The primary purpose of this Bill is to amend the Control of Dogs Act, 1986, to provide additional powers to more effectively deal with the problem of dangerous dogs. The Bill also provides for increased licence fees and for varying licence fees by regulations and it makes amendments to certain provisions of the 1986 Act which have been found in practice to be deficient.
A number of incidents both here and in Great Britain in the past 12 months have highlighted the threat which certain types, or breeds, of dogs present to humans. People have been killed. We have read about and seen in full colour on our television screens some horrendous injuries inflicted by dogs, not just on childen but on able-bodied adults as well. Figures available to my Department indicate that in an 18-month period to November 1991 over a 1,000 incidents of dog attacks were recorded by dog wardens as part of their daily routines of which over 70 attacks were classified as serious and resulted in hospitalisation and medical treatment for the victims concerned. A further 240 incidents resulted in the victim receiving some form of first aid. Clearly, this is a situation where we must take action. This action must be measured action which deals with the threat but which allows the vast majority of dog owners to enjoy their dogs without undue restrictions. To do this we must have the power to identify the types of dogs which pose a threat to our safety. We must have the power to deal with them and to neutralise the threat which they represent. The Bill will allow me to do this.
The dog has for centuries, even millennia perhaps, been described as man's best friend. To very many people it is still that. Unfortunately, as in so many other areas of human activity, the dog's friendship has been abused by man — admittedly in a minority of cases. Unfortunately, this minority has made special efforts to breed strains and crosses of dogs which will have a particularly nasty temperament, they have crossed these with larger and more powerful breeds and they have used them for unacceptable purposes such as dog fighting, animal baiting and the furtherance and protection of criminal activities. There is no place in our society for such animals. Thankfully, we do not as yet have a serious problem with this type of animal in this country. This Bill will provide me, as Minister for the Environment, with the necessary powers to ensure that we can prevent a serious problem from occuring.
It is worth mentioning, while dealing with the issue of extremely dangerous dogs, that our neighbours in Great Britain have taken measures to deal with their dangerous dogs and, in the process, highlighted how deficient were our laws. Last year they enacted new legislation which effectively banned certain particularly unsavoury types of dogs. One of the ways of complying with this legislation was to export the animals concerned — in other words, to remove them to another country. This Bill will give me power by regulation to ban the importation of certain classes of dogs, a power which does not exist at present.
The public concern expressed at the time of last year's serious dog attacks, about which I spoke earlier, and the public demand for action highlighted the limitations of the Control of Dogs Act, 1986, in terms of mounting an effective and suitably targeted response to the problem. Our first concern was to ensure that certain dogs — those with the capacity or the tendency to inflict serious injury — would not have the opportunity to do so when in public places. It was against this background that the Control of Dogs (Restriction of Certain Dogs) Regulations, 1991, which require the muzzling, leashing and identification of specified dogs when in a public place, were made last June. This Bill allows a much greater range of options to be taken. It will, therefore, enable a more flexible and effective response to be mounted. It will also permit urgent action to be taken should future circumstances so demand.
I think it is worth mentioning here that we have received a very substantial amount of correspondence from dog owners, clubs and other bodies criticising the muzzling regulations and criticising this Bill. Much of this correspondence has been reasonable and reasoned; some of it has been disturbing in its tone and in its lack of concern for the safety, comfort and welfare of others. I should also say that we have received a considerable volume of correspondence from people who supported the new measures, people who were frightened to use public parks and facilities because of fear of certain dogs, people who feared for the safety of their children, elderly people, joggers. There is a balance to be struck between these interests, bearing in mind the overriding need to safeguard the safety of the public.
My objective is to establish an effective system for the control of these dogs. While the restrictions imposed by the 1991 regulations go a long way to deal with the immediate problem, I must consider what other measures would be useful in securing public safety. To this end the Bill now before the House will enable me, as Minister, to make regulations prohibiting certain dogs from public places or specified public places, prohibiting the ownership, keeping, purchase, disposal, abandonment, allowing to stray, breeding or importation of dangerous dogs, requiring the insurance of certain dogs and, ultimately, requiring the destruction or sterilisation of dangerous dogs.
Apart from dealing with the matter of dangerous dogs, the Bill also provides for increased licence fees and provides wider power to vary licence fees by regulations. It also provides for higher fines and for wider use of on-the-spot fines. It will, thus, give me power to deal with dogs in a variety of different ways having regard to the level of threat which I consider the different types of dogs may present to the safety of people.
