RSPCA Summer Conference 2008: part 1
Conference examines the challenges of managing dogs within our communities
PERHAPS THE biggest gathering of multiple agencies and individuals concerned with dog welfare and control issues assembled in London last week for an RSPCA conference staged at the historic meeting hall at One Great George Street, literally in the shadow of Parliament.
The gathering saw some odd bedfellows indeed, but was, in most attendees’ opinions, a chance to put aside old enmities (at least temporarily) and to look beyond ideological aims and beliefs, in order to concentrate, discuss and agree on issues relating to managing – and ownership – of dogs within communities.
During the course of the conference, there were a wide range of keynote speakers and many important issues were covered, including ‘dangerous dogs’, dogs being used as ‘weapons’ by criminal elements, as well as such thorny issues as breed specific legislation, stray dog legislation, dog breeding and dog registration. Nobody expected total agreement on all of the issues, but almost everyone expressed a genuine desire to talk to each other, to share knowledge and, hopefully, work together to betterment of dogs.
The conference was opened by Mark Watts, the Chief Executive of the RSPCA who welcomed everybody to this, the first in a planned series of annual conferences on matters relating to various aspects of animal welfare. He expressed the hope that this meeting would act as a catalyst, so that all organisations attending could learn from each other and thus spark debate and gain opinions and insight.
Mr Watts added that the RSPCA’s Annual Animal Welfare indicators had been published and would help to give an insight into the various problems facing dogs and other animals. Meanwhile, the charity had good links with animal welfare agencies in the USA and Australia to help build on best practice and share ideas.
Referring to the issue of dangerous dogs, Mr Watts said: ‘We’ve all seen the headlines about ‘devil; dogs’ and ‘dog attack horror’ which is how attitudes become polarised. Of course we try to put the other side, but microchipping and neutering are not ‘sexy’ topics so don’t make headlines… This is something that I hope today’s meeting may be able to address.’
Mr Watts then passed proceedings over to Conference Chairman, Bill Swann, who then introduced the first keynote speaker, Lord Jeff Rooker, DEFRA Minister for Sustainable Food and Farming and Animal Health. Mr Swann said that it was good to see a minister speaking at a conference for companion animals.
Lord Rooker began by outlining his parliamentary experience since becoming an MP in 1974 and said that animal welfare was a high profile subject in Parliament. The only time he won the ballot for a ‘Friday Debate’ in the House of Commons when he was MP was in March 1979 and he chose the topic of animal welfare. He pointed out that in the 29 years since, these issues have not gone away and still take up a lot of MPs’ postbags and surgery time.
Lord Rooker was refreshingly down to earth on the subject of animal welfare legislation, saying that ‘The law cannot legislate for human stupidity… The Government does not duck its responsibility. There has been legislation for the protection of animals in place for 180 years. It has been passed in volume and sometimes in haste.’
However, Lord Rooker had great praise for the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) which, he said was as near perfect an example of animal welfare legislation as it was possible to produce. The Animal Welfare Bill had received the support of peers in the House of Lords, who welcomed the tightening up of animal welfare law, particular for dog fighting. The Bill had received cross party support. It was early days yet for the AWA, but local authorities were using it.
Turning to the subject of dog fighting, Lord Rooker proclaimed adamantly and to general agreement: ‘Dog fighting is not compatible with a civilised society’.
Lord Rooker said that there had been many high profile cases of dog fighting in recent months and several accounts of dogs being used for intimidation and as weapons. High profile cases. Dogs used for intimidation and as a weapon. There had been an increase in hospital treatment and admissions for dog bites.
He added that the general political consensus was that animal welfare and dog control legislation is robust and he wanted to see it used and stretched. Again, with surprising honesty Lord Rooker pointed out: ‘New legislation is not the answer and there is no parliamentary time for new legislation this session or in foreseeable future.’
He went onto say that despite the lurid headlines, there had been success stories. One example was Merseyside Police’s work after the Ellie Lawrence case involving initiatives to promote responsible dog ownership. Then in London there was Brent Action for Responsible K9s (Bark Project) - Set up in June 2007 after 70% increase in incidents involving dogs in the London Borough of Brent. Meanwhile, Wandsworth Council had created a ‘tool kit’ to help others help them get a grip on problems with dangerous dogs.
Turning to Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), Lord Rooker stated: ‘Government recognises the sensitivity of ‘banned breeds’, issues. But we need to get on with what we have, not tinkering with legislation but using it properly… We all need to raise awareness of responsible dog ownership amongst owners and the public in general about how to behave around dogs.’
He added that all agencies could work together on this, for example, ‘the RSPCA is a trusted brand all round the country.’
Summing up his presentation, Lord Rooker outlined DEFRA’s responsibilities and plans:
• Responsible for legislation with other stakeholders
• Hope to publish a guide on dog law and ownership in the summer
• Recognise the law can be confusing and complex
• Aim to produce a quick guide for all parties on Dog Law on a single sheet, comprising basic info which people are more likely to read.
Ways to help with enforcement:
• DEFRA need to know what is going on and be informed from the front line.
• Limited resources, but when issues arise, Government priorities can change.
