Once again the reply was written on expensive House of Commons stationery. But I was pleased to note that the postage was Second Class. Well done C H-H for saving the tax payer the princely sum of 9p when you could have saved us 53p by sending me an e-mail.
But of course it isn’t Chris’s fault that he had to waste 53p of taxpayers’ money. No doubt there are Parliamentary rules about how MPs communicate with their constituents and no doubt those rules tell him that only a letter will do, so Chris has to follow the rules.
That immediately highlights the differences between some people. There are those that follow the rules (good citizens), those that ignore or break the rules (criminals) and those that examine the rules, find them lacking and seek to change them. You would think that our MPs fall into that latter category, but it seems that they don’t.
It isn’t difficult to see how the rules, if they exist, could be changed. If the constituent e-mails the MP then it is reasonable to assume that the constituent will be happy to receive their reply by e-mail. If the constituent writes a letter to their MP then it is safe to assume that the constituent would rather have the reply from their MP in the form of a letter. As Aleksander the Meer Kat would say, ‘seemples’. But not so ‘seemples’ that parliamentarians have actually tackled this minor issue and made the simplest of changes.
It is a major part of the job of our MPs to examine our laws and see if they are fit for purpose. If they aren’t then it's their responsibility to make the necessary changes. But are the changes for the good, or are they just to be seen to be doing something? Some changes to laws don’t always make sense. They may be well meaning but that doesn’t mean the final outcome is sensible.
This year one bit of sensible legislation came into force. Gay people were allowed to marry. It closed a massive loophole in our equality laws and at a stroke created a new definition for the word ‘normal’ when it comes to relationships. That doesn’t mean that it will do away with bigotry towards gay people, that will still take time, but it was a massive step in the right direction.
Another change to a piece of legislation didn’t make quite so much sense; the changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act that came into effect on 13th May this year. Did you notice that one? No, me neither.
I don't own a dog, so I think I can consider myself impartial on this subject. I do like dogs and have no major issues with them (except those small yappy ones that get really annoying). However I don't think that the changes to the law make much sense simply because it requires owners to stop their dogs from being dogs. To help understand what I mean, come with me on a short journey into history.
It is 40,000 years or so ago and humans are hunter-gatherers. A group of humans are out hunting (or gathering) one day and they come across a pack of dogs that have just killed an animal. Faced with a choice of continuing to hunt (or gather), possibly without success, or scaring the dogs away and nicking their ‘kill’ they take the easier option. The dogs, not wishing to lose their hard earned meal, follow the hunters in the hope of getting the dead animal back. When the hunter-gatherers finish eating and move on the dogs are able to retrieve the leftovers. After several iterations of this the humans work out that rather than hoping to come across a pack of dogs that have just killed an animal, it’s much easier to encourage the dogs to stick around by using food as a persuader and then to follow the dogs when they go off hunting again so as to be on the spot when they make their kill. It took another 40,000 years for Pavlov to come up with the term ‘conditioning’ to describe this process of domestication, but it was the start of man’s symbiotic relationship with the canine world.
When humans developed this relationship with dogs they didn’t just get a hunting tool. As pack animals dogs have an alpha male or leader, which they will fight to protect. They are also extremely territorial and will fight to protect what they see as ‘their’ territory. When humans supplanted the alpha male and took that role on themselves they got an added bonus – a guard dog. But they didn’t train the dog to do that. It was part of the dog’s natural make up. It was bred into it by evolution over thousands of years. But the change in the law makes it incumbent on dog owners now to try to reverse thousands of years of evolution and make dogs go against their nature.
We’re not talking about just getting a dog to sit up and beg or walk to heel. You can make people do that if you go about it the right way. No, dog owners are now expected to train it not to be a dog but to be a four legged person. Some people already insist that their dogs are people, but I suspect that they are more barking than their dogs.
We humans have evolved. We’re no longer hunter-gatherers, we shop in Tesco or Waitrose instead. We’re no longer nomadic, we live settled lives in houses. We now have door locks to protect us so we don’t really need guard dogs any more. But dogs haven’t evolved to the same degree, if at all. We may have bred them to suit specific tasks, such as herding, retrieving or racing, but behind that size, shape and skill they are the same dogs that man came across forty thousand years ago.
Neil Gaiman said that mankind is only twenty four hours and two meals away from barbarism. If that is true for humans then how long would it take a dog to revert to its natural state? If you were to die suddenly then your dog would eat you rather than go hungry for more than a few hours (so would your cat, but that’s for different reasons).
The effect of the changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act is to try to overcome the most basic instincts of the dog – to protect its territory and to protect the alpha male (or female, dog's don't understand the difference between us as anyone who has ever had their leg ravished will know). It is therefore a bad change to the law.
What the changes to the law mean is that it is no longer just a requirement for your dog to be under control when you are away from your house. You could be prosecuted if your dog is ‘threatening’ while it is in your garden or even inside your house.
The new law doesn’t mean your dog actually has to bite anyone. It means that someone only has to feel ‘worried’ that they may be bitten. That means that if your dog barks when someone walks past your garden, and that person feels worried, they could make a complaint and the result is that you could be fined. And I don’t mean a piddling £60 fine. If the matter goes to court it won't be your word against theirs because you, the dog owner, may not actually witness the incident, and your dog isn't capable of give evidence in its own defence, so anyone can claim anything and the law is likely to believe them.
The courts can impose penalties of up to £20,000. And the law allows for a local authority appointed person to enforce it. Yes folks, local councils can use this law to levy fines. Will they do it? Of course they will.
Councils are already fining people for parking, using bus lanes, improperly entering box junctions, using the wrong recycling bins, putting bins out too early in the morning etc, etc. This is just another income stream waiting for them to tap into. It isn't a matter of if they will do it, it's a matter of when they will start doing it.
Now, here’s another real issue. This gives neighbours a whole new range of things they can squabble over. They already squabble over the height of Leylandii trees, over hanging branches, children’s balls coming over the fence, parking, extensions that block out sunlight and of, course, barking dogs. But now one neighbour can ‘punish’ another by reporting them to the police or to the council (far easier) and getting a fine imposed.
How long before we hear about the first instance? This law came into force in May, so I'm surprised we haven’t heard of instances already. Or maybe it hasn’t yet happened in our neck of the woods. When it does happen no doubt some well meaning politician will come along and say "Ah, but the law was never intended to be used that way." But we are also dealing with the Law of Sod here and the Law of Sod quite clearly states that if the law can be misused it will be misused. You only have to look at the way the European Convention on Human Rights is abused to understand that! Dog owners, like motorists, will no doubt soon become a persecuted minority in some areas.
Was there a great public demand for a change to the Dangerous Dogs Act? If there was then I don’t recall it. The existing law, introduced in 1991, was adequate enough for most people and for those who will insist on owning a genuinely dangerous dog, or those that allow their dogs to behave in a dangerous manner, this law will make no difference. They were cocking a snook at the previous law and they will cock a snook at this law as well.
How many babies will it prevent from being savaged? None. Why? Because the dogs that are so out of control that they will savage a baby are owned by the people who live in the houses that also have babies in them. The danger is inside their own home already. This change to the law prevents nothing. It doesn't even protect postmen from being bitten, because you can't train a dog to ignore its most fundamental instincts. Any fool, other than an MP, knows that.
So why change a law in a way that will make no real difference but will most likely be abused both by the public and officialdom? You’ll have to ask your MP that one. Over to you Chris, but please answer me by e-mail.
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