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Dog Theft: Sentencing

Volume 606: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mel Stride.)

I am pleased to have secured this debate, and as a dog owner I was minded to do so for a couple of reasons—first, the inadequate sentencing guidelines for this type of offence, and, secondly, the sheer nastiness of this offence and the fact that it needs clamping down on far more than currently happens.

I do not criticise this or any previous Government, but it is necessary to appreciate the devastating impact that the theft of a dog has on its owner. That emotional impact overrides the financial loss, but too often our court systems are geared up to deal with such thefts simply as a form of property crime. The theft of a dog is a particularly nasty offence. Sometimes dogs are targeted because of their monetary value, but often it is done to allow grief stricken owners to put up reward posters in the area, with those rewards then claimed by the actual perpetrator.

Before coming to this House I spent nearly 20 years working in the criminal justice system so I have some appreciation of the difficulties and complexities that the courts are labouring under. I am also aware that organisations such as the Sentencing Council endeavour to provide user friendly, concise guidelines for a multitude of different situations, but I feel that it needs to reflect on its guidelines for offences of theft, as there is little to ensure that those who steal dogs get an appropriate sentence.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. There was a debate in Westminster Hall a few months ago, initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) on dog theft, cat killing and cruelty to pets and one point that arose then is that the law equates the loss of a pet to the loss of property, which is wrong. The law takes no account at all of the wider emotional impact of the theft, or of the societal needs for proper punishment in such cases.

My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point, and he is right when he says that there is a failure to acknowledge the emotional impact of such thefts—that is one reason why I secured this debate. Because of the failure of the system, few statistics are kept, and stolen dogs are often deemed to have run away as there is little proof they have been stolen. There is also no separate category of the theft of a dog, and such thefts tend to be lumped together with all the other chattels that get stolen. It is believed by Blue Cross that roughly three dogs are stolen each day. Three cats are also stolen each day, and my hon. Friend was right to mention that because the same principles apply. Almost half those thefts are from people’s gardens, one in five is from burglaries, one in seven is from owners walking their dogs, and most of the other thefts take place when people leave their dogs tied up outside shops.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Dogs have been domesticated for millennia, they have been man’s best friend for centuries, and today they remain an integral part of many families and are loved as much as any member. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that introducing a new category would reflect the fact that, although dogs are animals, for many people up and down this nation their dog is as much a part of the family as any other member?

As is often the case, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out the failure of the current system. I argue that we can deal with that by amending the sentencing guidelines. It does not necessarily need a change in the law; it needs a change in the approach to sentencing, which is completely inadequate at the moment.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. To reinforce the point just made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), too often people are sentenced as if they have nicked a garden gnome, TV or video that can easily be replaced by buying another one. The theft of a dog is stealing part of the family, and the sentence should reflect the impact that that theft has, which goes far beyond the impact of stealing a TV.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and this debate generates a fair amount of passion because of the pain that such thefts impose on people who go through the loss of a quasi-member of their own family.

My hon. Friend mentions how pets are stolen in burglaries. Perhaps the courts could consider an offence of aggravated burglary in relation to crimes involving pets.

That is a very interesting point. There should certainly be an aggravating feature of the offence of theft. Unfortunately, that is not the case according to the Sentencing Council’s guidelines. That is what is missing. Dogs are stolen in burglaries for a multitude of reasons: for fighting, for ransoms, for breeding or for selling on.

This crime is increasing and the emotional impact it has on both the owner and the dogs is immeasurable. Anyone who has had a dog stolen from them is able to say how painful an experience it is for both the owner and the animal, yet I fear penalties will now be reduced rather than increased. This is due to the flawed sentencing guidelines introduced just last month. Under the guidelines, theft sentencing is split into three categories—high, medium and lesser culpability. These are defined by specific characteristics. However, none of those characteristics includes anything that would normally apply for the theft of a dog. This forms the very starting point for sentencing. The guidelines then go on to look at the harm caused, which does cover emotional distress to the victim but is assessed primarily by the financial loss to the victim. That cannot be the right approach.

I apologise for coming late to the debate. I was caught out by the previous Division. The hon. Gentleman mentions the emotional impact of the theft of a dog. That is so important. For those of us who love dogs and have owned them all their lives, we know how terrible it is when we have to say goodbye to them. It is terrible to lose a dog in circumstances where we do not know what has happened, whether stolen by a criminal gang to be used for fighting or whatever. Does he agree that the emotional impact should be reflected in sentences for people who steal dogs?

