Amendment 125

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 3 November 2021.

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Lord Falconer of Thoroton:

Moved by Lord Falconer of Thoroton

125: After Clause 54, insert the following new Clause—“Offence of pet theft(1) The Animal Welfare Act 2006 is amended as follows.(2) After section 2 (“protected animal”) insert—“2A Definition of pet A protected animal is a “pet” for the purposes of this Act if it provides companionship or assistance to any human being.”(3) After section 8 (fighting etc.) insert—“8A Pet theftA person commits an offence if they dishonestly appropriate a pet belonging to another person with the intention of permanently depriving that other person of it.”(4) In section 32 (imprisonment or fine) before subsection (1) insert—“(A1) A person guilty of an offence under section 8A (pet theft) (as inserted by section (Offence of pet theft) of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2021) shall be liable—(a) on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 51 weeks, or a fine, or to both;(b) on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 4 years, or to a fine, or to both.(A2) When the court is considering for the purposes of sentencing the seriousness of an offence under section 8A it must consider the following as aggravating factors (that is to say, a factor that increases the seriousness of the offence)—(a) the theft caused fear, alarm or distress to the pet, the owner or the pet or another person associated with the pet;(b) the theft was for the purposes of commercial gain.”(5) In section 34(10) (disqualification) after “8,” insert “8A,”.”Member’s explanatory statementCombined with two other proposed amendments after Clause 54, this new clause seeks to create a new offence of pet theft.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, I approach our deliberations in this Committee with some degree of despondency today. We are addressing the rule of law in this; we are, in effect, saying that the law is not being sufficiently complied with in order to get better compliance with the law for our citizens. The key aspect of the rule of law is that it applies to everybody. Approximately 45 minutes ago, in the other place, as a result of a government-whipped vote, somebody who had been found guilty of a breach of the conduct obligations of the House of Commons was, in effect, let off. The Government used their majority to let him off. It is very difficult for the citizens of this country to take Parliament seriously as an enforcer of the rule of law if the position is that, when one of the Government’s own looks like they are in trouble, they use their majority to let them off. The whole point about a code of conduct enforced independently is that it applies to whatever political party you are in. I look at these deliberations in Parliament, therefore, with a degree of real, personal despair. It is about much more than simply the conduct of the Government: it is about how the public will view Parliament.

As far as pet theft is concerned, the Metropolitan Police said that, for the year up to March 2020, seven out of 10 abductions of pets involved dogs. It identified that, in that year, 2,000 dogs were abducted. There are, I think, between 8 million and 9 million dog owners in the country, so the percentage of dogs stolen is comparatively small—but the number is going up, because more people own pets and they have become more valuable. There is a wide sense among lawyers that the Theft Act does not deal adequately with the offence of pet theft because it treats pets simply as property, so stealing a pet is a crime but the nuance of the crime, and in particular the effect on the owner, is inadequately reflected in the law.

This view is shared quite widely, including, as I understand it, by Her Majesty’s Government. They set up a task force, chaired by three Secretaries of State. It reported in May 2021 and recommended that there be a new offence of pet theft. When the matter was raised during the passage of this Bill through the Commons, the relevant Minister committed to introducing an amendment to deal with pet theft. So there does not appear to be an issue between the respective Front Benches in respect of the fact that pet theft is going to be made a crime in this Bill. So I await with interest the details of the pet theft crime that the Government are going to put into the Bill, because, in the light of the report from the three Secretaries of State and the commitment made in the other place, it is inconceivable that no amendment will be advanced by the Government. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:30, 3 November 2021

My Lords, I speak in favour of this small group of amendments in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton. He set out his case eloquently, and I fully support him on the move to introduce an offence of pet theft.

During lockdown, the family pet had an extremely important role in helping to keep the mental health of families in reasonable order. People were allowed to take exercise; if they had a dog, this meant slightly longer exercise. For those living alone, especially the elderly, there was a living creature to talk to—one that did not contradict or answer back. Children with small furry pets were able to spend more time with them and, hopefully, take more responsibility for their care, cleaning and feeding regimes.

Lockdown meant that there was an increase in demand for pets from all quarters. Some wanted cats and kittens; others wanted a dog. There was a boost in the need for puppies and the price rocketed. Sadly, the latter often resulted in the illegal importation of puppies who had been separated from their mothers too early. Like other Peers, I am sure, I had friends who were searching for a puppy. I stressed to them all that the puppy must be seen with its mother, not alone, and had to be more than 12 weeks old before it could be separated from its mother without harm.

Having acquired a puppy or kitten, or a full-grown cat or dog, it is devastating to have that beloved pet taken away by opportunistic criminals. There are examples of pet dogs being stolen to order. Some owners were afraid to take their pet out for a walk, in case it was stolen while they exercised it. This is not acceptable.

As has already been said, a pet is classified as the owner’s property, which it is—but this does not take account of the emotional distress caused. An elderly person will have lost their only constant companion. A child will have lost the friend they could play with and confide in when times were tough, especially when there were no school friends to talk to during lockdown.

As the noble Lord said, the Government set up a pet theft task force to tackle an increase in incidents during lockdown, with 2,000 dogs being reported as stolen last year. However, as a pet is currently seen only as property, with theft attracting a potential maximum sentence of seven years, this sentence is attached to the monetary value of the pet, which is treated as goods, not the emotional impact of the loss, so the maximum sentence is rarely reached.

