Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Lindsay): I have some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, when he says that Clause 4 is highly undesirable. I agree that any retrospective legislation is undesirable. Where I have no sympathy is when he says that it is highly unnecessary. We believe that Clause 4 is a necessary addition to the Bill.

My noble friend Lord Ferrers earlier set out to your Lordships the principles underlying Clauses 2 and 4 and therefore I do not propose to go over the same ground in comprehensive detail, given his recent explanation. The reasons why the Government feel that retrospection is justified in Scotland are in parallel with those which my noble friend used to justify the legislation for England and Wales as regards Clause 2. First and most important, past transactions were carried out in good faith and Clause 4 simply validates payments made in the past. That is absolutely crucial to the reasoning behind Clause 4. Clause 4 is vital in order to introduce validation of something which has been carried on in good faith for so long. Secondly, in validating payments it raises no new costs for authorities, not least because account has been taken of the costs in successive local government annual settlements.

Thirdly, without the inclusion of the clause, authorities which have not yet reached the point of holding a local plan inquiry will be required to pay costs which others which have already held an inquiry might be entitled to reclaim. In other words, if the retrospective powers for Scotland were not included in the Bill, it would be open to authorities to reclaim the sums paid in recent years. That right would not be open to other authorities, so there would be a basic unfairness there.

Your Lordships have accepted the principle that it is right that an authority pays the charges for the services of a reporter appointed to an inquiry. I believe that that has been widely recognised, both by the Opposition parties and CoSLA and so on. The principle applies equally to the past and to the future. It is the basis on which all parties have operated in good faith for more than 20 years. For that reason, the Government are persuaded that retrospection is justified in this case.

I conclude my explanation to the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, with the basic point that if we were not prudent enough to take the retrospective power now, we would

19 Oct 1995 : Column 846

simply lay ourselves open to a challenge in the months to come. That would then invalidate all payments made to date and we would have to seek new primary legislation to sort the position out. It is common sense that we sort it out now, before there is a problem and not later, after one arises.

The Earl of Balfour: I wish to ask the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, a question regarding his figure of £220,000. I wondered whether that money had been spent on just one or two cases in the five-year period. If so, it is quite a big sum for the local authority involved or whoever pays.

We must never leave local authorities in any doubt about who pays what. I was slow in rising to my feet to ask that question, but I should like some idea whether many cases were covered in the £220,000, the rough figure which was mentioned, or just one or two.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: The figure I was given was not broken down into the number of public inquiries held. To anyone in Scotland who follows events in the field of local public inquiries, it is obvious that a fair number involve appeals from the applicant to the Secretary of State. They are held fairly regularly by all local authorities throughout Scotland. So we can take it that a fairly large number of public inquiries were included in the global figure that I gave of £220,000 over a five-year period. That is not a great sum.

I was disappointed with the response of the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay. There is no comparison between Clause 2 of the Bill and Clause 4. Clause 2 is there because the Government were challenged in the courts by Birmingham City Council. Clause 4 is there because the Government want the Scottish position to be the same as in England. However, the problem that led to the English position has never arisen in Scotland. The noble Earl said that the payments were made in good faith. On what authority does he present to the Committee the scenario or possibility that local authorities will now break that good faith? There is no indication now and never has been of that.

I have to accept that the noble Earl will not move, he has been given a bad brief, he read it fairly well and there is not much substance to the case but he has done his best. I shall not push the matter to a vote but he has failed to convince me of the need for the retrospective part of the Bill in its application to Scotland.

Clause 4 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 3 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.

Dogs (Fouling of Land) Bill

4.47 p.m.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I take the opportunity to congratulate my honourable friend, Mr. Harold Elletson, on being successful in the ballot in another place, thereby introducing this important measure to Parliament.

19 Oct 1995 : Column 847

It may also be of benefit to your Lordships if, by way of declaring a form of interest, I state that I am a member of the Kennel Club. I have spoken to members of the club about the Bill and they are fully supportive of its provisions. Item 4 of the Kennel Club's general code of ethics, the etiquette that it expects of all dog owners and not just its members, states:

    "Owners will clean up after their dogs in public places or anywhere their dogs are being exhibited".

Your Lordships will be aware of the significant risk to health, particularly that of children, posed by contact with dog faeces. Your Lordships will also be aware that a by-law-making procedure has existed for some time as the means for controlling dog fouling on land to which the public has access. This procedure is unnecessarily cumbersome, costly and time-consuming. A local authority may find that it takes at least 18 months and as long as three years to move from deciding to apply for provisional approval to having dog fouling by-laws in place.

