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New Clause—(Period Of Validity Of Dog Licences)

Volume 466: debated on Monday 27 June 1949

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Section five of the Dog Licences Act, 1867 (which provides that Dog Licences shall be in such form and shall be granted by such officers of Inland Revenue as the Commissioners of Inland Revenue shall direct; and that every such licence shall commence on the day on which the same shall be granted, and shall terminate on the thirty-first day of December following) shall have effect as if for the words "on the thirty-first day of December following" there were substituted the words "at the expiration of twelve calendar months from such day."—[ Miss Colman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This Clause would result in a change in the period of validity of dog licences from the 12 months from 1st January to a period of 12 months from the date of issue. This may not seem to be a very important matter, although I think that it is quite as important as some of those which we have recently been discussing. It is a change which I have for long wanted to see, and I am quite sure that it has the support of a number of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. It certainly has the support of dog owners and dog lovers everywhere.

I want to be very brief, but I should like to give three reasons why we suggest this change in the period of validity of dog licences. The first is that, unfortunately, many people have to get rid of their dogs when the licences become due, and that means that, as the licences are due on 1st January, the dogs are frequently turned on to the streets in the middle of the winter. This change would reduce the amount of suffering caused in this way.

The second reason for our proposal is that we think the change would help to reduce the amount of evasion of tax. At present, if a dog reaches the age of six months, or is bought or given to a person, say, in October or November, there is a great temptation not to take out a licence before 1st January. Much more important is that the present arrangement is very hard on the honest person who may buy a dog in October, obtain a licence, and in the following January have to buy another licence. I suggest that, for the honest person, the proposed change would mean a reduction in the burden of taxation. Another reason is that it would help the staff who have the job of issuing the licences. At present, these licences have all to be issued at the beginning of the year. Under the pro- posed arrangements, the work would be spread over the whole of the year.

This matter has been raised in the House on several occasions, and it has been turned down on the ground that it would complicate administration; but it would be much easier to administer if the licences became due, not all on the same date, but on different dates. I would point out that wireless licences are issued for a period of 12 months from the date of issue and I think no difficulty is found in the enforcement of the renewal of those licences. For the reasons I have mentioned, I hope that the Financial Secretary will find that he is able to agree to the change which we now suggest.

I wish to support this new Clause which seeks to substitute other words in Section 5 of the Dog Licences Act, 1867, and thereby make dog licences valid for 12 months from the date of issue. Following the conviction of a number of people for keeping dogs without licences in Batley and Morley there appeared in a local newspaper on 30th April, 1949, an article entitled "Licensing Confusion". I should like to quote a few extracts from it:

"Some people have the idea that if a dog licence is taken out in March, July, or any other month, the renewal of the licence is not due until the same month the following year. Even though your dog was six months old in December, and you were honest enough to take out a licence, that licence must be renewed on 1st January.
Confusion arises in the minds of some people because of lack of uniformity in regard to the issue of licences. The wireless licence is due for renewal 12 months from the date of the first issue, no matter what month. The regulation in respect of wireless receiving sets, being the most modern, has undoubtedly influenced people to believe that a new general order was in vogue and that all licences are due for renewal on the date on which they were originally taken out."
The article also says this is a question upon which Government action should be taken. I think so, too. It is further suggested in that article—and this, I think, is important—
"Probably some can ill afford the 10 shillings fine and a dog licence as well. Uniformity would also give some relief to the police who have more important things to do than spend their time calling upon people who have not renewed their dog licence, especially when the neglect may be due to a confused system."
I thought that was all very sensible, and I put a question on the Order Paper which was answered by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on 5th May last. Supplementary questions by hon. Members suggested that the matter had raised some interest.

I am coming to that. Supplementary questions suggested some interest had been aroused, but my right hon. Friend said that the Treasury had had no complaint, and he was not then prepared to recommend the necessary legislation. Since then further convictions have been imposed on dog owners in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Here is a typical case, but I will omit the name and address, with permission, although they are in the newspaper which I have. A man was fined 10 shillings at Dewsbury (West Riding) court for having kept a dog without a licence. This man said he bought a dog licence last June, and thought that it ran for 12 months afterwards. I want to be absolutely fair in this matter, and for that purpose, I should like to quote a short extract from another article, also headed "Licensing Confusion" in the "Batley Reporter" of 14th of last month:

"We can quite understand the impossibility of being able to make an estimate of the number of cases concerning people who do not realise that a licence taken out in any month becomes due for renewal on 1st January. Statements to that effect are made in defence by dogowners summoned and will not be recorded with the penalties imposed."
11.30 p.m.

