Monday 2 July 2018
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 212174 relating to pet theft.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. The pet theft petition was created by Dr Daniel Allen, who is in the Public Gallery. He is an animal geographer at Keele University and an animal welfare influencer. Last year, more and more families asked him to share stolen pet posters on Twitter, which he did. Feeling helpless because of the scale of the problem, anxious about the potential risks to his own dog, Rupert, and increasingly upset for the families involved, he teamed up with the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance, known as SAMPA, to campaign for reform of the law on pet theft. Within four months, the pet theft petition achieved 100,000 signatures.
SAMPA has been campaigning since September 2014. The founding members include Debbie Matthews, whom I have met, of Vets Get Scanning, Arnot Wilson of the Dog Union, Richard Jordan of Pet Theft Awareness and Jayne Hayes and Wayne May of DogLost. Last year, SAMPA organised the dog theft awareness day to highlight this growing crime and its devastating impact on families. That Westminster event was hosted by the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who is present for our debate. He has been championing reform of the law on pet theft in Parliament for many years.
Dr Daniel Allen and Beverley Cuddy have recently become patrons and Professor John Cooper, QC, is SAMPA’s legal adviser. Behind the scenes, the pet theft reform group has worked tirelessly, sharing and promoting the petition. The pet theft petition has been driven by the kindness of strangers and has seen many organisations joining forces.
Special thanks must go to All About The Animals, Animal Advocate, Animal Realities, Animal Watch, APGAW—the all-party parliamentary group for animal welfare—Dogs Trust, the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, Dog TAG, the Dog Welfare Alliance, Dougal’s Army, Find Sky, Finn’s Law, the Good Vet and Pet Guide, the Labour Animal Rights Group, Murphy’s Army, the National Animal Welfare Trust, Scouse Pets 2 and the Animal Team, to name a few.
Many magazines have got behind the campaign, including The Countryman, The Countryman’s Weekly, Dogs Monthly, Dogs Today, K9 Magazine, Our Dogs, Pet Gazette, Pet Product Marketing, Shooting Times and The Conversation. Support has also come from popular figures including Ricky Gervais, Jane Fallon, Dermot O’Leary, Sir Bruce Forsyth, Chris Packham, Miranda Hart, Kirsty Gallacher, Paul O’Grady, Paul Ross, Deborah Meaden, Peter Egan, Anna Webb, Jorgie Porter, Lorraine Kelly, Victoria Stilwell, Brian May, Stuart Winter and Brenda Blethyn. The campaign has featured on mainstream TV shows—“This Morning”, “Victoria Derbyshire”, “Lorraine”, the ITV national news, Sky news and Look North—and has been covered by nearly every regional and national radio station and newspaper.
There has been an unprecedented response to the House of Commons Facebook post on this debate. I cannot recall another animal-related campaign that has managed to bring together people ranging from animal rights activists to the hunting and shooting fraternity. That is the power of pets—they are part of every family.
Pet theft is a cruel and devastating crime and it is on the rise. Everyone is a potential victim: it hits families, the elderly, the disabled and the homeless.
My constituency has a high level of rural crime that targets farm dogs. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is a particularly heinous crime, in that farm dogs have value because they have skills that can be used on a farm but they are also pets that are loved by their owners?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on holding the debate. I just want to point out that the House is on a one-line Whip today and this debate has achieved a huge turnout, from all parties. I suspect that had the House been sitting formally with a Whip, this Chamber would have been packed. The hon. Gentleman has struck a chord in bringing this issue to the House, and I am sure that there will be unanimous support for the motion. I am here on behalf of my constituents whose dog Daisy has been stolen. They share the outrage that at the moment more than 2,000 dogs a year are stolen, that only 5% of thefts lead to a conviction and that a dog has to be proven to be worth £500 to count as property. For many families in this country, a dog is both a working animal and a pet. I fully support, as I am sure we all do, Dogs Trust in its work: we have to correct the law so that people who steal dogs are punished properly.
This is a timely debate and a big issue among the public. Following on from what has been said, if someone loses their dog or it is stolen, then regardless of the value, it is like a death in the family. I have had animals over the years, and when something happens to them, when they die or anything like that, it is as if there has been a death in the house; there is a sadness about the house. More importantly, it particularly affects children, who are very attached to their animals. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the case?
I entirely agree. Pets are indeed part of the family; they are not commodities, as I will go on to say. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the death of a pet is traumatic for every family member.
Latest statistics from the Pet Food Manufacturers Association show that almost half of British households contain at least one pet and more than a quarter have one or more dogs. Pet Gazette recently said that 89% of pet owners consider their pet to be part of the family. New research by the insurance company Direct Line shows that the number of dogs stolen across Britain has risen by 6.8% in just 12 months, with an average of five dogs stolen every single day in 2017. Last year, 1,909 dogs were reported stolen to police forces; that compares with the 1,788 stolen in 2016.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is reading out the figures. One problem that we have, with regard to gun dogs mainly, is that they are being stolen for three purposes: first, to be pets, which is straightforward; secondly, for dog fighting, which is horrific; and thirdly, for puppy farms, mainly but not exclusively in the Republic of Ireland. Will the hon. Gentleman continue what he is saying, because he is articulating the absolute essence of what is being done in this country?
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that detailed intervention. He is absolutely right; he makes a fair point about gun dogs.
The number of reported dog thefts was 14% higher in 2016 than it was in 2015. Dogs are stolen to order, to sell, to breed, for ransom and even for use as bait and for dog fighting. The Staffordshire bull terrier remains Britain’s most stolen breed. Dogs are stolen from gardens, houses, kennels, from outside—
I really commend the hon. Gentleman for leading this debate today. I have owned two Staffordshire bull terriers; sadly, they are no longer with us. The devastation of losing a pet in this way, through being stolen, is horrendous, so does the hon. Gentleman agree not only that the Government need to bring in much stiffer sentences as quickly as possible, but that we need to encourage everyone to scan animals—particularly vets, when an animal is taken to a veterinary surgeon—and we need to ensure that education about this crime is widespread so that people are aware that it is a potential threat? An animal should not just be seen as a piece of property; losing one is really like losing a member of the family.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He goes to the heart of the debate on many of those issues. I know that
Dogs are stolen outside shops and from cars, and while they are out exercising, on or off the lead. Nowhere is safe for unattended dogs. Owners of bulldogs, pugs, French bulldogs and chihuahuas, for example, have been stalked on walks. Some have had to fight off an attacker who is trying to snatch their dog, or have later been a victim of a home invasion where the only thing stolen was their dog.
Cats are being increasingly targeted. In 2016, 261 cats were reported as stolen to police forces—an increase of 40% on 2014. However, a 2017 study revealed that 360,000 adults believed their cat had been stolen in the past 12 months. SAMPA believes those figures only scratch the surface, as police forces record this crime differently across the country and theft by finding is never recorded in police figures. Everyone assumes it will not happen to them, but no one is safe from this devastating crime.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and making some good points. We are a nation of pet lovers, yet the law does not protect us from this destructive crime. It is a serious issue. Does my hon. Friend agree that losing a pet is like losing a family member, as thousands of people in this country think, and that we must stop equating the theft of a much-loved animal with the general theft of possession? They are clearly not the same. With pet theft increasing, it is time to toughen the legislation and sentencing, and put an end to this cruel and devastating crime.
