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Dogs

Volume 973: debated on Wednesday 14 November 1979

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10.5 pm

I feel rather like the number three batsman after the opening partnership has scored 200 runs: it was jolly good, but I have been waiting a hell of a long time.

Since this debate was announced. I have been the butt of a certain amount of humour from some of my colleagues. Anyone who again says to me "Mind your step" will cease to be my hon. Friend.

The control and licensing of dogs are very serious matters. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment knows, there is nothing quite so powerful as an idea whose time has come. This is the time when we must seriously consider introducing changes. Why now? The first reason is that the number of dogs in this country has increased. It is now 5½ million, and half of them are probably not licensed. Secondly, we have a great deal of new knowledge about the problems and the diseases caused by dogs. Thirdly, there is a tide of public opinion, which is about to become a surge.

As we all know, dogs are man's best friend. They are a part of life, a part of the family. For many people they are very important companions. But, unfortunately, there is a small but growing minority of dogs that cause a great deal of trouble and disruption.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) and I have discussed with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the British Veterinary Association the proposals that I shall make tonight. I am happy to say that our views are almost identical. I think that they agree with my proposals. What we are putting forward is in the interests not only of the public but of dogs.

I said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this was a serious debate, and it is. I should like you to think for a moment of one of the most attractive things known to man—a small child of two years, with fair hair and blue eyes, learning to walk and to talk, romping in a play area in a park. Twenty years ago one such child was doing just that and picked up a worm from the ground which got into his system and eventually found its way to the back of his eye. All that the child knew was that things were getting a bit fuzzy, a bit blurred. A child of two years could not articulate, could not say what was wrong. He did not know that it was not happening to other people, did not know that there was anything strange about it, did not know how to complain.

Eventually, at the age of four years, the child was taken to see a doctor and then to another doctor. The doctors looked at the back of his eye and saw a growth there. They thought that perhaps it was malignant, so they enucleated it, to use the trade term. They struck it out, pulled it from the child's body to examine it, and when they did so they discovered that the child had been affected by the worm toxocara canis.

Since that day a great deal of research has been carried out. The research continues. We now have real knowledge of the problem. One in four of soil samples taken from parks contains the worm. When the worm is in the ground it can stay alive for four years. The disease can attack the lungs. It is estimated that about 30,000 people in the country suffer from asthma possibly as a result of the worm. It can attack the brain. It is estimated that between 12,000 and 15,000 people suffer from epilepsy as a result of the worm. The case which I have mentioned illustrates the fact that it also attacks the eye. It is estimated that—we know 50 cases, we know100—perhaps 200 people a year can have a severely damaged eye as a result of this menace. If one-tenth of such problems were caused by nuclear-energy, the House would be besieged to such an extent that for a month we should not be able to get in or out.

Before I make some brief proposals, I have a few other facts and opinions to put forward. About 4,000 sheep per year are destroyed as a result of the disease. I said that we are also concerned for dogs. Dogs are often ill-advisedly given away because they are not properly looked after, and, regrettably, 300,000 dogs a year are destroyed because of the disease. The National Farmers' Union, when it heard that this debate was coming, wrote to me and asked me to mention the very real problems of its members from livestock worrying. My local authority says that it is the consensus of both political groups on the parks committee that dogs should be banned from children's play areas and rugby and soccer pitches. However, at this stage, they are powerless to do anything about the matter.

The World Health Organisation says that dogs should be excluded from children's play areas. One of many constituents who have written to me said that there is a toddlers' play area in her area which is safe from traffic but a "lovely loo for animals". The Association of District Councils has written to say that its member authorities are concerned about the matter and have pressed the Government to introduce legislation on the basis of the report of the working party on dogs, which was published three years ago. They would particularly like power to be removed from the police to local authorities and they would like to see an increase in the licence fees. They have been concerned at the inflexibility of the Home Office in confirming byelaws.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith, North will refer to other matters, but in the meantime I should like to make a few brief proposals. First, in view of the menace of toxocara canis, the full reality of which is only just coming home to the general public. I should like it to be made a notifiable disease. Secondly, when I write questions on the subject I find that they are shuffled among three or four Departments. Surely one Department can take on the responsibility for dogs. Thirdly, the police are already over-burdened but they have the responsibility for dealing with stray dogs. The local authorities are willing, keen and able to take on the responsibility. Let us transfer it. Fourthly, there should be an increase in the licence fee. It is now the same as it was 101 years ago.

