Ministers were accused yesterday of watering down powers to control dangerous dogs despite a growing number of attacks, including the killing of 14-year-old Jade Lomas-Anderson last week. The Government is planning to axe dog control orders in England and replace them with a general "public spaces protection order" which covers everything from crack houses to littering in parks. Critics say this would make dog control less of a priority.
A committee of MPs has criticised the move, warning that merging dog control with other antisocial behaviour powers will make the menace of aggressive behaviour by dogs less of a priority for councils and police. Jade is the seventh child killed by dogs since 2005. An estimated 210,000 dog attacks on people occur every year, and, in 2011-12, they put 6,450 victims in hospital.
The MPs' concerns are backed up by a letter from a coalition of dog welfare charities and the British Veterinary Association to the Labour MP and shadow home affairs minister Gloria de Piero, seen by The Independent on Sunday.
Supporters of the current dog control orders say they are essential to keeping public areas safe because they cover all breeds, including those that could become aggressive but which are not among the four specified breeds under the Dangerous Dogs Act. Owners face £1,000 fines if they fail to keep dogs on leads in specified public places or have six or more dogs per individual.
The letter to Ms De Piero, from the BVA, Blue Cross, Dogs Trust, Kennel Club and the RSPCA, also points out that in Scotland and Wales, new dog control notices – dubbed "dog asbos" that can be used to order that specific animals are muzzled – are being introduced, while in England there are no plans to do so. Yesterday, Whitehall sources said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) would introduce plans to extend the Dangerous Dogs Act to private property within the next month. The family of 14-year-old Jade, killed in another person's home in Wigan last Tuesday, have expressed anger that the dogs' owner will escape prosecution because the Act does not cover private property.
Yet there remain concerns that the Dangerous Dogs Act covers only a narrow list of fighting breeds, including pit bull terriers, and does not address the problem of unproscribed breeds of dogs attacking in packs, as happened in Wigan.
The letter from dog welfare charities, which was put together before the attack, warns that replacing dog control orders with a non-specific public spaces order "could lead to compromises in animal welfare or even make dog behaviour worse due to lack of understanding in these areas".
The letter adds: "We cannot see how the new measures will provide for effective early intervention and prevention. It is unclear, for example, how these proposals will effectively tackle irresponsible dog ownership, how enforcers will be able to prioritise dog control over other serious antisocial behaviour and how they will identify the most appropriate power in each case."
The Home Office's Draft Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, currently before Parliament, says the new public spaces protection orders – previously referred to as community protection orders in an earlier White Paper – will have to be approved by the chief constable of the local police force, a higher hurdle than is in operation now. Currently, dog control orders need approval only by a local council.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, in a hard-hitting report published last month, said Defra's plans to extend the Dangerous Dogs Act were "woefully inadequate" without the additional dog control notices. It said replacing dog control orders with a "one size fits all" set of antisocial behaviour powers was a "simplistic approach" that "ignores the real cause of antisocial behaviour related to dogs". The committee added: "Irresponsible dog breeding and the failure to socialise puppies in the first few months of life can lead to persistent problems which are hard to tackle later on. The current Home Office approach appears to focus solely on the current owner of a dog rather than the initial breeder and this cannot begin to tackle the scale of the problem."
Ms De Piero said yesterday: "We need tougher laws to tackle dangerous dogs, and councils need powers to deal with aggressive behaviour before it turns into a vicious attack. The Government should introduce a dog control notice in the Queen's Speech which would mean owners could be served with an instruction to muzzle or be required to keep the dog on a lead at all times.
"Labour would also strongly urge the Government to abandon its plans to abolish the dog control order which enables councils to designate areas like parks and play areas dog-free zones or demand dogs are kept on leads in these areas. This is a specific dog-related control power and it should remain so."
A Home Office spokesman said: "The draft Bill is about giving victims, who often feel powerless, a voice. The new streamlined powers will be faster, more flexible and will allow professionals to seek to change behaviour."