Pet Theft

George Eustice Excerpts
Monday 2nd July 2018

(2 years ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Sue Hayman Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:51 p.m.

I remember going with my mother to the post office to get a licence for our dalmatian—I was only a small child, obviously. We ought to look at anything that might help, so licensing clearly needs to be looked at; if it can help solve this crime, it is an important part of the picture.

The Labour party is committed to promoting the highest level of care for domestic animals. Recently, our animal welfare plan was out for consultation until the end of May, and it included a proposal to expand microchipping to cats, which at the moment do not have to be chipped. Is that something that the Government will consider seriously? Our manifesto also pledged an end to the third-party sale of puppies. Is that something the Government will consider to improve the welfare of dogs? We also proposed measures to tackle puppy smuggling, such as the introduction of a microchip database—databases were mentioned earlier in the debate—to record microchip numbers of animals entering and leaving the country and get a better idea of where dogs are. Will the Minister and the Government match that aspiration too?

Enforcement of our laws is carried out by our tireless police services. Is it not imperative that the police are properly funded so that they can act to enforce the law and catch the criminals who are cruelly stealing pets from their owners?

The petition and today’s excellent debate have raised really important issues across the board, giving us all a lot to think about in terms of what needs to be done. The Labour party manifesto, on which my colleagues and I were elected last year, stated:

“Domestic animals require stronger protection from cruelty.”

It also set out a

“vision…for the UK to lead the world with high animal welfare standards in the wild, in farming and for domestic animals.”

That is something we stand by today and, from the clear cross-party support in this debate, hon. Members right across the House would also back strengthening the law in this area. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

George Eustice Portrait The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (George Eustice) - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:53 p.m.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on the way in which he introduced the debate.

As with every debate on animal welfare issues, it is one that is incredibly important to the public. This petition has more than 100,000 signatories—106,000, I am told —and today we have heard some heart-rending stories of individual cases from many Members’ constituencies, including from my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson). The hon. Member for Hartlepool talked about some horrific cases of pets being stolen to be used, in effect, for baiting in dog fighting or to fight themselves. That is clearly the cruellest and most extreme end of this heinous crime.

When I was about 13, we had a beautiful young golden retriever called Sam. When he was about a year old, he went missing. To this day, I can remember us going out on the roads late at night, driving down every country lane around the farm in Cornwall and trying to locate Sam, all to no avail. We were unable to sleep that night because we were so distraught and upset that our wonderfully kind pet dog had gone missing.

The following day, we phoned every farmer in the area, in case Sam had gone on a runabout, and we phoned all sorts of other businesses in case we could locate him. As luck would have it, a local scrap-metal dealer phoned my mother back about an hour after they had spoken to say that there was a van at the scrapyard with a white-coloured golden retriever that might be our dog. My mother rushed off to the scrap-metal dealer, who undertook to keep the person occupied so that the van did not disappear. It was indeed our pet dog Sam, and my mother and our family were reunited with him.

The person who took Sam claimed that he had found him and had intended to take him to the police. It was therefore thought that we would not have a case and would not be able to bring a prosecution against the person, although that gentleman certainly had to endure a dressing down from my mother—a significant penalty.

I shall return to the issue of pet theft, but first I shall say a bit more about what the Government are doing to improve animal welfare specifically for pets. We have introduced new licensing requirements for puppy breeders, lowering the threshold at which they need a licence to breed pets. We have also strengthened the provisions on online sales, beyond any doubt bringing those who sell pets online into a licensing regime under the Pet Animals Act 1951. We have been clear that we intend to increase the maximum penalty for cruelty to animals to five years, and we have given our support to a private Member’s Bill that will strengthen protection and recognition for service animals. Finally, to come to the point made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), we have been clear that we shall introduce a ban on third-party sales of puppies, in particular, and other juvenile pets. We have had a call for evidence on the issue, and we intend to introduce provisions in that regard.

