The following in depth, informative article was written by Cuthbert Jackson in April of last year. It is a comprehensive insight in to UK stray dog laws – an area that seems to cause confusion even for people who work in the dog world professionally!
On Friday the 4th of April 2008 the Dogs Trust and the RSPCA got advance statements and interviews into the media regarding the police relinquishing their duty to receive stray dogs on Sunday April 6th. To hear their various representatives (Clarrissa Baldwin, Chris Lawrence, Piers Coughlan) or read their statements you might share their shock and horror as the government sprang this terrible outrage – packs of dogs may soon be roaming the streets they suggested. But for most of the (dog loving) public, this weekend will have been the first time they have heard of this, and righteous indignation at the further callous treatment of dogs by ‘government’ will be roused; maybe you are one such person reading this; if so please read on.
Dogs (as Dog Theft Action, DogLostUK, and numerous other groups keen to highlight the ‘theft’ of dogs point out) are a ‘chattel’ – property. It has therefore always been appropriate that they be dealt with as such by the police. But this ‘property’ is living and can hardly be put in a property store when the honest person finding it takes it and hands it in. So since the Dogs Act 1906 was introduced police stations were equipped to deal with this living ‘property’ and police stations were built incorporating kennels to which the public could hand in dogs (discharging their duty under the Act – failure, as a ‘finder’, to deal with property as the law requires is theft).
Move on from 1906 and you will find that post-war the numbers of dogs in the UK increased dramatically, pet ownership became popular and with that the numbers of pet dogs needing to be dealt with under the Act increased – with an incremental increase in the problems of noise etc. created at the police stations; making this a very unpopular ‘duty’! As the problems increased, so taking in strays became less popular with the police and discussions began regarding the introduction of a Service to exert more control over the growing problems created by stray dogs.
In these discussions (post 1975 pre 1990) where this Service would sit and what it would do were both looked at. The police really wanted rid of involvement and the animal welfare groups (notably JACOPIS under Lord Houghton of Sowerby) wanted to ensure that such a Service would educate as well as enforce and ‘dog warden’ services were already developing in local authority control (rather than a National Dog Warden Service based with the Police) – taking dogs home, providing advice, taking dogs to the police as strays etc. So, in 1990, the Environmental Protection Act formalised the (enforcement) duties of the local authority requiring that they “appoint an officer” to deal with stray dogs and discharge the function of the Act “to seize stray dogs where practicable” (so no standard national Service, as such, was created).
Almost the first effect was that on the 1st of April 1990 the police turned away dog wardens taking stray dogs to them. Chief Constables instructed their stations that dog wardens were no longer ‘the public’ (entitled to take strays to the police) and local authorities were expected to create kennelling facilities of their own. So local authorities created services (rather than a Service) and, over the next decade, those services got to grips with the extensive stray dog problems; nationally dealing with around 150,000 dogs in 1993 and bringing that down to around 100,000 now. (In 1991 guidance and letters on the implementation of the Dangerous Dogs Act for the first time gave local authority officers with operational functions within the Act the title ‘dog wardens’ providing powers, but not a ‘duty’, to deal with ‘dangerous dogs’).
During this time however as well as explicit powers to deal with dangerous dogs (somewhat greater than those given to the local authority – ‘dog warden’) the police retained their duty to receive stray dogs from the public, which meant that from time to time there were still noisy dogs locked in police station kennels annoying policemen (no legislation they have worked under has given them a duty to proactively seize strays or rush to complaints about strays running loose).
Best practice which did develop, but was not recognised, showed that mutually satisfactory arrangements could be made between the police and local authorities working to the benefit of the public; enabling the public to take dogs they found to the police station which then arranged for their rapid transfer to the dog warden. This also meant that the public could hand in dogs at evenings and the weekend at police stations equipped to deal with them and they would be dealt with, first by the police and then by the dog warden on the first working day he or she was available, both services keeping in close contact about each case, both services taking a part in dealing with strays and dangerous dogs each case presented – as most appropriate to the ‘powers’ and ‘duties’ given to them in the law.
But not everywhere moved towards best practice partnerships; some Constabularies made it quite clear that even if they were still legally responsible for the receipt of strays they could pull kennels down and turn the public away; and some Chief Police Officers, notably Richard Brunstrom, North Wales Chief Constable and lead officer on ‘dogs’ for the ACPO, worked hard towards getting rid of any involvement with dogs; comments in his personal blog are very revealing. The Police badgered their department (the Home Office) to get rid of their duties towards dogs and after the O’Dowd report portrayed stray dogs as just more bureaucracy which the modern police force could do without – the writing was on the wall.
But first comes a little twist; the police were supported in this desire to get rid of stray dogs by those the government consults on animal welfare issues. Yes, dog loving public, the Dogs Trust, the RSPCA and the Kennel Club were there in the consultations which led to s68 of the Clean Neighbourhoods Act 2005; the section introduced on Sunday April 6th 2008.
On the principal basis that the police were not very good at looking after stray dogs, and rather than demanding police improvement or movement towards the best practices outlined previously in this article, the charities used as advisors supported the (police) proposals to remove the police responsibility without obtaining any apparent clarity regarding what this would entail. Their support for this move was unrelenting, the problems to which it would inevitably lead were glossed over and, just for the record, it was the same advisors that were consulted, on the same Act, which led to the introduction of the Dog Control Order system they now so roundly condemn local authorities for attempting to use. But more is to come.
These organisations now speak as experts on ‘stray dogs’. You, the dog loving public, probably associate them in your mind with caring for thousands of ‘stray dogs’. But would you like to ask these honourable organisations how many of their shelters have actually entered into contracts with local authorities for the reception of stray dogs since the early 1990s when, local authorities became responsible for finding kennelling for stray dogs they were dealing with? You may be surprised.
