Monday 19 October 2020
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
[Relevant Documents: Written evidence to the Petitions Committee on pet theft, reported to the House on 16 June, 23 June and 27 July.]
I remind hon. Members, if they have not participated in one of these resumed Westminster Hall sittings, that we now have call lists, which are available. I am chairing the first half hour of this debate and I will then join you in the main body. Mr Robertson will take over from me in half an hour’s time. Members should sanitise their microphones before and after using them. Those are the instructions. Members should only speak from the horseshoe. Members are not expected to remain for the wind-ups, but, if they can, to stay for one or two speeches after they have spoken.
There are 19 people on the call list, including myself. They are not all here at the moment. One person who was going to be late has now arrived. Another person has withdrawn, so we have 18 people. If we are to get everyone in—I know the Front-Bench spokespeople will co-operate—speeches will be three or four minutes at most.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 244530 and 300071 relating to pet theft.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I want to start by congratulating Dr Daniel Allen, the animal geographer from Keele University, who started both pet theft petitions, with over 100,000 signatures, which we are here to debate. I met virtually with Dr Allen and a number of other campaigners from the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance in June, when these debates were not possible. I know how much work they have done over years to raise awareness of pet theft, and to help to reunite victims with their stolen pets. I am pleased that pet theft reform has eventually got the debate that it deserves today.
I also want to thank the more than 117,000 people who signed the 2019 petition calling for tougher sentencing for pet theft, and the more than 143,000 people who signed the second petition in 2020, including the 417 people in my constituency of Ipswich. It is thanks to their engagement with our democratic process that we are debating this important issue today. I also want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), who could not be here today, but has worked with me on this campaign, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who has been very active on this issue over a number of years.
All the signatories of these petitions recognise, as I will argue today, that currently pet theft is not treated with the seriousness it deserves in our society, and reform is urgently needed. Pet theft is a sickening and depraved crime. Those with pets and all who have had pets can only imagine the sense of loss, anger and hopelessness they would feel if their pets were snatched away from them in such cruel circumstances, not knowing whether they were encountering abuse, being used for inhumane breeding practices or exploited for illegal fighting in the case of dogs. In some ways, this must feel worse than when they simply pass away.
We love our pets in this country. They are our companions through thick and thin. They are a unique source of friendship. They are irreplaceable members of the family in so many households. Yet, when it comes to them being stolen, in the vast majority of cases, our pets are treated no differently under the Theft Act 1968 than replaceable and inanimate objects, such as mobile phones and laptops. The primary focus in the law on monetary worth means that the theft of pets deemed to be worth less than £500 can only be classed as a category 3 or 4 offence. That results in pitiful fines, often no more than £250, being the normal punishment for pet thieves.
Of course, even those meagre fines only apply if criminals are brought to justice. The data Dr Allen has compiled from a freedom of information request shows that in 2009, only 19 dog theft crimes resulted in charges out of a total of 1,575 crimes in the police force areas that we have data for. That is just over 1%. In the overwhelming majority of cases there is no justice at all. With the likelihood of such weak sentences being the result of a successful investigation, the police simply do not have the right incentives to put stretched resources into bringing these criminals to justice.
The status quo does not reflect the place pets have in modern society and that they are invaluable members of the family. Unlike a mobile phone or laptop, the monetary value of our pets is what we care about the least. That is why many heartbroken victims post rewards for the return of their pet that are many times higher than the pet’s nominal monetary value.
Criminals know that the status quo is ripe for exploitation, and that has left us unguarded against the surge in cases over lockdown, as more and more people want the companionship that pets offer. Just 25 out of 44 police forces have provided freedom of information data on dog theft for January to July this year, but already the figure stands at 645 dog theft crimes committed, with only two resulting in charges. In my own county of Suffolk, there were 11 dog theft crimes in the whole of 2019, but in just the first seven months of this year that number has already doubled to 21.
Dr Allen’s collated data, which includes FOI responses to Ben Parker of BBC Suffolk, shows that Avon and Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, North Yorkshire and Northamptonshire have had more dog theft crimes in the first seven months of 2020 than in the whole of last year. We must also remember that one dog theft crime does not mean one dog stolen. Shocking cases such as the theft of 17 dogs and puppies from boarding kennels in Barton Mills, Suffolk, in July would be recorded as only a single crime. Our pets are being snatched away from us in record numbers this year, just when we need their companionship the most.
Lockdown is a period of loneliness and isolation for many, and it has taken its toll on everyone’s mental health, but for so many people their pets have been a constant source of company. At the height of lockdown, I set up a service called “Talks with Tom”, where any constituent could have a phone call with me if they felt that they needed someone to have a chat with. I will never forget one older gentleman who called me. He was living alone after his wife had sadly passed away. His wife had a cat, which was very much her cat and which he never really got on with. When she died, he reluctantly inherited the pet, which had never shown him much affection. He told me how it was during lockdown that he and his cat had grown to become inseparable, and the closest of friends during difficult times.
There will be heart-warming stories about how our pets have kept us going through lockdown all across the country, but the unprecedented times that we are living through make the increasing number of stories about pets being snatched away all the more harrowing. This weekend I spoke to Katy-Ellen from Maple Cross in Hertfordshire, who is the mother of 10-year-old George. Their dog, Trigger, a beautiful black-and-white English springer spaniel had been a present for George when he was nine. George calls Trigger his brother, and Trigger kept George company on long adventures through the woods during lockdown, but on 21 August Trigger was lured out of the back door of their home and stolen from them.
Understandably, that has left the family distraught in a way that cannot be compared with how they would have felt had a thief simply walked in through the back and taken a phone off the kitchen counter. Katy-Ellen said something very telling when she said that the taking of George’s brother felt
“more like a kidnapping than a theft”.
She has not been able to get it out of her mind, and she wakes up thinking about it.
I also spoke to a gentleman called Jon Gaunt, a gamekeeper at Brightling Park in Sussex. In his job, Jon spends 90% of his time working in the park alone, except for three springer spaniels: Poppy, Tilly and Pepper. He describes his dogs as living, breathing sources of company and affection, but on 14 May he felt as if he had had his legs taken out from underneath him when he went into their kennels and found them gone. He has since been on a rollercoaster of emotions. He has got Poppy back and is trying to claim Tilly, who is in a police pound, but Pepper remains missing. Jon told me just how gut-wrenching it is when his young granddaughter still asks, “Where is Pepper?”
The thieves who took Jon’s dogs used sophisticated equipment to get into their locked kennels. We should be under no illusions that it is organised crime groups that are planning and ruthlessly executing the thefts of our cherished pets. They know the money that they can make from breeding pedigrees and selling puppies for a quick profit; yet we are fighting the growing tide with outdated and underpowered laws. The risk of small fines will not stop this type of organised crime.
That is why we must have pet theft reform. Making pet theft a specific offence, as the petitions call for, would elevate pet theft to a category 2 offence and empower judges to hand out prison sentences of up to two years—sentences that represent something closer to justice, and an effective deterrent against this disgusting crime. I know the Government have said in their written response to the petitions that the maximum penalty is already seven years and that reform is therefore not needed, but I challenge anyone to find a case where the maximum sentence has been imposed. Such sentences are available only in Crown courts, but the significant majority of cases stay in magistrates courts, where the maximum prison sentence is just six months. I also appreciate that the Sentencing Council’s guidelines take into account the emotional distress caused to victims, but the truth is that as long as the monetary worth of a pet is a primary factor for deciding the category of offence, the weight that a judge can apply to emotional distress in sentencing is severely restricted.
Changing the law should be our goal, but given what we have seen over the past few months, we must act now. Last week, I met my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and John Cooper QC, who is providing legal advice to the pet theft reform campaign, to discuss how the Sentencing Council could amend its guidelines to make specific mention of pet theft. That would give judges the tools that they need to take into account, to a far greater extent, the aggravating factors in pet theft cases and to impose tougher prison sentences without having to change the law. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for taking the meeting, and I hope he will consider writing to the Sentencing Council to recommend that those changes are made.
Covid-19 has made pet theft reform more pressing, not less. I promised campaigners in our virtual meeting this summer that I would try to secure this debate as soon as possible. There has been so much heartbreak during the pandemic, but we now have an opportunity to stop the theft of our beloved pets continuing to be part of it. They deserve our protection, and so do victims.
I urge the Government to hear the petitioners and families across the country who are demanding justice. Our pets are always there for us. During this pandemic, they have been there for us more than ever. Now is the time to be there for them.
Thank you, Sir David. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt). He and I have many things in common. We might not agree on everything, but one thing that we do agree on is Ipswich football team. They are my son’s team, so whenever I follow the scores on a Saturday, I am able to relate to the hon. Member, as I did when we had a conversation today. He told me that he is actually a Newcastle supporter—I think they are his second team, but that is by the way. It is really nice to speak in the debate.
During my time in self-isolation, my faithful companion was Autumn, a springer spaniel. When I was out in the garden, she faithfully joined me. In fact, she has been faithful her whole life. I think someone had been very bad to her—we rescued the dog from Assisi Animal Sanctuary, and we now keep her in the house. There is a saying that a dog is “man’s best friend”, but you, Sir David, and I both know that the Lord Jesus is our best friend. He sticks closer than a brother. However, my dog Autumn definitely comes a close second.
The matter of dog theft is so pertinent, given that the theft of dogs—particularly gun dogs and shooting dogs—has risen dramatically. I can understand the heartache that comes from losing a faithful friend that loves their owner and is always happy to see them, no matter how burdened and low they feel. I understand that it is hard to put a value on the friendship of a dog, but it is truly a disservice to have a legal principle that restricts judges from imposing a fine greater than the monetary amount paid for a dog. In the eyes of the law currently, dogs are taken like any other form of property, so the punishment for dog theft is determined by the monetary value of the dog. As such, the fines given are mostly paltry.
I put on my record my position in relation to Northern Ireland, which has introduced micro-chipping. I see that that might now move across to the rest of the UK. There are horrific cases of dogs being stolen to participate in dog fights. Someone’s pampered pooch, which has been reared to be so gentle and loving, is thrown into a ring for bets. Even just saying that makes me feel sick to my stomach. We allow fines that say, “There are no papers to prove its pedigree, so it’s worth only about £50.” What is the value of someone’s dog? For me, it is a lot more than £50. It adds insult to stomach-churning injury.
That is why I wholly support the Dogs Trust in its calls for the Sentencing Council to amend existing guidelines to ensure that all cases of companion theft are considered category 1 or category 2 crimes at a minimum, regardless of monetary value. I further support the Dogs Trust’s request to see accurate and consistent recording and reporting of incidences of theft of a companion animal. Dogs Trust has called for increased penalties for animal cruelty offences and strongly supports a Bill that would,
“increase the maximum sentence for animal cruelty offences from 6 months to 5 years”—
that is the sort of legislation I want to see in place—
“address the protracted periods some dogs may spend in kennels during a court case and introduce a way of expediating the process or allowing the rehoming of seized animals”,
“introduce an automatic ban on owning animals if a person is convicted of an animal cruelty offence, not only as a preventative measure to ensure that person commits no further offences but to serve as an extra deterrent and better protect animal welfare.”
They say that those who treat animals badly, mischievously, violently or cruelly are on a path to no good.
Let me be clear: sentencing will never bring a beloved animal home to where it was completely loved, but it will allow someone who is grieving to feel that their loss is somewhat understood. It will also act as a deterrent. When people understand, they will not have the thought, “Sure, it’s only an old dog.”; they will know that they will be taken seriously and the consequences of their despicable actions will be heavy indeed.
When I think of so many of our elderly, whose companions provide such love, affection and company, especially in these days of isolation, there should be no doubt in the mind of any criminal that this is a serious matter. We want to ensure that today. It is up to this House and, I must say, up to the Minister as well; we look forward to her response to our request.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I know how committed to you are to all parliamentary pets, having organised the parliamentary pet of the year competition. I was lucky enough to meet your dogs at the time, and I know you saw some lovely photographs of my Bosun. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on securing this important debate.
I will concentrate on a manifesto pledge that the Conservative party and, to be fair, the Labour party made at the last election, which was to seek compulsory microchipping of cats. As the co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on cats and as the proud owner of two VIPs—that is, very important pets—I feel it is time to bring in the right regulations to require the compulsory microchipping of owned cats.
I had Milly microchipped, and the newest addition to the Murray-Davidson household is Louis, who came from Cats Protection. Little Louis’ former owner had poor health, so he needed a new home. He came chipped because Cats Protection believes that cats should be microchipped so that, where possible, they can be reunited with their owners. I agree, and I thank Cats Protection for all its help to cats everywhere.
Unfortunately, I have to report that in recent years cat theft has been a growing problem, including in my area of local Devon and Cornwall. A microchip increases the chance that a pet will end up back with their rightful owner, although, as one of my constituents pointed out to me this morning, we must ensure that all the details on the register are up to date. I urge the Minister to make it compulsory, when vets see these pets, for the owner’s details to be updated, as that can often resolve any dispute without the need for litigation.
I understand from the Secretary of State that the response to the call for evidence on cat microchipping, which closed on 4 January, has been held up due to covid-19. While I understand that, I also call for all possible speed, because during lockdown people have been so much more reliant on their pets for company, as has been mentioned. My own mother-in-law, who lives in Wales, often only has her pet Jess for company. We Zoom as much as we can, but it is Jess who has been there for her as a constant companion in the covid world. Jess means so much the whole family, which is why I am pleased that the Secretary of State has reported that the Government are moving the situation along in the next three months with the consultation.