[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

Specifically on the issue of pet theft, a couple of years ago we introduced changes to make the microchipping of all dogs mandatory. That has had some impact already. More than 90% of dogs are now microchipped, which has made rehoming or the reuniting of people with their missing pets much easier for the authorities. The impact of that change has been extraordinary. The latest figures from Dogs Trust show that the number of stray dogs last year fell to about 66,000, which has almost halved on a few years ago, when we regularly had more than 120,000 stray dogs per year.

Microchipping also has a potential role in identifying animals that have been stolen. A couple of years ago there was some suggestion that we should legislate to create a legal obligation on vets to scan every animal in their practice to identify animals that might have been stolen. At the time we believed that to be a step too far, but we did work with the British Veterinary Association and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to create clear guidance for veterinary practices that there should always be a presumption of checking any new animal presented to them when an owner enrols with the practice.

Earlier today, I discussed with the police lead on dogs, Gareth Pritchard, this issue of dog and pet theft. One point he made was that although the microchipping regulations are working well and have led to big improvements, we are starting to see some problems with people not keeping their details up to date—people moving home, for example, and not keeping the record up to date. In some cases, that is starting to make it hard to reunite people with their pets. It is important—and a provision of the regulations—for people to keep their data up to date.

I have done some work on the scale of the pet theft problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford pointed out, the figures out there range widely. Our belief is that the best estimate available is from a series of freedom of information requests put to all 44 police forces, with 38 providing reliable data back. From that, it is possible to ascertain that in 2016 there were 1,788 dog thefts and in 2017 the number rose to 1,909. That equates to around 34 dogs being stolen each week—a significant number. As a number of hon. Members pointed out, the 7% increase between 2016 and 2017 suggests that it is a growing problem. I will return to the statistics later, because my hon. Friend made the legitimate point that we ought to have reliable data in this area.

Dr Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Cameron - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 6:01 p.m.

Will the Minister give way?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice - Hansard

I was about to come to the hon. Lady’s question, but I will give way.

Dr Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Cameron - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 6:01 p.m.

There has been an increase in pet theft of some breeds in recent years. Does analysis of the breeds that are being stolen offer any insight into the reasons, and therefore how we can best tackle this crime?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 6:02 p.m.

The hon. Lady asked a similar question about what is driving the thefts. At one end of the scale, there are horrific examples of pets being stolen to be used in baiting and dog fights. This afternoon, I asked our police lead on dogs whether they considered that to be a large factor in dog thefts. His response was that generally speaking, as with lots of theft, dogs that are perceived to have a higher monetary value tend to be stolen. Obviously, that is bad news for pets that are deemed to be of high worth, but on one level it is reassuring—hopefully, the type of incidents that the hon. Member for Hartlepool described are the exception rather than the rule in this terrible crime. I will return to the data a little later.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford and others pointed out, the Government’s view is that the Theft Act 1968 provides sufficient sanctions to deal with the problem. He made a powerful case about some of the issues with the Sentencing Council, which I will come on to in a moment. I want to take the opportunity as the Front Bench spokesman to recognise that pets are not just objects; they are sentient beings and companions to people. The fact that they are covered for this purpose under the Theft Act does not take away at all from the fact that they are sentient beings and more than just property.

In his introduction, the hon. Member for Hartlepool highlighted the fact that, somewhat bizarrely, the Act has a provision for the theft of mushrooms and for the theft of wild animals. He asked why if we can have provisions for those, we cannot have one for pets. The reason why they are pulled out is that it was judged at the time that sometimes there could be doubt about whether a mushroom was public property or private property, and there could be some doubt about whether somebody would have ownership of a wild animal. It is beyond doubt that pets have an owner, so that provision did not apply.