In the light of that, the Advisory Group on Litter, set up in the summer of 1993 to review the litter legislation in Part IV of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, recommended in its 1994 report that there should be a nationally defined offence based on the existing "poop scoop" by-law offence. The group also recommended that a fixed penalty system should be extended to dog fouling offences on the basis that, under the current by-law procedure, local authorities often do not give a high priority to potential prosecutions in the event of an offence being committed under by-laws. Inevitably this has undermined the ability of the system to tackle the problem effectively.

Thus the recommendations of the group were aimed at simplifying and rationalising the convoluted procedure that local authorities at present have to follow to remedy dog fouling on land in their control. The purpose of today's Bill is to give effect to that intention.

With the leave of the House, I now turn to a more detailed examination of the Bill's provisions. Clause 1 is straightforward. It establishes the offence of failing to clear up after one's dog forthwith when on designated land unless there is a reasonable excuse. The clause follows the existing model by-laws very closely. Because noble Lords are familiar with these I do not intend to dwell over-long on them. However, there are a few refinements that I should draw to the attention of the House. Thus subsection (1)(b) provides a safeguard against local authorities imposing a requirement for clearing up under this legislation if the landowner, occupier or person in charge of the land does not wish it. This is a consequence of the way in which the system in Clause 3 has been formulated.

Noble Lords will note that subsection (3) provides for a maximum penalty of level 3, currently £1,000. This represents a doubling of the maximum penalty as compared to an offence under existing dog fouling by-laws. My own view is that that reflects the anti-social nature of the offence more accurately than previously although, obviously, it will be for the courts to decide the actual level of penalty in each individual case.

19 Oct 1995 : Column 848

There was much debate in Committee in another place as to whether other exclusions should be specifically included on the face of the Bill. For example, it would be unreasonable to expect sheepdogs working on common land to be subject to its provisions—an issue which I am conscious has caused some concern to the NFU. However, as noble Lords are aware, legislation that embodies copious lists is notoriously difficult to enforce and is subject to endless interpretation. Against that background, the Bill was amended by the insertion of subsection (5). This introduces the further defence of showing that the dog in question was being used for a purpose specified in an order made by the Secretary of State.

Finally in respect of Clause 1, subsection (6)(c) clarifies the defence of "reasonable excuse" so that being unaware of the defecation or not having suitable means of removal shall not constitute a reasonable excuse. The rationale is quite simple. Responsible dog owning is about having control of one's pet at all times. By implication, if one is unaware of its actions one does not have adequate control of it.

Clause 2 gives effect to the fixed penalty recommendations of the Advisory Group on Litter by enabling local authorities to operate such a scheme with respect to the offence of dog fouling as defined in Clause 1. It is modelled on the fixed penalty scheme for the offence of littering which is contained in Section 88 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. I am sure that noble Lords are familiar with that legislation; I shall therefore not try the patience of the House by explaining it at length. Nonetheless, I should mention one or two salient points.

The fixed penalty scheme as embodied in subsection (2) provides a power for the Secretary of State to prescribe the form of any notice and to vary its level—currently set at £10—by order. It is worth noting that the Advisory Group on Litter proposed that the fixed penalty for dog fouling should be set at £25. It is my understanding that the Government are still considering their response on that issue.

Moreover, some concern has been expressed by the Association of District Councils with respect to the implicit provision in subsection (2) that the moneys received by an authority for any fixed penalty notice issued are payable to the Secretary of State. However, it is important to ensure that authorities do not have any pecuniary interest in cases which they are prosecuting. Furthermore, current convention requires that moneys from fines, whatever the source, should be returned to the Exchequer.

Noble Lords should also note the additional provision in subsection (5) that allows local authorities to authorise people other than their officers to issue fixed penalty notices. This flexibility is essential as many local authorities use contract dog wardens who, without this extension, would be unable to issue fixed penalty notices.

Clause 3 makes provision for a local authority to designate land to which the offence in Clause 1 will apply. It simplifies the way in which local authorities can identify areas where the offence of failing to clear up after one's dog applies. It means that the local

19 Oct 1995 : Column 849

authorities will no longer need to establish which enabling power to use or obtain central government confirmation.

Subsection (1) allows a local authority to designate any land in its area that is open to the air and to which the public have access with or without payment. Thus, local authorities will be able to designate land with which they currently have no power to deal under by-laws—such as school land—to which the public are entitled or are permitted to have access notwithstanding the opt-out provisions implicit in Clause 1(1)(b).

Subsection (2) enables a local authority to designate land either specifically or by description and to revoke or amend orders previously made. In this way, it is afforded the option of designating a broad category of land within its area. Equally, if there were particular areas where the problem of dog fouling was more acute and local authorities wished to concentrate and deploy their resources in those areas, this provision would enable them so to do. They can also amend the designation order to take account of changing circumstances, as, when, and if it is deemed necessary.

