HL Deb 07 November 1968 vol 297 cc358-65

3.20 p.m.


rose to draw attention to the archaic situation regarding the cost of the dog licence; to the wholesale evasion of this tax; to the substantial loss of revenue to local authorities arising from this evasion; and to kindred matters inimical to the welfare and control of dogs; and to move, That legislation be introduced to rectify these long-standing evils, and that action should be taken by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to amend by Order the provisions of the Dog Licences Act 1959. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name. Almost exactly nine years ago your Lordships discussed the dog population of this country, with special reference to the many thousands of stray dogs roaming our streets and roads, with the resulting legalised slaughter of all the various unwanted and unclaimed dogs brought in by the police to the various dogs' homes throughout the country; the number of road accidents caused by dogs; the sad life of countless dogs tied up or chained to miserable kennels, deprived of the essential exercise required to keep them healthy; underfed and generally neglected by their owners; the insignificant penalty for having a dog without a licence; above all, the utterly inadequate cost of the licence required by law by any person owning or acquiring a dog, and the wholesale evasion of this tax indicated by the official figures, which at that time were 2½, million licences for a dog population of 4½ million. To-day the number of dogs in the country is 4¾ million, of which 2¾ million—just over half—are licensed.

It was a good debate. Twelve speakers took part, and at the end the Motion for Papers was accepted by the then Government and agreed to by your Lordships' House. The Government spokesman, however, qualified his acceptance of the Motion by saying: … the Government are not agreeing to raise the cost of the dog licence, although of course. like all other financial possibilities, it is a thing on which they must always keep an open mind".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25/11/59 col. 968.] We seem to have heard that kind of Government statement before. Papers were in due course produced furnishing the statistics as requested; and, there. my Lords, the matter has remained. Time passed; the Government changed; no action.

In February, 1966, six and a quarter years after our debate, I put a Question to the present Government asking, inter alia, what action had been taken or was contemplated to deal with the very considerable incidence of dog tax evasion and the penalties accruing from such evasion. The Government reply was (I quote from col. 358, Vol. 272, of the OFFICIAL REPORT): To change the level of the licence fee, or the penalty for its evasion, requires legislation for which there has been no suitable opportunity"? I ask your Lordships to note that this is after six and a quarter years— but the Government's current review of local authority finance includes examination of all licences and registrations for which local authorities are responsible and from which they retain the revenue, including the dog licence". Since that time the penalty for keeping a dog without a licence, or for refusing to produce a licence or a certificate of exemption when called upon to do so, has been increased from £5 to £10— a slight move in the right direction.

I returned to the attack in March of this year and elicited the information from the Government spokesman that the question of increase in licence fee—I quote: is at the moment under review".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13/3/68; col. 199.] My Lords, there are surely limits to Government dilatoriness, not to say evasion; and if your Lordships will be good enough to listen to my story I think you will agree that the time has come to bring this matter to a head. I apologise for delaying the House with these rather dreary and tiresome preliminaries, but it seemed necessary to acquaint your Lordships with what has happened and with what the background to this matter was, particularly noble Lords who were not present at the last debate or who have, not unnaturally, forgotten what transpired in what The Times the following morning described as "Dog Day in the Lords".

Let me now turn to the terms of the Motion. The object of to-day's exercise is, so far as is humanly possible, to protect and safeguard the control and life of that most faithful friend of man, the dog. The most important first task, as I see it, is to discourage by every means in our power the lighthearted and irresponsible acquisition of a dog by anyone who is not prepared to care for it, who will neglect it—not necessarily deliberately but often from ignorance of how to look after it, feed it and house it. The best and most obvious way to achieve that end is surely the financial one; that is to say, to revise the tax high enough to make a prospective buyer hesitate before embarking on his purchase.

The existing cost of a dog licence is, I believe, unique in the fact that it has remained static since 1878, for no less than 90 years, in spite of a revolution in money values over the years. In spite of the fact that practically every form of taxation and duty has been increased two, three or even four-fold, the cost of a dog licence has remained at a diminutive 7s. 6d. Compare this, for example, with the £5 licence that everyone in this country to-day is prepared to buy for his television. Nine years ago I asked Her Majesty's Government to increase this figure of 7s. 6d. to £1. To-day I ask them to make it a minimum of £2—and there are very many people who have given this matter a great deal of thought who would raise this tax to £3 or even more. Only in this way are we going to stop the buying and selling of dogs thoughtlessly and indiscriminately.

