Government delays on microchipping and DDA reform

Created: 23/04/2012

THE GOVERNMENT’S decision to launch another consultation on compulsory microchipping and whether to keep the unpopular and ineffective breed-specific laws has infuriated animal welfare groups, charities and vets.

Dog law expert Trevor Cooper said the proposed new measures would not ‘save a single child, postal worker or dog’ from being attacked, the British Veterinary Association (BVA) said the Government had missed a ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunity to ditch a controversial law which was not working, and charities claimed that public safety and animal welfare were being put at risk.

DEFRA Minister of State Jim Paice revealed on Monday that he is seeking opinion on whether the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 (DDA) should be extended to cover all private property – ‘without penalising the owners of animals who defend them against trespassers who have entered with unlawful intentions’ – which closes a loophole in the current criminal law which covers only public land.

Public views are also being sought on introducing compulsory microchipping in a bid to tackle the problem of irresponsible owners and ease the number of strays being destroyed.

Among the alternatives put forward are:

  • All dogs will need to be microchipped on transfer of ownership, or whether they will need to be chipped from a certain date;
  • To implement a phased-in process, such as starting with compulsory chipping on transfer of ownership and after five years moving to mandatory chipping of all dogs;
  • Make breeders responsible for chipping newly-born dogs before sale – which is the Government’s ‘preferred approach’.

Campaigners were hoping the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 (DDA) would be scrapped altogether, but instead the Government is to decide whether to give the police more discretion to take ‘common-sense decisions’ on whether or not to seize and kennel a dog they suspect to be of a banned breed, ‘at great cost to the taxpayer and distress to the owner’. A decision would then be made whether the dog is potentially dangerous and whether its owners are responsible and it can then stay at home on ‘bail’ and put on the exempted dogs’ list under the DDA.

In addition, interim conditions could be placed on the owner – for example, requiring the dog to be muzzled and on a lead when in public. New guidance would be issued to help the courts deal more effectively with seized dogs.

In addition, in order to improve consistency of sentencing, the Sentencing Council has been consulting on the sentences available to courts for owners of dangerous dogs, especially those who allow their animals to attack, and the Home Office has been examining measures to tackle anti-social behaviour. The guidelines are due to be released mid-May and to come into force in August.

There is no support to add to the list of banned breeds, and the police requested that the four already banned – the pit bull, Fila Brasiliero, Dogo Argentino and Japanese Tosa – are not removed because they were ‘renowned for their aggressive behavior and known to be disproportionately dangerous when in the hands of an irresponsible individual or when dangerously out of control’.

It is proposed that the sum of £50,000 is given to local and community projects involving the RSPCA, Battersea Dogs’ and Cats’ Home and Dogs Trust, the police, local authorities and community groups to promote more responsible dog ownership in estates, youth clubs and schools. And a sum of £20,000 is to be provided for the training of expert police dog legislation officers in each force.

Mr Paice said: "We are known as a nation of animal lovers who take proper care of our pets. But there is a minority of irresponsible dog owners who don’t. These people allow their dogs to menace or even attack innocent members of the public. This has to stop.

"We’ve all heard the stories of snarling dogs not being properly kept under control or heard from health workers, postal workers or social workers who are at risk of serious injury from out-of-control dogs while just doing their job, attending to people in their homes.

"We are announcing a comprehensive package of measures that tackle the problem head-on, which will better protect legitimate visitors to private property and will enable the police to take action before someone is hurt or killed.”

One of the proposals would allow the police, when dealing with any dogs which are subject to proceedings under the DDA, to take a common-sense decision as to whether the dog really needs to be kept away from their owners until the outcome of proceedings, Mr Paice said. Any Government plans must strike the right balance between protecting the public from dangerous dogs and ensuring that safe and properly looked after pets do not need to be removed from their home unnecessarily, he added.

The Government may decide to raise the fee paid to add a dog’s name to the exempted list, to pay for administration and reduce the burden on the taxpayer. The fee is £24 currently and it is understood it may increase to more than £70.

Further funding would be given to the Association of Chief Police Officers to ensure ‘there is a hub of dog law expertise’ in every force.

Statistics released this week claim that 210,000 people a year are attacked by dogs in England alone, including 4,000 postal workers trying to deliver mail. There have been five fatal dog attacks in homes since 2007 – four of them on children – and hospital admissions for serious dog bites have more than doubled over the past decade, it is alleged.

The number of dogs seized by the Metropolitan Police rose by half from 719 in 2008/09 to 1,100 in 2009/10. The force alone spend £2.75m each year on kennelling dangerous dogs, both banned types and any deemed to have been dangerously out of control.

Details of the consultation can be found here: www.defra.gov.uk/consult/2012/04/23/dangerous-dogs-1204/.

