The Government recognise the deep distress that is caused when a pet is stolen, and the pet theft taskforce carried out a thorough investigation of this issue. Its excellent report, published earlier this month, contains a comprehensive set of recommendations that will allow us to tackle this issue head on.
As a fellow animal lover, Mr Speaker, I know that you, like me, will appreciate the extreme distress that the theft of a much loved family pet can cause, particularly with over 2,000 pet dogs reported as having been stolen last year. These measures cannot come soon enough, so can the Justice Secretary confirm how soon they will be brought forward to tackle pet theft?
I reassure my hon. Friend that we are already working on the new proposed offence of pet abduction and that work is already under way with many of the other recommendations stemming from the report, such as the review of microchipping and improvements in the recording of these offences. This will continue and I remind the House that the recommendation of the pet abduction offence is leagues better than the weak amendment proposed by Labour.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his work on bringing criminals to book with the much needed criminal offence of pet theft. Does he agree that it is important that the sentence for this offence, when determined, will reflect the unique emotional suffering caused by the theft of a beloved pet, and will he ensure that that is reflected?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The use of the term “abduction” is a crucial reflection of the fact that these are sentient beings; they are not mere chattels or goods. The emotional effect both on the pets and their owners has to be taken into account. I think there is a read-across to animal cruelty and the important reforms that we made recently in increasing maximum sentences.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his response and for his recent visit to our Crown court in Lincoln castle, the magistrates court in the city and Her Majesty’s prison Lincoln, none of which are up for sale, Mr Speaker, but the judge’s lodgings are, if you are interested. Pets are not just animals; they are often members of families, and many of my constituents in Lincoln would welcome changes to ensure that we protect our pets to the highest possible degree. As well as strengthening prosecution powers through the pet abduction offence and expanding pet ownership databases, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we must educate prospective owners to buy pets only from reputable breeders and potentially encompass farm animals in the same legislation?
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. The idea that buying an animal by the side of the road or in a garage forecourt for cash is somehow legitimate trade is clearly wrong. I am grateful to colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for doing important work on promoting safer purchasing through the “Petfished” campaign. We will build on that in the way in which we identify and track cases better, improve the recording of keepership data and deal with through-the-loophole breeders, who are frankly responsible for a lot of cruelty and suffering.
I rarely congratulate the Justice Secretary, but I do on this issue because he has eventually agreed with Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition about making pet theft a specific offence. On a serious note, I congratulate all the campaigners on the issue, particularly John Cooper, QC, who has done an awful lot of work on it.
The Justice Secretary knows that when the shadow Justice Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), tabled his amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Tories rejected the idea of a specific offence time and again; I think I am right in saying that the Justice Secretary’s argument was that the Theft Act 1968 was sufficient. The taskforce has now reported, but I am not clear on when we expect the legislation to take effect. When can we expect those who are alleged to have stolen pets to face the criminal courts?
I am always grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s words of wisdom, but I will just correct him in this respect: there was a general agreement that the use of theft legislation to deal with what were more than goods and chattels just was not an adequate way to reflect not just the taking of a pet, but the suffering of the pet and of the owner. That is why abduction is a much better read-across, as he knows from the matter of child abduction, for example.
I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on the point and I challenge him and the Opposition: if the matter is brought forward in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which they voted against again and again, will they now support it?