My hon. Friend goes to the heart of the problem. Hopefully, all those listening from a parliamentary perspective will join him in urging everybody to push for that outcome.
People do not steal pets to love them. They use them, abuse them and treat them like inanimate objects. There are many heartbreaking stories. Pepsi, a 12-year-old cat from my constituency of Hartlepool, was brutally killed by lampers. Zeena, a Staffordshire bull terrier, was stolen from her family and forced to fight for her life in a dog-fighting ring. She was reunited with her family, carrying the scars of appalling injuries, four years later. Ella, a terrier, was kicked so hard by a dog thief that she died from her injuries. Ivy, a cocker spaniel, was stolen from her home and found dead the next morning. She had been dumped by the side of a road, having suffered serious dog bites and bruising. Bentley, a cocker spaniel, was stolen from his bed in West Yorkshire with five other cocker spaniels. Bentley died, as thieves gouged out his microchip, leading to a brain infection. The other five spaniels remain missing. Kemo joined the whole family when Olly had cancer. With the love and support of Kemo, Olly was able to gain the strength to beat cancer. Kemo was stolen in February 2018 and remains missing. In all those cases, the thieves have not been apprehended.
Pet theft rips the heart out of families and wrecks lives. It also serves as a gateway to wider animal cruelty and extortion. Despite that, pet theft is currently seen as no different from the theft of an inanimate object. The theft of a labrador is treated like the theft of a laptop. Potential pet thieves are fast learning that the chance of ever being caught is tiny. Even if they are caught, the chance of a custodial sentence or a substantial fine is incredibly slim.
If we are to catch the horrendous people who carry out this horrendous act, does my hon. Friend agree that enforcement needs to be at the top of the agenda? The law needs to be reformed, but we need enforcement of the laws, so that people are deterred from doing that sort of thing.
Yes, absolutely, and I will come on to that point. SAMPA believes that pet theft reform can and must become a reality. According to Dogs Trust, under British law, pets are classed as property in theft-sentencing legislation. That means that stealing a pet is viewed in the same way as stealing an inanimate object.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this important debate to the House. As many hon. Members have said, pets are part of people’s families. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in not only congratulating the Environment Secretary on increasing the sentence for animal cruelty to five years, which is important, but calling for the definition of animal cruelty to be extended to include the theft of much-loved pets?
The hon. Gentleman makes a particularly relevant point. I agree that we must support any endeavour to improve legislation around animal cruelty.
The penalty for pet theft is based on the monetary value of the pets, not the emotional value to the owner. The 2015 theft offences guidelines classified the level of harm caused by theft into four categories. For the theft to be classed as category 1 or 2, the property stolen must have a value of over £500. Many pets have little or no monetary value, meaning that criminals stealing them are able to receive only minimal sentences in line with category 3 or 4. The maximum sentence for stealing a dog worth less than £500 is two years’ imprisonment.
I do not think my dogs would fetch more than 50 quid each. I am worried that we seem to be going backwards. In 1770, the Act preventing the stealing of dogs received Royal Assent. Anyone caught was fined or imprisoned or suffered hard labour—I think it was adjusted in 1846. The Theft Act 1968 seems to have removed the requirement to deal with people who steal dogs, which is a shame.
Fifty quid, indeed.
At present, the sentencing guidelines are such that it is hard to see a situation where a non-financially valuable pet can get out of category 4 and a prized pedigree can get out of category 3. That is clearly wrong. We should not tie the hands of the sentencing court by being prescriptive over value in cases such as pet theft. Where the theft of a family pet is involved, monetary value is irrelevant and should be disregarded.
We need tougher sentences. Since the 2016 revision to the sentencing guidelines, there has been no evidence that the courts have become any tougher on pet theft. Very few cases are getting to court. When they do, the guilty most often walk free. Some 98% of criminal cases are heard in magistrates courts, where sentencing for pet theft is almost certainly below six months.
Dr Daniel Allen’s research has found that less than 5% of dog theft crimes lead to charges, which includes community orders. The often-cited seven-year maximum sentence has never been awarded for the theft of a pet and cannot be handed down specifically for the theft of a pet. Alongside that, microchipping dogs became compulsory across the UK in April 2016, but scanning remains optional.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the microchipping law was a missed opportunity? People who have their dogs microchipped are still not the legal owner, but simply the keeper of the pet. Maybe it is time for another debate on how we can improve the microchipping laws.
I agree with my hon. Friend. That is a worthy subject for further debate.
In June 2018, a gang of four were tried at Lincoln Crown court following a burglary in Middle Rasen, Lincolnshire. Fifteen Cavalier King Charles spaniels were taken, including one that was pregnant. One of the dogs was later recovered on the side of a motorway, having been thrown from a moving vehicle. All four accused pleaded guilty to theft, but despite this being a serious case in the highest possible court, the gang members still received only suspended sentences. Two years earlier, five connected men had been sentenced in the same court to a total of 12 years in jail for conspiracy to steal railway cables. That sort of scrap metal theft used to be fashionable until the Government gave that crime a more serious consequence.
Our pets need improved protection, too. The revisions proposed by SAMPA would be so much simpler to achieve. SAMPA just wants to improve the existing legislation. SAMPA, Dogs Trust and others want the Government both to amend the Theft Act 1968 to reclassify the theft of pets as a specific crime in its own right and to improve the sentencing guidelines. Their suggestions for pet theft reforms are small and attainable, but those highly significant revisions would make the existing law much more appropriate for modern families and their pets. SAMPA wants to tweak section 4(4) of the 1968 Act, relating to property, to include a special mention of the theft of pet animals. It already details mushrooms and wild animals, so why not pets?
That is well said, and I agree wholeheartedly.
Although the word “property” understandably makes many pet owners uncomfortable, our pets would be better protected if they were properly detailed in the 1968 Act, because that would strengthen the aggravated sentence provision, as is already the case with vehicles and bicycles.
SAMPA would like the sentencing guidelines for theft offences to be reviewed so that the section on harm would read: “Harm is assessed by reference to the financial loss that results from the theft, except in cases involving the theft of a domestic pet, where financial or monetary value should be disregarded.”
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he agree that, although the theft of ordinary possessions, such as jewellery, is distressing, it is nothing like the loss of an animal? The people who do this are trading in misery.
That is true; the hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head in terms of the difference.
SAMPA asks the Minister to reclassify pet theft as a crime in its own right, as is the case with vehicles and bicycles, and to add aggravated sentence provision for pet theft, to give the courts extended discretion.
On sentencing consistency, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 is being revised to increase sentencing for animal cruelty, and it is in the public interest to do the same for pet theft. SAMPA wants those changes because it believes that being proactive, with tougher sentencing, will act as a deterrent and help to reduce pet theft.
As we have heard, this is clearly an all-party issue. More than 100,000 petitioners agree that we need pet theft reform to help to protect pets. Campaigners hope that the Minister will do the right thing and make pet theft reform a reality.
I am pleased to be able to contribute to the debate. I pay tribute to the Petitions Committee and to the contribution of the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill).
We all agree that pet theft is a particularly nasty, cruel and growing crime that brings misery to owners and to dogs. I got involved with this issue when a case was brought to my attention of a lady who lived on her own and did not have many family members or friends in the local vicinity. She had a dog that was the centre of her world, and it was stolen from her. That caused her such misery, grief and devastation that trying to deal with it as some sort of property crime fell very wide of the mark. That is not how we should approach such incidents.
