Pet Theft

Mike Hill 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 (Hartlepool) (Lab) - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4 p.m.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 212174 relating to pet theft.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. The pet theft petition was created by Dr Daniel Allen, who is in the Public Gallery. He is an animal geographer at Keele University and an animal welfare influencer. Last year, more and more families asked him to share stolen pet posters on Twitter, which he did. Feeling helpless because of the scale of the problem, anxious about the potential risks to his own dog, Rupert, and increasingly upset for the families involved, he teamed up with the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance, known as SAMPA, to campaign for reform of the law on pet theft. Within four months, the pet theft petition achieved 100,000 signatures.

SAMPA has been campaigning since September 2014. The founding members include Debbie Matthews, whom I have met, of Vets Get Scanning, Arnot Wilson of the Dog Union, Richard Jordan of Pet Theft Awareness and Jayne Hayes and Wayne May of DogLost. Last year, SAMPA organised the dog theft awareness day to highlight this growing crime and its devastating impact on families. That Westminster event was hosted by the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who is present for our debate. He has been championing reform of the law on pet theft in Parliament for many years.

Dr Daniel Allen and Beverley Cuddy have recently become patrons and Professor John Cooper, QC, is SAMPA’s legal adviser. Behind the scenes, the pet theft reform group has worked tirelessly, sharing and promoting the petition. The pet theft petition has been driven by the kindness of strangers and has seen many organisations joining forces.

Special thanks must go to All About The Animals, Animal Advocate, Animal Realities, Animal Watch, APGAW—the all-party parliamentary group for animal welfare—Dogs Trust, the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, Dog TAG, the Dog Welfare Alliance, Dougal’s Army, Find Sky, Finn’s Law, the Good Vet and Pet Guide, the Labour Animal Rights Group, Murphy’s Army, the National Animal Welfare Trust, Scouse Pets 2 and the Animal Team, to name a few.

Many magazines have got behind the campaign, including The Countryman, The Countryman’s Weekly, Dogs Monthly, Dogs Today, K9 Magazine, Our Dogs, Pet Gazette, Pet Product Marketing, Shooting Times and The Conversation. Support has also come from popular figures including Ricky Gervais, Jane Fallon, Dermot O’Leary, Sir Bruce Forsyth, Chris Packham, Miranda Hart, Kirsty Gallacher, Paul O’Grady, Paul Ross, Deborah Meaden, Peter Egan, Anna Webb, Jorgie Porter, Lorraine Kelly, Victoria Stilwell, Brian May, Stuart Winter and Brenda Blethyn. The campaign has featured on mainstream TV shows—“This Morning”, “Victoria Derbyshire”, “Lorraine”, the ITV national news, Sky news and Look North—and has been covered by nearly every regional and national radio station and newspaper.

There has been an unprecedented response to the House of Commons Facebook post on this debate. I cannot recall another animal-related campaign that has managed to bring together people ranging from animal rights activists to the hunting and shooting fraternity. That is the power of pets—they are part of every family.

Pet theft is a cruel and devastating crime and it is on the rise. Everyone is a potential victim: it hits families, the elderly, the disabled and the homeless.

John Howell Portrait John Howell (Henley) (Con) - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:35 p.m.

My constituency has a high level of rural crime that targets farm dogs. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is a particularly heinous crime, in that farm dogs have value because they have skills that can be used on a farm but they are also pets that are loved by their owners?

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:35 p.m.

I agree entirely. Yes, farm dogs are working dogs, but they are also family pets; they are part of the family.

George Freeman Portrait George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con) - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:36 p.m.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on holding the debate. I just want to point out that the House is on a one-line Whip today and this debate has achieved a huge turnout, from all parties. I suspect that had the House been sitting formally with a Whip, this Chamber would have been packed. The hon. Gentleman has struck a chord in bringing this issue to the House, and I am sure that there will be unanimous support for the motion. I am here on behalf of my constituents whose dog Daisy has been stolen. They share the outrage that at the moment more than 2,000 dogs a year are stolen, that only 5% of thefts lead to a conviction and that a dog has to be proven to be worth £500 to count as property. For many families in this country, a dog is both a working animal and a pet. I fully support, as I am sure we all do, Dogs Trust in its work: we have to correct the law so that people who steal dogs are punished properly.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:36 p.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am proud to be leading this e-petition debate, but yes, the issue does have cross-party support.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab) Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:37 p.m.