I ask the Minister to give us an update on that, and I also ask for an update on when we will see legislation coming to Parliament. There is no doubt that the compulsory microchipping of dogs, which came in in 2016, has worked, but I believe that it can be improved through the updating of ownership details, and that it is now time for cats to be treated equally in the eyes of the law, which could massively help when it comes to prosecuting and proving pet theft.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and indeed to be speaking again in Westminster Hall. It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) and I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for his opening remarks.
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
I see that Sir David is no longer in the Chair.
I am here today to participate in this debate because—unusually—the highest number of signatures on e-petition 244530 came from my constituency of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, in the Scottish borders. Indeed, my colleagues in neighbouring constituencies—the right hon. Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) and for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell)—also have a high number of constituents who have signed this particular petition. It would seem that rural dwellers of the borderlands have a deep love of our pets—and who can blame us?
Being an elected Member, either in this place or in the Scottish Parliament, for over 13 years, and now travelling to London every week, it would not be fair for a pet to be left at my home in Coldstream. Indeed, I am sure that most of my friends would say that I struggle to look after myself, never mind a pet. However, being the son of a farmer, I grew up with animals and pets all around. Indeed, I am a big fan of my parents’ dog, Hector, and I understand the delights that having a pet at home can bring.
As other Members have alluded to, our pets are ever more integral to our lives. During this pandemic, our dogs and cats have been our much-needed companions and a much-needed source of perspective on the things going on around us. I fully understand the attachment that we all have for our pets and the important part they play in our family lives. They provide comfort, laughter and fun, and their energy and friendship are sorely missed when they are gone, so I fully understand the calls for making the theft of a living, breathing sentient being a separate criminal offence.
However, before I go further, I will pay tribute to Georgie Bell in my constituency. Almost two years ago, her family’s two border terriers, Ruby and Beetle, disappeared from their home near Jedburgh. Her campaign to find her dogs and to change the law on dog theft reached the local and national press. She knows the heartbreak and emotional trauma that losing a pet can cause. The Facebook page set up to help find Ruby and Beetle has over 16,000 members, who are keen advocates of this petition, which perhaps explains the huge support for it from the borders and the surrounding areas.
In the short time that I have left, I will raise a particular issue with the Minister, which I think is relevant to this debate. Mandatory microchipping has been a very welcome step forward and I understand that the law on it is now consistent across all parts of the United Kingdom. However, the case that I have just raised—of Ruby and Beetle—shows flaws in the system. The microchip of one of the dogs has been run several times since it went missing, yet the owners have no way of knowing where this has been done or by who. Apparently, this is because of data protection, yet it seems to me that this information would provide a potential lead to the stolen pets’ whereabouts. This issue has been raised this year by the BBC’s “Rip Off Britain” and I would be grateful if the Minister considered it further.
Finally, I again thank the Bell family from Jedburgh for their campaigning on this issue, as well as those in my constituency who have signed this important petition. My thanks also go to the Petitions Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich for bringing it to Westminster Hall today.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.
I am so pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate this afternoon because it is on such an important issue to me personally and to many millions of pet-lovers in the UK. I am proud that the Government are making significant progress on animal welfare, by seeking to clamp down on puppy farms and puppy smuggling, and legislating on microchipping. I look forward to Friday this week and speaking in the debate on the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, which is known as Finn’s Law Part 2. These are really valuable measures. I trust the current Government to take animal welfare very seriously, and I know how many animal-lovers there are in the Government.
However, I urge the Government to rethink the current laws on sentencing for pet theft. It is a growing crime and I feel that the law must be improved to reflect its seriousness and the impact on pet-owners of having their pets stolen. In lockdown, as the demand for pets has risen, so has the price for certain breeds of dogs and cats. Puppies and kittens are now big business. As the price of those pets increases, so do the potential rewards for criminals. With every crime there is a balance of risk and reward. With hard sentencing we could deter people from pet theft. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) that only 1% of pet thefts come to prosecution. That is clearly a failure for pet owners. Criminals must believe that they will be caught, sentenced and punished at a level that will deter other people. The maximum penalty is seven years’ imprisonment, which does sound appropriate and does sound like a deterrent but, as we have heard today, most pet theft cases stay in magistrates courts, and it is extremely unlikely that anyone would face a significant custodial sentence for pet theft.
The main point I want to focus on today is how the penalty is linked to the value of the theft. We have heard how under £500 is recommended as a category 3 or category 4 theft. At this point I will declare my own interest. My two Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Cromwell and Bertie, have little, if any, financial value. They are eight years old and clapped out. One has horrific dental issues and the other has a significant heart murmur. If anything, they are a financial liability but, to me, without a shadow of a doubt they are the most valuable things in the world. In a trade-off between all my worldly goods and my two dogs I, like many pet owners, would not hesitate for a moment.
While the financial value is still considered, we will not see fairness in sentencing. Why should someone who steals my pet face a far less harsh sentence than someone stealing a designer puppy that the law decides is worth £3,000 versus my dogs that are worth no money at all? To sum up, I thank everyone who signed the petition to look again at pet theft sentencing. It is really important. It is common sense. People want to see that fairness, and I support the petition.
I think everyone in this room would agree that pet theft is a particularly nasty offence. It is incredibly stressful for the owner and for the dog itself when it is stolen. I think the problem emanates from the Sentencing Council guidelines. Much has been mentioned about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and other speakers spoke about how Sentencing Council guidelines are insufficient.
In 2016, I wrote to the Sentencing Council to ask it to change the guidelines so that there was less emphasis placed on the value of the piece of property that was stolen: in this case an animal. It came back to me and said that the current guidelines were perfectly acceptable, and even mentioned the fact that pedigree dogs are very often worth more than £500, and therefore it was not necessary to change the guidelines, but that misses the whole point of this particular crime. I have a golden retriever that is worth probably less than 50p: a 12-year-old golden retriever called Fred that is definitely not worth stealing. However, that misses the point. It is a member of the family that is being stolen, which is why we see so many tears from people who have gone through this awful experience. The animals are stolen simply because the crime is low risk with a high reward. If someone knows they are not likely to be sent to prison because the value of the dog is less than £500, that is a very attractive crime to commit. That is why unfortunately we are seeing an increasing number of people carrying out the offence. It was happening before lockdown, and the numbers have shot up since because the value of dogs has gone up and there is an even greater reward, but with the same low risk for people carrying out these dastardly offences.
If the Sentencing Council is so stubborn that it will not change its guidelines, Parliament could step in and make it a specific offence to steal an animal, which the petition alludes to. If we did that, it would give the courts separate powers to impose the sentences that we all want to see for such a crime. Unfortunately, we do not have a specific offence for that. We have a specific offence of stealing a pedal cycle, but not of stealing a member of the family. That cannot be right, and the Sentencing Council needs to reconsider that.
I pay tribute to the work of the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance, which has done some tremendous things in highlighting the crime, particularly Debbie Matthews, who has worked tirelessly to try and bring about a change in the rules. I also pay tribute to Kent police, one of the forces that takes the matter seriously. In many parts of the country, when the police are called to investigate the stealing of a dog, it is simply recorded as missing when the owner knows it has been stolen. Consequently, we are seeing lower official figures for the theft of a dog than is actually the case. In addition, when a dog is recorded as stolen, it is put in as theft of a chattel, which means it is difficult to get facts and figures on how courts are sentencing people for those offences. We have to go on anecdotal and experience-based examples to try to get to the bottom of what is taking place.
There are some good things going on out there, but more needs to be done about the matter. I urge the Minister to use her good offices to persuade the Sentencing Council on that, if that is possible can. I am pleased that this is a cross-party interest and that we are at one on the issue. Hopefully, collectively, we can either get the Sentencing Council to see sense or this place needs to take action and bring in a specific offence of dog theft.
I thank all the people who signed the petition and the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for introducing this debate on this important issue. It is an issue of great personal and emotional significance to many people whom I represent. The increasing incidence of pet theft causes huge distress and trauma across our pet-loving nation. With numbers soaring in recent months, the DogLost organisation suggests 2020 will be the worst year for the theft of dogs. Pet theft is increasing across the country, with horrific incidents of people being attacked and dogs stolen in front of their eyes. Burglaries are committed purely to steal pets and owners are left to hope for the best, knowing that their pets could be sold on, used in horrific dog fighting and, in some cases, used for breeding in cruel and dirty puppy farms.
I have heard the stories of heartbroken constituents, who can sometimes spend weeks and months looking for their pets in the hope they have been lost and will return, with sleepless nights at the loss of their furry friend and the thought of what might have happened to them. To many, pets can be part of the family, lifetime companions, there as company making memories in the good times but also there in our hour of need. The pandemic has made many appreciate that company even more, as people are spending more time at the local park or in front of the television.
My mother has four sons, and if faced with the choice between having one of us or Archie, her beloved Bichon Frise, stolen, I am not entirely confident which she would opt for—and I do not think he is worth much either. Without doubt, pets and their owners can have a priceless relationship that is beyond any monetary value. It is for that reason that the law must reflect the non-monetary value of pets. After all, when the worst comes to the worst, a stereo, TV or bicycle can be replaced; many of our pets are entirely irreplaceable.
The punishment for pet theft must reflect the pain and suffering caused by such a heinous act and the emotional impact of losing a loved one. It must also act as a deterrent to those who would consider doing such an awful thing. I support the petition entirely and urge the Government to review their approach to the theft of pets, acknowledging their unique value in this nation of pet lovers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. If I have my phone, wallet or car stolen, they are insured and can be replaced, virtually on a like-for-like basis. It would be frustrating, inconvenient, I would be angry and annoyed. Naturally, I would want the thief to face the full force of the law. However, if Clemmie, my nine-year-old Jack Russell, Peppy, my seven-year-old Labrador, or Ebony, my four-year-old Labrador were stolen, they could not be replaced. They are an integral part of my family, individual in character and each providing a unique and special companionship to me and to members of my family.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on bringing today’s debate to Westminster Hall, and I am pleased that the Petitions Committee has given us time to debate the topic, which affects many of our constituents. Between these two petitions, almost 500 signatures came from my constituency of Darlington, and I thank those constituents who took time to voice their concerns. I know that many more of my constituents are dog owners who, like me, consider their four-legged friends to be part of their family. The theft of a pet is already a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968, with a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment. However, only one in five pets are ever returned to their owners. With over 2,000 dogs stolen every year, there remain over 1,600 families who lose that member, never to be seen again. It is tragic and we should do more.
While my canines collectively cost less than £800 to purchase, they have cost me significantly more in damage to property, and in food and vet bills. Sadly, under the law not one of them would be deemed of sufficient value to warrant anything nearing a custodial sentence were they stolen. Sentencing is about punishment and rehabilitation, but it is also about setting a deterrent. With a low intrinsic value insufficient to warrant investigation, four out of five dogs that are stolen are never recovered and the despicable people responsible for dog theft sadly know that their chance of being caught or suffering a punishment is very low.
I welcome the mandatory microchipping we now have. That has helped more pets to be reunited and serves in the armoury of deterrents. It has thankfully reduced the number of stray dogs on our streets. I also welcome the recommendation for vets to carry out routine scanning for new pets enrolled at their practices. These measures are for dogs, but we as a nation should be extending them to cats too. I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) that there should be mandatory chipping for cats.
The pet owners of Darlington and I believe that the theft of a pet is much more damaging than the loss of an item of financial value. I believe that a specific offence of pet theft or, at the very least, specific sentencing guidance based on more than the purchase cost of the animal, will do much more to deter this dreadful crime.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I echo the compliments given by other Members to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on the way in which he opened the debate and the equally to the Petitions Committee for recommending these petitions for debate. They received over 100,000 signatures, which shows better than I can the strength of feeling about strengthening the law on the subject.
I pay tribute to Dr Allen and the campaign group, and to the Kennel Club and the Dogs Trust. I am sure it will not surprise hon. Members that a Dogs Trust survey found that 99% of respondents considered their pets to be a family member. I declare my interest, Mr Robertson. Winston, my Welsh springer spaniel—having springer spaniels seems to be a theme around the room today; clearly the Dogs Trust could do some research into parliamentarians and their springer spaniels—is, of course, a member of the family.
Monetary value goes to the root of the problem about sentencing. If anyone was to put a business case together for getting a pet, they probably would not get one. The kind of sentencing we are talking about cannot be treated simply in terms of monetary value, which moves most of these crimes to classes 3 and 4 straightaway. That is clearly sub-optimal for sentencing. If anyone should dare to take my dear Winston, our Welsh springer spaniel, I would want that to go immediately to category 1, as I value him personally way over £10,000. I do not know about other Members and their dogs. That is at the heart of the matter.
I look forward to the Minister’s reply to this important debate, but I know that the good constituents of Montgomeryshire think the law is currently suboptimal. It was a pleasure to email my constituents today and say that I was talking about pet theft, and to receive more emails about pet theft than about Brexit and covid-19 in a day. It was a great pleasure to read my inbox today. There is a huge strength of feeling that the law is simply not working for pet owners at the moment.