Subsection (3) empowers the Secretary of State to make regulations prescribing the form of the orders and the procedure to be followed in the making of the orders which local authorities will be obliged to follow. It is anticipated that these regulations will be framed to include an obligation upon local authorities to undertake consultation about their proposals with local people. An important aid to enforcement will be to ensure that dog owners accept and understand the reasons for any such designations. More than this, should the Bill result in dog owners being made more aware of the issue of fouling, it will serve an extremely important additional purpose, that of promoting responsible dog ownership.

Subsection (4) provides that regulations may make provision requiring local authorities to publicise the making of designation orders. Obviously it is necessary to ensure that members of the public are aware of the areas to which designation will apply.

Clause 4 provides that any order or regulations made under the provisions of the Bill shall be exercisable by statutory instrument and that such statutory instruments shall be subject to negative resolution.

Clause 5, somewhat technical in nature, sets out the effects of the Bill on existing dog fouling by-laws. The intention is that local authority dog fouling by-laws will, after a period, be superseded entirely by the new designation system. Any such by-laws relating to land designated under Clause 3 will cease to have effect as soon as the designation order is made. All remaining local authority dog fouling by-laws will cease to have effect 10 years after the Bill comes into effect. This period will enable local authorities to change the new system at their own pace. And, obviously, they will find it advantageous in that it allows them to operate a fixed penalty scheme, thereby assisting enforcement.

Any dog fouling by-laws which had been made by a body other than a local authority will remain in effect. But it would obviously be unjust if a dog owner could be prosecuted under both the provisions of Clause 1 of

19 Oct 1995 : Column 850

the Bill and under an extant by-law. Clause 5(4) therefore provides that, in this situation, no offence is committed under any such by-law.

Clause 6 defines local authority for the purposes of the Bill. This is to ensure that in any area only one local authority may operate a fixed penalty scheme under Clause 2 and make designations under Clause 3.

A very important element of the Bill is its attempt to simplify and rationalise the current system. By way of illustration, at the moment a parish wanting to control dog fouling on its land almost always has to make its own by-law. As noble Lords are aware, a district may contain dozens of parishes and, in some rural areas, there may be over 100, all of which at present may have to make individual applications to the Department of the Environment to make dog fouling by-laws in respect of their land. This goes some way towards explaining why the existing system is so cumbersome and time-consuming.

As I mentioned, dog warden facilities and the like are operated administratively at district council level. For those reasons it is sensible that the provisions of the Bill also be administered at this level, as allowed for in the clause. Cynical observers may perceive an attempt to centralise these particular powers at district level. That is not the case. The provision in Clause 1(1)(b) ensures that, if a district designated a parish ground against the parish council's wishes, the council could consent to users of the ground failing to clear up after their dogs. In fact, I very much doubt that this sort of problem will arise although it is important that parishes and others be aware that their interests have been safeguarded in this way.

Finally, Clause 7 provides for the short title, commencement and extent of the Bill.

For your Lordships' reference, I should point out that the Bill will extend to England and Wales only and that it is intended that it will come into force two months after Royal Assent.

There is no better summary of the Bill than that contained in No. 27 of the weekly Science & Environment Monitor bulletin from another place. I make no apology for quoting from it at length:

    "The Government feels that the balance between the interest of dog owners and those who are disturbed by dogs and their activities is best determined locally and has declined to legislate nationally. However, it accepted the Litter Advisory Group's views concerning the unsatisfactory nature of the present byelaw system for dealing with fouling, and proposed that the system should be simplified to allow local authorities to introduce 'poop-scoop' areas without reference to central Government, and to introduce a fixed penalty scheme".

The Bill achieves these worthy objectives. It simplifies and rationalises the control of dog fouling and in time will replace the existing system of control through by-laws. Perhaps more importantly it will also instil in the dog-owning public a sense of good practice with respect to fouling and a greater awareness of their social responsibilities in this regard. To any of us who have had the misfortune inadvertently to encounter a dog's mess when walking through a public space, this measure has to be seen as most welcome.

19 Oct 1995 : Column 851

In conclusion, the Bill is universally supported by all interested parties: the Department of the Environment, the Advisory Group on Litter, the Pet Advisory Committee, the Association of District Councils and many others. Accordingly, I have no hesitation in commending it to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(The Earl of Northesk.)