Nevertheless, Major Milner, as my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary informed the House on 5th May that there were 5,409 convictions for this offence in the first four months of 1948—these figures relate to England and Wales—I think it is quite reasonable to assume that some of them were genuinely due to misunderstanding.

In addition to what I have already said and what has been so ably said previously by my hon. Friend, there is one particular aspect of this matter I should like to stress. In my supplementary question of 5th May and in my remarks today, I have referred to the present law causing unnecessary work for the police. The position is such that "Punch," in this year's Summer number, ridicules it. The artist shows a whole host of police officers descending upon a house to carry out their duties relating to "Rover's licence." This clever and amusing cartoon by Mervyn Wilson, whilst deliberately exaggerating the state of affairs, is based soundly upon an element of truth and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary will think also of doing a good turn to the police.

It is perfectly true that, so far as we know, no very large number of complaints are made about the fact that at the moment dog licences are all renewable on 1st January each year, irrespective of the time when they were taken out. That does not apply to many other licences, as the hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton) has pointed out in his very lucid and interesting speech.

I have taken occasion since the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Miss Colman) put this Clause on the Order Paper to consult with the Postmaster-General to see whether it would make any appreciable difference to the working of his Department and the staffs of post offices, and I understand that, as it would spread the work over the year, it would possibly be of some help to staffs who are in many instances grossly overworked. That being so, there seems no reason, if the Committee wishes to accept this change, why it should not be made.

The present Clause would be unacceptable and we should like to re-word it, if we may, particularly as we may have to make some reference to the exemption certificates for sheep-dogs. Therefore, when we reach the Report stage, if the Committee wishes, I will see that the appropriate wording is included on the Order Paper and that this change is made.

I am very interested in the right hon. Gentleman's statement, but I should like to have a little more information before we are asked to reach a definite decision on this matter. I was attracted by the new Clause when I saw it. I hope the Financial Secretary will tell us more. Is it true that we are saving the police any trouble at all by this change? At the present time anyone seen out with a dog after 1st January can be stopped and asked for his licence. Henceforth that will no longer be so. Are we then to have the same sort of system of detection for unpaid dog licences as applies in the case of wireless licences, of which a particularly objectionable form is mentioned in a Parliamentary Question appearing on the Order Paper? There are vans going around the country detecting wirelesses——

I am asking whether this change will mean a similar form of detection. The hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton) claimed this as a measure of relief for the police, but I suggest that it may work in the opposite direction. Is it not the case that the detection of anyone without a dog licence will be made considerably more difficult under this system? Are we to have more snoopers knocking at the door to see whether there is a dog on the premises? If so, I hope that they are going to get bitten on the leg.

I do not think that a new Clause of this importance should be accepted in any undue haste. I was interested in the speech of the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Colman), and I very much appreciated the speech of the hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton), who clearly showed his knowledge of the subject. I was hoping that the hon. Member for Batley and Morley would give us a more reasonable Committee speech of reasonable length on a subject of this importance. After all, this is not a proposal which will affect only the people of Batley and Morley. It affects the whole of Great Britain.

Those of us who welcome the fact that the Government are to accept this proposal ought to say how much we appreciate it, but does it go far enough? Why should a man have to get a new licence every year? Why cannot a licence be taken out for the life of the dog? That is, I suggest, a very reasonable suggestion. I am told that a dog licence costs 7s. 6d., and probably Members can think of some licences which cost the same amount—a marriage licence, for instance. The Financial Secretary has told us that he will consider this suggestion between now and Report, so why should he not also consider at the same time the proposal I have made? If the Government are accepting the proposal contained in this new Clause, which has the support of both sides, except for the Liberal Party——

I have now managed to gain the support of the second Liberal Party in the last two or three minutes. They might never have said a word if I had not spoken. I think I have now gained the support of the whole Committee. I observe the Law Officer looking suspiciously at me. We know that sometimes there has been terrifying disunity in the Government, but I hope that on this occasion they will not find it necessary to tear each other to pieces on a matter of dog licences.

