Pet Theft

Sue Hayman Excerpts
Monday 2nd July 2018

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Dr Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Cameron - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:39 p.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Much of this is about education. Our garden is enclosed, but we are mindful of the fact that if someone were intent on stealing our pet that would not prevent them from doing so. I am aware of the breed-specific snatching of French bulldogs, so it is a particular worry for my family.

From listening to the figures, pet theft seems to be a crime that goes unpunished and has very little consequence for those who engage in it. That has to be addressed, and I urge the Minister to make a change in law. We are a nation of dog lovers, and addressing this issue will minimise the impact on families who lose a pet and on the children. My children would be absolutely devastated to lose Rossi. As the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said, there is a severe impact on the stolen dog, too, because often they do not go to a happy home. I do not want to think about their fate, given the activities that the criminal gangs may be involved in.

Another issue that has been raised is the impact on elderly people, for whom a pet can be very important. If they live on their own, a pet can be an absolute lifeline and can make them feel that they have a connection. We must consider that, for someone in such circumstances, losing a dog or any other pet is a bereavement—it causes grief and trauma. We know from the meetings of the all-party group for dog welfare just how important dogs, cats and pets in general are in tackling loneliness. The Government have set out to address that issue, so I ask the Minister to look at pet therapy and contact with pets within that framework.

It is extremely busy in Westminster Hall, despite the fact that we are all on a one-line Whip, because this issue resonates with the public, MPs and our constituents. There is no party politics when it comes to animal welfare, as we all want to see change. Members from many parties have spoken today, and I thank them for that. Several Members who support the dog welfare group could not be here today but very much wanted to come.

The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) spoke about his little dog, Mia, and her importance, if not primacy, in the family now that he is down at Westminster. I wish Mia and the family well.

This is a devolved issue, and I have written to the Scottish Government about it because I want it to be reviewed. My colleagues, Emma Harper and Christine Grahame, are linked to the cross-party animal welfare group in the Scottish Parliament, and I hope that they will take this issue forward. The First Minister knows I am extremely dogmatic in insisting we take the lead on these issues, which must be addressed across the United Kingdom.

I urge the Minister to discuss the legal framework—particularly the fact that cases are not coming to court, they do not appear even to be recorded, and weak sentencing is not acting as a deterrent. Obviously, pets mean much more to us than objects, so that is one of the issues that must be addressed in the law. Some of the ideas that hon. Members suggested as part of the solution, such as licencing and passporting systems, are good, but I want the Minister to address the precipitating factors that have caused the increase in dog thefts across the country. Are they linked to other animal welfare issues, such as puppy smuggling and farming, and dog fighting?

Sue Hayman (Workington) (Lab) Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:44 p.m.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on introducing this important debate. I thank the organisers of the petition and the 105,000 people who signed it. The parliamentary e-petition system is a fantastic way of connecting us with our constituents on the issues that are really important to us and of putting such issues on the agenda.

We are clearly a nation of animal lovers. I declare an interest, as the owner of a dog and a cat. Many hon. Members have shared their experience of their pets. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) for his contribution. He said it is a real disgrace that so few stolen pets are ever reunited with their owners. The hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) is clearly very knowledgeable about this issue and made a particularly powerful point about sentencing guidelines. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya) made some very important interventions, which added significantly to the debate. I was particularly pleased to hear the story the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) told about how his dog, Poppy, reacts when he leaves to come down here—like other hon. Members, I could share similar stories. I congratulate him on his ten-minute rule Bill, and I wish him luck with it in the House tomorrow.

The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) talked about the huge impact that the loss of a much-loved pet can have on a family. The hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) talked about the cruelty of pet theft, not just to the family who lost the pet but to the pet itself. It is important that we do not forget that. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) works tirelessly on dog welfare in this House and made an important contribution.

As pet owners, we truly love our animals. Figures from Dogs Trust show that 99% of pet owners consider their animal to be part of the family—we all do. We have heard that the bond between an animal and its family is linked to the bond between a parent and their child, so it is clearly a terrible nightmare for a family if their dog or cat is stolen.

