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Dog Registration Scheme

Volume 129: debated on Wednesday 9 March 1988

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Lords amendment: No. 16, after clause 33, insert new clause—

".—(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for the establishment and administration of a dog registration scheme by local authorities, or such other organisations as he may, after consulting with them, designate.
(2) Regulations made under this section shall be exercisable by statutory instrument."

Read a Second time.

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 17, 36 and 37 and amendment (a).

Each of the amendments seeks to improve the already extensive range of legislation that relates to the control and welfare of dogs. The first gives a permissive power to the Secretary of State to introduce a dog registration scheme, the second gives powers to local authorities to deal with stray dogs.

The new clause which is the subject of amendment No. 16 was inserted in the Bill despite our strong reservations about the cost and effectiveness of a dog registration scheme. At present, we simply do not see how registration would add anything to existing legislation. However, we do not want to delay Royal Assent by having unnecessary argument with the other place and we are therefore content to accept the amendment.

Before my hon. Friend makes this momentous decision, I wonder whether he understands the reasons why dog licences were introduced in the first place. They were introduced in the middle of the last century because there was a major criminal trade in stealing and selling dogs in London. As late as 1889, my father came to London—[HON. MEMBERS: "He did not."] Yes, he did. He was prevented from bringing his terrier to London because he was told by his father that there were men in London who stole dogs. He made the observation that looking out of the bus he did not see any men stealing dogs.

That is why dog licences were introduced. It had nothing to do with paying for dog wardens, the licensing or registering of dogs or anything else. If someone could not produce a licence, it proved that the dog was stolen. As that criminal purpose has been succeeded by worse, I do not see the point of having licences of any kind at all.

I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for giving us that insight into the reason why the licence was introduced in the first place.

My hon. Friend will recall the debate that we had on dog licences before the Bill went to another place. I think that it is probably fair to say that if the Government accept the amendments they are going back on the arguments that they presented to the House only a few weeks ago. I hope that I have interpreted my hon. Friends remarks correctly. I understood him to say that the only reason why the Government are accepting the amendments is that they do not want to have to send the bill back to the Lords. Can my hon. Friend give us a specific assurance that the new clause will not be implemented during the lifetime of this Government?

The Government have no intention of using the powers under the new clause but no Government can bind their successor.

Amendment No. 17 deals with stray dogs. At present, the police have powers to seize, detain and dispose of stray dogs. Local authorities in Scotland have similar powers, in parallel with the police, under the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982, while about 100 local authorities in England and Wales have taken the same powers under local Acts. In Committee, we undertook to consider extending this power to all authorities without the need for them to resort to separate, primary legislation.

Consultation with local authority associations indicated general support in principle. I should also stress that the police will retain their existing powers to deal with stray dogs. This is essential because there are areas, such as motorways, where it is only the police who are in a position to take any necessary action.

The powers that will become available to local authorities will enable dog wardens appointed by them to seize stray dogs and detain them until claimed by their owners, who will he required to pay all costs incurred in their detention. If the owner of a stray is identified, a notice must be served on him in writing saying that the dog has been seized, and that it will be sold or destroyed if not claimed within seven days. If a dog remains unclaimed after seven days, it may either be sold or destroyed in a manner to cause as little pain as possible. Authorities which choose to exercise this power will be required to maintain a register of stray dogs that they seize.

First, I welcome the fact that for amazing reasons the Minister has accepted these amendments. It is somewhat paradoxical that earlier today the Secretary of State urged the House to reject the Lords amendments relating to disabled people, he is presumably willing to incur delay and disagreement between the two Houses over that. However, the Minister's only substantive reason for not wanting to disagree with the Lords in this instance is that he does not want to incur delay and disagreement, having already done so on a matter that is arguably of greater importance.

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Putting that to one side, we are left with the Government agreeing to accept the Lords amendment while saying that they will not implement it. I hope that the Minister will accept that he should have a little more grace in accepting that the Lords have overturned the Government on this issue, they having been given considerable encouragement to do so in this place when we last debated the matter. It was argued that at least there should be a registration system, if not a licence, and that is what amendment No. 16 provides.