There is a huge feeling in Montgomeryshire and rural Wales that people are starting to fear for their pets. As Wales is locked down today by our wonderful Welsh Government, people are looking for comfort. People across Montgomeryshire and mid-Wales will be looking to their pets for comfort. The least I can do for Winston, my dear Welsh springer spaniel, and for my constituents and their pets is stand up today and implore the Minister and our Government, who I know are looking hard at this issue, to look specifically at the monetary value point, amend the Theft Act 1968 and at the very least create a specific offence of pet theft, to do our pets justice and give our constituents some heart that, if the unthinkable happens and their pets are dognapped or catnapped, there will be a sentence to match that offence. I implore the Minister to do something about it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for securing the debate. I know he is a passionate supporter of animals.
People across the country bring pets into their households and love and care for them as if they were members of their family. We are a pet-loving nation. Sadly, despite a reported fall in pet thefts in 2019, we have all talked about the strong anecdotal evidence that suggests pet theft shot up during lockdown. At least five dogs are stolen every day in England and Wales; that is five loved family members stolen from their home. To criminals, pets are money-making objects that can often be used and abused to make a profit. As others have mentioned, Dr Allen from Keele University found that in 2018 only 1% of pet thefts resulted in the thief being charged. As he said, sadly, criminals see pet theft as
“a low-risk high-reward crime”.
That should not be the case.
Almost 600 of my constituents have signed one of the two petitions we are debating, asking for change. Pets are loved members of the family who bring us so much joy and happiness, and we need an approach that recognises that they are more than just property. We need to make it crystal clear to criminals that stealing a pet is a risky choice to make. I sympathise with the Government’s reluctance to introduce specific legislation. What counts for me is the outcome, not how we get there. As the Government’s written response to the petition points out:
“The theft of a pet is already a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968 and the maximum penalty is seven years’ imprisonment.”
However, all of us in the Chamber, and the Minister in particular, are in the unfortunate position of not being able to say what is happening on the ground. It is hard for the Government to defend their position and say it is satisfactory when hon. Members who want to understand whether the law is working have tabled written questions asking about average sentences and found we are not recording those statistics. The Government must tackle that first so that, whatever decisions are made today and in the near future, they—and we, as scrutinisers—can judge whether the current approach is working.
If the Government will not move on legislation, they must join us in engaging with the Sentencing Council. Currently, there is an expectation that when a person steals something with a value of less than £500, they should get only a community order. We have heard many examples of pets that would not meet that threshold, so that bar should not exist. It is no surprise, therefore, that people are concerned that custody is not being used when it should be. The Government will point out that, yes, the guidelines do allow for additional weight be given to the emotional impact surrounding an offence, but even when that is the case, the starting point becomes just one year as a category 3 offence, which does not provide a strong enough solution.
We need to make it clear to criminals who snatch pets from loving families that they are committing a serious offence and they will be punished accordingly. We do not know whether that is happening at the moment, and we cannot guarantee that it is. It would be appropriate to have a sentencing guideline specific to pet theft that asks judges to begin by thinking of it as a category 2 offence under current legislation, irrespective of the monetary value of the pet, which currently acts as an important limiting factor. That would leave discretion but make it clear to judges, the public and, importantly, criminals that stealing a pet is serious, causing huge distress to families and something they should think very carefully about doing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on opening the debate and raising many of the points I would have made had I had the opportunity to make a long speech—people will be relieved that I do not.
Over the last few days I have been contacted by many of my constituents, asking me to speak in the debate. Interestingly, the vast majority of those emails came from Wherwell, one of the smallest villages in Test Valley. It struck me as being slightly odd that such a disproportionate number came from one place, but there is a very good reason for that. Although we have heard many heart-breaking stories—of Trigger; of Ruby and Beetle—I would like to add the story of one more dog: a small cocker spaniel called Cleo.
Cleo was four years old when she was taken from her owner, Mr Rudd-Clarke, an 85-year-old gentleman who lives in Wherwell. I hope that he does not mind me mentioning that he is 85. I told him I was going to speak this afternoon, but I did not tell him that I was going to say how old he was. Both Mr Rudd-Clarke and his wife very much enjoyed the company of Cleo. She was the dog that got them out of the house to exercise in the fresh air in Hampshire—interestingly, one of the most dog-friendly counties in the country. She has been their constant companion since she was a puppy, and she is a gorgeous blue roan—perhaps one of the prettiest dogs I have ever seen.
I have seen Cleo because she has her own Facebook page, and on pretty much every telegraph pole and tree in the village of Wherwell is a picture of Cleo. Her owners had done the right thing: they had ensured that she was microchipped, and that the chip was registered to their current address; she was spayed and she wore a collar with her name and address on at all times. None the less, Cleo went missing on 16 September on her routine walk. She is believed to have been stolen because she simply vanished without trace, despite the villagers of Wherwell going out with drones and thermal imaging cameras, and making appeals for dashcam footage. An entire community has pulled together to try to find this dog, and we are all making her disappearance as well known as we can, in the hope of making her too hot to handle.
Cleo was the sort of dog that came to a whistle. I really admire anybody who can make a cocker spaniel come to a whistle; I have certainly failed in my attempts with my beloved dog, Alfie. The assumption of those in the village, of the owner and of the police is that Cleo was stolen, and the charity DogLost concurs. What a wicked and despicable crime—to take a companion from an elderly gentleman. She was company, she was exercise and she was part of the family, and she had been spayed, so her monetary value was much less because of course she could not be used for breeding purposes.
We have heard this afternoon that stealing a pet is no different in law from stealing any inanimate object, but pets are not inanimate and the trauma of losing one is horrific. There needs to be a decoupling of sentencing from the animal’s value. I know that the Minister will tell us that dog theft is already a crime under the Theft Act 1968, carrying a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment, but of course that sort of sentence is very rarely handed down. I do not want to dwell on the reasons why a dog might be stolen—other Members have alluded to them—but they are horrific. Stolen dogs do not end up in the arms of a family that is going to love them in the same way that the one they have been ripped from does.
My hon. Friend is a good Minister, who cares passionately about this issue, and I know that she has the power to do something today. She can give us a steer that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will seek to amend the Theft Act, which is over 50 years old, and bring it into line with how 21st-century Britain, and the village of Wherwell, feel about their pets.
I am very embarrassed, Mr Robertson, that at the start of the debate I prevailed on colleagues to make short speeches; they have been so brief, there will now be very long wind-ups, but I will leave that to your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on the way he presented the petitions, and I commend him for the passion that he displayed right at the end of his speech—absolutely splendid.
We are, of course, a nation of animal lovers, and this debate in Westminster Hall has displayed that we are a House of Commons full of animal lovers, and I certainly commend that. I agree with all the points that colleagues have made. I am very appreciative of Mrs Debbie Matthews, the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and the daughter of Bruce Forsyth, my favourite comedian, for her briefing on this subject.
I very much agree that animals are sentient beings; science has proved that they can experience pain, suffering, joy and comfort, but by equating them to property we are denying them the right to be considered sentient beings. The Theft Act 1968 does just that, and I say to the Minister that it is old legislation. Pet theft was a problem before coronavirus; it has escalated during the lockdown period, and it may continue to do so unless the Government take harsher action against the criminals colleagues have been talking about today.
I put it to the Minister that the public are sending the Government a strong message. Let us not forget that this is the second pet theft debate and that there have been three consecutive successful pet theft reform petitions. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is currently reviewing the compulsory dog microchipping regulations. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) about microchipping cats. As well as reporting pet thefts, microchipping also helps to return stolen pets. Several colleagues have said how much their animals are worth. We often look after one of my daughter’s French bulldogs, which is worth an absolute fortune—we tend to cover up her European association.
I am delighted to be sponsoring the Dogs and Domestic Animals (Accommodation and Protection) Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), which, among all other things, recognises the importance of microchipping pets. However, there needs to be a single, complete database of microchipped cats and dogs, as there is for horses, and microchips must be compulsory, so that they can be checked against that database at every first vet appointment.
Debbie Matthews, who started Vets Get Scanning, has been a champion in this area for many years and I congratulate her. Pet theft is seldom investigated and usually the only thefts that result in an investigation are those where dogs are stolen for puppy farming. That is quite wrong. We have reports of the ridiculous sentences: where there has been horrendous cruelty, criminals just get suspended sentences, whereas for metal theft people are sent to prison for 12 years. It is absolutely ridiculous.
The Government must amend the Theft Act 1968 and make pet theft a specific offence with custodial sentences. Pets’ monetary value is, as other colleagues have said, relatively small compared with luxury items, which carry a sentence of seven years as a category 1 crime. The punishment does not fit the crime as the loss of an inanimate object compared to that of a pet is very different. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said, the Sentencing Council needs to amend the existing guidelines, to ensure that all cases of companion animal theft are considered a category 1 or 2 crime as a minimum, regardless of monetary value.
It is a privilege and pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for setting the scene in such a detailed manner. At the start of the debate, he showed us all, across parties, what an important issue this is, as well as the consensus that exists not only in Parliament, but among members of the public. He also set out the impact that this crime has on victims, not only the silent victims—the stolen pets themselves, who often meet horrendous ends—but the families who suffer the emotional and psychological impact of pet theft, which I will return to in a moment.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group, it is an honour to speak in this debate. I know about this issue, not only from my constituency, but because I receive letters and emails from constituents across the United Kingdom to the APPG saying how important it is. I hope the Minister will know that this issue is a priority for people across the UK. When those who contact me ask, “Which topic do you get most emails about from your constituents?”, I say, “Animal welfare.” I do not think my constituency is any different from any other in that regard. This issue is a priority. There is a consensus among all parties and those who have spoken. I am sure we will take this forward in the most positive way. I beseech the Minister to look seriously at it, because we are here to serve the public. That is our job as MPs, and we must take the public’s priorities and its wishes forward.
There has been a great deal of work already undertaken on these issues. I thank Dr Daniel Allen, Marc Abraham, Beverley Cuddy from Dogs Today, who covers this issue repeatedly and is such a dog welfare fan herself, the Kennel Club, Battersea and Cats Protection, who have also been in touch with me—I also thank the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) for mentioning cat theft, which is on the rise and is something that we should take very seriously—Dogs Trust, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Debbie Matthews from Vets Get Scanning. We know there are many people out there working hard on the frontline to support those who experience the tragedy of pet theft, but who also want to see that change in legislation that we have all spoken of today.
I declare my own little interest as the owner of a rescue dog, Rossi, a French bulldog who we think was probably puppy farmed. He has his tail docked and had some problems settling into the family at the start, but he is absolutely part of the family now. If we were to lose Rossi, it would be devastating not just for me and my husband—although he does complain quite a bit about having to take him out on long walks, especially as the winter months are approaching—but for our children, who are very attached.
It goes without saying that dogs should be treated as companions and family members, not just as property, and that that should be happening within the law. A survey found that 99% of pet owners consider their pets to be family members, and there are great benefits to owning a pet dog, including improved physical health by encouraging exercise, which I do every day for my husband, and reduced risk of depression and loneliness. Dog owners over 65 also make 30% fewer visits to the doctor, so it is actually helping our NHS too.
The loss of a dog or any pet can be particularly hard for those who have few others to turn to for companionship, and we know that those who have been in lockdown and isolated, or perhaps have been shielding, have found great comfort in their pets. For anyone in that circumstance to have a pet stolen would be an absolute travesty. We, as the House of Commons, need to act quickly on these issues.
A study involving in-depth interviews with dog owners who had experienced dog theft found that 30% reported feelings of loss, grief or mourning; 48% described themselves as “absolutely devastated” and 37% suffered severe psychological or physiological effects after the dog was stolen. That shows that there must be recognition within the law of the impact on people and their families. As hon. Members have mentioned today, it is not similar to losing a mobile phone, a computer or a bike; it is absolutely different and requires to be recognised as such.
We have, in fact, seen an increase in pet theft in 2020 during the covid-19 pandemic, making it all the more crucial that we act now. Wayne May from DogLost stated:
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years now and it’s the worst ever year I’ve known.”
People who steal dogs and pets are doing so for malicious reasons. I do not believe for a minute they could possibly be doing it for the welfare of the pet or the family. Research often finds that the theft is orchestrated; it may be linked with criminal gangs and dog fighting, as has already been mentioned today, or with monetary value, breeding, puppy farming and making money from the dog or pet.
In my own constituency, a little dog was stolen as part of a robbery from a home for no other reason but malice, taken and thrown in to a fountain in the middle of Glasgow, which is about 50 miles from my constituency. Luckily, a caring member of the public found the dog and he was returned to his owner. However, I understand from research that only one in five stolen dogs are found and restored to their owners. This is a crime that often goes unpunished and those who are culpable are not brought to justice. In fact, of the 44 police forces in England and Wales, 24 provided data on recorded dog theft crimes, comparing 2019 with the first seven months of 2020, and five out of the 24 police forces had more dog theft crimes in the seven months of January to July 2020 than in the whole of 2019. The number of dog theft crimes that led to charges was only 4.15% in 2015, 3.35% in 2016, 2.16% in 2017, 1.11% in 2018—the figure was actually reducing then, although it was a very small base to start off with—and 1.21% in 2019. Currently, therefore, very little deterrent exists.
Steps must be taken to change the law, not only because of the impact that I have described, but because this is a crime that basically goes unpunished for those who engage in it, so it has very little consequence. When there are crimes of this nature, that is part of the issue: people feel that they can engage in them without the force of the law being brought to bear on them and perhaps even without resources being put into seeking out the culprits.
I thank everybody who has spoken today for a very consensual debate. I think that the Minister knows that there is the weight of public opinion and opinion across the House of Commons on her to take this matter forward. I am sure that she is as dedicated to these animal welfare issues as the rest of us, and I very much look forward to hearing her comments when she sums up the debate.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for introducing the debate with such verve. The Member whom he replaced had a similar verve when it came to animals, so there is clearly something in the way Ipswich elects people that ensures that they are animal friendly.
