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Pet Abduction Bill

Volume 838: debated on Friday 10 May 2024

Second Reading

Northern Ireland Legislative Consent sought.

Moved by

My Lords, noble Lords will know of my long-standing commitment to animal welfare. Soon after I joined your Lordships’ House, I secured the first ever debate here on the welfare of domestic animals. In campaigning on issues such as microchipping, electric shock collars, pet theft, pets in care homes and many others, I raised so many questions—principally about cats, I admit—that, in time, when I started going through the Division Lobby my noble friend Lady Anelay, then the Chief Whip, began to say “miaow” as she clicked me through. So it is a privilege, and a great honour, to introduce the Pet Abduction Bill today.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who are taking part in this debate. I look forward to their contributions, especially that of my noble friend the Minister. He and his officials have been incredibly helpful and supportive throughout the passage of this legislation. I am very grateful to them for their time and expertise. This piece of legislation will, I hope, soon take its place alongside many others placed on the statute book since 2010. The Government, with the support of the opposition parties, have a record of which to be proud. We are not just the people’s Parliament but the animals’ Parliament too.

I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Anna Firth MP, who introduced this Bill in the other place. She is passionate about animals—something which shone through as she piloted the Bill through with steely determination, eloquence and great emotion. She is a true champion of those who have no voice.

We are a nation of animal lovers. I am one of them, and I declare my interest as a cat owner. I must say that dogs have an equal place in my affection—looking to my noble friend Lord Holmes—but at the moment our flat is ruled over by adorable Destino, a fluffy ginger rescue cat. I also declare an interest as a patron of International Cat Care.

This Bill has government and cross-party support, for which I am most grateful. It enjoys the strong support of the admirable charities in the sector: Cats Protection, the Dogs Trust, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, Refuge, the RSPCA and many others that have campaigned long and hard to get to this point. I believe it also has strong public backing, as we saw from the excellent speeches in the other place during Second Reading, as many MPs set out the horrendous experiences of their constituents whose pets had fallen victim to this callous crime.

Tragically, it is a wicked crime that is increasing. There are no centrally recorded figures—something the Bill will rectify—but we do have some information from the charitable and insurance sector. Direct Line estimates that there is an average of 2,400 dog thefts a year—that is seven dogs stolen every day—and a Pet Theft Awareness report found in 2022 that cat theft had increased 40% year on year, and more than quadrupled since 2015.

Thankfully, some stolen pets find their way back to their owners, but not many. The recovery rate is only 12%, so the vast majority of the thousands of cats and dogs abducted every year are never seen again, something which a recent leader in the Times described as

“an ocean of human misery”.

The stories of the impact of pets being stolen are agonising and heartbreaking to read, even when there is a happy ending. Cats Protection has kindly sent me numerous examples, such as Betty, a much-loved Bengal who was stolen from her family when they moved home. Betty’s loving owners were frantic, setting up Facebook groups to find her, putting up posters and posting leaflets. Two weeks after she went missing, they found her being advertised on Gumtree. Thanks to clever detective work by her owners, Betty was eventually retrieved but in an extremely stressed state, with stomach problems and a twisted leg. She had clearly had a terrible time. So too had her family. For them, it was the worst three weeks of their lives, which they found absolutely horrifying.

However, more often than not, cats are not retrieved. Clooney was a young male seal-point Siamese, chipped and neutered, who disappeared from his garden in Norfolk more than 10 years ago. In the weeks that followed his disappearance, his owner described the emotional and tortuous days and nights spent searching for him, door-knocking with flyers, putting up posters and recruiting the help of a tracker dog in case he had been injured or worse. After finding no trace, the owner reported Clooney’s suspected theft to the police, twice, but, frustratingly, they dismissed her claims of theft. To this day, Clooney’s owner misses him dreadfully.

I have seen similar reports from my own county of Essex, such as the theft of Twiglet, a dachshund, who was snatched after a thief smashed a patio door to abduct her. Video footage showed the poor animal struggling to get away from her attacker. Her owner described the incident as her worst nightmare and said that it was like a member of your family being snatched out of your home. It was horrible.

