Tom Hunt (Ipswich) (Con)
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 heart-warming 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.