Dirty Dogs Campaign: Why the laws on dogs must change: MPs take up our campaign - and readers demand that all dogs be registered. Rosanna de Lisle reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
AT THE start of the Dirty Dogs Campaign we asked readers what should be done about the problem of dog fouling. We have received hundreds of letters, and more than half of them have made the same demand: that any solution must begin with the introduction of compulsory dog registration.

Since the dog licence was abolished in 1988, there has been no national record of Britain's estimated 7.5 million dog population. This means that irresponsible owners are going unchecked, and that strays cannot be recorded. Compulsory registration would provide a framework within which to tackle all problems of dog control. It would not only promote good dog ownership by making it possible to identify those who allow their dogs to stray and foul. A registration fee could also raise money for local authorities to spend on extra dog wardens, education for dog-owners and better facilities for dogs in parks.

Our readers are not alone. Dog registration is supported by the RSPCA, the British Veterinary Association, the Police Federation, the National Farmers' Union, and many other organisations. Registration is official policy for Labour and the Liberal Democrats. It is compulsory in Denmark, France, Italy and Northern Ireland. Public opinion is greatly in favour - according to a survey conducted last year by Research International 95 per cent of people want registration of all dogs and owners in Britain. If so many people want registration, why don't we have it?

The short answer is that the Government is firmly opposed. The dog licence - devised as a tax to raise money for the Royal Navy in 1796 - was abolished in 1988 by Margaret Thatcher and Nicholas Ridley, then Environment Secretary. Priced at just 37 pence, it was costing pounds 3.5m to collect and raising about pounds 900,000 - good enough reason, they said, to change the system. A higher licence fee was mooted from 1976, and in 1984 Patrick Jenkin, an earlier Environment Secretary, won Cabinet approval (though not parliamentary time) for a registration scheme. However, the decision taken in 1988 was not to change the dog licence to make it work, but to get rid of it altogether: the Thatcherite policy of deregulation, already applied to our public utilities, was extended to the nation's dogs.

The dog licence did not go quietly. The RSPCA mounted an intensive campaign, and in 1990, the House of Lords amended the Environmental Protection Bill, proposing a pounds 20m compulsory registration scheme.

In October 1990 the Government narrowly escaped defeat when the House of Commons voted 274 to 271 to ignore the Lords' amendment. Despite a three-line whip, 43 Conservative backbenchers rebelled. The majority of three was achieved by the recall of ministers from abroad. Government whips had insisted that Ian Lang, then Scottish Industry Minister, fly back from an official trip to Japan to take part in the division. They also recalled Lynda Chalker from a mission in Brazil and Tim Eggar from a conference in Barbados.

Quite why the Thatcher Government felt so strongly about the issue remains unclear. Was dog registration rejected out of ideological zeal or because the Government was determined to avoid any parliamentary defeat whatsoever?

The subject reared its head again in 1991, when the Dangerous Dogs Bill was being debated. But John Major told the Commons that a national registration scheme would be 'ineffective, bureaucratic, expensive to operate and difficult to enforce.' The bill was pushed through by guillotine motion without a vote on registration.

The Government remains entrenched. 'Registration wouldn't work,' claims a spokesman at the Department of the Environment. 'It would be 20 times harder to register dogs than cars. Irresponsible owners would not bother. Is it fair to put the burden on the responsible owners?'

The DoE's views are shared by the Kennel Club, which registers pedigree dogs. But, says Graham Allen, opposition spokesman for home affairs: 'Those arguments are the province of a very small minority. The vast majority of people want action. ' To the RSPCA and many other concerned groups, registration is an essential first step to solving the problems caused by irresponsible dog ownership.

The second step: a national law

MANY of our readers also called for national legislation on fouling: although some areas have 'poop scoop' bylaws (and Scotland has a national law aleady) these are not enough. The Tidy Britain Group, the National Dog Wardens Association and Community Hygiene Concern believe that there should be one national, uniform law requiring owners to clean up after their dogs in public places. Dog wardens should be empowered to fine owners who flout the law, with a maximum penalty in line with that for litter offences: pounds 2,500. 'This would end the confusion of whether 'to scoop or not to scoop' ' says the NDWA. The DoE is currently 'looking' at the idea.

LAST week in parliament, Chris Mullin MP tabled an Early Day Motion supporting the Independent on Sunday's Dirty Dogs Campaign, which puts the issue of dog fouling and irresponsible owners firmly back on the political agenda. An amendment to it has also been tabled calling for registration. As we report today, the motion is attracting wide support from MPs. If you support our Dirty Dogs Campaign, please write to your MP asking him or her to sign this motion.

Next week: Could the dog food companies do more to help?