I suggest that before a dog is licensed a certificate must be produced to show that it has been adequately wormed, because in that way we can deal with the menace. That would mean, perhaps, that many people would have to take their dogs to the vet to get a certificate, but once a year the dog could have an annual check-up. This would be of great benefit not only to society but to dogs.

Fifthly, the possibility of having a differential licence should be investigated. I suggest that unspeyed bitches should carry a larger licence fee than speyed bitches and dogs. Sixthly, we need to adopt a different attitude to byelaws. Local authorities have been queueing up to get byelaws passed, but since the controversy at Burnley the Home Office has been loth to confirm them. Please let us have a change in that attitude.

We face a serious problem which will not go away. Public opinion is building up. Day by day, I and other hon. Members get more correspondence on the subject. It is not an insignificant problem. The lower figure of 50 people a year losing the sight of one eye may not seem much to some people, but to a person who loses the sight of an eye it seems a great deal.

I was addressing a small meeting earlier today at which I discussed this issue—this shows that it is a present and real threat, something that is actually happening—someone came up to me and said "It is strange you should mention that. My father lost an eye through this cause 20 years ago". We shall be irresponsible to the humans and the dogs of this country if we do not act, and act quickly.

10.16 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) for giving me the opportunity to speak, to my constitutent Mr. Athans, who has done a great deal to bring the problem to my attention, and to Professor Woodruff of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has done much of the research work on the subject.

I stress that this is not a move against pets. The hon. Member for Northampton, North and I want people to have pets, but there is no such thing as an irresponsible animal and there are, alas, some irresponsible owners. The views put forward in the debate have the support of the RSPCA and other animal welfare groups.

Toxocara canis exists in dogs and cats. It seems that dogs are the major problem, presumably because the areas that they frequent are also frequented by children. It is estimated that there are 840,000 infected faeces a day in England and Wales—276 million a year. At one level, that may seem a humorous figure, but at another level it is a serious one.

The disease is not notifiable, and one of my first requests is that it should be made a notifiable disease. At the moment we do not know the figures. Sample estimates suggested one case in 1974, two cases in 1975, five cases in 1977 and 10 cases in 1978. On a simple, and not necessarily accurate, statistical measure, the disease is on the increase.

Control is important, not only for public health, but for a more balanced and healthier animal population. Dogs can be a nuisance in a number of ways: by incessant barking, particularly at night, by straying into the road and causing accidents—there are an estimated 20,000 accidents a year caused by that and in 1977 13 people were identified as having been killed in such accidents—by attacking and threatening people, including children, and, as hon. Members who have served on local authorities will know, by fouling pavements.

There is an additional area to which we need to turn our minds. Rabies is a horrific disease that we do not yet have in this country, but there is a constant threat of its being imported, and I suggest that if we have adequate controls it will be marginally easier to control an outbreak of rabies. It would be only marginally easier, but any assistance is particularly helpful in that horrific disease which cannot easily be prevented.

We should also consider the appointment of dog wardens, as recommended by the 1976 report of the working party on dogs. The idea is supported by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Association of District Councils and many animal welfare groups. Such wardens would have an educational role with the owners of dogs and, to some extent, a welfare role in looking after stray dogs.

It is estimated in my constituency that there is a major problem of a surplus of dogs, many of which are strays. Recently there was a complaint from a school that the fouling of a council football pitch by dogs was resulting in children being fouled by dog faeces.

I should like the Minister to consider the suggestion of the hon. Member for Northampton, North that one Department—preferably the Department of the Environment—should assume responsibility for this matter. There are too many areas of overlap. The dog licence scheme needs to be looked at because the time for a review is long overdue. However, we do not want to price out of the market people who, because they live in an isolated area or are elderly, need pets.

We need to change the park byelaws and how they are made. It took Hammersmith two years to get agreement on exercise areas, and it cost between £16,000 and £20,000 to fence off the relevant areas. Responsibility for strays should be transferred from the police to the local authority, and dogs should have to carry some identification of their owners.

There is a host of other possibilities, but I simply suggest now that the 1976 report indicates the way forward. I strongly urge the Minister responsible to look into this matter and to pursue what is becoming an increasing health problem which affects both the community and anyone who is in any way concerned about the health and welfare of his pet.