This is a timely debate and a big issue among the public. Following on from what has been said, if someone loses their dog or it is stolen, then regardless of the value, it is like a death in the family. I have had animals over the years, and when something happens to them, when they die or anything like that, it is as if there has been a death in the house; there is a sadness about the house. More importantly, it particularly affects children, who are very attached to their animals. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the case?

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:37 p.m.

I entirely agree. Pets are indeed part of the family; they are not commodities, as I will go on to say. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the death of a pet is traumatic for every family member.

Latest statistics from the Pet Food Manufacturers Association show that almost half of British households contain at least one pet and more than a quarter have one or more dogs. Pet Gazette recently said that 89% of pet owners consider their pet to be part of the family. New research by the insurance company Direct Line shows that the number of dogs stolen across Britain has risen by 6.8% in just 12 months, with an average of five dogs stolen every single day in 2017. Last year, 1,909 dogs were reported stolen to police forces; that compares with the 1,788 stolen in 2016.

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger Portrait Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con) - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:38 p.m.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is reading out the figures. One problem that we have, with regard to gun dogs mainly, is that they are being stolen for three purposes: first, to be pets, which is straightforward; secondly, for dog fighting, which is horrific; and thirdly, for puppy farms, mainly but not exclusively in the Republic of Ireland. Will the hon. Gentleman continue what he is saying, because he is articulating the absolute essence of what is being done in this country?

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:38 p.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that detailed intervention. He is absolutely right; he makes a fair point about gun dogs.

The number of reported dog thefts was 14% higher in 2016 than it was in 2015. Dogs are stolen to order, to sell, to breed, for ransom and even for use as bait and for dog fighting. The Staffordshire bull terrier remains Britain’s most stolen breed. Dogs are stolen from gardens, houses, kennels, from outside—

Andrew Rosindell Portrait Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con) - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:39 p.m.

I really commend the hon. Gentleman for leading this debate today. I have owned two Staffordshire bull terriers; sadly, they are no longer with us. The devastation of losing a pet in this way, through being stolen, is horrendous, so does the hon. Gentleman agree not only that the Government need to bring in much stiffer sentences as quickly as possible, but that we need to encourage everyone to scan animals—particularly vets, when an animal is taken to a veterinary surgeon—and we need to ensure that education about this crime is widespread so that people are aware that it is a potential threat? An animal should not just be seen as a piece of property; losing one is really like losing a member of the family.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:40 p.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He goes to the heart of the debate on many of those issues. I know that

Dogs are stolen outside shops and from cars, and while they are out exercising, on or off the lead. Nowhere is safe for unattended dogs. Owners of bulldogs, pugs, French bulldogs and chihuahuas, for example, have been stalked on walks. Some have had to fight off an attacker who is trying to snatch their dog, or have later been a victim of a home invasion where the only thing stolen was their dog.

Cats are being increasingly targeted. In 2016, 261 cats were reported as stolen to police forces—an increase of 40% on 2014. However, a 2017 study revealed that 360,000 adults believed their cat had been stolen in the past 12 months. SAMPA believes those figures only scratch the surface, as police forces record this crime differently across the country and theft by finding is never recorded in police figures. Everyone assumes it will not happen to them, but no one is safe from this devastating crime.

Mohammad Yasin Portrait Mohammad Yasin (Bedford) (Lab) - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:42 p.m.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and making some good points. We are a nation of pet lovers, yet the law does not protect us from this destructive crime. It is a serious issue. Does my hon. Friend agree that losing a pet is like losing a family member, as thousands of people in this country think, and that we must stop equating the theft of a much-loved animal with the general theft of possession? They are clearly not the same. With pet theft increasing, it is time to toughen the legislation and sentencing, and put an end to this cruel and devastating crime.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:42 p.m.

