|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
I start with the existing legislation. The Dogs Act 1871 allows for a civil remedy when a criminal offence has not been committed. One advantage of that Act is that it can be applied everywhereon private property, not just in public places. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was hastily introduced following two horrific incidents of attacks on small children. If I remember correctly, one child died. Prior to that Act, there were no criminal offences to protect people from attacks or fear of injury from dogs. Section 1 of the Act prohibits the ownership of certain types of dogs and specifically names four breeds, the pit bull and the toser among them. It is important to remember that the intention behind the legislation was to protect people. One criticism of the Dangerous Dogs Act is that criminal proceedings can be brought only if an offence took place in a public place. However, it should be remembered that if the offence took place on private property, civil proceedings can still be brought under the Dogs Act 1871.
One problem with the Dangerous Dogs Act is that of unintended consequences, the way in which the wording of the Act has been interpreted so widely. Section 1 deals with the type of breed or breed types that might be dangerous or appear to have dangerous characteristics. Obviously, a great deal of ambiguity and subjectivity can creep inand indeed has. If the dog fits the type, it can be seized and/or destroyed. As the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said, that has led to thousands of dogs being seized based on someone's opinion. Banning a type of dog breed is impossible to get right. Without change, dogs will continue to be seized, owners persecuted and dogs registered as dangerous based solely on their looks. We certainly would not arrest humans based solely on their looks, so why dogs? Surely a dog should be judged on its temperament, its disposition and its behaviour.
The Dangerous Dogs Act has also been criticised because there is no appeal system for owners to regain their dog. The Bill does not address that. With the best of intentions, the Dangerous Dogs Act is not working as intended. Since that Act, I understand that dog attacks have not diminished. If anything, they have increased. Thousands of dogs have been seized or destroyed because of their looks, not their behaviour, and at a cost of millions of pounds and to the distress of thousands of families. There is a need to put something more concrete in its place, so I welcome the introduction of this Bill, which puts the onus on the owner, or rather the irresponsible owner, rather than on what a dog looks like. It is essential that the Bill achieves what is intended, that the wording is not open to a broad interpretation, and that there are no unintended consequences as a result of the Dangerous Dogs Act.
With this in mind, I want to discuss various parts of the Bill to seek clarification. At this stage, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury on his excellent
24 Apr 2009 : Column 1697
If a 15 year-old meets a friend in the high street, who asks him to hold on to his dog while he whips into the stop to buy a packet of fags or whatever, the dog then slips its leash and attacks a passer-by, does the clause mean that the 15 year-olds parents are treated as responsible, even though they were nowhere near the scene, or have I misinterpreted the meaning?
On the question of intimidating people, if someone makes a house callthey might be a postmanand if the door is open and three Chihuahuas rush out yapping, this might be considered rather cute. However, if three Alsatians rush out barking, they might be seen as aggressive. By allowing the dogs to rush out, it could be argued that the owner was encouraging their behaviour and would therefore fall foul of this Bill, even though, in my example, neither the Chihuahuas nor the Alsatians caused any actual harm.
On the question of being aggressive or intimidating other animals, this seems to be a minefield of unintended consequences. First, if a dog chases a rabbit, a cat, a rat or indeed a grey squirrel, is the dog being aggressive or intimidating towards other animals? Under Clause 2(b), the answer will probably be yes. However, no harm has been done and I really cannot believe that it is the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that the dog and the owner in these circumstances should become criminals. I am tempted to say, For goodness sake, let the dog chase the rabbit.
It seems that it is all right for a cat to kill a mouse or a rat, but not for a dog. What about dogs that are used to flush out game or vermin? To do so requires intimidating the game and vermin, otherwise they would not flush them out. What about sheep dogs moving sheep? The sheep would not move unless there was an element of intimidation, but anyone who has watched One Man and His Dog will know that no harm comes to the sheep.
