Pet Theft

Jim Shannon Excerpts
Monday 19th October 2020

(3 years, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Thank you, Sir David. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt). He and I have many things in common. We might not agree on everything, but one thing that we do agree on is Ipswich football team. They are my son’s team, so whenever I follow the scores on a Saturday, I am able to relate to the hon. Member, as I did when we had a conversation today. He told me that he is actually a Newcastle supporter—I think they are his second team, but that is by the way. It is really nice to speak in the debate.

During my time in self-isolation, my faithful companion was Autumn, a springer spaniel. When I was out in the garden, she faithfully joined me. In fact, she has been faithful her whole life. I think someone had been very bad to her—we rescued the dog from Assisi Animal Sanctuary, and we now keep her in the house. There is a saying that a dog is “man’s best friend”, but you, Sir David, and I both know that the Lord Jesus is our best friend. He sticks closer than a brother. However, my dog Autumn definitely comes a close second.

The matter of dog theft is so pertinent, given that the theft of dogs—particularly gun dogs and shooting dogs—has risen dramatically. I can understand the heartache that comes from losing a faithful friend that loves their owner and is always happy to see them, no matter how burdened and low they feel. I understand that it is hard to put a value on the friendship of a dog, but it is truly a disservice to have a legal principle that restricts judges from imposing a fine greater than the monetary amount paid for a dog. In the eyes of the law currently, dogs are taken like any other form of property, so the punishment for dog theft is determined by the monetary value of the dog. As such, the fines given are mostly paltry.

I put on my record my position in relation to Northern Ireland, which has introduced micro-chipping. I see that that might now move across to the rest of the UK. There are horrific cases of dogs being stolen to participate in dog fights. Someone’s pampered pooch, which has been reared to be so gentle and loving, is thrown into a ring for bets. Even just saying that makes me feel sick to my stomach. We allow fines that say, “There are no papers to prove its pedigree, so it’s worth only about £50.” What is the value of someone’s dog? For me, it is a lot more than £50. It adds insult to stomach-churning injury.

That is why I wholly support the Dogs Trust in its calls for the Sentencing Council to amend existing guidelines to ensure that all cases of companion theft are considered category 1 or category 2 crimes at a minimum, regardless of monetary value. I further support the Dogs Trust’s request to see accurate and consistent recording and reporting of incidences of theft of a companion animal. Dogs Trust has called for increased penalties for animal cruelty offences and strongly supports a Bill that would,

“increase the maximum sentence for animal cruelty offences from 6 months to 5 years”—

that is the sort of legislation I want to see in place—

“address the protracted periods some dogs may spend in kennels during a court case and introduce a way of expediating the process or allowing the rehoming of seized animals”,

and,

“introduce an automatic ban on owning animals if a person is convicted of an animal cruelty offence, not only as a preventative measure to ensure that person commits no further offences but to serve as an extra deterrent and better protect animal welfare.”

They say that those who treat animals badly, mischievously, violently or cruelly are on a path to no good.

Let me be clear: sentencing will never bring a beloved animal home to where it was completely loved, but it will allow someone who is grieving to feel that their loss is somewhat understood. It will also act as a deterrent. When people understand, they will not have the thought, “Sure, it’s only an old dog.”; they will know that they will be taken seriously and the consequences of their despicable actions will be heavy indeed.

When I think of so many of our elderly, whose companions provide such love, affection and company, especially in these days of isolation, there should be no doubt in the mind of any criminal that this is a serious matter. We want to ensure that today. It is up to this House and, I must say, up to the Minister as well; we look forward to her response to our request.

--- Later in debate ---
Victoria Prentis Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Victoria Prentis)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on securing the debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), who cannot be with us today—I know she has worked hard in this area—and all the campaigners who have worked so hard to bring us to where we are today. We should all recognise that there is a lot of heartbreak behind the debate, in addition to the happy memories that we have with our animals.

The Government understand how important pets are to the families who care for them, and we understand that this has nothing to do with their monetary values. I am the carer—I never say “owner”—of Midnight, who did not have an unbeatable start in life round the back of the local chicken factory. He was a feral stray, and he and his brother fit on my palm when they arrived. I am proud to say that he became the purr-minister several years ago; indeed, he is campaigning at the moment for his re-election. It is clear that Midnight has no monetary value whatever, but his value to me, my husband and my children is priceless.

