Dirty Dogs Campaign: Our campaign wins a Minister's promise: John Gummer pledges a review of dog fouling laws. Sarah Strickland reports

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JOHN Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, has promised to review the laws on dog fouling. Speaking to the Independent on Sunday on Friday, he said: 'I think the best way to overcome this (problem), is by dog-owners recognising that they have responsibility. If the law isn't right, and if it doesn't cover the thing effectively, then we will have to look at it.'

It is now seven weeks since the start of our Dirty Dogs Campaign: letters continue to pour into the office and more than 70 MPs have signed the Commons motion brought by Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, supporting the Independent on Sunday's campaign.

Mr Mullin raised the subject in Parliament again last Wednesday, asking Robert Atkins, Minister of State for the Environment, what plans the Government had to encourage local authorities to deal with the problem. Mr Atkins replied that although the Government was 'very concerned' it believed it was 'primarily a matter for local authorities.'

Mr Mullin said the reply was 'hopelessly inadequate' and pressed him to 'take a lead' in making public places available to all. The discussion soon dissolved into hilarity when Mr Atkins, referring to divided public opinion, said he did not want to 'fall between two stools'.

Earlier in the week, however, in a written parliamentary answer to David Porter, Conservative MP for Waveney, Mr Atkins had signalled tougher action. The DoE's advisory group on litter was considering both national legislation to make it an offence for anyone to allow a dog to foul a public area, and defining dog mess as litter, thus raising the maximum fine for fouling a public place from pounds 500 to pounds 2,500.

A petition handed in by schoolchildren in his constituency had prompted Mr Porter to ask what plans the Government had to amend the law. The children had been forced to abandon their football matches on Bixley Green, Lowestoft, because the grass was littered with dog mess.

Mr Porter said the situation had become 'intolerable'. Brian Burrage, dog chief of Waveney district council, called the present situation ludicrous.

'At the moment the only thing you can drop legally in a public place is dog mess and if it was a choice between sitting on that or a cigarette pack I know which I'd choose,' he said. He supports the idea of national legislation. At present, local authorities can adopt by-laws making it an offence for owners not to clear up after their dogs in designated areas, with maximum fines of pounds 500. But, as Mr Burrage points out, the authority must apply to the DoE and the process can take months.

Kate Coles, for the National Dog Warden Association (NDWA), said: 'The problem now is that each council is operating a different system.' She believes the law should be changed to make it an offence to foul anywhere unless it is cleared up. The threat of higher fines might make people realise they were taking a serious risk.

Sue Bell, chair of the NDWA, was more dubious. 'Who is going to police this?' she asked. 'The trouble is you need eyewitnesses and people who are prepared to go to court. There will always be those who won't pick up their dog's mess even if the fine was pounds 1m.'

Claris Wickenden, health education officer for Weymouth and Portland borough council, supports the idea of a national law but wants dog wardens to be given the same power as police to stop people and ask for their name and address. 'Members of the public are not willing to go to court because they are so frightened of reprisals,' she said. Giving wardens more power would make it easier to endorse on-the-spot fines and enable them to take more cases to court.

The Tidy Britain Group has long been calling for national legislation. Angela Court, its spokeswoman, said the litter laws were 'definitely working' but admitted not knowing how they would work when applied to dog fouling. In 1992, 1,639 people were prosecuted for littering, with fines averaging pounds 50.

Gerry Lloyd, of the RSPCA, said increasing the maximum fine was simply a 'cosmetic' step to make the Government look as if it was getting tough. 'The size of the fine is an irrelevance, not a deterrent. What matters to people is whether they are going to get caught or not. We need effective enforcement and the key is permanent registration, linking dogs with their owners, and effective dog warden schemes.'

What emerges is a need to establish clear laws about dog fouling (whether local or national) and the means to enforce them - registration and more dog wardens with increased powers. Our Dirty Dogs Campaign will continue to press the case.

(Photograph omitted)

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