Does this mean that it is an offence for a person to give a good home to any dog that has been involved in a dog fight? What is a dog fight? Clearly, two dogs scrapping in a back alley over a bone would fall foul of this Bill, but I do not believe that that is the sort of dog fight which the noble Lord envisages. Surely he means organised dog fights, which I believe is covered under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
What does the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, mean by a service dog in Clause 4(3)? Does he mean a dog that has been specifically trained to carry out a particular function, for example a police crowd-control dog or a drug-detection dog? Does the clause include the sheep dog, the gun dog, the rat catcher: in other words, dogs that have been specifically trained to carry out a perfectly lawful activity? Clause 7(3) says that this does not include,
but this clause does not make it obvious what the definition of service dog is. If someone could prove that his dog was a service dog and it then attacked a child while off-duty, so to speak, it would seem, as subsection (4) is currently written, that being a service dog is a sufficient defence. That is surely not the noble Lords intention.
On the question of attacking a person, the noble Lords intention is no doubt obvious, but let me give noble Lords a scenario. A child tries to take a bone away from her Chihuahua and the little pooch bites his hand. The child cries, is given a cuddle and is told that he should not do it again because it is a natural reaction for the dog to protect his bone, but what if the dog had been an Alsatian? Might that not be classed as an attack? It would under Clause 7(4); or is it a defence that the dog was provoked into an attack?
Finally, Clause 6 repeals the existing dogs Acts. If we do this, there is a grave danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water. By repealing the Dogs Act 1871, people will lose the ability to bring civil proceedings against the owners of aggressive dogs. It might be desirable to do so if, for instance, the authorities refused to bring criminal proceedings for one reason or another. By repealing that Act, it would then become legal to import, own and breed the four named breeds that are currently in the Act. I am not sure that this would be seen as a desirable outcome.
I am afraid that I may well have irritated the noble Lord by nitpicking my way through this Bill. I genuinely applaud his intention to bring changes to Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act. It cannot be right that dogs are seized because of how they look rather than how they behave. The Bill quite rightly puts the onus of responsibility for a dogs behaviour fairly and squarely on the owner. One of the criticisms of the Dangerous Dogs Act is the unforeseen consequences due to the authorities wide interpretation of the wording of the Act. We certainly do not want to make the same mistake with this Bill, whereby the natural, legitimate, and in some cases central activities of dogs throughout the country are criminalised because of the wording of the Bill and the wide interpretation of it.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, like other speakers in the debate, I appreciate this important Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, which seeks to discuss
24 Apr 2009 : Column 1699
I am sorry that I cannot give the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, a great deal of comfort but the Governments problem is that we are not sure whether this Bill is in principle the way to tackle the issues that it identifies. We just do not think that repeal of Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act is the way to go. None of us who were in public life in 1991 could fail to recall the rapidity with which that legislation went through. Nor could we forget the nations shock-horror at the pit bull attacks that were occurring or the nations demand that action should be taken. The action was knee-jerk in the sense of immediacy of reaction. However, I do not think that the Act should be condemned as ineffective. The Government contend that the issues lie a great deal more in effective enforcement an issue to which I shall turn in a moment rather than in the nature of the legislation itself. We are therefore not convinced that the Bill is premised on an accurate consideration of how to tackle these issues.
As the noble Lord will appreciate, even if an Act is subject to criticism, we should all be anxious about removing it if that might increase the risk to the public. Defra almost daily receives letters from the public about dangerous dogs and we are frequently pilloried in the press for not having tighter dog control laws. When reading what the public and the press say I am struck by the fact that there is a strong body of opinion that criticises the current breed-specific legislation on the basis that many more breeds should be added to the list. If we were to run a consultation on this issue, I do not have the slightest doubt that we would have additional lists of dogs that should come within the framework of existing legislation. Dogs such as the Akita and the Rottweiler obviously spring to mind.
We are of course in regular contact with the police, and in 2007 we consulted every police force in England and Wales. Their view was that without the prohibition on the pit bull terrier-type of dog there would have been many more dog attacks in this country. The view of the vast majority of police officers is that pit bull terrier-type dogs are not suitable animals to be kept as pets unless they are kept under strictly controlled conditions and a court has assessed whether the dog poses any threat to public safety.
