Monday 28th June 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Pritchard. May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on his success in bringing this important issue to the public gaze and to Parliament, where we are charged with setting the laws and ensuring that they are properly policed?

I fully agree with the petitions and the sentiment behind them. They are focused on chipping dogs and reading the chips. Currently, it is compulsory to have one’s dog chipped, but it is not compulsory, as I discovered to my surprise during lockdown, to scan those chips. That discovery led me to ask further questions. Many of the people whom my hon. Friend mentioned, including Debbie and others, showed me that it is literally incoherent that we have an obligation on owners to chip but not on vets to scan. What is the point of chipping animals if the honest people in society are the only ones who get them checked? We need that to be made obligatory.

My hon. Friend is quite right that there are between 14 and 16 separate databases, and that we need to ensure that the data is centrally available and read, so that we know who the original owner is and the right people—the people who originally owned the dog—have the say so on the decision about whether a dog is to be put down or not, as my hon. Friend said.

I draw the House’s attention to the Report stage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, for which I and my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) have tabled three new clauses. New clause 14 would require the sale of pet by cheque or bank transfer, basically banning cash sales. New clause 15 would make it compulsory for microchipped pets to be scanned by vets, who must check that the microchip number is registered on an approved database and confirm the correct registered keeper. New clause 16 would make the offence of pet theft a specific category of crime carrying a much more significant fine and/or incarceration.

I want us to come back to the idea that microchipping is important because it is necessary to understand who the owner is. I say that because there has been a staggering increase in crime relating to pets, and dogs in particular. As has been said, during the lockdown, many people who had never had a pet suddenly realised that they had more time on their hands and wanted one, so demand went up. Legitimate supply was unable to keep up for the simple reason that legitimate breeders were unable to put dogs and bitches together to produce legitimate litters, so we were left with the criminal fraternity, which did two things.

First, there was the increase in puppy farms, which is a disgusting state of affairs. A bitch will be stolen from somebody, she will be used constantly to produce young puppies until she is worn out within about six months to a year, and then the criminals have her put down or abandon her on the streets. That is really important. For those who care about this, it is not just a political game; it is very serious, because it is about unnecessary pain and the terrible lives led by animals who are taken by criminals.

Secondly, there has been an enormous increase in dog theft. The BBC reported a 250% increase in dog theft crime in Suffolk alone during the pandemic, comparing the year ending July 2019 and that ending July 2020. The Metropolitan police report the highest number of dog thefts in the country. The number of stolen dogs registered on the DogLost website increased by 170% from 2019 to 2020, and 2020 has been one of the worst years ever for dognapping.

It is bad enough that there is theft, which is a crime, but dog theft is the theft of people’s pets, not just property, and that is where the law falls down again. Pets are more than just property. I might own this chair behind me, but the chair does not greet me in the evening when I come back. It does not console me when there is a problem. It just sits there. A dog is a sentient being and therefore has greater value than just an object, and it is time we brought the law up to speed.

The problem is that prices have rocketed. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North spoke about that earlier. The price has increased by 134% for chows, at £2,000 in October compared with £1,000 the previous March. Pets such as French bulldogs can be more than £5,000 each, and a litter can earn more than £30,000 for those who use them to breed. The problem is not just criminality. Violence is used by criminals to steal dogs to order, so we now have an increase in violent crime.

Here is the problem; it has gone to the gangs. I live in an area of north-east London that has real problems with street gangs. The police work hard on it and so does the local authority. I make no criticism of them. But the gangs now see it as easier, cheaper and less of a problem to steal a pet such as a French bulldog and sell it on for cash rather than try to sell drugs on a street corner, because selling drugs gets them into much greater trouble. It leads to great violence to themselves and therefore becomes a bigger problem. Why would they not steal a valuable pet and sell it? They might get a £250 fine. They are just laughing their heads off.

Dogs are now valuable merchandise. There is no real criminal penalty for stealing one, so why not do it? That is one reason why violent thefts have increased dramatically. What the hell do they care if they smash somebody to the ground, hurt them—normally an elderly person—and take their dog? We have heard stories of people being stamped on, their hands smashed and the dog taken off the lead. Sometimes knives are used. All sorts of stuff goes on, because pets now have a significant cash value.

Cash is key here, which is why we want to ban the use of cash. It had a massive effect on the theft of lead from churches when we introduced a ban on cash for scrap metal. This is another angle of attack. I absolutely support what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said about microchipping. It is, however, only one element of what has to happen with regard to pets. We need to update the law. Far too many people out there are really worried.

I know what goes on in Ministries. I had six years in a Department, so I know what civil servants say: “Oh, Minister, this is really a second-order issue. There are many more important things that we have to focus on. There are all these big things that we have to deal with.” I say there is no greater issue than the thing that affects our constituents’ lives and worries them and that leads to criminality, violence and the loss of the legitimate property of a pet—a dog, a cat or whatever. It is time to make this not a second-order issue, but a first-order issue. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the issue has been kicked around the different Departments. I know that the Lord Chancellor is speaking to people in the next couple of days, so he takes an interest in it. The Home Secretary spoke to me and she took an interest in it, and I know that the Minister’s Department takes an interest in it. Can we please make sure that the Government recognise that whoever owns this problem, we all own it collectively as a Parliament—not even as a Government? We own it because we owe it to our constituents to save them from any further problems, any further violence, and any further threats and the theft of pets.

I am a dog owner myself. Like many others, I would hate the idea of my wife or somebody else being smashed to the ground, beaten up and their pet stolen. My wife has just stepped down as chair of the trustees of the charity Medical Detection Dogs. The charity is currently working on detecting covid, with brilliant and immediate results, as high as any of the tests. These are very valuable animals that save our lives. They sniff aircraft to check there are no bombs or illegal currency, and they come to this place to run around the Benches and tell us that we are safe. They are not items; they are pets that are owned by people, but they are also incredibly powerful and save lives. Now is the time to act. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to relay that back to all the Government Departments. Let’s get on with this, do what is right and help our constituents.