10.22 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to reply to the debate, and I say that for a number of reasons. One is that it must be the first time in history that a fox has replied to a debate on dogs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) has raised a matter which touches many people deeply. I am left in no doubt about the national feeling that exists on the matter, and anyone who cares to examine the volume of correspondence that I receive on the subject would arrive at the same conclusion. We all know that the British are thought of as a nation of dog lovers, but even people who love dogs can be justifiably angered by the behaviour of irresponsible dog owners, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) has said. Many people are indeed frankly hostile to dogs, though it would be more logical if they were hostile to irresponsible owners.

The present law on dogs is complex. This reflects the long history of concern about dogs, and also the fact that dogs have to be considered from several points of view: amenity, health, livestock worrying and so forth. Before the Government can come to conclusions on the suggestions and recommendations made in the working party's report, several of my right hon. and hon. Friends will have to have an opportunity to consider the issues and their implications for local authorities' resources. This debate has helped to underline and clarify several of them and for this I am duly grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right to draw attention to the fact that the report has been in existence for three years. The Government, however, have had only six months in office.

To reach conclusions on what action would be desirable is one thing; to be able to conclude that a desired course of action can actually be implemented is another, especially at a time of severe constraints on public expenditure and on parliamentary time. I remind the House that my noble Friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton has already said in another Place that there was little prospect for legislation in the present Session to implement any of the working party's proposals.

My hon. Friend is already beginning to give a chapter of reasons as to why the Government should do nothing about this problem. It should be well understood that there is a natural reluctance among neighbours to report those who allow their dogs to foul places where it ought not to happen. Does it require great Government expenditure and great Government thought to introduce legislation or measures which would stop people allowing their dogs to foul at least children's playgrounds and play areas?

If my hon. Friend will be patient, I shall deal with that point. Perhaps the minute that he has taken away will prevent me from doing so, but I shall do my best.

My noble Friend in another place has explained that such legislation is unthinkable in this Session. I repeat that there are many issues before the House, and there is no way in which we can give a commitment to deal with this matter. I shall certainly deal with a number of points that hon. Members brought before me for my attention.

The working party went into a great many questions. Its main proposals for fresh legislation were in the areas of the control of stray dogs, with which my hon. Friend is very concerned, and indeed dog licensing. It is noteworthy that it regarded even licensing as a matter subordinate to its main concern for improving dog control. On the proposal that the licence fee should be £5 it remarked:
"The primary need … is to raise enough money to meet the costs of any effective Dog Warden Scheme."
This emphasis reflected its belief that the problem of strays is not only a predominant cause for concern but is also a major element in almost all aspects of the dog problem.

As my hon. Friend said, and indeed on the basis of police records, the estimate is that 200,000 dogs a year are taken to police stations as strays. But those recorded estimates have been put much higher. One million out of a total estimated population of 5 million to 6 million dogs are strays, as far as we can ascertain.

There are clearly a large number of dog owners who cannot or will not control their pets properly. The total number of dogs is probably greater now than ever before.

Am I not right in thinking that it would be perfectly possible for the Government to increase the dog licence fee without the necessity for fresh legislation?

My hon. Friend is not correct. It would need legislation.

I was talking about dogs and irresponsible owners. We know that many families nowadays are working and that their children are at school. Dogs are turned out for the whole day. It does not need much imagination to visualise what happens during the day. Perhaps our rising standards of amenity and public hygiene have something to do with the deeper concern on these matters.

First, I shall deal with the question of dog wardens. The working party considered this matter. The suggestion is that we should provide money to offset the expenditure by increasing the dog licence fee. Some people are opposed to that. They do not understand why the revenue should be raised in this way and think that it should come out of the general rate. That policy is unacceptable to the Government at present.

The working party's single most important proposal was for local authority dog wardens. It envisaged that the appointment of such wardens would be discretionary but also favoured a general duty on local authorities towards dog control. We in the Government cannot contemplate a new mandatory local authority function at a time when local authorities are having to make real and sustained reductions in the level of their expenditure. I am sure that my hon. Friends agree. However, it is important to be clear that local authorities already have powers to control dogs in a number of important ways. They may make bye-laws in respect of the control of dogs in parks and similar public open spaces, to which my hon. Friend turned his mind. They may prohibit the fouling of footpaths and exclude dogs from certain enclosed parts of parks where they might cause a particular nuisance. I remind my hon. Friend that it is not always easy to do that. We know about the case of the local authority in Burnley and the difficulties that it encountered. The Home Secretary or the Secretary of State for Scotland is the confirming authority for such byelaws. I cannot say to my hon. Friend that there is any hope of bringing the control of dogs within one Government Department. My hon. Friends must satisfy themselves that the proposed byelaws strike a fair balance between the need to protect amenity and the reasonable interests of the large numbers of people who wish to exercise their dogs. However, the powers are there for the local authorities—and they are there to be used.

