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The Viscount of Falkland: My Lords, yes, exactly. Joking apart, does not that suggest to your Lordships that pit bulls were an easy target for the Home Secretary at that time? That need and feeling of having to do something that appeared strong was at a time when the Conservative Party was beginning to doubt its own strength, although we did not doubt it. Certain doubts were beginning to show among Conservative ranks at that time, and he needed to show what he thought was strength. This legislation was a result of that move. Although we must allow the Home Secretary some licence for being jocular in his book, his words show the lack of seriousness behind the legislation. There certainly was not seriousness to the degree that was needed to produce decent and effective legislation.
The reasons and complexities behind the objections to this legislation--the discretion of the courts is only one concern--are obvious to all of us. Almost all magistrates and judges express their absolute contempt for the Act. I have not yet met one magistrate or judge who has had to deal with a dog case who does not find it risible that this law continues on our statute books in its present form. However, the legislation is still on the statute book and I have no doubt that the noble Earl will tell us that it is still the intention of the Home Office to stick to its guns.
Therefore, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, thought that the only way in which he could give this important subject the right kind of scrutiny was to submit it to a Select Committee of your Lordships' House. I believe that that decision is right, but more of that anon, and I hope that your Lordships will agree with us on that.
Little is known about dogs generally in this country. We have no foolproof system of knowing the number of dogs in the country. We certainly do not know how many dogs are being held nationwide. We have had some indication from the Home Office, under pressure exerted by my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich and others, of the costs of keeping dogs in custody while appeals are going through, while vets argue one way or
I shall not go further because other noble Lords will have interesting and informed speeches to make. Noble Lords who are not speaking in the debate should not be misled by the small number of speakers. All those who have put down their name to speak are experts and are familiar with the subject. I am sure that they will follow excellently the framework that I have introduced.
However, perhaps I may draw your Lordships' attention to something which most people do not take sufficiently into account, especially those who are not pet owners. I refer to the effect of the legislation on those who have suffered because of it. I am not talking now about the dogs, but about dog owners. Anybody who knows about pet owning, and particularly about dog owning, knows of the close relationship that builds up between an owner and their pet. There is a terrible effect on an owner when their dog is taken away, killed, destroyed or run over--let alone trapped by a policeman with a long pole with a noose on the end who then takes it away for a period. The psychological effect of that on owners has been drastic. It is well recorded in the NHS that doctors have had to refer for psychiatric treatment dog owners who are showing signs that one would normally associate with bereavement. That situation is often forgotten.
It is not just a question of dealing with dogs which are dangerous or with people who sometimes appear ill-equipped to deal with their dogs--and there are plenty of those. We are talking about people and their pets and the emotional effect of depriving someone of their pet or of accusing them, perhaps unjustly, of certain behaviour with their pets. That is often resented and can have deep psychological effects. Other noble Lords may not mention that point, but it is something about which I am concerned.
Finally, perhaps I may thank all noble Lords who have put down their name to speak. I hope that the points that I have made will be fleshed out so that we can reinforce the case against the Act which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has made so powerfully over such a long period. On his behalf, I introduce this minor amendment which will have such a fundamental effect upon the legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to support the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in what I understand is his fourth attempt to amend the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and in his attempt to commit the Bill to a Select Committee. It is
Much has been said about the unfortunate Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991. If there was ever a piece of legislation which started off in good faith and with approximately 85 per cent. of the public in support of it but which in four years has come to the point where 85 per cent. of the public are against it, it is the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. The public are not against the intent of the Bill, but they are against the way in which it has been used. The administration of it has run into great difficulty.
The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, has clearly delineated the reasons for the original Act. I shall not bore your Lordships by rehearsing them again. What is asked of this amending Bill is a simple thing; namely, that magistrates be given the discretion to decide whether an animal accused of being a dangerous dog should be destroyed or whether alternate measures should be taken against it. I assure your Lordships that there is no intention of weakening the Act. There is no intention of lessening the protection of the public against truly dangerous dogs. The Bill rightly allows that to happen. Like many of us, I believe that the Bill would strengthen the Dangerous Dogs Act while allowing for the dispensation of justice with wisdom and compassion. It is wisdom and compassion which many people, including the judiciary, the police and the owners of pets which are not dangerous dogs, perceive as lacking from the Act.
