Leading Article: Too long a leash for safety

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The Independent Online
THE Dangerous Dogs Act was a rushed and muddled response to the spate of near-fatal attacks by pit-bull terriers last summer. The Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, is coming under pressure to relax its provisions. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals wants magistrates given greater freedom to punish owners of offending dogs rather than ordering the destruction of the creatures as the Act compels them to do. Yet the law is, if anything, too weak, and it is not being enforced with rigour and consistency.

Section 1 of the Act deals with 'dogs of the type known as pit-bull terriers'. For no good reason it ignores other killer breeds such as the rottweiler, used to patrol Nazi concentration camps, and the dobermann, employed by border guards in former Communist states. Those pit-bull terriers not registered and tagged must be put down, as must any pit-bull terrier not muzzled and leashed in public. But there is no assessment of the fitness of the owner or of the accommodation for the dog - and no possibility of rejecting a permit application. A youth with a criminal record living at the top of a tower block on an inner-city housing estate has every right under the Act to his pit-bull terrier.

The Government estimates that there were, when the Act came into force, 10,000 of these animals in the country. Fewer than 1,000 have been put down voluntarily. Some 5,000 permits have been granted. (Given that the previous Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker, defined these dogs as being 'bred to fight', this is almost certainly 5,000 too many.) As for the remaining 4,000, the police do not seem anxious to trace owners who have not registered and to seek court orders for the destruction of their dogs.

The Act imposes an automatic death sentence on a dog of any breed if it is 'dangerously' out of control and has committed an 'aggravated offence' such as attacking a person. The Home Office, surprisingly, does not know the number of dogs destroyed under this provision. But many magistrates interpret the words 'dangerously' and 'aggravated' very narrowly, in order to avoid having to issue destruction orders. They need no further discretion.

The law is, in short, a mess. What is needed is a system of registration and graduated controls. All dogs should be licensed, and licences should carry a significant charge. They should be issued only when applicants could demonstrate that their dogs were insured. Market forces would then impose a hefty premium on those wishing to insure anti-social animals. Licences should be granted only in exceptional circumstances for pit-bull terriers and other dangerous breeds. Those seeking permits should be able to demonstrate that they are 'responsible persons' and can provide adequate kennelling and exercise facilities.