There is in that well-known Liberal newspaper, The Scotsman, a headline to the effect, "Support for the Alliance Plummets". Can the hon. Gentleman advise the House what an alliance plummet is and tell us whether it is covered by the registration scheme?

Whatever the support at present, I do not think that there will be any difficulty in leaving the party of the hon. and learned Gentleman a long way behind before long. Its support in Scotland has been plummeting for some years, not least because of local government legislation, of which the Bill is an obvious example. I guess that the more the Scots hear of the Bill the more likely it is that support for the Conservative party in Scotland will plummet.

I am glad that the Minister has decided to accept the amendment that I moved when the Bill was last before us. As he knows, the proposal to tidy up the law on stray dogs emanated from the Association of County Councils, which argued that often the police did not want to have responsibility for dealing with stray dogs, whereas the local authority did and was willing to exercise it. The only concern is that local authorities are not yet to receive any more money for the responsibility of dealing with strays.

To direct a new responsibility and to provide no extra money for discharging it is a tradition with the Government, but that does not mean that it is satisfactory. It is accepted that stray dogs pose a substantial problem, and accordingly the necessary resources should be provided. We are saying that it should be made clear in any given area whether the police or the local authority have primary responsibility.

The Minister said that the police may want to retain responsibility for dealing with stray dogs in the vicinity of motorways, but experience suggests that it may he better to transfer primary responsibility from the police to local authorities, which have other enforcement responsibilities under this sort of legislation. They should be able to retain their environmental control and responsibility.

The Government's acceptance of the amendments is welcome but I seek to push the Minister a little further along the lines of amendment (a). Having accepted the undesirable prospect, for him, of accepting amendment No. 16 and overturning Government policy, I ask him to accept the implications of that and to ensure that the scheme that will be written into the Bill will be implemented to curb the nuisance that dogs can cause. I ask him to provide local authorities with the resources to ensure that dogs are less of a nuisance environmentally, more under control and generally looked after more responsibly by local authorities on behalf of the local community.

I apologise for my eagerness in seeking to speak early in the debate.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister has accepted the amendment. It would have been kinder to the House if he had accepted it rather more gracefully and had said that he would be willing to consider implementation. As I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted a few moments ago, there are five ingredients in a registration scheme—that a dog should have a national identification, that the number should be carried by the dog at all times, that there should he one legally responsible keeper, tha the scheme should be self-financing and that the scheme must assist in the financing of local authority dog warden schemes. I add a sixth—that, so far as humanly possible, the Government should have no involvement in it.

A few days ago, a representative of the National Farmers Union, one of the organisations which support a registration scheme, took the trouble to visit the Wood Green animal shelter, which serves as a model for a national registration scheme. I ask my hon. Friend to consider an invitation to that animal shelter to see for himself the manner in which the registration scheme has been implemented. If, after a visit, we can convince him that it is a practical working scheme, he should consider the implementation of the Lords amendment.

I hope that the Minister will be able to elaborate on the wording of the new clause which says:

"The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for the establishment and administration of a dog registration scheme".
Although it is permissive, I hope that the Minister, if approached by a local authority, will consider the scheme put forward. The Secretary of State is shaking his head. It appears that the Minister will tell the House that under no circumstances will the Government approve a scheme which is put forward by a local authority and that a local authority would be wasting its time and official power in drawing up a scheme. Local authorities should know, because they are being squeezed in every way by the Government as they are trampled on by every legalistic and other influential means which the Government can muster.

There is no point in local authorities wasting the valuable time of officials in producing schemes if the Government intend once more to kick them in the teeth, although the amendment is being accepted by the Government and was voted for in the House of Lords. It is the Government who place such emphasis on the importance of the House of Lords as the second part of the legislature. Then they turn round and say to the Lords in effect, "Get lost, because, whatever you do, we will take no notice of it. Although the powers will be there, we will say to local authorities that we will not exercise them." That seems to be flying in the face of the spirit of the amendment which the Lords — the body which the Government defend to the hilt—have made and have sent here for our consideration.