Of particular importance is one of the alternatives to mandatory destruction. It is described in Clause 1(1)(b), and it allows the offending owner of a dangerous dog to be disqualified for having custody of a dog. Many will argue that it is not the dog which is at fault but the dog's custodian, who, in many cases, is responsible for the offence committed by the dog under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. I have long argued that a system of licensing owners as custodians of dogs would be a most effective way of controlling many aspects of dog nuisance, including dangerous dogs.
Much of the criticism of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has been rehearsed in previous debates. I shall not try your Lordships' patience by going on again at length. I wholeheartedly support the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, who moved the Second Reading, and the Motion that the Bill be committed to a Select Committee.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, your Lordships will be pleased to know that in addition to the letter which the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, has received, we have good news of my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby. He is in St. Thomas's Hospital. It has been discovered that what was wrong with him was caused largely by anaemia, and blood transfusions have made him very much better. He has written to my noble friend the Chief Whip saying that he expects to be here and on his feet for his 100th birthday which is in less than three years' time.
When the Bill was debated in the previous Session, I took a certain amount of stick from my noble friend because I had to say--it is still the case--that when it comes to sympathy between a species, I am, on the whole, very much on the side of the human species. I have no particular affinity with dogs. I needed to be convinced that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was working or not working. To be convinced of that, I needed much better statistics than had been made available. When I explained that in more detail to my noble friend, we resumed our normal affectionate relationship, and any bad feeling between us was quickly dissipated.
The result was that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, the Minister responsible, wrote to me on 20th March this year and gave me all the statistics available on the subject. The trouble is that the statistics are grossly inadequate. There are some statistics on the number of people, in particular children, injured by dogs, but very little information on the breed of those dogs. There are some statistics from some police forces on cases dealt with by the police and brought before the courts under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, but not all police forces have collected the evidence. Most of the evidence comes from the Metropolitan Police and a few other police forces; we lack national figures.
On this matter, as on all Private Member's Bills, I am of course speaking for myself and not for my party. It seems to me that four years after the passage of the Act there should now be a substantial reduction in the number of cases of injuries caused by dangerous dogs, a reduction in the number of dogs requiring treatment under the Act, and a reduction in the number of dogs held in custody pending appeal against their destruction. From the statistics that the Minister gave to me and other people, that appears to be the case. There appears to be a reduction because the dogs which were alive in 1991 are four years older, and the older ones are presumably dead. So that would happen of its own accord.
Therefore, in a sense, if the Act is working, each year that we go on debating it the problem becomes that much less acute. I do not know whether the statistical information available since then bears out what would seem to be a natural progression over a period of time. In any event, if we start from the position that mandatory sentencing, whether for human beings or dogs, imposed upon magistrates' courts or any other part of the judiciary is of itself undesirable and has to be thoroughly justified, and we carry on to question
I welcome the Bill. I welcome the fact that it is to be referred to a Select Committee. I hope that the Select Committee will, once and for all, uncover the facts about the treatment of dangerous dogs and come to a rapid and final conclusion.
Baroness Wharton: My Lords, I too thank the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for introducing the Second Reading debate in place of our friend, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. Discounting the original debate we had on the workings of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, this is the third time we have had a Second Reading debate on the Bill which has so far been unopposed in the House. There have been one or two amendments to it along the way.
As noble Lords will be aware, all the Bill seeks to do is to restore discretion to the courts by removing the sentence of mandatory destruction. I know that the Home Office has made repeated attempts to encourage the use of the Dogs Act 1871, but the message does not appear to be getting through to the courts or the police.
Dogs other than pit bulls are locked up under the 1991 Act, with their owners having little or no access to them. As the noble Viscount and the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, said, some dogs are in a legal limbo: not identified conclusively as pit bulls and not charged because they have not committed any offence. In such situations, the police have no power to release or to destroy them. It is a most unsatisfactory situation for all parties involved.