The enactment of this legislation also offers the opportunity to make a number of amendments to provisions of the Control of Dogs Act, 1986, which have been found in practice to be deficient. These include restricting a general dog licence to dogs kept at one premises, requiring the production of a dog licence before recovering a seized dog, empowering a dog warden to enter premises where a guard dog is kept — he can only enter premises where more than five dogs are kept at the moment — and a tidying up of offences provisions.
I would like now to deal in some detail with the main provisions of the Control of Dogs (Amendment) Bill, 1991. Section 1 is a standard definitions section, while section 2 provides a new definition of "general dog licence" as a licence entitling a person to keep a number of dogs at a premises specified in the licence. Relating the general dog licence to a particular premises as proposed in the Bill will eliminate certain abuses of the present dog licence system whereby dog owners may get around the licensing provisions by an umbrella organisation obtaining one licence to cover all dogs registered with it. Minor amendments, consequential on the new definition of a general dog licence, are also provided for in this section as well as a transitional provision to protect "old style" general dog licences current immediately before the commencement of the section.
Section 3 will increase the level of licence fees from £5 to £10 for an ordinary dog licence and from £100 to £200 for a general dog licence. The section also restates the power to vary licence fees by regulations and to prescribe different fees for different classes of dogs. This is an important power. It gives me the option of graduating licence levels to reflect the fact that certain kinds of dogs, the ones with the most potential to inflict injury on members of the public, require a higher level of policing by the dog warden service; such an option may also encourage dog owners to opt for more benign dogs.
The effect of section 4 is to require a person when claiming a stray dog to produce a current dog licence or a general dog licence in respect of that dog. Under the existing arrangements, any person claiming a stray dog must satisfy the local authority or the superintendent of the Garda Sióchána as the case may be, that he is the owner of the dog or has been authorised by the owner to claim the dog, make a declaration to that effect and pay for any expenditure that may have been incurred in respect of the seizure and detention of the dog. The production of a current dog licence is a logical and reasonable requirement, which will help to establish the bona fides of the person claiming the dog and will also go some way to combating the very real problem of the large number of dogs which remain unlicensed.
Section 5 will amend and extend the powers of dog wardens to seize and detain dogs, to enter premises and to demand production of a licence. The effect of the amendments will be, firstly, to empower a dog warden to enter premises, other than a dwelling, where he believes a guard dog or more than five dogs are being kept, Under present legislation, he can enter premises only if he believes more than five dogs are kept there and, secondly, to extend the powers of the local authorities in regard to dogs seized by wardens. At present, unclaimed strays can be held for five days before they can be put down. Under section 5 dogs seized for breaches of the Acts or regulations and held pending court proceedings may be put down unless the owner within five days agrees to pay the reasonable costs of keeping the dog pending the decision of the District Court.
Section 6 substitutes a whole new section for section 19 of the 1986 Act. In fact, this is the heart of this Bill. Section 19 of the 1986 Act empowers the Minister to make regulations in relation to the registration and operation of premises in which dogs are kept, the regulation of the use of guard dogs, the muzzling and identification of dogs, including licence identification, and the exemption of certain classes of person from the requirements of regulations made under the Act. The guard dog regulations of 1988 and 1989, which provide controls over the use of guard dogs and cover the construction, registration and operation of guard dog kennels, were made under section 19 of the 1986 Act. The Control of Dogs Act (Restriction of Certain Dogs) Regulations, 1991, requiring the muzzling, leashing and identification of 12 specified types of dogs in public places, were also made under that section.
The provisions of section 6 will allow a more comprehensive range of options to be taken to deal with the problem of dangerous dogs and reduce the threat to public safety posed by such dogs. The Bill will permit tough new measures to cover a wide range of dog control arrangements. These new provisions, which can be tailored to meet different circumstances and to deal with different kinds of dogs in different ways, strengthen existing powers relating to the identification, muzzling and leashing of dogs.
Broadly speaking, the new section will enable me to make regulations for all or any of the following purposes: to make provision for the registration and operation of premises where a guard dog or more than five dogs are kept — the existing powers under the 1986 Act relate only to premises where more than five dogs are kept; to make provision for the regulation of the use of guard dogs; to make provision for the muzzling of dogs or specified classes of dogs, either generally or in specified circumstances; to make provision for the prohibition of specified classes of dogs in public places or specified public places; to make provision for a ban on the ownership, keeping, purchase, disposal, abandonment, allowing to stray, breeding or importation of specified classes of dogs, which, in the opinion of the Minister, have such characteristics as to cause them to be a danger to the public; to require the sterilisation or destruction in a humane manner of certain dogs; to make provision to require the owners of dogs or specified classes of dogs to effect insurance against injury or damage caused by the dogs to person or property; to make provision for the identification of dogs or specified classes of dogs and of their ownership either by details attached to a collar or by other means; to make provision for certain exemptions from all or any of the regulations and to classify persons or dogs for the purposes of the regulations.
