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Successful petition against restrictions

The Pet Care Trust and the Kennel Club have successfully petitioned against a clause in the London Authorities Private Bill that would have placed restrictions on dogs owners in the greater London area.

A Private Bill is one sponsored by a public body such as a local authority. It enacts what is called primary legislation so, in effect, it becomes the law even though it has not be proposed or supported by government. Private Bills get very little press coverage and legislation is often ‘slipped through’ without anyone noticing.

In this instance, the Pet Care Trust, a charity representing professional organisations and individuals in the animal care sector noticed a clause in a Bill that began its progress through Parliament two years ago that would have given London Borough Councils the right to demand that anyone walking more than three dogs in London parks should have a licence to do so. This included pet owners walking their own dogs as well as ‘professional’ dog walkers, some of whom were beginning to be a ‘problem’ to parks authorities and dog wardens in the Wandsworth area.

The Pet Care Trust brought the proposed legislation to the attention of the Dog Legislation Advisory Committee (DLAG) that arose from the disbanded Dangerous Dogs Act Reform Group under the auspices of the Kennel Club. The group were concerned that such legislation could quickly be picked up by other local authorities or even the government and would be a quick and convenient route to substantially reducing the number of dogs that people could own.

There is already a little known regulation that is attached to planning laws that can, if the local authority wants to, be invoked to require a dog owner to apply for planning permission if they want to keep more than five dogs and it was felt that this clause could be used in a similar way.

Of course, there were practical welfare considerations, too. If you restrict the number of dogs that can be walked at any one time it also restricts the amount of exercise that any individual dog can be given. It would also mean that the costs for those who use professional dog walkers would increase sharply too. At the same time such legislation increases bureaucracy and is a further restriction on civil liberties. It was true that there was a minor problem in Wandsworth parks but such primary legislation was the perfect example of using a sledge hammer to crack a peanut.

DELAG, an informal group that includes the RSPCA, the Blue Cross, NCDL, and the National Dog Wardens’ Association among others agreed that the PCT and the Kennel Club should being a petition against the clause. The Bill started its progress through the House of Lords and once the petition had been made a meeting was held with the local authority (Wandsworth) that was sponsoring the Bill on behalf of all the London councils. The result was that they agreed to increase the number of dogs by one to ‘four or mare’ but were not prepared to go any further. The PCT and the KC reserved their petition and agreed that they would formally request that is was heard as the Bill went through the Commons.

This is an expensive business. Petitions are heard before a committee of Members of Parliament. A barrister or a Parliamentary specialist Solicitor (more expensive than your average Barrister, incidentally) and a team of advisors are required. The paperwork is endless!

The petition came to the Commons on September 9th and 10th. The Kennel Club was represented by its secretary, Caroline Kisko and the Pet Care Trust by David Cavill. The presentation of a petition is a very formal occasion. Evidence is admitted (the bundle) and witnesses are sworn in who are questioned by the promoter of the Bill’s representative. The main witness for the promoter was the local authority officer with responsibility for Wandsworth Parks. He explained why the local authorities wanted the clause and why it should be primary legislation rather than a local byelaw. ‘Control’ was the basis on which this idea had been put forward. With six ‘dog control officers’ and a team of parks police dog walkers were ‘causing a problem’ because they ‘would not do what they were told’. The evidence in the ‘bundle’ was rather thin, apart from an unhelpful letter from Battersea Dogs’ Home that completely missed the point because, somewhat naturally, it gave an assessment based on stray dogs. It certainly did not address the issues that were under discussion.
He was then questioned by the PCT and KC Solicitor and, after than by the MPs.

David Cavill took the stand and explained through the same process why the Pet Care Trust felt that the Bill was inappropriate. He said that it would not only be ineffective because it could not achieve its objective but that it was an administratively clumsy piece of legislation that had not been fully thought through. The Bill failed partly because no consultation had taken place with those who were likely to understand the problem and who could have made effective suggestion that would not have required primary legislation. He was followed by Caroline Kisko whose evidence dealt with the welfare aspects of the legislation and the impact on pet owners who had more than four dogs.

It sound quick and easy but it took over four hours and the transcript, the word for word report, runs to over sixty A4 pages! You can read exactly what was said by going to www.office.co.uk/pa/cm200203/cmselect/cmllaweb/30910/3091001.htm on the Internet and reading from question 414 to 599.

Once all the evidence had been taken the committee retired to decided whether the petition had been ‘proved’. They came to the conclusion that Wandsworth’s concerns were such that they were not prepared to delete the clause entirely but they have asked that the terms of the clause be re-negotiated so that the law will apply to dogs being exercised ‘off the lead’. The final decision has not yet been made and if local councils use this law the bureaucracy will still be there but the requirements of the Bill are now likely to be reasonable rather than restrictive.

The Kennel Club and the Pet Care Trust can be justly proud of this initiative. There have been protests in the past but this is the first time that primary legislation has been successfully modified prior to its going on the Statute Book. Let us hope that our legislators will learn from the experience and think more carefully before bringing forward such unnecessary legislation in the future.