The government has fudged the dog laws again. A written ministerial statement from the Department For Environment, Food And Rural Affairs was released today, with the promising title "Tackling Irresponsible Dog Ownership".
A statement had been widely anticipated but its content had only been guessed at. In the Daily Telegraph over the weekend, Germaine Greer called for stricter controls on dog ownership, including a licence for humans to have dogs. I wrote a counter-piece, suggesting that such a radical change was not needed. My own choice would be to follow the suggestions of the RSPCA, Dogs Trust and the Kennel Club, who have suggested simple measures such as universal microchipping of all dogs, along with new legal instruments such as Dog Control Orders which could be used to force irresponsible dog owners to smarten up.
So what did the government say? You can read the full statement for yourself, but it seems to me to come down to three main actions:
1) The extension of the Dangerous Dogs Act to include private property. While this will bring some relief to postmen and other casual visitors to doggy households, intruders should be aware that this specifically excludes "trespassers". It seems that dogs can continue to bite burglars' bums without fear of being sued.
2) The police will no longer automatically seize and kennel dogs that are accused of being "dangerous" pending the outcome of court proceedings. This will be a great relief to owners of Pitbull-look-alikes that ran the risk of being impounded because of a mischievous complaint from a neighbour. The civil servants in charge of police budgets will be relieved that they no longer will need to pay for months of boarding for dogs "awaiting trial".
3) The government has announced its intention to "introduce regulations under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 on microchipping to promote animal welfare by making it easier for local authorities and rescue centres to quickly re-unite stray dogs with their owners." And this is where the fudge comes in: a decision has not been made on how to do this. The government is going to have "a further consultation to give the public an opportunity to give their views".
Four possible methods of introducing microchipping are listed:
(i) requiring all dogs to be microchipped on transfer of ownership,
(ii) requiring all dogs to be microchipped from a certain date,
(iii) implementing a phased-in process, such as starting with compulsory microchipping on transfer of ownership and after five years moving to mandatory microchipping of all dogs, (iv) making breeders responsible for microchipping newly-born dogs before sale.
The government has said that this last option is "preferred" but as a way of dealing with the problem of irresponsible dog owners, it's surely the least effective choice.
Most of those working in this field (including the RSPCA, veterinary organisations, Dogs Trust and the Kennel Club) have made it clear that they believe that compulsory microchipping would make a significant difference to both animal welfare and human safety. Why not just bite the bullet, and go for option (ii) with all dogs being microchipped from a given date?
And as for the other sensible suggestions of Dog Control Orders, why has nothing been mentioned?
It seems that the government has chosen to ignore the sensible advice of those working with dogs on the ground, and instead has decided to kick the "dogs" issue further down the road for someone else to tackle.