Like others, I place on the record my thanks to the researchers and other people who have been fighting so hard on this issue for so long. That is an aspect to which I would like to return. As the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) so ably and politely put it when mentioning it to the Minister, we have been here before. No matter how good the debate has been—this has been a very good debate—it is not the quality of the debate but the pressure on the Minister to act that we need to look at.
We have all heard this stated before, but it is true that the theft of a pet is not a simple matter of theft of an item, nor should it be treated as such by the law. It is the callous and criminal removal of a family member. It is kidnapping. It is something that strikes at the very heart of the family unit. Pet theft is a tragedy that should be measured more in emotional distress than in economic loss.
The debate has touched on not just pet theft but a number of parallel issues relating to animal welfare and protection of animals: microchipping, animal cruelty, criminal breeding, puppy farming and the import and export of animals. I think that we should not just take one item, as a line item, to look at what can be done, but recognise that pet theft plays into a much bigger concern about the future and the welfare of our animals. One of the opportunities, which has not been spoken about in the debate so far, is that of bringing together those bits of outstanding welfare legislation for which we are still waiting. As the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) hinted in her remarks, there is enormous cross-party support for many of those items sitting in Ministers’ to-do trays.
I think that the approach that Ministers have adopted, especially since 2015, of parcelling up animal welfare into smaller and smaller Bills, smaller issues, and dealing with them one by one is a fantastic way of gaining headlines, but it does not deal with the comprehensive nature of some of those challenges. I encourage the Minister to look at whether animal sentience and animal welfare sentencing—assuming that there is not enough time for the Bill that was spoken about; it is due to be debated on Friday, and I hope that there will be—as well as cat microchipping and the other issues can be wrapped up together in a flagship animal welfare Bill that could be in the Queen’s Speech. I think that there would be enormous public support not just on this issue but for a whole host of other animal welfare concerns if that were the case.
A number of hon. Members spoke passionately and it is only appropriate that I mention some of them, because it does tell a story about what is going on. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams), who is no longer in his place, talked about the law being sub-optimal and not working. That is a cross-party concern that was echoed right across the Chamber. The reality of it, mentioned by the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), is that only one in five animals are returned, meaning that enormous amounts of families are without their pets each and every year. That figure is important.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Kieran Mullan) talked about the importance of the data. I agree with him on that: the stretched police resource and the real pressure on the police mean that in many cases these crimes are not being properly recorded as pet theft. They are recorded as animals going missing, or simply not at all. That is especially true of certain age groups who do not want to be a burden or to bother the authorities. They might sit at home desperately worried about their animal, but will not want to make an appeal or burden the police with it. I say to all those people who have lost or are worried about an animal to report it. Animals in animal shelters up and down the country are waiting to be reunited with people. It is important that we encourage that so that we can get the data, as mentioned by the hon. Member, to make sure that the work is being done properly.
The hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) said that pets are priceless, and indeed a number of Members have spoken today about the economic value of their own animals in this regard. A law based simply on an animal’s economic value will always discount and disregard the emotional value of that animal. A bigger change in animal welfare legislation is a theme we have seen in the past decade or so: we are recognising not just animals as little furry creatures, but their role within our families and within our society, and the values we want to attach to those animals are being reflected in the legislation that governs them. There has been a gap there, and there are opportunities to close that gap. I say to the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) that we all wish the village of Wherwell the best of luck with their endeavours in relation to finding Cleo. It is good to see so many people feeling strongly about the issue.
Animal welfare has been mentioned as a topic at the top of our inboxes. When I explain that to people, there is an element of shock and surprise in their first instant reaction, “Is it not Brexit? Is it not covid-19?” Then there is the realisation that people love animals more than they love people sometimes. It is no surprise to me that animal welfare is at the top of our agenda, and that demands that the action follows it.
As a number of Members, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), have hinted, when we talk about the theft of an animal we need to look at it not just in the moment of its being stolen, not just as regards the use of sophisticated machinery—as mentioned by the hon. Member for Ipswich in reference to the theft of a number of animals—and not just as being about opportunism. We also need to think about happens to the animal afterwards. I know that when someone loses an animal, they do not think about the economic cost, they worry about what is happening to that animal at that point. They worry about whether the animal is trapped somewhere. “Can’t they get out? Are they okay? Is there something I can do to safeguard and protect the animal?” The worry and concern eats away. The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Lisa Cameron), spoke about the psychological torture at the moment of loss. That is what is so cruel about this crime, because it is torturous. It is a form of torture when we lose an animal along the way, and that needs to be properly reflected.
These petitions are good petitions. There is an enormous opportunity to do something about the situation. We know that pets are not simply possessions. Labour are sympathetic to the need to do more to tackle pet theft, including considering the possible changes in the law that have been spoken about so passionately across the Chamber today. There is an opportunity for Ministers to work with campaigners, because despite the reasons that have been discussed for the Government refusing to act so far—that sentences already exist and that there are criminal and sentencing guidelines—those measures are not working. This is a moment to look again at not just the words on the page of the guidelines, but how they are being implemented. They are not being implemented in a way that, I believe, carries public confidence in the measures. There is an opportunity to change that.
I hope that the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill that has, like this debate, been seen many times before will get proper attention on Friday as a private Member’s Bill. Indeed, I have called on the Government to adopt it as a Government Bill to ensure that it has enough time, and I encourage the Minister to make sure that is the case.
My neighbour, the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) spoke passionately about the need to microchip cats. Indeed, just before the last general election some of us, in this same room, debated the need to microchip cats. That was a compelling case then, and it remains a compelling case now.
With the world in crisis, a jobs crisis looming and covid-19 taking up much of the Government’s bandwidth, how can we get animal welfare issues properly on the agenda? I say to the Minister that wrapping them together in a comprehensive animal welfare law is one way to do that, and I encourage her to include puppy smuggling as part of that. When we talk about puppy smuggling, we frequently talk about animals smuggled into the United Kingdom, but there is also the reverse trend. That is especially being used at the moment to satisfy the demand of people seeking to buy an animal during the lockdown.
We have heard a number of times during the debate about how pets offer such important companionship—they are part of the family. We know there has been a real increase in the value of animals during the lockdown, particularly dachshunds, English bulldogs, French bulldogs, pugs and chow chows—prices have been shooting up. The price of a dachshunds has shot up by a whopping 80% since the start of the lockdown. That is a market that criminals will prey on, and I encourage the Minister to ensure that that is taken into account.
Plymouth is no different from many of the places that have been mentioned so far in the debate, and there is enormous public concern that we should not find ourselves here again in six months’ time. When the Minister addresses hon. Members’ valid and well-put concerns, I encourage her to offer reassurance that all the hundreds of thousands of people who signed the petition, including 500 people in Plymouth, will not need to sign the same petition again to get another debate in order to put pressure on a Minister to enact what is a very clear and obvious instruction from the public—indeed, from the House—that we want to see pet theft taken more seriously.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on securing the debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), who cannot be with us today—I know she has worked hard in this area—and all the campaigners who have worked so hard to bring us to where we are today. We should all recognise that there is a lot of heartbreak behind the debate, in addition to the happy memories that we have with our animals.
The Government understand how important pets are to the families who care for them, and we understand that this has nothing to do with their monetary values. I am the carer—I never say “owner”—of Midnight, who did not have an unbeatable start in life round the back of the local chicken factory. He was a feral stray, and he and his brother fit on my palm when they arrived. I am proud to say that he became the purr-minister several years ago; indeed, he is campaigning at the moment for his re-election. It is clear that Midnight has no monetary value whatever, but his value to me, my husband and my children is priceless.
We have heard in the debate about a number of animals who are just like Midnight. We have heard about Trigger, Milly and Louis, Ruby and Beetle, Cromwell and Bertie, Fred, Archie, Clemmie, Poppy and Ebony, Winston, Cleo, Rossy and many more. Of course these animals are precious to their owners, as all our animals are. It is a horrible thing when an animal goes missing, but it is particularly unpleasant if the owner thinks that the animal is still alive and suffering somewhere.
Before I set out the Government’s position on pet theft, I will first set out a few high-level points on the Government’s position on animal welfare. Last December, we stood on a particularly strong manifesto for animal welfare, which included commitments to introduce tougher sentences for animal cruelty, to crack down on the illegal smuggling of dogs and puppies, to bring in new laws on animal sentience, to end excessively long journeys for slaughter and fattening, to ban the keeping of primates as pets, and to introduce cat microchipping, which is an issue that I campaigned on as a member of the all-party parliamentary group for cats—which, obviously, Midnight made me join. Those measures will build on what has already been achieved. I heard what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said—that it might be sensible to bring such issues together in one Bill—and I hope to have some news for him in that regard before too long.
In terms of Government achievements in this area, in 2018 we replaced old laws on the regulation of pet selling, dog breeding, animal boarding, riding schools and exhibiting animals. The regulations have strict statutory minimum welfare standards that are enforced by local authorities. I am very excited about the private Member’s Bill this Friday, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill. This Bill, if passed—I very much hope it will be, and the Government are 100% committed behind it—will increase the maximum custodial penalty for animal cruelty from six months’ imprisonment to five years.
Microchipping has been rightly brought up by a number of hon. Members, and it certainly helps in the sphere of pet theft and in returning animals to their rightful place. To answer my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West, who made specific points on dog microchipping, a review will begin shortly into the effects of the law that was brought in on the microchipping of dogs. Their points are well are well made—I will pass them on, but they will have been heard today and I am happy to follow that up specifically.
Earlier this year, there was a call for evidence on whether to bring in compulsory microchipping for cats. The responses to that call for evidence were overwhelmingly in favour of doing so. We will be publishing a summary of responses shortly, and I anticipate that we will consult on the issue very soon.
Moving on to pet theft, it is already an offence under the Theft Act 1968 and significant penalties are already possible; the difficulty is that, as so many hon. Members across the House have said, those penalties are not always used to the maximum. As we have heard, the maximum penalty is up to seven years’ imprisonment, which could go even higher if the theft occurred, as sadly they sometimes do, as part of an aggravated burglary or robbery. One difficulty is that we have limited data available to us about exactly what is happening on the ground.
One thing that has been touched on and that I am aware of is puppy smuggling and the transfer of dogs between Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland, because it is quite clear that trafficking goes on there. The police have stopped some vehicles at the port of Stranraer and have caught people with them. Has there been any contact with the Republic of Ireland? We need to have that regionally as well.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is that very often pet theft is carried out by criminal gangs, who use every opportunity to evade justice.
If someone causes an animal to suffer in the course of stealing it from its owner, we have recourse to the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and we very much hope we will have stronger sentencing powers under that Act shortly, if we are able to move forward with the private Member’s Bill. Sentencing, of course, remains a matter for the courts, and when deciding what sentence to impose the courts should take into account the circumstances of the offence and any mitigating and aggravating factors, in line with the guidelines issued by the Sentencing Council.
In 2016, the Sentencing Council updated its guidelines in relation to sentencing for theft, and DEFRA fed into that review. The new guidelines set out that emotional distress and non-monetary value are factors to be taken into consideration when passing sentence, so the impact on the victim is now very much something that a court can and should take into account. I know that the Lord Chancellor met my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich to discuss this very issue only last week. I welcome the engagement that has come about as a result of these petitions and this debate, and I look forward to playing my own part in that discussion.
We do not currently think that the creation of a specific offence for pet theft, with a two-year custodial penalty, would really help much. We think the way to go is to continue the discussions that I know my hon. Friend is already undertaking on sentencing guidelines. To that end, the Government are very willing to work with interested parties, including the police and animal welfare organisations. We are keen to act in this area, and I look forward to taking that forward with Members from across the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank everyone for attending. I think there is cross-party consensus, which might not be the case for the next debate that I lead, which is straight after this one, but I am glad of it anyway. I forgot to say that I do not currently own a pet, because my lifestyle does not really allow it, but I used to be another springer spaniel owner. I used to own an out-of-control springer called Lucy, who sometimes would just run off and spring into the golf course. Sometimes I wished she would not come back, but she always did. She always knew where to come back to, and I loved her dearly.
There is a sense that the law as it stands is not working. There are lots of different options and pathways to change that, and one way or another we need to do that. Dog theft is, as Dr Allen says, low risk and high reward. The price of puppies has gone up. Thieves think, “I may as well do it. The chances of being caught are very slim, and if I am caught, that chap over there who did it got a slap on the wrist and a couple of hundred quid fine.” If, however, they see the person down the road who did it end up in prison for two or three years, that will act as a basic deterrent.
Why now? On the face of it, it might be tempting, with covid-19, Brexit and everything else going on, to question whether this is really a priority. It absolutely is. As has been stated by virtually every Member present, our pets have never come to the forefront more than right now. Something else that is cropping up on the agenda is mental health. It was cropping up even before covid, but right now—partly because every single person in the country has had their mental health affected to some degree by this crisis—we are talking about mental health more than ever before. Our pets and our animals are crucial to our mental health support. Losing them—having them ripped away from us in the way that has been described in so many powerful stories—is incredibly traumatic and harrowing. Taking action in this place to address that is incredibly important.
As the Minister said, while I was in lockdown I had a virtual meeting with my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, which was positive. I also point out that those behind the petitions, with whom I have had close engagement, are pragmatic. They have an ideal outcome, but they can still see how getting change in the guidelines would be a major step forward and something to build on.