My hon. Friend goes to the heart of the problem. Hopefully, all those listening from a parliamentary perspective will join him in urging everybody to push for that outcome.

People do not steal pets to love them. They use them, abuse them and treat them like inanimate objects. There are many heartbreaking stories. Pepsi, a 12-year-old cat from my constituency of Hartlepool, was brutally killed by lampers. Zeena, a Staffordshire bull terrier, was stolen from her family and forced to fight for her life in a dog-fighting ring. She was reunited with her family, carrying the scars of appalling injuries, four years later. Ella, a terrier, was kicked so hard by a dog thief that she died from her injuries. Ivy, a cocker spaniel, was stolen from her home and found dead the next morning. She had been dumped by the side of a road, having suffered serious dog bites and bruising. Bentley, a cocker spaniel, was stolen from his bed in West Yorkshire with five other cocker spaniels. Bentley died, as thieves gouged out his microchip, leading to a brain infection. The other five spaniels remain missing. Kemo joined the whole family when Olly had cancer. With the love and support of Kemo, Olly was able to gain the strength to beat cancer. Kemo was stolen in February 2018 and remains missing. In all those cases, the thieves have not been apprehended.

Pet theft rips the heart out of families and wrecks lives. It also serves as a gateway to wider animal cruelty and extortion. Despite that, pet theft is currently seen as no different from the theft of an inanimate object. The theft of a labrador is treated like the theft of a laptop. Potential pet thieves are fast learning that the chance of ever being caught is tiny. Even if they are caught, the chance of a custodial sentence or a substantial fine is incredibly slim.

Fiona Onasanya (Peterborough) (Lab) Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:44 p.m.

If we are to catch the horrendous people who carry out this horrendous act, does my hon. Friend agree that enforcement needs to be at the top of the agenda? The law needs to be reformed, but we need enforcement of the laws, so that people are deterred from doing that sort of thing.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:44 p.m.

Yes, absolutely, and I will come on to that point. SAMPA believes that pet theft reform can and must become a reality. According to Dogs Trust, under British law, pets are classed as property in theft-sentencing legislation. That means that stealing a pet is viewed in the same way as stealing an inanimate object.

Henry Smith Portrait Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con) - Hansard

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this important debate to the House. As many hon. Members have said, pets are part of people’s families. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in not only congratulating the Environment Secretary on increasing the sentence for animal cruelty to five years, which is important, but calling for the definition of animal cruelty to be extended to include the theft of much-loved pets?

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:45 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman makes a particularly relevant point. I agree that we must support any endeavour to improve legislation around animal cruelty.

The penalty for pet theft is based on the monetary value of the pets, not the emotional value to the owner. The 2015 theft offences guidelines classified the level of harm caused by theft into four categories. For the theft to be classed as category 1 or 2, the property stolen must have a value of over £500. Many pets have little or no monetary value, meaning that criminals stealing them are able to receive only minimal sentences in line with category 3 or 4. The maximum sentence for stealing a dog worth less than £500 is two years’ imprisonment.

Bob Stewart Portrait Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con) - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:46 p.m.

I do not think my dogs would fetch more than 50 quid each. I am worried that we seem to be going backwards. In 1770, the Act preventing the stealing of dogs received Royal Assent. Anyone caught was fined or imprisoned or suffered hard labour—I think it was adjusted in 1846. The Theft Act 1968 seems to have removed the requirement to deal with people who steal dogs, which is a shame.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:46 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman, as ever, makes a learned contribution—I appreciate the history.

Bob Stewart Portrait Bob Stewart - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:46 p.m.

Fifty quid.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:46 p.m.

Fifty quid, indeed.

At present, the sentencing guidelines are such that it is hard to see a situation where a non-financially valuable pet can get out of category 4 and a prized pedigree can get out of category 3. That is clearly wrong. We should not tie the hands of the sentencing court by being prescriptive over value in cases such as pet theft. Where the theft of a family pet is involved, monetary value is irrelevant and should be disregarded.

