Peter Gibson (Darlington) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. If I have my phone, wallet or car stolen, they are insured and can be replaced, virtually on a like-for-like basis. It would be frustrating, inconvenient, I would be angry and annoyed. Naturally, I would want the thief to face the full force of the law. However, if Clemmie, my nine-year-old Jack Russell, Peppy, my seven-year-old Labrador, or Ebony, my four-year-old Labrador were stolen, they could not be replaced. They are an integral part of my family, individual in character and each providing a unique and special companionship to me and to members of my family.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on bringing today’s debate to Westminster Hall, and I am pleased that the Petitions Committee has given us time to debate the topic, which affects many of our constituents. Between these two petitions, almost 500 signatures came from my constituency of Darlington, and I thank those constituents who took time to voice their concerns. I know that many more of my constituents are dog owners who, like me, consider their four-legged friends to be part of their family. The theft of a pet is already a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968, with a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment. However, only one in five pets are ever returned to their owners. With over 2,000 dogs stolen every year, there remain over 1,600 families who lose that member, never to be seen again. It is tragic and we should do more.
While my canines collectively cost less than £800 to purchase, they have cost me significantly more in damage to property, and in food and vet bills. Sadly, under the law not one of them would be deemed of sufficient value to warrant anything nearing a custodial sentence were they stolen. Sentencing is about punishment and rehabilitation, but it is also about setting a deterrent. With a low intrinsic value insufficient to warrant investigation, four out of five dogs that are stolen are never recovered and the despicable people responsible for dog theft sadly know that their chance of being caught or suffering a punishment is very low.
I welcome the mandatory microchipping we now have. That has helped more pets to be reunited and serves in the armoury of deterrents. It has thankfully reduced the number of stray dogs on our streets. I also welcome the recommendation for vets to carry out routine scanning for new pets enrolled at their practices. These measures are for dogs, but we as a nation should be extending them to cats too. I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) that there should be mandatory chipping for cats.
The pet owners of Darlington and I believe that the theft of a pet is much more damaging than the loss of an item of financial value. I believe that a specific offence of pet theft or, at the very least, specific sentencing guidance based on more than the purchase cost of the animal, will do much more to deter this dreadful crime.