It is often rightly said that any dog can attack someone. However, it would be irresponsible to pretend that some dogs are not far more capable of inflicting serious injuries when they attack than others. Some dogs have the physical and mental capacity to inflict horrific and sometimes fatal attacks. It is no surprise that people who are interested in dog fightinga practice which has been condemned by every contributor to this debateconcentrate on certain breeds of dog. Dog fighting is a despicable activity. The issue is that the pit bull was used primarily for and bred for that purpose. There is a danger that breeds in other parts
24 Apr 2009 : Column 1700
I know that pit bulls can be cross-bred with other dogs. The law is effective in that respect. It covers any dog that has the characteristics of a pit bull. If a dog is the offspring of a pit bull and another type of dog, it is likely to have the characteristics of a pit bull and be caught by the Act. It is not the case, as is sometimes suggested, that breeding development renders the Act ineffective and nugatory. It is the view of others, including the RSPCA, that the Act has been successful in preventing three specific types of dog with the characteristics of fighting dogs from being introduced into this countrythe Japanese tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro. These dogs are not suitable for general pet ownership and we are protected against their import.
The Bill proposes to replace the prohibition of types of dog with the characteristics of fighting dogs with a ban on breeding dogs for fighting or keeping a dog that has been used for fighting. The Dangerous Dogs Act already makes it an offence to breed from any of the four types of dog that are prohibited. The pit bull terrier is still the dog most often used in dog fighting, so in effect it is already an offence to breed from the majority of fighting dogs. I therefore do not think that current legislation is ineffective. We also recently strengthened the law on animal fighting. Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is now an offence to keep or train an animal for use in an animal fight. We are satisfied that the current law on fighting dogs is more than adequate. The current prohibition seeks to prevent the worst attacks by restricting the ownership of pit bull terriers. To take this restriction away would be a significant reduction in public protection. We are therefore not able to support the Bill, premised as it is on that significant stance.
The Bill would make it an offence to own a dog that had attacked a person or another animal. However, courts already have the power to disqualify irresponsible owners from keeping dogs and the power to order the destruction of dogs that have attacked. We believe that the courts are in the best position to reach these judgments. I therefore come back to the point that our concern should be reflected in effective action under existing law rather than rethinking and redrafting the law, which is what the noble Lord seeks to do.
The noble Lords second major theme is the introduction of control notices. We are not aware that any of the control measures suggested in the Bill are not already readily available under the Dogs Act 1871 or the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. If the noble Lord is concerned about enforcement then I share that concern. We need to improve enforcement and ensure that police officers are well acquainted with the law. Every police force should have a specialist on dog law who is able to advise other officers on enforcement and to ensure that the force does its job effectively. We should also make the public aware of just where the law stands so that we inhibit the dangers of dogs becoming a problem for the public.
Under the current law it is only a criminal offence to allow a dog to be dangerously out of control in a public place or in a private place where it is not allowed to be. But where the dog is allowed to be, it is of course the responsibility of the owner. I am concerned about the Bills provisionthe noble Earls, Lord Cathcart and Lord Shrewsbury, also referred to itregarding private premises. To make the obvious point, Parliament does not want to create a situation where a house owner could be prosecuted if the household dog bites a burglar. One is all too well aware of the sharp public reaction that would occur if the law permitted that. We have to be extremely careful about such an eventuality if the law is not clear about the position of a dog in a private place where it is entitled to be.
We are not convinced that changing the existing law in this area would help those who enforce the law or administer justice, or reduce the number of attacks that take place in domestic premises. However, I emphasise that my officials will keep this area under close review, and if necessary we will make changes to the law if we believe that it would reduce the number of distressing incidents that occur within a family context. However, in the worst instancethat is, the family pet savaging a babythere would normally be horrendous consequences for the family and, as we have seen in previous cases, the courts would have to reach difficult judgments on whether to convict a family member when the family has often suffered from the dog going out of control.
