Government launches online consultation to determine whether there is public support for increase in maximum penalty

Owners of dogs that kill people could face life imprisonment if an online consultation run by the government demonstrates public support for more severe penalties.

The proposal for a significant jump in the current maximum jail term of two years is launched on Tuesday by the animal welfare minister, Lord de Mauley.

Public response will be one – but not necessarily the decisive – factor in shaping changes that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) plans to make to the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act.

Some 16 people have been killed by dangerous dogs since 2005. Among them was 14-year-old Jade Anderson who was savaged by four dogs – believed to be two bull mastiffs and two Staffordshire bull terriers – at the home of a friend near Wigan, Greater Manchester, in March.

The new penalties will be inserted into the anti-social behaviour, crime and policing bill which already contains a clause making it an offence to have a dangerous dog in a private home as well as in a public place.

De Mauley said: "Dog attacks are terrifying and we need harsh penalties to punish those who allow their dog to injure people while out of control. We're already toughening up laws to ensure that anyone who owns a dangerous dog can be brought to justice, regardless of where a dog attack takes place. It's crucial that the laws we have in place act as a deterrent to stop such horrific incidents."

The consultation on higher sentences will run from Tuesday until 1 September. Defra says that it is keen for the public to participate in its efforts to clamp down on dangerous dogs.

Those responding to the online questionnaire will be asked whether or not they support "an increase in the maximum sentence for aggravated offences committed under section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991".

They can then register whether they want tougher penalties for cases involving the injury or death of a person as well as the death of a guide dog. The suggested range of penalties for injury to a person – as well as death or injury of a guide dog – are three, five, seven or 10 years in prison.

The question for cases involving the death of a person, asks: "Which of the following options most closely resembles the appropriate maximum penalty: seven years, 10 years, 14 years or life imprisonment?"

It is not the first time that government departments have encouraged online participation from the general public in shaping the law. The Home Office used a similar method in dealing with the squatting regulations several years ago.

The anti-social behaviour, crime and policing bill also contains legal changes to the 1991 act allowing courts to consider "the temperament of a dog and its past behaviour" when looking at orders for animals to be destroyed. Ministers will be anxious to avoid rushing in new legislation, as the original 1991 act became regarded as a byword for lawmaking that had been forced through too quickly.

The Communication Workers Union (CWU), which represents postmen and women and telecoms engineers, who suffer around 5,000 dog attacks each year, welcomed the consultation.

Dave Joyce, the union's health and safety officer, said: "Current sentencing arrangements do not match the serious nature of offences. Sixteen people have been killed since 2005 by dogs, yet the maximum prison sentence is just two years. Only one person has ever been imprisoned for a dog attack on a postal worker and as the fatality rate from dog attacks grows, sentencing must get tougher. This consultation is very welcome and hopefully indicates the government is serious about tackling the problem of irresponsible dog ownership. We want to see tougher sentencing, better enforcement and greater consistency in sentencing.

"At the moment, people are being handed vastly different sentences for very similar crimes, with one person receiving a suspended prison sentence while another walks away with just a £100 fine."

Last month, Jade Anderson's parents, along with the parents of four-year-old John Paul Massey, who died after his uncle's pitbull attacked him in 2009, handed in a petition at 10 Downing Street calling for David Cameron to take action to prevent more attacks.

They called for preventive measures and education to put a stop to the 210,000 attacks and 6,000 hospital visits caused by dangerous dogs each year.

© 2013 Guardian News and Media 

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