Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Written evidence submitted by the Department for Environment Food And Rural Affairs (Defra)

The Government welcomes the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee’s decision to launch a wide ranging inquiry into dog control and welfare that will cover matters ranging from tackling irresponsible dog ownership to the need to promote breed standards that take account of the welfare of dogs.

The Committee is aware that there are three documents in the public domain which explain what the Government is currently doing: Defra’s consultation on proposals to tackle irresponsible dog ownership; the Sentencing Council Guidelines to the Courts when dealing with dog related cases; and the Home Office White Paper on tackling anti-social behaviour.

Firstly, on Defra’s consultation on irresponsible dog ownership, the proposals set out for consultation were drawn up following discussions with frontline organisations including the police, local authorities and dog re-homing charities amongst others.

The focus of the measures we are considering is public protection and ensuring dog owners take their responsibilities more seriously. In drawing up these proposals we have been careful to strike the right balance between better public protection and not placing unreasonable burdens and restrictions on responsible dog owners, who form the vast majority of the dog owning population.

Defra has received in excess of 23,000 responses to the consultation. These are currently being analysed by officials and we anticipate publishing the findings and our response in the autumn.

Secondly, the Sentencing Council has recently announced new guidance to the courts concerning dog related cases. The guidance is a response to public concerns that the courts have been imposing sentences that fail to adequately reflect the trauma suffered by victims of dog attack.

Thirdly, Defra has worked closely with the Home Office in the preparation of the White Paper: “Putting victims first: more effective responses to anti social behaviour”—which sets outs the Government’s approach to tackling anti-social behaviour, including dog-related anti-social behaviour.

The White Paper notes that there is strong evidence to show that over the past few years there has been a sharp rise in the problems associated with irresponsible dog ownership. For example, information from the Ministry of Justice shows that the total number of adults sentenced for offences relating to dangerous dogs has increased by 39%, from 855 in 2009 to 1192 in 2010.

Getting dog owners to take responsibility for their pets is key to tackling the growing problem caused to the public by dogs that are out of control. Irresponsible dog ownership can cause anti-social behaviour (as well as sometimes leading to violent attacks), and a number of dog charities responded to the Home Office’s 2011 consultation, including Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Blue Cross, the Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club and the RSPCA. They have all emphasised the importance of animal welfare and of focusing on supporting dog owners to look after their dogs responsibly as one of the ways of dealing with dog-related anti-social behaviour.

For owners who fail to take responsibility for their dogs, the proposals for tackling anti-social behaviour will give agencies the flexibility to deal with a range of problems to protect victims:

Informal interventions such as Acceptable Behaviour Contracts can be used to nip emerging issues in the bud, where the owner recognises the impact their behaviour is having on the community, and understands that continuing will trigger more formal consequences.

Where a more formal response is required on the spot, the Community Protection Notice will allow professionals to require an owner to stop behaviour they judge is affecting the community’s quality of life. That could include, for example, requiring an owner to repair inadequate fencing if their dog regularly escapes and attacks other dogs.

The new Directions Power will allow the police to move an owner on if, for example, their aggressive dogs was frightening parents and children outside a school.

In the most serious cases, an irresponsible dog owner could be given a Crime Prevention Injunction very quickly which could prevent them taking their dog to certain locations at certain times, require them to muzzle their dog in public and require them to attend dog training classes.

If an individual is convicted of having a dangerous dog, they could be given a Criminal Behaviour Order preventing them from owning a dog again in the future.

The Government will continue to work closely with the Association of Chief Police Officers and a range of groups representing the interests of dogs and their owners to ensure the legislation is of maximum benefit in dealing with dog-related anti-social behaviour.

In addition to these three initiatives, to help encourage responsible dog ownership, there are a number of local community-based projects in England and Wales operating in areas with high levels of dog-related problems. These typically involve the local authority working with the police and dog welfare charities to engage with dog owners through a range of events, including workshops and activities in estates, youth clubs and schools. Often, free micro-chipping and neutering is offered to dog owners.

Proactive action of this kind often prevents dogs either becoming a nuisance or danger to the community or owners having to be prosecuted for dog welfare offences. Defra is working with key welfare organisations to look at evaluation processes and ensure a more joined up approach between local initiatives, including the sharing of good practice.

With regards to welfare and dog breeding, Defra has agreed to carefully consider any recommendations from the Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding, which was set up in 2010 following the inquiry held by Sir Patrick Bateson.

July 2012

Prepared 14th February 2013