Meeting date: Tuesday, May 8, 2018
Meeting of the Parliament 08 May 2018
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Scottish National Investment Bank, Budget Process (Written Agreement), Standing Orders (Budget Process), Point of Order, Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill, Decision Time, Dog Attacks
- Time for Reflection
- Topical Question Time
- Scottish National Investment Bank
- Budget Process (Written Agreement)
- Standing Orders (Budget Process)
- Point of Order
- Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill
- Decision Time
- Dog Attacks
The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-10404, in the name of Alex Neil, on dog attack figures. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament expresses its concern at figures obtained by a recent Clyde News investigation, which suggest that, between January and June 2017, 205 children were taken to A&E due to dog bites; understands that the number of people receiving treatment for such bites in Scotland has risen from 1,939 in 2015 to 2,027 in 2016 and that, in the first six months of 2017, 1,057 children and adults in the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde area went to hospital; considers these figures to be very worrying, and notes calls for a post-legislative review of the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010, including the degree to which the Act is being effectively enforced by local authorities.17:10
In speaking to my motion on dog attack figures, I would like to mention four organisations that have brought the subject back to our attention and have run a magnificent campaign on the need for us to review the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010. The first of those organisations is Clyde 1, which has run the lead the way campaign to protect children from dog attacks that has been led by Natalie Crawford. Clyde 1 has already given a lot of airtime to the subject, and has elicited a lot of additional information of which we were not aware.
The second organisation to which many thanks are due, as was the case during the passage of the original legislation, is the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, particularly for the role that has been played by Mike Flynn. The third is the Communication Workers Union, which has been running a substantial campaign on the subject across the United Kingdom to protect its members, which has been led by Dave Joyce.
Finally, and most important, we must thank the victims of dog attacks and the families of people who have been subjected to dog bites and attacks down the years.
It is necessary to reopen the debate for three fundamental reasons. First, the problem of dog bites and dog attacks is not only still with us, but is actually getting worse. Only seven of the 14 national health service territorial boards have been able to provide us with figures, but even those seven health boards, which cover half of Scotland, report figures that show the rate of attacks to be well over 4,000 a year. In the Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Board area, for example, the figure is up from 1,900 attacks in 2015 to 2,027 in 2016. The number is high and rising.
Secondly, the number of dog control notices that have been issued under the 2010 act accounts for 290 of the incidents, so fewer than 10 per cent of all the incidents have resulted in dog control notices. That shows that the act is not being implemented properly. If we look at enforcement and at the number of animal control wardens, we find that the biggest local authority in Scotland, Glasgow City Council, has one animal control warden for a population of nearly 600,000 people. Meanwhile, Renfrewshire Council, which has a population of 175,000 people, has two control wardens.
In Dundee, which is another city that is afflicted by the problem, nine in 10 dangerous dog reports go unpunished. Not only is the problem bad and getting worse, but implementation of the 2010 act varies greatly from local authority to local authority. That is not good enough, because it should not matter whether a person is attacked by a dog in Dundee, in Glasgow, in Renfrewshire or anywhere else. If someone is attacked by a dog, appropriate action should be taken and, under the legislation, appropriate action by the local authority is particularly important.
The third issue is that many of the current measures are, to be frank, not powerful enough. The reason why we needed the 2010 act was that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which that was passed at Westminster, concentrated on the breed of dog, and not on the deed. One of the objectives of the 2010 act was to ensure that, irrespective of the breed, if the deed was antisocial and threatened people—not only children, but people delivering mail and working in parks or elsewhere—appropriate action would be taken. The deed matters more than the breed, because the breeds that are not listed in the 1991 act are capable of doing as much damage to human tissue as those that are listed.
The three issues are that the problem is getting worse, the existing measures on the statute book are not being properly implemented and the powers that are available, particularly to the police, are not sufficient. One of the deficiencies of the current legislation is that a dog is entitled to one bite before it is punished, but very often the first bite should be punished because it can lead to so much damage to children, for example.
It is not just about attacks on humans; there is the wider problem of attacks on farm animals and attacks by dogs on dogs. However, my primary concern in the debate is attacks on human beings. A leading plastic surgeon of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, Dr Judy Evans, said:
“The emotional trauma can be so difficult to deal with because it’s on-going. They have to deal with the trauma of the attack and of the constant operations to repair the damage. I have seen young children who have had massive bite marks and scarring to their face ... I have seen tearing of the flesh. It can be so tricky to repair this sort of damage. There’s also a massive risk of infection because of the nature of the injury.”
The Royal Mail and the Communications Workers Union officially back the Radio Clyde lead the way campaign. The Royal Mail recorded 231 attacks on its employees in 2017, and it desperately feels the need for additional measures.
As I said earlier, the importance of the legislation cannot be overestimated. We need a fundamental review of the operation of current legislation—particularly, but not only, the 2010 act. We also need to identify where additional measures are required to ensure enforcement of existing and future provisions, as well as to give additional powers to the authorities, where necessary.