We are a nation of pet lovers. We mentioned dogs and cats, but there is also potential for other animals. Parrots can be stolen, as can budgies and potentially guinea pigs—I do not know. We could go on and on, but ultimately those discussions need to continue. I plan to continue to work with the Ministry of Justice and with colleagues, who will hopefully grow in number. I hope that more and more Members become interested and want to retain that interest going forward. This is an easy thing that the Government can do to show that they are on the side of the public. We have cross-party consensus, so let us have some action.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 244530 and 300071 relating to pet theft.
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
As this is only the third week since we have resumed our sittings in Westminster Hall, I remind hon. Members of the new procedures. We now have call lists, and we have just one withdrawal from that list, so there are nine people in total wishing to speak. We have been asked to tell colleagues to please sanitise the microphones before they leave, as it saves the staff getting involved with that. Only Members on the call list can speak, and Members are not expected to stay for winding-up speeches, but if they could stay for two speeches after they have spoken, that would be helpful.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 321862 relating to immigration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time today, Sir David. I want to start by paying tribute to the more than 125,000 people—including 202 from my constituency—who signed the petition to stop illegal immigration and secured this important debate in Parliament. I am glad to be able to introduce this petition to Parliament as a member of the Petitions Committee. Well over four years ago, more people voted to take back control of our money, our laws and, crucially, our borders than voted for anything in the history of this country. This petition is another powerful democratic reminder of our responsibility to deliver borders in which the people in this country can have confidence.
Before I get into the petition’s substance, I want to head off arguments often made on the left that seek to stifle meaningful debate such as this on illegal immigration. Contrary to what they may say, wanting to have a fair system of rules to govern who enters our country is not about being anti-immigrant or anti-refugee. The vast majority of my constituents who write to me about the issue are not anti-immigrant and they are not racist. Like me, they are immensely proud to be part of the diverse town of Ipswich, which has benefited enormously from immigration and shown its spirit of generosity to some of the most needy refugees coming directly from war-torn countries. Last month, I visited the Suffolk refugee centre in Ipswich to hear some of those people’s stories, including from people who have become successful entrepreneurs in our town.
Our asylum system should be based on compassion, but for that to work, it must also be based on rules that people can have trust in. That is the thrust of the petition, along with a poll by YouGov in August, which found that 73% consider illegal channel crossings to be a serious issue. I know from talking to people in my constituency and elsewhere that the overwhelming mood among the public is one of frustration at the lawlessness we so often see in our seas. Added to that is the vexation that a great country such as ours, which has voted to take back its sovereignty, seems to have its hands tied when it comes to controlling who comes into our island home and removing people who are here illegally. The vast majority of people in this country know that, without borders, we do not have a country and that while we should welcome the world’s best and brightest and those genuinely seeking refuge, who want to come here legally, our hospitality must not be taken for granted.
Perhaps the most important word in the petition, though, is the word “action”. The public’s patience is hanging by a thread, and we have reached the point where words will no longer suffice. Today, I want to underline how action is urgently needed in two key areas if we are to mend the public’s broken trust in the integrity of our borders. The first is stemming the flow of people entering this country illegally, and the second is ending the abuse of our broken asylum system.
I will start with the issue of illegal entry and the unprecedented number of illegal migrants we have seen crossing the channel this year. So far in 2020, more than 7,000 people have entered our country that way, which is more than five times the number who arrived via that route in 2019. It has been particularly difficult in recent months for the law-abiding majority in the UK to see these boats flouting our laws with near impunity on almost a daily basis when we are being asked to follow some of the greatest restrictions on our freedoms that this country has ever had to impose.
The images we have seen on our TV screens of these illegal boats arriving at our shores are a stark reminder that, more than four years on from the 2016 Brexit vote, we still have not taken back control of our borders in a meaningful sense. The only way to prevent these illegal crossings is by sending a clear message to everyone thinking of coming here illegally that all attempts will be futile. We must look at what the Australians did with Operation Sovereign Borders, where they blocked all boats from landing in Australia. After the policy was introduced, the number of people trying to enter Australia illegally by boat dropped from over 2,600 a month to just over 200.
We must be prepared to deploy similar safe-return tactics. I welcome the fact that the Government are looking at a range of options, including learning from the Australian approach. The shadow Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), has said that that approach lacks compassion. I would like to hear today from the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) exactly how the status quo is compassionate when it fuels the evil trafficking of human beings and dangerous sea crossings that we currently see. What exactly is Labour’s position on this matter, and what would it do?
It is good that the Government are working with the French to prevent these crossings, but we must be clear that our ability to protect our borders should not be contingent on the French or any other third country being willing to play ball. We must have the capacity to act in our own national interest, and after the EU transition period has ended we must extricate ourselves from all EU and international rules that prevent us from towing these boats all the way back to France, if necessary.
Sending out the message that illegally crossing the channel just will not work is also a humanitarian necessity. When the leadership of the Labour party and others in the liberal left establishment are content to turn a blind eye to crossings, it plays into the hands of the ruthless people smugglers who exploit these vulnerable migrants, often taking their money only to push them out to sea in unseaworthy boats and without lifejackets but with instructions to threaten to throw themselves overboard to prevent them from being picked up by the French authorities.
The tragic case of a 16-year-old Sudanese boy who washed up on a French beach in August, having drowned while trying to reach the UK, should never have been allowed to happen. I understand that another death may have happened this weekend in the channel. Those who refuse to act to stop these crossings or who even encourage them out of an ideological attachment to open borders are putting the people they claim to want to help in immense danger. By way of contrast, in the five years before Australia implemented its zero-tolerance approach to illegal boats in 2013, 877 migrants drowned trying to make the journey. Since then, I understand that none has.
Let us move on to our asylum system. Coupled with stopping illegal entry, we must also diminish the pull factors that cause migrants to attempt these dangerous crossings in the first place. At the heart of that must be overhauling our broken asylum system, as these migrants know that, if they can reach our shores and claim asylum, the overwhelming chances are that they will be able to stay for good. Of about 9,000 people who have crossed the channel illegally since the start of 2019, less than 3% have been returned, despite about 80% of those this year being found to have no credible asylum claim here in the UK.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has rightly pointed out, the exploitation of our asylum system is abetted by certain liberal sections of our legal establishment who exploit our human rights law and submit multiple bogus claims on behalf of migrants who have already had their claims rejected to stop deportations. The spectacle we saw earlier this month when 29 out of 30 failed asylum seekers were taken off a deportation flight at the last moment following the intervention of human rights lawyers is a clear demonstration of how the law as it stands is not on the side of the people it is meant to serve.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has her finger on the pulse, especially compared to the Labour party, which last year voted at its party conference to make the problem much more difficult by closing all immigration detention centres. By contrast, the actions the Government have set out in their response to the petition, including withdrawing from the Dublin regulation and the EU’s common asylum system at the end of the transition period, will help us end the situation where the UK takes three times as many asylum seekers from the whole of the EU as we send back.
However, I urge the Minister to go further today than the Home Office’s written response to this petition, which says that
“if a migrant has chosen to evade immigration control or enter the UK illegally, then they can have no expectation of remaining in the absence of a genuine claim for UK protection”.
The expectation should be that anyone who has deliberately chosen to enter this country through an illegal route— those who do so have often travelled through many safe European countries to get here—should have no expectation that they will be able to stay.
To the public, it is unjustifiable that if they break the law, they will be punished, but if someone breaks our immigration rules, they stand a chance of being rewarded by getting to stay here. Tackling that is an essential part of building an ever more compassionate asylum system. Ideally, all asylum claims would be processed in centres that are outside the UK and close to the most needy. It is completely unfair to those who want to come here legally and directly from war-torn countries—it is also unfair to the taxpayers who fund our asylum system—if economic migrants from safe countries such as France can jump the queue ahead of them.
There is an important debate to be had about whether the country can accept more asylum seekers legally, but that is an entirely separate debate and one that will be difficult to have until members of the public have confidence that our laws are being followed consistently. What the public will not accept is the notion pushed by some on the left that because, in their eyes, we do not take enough refugees legally, we are somehow deserving of illegal attempts to breach our borders.
I know that the Home Secretary appreciates the urgency of this issue. I recognise the need for a robust dual approach to tackle illegal entry and our broken asylum system, if we are to get a grip on illegal immigration. That is the only approach that delivers for the millions of people who voted in the 2016 referendum, and that is both fair to the law-abiding people in this country and compassionate towards those who need our help the most.
However, I ask the Minister to be completely clear with the public that we will not leave the job almost done. Everyone who breaks our laws to come here must be removed, and we must take matters into our own hands when it comes to acting with autonomy in the English channel to protect our sovereignty. This is a test of the country’s political will, and I trust that the Minister will ensure that we seize all opportunities to take back control and ensure that our country is no longer a passive actor.
Over the past few months, I have received significant amounts of correspondence on this issue, and I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members are in the same position. There is a desire for us to be pro-immigration for people who want to contribute and integrate, and for us to have a rules-based process that is driven by compassion for those who are most needy and vulnerable. However, most of those who have written to me do not want a situation that looks like lawlessness, in which people can jump the queue. We need a rules-based system that has compassion at its heart, but we need to deal with illegal immigration as a matter of absolute priority.
It is a great pleasure, Sir David, to serve under your chairmanship for the first time.
It is difficult to believe that almost a year ago, the Conservative party was elected by the British people with a mighty majority and a clear mandate to deliver on our promises: to get Brexit done; to provide world-class public services while exercising sound fiscal management; and, crucially, to reform our immigration policy to emulate the system that is successfully employed by Australia.
Sadly, over the summer months hundreds of illegal immigrants have crossed the English channel from France to our shores. This year, a record 7,200 migrants have reached UK shores in small boats, compared with around 1,850 last year. In September alone, 1,954 made it across the English channel. I read in the newspapers only two days ago that a French navy warship escorted a boat full of migrants across the channel.
Those who land on British soil, as well as those who labour in the grey economy, are sent to hotels and other accommodation across the country, such as the Cedar Court Hotel and the Hotel St Pierre in Wakefield. Such luxury establishments are being used, at great expense, to house those who are awaiting their asylum determination. However, I take heart from the fact that the Home Secretary has taken a strong line against illegal crossings to the UK. Firmer action in our territorial waters, through our work with the French border forces and through our legal system, will be critical to achieving that objective.
The Labour party chooses to attack the Home Secretary for her laudable decision to stand steadfast against illegal immigration. However, rewarding those who illegally cross with automatic residency is false compassion. It undermines our national security and not only encourages others to follow suit, but supports the beastly trade in humans, which is certainly something we should never encourage. I do not wish for the drawbridge to be raised and for the United Kingdom to be isolated from the rest of the world, but I feel it is nigh time for economic migration to be disaggregated from the claims of those who seek genuine asylum. The two have become dangerously conflated in the public consciousness.
Diversity and tolerance of one another, regardless of creed or colour, is one of our characteristic principles. My ancestors are testament to that principle. My late father, who was born in the North-West Frontier of British India, in what is now Pakistan, travelled to the United Kingdom to study at University College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He served his entire life, until his dying day, as a consultant dermatologist, serving and tending to the people of Wakefield, who I am proud to represent. My family have suffered terrible persecution, with many being killed and tortured in Muslim-majority countries, because they are from a peace-loving community that is repugnant to the peddlers of hate and extremism—Ahmadis. Many of them have sought refuge and forged purposeful lives in our country. That is something we should be proud of.
The Conservatives want to ensure that our immigration system is remade to attract the brightest and best to enter the United Kingdom legally to live and work, regardless of their country of origin. It is our moral duty to ensure that the United Kingdom prevents people from illegally entering our country and taking advantage of us and our people. If we do not, the state of our community relations will only go one way—a deep and painful downward trajectory. For all these reasons, we must tackle the menace of illegal immigration with zero tolerance for illegal claims.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time this afternoon, Sir David, even if the first occasion was only for a short time. I am pleased to take part in the debate.
In common with you, I suspect, Sir David, and all or most of those who are in the Chamber, first and foremost in my thoughts is compassion for those who are in need; for those who have had to flee their homes because of persecution; and for those who, as a result of violence, have lost loved ones, homes or property and had their jobs and opportunities destroyed. I believe we have a moral obligation to help those who are in need and those who have had their lives torn apart by persecution, through no fault of their own.
I am chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, in which I have a deep interest, as do many others in the Chamber. When I came to the House in 2010, I had hoped that we could consider the subject regularly on the Floor of the House, and we have been successful in that endeavour. We have also been successful in getting the Government to respond, to understand the issues and to bring into play many things to help Christians and other persecuted groups across the world. As chair of the all-party group, I speak out for Christians and those of other religions. Indeed, I speak out for those with no religion. The Minister, who has been at the forefront in a previous job, has a deep interest in the matter as well.
I am the strongest advocate for the retention of international aid to help those who need our help, and I believe that that aid should be delivered through projects on the ground. The Government have never abdicated their responsibility for doing just that. Although we might have concerns over the amalgamation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, the Government have said that they will commit to spending 0.7% of GDP so that we can help people in other countries. I hope that future Government policy will reflect that; that is the person that I am, Sir David. This House has a massive role to play in supporting individuals affected by persecution, and in effecting change to prevent persecution.