Local authorities can also make orders designating roads in their area on which it is an offence to allow a dog without a lead. Above all, we should remember that in England and Wales dog wardens can be, and indeed in many cases are, appointed by local authorities under general powers. Those wardens have no official status and rely on the co-operation of the police in booking in stray dogs under the provisions of the Dogs Act 1906. Nevertheless, 80 councils in England and Wales have voluntarily set up dog warden schemes.

The Minister may have been in danger of giving false information, although I am sure it was well- intentioned.I understood him to say in response to an earlier point that the licence fee could not be increased without new legislation. Appendix A of the working party report says:

"Recommendations which could be implemented under existing legislation:
1. The annual licence fee should be increased (to £5)."
That, of course, would pay for dog wardens.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith, North Mr. Soley and I, in talking about increased dog licence fees, would wish to see protection for old-age pensioners, the blind and other people of misfortune.

It is impossible to go into detail but the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North is right in saying that it would not need new legislation to increase dog licences. However, I am sure that all hon. Members understand that the issue would have to be brought before the House for discussion. Many people would take exception to licences being increased if those increases applied to retired people.

I accept that it is ridiculous that the cost of the licence has remained unchanged since the nineteenth century. The Labour Government said that dog warden schems would have to pay for themselves, that is, out of licence revenues This was a decision of the Department of the Environment. The local authority associations have been similarly insistent that dog wardens should not be a burden on the rates, but there are contrary opinions.

The working party did a lot of work on the fouling of and access by dogs to public open spaces, and heard a great deal of evidence. However, it recommended no change in the present law. The question of byelaws governing the access of dogs to public open spaces is one on which few generalisations can safely be made. Certainly the exercise of detailed control requires every case to be looked at on its merits, in the light of the local situation.

The working party said that it had received more letters of complaint, and expression of concern, about fouling than about any other subject. It came to the conclusion, however, that this is a problem which cannot easily be solved by law and did not subscribe to the view that central legislation would succeed where byelaws have proved difficult to enforce. On the contrary, it recommended continued use by local authorities of their existing powers to make byelaws. In particulars, it encouraged the use of bye-laws in relation to children's play areas and put some faith in educating owners, as a way of producing a change of attitude towards fouling by their pets.

In reaching its conclusions, the working party had the benefit of medical advice about the extent of the risks of infection transmissible through dog dirt, including the condition associated with the worm toxocara canis. The working party concluded that the riks of serious infection was small. Nevertheless, the Government are well aware that there is continued concern about toxocariasis. My hon. Friend asked whether we would consider making the disease notifiable. I will consider that point. There are no firm figures for the number of people affected by it. Estimates have been bandied about and an article I read recently suggested that 200 people a year are blinded, or partially blinded, by the disease. On the other hand, Professor Woodruff of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine quotes around 50 cases a year.

We are not aware of any evidence for the figure quoted in the article in regard to asthma and epilepsy. They may be based on the fact that, whereas 2 per cent.of otherwise healthy people give positive results when tested for toxocara, those suffering from certain eye, lung and liver disease give much higher positive results. From this it sems to have been deduced that toxocara is responsible for the suffering of 30,000 asthma victims and 15,000 epileptics. The Government's medical advisers have cast strong doubts on the accuracy of these claims, which seem to be supported by no authoritative published evidence.

I can assure my hon. Friend, however, that we will carefully consider all the points that he has made since we know that the question of dogs is of deep concern to many people. The hon. Gentleman raised the question of rabies. This is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who is keeping a very careful eye on that issue.

In conclusion, I have to say that while the Government have no intention of neglecting the question of dogs, we must consider this matter in the context of the current constraints on public expenditure and manpower. However, contrary to what my hon. Friend has asked, I hold out no hope that this matter will be dealt with in the near future. That does not mean that we will not give it the highest priority when the time comes.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Eleven o'clock.