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Nick Herbert MP: What the Government's dog tax debacle tells us about this Labour administration

HERBERT NICK NW Nick Herbert is Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

When we launched our campaign and advert last weekend against Labour’s idiotic plan for a dog tax, one or two sage commentators told us that we had better things to do.  So Labour are introducing a new tax, they said.  No surprise there; and there are more important things for the Conservatives to talk about than dogs.

Well, of course there are – and we’re doing so.  Look at David Cameron’s devastating attack this week on Gordon Brown’s links with Unite.  But, actually, by forcing the Government to back down on the dog tax, we’ve just saved 5 million people quite a lot of money.  We’ve helped to give Labour a pretty bad press.  And maybe the whole episode isn’t quite as trivial as the pundits suggest.  Because the dog tax confirmed four things about this dying Government.

First, the ‘get tough on dogs’ package was a typical New Labour attempt to grab an eye-catching headline.  Labour were being tough again, this time on dogs.  And like marching yobs to the cashpoint, the plan unravelled within days.  Labour had thirteen years to come up with a solution to the growing problem of dangerous dogs; they announced their plan just weeks before the election, and it lasted for six days.  Some commentators wanted us to praise the Government for listening and changing its mind.  Oh, come on.  This is a tired and incompetent Government which claims to have substance, but always resorts to spin.

Second, we’re constantly told that the Labour Party is running a well disciplined election machine.  This debacle revealed that, behind the scenes, things may not be quite so harmonious.  Alan Johnson, the friendly former postman who didn’t want to get bitten again, was the front man for the dog announcement.  Hilary Benn, who had actually dreamt up the policy, was nowhere to be seen.  Once the plan started to unravel, the blame game started.  Defra says it was a silly Home Office idea.  The Home Office blames Defra.  We blame the Government.

Third, no-one in Downing Street stopped to think whether compulsory insurance for 5 million dog owners, the vast majority of whom were doing nothing to harm or trouble anyone, was a good idea.  Perhaps this shows that the new unholy trinity in Downing Street of Alastair Campbell, Charlie Whelan and the Prince of Darkness hasn’t produced infallible media handling.  But, above all, the policy confirmed that penalising the law-abiding majority instead of targeting the criminal minority is the reflex action of New Labour, where irresponsibility is rewarded and responsibility is devalued.  It appears that no-one – not a single Minister, official or adviser – thought to question the approach.

Fourth, the classic New Labour response to any problem is to introduce a new tax:  the bin tax to punish people who don’t recycle; the phone tax which penalises people who don’t have broadband; the death tax to force us to pay for our social care, and now the dog tax for the pleasure of owning a pet.  Labour has introduced over 150 new taxes since they came to power, and the tax burden is now at its highest for two decades.  Why should any of us be surprised when they introduce another tax?  Hilary Benn bleated yesterday that compulsory insurance wasn’t a tax.  That’s splitting dog hairs.  Any owner who didn’t pay would be a criminal, and that sounds like a tax to me.

So there you have it.  A dog’s breakfast of a policy.  Clearly barking mad.  Ministers with their tail between their legs.  The Conservatives (as we said in our ad) left to clear up the mess.  The puns were free for the taking, and we didn’t miss out.  But aside from the jokes, here’s the serious lesson.  This is still the administration which puts spin over substance; whose Ministers brief and backstab; which can’t leave the responsible citizen alone, and which believes in big government and big taxes to match.  The dog tax may have been a miniature episode, but it accurately painted New Labour.


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