On the 6th April 2008 the police across the United Kingdom must have laughed out loud knowing that they no longer had a legislative duty to deal with stray dogs as this duty was passed solely to local authorities using Section 68 of the Clean Neighbourhoods & Environment Act 2005.
The plan hatched by DEFRA and its advisors must have seemed simple enough at the time, all stray dogs to be dealt with by local council thus saving the local police resources, time and effort from having to take in stray dogs during the evenings and weekends, just bung councils some money and they can take up the torch.
Unfortunately the amount of money that it was alleged to cost the police on a nationwide basis to deal with stray dogs varied wildly from a high of £17 million down to £1.7 million, perhaps the police thought that if they said it did indeed cost £17 million then this sum would be removed from their collective budget, so it amazingly deflated to £1.7 million?
The lower figure of £1.7 million was agreed on by Government and the local authorities ended up with around £9,000 each regardless of the size of an individual council area or number of dogs dealt with. This amount which was not ring fenced will only be paid out until 2011, what will happen after this?
If councils across the country are unable to provide the same level of operational service provision that the police as a twenty four hour service with its own infrastructure in place could, should we be surprised at this? During normal working hours, councils have a statutory duty to provide a dog warden service to deal with stray dogs and other dog related issues and complaints that it may deal with.
During ‘out of hours’ DEFRA’s very own guidance on the provision of out of hour’s stray dog control, points out that councils do not have to provide a 24 hour collection service but should look at providing drop off points or acceptance points where people finding or losing a dog can go to.
Even this advice is countermanded by the damning words ‘where practicable’, most council’s would have looked at the guidance with a sense of foreboding and concern that they had to dig deep into the councils treasure chest to set aside more money for stray dog control. How relieved must the managers and legal people have been to read the words that must have shined off the page like a beacon of hope, ‘where practicable?’
These two words condemned the country to a plethora of out of hours schemes, some good, some bad, some indifferent, some nonexistent but the opportunity for a statutorily uniformed approach was once again missed. It is appreciated that even though councils do have a statutory duty to have a person to deal with stray dogs, a duty which is passed down to a dog warden, there are some councils who do not even have a daytime dog warden in place.
There are councils that have in house out of hours collection services, some employ contractors whilst some may have taken up DEFRA’s advice and set up an acceptance point of some kind perhaps at a local vet’s or at a kennels, let us look at the options:
In House Collection Service
The daytime dog wardens cover a rota that means there is somebody on shift to deal with a stray dog call out of hours up to a certain time of the evening, very rarely there will be a 24 hour service response subject to health and safety concerns.
The council uses a contractor to collect dogs found by the public and transfer them to kennels; this can be either complementing the daytime service or by being an extension of the contractor providing the daytime service too. Standards, skills and experience of staff may vary considerably from the day time dog wardens.
Those councils who are unable for financial, health and safety or resource related reasons to operate a manned collection service may have an arrangement with a local veterinary practice or kennels for these facilities to operate as an acceptance point for the reception of stray dogs. Any dog that remains unclaimed if the acceptance point is at a vet surgery being collected the next working day when the daytime dog warden comes on duty.
DEFRA by using the words ‘where practicable’ offers advice to councils on how to deal with stray dogs, but inserts a get out clause to councils that it is only if they find it practicable to do so?
An example possibly being:
‘Okay it will cost around £15-20,000 to run a competent and safe out of hours dog collection service……we think it is ‘not practicable’, okay let’s not do anything! DEFRA says we do not have to!’
The thing is the council is doing nothing wrong, it has the defence that it has investigated the setting up of such a service and finds that it is not practicable to do so.
Sadly the issue of dog control is always low down on the agenda for a lot of councils, there are a number who have excellent dog warden services who are fully staffed, have sufficient resources and promote responsible dog ownership through various planned initiatives. On the other hand there are also the hard pressed, hard working dog warden services that are underfunded, understaffed but verge on being overwhelmed due to the situation in their particular area.
Using the ‘DEFRA Defence’ has created a crisis of its own with out of hours work being done by people who range from skilled to those who do not know one end of a dog from another or probably even care. As there is apparently no control by some councils of whoever is collecting dogs on their behalf, the standard of record keeping, which in itself is a statutory requirement of every council is not being achieved, has any council even been prosecuted by the government for failing to keep the statutory records?
The only way that competent control of stray dog collection outside of normal office hours can be restored is for DEFRA and other government departments to provide appropriate financial resources and change the wording of DEFRA’s very own guidance. Amending two areas of the guidance to, local authorities DO HAVE to provide a 24 hour stray dog collection service’ and removing the dreadful ‘where practicable’, two words that have caused chaos and a lack of a standardised approach across the whole country.
As an exercise in forward planning, councils should possibly, through the Local Government Association and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health seriously look at what will happen when the £9,000 per year stops in 2011, is there a plan B?
Perhaps it is time to look at ring fenced funding for stray dog control and the reintroduction of dog licensing and the revenue is used solely for the promotion of responsible dog ownership by councils through improved and adequately funded dog warden services.