Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Written evidence submitted by The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (Guide Dogs)

1.1 The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (Guide Dogs) provides a range of mobility and other rehabilitation services and campaigns to increase the independence, well-being and dignity of blind and partially sighted people throughout the UK. Services are delivered through 20 Mobility Teams spread out across the country and working with other local voluntary and statutory agencies to identify individuals whose mobility would be enhanced by the provision of a guide dog or other mobility services. Guide Dogs currently provides guide dogs to over 4,500 blind and partially sighted people including some people who have additional disabilities such as hearing loss.

1.2 Additional mobility services are offered to those who apply for a guide dog and who need some initial mobility training prior to taking on a dog or to those for whom a guide dog is not really a suitable aid to independence. This includes both teaching people how to use a cane and sighted guide training for family members so they can lead their loved ones safely and confidently both indoors and out.

1.3 We also campaign passionately to break down barriers—both physical and legal—to enable blind and partially sighted people to get around on their own.

1.4 Guide Dogs welcomes the decision by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee to examine the Government’s dog control and welfare policies. In policy terms, this is a priority area for us. We have already responded to the proposed measures on Tackling Irresponsible Dog Ownership published by Defra on 23 April (both in our own right and as part of a joint submission by the Microchipping Alliance). We also responded to a consultation undertaken by the Sentencing Council for England and Wales earlier in the year on draft guidelines for the judiciary in relation to dangerous dog offences.

1.5 Guide Dogs held a recent reception on June 13 on “Dog Attacks” at the House of Commons hosted by Mary Creagh MP, Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs at which we launched the findings of our latest research on the subject. The event was well-attended by Parliamentarians, which indicates that this issue has risen up the political agenda. There is an opportunity here for Parliament to take decisive action on irresponsible dog ownership—the Select Committee system is a tried and tested method of scrutinising evidence to inform sound political decisions and so we fully support this initiative.

2.1 In respect of the issue of dog welfare, our core business depends on a culture within the organisation of ensuring that our own dogs enjoy optimum health and welfare. We invest heavily in canine research and the results of that research will by definition be of benefit to the wider dog population, not just to guide dogs and other assistance dogs. However, our primary reason for responding to this call for evidence is not on the issue of dog welfare, or on the practices of breeders and so we are not commenting on issues emerging from Professor Bateson’s report. We would, however, be happy to share our canine welfare expertise if it is requested.

3.1 As indicated, whilst Guide Dogs has an interest in animal welfare, it is not in relation to those aspects of this inquiry that we are submitting views. We do, however, have comments to make and evidence to present in relation to existing and proposed legislation and in particular in relation to the control of dogs. Irresponsible dog ownership is having a significant negative impact on the independence and wellbeing of blind and partially sighted people, as well having a financial impact on our organisation. It is estimated that the financial loss to the organisation through the premature retirement of seven guide dogs injured and traumatised through dangerous dog attacks over a two year period is £202,657.14. The emotional impact on guide dog owners and the loss of independence and mobility is harder to quantify. However, we would argue that even if a blind person was prevented from leaving their home for just one day due to the actions of an irresponsible dog owner, then this would be unacceptable. The reality is that some guide dog owners lose their independence for weeks or even months and the gravity of this is not reflected in either current legislation or Defra’s proposals.

4.1 We can understand why Defra considers that offences resulting from Dangerous Dog ownership could be included with “anti-social behaviour” and therefore be put within the remit of the Home Office. However, we believe that it makes more sense to address all aspects of irresponsible dog ownership, including all of the consequences of irresponsible down ownership as one discrete policy area and covered by one legislative framework.

s Focus

5.1 We now turn our attention to the particular areas on which the Select Committee wants to focus on in particular the degree of need for a more fundamental overhaul of dog legislation, and its enforcement, including that relating to dog attacks on people, livestock and pets.