5 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland: My Lords, on behalf of these Benches I should like to thank the noble Earl for his rapid explanation of this short Bill. I had not intended to speak at any great length and shall not do so. I was told by my noble friend Lady Hamwee that the other place had gone through the contents of this Bill at great length, and I did not look at those proceedings. The noble Baroness will deal with the local authority aspects of the Bill with her usual expertise.

I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Pet Advisory Committee. There was a meeting of that body this week which broadly welcomed the contents of the Bill. Any Bill which seeks to improve the condition of pet ownership in this country and in particular of dogs in public places must be welcomed.

This is only a small measure but, having been a Member of this Chamber for 11 years, I am slightly suspicious because it is a very short Bill. One learns to be suspicious of short Bills, and in particular those which contain phrases such as that on the first page of this Bill under Clause 1(5):

    "It shall be a defence to a prosecution for an offence under this section to show that, at the time of the defecation, the dog was being used for a purpose specified in an order made by the Secretary of State".

I make no distinction between the Secretaries of State from any parties. I see no reason why Secretaries of State from one of the two major parties should be better or worse than from the other, or, to be fair, from these Benches if the time should arrive when we have Secretaries of State. However, the mention of a Secretary of State makes me suspicious; in particular when I read on the following page of the Bill:

    "The Secretary of State may by regulations prescribe the form of orders under subsection (1) above".

That has to do with areas, access and so on.

This Bill is a sensible step forward. We are all concerned about dog mess, not only in the areas designated in the Bill. It surprises me that anyone should think that the dog owning public will co-operate. The Government have put forward very strong objections against dog registration over a very long time. They say that dog registration is not a feasible proposition because it cannot be enforced and the kind of people who need to have it just will not co-operate. I do not see why it will be easy, even under the conditions outlined in the Bill, to ensure that there is an enormous increase in "poop scooping", as I believe it is called, certainly not by the careless or even the fastidious. I myself am very fastidious about these matters. I do not like the prospect of going out with my pet holding a bag and a machine. I have done it under pressure from my wife for my cats. I failed to cut the grass and she said to me, "Because

19 Oct 1995 : Column 852

you have not cut the grass, the cats have made poopy mess up at the end. You will kindly go out with this bag and equipment and clear it." Being an obedient husband, in a second marriage, I did so. I was surprised to find how easy it was and my sensibilities were in no way offended by it because the equipment that one can buy is extremely efficient. The only problem is that one has to carry a bag around in order to use it.

I should be interested, as I am sure other noble Lords will be also, to see how many people now will walk around with bags and poop scoopers to dispose of the mess. Presumably, the on-the-spot fines which will be levied will be on the same basis as parking fines. Will there be a discount for quick payment? Where parking fines are concerned, that is a sensible psychological move on the part of local authorities. Perhaps that will be introduced in short order for these other kinds of offences.

Seriously—I am serious about this matter—there is a potential problem should Secretaries of State designate where a defence for a prosecution is appropriate. The present Secretary of State may be extremely liberal on this matter and may well mention all kinds of dogs—police dogs, obviously, sheepdogs and working dogs of all kinds. But what about packs of hounds on village greens which now, under this Government, may well be viewed favourably? There may be Secretaries of State in the future who may take a different view about that matter and might say—it seems to me rather an unseemly proposition—that packs of hounds and masters will have their club servants going round with scoops at meets on Boxing Day. It seems to me to be an extraordinary business. I feel that such matters should be on the face of a Bill.

It is merely that I feel suspicious about the simplicity of this Bill, though I must say that I welcome any improvement. Some of the parks, in London particularly, suffer enormously from this problem. Anybody who has children who run about or anybody who goes to play games in a public park knows how appalling it is to come across mess of that kind. This is not just a British problem. I gather that in France they are slowly being submerged under a sea of faeces. I thought that the French were very practical but it seems that their approach is somewhat different. We shall not go into that aspect now but perhaps we can do so at a later stage.

We thought that the last Bill on dogs was simple; namely, the Dangerous Dogs Bill. In my view it has proved to be utterly absurd, as it has in the view of many other noble Lords. It has also proved to be extremely harmful to our society and very expensive. As noble Lords will know, there has been increasing pressure in Parliament, and public opinion is demanding that something be done about that legislation, which was a seemingly simple piece of legislation prompted by media pressure in the early days.

I hope that this simple sounding and perfectly worthy piece of legislation will not hold the same threat. I should be interested to hear when the noble Lord rises to speak, whether he will be able to allay some of my fears, in particular those about the powers of the Secretary of State. I do not feel so irritable about it as I

19 Oct 1995 : Column 853

may sound, but I should be much reassured if the noble Lord could give me some assurance about the powers of the Secretary of State.

5.9 p.m.