We have heard several comments about statistics. I have tried to drill down into how big a problem dog theft is in this country, but the brutal fact is that we simply do not know. We heard that 2,000 dogs are stolen per year, but I have also heard the figure of 4,000. We hear different things from different parts of the country, because different police forces approach it completely differently. Last year, I sent a freedom of information request to every police force in the country to try to ascertain how they approached it, and it was clear that in some areas, but not in others, a designated police officer dealt with any offence to do with pet theft.
In some police forces, when the police turned up to a complaint about a dog being stolen from someone’s garden, it was recorded as the theft of a dog, but in others it was recorded as a missing pet. Consequently, according to the statistics, the picture around the country is very varied. In fact, if the statistics show a high level of pet theft in an area, that often suggests only that the police force in that area is very proactive in dealing with it. I pay tribute to my county of Kent and the police force there, which does take the matter seriously. One in four stolen animals in Kent are returned to their owners. That is a pitifully small percentage, but it is far better than the national average, which is something like one in 10 stolen dogs being returned to their owners. We need to look carefully at the statistics, because the picture around the country is mixed.
It is something of an urban myth that most dogs are stolen from outside shops. Although that does happen, it seems that most dogs are stolen from people’s gardens or when they are taken out for walks; that is far more planned than the opportunistic theft of a dog from outside a shop. The different circumstances in which dogs are stolen also have an impact on the way that the statistics are compiled. If a police officer is called to someone’s home, that will often be treated as the theft of a dog. If a dog is out on a walk and is taken by somebody, it is treated as a missing dog. There is a disparity of approach in different forces.
Some forces deal with the matter particularly well. South Wales can be very proud, and Norfolk deals with the issue proactively. We should give credit to forces that are desperately trying to get to grips with the growing problem. However, as much as some police forces are trying to do their best for dogs and their owners and deal with the issue, they are hampered in their effectiveness by the fact that the courts cannot deal with it properly. The courts are hampered, in turn, by the Sentencing Council guidelines that they have to follow, which have been mentioned a few times already.
The courts’ inability to deal adequately with dog theft is at the root of so much of the problem, and it is not surprising that many people see it as a high-reward, low-risk crime. I worked in the criminal justice system for about 20 years before coming to this place, and I saw an increasing propensity for people to commit such offences. The offences chop and change; the hon. Member for Hartlepool mentioned metal theft, and other crimes that are seen as high reward and low risk gain popularity among the criminal classes. At the moment, this country is suffering because criminals see dog theft as an attractive crime. It is incumbent on this place to stop that. If we do not act, the problem will simply get worse.
The category of the offence is at the heart of how a court deals with an offender, as we heard earlier. The guidelines say that if an animal—or anything—that is taken has a value of less than £500, it is very difficult for the court to give a custodial sentence. If a court does give a custodial sentence, it has to be short, because that is what the guidelines demand. Time and again, we hear from the Government—not just this one, but Governments of all persuasions, including the coalition Government and the last Labour Government—that seven years’ imprisonment is available for the theft of a dog. That may be the case on paper, but the guidelines make it impossible for the courts to impose that kind of sentence.
I call on the Sentencing Council to look at that. I wrote to it last year and said that it needed to amend its guidelines to make appropriate and adequate sentences available for this kind of offence. It wrote back and simply said no, it was not going to. We need to change its mind and ensure that it is sentencing this kind of offence in accordance with the actual nature of the crime. The monetary value of a dog should not be the main factor in sentencing an offender, and yet that is exactly what it is under the current guidelines. A sentence of seven years for a dog thief is not available to the courts, as the guidelines stand. That is crystal clear, so we should not allow anybody to hide behind that figure of seven years.
I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend’s contribution. It strikes me that the element that we are not really accounting for is that dogs themselves may be worth less than five hundred quid, but their breeding potential may be worth several thousand pounds over a period of time. I wonder whether the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 has an application in this area that has not yet been properly used.
If I understand my hon. Friend’s point, the Proceeds of Crime Act is fine when there are some proceeds, but when there are no proceeds, it is very difficult to use. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) mentioned that his dogs are worth about £50 each.
Their offspring, however, might be worth more; that is my point. My hon. Friend might have a dog that is borderline £500 in value, but if, unfortunately, it had more than one litter a year—some unscrupulous breeders of dogs do that—for a period of years, its value to a breeder would be significant.
Without going into details, if my dog had offspring it would be something of a miracle, so it would be worth an awful lot of money. My hon. Friend makes a very pertinent point, however. Some people steal dogs to use them for breeding and therefore make lots of money for themselves, as the puppies are sold on. We have seen a particular increase in thefts of French bulldogs, because they are high-value dogs. I suppose the difference in that case, and in the case of some sheepdogs that we have heard mention of, is that because there is a reasonable monetary value attached to the dog, the court has some teeth to deal with the matter. It does not when the theft is of a scruffy mongrel—a mutt—that is a member of and the centre of a family, and is loved to bits and priceless to that family, but is of a pitiful monetary value. That is where we have problems with the current guidelines, and where we completely fall short.
At the moment, the Sentencing Council may not be giving a green light to dog thieves, but it is certainly not putting up a red light. It has to change, therefore, and if it does not, the only way forward for this place is to bring in a specific offence of dog theft. We have specific offences such as the theft of a pedal cycle, and various other things, but we do not have a specific offence of dog theft. If the Sentencing Council does not change its guidelines, it would be right and appropriate to bring in a law that tackles this particular problem.
This is an issue that unites this House; there is no party politics here. Members of the Labour party, Liberal Democrats and Members from all political parties are united in our condemnation of, and our attitude of disgust towards, people who carry out such crimes. We all want to see a change. I hope that we will get that through the Sentencing Council, but if we do not, the route is through the Ministry of Justice. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about this matter today.
Finally, I pay tribute to all the organisations—I will not repeat the list that the hon. Member for Hartlepool read out earlier—that have worked so tirelessly on this important issue. I particularly pay tribute to the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance. I know that some of its representatives are here, and that it has worked incredibly hard on this issue and tried to keep it in the public eye. This offence is a nasty, cruel one that brings misery to owners and to dogs. It is not a property crime, and it should not be treated as such.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma, and to serve under you this afternoon.
I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for an important speech. I agreed with his speech in full, and I hope that Dr Daniel Allen—the creator of this public petition—and all who love their animals feel the same way.
Millions of people and families from across the country—in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland—own pets of many kinds. In June 2017, I was elected Member of Parliament for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. It was an important moment for me and for my family, but I can assure everyone present that it was not the only important matter for us last year. We got a new dog—I was replaced by a dog called Mia, who joined our family. If my wife Anne was asked, I think she would say that Mia coming to us was more important than me coming to this House.
After so many weeks down here in Parliament, it could be said that in the eyes of the Gaffney family, Mia has indeed replaced me in our home back in Scotland. She certainly spends more time in my bed than I do. Like many Members from across the House, I could share many stories of my dog’s cheeky but loving behaviour, and about her determination to take my side of the bed and establish herself as the top dog in our house.
