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Second Committee Stage Reading of the Dog Control Bill in the House of Lords on 4th March 2011 – a personal review by Sue Gilmore BSc(Hons)(Open) DipAppSS(Open)


Sue GilmoreThis article is reproduced with the kind permission of the Pet Education Training and Behaviour Council. Sue Gilmore is the Political Adviser to PETbc.


The debate was opened by Lord Grantchester (Labour), who paid tribute to Lord Redesdale (LibDem) for his “constant championing of a better control regime for dogs”. He suggested that, whilst many of the leading organisations were instrumental in drawing up the framework for the new Bill, the police (Association of Chief Police Officers) and RSPCA are not united behind this Bill, the latter stating that it is “fundamentally flawed” and is “unlikely to improve the situation….it may actually make matters worse”.


Lord de Mauley (Whip, Conservative) noted that at Second Reading, Lord Henley (Con) stated that the Government is unable to support it. I would mention here that without Government support any Private Member’s Bill is unlikely to make it onto the statute books. The Government, however, is consulting with the Home Office and Department for Communities and Local Government. Anti-social behaviour issues often involve dogs.


Lord Redesdale stated that the Dangerous Dogs Act (1991) has created a situation in which people own dogs for the wrong reasons. He went on to confirm that although the RSPCA had been involved in drafting the Bill originally, ACPO had intervened and the RSPCA subsequently changed its position to oppose the Bill, whereas the remaining organizations continued their support.


The use of dogs by young men for the status they give and the fear they cause, together with the “massive cost” of hospital treatment to victims of dog bites, not to mention other dogs are attacked by dogs that are off-lead and out of control. Lord Grantchester later mentioned the possibility that minor incidents could be criminalised, especially on private land and he cited postmen and guard dogs as examples.


Lord Redesdale is particularly concerned about the position of ACPO – he is “shocked to hear” ACPO questioning whether it is the role of the police to deal with dogs or that of local authorities.


Lord Richard (Lab) suggested that due attention should be given to magistrates; he is concerned that the courts may not interpret the Bill in the same way as Lord Redesdale intends.


In response, Lord Redesdale stated the purpose of the Bill is not, as under the DDA 1991, that any offence leads to the dog being taken away and destroyed. The issue of a control notice may enforce the dog being on a lead in public places; the owner must muzzle the dog or the owner should undergo training, actions that he considers would prevent further problems. He suggested that many dogs that attack other dogs go on to attack people and dogs that attack children have a reputation for being out of control. I would suggest that Lord Redesdale is talking here about specific breeds being labelled as aggressive. He advocates that early intervention, by issuing a control notice, could alleviate the potential problem.


It would seem that a dog on a lead is under control, whereas a dog off-lead is considered to be a potential danger. Whilst it was noted that a dog given freedom to behave like a dog, it would remain an offence to allow a dog to attack another dog or domestic animal; the instances of guide dogs being attacked and unable to continue to work as a result was given here. The debate continued with clarification of situations in which it is reasonable for a dog to show aggression, for example, the Bill protects a dog’s owner from any prosecution if the dog bites a burglar or a mugger. An owner should feel secure on his own property, however, the issue of private security companies licensed to use dogs was raised with particular regard to their training and use. It would appear that consensus was reached whereby dogs used for similar purposes as part of displays, where they exhibit their ability to apprehend someone dressed as an intruder wearing protective clothing, or dogs competing in trials would be unaffected by the Bill.


It occurs to me that a person on his own property should have the right to use their dog to protect him from violent people and using the minimum of dog force as one can currently legally use against an assailant. At the same time, the police should not have the right to treat private property, for example, an immediate garden where dogs are kept, as a public place, which it is not. A person must be able to protect their person from violent attack, both in private and public places using their dog, if it is capable of assisting, in the same way that people may use any weapon to defend themselves legally providing its use is minimum and reasonable.  Perhaps an example here would be of a lady walking her dog in a forest and being attacked; the dog defending the owner here would surely be perfectly reasonable. So it would seem that this Bill is addressing this problem, but, as mentioned above, the interpretation by the courts could be critical.


Lord Redesdale raised his concern about heavy lobbying by the Communication Workers Union in respect of postmen to have signs on property to alert that there is a dog in the garden, which drew comment from the RSPCA that it may result in a plethora of signs being erected. In my opinion a postman entering private property by invitation to post letters – or any other visitor for that matter – should have civil not criminal ability to claim compensation. The Post Office can, and does, refuse to deliver mail to any house whereby a dog is deemed to be aggressive and requests the owner to pick up their mail from the local postal sorting office; this generally gets the desired result from unhelpful dog owners. It should be remembered, however, that postmen are not forced to deliver mail in dangerous situations.


It was stressed that the purpose of the Bill is to say that dog owners should be responsible if there is a dog in the garden, however, the police have suggested that they need the power to issue control notices if such is not the case and the dog is encouraged to act aggressively. Again, reference was made to gang members and “status dogs”. It would seem that there is some conflict of opinion as to who should be able to issue such control orders: the police or local authorities, as mentioned above. The Bill should not put further burden of responsibility on the police, particularly in these straitened times, but as Lord Grantchester mentioned, ACPO wants control of the situation and is particularly concerned about public safety and the large volume of dogs in the wrong hands.


Under present legislation a dog attack actually has to occur before action is taken and Lord Redesdale feels that the police should be in a position to act at a much earlier stage, avoiding potentially serious or fatal situations.


The £10 million spent by the Metropolitan Police over three years taking dangerous dogs off the streets, kennelling them and thus de socialising them at the same time, before returning them to their owners because the police were unable to ascertain if they were in fact pit bulls, could be better spent under the provisions of the new Bill on the basis of “deed not breed”.


This then raised the question of appealing a destruction order placed on the owner’s “beloved pet” to save the condemned dog’s life. Amendment 13 addresses this problem by introducing an appeals procedure to allow natural justice in circumstances of the most drastic of sentences against a dog.


This is an immensely complex and technical Bill, as noted by Lord Richard, who went on to suggest that the Government should, bearing in mind the extensive work already completed to enact new legislation, take on the issue and produce legislation itself.


Lord de Mauley seemed to concur and was anxious that Government departs work together to deal with this matter. He further said that “it would not be right for the Government to give this Bill their support at this stage”.


In closing, Lord Redesdale admitted that no piece of legislation would be perfect, but the issue of dangerous dogs, given the increasing incidents of dog attacks year on year needs to be addressed. Owners need to take responsibility for their dogs and their actions. It would seem that, first, there is a burgeoning need to address the problem of ownership of dogs and, second, responsibility must rest with the owner. This is the purpose of the Bill.


I am of the opinion that this legislation will be difficult to enact as a Private Members Bill and needs to be taken on by the Government. There is quite clearly an urgency involved, given the problems caused by irresponsible owners and their dogs. It is pleasing to note, however, that training both of dogs and owners is an intrinsic factor in this proposed legislation and is one that must be emphasized; after all said and done, what a dog does is natural; what we teach a dog is unnatural.


Note: The above account is a personal view, not one associated with any named organisation.


Sue Gilmore

Dog Control Bill Dog Control Bill