When the Bill was considered before in the House, there was a great deal of support for a dog registration scheme. I outlined various considerations, as did other hon. Members on both sides of the House, in support of a scheme. I pointed out that a number of my constituents had written to me. One woman could not take her children into a park because of stray dogs ganging up, roaming round and, as she thought, placing her children at risk. Of course, there was also the problem of the dogs fouling the footpaths and the grass so that it was difficult for her to take her children to play freely in the park without the dangerous, offensive and messy business of the children being fouled by dog excreta.

I mentioned too the headmaster in my constituency who took home a small boy who was suffering from ill health. When he got to the house a Doberman pinscher set about the headmaster. The dog literally had to be dragged off and was subsequently killed. The vet who attended said that that breed of dog was extremely difficult to deal with because often they were untrained and were hard to control. The dog attacked the headmaster so savagely that he was off work for several weeks. The police took no action. The police informed me that there is no legislation under which, once the dog is killed, they can take action against an owner. They cannot take him to court to bring a dangerous dog under control because the dog has gone.

That omission in legislation should be rectified. The dog that was killed has been replaced—[Interruption.] The portly hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), who is so fond of making sedentary interventions, finds all this very amusing. But ordinary people live in fairly modest houses, not the jazzed-up mansion that I imagine he inhabits—with his many suits. That is in stark contrast to the terraced houses in which many of our constituents live, and parents in such houses dare not let their children out because of dogs roaming loose.

I believe that a dog registration scheme is needed so that we can have some control over dogs that are not properly looked after. There is no bone of contention with owners who look after their animals. There would be no problems if everyone was of good will, care and devotion and looked after their dogs well. The problem is that not everyone does. When they do not, it is not the fault of the dogs, but the consequences are visited upon perfectly respectable, law-abiding citizens.

One such example is a constituent with a six-month-old baby who lives near a house where three Doberman pinschers or rottweilers are allowed to roam loose in the garden — [Interruption.] Perhaps the Conservative Members who find this so funny would put up their hands if they would like a six-month-old baby to be lying in its pram in the garden with those three dogs roaming loose next door. Of course they would not. It is a potential danger, and the dogs have already leapt over the fence. Parents must have some assurances.

Bradford runs a perfectly good dog warden scheme, but it is not on call when an immediate problem arises. It rounds up stray dogs and helps to contain the problem, but it does not have the facilities to cope. Bradford, like every other local authority, has many more matters on which to spend money and, inevitably, the problem of stray dogs has a lower priority. The dog registration scheme proposed by the House of Lords would be useful if the Government—

If there was a fee for registration, the income could be used to extend the scheme. The Secretary of State cannot be so blasé as not to be aware that local authorities are short of money. They must provide education, housing, roads and all the rest, and the dog warden service must have a lower priority.

Conservative Members take the hon. Gentleman's point seriously, as we did when he ably presented his amendment last time. But neither then nor now do I see the relevance of registration. I do not believe that that rottweiler would have acted differently had it been registered. I do not understand what difference it would make.

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The hon. Gentleman has obviously been doing some analysis, and he will realise that dogs cannot read the registration document and would not behave differently. But without a registration scheme, the presence of three rottweilers or Doberman pinschers would be brought to the attention of the authorities only when an accident occurred. If an adult is bitten, it may be an inconvenience and it may be painful. If a child is bitten, depending on the age, it could be fatal. Then people will say, "Goodness gracious, we have some dangerous dogs at 24 Acacia avenue." Without a dog registration scheme, it would be impossible to know that—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Of course it would be impossible for anyone to take remedial action.

The police do not take remedial action. That action is provided by the dog warden service, but only when complaints are made. If the local authority operates a dog registration scheme, the authority will be able to help people to look after dogs and provide them with guidance. The authority representative would be able to tell owners that they should have decent premises and that they should not keep three dangerous dogs tied up all day while they are at work. The authority can explain that if owners do not provide the dogs with exercise, they should not be staggered when the dogs behave in what might be termed an anti-social manner when they are released. It is simply a matter of help and guidance for owners who do not look after their dogs.