It is easy for me to have fun and laugh with my dog—she has certainly given me a lot of pleasure—but other people experience the heartache of losing their animals or having them stolen. I pay tribute to the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance for the important work that it does to champion the rights of animal lovers, and indeed the rights of the animals themselves. I echo the words of Beverley Cuddy, the patron of SAMPA, who said:
“Pets are priceless, irreplaceable and their loss wrecks lives”.
Beverley is right and she gives voice to the feelings of so many people. I add my support to ensure that all our voices are heard here today in Parliament.
The fact that only one in five stolen dogs tends to be recovered is a disgrace, and it means that many families and other dog owners will never receive the closure that they need and demand after the loss of a pet. We must do more, and we must do better. There is no doubt that crime is on the rise in this country, whatever we may hear from the Home Office, and not just conventional sorts of crime. Pet theft is also on the rise, and we can see why.
In my constituency of Peterborough, I was made aware in the area of Ravensthorpe of dog snatchers going round to houses and painting the fences red to alert their accomplices to the fact that there was a pet there. Does my hon. Friend agree that pet theft is becoming a type of organised crime and that it needs to be treated as such?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I certainly agree with her. That is the problem—pet theft is profitable. Pet theft is easy, particularly when people are in the parks with their animals, or, in this type of weather, when doors and windows are left open and dogs escape, never to be found again. Pet theft is not being taken seriously by our law enforcement agencies, and we need to improve in that regard. Because the Government have yet to demonstrate their determination to tackle pet theft once and for all, we must do more.
A number of my constituents have been in touch with me about this debate and, indeed, signed the petition that we are considering. My commitment to them, to all animal lovers and to their animals is that I will do all I can to make sure that we in Parliament show criminals that we will not let them get away with pet theft. We are after them for our animals.
It really is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Sharma.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill), as well as to the Petitions Committee, for taking this issue forward. I also pay a heartfelt tribute to Dr Daniel Allen, who started this petition and who is in the Gallery today, and to all those campaigners who have worked so tirelessly to move this issue right up the political agenda, such as the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance, Pet Theft Awareness, DogLost, Beverley Cuddy, Marc Abraham, Debbie Matthews, Professor John Cooper, QC, and many, many more—in fact, too many to name. It is due to all their outstanding efforts that more than 100,000 people across the United Kingdom, including more than 70 in my constituency, have signed the petition. Having this important debate here today is a real triumph of people power.
When I am asked what the most difficult part of my job as an MP is, I always answer: “Monday mornings”. That is not because I hate having to roll out of bed to catch a 7.15 am flight, but because it breaks my heart every Monday morning to leave my Jack Russell-Yorkshire terrier cross, Poppy. The fact that she knows I am leaving and does her utmost to make me feel guilty about it just makes heading to London so much harder. I could not imagine ever returning home to find that Poppy was not there. I do not even want to contemplate the notion of her being stolen. For me, like millions of pet owners across the UK, Poppy is my family. To be honest, I am like a proud dad. She has her moments, like any teenager. She can be relentless with her ball and her ducky, but I love her to bits, and I would hate anything it if were to happen to her. Our pets are much more than possessions. It is not difficult to appreciate how truly awful, heartbreaking and simply devastating a crime pet theft can be.
The hon. Gentleman is making a passionate, moving point. Does he agree that this is not just about pets? This is about a life and about a family’s life. The law needs to bear that in mind. This is not about monetary value, but about a life being taken. If a child was taken, we would not say, “They are only a couple of years old, so we think they are not worth that much.” This is a life, and it matters to the family.
I could not agree with the hon. Lady more. We have a real emotional connection to our pets, just as we have that emotional connection to members of the family. When we lose family members, we grieve; when we lose our pets, we grieve in the same way, and it should be treated in the same way.
As it stands, our law does not take true account of the real value of our pets. As the law stands, our pets are not inherently considered any different from inanimate objects. Sentencing is based predominantly on the financial loss to the victim. In England and Wales, for example, the theft of a dog valued at less than £500 must be classed as category 3 or 4. Those are lower categories, which mean lighter sentences.
Unfortunately, the Sentencing Council’s 2016 reforms have not made English and Welsh courts tougher on pet thieves. Very few cases of pet theft are getting to court, and even when they do, too many pet thieves are walking free or being given light-touch sentences. Given that pets are stolen not to be given a warm and loving home, but to be abused, tortured and treated as disposable, the current state of affairs simply makes my blood boil.
In Scotland, the Scottish Sentencing Council has not put forward any guidelines on theft, so judges rely on case law to decide on sentencing for pet theft. That flexibility cuts both ways. While some sentences may accurately reflect the real emotional harm done to the victim, that is far from guaranteed. The problem with the law as it stands is, as any victim would say, that pet theft is fundamentally not about financial loss. The value of a pet to its owners is far greater than any financial valuation could quantify. Losing a much-loved pet—a member of the family—can tear the heart out of that family and be as devastating a loss as losing any other family member.
Unlike a laptop, a blender, a flat-screen TV or any other object, no matter how expensive, a pet is a living animal and a much-loved part of the family. To underscore just how devastating the loss of a pet can be, a growing number of companies now offer bereavement leave to employees who have lost a pet. Inanimate possessions just do not compare, and it is about time that was properly recognised in the law.
Pet theft can and does cause real harm to victims’ lives. Just ask Dawn Maw, whose dog Angel was stolen in December 2013. She spent more than £13,000 trying to get Angel back. She took unpaid leave from work and suffered depression and the breakdown of her marriage. Pet theft changed Dawn’s life. She has said that her phone might have cost the same as Angel, but the phone could have been replaced within 24 hours, and Angel was her best friend.
Another example is Rita and Philip Potter, whose labrador Daisy vanished from their back garden in Norfolk eight months ago. The family are devastated and fear that Daisy was taken to be sold on the black market. Rita said that Daisy was
“a beautiful dog, she was a wonderful companion. We have got seven grandchildren, and they all miss her so much. At Christmas time, our little granddaughter, who is just five years old, said all she wanted for Christmas was Daisy back home.”
Such cases are powerful and demonstrate so clearly why the current law makes no sense. The light sentences given to so many pet thieves, based simply on the financial value of the pet, are an added insult to victims. They do not reflect the harm caused and do not act as an effective deterrent. It is just not justice. We need to change the law to make pet theft a serious criminal offence in its own right, punishable at a level more appropriate to the deep emotional harm caused to the victims.
That is what I intend to achieve with the ten-minute rule Bill I will be proud to bring before this House tomorrow. My hope is that the Bill will bring much-needed change to the law in not only England and Wales but Scotland. As a Scottish MP, I am determined to ensure that Scotland is not left behind, by working with the Scottish Parliament, and particularly my colleague Maurice Golden MSP. I hope the Bill can deliver justice for pet owners in Scotland, too.
For too long, too many pet owners have gone through the absolute hell and misery that pet theft can cause, and too many pet thieves have got away with a mere slap on the wrist. That is unacceptable, and it is time for change. The petition is a great example of people coming together to change a real flaw in our criminal justice system, and I hope that, this week, this debate and my ten-minute rule Bill can be the start of the change we need to see.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for securing this debate and the Petitions Committee for tabling it. The petition, which was started by the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance, has secured more than 100,000 signatures. That has led to this debate this afternoon. The petition will remain open until 8 August, if memory serves.