The sheer inflexibility of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 creates confusion and distress to all concerned. Judges and magistrates are now beginning to ask questions about its operation. Arrests by over-zealous policemen for minor offences and charging owners under Section 3 of the Act rather than using the Dogs Act 1871 only create more confusion because, under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, the unfortunate dog is not usually released. The release of Dempsey whose muzzle was removed to allow him to be sick restores some sort of sanity to the legal process but that took three years which is a long time for an innocent dog to be locked up. I hope that the CPS will not decide to pursue court proceedings against that dog and its owner. If it did, it would bring the law into disrepute. It would destroy much of its credibility. There are many cases of dogs having been seized as a result of mistaken identity. They have attacked no one. They are held for months before their cases come to court. Their condition deteriorates. I sometimes doubt whether there is any proper concern for their welfare. Let us hope that at this third attempt to restore justice and common sense the Government
Lord McConnell: My Lords, I wish to make only a few short points. First, I wish to join other noble Lords in saying how much we look forward to seeing the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, return soon to his accustomed place in the House.
The Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland. However, if precedent is followed, a similar order will be made on similar terms applying to Northern Ireland. Therefore, from our point of view and from the point of view of those in Northern Ireland, it is essential that the Bill is passed. Indeed, I wonder whether it should contain some provision to allow the making of an order amending the 1991 Northern Ireland order on dangerous dogs, which more or less repeats the 1991 Act.
I am not against the destruction of really dangerous dogs. We have heard of horrendous cases and we all support the destruction of dogs who do such damage and viciously attack human beings, in particular children. However, it is wrong to put so many different dogs into the same category. I object to mandatory sentences, whether in the Dangerous Dogs Act or any other Act. They are seldom included in an Act of Parliament. Indeed, nowadays there is talk as to whether the mandatory nature of life imprisonment for murder should be done away with and left to the discretion of the court. Certainly, as regards dogs, it is absurd to have mandatory legislation. It is a function of the courts to apply the law to the facts and then to impose an appropriate penalty. It is ridiculous that that discretion should be taken from them.
Section 1(2)(d) of the 1991 Act provides that it is an offence to have one of the prescribed types of dog in a public place without a muzzle and without being kept on a lead. If the muzzle is taken off, as was said to be the case with Dempsey, but the lead is still on to restrain the dog, the court must order the destruction of the dog. That seems to be a quite inappropriate penalty.
Furthermore, Section 5(5) of the 1991 Act provides that if the prosecution alleges that the dog is one to which Section 1 applies, that is presumed unless the accused proves otherwise. In other words, the normal onus of proof in any prosecution is reversed and the onus of proof lies with the owner of the dog. That shifting of the onus of proof is most undesirable in any prosecution. I support the Bill and commend it to the House.
The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, I wish to associate myself with the comments which have been expressed about the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. I am glad to hear the news of his improving condition. We all hope that he will be back with us again very soon. The whole House acknowledges his commitment to the cause of animal welfare.
I should also say that my noble friend Lady Blatch has asked me to say how sorry she is not to be here for this debate. She too shares my hope that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, will be back with us soon.
The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, in introducing the Bill on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has explained that its objective is to lift the mandatory destruction provisions of the Act and to give the courts discretion in sentencing where there is presently none. Additionally, it enables the courts to give convicted owners the opportunity for late registration on the Index of Exempted Dogs and to review all current cases where a destruction order had been made but not yet carried out.
Your Lordships will recall the shocking events which led the Government to bring forward the Dangerous Dogs Act and the very wide support which the proposals received. Our belief was--and remains--that there is no place in our society for fighting dogs and that the existing generation of such animals should be the last. The principal provisions of the 1991 Act were all designed to achieve that object. Under the Act, owners of pit bull terriers and other dogs bred for fighting were allowed to keep their animals on condition that they complied, by 30th November 1991, with the stringent conditions set out in the legislation. The mandatory destruction order applies where the owner of a fighting dog has failed to comply with these requirements or fails subsequently to keep the dog muzzled and on a lead in a public place, and where a dog of any type or breed causes injury to a person. In these cases, magistrates have no option but to order the destruction of the dog.
