching with me, provided he is loose on the common. I try—I do not always succeed —to greet everybody I see on a regular basis. Sometimes strangers approach me and ask, "Is he dangerous?" or similar words, to which I always reply, "He will not hurt you, but he might kill you with kindness". He has a fearfully long tongue, but all he wants to do is lick you.

Caspar has been police guard dog, trained by a top professional dog trainer who has won the Grand National of dog training on several occasions. He had never trained a Stafford before, but he told me that Caspar had the hardest grip of any dog he had ever trained. The dog trainer reckoned that if anyone attacked me, or any member of my family, they would be dead in a minute-and-a-half if Caspar got a grip on them.

I have met two pit bull terriers and their owners on separate occasions. One was nasty and vicious, and his owner appeared the same. The other pit bull was a lovely dog and the owner, on brief acquaintance, appeared a nice chap, too. Some dogs have a blemish or a quirk in their character. I also had a Rottweiler called Argos B. Eagleburger—I was heavily into the American Senate at that time—which I brought up from a puppy with Caspar and they were inseparable. They were both full dogs and they used to spend most of their time buggering each other.

Unfortunately, although he was like a great cuddly bear most of the time, he had a quirk which is common to that breed—so I was told by my vet—which meant that he occasionally went berserk. After he had attacked a third blameless dog in the park in the space of two years, I had to have him dispatched to his forefathers as I feared that it might be a child next.

There must be an escape clause in this Bill to protect the innocent owner. I hope that I have shown by my action in the case of my Rottweiler that responsible owners should be given discretion from the wholesale slaughter of their friends and pets. After all, dogs are said to be man's best friend and Caspar Weinberger vies with my wife as mine.

8.45 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland: From these Benches I support the main drift of this clause which is that the Act should have, by common consent throughout the country among people who have any interest and care about dogs, a discretion given to the courts in order to decide whether dogs, in both Part I and III of the Act, should be destroyed.

What the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, just said is very useful because when this legislation came about—prompted, quite rightly, by an enormous outcry in the popular press because of unfortunate incidents involving very serious injury to people, and in particular children—there was a general feeling that all was not well in the dog world and that legislation was required.

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Personally, I do not argue with the motivation behind the Government's legislation in this area and neither do I disagree with the RSPCA which has expressed publicly the view that they wish that pit bull terriers did not exist. Understandably, the Government were much moved by the fact that many of the pit bull terriers were brought here expressly for fighting and were often used by criminal and irresponsible elements in quite improper ways, such as a form of protection against police raids in search of drug dealing.

As has been shown, the reality is that there are responsible owners like the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, who own pit bull terriers and who are responsible owners. They have little or no trouble with them, particularly as they are now subject to the provisions of the Act, which are very rigorous and, some may say, draconian.

I would only disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, when he says that the Government must be concerned about the reaction of the popular press if they accept the new clause. I do not agree with that because most of the popular newspapers which previously urged the Government to act are now carrying stories expressing great concern about cases where dogs have been taken into custody and given the mandatory sentence for infringements where there has been evidence that certain special situations arose, such as a muzzle being removed or a dog not being registered according to the Act. In the view of most people, that is where discretion should have been allowed to apply. That is what the new clause is all about. I support it, and I hope that the Government will do likewise.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The procedures of this House allow for debate between Second Reading and the Motion that the Bill do now pass only on specific issues: amendments before the House and, at Committee stage, the Motion that the clause stand part of the Bill. Therefore, I must ask for the indulgence of the Committee if I take the opportunity of this amendment to refer back to something that my noble friend Lord Houghton said on the Motion that Clause 1 stand part of the Bill because I think that it is important and raises an issue that has arisen since Second Reading. Specifically, my noble friend said that he thought that the issue behind the Bill ought to be referred to a Select Committee of the House in order to enable the issues to be considered in a way that is not easy to achieve through Public Bill procedures.

I am advised that on page 95 of the Companion is the provision that Public Bills may be committed to Select Committees other than Public Bill Committees at any stage between Second and Third Reading. There is no Motion of that kind before the House, but I thought that it would be as well for me to put on the record the fact that my noble friend would be entirely within his rights if he sought at any stage between now and Third Reading to move that the Bill be committed to a Select Committee. That would be entirely in order.

Following that, I think it would be helpful if that were the case because I have had the benefit of an enormously helpful letter from the Minister, dated 20th March, following Second Reading and my request that there should be better statistics about the practical workings of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. I express my gratitude now to the noble Baroness—I have not done so in the form

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of a written reply—for the care that she and her officials have taken in seeking to provide such evidence as is available. However, at the end of that exercise, the evidence is not conclusive. It indicates to me that, on the whole, the Act is working well and that the provisions—the "draconian" provisions, as they have been described—may well have proved necessary. However, there is enough room for doubt and enough room for discussion of the evidence to make me say that if my noble friend were to move at any time that the Bill should be committed to a Select Committee other than a Public Bill Committee, I personally, speaking from this Dispatch Box, would support him.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): Perhaps I may respond briefly to the helpful point which has just been made by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. It would be wrong of me to pre-empt the response of the House to such a Motion and, in the absence of such a Motion, I do not wish to do that at this stage. The noble Lord is absolutely right—it would be for the House to make a determination. As is the convention in your Lordships' House, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government I shall not oppose the amendment.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby: I think that we are getting into a bit of a tangle in terms of order. The Question before the Committee at present is, as far as I can gather, that relating to the new clause which is to follow Clause 1 and which was moved by my noble friend Lady Wharton. The Question that the new clause be added to the Bill has not yet been put, so we are diverting from the mainstream of the discussion on that new clause to deal with other matters—and I am bound to take responsibility for having raised them myself. The new clause that we are considering at the moment is intended to give the Home Secretary the power to reopen the index of exemptions which was closed on 31st August 1991 by opening it on an order of a court given to him for particular cases brought forward under the new Clause 1 of the Bill—

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