If Conservative Members believe that some dog owners do not look after their dogs, then they recognise reality. However, if they believe that all dog owners, at all times, supervise, train and exercise their dogs with complete dedication, they are living in cloud-cuckoo-land. That simply is not the case.

The scheme that has come from another place is useful. It is not as good as the scheme that I proposed in an amendment which was designed to help dog owners provide better guidance and better care for dogs and at the same time would have provided better care for the public. Those are reasonable aims.

I cannot understand the Minister's obdurate refusal to accept the provision. It fits in perfectly with his philosophy, which is not for collective provision out of general taxation revenue, but for specific charges. Where people use facilities, the Government argue that they should be charged because that is much closer to the philosophy of the market place. The Minister has been obdurate; perhaps that results from the fact that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State glowers at him constantly. I suppose that that is enough to frighten most reasonable people in the Conservative party.

However, the Minister has not provided a philosophical reason to tell local authorities, "We've got the legislation. It's come from the place we revere." Truth to tell, most members of the Conservative party try to get into the other place at some point in their lives—

Another sedentary intervention. Of course one or two Labour Members try to get to another place, but they are, thank God, a minority. The majority of Conservatives dedicate their political careers to reaching the other place. Yet when it comes to producing a tiny piece of sensible legislation, the Government obdurately refuse even to consider implementing it. That is a matter of deep regret.

My hon. Friend the Minister's grudging acceptance of the amendments from another place will be a gross disappointment for many people inside and outside the House who strongly believe that a registration scheme would help. Now that they see that such a scheme is approaching the statute book, they will not be satisfied for it to remain a dead letter. They will constantly press hon. Members to remind my hon. Friend the Minister and his ministerial colleagues that the provisions exist and should be used.

Even after my hon. Friend the Minister's earlier comments, I urge him to reconsider the possibility of looking closely at schemes produced by local authorities and, as the clause seems to suggest, bodies other than local authorities which might administer such a scheme.

If proposals are brought forward, if people make the effort to produce them, they deserve the care and attention that my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues can give them. I commend the amendments and trust that they are the forerunners of action on the registration of dogs.

I will be very brief because I do not want to delay the House. I was a member of the Select Committee on the Environment that considered the question of dog licences on several occasions, and I am aware that some pressure must have been brought to bear on the Government to deal with the present crazy situation in which we spend far more collecting the licence fee than we receive. I also want to speak from my experience in Burnley about banning dogs in a few parks.

I am well aware of the controversy that can arise on issues affecting dogs. I believe that the present licence system is stupid and crazy and cannot go on, but what we are to do if we do not abolish it is a different issue. Speaking, as I say from local government experience, I feel that we should have reservations about allowing local authorities to determine the fixing of a local fee in any registration scheme. That is quite contrary to my normal stance, which is to disagree with the Government taking powers away from local authorities. However, I recognise the difficulties that will be caused—difficulties out of all proportion to the decision involved.

I believe that there is a case for a national registration scheme, with a fixed fee at national level to be operated by every local authority. The provision introduced by the Lords for the Secretary of State to consult with a view to setting up such a scheme should not be ignored. It was somewhat regrettable that the Minister implied that the Government would accept the amendment but take no notice of it and hold no consultations. Perhaps at the end of such consultations the Government would say that the scheme was not a goer; nevertheless, I feel that they should look at it.

The Association of District Councils has expressed the view that the amendment is worth while and should be pursued. I am sure that many other hon. Members will also have received a letter from Michael Ashley, the assistant secretary with responsibility for community services, who writes:
"The ADC gave support to the amendment and believes that a registration scheme with a once-only fee of about £15 will meet the objective of getting dog owners to take their responsibilities seriously and enable district councils to provide an effective dog warden service."
I think that those two points are worthy of consideration and consultation. I do not disagree with the Government's line on the amendment, but I hope that they will be a bit more positive, that there will be some genuine consultation and that a scheme can be set up that will allow local authorities to deal better with the problems of dogs.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government on their sagacity in accepting the amendment. The last time that this issue was debated in the House, there was something of a punch-up and a small revolt on this side of the Chamber. Their Lordships, in their wisdom, have introduced this amendment, and the Government, in their wisdom, have come to understand the will of both Houses of Parliament and have now accepted the amendment. I hope that my hon. Friend, despite what he has said this evening and his lack of enthusiasm, will come forward with an order before too long.