I spoke to Naomi, who works on preparing my speeches. She is a very busy girl, and we try to keep her active. She and I are in the same boat on these things. I am reminded that, along with the Government, the Northern Ireland Assembly and local community groups, we settled six Syrian families in Newtownards. It was a very humbling experience to meet people who have had to flee their homes and could not return, even though they wanted to, because their houses and property were no longer there, their families had been decimated and many of their loved ones had been killed.
Those six families came to live in Newtownards. Some had a rudimentary grasp of the English language and others did not, but the community came together. What a joy it was to have the Housing Executive working to get them a house, the Department for Work and Pensions working to see how we could help them with finance, and all the church and community groups coming together to provide them with furniture, food and so on. That strong relationship is still there, with the whole community—the Government centrally and locally, and those in the community—working together to help them. Those six families are starting to integrate in the town of Newtownards. It is a joy to be able to reach out and help, in a small way, those who have nobody else to help them.
I am a practical person who understands that we have a duty of care to our own citizens in this country, which precedes any other obligation. Although we must help those who need help, we need to do so in tandem with meeting the needs of our own communities. The resettlement of those families happened only because the communities wanted it to happen, and it was important that we all came together. It is a difficult balance, but I sincerely believe that we can find the balance and help individuals while effecting the global change that we all want to see. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who is my friend, speaks for the Scottish National party. We have spoken together in many debates, and we understand the need for the Government to work hard to make things happen.
I read the Government’s response to the petition and was pleased to see that the French have managed—I use these words very carefully—to stop 300 dangerous crossings taking place. Why is it dangerous? Because people die on those crossings. A man was recently found on a beach; I am not sure whether it was found out who he was, but the police were of the opinion that he had drowned on his way over here. I must highlight the fact that 300 is only half the total; the other 50% were not successfully stopped. I use words carefully, ever mindful of where I am coming from. As a father, my heart goes out to those who are so desperate for a different life that they feel they have no option other than to cross in such a dangerous way. When we see the rubber rafts and wee dinghies that are used to bring people over, we can understand the extent of the danger.
Having met some of the Syrian Christian refugees in Newtownards and heard their stories, I am pleased to be able to be involved in a small way, as everybody did their part. It is like being part of a big engine, with many cogs; I am just a small cog in the wheel, but all the other cogs come together to make it all happen. It is clear that we must do something to be compassionate, but we must also ensure that those who claim asylum do so in a safe and suitable way, and that we have somewhere for that family to go and a hope for their future.
In my 10 short years in this House—I am not like you, Sir David; I think you have been in this House forever—we have been able to help many people with their immigration issues. I want to put on record that I have always found Ministers immensely helpful. The Minister wants to help us find a solution to our problems.
It is important that we find a way to make that happen. I believe there are several ways to achieve that. I have contacted the Home Office a number of times, asking for us to show compassion to immigrants who have made it to our shore and to help them as much as we can. We must be aware that the dangerous crossing must be avoided at all costs, because it is just that dangerous.
As we move into winter, the press say—I do not know if they are right—that we will get 15 or 20 days of the worst weather that we have had at this time of year for a long time. We must have a system in place that allows for application from safety in France and other nations, and we must ensure that those who come here do so legally and with a plan in mind, so that we can help them to find a job, a house and a community that wants to welcome them in.
I agree with the Government statement:
“There are a number of legal routes for migration. Denying the use of dangerous routes from safe third countries does not deny people the right to seek asylum in those countries.”
I welcome that because I want to see the Government reaching out and trying to help. The Government have said:
“We are clear that if a migrant has chosen to evade immigration control or enter the UK illegally, then they can have no expectation of remaining in the absence of a genuine claim for UK protection”.
However, if it can be proven that an immigrant has experienced, as many of those I represent have, some of the worst violent, cruel and surgical persecution, mentally, physically and socially, in a way that makes my heart reach out to them—in many cases, such as the ones I have been involved with, it has been proven, and I welcome that—then the immigrant does deserve to have their genuine claim for UK protection.
However, the current operation of the Human Rights Act 1998, the EU’s common European asylum system and, in particular, the Dublin regulation make that a cumbersome and lengthy process. There are cases that I have been pursuing for people for over four or even five years. At the end of the transition period in January 2021, however, we will be free of the Dublin regulation and the common asylum system, and we will be able to negotiate new return agreements on our own terms. Again, we look forward to having some control over what we do and how we can help people in far-off countries.
The Government response continues:
“Asylum seekers entering from safe countries will remain a priority for removal, along with foreign national prisoners and those whose removal is justified on grounds of public policy, public security or public health.”
I am not one to report on everything I read in the papers, but some of us in this room can remember the person who was guilty of a criminal offence and put on a plane to be deported, but the passengers on the plane spoke up and the person had to be removed. I think it may have been in the press again last week. Two years later, it is time for that person, who did not do the right thing by committing a criminal offence and taking advantage of this country’s good policies, to leave.
I look forward to understanding how we can be compassionate and caring within a legal system that enables people who have no place to go due to persecution—those for whom I speak and whose letters I read every week—to come here and be a living, working part of our wonderful, diverse community in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As I often say: better together.
I look to the Minister to get the answer that we need. I have every confidence that we will be working in a way that allows us to look after those people who come to us with their asylum needs and that we can reach out and make this a country that invites people here, but we need regulation to ensure that those who come are deserving of that right.
I am pleased that this debate is taking place, especially as illegal immigration is an issue of particular concern to my constituents. The petition was signed by more than 270 individuals in Don Valley. Equally, dozens of constituents emailed me about the illegal channel crossings over the summer months. They were angry about what they saw, especially as many had believed that our departure from the European Union would lead us to have more, not less, control of our borders.
I know that some individuals, and even some right hon. and hon. Members, will claim that the petition has anti-immigration undertones and is even racist, yet I could not disagree more. I believe that immigrants have played a crucial role in our nation’s history and continue to contribute massively to our economy and innovation. Moreover, I am sure that the vast majority of people in Don Valley, and those who have signed the petition, would share a similar view. However, it is also my view that the majority of people would agree that it is essential that people come to our country in a manner that is legal and fair. For that reason, the Government should do whatever is necessary to deter illegal immigration humanely. After all, we should remember that one of the main reasons that people from around the world have come to our shores is that this country has a long-held sense of fairness, which is undoubtedly a British value. Yet what is not fair is for individuals to jump the queue, bypass those who are legitimately seeking asylum and land on our shores uninvited.
Although I cannot stress how much I sympathise with individuals who are fleeing terrible circumstances, those crossing the channel in small boats were doing so from a safe country: France. There is no reason why they could not have sought asylum there, unless of course their primary concern was not to flee war, but to come here for economic reasons. That is unfair not only to legitimate refugees, but to the British people, who for too long have felt that we have no control over who we are letting into the country. The figures speak for themselves and they do not reflect well on us as politicians. Polling from September last year revealed that a mere 13% of the public trust MPs to tell the truth on immigration. It is therefore important that we listen properly to the concerns of the people we represent, rather than write off such concerns.
I welcome the Government’s work with their French counterparts to deter the crossings. The individuals who traffic people across the channel are vicious criminals who do not care about the lives of those they are transporting. We should all welcome the Government’s commitment to work with the European authorities and to pursue those who are engaged in this practice.
Another pressing challenge for the Government is to return individuals to the safe countries in which they resided before coming illegally to the UK. Now that we have left the European Union, we should seize the opportunity to reaffirm a British sense of fairness to our immigration and asylum system. Article 3 of the European convention on human rights can be used by some lawyers to stop the British Government sending back foreign criminals and people who are not eligible for asylum. As right hon. and hon. Members know, the interpretation of whether an individual will be subject to inhuman or degrading treatment if they are removed from the UK is judged on a case-by-case basis. I am pleased to have read that the Government will therefore better define what is meant by inhuman or degrading treatment, so that the boundaries of what that means cannot be stretched to such an extent that the terms become meaningless.
That is extremely important, expressly because two months ago a Home Office charter flight with 23 illegal immigrants was grounded at the very last minute by human rights lawyers. This has nothing to do with fairness and is merely a form of left-wing activism. If we are to restore people’s trust in our immigration system, that must come to an end.
We therefore need to quicken the process of returning false asylum claimants while also ensuring that those with genuine claims are not trapped in an endless cycle of bureaucracy. That would better deter people from making illegal crossings, while genuinely helping those who need our protection. That is what the signatories to the petition want, and I support them. The Home Secretary has promised a complete overhaul in this area, which I know the people of Dom Valley will welcome enormously. I can only urge other Members to listen to the concerns of the British people and, as the Home Secretary said, make our asylum system “firm but fair”.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for presenting the debate on what is a pressing issue, as underlined by the significant support for the petition.
Many from my own constituency of Redcar and Cleveland are concerned by the daily arrival of boats on our shores bringing more and more illegal immigrants to this country via an unsafe and unlawful route. When I raised the issue in my local newspapers and local media, I was lambasted by local Labour politicians for commenting on issues 300 miles from the sandy shores of Redcar and Marske. However, the fact that 311 of my constituents have signed this petition—more than anyone else speaking in this debate—shows the strength of feeling. It was the No. 1 issue in my inbox over the summer, so I will not take any lectures from the Labour party—particularly given that its Members have not even attended this debate—for speaking up for my constituents. Perhaps their silence on the issue is the reason why Redcar elected its first ever Tory MP in December.
The safest, most humane and most compassionate thing we can do for any person wanting to cross the channel illegally is to stop them getting in the boat. It cannot be right that vulnerable people are charged thousands of pounds to be loaded, without lifejackets and with 40 others, into a dinghy meant for 20 people, and then pushed into the open sea in the hope that they will reach Britain. Two people have died this year attempting these crossings, and it is thanks to our coastguard, lifeboats, the Royal Navy and UK Border Force that many more have not faced the same fate. Despite our best efforts to make the route unviable—I commend the actions of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Minister, who has graciously spoken with me about this issue a number of times—these arrivals have rapidly increased, with more than 7,000 this year. Urgent measures are needed to stop the flow. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Natalie Elphicke), who could not be here today, but who has worked incredibly hard alongside the Home Office. I commend her for that.
It is not acceptable for it to be so easy for criminal gangs to profit from other people’s desperation and prevent those genuinely fleeing persecution from finding safe refuge. Our asylum system is clogged and overwhelmed with requests. While applicants wait for an outcome, we should bear in mind that, regardless of the legitimacy of their claim, they are, rightly, housed and fed—but at the expense of the taxpayer.
No one is arguing that legitimate and genuine asylum seekers should not be able to find safe refuge in the UK. We are a country with a proud record of providing asylum to those seeking safety from war zones and persecution. But right now we are simply failing to do so. Our asylum system has been hijacked by individuals who deliberately intend to abuse our generosity. This needs to end. It is unacceptable to genuine asylum seekers and to our constituents, including mine in Redcar and Cleveland, who are paying their taxes and seeing that squandered on false asylum claims. People who are genuinely seeking a safe refuge could and should claim asylum in the first country they reach. Before crossing the channel, many will have already registered as an asylum seeker in another EU country and will travel through France and various other countries to get to our shores. I believe that the route will continually be abused until we make it unviable for those who seek to abuse it.
To that end, I believe that our approach should be twofold. First, we need properly to resource the National Crime Agency, UK Border Force and the police to root out the people smugglers and organised crime gangs that perpetuate this form of illegal immigration. Secondly, we should adopt an Australian-style approach to illegal immigration, whereby we intercept a vessel, ensure the safety of its passengers and then return it to the shores from which it left. Only by doing that will we prove to those seeking to cross to the UK that the route is unviable and, in turn, starve the people smugglers of their funds from that abusive practice.
I know that many organisations are already doing an incredible job in cracking down on the criminal gangs—those organisation are working alongside the French authorities—and I welcome the arrests that the Minister has previously announced from the Dispatch Box. But may I urge Ministers to go further and do everything they can to ensure that the French authorities are stopping people attempting to make the crossing in the first place? May I also urge them to push for joint operations to intercept boats at sea and ensure that they are returned safely?
We must take this problem seriously and ensure that anyone who breaks the law faces the full consequence, or we risk failing those who genuinely need our help. I want to finish as I started, by saying that the safest, most humane and most compassionate thing that we can do for any person wanting to cross the channel illegally is to stop them getting in the boat.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. I very much enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and I agreed with most of it, apart from his final paragraph, but I have to say that that is where the consensus ends in this debate—and it is a debate. I certainly was struck by the fact that a number of contributions talked about illegal immigration, but not one Member actually articulated what that means and gave their definition of illegal immigration, so let us move on to the facts, rather than the rhetoric.
The facts are these. The number of people claiming asylum substantially reduced in 2020. This year, there has been a 40% drop, according to the Government’s own statistics. It is the route that has changed. It is because other routes are no longer available that there are the crossings that we are discussing.
It is not illegal to enter the UK for the purpose of making an asylum claim, and the most recent evidence set out by the Home Office’s clandestine channel threat commander suggests that 100% of the people crossing the English channel in small boats are doing so to claim asylum. That was clear evidence that was given by the commander to the Home Affairs Committee. They are doing so to seek international protection. None is trying to enter the country unobserved or for criminal reasons. That was the evidence that was presented. And as I said, there has been a 40% drop, according to the immigration statistics published in August of this year, and that is compared with the last quarter of 2019.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s argument that the route has changed—it has indeed—but does he not see that the route is now much more unsafe? Any other route by which an asylum claim can be made is intrinsically safer than going out to sea in a dinghy that is not meant for the number of people whom it is carrying.
