I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
This Bill arises from the widely acknowledged deficiencies that exist in the controls exercised over the dog population. These deficiencies have led to a situation where there are dogs roaming our countryside and the streets of our towns and cities doing considerable damage to sheep flocks, causing health and environmental problems and attacking adults and children. The existing control measures, some of which date back to 1839, are not working, and it is believed that part of the problem is that responsibility for enforcement of these measures is dispersed over several Government Departments.
The Bill, which repeals all existing legislation in the matter and consolidates in one statute all matters pertaining to dog control, was introduced in the Seanad and was extensively debated there. I was extremely heartened by the reception which the Bill received in the Seanad and some necessary amendments and modifications were made during its passage through that House.
It is estimated by some people that there is one dog to every five persons in the State. That would leave a dog population of 700,000. There are no official statistics to corroborate this figure, but information compiled by the Economic and Social Research Institute in the course of surveys indicate that 51 per cent of households keep at least one dog, giving a minimum figure of 500,000 dogs. The real figure probably lies somewhere between the two. The number of dog licences taken out fell from 205,000 in 1975 to 80,000 in 1985, and that reduction is in itself a further reason why the control of dogs needs to be tightened up considerably.
The problems associated with dogs do not arise entirely from numbers but also from irresponsible ownership. This can lead and has led, to attacks on sheep, which in economic terms result in substantial losses to sheep farmers and to the national economy. Other results of such irresponsibility can be attacks on persons and especially on children, environmental pollution through dogs fouling paths, parks and beaches, traffic accidents attributable to uncontrolled dogs and public health hazards such as transmission of disease. A serious health risk, especially for children playing with infected pups or coming in contact with dog excrement, is toxocara canis, which in some cases may cause eye damage or even epilepsy. Salmonellosis and ringworm may be, and have been, picked up from dogs. The most serious health risk comes, however, from rabies. Fortunately this country is free of the disease and there are strict precautions on the importation of dogs and cats as a protective measure against the disease. The westward movement of the disease in Europe increases the danger that infected animals could appear in Ireland and in turn infect uncontrolled dogs.
At present primary responsibility for enforcement of dogs legislation rests with the Garda Síochána. Because of the many pressures on the force in relation to serious crime and the maintenance of the security of the State and the fact that it is inappropriate to use highly trained Garda personnel to do work which could be done equally well by other trained personnel, it is proposed to place the task of enforcement of the dog control measures in this Bill with dog wardens to be appointed for the purpose.
A further obstacle to effective enforcement of the existing control measures is the diffusion of responsibility between various Departments. The Bill, therefore, will entrust overall responsibility in the matter to the Minister for the Environment because of his involvement with local government, at which level the problems will be tackled on the ground. The major local authorities, i.e. the 27 county councils and five county borough corporations together with Dún Laoghaire Borough Corporation will administer the Act in their respective areas.