Breed-specific legislation and the dangers of evidence-free policy-making

rspca_-_bsl_dogs_dinnerI was interested to read David Cavill’s latest blog where he sings the praises of the RSPCA for their report on the Dangerous Dogs Act (DDA). ‘Breed Specific Legislation – a Dog’s Dinner‘ sets out the history of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), its lack of effectiveness and proposes a number of solutions and recommendations.

The report concludes: ‘The RSPCA strongly believes that the evidence presented in this report clearly shows that BSL has been ineffective in achieving its goals of protecting public safety and reducing the number of prohibiting types of dogs.  Since its introduction in 1991 a significant proportion of dogs involved in fatal incidents are not those prohibited by law and hospital admissions due to dog bites have increased substantially in the past decade despite the provisions.’

It is truly shocking that, despite all the evidence, the Government still seems to believe that breed specific legislation is the answer. It was evident after just 5 years that it was not working as there had been no significant reduction in dog bites between 1991 and 1996.

Quite how this situation has been allowed to continue is puzzling since government is supposed to follow the principles of evidence-based policy-making. The whole point of this approach is that government asks Civil Servants to review and analyse the available data before drafting legislation. They should also be analysing the counterfactuals – what would happen in the absence of the policy or legislation.

Of course, all this is designed to avoid policies being developed either as a knee-jerk reaction to circumstances (exactly what happened with the DDA) or on the basis of a politician’s personal agenda or ministerial whim.

David describes the Dangerous Dogs Act as a “car crash piece of legislation” with a whole load of unintended consequences. He also points out that many of the parties who could make a difference seldom work together in a coordinated way because they are more interested in protecting their own “brand”. With true collaboration, pooled resources and a coordinated approach there might just be a chance of reducing dog bites and fatalities. After all, that’s what everyone wants to achieve.

Politicians and those in positions of power, such as ministers, are notoriously bad at asking for data and evidence, let alone using it to inform decisions. Steve Dean also noted this recently in his Our Dogs article on the outcomes of the EFRACom review of canine welfare issues. His article “Poor research and little science” discussed the lack of critical information to support the committee’s views and recommendations. He concluded by saying “attempting to impose sanctions on the majority, to deal with a disreputable minority, is a repetitive misdemeanor of governing bodies“.

Politicians too often look for simple solutions to complex problems. The last thing they want to do is to look at the data or evidence because these would undermine the rationale for their current “pet policy”. As a consequence, they end up implementing the wrong solution to the wrong problem which is what has happened with the Dangerous Dogs Act. They also end up with unintended consequences and even more bad publicity!

You can read the RSPCA Report here.

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