In the UK, approximately 2,000 dogs are stolen each year. Only a very small number are returned to their owners, and we do not know whether 2,000 is the true figure. We do not know whether the dogs have been stolen or simply got lost, and we do not know how many go missing and are not reported, so the figure may be a vast underestimate.
Only 5% of reported dog thefts lead to a conviction, which is a very low rate. Charges may be brought under the Theft Act 1968 or the Animal Welfare Act 2006. In Scotland, charges can be brought under common law or the Animal Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006.
There have been numerous calls for pet theft to be classified as a specific crime, with pets recognised as sentient beings, rather than simply property. According to Dogs Trust, 70% of reported dog thefts are not from outside shops or from cars, but from owners’ gardens—the crime starts with the distressing invasion of a person’s private property. People have a close affinity with their pets, which means that when a pet is abruptly taken, people also suffer considerable emotional distress and trauma, and that applies to all the family.
It is not easy to grieve for a lost pet. We had a wee fella for 17 years. As a big robust firefighter, I took him to the vet on his last day, and I cried for an hour. I know what it is like to lose not just a pet, but a best pal. If I was bad, my wife was significantly worse. I do not think she will shed as many tears when I go. Pets are very much a part of our lives.
Each case should undoubtedly be looked at on its own merits, but the sentencing should always be appropriate to the crime and reflect the emotional distress caused to the pet owner. Too often, sentencing guidelines concentrate on the purchase or replacement value of the dog or pet. That is discriminatory, because the value of a mongrel or non-pedigree as a person’s best friend may equate to or exceed that of the purchase price of a pedigree breed. The value is in fun, friendship and unquestioning loyalty.
We have to recognise what was said in a recent article in the Cumnock Chronicle, a small local paper whose circulation covers my constituency:
“Thefts of French Bulldogs—a distinctive breed popular with celebrities…increased 27% from 2016-2017…The number of Chihuahuas”—
as mentioned before—
“and Huskies taken from their owners is also on the rise, with 57 and 18 stolen in 2017 respectively.”
That trend appears to be borne out by information published by insurance companies.
An older media report in a national newspaper records a Lhasa Apso puppy—it must have a Tibetan connection with a name like that—stolen in my hometown of Ayr. The police investigating at the time appear to have discovered coloured stickers on local garden gateposts—that was identified by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya). They suspected the thieves may have had a coding system for stealing dogs to order for sale, breeding or fighting—or, in some cases, I am sure, for ransom.
It is certainly widely felt among the public that the current levels of fine available to members of the judiciary to impose are insufficient, particularly given the apparent reluctance to impose a custodial sentence in such cases. In the meantime, while we await much-needed amendments to the law, I trust that the existing laws will be rigorously enforced to protect our family pets, and I hope that the procurator fiscal in Scotland will process cases of pet theft—it is so important that that message goes to the organised gangs of criminals who steal family pets for personal gain, because it is an easy crime, as has been said before. Finally, I ask that pet owners remain vigilant in relation to the very real risk of losing their pet to pet theft.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Sharma.
Back in the early 1990s I was involved in breaking up a puppy farming ring in Wales—I got involved with a national newspaper—and I saw that the animals were kept in appalling conditions. The puppies were sold at motorway service stations. More recently I went out with the RSPCA in one of my local little towns, Jaywick, and we looked at various places where dogs were being mistreated—not necessarily through deliberate cruelty, but through ignorance, a lot of the time. It really is extraordinary that we sometimes call ourselves an animal-loving country.
It is a great honour to stand here today and represent the 168 people from Clacton who signed the petition. As I have said before, the theft of pets, and especially dogs, happens all too frequently in my constituency. In one case, two French bulldog puppies, Oswald and Dakota, were stolen from their house in Eton Road in Clacton. The puppies were eventually reunited with their owner, which is a rare good news story, but that was only after a Facebook campaign that got 2,500 visits, and I reckon the puppies must have become too hot to handle. However, when they were returned, they were distressed. According to the owner, they were clearly starving and not in good condition.
I did detect a sort of question there. I totally agree with my hon. Friend that dogs have feelings and stealing them is barbarous. I have dogs myself. I have cavalier poodle bichon crosses—all right, they are mongrels. They are part of my family and the thought of losing one of them really distresses me, which is why I want to combat pet theft. It is terribly important. I raised my concerns with the Minister during a debate on rural crime in the main Chamber, and I asked for more information on what the Government intend to do about the issue. Unfortunately, that information was not forthcoming, so I hope to elicit a better response today from the Minister; I say that very nicely.
The matter is important, and the current application of the law surrounding pet theft is ineffective and should be changed to make the monetary value of the pet irrelevant, which will ensure that all criminals are prosecuted and sentenced to the full extent of the law. As we know, 105,968 people signed the petition, and 97% of respondents to a “Dogs Today” survey support the proposal and agree that all pet theft should be treated equally, regardless of the animal’s initial monetary value. There is clearly a great deal of public support for a change, and I ask the Minister to bear that in mind as we move forward.
I also ask the Minister to bear in mind something that has been said many times this afternoon, but that is worth reiterating: pet theft is cruel. It is cruel to the owners who are left bereft after the loss of a friend, a loved one and a member of the family, and it is cruel to the animal itself, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). The animal can be mistreated or even, as we have heard—it is horrific—have its microchip cut out of its neck without anaesthetic to avoid detection.
The Government’s current position needs to evolve and take account of the strong public sentiment and the cruel impact that pet theft has on those involved. I have no doubt that I will be reassured that laws are already in place to deal firmly with offenders who commit such crimes. To expand on that point further, and as I am sure we are all aware, the theft of a pet is already a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968.
The hon. Gentleman has made such a good point. I want to highlight something that I hope the Minister will cover. The lower the category, the lower the sentence, with little in the way of repercussions. That makes the crime even more attractive because it is low risk and high reward, so that needs to be borne in mind when looking at sentencing.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I could not agree more. I am coming on to the question of low risk and high reward, which makes the crime attractive because the risk is so low but some of the animals can be worth a great deal. Indeed, they are stolen to breed from, and therefore the rewards are multiplied by however many puppies they have. The maximum penalty at the moment is seven years’ imprisonment, and it very rarely, if ever, gets imposed.
The guidelines take account of the emotional distress and therefore the harm that the theft of personal items such as a pet can have on the victim, and they recommend higher penalties for such offences. However, although I welcome such developments, I am uneasy about the current position for various reasons. First, as the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance—SAMPA—tells us, the seven-year maximum sentence has never been awarded, so, out of the 646 reported incidences of pet theft in 2017, there were no cases where that sentence was applied. That is because the penalty for pet theft is often decided based on the monetary value of the pet, as we have heard this afternoon. Many pets have little or no monetary value, although in the eyes of their owner, as we have said, they are priceless. However, in the eyes of the court, that value does not exist. The courts deal only in monetary terms, and the most severe sentence recommended for stealing a pet that is worth less than £500 is two years rather than seven.
My second point of contention is that in the past three years dog theft has increased by 24%, which demonstrates that the sentencing guidelines are clearly not working and are not a deterrent to potential pet thieves. To demonstrate that point further, between 2015 and 2018, 96.75% of dog thefts ended without charge, showing that the courts have not become tougher on this particular aspect of pet theft. Additionally, I have heard from SAMPA that the police are reluctant to record pet theft because it negatively affects their crime figures. That explains why cases of pet theft are rarely investigated, and why the few cases that do make it to court do not result in a conviction. Potential criminals know that the chance of getting caught or ever receiving punishment is, as we said earlier, very slim, so the crime is low risk.