As my right hon. Friend has accepted the meaning of the Clause, if not the wording, for which I thank him, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

I hate to disrupt the unity of which my hon. Friend the Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) has spoken, but I should like to ask the Financial Secretary one or two questions, before he gives the concession. Will he give the Committee some idea of how much it will cost. I have only a limited viewpoint, but I am told that certain local authorities are strongly opposed to this concession. I understand that in London there are 130,000 dogs registered and that the London County Council employ six collectors to bring in revenue for that large population of dogs. I am told that if this Clause is accepted it will considerably increase the work of the London County Council and, therefore, presumably the ratepayers will have to bear the cost. It will require the sending out of reminders for licences which have expired, and instead of a yearly check it will require a monthly check.

I do not want to be a spoil-sport, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman will look into the cost. I am told that he has not been very generous about footballers. I would not be surprised if, when he examines the problems which he is asked to impose on local authorities, he finds that the concession he has made will cost the country a great deal. Before he gives unqualified consent to the charming case, if I may so describe it, put forward by the hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton), I think he should carefully inquire into the cost.

There is one point I should like to raise in supporting the Clause moved by the hon. lady the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Colman), and in hoping that the Government will, on the Report stage, bring forward a better Clause to achieve its object. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) was wrong. I would put forward a point of law on dog licences so that the Financial Secretary may look into it. My hon. Friend talked about a licence for the life of the dog. In fact, the existing dog licence can last for longer than the life of the dog. The licence is a licence for a person to keep one dog. If the dog dies, another dog can be bought without a new licence being required, but paradoxically, if it is the husband who has taken out the dog licence and the husband dies, the wife must purchase a new dog licence.

11.45 p.m.

I think that we ought to have some answer on the question of cost. Is it going to cost more or less than giving benefits to footballers tax free?

I cannot answer that. We are not dealing with footballers but with dog licences. It is not possible accurately to say what this will cost because it is an overlapping payment. People take out dog licences at various times, and renew them on 1st January of the following year. In future many will be taken out at varying times of the year. In the end it should even itself out, although not altogether. Where there are kennels, and a lot of dogs are kept, it may be found that the owner will prefer to take out the licences on, say, 1st January.

At the moment we do not know what the cost to the county councils will be, nor as far as Scotland is concerned, to the Exchequer. The income at the present moment to county and county boroughs in England and Wales is in the region of £1 million a year. In Scotland, where the Customs and Excise collect it, the income to the Exchequer is about £70,000 a year. That is the best answer I can give.

Can the Financial Secretary answer my point about the extra cost of this concession to the county councils? That should be found out.

As far as we know—and again I speak subject to correction as experience develops—we understand it will not make a great deal of difference. With wireless licences the Post Office send out reminders, and it is much better for them that reminders should be spread over a year than if they had to send them out all at the beginning of the year, which is a very busy time.

I gather that they have been sounded, but I would not like to commit myself on that point.

It would seem that they ought to have been consulted. After all, if there is a loss of revenue, and if it means extra work for them, the local authorities will be the chief sufferers. This promise has now been given without consultation with the local authorities. We should be assured that consultation will take place before the Report stage.

I hope that under the new Exchequer equalisation grants this matter will be dealt with if there is any real loss.

Is it intended to operate the same system as with wireless licences, and for the Post Office to send out inquiries if licences have not been taken out? That surely will be a great deal more trouble.

Surely it is quite easy to work out the cost? What is wrong with this formula? Assuming dogs are acquired, for the purpose of licences, more or less uniformly over the year, the number of those acquiring dogs at the beginning of the year will be the same as the number acquiring dogs, say, at the end of the year. Therefore, the average is exactly in the middle. In other words the overlapping is exactly 50 per cent. Reduce it by 10 per cent. for people who break the law, and the cost to the Exchequer will be just about 40 per cent. a year. There is no reason why the cost will even out because of the fact that at the moment, as the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Colman) said, on the average everyone gets only about 50 per cent. of the worth of the dog licence.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.