Under the Dogs Act 1871which of course preceded the Dangerous Dogs Act by 120 yearsa dog can be considered dangerous even if the only danger shown is to other dogs and not to humans. Under that Act, being dangerous reflects the dogs disposition and not its acts. In some cases an owner can be liable for any damage that a dog causes under the Animals Act 1971. We have substantial existing legislation which addresses itself to the issues against which the noble Lord suggests his Bill would provide additional defence for the public.
The noble Lord mentioned the threat of gangs employing dogs as a weapon against the public or against other gangs, which can lead to disorder. This is an important issue. I can assure him that he has pressed us in an area where we share with him exactly the same anxiety. The Policing and Crime Bill, which at present is in Committee in the Commons, will have provision for an injunction to be made upon gangs to prevent gang members from being in charge of an animal in a public place if it can be established that it appears threatening to the public.
Of course the Government share the noble Lords anxiety with regard to the safety of the public and the effectiveness of the law. We will all enjoy an interesting Committee stage when we debate the Bill. However, the noble Lord will appreciate that the Governments concern leads us to press for the more effective operation of existing legislationwith the additional point I have made about gangs, where the law is to be changedagainst a problem which the noble Lord is quite right to bring to the attention of the House.
Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. In one respect, I am quite glad that, although the issue is high on the public agenda, the Bill is not in response to a specific attack. Too much legislation is enacted in that way and, of course, the original Act was the result of a specific attack. But we should not be under any misapprehension: there have been a large number of dog attacks over the past few years. These have had different causes and therefore need to be covered by legislation dealing with such issues.
Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Earl. The noble Earl raised the issue of the control of dogs falling under other legislation dealing with animals. I am quite prepared to drop that section from the Bill in Committee because it is covered in other legislation. I think that would satisfy many of the objections.
Of course, the introduction of pack hounds to hunt squirrels is extremely important. I say that as a joke because, as everyone knows, I am a great slaughterer of grey squirrels. I do not advocate that of course. Mind you, it is an idea.
The Bill seeks to deal with the issue of dogs being usedmostly in an urban context, although also in rural areasas status dogs for intimidating young people. The noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, discussed the issue of intimidation. This has, I believe, been sorted out through case law in a large number of cases and would not be difficult for a court to understand. I thank him for his positive comments. I know that in another place his party has declared that it will repeal the Dangerous Dogs Act and introduce legislation along these lines. His comments will be very helpful in that purpose. The issue he raised about dogs being owned for use in fighting is covered by other legislation. I realised that, of course, but the Bill had gone forward by the time I had worked it out. I will be quite happy to take that section out of the Bill. Service dogs are covered by separate legislation. We have taken his concerns on that into consideration and, on reading the Bill more closely, we believe that they have been addressed. I hope that his partys support for the basis of the Bill, as expressed, will come forward at a future date.
The Minister stated that the Government have a number of problems with the Bill and that, although it is helpful to discuss this issue, enough legislation already exists. I would counter that by saying that although I am a dog ownernot at present, but I have been in the past and have always dealt with dogsthis issue was raised with me by several organisations: the Metropolitan Police, the RSPCA, the Kennel Club, the Dogs Trust,
24 Apr 2009 : Column 1703
Obviously control orders exist, but as Clause 6 deals with repeal and would repeal those very measures, I had to reintroduce them. Rather than dealing with a patchwork of other pieces of legislation, the new legislation will make clear and understandable, for those enforcing it and for those who own and deal with dogs, what is acceptable and at which point they will be dealing with problems.
The Minister talked about private property. There was a case recently where that was an issue: a little girl, who was being looked after by her grandmother, was mauled by a dog but it was her uncle who was charged, although I think he was charged only with possession of heroin rather than over the dogs. Certain dogs are treated as dangerous animals and used in an intimidatory fashion. You could also see them as a dangerous weapon, and of course if you had a gun that was used in the same way and was then involved in an accident there would be a prosecution for that.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|