Pet Theft

Laurence Robertson Excerpts
Monday 19th October 2020

(3 years, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on opening the debate and raising many of the points I would have made had I had the opportunity to make a long speech—people will be relieved that I do not.

Over the last few days I have been contacted by many of my constituents, asking me to speak in the debate. Interestingly, the vast majority of those emails came from Wherwell, one of the smallest villages in Test Valley. It struck me as being slightly odd that such a disproportionate number came from one place, but there is a very good reason for that. Although we have heard many heart-breaking stories—of Trigger; of Ruby and Beetle—I would like to add the story of one more dog: a small cocker spaniel called Cleo.

Cleo was four years old when she was taken from her owner, Mr Rudd-Clarke, an 85-year-old gentleman who lives in Wherwell. I hope that he does not mind me mentioning that he is 85. I told him I was going to speak this afternoon, but I did not tell him that I was going to say how old he was. Both Mr Rudd-Clarke and his wife very much enjoyed the company of Cleo. She was the dog that got them out of the house to exercise in the fresh air in Hampshire—interestingly, one of the most dog-friendly counties in the country. She has been their constant companion since she was a puppy, and she is a gorgeous blue roan—perhaps one of the prettiest dogs I have ever seen.

I have seen Cleo because she has her own Facebook page, and on pretty much every telegraph pole and tree in the village of Wherwell is a picture of Cleo. Her owners had done the right thing: they had ensured that she was microchipped, and that the chip was registered to their current address; she was spayed and she wore a collar with her name and address on at all times. None the less, Cleo went missing on 16 September on her routine walk. She is believed to have been stolen because she simply vanished without trace, despite the villagers of Wherwell going out with drones and thermal imaging cameras, and making appeals for dashcam footage. An entire community has pulled together to try to find this dog, and we are all making her disappearance as well known as we can, in the hope of making her too hot to handle.

Cleo was the sort of dog that came to a whistle. I really admire anybody who can make a cocker spaniel come to a whistle; I have certainly failed in my attempts with my beloved dog, Alfie. The assumption of those in the village, of the owner and of the police is that Cleo was stolen, and the charity DogLost concurs. What a wicked and despicable crime—to take a companion from an elderly gentleman. She was company, she was exercise and she was part of the family, and she had been spayed, so her monetary value was much less because of course she could not be used for breeding purposes.

We have heard this afternoon that stealing a pet is no different in law from stealing any inanimate object, but pets are not inanimate and the trauma of losing one is horrific. There needs to be a decoupling of sentencing from the animal’s value. I know that the Minister will tell us that dog theft is already a crime under the Theft Act 1968, carrying a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment, but of course that sort of sentence is very rarely handed down. I do not want to dwell on the reasons why a dog might be stolen—other Members have alluded to them—but they are horrific. Stolen dogs do not end up in the arms of a family that is going to love them in the same way that the one they have been ripped from does.

My hon. Friend is a good Minister, who cares passionately about this issue, and I know that she has the power to do something today. She can give us a steer that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will seek to amend the Theft Act, which is over 50 years old, and bring it into line with how 21st-century Britain, and the village of Wherwell, feel about their pets.

Laurence Robertson Portrait Mr Laurence Robertson (in the Chair)
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With thanks to the next speaker for covering the first part of this sitting, I call Sir David Amess.

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (Southend West) (Con)
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I am very embarrassed, Mr Robertson, that at the start of the debate I prevailed on colleagues to make short speeches; they have been so brief, there will now be very long wind-ups, but I will leave that to your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on the way he presented the petitions, and I commend him for the passion that he displayed right at the end of his speech—absolutely splendid.

We are, of course, a nation of animal lovers, and this debate in Westminster Hall has displayed that we are a House of Commons full of animal lovers, and I certainly commend that. I agree with all the points that colleagues have made. I am very appreciative of Mrs Debbie Matthews, the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and the daughter of Bruce Forsyth, my favourite comedian, for her briefing on this subject.

I very much agree that animals are sentient beings; science has proved that they can experience pain, suffering, joy and comfort, but by equating them to property we are denying them the right to be considered sentient beings. The Theft Act 1968 does just that, and I say to the Minister that it is old legislation. Pet theft was a problem before coronavirus; it has escalated during the lockdown period, and it may continue to do so unless the Government take harsher action against the criminals colleagues have been talking about today.

I put it to the Minister that the public are sending the Government a strong message. Let us not forget that this is the second pet theft debate and that there have been three consecutive successful pet theft reform petitions. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is currently reviewing the compulsory dog microchipping regulations. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) about microchipping cats. As well as reporting pet thefts, microchipping also helps to return stolen pets. Several colleagues have said how much their animals are worth. We often look after one of my daughter’s French bulldogs, which is worth an absolute fortune—we tend to cover up her European association.

I am delighted to be sponsoring the Dogs and Domestic Animals (Accommodation and Protection) Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), which, among all other things, recognises the importance of microchipping pets. However, there needs to be a single, complete database of microchipped cats and dogs, as there is for horses, and microchips must be compulsory, so that they can be checked against that database at every first vet appointment.

Debbie Matthews, who started Vets Get Scanning, has been a champion in this area for many years and I congratulate her. Pet theft is seldom investigated and usually the only thefts that result in an investigation are those where dogs are stolen for puppy farming. That is quite wrong. We have reports of the ridiculous sentences: where there has been horrendous cruelty, criminals just get suspended sentences, whereas for metal theft people are sent to prison for 12 years. It is absolutely ridiculous.

The Government must amend the Theft Act 1968 and make pet theft a specific offence with custodial sentences. Pets’ monetary value is, as other colleagues have said, relatively small compared with luxury items, which carry a sentence of seven years as a category 1 crime. The punishment does not fit the crime as the loss of an inanimate object compared to that of a pet is very different. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said, the Sentencing Council needs to amend the existing guidelines, to ensure that all cases of companion animal theft are considered a category 1 or 2 crime as a minimum, regardless of monetary value.

Laurence Robertson Portrait Mr Laurence Robertson (in the Chair)
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We now come to the Front Bench speeches. We need to leave two or three minutes at the end for Mr Hunt to respond.