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Environment Bill may be election casualty

THE LABOUR Government faces losing most of the Bills now before Parliament if Prime Minister Tony Blair calls a general election in early May as expected, amongst them one of the key measures to affect dog owners, the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill.

The Bill, which contains controversial new powers for councils to deal with abandoned cars, graffiti, litter, fly-posting, stray dogs and dog fouling along with the even more controversial ID Cards Bill had their second readings this week in the Lords. But neither measure will complete their Parliamentary passage in time for a May election.

Mr Blair is expected to see the Queen on April 4 and ask her to dissolve Parliament on April 11, leaving the minimum time for a 3 and a half week campaign before polling day on May 5. This would leave a week for negotiations on outstanding Bills, known in Westminster as the "wash-up", during which the Tories plan to dig in their heels and veto most uncompleted Bills.


Oliver Heald, the Shadow Leader of the Commons, said: "If the Prime Minister decides to have a general election a third of the way into the parliamentary year he cannot expect to get many Bills through. We cannot pass bad laws just because he decides to go to the country."

As previously reported in OUR DOGS, Dog Wardens have expressed deep concern over the likelihood of a ‘24 hour Dog Warden service’ as the new legislation was planned to ‘free the police’ from any obligation for the collection and holding of stray dogs out of hours.

Concern was raised about exactly who would be responsible for the apprehension and care of stray dogs out of normal office hours when Local Authority Dog Wardens have gone home for the day.

Tory MP Derek Conway commented at the time about the lack of provision in the Bill for an out-of-hours and weekend Dog Warden service, saying: "The council dog warden scheme is remarkable. There are many dedicated men and women out there in the most dreadful conditions and weather, in poky little vans, doing a great deal to round up stray dogs and find their owners or, if they cannot, have the dogs taken into care. The dog wardens, who are represented on a number of animal welfare charity forums, do a splendid job for pretty poor pay and in dreadful working conditions. They do that job pretty well 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. There are exceptions, but not many.

"Out-of-hours cover is necessarily provided by the police. Although the Government will doubtless elucidate this in Committee, I can find no reference in the Bill to what will happen after 5 pm or before 9 am and on Saturdays and Sundays, when council dog wardens are not available. No doubt the Minister will also tell us the cost involved, but that too is not really dealt with in the Bill.

"Where will a wandering dog be taken? If a dog is worrying children in a park, who will come? Most people would think of calling the police, for not enough dog wardens are floating around local authority areas for them to be on patrol as often as the police should be. In many of our constituencies, there is likely to be confusion over who is responsible for controlling stray dogs that worry children in public play areas."

Grim reality

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Margaret Beckett, tried to reassure the Commons that Local Authorities would be able to retain all receipts from fixed penalties such as fines for dog fouling. This, she said, would help to offset the cost of enforcing the new legislation. However, the grim reality, outlined by the National Dog Warden Association is that this small gesture of Westminster largesse would do nothing to prevent a funding shortfall running into millions of pounds.

Steve O’Brien Training Officer of the National Dog Warden Association said: "The proposals for the removal of the police responsibility for strays leave local authorities responsible, in entirety, for 'stray dogs'. But consider this: in 1998 in a Kennel Club/RSPCA sponsored report the cost of stray dogs to the police was put at £15 million per year (on figures supplied by the police). By the time the 2002 O'Dowd Report on police bureaucracy strongly suggested that responsibility for stray dogs be placed with local authorities the police put their costs for dealing with stray dogs at £1.8 million (about one eighth of the 1998 claim). The consultation and Bill for the Clean
Neighbourhoods legislation not only took the later figure but also stated that there was no need for a RIA (regulatory impact assessment) on the revision of this service. In effect this is stating that there will not be a significant cost to local authorities in replacing the service removed by the police…

"A local authority cannot fund the infrastructure the police are so keen to destroy; it cannot fund the safety of officers who do not work in a police service with 21st century communications, mutual support and 'police powers'. The replacement of the status quo needs far more careful consideration and a greater sensitivity to the mistakes of the past than the Clean Neighbourhoods Bill suggests in its current form."