In response, solicitor Trevor Cooper said that dog attacks were on the rise and this week’s announcement had been supposed to be the Government’s proposals to promote responsible dog ownership.

"However, it’s a wasted opportunity, as it fails to adequately address the issue of prevention,” he said. "Far more emphasis should be placed on the person who has charge of the dog to prevent an incident before it happens. Dogs don’t read laws.

"Compulsory microchipping would be a great leap forward for the welfare of dogs as it would make it easier to return a stray dog back to its home. Let’s make it compulsory now for all dogs. But even if we do, this won’t prevent a single incident – a microchip implanter isn’t a magic wand.

"Extending section three of the DDA to include private land is appropriate for serious incidents provided the victim was present lawfully and they did nothing to provoke the attack. However, this won’t prevent a single incident. And the Sentencing Council’s new guidelines for DDA offences are awaited shortly, but even if they recommend increasing penalties for dangerous dog offences this won’t prevent a single incident.

"These proposals are about welfare, enforcement and punishment but they won’t prevent a single child being attacked, a single postal worker being attacked nor a single dog being attacked.”

The KC commended DEFRA for its plans to consult on the introduction of compulsory chipping which it believes will help crack down on the owners of dangerous dogs, but it also labelled it a missed opportunity to better protect the public by preventing dog attacks before they occur.

"The introduction of compulsory microchipping would be a bold move which would have far-reaching benefits for dog welfare in this country,” said spokesman Caroline Kisko. "It would help the authorities to reunite dogs and owners more swiftly, ensure that puppies sold in pet shops can be traced back to their breeder and clearly link owners to dogs and their dog’s actions.

"However, it is not a catch-all solution for protecting the public from dangerous dogs and their irresponsible owners, which can only be done by introducing measures to penalise irresponsible dog owners before an attack occurs.The time has come to stop wasting limited resources seizing innocent dogs deemed to be dangerous purely because of the way that they look and instead focus on positive solutions to tackle irresponsible dog ownership which has huge welfare implications for innocent dogs and puts the public at risk.

"We view DEFRA’s package of measures as a missed opportunity to do more to hold the irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs to account for their actions. We have been lobbying for the introduction of dog control notices as genuine preventive action which would allow authorities to take action against irresponsible dog owners at the first signs of their dogs displaying aggression. These pre-emptive measures would mean that ‘problem dogs’ and indeed, problem owners, can be addressed before a serious incident occurs.

"We firmly believe this to be a more effective solution than the current legislation which ties up police resources in seizing specific breeds deemed to be dangerous regardless of the behaviour of the individual dog, rather than focusing resources on dogs of any breed that have actually displayed aggressive behaviour.”

The KC welcomed the Government’s proposal to extend the law to private property and remove the mandatory requirement to seize and kennel all dogs suspected to be ‘of type’ under section one of the DDA.

"But while we welcome local authority and community projects to promote responsible dog ownership, and the Government’s commitment to invest in such measures, we do not feel that £50,000 will make a real impact in improving the current situation,” Mrs Kisko said.

"The KC Charitable Trust has made several grants for such schemes, with individual projects alone costing in the region of £10,000. Therefore, £50,000 shared throughout the UK would be unlikely to give local authorities sufficient resources towards improving measures to prevent dog bite incidents and protect the public from aggressive dogs and their owners.”

Veterinary associations also described the package of measures as a missed opportunity to prevent future dog attacks. Although the BVA and British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) broadly welcomed the proposals but said they did not include any of the preventive measures that these veterinary bodies and many other organisations and individuals have called for since the introduction of the failed DDA in 1991, said Harvey Locke, past president of the BVA.

"In the 2010 consultation, the Government received the message loud and clear that the DDA had failed to protect both the public’s and dogs’ welfare,” he said. "Unfortunately, this announcement has missed this once-in-a-generation opportunity to overhaul the legislation.

"Dog welfare charities, veterinary organisations, trade unions, and enforcement bodies have been united in the call for a complete overhaul of the legislation and a new, consolidated Bill to focus on prevention. There will be a huge amount of frustration and disappointment with today’s announcement.”

On compulsory microchipping, Mr Locke added: "The BVA strongly supports its introduction and will be making the case for all dogs to be chipped from a certain date, rather than a phased-in approach which would be very difficult to enforce.

"However, microchipping is primarily a welfare measure. It is not the answer to the serious problem of dangerous dogs and shouldn’t be promoted as such.”

BSAVA president Mark Johnston said: "Although we welcome the individual proposals they only tinker with the inadequate existing laws. The move to cover incidents on private property is a positive step but it will do little or nothing to actually prevent attacks happening in the first place.

