Pet Theft

Gareth Johnson Excerpts
Monday 2nd July 2018

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:51 p.m.

That is true; the hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head in terms of the difference.

SAMPA asks the Minister to reclassify pet theft as a crime in its own right, as is the case with vehicles and bicycles, and to add aggravated sentence provision for pet theft, to give the courts extended discretion.

On sentencing consistency, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 is being revised to increase sentencing for animal cruelty, and it is in the public interest to do the same for pet theft. SAMPA wants those changes because it believes that being proactive, with tougher sentencing, will act as a deterrent and help to reduce pet theft.

As we have heard, this is clearly an all-party issue. More than 100,000 petitioners agree that we need pet theft reform to help to protect pets. Campaigners hope that the Minister will do the right thing and make pet theft reform a reality.

Gareth Johnson Portrait Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con) - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:53 p.m.

I am pleased to be able to contribute to the debate. I pay tribute to the Petitions Committee and to the contribution of the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill).

We all agree that pet theft is a particularly nasty, cruel and growing crime that brings misery to owners and to dogs. I got involved with this issue when a case was brought to my attention of a lady who lived on her own and did not have many family members or friends in the local vicinity. She had a dog that was the centre of her world, and it was stolen from her. That caused her such misery, grief and devastation that trying to deal with it as some sort of property crime fell very wide of the mark. That is not how we should approach such incidents.

We have heard several comments about statistics. I have tried to drill down into how big a problem dog theft is in this country, but the brutal fact is that we simply do not know. We heard that 2,000 dogs are stolen per year, but I have also heard the figure of 4,000. We hear different things from different parts of the country, because different police forces approach it completely differently. Last year, I sent a freedom of information request to every police force in the country to try to ascertain how they approached it, and it was clear that in some areas, but not in others, a designated police officer dealt with any offence to do with pet theft.

In some police forces, when the police turned up to a complaint about a dog being stolen from someone’s garden, it was recorded as the theft of a dog, but in others it was recorded as a missing pet. Consequently, according to the statistics, the picture around the country is very varied. In fact, if the statistics show a high level of pet theft in an area, that often suggests only that the police force in that area is very proactive in dealing with it. I pay tribute to my county of Kent and the police force there, which does take the matter seriously. One in four stolen animals in Kent are returned to their owners. That is a pitifully small percentage, but it is far better than the national average, which is something like one in 10 stolen dogs being returned to their owners. We need to look carefully at the statistics, because the picture around the country is mixed.

It is something of an urban myth that most dogs are stolen from outside shops. Although that does happen, it seems that most dogs are stolen from people’s gardens or when they are taken out for walks; that is far more planned than the opportunistic theft of a dog from outside a shop. The different circumstances in which dogs are stolen also have an impact on the way that the statistics are compiled. If a police officer is called to someone’s home, that will often be treated as the theft of a dog. If a dog is out on a walk and is taken by somebody, it is treated as a missing dog. There is a disparity of approach in different forces.

Some forces deal with the matter particularly well. South Wales can be very proud, and Norfolk deals with the issue proactively. We should give credit to forces that are desperately trying to get to grips with the growing problem. However, as much as some police forces are trying to do their best for dogs and their owners and deal with the issue, they are hampered in their effectiveness by the fact that the courts cannot deal with it properly. The courts are hampered, in turn, by the Sentencing Council guidelines that they have to follow, which have been mentioned a few times already.

The courts’ inability to deal adequately with dog theft is at the root of so much of the problem, and it is not surprising that many people see it as a high-reward, low-risk crime. I worked in the criminal justice system for about 20 years before coming to this place, and I saw an increasing propensity for people to commit such offences. The offences chop and change; the hon. Member for Hartlepool mentioned metal theft, and other crimes that are seen as high reward and low risk gain popularity among the criminal classes. At the moment, this country is suffering because criminals see dog theft as an attractive crime. It is incumbent on this place to stop that. If we do not act, the problem will simply get worse.

The category of the offence is at the heart of how a court deals with an offender, as we heard earlier. The guidelines say that if an animal—or anything—that is taken has a value of less than £500, it is very difficult for the court to give a custodial sentence. If a court does give a custodial sentence, it has to be short, because that is what the guidelines demand. Time and again, we hear from the Government—not just this one, but Governments of all persuasions, including the coalition Government and the last Labour Government—that seven years’ imprisonment is available for the theft of a dog. That may be the case on paper, but the guidelines make it impossible for the courts to impose that kind of sentence.

I call on the Sentencing Council to look at that. I wrote to it last year and said that it needed to amend its guidelines to make appropriate and adequate sentences available for this kind of offence. It wrote back and simply said no, it was not going to. We need to change its mind and ensure that it is sentencing this kind of offence in accordance with the actual nature of the crime. The monetary value of a dog should not be the main factor in sentencing an offender, and yet that is exactly what it is under the current guidelines. A sentence of seven years for a dog thief is not available to the courts, as the guidelines stand. That is crystal clear, so we should not allow anybody to hide behind that figure of seven years.

