Pet Theft

Victoria Prentis Excerpts
Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op)
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19 Oct 2020, 5:31 p.m.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for introducing the debate with such verve. The Member whom he replaced had a similar verve when it came to animals, so there is clearly something in the way Ipswich elects people that ensures that they are animal friendly.

Like others, I place on the record my thanks to the researchers and other people who have been fighting so hard on this issue for so long. That is an aspect to which I would like to return. As the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) so ably and politely put it when mentioning it to the Minister, we have been here before. No matter how good the debate has been—this has been a very good debate—it is not the quality of the debate but the pressure on the Minister to act that we need to look at.

We have all heard this stated before, but it is true that the theft of a pet is not a simple matter of theft of an item, nor should it be treated as such by the law. It is the callous and criminal removal of a family member. It is kidnapping. It is something that strikes at the very heart of the family unit. Pet theft is a tragedy that should be measured more in emotional distress than in economic loss.

The debate has touched on not just pet theft but a number of parallel issues relating to animal welfare and protection of animals: microchipping, animal cruelty, criminal breeding, puppy farming and the import and export of animals. I think that we should not just take one item, as a line item, to look at what can be done, but recognise that pet theft plays into a much bigger concern about the future and the welfare of our animals. One of the opportunities, which has not been spoken about in the debate so far, is that of bringing together those bits of outstanding welfare legislation for which we are still waiting. As the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) hinted in her remarks, there is enormous cross-party support for many of those items sitting in Ministers’ to-do trays.

I think that the approach that Ministers have adopted, especially since 2015, of parcelling up animal welfare into smaller and smaller Bills, smaller issues, and dealing with them one by one is a fantastic way of gaining headlines, but it does not deal with the comprehensive nature of some of those challenges. I encourage the Minister to look at whether animal sentience and animal welfare sentencing—assuming that there is not enough time for the Bill that was spoken about; it is due to be debated on Friday, and I hope that there will be—as well as cat microchipping and the other issues can be wrapped up together in a flagship animal welfare Bill that could be in the Queen’s Speech. I think that there would be enormous public support not just on this issue but for a whole host of other animal welfare concerns if that were the case.

A number of hon. Members spoke passionately and it is only appropriate that I mention some of them, because it does tell a story about what is going on. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams), who is no longer in his place, talked about the law being sub-optimal and not working. That is a cross-party concern that was echoed right across the Chamber. The reality of it, mentioned by the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), is that only one in five animals are returned, meaning that enormous amounts of families are without their pets each and every year. That figure is important.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Kieran Mullan) talked about the importance of the data. I agree with him on that: the stretched police resource and the real pressure on the police mean that in many cases these crimes are not being properly recorded as pet theft. They are recorded as animals going missing, or simply not at all. That is especially true of certain age groups who do not want to be a burden or to bother the authorities. They might sit at home desperately worried about their animal, but will not want to make an appeal or burden the police with it. I say to all those people who have lost or are worried about an animal to report it. Animals in animal shelters up and down the country are waiting to be reunited with people. It is important that we encourage that so that we can get the data, as mentioned by the hon. Member, to make sure that the work is being done properly.

The hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) said that pets are priceless, and indeed a number of Members have spoken today about the economic value of their own animals in this regard. A law based simply on an animal’s economic value will always discount and disregard the emotional value of that animal. A bigger change in animal welfare legislation is a theme we have seen in the past decade or so: we are recognising not just animals as little furry creatures, but their role within our families and within our society, and the values we want to attach to those animals are being reflected in the legislation that governs them. There has been a gap there, and there are opportunities to close that gap. I say to the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) that we all wish the village of Wherwell the best of luck with their endeavours in relation to finding Cleo. It is good to see so many people feeling strongly about the issue.

Animal welfare has been mentioned as a topic at the top of our inboxes. When I explain that to people, there is an element of shock and surprise in their first instant reaction, “Is it not Brexit? Is it not covid-19?” Then there is the realisation that people love animals more than they love people sometimes. It is no surprise to me that animal welfare is at the top of our agenda, and that demands that the action follows it.

As a number of Members, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), have hinted, when we talk about the theft of an animal we need to look at it not just in the moment of its being stolen, not just as regards the use of sophisticated machinery—as mentioned by the hon. Member for Ipswich in reference to the theft of a number of animals—and not just as being about opportunism. We also need to think about happens to the animal afterwards. I know that when someone loses an animal, they do not think about the economic cost, they worry about what is happening to that animal at that point. They worry about whether the animal is trapped somewhere. “Can’t they get out? Are they okay? Is there something I can do to safeguard and protect the animal?” The worry and concern eats away. The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Lisa Cameron), spoke about the psychological torture at the moment of loss. That is what is so cruel about this crime, because it is torturous. It is a form of torture when we lose an animal along the way, and that needs to be properly reflected.