More than 60 dogs are stolen across England and Wales every single week. That is 60 families whose beloved pets are taken. Disgracefully, fewer than 5% of cases end in convictions. We do not want that situation to be allowed to continue. As Members of the House, it is our duty to try to do something about it.

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home told me that there is no single database of pet-related theft, so any information comes from freedom of information requests to individual police forces—the hon. Member for Dartford made that point clearly. Will the Minister tell us how we can tackle this problem if we do not know the scale of it? I understand the concerns raised about categorising pets in legislation designed to deal with property theft. As hon. Members said, it is important that we recognise in law that animals are sentient beings and not the equivalent of a laptop or a blender.

Tragically, on average, five dogs a day are stolen and then sold, bred or forced to fight. We have heard that the numbers are increasing; my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool gave us some clear figures and information about that. We have also heard that designer dogs such as cockapoos or French bulldogs sell for a high price, and that Staffordshire bull terriers are often stolen for dog fighting. It is thought that the lack of prosecution and the lenient punishments are contributing to this rise. Pet theft offenders receive community service orders or a fine more often than a custodial sentence—certainly not the seven years that could be handed out.

It is heartbreaking that so few pets are reunited with their owners. Some breeds are more likely to be stolen. Labrador thefts are up 42% year on year; as the owner of a beautiful chocolate labrador called Max, I find that horrifying. The thought of losing Max is dreadful. He is six, but one of the first things we did when we got him as a puppy was to insure him, because we were advised that he was at high risk of being stolen. That is a terrible thing to have to contemplate.

I appreciate what the Government have said about updating sentencing guidelines for theft offences to account for the emotional stress caused by pet theft, and I understand that the guidelines now recommend high penalties in such cases. As hon. Members have said today, however, we need to ensure that the proper sentences are given and that prosecutions are increased. We must catch as many perpetrators as possible to do our best to stamp out this appalling crime, which causes such terrible upset to families.

On microchipping, it is welcome that the Government now require all dogs to be microchipped and registered by the age of eight weeks. That does not solve the problem—we have heard that microchips can be dug out—but it has already had a positive impact.

Bob Stewart Portrait Bob Stewart - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:51 p.m.

Will the hon. Lady join me in asking the Minister whether we ought to look again at licensing dogs? That used to happen when I was a boy—when the world was black and white, of course.

Sue Hayman Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:51 p.m.

I remember going with my mother to the post office to get a licence for our dalmatian—I was only a small child, obviously. We ought to look at anything that might help, so licensing clearly needs to be looked at; if it can help solve this crime, it is an important part of the picture.

The Labour party is committed to promoting the highest level of care for domestic animals. Recently, our animal welfare plan was out for consultation until the end of May, and it included a proposal to expand microchipping to cats, which at the moment do not have to be chipped. Is that something that the Government will consider seriously? Our manifesto also pledged an end to the third-party sale of puppies. Is that something the Government will consider to improve the welfare of dogs? We also proposed measures to tackle puppy smuggling, such as the introduction of a microchip database—databases were mentioned earlier in the debate—to record microchip numbers of animals entering and leaving the country and get a better idea of where dogs are. Will the Minister and the Government match that aspiration too?

Enforcement of our laws is carried out by our tireless police services. Is it not imperative that the police are properly funded so that they can act to enforce the law and catch the criminals who are cruelly stealing pets from their owners?

The petition and today’s excellent debate have raised really important issues across the board, giving us all a lot to think about in terms of what needs to be done. The Labour party manifesto, on which my colleagues and I were elected last year, stated:

“Domestic animals require stronger protection from cruelty.”

It also set out a

“vision…for the UK to lead the world with high animal welfare standards in the wild, in farming and for domestic animals.”

That is something we stand by today and, from the clear cross-party support in this debate, hon. Members right across the House would also back strengthening the law in this area. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

George Eustice Portrait The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (George Eustice) - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 5:53 p.m.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on the way in which he introduced the debate.