The ‘Charities’ have no statutory duty with regard to stray dogs in fact they are just like any member of the public if a stray dog is presented to them; their explicit duties in law are as a ‘finder’. For them to keep a stray dog without the knowledge of the local authority of the area in which it had been found is illegal, furthermore for them to do so is bad practice potentially preventing the reunion of a stray with its rightful owner. But very, very few of the best know charities, which the public associate with stray dogs, are willing to enter into formal contracts with local authorities to provide kennelling; reunification with owners; and re-homing, or humane destruction for those dogs not claimed; and, it should also be understood that those which do are paid by the local authority for, at least, the first seven days during which the dogs are held.
Apart from a few selective exceptions local authorities have always been expected to find and pay for kennelling for their stray dogs for the mandatory seven day period during which the dog may be claimed by its owner; after that, if they are lucky, the dog warden might be able to negotiate a stray, which has completed the its seven days, into one of the main charities for re-homing (and this is the only way ‘strays‘ should come into their kennels), but such a move will rarely be guaranteed for every dog.
So into an already under funded service that will rarely have the cooperation of a major animal charity for the day to day reception of its strays, those charities have helped deliver sole responsibility for dealing with stray dogs. Nor do they apply to provide dog warden services to local authorities – those local authorities which choose to ‘contract out’ their dog warden service will usually be doing so to profit based limited liability companies; the one charity which once did try to run some dog warden services (Woodgreen Animal Shelter) no longer does so. All the contract companies are profit based and the first thing you can guarantee is that their wardens will not even receive pay equivalent to ‘in house’ wardens working for local authorities; and most ‘in house’ wardens will only reach scale 3 or 4 on the local government pay-scale!
Another interesting point: on April 6th dogs became the only type of property which the police have no responsibility to receive, or to make a record of its discovery, or to make a record of its loss (though there may be some argument regarding the record of loss as if theft is alleged it should be recorded by the police and be provided with a crime number – the difficulty is what is the evidence of the crime? Many of those alleging dog theft appear to have no genuine evidence indicating theft at all and the police could, in the opinion of this writer, quite reasonably, refuse to give the allegation any credence; without evidence a ‘lost’ dog is not necessarily a ‘stolen’ dog anymore than a ‘lost’ wallet is a ‘stolen’ wallet, and a crime number would not be given for a ‘lost’ wallet either!
On the other hand the local authority, which has a legal obligation to keep a record of each and every stray dog it deals with (seizes) has no legal obligation to make a record of lost dogs reported to it as it has no legal responsibility for recording lost property (although it makes absolute sense to do so and comparing lost with found does amount to ‘best practice’). The local authority has not been given any role whatever in recording lost or stolen property or in investigating any alleged theft, only in recording dogs they ‘seize’ under the Act.
So much was glossed over by DEFRA and those it consulted on the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act that its drafting makes them look like rank amateurs and the situation only becomes worse after the law was sealed and the Statutory Instruments prepared to enact it. A prolonged negotiation ensued (held behind closed doors with local authorities represented by the Local Government Association (LGA) and police by ACPO) to determine the amount of funds to be transferred from the police to local authorities to fulfil the responsibilities. Bear in mind two things for this; the police already had an infrastructure of both secure kennelling and (24hour) manning and in a 1998 report commissioned by the RSPCA and Kennel Club had claimed that stray dogs cost them £11 million annually (lowest version). Now consider that the local authorities are starting from scratch to replicate or potentially improve this service yet the first offer made by the police was for £1 million.
The final funding which is neither ring fenced nor, apparently, permanent, is for £4 million per year (for three years) between all the countries local authorities, at least £7 million pounds less than the police had claimed that the work cost them a decade ago.
With the derisory funding local authorities have also been given derisory ‘guidance’ by DEFRA as to how these responsibilities should be discharged, ‘guidance’ which suggests that “where practicable” they create “acceptance points” to which the public can take stray dogs when a dog warden service is not available. It is also explicitly stated that a 24 hour 365 days a year dog warden service is NOT required by the law.
‘Acceptance Points’ would indeed replicate to some extent the provision made by police stations, but also provide some operational problems for the local authorities to overcome. Unfortunately no definition has been given as to exactly what an ‘acceptance point’ is. The repealed law explicitly instructed finders to take the dog to the “nearest police station” to which it was found; providing convenience both for the finder and the loser of the dog. There is no requirement in the ‘new’ law that an ‘acceptance point’ be local and in many cases local authorities will find it difficult to establish an appropriate local ‘acceptance point’ of any kind let alone one as well known or convenient as a local police station. There is also the small matter that any finder, nationwide, would once have known to take a dog to a police station; now they have to contact the police or local authority to find out where the ‘acceptance point’ for the area is.
The truth is that on the 5th of April 2008 we had a flawed but manageable system. On the 6th of April it was consigned to the dustbin without an understandable or manageable system being installed to replace it. That the charities which advised the government department now evade their responsibility for what has happened is inexcusable and they should certainly not be allowed to obtain cheap publicity for themselves through it; they already obtain considerable donations from the public by pertaining to be deeply involved with stray dogs when their involvement is actually very limited, they have now created a holy mess for those that are deeply involved.
The public – YOU – should remember that it is your local authority which, now alone, deals with strays; if you have concerns go directly to them; you are their residents and their voters. Do not expect the charities to do this for you; do not abrogate your civic functions to them. Find out what your, local, arrangements are, make your local authority answerable to you, it is you that pays your council tax to them and through you whatever they provide is funded. Make it your concern and you will probably find your local authority more responsive than you expect and, of course, if it isn’t you have local and democratic redress far above any which you can exert on an ‘independent charity’ so don’t let them speak for you now. Find out about your local arrangements and speak up about them locally.