This is a really important debate. There is a need for us to speak out on behalf of people who are threatened by or who have been the victims of dog attacks, and to represent their views. Sometimes, the threat can be as damaging to the psyche, particularly the psyche of a child, as an attack.
I hope that members will agree on the need for action. When the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs sums up, I hope that she will give a favourable response on the need for us to look at the issue again, and that she will ensure that more robust action is taken by Parliament to protect our people from out of control dogs.
We move to the open debate. Many members wish to speak in the debate, so we will have strict timings with absolutely no longer than four minutes per speech.17:19
I congratulate Alex Neil on securing the debate. I was the member in charge of the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010, but the heavy lifting on that piece of legislation was done by Alex Neil, who passed the bill to me on his elevation to the front bench. He may yet return there. Who knows?
The 2010 act was urgently required for three reasons. First, the highly flawed Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which was referred to by Alex Neil, prohibited persons from having in their possession or custody dogs that belonged to types bred for fighting—in other words, the breed—and it applied only to public places. Section 10 of the Neil-Grahame—I think that I will call it the Grahame-Neil—Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010 amended the 1991 act by extending the offence that was contained in section 3 so that it became a criminal offence to allow any dog to be dangerously out of control in any place, private or public. Indeed, many attacks take place within the home or garden, so they take place in private.
Secondly, as Alex Neil said, the 2010 act applied to the deed, not the breed—that is, to the owner or the person in charge of the dog.
Thirdly, the 2010 act applied before a dog became dangerous if it put someone or an animal in a state of alarm or apprehensiveness, with a dog control notice being issued if necessary. Those notices have been on the increase—I recognised the number quoted—but previous warnings to owners, which precede any dog control notice, may also have been recorded.
But—and it is a big “but”—for the 2010 act to be effective, the public have to know that that is the law; there have to be enough local authority dog wardens or environmental wardens to implement the law; and those personnel must be trained in dog behaviour. With hand on heart, I have to say that the legislation has failed on all three counts. The public at large have no idea of the legislation. I met farming journalists recently who lobbied me on the increase in sheep worrying and they had never heard of the 2010 act. In addition, as Alex Neil said, few dog wardens are employed by local authorities, and I suspect that very few of them have been trained in accordance with Government guidance about dog control. It is all very disappointing, to say the least, and I submit that those factors have contributed to the worrying figures.
Therefore, I welcome post-legislative scrutiny and review, in particular, of the activities of local authorities. I am also asking the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body if it could provide funding to publicise a member’s bill once it has been passed by the Parliament, as the Government cannot do so. A member may introduce legislation with the whole-hearted support of members, but they will have no funding to publicise it unless they plunder their office allowance. That is part of the problem: everyone knows about minimum unit pricing and the ban on smoking, but they do not know about the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010.
I am also introducing a bill, which is now out for consultation, on responsible dog ownership, which I hope will lead to a decrease in the number of out-of-control dogs. Many dogs are like that because they are with the wrong people—they are wrongly handled and, quite often, they simply lack exercise. The key thing that we must all remember is that it is the deed, not the breed, that is the problem. I welcome review and, in particular, enforcement by local authorities as well as publicity for the legislation to see whether it will take us further.
I thank Alex Neil again for securing the debate.17:23
As my party’s spokesman on animal welfare, I congratulate Alex Neil on securing this very important and topical debate.
One of the oldest phrases is that “dogs are a man’s best friend”. That cliché is said to date back to Prussian times. However, on the basis of Alex Neil’s figures and those in the briefing from the Communication Workers Union, which represents the largest number of dog attack victims in Scotland and the United Kingdom, dogs have, sadly, increasingly become something other than our best friend.
Although the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010 was an important piece of legislation, the increasing number of dog attacks on workers, individuals and, indeed, sheep has made it clear that the act has not been effective in bringing about more responsible dog ownership. A case from my area of Dumfries last year was shocking and resulted in a jail sentence. Two Dumfries women, who were aged 73 and 62, were bitten by a Staffordshire-cross terrier while visiting their chemist. Two days later, the same dog bit a police officer. All three people required medical attention. The owner was found guilty after admitting that the dog was out of control, but that is not always the outcome when the law on dangerous dogs in Scotland is applied.
Legislation requires proof that the person in charge of the dog believed that it could attack a person and that corroborating evidence exists of a previous bite or poor temperament—the so-called “one free bite” rule. The question must be asked: is the law fit for purpose? The legislation must provide much more consistent outcomes for victims.
I welcome a post-legislative review of the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010, including the degree to which the act is being effectively enforced by local authorities. A review should also give us the opportunity to look at other factors and try to prevent such attacks.