5.2 We strongly believe that there is a case for introducing a raft of measures (including increasing the powers of the judiciary to impose stiffer sentences than those currently available) to halt and reverse the rising incidence of dangerous dog offences. Our latest findings reveal that attacks on guide dogs are now running at eight per month. This represents a shocking escalation in the number of reports. One attack per month is too many. We have a wealth of statistics and qualitative data on the nature and impact of these offences. We also presented a short video clip to Parliamentarians at our recent reception. This featured three guide dog owners talking about the impact of these offences on their dogs, on them and on other members of their families. As one interviewee observed, she described losing her dog Norman, whose injuries were so severe that it was unable to work again, as tantamount to having her eyes taken away. She relied on him to get her around safely. In that sense, the assault on Norman was as serious as Actual or Grievous Bodily Harm.

5.3 We believe that compulsory microchipping of puppies can act as a means to improve dog welfare and help to secure criminal action for dog attacks at an affordable cost to dog owners, as we have set out in our consultation response to the proposals. We strongly urge the Government to take more urgent and robust action in relation to microchipping. From the economic forecasts of the options being considered, it is clear that introducing a requirement for all dogs to be microchipped by a certain date, that this will reduce costs to local authorities and others. It will enable speedier reunions between dogs and owners and also enable a link to be established between the person responsible for a dog and any offences committed involving dogs dangerously out of control. In the case described above, although the two dogs involved in the savage attack on Norman were located, impounded and subsequently destroyed, their owners were never traced.

6.1 We would be in favour if the introduction of a licensing scheme. Owning and caring for a dog carries with it a huge amount of responsibility. The consequences of irresponsible dog ownership are well documented and on the increase. We believe that some kind of licensing scheme could help to reinforce a culture of “responsibility” around dog ownership.

7.1 We have indicated in our consultation response that the vast majority of offences in which guide dogs are attacked occur in public areas. However, there could be issues where a guide dog is vulnerable to an attack if the owner needs to access private property as part of their daily life, such as part of their work or visiting a friend. No one should have to face unnecessary risks in the course of performing their duties on behalf of society and for that reason we would very much support such an extension to the law, although the proposed extension would still mainly be used with regard to attacks on people, rather than dogs.

8.1 We welcome the proposals in the recent Defra announcement to encourage responsible dog ownership through educational work and were pleased to see Government funds being allocated to this task. However, Guide Dogs would like to see this type of work being given more official and financial support as by tackling the root cause, attacks are likely to be less frequent.

9.1 One point we wish to reinforce, though which is not listed as a specific focus of the Select Committee inquiry is what we believe to be a gap in both existing legislation and in sentencing guidelines. The non-availability of a guide dog, either temporarily or permanently as a result of a dog attack, can markedly affect the owner, causing a loss of mobility and reduced quality of life; these attacks can also have financial implications for the charitable organisation that supports the maintenance of the dogs. As a result of incidents occurring between May 2010 and April 2012, seven guide dogs had to be permanently withdrawn. The estimated financial cost to Guide Dogs in withdrawing those seven dogs is more than £200,000. But of course, the financial drain on our resources is nothing in comparison to the devastating impact that these crimes have on their blind and partially sighted owners.

9.2 Guide Dogs is doing all it can to understand the factors behind dangerous dog incidents and we are investing additional funds in investigating this problem. As a charity, we can only do so much and therefore look to politicians, the police and the judiciary to help us to safeguard the safety, health, wellbeing and independence of guide dog owners and their dogs. We would like to see an attack on a guide dog or other assistance dog considered as an aggravated offence. In short, we believe that an attack on a guide dog should be treated as seriously as an attack on the guide dog owner. Indeed, in some parts of the world and the United Kingdom, this is already the case.

10.1 We would like to see a requirement within two years of legislation being passed for all dogs to be microchipped, not just puppies. We would also like to see a wider use of additional measures such as dog control notices to minimise the risk of attacks or further attacks from occurring. We would also like to see an acknowledgement in law that an attack by a dog on a guide dog or other assistance dog has equivalence to an attack on the individual blind or disabled person that depends on that dog.

10.2 We are keen to avoid regulations that require us to delay our current policy of microchipping our puppies at between six and seven weeks. We would also like to avoid the introduction of regulations that would require us to submit amendments to the national database each time a guide dog moves along on its training journey. This is supported by the Microchipping Alliance as we have robust record keeping systems in place which clearly identifies who has responsibility for one of our dogs at every stage in its life.

June 2012

Prepared 14th February 2013