There are countless other stories, but all with the same theme. A thread runs through them all, and it is this: our pets are very special to us; they are part of our family. They bring us joy and console us when we are down. We love them, and if they are stolen, the cruel person who has committed the crime is not just harming the animal and subjecting it to unbelievable stress and anger, they are destroying a family at the same time. The cats my husband and I have always had have lived indoors, so we thankfully never suffered from this horrible crime, but I know that if anyone ever abducted Destino or one of his predecessors, it would not just be heartbreaking and we would not have just got over it—there could never be closure. A part of us would have died at the same time. That is why this Bill is necessary.

Let me explain why. At the moment, the taking, abducting or detaining of someone else’s beloved pet is classified alongside the theft of mere objects, such as a garden tool, a pair of cufflinks or a smart phone. It is treated in law under the Theft Act 1968 and the Theft Act (Northern Ireland) 1969 in exactly the same way and is punished in the same way. Yet the abduction of a pet is absolutely not the same because pets are not mere property. We do not have an emotional bond with a power tool that someone steals from the garage. A watch being stolen may be annoying, but it does not destroy a family’s life. If a thief takes your laptop, it is upsetting, but you do not lie awake at night in pain and anguish or look out your window every day, possibly for the rest of your life, wondering where it is and how it is being treated. In short, there is a stark gap between how the law views and values domestic animals and how the public does. The devastating impact that animal abduction has on pets and people needs properly to be reflected in criminal law, and that is what the Pet Abduction Bill does. For the first time, the law will recognise the profound difference between pets as sentient beings and inanimate objects.

I shall say a little about how the Bill will work. It creates two new criminal offences of the taking or detaining of a dog and the taking of a cat from someone’s lawful control. The two provisions, the dog clause and the cat clause, are quite rightly different, in that the dog clause expressly applies the provision where a person either detains a dog or takes it, whereas the cat clause refers only to taking. This recognises the fact that, unlike dogs, cats roam without their owners. They enjoy mixing with other households, and probably getting fed at every house in the street. One of the first cats that we ever met was a sweet little tabby—we used to call him Gregory—who sat outside the flat where we lived and often came in for a stroke and some water, and then would be on his way. This Bill is not intended to punish behaviour such as that, where there has been no malice or ill intent in looking after a cat that voluntarily visits you.

The Bill includes defences of lawful authority and reasonable excuse. It also introduces tough penalties of a fine and/or up to five years in prison, a term which is comparable with provisions for animal welfare offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Welfare of Animals (Northern Ireland) Act 2011. The sanctions will lay down a vital marker that the abduction of beloved pets will be punished appropriately. At the moment, the Bill covers only cats and dogs, but there are enabling powers in it so that it can be amended to cover other species of animals if the need arises. The Bill applies to England and Northern Ireland only, as these issues are quite rightly matters for the devolved Governments. I hope they will implement similar legislation, so that this crucial animal welfare measure covers the whole of our country.

One other important aspect of this Bill is that it will help the police to collect accurate data on pet theft, which does not currently exist. I have in the past asked Parliamentary Questions on this subject, but I have never been able to receive a proper Answer because pet theft is recorded by the police simply under the category of property. As a result of this legislation, pet abduction will have a unique identifier in crime datasets that will allow us to uncover the scale of the problem.

This Bill is long overdue. The status of pets as mere property and inert objects rather than intimate members of a family and treasured companions was put on the statute book when I was four years old. I turn 60 in the summer, and this Bill becoming law would be the best birthday present I could have. It is a short, simple Bill, but its implications will be far-reaching in protecting animals and their owners. It shows that society will not tolerate the abduction of cats and dogs, and the value we place on them, by enshrining their special position in our society in law. It shows that Parliament understands the needs of animals, giving a voice to the voiceless in the most powerful way possible, by changing the law to protect them. I hope this Bill will enjoy support across the House and make speedy process to the statute book. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am pleased to give my full support to my noble friend’s excellent Bill, and I look forward to getting it on the statute book. I like that the word used is “abduction” and not “theft”, since theft is of an inanimate object; “abduction” is the right word here to describe other intelligent living things.

