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Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Bill [H.L.]

8.25 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Houghton of Sowerby.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Discretion of court to deal with dog other than by destruction order]:

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Houghton of Sowerby: I beg to move that Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill.

In doing so, I wish to remind the Committee that we have all been here before and we have studied this matter with great care over a considerable length of time. It may be that from the point of view of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, these debates are becoming a little tedious; from my point of view they are becoming more dispiriting. This is a further attempt to ask the Government to look favourably upon some alleviation of the severity of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.

We are now in the fourth year of the operation of the Act. The Government have no wish, or no intention, of tabling any amendments to the 1991 Act. Therefore the attempts that are made to make changes in the Bill are met with blank refusal to entertain anything that means legislation to alter the terms of the Act. The truth of the matter is that the Government are politically too weak to face the possible criticisms they would meet from the tabloid press if they weakened the Act in any way. They want to stick to the doctrine that the greater the severity

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of the punishment, the greater the deterrent. That philosophy has governed the policy of the Home Office on criminal law for some time.

There are two views on that. It is arguable whether in fact members of the public who are owners of dogs which may come within the terms of the 1991 Act are disposed to use stratagems and arguments and devices to escape their obligations, unless one takes into account that there is a definite sentence of death provided for for offences under the Act. I do not believe that that is a greater deterrent than if we were to seek a little more co-operation.

This clause proposes to do one thing and one thing only: to remove the mandatory sentence of death from the 1991 Act, to sweep it away entirely from the mandate given to magistrates in England and Wales and to sheriffs in Scotland. Clause 1 of the Bill deals with the abolition of the death penalty and in particular with the alternatives that are provided in Clause 1 to mandatory destruction in Section 1 of the 1991 Act. It would still be possible for the court to issue an order for destruction but it would be in its own judgment, not under mandate. It would not be required to do it, as it is under the present Act. The power would rest with them in suitable cases to order the destruction of a dog. I am dealing now with the pit bull terrier aspect of the problem. Equally, in their own judgment, they could decide that an option should be given to the owner of exemption under the conditions already involved for the exemption index, and on completion of all the treatment necessary to qualify for that.

In those circumstances, it seems that a suitable alternative is on offer to those on whom otherwise a mandatory death sentence would be imposed. There are difficulties of administration about this, but I do not see any reason why they should not be overcome. For example, it would require that the index of exemptions which already exists and which was closed on 31st August 1991 should be available to be reopened for particular dogs on particular occasions on an order of a court. That responsibility for opening the index would rest with the Home Secretary. It is important that the Home Secretary should have the power to admit late entry to the index in order that such cases can be provided for.

We believe that the powers exist. At any rate, the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, will move an amendment to ensure that the power will rest in the hands of the Home Secretary to reopen the register to admit cases selected by the court for this treatment. This would be more humane and in particular it would be so appropriate to most of the cases that are coming to the courts at the present time. Those cases do not concern pit bull terriers: they are crosses. They are of the type provided for in the Act, and dogs of the type known as pit bull terriers face the same penalty under Section 1 of the Act as a pit bull terrier itself.

I think any expert will advise the Home Office that there is the greatest difficulty in many cases in deciding whether a dog is of the type of a pit bull terrier. If it is of the type, then at the present time an automatic issue of a destruction order is made. The courts, by a majority of magistrates at any time coming to the conclusion that

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a dog is of the type, are thereby obliged to issue a destruction order. That is the present position. The cases that are being fought in the courts at the present time are those where owners are disputing that their dogs qualify for the death sentence on the grounds of being of the type. It is in such cases where there may be actually a division of opinion in the court itself, and certainly in most cases a division of opinion between experts who believe they can identify dogs of the type and classify them with some confidence.

Some dogs are having destruction orders imposed upon them on the decision of a stipendiary magistrate sitting alone and hearing the case alone. It is a peculiar coincidence that on the occasion of the Second Reading of the Bill a message came from a court in Scotland which was making some very harsh criticisms of the Act. This morning in the Glasgow Herald we find another criticism of the Act by the sheriff court in a particularly difficult case where a young man pleaded guilty to being in possession of an unregistered pit bull terrier but later sought leave to change his plea, was granted leave by the High Court, went back to the sheriff court and has been acquitted of the charge made against him. It is an extraordinary situation which is arising and giving many grounds for criticism of the administration.

I think it is appropriate for me to add one word. If we do not get from the noble Baroness an indication of a more favourable approach to this matter, we shall have to seek other means of getting this issue brought before the public and before your Lordships' House. I refer in particular to the idea of a Select Committee of your Lordships to inquire whether this Bill should make progress. In the circumstances, we should then have evidence and we should be able to get information about the practical side of what has been going on for four years. In those circumstances, we should abandon the Bill later.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Baroness Wharton moved Amendment No. 1:


After Clause 1, insert the following new clause:

("Amendment of power to make exemption scheme

. After section 1(5) of the 1991 Act (which enables the Secretary of State to make a scheme exempting, subject to compliance with certain conditions, persons from the absolute prohibition against having possession or custody of pit bull terriers and other designated types of dogs) there shall be inserted—
"(5A) A scheme under subsection (5) above which specifies a time limit for the making of an application for exemption in respect of a dog shall make provision for an application to be made out of time in any case where a court has granted leave under section 4(1) (c) below for such a late application to be made." ").

The noble Baroness said: I beg to move Amendment No. 1. Clause 1, which we have just passed, cannot become effective if there is any doubt about the powers of the Home Secretary to reopen the list of exemptions in the case of particular dogs in certain cases which could be spared mandatory destruction by the provisions of this Bill. This amendment removes any doubt as to the powers of the Home Secretary to accept late entries to the list of exemptions—that is, dogs which comply with the conditions of Clause 1 and are ordered by the

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courts to do so. I should like to make it clear that dogs will only be given late entry to the exemption list by the courts from whom this Bill removes mandatory sentencing under the principal Act and returns to the courts their historic right to exercise some discretion within this area of their jurisdiction.

No dog dealt with under this Bill will be returned home without satisfying all the conditions which apply to all other dogs granted exemption under the 1991 Act. Only neutered dogs given the full treatment for exemption will be returned to their owners. The dogs concerned will be given late entry to the exemption list under this Bill. This amendment makes sure that the Home Secretary has the necessary power to enable that to be done when he receives an order from the court to that effect. For the removal of any doubt about that, I beg to move this amendment.

Lord Hayter: In supporting the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, in a way my thoughts go back to an earlier part of this evening when we had a debate on the relationship between local government and the national government. In the context of this Bill we are really debating the relationship of local magistrates with that of the national government once again. It has been made clear that we are trying to do the best we possibly can to make sure that there will be no repetition of appalling accidents which sometimes happen in the context of dangerous dogs. That is why we have gone out of our way—I am told, perhaps unnecessarily, legally—to make sure that the Secretary of State has a position in relation to this Bill. I am glad to support the amendment.


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