19 NOVEMBER 2000

When the Council of Docked Breeds was set up in its present guise in 1991 it was regarded with suspicion by what one might call the 'establishment' of the dog world. In fact it is fair to say that we were looked upon by some as a small bunch of rather dangerous hotheads. Relations with the Kennel Club in those early days were, to put it diplomatically, somewhat strained, and although we managed to establish contact with a few individuals, recognition of the CDB or our campaign at Clarges Street was sketchy to say the least.

A lot has happened over the past nine years. Bridge building takes time, and as the CDB has grown up we have shown ourselves to be a significant force in the dog world which takes its responsibilities seriously. I am pleased to say that the KC has responded.

One of our early objectives was to mount a trade stand at Crufts, and this year, after a long string of unsuccessful applications, we were finally invited by the KC to take a stand at Crufts 2000. It was certainly an exhausting four days for the CDB staff who attended, but for us the show was an outstanding success. We were swamped with visitors, many of them existing members who expressed their delight that we had finally made it to the NEC. Others came along to show their support, and no fewer than 116 visitors either renewed their membership or signed up during the show.

It was particularly pleasing to welcome the many overseas guests from Australia, the States, Austria, Germany, France, Portugal and elsewhere who were keen to learn from the CDB's experience of the docking debate in the UK. We even had a few of our opponents visit the stand, and there were a few lively debates, but I must say that the vast majority of our visitors were in full support of the CDB's objectives.

It was therefore all the more interesting to visit Discover Dogs at Earls Court earlier this month. Although there is a good showing of pedigree dog enthusiasts at Discover Dogs, the event is aimed principally at the general public, and our objective was to take the docking debate to a much wider audience than we have ever done before. The results were interesting to say the least. Although a fair proportion of visitors, on the second day particularly, disagreed with docking when they arrived on the stand, the vast majority were genuinely interested in our case and prepared to listen to a point of view they had in many instances never heard before. I am pleased to say we even made a few converts. Many more took our leaflets or watched our video, and I firmly believe that despite the expense, the whole exercise was well worthwhile.

Now that we are firmly established as exhibitors at KC events, we look forward eagerly to next year's Crufts and Discover Dogs exhibitions. Among the exhibitors at Discover Dogs was one stand which highlighted the concern which exists amongst British dog owners over the threats presently facing us from Europe. Those threats have been uppermost in the mind of the CDB for many years in the shape of the Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, and this year saw a major development in our campaign to oppose British accession to that Convention which would severely threaten many of our most cherished dog breeds.

In April, the RCVS took it upon itself to undertake a consultation of interested organisations, making it quite clear in its letter that it saw accession to the Convention as a convenient way of disposing of the little local difficulty it has with those of its members who support the CDB and continue to dock puppies. The CDB very quickly took up the cudgels. Not only did we express surprise at the extremely short time scale allowed by the RCVS for responses - a period which contained no fewer than four Bank holidays - but we also alerted a wide range of other organisations to the RCVS action and encouraged them to make their views known.

I imagine the RCVS was somewhat taken aback to receive pithy, well-argued responses from organisations like the Countryside Alliance, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and FACE UK, not to mention a welter of breed clubs representing docked dog breeds and many individual breeders as well. At our suggestion, most of these bodies copied their responses to the Home Office, with the result that the potential fallout were we to join the European Convention is now well registered in the minds of Government Ministers and officials.

We voiced our approval when the RCVS backed down and, in the light of the strong opposition it had received, very wisely decided to take no further action over the European Convention. However, the matter still rests with the Government, and Ministers will at some time have to make a decision over whether or not to join.

At least they are now aware of the hornets nest they are likely to stir up if they do decide in favour of the Convention, a hornets nest which has been thrown into even starker relief by the indignation that has been expressed by thousands of UK dog owners and their representative organisations over more recent attempts to ban certain dog breeds in Continental Europe.

Our campaign over the European Convention has been a successful one - so far. But I must draw your attention to yet more legislation which causes us grave concern, and which is currently progressing through our own Parliament in Westminster.

The Protection of Animals (Amendment) Bill is a Private Members Bill which was piloted through the House of Commons by Claire Curtis Thomas, MP for Corby. Its champion in the Lords is none other than Baroness Fookes, a vice-president of the RSPCA. It creates new powers for the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food to appoint prosecutors to carry out interim care orders on animals kept within commercial premises whilst the owners or keepers await prosecution under the 1911 Protection of Animals Act.

Prosecutors appointed by MAFF under the new legislation are vested with very considerable powers to enter commercial premises in order to mark, identify or remove animals, powers which in some respects exceed those of the police. It is no secret that the RSPCA expect to be appointed as prosecutors. It is a matter of major concern to us and to a wide range of other interests that any organisation which is not accountable to the public in any way, shape or form should be granted such all-embracing rights of entry to private premises.

It is one thing for police officers to be vested with such powers, but quite another for a private animal welfare body to be given the automatic right to enter somebody's business premises on the strength that they have merely given notice to a Court that they intend to apply for an order under the Bill.

We are worried about the lack of any exact definition over what constitutes 'commercial premises', a grey area which MAFF seems singularly unwilling to clarify. Does it include, for example, kennel buildings owned by somebody who possesses a dog breeder's licence? Does it include the kennels behind gamekeepers' cottage in which working gundogs are kept? Does it include a Hunt kennels?

The Bill doesn't say, and neither does MAFF. Ministers reassure us by saying that the new powers of entry will only exist where a prosecution is already being taken under the 1911 Act for cruelty or neglect. Such assurances might be sufficient were the prosecutors to be genuinely even-handed, transparent and accountable, but I fear that is not the case.

Frankly, the RSPCA has ideological views which may predispose it to investigate and perhaps prosecute in certain specific categories of animal-related activities. It is ideologically opposed to hunting. It dislikes commercial pet shops. It objects to tail docking, indeed, it has attempted, unsuccessfully, to prosecute tail docking under the 1911 Act. Certain of our members have already suffered from the attentions of what may charitably be described as over-zealous RSPCA inspectors.

Is it being alarmist to voice our concerns about the prospect of such inspectors being granted sweeping new powers of entry to their kennels? We have no objection at all to the worthy principle of improving the welfare of animals, but unfortunately this Bill carries excess baggage. It needs amending, and time for amendment is running out. It is currently with the House of Lords and has only two more stages before it completes its passage through Parliament. Bringing this well-intentioned but flawed Bill back onto the straight and narrow at this late juncture is not going to be an easy task, but one the Council of Docked Breeds along with other organisations is currently tackling.

The past success of the CDB would not have been possible without the huge support we receive from the many thousands of members who religiously renew their membership each year and the untiring efforts of the Board members and active delegates. I trust we can enjoy your continued support as our campaign appears to have a long way to run even after nine long years.

Sunday 19 November 2000