Pet Theft

Dr Lisa Cameron Excerpts
Monday 2nd July 2018

(2 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Giles Watling Portrait Giles Watling - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:31 p.m.

That is indeed a possibility. 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.

Dr Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP) - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:40 p.m.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, especially having worked with you on the Select Committee on International Development, where you have done so much on human rights over the years.

It is also a pleasure to speak on the petition. As has been mentioned, it has received overwhelming public support, because it is an issue that is very dear to the hearts and minds of people right across the United Kingdom. I thank Dr Daniel Allen and Beverley Cuddy for getting it to this stage, and I look forward to hosting them at some point in the near future in the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group, which I chair. We have been doing lots of good work on dog welfare in the year since the group was formed. I encourage hon. Members to join the group. It is very much a cross-party group, because animal welfare is one of those issues on which we come together and work together to ensure that we have the very best conditions right across the United Kingdom.

The petition secured more than 100,000 signatures, and has been supported by the Stolen And Missing Pets Alliance, All About Animals, APDAWG—our all-party group—Finn’s law campaigners and Lucy’s law campaigners including Marc Abraham, known as “Marc the Vet”, the National Animal Welfare Trust, magazines including Dogs Today and Dogs Monthly, and celebrities including Ricky Gervais, Chris Packham, Kirsty Gallacher, Peter Egan, who regularly attends our cross-party group, Victoria Stilwell and Lorraine Kelly. Most of all, the petition has the power of people behind it. It has the power of our constituents, and I am very proud that more than 100 of my constituents from East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow felt so strongly that they wanted to sign the petition and have urged me to speak on this important issue.

Hugh Gaffney Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:35 p.m.

I want to make a wee point. Last week, dangerous dogs were in the news, and 2,275 postal workers were bitten last year. I would just like to say that the majority of postal workers, like myself, love animals and dogs, and welcome them.

Dr Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Cameron - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:35 p.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am aware of his history in the postal service and thank him greatly for that. It is one of the great services that we have across the country. There are some risks to postal workers from dogs, so it is incumbent on dog owners to ensure that their dogs are trained appropriately. I realise that postal workers have an affinity for dogs, like the rest of our constituents and people across the country.

As we have heard, a quarter of households have one or more dogs, and it appears that this crime is on the rise. I ask the Minister whether we know why that might be happening, and what the factors are. Only when we discover the key factors behind this crime will we be able to have a multi-structural strategy to address what is happening. Are dogs being stolen for heinous crimes such as dog fighting, as we have heard today? Are those poor dogs being savaged, perhaps as bait for dogs that are being trained to fight in a ring? We need far more resources to tackle that. I was extremely proud to lead a debate in Westminster Hall, only in 2016, on dog fighting.

Is there a gang element to pet theft? Is the same type of organised crime set-up that we see in relation to dog fighting, puppy smuggling and puppy farming causing pets to be stolen? If there are links between those activities, and between the people perpetrating them, we need to develop adequate laws and legal frameworks to deal with that. Lucy’s law is also important for many reasons, including dog welfare and people’s welfare, in terms of having dogs and young puppies enter families, and in relation to the types of issues that we are discussing today. I feel that there may be an important underlying common denominator that it is important to address.

People have spoken today of their love for dogs. My dog, Rossi, is a French bulldog. Having looked at the figures for pet theft, I am aware that that is exactly the type of dog breed that is being stolen—it is near the top of the list. French bulldogs are often used for breeding and puppy farming, which makes me think that perhaps there are links with pet theft. I would be bereft if something happened to Rossi out in the garden where he likes to roam. We are lucky to have quite a big garden. I keep encouraging my husband to cut the grass, and I am hopeful that he might be doing that today as we speak, but Rossi loves to wander throughout our garden. It is always in the back of my mind to check that he is still there and that everything is okay.

Giles Watling Portrait Giles Watling - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:39 p.m.

Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to get the information out to owners to protect their pets? Humphrey, Herbert and Minnie wander as well. I do not know where they are half the time. We need to take measures and be aware.

Dr Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Cameron - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:39 p.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Much of this is about education. Our garden is enclosed, but we are mindful of the fact that if someone were intent on stealing our pet that would not prevent them from doing so. I am aware of the breed-specific snatching of French bulldogs, so it is a particular worry for my family.

From listening to the figures, pet theft seems to be a crime that goes unpunished and has very little consequence for those who engage in it. That has to be addressed, and I urge the Minister to make a change in law. We are a nation of dog lovers, and addressing this issue will minimise the impact on families who lose a pet and on the children. My children would be absolutely devastated to lose Rossi. As the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said, there is a severe impact on the stolen dog, too, because often they do not go to a happy home. I do not want to think about their fate, given the activities that the criminal gangs may be involved in.

Another issue that has been raised is the impact on elderly people, for whom a pet can be very important. If they live on their own, a pet can be an absolute lifeline and can make them feel that they have a connection. We must consider that, for someone in such circumstances, losing a dog or any other pet is a bereavement—it causes grief and trauma. We know from the meetings of the all-party group for dog welfare just how important dogs, cats and pets in general are in tackling loneliness. The Government have set out to address that issue, so I ask the Minister to look at pet therapy and contact with pets within that framework.