"We are pleased that the Government has recognised the problems associated with breed-specific legislation and has proposed steps to ensure the welfare of dogs who have become the subject of court proceedings. This type of ‘bail’ for dogs would be a welcome move to improve welfare, but we hope we can make the case for it to go further.”

Dogs Trust has expressed disappointment and frustration that the Government has failed to address effectively two elements that the charity believes are vital to successful policy in this area – compulsory microchipping and preventive measures to reduce the number of dog attacks. Its chief executive, Clarissa Baldwin, said: "The Government has spent a great deal of time examining this legislation since it came to power, and while we accept DEFRA has done their best to look at this issue, unfortunately, their best is nowhere near good enough; not good enough to better protect the public or good enough to improve animal welfare.

"The Government must tackle this problem head-on with completely new legislation rather than just tinkering around the edges. We’re extremely disillusioned that there is nothing in the consultation on measures that will actually help to prevent dog attacks, which is surely what the aim of these proposals should be.We seem to be waltzing along on this issue rather than the quick step we need to meaningful reform.

"We consider that the introduction of compulsory microchipping of all dogs, not just those born after a certain date, is the only way that we will see immediate welfare benefits and a reduction in the number of stray dogs in the UK.Microchipping will not prevent dog attacks but it will allow the owner of a dangerous dog or a dog who was dangerously out of control to be identified by enforcement agencies. The act of microchipping is also a key intervention, providing an opportunity to advise owners about responsible dog ownership and the law.”

Mrs Baldwin said it had taken more than 20 years of campaigning to get the Government to attempt to redress the mistakes made by rushing the DDA through Parliament.

"We believe that compulsory microchipping of all dogs should form a central part of any future policy on tackling irresponsible dog ownership,” she said. "Microchipping will not prevent attacks but the charity believes that it is the most effective way to link a dog to its owner and to make irresponsible owners accountable for the actions of their dog.

"Microchipping all puppies is a step in the right direction but will mean that the effectiveness of any policy will be delayed by upwards of ten years. Our research shows that 83 per cent of the UK population believe all dogs should be microchipped so it is hard to understand why government is so reluctant to take this step.

"The charity is also concerned that this consultation makes little provision for the prevention of dog attacks. We would like to see the Government identify ways to deal with irresponsible owners before an attack takes place, which could take the form of dog control notices to keep dogs on a lead or muzzled in public places where necessary.”

The charity welcomed the possibility that the law will be extended to cover private property.

"This will send a strong signal to owners who fail to keep their dogs under control that they may have to face the full force of the law. We believe that the most severe attacks should be considered a criminal matter, while minor incidents should continue to be dealt with as a civil matter by the courts under the Dogs Act 1871, but with a power of compensation for the victims of dog attacks.

"And finally, in the absence of a repeal of breed-specific legislation, we would like new provisions to be introduced that would better improve welfare for dogs who could be deemed to be of ‘type’ by allowing responsible owners to make applications to court for their dog to be registered and for magistrates to be given a new power to allow a dog to be returned home on ‘bail’ pending a case being concluded.”

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home also expressed ‘bitter disappointment’ that the Coalition Government had failed to make effective and urgently needed changes to existing dog legislation. After waiting nearly two years for action to tackle irresponsible dog ownership, the charity said it was concerned that another ‘time-consuming consultation’ would leave public safety and animal welfare at risk.

Chief executive Claire Horton said: "Today’s Government announcement on dog control and reform of the failed 1991 DDA should have tackled the serious issues of irresponsible dog ownership, public safety and anti-social behaviour around dogs. Instead, the new Government consultation means any real improvements in dog control could be delayed until 2013 at the earliest.

"We fully support proposals to extend existing legislation to all places, whether public or private, meaning a serious dog attack in a home could result in prosecution for the owner. However, we are concerned that today’s Government recommendation that only puppies will have to be microchipped will do little to ease the stray crisis or tackle Britain’s irresponsible dog owners.

"This is a wasted opportunity by the Government to respond to an issue that affects every one of us. It’s clear that the current dog legislation does not work and today’s consultation proposals give us little hope of any meaningful change for the thousands of stray dogs wandering our streets. We question how much a priority tackling irresponsible ownership and improving public safety is for the Government. We fear this is just tinkering around the edges.”

Battersea believes the recommendation to microchip only puppies at the point of sale would not go far enough to tackle irresponsible dog ownership and backstreet breeding. In 2011, the Home took in nearly 6,000 dogs, an average of 14 dogs every day, and only 28 per cent of them were microchipped.

"This makes it virtually impossible to trace an owner or for an owner to be held accountable for their dog’s actions,” Ms Horton said. "Sparkle the Staffordshire Bull Terrier who was found severely emaciated in a suitcase in a London park was a shocking sight. She has since survived her appalling neglect but because her owner can’t be traced they could already be starving another dog who may not be saved in time.

