I am pleased to bring the Dog Breeding Establishments Bill 2009 before the Seanad and look forward to an informed and constructive debate during the Bill's passage through this House. As the House knows, matters concerning dog control are governed by the Control of Dogs Acts 1986 to 1992, as amended. These Acts have in general been working satisfactorily since their enactment but need updating in certain areas. In the main, these relate to regulation around dog breeding establishments and the general level of the dog licence fee, which has not changed since 1998.
Following some well publicised incidents of dogs apparently reared in Ireland that were being sold in a poor condition to unsuspecting purchasers, working groups were established to review the management of dog breeding establishments and make recommendations on the matter. The working group made a number of recommendations, the majority of which I intend to implement through this legislation. Unfortunately, Ireland got the reputation of being the dog breeding capital of Europe for all the wrong reasons. I am introducing this legislation to ensure proper standards of animal welfare in these establishments.
The Bill's preparation has involved a large amount of ongoing consultation with a variety of interested parties, including Departments, voluntary bodies and dog interest groups. These have included the Hunting Association of Ireland and the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In addition, more than 650 submissions were made in connection with the report of the working group, the majority of which were in favour of regulation of dog breeding establishments. I wish to thank all of those who participated in the consultation phase and I am confident that the Bill is stronger for their input.
Senators will be aware that there is a variety of opinion on any issue involving animal welfare and, in particular, on the welfare of dogs. While most people connect with dogs as a family pet, for others the breeding of these pets is a business. The Bill seeks to legislate for the point where the two interact. The variety of opinion generally was reflected in the deliberations of the working group and resulted in one majority report and three minority reports being presented to the Minister. This complicating factor in itself is part of the reason it has taken a considerable time to bring these legislative proposals before the Houses. Further consultations were required prior to the decision to draft legislative proposals on the basis of the majority recommendations. While the intention was to make regulations under the Control of Dogs Acts, legal advice indicated that effective regulation of dog breeding establishments or, indeed, increasing dog licence fees under the Acts was not possible. Hence the need for revised legislation rather than regulation under the principal Act. Unfortunately, this has added to the timeline for introducing these legislative proposals.
While the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has responsibility for animal welfare, my Department has retained responsibility for dog control for the practical reason that the dog control service is operated through the local authorities. Local authority dog wardens liaise with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's veterinary staff on an ongoing basis. It is envisaged that this will continue and expand if particular animal welfare issues arise as part of the proposed registration and inspection process for dog breeding establishments. Senators will also be aware that my colleagues, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith, and the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent, are preparing an animal welfare Bill that will deal comprehensively with animal welfare issues.
In today's debate, I intend to summarise the majority recommendations of the working group on the review of dog breeding establishments and the actions I intend to take in respect of each.
The basis for regulation of dog breeding establishments is as follows. The group recommended that a State-regulated registration system for dog breeding establishments be put in place and that these regulations be enforced through the existing local authority dog control structures. The group also recommended that the regulations should include a comprehensive set of statutorily enforceable standards for the operation of dog breeding establishments and provision for inspections by local authority officers.
This recommendation comprises a number of separate issues. We can all agree that a regulation system should be put in place, if only for simple reasons concerning dog welfare and this country's reputation in respect of care of dogs. It is only proper that, in a modern caring society, legal remedies are in place to deal with a minority of breeding establishments that rear pups in appalling conditions and sell malnourished and ill pups to an unsuspecting public. I am heartened that the Hunting Association of Ireland and the Irish Greyhound Board have both agreed with the need for such regulation.
I concluded also that regulation should be through the local authorities, the dog control staff of which have built up a considerable level of experience in dealing with dog control issues. They have a knowledge of existing dog breeding establishments, albeit without the powers to regulate such premises up until now.
The Bill provides for inspection of dog breeding establishments where necessary. I want the Bill to form the basis of a co-operative relationship between the local authorities and well run dog breeding establishments. Its provisions will not hold any fear for those who run their establishments well and who have established quality premises and practices in co-operation with their local veterinary practices.
In terms of this relationship, local authorities will be required to inform a dog breeding establishment of the grounds on which they would refuse to register a premises. The local authority will be statutorily obliged to pay heed to any reply from the establishment in regard to a potential refusal or conditions attached to a registration certificate. This will encourage a co-operative relationship between the local authority and dog breeders in their administrative areas.