As with every debate on animal welfare issues, it is one that is incredibly important to the public. This petition has more than 100,000 signatories—106,000, I am told —and today we have heard some heart-rending stories of individual cases from many Members’ constituencies, including from my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson). The hon. Member for Hartlepool talked about some horrific cases of pets being stolen to be used, in effect, for baiting in dog fighting or to fight themselves. That is clearly the cruellest and most extreme end of this heinous crime.

When I was about 13, we had a beautiful young golden retriever called Sam. When he was about a year old, he went missing. To this day, I can remember us going out on the roads late at night, driving down every country lane around the farm in Cornwall and trying to locate Sam, all to no avail. We were unable to sleep that night because we were so distraught and upset that our wonderfully kind pet dog had gone missing.

The following day, we phoned every farmer in the area, in case Sam had gone on a runabout, and we phoned all sorts of other businesses in case we could locate him. As luck would have it, a local scrap-metal dealer phoned my mother back about an hour after they had spoken to say that there was a van at the scrapyard with a white-coloured golden retriever that might be our dog. My mother rushed off to the scrap-metal dealer, who undertook to keep the person occupied so that the van did not disappear. It was indeed our pet dog Sam, and my mother and our family were reunited with him.

The person who took Sam claimed that he had found him and had intended to take him to the police. It was therefore thought that we would not have a case and would not be able to bring a prosecution against the person, although that gentleman certainly had to endure a dressing down from my mother—a significant penalty.

I shall return to the issue of pet theft, but first I shall say a bit more about what the Government are doing to improve animal welfare specifically for pets. We have introduced new licensing requirements for puppy breeders, lowering the threshold at which they need a licence to breed pets. We have also strengthened the provisions on online sales, beyond any doubt bringing those who sell pets online into a licensing regime under the Pet Animals Act 1951. We have been clear that we intend to increase the maximum penalty for cruelty to animals to five years, and we have given our support to a private Member’s Bill that will strengthen protection and recognition for service animals. Finally, to come to the point made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), we have been clear that we shall introduce a ban on third-party sales of puppies, in particular, and other juvenile pets. We have had a call for evidence on the issue, and we intend to introduce provisions in that regard.

[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

Specifically on the issue of pet theft, a couple of years ago we introduced changes to make the microchipping of all dogs mandatory. That has had some impact already. More than 90% of dogs are now microchipped, which has made rehoming or the reuniting of people with their missing pets much easier for the authorities. The impact of that change has been extraordinary. The latest figures from Dogs Trust show that the number of stray dogs last year fell to about 66,000, which has almost halved on a few years ago, when we regularly had more than 120,000 stray dogs per year.

Microchipping also has a potential role in identifying animals that have been stolen. A couple of years ago there was some suggestion that we should legislate to create a legal obligation on vets to scan every animal in their practice to identify animals that might have been stolen. At the time we believed that to be a step too far, but we did work with the British Veterinary Association and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to create clear guidance for veterinary practices that there should always be a presumption of checking any new animal presented to them when an owner enrols with the practice.

Earlier today, I discussed with the police lead on dogs, Gareth Pritchard, this issue of dog and pet theft. One point he made was that although the microchipping regulations are working well and have led to big improvements, we are starting to see some problems with people not keeping their details up to date—people moving home, for example, and not keeping the record up to date. In some cases, that is starting to make it hard to reunite people with their pets. It is important—and a provision of the regulations—for people to keep their data up to date.

I have done some work on the scale of the pet theft problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford pointed out, the figures out there range widely. Our belief is that the best estimate available is from a series of freedom of information requests put to all 44 police forces, with 38 providing reliable data back. From that, it is possible to ascertain that in 2016 there were 1,788 dog thefts and in 2017 the number rose to 1,909. That equates to around 34 dogs being stolen each week—a significant number. As a number of hon. Members pointed out, the 7% increase between 2016 and 2017 suggests that it is a growing problem. I will return to the statistics later, because my hon. Friend made the legitimate point that we ought to have reliable data in this area.