Clause 3 : Dog control notices
1: Clause 3, page 3, line 4,
leave out “is to” and insert “must”
My Lords, in speaking to Amendment 1, I wish to raise a couple of issues about how we have tried to deal with some of the questions raised at earlier stages of this Private Member’s Bill. Obviously, Private Members’ Bills rarely become law, but they provide a fabulous test bed to make sure that the wording and sentiment of the proposal are correct so that, hopefully, when the Government come to their senses and decide that this is one of the most worthy pieces of legislation to be placed before them, they will immediately grab it with both hands and at a later stage bring forward a Bill reflecting almost every aspect of this Bill. I would like to address some of the concerns highlighted at Committee stage in March surrounding the issues of how and by whom it is decided what “dangerously out of control” constitutes within the Bill, as raised by the noble Lords, Lord Skelmersdale and Lord Pearson of Rannoch. One of the reasons for doing this is that I have had a large number of letters on this matter, so I thought it as well to deal with the issue by way of formulating the amendments that have been put forward.
The Bill’s intention is not to see responsible dog handlers and owners penalised but to deal with those owners who give others a bad name so that we can better protect the public by dealing with potentially dangerous dogs at the first signs of a behaviour problem. It is important to note that dogs are protected from the overzealous officer by writing into the Bill specific circumstances when a dog can be excused for being aggressive. A dog that bites a burglar or a mugger does not commit an offence, as the burglar or mugger is in the wrong. Equally, police and service dogs are protected. If the dog is attacked by a person and bites, no offence is committed. I believe that these rules achieve a sensible balance between protecting the public from unwarranted dog attacks and allowing dogs to behave normally. The Bill expects that the enforcers of this legislation will have adequate competency in dealing with dog-related issues to distinguish between a true act of aggression and normal acceptable canine behaviour. The Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010, which has been in force since February, has not led to an influx of barking dogs being brought before court or issued with dog control notices. It is important to keep in mind that the final decision on whether a dog is dangerously out of control must lie with the court on the evidence presented to it.
I will address the specific concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, at the previous stage of the Bill. He sought clarification on why the words “aggressive or” were removed from Clause 2(1)(a) while the same words were left in Clause 2(1)(b), and he wanted to know whether this was intentional. The decision to retain “aggressive or” within Clause 2(1)(b) was intentional, as it refers to the person who is responsible for encouraging a dog to be aggressive. Clause 2(1)(a), however, simply refers to allowing a dog to be aggressive, which I conceded at Second Reading could be open to abuse or misinterpretation. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, is immediately looking straight through the Bill with his usual “dogged” determination—
My Lords, that is nothing compared to the jibes which I have had from these benches over the course of this Bill, so I thought I would poke a little fun back.
Obviously, this is a very difficult question to deal with, because it raises so many issues. Many dog owners feel that this has raised a number of issues which will put them at risk and, therefore, I was using this opportunity to put the record straight and maybe to stem some of the flow of letters that I will probably receive after this stage.
Amendment 1 would delete “is to” and insert “must” in Clause 3(6). It deals with and acknowledges the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, in Committee in relation to the terminology,
“the appropriate national authority, local authority or police authority is to satisfy itself”.
The recommendation is that this wording be changed. I hope that this addresses the issue. I beg to move.
Amendment 1 agreed.
Schedule : Databases
2: Schedule, page 10, line 37, leave out “Secretary of State” and insert “appropriate national authority”
My Lords, I was slightly taken aback by that exciting debate. I realise that I am obviously winning the argument this morning.
Amendment 2 deals with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, during the previous debate and rectifies a drafting error within paragraph 3(3) of the Schedule. As the Bill covers both England and Wales, “Secretary of State” has been removed and “appropriate national authority” has been included in its place. I do not intend to speak a great deal on this issue, but it does show the value of being able to use the knowledge of this House to scrutinise and pick out issues that are difficult to spot for those putting forward Private Members’ Bills. I thank all those, especially those from the dangerous dogs study group, who have taken part in helping with the amendments.
I very much hope that, at the next stage of the Bill, we will receive some indication from the Government that their position may change and move forward, especially considering the results of the consultation, to which 4,500 have replied.
On that basis, I beg to move.
As the noble Lord was kind enough to refer to me, perhaps I may briefly respond. I have to say that I do not think that this is a very well-drafted, apposite or timely Bill, but on the other hand I think that the thrust of it is good. What the noble Lord is trying to achieve on the whole might be a desirable thing. However, the one thing he will not be able to do is legislate in this way by means of a Private Member’s Bill. He has done a service to the House in exposing both sides of the argument, and it is now for the Government to decide whether they wish to pick up this issue and deal with it. As far as I am concerned, it is an issue that the Government ought to deal with. I know that we are considering a specific Private Member’s Bill—as your Lordships may have gathered, I am not too keen on the actual Bill itself—but, nevertheless, it does seem to me an issue that the Government ought to take seriously and look at.
I was rather hoping that I would be able to get away without intervening at all. The Government have made their views fairly clear at both Second Reading and in Committee, when my noble friend Lord De Mauley dealt with this Bill. I will say very briefly again that we cannot give our support to this Bill, but we are well aware of the problems that it is addressing and are prepared to consider moving forward in due course.
As my noble friend Lord Redesdale mentioned, the House will be aware of the consultation issued by the previous Government towards the end of their 13 years in office—I think it was issued in about March 2010, just before the general election—and that concluded in June 2010. There were some 4,250 responses to that consultation, which Ministers are still considering. We published a summary of those responses in November 2010, and, as I said, we are still considering the right way forward. It is a matter that we want to discuss across government, because these matters are not just for Defra but for the Home Office and others. In due course, I hope that we will be able to have something to say, but we will not offer support to this Bill. It might be that, when the noble Lord seeks a Third Reading and moves that the Bill do now pass, that might be a moment when I might be able to say a little more. However, as I have made clear and as we made clear on earlier occasions, we cannot offer support to this Bill.
Depending on when Third Reading happens, that in the course of the debate on whether the Bill do now pass, I might be in a position to say something. That depends very much on when my noble friend seeks the Third Reading of the Bill. I make no guarantees, and the noble Lord will well know that “in due course” can be a rather flexible form of time, and he will just have to wait and see.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for coming in and eliciting a response from the Government. I also thank the Minister for the fulsome proposal that the Government will bring forward such useful information at the point of Third Reading. On that basis, I will wait probably until after the summer for Third Reading, although I realise that “after summer” means September rather than, in the Government’s parlance, somewhere nearer March. However, on that basis, I hope that this amendment will be acceptable.
Amendment 2 agreed.