We need tougher sentences. Since the 2016 revision to the sentencing guidelines, there has been no evidence that the courts have become any tougher on pet theft. Very few cases are getting to court. When they do, the guilty most often walk free. Some 98% of criminal cases are heard in magistrates courts, where sentencing for pet theft is almost certainly below six months.

Dr Daniel Allen’s research has found that less than 5% of dog theft crimes lead to charges, which includes community orders. The often-cited seven-year maximum sentence has never been awarded for the theft of a pet and cannot be handed down specifically for the theft of a pet. Alongside that, microchipping dogs became compulsory across the UK in April 2016, but scanning remains optional.

Yvonne Fovargue Portrait Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab) - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:48 p.m.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the microchipping law was a missed opportunity? People who have their dogs microchipped are still not the legal owner, but simply the keeper of the pet. Maybe it is time for another debate on how we can improve the microchipping laws.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:45 p.m.

I agree with my hon. Friend. That is a worthy subject for further debate.

In June 2018, a gang of four were tried at Lincoln Crown court following a burglary in Middle Rasen, Lincolnshire. Fifteen Cavalier King Charles spaniels were taken, including one that was pregnant. One of the dogs was later recovered on the side of a motorway, having been thrown from a moving vehicle. All four accused pleaded guilty to theft, but despite this being a serious case in the highest possible court, the gang members still received only suspended sentences. Two years earlier, five connected men had been sentenced in the same court to a total of 12 years in jail for conspiracy to steal railway cables. That sort of scrap metal theft used to be fashionable until the Government gave that crime a more serious consequence.

Our pets need improved protection, too. The revisions proposed by SAMPA would be so much simpler to achieve. SAMPA just wants to improve the existing legislation. SAMPA, Dogs Trust and others want the Government both to amend the Theft Act 1968 to reclassify the theft of pets as a specific crime in its own right and to improve the sentencing guidelines. Their suggestions for pet theft reforms are small and attainable, but those highly significant revisions would make the existing law much more appropriate for modern families and their pets. SAMPA wants to tweak section 4(4) of the 1968 Act, relating to property, to include a special mention of the theft of pet animals. It already details mushrooms and wild animals, so why not pets?

Julie Cooper (Burnley) (Lab) Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 4:50 p.m.

My hon. Friend is making a strong case. Does he agree that a tiny legislative change would have massively beneficial consequences and demonstrate that we are truly a nation of animal lovers?

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.

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.

Break in Debate

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 6:09 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The internet and the growth of social media have created many challenges in enforcing legislation on pet sales, but they also give us a ready way to identify culprits, particularly those who are breaching rules. Rather than seeing the internet and social media as threats, we should use them where we can to gain evidence, as he points out.

In conclusion, we have had a very thoughtful and detailed debate that I believe does justice to the 106,000 people who signed the petition. Although the Government are not convinced for change, I hope that, through those undertakings, I have been able to demonstrate that we intend to do more work and gather more evidence in this area.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 6:10 p.m.

I thank all the Members who got involved in this important debate, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) and for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya), and the hon. Members for Crawley (Henry Smith), for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson), for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), for Clacton (Giles Watling) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). Of course, I also thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for their contributions.

I thank the Minister for pointing out the reasoning behind the specification of mushrooms and wild animals in the Theft Act 1968, and for his clear observations about pets and animals being sentient beings, not commodities. I sincerely hope that the Government are convinced enough to change the law soon. Too many pet thieves have got away with light sentences because of unacceptable and irrelevant guidelines. All pets should be treated equally, regardless of their monetary value.

I thank the petitioners—particularly Dr Daniel Allen, John Cooper, QC, and Debbie Matthews, the founder of SAMPA—for bringing forward this important petition, which clearly has cross-party support. I am proud to have carried out my duties as a member of the Petitions Committee by introducing the debate on behalf of the Committee.

Finally, on behalf of Debbie Matthews, whose father, Sir Bruce Forsyth, was a big contributor to this debate in his own right, I say, “Nice to see you, to see you nice.”

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 212174 relating to pet theft.

Sitting adjourned.