Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Houghton of Sowerby: I am under the impulse of deep emotions about this matter. I have been working hard for four years to get the public, the magistrates and the police to understand the way in which the Government of 1991 defrauded the public as regards the extent of the danger and the problems which the nation faced. Most were totally untrue and they have not been proved otherwise.

We have tried hard to get some deeper consideration of the various civilised aspects of the matter. I am sure that we are all most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman, and his colleagues on the Select Committee who devoted their time to the study of the problems at first hand and in detail. We are on the eve of consideration of the final outcome of the Select Committee and just prior to the Third Reading of the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Bill tabled for next Tuesday. We are treated, as everything connected with this issue is treated by the Home Office, with the utmost contempt and indifference. We have had to put up with it for so long that in some quarters, patience is becoming very much exhausted.

I am grateful--as I am sure are all Members of the Committee--to the noble and learned Lord for the statement which he made a few moments ago. We thought that such a clear and positive line for change brought forward unanimously by the Select Committee would be sufficiently impressive to convince the public and many others that we are endeavouring to find a better answer to our dog problem than we have.

No other country in the world has in existence a mandatory dog destruction system. Other countries have found different ways to solve the problem. We were rushed into this and both Houses sacrificed their full responsibilities at the time. That left an Act of

27 Mar 1996 : Column 1821

Parliament containing such excesses as those which have been described which are regarded as commonplace to our system of dog control.

However, we may have passed the point at which we can expect to achieve any change of circumstances this side of a general election. One cannot say how soon that may come. But I am quite sure that there are some elements in this which will have a considerable political influence. Animals and their welfare has become one of the primary considerations of the public mind. One only has to look at what is taking place at present to understand how deeply people feel about those matters. Before very long, there will be a moral wave of great force and intensity sweeping over the country which demands that we find a different answer to the uncivilised way in which we are conducting our affairs and relations with other species.

Therefore, I am profoundly grateful to be here to listen to the noble and learned Lord. I hope that many people will be influenced by what he said. I also thank other members of the Select Committee and, in particular, my noble friend Lady Mallalieu. We shall persevere so far as we can in order to have this change brought about. That is all I have to say. I hope that I shall speak again on Tuesday when we shall have the Third Reading debate. We shall see what happens.

10.59 p.m.

Baroness Mallalieu: I know that I speak for those on all sides of the House--but in particular for those on these Benches--when I say that it is a real pleasure and privilege both to see and hear the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in his place this evening.

When the Dangerous Dogs Act passed through this House in 1991, the noble Lord warned that its mandatory destruction orders would cause injustice. His words were not heeded by the Government at that time. Time has proved him right in that, as in many other respects, during his long, political career.

That the Select Committee has recommended to the Committee of this House that the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, should now proceed without amendment is in large measure a reflection of his tenacity and determination to correct what he perceived to be an unfair law which others now believe needs to be changed.

The depressing response from the Home Office, of which I have received information only this evening, indicates that there is still some considerable way to go. However, if it is of any reassurance to the noble Lord, he is not now a lone voice; indeed, I believe that he is no longer even in a minority. In due course, I hope and believe that this House and another place will come to admit that the noble Lord was right all along.

I had the honour of being one of those who served on the Select Committee. I would also like to pay tribute to its chairman, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman. His questioning of the witnesses who gave evidence before us was, I could not fail to notice, of an altogether gentler style than that which he customarily employs when questioning members of the Bar

27 Mar 1996 : Column 1822

appearing before him in the Judicial Committee. However, he was as characteristically searching and revealing for all that. The chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord enabled the arguments of both sides to be fully and fairly presented to us and properly considered. That makes the response of the Home Office all the more disappointing.

Of course there remain serious public concerns which are reinforced each time someone, particularly a child, is attacked by a dog, concerns which we on this side all share; namely, that dangerous dogs should not be permitted to present a threat to members of the public, especially children, and that proper control should be exercised over them by their owners.

If accepted, the recommendations made by the Select Committee to the House would not, I believe, detract from the powers of the courts to order destruction of a dog in any case where it was merited; but it would, I hope, empower the courts to avoid doing so in cases where a real injustice would result to an otherwise responsible dog owner and, of course, his dog.

The written response from the Home Office makes depressing reading. It concludes that the Government do not believe that it would be right to weaken the message of the original Act. I could say a great deal about the suggestions that it makes and about the report, but I shall not do so because the report has been covered in detail by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman; and, indeed, the hour is late.

However, if that is to be the response of the noble Earl, it will be clear that the Government are not prepared to listen to the message which has come back from almost every body and organisation which is directly concerned with the legislation--for example, the vets, the magistrates, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the police, to name but a few. That message is that hard cases make bad law. This Act, whatever its intentions and whatever its benefits, has proved to be unfair in relation to parts of its application. It is also unfair because it makes no distinction between the responsible dog owner and the irresponsible one; and it makes no distinction between the dangerous dog which attacks a child and a well-behaved one which is technically in breach of the Act.

If the Government refuse to listen to that message, reinforced as it now is by the report of a Select Committee which has heard and considered a great deal of evidence and expertise in the field, the message which they send back to the country will indeed be one of weakness. To refuse to admit when you have got something wrong and then to refuse an offer to put it right--made, in this case, by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton--is a classic sign of weakness, not simply in men but also, I am afraid, in this Government.

11 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland: My Lords, I shall be brief. I have spoken on the subject on a number of occasions; and, indeed, I had the honour to introduce the Bill in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, who was ill at the time. Like other speakers, I am

27 Mar 1996 : Column 1823

delighted to see the noble Lord back in your Lordships' House this evening and to hear him speak with his usual vehemence on the subject. I only hope that his pessimism is something which will not be reinforced in the medium and long term.

As other speakers have said, I believe that the Government are bent upon digging in their toes on the issue. I do not know why. They seem to do so on many issues, but it appears to be just pure obstinacy on this occasion in the face of almost universal support for the views expressed both by experts and the public.

I should like to thank the noble and learned Lord, for his excellent chairmanship of the Select Committee. I should like to thank Lord Houghton for making it possible for the Select Committee to take place and, again, to thank the noble and learned Lord for tonight giving us such an expert and concise summary, not only of his Select Committee's views but, indeed, of the problem which the Select Committee addressed.

It was on a fairly narrow issue--the issue of discretion--that the Bill was brought before your Lordships, and it was on that issue of discretion that the Select Committee deliberated. In another place another committee is looking at the wider issues in the Bill. All this will be brought to bear on the Government, and we await their reactions with interest--I cannot say with any great hope. I am looking forward to the noble Earl's reply this evening.

It has been a great privilege to read the report. Anyone who is interested in this particular Bill and the working of the Act which brought about this amendment Bill can do no better than to read the Select Committee's report. It is all in there. It goes beyond the actual subject of discretion. If you want to know about dangerous dogs, read the Select Committee's report. The hour is late and I am hoping that the noble Earl's reply will be more cheerful than I anticipate.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page