I welcome the opportunity to close the debate for the Scottish Conservatives. I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests, which shows that I am a partner in a farming business.
As my Scottish Conservative colleagues have stated, we are generally supportive of the bill and recognise that livestock worrying by dogs is an increasing issue, to the point that it is becoming almost impossible to keep livestock in some fields near towns and villages. Official statistics show that there were more than 230 cases of dogs worrying livestock in the north-east in the past five years. However, we need to recognise that that is only the tip of the iceberg, because many incidents are not recorded.
It is important to highlight that any attacks on livestock do not just have a financial impact on livestock owners, serious though that can be. The emotional stress of witnessing an attack and the aftermath of the attack place a great mental strain on farmers, too. Therefore, there is an urgent need for the law on livestock worrying to be updated and strengthened. The current £1,000 fine, which is laid out in the 1953 act, is simply too low. The proposed increased fines up to £12,000 and custodial sentences of up to 12 months better reflect the gravity of the offence and the impact that it has on farmers.
The implementation of disqualification orders to restrict the right of a person who is convicted of a livestock worrying offence from owning a dog, and their rights of access to agricultural land when accompanied by a dog, will help to reduce incidences of livestock worrying. However, some elements of disqualification orders are not clear. For example, how is banning a convicted person from bringing a dog on to agricultural land to be enforced? Some witnesses also wondered how we would decide what agricultural land is. Moreover, given the increase in the number of dog walking services, there are questions about where responsibility would lie if another person who was deemed to be fit and proper was in charge of a dog at the time of an attack.
A number of stakeholders have noted the importance of compensation for livestock keepers. I highlight that compensation is already available under the current legislation. The problem is that the existing compensation mechanisms are not widely known among livestock keepers, so an awareness campaign about existing compensation schemes is sorely needed.
Further clarity is also needed on the role of inspecting bodies and who they may be. Both the SSPCA and local authorities have expressed reluctance to take on that role, citing a lack of resources, but they have stated that they would be happy to assist the police. In my view, there is no doubt that the police must retain overall responsibility for pursuing the crime.
There are also questions regarding the role of vets in examining a dog. Will the police be given authority to give consent or will that remain with the owner? Who would be responsible for covering the cost of a vet? The bill also contains proposals to grant the power of entry, search and seizure without a warrant when cases are being investigated. There is a lack of clarity around the practical use of that power, and it raises serious legal questions. I therefore believe, and the committee believes, that the power must be dropped.
In conclusion, the Scottish Conservatives are generally supportive of the bill and see why it is needed. However, some aspects need further clarification. We therefore call on Emma Harper to take note of the concerns that members on all sides of the chamber have raised and to work with the committee and the Government to improve the bill.