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh: My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, on his introduction. I shall not be able to manage the same degree of humour as the previous speaker.

Living in a house which is surrounded by farmers, I like to be their spokesman as well as adding a view of the concerns of the non-farming population. Veterinary advice states that the unwormed dog faeces commonly produces a tapeworm called tennuicollis, which writes off the liver of lamb, sheep or cattle and significantly reduces the live weight gain. The lighter the beast, the less carcass value for the farmer.

Less common, but on the increase, is cysticercus ovis, which writes off the complete carcass of the animal concerned. Whereas a liver may be valued at only £1.20, the average lamb carcass is worth £40. A large abattoir dealing with sheep and cattle in the south west of England as well as parts of Wales and northern England calculates that up to 15 per cent. of the lambs slaughtered in the past year had infected livers and it had to write off 47 carcasses. This abattoir handles more than 600,000 lambs and cattle per annum, showing a liver/carcass loss in the past year of at least £75,000 to the farmers, without considering the labour costs to the abattoir.

If we consider that in 1990 Britain's dog population was 7.5 million, increasing at 4 per cent. per annum, and if we consider the increasing number of people demanding the right to roam—or trespass, as is so often the case—and take their dog for company, it can be seen what increased damage there is likely to be to the livestock farming community. Of the United Kingdom's 24 million hectares, 78 per cent. is agricultural land. Unwormed dogs will leave faeces, tapeworms and eggs which are damaging not only to stock but also to humans, mostly youngsters, who, as we have heard from the previous speaker when talking about local parks, very often play in the grass during the summer, winter or spring. As a westcountryman, I am happy to encourage the tourists from at home or abroad to visit our beaches and moors but I abhor the sight of dogs wandering along the bathing areas and, quite naturally, leaving their faeces, their "mess", where a child's sandcastle may soon appear.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that we are part of the EEC—just a moment ago we heard mention of Europe in the form of France—where the dog population in 1990 was calculated at 37 million and increasing by 4 per cent. per annum. Let us not forget the stray dogs within Europe. They number 2 million. The increase in their number cannot be calculated.

Let us be positive. Let us think of the barriers that have recently fallen. The Berlin Wall—Hooray! Trade tariffs, the travel barriers—Hooray! But just think of the possible removal of quarantine barriers for dogs and other animals entering this country—horror! Rabies and an increased likelihood of dogs fouling the 25,000

19 Oct 1995 : Column 854

square kilometres of village, town and city in the United Kingdom. Dogs which are not on leads—the majority—foul pavements which are then cleaned by councils—and you pay the council tax which employs the workforce to clean those streets. Animal livestock farmers, the people for whom I am speaking, have enough competition from abroad and do not deserve the worry and the cost of losing a proportionately larger number of their livestock as the dog population increases.

It is essential to consider the reintroduction of dog registration, to harness this potential medical problem and to reinforce the already abused Dangerous Dogs Act.

5.13 p.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, I welcome the introduction of this Bill to the House by my noble friend Lord Northesk and I believe the whole House will be grateful for his doing so.

Pet ownership offers many benefits to society. We have some 6.5 to 7 million dogs in the country to prove that. One in every two households owns a pet of some kind—a companion animal. They offer very positive health benefits—increased longevity after coronary attacks, decreased blood pressure and decreased minor illnesses in households. They are especially valuable to the elderly and lonely and they provide invaluable assistance to those with impaired vision or hearing or other disabilities.

Those are the positive aspects but there are down sides to pet ownership; namely, the fouling of public places. All of us who have had the experience of stepping in dog faeces, sometimes at the most inappropriate moments when we are dressed to go somewhere, find it most inconvenient and there is sometimes a danger from slipping. But more particularly there is the possibility of the transmission of disease to humans and to animals, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh. However, it is the transmission of disease to children by the parasite toxocara canis that causes most concern. In children it is either in the visceral form affecting the liver or, even more distressingly, in the ocular form in the eye which may lead to blindness of a permanent nature. Even though the number of cases per year is only two per million of the population, that is enough to cause great concern.

In both visceral larva migrans or ocular larva migrans the evidence strongly indicates that their occurrence cannot be related to the specific ownership of a dog. In fact, in 50 per cent. of the cases in the United Kingdom the people concerned have had no contact with dogs during their lives. It is more likely that stray dogs and urban foxes are to blame for some cases of the disease in children.

The environmental contamination, which is not yet fully understood, is an important issue. Five per cent. of soil samples in London have been demonstrated to be infected with the eggs of this parasite which are capable of infecting children. In Scotland 12 per cent. of parks are similarly contaminated. This has caused concern to various groups. I refer to the veterinary organisations which advocate the regular treatment of puppies, the

19 Oct 1995 : Column 855

campaigns to "scoop the poop" and local authorities. They have sought to reduce the danger to human health from the fouling of certain areas. This has led to regulations being made by councils. Those regulations have varied considerably.