I certainly do. I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman says. It is one of those offences where the emotional loss is not catered for in the guidelines. It does not just relate to dog theft and other animals but to personal items. The emotional impact of the theft of family photographs belonging to family members who have passed away is not properly taken into account when the courts are sentencing offenders either.

Courts cannot place dog thefts in the top half of offending categories unless the dog has a high monetary value, and that is not always the case. It means there is a greater chance of prison for the theft of a pedigree than there is for the theft of a mongrel. This approach completely fails to understand the nature of dog theft. The impact an offence like this has on a victim is not even mentioned in the list of aggravating factors that the court should take into account. Dog theft is now seen as an easy way of making money with little chance of a prison sentence imposed on the offender. In fact, under the current guidelines it is very difficult for a court to imprison someone for the theft of a dog that is worth less in monetary terms than £500. It is no wonder, then, that these offences are on the increase.

I fully accept that the Sentencing Council cannot cater for every type of theft and that it has an extremely difficult job, but there needs to be a greater appreciation of the emotional impact an offence can have on an individual.

I applaud my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I am a dog owner and have been a magistrate for some 10 years. I have never actually seen a dog theft in my years as a magistrate, which is to the good, but I can very much imagine the anguish it would cause. From memory, the sentencing band for a low level theft would be probably from a conditional discharge to a fine, and perhaps in extremis a low level community order. I am sure it would be far more beneficial for the victim impact statement to have a far greater bearing, and the ability to go to a small custodial sentence may be the way forward in such cases.

I completely agree with everything my hon. Friend has said. I am not surprised that he has not seen one of these cases because of the difficulty of bringing them to court. The problem brings us back to the over-reliance on the monetary value of the item stolen. If I were to sell my scruffy mutt, I would be lucky to get a fiver for it, quite frankly—but that rather misses the point. I would sooner have my mobile phone or even my car stolen than my dog. It is not a chattel and should not be treated as such. A distinction should be made when it comes to sentencing.

I have seen posters in my local area and my constituency seeking lost dogs, and they often say something like “reward—no questions asked”. This problem is thus going on under the radar of the authorities, which is why we do not see as many cases going to court as we should. The deterrent factor that a prison sentence would offer is often missing, yet this is an offence that causes misery for thousands of people around our country.

The message to people who are thinking of buying a dog is that they should do so only from a reputable source. There are some excellent organisations helping to tackle this problem: Blue Cross, Dog Theft Action and Dog Lost, which commended much of the work carried out on this by my local Kent police force and a few other forces as well. Yet if the criminal justice system allows those who commit these offences to walk away with light penalties, this problem will only grow and grow.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on his habitual tenacity, which enabled him to secure this very important debate. The truth is that many people become very attached to their pets and treat them like family—sometimes better than family. I know at first hand that the distress caused when a pet disappears is heightened if it is suspected or found that the pet has been stolen for nefarious purposes of one sort or another. That can only aggravate the fear that the pet may come to some form of harm. As I say, I know this at first hand, because I grew up with dogs. I had a dog that I loved very dearly, so I know the worry when dogs go missing. In my case, the dog was a Rhodesian Ridgeback. Anyone who knows the breed will realise that it is unlikely to be stolen. None the less, we fretted every time he jumped the gate or the back garden. I know what the feeling is like.

Sadly, the truth is that we are seeing a growing trend of disappearances and thefts of pets, with all the distress that can cause to individual owners. We in government have to make sure that the criminal justice system is able to respond to these incidents, that we have the resources and expertise to investigate the cases, that there is the will to prosecute them, and that the courts—this is the key to my hon. Friend’s debate—have the necessary criminal and sentencing powers to ensure that we punish offenders and, let us not forget, deter offending.

I hold ministerial responsibility for sentencing, so I need to be assured that courts have the right framework and the right powers in place. I would like to talk a little about deterrence, if only because it is not necessarily always talked about, yet it is an important part of the matter, preventing offences from happening in the first place. I will return to that in a moment, if I may.

Let me say a few words about the available offences and the sentences connected with them. First, we have offences of animal cruelty and failure to meet an animal’s basic needs. These are set out in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Those offences carry a maximum of six months imprisonment or a fine, or both. The courts also have the power to ban an offender from keeping animals in the future. It is not always the case that a stolen pet has been mistreated, but where it has been, this offence may apply.

