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Short Title And Commencement

Volume 892: debated on Friday 16 May 1975

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On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Cray-ford (Mr. Wellbeloved), I beg to move Amendment No. 17, in page 2, line 30, leave out from 'force' to end of line 33 and insert

'not later than six months from the date of Royal Assent'.
The object of the amendment is to ensure that the Bill comes into force as soon as possible after it has received the Royal Assent. Although I had some reservations about this kind of point in Committee, now that much of the Bill is to be self-financing I suggest that this is a reasonable amendment to make.

The effect of the amendment is to impose a time limit of six months within which the whole Bill must come into force and to remove the provision added in Committee enabling different parts to be brought into force at different times.

As the licensing provisions constitute a new call on national resources, even though the cost will be borne by those using guard dogs, it must be accepted that some time might elapse before they could, consistent with the Government's economic strategy, be brought into operation. Therefore, a time limit would not be acceptable either to the Government or to the local authorities.

It appears to me that it would be much better not to accept this amendment on the basis that it will sabotage the Bill to a considerable degree. In other words, there is no reason why Clause 1, for example, should not be brought into being almost immediately that the Bill is passed, whereas in regard to other parts it might not be convenient to bring them into operation for considerably in excess of six months. Therefore, it would be much better not to accept the amendment, and I recommend the House to reject it.

I wish to support what my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Doig) said. As he pointed out, the licensing provisions constitute a new call on national resources at a difficult time for local authorities, and we have to accept that some time might elapse before they could be brought into operation. A time limit, therefore, is not acceptable to the Government. What is more important, I suppose, is that it was not acceptable to the authorities in the discussions that we had with them.

I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Grocott) to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move Amendment No. 18, in page 2, line 33, at end add:

'() This Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.'.
The amendment is required to give effect to the Government's view that the Bill should not be extended to Northern Ireland at present.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

1.46 p.m.

I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Doig) on reaching the Third Reading of his Bill.

Over the years, concern has been expressed in this House and outside about the increasing number of attacks by dogs on people. There are no figures of the number of people bitten by dogs annually, and it is not possible to get any reliable figures because incidents of this kind are often not reported. It is known, however, that in the Metropolitan Police District alone in 1971 almost 3,400 people were bitten by dogs. If one in every three cases is reported—and I imagine the proportion of reported to actual cases is a good deal lower than that—a rough estimate of the number of people in England and Wales bitten by dogs annually is unlikely to be fewer than 40,000. That figure is not really surprising since it is estimated that there are between 5 million and 6 million dogs in the country.

Although a large number of people are bitten by dogs, few of them are seriously injured, but in April 1971 a two-year-old boy was grievously injured by two guard dogs on premises in Islington, and it was suggested that some form of control of guard dogs was needed. Then in July last year there was the tragic incident in Glasgow when a 10-year-old boy was killed by two guard dogs owned by a private security organisation.

Following the death of the Glasgow boy, my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland decided that urgent action was needed to reduce the risk of dogs attacking people, and a small informal working party was set up to consider what could be done. Since my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment had already set up a working party to consider all aspects of the law relating to dogs, it was decided to restrict the review to guard dogs. In considering what action could be taken, there was consultation with the two Associations of Chief Officers of Police, the British Security Industry Association and other organisations, including canine interests. Their help and advice was much appreciated.

It was clearly inappropriate to consider legislation relating to guard dogs alone while the Department of the Environment Working Party was reviewing all aspects of the control of dogs. Furthermore, legislation takes time and it was important to do something that could be quickly effective.

The informal working party recommended that the best course of action was to publish a code of practice. This was readily agreed to, and last November I announced in reply to Questions that the preparation of a code of practice for the use of guard dogs by security organisations was being considered. This code, which was agreed by all the organisations consulted and noted with approval by the Department of the Environment's working party, was announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland in answer to a Question on 6th February. The code is short and to the point, covering all the essentials in a clear manner. It is, of course, a voluntary code, and, since its observance depends on its acceptance, it makes no unreasonable demands. Indeed, the members of the British Security Industry Association who provide dogs for hire have for some years been practising the requirements of the code.

It is barely three months since the code was made available, through police forces, to security organisations, so it is too early to say to what extent it is being observed and whether it will effectively reduce the risk of guard dogs attacking people.

It is worth, I think, examining the points in the code. The code says that all persons and organisations who provide dogs for security purposes, for hire or reward—that is to say, those whose business it is to hire out guard dogs—should keep a register of all dogs and a log-book of all hirings, including the names of the dogs and handlers, and be adequately insured against all claims.

The other parts of the code could be applied to all guard dogs whether they are hired or owned by the persons who use them to guard their premises. Dogs should be fully and properly trained to such a standard that they can be kept under adequate control at all times. They should be kept in a healthy condition and be properly kennelled, fed and watered. They should be used under close supervision at all times, preferably accompanied by a suitably trained handler, and, unless under the immediate control of a handler, they should be used only on premises or in areas that are reasonably proof against escape or unauthorised entry. The vehicles in which dogs are transported should afford adequate protection against escape by the dog, and the compartment for the dog should be separate from that of the driver. Finally, the code says that warning notices should be displayed where dogs are used for guarding premises.

