Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Canterbury's dog mess debacle: the crime of 'not carrying two bags'

Earlier this month, Canterbury City Council announced new measures in their attempt to kerb the problem of dog fouling. The introduction of a district-wide Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), coming into effect from early October, not only promises £80 fixed penalty notices for dog walkers who fail to pick up after their dog, but also for owners who fail to “demonstrate they have the appropriate means to clean up.” The definition of ‘appropriate means’ turns out to be remarkably specific:
“As a rule of thumb, our enforcement officers would expect responsible dog owners to carry at least two bags that can be used to dispose of dog excrement.” (Leo Whitlock, Canterbury City Council spokesperson)
It was this surprising new requirement that led to the PSPO being reported widely in the national news, sparking debate across media platforms on how effective the regulations would be.
Canterbury City Council aren’t the first council to make dog owners liable to fines for not having the means to clean up their dog’s mess. Since the introduction of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, under which PSPOs have replaced the previous system of Dog Control Orders, several councils including Daventry, Boston, Knowsley, and Rhondda Cynon Taf have introduced PSPOs with the same obligation to carry bags for dog waste.
However, Canterbury appears to be the first council to make carrying two bags the common standard upon which the ‘means to clean up’ is based. It’s a bizarre situation that reveals something more significant about the powers of the state to intervene in our everyday lives.           
 
What do dog owners think?
As those most familiar with their dogs’ toilet habits, dog owners were particularly well-placed to point out the absurdities of the new rules. Living in Canterbury myself, I approached them in person and online to hear their thoughts.
Their most common concern was being approached by an officer at the end of a walk, when they may have fewer than two bags left. How would officers know that a dog walker had originally carried more, if some of the bags had already been used and thrown away? There were similar worries from those who use different methods of cleaning up after their pet, such as scooping the mess into a single black bin liner, which do not adhere to the ‘two bags’ rule.
“What happens if you've used up all your bags clearing up after your dog and everyone else's dogs, will you get a fine then as well? How can you prove that you had more than 2 bags? You can't as you've just used them all up and you're on your way home!” (Dog owner)
Other owners believe that the regulations could actually worsen problems with dog fouling. It’s been suggested that setting such a precise number of bags to carry might encourage dog walkers to leave poo on paths if they’re running out of bags, for fear of being caught out later by officers. Furthermore, ensuring that bags are carried by dog owners won’t do anything to stop the well-reported problem of people dropping poo bags as litter, rather than using bins.
It’s easy to see how the arbitrary requirement to carry two bags could make criminals out of those who had no intention of leaving their dog’s mess, while serial offenders go unpunished.             
In response to these issues, some dog owners have pointed towards practical, proven methods of tackling the issue instead of costly enforcement practices, suggesting that the Council itself could be more proactive in ensuring the appropriate facilities are available for dog walkers. On social media, many highlighted the lack of bins for disposing of dog waste in popular recreation areas, arguing that more should be available. It was also pointed out that other councils and voluntary organisations in the UK provide bag dispensers on common walking routes. This tactic reminds owners of their obligations and encourages them to fulfil them, while also providing the means to do so for those who have may have run out of bags, or simply forgotten to pack any.
Instead of taking positive steps to solve the problem, Canterbury City Council (CCC) have opted for an approach to dog fouling that risks not only being ineffective, but also criminalising dog owners who have done nothing wrong.
 
How have the council responded?
Due to the volume of reaction to the news in mainstream and social media, the council felt the need to make an ‘Important Information’ post on their Facebook page.
The council were especially keen to emphasise that they will be taking a ‘common sense’ approach to enforcement – another way of saying that your chances of getting a fixed penalty notice are at the discretion of the individual officer(s) involved. They confirmed that enforcement officers are not legally entitled to stop and search to confirm people’s claims that they are carrying poo bags, and wouldn’t want to do so. Nevertheless, it is an offence to not produce bags when asked, even if it turns out that you do have enough in your possession.
Despite the PSPO being operative over the whole Canterbury district, the Council wrote that their officers will “largely be using the powers for targeted operations on specific problem areas or offenders”. As there are already three Dog Control Orders in place from the time before the 2014 Act came into force, the introduction of the PSPO would suggest that CCC is primarily looking for more flexibility, allowing them to enforce these rules anywhere within the district. Though this comes even as the Council stated that dog fouling is “no more of a problem in Canterbury district than it is anywhere else”.
Indeed, throughout their public posts, CCC have maintained that dog fouling is only a problem among a small percentage of dog walkers, and ‘responsible’ owners have nothing to fear from the PSPO. Yet with these new powers, CCC have changed the definition of ‘responsible’. Responsible no longer means simply clearing up after your dog. It means ‘carrying two bags’.                
 
State power over everyday life
Let’s be clear – nobody likes dog poo. Even those who are uncaring enough to never clean up their dog’s mess recognise that it is unpleasant and unhygienic.
But this policy doesn’t address the wrongful act of not cleaning up after your dog. Rather, it creates the arbitrary offence of not carrying two bags while walking a dog. It creates the legal category of a ‘responsible owner’ as someone who always carries at least two bags with them when in an outdoor public space with their pet, while those who fail to do this at any moment – even if they always pick up their dog’s mess – are legally ‘irresponsible’.
It is precisely the more bizarre cases such as this one which hint at the more sinister reality of state power since the introduction of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. This legislation has given local authorities the power to use PSPOs to regulate any behaviour that could be deemed to have a ‘detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality’, as judged by the individual officer(s) and/or councillor(s) who propose the order. Notably, as there is no legal obligation for councils to consult with the public before implementing a PSPO, the view of a single or small number of unelected officials can be all that is needed to take away the freedom to perform an activity in public. As such, nearly any activity, no matter how mundane, could become an offence ‘by proxy’.
This troubling consequence of the legislation is illustrated quite clearly by this interaction between Canterbury City Council and a member of the public on Facebook:
[NAME REMOVED]: Is this actually legal? Can they issue a fixed penalty notice for not carrying enough poo bags?
Canterbury City Council: Hi [NAME REMOVED]. It's not an offence to go out without dog poo bags. But it is an offence to breach a measure contained in a Public Space Protection Order. And because the dog poo bag rule is in our PSPO, that's how it can be enforced through a fixed penalty notice. I hope this explains it. 
With such interfering regulations being increasingly approved across the country – with less democratic oversight – more and more groups and individuals within our society are recognising the risks that PSPOs pose to our everyday freedoms. A recent Change.org petition demands that councils stop using PSPOs to target dog owners, and that the guidelines for using such regulations in the future be tightened. The petition calls for councils to provide verifiable evidence for any claims they make against dog owners, and that all proposed regulations are subject to a full public consultation process. After only a few days, the petition had already garnered over 7,000 signatures.
This petition adds to the extensive list of campaigns against PSPO proposals in recent years, which have challenged attempts by councils to micromanage activities from the commonplace, such as rough sleeping, begging, busking, and even swearing; to the seemingly ridiculous and situational, such as chalk drawing, carrying a golf bag, or selling lucky charms.
For those who may be wondering what real impact these apparently petty regulations will have, it’s true that Canterbury’s new dog fouling measures are going to be inconsequential in the lives of most people in the district. It’s true that, particularly at a time when council resources are tight, your chances of encountering an enforcement officer when walking your dog, let alone receiving a fixed penalty notice, are minimal. But it’s the ability of councils to micromanage acts so banal and seemingly harmless – freedoms that we take for granted – that signals why everybody should be concerned about the powers contained within PSPOs. We should all be questioning the limits of state power when an act as immaterial as ‘not carrying two bags’ can be deemed an offence.

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