Turning to sentencing, a number of hon. Members—including, quite powerfully, my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, but also my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith)—highlighted the current Sentencing Council guidelines. Hon. Members will appreciate that sentencing is a matter for the Ministry of Justice, policing is a matter for the Home Office and companion animals form part of the portfolio of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs managed by my noble Friend, Lord Gardiner. However, I will do my best to describe the position as I see it.

It is important to remember that in 2016, the independent Sentencing Council updated its sentencing guidelines for theft offences. The new guidelines acknowledge that theft that causes emotional distress to the victim or where the item stolen is of a substantial value, regardless of the monetary worth, will indicate a higher level of seriousness and the offender should be sentenced accordingly. In the context of the theft of pets, my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford is right that although the Theft Act provides for a maximum sentence of seven years, there is scant evidence of that being used.

Our reading of the current guidance, which was issued in 2016, is that in applying that guidance, the theft of a pet should be considered as either a category two or a category three offence. The custodial sentence is two years for a category two offence and one year for a category three. My hon. Friend is right that, applying our interpretation of the most recent guidance, a seven-year maximum penalty is largely theoretical for pet theft unless there are other aggravating circumstances. But as a general rule, category two or three would seem to be an appropriate sentence.

I hope that I have been able to reassure Members of the seriousness with which we take this issue. The Government have demonstrated in just the last six months that we are willing to change the law wherever necessary. Although at the moment the Government are not convinced that we need to change the law, I want to give three undertakings. First, let us use this debate to be absolutely clear that the Government interpret the latest guidance from the Sentencing Council that the theft of a pet should generally be treated as a category two or three offence.

Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford and others made an important point about the need for statistics. This afternoon, I asked Gareth Pritchard, the Home Office policing lead for dogs, to marshal accurate data from the 44 police forces. It should not be left to third parties to try their luck through freedom of information requests—I agree that Government should marshal that. I have asked him to generate that data and to provide me with a report of the most accurate data he is able to gather.

Thirdly, I will discuss with my noble friend Lord Gardiner whether there are any other things that we have considered by way of enforcement and to improve detection rates for this crime. One of the messages I picked up from hon. Members’ contributions is that it may be not so much that the ability to sentence is not there or even that the maximum penalties are wrong, but simply that too few of these crimes are detected and too few prosecutions are brought.

Hugh Gaffney Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 6:08 p.m.

Social media is being used to show some ridiculous acts on animals. That video evidence should be used to sentence more heavily.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 6:09 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The internet and the growth of social media have created many challenges in enforcing legislation on pet sales, but they also give us a ready way to identify culprits, particularly those who are breaching rules. Rather than seeing the internet and social media as threats, we should use them where we can to gain evidence, as he points out.

In conclusion, we have had a very thoughtful and detailed debate that I believe does justice to the 106,000 people who signed the petition. Although the Government are not convinced for change, I hope that, through those undertakings, I have been able to demonstrate that we intend to do more work and gather more evidence in this area.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 6:10 p.m.

I thank all the Members who got involved in this important debate, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) and for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya), and the hon. Members for Crawley (Henry Smith), for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson), for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), for Clacton (Giles Watling) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). Of course, I also thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for their contributions.

I thank the Minister for pointing out the reasoning behind the specification of mushrooms and wild animals in the Theft Act 1968, and for his clear observations about pets and animals being sentient beings, not commodities. I sincerely hope that the Government are convinced enough to change the law soon. Too many pet thieves have got away with light sentences because of unacceptable and irrelevant guidelines. All pets should be treated equally, regardless of their monetary value.

I thank the petitioners—particularly Dr Daniel Allen, John Cooper QC and Debbie Matthews, the founder of SAMPA—for bringing forward this important petition, which clearly has cross-party support. I am proud to have carried out my duties as a member of the Petitions Committee by introducing the debate on behalf of the Committee.

Finally, on behalf of Debbie Matthews, whose father, Sir Bruce Forsyth, was a big contributor to this debate in his own right, I say, “Nice to see you, to see you nice.”

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 212174 relating to pet theft.