The working group recommended that dog breeding establishments be defined based on the number of bitches with breeding potential present on the premises. I propose that the legislation will define a dog breeding establishment as a premises at which are kept no fewer than six bitches, each of which is more than four months old and capable of being used for breeding purposes. The limit of not fewer than six bitches will exclude the vast majority of cases where people rear dogs as pets. While there might be instances on farms, for example, where the number of bitches might exceed six, the stipulation that they must be capable of breeding will ensure that retired animals, so long as they are sterilised, could be excluded from the count. Bitches under four months of age would also be excluded.
The group recommended that the new regulatory regime be self-financing and be funded by varying the existing general dog licence fee. I propose that the cost of regulation and inspection of these establishments will not fall on the general population, but will be borne by the dog breeding establishments through a registration fee. This fee will vary in accordance with the amount of breeding bitches so as to reflect the size and scale of the operation. To that end the appropriate fee bands will be as follows. For a dog breeding establishment at which not more than 12 bitches are kept, the fee is €400; for an establishment with 13 to 25 bitches, the fee is €800; for an establishment with 26 to 100 bitches, the fee is €1,600; and for an establishment with 101 to 200 bitches it is €3,000, with a further €1,600 for every 100 bitches thereafter.
The fee will be payable to the local authority and the moneys raised are intended to cover the costs of regulation and inspection. Any balance will go towards dog control services in general which, in the current climate, are hard-pressed to keep up with the demands being placed on them. I pay tribute to the many dog control staff who work tirelessly to rehome strays, pick up abandoned dogs and keep residential areas and farms free from uncontrolled dogs. It can be a thankless job and should be acknowledged. I am confident the measures in this Bill will be welcomed by the dog control service and will assist them greatly in performing their duties.
I do not consider the fees to be excessive when set against the potential income stream from the number of breeding bitches. For instance, a premises with 12 breeding bitches might conservatively be expected to produce one litter of five pups each, resulting in 60 pups in total. At a conservative estimate of the value of a premium pup at €500, the estimated income from the sale of 60 pups would be €30,000. The proposed registration fee of €400 for the puppy farm of 12 bitches would equate to a cost of only €6 per pup. This is in no way unreasonable when we consider that some pedigree pups command prices of €1,000 or more.
Dog breeding establishments appear to specialise in lines of breeds commanding premium prices and like any business they try to minimise their costs and charge what the market will bear. On the basis of the fees above I do not think their bottom line will be significantly altered. There will also continue to be the option of adopting a dog from a shelter or charities at minimal or no cost, as at present.
I take this opportunity to urge people to be responsible about purchasing a dog and to make sure they know the source. They should follow the ISPCA guidelines regarding care of pets and be aware of the potential costs. The ISPCA also advises new owners to bear in mind the financial implications of owning a dog, such as vaccinations, flea and worm treatments and veterinary expenses such as nail cutting and teeth cleaning, which mount up over a period. The cost of boarding kennels while away on holidays should also be considered. Of course, the costs associated with ownership and care of a dog often pale into insignificance when set beside the immeasurable benefit, joy and even health gains to be had from the companionship of a dog.
The working group recommended that all dogs kept in breeding establishments, including their offspring, be electronically microchipped to ensure traceability and assist in the enforcement of the registration system. As such, it is a requirement of the proposed legislation that each dog in a dog breeding establishment be microchipped. This provision only builds on existing practice, whereby any dog that is registered with a dog breeders' association or a breed association is generally microchipped for the purpose of registration and verifying bloodlines. There are a number of companies that provide microchipping services at present. The microchip is about the size of a grain of rice and implanted under the skin of a dog around the neck. The microchip can be read by scanners held at veterinary offices or by dog control staff and assist in reuniting a dog with its owners.
It was further recommended by the group that every dog owner and every dog breeder has a duty of care in respect of animals kept by them and that this should be enshrined in all animal welfare legislation. As I stated previously, my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, is preparing an animal welfare Bill. I am informed that the Bill will contain a duty of care provision. I therefore do not wish to pre-empt any such general provision in that Bill.
The group concluded that the new dog breeding registration system should be introduced on a phased basis using an improvement notice model to avoid the creation of a surplus of dogs caused by the closure of substandard dog breeding establishments. This lead-in time will allow dog breeding establishments to meet the necessary standards and avoid the problem of having to dispose of a number of unwanted dogs. Any premises, where inspectors encounter serious animal welfare issues or have no reasonable prospect of meeting the registration standards should, however, be closed immediately.
It is my intention to provide for as smooth a transition as possible. The Bill provides that a period of up to three months will be provided from the commencement of the Act for dog breeding establishments to be registered. It shall be lawful for an existing dog breeding establishment to continue to operate for this period. This will enable a smooth transition to full registration and will ensure against a significant number of dogs being disposed of by establishments which may choose to cease operating.