The Bill will simplify the existing system of dog fouling by-laws by the introduction of a unified measure applicable to all forms of land and end the rather cumbersome and time-consuming requirement to gain approval from the Secretary of State for the Environment. The introduction of a fixed penalty fine scheme will make enforcement easier and will act as a more efficient deterrent than the existing system which is time-consuming and expensive. In many cases local authorities do not go along that route for that reason.

The Pet Advisory Committee, which has been particularly concerned with the Bill, supports it thoroughly. It has a broad membership from various veterinary organisations, the principal animal welfare charities and local authority organisations. Members of this House are indeed vice-presidents of the Pet Advisory Committee. I should declare my interest in that I am a vice-president of that committee.

The Pet Advisory Committee has argued that fixed penalty fines should accrue to the local authority for use to promote responsible dog ownership, the provision of dog waste bins and other items. This has strong support from the Association of District Councils but, regrettably, the Minister has not accepted the point despite the strong representation that has been made in that respect. It has been thought sensible not to press this issue for fear that the Bill may run out of time and therefore be lost.

I consider that the Bill will be a very useful step forward in rationalising the legislation on dog fouling and also a useful step in the much needed rationalisation of the whole plethora of legislation applicable to dogs. Its aim is to reduce dog fouling on land and to encourage responsible dog ownership. I believe that the Bill will do that.

However, there are one or two lacunae in the Bill which I wish to question. One has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh; namely, the question of strays. That is either the real, feral stray which is a permanent stray—and of those we have a substantial number—or the temporary stray; "the latchkey" dog put out in the morning and taken in at night by people who go out to work. Without some means of identifying such dogs as to their owners, it will be difficult to enforce the Bill.

Dare I add my support to what has been said by two previous speakers on the need for dog registration in this respect? It may be very difficult to control fouling by dogs without such a scheme. Under Clause 4 of the Bill it may be possible to take note of this point and perhaps for local authorities to introduce local dog registration schemes where they deem the stray dog issue to be particularly difficult.

The further lacuna is the attitude of individuals going about their normal and legal business; for example, the pack of hounds which may traverse an area of land or meet in a public place where they defecate. Is the master of the pack or the whipper-in responsible for picking up

19 Oct 1995 : Column 856

the faeces? Should he be armed with a pooper-scooper, perhaps on the end of a polo stick, to go around picking up the faeces? These are issues which need to be clarified. While it may be possible to deal with them under Clause 1(1)(b) or 1(1)(a), which would be "reasonable excuse" as stated, I believe that further clarification of these points is necessary. Nevertheless, I wish the Bill well and an unopposed passage through the House, subject to consideration of some of the lacunae that I have mentioned.

5.24 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, those of us who are regarded by the public as having, quite rightly, a responsibility for making sure that their streets and open areas are clean and not likely to cause problems, are accustomed to hearing quite often words based on the immortal phrase "something must be done". From these Benches I welcome this "something". The complaints range from irritation to real concern about disease, as previous speakers have said. Sadly, it seems not always to be understood that one can be anti-dog fouling without necessarily being anti-dog. I myself am quite pro-dog, but I have often been struck by the oddity of local authorities and others having to fence off relatively small areas to make them dog free, perhaps for a playground. I have wondered who should have priority, the dogs or the people. Sometimes dogs are given a far larger area in which to enjoy themselves. I hope that this Bill will enable both dogs and people, particularly children, to have the necessary facilities.

I do not believe that we should pretend to ourselves that this Bill can possibly solve the whole problem. It is often very difficult to persuade someone who complains about dog fouling and who says, "I know whose dog it is and I know that its owner does not keep the dog under control", to give evidence, if that is required. One understands that: arguments between neighbours are not pleasant. Inevitably, the problem of evidence cannot be solved by this Bill.

There is also the cost of wardens. It will not be practicable to have a warden around every corner waiting to pounce at the relevant moment. It may be that dog wardens can take some lessons from traffic wardens, who seem to have the ability to materialise from nowhere. However, I doubt that it will be practicable to ensure that there are enough wardens to exercise the powers provided by this Bill to the satisfaction of the complainants.

I welcome the Bill despite its shortcomings, but I do not suggest that they can be dealt with except at the margin. This Bill is welcome if for no other reason than it must give the right message to the public—both those who are pro-dog and those who are anti-dog fouling—that this is a serious matter which needs to be co-ordinated. The simplification provided is certainly welcome. A nation-wide scheme may have a little effect on offenders.

