As a former farmer, member of the NFUS and dog owner, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this stage 1 debate. I support in principle the aims of the bill, which rightly seeks to strengthen and update the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 with reference to “livestock worrying”. There is still, without question, a need to review how the 1953 act is working—or, indeed, not working.
However, from the outset, my position and that of other stakeholders is that the best approach to addressing livestock worrying and other dog behaviour would have been for the aims of the bill to form part of a wider consolidation of dog control law. That said, I recognise the hard work of Emma Harper and her staff in the consultation work that was carried out in preparing the bill.
It is unfortunate that it was left to a backbencher to introduce the bill as a result of the Scottish Government’s failure to act in a timely matter. As the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee said in its stage 1 report,
“more immediate action to amend legislation on livestock worrying is merited.”
The Scottish Conservatives welcomed the passing of the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020, which resulted in an increase in the maximum penalties to five-year sentences and unlimited fines. The Law Society of Scotland highlights that tougher sentencing should reduce crime, reform and rehabilitate offenders, protect the public and make the offender give something back. However, we need to ensure that offenders and potential offenders are aware of the nature of the offence and the likely sentences. Prevention is better than cure, but that can come about only following significantly improved efforts to educate the public through a fit-for-purpose publicity campaign.
Christine Grahame’s Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010 was brought in to ensure that
“dogs which are out of control are brought and kept under control”.
However, despite being a substantial piece of legislation, it has been generally ineffective because of the lack of awareness of the law among the public, police and local authorities. Indeed, that issue was raised at the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee. At that time, the Minister for Community Safety said:
“Responsible dog ownership is at the heart of Scottish Government policy in this area, with effective enforcement of existing legislation critical in improving public safety.?”
That makes it even more disappointing that the Scottish Government has not introduced proposals such as those favoured by the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, which considered that the best approach to addressing the issue of livestock worrying would be for it to form part of a wider consolidation of dog control law. That position was supported by the NFUS and others, including Blue Cross, who submit that the bill will help to tackle the problem in a more cohesive manner but should not be seen as a panacea.
Dog control problems are complex and require imagination and innovation to be tackled fully. Great improvements could have been achieved if the Government had introduced a consolidation bill covering not only livestock worrying but dog control, dog breeding, puppy trafficking and responsible dog ownership.
Time is limited today, but I welcome the bill as a short-term plaster to fix an urgent and growing issue that is of great concern to livestock owners in Scotland. It has a great financial and emotional impact on the owner, brings distress to witnesses and veterinary responders and, of course, great pain, distress and, frequently, death to the attacked animal.