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.