My third concern is the reliance on microchipping, which does not address the issue. Microchips can be overwritten, meaning that stolen dogs can be easily moved on rather than reunited with their owner, as the Government suggest. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, the chips can simply be cut out, causing great distress to the animal. As a result, I believe we must address that particular issue and improve security compliance on the microchip database. Also, we should complement the microchipping regime with a new dog registration regime, and I will be bringing forward legislation to reintroduce that here in England in due course.
Our financially worthless, indolent dogs are each microchipped. They also have their own passports, with photographs. My wife owns them and controls them, which is more than I can do. Does my hon. Friend agree that the passport system could be used to help to trace dogs when they are stolen?
That is indeed a possibility. The legislation that I intend to introduce will provide for a reintroduction of the licensing system, so that we know where all the dogs are, who owns them and how they are being looked after, so we can have some grasp on animal cruelty.
Like Dogs Trust, I am troubled by the decision to equate animals with property, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) mentioned. That decision means that we are denying animals the right to be considered sentient beings. The Government’s current position seems to mean that pets derive their sentience only from being in the possession of their owner, given that when they are wrongly separated they become property for the duration of the prosecution and are therefore exempt from the Government’s promise to ensure that their welfare is protected. That must change.
All animals are sentient, regardless of their location or continuation of legitimate ownership. As the draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill sets out, the Government
“must have regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings in formulating and implementing government policy.”
Accordingly, the Government must recognise that their current position does not protect the welfare of sentient animals when they are stolen, and the sentencing guidelines for pet theft must be changed to move us closer to a position where their welfare can always be assured.
I maintain that the current position is not working. It does not deter or limit pet theft; in fact, I would argue that pet theft is getting worse. Pet theft should be identified as a separate criminal activity and be covered by its own law.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, especially having worked with you on the Select Committee on International Development, where you have done so much on human rights over the years.
It is also a pleasure to speak on the petition. As has been mentioned, it has received overwhelming public support, because it is an issue that is very dear to the hearts and minds of people right across the United Kingdom. I thank Dr Daniel Allen and Beverley Cuddy for getting it to this stage, and I look forward to hosting them at some point in the near future in the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group, which I chair. We have been doing lots of good work on dog welfare in the year since the group was formed. I encourage hon. Members to join the group. It is very much a cross-party group, because animal welfare is one of those issues on which we come together and work together to ensure that we have the very best conditions right across the United Kingdom.
The petition secured more than 100,000 signatures, and has been supported by the Stolen And Missing Pets Alliance, All About Animals, APDAWG—our all-party group—Finn’s law campaigners and Lucy’s law campaigners including Marc Abraham, known as “Marc the Vet”, the National Animal Welfare Trust, magazines including Dogs Today and Dogs Monthly, and celebrities including Ricky Gervais, Chris Packham, Kirsty Gallacher, Peter Egan, who regularly attends our cross-party group, Victoria Stilwell and Lorraine Kelly. Most of all, the petition has the power of people behind it. It has the power of our constituents, and I am very proud that more than 100 of my constituents from East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow felt so strongly that they wanted to sign the petition and have urged me to speak on this important issue.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am aware of his history in the postal service and thank him greatly for that. It is one of the great services that we have across the country. There are some risks to postal workers from dogs, so it is incumbent on dog owners to ensure that their dogs are trained appropriately. I realise that postal workers have an affinity for dogs, like the rest of our constituents and people across the country.
As we have heard, a quarter of households have one or more dogs, and it appears that this crime is on the rise. I ask the Minister whether we know why that might be happening, and what the factors are. Only when we discover the key factors behind this crime will we be able to have a multi-structural strategy to address what is happening. Are dogs being stolen for heinous crimes such as dog fighting, as we have heard today? Are those poor dogs being savaged, perhaps as bait for dogs that are being trained to fight in a ring? We need far more resources to tackle that. I was extremely proud to lead a debate in Westminster Hall, only in 2016, on dog fighting.
Is there a gang element to pet theft? Is the same type of organised crime set-up that we see in relation to dog fighting, puppy smuggling and puppy farming causing pets to be stolen? If there are links between those activities, and between the people perpetrating them, we need to develop adequate laws and legal frameworks to deal with that. Lucy’s law is also important for many reasons, including dog welfare and people’s welfare, in terms of having dogs and young puppies enter families, and in relation to the types of issues that we are discussing today. I feel that there may be an important underlying common denominator that it is important to address.
People have spoken today of their love for dogs. My dog, Rossi, is a French bulldog. Having looked at the figures for pet theft, I am aware that that is exactly the type of dog breed that is being stolen—it is near the top of the list. French bulldogs are often used for breeding and puppy farming, which makes me think that perhaps there are links with pet theft. I would be bereft if something happened to Rossi out in the garden where he likes to roam. We are lucky to have quite a big garden. I keep encouraging my husband to cut the grass, and I am hopeful that he might be doing that today as we speak, but Rossi loves to wander throughout our garden. It is always in the back of my mind to check that he is still there and that everything is okay.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Much of this is about education. Our garden is enclosed, but we are mindful of the fact that if someone were intent on stealing our pet that would not prevent them from doing so. I am aware of the breed-specific snatching of French bulldogs, so it is a particular worry for my family.
From listening to the figures, pet theft seems to be a crime that goes unpunished and has very little consequence for those who engage in it. That has to be addressed, and I urge the Minister to make a change in law. We are a nation of dog lovers, and addressing this issue will minimise the impact on families who lose a pet and on the children. My children would be absolutely devastated to lose Rossi. As the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said, there is a severe impact on the stolen dog, too, because often they do not go to a happy home. I do not want to think about their fate, given the activities that the criminal gangs may be involved in.
Another issue that has been raised is the impact on elderly people, for whom a pet can be very important. If they live on their own, a pet can be an absolute lifeline and can make them feel that they have a connection. We must consider that, for someone in such circumstances, losing a dog or any other pet is a bereavement—it causes grief and trauma. We know from the meetings of the all-party group for dog welfare just how important dogs, cats and pets in general are in tackling loneliness. The Government have set out to address that issue, so I ask the Minister to look at pet therapy and contact with pets within that framework.
It is extremely busy in Westminster Hall, despite the fact that we are all on a one-line Whip, because this issue resonates with the public, MPs and our constituents. There is no party politics when it comes to animal welfare, as we all want to see change. Members from many parties have spoken today, and I thank them for that. Several Members who support the dog welfare group could not be here today but very much wanted to come.
The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) spoke about his little dog, Mia, and her importance, if not primacy, in the family now that he is down at Westminster. I wish Mia and the family well.
This is a devolved issue, and I have written to the Scottish Government about it because I want it to be reviewed. My colleagues, Emma Harper and Christine Grahame, are linked to the cross-party animal welfare group in the Scottish Parliament, and I hope that they will take this issue forward. The First Minister knows I am extremely dogmatic in insisting we take the lead on these issues, which must be addressed across the United Kingdom.
