I recently met the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor in March to discuss the important issue of pet theft. As a result of that meeting, officials from across the three Departments have been tasked with developing solutions that tackle this issue effectively. The work of the pet theft taskforce has already begun, with officials drawing together available data and evidence.
The Secretary of State, I am sure, has a comprehensive understanding of this issue, which causes undue distress to people and affects dogs, cats and all manner of other pets. This week, for example, Cats Protection told me that cat theft is up threefold since 2015. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government will back my amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which deal with pet theft and introduce tough sentences for those whose actions devastate so many families?
We are aware that there are some reports of a significant increase in the incidence of pet theft. A number of organisations say that reports of it are doubling, and the official figures show a sharp increase, albeit from a relatively low base. We are looking at the issue, and that is why we established the pet theft taskforce. There is already the possibility of a maximum sentence of seven years for aggravated offences, particularly where there is emotional distress, which clearly there is in the case of pets. We are reviewing this particular area of law.
I am sure the Secretary of State recognises that for those committing the theft it may be a financial issue, but for those who have their pets stolen this is really a loss of a valued member of their family. I give credit to The Star newspaper in Sheffield, which has highlighted a growing number of these incidents, and the heartbreak and anguish it causes people to lose their valued pet. Will the Secretary of State accept that this is a different sort of crime to the normal theft of a possession, and that, as such, it needs a different, specific offence with specific and tougher penalties enacted for those who commit it?
It is a different type of offence in that there is emotional stress on the owner of the pet, but there can also be stress and effects on the welfare of the animal. That is why, in the current sentencing guidelines, the courts can take account of an aggravated offence with emotional distress, and the maximum penalty could be as high as seven years. We have asked the pet theft taskforce to look at this issue more closely and assemble the evidence to consider whether anything further is required.
Pet theft is on the rise, partly because of the demand for pets through lockdown. When gangs steal a pet, they cause harm not only to the pet, but to the families who miss it. We still do not have the five-year sentencing for animal cruelty, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) has been trying his best to get through. In the next Parliament, can we not only have that five-year sentencing for cruelty but link in dog theft to the legislation?
The legislation on increasing the maximum penalty for animal cruelty is nearing its completion. I have a high degree of confidence that we will be able to get it through before the end of the Session. Indeed, we will say more about that over the next day or so.