However, I have a number of concerns. In the other place, my honourable friend Sir Christopher Chope made the fairly valid point that there were 130,000 motor vehicle thefts and 2,000 dog thefts in 2022, and the police were not very good at catching the criminals involved in the organised theft of motor vehicles and therefore might not be very good at catching those abducting pets either. I would like to hear from my noble friend and from the Minister what steps will be taken to emphasise to the police that, while a cat may cost a fraction of the cost of a Range Rover, the devastation to the owners of a lost, stolen or abducted pet is infinitely greater than the cost of 20 Range Rovers.

While I support the Bill, I will want to move some amendments in Committee. Take the penalties. Theoretically, they are quite good,

“not exceeding the general limit in a magistrates’ court”,

which could be up to 12 months and an unlimited fine or, if tried on indictment, up to five years in prison. But that will never happen, because once the rather wet, woke, liberal Sentencing Council produces its sentencing guidelines, no one will get the maximum; the average sentence will be watered down to a few hundred pounds, and the fine will not be paid, just as happens with lots of other sentences we pass in this Parliament. I plan to move an amendment stating that abducting a pet will be a summary offence in the magistrates’ court and the fine will be £5,000 irrespective of ability to pay. Where it is organised gangs, or two or more people acting in concert, then it should be tried on indictment with a set fine of £20,000 and 12 months’ imprisonment—and nothing less. If there is cruelty involved, it should be five years’ imprisonment and nothing less.

Some other amendments are also necessary. I want to make exceptions to some of the abduction offences. I have been privileged to serve as deputy chairman, under the brilliant Tony Juniper, the chair of Natural England, as he has delivered on the superb policies in the Environment Act—the brainchild of Michael Gove, assuredly the finest Secretary of State for the Environment we ever had. The Addison rules forbid me speaking about Natural England, but I can refer to Tony’s article last month that said that we are on track for the greatest recovery of nature on a landscape scale that we have ever had. However, in relation to this Bill, I want to praise what he said on the BBC last week: that cats allowed outside should have a collar with a bell to reduce the massive killing of wildlife that they do. All independent studies suggest that cats that are allowed to wander at will kill about 260 million mammals per annum in the UK and 60 million garden birds. Of course, there are other predators killing animals and birds, as letters in the Telegraph this week have pointed out, but the contribution from roaming cats is massive and unnecessary. Studies by three UK scientists, published in the Applied Animal Behaviour Science journal, show that in the UK cats with bells killed 34% fewer mammals and 41% fewer birds. We need every measure we can have to preserve our declining garden birds, so I would seek to make collars with bells compulsory for cats allowed outside.

I would go further and ban cat flaps completely. The organisations the Mammal Society and Garden Bird point out that it is natural behaviour for cats to hunt and kill mammals and birds, but the prime time is sunset and dusk, when birds are feeding. They suggest that, if you want to let your cat outdoors, you should let them out only after the sun has risen and before it sets. There is no justification whatever for cat owners taking a laissez-faire attitude and letting their cat go in and out when it pleases. Do not call yourself a cat lover if you have no idea where your cat goes at night, where it can be attacked or run over, catch fleas and diseases and kill precious wildlife. Over the last 30 years, the Americans have completely changed their behaviour over letting cats outside. Some 70% of UK cat owners let their cats roam outside, but only 10% of United States cat owners do this, because they consider it risky and neglectful to do so—and I agree.

My amendment will make it not an offence for anyone to abduct a cat which is in a public place outside its home. The abductor would have to take it to an animal refuge, charity or shelter, or he would then be committing an offence. Do not tell me that that is interfering with the natural behaviour of cats. How natural is it for people to give them processed cat food or put down litter trays, groom them and give them veterinary care? I passionately support those interventions and, as a devoted cat lover, I say: keep your cats in at night, feed them properly and do not let them kill birds in your garden, or anyone else’s garden—especially my garden.

I also want to make a major exception to Clause 3 on other animals commonly kept as pets. The trouble is that this definition is very vague. I turn to the Defra guide to the Zoo Licensing Act 1981. Annexe A on page 29 attempts to define “normally domestic” and “normally non-domestic” animals. Unfortunately, it begins:

“The Secretary of State is not in a position to give an authoritative statement on which animals fall into the ‘normally non-domestic’ and ‘normally domestic’ categories ... However, an informal view on the more common cases that have caused uncertainty is set out below”.