The UK Government have a responsibility to provide safe legal routes for people claiming asylum. I will come to that later in my contribution.
What is the legal position for people seeking asylum in the UK after arriving from France? Those arriving in the UK and making a claim for asylum are subject to international refugee law, and their rights are not affected by the mode of arrival or means of entry. The UK is a signatory to the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees and the 1967 protocol.
How does the legal system intervene to help people who are being removed? I was staggered to hear that the legal profession in the UK has been overrun by these Trotskyite and Marxist lawyers who are stopping people being deported. What absolute, utter nonsense. That is certainly not the case. I will explain, for those watching this debate, how the legal system actually stops people being removed, because the claim that the legal system sometimes unfairly prevents people from being removed is nonsense and misrepresents how our asylum and human rights law functions and its purpose
There are established processes for the removal of people in certain circumstances where their asylum claim has been fully heard by the UK or should be held elsewhere. I have no problem with that. I have seen individuals come to my office who have had to be deported because of the way in which they went through the system. Some of that included criminal activity. I have no problem with that at all. However, removals are stopped for a wide range of reasons, such as on health grounds, concerns about trafficking, or appeals relating to protecting the rights of individuals. Where those removals are halted, it is because the Home Office and the Home Secretary are not adhering to the law.
Removals cannot be prevented by lawyers themselves. We have heard in this debate that it is the lawyers who are stopping deportations. That is nonsense. The legal assistance is provided to ensure that the law is upheld and, if necessary, a court of law determines whether a removal is stopped. Such processes have to be undertaken quickly, as applicants will not usually be given much notice of removal proceedings. That is a fact, as my constituency casework shows, given that Glasgow is the only place in Scotland that takes on asylum seekers.
The hon. Gentleman says that Glasgow takes on asylum seekers. He will be fully aware that, a few years ago, one of my co-religionists was murdered in his shop by somebody of Pakistani origin simply for being an Ahmadi Muslim who wished his Christian neighbours a happy Easter. As somebody who is particularly familiar with the issue of asylum, I also know of abuses of the system and of people who genuinely do need safe avenues for asylum. I can tell the hon. Gentleman categorically that people can apply for asylum in this country through legal mechanisms. Since the 1980s, the Ahmadi community has banned and refused people the right of entering this or any other country through illegal means. That is why we have no—
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that evidence shows that people abuse the asylum system? Do we not want those who come here to live and work among us and to become part of the fabric—the silver and golden threads—of the national tapestry to obey the rules? That is one of the characteristics of our country, and if we allow those who are coming in to break the rules from the get-go, are they going to fit?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his second speech. I must say to him—I will be quick, for time purposes—that there is a great Ahmadi community in Glasgow, of which we are very proud. All I can say to him, based on my experience of dealing with asylum claims, is that asylum claim abuses are few and far between compared with those seeking genuine asylum.
Touching on the hon. Gentleman’s point, I would want asylum seekers to be given, after a certain point, the right to work so that they are embedded in the community. That must be looked at. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) has a private Member’s Bill on that matter, and there must be serious discussion about allowing asylum seekers the right to work.
I am proud to have an office manager who is a refugee, who had family members murdered by Saddam Hussein’s regime. When she came to this country, her father was working. Far from the rhetoric that we heard about the Labour party being left wing, it was the Labour party that took my office manager’s father’s national insurance from him. The then Labour Government changed the law to stop asylum seekers having the right to work. I hope the hon. Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) will seriously consider that in his Bill and consider that asylum seekers, after a certain period, should have the right to work so that they can make the contribution that he wants them to make.
As a party, we believe that the Home Office’s response to the recent channel crossings displays a complete disregard for human suffering that is both shocking and shameful. Responding to the crossings in a dystopian, quasi-militaristic way, with surveillance technology, appointing a clandestine channel threat commander and positing the idea of bringing in the Royal Navy—later condemned by the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organisation for Migration—only reinforces the headlines that liken that failure of leadership to an invasion.
Contrary to the Department’s remarks, the reality is far from being the crisis the newspapers suggest it is. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative in the UK said recently:
“The UK is far from the epicentre of the real challenge.”
Asylum claims in the UK—as I have said, and I will say it again—have fallen in 2020, as confirmed by Abi Tierney, the director general of UK Visas and Immigration, to the Select Committee on Home Affairs in September.
The response to the petition describes channel crossings as “unacceptable behaviour”. The Department seems unable to understand—or perhaps fails to mention—that it has already closed and is closing more safe legal routes for refugees to reach the United Kingdom. That is leaving extremely vulnerable individuals who are often fleeing unimaginable conditions, as the hon. Member for Strangford rightly pointed out, with little choice but to place their fate in the hands of criminal gangs. Furthermore, a report last year by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, of which the Home Secretary was a member at the time, said:
“In the absence of robust and accessible legal routes for seeking asylum in the UK, those with a claim are left with little choice but to make dangerous journeys by land and sea.”
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He said that migrants are compelled to cross the English channel to claim asylum. I respectfully point out that they are in France, typically northern France. France is a civilised and safe country with a well-functioning asylum system, and should anyone in northern France feel they need to claim asylum, they are perfectly able to do so there. They do not need to make one of those dangerous crossings.
That may very well be the Minister’s view. He will have an opportunity to say that, and I will perhaps make an intervention—[Interruption.] The Minister is harrumphing from a sedentary position. I am concerned for his welfare. He seems rather excitable, Sir David. Perhaps you can pass him a note and have a word just to calm him down. Thank you, Sir David.
The staggering leaked UK Government documents only prove that the Tory hostile environment towards immigration and immigrants is still alive and kicking. In response to the petition, the Home Office said:
“The UK has long been a sanctuary for those in need of international protection”.
Leaked documents provided evidence that the Home Office was considering wave machines to deter boats, nets to clog boats’ propellers and the transportation of asylum seekers more than 4,000 miles away to Ascension Island for processing. Those are preposterous suggestions and show how far the Government will go to drive home and engender the Brexit ideology that has already poisoned some of the political discourse in this country.
The Refugees Council policy manager, Judith Dennis, said that the UK must treat refugees and asylum seekers with dignity. Instead, those ridiculous proposals set an unsettling precedent, firing the starting gun of a race to the bottom in terms of treating refugees and asylum seekers with any humanity and compassion.
I believe that the asylum system must be fair and compassionate, but it must also be professional. I hope the Minister answers the question for which I have been trying to seek debates—unfortunately, I seem to be missing out on the ballots for either Westminster Hall or an Adjournment debate—about why a private company has been called in to process asylum claim interviews in the last couple of weeks. In secret, with no statement, either written or verbal, provided to hon. Members, a private company has been called in by the Home Office to carry out asylum claim interviews.
Is it Serco? It would not surprise us, let us be honest, if it was Serco, a company that has certainly been mentioned as carrying out these asylum claim interviews. What training and expertise does it have to carry them out? It really is, I suggest, quite ludicrous that a private company, be it Serco or any other, is being asked to carry out a quasi-legal process, which asylum claim interviews should be, under the aegis of a pilot programme. I hope the Minister will address the concerns that I and many Members of the House have on that issue.
I am conscious of time, and I want to allow the two other Front Benchers to speak. We keep being told that the asylum system is broken, yet the Government have had 10 years—over a decade. Does that mean that they have broken the system, and what are they going to do to fix it? I respectfully disagree with those who have signed the petition, and with all due respect to the hon. and right hon. Members who have spoken, I disagree with most of their remarks as well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned that you have been here forever. I am not sure that that is the case, but I know of your association with the all-party parliamentary group on the Holy See, and your Urbi et Orbi before the recess every year certainly means that you are a well-known figure in the House. Of course, in that Chair, Sir David, you are infallible in matters of debate.
I thank the Petitions Committee for allocating the time for this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on leading it and on his speech. I also congratulate the hon. Members for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan), for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and for Redcar (Jacob Young), because not only did they win their seats but they beat very good Labour MPs, who were friends and colleagues of mine and who had worked incredibly hard in those seats. Do not think for a minute that the lessons that the Labour party has to learn on why and how we lost those seats are lost on me, because they are not.
I rather enjoyed the railing against the Trotskyist, Marxist liberal left, because as I think the Minister will testify, it certainly does not land many punches on me. Having led last week on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill for the Opposition, it certainly lends new ballast to my left-wing credentials that is much in need. All I would say is that some of the arguments that were rehearsed felt a little passé, because the Labour party is very much under new management.
As an MP for the north in the seat of St Helens, I very much take the point that my constituents, like those of the hon. Gentlemen I congratulated, have concerns about immigration that are in no way motivated by racism—quite the opposite. People are concerned about their jobs, the impact of coronavirus and what they see as a lack of Government support and action for the communities that they live in, so I caution them slightly on some of what they said about immigration being “the” priority for people in in the north of England, notwithstanding that they will know their constituencies much better than I will, of course.
Moving on to the substantive points raised, there is much that we could talk about, but I want to focus my remarks. We have all witnessed the increase in channel crossings in small boats over the summer months with huge concern. I recognise the strength of feeling in the petition and on this issue, and I know that seeing those boats for many people represents a breakdown in the systems that the Government have put in place to manage migration. I do not think that that is an unjustifiable view.
However, the issues here are complex and require a considered, compassionate and effective response. It is necessary that our words and actions both reflect an understanding of the harrowing and appalling circumstances that have resulted in many individuals and families taking extreme and desperate decisions, and also prevent any further exploitation by criminal gangs and traffickers of those facing such impossible decisions. We need to ensure that the United Kingdom’s strategy reflects our values—that we respect the rule of law and address illegality—and ensure that we provide safe and legal routes to those who have a case for seeking asylum here. I think there has been an inadequacy in delivering against some of those values, because what we need is calm, compassionate and rational decision-making, but I fear instead that we have had rhetoric over action.
This morning, as I walked my children to school before getting on the train to come to Westminster, I thought, “How dire would my circumstances have to be before I would let my family board an insecure dinghy across the channel?” Whatever challenges we personally have faced or that the communities that we proudly represent in this place have faced over the last months, we might all reasonably conclude that we would have to be completely without hope before it would even occur to us to do such a thing—a point made very eloquently by the hon. Member for Strangford.
However, that is the situation that many of these individuals are in. Over half of refugees globally originate from Syria, Afghanistan or South Sudan—countries that are completely ravaged by violence, chaos and destitution. Those who undertake the crossings understand the danger that they face, so the fact that they none the less make them shows us how desperate they feel their situation is.
I do not presume to understand all the push and pull factors involved as people continue to leave France and seek to come to the UK. However, we see the numbers of those deciding to undertake that journey. Will the Minister say what efforts are being made to understand those decisions, based on an analysis of the experiences of those who have crossed the channel? It is worth remembering that the vast majority of those who flee their homes to reach Europe never reach Calais at all. For example, Germany, France and Italy are all far more common destinations for migrants than the UK, for many reasons.
In our conversations with those working in asylum and immigration, the overwhelming motivation that we hear time and again for wanting to reach the UK is to be reunited with family who are already in the UK. Another common reason is that the person speaks English but not French and so would likely have more success in finding a job and a future in our country than they would elsewhere in Europe. The latter is not an impractical consideration, while the former is hugely understandable.
Given what the hon. Gentleman is saying about language barriers and the like, does he agree that at that point we are no longer discussing an asylum claim and are instead discussing migration and the need to move to England as an economic route, as opposed to for safe refuge?
There is a lot of conflation and confusion around the various types of immigration, but once a person has embarked upon a route to claim asylum, that is the only one open to them, because, as the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) said, other avenues are no longer open. That is why it is important that a claim be processed promptly through a due legal route.
Also, given the predilection of the hon. Member for Redcar for pointing out Members who are not in this debate, I am keen to enable him to get back and join all my colleagues who are in the other debate on immigration, on the Floor of the House, lest his absence from it should be pointed out.
I have been disappointed by the Government’s response. The Minister knows me well enough to know that I make that point sincerely. Some of these issues need to be addressed. The first is the abolition of the Department for International Development. Arguably, doing that removes the support needed to address some of these issues at their source, and I have not yet heard a valid reason for why the Government have chosen to merge it with the Foreign Office.
We have also had these ludicrous proposals about Ascension Island and Saint Helena—I had to read it twice when I saw it in The Sunday Times, lest it was a reference to St Helens. Either would be preposterous, frankly. That shows a lack of strategy at the heart of Government around how we will get a grip of this issue.
I am fond of the Home Secretary, whom I know well and with whom I share interests in horse-racing and many other things—I am glad that none of my Back-Bench colleagues are here to hear that—but she should reflect on the divisive rhetoric that she has used. I am not sure it does justice to her or ministerial colleagues when she talks about the traffickers, the do-gooders, lefty lawyers and the Labour party as defending the broken system. To group together lawyers and Labour Members with human traffickers is really offensive and insulting. At first, I thought it was inappropriate and a bit beneath the dignity of the office of Home Secretary—one of the great offices of state—but subsequent events have proven it was quite dangerous. It has led to incidents where lawyers have felt their safety threatened. Human rights is not a bad word but something at which this country has been at the cornerstone of, through our role in the Council of Europe, the United Nations and other multilateral organisations throughout the world. We need to be careful about mistaking process issues with ad hominem attacks on individuals.
