The majority of the UK scrapped the dog licence 35 years ago and David Tomlinson is vehemently opposed to any move to bring it back
Readers from Northern Ireland are permitted a wry smile when they see the subject of this article on dog licences.
Dog licences abolished in England, Scotland Wales
The Government abolished dog licences in England, Scotland and Wales in 1987, but they remain a legal requirement in Northern Ireland. There, dog owners are required to pay £12.50 annually per dog, though there are numerous exceptions. For example, if you’ve got three or more dogs, in certain circumstances you can apply for a £32 block licence, while if your dog has been sterilised, the fee is £5. (Read more on neutering dogs here.)
Owners who are aged 65 and above don’t have to pay a licence fee if they only have one dog, but they need to pay a fiver if they’ve got more than one. There are also concessions for people on benefits or income-based jobseeker’s allowance, while under-16s are barred from holding a dog licence.
There are, of course, serious penalties for those who have unlicensed dogs, with the maximum penalty a fine of £1,000, though I’ve been unable to discover how many people have been fined this amount. Quite why there should be such regulation of dogs in Northern Ireland, but nowhere else in the UK, is a mystery. If any Irish readers can enlighten me, I would be delighted to hear from them.
The original British dog licence dates back to the Dog Licences Act 1867, when the fee was fixed at 7s 6d. This was a sizeable sum of money at the time — the equivalent of about £45 — but it was reduced greatly by inflation over the years. When Britain went decimal in 1971, the licence only cost 37 ½p. Amusingly, the price was reduced to 37p when the halfpenny coin was withdrawn in 1984.
I can remember buying a licence from the Post Office for my first springer. It was a piece of paper, rather than a tag for the collar, which might have made more sense. Nobody ever asked to see it, as it had become a ridiculous anachronism. Barely half of dog owners bothered to buy one, while administration of the licence cost far more than the amount of revenue it raised. It deserved to die.
However, I’ve recently read, or heard, serious calls for the dog licence to be reintroduced, though at a much higher rate than the old 37p. I’ve seen suggestions that the minimum cost should be £100 and even arguments that £1,000 would be appropriate.
The TV licence is currently £159 and I admit to getting more pleasure from my dogs than watching the BBC, but I think that misses the point. My suspicion is that the majority of those calling for the reintroduction of dog licences are anti-dog and they regard a licence as a possible way of reducing dog numbers and penalising those of us with dogs.
A £100 dog licence would be a major revenue raiser. There are possibly as many as 10 million dogs in Britain — nobody knows the true number as they are, of course, unlicensed and uncounted — so if 90% of dog owners paid for a licence, it would bring in close to £1 billion a year.
Such a sum would not only allow the employment of hundreds more dog wardens, but leave a surplus that could, in theory at least, be spent on other worthy dog-related projects. We all know that it wouldn’t, as that’s not how taxation works.
There are as many arguments against dog licences as there are in favour. For a start, it would be a very unpopular move with voters, always wary of politicians trying to part them from their money. Many would see it as a retrograde step. We had licences for more than a century, but did they do any good?
Perhaps most important of all, enforcing the law would be a major challenge. Who would be given the job of ensuring that all dogs were licensed — the police or the newly appointed dog wardens? Would unlicensed dogs be confiscated or destroyed? And where would the money raised by the licence go, to the local council or the Government?
Many countries insist on dog licences. In the Republic of Ireland, an annual renewable licence costs €20, but you can opt for a lifetime licence that is something of a bargain at €140. The Netherlands has some of the most expensive licences, with fees paid to the municipality where the dog lives. In the Hague, for example, owners pay €128 for one dog, €330 for two and €586 for three. Owning multiple dogs is definitely discouraged.
I feel strongly that, having got rid of it once, it would be a great mistake to reintroduce the licence. I also believe that Northern Ireland should follow the rest of the UK and drop the requirement for buying a licence.
By their very nature, licences are bureaucratic, so a sizeable proportion of any revenue raised has to be spent on running the scheme. We do have compulsory microchipping — introduced throughout the UK in April 2016 — so in theory all stray dogs can be identified and returned to their owners. There’s no justification for a licence.