I would have liked the money raised under this Bill to go towards provision to make the scheme more effective; in other words, to wardens and the provision of bins. The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, has referred to this already. I understand the point that it would be

19 Oct 1995 : Column 857

wrong for a prosecuting authority to have a financial interest in the outcome. I thought that behind the scenes the stronger argument was that coming from the Exchequer, which so dislikes hypothecation.

I read the discussions in another place about the term "reasonable excuse". That is a reasonable way of dealing with the matter, though I share a little of the concern of my noble friend about giving the Secretary of State power to designate or specify occasions or animals performing particular functions. I am aware that that was also debated in another place. When the noble Earl replies, it would be helpful if he would give the House an assurance that the parameters of that rule will not be wide and that that power will not be used to undermine the admirable purposes of this Bill.

The land that can be designated is any land open to the air. I assume that that will include roads. By that, I mean the carriageway, the footpath and the gutter. There are dog owners who feel that, if they direct their dog to any particular part of the road, that is somehow not a problem. I believe it is. One perhaps relatively trivial example of that is when one opens one's car door and steps on to the footpath. It is impossible to look down to see where one is putting one's feet.

The noble Earl may be able to help me with one final question. I refer to whether a local authority will be able to "designate" (using the terminology in the Bill) all the open land in its own area to which the public does not have access. That may be the simplest approach for certain authorities in urban areas. Of course, the position is different in rural areas. I can see that a local authority might wish to make a blanket designation and I should be interested to hear whether that is a possibility. I welcome the local flexibility to which the noble Earl referred. Clearly, the problems and concerns of local people are different in different parts of the country.

Finally, I should like to make it clear from these Benches that we are not minded to table amendments to the Bill. We are aware of the pressure of time and would like to see the Bill on the statute book.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: My Lords, we on these Benches also welcome the Bill, which simplifies and unifies existing laws. It is clearly a sensible measure. I should like merely to emphasise some of the points that have already been made. The Bill will help to reduce nuisance and distress and the possible spread of diseases carried by dogs. As has been said, the introduction of the fixed penalty fine system makes enforcement easier and may, indeed, act as an effective deterrent, assuming that the dog wardens are sufficiently active.

However, I can see two problems, one of which has already been mentioned by several noble Lords. I refer to the problem of stray dogs. I am thinking particularly of the packs of stray dogs which roam about on council estates, where it is extremely difficult to identify their owners. Often, they are irresponsible owners who turn out their dogs in the morning when they go to work, allowing them to roam around, creating a nuisance and fouling pavements and grass verges. That problem is not

19 Oct 1995 : Column 858

dealt with by the Bill, but might be helped by having a dog registration scheme—something to which the Government have turned a deaf ear in the past.

The other problem with or disappointment about the Bill is the fact that the fixed penalty fines are payable into the Exchequer although local authorities will have to bear most of the expense and nuisance of designating areas, setting up dog warden schemes where they do not already exist, and erecting notices. The costs and expenses of the scheme will be directly borne by local authorities, yet it does not seem that they will get any benefit whatsoever from this new measure. That is a disappointment and is yet another example of the Government's lack of interest in local authorities and lack of awareness of their problems.

We on these Benches do not intend to table any amendments to the Bill since we wish it well, but I think that we are owed an explanation of why this matter has not been made much more clearly a responsibility of local authorities, with the benefits of the scheme coming to them as well as the disbenefits of having to make provision for it. We welcome the Bill and wish it well.

5.33 p.m.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, in my relatively short time in your Lordships' House I seem to have spent a great deal of time listening to debates on dogs—mostly to debates on rabies or dangerous dogs, so it is with some relief that I turn to the other end of the animal. There are those of us in this House who feel that the bark end is worse than the bite.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Northesk for the way in which he has so clearly set out the provisions of the Bill. I join him in congratulating my honourable friend Harold Elletson who introduced the Bill in another place. I am grateful, too, to other noble Lords who have contributed to today's debate.

At present, local authorities have a duty to keep most public places clear not only of litter but also of dog mess. However, a local authority in England or Wales cannot prosecute anyone for failing to clear up after their dog unless the council has adopted an appropriate by-law, and the Secretary of State has confirmed this by-law.

By-laws are not the best mechanism here. As we have already heard, this was the view of the Advisory Group on Litter which recommended that the present dog fouling by-law system in England and Wales should be replaced. In response to the advisory group's recommendation, the Government announced on 14th December last year that we agreed with the replacement of dog fouling by-laws by a nationally defined offence, applied locally.