I urge the Minister to discuss the legal framework—particularly the fact that cases are not coming to court, they do not appear even to be recorded, and weak sentencing is not acting as a deterrent. Obviously, pets mean much more to us than objects, so that is one of the issues that must be addressed in the law. Some of the ideas that hon. Members suggested as part of the solution, such as licencing and passporting systems, are good, but I want the Minister to address the precipitating factors that have caused the increase in dog thefts across the country. Are they linked to other animal welfare issues, such as puppy smuggling and farming, and dog fighting?
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on introducing this important debate. I thank the organisers of the petition and the 105,000 people who signed it. The parliamentary e-petition system is a fantastic way of connecting us with our constituents on the issues that are really important to us and of putting such issues on the agenda.
We are clearly a nation of animal lovers. I declare an interest, as the owner of a dog and a cat. Many hon. Members have shared their experience of their pets. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) for his contribution. He said it is a real disgrace that so few stolen pets are ever reunited with their owners. The hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) is clearly very knowledgeable about this issue and made a particularly powerful point about sentencing guidelines. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya) made some very important interventions, which added significantly to the debate. I was particularly pleased to hear the story the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) told about how his dog, Poppy, reacts when he leaves to come down here—like other hon. Members, I could share similar stories. I congratulate him on his ten-minute rule Bill, and I wish him luck with it in the House tomorrow.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) talked about the huge impact that the loss of a much-loved pet can have on a family. The hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) talked about the cruelty of pet theft, not just to the family who lost the pet but to the pet itself. It is important that we do not forget that. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) works tirelessly on dog welfare in this House and made an important contribution.
As pet owners, we truly love our animals. Figures from Dogs Trust show that 99% of pet owners consider their animal to be part of the family—we all do. We have heard that the bond between an animal and its family is linked to the bond between a parent and their child, so it is clearly a terrible nightmare for a family if their dog or cat is stolen.
More than 60 dogs are stolen across England and Wales every single week. That is 60 families whose beloved pets are taken. Disgracefully, fewer than 5% of cases end in convictions. We do not want that situation to be allowed to continue. As Members of the House, it is our duty to try to do something about it.
Battersea Dogs & Cats Home told me that there is no single database of pet-related theft, so any information comes from freedom of information requests to individual police forces—the hon. Member for Dartford made that point clearly. Will the Minister tell us how we can tackle this problem if we do not know the scale of it? I understand the concerns raised about categorising pets in legislation designed to deal with property theft. As hon. Members said, it is important that we recognise in law that animals are sentient beings and not the equivalent of a laptop or a blender.
Tragically, on average, five dogs a day are stolen and then sold, bred or forced to fight. We have heard that the numbers are increasing; my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool gave us some clear figures and information about that. We have also heard that designer dogs such as cockapoos or French bulldogs sell for a high price, and that Staffordshire bull terriers are often stolen for dog fighting. It is thought that the lack of prosecution and the lenient punishments are contributing to this rise. Pet theft offenders receive community service orders or a fine more often than a custodial sentence—certainly not the seven years that could be handed out.
It is heartbreaking that so few pets are reunited with their owners. Some breeds are more likely to be stolen. Labrador thefts are up 42% year on year; as the owner of a beautiful chocolate labrador called Max, I find that horrifying. The thought of losing Max is dreadful. He is six, but one of the first things we did when we got him as a puppy was to insure him, because we were advised that he was at high risk of being stolen. That is a terrible thing to have to contemplate.
I appreciate what the Government have said about updating sentencing guidelines for theft offences to account for the emotional stress caused by pet theft, and I understand that the guidelines now recommend high penalties in such cases. As hon. Members have said today, however, we need to ensure that the proper sentences are given and that prosecutions are increased. We must catch as many perpetrators as possible to do our best to stamp out this appalling crime, which causes such terrible upset to families.
On microchipping, it is welcome that the Government now require all dogs to be microchipped and registered by the age of eight weeks. That does not solve the problem—we have heard that microchips can be dug out—but it has already had a positive impact.
I remember going with my mother to the post office to get a licence for our dalmatian—I was only a small child, obviously. We ought to look at anything that might help, so licensing clearly needs to be looked at; if it can help solve this crime, it is an important part of the picture.
The Labour party is committed to promoting the highest level of care for domestic animals. Recently, our animal welfare plan was out for consultation until the end of May, and it included a proposal to expand microchipping to cats, which at the moment do not have to be chipped. Is that something that the Government will consider seriously? Our manifesto also pledged an end to the third-party sale of puppies. Is that something the Government will consider to improve the welfare of dogs? We also proposed measures to tackle puppy smuggling, such as the introduction of a microchip database—databases were mentioned earlier in the debate—to record microchip numbers of animals entering and leaving the country and get a better idea of where dogs are. Will the Minister and the Government match that aspiration too?
Enforcement of our laws is carried out by our tireless police services. Is it not imperative that the police are properly funded so that they can act to enforce the law and catch the criminals who are cruelly stealing pets from their owners?
The petition and today’s excellent debate have raised really important issues across the board, giving us all a lot to think about in terms of what needs to be done. The Labour party manifesto, on which my colleagues and I were elected last year, stated:
“Domestic animals require stronger protection from cruelty.”
It also set out a
“vision…for the UK to lead the world with high animal welfare standards in the wild, in farming and for domestic animals.”
That is something we stand by today and, from the clear cross-party support in this debate, hon. Members right across the House would also back strengthening the law in this area. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on the way in which he introduced the debate.
As with every debate on animal welfare issues, it is one that is incredibly important to the public. This petition has more than 100,000 signatories—106,000, I am told —and today we have heard some heart-rending stories of individual cases from many Members’ constituencies, including from my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson). The hon. Member for Hartlepool talked about some horrific cases of pets being stolen to be used, in effect, for baiting in dog fighting or to fight themselves. That is clearly the cruellest and most extreme end of this heinous crime.
When I was about 13, we had a beautiful young golden retriever called Sam. When he was about a year old, he went missing. To this day, I can remember us going out on the roads late at night, driving down every country lane around the farm in Cornwall and trying to locate Sam, all to no avail. We were unable to sleep that night because we were so distraught and upset that our wonderfully kind pet dog had gone missing.
The following day, we phoned every farmer in the area, in case Sam had gone on a runabout, and we phoned all sorts of other businesses in case we could locate him. As luck would have it, a local scrap-metal dealer phoned my mother back about an hour after they had spoken to say that there was a van at the scrapyard with a white-coloured golden retriever that might be our dog. My mother rushed off to the scrap-metal dealer, who undertook to keep the person occupied so that the van did not disappear. It was indeed our pet dog Sam, and my mother and our family were reunited with him.
The person who took Sam claimed that he had found him and had intended to take him to the police. It was therefore thought that we would not have a case and would not be able to bring a prosecution against the person, although that gentleman certainly had to endure a dressing down from my mother—a significant penalty.
I shall return to the issue of pet theft, but first I shall say a bit more about what the Government are doing to improve animal welfare specifically for pets. We have introduced new licensing requirements for puppy breeders, lowering the threshold at which they need a licence to breed pets. We have also strengthened the provisions on online sales, beyond any doubt bringing those who sell pets online into a licensing regime under the Pet Animals Act 1951. We have been clear that we intend to increase the maximum penalty for cruelty to animals to five years, and we have given our support to a private Member’s Bill that will strengthen protection and recognition for service animals. Finally, to come to the point made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), we have been clear that we shall introduce a ban on third-party sales of puppies, in particular, and other juvenile pets. We have had a call for evidence on the issue, and we intend to introduce provisions in that regard.
