This afternoon’s debate has set out clearly why the bill is needed, and I welcome the consensus that we have heard in support of the principles of the bill. However, the debate has also highlighted the many problems with the bill as it stands and the changes that we will need to make to ensure that it is as robust as possible. I set out my views on that during my opening speech, and many of the concerns were echoed by other members in the debate, so I will not repeat them. Instead, I will make some final observations.
As we heard in the debate, the changes that the bill proposes would ideally have been introduced as part of a more comprehensive review of dog control laws. It is disappointing that delays to the Scottish Government’s work in this area have made it necessary to introduce stand-alone legislation on one aspect of the many changes in law that we need. It is therefore important that we try to ensure that the bill is ultimately consistent with its wider legislative context, in order to avoid unnecessary fragmentation and possible conflicts in related laws.
For example, it has been suggested that the penalties in the bill should be brought into line with those that were introduced in the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020 for other animal welfare-related offences. I support that, particularly if it is the Scottish Government’s intention to set fines at that level in the future for other crimes related to dog control. That increase would also allow greater flexibility for the courts to respond to individual cases as they see fit and send a clear message on the seriousness of the crime.
However, it is equally important to emphasise that penalties must be applied appropriately, particularly if the maximum penalty is to be increased so drastically.
Crucially, although the bill will make welcome changes to how such crimes are dealt with once they have occurred, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the first priority must always be prevention. In her response to the committee, Emma Harper rightly noted that
“in most cases incidents of livestock worrying and attack are likely not premeditated and often lack ... intent to cause harm.”
That point was made by a number of stakeholders in their evidence to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. For example, the National Dog Warden Association Scotland said:
“Most dog owners do not believe their dog is likely to attack sheep and are shocked and distraught after the event.”
Likewise, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home highlighted that livestock worrying often occurs when the owner is not even present. It pointed to a report by the United Kingdom Parliament’s all-party parliamentary group on animal welfare that found that two thirds of incidents occurred when the dog had escaped from the house or garden of a neighbouring property. That highlights the need for the bill to be accompanied by an awareness campaign to communicate the risks that exist and the seriousness of the issue, as well as to make people aware of the laws and any new penalties.
The Dogs Trust highlighted the need to gain a better understanding of the issue. It pointed out:
“By working to better understand the problem, we believe it will be possible to undertake targeted proactive measures that aim to result in the prevention of worrying, therefore protecting the welfare of livestock more robustly.”
A number of stakeholders highlighted how underreporting and inconsistent data collection make it difficult to get a clear picture of the scope of the issue. As my colleague Claudia Beamish stressed, that needs to be addressed so that we can monitor the problem and ensure that the changes, if they are enacted, have the desired effect. That is the case for all animal and wildlife crime.
I know that time is tight in this debate, but it is also tight until the end of this parliamentary session. A considerable amount of work will be needed if the bill is to be fit for purpose. Labour will certainly support the principles of the bill, and we will do all that we can to ensure that changes are made to deliver on the intention of protecting the livestock of Scotland’s farmers and crofters.