I have to tell the House that the Government's view is that the provisions in the Bill would have two undesirable effects. First, they would undermine the incentives which the Act provides towards responsible dog ownership and, secondly, they would risk the perpetuation of fighting dogs in this country. In our view, they would amount to a weakening of the protection which the Act affords.
The decision to deny the courts discretion in sentencing was quite deliberate. Section 1 was designed to face owners of fighting dogs with a clear choice: comply with the registration and associated requirements of the Act by the due date, or (if caught) face the certain destruction of the animal concerned. Section 3, which applies to dogs of any type, contains an equally clear message. An owner whose dog commits an aggravated offence--that is, being dangerously out of control and attacking someone--will, if convicted under this legislation, face the certain destruction of his or her pet. These are very tough incentives. And the provisions ensure, furthermore, that dog owners who fail to act responsibly do not have any chance of regaining charge of their animals. There would be wide criticism if an owner who had ignored the provisions of the legislation were to regain custody of the dog concerned--especially if that dog were subsequently to injure any person.
I do accept that under the proposal in the Bill such dogs would continue to have to be neutered and so on. I have to say, however, that to allow those owners who originally failed to register to do so now would suggest that Parliament was no longer committed to ensuring the elimination of pit bull terriers since there would be nothing to prevent fresh dogs, imported into this country or bred unlawfully here, from benefiting from this method of retrospective legislation. It would be a dangerous invitation to some people to risk bringing new dogs into this country, knowing that there was a back door route to registration if they were caught. It would mean, perversely, that to legitimise one's position as an owner of an unregistered dog one would first have to be prosecuted and convicted of owning it unlawfully. Section 4 of the Bill would go further by enabling the court to review all current cases where a destruction order had been made but not yet carried out.
The Government accept that mandatory destruction is a severe measure but we do not believe that this is any less important now than when the Act was passed. Pit bulls and other dogs which go dangerously out of control and injure a person are no less a threat today than when the Act was introduced.
I shall now try to deal with some of the specific points raised in the course of the debate. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, asked why pit bulls have been singled out. All dogs are unpredictable, but the reports of dog incidents and the reports received by the Home Office suggest that pit bulls are especially so. They are also extremely powerful as they were bred for fighting. I am sure that noble Lords do not need reminding of the horrific picture of injuries caused by pit bulls. The 1991 Act also deals with dangerous dogs of any breed, but the particular provisions in relation to pit bulls were and are necessary to deal with the dangers caused by that breed of dog.
The noble Viscount referred also to criticism by the judiciary of the 1991 Act. We are aware of comments in a few cases about the operation of the Act. However, Parliament decided to eliminate pit bull terriers and to make owners more responsible for their dogs.
The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, also mentioned the case of Dempsey. I understand that in a judicial review of the case on 22nd November, the High Court upheld the conviction of the person who had been in charge of the dog at the due time but decided that natural justice had been denied to the owner because she was not told of the original hearing and was not able to make representations before the destruction order was imposed. The destruction order was quashed and the dog was ordered to be returned to its owner. The Crown Prosecution Service, which has been given liberty to
The noble Viscount referred also to the cost of operating the Act. Those costs will vary considerably from case to case. Many cases have gone through the courts without undue problems and with prosecution costs amounting to no more than those for other cases of comparable gravity. I understand that the cost to the Metropolitan Police of keeping dogs has reduced from £1.3 million in the 1992-93 financial year to £0.5 million in the last financial year.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, and the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, mentioned also prosecutions under the 1871 and 1991 Acts. In the past three years, there were 1,972 prosecutions under the Dangerous Dogs Act and 2,051 prosecutions under the 1871 Act.
The burden of proof centres only on one simple fact: is the dog a pit bull terrier or not? That is not the same as in some other criminal offences where the burden of proof placed on the accused goes beyond facts to questions of intent and motivation. I do not think that there would be an injustice in requiring the owner rather than the prosecution to prove that question of fact.