• Reassure the public that concerns about dog attacks are taken seriously
• Welcome those who speak up for dogs making their views known.
Lord Rooker concluded by thanking everybody for their attendance and apologising that he was unable to stay for the full day but that his DEFRA team on hand to take feedback.
There was a short question and answer session afterwards. Carol Watson of Southampton Council asked Lord Rooker about the lack of funding to do anything effective well. Lord Rooker responded that there were limited resources and that the DEFRA budget has gone down not up. Pressures on that budget for example with animal health issues spread it thinly. As burdens went over from police to local authorities – such as with stray dog control – so the monies went with them.
An RSPCA Officer asked from the floor as to who is going to enforce the new animal welfare laws?
Lord Rooker responded: ‘This is not the responsibility of Government. It is better left to those closer to the situation. We rely on the expertise of local authorities police and RSPCA. The new legislation will be reviewed by Select Committee at some point and any adjustments that are necessary can be notified. Personally I think legislation should be reviewed every 3 years to see if it is working. Passing a law is the easy bit, instigating it is the difficult part.’
Dogs and the law
The next speaker was the controversial Chief Constable of North Wales, Richard Brunstrom, who started by positively revelling in his media nickname of ‘The Mad Mullah of the traffic Taliban’ and telling everyone in the audience who had received speeding tickets that ‘you deserved it’.
From this unpromising start, Mr Brunstrom started his presentation, pointing out that dog control was an emotional topic. He rattled off facts and figures relating to dogs, including the Pet Food Manufacturers Association’s most recent estimate that the dog population in the UK in 2008 was 7.3m and falling. Dog legislation and its enforcement was difficult, and he felt that it was necessary to look at the impact of devolution on dog laws.
To illustrate this point, Mr Brunstrom drew the audience’s attention to the screen where a chart showed the most recent statistics relating to Stray dogs. (Figures from Dogs Trust). There had been a possible overall success as the number of strays had been reduced by 21% between 1998 and 2007. But in 2007/8, the figures were up overall in Great Britain by 3% at 105,068. In England the number of strays was up by 8% at 87,414, in Wales they were down by 3% at 10,617 and in Scotland down by a staggering 30% to 7,037!
Mr Brunstrom said: ‘So we have to ask the question; What is so different in Scotland? The key is to get more, reliable figures to enable us to frame policy.’
He then went onto explain stray dog policy. With the enactment of Section 68 of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 on April 6th this year, the Police are no longer responsible for stray dog. To facilitate the changeover £4m went from the police budget to local authorities to help facilitate the extra money required to run the stray dog service. Guidance on the new policy had been issued from DEFRA but no strategy had been put in place, so it was very much up to local authorities to implement.
Moving onto the Animal Welfare Act, Mr Brunstrom said that this was an example of how parliament ought to operate. The draft bill had been drawn up and given time and attention before becoming law. He pointed out that unnecessary suffering of animals is a police role and that the new welfare offences marked a lowering of the ‘offending threshold.’
The issue of dangerous dogs was raised next. Mr Brunstrom pointed out that, as everybody knew, there had been a number of high profile tragedies of dangerous dogs involving children. He related some grim statistics, including the fact that there were 400,000 dog bites per annum recorded in the UK. There were A&E 78,000 attendances leading to 4,500 hospital admissions, making a total of 10,231 bed days in England alone, according to NHS figures for 2006/7.
There had been a 73% increase in hospital admissions between 1996/97 to 2006/07, 1,000 of these being children under 10.
In what amounted to perhaps the most profound statement on the DDA by any police officer, Mr Brunstrom declared to applause: ‘Breed and type specific legislation is stupid! It’s bankrupt, but we are stuck with it.
He went on to give some interesting statistics relating to breed specific prosecutions under Section One of the Dangerous Dogs Act. In 1996 there had been 6,381 prosecutions related to pit bull ‘type’ dogs, whilst in 2007 there had been 1,237 such prosecutions. Regarding all cases related to ‘dangerous dogs’, since 1997 cases were up by 31% and convictions were up by staggering 129%.
Mr Brunstrom said ‘We don’t have the evidence or cause to challenge and change the DDA yet. I believe we need to test Animal Welfare Act, we need more effective partnerships in England and Wales to test and scratch the legislation.’ He pointed out that other administrations had various points of legislation under way – north of the border there was the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Bill, whilst a formal review of the DDA was under way in Northern Ireland.
He added: ‘The good news though - the Police recently found the plot again [with the DDA], particularly in London and Merseyside. Most of the DDA can work given more determination.
Mr Brunstrom summed up:
• DEFRA are backing partnerships.
• We need data and evidence of what is going on.
• Better information and central training for the police
• Better records
• Microchipping, registration and licensing of dogs needed discussion.
• Opportunities were offered by devolution to see how things work.
• There was a clear need to develop real partnerships, share data etc. Need central support from DEFRA to make this happen.
Mr Brunstrom’s presentation was generally well received and certainly thought provoking.
NEXT ISSUE: OUR DOGS presents Part 2 of the Conference Report, including discussions on dog legislation and welfare in the USA, together with dog breeding and dog registration for the UK, as well as details of how the delegates voted on key dog issues.