"If only puppies were to be microchipped it could take many years for this to affect all dogs, and with scant detail from the Government on how this scheme will be enforced, will it make any difference? How in real life will this tackle the thousands of irresponsible owners who will continue to unscrupulously breed and sell puppies or abandon dogs with little thought for animal welfare?”

Battersea has long been calling for root and branch reform of dog legislation, Ms Horton said.

"Dogs should not be banned and put to sleep simply because of their breed but because of what they have done. Any dog is capable of being trained to be a danger to humans. We are also calling for all local authorities to be able to fund an effective dog warden service.

"We are alsodisappointed that the Coalition Government has ignored the 2010 consultation set up by the previous Labour Government. This revealed that an overwhelming 78 per cent of respondents wanted new consolidated dog legislation to protect people and dogs, and promote responsible ownership in communities. In the time that has lapsed in waiting for today’s announcement there have been countless serious dog bite incidents in the UK including child fatalities.

"Battersea has taken in 6,652 stray dogs in this time, and 374 dogs have been identified by the police as ‘banned breeds’ and therefore had to be put to sleep by law, regardless of temperament. The charity continues to face appalling cases of animal cruelty and neglect, including dogs who have been trained to fight or be used as bait.

"Charities such as ours are doing all we can to help stem the tide of irresponsible dog ownership and antisocial behaviour with dogs. But there is only so much we can do. How many more people will be attacked by dangerous dogs, and how many more dogs will be recklessly abandoned on our streets before the Government really listens and tackles Britain’s dog control problems once and for all?”

The RSPCA accused DEFRA of ignoring the advice of the country’s dog law enforcement agencies and instead launching ‘yet another unnecessary consultation’.

"We believe the Coalition has broken its promise, set out in its ‘programme for Government’, to ‘promote responsible pet ownership’ and that it ‘will ensure that enforcement agencies target irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs,” said the charity’s chief executive Gavin Grant.

"An extension of the law to cover private property, as well as public land, would be a step in the right direction. However, along with compulsory microchipping of puppies, it is a purely reactionary measure that fails to prevent dog bites and attacks from happening in the first place.”

The RSPCA also fears that suggestions of an increase in the fee to have dogs put on the exempted register from £24 to more than £70 could lead to more people choosing to have their dog put to sleep rather than pay costs of up to an estimated £850 for it to be exempted.

"Britain’s dogs deserve better,” Mr Grant said. "Too many are abandoned and abused, demonised and dumped. All owners need to be accountable to their dogs, the irresponsible deterred and the abusive prosecuted. That is the approach we need to take. These proposals need to go a lot further to achieve that.

"It has been 21 years since the disastrous DDA was introduced. After years of watching the problem of irresponsible dog ownership spiral this was the perfect chance for the current Government to make huge strides forward for dog welfare. Instead they have taken only the smallest steps and may merely tinker with a piece legislation that many people widely acknowledge is one of the biggest failures of modern politics.

"These measures not only lack bite, they raise major questions about how exactly they expect to effectively tackle the danger of irresponsible ownership to both people and animals.

"Animal rescue centres are filled to breaking point with unwanted, neglected and cruelly-treated dogs. Irresponsible owners are continuing to make money from breeding dogs with little care for their health or welfare. Meanwhile, people continue to be put at risk of being attacked or injured by out-of-control dogs and their irresponsible owners.

"The proposals set out by the Government in Westminster do not appear to fundamentally address these growing problems of irresponsible dog ownership. Instead, DEFRA has only papered over the cracks of much more serious matters than this response gives credit to. The RSPCA believe enough is enough.”

The launch of a new consultation puts England once again on the back foot in tackling irresponsible ownership compared to other home nations, Mr Grant said.

"Northern Ireland remains the last part of the UK to retain a dog licensing scheme, while the Welsh Government is currently working on proposals for the control of dogs and Scotland has just updated its dog control legislation providing for earlier intervention,” he said. "This leaves England trailing in last place again.

"DEFRA’s announcement today also ignores the 78 per cent of respondents to the previous Government’s consultation on dangerous dogs who said they believe current legislation should be consolidated and updated into one law. It does not appear to understand what the people want and what the dogs need. It has not listened to those who deal with this problem on the frontline – the police, the local authorities and the RSPCA and other animal charities and vets.

"There has been more than two years since the last consultation to ensure the Government got this right. The RSPCA, along with the other law enforcement agencies, have stated on numerous occasions the measures we believe are vital to solve what is a huge social, public safety and animal welfare issue.

"Yet here we are again, and the Government has once more ignored the advice of those who deal with irresponsible dog owners every day.”