It lists five categories and, leaving aside farm animals in the normally non-domestic category, these are: dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, and other species most of us would say are commonly known as pets. Columns three and four list animals which are wild but may be farmed, such as bison, ostriches, buffalo and wild boar. We would not normally consider them to be pets. However, it is column five that concerns me. It lists every other wild animal, including dangerous invasive species, which some misguided and foolish people keep as pets.

In February, the Born Free organisation published a big study conducted in 2023. It says:

“The staggering fact that there are nearly three thousand wild creatures classified as ‘dangerous’ under UK law, being kept as ‘pets’ across Britain, is of great concern to Born Free. The keeping of such animals threatens the safety of people and other animals, and results in considerable animal suffering. Unlike domesticated animals, which have been bred over generations to live alongside humans, these wild animals have complex physical, psychological, nutritional, social, and environmental needs which cannot be met by a life in captivity. As a result, these, often threatened, creatures can suffer poor health and psychological damage. Increased demand for exotic ‘pets’ also puts pressure on wild populations of many already threatened species”.

That includes 400 venomous snakes, which is far more than we have in our zoos.

Do we want a repeat of dangerous and invasive species being released into the wild when the owners get fed up with them or cannot cope? Have we not learned from the disaster of grey squirrels and African bullfrogs? Some morons are now even importing racoon dogs from the United States. Just look at all the species in the Schedule to the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976; there is not a single one that any individual should be permitted to keep at home. Attitudes on how we keep wild animals have changed in the last 48 years. If my noble friend cannot withdraw the licences and ban these species in ordinary houses in the UK, I shall try an amendment permitting anyone to abduct these species and take them to a proper licensed zoo.

I regret—in the few seconds I have left—that we did not go far enough with the regulations on keeping primates. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, was right. We should not license private individuals to keep primates. Sometimes, I think that even some of our best zoos are borderline on giving them the sort of habitats they need. If we have difficulty finding the right habitat for lynx in Kielder Forest, how in the name of God can some people keep lynx at home?

So, with these few simple additions that I would like to make to my noble friend’s Bill, I repeat that I fully support it. It is an excellent Bill and I commend it to the House.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this Second Reading. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Black for his excellent introduction and my noble friend Lord Blencathra for his fine words. Unlike cats, in all of his contributions, you will never find him sitting on the fence.

I thank all the organisations who sent such excellent briefings ahead of this Second Reading. It would be invidious to single out any, but I will, for the work that Battersea Dogs and Cats Home continues to do year in and year out—not least all through those difficult Covid years. We should give all our thanks to every individual who works at and is involved with Battersea.

I fully support this Bill and I am pleased that we are bringing it forward at this time. As both noble Lords have said, it is right that we move from theft as a concept to abduction, which is the correct concept. It follows a legislative logic that we have had over a number of Bills, not least the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act we passed a number of years ago, which is also known as Finn’s law. Up until that point, police dogs and animals were seen as just property and subject to criminal legislation in that sense. That Act, like this Bill, sought to put the animals in their sentient centre, and in the right place in our human and animal-loving society.

To that end, I ask my noble friend and the Minister, given that it is quite correct that it is far more traumatic for anybody to have a pet abducted than to lose a car or a tool from a garden shed—irritating though that certainly is—would it not make sense to have a higher tariff than that set out in the Theft Act 1968 of seven years? I would be interested to see the logic of aligning all these acts around the five-year mark. Why should that not be increased? As my noble friend Lord Blencathra set out, it is highly unlikely that anyone will be given the maximum. So in a sense, the only way to address that from Parliament is to set a maximum that is higher, to enable a right sentence to be set. I would argue that the maximum sentence should be at least seven years, not the five years set out in the Bill.

Since Covid, and indeed during Covid, so much changed in terms of pets and service animals. It became nothing short of a Wild West out there. There were untrained dogs, abducted dogs and cats, and an atmosphere that seemed to change overnight. From a personal perspective, pre Covid I may have experienced a dog incident perhaps once per month or once a quarter. Since Covid, it can be daily. That is the experience for people with service animals and people with pets. It has to change; we have to get back to a situation where humans, pets and animals can all coexist in a far more harmonious manner. To that end, I will be looking at some potential specific amendments to bring through in Committee.

