Dogs (Protection of Livestock) (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 21st January 2021.

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Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

I remind members about my entry in the register of members’ interests as a partner in a farming business. I am also a member of NFU Scotland.

I congratulate Emma Harper on bringing the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill to the chamber. I share her interest in the subject. We both represent predominantly rural regions and we know all too well that livestock worrying remains a constant problem that is faced by farmers and the wider agriculture sector.

Dogs are mentioned in the title of the bill, but the real problem is inadequate and often reckless supervision by owners who allow such situations to occur. For far too long, there has been a strong belief among the rural sector that little has been done to safeguard its livestock. The member’s bill consultation identified not only the scale of the problem, with dozens of offences being reported each year, but its increasing prevalence. We also know from NFU surveys that a great many offences go unreported.

When attacks occur, the financial costs can be considerable, but it is just as important that we reflect on the serious detrimental impact on the welfare of the animals that are involved. I suspect that many people do not realise just how easy it is for dog worrying incidents to result in harm to sheep and other animals, or how much damage an uncontrolled dog can cause.

The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s stage 1 report, which was developed before I became a member of the committee, is a detailed piece of work that makes a measured and reasoned case for the bill’s future. I share the concerns that it expresses about some of the proposals in the bill and agree with the questions that it raises about a range of the bill’s provisions. Much of the evidence that the committee took pointed to changes that might be positive. There are a number of those, but I do not believe that that needs to be fatal for the bill.

Perhaps the most pressing issue is the proposed powers of entry, search and seizure. The committee has chosen not to support those, and there appear to be some deep-seated problems with them, which have been highlighted by the COPFS and the police. I am not sure that the proposed powers are really needed by those who enforce the law on the ground.

The report also addresses some thorny issues on which balance is essential and proper interaction with existing law would be beneficial. Making higher penalties available for livestock worrying offences is an overdue step that has broad support, but I hope that Emma Harper will take note of the committee’s recommendations and look to find consensus with the Scottish Government to ensure that the bill is consistent with existing animal welfare legislation.

Compensation is another issue that has come up and was considered by the committee. There are undoubtedly barriers to seeking compensation through the courts, but we should keep in mind that the courts are there to make decisions on what is appropriate and to adapt to individual situations. If alternative compensation approaches are to be proposed, they must deliver real and tangible benefits to the injured party. Clarity is required on disqualification orders, and I hope that that can be provided as the bill progresses.

Of course, there are areas beyond the scope of the legislation that will impact on its effectiveness in achieving the positive aims that Emma Harper sets out. The discussion around inspecting bodies and the police highlights an obvious point: rural crime cannot be combated effectively if the required resources are not there. Public awareness will be key. I commend Police Scotland for its approach and work with the rural community, and its campaigns on livestock worrying that it has run at important points in the farming calendar, most notably lambing season. More will be necessary if the legislation is to be successful.

Members’ bills are useful tools to correct particular wrongs, and this one focuses on what has been a long-standing problem for rural communities across Scotland. It is for the Parliament to take up the challenge and create a bill that will work effectively. I appreciate that time will be limited as we come to the end of this session, but the bill’s progress will be closely watched by many in Scotland’s countryside. As others have highlighted, there are undoubtedly areas on which we should all reflect and offer suggestions and proposals.

The bill will have our support today.