There is, of course, the question of the old-age pensioner. In passing, I would say that my post-bag recently included a letter from an old-age pensioner heartily approving the proposal to increase the cost of the licence. Nevertheless, I think it would be the general wish that the old-age pensioner be excluded from this tax increase and that he be given the concession of having a dog—one dog—at the old (that is, the existing) rate of 7s. 6d., on production of his pension book. With regard to exemptions as a whole, they should remain as they are at present in accordance with the Dog Licences Act 1959; that is to say, for guide dogs for the blind, for sheepdogs, and with special arrangements for packs of hounds. Also, it may be that in order to avoid hardship to bona fide breeders, certain concessions might have to be made to them in order to safeguard their legitimate activities.

I would propose one cancellation, however, and that is the exemption for puppies. I share the opinion of a large number of people to-day that the tax should operate at the moment of a dog of any age being bought or acquired, and that it should be unlawful for anyone to sell or hand over a dog without a licence being produced then and there by the purchaser. This is most important and I believe it is the only way to short-circuit the tax dodger and, incidentally, ensure that the revenue is collected for the benefit of local authorities, a point to which I will return in a minute. In other words the six months' proviso as laid down in the Dog Licenses Act 1959 should be abolished.

Under present conditions, owing to an almost complete lack of enforcement of the law, we know that only one dog in two is licensed. Little effort appears to be made by the authorities to check on these licences, one result of which is that the revenue lost to local authorities, even at the present rate of 7s. 6d., is of the nature of £600,000 a year. Increase the tax, as I am asking the Government to do, to £2, and enforce it through the appointment of something in the nature of dog wardens to reinforce the police, and a revenue of something like £8 million a year will accrue to local authorities—enough, and a good deal more, to pay for all the wardens found to be necessary. While on the question of wardens recommended, let me say, by the R.S.P.C.A.—and who, I strongly advocate, should be appointed to assist, or rather to take the place of the police (who I have little doubt, bless their hearts! are too occupied to investigate the dog licence problem) their duties should include not only the checking of dog licences but checking that all dogs, while in a highway or in a way of public resort, are wearing a collar with the name and address of the owner inscribed on the collar, or on a plate or badge attached thereto. That is from the Control of Dogs Order, 1930, which your Lordships will not be surprised to hear is observed mainly, if not wholly, in the breach.

I believe the presence of these wardens would also materially assist in the cleansing of the roads and pavements in our towns and cities through dogs fouling the footway. The noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch, who I am glad to see is to speak in this debate, made a valiant effort to bring in a Bill in 1964 intituled An Act to Control Nuisance by Dogs whereby any person allowing his dog to foul the footway should be guilty of an offence and be liable to a fine. Alas! the Bill was rejected, with the result that one still meets people with their dogs, not only allowing but actually encouraging them to leave their cards in the middle of the pavement. Obviously there should be some Order making this nuisance an offence, and it should be part of the warden's duty to deal with it.

Once this controlling machinery of the dog population is efficiently installed and strictly enforced by an alert body of wardens, believe there would ensue a considerable reduction in what the R.S.P.C.A. calls "The huge unhappy army of stray and unwanted dogs" which to-clay are being brought into the various dogs' homes for destruction at the rate of 6,000 a week. Six thousand dogs destroyed each week. One dog every two minutes. Seven dogs while I have been speaking. That is a direct result of their being casually acquired in the first instance and then equally casually discarded. What a blot and a disgrace on the record of a country which has somehow acquired the reputation of being animal loving! A further result of this control that I am advocating would surely be a reduction in the number of road accidents caused by dogs, which as your Lordships know is very considerable, and also I have little doubt that farmers would benefit through a reduction of the stray mongrel dogs who are the chief offenders in sheep worrying and general molesting of livestock.

