Saturday 16 May 2009
Deborah Orr: It's time to take a lead and get to grips with Britain's dog problem
The economy is in ruins. Democracy is in crisis. Both of these calamities can be traced back – by a five-year-old armed with a scrap of his mum's greaseproof paper – to legislation introduced under Thatcher and lasciviously petted by Blair and Brown. Yet argument rages over whose fault it all was. Maybe the folly of the past 30 years can be understood better by examining one tiny aspect of Thatcherite legislation. Can we all at least agree that abolishing the dog licence was not necessarily a great idea?
Certainly, the system in the 1970s was moribund. Only half of dog owners purchased a licence, at 37.5p, and it cost more to administer the scheme than it raised. No one was ever done for not having a licence, and like most poorly administered laws, dog-licensing had lost the confidence of the public.
Labour, in opposition, promised to introduce a national dog registration scheme that would provide the money for a dog warden service. But this never happened. Quite right too. The Conservatives argued that controlling dogs, and more pertinently their owners, was "essentially a local issue". That's is absolutely correct.
Owning a dog in a densely populated urban area, and using common public space to exercise it, is an entirely different matter to owning a dog in the countryside, and walking it on open moorland. The only real difficulty in the latter situation is dogs that are aggressive and badly trained enough to worry other animals. Since local magistrates have actually had the authority to order the destruction or alternative control of a dangerous dog since 1871, there has been a local solution to this difficulty for more than a century.
But in the former situation, irresponsible dog ownership causes no end of unpleasant inconvenience, sometimes even turning public spaces into no-go areas, and occasionally it leads to the maiming or killing of humans. Even responsible dog owners create a cost to the public purse, as the scooped poops of their animals have to be collected by the council. Clearing up after irresponsible owners costs a fortune, not least because they have a corrosive effect on their communities.
Yet, ostensibly against centralisation of government as they may have been, the Conservatives were also against decentralsation of power. Dog control may have been, for them, an "essentially local issue". But they also thought that a local tax was "not the most appropriate means of funding". Quite why, they didn't say. Ideological reasons, of course.
Nevertheless, the Conservatives did not hesitate to shower local authorities with statutory obligations, all of which cost money to enforce. Far from deregulating dog ownership, the Conservatives merely "salami-sliced" it, passing more and more responsibility on, but rationing local power. The licence was got rid of in 1987. But an avalanche of legislation followed.
A Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced in 1989; legislation on dog control was included in the Environmental Protection Act, 1991; another Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced, also in 1991, and a couple of private members' bills were launched to deal with sundry other problems. A Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act was introduced in 1996, and still nobody is happy with the nature of dog ownership in Britain (though Northern Ireland still has a licence scheme). In fact, in many respects, the problem is getting worse.
The least happy people are those responsible dog owners, the schmucks who were buying their licences in 1987, and who are now getting their dogs microchipped at great private expense and for little public benefit. We scrape our dog shit off the pavement, but our children still step in the shit of other dogs. We watch our children at a distance in the playground, because we're in the exercise area, the only scrap of the park where we can let our dog off his leash, because those irresponsible dog-owners won't respect the poorly regulated by-laws. And sometimes we are not in the designated exercise area either, because some clown has his mastiff in there, and he'll grunt that it isn't safe for our dog when his dog is around. Since there is a great big mastiff on his side of the argument, one generally acquiesces.
Yet dogs aren't people. They can be fitted with a microchip, and registered. Chipping of your dog should be, in areas where the issues around dog-ownership disrupt the community, an obligatory part of the process of gaining a licence. Vets should be obliged to report dogs that are not chipped; breeders should include the cost of chipping in the price of a dog. Suspect owners can be checked in a few keystrokes, if an address is supplied. Pensioners should get their licence for free, and council-tax payers should be able to insist that their local parks and shared spaces are uncluttered by unlicensed dogs and their shit.
There's much to be learned from the crisis in Parliament at present. But the most important one is that if the poor dears are so overworked and so underpaid, then we must do everything we can to get power and responsibility out of their hands, and into ours. Genuine local government of dogs is a start.
Katie, Peter, and a tale of sad banality
The rebranding exercise has faltered. When Jordan signed up to I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, in 2004, she had an agenda. The idea was to display her personality, alongside the implanted breasts that had previously been her main claim to fame. Goodbye Jordan, hello Katie Price. The glamour model arrived on the show as a bimbo with a reputation as a drunken poor mother, and left with an aura of mild complexity (relatively speaking) and a boyfriend.
One marriage, two children, loads of books, a brief pop career, millions of quid and hundreds of reality show moments later, and Jordan appears to be back. Her husband, Peter Andre, has ended their marriage, fed up with the way that his wife goes out to nightclubs and flirts with other men. She never, apparently, has sex with him any more, because she's too tired from practising her dressage.
The problem is that nobody believes them. Their plea for "privacy at this difficult time" has been greeted with derision. Their troubles are dismissed as a publicity stunt. But I believe them. What I see are two fragile and messed-up adults whose family life has collapsed under the weight of its pathetic contradictions. The sad banality of Mr and Mrs Andre has been revealed for the first time. No wonder so many people prefer to buy into "reality".
Beckett's tramps play the Brian Rix card
After a national tour, Sean Mathias's star-studded production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot has arrived in London's West End, to baffling acclaim. Simon Callow is wonderful as Pozzo. Ronald Pickup is magisterial as Lucky. Patrick Stewart is pretty good as Vladimir, but Ian McKellen plays Estragon like he's the grandad in a family sitcom.
One might be tempted to concede that three out of four ain't bad. But this is far from the case. The resulting failure of register is dismal. After two hours of watching two elderly men as they struggled to work out what their miserable lives had been for, the audience still laughed like they were on a canned track when Estragon's trousers fell down. He'd only removed the string to see if it was strong enough to hang himself – that's pathos, people, not ha-ha-guffaw.
Mathias has been praised for capturing the playful humour of Godot, when really he has merely taken existential farce and turned it into Brian Rix farce. The production only made me wonder what Beckett's life had been for, if contemporary critics can lap up such a travesty instead of wincing in shame at his memory. Beckett would not have allowed such a bowdlerised interpretation of his play to be staged. Now it's hailed as an "accessible" masterpiece. "What do we do now," you have to ask, "now that we are happy?" Just, wait, I guess. Who knows what for.
Sales of expensive barbecues are "defying the recession". Or people are entertaining at home, saving the cost of a restaurant and a babysitter, or maybe even a holiday abroad this summer. And having a fag if they fancy one. They were always defiant, those smokers.
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