The amendment, as I understand it, will allow local authorities to introduce schemes for registering dogs and raising funds that they will be able to spend on schemes for the control and welfare of dogs within their individual local authority areas. I imagine that the limits on the amount that can be raised will be set by central Government.

Many of my hon. Friends rightly have a horror of bureaucracy, and I have a horror of it as well. But I put it to my hon. Friends that in some parts of the country—in the urban and inner-city areas mentioned by the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer)—there is a real problem of dog noise, dog nuisance, dog disease and swarms of dogs roaming the streets. In those areas it is probably the strongest local problem that comes to Members of Parliament. My area is not as deprived as that of the hon. Member for Bradford, South but I receive a great deal of correspondence on the problem of dog nuisance and there is very little that we can do about it at the moment.

The Lords amendments will allow a dedicated source of funds to provide wardens to deal with this very real problem that disfigures so many of our inner city areas. At the moment, we are introducing schemes for local government finance which will make it more difficult for the areas represented by Labour Members to raise and spend money. The last thing they will do when they are being squeezed of finance, which they will be—I am not against that—is seek to spend what little money they have on dog warden schemes. The order, if introduced, will allow a special sum of money to be used to address the problem; otherwise nothing will happen.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider this issue, to look at it symathetically and, hopefully, to come forward with an order. The great beauty of this amendment is that in the past, to do anything about this problem, we have required primary legislation, a dogs Bill. No Government would gird themselves up against the opposition they would meet. People would say that it was a trivial measure. It would be putting their head in the dog's mouth, and no Government would risk that because they would get their head bitten off. However, an order, late at night, which could introduce exactly the same legislation is sexy and exciting. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to let us have one quickly.

It is not often that I find myself agreeing with the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) about anything. However, there is an overwhelming case for having a national dog licensing scheme set at a reasonable rate in order to provide funds to enable local authorities to provide the services that are required.

I was a little disturbed to hear what the Minister said this evening. He agreed to the amendment but said that there is no intention of implementing it in England and Wales. However, two Secretaries of State are referred to in the Bill. Since a Minister from the Scottish Office is sitting on the Government Front Bench and since there will be scope for introducing separate orders affecting Scotland, it would be useful if the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) could give us some indication as to whether it would be possible, or, indeed whether it is likely, that the Scottish Office would be prepared to introduce an order to enable local authorities in Scotland to introduce licensing schemes on the basis of the Lords amendment, which seems to be a constructive one. I hope that it will not remain a dead letter.

With the leave of the House, I shall reply to the debate.

The Lords amendment gives my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the power to make regulations. It does not require him to do so. I can understand that some hon. Members may have wished the amendment to say that it should require my right hon. Friend to make regulations but that is not what it provides. It is perfectly right and proper that we should be open with the House and say that the Government have no intention whatsoever of making the regulations and exercising the power being given by the amendment.

Having listened to the debate, can my hon. Friend say why the Government have no intention of doing that?

Yes, I can say why the Government have no intention of making the regulations. There are two separate rationales put forward in favour of a registration scheme. The first is to raise money for local authorities in order to enable them to exercise greater control over dogs in their area. In effect, that would be to go back to a dog licensing scheme, which we have abolished by the Bill. The alternative rationale for dog registration would be to improve the identification of dogs that commit offences. That point was made by the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer).