Simon Hart Portrait Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con) - Hansard

I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend’s contribution. It strikes me that the element that we are not really accounting for is that dogs themselves may be worth less than five hundred quid, but their breeding potential may be worth several thousand pounds over a period of time. I wonder whether the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 has an application in this area that has not yet been properly used.

Gareth Johnson Portrait Gareth Johnson - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:01 p.m.

If I understand my hon. Friend’s point, the Proceeds of Crime Act is fine when there are some proceeds, but when there are no proceeds, it is very difficult to use. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) mentioned that his dogs are worth about £50 each.

Bob Stewart Portrait Bob Stewart - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:01 p.m.


Gareth Johnson Portrait Gareth Johnson - Hansard

My dogs are not worth 50p each, but that is not the point. The whole point is that our pets are priceless to us and the law does not recognise that.

Simon Hart Portrait Simon Hart - Hansard

Their offspring, however, might be worth more; that is my point. My hon. Friend might have a dog that is borderline £500 in value, but if, unfortunately, it had more than one litter a year—some unscrupulous breeders of dogs do that—for a period of years, its value to a breeder would be significant.

Gareth Johnson Portrait Gareth Johnson - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:01 p.m.

Without going into details, if my dog had offspring it would be something of a miracle, so it would be worth an awful lot of money. My hon. Friend makes a very pertinent point, however. Some people steal dogs to use them for breeding and therefore make lots of money for themselves, as the puppies are sold on. We have seen a particular increase in thefts of French bulldogs, because they are high-value dogs. I suppose the difference in that case, and in the case of some sheepdogs that we have heard mention of, is that because there is a reasonable monetary value attached to the dog, the court has some teeth to deal with the matter. It does not when the theft is of a scruffy mongrel—a mutt—that is a member of and the centre of a family, and is loved to bits and priceless to that family, but is of a pitiful monetary value. That is where we have problems with the current guidelines, and where we completely fall short.

At the moment, the Sentencing Council may not be giving a green light to dog thieves, but it is certainly not putting up a red light. It has to change, therefore, and if it does not, the only way forward for this place is to bring in a specific offence of dog theft. We have specific offences such as the theft of a pedal cycle, and various other things, but we do not have a specific offence of dog theft. If the Sentencing Council does not change its guidelines, it would be right and appropriate to bring in a law that tackles this particular problem.

This is an issue that unites this House; there is no party politics here. Members of the Labour party, Liberal Democrats and Members from all political parties are united in our condemnation of, and our attitude of disgust towards, people who carry out such crimes. We all want to see a change. I hope that we will get that through the Sentencing Council, but if we do not, the route is through the Ministry of Justice. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about this matter today.

Finally, I pay tribute to all the organisations—I will not repeat the list that the hon. Member for Hartlepool read out earlier—that have worked so tirelessly on this important issue. I particularly pay tribute to the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance. I know that some of its representatives are here, and that it has worked incredibly hard on this issue and tried to keep it in the public eye. This offence is a nasty, cruel one that brings misery to owners and to dogs. It is not a property crime, and it should not be treated as such.

Hugh Gaffney (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab) Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:04 p.m.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma, and to serve under you this afternoon.

I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for an important speech. I agreed with his speech in full, and I hope that Dr Daniel Allen—the creator of this public petition—and all who love their animals feel the same way.

Millions of people and families from across the country—in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland—own pets of many kinds. In June 2017, I was elected Member of Parliament for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. It was an important moment for me and for my family, but I can assure everyone present that it was not the only important matter for us last year. We got a new dog—I was replaced by a dog called Mia, who joined our family. If my wife Anne was asked, I think she would say that Mia coming to us was more important than me coming to this House.

After so many weeks down here in Parliament, it could be said that in the eyes of the Gaffney family, Mia has indeed replaced me in our home back in Scotland. She certainly spends more time in my bed than I do. Like many Members from across the House, I could share many stories of my dog’s cheeky but loving behaviour, and about her determination to take my side of the bed and establish herself as the top dog in our house.

It is easy for me to have fun and laugh with my dog—she has certainly given me a lot of pleasure—but other people experience the heartache of losing their animals or having them stolen. I pay tribute to the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance for the important work that it does to champion the rights of animal lovers, and indeed the rights of the animals themselves. I echo the words of Beverley Cuddy, the patron of SAMPA, who said:

“Pets are priceless, irreplaceable and their loss wrecks lives”.

Beverley is right and she gives voice to the feelings of so many people. I add my support to ensure that all our voices are heard here today in Parliament.

The fact that only one in five stolen dogs tends to be recovered is a disgrace, and it means that many families and other dog owners will never receive the closure that they need and demand after the loss of a pet. We must do more, and we must do better. There is no doubt that crime is on the rise in this country, whatever we may hear from the Home Office, and not just conventional sorts of crime. Pet theft is also on the rise, and we can see why.