In my constituency, we continue to face serious problems relating to puppy farming, particularly at the port of Cairnryan. Research from Newcastle University has shown that dogs that are bred on intensive puppy farms grow up to be more aggressive, fearful and anxious than pets from reputable breeders. The results of that study, coupled with the worrying increase in the number of puppy farms producing large numbers of dogs for sale, require that we must ensure that all dogs are properly cared for and that owners are aware of their responsibilities to their pets and to other members of their communities.
Finally, I will briefly mention the take a lead campaign, which is being led by NFU Scotland and The Scottish Farmer, to pressure the Scottish Government to review legislation on responsible dog ownership and support the mandatory use of leads around livestock.
Will the member take an intervention?
I am sorry, but I do not really have the time.
Despite a demonstration of cross-party support for the campaign, the Scottish Government has said that it has no plans to review the law. It is somewhat disappointing but not surprising that Emma Harper, the parliamentary liaison officer to Fergus Ewing, who originally backed the campaign, has now backed off and supports the far from satisfactory postcode lottery option of additional local authority byelaw powers when councils are already hard pressed and failing to issue dog control notices under the existing legislation. We need a national solution for a national problem.
I hope that Alex Neil’s debate tonight will put the issue into the spotlight and ensure that there is protection for our workers, individuals and other animals from dog attacks, which have become too commonplace in our society.17:27
I congratulate my colleague Alex Neil on securing this debate and Clyde 1 news on its lead the way campaign and investigation into the worrying extent of dog attacks.
Much of the drive to secure the debate has come from the Communication Workers Union, which, among its 200,000 members, counts 8,500 Royal Mail and Parcelforce employees in Scotland. Most posties could tell us about a recent near miss with a dog or about mail that has gone undelivered because of concerns about a dangerous animal. Last year alone, there were 230 reported dog attacks on postal workers in Scotland.
I received 22 stitches in a rather tender part of my anatomy back in 1992 while delivering leaflets for the cause. Two other activists I know have been hospitalised after being bitten. We have all seen in the media some truly awful pictures of young children who have been attacked and mauled, and, in some cases, the dog attack has proved to be fatal.
Nobody deserves to work in fear of being attacked by an animal, and those who are unfortunately attacked should feel confident that the police and justice system will listen to them and act to ensure that it does not happen again.
Given concerns raised by the CWU about impunity for owners of dangerous dogs, coupled with the rising number of dog attacks revealed by Clyde 1 news, we must ask ourselves whether the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 goes far enough. We have already heard tonight that it does not.
When a dog attack is reported, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service considers the facts and circumstances to assess whether there is sufficient evidence to prosecute and if so, whether action would be in the public interest. Dog attacks are covered under section 10(3) of the 1991 act, which defines a dog as being dangerously out of control
“on any occasion on which there are grounds for reasonable apprehension that it will injure any person or assistance dog, whether or not it actually does so”.
For prosecution to occur, the Crown must prove that there were such grounds at the relevant time. An actual injury is not essential, although it is an aggravating factor. In reality, that means that if there is no evidence that the person in charge of the dog at the time of the attack believed that it would attack, the Crown cannot prosecute.
The Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010 gave new powers to local authorities to act against out-of-control dogs and enforce measures to improve behaviour. However, in most cases, councils aim to work with dog owners and informally resolve any issues, giving appropriate advice and guidance and issuing a warning letter, rather than issuing a dog control notice to escalate the matter. Although I agree that there is a time and a place for constructive discussions with dog owners on how to handle their dogs better, with at least 2,500 postal workers having been attacked in Scotland since the 2010 act was passed, Scotland requires a more decisive mechanism to secure justice for the people who have been attacked.
Irresponsible dog ownership does not just affect humans, of course. Between 31 March and 23 April this year, around 20 ewes and their unborn lambs were killed by dogs on farmland near Skelmorlie in my constituency. Such attacks not only have a financial and emotional impact on the farmer, but cause immense and needless suffering to the animals, and such deaths are easily avoidable if dog owners do not place their dogs in situations where they may cause harm or upset.
Responsible dog owners keep their animals under control and look for early signs of aggression. It is not a dog’s fault if its owner does not take heed that it feels threatened or territorial. Dog owners should ensure that their dog is under control when the post arrives, especially if a door must be opened to sign for mail or a parcel. If a dog has a tendency to grab the mail as it arrives through a letter box, installing a wire basket on the inside of the door protects not only the mail, but, most importantly, the postman or woman’s fingers. Scotland’s postal workers do an excellent job, and it is right that all who benefit from their services should keep them out of harm’s way.
This problem cannot be solved by the Government or local authorities working in isolation. Only with a collaborative and concerted effort to change attitudes in favour of responsible dog ownership and accountability and a tightening up of legislation can we reverse the trend of rising dog attack figures.17:31
I thank Alex Neil for securing this debate, which is not before time. I had not intended to speak in it, but when I got the briefing from the CWU, it made me recall some of my own experiences.
