Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 to make the theft of pets an offence; to apply certain post-conviction powers under those Acts to such an offence; and for connected purposes.
Yesterday, I joined many hon. Members from across the House to support the petition, signed by over 100,000 people across the country and by 69 people in my own constituency, calling for pet theft to be made a criminal offence in its own right. I pay tribute to Dr Daniel Allen for starting the petition and to all the campaigners who have worked tirelessly on this issue, such as SAMPA—the Stolen And Missing Pets Alliance—and Pet Theft Awareness. Dr Allen has said that he started the petition because, as a dog owner, he finds the thought of someone taking his dog “unbearable”.
When I am asked what is the most difficult part of my job as an MP, I always answer, “Monday mornings.” That is not because I have to roll out of my bed to catch a 7.15 am flight, but because every Monday morning it breaks my heart to leave my Jack Russell cross Yorkshire terrier, Poppy. The fact that she knows I am leaving, and does her utmost to make me feel guilty about it, just makes heading to London so much harder. I could not imagine returning home to find that Poppy was not there. I do not even want to contemplate the notion of her being stolen. For me, just like the millions of pet owners across the UK, Poppy is my family. To be honest, I am like a proud dad. She has her moments, like every other teenager, and she can be relentless with her ball and her duckie, but I love her to bits and I would hate it if anything happened to her.
During yesterday’s debate, hon. Members gave very personal and moving accounts of the real emotional harm caused by pet theft and talked of the lasting damage it can cause to a family—more so than the theft of an inanimate object of the same sort of financial value. As Dawn Maw—who spent thousands of pounds, took an extended period off work and suffered the breakdown of her marriage after her dog, Angel, was stolen in 2013—has said,
“losing Angel was like losing my life.”
Or consider the case of Kieren Hamilton, who was stabbed 40 times in a burglary in which his dog, Rambo, was stolen. According to his mother, he just wants his dog back. There is also the case of Rita and Philip Potter, whose Labrador, Daisy, vanished from their own back garden in Norfolk eight months ago. Rita says that Daisy was such
“a beautiful dog, she was a wonderful companion. We have got seven grandchildren, and they all miss her so much. At Christmas time, our little granddaughter, who is just five years old, said all she wanted for Christmas was Daisy back home.”
As it stands, the law does not properly recognise the real harm that pet theft can cause, because pets are not inherently treated differently from inanimate objects. In England and Wales, sentencing guidelines are based primarily on the financial value of the possession, whether a mobile phone, a TV, or a beloved family pet. When Dawn Maw, who described Angel as her “best friend,” said that
“my phone might have cost the same as Angel, but could have been replaced within 24 hours”,
she got to the heart of the absurdity of this situation. Victims of pet theft have not just lost a financial asset; they have lost a much-loved member of the family. Pet theft can be a truly devastating and distressing experience. Losing a pet can tear the heart out of a family—and that is what the law should, but does not, recognise.
This situation has also led to light-touch sentences for pet thieves who have wreaked havoc on victims’ lives. In England and Wales, the theft of a dog valued at less than £500 can only be classed as a category 3 or 4 offence, which invariably means a slap on the wrist. A slap on the wrist for pet thieves is a slap in the face for victims of pet theft. What is more, it is failing to act as a deterrent. Even after Sentencing Council reforms in 2016, most cases of pet theft do not go to court, most pet thieves are walking free and, unsurprisingly, pet theft is still very much on the rise.
The situation in Scotland is not much better. Pet theft is not an offence in its own right in Scotland either, and since the Scottish Sentencing Council has no guidelines for theft, judges rely on past precedent when deciding on sentencing. This offers more flexibility, but that can cut both ways—and sentences are not required to accurately reflect the emotional harm caused to the victim.
So change is needed across the United Kingdom. A change in the law is necessary to deliver justice for victims of pet theft and to give more peace of mind to the 12 million UK households with a pet. This Bill will create a new, separate criminal offence, in its own right, of pet theft, recognising the self-evident fact that the theft of a living, sentient being is in a whole different category to the theft of an inanimate object. We are talking about the abduction of an animal—of what most pet owners would consider a central part of their family. It is a crime that is either more thoughtless or more malicious—or both—than the theft of an inanimate possession.
The Bill will also require that sentencing is appropriate to the level of emotional harm caused by the theft, recognising that for victims of pet theft, it is the emotional loss, not the financial loss, that really matters. After all, today a growing number of companies offer bereavement leave for employees who have lost a pet. If we can give due recognition to the emotional effects of the loss of a pet in other walks of life, why can we not do a better job of it in the courts?
My intention is that this Bill would effect the necessary changes across Great Britain—in England and Wales, but also in Scotland. The law on this is flawed in both jurisdictions, and it is deeply important for me, as a Scottish MP, that pet owners in Aberdeen get as much support from the criminal justice system as pet owners in Abingdon or Aberavon. Scotland must not be left behind. My Bill seeks to amend a UK Act, and as such, it would apply to Scotland as well as England and Wales, but the provisions affecting Scotland would require a legislative consent motion in the Scottish Parliament. That happens on a near daily basis in Holyrood. I hope to work with the Scottish Parliament, and in particular my Scottish Conservative colleague Maurice Golden MSP, to get legislative consent in Holyrood for the Bill, so that pet thieves all over Great Britain face real justice. This is an opportunity for Holyrood and Westminster to work together for positive change.
It is great that animal welfare has come to the forefront of the political agenda across the UK, and I would like to applaud the UK Government for their progress on this issue. Having campaigned for a ban on electric shock collars for dogs, I am particularly pleased at the action being taken in that area. However, we must ensure that this progress on animal welfare extends to ensuring that pets and their owners are protected against pet theft by laws and sentencing guidelines that are tough enough to act as a real deterrent. Likewise, we must ensure that victims of pet theft can have faith in the criminal justice system.
This Bill is not the end of that effort. For example, we need Police Scotland and the police services in England and Wales to redouble their efforts to catch pet thieves and reunite stolen pets with their owners. I firmly believe that legislation recognising the seriousness of this offence and recognising it as distinct from the theft of inanimate objects would be a first and major step towards changing the way we deal with pet theft in this country. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Ross Thomson, Colin Clark, Luke Graham, Andrew Rosindell, Emma Little Pengelly, Bill Grant, Mike Hill, Christine Jardine, Mr Alister Jack, Andrew Bowie and Jim Shannon present the Bill.
Ross Thomson accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 October, and to be printed (Bill 240).