New stray dog laws come in to force
NEW LAWS governing the handling of stray dogs come into force next Monday (April 6). From this date, police in England and Wales will no longer have responsibility to take in stray dogs, leaving local councils with the sole responsibility of accepting lost or unwanted dogs.
The change, put in place by section 68 of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, means that if a person finds a stray dog, they can no longer simply take it to their local police station. Local authorities will have the responsibility of creating ‘acceptance points’ where stray dogs can be taken – but many observers, including the UK’s leading canine charity, Dogs Trust fear that vague wording in the guidance on the new law could lead to dangerous loopholes in the service.
Although some local authorities have put new arrangements in place – including the use of private contractors for ‘out of hours’ stray collection, a significant number of local authorities are not geared up for the change.
In early March, according to BBC TV's Eye On Wales programme, only 11 of Wales’ 22 local authorities had yet to finalise their responsibilities over the matter… and the situation is feared to be as bad elsewhere in the UK.
The Dogs Trust said it had concerns and feared a ‘disaster’. It said it had worries that ‘packs of dogs would be left roaming the streets’ and owners would be unable to find missing pets. Dogs Trust Veterinary Director Chris Laurence explained the difficulties of the issue: ‘We are concerned that stray dogs may be left wandering the streets during times when dog wardens are not available, such as weekends.’
Under new DEFRA guidelines, issued to all LAs in October 2007, Local authorities need to establish ‘acceptance points’ where the public can take a stray dog out of hours. People will not be able to take a dog to a police station.
As previously reported, the charity’s comments did not go down well with dog wardens however, Sue Bell, President of the National Dog Warden Association commented: ‘Angry Dog Wardens have contacted the Nationa lDog Warden Association to express their disbelief at the comments made on behalf of the Dogs Trust, as it is well known that this charity along with other well known dog related organisations, including the RSPCA and Kennel Club, were consulted by DEFRA on this so called transfer of responsibilities before it was introduced by Section 68 of the Clean Neighbourhoods & Environment Act 2005 - and did not object to it.
‘DEFRA’s guidance for the change only states that councils accept dogs ‘out of hours’ ‘where practicable’ and further states that there is no need for a dog capture or collection service only the provision of an ‘acceptance point’ or points to which the public can take stray dogs. There is documentary evidence in the form of news items on the NDWA website as well as documents and discussion papers that NDWA has put forward, but sadly without the ‘clout’ that some wealthy animal welfare charities have. NDWA was then and remains now opposed to ‘acceptance points’ due to the issue of liability, what happens when the finder of a dog is told by the ‘council’ to take it to their local ‘acceptance point’ and it attacks them or causes damage to the finders vehicle? As the council, as opposed to the law, told the person to take the dog to a certain location, will the council not be liable?
The DEFRA guidelines state that ‘expectations of the legal duties that rest with local authorities in England and Wales with respect to stray dogs,’ as enshrined in the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (referred to as the 1990 Act) and the Environmental Protection (Stray Dogs) Regulations 1992 (known as the 1992 Regulations), the Control of Dogs Order 1992 (the 1992 Order) and ‘other matters related to the control of dogs.’
The guidance goes on to state it includes references to animal welfare conditions as set out in section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 - which imposes a statutory duty of care on all owners and keepers to provide for the welfare needs of their animals – “a duty of care”)- and the kenneling standards published by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, entitled Model Licence Conditions and Guidance for Dog Boarding Establishments.
It is clear that DEFRA expect LAs to discharge their responsibilities by informing the public of the change in the law: ‘It is possible that the public will continue to contact the police in relation to stray dogs. Authorities are therefore strongly recommended to supply their local police stations with relevant details such as phone numbers and addresses of acceptance points, especially those that operate outside office hours. It is strongly advised that posters detailing new provisions should be placed at any collection point no longer used to accept stray dogs in the area, and all other places that are relevant to changes in provision.’
Local authorities must appoint an officer for the purpose of discharging their stray dog functions. Whilst these functions can be delegated to other persons, the appointed officer retains overall responsibility for ensuring that the authority’s stray dog functions are discharged correctly.
The guidance adds, however: ‘Authorities may find it practical to appoint a senior officer… but to delegate the day-to-day responsibilities to dog wardens or other persons such as a contractor. If responsibility is delegated the officer should ensure they have appropriate training and skills.’
Seizure of stray dogs
On the matter of actual strays themselves, the guidance makes the interesting legal point that ‘There is no statutory definition of a stray dog.’ It goes onto state: ‘ However, any dog found in a public place, or private place where it should not be, which appears to be without its owner and not under the control of its owner or a person representing them, may be seized and detained as a stray dog by an appropriate person. ‘Where an officer finds in a public place a dog he believes to be stray, he shall seize and detain the dog. However if the dog is on land or premises which is not a public place, the officer must first gain the permission of the owner or occupier of the land or premises.
Authorities are told that they must publicise the phone numbers of relevant officers so that the public can report stray dogs. Authorities are advised to publicise such phone numbers as widely as possible including on their website and at local police stations.
Out of hours facilities are covered, but remain somewhat vague: ‘Authorities are not required to offer a night-time call-out service to seize and detain stray dogs seen or found by the public. However, contact numbers for out of hours cover should be widely publicised to enable ‘finders’ to take a dog to an acceptance point. As a minimum this should include websites, police and authority offices and acceptance points (past and present). The responsibility for functions can be delegated to third parties. Authorities are expected to provide the most cost effective service possible.’
No mention is made of what the ‘finder’ is supposed to do with the dog if the acceptance point is not open 24 hours a day – and few kennels, even those contracted to councils to take in stray dogs, operate a 24 hour service. If the finder was, say, to ‘hold on’ to the dog overnight – as some have been advised to do by the police and other agencies in the past, under the current arrangements – then they are, technically, guilty of ‘theft by finding’.
Councils are also expected to use education into responsible dog ownership as a key element in reducing the number of stray dogs and dangerous dogs and protecting the welfare of animals. The guidelines state: ‘It is therefore important that officers consider the most effective methods for how they can promote and raise the profile of responsible dog ownership within their area. This may include visits to national/local dog welfare or dog owning organisations, kennels and schools in their area. Officers should publish any information on responsible dog ownership on their website.’
Hastings in Sussex is one of the LAs which has adopted private enterprise for dealing with its strays. The council has appointed Animal Wardens Ltd to take over the running of its stray dog control services, in line with many other local authorities across the country. Staff from Animal Wardens will take responsibility for picking up strays, taking them to holding kennels and where possible, reuniting them with owners; powers which were previously shared by the council and Sussex Police.
As before, there is a charge for the return of dogs to their owners, which covers transportation, kennelling and any animal health bills. The service is available 24-hours, seven days a week.
Animal Wardens Ltd will not be dealing with other dog control issues such as fouling, dogs off leads, and so on. Council staff will continue to enforce these laws. It is expected that the same will be true of many other private operators acting for councils across England and Wales.
Whether the new arrangements work well or not, however, remains to be seen over the coming weeks.
Sue Bell of the NDWA concludes: ‘DEFRA and their advisors had plenty of opportunity to introduce a system for dealing with stray dogs that was fit for purpose for the 21st century, unfortunately it will be more likely, fit for the 19th century, but please don’t blame the councils or their Dog Wardens, blame the government, their civil servants and their advisors for this impending ’disaster’ as either leaving the status quo or realising in advance the size of funding and type of service necessary to be created to improve on it might have prevented this situation.’