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A dog's dinner of bad law ...but not the UK's worst.

Byline: Chris Game

I'M very definitely a cat, rather than dog, person. It's partly that dogs scare me - even Chihuahuas, never mind a 17-stone Japanese tosa. But also because cat people are more creative, philosophical, antisocial, and score higher on intelligence tests.

Wikipedia says so - so there.

Notwithstanding the antisocial bit, only a sociopath could remain unmoved by last month's two particularly horrific dog attack deaths.

The Huddersfield case was shocking enough, the police having only just returned the dog to its owner. But the mauling suffered by three-year-old Dexter Neal in Essex is beyond words - mine anyway.

The only marginally comforting thing that struck me was the date. We're clearly back in 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act (DDA) territory and wide open to the so-called politicians' syllogism: 1) something must be done; 2) this is something; 3) we must do it; 4) preferably before tomorrow's media headlines.

But the sickening pit bull attack in 1991, and the dreadful injuries sustained by then six-year old Rucksana Khan in a Bradford park, happened in May. Parliament, therefore, was sitting and Conservative ministers could "fast-track" what became the DDA - the infamous "go-for-breeds-notdeeds" law - at a reactive speed impressive in an Olympian, but chilling in several hundred supposedly sane lawmakers.

The Commons Second Reading debate ended at 10pm one summer evening, and by 4am the following morning MPs had done with the Report stage and Third Reading as well.

It was quicker in parts than the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act following the Birmingham pub bombings, when the immediate public safety threat at least seemed somewhat greater - rational government and legislative scrutiny only for those who confuse responsibility with responsiveness.

Today, moreover, we have social media as well as the tabloids. Still, three things may save us from an exact rerun of that 1991 Westminster madness: the attacks occurring in August, Theresa May being a hopefully wiser PM, and the happenstance that just days previously the Commons Library had produced a briefing paper on the precise topic of Dangerous Dogs, indicating that some active thought was already being given to the issue.

That paper outlined measures actually introduced - including extension of the DDA to cover attacks taking place in private places and, from last April, the microchipping of all dogs.

Also, those actions so far rejected, like the complete repeal of breedspecific legislation and the serious examination of alternatives - discouraging, but at least this time they've received some sort of focused attention.

None of this, though, really concerns me personally. Whatever the detailed dog law, I'll continue trying to avoid them all.

What prompted my interest was last year's evidence-based finding that the 1991 DDA, despite now being the Law Society's "standard example" of rushed legislation invariably being bad, may not be the single worst piece of modern-day UK legislation.

OK, the evidence was hardly scientifically rigorous, but it was statistical.

It resulted from a competition organised last year, linked to the Magna Carta commemorations, in which the politics.co.uk website invited nominations for "the worst British law of all time".

A shortlist of eight was offered and, more than slightly worryingly, the DDA limped home joint last, like an elderly greyhound at Hall Green Stadium, with barely two per cent support.

Its fellow loser was the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, appropriately enough, since both stupid laws stemmed directly from tabloid moral panics, this one at people like my then students assembling in fields and enjoying free "raves".

The Conservative Government's chosen ban this time, equivalent to the four singled-out dog breeds, was of "sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats" played above a certain volume to a certain number of people.

Those legal draftspersons certainly knew their raves.

But, of course, you're gagging to learn the winner, which was the 1971 Misuse Of Drugs Act, with 29 per cent support. Its victory margin was narrow but, said the judges, worthy, for the sheer scale and longevity of its negative repercussions.

We all know it: the ABC classified list of controlled substances - including cannabis, but excluding tobacco and alcohol, and arbitrarily related to their potential harm and addictiveness - with penalties linked to possession and supply.

Yes, its structure derives from United Nations and international narcotic drugs conventions, but the point is that actual listings and licensing are in the hands of national ministers, in our case the home secretary.

It was a health secretary, though, whose very personal legislative creation was so narrowly defeated by the Drugs Act: Andrew Lansley's damaging and horrendously costly attempt at NHS reform in the 2012 Health And Social Care Act - absent from the Conservative manifesto and uncomprehended then and possibly still by ex-Prime Minister Cameron.

And that ultimately is where the Dangerous Dogs Act just can't compete: however bad, it's simply not as expensive and extensively harmful as the others.

Chris Game is a lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies, at the University Of Birmingham

But, of course, you're gagging to learn the winner, which was the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act with 29 per cent support

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Title Annotation:Letters
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 1, 2016
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