These petitions are good petitions. There is an enormous opportunity to do something about the situation. We know that pets are not simply possessions. Labour are sympathetic to the need to do more to tackle pet theft, including considering the possible changes in the law that have been spoken about so passionately across the Chamber today. There is an opportunity for Ministers to work with campaigners, because despite the reasons that have been discussed for the Government refusing to act so far—that sentences already exist and that there are criminal and sentencing guidelines—those measures are not working. This is a moment to look again at not just the words on the page of the guidelines, but how they are being implemented. They are not being implemented in a way that, I believe, carries public confidence in the measures. There is an opportunity to change that.

I hope that the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill that has, like this debate, been seen many times before will get proper attention on Friday as a private Member’s Bill. Indeed, I have called on the Government to adopt it as a Government Bill to ensure that it has enough time, and I encourage the Minister to make sure that is the case.

My neighbour, the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) spoke passionately about the need to microchip cats. Indeed, just before the last general election some of us, in this same room, debated the need to microchip cats. That was a compelling case then, and it remains a compelling case now.

With the world in crisis, a jobs crisis looming and covid-19 taking up much of the Government’s bandwidth, how can we get animal welfare issues properly on the agenda? I say to the Minister that wrapping them together in a comprehensive animal welfare law is one way to do that, and I encourage her to include puppy smuggling as part of that. When we talk about puppy smuggling, we frequently talk about animals smuggled into the United Kingdom, but there is also the reverse trend. That is especially being used at the moment to satisfy the demand of people seeking to buy an animal during the lockdown.

We have heard a number of times during the debate about how pets offer such important companionship—they are part of the family. We know there has been a real increase in the value of animals during the lockdown, particularly dachshunds, English bulldogs, French bulldogs, pugs and chow chows—prices have been shooting up. The price of a dachshunds has shot up by a whopping 80% since the start of the lockdown. That is a market that criminals will prey on, and I encourage the Minister to ensure that that is taken into account.

Plymouth is no different from many of the places that have been mentioned so far in the debate, and there is enormous public concern that we should not find ourselves here again in six months’ time. When the Minister addresses hon. Members’ valid and well-put concerns, I encourage her to offer reassurance that all the hundreds of thousands of people who signed the petition, including 500 people in Plymouth, will not need to sign the same petition again to get another debate in order to put pressure on a Minister to enact what is a very clear and obvious instruction from the public—indeed, from the House—that we want to see pet theft taken more seriously.

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Victoria Prentis)
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19 Oct 2020, 12:11 a.m.

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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19 Oct 2020, 5:47 p.m.

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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19 Oct 2020, 5:49 p.m.

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.

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank everyone for attending. I think there is cross-party consensus, which might not be the case for the next debate that I lead, which is straight after this one, but I am glad of it anyway. I forgot to say that I do not currently own a pet, because my lifestyle does not really allow it, but I used to be another springer spaniel owner. I used to own an out-of-control springer called Lucy, who sometimes would just run off and spring into the golf course. Sometimes I wished she would not come back, but she always did. She always knew where to come back to, and I loved her dearly.

There is a sense that the law as it stands is not working. There are lots of different options and pathways to change that, and one way or another we need to do that. Dog theft is, as Dr Allen says, low risk and high reward. The price of puppies has gone up. Thieves think, “I may as well do it. The chances of being caught are very slim, and if I am caught, that chap over there who did it got a slap on the wrist and a couple of hundred quid fine.” If, however, they see the person down the road who did it end up in prison for two or three years, that will act as a basic deterrent.

Why now? On the face of it, it might be tempting, with covid-19, Brexit and everything else going on, to question whether this is really a priority. It absolutely is. As has been stated by virtually every Member present, our pets have never come to the forefront more than right now. Something else that is cropping up on the agenda is mental health. It was cropping up even before covid, but right now—partly because every single person in the country has had their mental health affected to some degree by this crisis—we are talking about mental health more than ever before. Our pets and our animals are crucial to our mental health support. Losing them—having them ripped away from us in the way that has been described in so many powerful stories—is incredibly traumatic and harrowing. Taking action in this place to address that is incredibly important.

As the Minister said, while I was in lockdown I had a virtual meeting with my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, which was positive. I also point out that those behind the petitions, with whom I have had close engagement, are pragmatic. They have an ideal outcome, but they can still see how getting change in the guidelines would be a major step forward and something to build on.

We are a nation of pet lovers. We mentioned dogs and cats, but there is also potential for other animals. Parrots can be stolen, as can budgies and potentially guinea pigs—I do not know. We could go on and on, but ultimately those discussions need to continue. I plan to continue to work with the Ministry of Justice and with colleagues, who will hopefully grow in number. I hope that more and more Members become interested and want to retain that interest going forward. This is an easy thing that the Government can do to show that they are on the side of the public. We have cross-party consensus, so let us have some action.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petitions 244530 and 300071 relating to pet theft.