Dog owners facing tough new insurance regulations

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The Independent Online

Dog owners could be required to insure themselves against the risk of their pet attacking someone, it was announced today.

Government proposals suggest forcing every dog owner to take out third party insurance and to have their dog microchipped.

Ministers are also considering introducing New Dog Control Notices for misbehaving animals.

The "Dogbo" orders would allow police officers and council officials to force miscreant owners to muzzle, leash or even neuter their pets.

In extreme cases the dogs could even be confiscated and given to new owners.

The measures, part of proposed changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act, are aimed at tackling the growing problem of vicious animals being bred for use as weapons.

Ministers are also considering making it a criminal offence for a dog owner to allow their animal to be "dangerously out of control".

Currently they are only breaking the law if the dog is out of control in a public place.

The change would extend the law to private residences, and could provide extra protection for postmen. There is also concern about the widespread use of dogs as weapons on inner city estates.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson said: "Britain is a nation of animal lovers, but people have a fundamental right to feel safe on the streets and in their homes.

"The vast majority of dog owners are responsible, but there is no doubt that some people breed and keep dogs for the sole purpose of intimidating others, in a sense using dogs as a weapon.

"It is this sort of behaviour that we will not tolerate; it is this sort of behaviour that we are determined to stop."

Figures uncovered by the Tories suggested 100 people every week are treated in hospital after being bitten by a dog.

The number of cases has gone up to 3,079 in 1997-8 to 5,221 last year.

Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said: "All we've really had for the past decade under this Government is a series of speeches and headline grabbing announcements about the things there were going to do to tackle problems like dangerous dog offences.

"But in the end nothing has ever happened. If Labour are re-elected in May all we'll get is the same tired-out old approach and none of the changes the country really needs."

But Billy Hayes, general secretary of the CWU, said: "This is a long-overdue, but extremely welcome step.

"We've been calling for changes to the law for several years now following some terrible dog attacks on postal workers.

"Many of our suggestions - including extending protection to private land and issuing control notices or 'dog Asbos' - are now fully reflected in this consultation."

Speaking on BBC Breakfast Mr Johnson said the proposal on insurance was one of many measures set out in a consultation document.

He said: "We believe that it is time for a root-and-branch look at the legislation underpinning dangerous dogs, and other aspects like third party insurance, like dog control notices that we are looking at, and the idea that you put a microchip in every dog so that you can trace them back to their owners."

Mr Johnson said the majority of dog owners were responsible - but there had been cruelty to animals meted out by people who had merely followed a fashion for "status dogs".

"Is the law strong enough anyway? Already we know the Dangerous Dogs Act is fine for where there has been an attack in a public place but not where the attack took place where a dog was permitted to be," he said.

"Many of the attacks we have seen have been on small children, dreadful attacks, postal workers etc in front gardens, or in the private property itself," he said.

"The law doesn't cover that. The first point we have to look at is are the people who are enforcing the law, not just the police, but RSPCA inspectors as well. Do they have enough power to deal with some of these issues?"

Asked about calls from BBC Breakfast viewers for a return of the dog licence, Mr Johnson said: "The dog licence was done away with some time ago mainly because it cost more to collect it than it actually gained in fees.

"So there is an issue there and maybe that is an idea people want to put forward."

Mr Straw told Sky News that there must be a way of determining who owned a dangerous dog.

He said: "You have to have some kind of wider system of determining the ownership of the dog. Otherwise they'll escape the law by claiming that dog is nothing to do with them, which is why some of those other ideas of proving ownership have come into it."

The proposals were broadly welcomed by animal groups.

A spokesman for the Dog's Trust said: "Just a third of dog owners currently have their dog microchipped, but should this become a legal requirement more stray dogs can be reunited with their owners, thus ultimately reducing the 9,000 dogs that are destroyed by local authorities every year.

"A recent survey conducted by Dogs Trust shows that 88% of dog owners would be in favour of such a law."

Caroline Kisko, communications director of the Kennel Club, said: "The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is a knee-jerk piece of legislation which was rushed through in haste.

"It has not reduced the number of pit bull terriers in this country, nor has it reduced the number of dog-biting attacks while it has had a huge impact on the welfare of many dogs.

"It is essential that any new legislation is properly considered and puts greater emphasis on animal welfare whilst better protecting the public.

"The Kennel Club welcomes this review and we hope that any future government will look at this pressing issue as soon as possible after the election."

Steve Goody, director of external affairs at the Blue Cross animal charity, said: "We are pleased that the Government has responded to our calls for an urgent review of the Dangerous Dogs Act, which has unfortunately failed to deal with the increasing problem of dog attacks and anti-social behaviour.

"We hope this will lead to more practical and enforceable measures to control dangerous dogs and protect the public before tragic attacks occur."