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Departmental double act on dangerous dogs

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THE parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) was highly critical of the Government's proposed new measures for dealing with dangerous dogs when it reported on those proposals in February, so the Government's response to its comments, which was published last week, is clearly of interest.1

The Government is proposing a number of new measures to apply in England. These include extending existing dangerous dogs legislation to private property, requiring all dogs to be identified by microchip from April 2016, and giving the police powers to decide whether or not to seize dogs pending the outcome of court proceedings (VR, February 16, 2013, vol 172, pp 168, 170).

The EFRACom is not alone in having been disappointed by the Government's proposed package of proposals and, in its report in February, dismissed it as ‘woefully inadequate’. In particular, it pointed out that it included little in the way of measures to prevent dog attacks, as a proper system of Dog Control Notices might have done, arguing that a much more comprehensive approach was needed. The Government's approach, it said, was ‘too simplistic’ and did not take adequate account of the importance of preventative action to deal with irresponsible dog breeders (VR, February 23, 2013, vol 172, p 195).

If the EFRACom was robust in its criticisms, the Government is equally robust in its response. On the issue of prevention, for example, it says it is unfortunate that the committee did not take account of the ‘combined and preventative aspect’ of Defra's dog-specific measures and antisocial behaviour measures currently being developed by the Home Office, which, it suggests, will provide a more flexible means of prevention than would be available through a system of Dog Control Notices. It rejects a suggestion in the EFRACom's report that it is not giving enough priority to dog control and welfare, noting that its commitment to encouraging more responsible dog ownership is reflected in the changes it is proposing to existing legislation as well as the steps it is taking to tackle other problems by non-legislative means. In response to a recommendation from the EFRACom that existing dog laws should be consolidated, it says it does not consider that this would ‘confer any great benefit to the public and those involved in dog control’ and suggests that ‘a mechanical exercise of simply bringing together all dog legislation into one place would not change the law and would take up precious Parliamentary time.’

One issue on which the Government agrees with the EFRACom concerns attacks by dogs on assistance dogs, where the EFRACom suggested that such an attack should be equated with an attack on a person and considered an aggravated attack under the Dangerous Dogs Act. A clause to this effect has been added to a draft Bill that the Government has prepared to amend the Act in line with the other measures it has proposed, which is currently being examined by the EFRACom before being submitted to Parliament.

In its response, the Government clearly sets great store on the antisocial behaviour measures being developed by the Home Office. These are by no means confined to irresponsible pet ownership but are intended to cover the whole gamut of antisocial behaviour, ranging from vandalism and graffiti to drug dealing and harassment. According to the Home Office, the aim is ‘to transform the way antisocial behaviour is dealt with’ by ‘radically simplifying and improving the toolkit’ available to professionals. ‘We want to move away from having a tool for every different problem to ensuring that the police and partners have faster, more flexible tools,’ the Home Office says. ‘These, plus more effective sanctions, will help professionals and, where necessary, the courts stop antisocial behaviour earlier, and better protect victims and communities.’

Referring to these measures in its response to the EFRACom, the Government says that Community Protection Notices being proposed as part of antisocial behaviour legislation will allow the appropriate authorities to ‘nip problems in the bud’ by, for example, requiring an individual to attend dog training classes to deal with a dog's aggressive behaviour. It says that the approach being proposed will allow the focus to be at ‘the right end of the lead’, that is, on the person acting antisocially with their dog. It dismisses a suggestion from the EFRACom that split responsibilities for dog-related issues between Defra and the Home Office will lead to a fragmented, less effective approach, stating that the two departments continue to work together closely and that ‘Defra, along with those who have expert knowledge of dog issues, will contribute significantly to producing the accompanying guidance to the legislation to ensure that dog-related and animal welfare issues are included and the practical details are clear.’

The problem with all this is that the Home Office legislation is still being developed and it is still not clear precisely what form it will take. Perhaps even more important is the question of how it will be applied. There must also be concern that, given all the department's other responsibilities, the Home Office's antisocial behaviour legislation will be too broad and possibly too blunt an instrument for dealing with issues relating to dogs. Whatever form the legislation eventually takes, it will be important that those involved in applying it carry out an appropriate individual risk assessment in incidents involving dogs; in this respect, a framework developed by the European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ethology could prove helpful.2

Despite the Government's protestations, it remains debatable how well things will work out in practice when responsibility is spread between Defra and the Home Office, not to mention the many other agencies involved. Certainly, it would be easier to keep track of the developing legislation if just one department was involved.

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