Perhaps here I should interpolate that there is no difficulty whatever in bringing about these much-needed reforms. No new legislation is required to bring about the most important and essential of my proposals, the increase in the cost of the dog licence, as the Local Government Act 1966 empowers the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to amend by order the provisions of the Dog Licences Act 1959. It is as simple as that.

Why, therefore, this dilatoriness, this strange unwilling ness to act and rectify this palpable weakness in the doe structure of this country? No other country that I have been able to discover is administered in regard to its dog population in so slovenly and phlegmatic a manner as our own. I have investigated the situation in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Holland, Switzerland, Germany and the United States of America. I can assure the House that compared to their tidy and efficient machinery, and their realistic scale of licences and penalties, our own efforts at control are utterly assinine and idiotic.

LORD BOOTHBY: Hear, hear!


They are really contemptible. Why do I use these critical terms? My Lords, I will tell you. There is a £10 fine, as I said just now, for persons owning a dog without a licence. There are 2 million dogs to-day unlicensed. Through sheer neglect to enforce the law local authorities are being deprived, theoretically, of something in the nature of £20 million a year. That figure is of course an exaggeration in practice, because half those 2 million unlicensed dogs perhaps have no owner.


My Lords, would the noble Lord be good enough to tell the House where he gets his figure of 2,000 unlicensed dogs?


Is the noble Lord asking where I get my figure of 2 million? I get it from the R.S.P.C.A.


My Lords, would the noble Lord tell us how that organisation can give him the number of unlicensed dogs?


My Lords, I am not in the R.S.P.C.A. and I do not know what methods they follow, but they are the official figures. And in passing, my Lords, compare the £10 penalty for failing to have a dog licence with the £50 penalty for failing to have a television licence. Do not senseless discrepancies of this nature justify anger and criticism?

My Lords, this is esentially a non-Party question. This Government and all past Governments are equally to blame for this scandal of neglect and disinterestedness over the years. Your Lordships may think that the present Government could do with a boost at the present time, their stock not being too high at the moment. What an opportunity I am offering them to be at long last the first Government for 90 years to see the light over this ridiculous 7s. 6d. dog licence and gain honour and recognition for increasing it to £2, and in doing so earn the blessing of all true animal lovers, and by this action stop the heartbreaking massacre of the legions of unwanted dogs that I have described! Imagine the local authorities' mouths watering at the gratuitous gift of these millions of pounds to put in their kitty each year!

If, incredibly, noble Lords are unwilling to support this Motion on one count, the care and control of dogs, then at least they cannot hesitate to support it on the other count, the acquisition of millions of pounds ignored over all these years, that would accrue to local authorities. However heartless and undiscriminating rejection on the first count would appear to be, rejection on the second count, I say with great respect, could surely only be described as completely imbecile.

My Lords, I have done. I apologise for detaining your Lordships for so long. May I sum up by repeating what I said in a former debate, and that is that I have made no attempt to appeal to the emotions of Her Majesty's Government and of your Lordships. Rather do I appeal to your sense of justice and fair play and common sense. It would have been easy to harrow your Lordships with stories of neglect and gross cruelty that are all too prevalent. You can read of those things in the Press. The remedies I have proposed should go a long way to ameliorating these abominations even if they do not wholly eradicate them.

The two outstanding requirements are an immediate increase of the dog tax and the enforcement of the law against tax dodgers. I have suggested the means by which these things could be done. I believe that these proposals would not only be the means of ensuring a happier life for the dog world in general but also contribute towards a reduction in the deplorable number of road accidents; would help the farmers; would clean up the streets; would reduce the numbers of stray and loose dogs that haunt our roads and streets and housing estates, with this heartbreaking sequel of the holocaust I have described to your Lordships; would bring in on a £2 rate of tax a revenue of something of the nature of £8 million which would accrue to local authorities; and would benefit all and sundry. It is upon this note that I confidently appeal to Her Majesty's Government and to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That attention be drawn to the archaic situation regarding the cost of the dog licence; to the wholesale evasion of this tax; to the substantial loss of revenue to local authorities arising from this evasion; and to kindred matters inimical to the welfare and control of dogs; and that legislation be introduced to rectify these long-standing evils, and that action should he taken by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to amend by Order the provisions of the Dog Licences Act, 1959.—(Lord Ailwyn.)