Pet Theft

Giles Watling 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, 4:50 p.m.

That is well said, and I agree wholeheartedly.

Although the word “property” understandably makes many pet owners uncomfortable, our pets would be better protected if they were properly detailed in the 1968 Act, because that would strengthen the aggravated sentence provision, as is already the case with vehicles and bicycles.

SAMPA would like the sentencing guidelines for theft offences to be reviewed so that the section on harm would read: “Harm is assessed by reference to the financial loss that results from the theft, except in cases involving the theft of a domestic pet, where financial or monetary value should be disregarded.”

Giles Watling Portrait Giles Watling (Clacton) (Con) - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:52 p.m.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he agree that, although the theft of ordinary possessions, such as jewellery, is distressing, it is nothing like the loss of an animal? The people who do this are trading in misery.

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.

Break in Debate

Bill Grant (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Con) Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:11 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for securing this debate and the Petitions Committee for tabling it. The petition, which was started by the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance, has secured more than 100,000 signatures. That has led to this debate this afternoon. The petition will remain open until 8 August, if memory serves.

In the UK, approximately 2,000 dogs are stolen each year. Only a very small number are returned to their owners, and we do not know whether 2,000 is the true figure. We do not know whether the dogs have been stolen or simply got lost, and we do not know how many go missing and are not reported, so the figure may be a vast underestimate.

Only 5% of reported dog thefts lead to a conviction, which is a very low rate. Charges may be brought under the Theft Act 1968 or the Animal Welfare Act 2006. In Scotland, charges can be brought under common law or the Animal Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006.

There have been numerous calls for pet theft to be classified as a specific crime, with pets recognised as sentient beings, rather than simply property. According to Dogs Trust, 70% of reported dog thefts are not from outside shops or from cars, but from owners’ gardens—the crime starts with the distressing invasion of a person’s private property. People have a close affinity with their pets, which means that when a pet is abruptly taken, people also suffer considerable emotional distress and trauma, and that applies to all the family.

It is not easy to grieve for a lost pet. We had a wee fella for 17 years. As a big robust firefighter, I took him to the vet on his last day, and I cried for an hour. I know what it is like to lose not just a pet, but a best pal. If I was bad, my wife was significantly worse. I do not think she will shed as many tears when I go. Pets are very much a part of our lives.

Each case should undoubtedly be looked at on its own merits, but the sentencing should always be appropriate to the crime and reflect the emotional distress caused to the pet owner. Too often, sentencing guidelines concentrate on the purchase or replacement value of the dog or pet. That is discriminatory, because the value of a mongrel or non-pedigree as a person’s best friend may equate to or exceed that of the purchase price of a pedigree breed. The value is in fun, friendship and unquestioning loyalty.

We have to recognise what was said in a recent article in the Cumnock Chronicle, a small local paper whose circulation covers my constituency:

“Thefts of French Bulldogs—a distinctive breed popular with celebrities…increased 27% from 2016-2017…The number of Chihuahuas”—

as mentioned before—

“and Huskies taken from their owners is also on the rise, with 57 and 18 stolen in 2017 respectively.”

That trend appears to be borne out by information published by insurance companies.

An older media report in a national newspaper records a Lhasa Apso puppy—it must have a Tibetan connection with a name like that—stolen in my hometown of Ayr. The police investigating at the time appear to have discovered coloured stickers on local garden gateposts—that was identified by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya). They suspected the thieves may have had a coding system for stealing dogs to order for sale, breeding or fighting—or, in some cases, I am sure, for ransom.

It is certainly widely felt among the public that the current levels of fine available to members of the judiciary to impose are insufficient, particularly given the apparent reluctance to impose a custodial sentence in such cases. In the meantime, while we await much-needed amendments to the law, I trust that the existing laws will be rigorously enforced to protect our family pets, and I hope that the procurator fiscal in Scotland will process cases of pet theft—it is so important that that message goes to the organised gangs of criminals who steal family pets for personal gain, because it is an easy crime, as has been said before. Finally, I ask that pet owners remain vigilant in relation to the very real risk of losing their pet to pet theft.

Giles Watling Portrait Giles Watling (Clacton) (Con) - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:21 p.m.

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.

Bob Stewart Portrait Bob Stewart - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:23 p.m.

So far, we have not actually looked at the problem from the point of view of the dogs. Dogs have feelings, too. It must be bloody awful for a dog to go from a really loving home to the barbarous places where they are put.

Giles Watling Portrait Giles Watling - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:24 p.m.

I did detect a sort of question there. I totally agree with my hon. Friend that dogs have feelings and stealing them is barbarous. 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.

Fiona Onasanya Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:26 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman has made such a good point. I want to highlight something that I hope the Minister will cover. The lower the category, the lower the sentence, with little in the way of repercussions. That makes the crime even more attractive because it is low risk and high reward, so that needs to be borne in mind when looking at sentencing.

Giles Watling Portrait Giles Watling - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:27 p.m.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I could not agree more. I am coming on to the question of low risk and high reward, which makes the crime attractive because the risk is so low but some of the animals can be worth a great deal. Indeed, they are stolen to breed from, and therefore the rewards are multiplied by however many puppies they have. The maximum penalty at the moment is seven years’ imprisonment, and it very rarely, if ever, gets imposed.

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.

Bob Stewart Portrait Bob Stewart - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:30 p.m.

Our financially worthless, indolent dogs are each microchipped. They also have their own passports, with photographs. My wife owns them and controls them, which is more than I can do. Does my hon. Friend agree that the passport system could be used to help to trace dogs when they are stolen?

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.

Break in Debate

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?