Thus the Bill will give me the power to deal with dogs in different ways having regard to the level of threat which I consider different types present to public safety. For example, I could prohibit one type of dog from public places, while prohibiting the ownership, keeping, purchase and so on of another type. In extreme cases I could require the destruction of all dogs of a particularly unsavoury type as well as prohibiting importation, purchase and so on, or I could make all the other prohibitions but allow existing owners to keep their dogs provided they were sterilised, insured and complied with other restrictions, such as not being in public places.
Section 7 simplifies the offences provisions of the 1986 Act and provides for a maximum penalty for all offences of £1,000 and/or up to three months imprisonment. Sections 8 and 9 make minor amendments to various sections of the 1986 Act consequent on the redefinition of offences. Section 8 will enable on-the-spot fines to be imposed in respect of prescribed breaches of regulations.
I consider this latter provision to be particularly important from the point of view of effective enforcement of the new legislation. The wider application of the on-the-spot fine system envisaged under section 8 will allow greater scope to effect proper dog control "on-the-spot"— where it matters. This has been a problem, for instance, with the regulations requiring the muzzling, leashing and identification of specified classes of dogs introduced last summer. It is not possible under present legislation to include breaches of these regulations under the on-the-spot fine system. Finally, section 10 sets out the Short Title and provides for collective citation, construction and commencement.
I know that emotive terms such as "draconian measures" have been used by certain pressure groups to describe the new powers the Bill will provide to deal with dangerous dogs. I want to assure dog owners that I will not be taking draconian measures against anybody or against any dog. My duty is to protect the public. I will do whatever is necessary, no more.
I appreciate that some organisations and bodies and individuals involved with dogs and animal welfare consider that dog legislation, such as the muzzling provisions introduced last year, and this Bill, are discriminatory. These groups favour deed or behaviour-orientated legislation. Their argument is that it is dog owners who should be held responsible for their dogs' behaviour, that dogs should be proven to be a public menace before being restricted. While dog owners should be encouraged to act responsibly towards their dogs and to exercise effectual control of their pets when in public places, I would be very slow to endorse deed or behaviour-based legislation for the control of dangerous dogs. It is difficult to accept the argument that a dog must be proven to be a public menace. Such a concept would be difficult to administer and would, at best, be an unreliable method of ensuring public safety. Inevitably, it would result in dog attacks being made before the particular dog could be dealt with. To apply controls to a particular dog after he has shown a vicious tendency, could well be too late to save an innocent person from serious injury or worse.
The principle of allowing a dog a "first bite" is an outdated and unacceptable one. My responsibilities require me to err on the side of public safety. It would be very difficult for me to defend a "deed or behaviour" approach to dog control in the event of an attack involving serious injury, especially to children.
The Control of Dogs (Amendment) Bill, 1991 is an enabling Bill — regulations will be required to bring the more substantial provisions of the Bill, once enacted, into force. In framing the new legislation, it is important to get it right. To this end, it is important that all interested bodies have an opportunity to give their views and advice. It was for that reason that my Department, in July 1991, wrote to various organisations and individuals informing them of the intention to introduce legislation to provide additional options to deal in a comprehensive manner with all aspects of dog control and inviting their views on the most effective methods of implementing the legislation. Submissions have been received from all the various bodies and these are currently being examined in my Department.
I would describe this Bill as a comprehensive approach to the problem of dangerous dogs. The Bill is an enabling one. In formulating the regulations necessary to implement it, I will be taking account of the extensive consultations my Department have had with animal welfare organisations and other organisations concerned with dogs. I will be taking account, also, of the views expressed by others. We now have eight months' experience of operating the muzzling regulations and we can learn from that.
When the Bill has been enacted I propose to replace existing regulations with a comprehensive new set of regulations which will provide a measured and flexible response to the problem of dangerous dogs.
I am convinced that the problem presented by certain types of dogs is serious and that the public's demand for action is such that it merits the overall approach to tackle it as set out in this Bill. I am happy, therefore, to commend this Bill to the House.