The briefing reminded me that all of us, without exception, are here because we and an army of committed volunteers dutifully get out and deliver leaflets and information. I suspect that many of us and many of those volunteers have nearly had our hands taken off when doing so. Kenny Gibson just told us about his own experience. I came really close about six months ago, but fortunately, because of an earlier experience, I was wearing leather gloves. The dog got a mouthful of leather and I got away with a few scratches, but many people—our postmen and women in particular—are not so lucky.
I well remember the 2016 Holyrood election, when on one of our campaign days, a veteran stalwart turned up—unusually, without his wife. On questioning him, I discovered that the week before, she had posted something and a dog had grabbed her hand in the letter box and sliced it open. Hospital, injections, operations and rehabilitation were to follow. I remember this because at the time I was furious.
“What can be done?” I said. “Well—nothing really,” came the response. “I’ve seen it a thousand times. You just have to deal with it.” He told me briefly about the one free bite rule—the idea that, uniquely in Scotland, we need to prove that the person in charge believed that the dog would attack and that the dog has previous, so the first attack is unlikely to secure a conviction.
Will the member take an intervention?
If it is very brief.
The member is not the first person to refer to the one free bite rule. Let me clarify that that does not come under the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010. There is no such rule under that 2010 act. The 2010 act is a pre-emptive strike against any dog that is out of control, long before it gets to the biting stage.
I understand that and I thank the member for the clarification, but we have to look at the fact that bringing a private prosecution in Scotland appears to be very challenging. I do not understand why. If the test for a criminal prosecution is more complex in Scotland, ought it not to be easier to run a civil action here, not more difficult than it is the rest of the United Kingdom, where—according to the CWU—it is a straightforward process?
Posting things—be it pizza flyers, the church magazine, a political pamphlet or something sent through a professional postal operation—through letter boxes is something that happens all the time. In the rest of the UK, the onus is on the owner of the dog to take steps to ensure that the dog will not attack people. If someone has a dog that might get excited by the post, they should put a cage on the back of their letter box, as Kenny Gibson said, or they should keep the dog out of the relevant part of the house.
Will the member take an intervention?
It will have to be very brief.
I have been listening to the debate. Alex Neil, Kenny Gibson and now Liam Kerr have talked about postal workers. My future father-in-law was one of the postal workers who were attacked last year, and he talked quite a lot about the psychological effects. Does the member think that the Royal Mail and other employers have a role to play in treating the psychological effects?
I can give you a wee bit of extra time, Mr Kerr—you have been very good about taking interventions.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
The question is—does the Royal Mail have a role to play in treating the psychological effects? I certainly think that it is worth looking at, but what the member has done, very importantly, is to highlight the psychological effects of dog attacks. It has been clear from the evidence and indeed tonight’s debate just how considerable those psychological impacts can be.
While I was jotting down some notes for the debate, I looked back at the figures that Mr Neil put in the motion, particularly in relation to children being bitten, and then I got the absolutely heartbreaking briefing about children being injured in dog attacks. Around a year ago, I took my young family to Tyrebagger, near Inverurie. According to its website, it is
“a place to enjoy the grandeur and peace of a mature forest”,
with specific routes designed for toddlers and buggies as well as for cycling and horse riding. It is excellent and a wonderful place to spend the day, but as we walked round that day, I was struck by the number of excited dogs on the loose, barking, bounding, play fighting and jumping up and getting my jeans dirty. That was intimidating enough for my five-year-old, but it was even more intimidating when one started to stalk her. It crouched, growling, about 18 feet behind her and began padding towards her. Then it broke wide to get her from the side that I was not on. I picked her up and we waited until it went past. Shortly after, as the owners walked past, they chuckled and said, “Don’t mind him—he’s only playing. He always does that.” Does he, indeed? How often does he have to do it before my daughter or someone else’s daughter ends up in the sort of briefing that we have received for the debate? Such behaviour is irresponsible, inappropriate and inconsiderate.
If owners will not voluntarily control their dogs, whether in the home or outside, they need to be compelled. Therefore, Alex Neil’s motion is absolutely spot on. The statistics are terrifying and it is clear from the briefings, today’s speeches and bitter experience that something is not working. The sooner Mr Neil’s call for a review and more robust legislation is heeded, the better.
Due to the number of members who still wish to speak, I will accept a motion without notice, under rule 8.14.3, to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes.
That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Alex Neil.]
Motion agreed to.17:36
I, too, congratulate Alex Neil on securing the debate. Scotland truly is a country of dog lovers. The Pet Food Manufacturers Association estimates that, in 2017, around 471,000 households in Scotland owned at least one dog. However, our love of animals cannot and should not prevent us from taking measures to protect the safety of the public from the most dangerous. Be it workers, people in their homes or kids at parks who are attacked by dogs, it is an incredibly serious issue that many perceive is not being treated as seriously as it should be. I, too, thank the Communication Workers Union for its briefings to prepare for today’s debate, and I wish to quote a sentence with which I fully agree. It states:
“Sadly the cartoon caricatures and jokes about dogs biting postmen still prevail, but in reality, nothing could be further from the truth as these terrifying attacks result in serious physical and psychological injuries, some of which are life changing and full recovery is never achieved.”
