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The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman, and to the members of the Select Committee for their report on the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Bill, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton.

Before dealing with the substance of the report, I wish to associate myself with the comments which have been expressed about the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and say how glad I am, as my noble friends are, to see him in this place tonight.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman, has explained, the committee's conclusion is that the amendment Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, should pass Committee stage without amendment. In effect, the committee has supported the Bill's central proposition, that the courts should be allowed discretion in each case where the 1991 Act currently provides for mandatory destruction.

There are, broadly, three situations in which mandatory destruction applies and I shall deal with each in turn. The first is in respect of offences under Section 1(2). This relates to pit bull terriers that may well have satisfied all the requirements of the exemption scheme, but in respect of whom other offences are subsequently

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committed--for example, being allowed in a public place unmuzzled or off the lead. The committee has argued that allowing the court discretion in these cases would not materially affect the deterrent effect of the provisions, because owners would be reluctant to take the risk of a destruction order still being imposed. The committee suggests that the question whether or not to order destruction of the dog would be decided by reference to other factors, including the behaviour of the dog, and the risk of future harm to the public.

The Government accept that amendment of the Act as proposed by Lord Houghton's Bill might mean that it still had a deterrent effect in some instances. But it is impossible to be confident that this would be so in all cases. Even under the present law, some owners have disregarded the provisions, despite mandatory destruction. The Government are concerned that the message that the Dangerous Dogs Act had been weakened (which is how the change would inevitably be perceived) would risk a general relaxation in standards of observation of the provisions. Such a change would mean, moreover, that an owner who had ignored vital provisions of the Act--for example, that pit bulls should be muzzled, not be abandoned or not allowed to stray--could regain ownership of his animals. The Government do not believe that this is a risk which should be taken.

In regard to the second situation in which mandatory destruction applies--that is, in respect of unregistered and unlawfully held pit bull terriers--the Government cannot accept the committee's argument that allowing discretion in regard to this category would not work against Parliament's intention of eliminating pit bull terriers. They recognise that the committee has confined its recommendation (for late entry onto the Index of Exempted Dogs) to cases covered by the amendment Bill and that it has not recommended a general amnesty for non-registered dogs. Nevertheless, allowing the court to direct late entry onto the register after a conviction for ownership of a non-registered dog would mean the possibility of some new dogs being bred or brought into the country. At present anyone contemplating the importation or illicit breeding of new pit bull terriers knows that there is no way that the dogs in question may be held lawfully (that is, be entered onto the index): conviction for owning such a dog must lead inevitably to the dog's destruction. The proposals in the amendment Bill would create a chance of the position of such new dogs being legitimised.

The committee has suggested that a general amnesty would be unfair to those owners who chose to have their dogs destroyed or to comply with the exemption provisions of the Act. In the Government's view, a selective re-opening of the index, as now suggested, would be no less unfair to such owners.

Mandatory destruction applies in a third area, under Section 3 of the Act, in relation to a dog of any type which is dangerously out of control and causes injury--what the Act terms an "aggravated offence". The committee has argued that it should be left to the court to decide whether a dog should be destroyed following conviction even for these very serious types of dog incidents--on the basis that it is the court which is best

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placed to decide whether mitigating circumstances might apply. The committee suggested that Section 3 would still act as an incentive to responsible dog ownership because, unlike proceedings under the 1871 Act, it carries the threat of a criminal conviction. I should add that there are also significant financial and/or custodial penalties.

The Government have considered these arguments carefully. But they believe that it is likely to be as much the fact of mandatory destruction as the risk of criminal conviction that is the real deterrent in these cases. The Government do not believe that Section 3 is used lightly, given the evidence of continuing wide use of earlier statutory provisions. And they believe that the prosecuting authorities pay due regard to possible extenuating factors both in determining the provisions under which to proceed and in the course of trials if new considerations emerge. Section 3 provides that a dog which attacks while dangerously out of control should not be allowed the chance of doing so a second time. The Government believe that this principle is the correct one, and that this was the appropriate signal to send to dog owners. They do not believe it would be right to weaken the message in any way.

It will be clear from what I have said that the Government consider that the mandatory destruction order and the one-off nature of the registration scheme are matters which are integral to the provisions of the 1991 Act and to the objectives which Parliament agreed.

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We are grateful to the Select Committee for its thoughtful review of these provisions, and have reflected very carefully on what it has proposed. But we are not persuaded that the Act should be modified. The Act remains relevant and necessary, and the Government cannot support moves to amend it.

I want to assure the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman, and the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that the Government have given the most careful consideration to the objectives of this Bill, in particular in the light of the recommendations made by the Select Committee which looked into this Bill. However, this is a complex matter and not one on which the Government feel they can give ground. The death of any dog is a matter of sadness. However, the safety of children and adults is of paramount concern, and the first duty of government is to protect the public.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.

City of Westminster Bill [H.L.]

Presented, read a first time, passed through all its remaining stages pro forma and sent to the Commons.

        House adjourned at a quarter-past eleven o'clock.

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