[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 Another person has withdrawn, so we have 18 people.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 heartwarming 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 the record my position in relation to Northern Ireland, which has introduced microchipping. 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. The 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 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’s 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 was introduced 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.
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.
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 Chamber 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. 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 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 Chamber 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 suboptimal 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 to 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 heartbreaking 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, which has 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 suboptimal 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 should be 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 what 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 Scottish National party 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 Chamber, 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 dachshund 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 could 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, Rossi 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 on 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. Friends the Members for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and 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 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.