The reassurance provided by the Hunting Association of Ireland and other interests in their representations to me, leads me to believe that most dog breeding establishments already operate to high-quality voluntary guidelines and standards. It should not, therefore, be a major concern for well-run dog breeding establishments to meet any new mandatory guidelines.
In line with best practice in any regulatory regime, there is an appropriate scale of regulatory actions which can be taken to gain compliance. In this Bill, I envisage liaison between the local authority and the dog breeding establishment. If agreement is not reached between the local authority and the establishment, the local authority, under section 18, will be empowered to issue an improvement notice. The notice will state the specific measures to be taken within a specified timeframe. This is in line with the recommendations of the working group.
The working group also stressed that the provisions of the Bill be meaningful, relevant and implementable. As a logical next step to the improvement notice, the Bill provides authority to a local authority to close a premises where standards present a significant health risk. It is envisaged that such a closure notice under section 19 of the Bill would only be used where there was a significant and immediate threat to public health. Such a provision will provide reassurance to the public that quick action can be taken in response to any threat to public health from dog breeding establishments.
Other provisions are included in the draft Bill to ensure the correct and appropriate functioning of the regulatory regime for dog breeding establishments. It is important that provision is made for an appeals mechanism where conditions to a registration are imposed. Each successful applicant will receive a registration certificate after submitting the appropriate fee and completing an application form. The Bill provides that where the local authority proposes to impose conditions on the issue of a registration certificate, it shall notify the applicant of said conditions and consider the applicant's response. Furthermore, the applicant will be able to appeal the decision of the local authority to the relevant District Court.
It is important that the Bill allows me, as Minister, to set down mandatory criteria relating to minimum standards of dog breeding establishments by way of regulation. In order for successful implementation and acceptance of the proposed regulations, full consultation with interested parties is essential. The strong views of interested parties in this area are evidenced by the large number of individual submissions received by my Department at the consultation phase on the working group report. I wish to assure the Seanad that I will only sign the proposed regulations into law after full consultation with all interested parties.
A provision is necessary to require owners of establishments to co-operate, within reason, with dog wardens. There is general need for such a provision and it is particularly important in cases where an establishment operates from the private home of the owner. The draft Bill makes provision, in circumstances where consent of the occupier to enter a dwelling is not forthcoming, for the authorised person to apply to the District Court for a warrant to enter.
The definition of authorised person has also been broadened in the draft Bill to allow others to assist the dog wardens in their duties. For example, a dog warden may require to be accompanied by other officials from the local authority, members of the Garda Síochána, or veterinary experts in carrying out duties.
The current dog licence fee of €12.70 for a single licence and €254 for a general dog licence was set down in the Control of Dogs (Amendment) Act 1992 and activated in February 1999 under the Control of Dogs (Commencement) Regulations 1998. Licences are generally issued through An Post, which has increased its administrative charge to €3.50 per licence, with the remaining €9.20 accruing to the local authority. The income from licences is required by local authorities to offset the costs of the provision and maintenance of their dog control services. In most cases the local authority subsidises the service, in some instances to a significant degree, and this is not sustainable. It is considered that a dog licence fee of €20 would not place an undue burden on dog owners when set against the other costs of responsible dog ownership, such as veterinary costs and food. The €20 fee only reflects the rise over the years of the consumer price index to September 2009, notwithstanding the recent falls in the CPI.
I will briefly run through the main provisions of the Bill. Sections 1 to 5, inclusive, of Part 1 contain the usual provisions of a general nature dealing with such matters as Short Title, collective citations and commencement, definitions, regulations, expenses of the Minister and service of documents. The key definition is that a dog breeding establishment will be a premises at which are kept not less than six bitches, each of which is more than four months old and capable of being used for breeding purposes. This definition reflects that recommended in the working group report.
Section 6 provides for fines not exceeding €5,000 or imprisonment up to six months on summary conviction for certain offences, including providing false information, non-display of registration certificate or obstruction of authorised personnel. The same penalties can be applied on summary conviction for forgery and contravening a closure order for a dog breeding establishment. Increased penalties can be applied on indictment. Fines shall be paid to the relevant local authority.
Section 7 provides that a fixed notice fine can be issued for non-display of a registration certificate for up to €2,000, which will fall due within 21 days. Moneys so raised will be payable to the relevant local authority.