Workers such as postmen and delivery drivers are understandably often worried about their safety and, from my conversations with constituents, many of them are worried about dog attacks while enjoying local green spaces. Over the past 18 months, I have been working closely with the friends of the Calder from Blantyre in my constituency of Rutherglen. Dr Susan Lindner Kelly from the group contacted me to highlight instances where members of the public, including children as young as three, were left shaken after dogs ran towards them in a number of Blantyre parks. Several of the incidents that were reported to the friends of the Calder occurred when a dog was being walked by a professional dog walker, and often when the dog was off the lead. At least one of those incidents resulted in someone being bitten. I fully understand Alex Neil’s position in calling for a post-legislative review of the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010, but I hope that the regulation or licensing of professional dog walkers will be considered, too.
Following on from those concerns being raised with me, last year I sent a freedom of information request to every local authority in Scotland to ascertain the number of complaints that had been made about professional dog walkers and whether the councils had investigated their conduct. Of the 25 authorities that responded to my FOI requests, nine noted that they had received at least one complaint in the past five years. However, unfortunately, many councils, including my own South Lanarkshire Council, were unable to disclose the information because of cost or the way in which the information is recorded. As such, I believe that we do not know the true extent of the problems that are faced across Scotland regarding professional dog walkers or whether the experiences of the friends of the Calder are unique. As is the case with the vast majority of individual dog owners, the vast majority of professional dog walkers conduct their business responsibly and ethically. However, as evidenced in Blantyre, even though the dogs do not frequently attack people, they still cause many fear and alarm.
The Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010 sent out a clear message that the actions of irresponsible owners would not be tolerated and that there would be serious consequences should they flout the law. However, eight years have passed and dog attacks are sadly still occurring. I hope that we send out an even louder message not only by better prosecuting in instances of violent dog attacks, but by reducing their frequency and the risk in the first place.17:40
I congratulate Alex Neil on securing the debate and on the way in which he highlighted and clarified precisely why it is important and why we need action. I look forward to the minister’s response.
I, too, thank the CWU for its briefing and its persistence as a union in standing up for its members. When we think about the threat of attack by dogs, any one of us who has been campaigning, leafleting or canvassing immediately has empathy for people who do postal and delivery jobs daily. How many of us have asked, “Who would be a postie?” after our most recent experience of a dog sighing behind the door just as the leaflet goes in?
As a mother, I remember wrestling with how I would ensure that my child was comfortable around dogs—not fearful and unnecessarily scared of them—because a dog can be such a great companion, but also being really frightened that a dog might attack the child. Families often wrestle with that.
There is empathy and concern about the issue, but we should think about how hard it must be for a postie who suffers dog attacks to discover that, in large part, we still regard them as a music hall joke. The cartoon of the postie being chased by a dog has already been mentioned. I have no doubt that, in real life, there are people who find it amusing to set their dog upon others and enjoy seeing such fear. In itself, that is something that society has to address.
Dog attacks are an increasing problem for postal workers because the changing nature of postal services means that it is more likely that they will have to have face-to-face contact with home owners to get a signature. It is a growing and serious issue. In the briefing that we have received, we are informed that 2,500 postal workers have been attacked since the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010 was implemented. That is simply not good enough. It is no longer a side issue but should be central to the Government’s thinking on animal welfare and safety.
Pet welfare is important, too. We recognise that, sometimes, animals are left in circumstances that make them aggressive and dangerous. We have to focus on responsible ownership. It is important that dogs not be put in a position in which they do not know how to behave and that we then need enforcement. We should be absolutely clear about culpability and that the victims are certainly not to blame. We cannot simply move culpability on.
In the Public Petitions Committee, which I convene, we have been doing some work on puppy farms. What strikes me is the extent to which dogs have been commodified. They have become accessories. They are not necessarily treated, cared for or trained in the way that they should be. Attacks by dogs should be placed in that broader context and any review should reflect on how we should deal with such matters as well.
As the CWU highlights, we have to be concerned about the fact that it is more difficult to get a conviction in Scotland than elsewhere. Although there has been a debate about the reality and implications of the one free bite rule, the CWU has told me that it is a fact and must be dealt with. Perhaps the review would consider what legislation needs to be changed to address that. I was also struck by the number of ideas from the CWU and others about ensuring that dog owners are more responsible.
I urge the minister to confirm that she is willing to review the broader dog control legislation and consider enforcement. It might not be satisfactory to have enforcement at a local level; something at a national level might be needed, too. I also seek a confirmation from her that, when she undertakes a review, she will work with not only the charities in the sector but, critically, the CWU and other organisations that have direct responsibility for their members.17:45
I add my congratulations to Alex Neil, not only on bringing the debate to the chamber but on his articulate speech. I also thank all other members who have raised some extremely salient points on what needs to be done.