Where the offence charged is theft, under the Theft Act 1968, the maximum penalty is seven years. That applies to domestic animals, just as it does to any other goods or chattels. My hon. Friend has made the point that animals should not be treated just like some kind of inanimate object or chattel, and I think he is absolutely right. When it comes to the criminal law, we have to think carefully about how those concerns should be properly reflected.

Of course, justice must be more than the dry letter of the law. The courts will always take into account the circumstances of a case, but that does not necessarily mean that they will need definitions of separate and bespoke offences relating to every possible variation of the crime of theft or every possible contingency. I am slightly worried—I suppose I say this as a Minister, but also as a Conservative—about the creation of specific penalties for behaviour that is already covered; I am not sure that that achieves very much. We need to enforce the penalties that already exist. Creating new offences applying to every conceivable situation risks complicating the law, and making it less transparent and less accessible. I do not think that that is what my hon. Friend was calling for, but I think that the point is worth making. The rule of law requires clear, consistent, predictable rules for victims and for citizens in general, and the sending of a clear message of deterrence to offenders.

It is for the courts to decide the right sentence in individual cases, within the maximum set by Parliament. The courts hear all the circumstances of a case, and are best placed to make that decision. They are helped by the sentencing guidelines that are issued by the independent—I stress the word “independent”—Sentencing Council. They must follow those guidelines, unless it is not in the interests of justice to do so. Even then, there is some wriggle room. The guidelines are there to ensure that sentencing is more consistent, and to identify sentencing ranges and aggravating and mitigating factors. There must be a balance between ensuring that rules are fair and consistent, and doing justice to the particular facts of a case and, in the case of a dog theft, the impact on the dog’s owner.

The new sentencing guideline on theft came into force at the beginning of last month. I understand that my hon. Friend may be disappointed that it does not specifically mention pet theft. If he has not done so already, he may wish to check out the Sentencing Council’s website, where he will see that the council’s consultation on the draft of the new guideline elicited responses and suggestions relating to this specific issue, including the suggestion that there should be a separate guideline on pet theft.

The council’s response to the consultation is available on the website. Having carefully considered the views of respondents, it concluded that the aggravating factors already in the guideline would enable the courts to sentence appropriately for pet theft. Aggravating factors in the guideline include emotional distress caused to the victim, and the fact that the stolen item may be of particular subjective value to the owner regardless of its strict monetary worth. I think that that was one of my hon. Friend’s key points. Judges are human beings, and many have a strong sense of empathy. Moreover, they have all the powers, and, most important, the discretion, to take account of the full range of impacts on individuals of this very serious offence, including the emotional impact on owners and, indeed, dogs.

The guideline mentions the following aggravating factors: the offender is acting as part of a group or gang, so that there is an organised crime element; there is significant planning of the offence; or the goods are stolen to order. Unfortunately, all those factors are often present when a dog has been stolen. The courts have adequate criminal powers, and I believe that they have adequate sentencing powers at their disposal, as well as recent and substantial guidance to help them to reach balanced, proportionate and consistent sentencing decisions, all the while taking account of all the facts of the case. It is precisely because we want them to take account of the individual impact in an individual case that we must allow judges to retain that measure of discretion.

Let me say a little about deterrence. The sentences passed by the courts are partly aimed at deterring other prospective offenders, but people can, of course, take action themselves to prevent their dogs from being stolen. Improvements in technology are one of the major reasons why we have managed to reduce the incidence of crime in recent years. Microchipping of dogs has been available for more than 25 years, and I am told that about 83% of dogs are now voluntarily chipped by their owners. My hon. Friend was, of course, one of the tenacious campaigners for the compulsory microchipping of dogs, and I congratulate him on his efforts. He, like me, will have been pleased to learn that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is to introduce compulsory microchipping in England on 6 April this year. Similar arrangements will also be in place in Scotland and Wales.

This measure is to be welcomed because it is an important step for animal welfare more broadly. It will make it easier to identify dogs and reunite them with their owners. It will also make it easier to prove that a dog has been stolen, which is important for prosecutions, and I know that my hon. Friend wants to see more of those. Most importantly, however, it can act as a deterrent. A prospective criminal who knows that a dog is microchipped is significantly less likely to target that animal for theft. The fact that all dogs must now be microchipped is as important a factor in reducing these distressing offences as the effective and flexible sentencing response, which I believe is already available.

I congratulate my hon. Friend again on securing the debate. He has been tenacious in raising this important matter, and we will always keep these issues under review, but I believe that on balance we now have the right powers, criminal offences and sentencing discretion in place to deal with this very serious crime.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.