Part 2 contains sections 8 to 21, inclusive, which deal with the regulation of dog breeding establishments. Section 8 instructs local authorities to have a register of dog breeding establishments and requires operators of such establishments to register in the manner required and to pay an annual fee. Section 8(3) provides that existing dog breeding establishments can continue to operate for three months after the commencement of the Act. Under Section 8(6), a local authority shall not register a premises if the application is not in order, the applicant is in breach of the Act or if the local authority is of the opinion that the premises is not suitable for the operation of a dog breeding establishment. Each premises which receives a registration certificate must have that certificate prominently displayed, under section 8(12). Under section 8(18), hunt clubs, commercial boarding kennels and charitable dog operations such as mountain rescue, will be exempt from paying fees, but must register and be subject to possible inspection. Commercial boarding kennels will also be exempt from paying registration fees.
Section 9 provides 14 days for applicants to make representation against a local authority's intention to refuse registration. This section also provides that a local authority will notify each applicant whether it is to be registered or not. Section 10 sets out the circumstances whereby an applicant may appeal the decision of the local authority to the relevant District Court against a refusal to register the dog breeding establishment or conditions that the local authority has set for registration. In the case of a refusal, the District Court can order that the establishment be registered, set conditions for registration or affirm the refusal.
Section 11 provides for removal of dog breeding establishments from the register by order of the District Court and conditions which the District Court may impose. Reasons for removing an establishment from the register include where the operator has been convicted of cruelty to animals, has been convicted of an offence under this Act or the Control of Dogs Act 1986, or has breached an improvement order or a court order. A person who contravenes an order under this section shall be guilty of an offence.
Section 12 sets out the appropriate fees for a dog breeding establishment and provides that the Minister may, by regulation, vary these charges in line with the consumer price index. Section 13 sets the registration charges as an annual charge payable to the relevant local authority and provides that certain types of dog breeding establishments shall not have registration charges applied, including hunt clubs, charitable organisations and commercial boarding kennels.
Section 14 describes, in general terms, the duties of operators in respect of the conditions in dog breeding establishments. Records must be kept and be available for inspection. Section 14(5) provides for the Minister to invite representations on draft guidelines, consider representations received and publish guidelines for dog breeding establishments.
Section 15 provides for all dogs in a dog breeding establishment to be micro-chipped for updating of the database, and for the micro-chipping to be carried out by an authorised implanter. Section 16 allows a local authority to appoint certain persons, including veterinary practitioners and those connected with animal welfare, to act as authorised persons to assist the local authorities in their duties under the Act. Section 17 enumerates the powers of authorised persons, including the power to enter and inspect any premises, other than a dwelling, suspected of being a dog breeding establishment. The authorised person can inspect and take copies of records kept on the premises and can require the owner, operator or those employed in the establishment to answer relevant questions. Section 17(2) provides that an authorised person may be accompanied by other authorised persons or the Garda. It will be an offence to obstruct or refuse to comply with the authorised persons under section 17. An authorised person cannot enter a dwelling without the consent of the occupier, or failing consent, without a warrant issued by the District Court.
Section 18 provides for the local authority to serve an improvement notice on the establishment if it is believed to be in breach of the Act or there is a threat to public health or animal welfare. The improvement notice will contain details of specific measures which are required to be taken within a specified timeframe and will inform the operator of the option to appeal to the District Court. Section 18(4) provides that notice may be appealed to the District Court.
Section 19 provides for a local authority to issue a closure notice requiring a dog breeding establishment to cease breeding or keeping dogs at the establishment on the basis of stated grounds. Provision is made for appeal to the District Court which shall affirm the notice, revoke it or give direction to the establishment. It will be an offence to contravene a closure notice. Section 20 makes it an offence to operate an unregistered dog breeding establishment except in specified circumstances where there is an application submitted or where it is subject to appeal.
Section 21 makes it an offence to forge registration material or knowingly provide forged documentation or alter registration material with intent to defraud or deceive.
Part 3 contains a number of amendments to the Control of Dogs Act 1986. Section 22 provides for the addition of a new form of dog licence to cover the lifetime of a dog by varying the duration of the dog licence. Section 23 sets out the new licence fees at €20 for an individual dog licence, €400 for a general dog licence for numerous dogs and €140 for a licence for the lifetime of a dog. This section also allows the Minister to vary fees payable in line with the consumer price index. Section 24 provides for the establishment and maintenance of a database or databases and the information to be held therein.
The provisions of the Bill in respect of dog breeding establishments will be cost neutral to the Exchequer. The provisions for increasing the dog licence fees will only reduce the current loss that local authorities incur in providing a dog control service. The new charges for licence fees would raise an estimated €4.3 million compared with the €2.8 million raised in 2008. However, the cost of the service in 2008 was €5.7 million
I look forward to engaging on these provisions and on Government and Opposition amendments on Committee Stage. I am sure these will be constructive and helpful. I commend this Bill to the House.