This is an excellent and a timely Bill. I support it fully. I will certainly be very interested in the amendments my noble friend Lord Blencathra is seeking to bring. In conclusion, this is probably a unique example of where it is positive to pass “paw” legislation.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, on his introduction to the Bill, which gave many examples of the poor treatment of abducted animals. He has a strong reputation on animal welfare issues and especially the well-being of dogs and cats. I am grateful to the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, Blue Cross and the House of Lords Library for their briefings. I declare my interest as a dog owner.

During Covid, there was an increase in the number of dogs stolen. Many were extremely valuable, and this is coupled with the rise in the price of puppies and kittens. The Government, following the work of the pet theft task force, are supportive of this Private Member’s Bill. Your Lordships would expect me to refer to the abandoned kept animals Bill, which would have seen legislation on this subject on the statute book before now if it had not been abandoned. The pet theft task force was set up in 2021, but we are now, in 2024, at last debating this issue of pet theft and abduction.

The Bill generated a lot of discussion in the other place, which I have read. The pet theft task force felt that the offence of pet abduction would shift the emphasis from the theft of goods, which has been referred to—this is the effect of the definition in previous legislation on stolen animals—to the welfare of the animal. Since the passage of the animal sentience Act, there has been much more emphasis on the plight of the animal and less on the owner. The noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, has referred to this and to the need for a more stringent sentence for miscreants.

It is right that the impact of being abducted on a cat or dog is considered. Many will be distraught at the separation from their owners, but it is equally true that the owners will be distraught at the loss of their treasured companions. For numerous elderly men and women who find themselves living on their own, a pet dog or cat is a lifeline. This is the companion that greets them when they get up in the morning and is behind the door when they come in from visiting the day centre or doing their shopping. This is the companion with which they will share their joys and woes. They do not get a verbal response in the way they would from a partner, but they do get affection and are dependable. To have this much-loved companion abducted can be devastating, causing anxiety and depression.

The Bill is a pragmatic way forward. The penalties for abduction are reasonably sufficient for those who are caught, but I am not sure that they will function as a deterrent for the determined criminal. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, indicated that he is not content with the penalties for those convicted of abduction and intends to table amendments for Committee.

Microchipping is an essential tool in reuniting a dog or cat with its owner, and perhaps it should be mandatory instead of just encouraged. It is the only fail-safe method of ensuring that the right pet is reunited with the right owner. Many of the abducted pets will be extremely valuable and will have cost their owners thousands of pounds. Others may have been acquired from animal rescue centres. Whatever the case, the loss to the owner is first and foremost emotional and, secondly, about the cost of the pet.

The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, raised the issue of exotic pets. As someone who at one time kept what could be classed as exotic pets, I look forward to how the noble Lord will include these species in the Bill.

The Bill quite rightly does not get into the muddy waters of who gets custody of a pet after a relationship breakdown. I support the view that this is a matter for adults to negotiate for themselves. Nor will I be drawn into whether the emotional value of a dog is more than that of a cat—the owner will love their pet for what it is, whether a dog or a cat.

I have a couple of queries. First, I am slightly concerned about cross-border issues. This legislation refers to England and Wales, but it would be easy for abducted pets to be taken over the border to Scotland. Is there likely to be an arrangement with Scotland on the repatriation of pets?

Secondly, the penalties for abduction are severe and include prison sentences. Is it likely that the severity of the sentence would be linked to the value of the cat or dog? If the purpose of altering legislation is so that the pet is treated as a sentient animal and not an inanimate piece of property, as in the Theft Act 1968, it would seem that the sentence of convicted abductors should be linked not to the monetary value of the pet but to the distress caused to both the pet and its owner. Does the Minister agree?

I fully support this Private Member’s Bill and look forward to it passing on to the statute book quickly.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, for sponsoring the Bill and introducing it so eloquently. I also thank Anna Firth MP for bringing it forward in the other place. We very much welcome the Bill. We support it and want it to reach the statute book swiftly, so we are pleased that it has the support of the Government.

We have heard today that dog and cat abduction can happen for a number of reasons, which, sadly, can include resale, extortion, breeding and sometimes even dogfighting. We have heard how devastating this can be for the owners and how much distress and sometimes cruelty it can bring to the animals.

