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‘Missing measures’ on dogs

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IT seems unlikely that the Government will fundamentally rethink its plans for amending dangerous dogs legislation in England at this stage, despite the fact that a number of organisations have urged it to do so. Not least among these has been the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) which, in a report in February, dismissed the Government's proposals as ‘woefully inadequate’ and called instead for a much more comprehensive, preventive approach. However, with the Government having firmly rejected many of the EFRACom's recommendations, and having since introduced a Bill into Parliament, the chances of it changing its mind seem remote. With the Welsh Government having announced that it has suspended work on developing its own legislation and that it is looking into following the approach being adopted in England instead, the prospect of a change of heart seems more distant than ever.

The EFRACom has since completed what it hoped would be prelegislative scrutiny of the Bill and, in doing so, has reiterated its call for a more comprehensive, preventive approach (VR, May 25, 2013, vol 172, p 539). More pertinently, however, given that the Government seems set on its course, it has also commented on the detail of the Bill,1 which will clearly be relevant in terms of how well things ultimately work out in practice. With legislation, implementation is all important. As experience with the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act has amply demonstrated, there can be a significant difference between the consequences of legislation and what was intended and, very often, it is the detail that determines just how big that difference will be.

The Government's proposals are set out in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which was introduced into Parliament on May 9.2 Key features include extending dangerous dogs legislation to private property (with an exception applying in certain circumstances to householders whose dogs attack trespassers either in or entering their home); extending the legislation to cover attacks on assistance dogs; and making the courts take into account the character of the owner when deciding whether a dog that has been found to be dangerously out of control should be put down or returned to the owner. There is no provision in the legislation for specific Dog Control Notices to try to prevent problems before they develop into something more serious, as are applied in Scotland; instead, prevention will rely on a range of new measures developed by the Home Office to try to curb antisocial behaviour generally.

The EFRACom makes some useful points in each of these areas, highlighting, for example, the need to be clear about on which parts of an owner's property dogs attacking trespassers might be exempted from the provisions of the Dangerous Dogs Act, as well as being clear about what constitutes a trespasser. It also draws attention to measures it believes are missing from the Bill, such as provisions for specifically tailored Dog Control Notices and measures to tackle irresponsible dog breeding. However, some of its most pertinent comments relate to factors to be taken into account when deciding whether a dog represents a threat to public safety. This has long proved problematical in practice and one of the aims is that the new legislation should clarify the situation. However, the EFRACom points out that, contrary to the Government's intention, the relevant clause ‘is unclear in several respects’ and ‘has failed to clarify how provisions on the destruction of dogs should be interpreted’. It recommends that the Government should issue clear guidance on ‘the test to determine whether someone is “fit and proper” to own or keep a dog, as well as to how the temperament of the dog is to be assessed’. It also recommends that those advising the courts must be required to have appropriate training in dog behaviour.

It is clearly in everyone's interest that an appropriate risk assessment, taking full account of all the particular circumstances, is carried out in incidents involving ‘dangerous’ dogs and, in this respect, a framework developed by the European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ecology could be helpful.3 There also needs to be more thorough investigation of dog bite incidents and collation of data, to ensure that risk assessments and advice on prevention are evidence based. Meanwhile, the importance of education in helping to prevent dog bite incidents cannot be overstated, as emphasised by Kendal Shepherd in a Viewpoint article on pp 583-584 of this issue of Veterinary Record.

Although the EFRACom's comments were intended to form part of prelegislative scrutiny, the Bill was introduced into the House of Commons before they were published, which means that they can only be accommodated as amendments as the Bill passes through Parliament. There is much else in the Bill to interest MPs, but the measures on dogs will need to be considered carefully as the draft legislation wends its way through House.

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