I add myself to the list of MSPs who have suffered an attack from a dog. However, in my case, what was much worse was witnessing a councillor colleague being savaged by a dog. She was in hospital for some time and was scarred for life as a result, so I cannot stress how important the issue is.
In the very short time that I have, I want to focus my remarks on what uncontrolled dogs can mean for a rural community such as mine. It is particularly relevant just now because of the growing number of incidents of sheep worrying in Perthshire and Fife. Members will have seen reports in the press of farmers having lost thousands of pounds’ worth of livestock because a dog has been allowed to run riot in a field of ewes and lambs. It is too upsetting for me to describe what I was asked to witness by a constituent, who rang to ask me to look at the result of a recent attack. What I saw in that field was awful. In Fife, I have noted reports of a farmer who had to endure two such attacks on farm animals in the space of only 36 hours, which resulted in £12,000 of damage. That is somebody’s livelihood.
The rural statistics make for shocking reading. Last year, across Scotland there were 175 reported cases of sheep worrying, but there were only 19 convictions. In Perthshire, 14 cases were reported last year, with no convictions.
The most recent attack, which took place just last week—I think it was on Monday or Tuesday—in Cults, resulted in one sheep being found dead and another being put down due to the severity of its injuries.
On 15 April, a dog was shot by a farmer—they have a legal right to do so—in the Forteviot area of Perthshire, after persistent worrying of his flock. A few days before, on 13 April, another ewe in the Glencraig area was put down after it was found seriously injured in a field with lots of lambs. It goes on.
At the meeting of the local Perthshire NFU Scotland on Friday, the issue was debated in full, so I was able to brief its members on the discussions that I have been having with local police—who are naturally very concerned about the issue—and with other representatives of the farming community. I very much hope that we will be afforded a meeting with the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing, who I know is very concerned about the matter.
This cannot go on: we need much tighter controls. Clare Haughey is absolutely right to raise the possibility of looking at other issues. We need to raise public awareness of what has been happening across the countryside. Farmers are virtually unanimous in wanting a full debate about the respective merits of licensing, microchipping and DNA sampling, in order to help the police to convict guilty parties.
It has also been said that we need to review the Scottish outdoor access code, because it contains too many loopholes that allow irresponsible walkers and ramblers to get away with it. Such a review cannot come soon enough. In my most recent trips into the Scottish hills and mountains, I saw two clear examples of highly irresponsible behaviour by dog owners who were very high on the hills—one of which replicated what Liam Kerr described—which, if anything had happened, could have resulted in mountain rescue teams needing to be involved. There is a big job to be done to educate the public and to raise awareness of what can happen when dogs are not properly controlled.
We have already heard of the untold damage that can be done to humans. Alex Neil is absolutely right to pursue the issue. I urge that any new measures include measures to address the concerns in the countryside and the awful implications for the livelihoods of the people who are affected. I firmly believe that we need a full debate on the issue.17:49
First, I thank Alex Neil for securing this very important debate. In my constituency, I have been made all too aware of the prevalence of dog attacks on residents and on other dogs. A number of constituents have come forward to tell me their stories. Some of what they have described is horrific: out of control dogs attacking other dogs, sometimes with fatal results and dreadful injuries to other dogs, which require surgery and can be life changing for the victim dog.
Although the injuries that I most often hear about are those that are sustained by pet animals, a significant number of human beings are being injured, often while trying to save their much-loved pet from harm. One such lady suffered permanent nerve injuries to her hand when she was savaged by an attacking dog. She is now afraid to go into parks with her dog for fear of attack. She is not alone: many human victims suffer psychological trauma as a result of unprovoked dog attacks. When I talk about “life-changing injuries”, I am not referring only to physical injuries. In a recent case that was brought to me, a lady was forced to watch her well-loved pet dog being torn apart by a Rottweiler. One can only imagine the distress and lasting grief that are caused by such an attack.
In Midlothian, I have had discussions with the police and the council, but it is clear that such attacks are underreported, partly because of confusion on the part of the public about where to report incidents and about which incidents require reporting to the police and which to the council. The system should be much simpler. Members of the public should not have to work out the nuances of whether an incident is a police matter or a dog-control matter for the council. A dangerous dog is a dangerous dog.
I have seen material from the Communication Workers Union on attacks on postal workers. Some of the photographs of injuries that have been sustained drive home the enormity of the problem. The CWU tells us that 220 postal workers have been attacked and injured by dogs in the past year. That is simply unacceptable.
In Bonnyrigg, beside George V park, there is a community group called Bright Sparks Playgroup that caters for some 160 children with additional support needs. The group cannot make use of the park, because the children are absolutely terrified of uncontrolled aggressive dogs there. Instead, they remain safe behind secure high wire fences in their play area. Is it acceptable that it is our children who are in cages and not the creatures that cause such fear?