I am sure that the noble Lord would be surprised if I did not ask about the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. It was such a shame that it was stopped when it had cross-party support. The proposals that we see today would have been brought into law much quicker if the Government had kept that Bill.

Having said that, we have heard that the Bill will create two new offences, of dog abduction and cat abduction, carrying a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment, a fine or both. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, talked about proposing an amendment regarding penalties. As he and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, said, it is really important that, if penalties are brought in, they are used and are a proper deterrent.

The Bill provides powers for Ministers to extend the legislation to other animal species kept as pets. I am very pleased to see that in the Bill; it is a shame that a similar extension to other breeds, brought forward in an amendment to the livestock exports Bill by the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, was not supported by the Government. Could that be revisited at some point?

As other noble Lords have said, there have been briefings on the Bill from different organisations, to which we are grateful. They include Battersea Cats & Dogs Home, Cats Protection, Blue Cross, the RSPCA and others—and the Library did an excellent briefing on this.

A number of points have been raised during the debate. As we have heard, dog and cat abduction is currently treated in law akin to stealing an inanimate object, with sentencing depending in great part on the monetary value of the stolen dog or cat. This completely fails to consider any aspect of animal welfare or the impact on the owners of this crime, which can be completely devastating, as we heard. Blue Cross has always argued that the status of pets is fundamentally different from property. They are not inanimate objects but sentient creatures and, as we have heard, irreplaceable family members. They should therefore be treated as such, and it is welcome that the Bill will finally bring this into law, because the law as it stands is too lenient.

We are aware of data from Scotland that reveals that nearly a third of dog abduction cases were related to domestic issues and ownership disputes, instead of being motivated by profit—so it is important that the sentencing and any fines are done in a proper and sensible manner. It is important that the emotional impact of losing an animal in this way is properly recognised, so we are pleased to see this in the Bill.

We have heard that comprehensive and reliable data on the true scale of pet abduction is difficult to collate due to the lack of a central database and different methods of recording. I hope we can start to make steps in the right direction and know more about what we are dealing with in order to tackle it better.

Dog and cat abduction are currently classed as theft, so some police forces find it more difficult to isolate the data on instances of cat and dog abduction compared to other types of theft. It is important that we get a clear and complete picture right across the country, as the noble Lord, Lord Black, said in his introduction.

Other noble Lords talked about the fact that instances of dog theft have been going up year on year, until I think last year, when they started to come down. But it has been a real problem since Covid-19—the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, talked about how that completely changed the situation. In some ways, we are only just starting to get a more level playing field, given that abduction went up so much during that time.

Some police forces have higher average rates of dogs per theft. That could be significant: we need to understand the data and the thefts better, because we need to understand where thefts are actually being co-ordinated and gangs are involved. We know that cat theft is not on the same scale as dog abduction, but it is becoming an increasing problem. Pet Theft Awareness has done a certain amount of research on this and has come up with information and figures that will be very useful in taking this forward. It considered that the rise in cat theft could be attributed to the very strong market in cats and kittens, particularly pedigrees. The noble Lord, Lord Black, talked about the particular case of Betty. That means that cats, as well as dogs, are more likely to be targeted by opportunistic criminals who want to resell them—or, of course, if the cats are unneutered, use them for breeding.

While we are on cats, I was very interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, suggest amendments that he might bring forward on cats, pointing out that they can be quite aggressive killers when outdoors. I would just like to stand up for my own cat, Sid, in this matter. Sid, sadly, is not a very prolific killer—I do not know whether it is because he is a little fat and not very good at catching birds and small mammals—but he seems to bring in mice quite regularly, which end up living in the sofa or the kitchen cupboards, which is not incredibly helpful. Since his encounter with one of our hens, he is rather frightened of birds.

I thank the noble Lord for his supportive words regarding my position on the licensing of primates kept privately.

I confirm that we very much welcome the Bill. We are very pleased to see that it has finally arrived and strongly support the maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment. This clearly reflects the gravity of the offence and the devastating emotional impact on both the owner and the abducted pet. It also aligns with the maximum sentence provided for by the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021. I look forward to the Minister’s speech, but I strongly support the Bill.