The hon. Gentleman told a story about a Doberman pinscher. There is no way in which a registration scheme would have resolved that problem. He told the House that the dog was apprehended and put down because it was so unruly. Under the law as it is now, anyone may complain to the magistrates court that a dog is dangerous and not kept under proper control and the court may order that it should be kept under proper control or be destroyed. Therefore, massive powers are already available.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) made a good and clear speech. He said that, if there were a dog registration scheme and a system of dog wardens, the dog wardens would know where these large dogs were and when there were two or three large dogs in a house. The dog registration scheme would enable dog wardens to provide advice and assistance to people owning those dogs. What my hon. Friend the Minister has just said is not correct.

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In addition to the location of dogs, dog wardens would advise and guide dog owners. Dog experts have pointed out that there has been growth in the use and breeding of large and savage dogs such as rottweilers and Doberman pinschers. Owners often buy such dogs without any proper knowledge. They do not know about training, housing, feeding or controlling them. As I made abundantly clear, the dog registration scheme would offer advice and help to dog owners.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on that matter; he takes a very paternalistic view about dog owners. Many measures are already available to local authorities, the police and other individuals to deal with dogs.

Those who argued in favour of a dog registration scheme assume that it would be easy to register all dogs and to maintain and enforce the register. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) say that a registration scheme would be a practical possibility, because he and some of his hon. Friends have been arguing for many hours in Committee that the much simpler and more straightforward process of registering for the community charge will be so fiendishly complicated, so easily avoided and so difficult to enforce that it is not worth introducing. The community charge registration scheme will be straightforward and easy. However, a registration scheme for dogs would be a lot more complicated than the community charge registration scheme.

On reflection, I am sure that the Minister will agree that his comparison is completely irrelevant. If the registration of dogs were to be agreed, the system would be quite different from a poll tax that has a rolling register, that will change every day. I am sure that the Minister is making a false comparison.

My hon. and learned Friend mentions the problem of student dogs, but I do not want to get involved with such problems.

It is easy for hon. Members to talk gaily about registration schemes, but what would happen in practice is the same as what has happened with the dog licence in the past—irresponsible dog owners would not buy licences or register their dogs. Hon. Members who believe that it will solve all the difficulties are living in cloud-cuckoo-land.

I agree with my hon. Friend, which is why the Government do not intend to introduce a scheme.

I will not give way again to my hon. Friend because as yet I have not answered the points raised by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). We cannot accept the amendment that he moved because, in effect, it asks for powers that at present are permissive to be made mandatory. The power of the police to deal with stray dogs has been discretionary since the Dogs Act 1906 because it is essential for the police to be flexible in dealing with different cases. It may not always be necessary to seize a dog which appears to be a stray if the owner is nearby.

The Government deliberately did not make it mandatory upon local authorities to appoint dog wardens. They must remain at liberty to decide whether to appoint them or not, depending on local circumstances. Where a local authority does decide to appoint dog wardens, that local authority will no doubt give them policy guidance on how to exercise their discretion under the Dogs Act. The amendment would therefore be superfluous in that context.

If a local authority does not appoint its own dog wardens, the amendment would require local authorities to secure that police officers exercised their powers. Since their powers are discretionary it is very unclear how that would operate in practice. There is also a more fundamental objection in that the amendment would give local authorities a power to interfere in police activities. It is eminently sensible that local authorities and the police should co-operate where they are both dealing with stray dogs so that owners searching for their strays can be directed to the police or local authorities—

My hon. Friend might like to contact the Medway towns, where, under the current system of dog wardens, the take-up of the licence is enforced. If people were working at it, there could be an effective registration scheme, particularly if it was raising money for the dog wardens who would then be able to spend that money on the control and welfare of dogs.

My hon. Friend has made the same point in an earlier debate. That is an example of how a local authority is able to operate perfectly effectively under the existing law. There is no reason why other local authorities should not do likewise.

I was about to make one more point against the amendment of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, but if that is not necessary—

My hon. Friend said, quite rightly, that the Medway towns run a good dog warden system, collecting the licence fee and so on. But, to be fair, some local authorities — Left-wing Labour authorities and urban authorities—will be further constrained financially and have a severe problem of dog nuisance. Under the existing financial arrangements, they will not set up dog warden schemes. A dedicated scheme, of the sort that has been described, could be financed by such authorities.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 17 and 18 agreed to.