It is extremely busy in Westminster Hall, despite the fact that we are all on a one-line Whip, because this issue resonates with the public, MPs and our constituents. There is no party politics when it comes to animal welfare, as we all want to see change. Members from many parties have spoken today, and I thank them for that. Several Members who support the dog welfare group could not be here today but very much wanted to come.

The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) spoke about his little dog, Mia, and her importance, if not primacy, in the family now that he is down at Westminster. I wish Mia and the family well.

This is a devolved issue, and I have written to the Scottish Government about it because I want it to be reviewed. My colleagues, Emma Harper and Christine Grahame, are linked to the cross-party animal welfare group in the Scottish Parliament, and I hope that they will take this issue forward. The First Minister knows I am extremely dogmatic in insisting we take the lead on these issues, which must be addressed across the United Kingdom.

I urge the Minister to discuss the legal framework—particularly the fact that cases are not coming to court, they do not appear even to be recorded, and weak sentencing is not acting as a deterrent. Obviously, pets mean much more to us than objects, so that is one of the issues that must be addressed in the law. Some of the ideas that hon. Members suggested as part of the solution, such as licencing and passporting systems, are good, but I want the Minister to address the precipitating factors that have caused the increase in dog thefts across the country. Are they linked to other animal welfare issues, such as puppy smuggling and farming, and dog fighting?

Sue Hayman (Workington) (Lab) Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:44 p.m.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on introducing this important debate. I thank the organisers of the petition and the 105,000 people who signed it. The parliamentary e-petition system is a fantastic way of connecting us with our constituents on the issues that are really important to us and of putting such issues on the agenda.

We are clearly a nation of animal lovers. I declare an interest, as the owner of a dog and a cat. Many hon. Members have shared their experience of their pets. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) for his contribution. He said it is a real disgrace that so few stolen pets are ever reunited with their owners. The hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) is clearly very knowledgeable about this issue and made a particularly powerful point about sentencing guidelines. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya) made some very important interventions, which added significantly to the debate. I was particularly pleased to hear the story the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) told about how his dog, Poppy, reacts when he leaves to come down here—like other hon. Members, I could share similar stories. I congratulate him on his ten-minute rule Bill, and I wish him luck with it in the House tomorrow.

The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) talked about the huge impact that the loss of a much-loved pet can have on a family. The hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) talked about the cruelty of pet theft, not just to the family who lost the pet but to the pet itself. It is important that we do not forget that. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) works tirelessly on dog welfare in this House and made an important contribution.

As pet owners, we truly love our animals. Figures from Dogs Trust show that 99% of pet owners consider their animal to be part of the family—we all do. We have heard that the bond between an animal and its family is linked to the bond between a parent and their child, so it is clearly a terrible nightmare for a family if their dog or cat is stolen.

More than 60 dogs are stolen across England and Wales every single week. That is 60 families whose beloved pets are taken. Disgracefully, fewer than 5% of cases end in convictions. We do not want that situation to be allowed to continue. As Members of the House, it is our duty to try to do something about it.

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home told me that there is no single database of pet-related theft, so any information comes from freedom of information requests to individual police forces—the hon. Member for Dartford made that point clearly. Will the Minister tell us how we can tackle this problem if we do not know the scale of it? I understand the concerns raised about categorising pets in legislation designed to deal with property theft. As hon. Members said, it is important that we recognise in law that animals are sentient beings and not the equivalent of a laptop or a blender.

Tragically, on average, five dogs a day are stolen and then sold, bred or forced to fight. We have heard that the numbers are increasing; my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool gave us some clear figures and information about that. We have also heard that designer dogs such as cockapoos or French bulldogs sell for a high price, and that Staffordshire bull terriers are often stolen for dog fighting. It is thought that the lack of prosecution and the lenient punishments are contributing to this rise. Pet theft offenders receive community service orders or a fine more often than a custodial sentence—certainly not the seven years that could be handed out.

It is heartbreaking that so few pets are reunited with their owners. Some breeds are more likely to be stolen. Labrador thefts are up 42% year on year; as the owner of a beautiful chocolate labrador called Max, I find that horrifying. The thought of losing Max is dreadful. He is six, but one of the first things we did when we got him as a puppy was to insure him, because we were advised that he was at high risk of being stolen. That is a terrible thing to have to contemplate.

I appreciate what the Government have said about updating sentencing guidelines for theft offences to account for the emotional stress caused by pet theft, and I understand that the guidelines now recommend high penalties in such cases. As hon. Members have said today, however, we need to ensure that the proper sentences are given and that prosecutions are increased. We must catch as many perpetrators as possible to do our best to stamp out this appalling crime, which causes such terrible upset to families.

On microchipping, it is welcome that the Government now require all dogs to be microchipped and registered by the age of eight weeks. That does not solve the problem—we have heard that microchips can be dug out—but it has already had a positive impact.

Break in Debate

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.