I start by putting on record my thanks to my noble friend Lord Black for supporting this important Bill. He is a great champion of animal welfare overall, and I know he has followed the discussions on today’s topic particularly closely. I am delighted that he has chosen to steer this Bill through the House. I know it will be in safe hands, in the animal Parliament that he described.

There are more than 20 million cats and dogs in the country, and over a quarter of households own at least one of these animals. The noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Bakewell, both spoke passionately about the companionship and friendship that animals bring. In my own home in Scotland, there are always four happy faces and wagging tails there to greet me when I return from a week here in London.

The Government strongly support this Bill, which represents another important step in our progress on animal welfare. It delivers one of the key recommendations from the Government’s pet theft taskforce. This cross-government group was convened in 2021 in response to an apparent rise in pet theft during the Covid pandemic, at a time when many households decided to buy or adopt a new pet.

We understand the devastating impact that the theft of a pet can have. While stealing an animal is already an offence, the fact that the item stolen is a live animal is not explicitly recognised by existing theft offences. The Pet Abduction Bill changes that by making abduction of a cat or a dog a specific offence in England and Northern Ireland. The intention is that this Bill will allow the courts to place greater focus on the impact on the welfare of the animal as well as the interests of its owner when deciding on the appropriate penalty in an individual case. It also allows pet abduction cases to be recorded and therefore traced, to help inform the scale of the issue, a point raised by a number of noble Lords this morning.

The Bill focuses on cats and dogs, given their status as the most popular pets. However, we recognise the value of other pets. The Bill includes an enabling power that will allow the Secretary of State in respect of England, or the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in respect of Northern Ireland, to introduce similar bespoke offences for other species commonly kept as pets, if there is evidence of the need for this. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, talked about repatriation across devolved Administrations. I hope that we will not get to that—the devolved Administrations have similar plans to introduce this type of legislation, and we are working closely with them.

As my noble friend Lord Black has already eloquently outlined, the abduction offences differ between cats and dogs, in that the cat abduction offence is limited to the taking, only, of cats. This reflects the lifestyle differences between cats and dogs, with cats often roaming independently and enjoying the odd nap on someone else’s sofa—perhaps not the sofa of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, as it will be full of mice, although that might be why they would go there—or a bite to eat from a different feed bowl. Simply feeding someone else’s cat will generally not be an offence. However, one can imagine cases where someone deliberately uses food or other tactics as a means of taking a cat. It is right that the Bill allows flexibility for those cases to be tried as pet abduction. This difference also strikes the right balance in not wanting to discourage people from looking after stray cats that need their help. Animal welfare organisations such as the RSPCA, Cats Protection and Battersea have excellent information available on what people should do if they find a cat that they believe is a stray. There are also clear legal requirements around what people must do when they find a stray dog, both in England and Northern Ireland. In both countries, this includes a requirement to involve the local area’s authorities.

The offences in the Bill will not apply in certain situations where disputes about the ownership of a dog or cat are likely to arise between members of a household when they separate and cannot agree on which member should be allowed to keep the dog or cat. This approach reflects one of the findings of the pet theft taskforce—that reports to the police of pet theft were sometimes linked with divorce cases. By excluding these types of cases, the Bill will rightly prevent attempts to use the new offence to address household disputes about pet ownership.

My noble friends Lord Blencathra and Lord Holmes asked about the police taking seriously the unlawful taking of pets. The public rightly expect police to respond when a crime is reported to them, working with partners across the criminal justice system to see more criminals charged and prosecuted. Police forces across England and Wales have committed to pursuing all lines of inquiry when there is a reasonable chance that it could lead to them catching a perpetrator or solving a crime.

My noble friends also raised a number of points around sentencing. This Bill is designed to deal with the unscrupulous people who abduct a cat or a dog. The maximum sentence attached to this crime will be up to five years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both. This is the same as the maximum term for animal welfare offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. I hear what my noble friends say, but I feel it is right that the maximum penalty aligns with other serious animal welfare offences in this way.

