It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Sharma.
Back in the early 1990s I was involved in breaking up a puppy farming ring in Wales—I got involved with a national newspaper—and I saw that the animals were kept in appalling conditions. The puppies were sold at motorway service stations. More recently I went out with the RSPCA in one of my local little towns, Jaywick, and we looked at various places where dogs were being mistreated—not necessarily through deliberate cruelty, but through ignorance, a lot of the time. It really is extraordinary that we sometimes call ourselves an animal-loving country.
It is a great honour to stand here today and represent the 168 people from Clacton who signed the petition. As I have said before, the theft of pets, and especially dogs, happens all too frequently in my constituency. In one case, two French bulldog puppies, Oswald and Dakota, were stolen from their house in Eton Road in Clacton. The puppies were eventually reunited with their owner, which is a rare good news story, but that was only after a Facebook campaign that got 2,500 visits, and I reckon the puppies must have become too hot to handle. However, when they were returned, they were distressed. According to the owner, they were clearly starving and not in good condition.
I have dogs myself. I have cavalier poodle bichon crosses—all right, they are mongrels. They are part of my family and the thought of losing one of them really distresses me, which is why I want to combat pet theft. It is terribly important. I raised my concerns with the Minister during a debate on rural crime in the main Chamber, and I asked for more information on what the Government intend to do about the issue. Unfortunately, that information was not forthcoming, so I hope to elicit a better response today from the Minister; I say that very nicely.
The matter is important, and the current application of the law surrounding pet theft is ineffective and should be changed to make the monetary value of the pet irrelevant, which will ensure that all criminals are prosecuted and sentenced to the full extent of the law. As we know, 105,968 people signed the petition, and 97% of respondents to a “Dogs Today” survey support the proposal and agree that all pet theft should be treated equally, regardless of the animal’s initial monetary value. There is clearly a great deal of public support for a change, and I ask the Minister to bear that in mind as we move forward.
I also ask the Minister to bear in mind something that has been said many times this afternoon, but that is worth reiterating: pet theft is cruel. It is cruel to the owners who are left bereft after the loss of a friend, a loved one and a member of the family, and it is cruel to the animal itself, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). The animal can be mistreated or even, as we have heard—it is horrific—have its microchip cut out of its neck without anaesthetic to avoid detection.
The Government’s current position needs to evolve and take account of the strong public sentiment and the cruel impact that pet theft has on those involved. I have no doubt that I will be reassured that laws are already in place to deal firmly with offenders who commit such crimes. To expand on that point further, and as I am sure we are all aware, the theft of a pet is already a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968.
The guidelines take account of the emotional distress and therefore the harm that the theft of personal items such as a pet can have on the victim, and they recommend higher penalties for such offences. However, although I welcome such developments, I am uneasy about the current position for various reasons. First, as the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance—SAMPA—tells us, the seven-year maximum sentence has never been awarded, so, out of the 646 reported incidences of pet theft in 2017, there were no cases where that sentence was applied. That is because the penalty for pet theft is often decided based on the monetary value of the pet, as we have heard this afternoon. Many pets have little or no monetary value, although in the eyes of their owner, as we have said, they are priceless. However, in the eyes of the court, that value does not exist. The courts deal only in monetary terms, and the most severe sentence recommended for stealing a pet that is worth less than £500 is two years rather than seven.
My second point of contention is that in the past three years dog theft has increased by 24%, which demonstrates that the sentencing guidelines are clearly not working and are not a deterrent to potential pet thieves. To demonstrate that point further, between 2015 and 2018, 96.75% of dog thefts ended without charge, showing that the courts have not become tougher on this particular aspect of pet theft. Additionally, I have heard from SAMPA that the police are reluctant to record pet theft because it negatively affects their crime figures. That explains why cases of pet theft are rarely investigated, and why the few cases that do make it to court do not result in a conviction. Potential criminals know that the chance of getting caught or ever receiving punishment is, as we said earlier, very slim, so the crime is low risk.
My third concern is the reliance on microchipping, which does not address the issue. Microchips can be overwritten, meaning that stolen dogs can be easily moved on rather than reunited with their owner, as the Government suggest. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, the chips can simply be cut out, causing great distress to the animal. As a result, I believe we must address that particular issue and improve security compliance on the microchip database. Also, we should complement the microchipping regime with a new dog registration regime, and I will be bringing forward legislation to reintroduce that here in England in due course.
The legislation that I intend to introduce will provide for a reintroduction of the licensing system, so that we know where all the dogs are, who owns them and how they are being looked after, so we can have some grasp on animal cruelty.
Like Dogs Trust, I am troubled by the decision to equate animals with property, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) mentioned. That decision means that we are denying animals the right to be considered sentient beings. The Government’s current position seems to mean that pets derive their sentience only from being in the possession of their owner, given that when they are wrongly separated they become property for the duration of the prosecution and are therefore exempt from the Government’s promise to ensure that their welfare is protected. That must change.
All animals are sentient, regardless of their location or continuation of legitimate ownership. As the draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill sets out, the Government
“must have regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings in formulating and implementing government policy.”
Accordingly, the Government must recognise that their current position does not protect the welfare of sentient animals when they are stolen, and the sentencing guidelines for pet theft must be changed to move us closer to a position where their welfare can always be assured.
I maintain that the current position is not working. It does not deter or limit pet theft; in fact, I would argue that pet theft is getting worse. Pet theft should be identified as a separate criminal activity and be covered by its own law.
Read the speech here.
Watch the speech here.