We have heard in the debate about a number of animals who are just like Midnight. We have heard about Trigger, Milly and Louis, Ruby and Beetle, Cromwell and Bertie, Fred, Archie, Clemmie, Poppy and Ebony, Winston, Cleo, Rossy and many more. Of course these animals are precious to their owners, as all our animals are. It is a horrible thing when an animal goes missing, but it is particularly unpleasant if the owner thinks that the animal is still alive and suffering somewhere.

Before I set out the Government’s position on pet theft, I will first set out a few high-level points on the Government’s position on animal welfare. Last December, we stood on a particularly strong manifesto for animal welfare, which included commitments to introduce tougher sentences for animal cruelty, to crack down on the illegal smuggling of dogs and puppies, to bring in new laws on animal sentience, to end excessively long journeys for slaughter and fattening, to ban the keeping of primates as pets, and to introduce cat microchipping, which is an issue that I campaigned on as a member of the all-party parliamentary group for cats—which, obviously, Midnight made me join. Those measures will build on what has already been achieved. I heard what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said—that it might be sensible to bring such issues together in one Bill—and I hope to have some news for him in that regard before too long.

In terms of Government achievements in this area, in 2018 we replaced old laws on the regulation of pet selling, dog breeding, animal boarding, riding schools and exhibiting animals. The regulations have strict statutory minimum welfare standards that are enforced by local authorities. I am very excited about the private Member’s Bill this Friday, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill. This Bill, if passed—I very much hope it will be, and the Government are 100% committed behind it—will increase the maximum custodial penalty for animal cruelty from six months’ imprisonment to five years.

Microchipping has been rightly brought up by a number of hon. Members, and it certainly helps in the sphere of pet theft and in returning animals to their rightful place. To answer my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West, who made specific points on dog microchipping, a review will begin shortly into the effects of the law that was brought in on the microchipping of dogs. Their points are well are well made—I will pass them on, but they will have been heard today and I am happy to follow that up specifically.

Earlier this year, there was a call for evidence on whether to bring in compulsory microchipping for cats. The responses to that call for evidence were overwhelmingly in favour of doing so. We will be publishing a summary of responses shortly, and I anticipate that we will consult on the issue very soon.

Moving on to pet theft, it is already an offence under the Theft Act 1968 and significant penalties are already possible; the difficulty is that, as so many hon. Members across the House have said, those penalties are not always used to the maximum. As we have heard, the maximum penalty is up to seven years’ imprisonment, which could go even higher if the theft occurred, as sadly they sometimes do, as part of an aggravated burglary or robbery. One difficulty is that we have limited data available to us about exactly what is happening on the ground.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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One thing that has been touched on and that I am aware of is puppy smuggling and the transfer of dogs between Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland, because it is quite clear that trafficking goes on there. The police have stopped some vehicles at the port of Stranraer and have caught people with them. Has there been any contact with the Republic of Ireland? We need to have that regionally as well.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is that very often pet theft is carried out by criminal gangs, who use every opportunity to evade justice.

If someone causes an animal to suffer in the course of stealing it from its owner, we have recourse to the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and we very much hope we will have stronger sentencing powers under that Act shortly, if we are able to move forward with the private Member’s Bill. Sentencing, of course, remains a matter for the courts, and when deciding what sentence to impose the courts should take into account the circumstances of the offence and any mitigating and aggravating factors, in line with the guidelines issued by the Sentencing Council.

In 2016, the Sentencing Council updated its guidelines in relation to sentencing for theft, and DEFRA fed into that review. The new guidelines set out that emotional distress and non-monetary value are factors to be taken into consideration when passing sentence, so the impact on the victim is now very much something that a court can and should take into account. I know that the Lord Chancellor met my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich to discuss this very issue only last week. I welcome the engagement that has come about as a result of these petitions and this debate, and I look forward to playing my own part in that discussion.

We do not currently think that the creation of a specific offence for pet theft, with a two-year custodial penalty, would really help much. We think the way to go is to continue the discussions that I know my hon. Friend is already undertaking on sentencing guidelines. To that end, the Government are very willing to work with interested parties, including the police and animal welfare organisations. We are keen to act in this area, and I look forward to taking that forward with Members from across the House.