In response to my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond’s points about guide dogs, they are very much in the scope of the dog abduction offence. The Bill applies to dogs as a species and does not distinguish between types of dogs. When dealing with an offence, the courts already have a broad range of sentencing powers to deal effectively and appropriately with offenders. In deciding what sentence to impose, the courts take into account the circumstances of the offence and any aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

My noble friend Lord Blencathra rightly pointed out that the popularity of pets is subject to trends. The wording of the enabling power allows it to remain relevant over time, even if the pet-keeping practice changes. The assessment of whether such animals can be considered to be a species commonly kept as a pet for the purposes of this Bill would form part of the consideration to engage the Bill’s enabling power. That power is further restricted by the Government’s duty to consult such persons as they consider appropriate before making legislation. In addition, any such legislation is subject to the affirmative procedure. The House will therefore have the opportunity to scrutinise the rationale for adding to or removing from the Bill any particular species, should that power be used.

My noble friend Lord Blencathra also raised the issue of cats predating on songbirds—but perhaps not the cat of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in this case. My officials met the SongBird Survival charity recently. They heard about research by the University of Exeter, which showed that owners can reduce their cat’s hunting by adjusting their cat’s diet or by spending short periods playing with them. SongBird Survival’s education campaign, run jointly with Cats Protection, aims to spread awareness of how to reduce cat hunting this spring. We look forward to continuing our engagement and hearing the outcome of this campaign.

Before I finish, I want to touch on the issue of microchips, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and my noble friend Lord Black, when he spoke very eloquently about Clooney, the Siamese who disappeared from his owner’s garden in Norfolk. My noble friend referenced Clooney’s microchip and the fact that it had been scanned and checked while Clooney was missing from his home, but that, heartbreakingly, his owner had not been made aware. Microchips are the best way to reunite people with lost and abducted animals. The microchipping of dogs has been compulsory in England since 2016, and for even longer in Northern Ireland. From 10 June this year, cats in England that are older than 20 weeks will need to be microchipped and registered on a compliant database. There is abundant evidence that microchipping works to bring animals home, which is why it is so sad to hear that in Clooney’s case it did not work.

To conclude, the Government are committed to this Bill. We have further strengthened this commitment during the passage of the Bill through the other place by adding the commencement date for these offences in England into the Bill. They will enter into force here three months after Royal Assent. This Bill addresses an issue that campaigners have long been calling for. I am grateful for the support from the many animal welfare organisations and individuals. This Bill also further strengthens our already strong track record on animal welfare, something that I know noble Lords rightly feel strongly about. I thank noble Lords for their considered contributions to this debate; it is clear that this is a subject close to people’s hearts. I too express my hope that we can work together to get this Bill on to the statute book by the summer—and in time for my noble friend’s birthday.

In view of my noble friend’s assurances that the Government will not allow willy-nilly any species to be classed as a commonly kept pet, and if he continues his work in Defra discussing how cat owners can make sure that their cats are not killing too many songbirds or others in the garden, I can give the House an assurance that I may be persuaded not to move any amendments.

My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken and for their strong support. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend the Minister for signalling the Government’s resolute backing for the Bill and to the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Hayman, for ensuring that it has strong cross-party support. Our House has always spoken with unanimity of voice on this animal welfare issue.

This has been a hugely constructive debate on a subject of great importance to any individual or family who owns a beloved cat or dog. My noble friend Lord Blencathra raised a number of very important issues, which I would be delighted to talk about further. I do not think that I will enter into the collar and bells debate—not least out of deference to Sid and the mice—but I am bound to say that I think I probably agree with him. I hope that my noble friend is reassured by the comments from my noble friend the Minister on the inclusion of other species in the Bill and the scrutiny that would be necessary.

My noble friend Lord Holmes made a very passionate speech, as always. On the issue of sentencing, of course, emotionally, I absolutely agree with him. There are many in this House who, when it comes to issues of animal cruelty or abduction, would, frankly, want to throw away the key. However, I think we have the balance right in ensuring that the maximum term of imprisonment under the Bill aligns with the maximum term for animal welfare offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011.

I agree very much with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, that it is very important that these powers are actually used. We do not want this legislation just to sit on the statute book; it is there to make a difference to families and to animals. It is important that the police—an issue that my noble friend Lord Blencathra raised—take it seriously and use the powers contained in this legislation.

As I have said, this Bill is, I believe, long overdue. I hope that we can now get it on to the statute book without delay. I beg to move.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.