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Polls apart

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THE Government has sent out a remarkably mixed message in announcing its consultation on the penalties that should be imposed on the owners of dogs that attack members of the public, and it is difficult to be sure what, exactly, it is trying to achieve. Through an online poll, it is seeking views on the maximum sentence that should apply in the case of an aggravated offence under the Dangerous Dogs Act. As widely reported by the media last week, one of the options included in its survey is extending the maximum prison sentence that might be imposed in such cases from the current maximum of two years to life.

A Defra press release announcing the consultation last week1 explained that the public was being given a chance to have their say about whether dog owners should be given harsher sentences when their dogs attack and cause serious or fatal injuries, as part of the Government's plans to clamp down on dangerous dogs. ‘Irresponsible dog owners who allow their dogs to attack members of the public could face longer jail terms,’ the press release said. ‘Sixteen people have been fatally attacked since 2005 but the owners of dangerously out of control dogs can only be sent to jail for a maximum of two years.’

It quotes the animal welfare minister, Lord de Mauley, as saying, ‘Dog attacks are terrifying and we need harsh penalties to punish those who allow their dog to injure people while out of control.

‘We're already toughening up laws to ensure that anyone who owns a dangerous dog can be brought to justice, regardless of where the dog attack takes place. It's crucial that the laws we have in place act as a deterrent to stop such horrific incidents.’

Given the background to the poll, the consultation document itself2 explains that the poll is being conducted in the light of an amendment to the Dangerous Dogs Act – proposed as part of the Government's Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which is currently being considered by Parliament – that would have extended the maximum penalty to include life imprisonment. After discussion, the amendment was withdrawn, but the Government undertook to take soundings, before the next parliamentary stages of the Bill, on changing the maximum sentence. The consultation document notes that, in response to the debate on the amendment, the Government signalled that it ‘considers life imprisonment for allowing an aggravated dog attack to be a severe sanction’ and that ‘in the circumstances, it would appear disproportionate to the offence’. It also notes that a person convicted of causing death by using a dog as a weapon can be convicted of manslaughter or murder, and may already be given a life sentence (VR, August 10, 2013, vol 173, p 130).

There is clearly a need to deter irresponsible dog ownership, and there might even be a case, as was suggested during the parliamentary debate, for extending the current maximum sentence. However, given that this is such an emotive subject, is a poll of this kind really the way to decide on what that maximum sentence should be? It is not a method traditionally used once Bills have been introduced into Parliament; it is more usual, in instances where public opinion is sought, to canvass views beforehand. The animal welfare minister's widely reported remark that ‘harsh penalties’ are needed to punish those whose dogs injure people while out of control is unlikely to ensure an objective outcome to the poll; it also seems inappropriate, because surely what is needed are penalties that are proportionate. One can't help feeling that the Government is playing to the gallery here, and that dogs and their owners are part of the show.

The threat of punishment can at best form only part of an effective approach to dealing with the problem of dog attacks, and a much more comprehensive, preventive approach is needed. This should include more and better education of owners and the wider public, measures to tackle irresponsible dog breeding and, as the BVA, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and a number of other organisations have pointed out, the introduction of a system of dog control notices to help prevent problems before they arise. The Government has so far shown itself to be resistant to the idea of dog control notices. However, having launched a poll on the issue of sentencing, maybe it should consider a poll on this issue as well.

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