This is the third occasion on which a Bill amending the Dangerous Dogs Act has been presented to the House, all in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. As I indicated at the outset, in introducing the Dangerous Dogs Act the Government were responding to very real anxiety about the presence of fighting dogs in this country as well as to broader concerns about dog attacks generally. The Act was a responsible recognition that something had to be done to meet that widespread concern and to protect the public. As I have made clear, the Government consider that the mandatory description order and the one-off nature of the registration scheme are matters which are integral to the provisions of the Act and to the objectives to which Parliament agreed. The Act remains relevant and necessary. The Government cannot support the Bill although, as is the convention as regards a Private Member's Bill, we shall not seek to vote against it.
The Viscount of Falkland: My Lords, I do not know that I am in the same world as the Government on this subject. I listened to the noble Earl. He read out his brief to us. I do not know what he thinks personally about this matter and I do not know whether he has given any thought to the issues behind this amendment Bill.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. They have made out a case for taking a strong view about the Bill as a whole, which can be done on a Second Reading of a Bill. They have also given very good reasons for supporting the concept of submitting the Bill to a Select Committee.
It is rather strange for the Government to seek to justify their actions by saying that the popular press was demanding this kind of legislation. I remind the Minister that those same newspapers are now condemning the legislation with double the vehemence which they used when it was introduced because of the unsatisfactory events which have taken place during the past four to five years.
I believe that the Government should have introduced a Bill to deal specifically with fighting dogs. That would have been a sensible course of action. There is no disagreement that dog fighting is an abhorrent sport, if it can be called that. American pit bull terriers were bred for that sport. At the time that the legislation was introduced, there was perceived to be a problem emerging in various parts of our country and that was something that we wished to eliminate. That could have been dealt with. All the concerns relevant to that particular subject could have been considered. Expert advice could have been sought. The Government have never been good at seeking or heeding such advice, but they could have done that.
Attacks on children receive the most publicity and there were some terrifying attacks on children. But those attacks can be made by any breed of dog. My vet tells me that when a dog comes in through a door he does not look at the dog but at the owner. He says that if he receives a bite from a dog, which is normal in his day's work, he may have to take a couple of hours off or he may be uncomfortable for a few days. But if he is bitten by a dog with massive muscle structure, such as a pit bull terrier, he will be off work for a fortnight. Therefore, he takes a very careful look not at the dog but at the owner. Experienced people know well that dogs behave according to the homes from which they come and the care which is given to them by their owners.
The Select Committee will consider all those matters. This is a very simple Bill. I am not a lawyer but this Act seems to be a reversal of the normal practice of jurisprudence in this country. It imposes a mandatory penalty of destruction on dogs found to be of a type. It is as vague as that. I can hardly think that any lawyer in the land would believe that a dog should be described in that way. A mandatory penalty is imposed on dogs which have caused injury, however minor, to a person, and quite irrespective of the circumstances. The courts cannot do anything about that. That is the only sanction that they have. It is no wonder that so many courts are now seeking to avoid at all costs imposing that mandatory sentence. The costs and the heartbreak that go with those procedures are terrifying to consider.
The reversal of the burden of proof is not satisfactory. I thought that the noble Earl's explanation was particularly limp. Is it really reasonable to expect an owner to prove that his dog is not of the type which the Government perceive to be so dangerous that it is to be obliterated from the dog life of our country, rather than expecting the prosecution to prove that it is the type, if it must be called that? I hope that the Select Committee will be able to consider those matters and that we shall have this nonsense put right once and for all.
It is this reversal of the normal practices of justice in this country, quite apart from the problems of dogs and their owners, which is so distressing. There is a complicated business behind the seemingly simple front of this Bill. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, on thinking that the best way of dealing with the matter for the good not only of dog owners and dogs but really of the country is to put it to a Select Committee and leave it, as it were, to a jury of people who can consider it objectively. I seek from your Lordships a Second Reading for the Bill.
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