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
Specifically on the issue of pet theft, a couple of years ago we introduced changes to make the microchipping of all dogs mandatory. That has had some impact already. More than 90% of dogs are now microchipped, which has made rehoming or the reuniting of people with their missing pets much easier for the authorities. The impact of that change has been extraordinary. The latest figures from Dogs Trust show that the number of stray dogs last year fell to about 66,000, which has almost halved on a few years ago, when we regularly had more than 120,000 stray dogs per year.
Microchipping also has a potential role in identifying animals that have been stolen. A couple of years ago there was some suggestion that we should legislate to create a legal obligation on vets to scan every animal in their practice to identify animals that might have been stolen. At the time we believed that to be a step too far, but we did work with the British Veterinary Association and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to create clear guidance for veterinary practices that there should always be a presumption of checking any new animal presented to them when an owner enrols with the practice.
Earlier today, I discussed with the police lead on dogs, Gareth Pritchard, this issue of dog and pet theft. One point he made was that although the microchipping regulations are working well and have led to big improvements, we are starting to see some problems with people not keeping their details up to date—people moving home, for example, and not keeping the record up to date. In some cases, that is starting to make it hard to reunite people with their pets. It is important—and a provision of the regulations—for people to keep their data up to date.
I have done some work on the scale of the pet theft problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford pointed out, the figures out there range widely. Our belief is that the best estimate available is from a series of freedom of information requests put to all 44 police forces, with 38 providing reliable data back. From that, it is possible to ascertain that in 2016 there were 1,788 dog thefts and in 2017 the number rose to 1,909. That equates to around 34 dogs being stolen each week—a significant number. As a number of hon. Members pointed out, the 7% increase between 2016 and 2017 suggests that it is a growing problem. I will return to the statistics later, because my hon. Friend made the legitimate point that we ought to have reliable data in this area.
The hon. Lady asked a similar question about what is driving the thefts. At one end of the scale, there are horrific examples of pets being stolen to be used in baiting and dog fights. This afternoon, I asked our police lead on dogs whether they considered that to be a large factor in dog thefts. His response was that generally speaking, as with lots of theft, dogs that are perceived to have a higher monetary value tend to be stolen. Obviously, that is bad news for pets that are deemed to be of high worth, but on one level it is reassuring—hopefully, the type of incidents that the hon. Member for Hartlepool described are the exception rather than the rule in this terrible crime. I will return to the data a little later.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford and others pointed out, the Government’s view is that the Theft Act 1968 provides sufficient sanctions to deal with the problem. He made a powerful case about some of the issues with the Sentencing Council, which I will come on to in a moment. I want to take the opportunity as the Front Bench spokesman to recognise that pets are not just objects; they are sentient beings and companions to people. The fact that they are covered for this purpose under the Theft Act does not take away at all from the fact that they are sentient beings and more than just property.
In his introduction, the hon. Member for Hartlepool highlighted the fact that, somewhat bizarrely, the Act has a provision for the theft of mushrooms and for the theft of wild animals. He asked why if we can have provisions for those, we cannot have one for pets. The reason why they are pulled out is that it was judged at the time that sometimes there could be doubt about whether a mushroom was public property or private property, and there could be some doubt about whether somebody would have ownership of a wild animal. It is beyond doubt that pets have an owner, so that provision did not apply.
Turning to sentencing, a number of hon. Members—including, quite powerfully, my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, but also my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith)—highlighted the current Sentencing Council guidelines. Hon. Members will appreciate that sentencing is a matter for the Ministry of Justice, policing is a matter for the Home Office and companion animals form part of the portfolio of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs managed by my noble Friend, Lord Gardiner. However, I will do my best to describe the position as I see it.
It is important to remember that in 2016, the independent Sentencing Council updated its sentencing guidelines for theft offences. The new guidelines acknowledge that theft that causes emotional distress to the victim or where the item stolen is of a substantial value, regardless of the monetary worth, will indicate a higher level of seriousness and the offender should be sentenced accordingly. In the context of the theft of pets, my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford is right that although the Theft Act provides for a maximum sentence of seven years, there is scant evidence of that being used.
Our reading of the current guidance, which was issued in 2016, is that in applying that guidance, the theft of a pet should be considered as either a category two or a category three offence. The custodial sentence is two years for a category two offence and one year for a category three. My hon. Friend is right that, applying our interpretation of the most recent guidance, a seven-year maximum penalty is largely theoretical for pet theft unless there are other aggravating circumstances. But as a general rule, category two or three would seem to be an appropriate sentence.
I hope that I have been able to reassure Members of the seriousness with which we take this issue. The Government have demonstrated in just the last six months that we are willing to change the law wherever necessary. Although at the moment the Government are not convinced that we need to change the law, I want to give three undertakings. First, let us use this debate to be absolutely clear that the Government interpret the latest guidance from the Sentencing Council to mean that the theft of a pet should generally be treated as a category two or three offence.
Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford and others made an important point about the need for statistics. This afternoon, I asked Gareth Pritchard, the Home Office policing lead for dogs, to marshal accurate data from the 44 police forces. It should not be left to third parties to try their luck through freedom of information requests—I agree that Government should marshal that. I have asked him to generate that data and to provide me with a report of the most accurate data he is able to gather.
Thirdly, I will discuss with my noble friend Lord Gardiner whether there are any other things that we have considered by way of enforcement and to improve detection rates for this crime. One of the messages I picked up from hon. Members’ contributions is that it may be not so much that the ability to sentence is not there or even that the maximum penalties are wrong, but simply that too few of these crimes are detected and too few prosecutions are brought.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The internet and the growth of social media have created many challenges in enforcing legislation on pet sales, but they also give us a ready way to identify culprits, particularly those who are breaching rules. Rather than seeing the internet and social media as threats, we should use them where we can to gain evidence, as he points out.
In conclusion, we have had a very thoughtful and detailed debate that I believe does justice to the 106,000 people who signed the petition. Although the Government are not convinced for change, I hope that, through those undertakings, I have been able to demonstrate that we intend to do more work and gather more evidence in this area.
I thank all the Members who got involved in this important debate, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) and for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya), and the hon. Members for Crawley (Henry Smith), for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson), for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), for Clacton (Giles Watling) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). Of course, I also thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for their contributions.
I thank the Minister for pointing out the reasoning behind the specification of mushrooms and wild animals in the Theft Act 1968, and for his clear observations about pets and animals being sentient beings, not commodities. I sincerely hope that the Government are convinced enough to change the law soon. Too many pet thieves have got away with light sentences because of unacceptable and irrelevant guidelines. All pets should be treated equally, regardless of their monetary value.
I thank the petitioners—particularly Dr Daniel Allen, John Cooper, QC, and Debbie Matthews, the founder of SAMPA—for bringing forward this important petition, which clearly has cross-party support. I am proud to have carried out my duties as a member of the Petitions Committee by introducing the debate on behalf of the Committee.
Finally, on behalf of Debbie Matthews, whose father, Sir Bruce Forsyth, was a big contributor to this debate in his own right, I say, “Nice to see you, to see you nice.”
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 212174 relating to pet theft.