The frustrating thing is that, in spite of the rhetoric, the Home Office has not even been successful in achieving its commitment to deter these crossings. The closing down of other routes to the UK brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has caused exceptional pressures, but the number of migrants who crossed the channel in small boats in August 2020 was more than four times that of August 2019. It might be worth pointing out to hon. Members who arrived here with great gusto in December 2019 that we have had a Conservative Government, in whole or part, for 10 years, so all the criticisms made about the asylum system are suitably addressed to the Minister rather than the Opposition.
We need a practical, even-handed and realistic response. Many migrants arriving in Calais have legitimate claims for asylum, but they do not have practical or legal means to reach the UK. The strategy of deterring crossings from taking place is not working, so we need a renewed strategy. I am sure the shadow Home Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), would be happy, as he has offered, to discuss the ways in which we can work together to deter crossings and ensure that the system functions adequately for those in need. The strategy must therefore ensure that legal and pragmatic routes continue to function for those with legitimate claims for asylum—that due process.
Back in June, in response to an urgent question on asylum, the Minister told the House that last year the UK made 20,000 grants of protection or asylum. Those are cases in which, against strict criteria, the Government deemed that asylum should be granted in the UK. However, we must ensure that those safe and legal routes do not drive those whom the Government recognise as having a case to be heard into the arms of human traffickers, who profiteer on the back of human suffering. We must protect the route to allow legitimate attempts for those who seek to reunite with family in the UK. That is currently protected in the Dublin regulation, which we will not be part of once we leave the EU. I am therefore keen to hear what the Government propose to do, because if we do not do our bit, as per the Dubs scheme and the amendments being considered on the Floor of the House tonight, to ensure that unaccompanied children in dangerous situations are given safe haven, what kind of country can we claim to be? We should be proud of the role we have played throughout history in providing safe refuge, particularly to children who have fled the most awful horrors of war, famine and poverty.
As I have said, this is a complex situation that demands rational and reasonable solutions. It is a topic that provokes strong reactions among our constituents. We have heard that from Government Members, I have heard it in my constituency and many of my Labour party colleagues feel it too. However, I think most reasonable people would agree that the current situation, whereby migrants are forced to make hazardous trips across the channel to stand any chance of claiming asylum, is untenable. That is why, as I hope I have made clear, Labour is committed to ensuring that we protect and improve the pre-existing legal routes, that we do more to meet our international obligations, that we address illegality and that we command the confidence of the British public.
It is a great pleasure to serve, once again, under your chairmanship, Sir David, which is, as the shadow Minister said, always infallible. I thank the shadow Minister for his balanced remarks in summing up. It is fair to say no one would ever accuse him of being a Trotskyite, sadly something that one cannot say about every Member of his parliamentary party.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on securing the debate and presenting it on behalf of more than 100,000 petitioners, a majority of whom, we discovered, come from Redcar and Cleveland. My hon. Friend laid out a compelling, passionate and well-articulated description of why illegal immigration is a huge problem for our country. It undermines the rule of law, it undermines legal and safe routes, and it renders purposeless the routes that we, as a Parliament, have developed to decide who comes into the country and who does not. All those are undermined.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) powerfully and passionately pointed out that immigration can be an enormous force for good, when done within the rule of law. His own family story, which he set out, is a moving and powerful illustration of the enormous contribution that legal migration can make to our society, strengthening and contributing to it, as his father and his whole family have done. Our country is better, stronger and richer, in every sense, for the contribution made by my hon. Friend’s family and millions like them, who have made their home here legally.
Illegal migration undermines all of that. It undermines public confidence in the system, it puts immigration in a negative rather than positive light, and it makes it much harder to allow legal immigration if the whole system is undermined. In all honesty, we must admit that the small-boats crisis that has unfolded this summer is a sad and appalling example of illegal immigration undermining confidence in our system. The Government find it completely unacceptable and we are determined to stop it. We make no apology at all for saying that.
Illegal immigration is unacceptable for three reasons: it is dangerous, illegal and unnecessary. That it is dangerous is powerfully demonstrated by the tragic death earlier today, or yesterday, of a man believed to be aged between 20 and 40, and the sad death a few weeks ago of a Sudanese gentlemen aged 26. Those sad deaths in the channel demonstrate how dangerous the crossings are. We have a moral and a compassionate duty to prevent those crossings.
Secondly, these crossings are illegal. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) suggested the contrary, but let me say clearly that it is illegal to enter the country without leave under section 24(1)(a) of the Immigration Act 1971. The hon. Gentleman referred to provisions in article 31 of the refugee convention that say an entry to a country for the purposes of claiming asylum should not be a criminalised if someone has come “directly” from a dangerous territory. I submit that France is not a dangerous territory, and therefore the prohibition in article 31 of the refugee convention 1951, renewed by the 1967 protocol, does not apply. France is not dangerous and these crossings are categorically illegal.
They are not only dangerous and illegal, but unnecessary. Anyone wishing to claim asylum, or genuinely wishing to seek protection, can do so in one of the safe countries previously passed through. Clearly, there is France—everybody who crosses on a small boat has been in France—and typically people will have travelled through other countries, often including Germany, Italy, Spain and others. There will have been ample opportunities to claim asylum and protection previously. There may be reasons why people might prefer to claim asylum in the United Kingdom, such as the language, but those are not reasons of protection. Those are choices rather than a necessity. We should be clear: these journeys are not necessary for the purpose of securing protection.
I will come to the compassionate and safe routes in a moment. Before I do, let me briefly talk about some of the things that we are doing to prevent these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary crossings. We are working with our colleagues in France on developing ever-increasing tactics to try to prevent the crossings. The French have been deploying larger numbers of gendarmes, police aux frontiers, brigades mobiles de recherche and others in northern France, and that is yielding fruit. This weekend, large numbers of interceptions have been made to prevent embarkations. On Saturday, just two days ago, the French police intercepted 220 people who were attempting a crossing. Yesterday, on Sunday, the French authorities intercepted 211 people. Only 62 got across, so the French successfully intercepted about 70% to 80% of the people who attempted a crossing. I pay tribute to them for the law enforcement work that they have been doing.
We have appointed a clandestine channel threat commander to co-ordinate United Kingdom activities—Dan O’Mahoney, a former Royal Marine, entered his post in August—and we are doing huge amounts of law enforcement work. We have so far this year made 89 arrests of people who committed offences in that regard, and we have disrupted 24 organised immigration crime groups that have been facilitating cross-channel traffic. A huge amount of work has been going on, and let me say that we intend to intensify and increase that activity. We intend to legislate next year to tighten up our system, but the legislation will have two elements to it. It will be firm, because it will take tough action against illegal immigration, but it will also be fair, in the sense that it will provide safe legal routes for genuine refugees.
Let me say a few words about the work that the United Kingdom has done so far on those safe legal routes. Since 2015, we have run a resettlement programme whereby we have taken people from conflict areas—for example, around Syria—and brought them directly to the United Kingdom. Rather than seeing people come from France, Italy or Greece, which are safe European countries—that is what the Dubs amendment did, by the way—we have gone directly to conflict zones, where people are in genuine danger, and brought them here. In that five-year period, 25,000 people have been brought directly to the United Kingdom. Over the five years, our resettlement programme is larger than any other European country’s resettlement programme.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised some points about that. I must say that I agree with him, in the sense that the resettlement programme focused, as Members will understand, largely on people of Syrian nationality. It did not reflect the pre-conflict population of Syria, because Christians were severely underrepresented. The hon. Member for Strangford and I led a debate back in July 2019 on the persecution that Christians suffer around the world. Indeed, Christians are the most persecuted group of any, globally, and I would like to see our future resettlement activity better reflect the persecution that Christians suffer around the world.
We offer many other legal and safe routes. We offer family reunion routes, which I think the hon. Member for Glasgow South West referred to. Even as we most likely leave the Dublin regulations in two and half months, the United Kingdom’s immigration rules provide for the family reunion of children joining their parents and, where compassionate and compelling circumstances exist and where the child’s best interest is served, reunion with aunts, uncles, grandparents and siblings. That safe and legal family reunion route does exist, can be used and is used.
Last year, we received roughly 3,700 applications from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in this country. We are currently looking after more than 5,000 UASCs. Both those numbers are higher than the equivalent figures for any other European country, including Greece. People talk about the Dubs amendment and bringing UASCs from Italy to the UK, but we already look after more UASCs than either Italy or Greece does. We do it very well—we look after them extremely well.
The shadow Minister mentioned overseas aid. We have not abolished overseas aid; we have merged it with the Foreign Office so that better co-ordination is possible. Since he mentions overseas aid, it is worth putting on record that we are the only G8 country to meet 0.7% of gross national income as spending on overseas aid. That amounted last year to some £14 billion. Not only do we have the top direct resettlement numbers of any European country and not only do we welcome more unaccompanied asylum-seeking children than any other European country; we are also the only European country to meet that 0.7% of GNI target. So anyone who suggests that the United Kingdom is not a generous and welcoming country is clearly not apprised of those facts.
However, with the compassion and fairness for which this country is famous, and which it will continue to demonstrate, comes an obligation to be firm on illegal immigration, for the reasons that my hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich, for Wakefield, for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and for Redcar (Jacob Young) outlined so persuasively. I am afraid there is a lot more work to do, because our system is in many respects broken. It is possible for people who should not be in this country, including dangerous foreign national offenders, to submit very late claims that are essentially vexatious, with the purpose of preventing their removal. I have become painfully aware in my six months, so far, as one of the two Immigration Ministers, of a number of cases in which very dangerous foreign national offenders have repeatedly—five, six or seven times—over a number of years, at the last minute before the moment of removal or deportation, lodged claims that are subsequently found by the court to be wholly without merit. None the less they succeeded in frustrating the removal. We need to legislate to prevent that kind of abuse, because it brings our system into disrepute.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich mentioned a recent flight that was due to return to Spain, as required by the Dublin regulation—the European Union’s own regulation—people who had tried to claim asylum here having claimed asylum there previously, when a slew of last-minute legal claims, many of which subsequently proved to be without merit, caused the flight to be cancelled. Such abuse of the legal process—and I will be direct; it is, frankly, abuse—is not something that the Government are prepared to countenance any more. Therefore we shall legislate next year to fix that problem and other problems.
I want to take the Minister back to the subject of foreign nationals—particularly the criminal aspect of the matter. He makes a fair point, but does he agree that it is not the fault of so-called do-gooders and lawyers? Does he agree that the Government need to roll back on the rhetoric that we have heard from them against lawyers who represent asylum seekers?
Lawyers are clearly entitled—indeed, obliged—to represent their clients to the best of their ability, but there have been examples, including what was reported by The Times last week, of immigration lawyers encouraging their clients to make vexatious claims. In the example reported by The Times last week the Solicitors Regulation Authority quite properly took disciplinary action against those solicitors. We sometimes hear lawyers talking about pursuing politics through the courts, and that is not helpful.
Of course I accept that barristers, solicitors and other representatives are obliged and entitled to represent their clients to the best of their ability within the law, but last-minute meritless claims that are designed to frustrate the process do not help the system at all, and we need to put things on a better legislative footing to prevent the legal abuse that there has been. However, I of course do not dispute, as I have said, the right of lawyers to represent their clients to the best of their ability. Indeed, they are obliged to do so.
I do not wish to detain Members longer, given that the main event is happening on the Floor of the House as we speak. Let me reiterate that the Government are determined to protect our borders, determined to end these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary crossings, and determined to end illegal immigration, but at the same time we are determined to ensure that we are fair and compassionate, and that those who genuinely need our protection around the world receive it.
I want to thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate and the Minister for his statement. I have had the benefit of discussing this matter before with the Minister. I am confident that this is not a simple thing to deal with. It is complex. It is not straightforward.
I appreciate that, as much the petitioners would like us to snap our fingers and sort the problem out, in many respects, the Government’s hands have been tied. Clearly, after 31 December, the Government will be in a much better position to take the kind of action we need to take to deal with this issue.
I may not have been quite clear, but I tried to say in my speech that I think there should be an expectation that someone who arrives in this country illegally will be sent back. Ultimately, there is a legal process to go through. If someone rejects that process by not following it, we must ask the question whether they are that different from anybody else who knowingly breaks the law. In my view, the answer to that question is “no”.
Many hon. Friends have made the point that there is a fact here. However good an individual may think their grounds are for claiming asylum and moving to Britain, at the end of the day they have come from a safe European country. My understanding is that an asylum seeker is someone fleeing from an unsafe country. If they are leaving a safe country, by definition, I struggle to see how they are a refugee. I am broadly comfortable with the Government’s position.
I know that the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) is pretty moderate and balanced. He spoke after my maiden speech. He seems like a nice guy. On the point of being under new management, we will see. Ultimately, I think that to deal with this issue effectively the Government will have to take some robust action. Legislation, such as an asylum Bill, will come through this House, and it will be interesting to see how Her Majesty’s Opposition react to that kind of legislation.
In terms of new management, it is an interesting tactic when the manager does not even send his players out on the pitch. Frankly, it sometimes feels like that is the case with the Leader of the Opposition. At some point, those players will have to be sent out on the pitch and will have to vote one way or another. Abstaining is not a long-term strategy. It is a long Parliament and time will tell. I do not mean to be too political, but clearly I have been.
I thank all the petitioners. This is a very important issue that matters to millions of people up and down the country. I thank all the hon. Members who contributed. I thank you for your wonderful chairmanship, Sir David, which I have had the pleasure of twice this afternoon—I have been spoilt. I thank the Minister, in particular, for a robust statement, which was reassuring and will reassure many of the people who signed this petition.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 321862 relating to immigration.