Irresponsible professional dog walkers who sometimes bring six or seven dogs to the park and then simply let them loose are a significant part of the problem. As well as letting the dogs run wild, they are guilty of antisocial behaviour by allowing dog poo to pollute our parks. The problem is confined to a small number of professional dog walkers whose standards are unacceptable.
On a more personal note, I have noted, when knocking on doors at election time, the number of people who have dogs and the number of dogs that exhibit aggressive tendencies. It might seem that I am down on dogs, but that is far from the truth. The vast majority of dog owners are responsible people whose well-cared-for pets will never cause the slightest problem, but we must acknowledge that a small number of owners are causing serious issues in our communities, and that cannot continue.
I have received many suggestions that it is believed might help to control the unsocialised minority while enabling decent dog owners and their pets to continue to enjoy their lives together. They include bringing back the dog licensing scheme, which would allow irresponsible dog owners to be deprived of the right to own the pets that they abuse; licensing of professional dog walkers, which would enable licences to be removed from those who fail to maintain reasonable standards; and compulsory pet insurance, which would allow victims of attacks to seek compensation.
I am uncertain whether the current deplorable situation has arisen as a result of the present legislation being inadequate in providing the protection that is required, or whether the present legislation is perfectly adequate but the police and councils need to be more robust in making use of the powers that they have. Either way, action needs to be taken.
My inclination would be to agree with the CWU. For a start, there should be post-legislative scrutiny of the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010. It is only by carrying out such scrutiny that we will be able to assess how effective the act is. There is a real problem, which is growing along with the expansion of dog ownership. We cannot stand by while residents of this country and their pets are being injured. That would, indeed, be irresponsible.17:53
I will endeavour to be brief. I, too, congratulate Alex Neil on his motion. I agree completely that the 2010 act is not working and that the rising number of attacks on adults and children cause despair, disfigurement and worse. I agree that a review of the 2010 act needs to take place and that the necessary powers should be made available to the authorities to prevent such attacks. I am also concerned about dog-on-dog attacks; a small dog was recently destroyed by a larger one in my constituency.
However, the point that I want to make is about sheep worrying by dogs that have not been kept under control. I must declare an interest as a farmer. My sheep flock has twice been subjected to attack by dogs. That resulted in many in-lamb ewes being killed or—which is almost worse—having to be put down some hours after the attack because, in the vet’s view, they were unlikely to survive. That was a significant loss to my business because the sheep were not insured. In addition, many other ewes in the flocks aborted their lambs after the attacks because of the stress and exertion that the heavily pregnant ewes had to endure.
As Finlay Carson does, I support The Scottish Farmer and the NFUS in their take a lead campaign and I, too, invite the Government to consider reviewing the legislation and strengthening it with regard to sheep worrying in particular.
I am not being precious about the legislation, but The Scottish Farmer magazine had no idea about the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010. I repeat my view that there has been no publicity by The Scottish Farmer and the NFUS regarding the 2010 act. I share John Scott’s concerns, but we must get publicity for the 2010 act as well as reviewing its content.
I thank Christine Grahame for her well-intentioned intervention. Nonetheless, the campaign has been mounted by those organisations in good faith. They have presented us with a problem, so it is up to we politicians and, indeed, the Government to resolve it. I am sure that Christine Grahame will do all that she can to put pressure on her party to come to a satisfactory resolution, if possible.
Unlike Kenny Gibson, although I had forgotten my dog bites, I, too, bear the scars. In that regard, I make a plea on behalf of our dedicated postmen for better control of dangerous dogs, and I speak particularly for the postmen in the Ayr constituency, who all know where the biting dogs are on their walks. I support the CWU’s position on the issue and believe that the time for talking and collecting data is long past and that it is now time for Governments of all colours to act.
I call Annabelle Ewing to conclude the debate. You have about seven minutes, minister.17:56
I, too, congratulate Alex Neil on securing the debate. It is appropriate to reiterate that it was Alex Neil who embarked on the process that led to the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010 being passed by the Scottish Parliament. As we have heard, Alex Neil brought forward the original member’s bill proposal prior to other events intervening. Christine Grahame then took up the baton and brought to the Parliament the bill that became the 2010 act, which introduced the dog control notice regime. I pay tribute to both members for their hard work and perseverance in ensuring that the issue was brought before the Parliament and in securing, through the member’s bill process, a legislative route to the end that they sought.
The 2010 act gave new powers to local authorities to deal with the issue of irresponsible dog ownership. As has been mentioned, the focus of the legislation was deed and not breed. The legislation achieved that by moving away from an outdated understanding that certain breeds of dog were inherently more dangerous than others; instead, correctly, it focused on the actions of dog owners in controlling their dogs.