As I have said, the code of practice was not unreasonable. Some people may consider that it did not go far enough. This Bill goes further, and I congratulate my hon. Friend, the Member for Dundee, West on the skill and determination with which he has piloted it through its various stages.

I would not be honest if I did not confess that the Government had some misgivings about the Bill when it was first introduced. Indeed, we urged my hon. Friend to withdraw it—but not because we opposed it in principle. The publication of the code of practice made clear our concern over attacks on people by dogs, but we were reluctant to support the Bill because it seemed to be more prudent to await the report of the Department of the Environment's working party. We also felt that the Bill as originally drafted was not entirely satisfactory. There is, however, no need to go into the defects of the original Bill because they have been put right and I should like to pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West for the readiness with which he accepted advice and help. I must also put on record that the Government have been greatly indebted to the local authority associations, the British Security Industry Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers and canine interests for the help they have given.

The Bill has two objectives—first, to provide for the control of dogs and the exhibiting of warning notices, and, secondly, to provide a licensing system. The first objective will be achieved by Clause 1, and we can see no reason why that clause should not be brought into force without delay. In our consultations it was generally agreed that it was wrong to use a guard dog without a handler, and this view was expressed by leading security organisations. On the other hand, we were urged to permit the use of a guard dog without a handler in buildings from which the possibility of the dog escaping was so remote that it could be discounted. There is some force in that argument, and I am aware that there may be some small firms which feel unable to afford the expense of a handler. This may mean some premises which are now protected by an unattended guard dog may be more at risk. None the less I think it right—and it was a difficult decision to make—that a guard dog should never be used without a handler in attendance. This we feel is necessary in the interests of trying to safeguard the public against possible attacks by dogs which are being used for protecting premises.

The second objective of the Bill is to provide a licensing system in respect of guard dogs kennels in which guard dogs hired out to others are kept. As I pointed out earlier, the responsibility for licensing has eventually been placed on local authorities—with the concurrence of their associations, which is an important point. It will, however, be some time before it is possible to introduce the licensing system. The resources of local authorities are stretched to the utmost and it would not be right to impose a further burden on them in these difficult times. The licensing system will, of course, be self-financing but there are administrative and manpower considerations involved, and I am sure that local authorities will wish to ensure that the licensing procedure is as economic and as efficient as possible.

It will also be necessary for regulations to be brought into operation before the licensing provisions can come into force. With regard to these regulations, I assure hon. Members that it will be necessary to have wide consultation, particularly with the local authority associations, on the matters on which regulations will have to be made.

I am confident that the effect of the provisions of the Bill and the requirements of the code of practice on the use of guard dogs will go a long way to reducing the risk of guard dogs attacking people, and that is precisely what the Bill sets out to do. Once again I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West on his Bill, and I am sure that he will be well satisfied with what he has achieved.

1.58 p.m.

I, too, should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Mem- ber for Dundee, West (Mr. Doig) for his work on the Bill at all stages. I am anxious to do so because I have been critical about a number of its provisions. I am more satisfied now that I know that there is no intention of applying the provisions of the Bill to a dwelling-house in the ordinary way, but only to business and industrial premises where security is needed.

I still feel that there are difficulties with regard to the definition of "guard dog". An undue burden will be placed upon local authorities. Therefore, I hope that consideration may be given to these matters in another place so that the Bill may be further improved.

I congratulate my hon. Friend.

2.0 p.m.

We have had a good deal of discussion on the Bill, but I fear that some of our debates will not make particularly edifying reading, and anyone seeking guidance on the thinking behind some of the clauses and changes in the Bill will not get much help from reading the account of what we have said. However, the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Doig) has made a sincere and honest attempt to introduce legislation on a matter calling for legislation, although I have to tell him that there are those of us here today who will not agree with the precise way in which it has been done, and certain doubts still remain about some parts of the Bill.

The Bill arose mainly out of two tragic cases—the two-year-old in Islington and the 10-year-old in Glasgow who met their death as a result of being bitten by a guard dog. If I may think aloud for a moment, it seems to me that, with what is now Clause 6, the Bill may never come into force in its present form. It will be upon the statute book, but there is no obligation on the G3vernment to bring it in at any time, and I suspect that, if such a measure is ever to see the light of day and have the force of law, it will probably emerge in a form rather different from what is before us today.

I said in my speech that I could see no reason why Clause I should not be brought into force without delay.

Clause 1—yes. I was referring to the Bill as a whole. I was about to sit down, but I am grateful for that intervention by the hon. Lady, and I have taken due note of it.

2.2 p.m.

I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the progress of the Bill for their tolerance towards me, and I express special thanks to the Minister for the great assistance which I have received from her. However carefully I arranged my notes in the correct sequence, from time to time—it happened again today—they somehow or other got mixed up and the Minister came to my rescue. I am very grateful to her for that, and I am extremely pleased that the Bill is now likely to have its Third Reading.

I am sure that what we are doing now is an improvement on any voluntary code. Voluntary arrangements are very good, but we all know that there are those who will ignore them, and it is far better to have an Act of Parliament than to rely on a voluntary code.

Finally, I thank the House for treating this Bill far more seriously than it treated the first Ten-Minute Bill which I tried to introduce in 1968, which, I am sorry to say, was treated with great hilarity.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.