The Bill before us seeks to achieve this worthy aim and therefore has the Government's full support. The Bill establishes an offence of failing to clear up after one's dog when on designated land. That designation could be very broad, as was hoped for by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. A number of the provisions in Clause 1 are based on the current model by-laws and have much the same effect, although the exact wording may be different. We think that building on the existing model by-laws is the sensible approach.

19 Oct 1995 : Column 859

This is a Private Member's Bill and is necessarily limited in extent. It does not give wide new powers to local authorities or to vigilante groups to enable the problem to be dealt with more effectively. It merely makes it possible for existing methods of enforcement to be applied better. I am afraid that the Bill will not much help the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, with his problem with dogs getting in among his sheep and infecting them with tapeworms. However, we hope that the general change in attitude to dog fouling may trickle down and benefit the noble Lord.

The Bill does not tackle the problem of dog registration. Noble Lords will know that we view that proposal with a great deal of scepticism. Furthermore, the Bill will not deal with the problem of strays. As I said, this is a necessarily limited Bill but, within that, we think that it is most useful.

The Bill does, however, break some new ground. It allows local authorities to designate any land which is open to the air and to which the public are permitted or entitled to have access. This gives the local authority much more flexibility than at present in deciding which areas to cover. Land not in the ownership of the local authority may be designated, but the landowner, or indeed the occupier or other person having control of the land, is given an overriding right to allow dog mess to remain on their land. We strongly support this safeguard.

Another new feature of the Bill is that it is a defence to show that at the time of the defecation the dog was being used for a purpose specified by the Secretary of State. This will allow the Government to deal appropriately and flexibly with the problems which could otherwise be posed by the application of this Bill to working dogs. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, expressed his concern about how widely the present Secretary of State (or any future Secretary of State) may use that power. The power does not in any way create an offence; it merely creates a defence. I think that the Secretary of State will consult widely with appropriate groups and will from time to time reach a decision on what exemptions should be in force according to the prevailing mood. To take a particular example that has been given, if the hunt met on the green outside my house and left a large quantity of dog mess there, I would consider it proper that members of the hunt should clear it up.

The Bill sets the maximum penalty at level 3 on the standard scale compared to level 2, which is the usual maximum with by-laws. We believe that is appropriate.

The Government fully support extending the concept of the fixed penalty to the offence created under this Bill; this is an important additional weapon in the enforcement armoury. We also support the provisions allowing people other than officers of the local authority to be authorised to issue fixed penalty notices to cover situations where local authorities have contracted out their dog warden services, or where other authorities have enforcement staff on the ground; for example, country park rangers. However, as noble Lords have said, we have not supported the proposal that local authorities should be allowed to keep the proceeds of the fixed penalty. I think that there is general understanding of why that is so. The offence in question is a criminal one, and it is a matter of principle that those who are involved in enforcing

19 Oct 1995 : Column 860

criminal offences should not be motivated by the desire to obtain proceeds from their prosecutions. Local authorities receive substantial funds centrally and locally, and it is up to them to determine their priorities.

I touch upon two other important features of the Bill. First, it will no longer be necessary for local authorities to seek the Secretary of State's confirmation for dog-fouling regulations. This is a major administrative simplification. Almost half the by-law approvals which reach the Secretary of State are concerned with dog fouling. That will be welcomed by both central and local government. Secondly, where there is more than one tier of local government in an area the responsibility for designation rests with only one tier. We support this approach. But I can assure noble Lords that if the Bill successfully completes its remaining stages we shall proceed as soon as possible with the orders and regulations necessary for practical implementation.

5.41 p.m.

Lord Northesk: My Lords, we have had a most interesting debate. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have made such valuable contributions and indicated their support for the Bill. As my noble friend has just indicated, since the Bill is a Private Member's Bill it is necessarily limited. I stress that the Bill is not concerned with seeking any change in the substance of existing regulations. The Bill is concerned primarily with rationalising the methodology.

I should not let this moment pass without paying due tribute to the Pet Advisory Committee for the considerable assistance that it has afforded both to my honourable friend and me during the passage of the Bill. It is worth iterating the point that the Pet Advisory Committee represents the principal animal welfare charities, the local authority associations, the BVA and other interested organisations. It has done much to ensure that the Bill before us today works in the best interests of the public, both those who own dogs and those who do not. It is important to realise that the Bill is not anti-dog.

In conclusion, the problem of dog fouling is an intensely emotive subject and one that requires more effective redress than has been possible under the by-law system. With that in mind, I am not at all surprised that the Bill has generated so much warm support. It will enable local authorities to make public spaces cleaner and healthier places and will inspire more socially responsible dog owning.

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

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page