It has been recognised that the vast majority of dog owners are responsible and enjoy the companionship of a dog and the outdoor activity that having a dog brings to their lives. I do not have a dog, but I see many people being dragged out for walks at all times of the day and night, which is a healthy option for them. However, there is a small minority of dog owners who fail to understand the responsibilities that come with owning, caring for and looking after a dog and ensuring that others, both human and animal, are safe around their dogs.
The powers that are given to local authorities under the 2010 act mean that dog control notices can be used against dog owners who allow their dogs to be out of control. It is for local authority authorised officers—the number of such officers is a matter for the local authority in each case—to use those powers to help protect our communities from out-of-control dogs. The most recent evidence shows that, as a whole, local authorities are using the powers more and more each year. In the latest year for which we have statistics—February 2015 to February 2016—a record number of 290 dog control notices were issued across Scotland.
However, it is clear from the data on the use of the 2010 act that, as has been mentioned, there is wide variation in the use of the powers by local authorities. It would be fair to say that, to an extent, that variation will reflect the way in which the legislation is designed to be used. Christine Grahame alluded to the fact that the 2010 act introduced a preventative regime that seeks to resolve dog control issues before a dog actually becomes dangerous. Therefore, some local authorities will not necessarily proceed to issue dog control notices in every case. Instead, they will engage with owners and give them advice on keeping their dogs under control.
Has the minister had a discussion with local authorities about why there is that variation? She speculates that it might be because the local authorities are doing one thing or another. We would seek reassurance that, if they are not issuing notices, they are doing something else. We are asking for rigour. There may not be a national solution, but there certainly has to be a national conversation.
I entirely agree with that remark from Johann Lamont, which is why I will be writing to all 32 local authorities to seek an update from them on exactly what they are doing further to the legislation. It is important that we have that information in order to determine how best to proceed.
The 2010 act made a significant change to how the long-standing criminal offence in relation to dangerous dogs operated. That change meant that dogs that were dangerously out of control in private places such as the home were brought within the scope of the act. That development was very important for our essential postal workers. Indeed, the legislative change was welcomed by postal workers.
Further to members’ comments tonight about the CWU letter to us all, I inform members that I will seek a meeting with the CWU to discuss in more detail its particular concerns and suggestions.
As members are aware, there has been renewed focus on post-legislative scrutiny in this session of Parliament, with the creation of the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee. On behalf of the Government, I can say that, if that committee were to decide to look into the operation of the 2010 act, we would be happy to be involved in that. The act has been in force since February 2011, as has been mentioned, so a number of years of experience and operation could be usefully assessed by that committee.
At the time, we very much supported the ethos of the proposed legislation that was introduced by Alex Neil and then Christine Grahame. We felt that considering the behaviour of the dog owner was the key element of tackling the problem of out-of-control dogs. It is not the dog’s fault if the dog is out of control; it is the owner’s fault. That is an important point to consider.
It would be helpful to remind members to consider some wider issues. The Government’s consultation in 2013 on other possible steps sought views on the introduction of dog licensing or dog muzzling. Mixed views were offered on dog licensing, with a majority of those who offered a view being against the reintroduction of such a system, and there was overwhelming opposition to the introduction of mandatory muzzling. However, the importance of the preventative approach, as set forth in the 2010 act, was clear from the consultation exercise.
Will the minister take an intervention?
I thank the minister. My microphone is not on, but I will just shout.
No. You cannot just shout, Ms Smith, because we need the microphones for the official report—much as I know that you would be capable of projecting to the far reaches of the chamber.
I apologise, Presiding Officer.
Does the minister accept that, despite the evidence about the licensing issue, there is now new technology such as microchipping, and that there is a very important issue about using technology to control dogs and the responsibility of the owners? It is not just about licensing; it is about the use of DNA and microchips. Will she agree to consider that?
Technology has obviously moved on, but I emphasise that the idea that dog licensing is some sort of panacea is not shared by members of the public, who did not support that approach. As for situations in which a dog control notice is issued, mandatory microchipping is involved in such instances.
The important issue of livestock worrying has been raised by a number of members. Local authorities have existing powers to issue dog control notices regarding dogs that are deemed to be out of control, which includes those that are out of control as far as livestock worrying is concerned. Indeed, there are local council byelaws in place, which allow for legislation to enforce the use of leads in areas where the control of dogs has been an issue.
Obviously, we keep all important matters under review. I say to Liz Smith that I would be happy to ensure that the attention of the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity is drawn to this debate, because many key and pertinent points have been raised about the important issue of livestock worrying.
I am over my time, so I will conclude. We have had a very good debate, in which a lot of important issues and concrete ideas have been raised. I repeat that we have created an opportunity through the parliamentary committee process to engage in post-legislative scrutiny of appropriate legislation, and it appears to me that the 2010 act may be ripe for such scrutiny by the Parliament’s Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee. I hope that that committee will reflect on this very important debate. We will ensure that its attention is drawn to the comments of all members in it.Meeting closed at 18:06.