Stealing a beloved family pet to bring monetary reward to the criminal should be treated with a more serious penalty which will both deter others and adequately punish the perpetrator. The task force has made recommendations, including introducing an offence of pet theft. Charities involved in animal welfare are keen to see sentences for this crime match those contained in the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021. If the Minister is not minded to accept these three amendments, perhaps he could tell us when the Government plan to introduce the necessary legislation on pet abduction. An explicit commitment on a timescale would be very welcome in this debate, as thieves continue to steal pets while the current derisory sentences are in place.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

My Lords, I support this amendment. During lockdown, mobile pet grooming businesses sprang up, with vans appropriately fitted out to wash and dry dogs, cut their nails and do whatever was needed. Regrettably, some of these mobile vans have been used as a way to steal pets, whose owners might never see them again or might be asked for a ransom payment. My daughter and her cockapoo Eddie use a reputable mobile grooming facility, but the risk of a pet being stolen in this way, particularly prevalent during lockdown, will continue if the deterrent in this amendment and the others is not adopted.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, I rise briefly to support these amendments. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, told us roughly how many pets had been stolen. Can the Minister tell us how many prosecutions have taken place for theft of a dog?

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I rise to respond to an amendment about pet theft, but I will start by saying a few words about amendment theft. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, stole some of the Committee’s time to give us a lecture about the rule of law. I regard the rule of law as a matter of supreme importance, but let us remember what it is and is not.

First, it is not a law; it is a constitutional principle. Secondly, we can have a debate about the scope of the rule of law. The rule of law as adumbrated by Lord Bingham, for example, has a different scope from that set out by Lord Justice Laws in his book; there are different views as to the breadth of the rule of law. But everybody agrees that one has to abide by the law as set out by a court. There was no court in the circumstances set out by the noble and learned Lord. The only court involved is the court of Parliament and, with great respect, the other place was quite within its rights both legally and, I suggest, morally to set out its own procedures.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Advocate-General for Scotland

Do I understand the Government’s position to be that there is no element of the rule of law engaged in complying with the court of Parliament, and in particular the requirements of Parliament?

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

What happened today was Parliament complying with the rules of Parliament, because ultimately Parliament regulates itself. That is how it works. The phrase “rule of law” in the normal sense means a Government or an Executive abiding by the rule of a court. The only relevant court here is the court of Parliament.

However, I now turn to pet theft. I am sure we will come back to the rule of law, and perhaps the human rights issues, when we discuss the Judicial Review and Courts Bill. On pet theft, I thank the noble and learned Lord for tabling this amendment. As he set out, on this point there is actually very little between us. The topic of pet theft caused some consternation in the other place, and—again I agree with the noble and learned Lord on this—quite rightly so. Pets should not be seen as just property; that is at the heart of this issue. Pets are cherished members of the family, so it is right that we take time to consider, as the Government are doing, what measures we can and should take to tackle this abhorrent behaviour.

The Government’s Pet Theft Taskforce reported on its findings in September. It recommended a number of measures to address this crime, including a new offence of pet abduction. Your Lordships might ask why we should create such an offence when a simple pet theft offence might suffice. In that regard, I note that the noble and learned Lord’s amendment in large part mirrors the wording in the Theft Act 1968. However, I suggest to the Committee that we need to reconsider how pets are treated in law, because they are not just possessions or chattels. Therefore, I respectfully suggest that the wording of the Theft Act is inapt; it does not encompass the issue sufficiently. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, set out, that is particularly the case now we have seen so many cases of pet theft during the Covid period. We recognise that animals should therefore be treated as more than property. We are already bringing forward legislation to crack down on puppy smuggling and other cruel crimes, and I hear the points made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, and my noble friend Lord Attlee.

In the new offence of pet abduction, we will seek to bring into focus not merely the taking of a piece of property or a chattel but the impact on the animal and its welfare when a stranger takes a pet away from its carer. This new offence, alongside the other recommendations from the task force, will make it harder for thieves to abduct and sell pets, make it easier for the police to catch them, and ensure that any welfare concerns can be appropriately reflected in the punishment given to offenders.

I will pick up two shorter and, I accept, more minor points which are relevant to this issue. First, the noble and learned Lord’s consequential amendment expands the scope of Section 17 powers under PACE. That section allows a constable to enter and search premises for the purpose of arresting a person for specified offences, and the amendment would include the new pet theft offence in that. We suggest that this is unnecessary. Because the amendment proposes to make the offence triable either way, the Section 17 powers would already be available.

Secondly, the noble and learned Lord has tabled an amendment in respect of Scotland. The Committee will be aware that crime and justice are devolved. Therefore, it would be for the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament to consider whether they wanted a specific offence under the distinct operation of Scots law.

Coming back to the main issue, the Government have announced that they will take appropriate action. I am afraid I cannot put a date on that today, but I hear the strength of feeling on this issue. The Government have made their intentions clear, and I hope that, whatever future debates we may have on the rule of law, the noble and learned Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I cannot commit to that, but, as I say, I have heard the strength of feeling and what the noble and learned Lord has said on this topic. I am sure we can have future discussions on this point.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, will my noble friend take the precaution of instructing parliamentary counsel to draft suitable legislation just in case?

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I shall put it this way: I am well aware that if we wanted to table the amendment to this Bill, we would need a properly drafted clause, and we know how to go about that.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Advocate-General for Scotland 4:45, 3 November 2021

My Lords, I am very grateful to everybody who has spoken in the debate, with considerable force. There was a universal view around the Committee. I am disappointed to hear that there appears to be a retreat from what was promised in the Commons. I am grateful to the Minister for the points he made on my amendments, which we will take into account when we bring them back on Report. I anticipate that if he does not, we will, and will almost certainly seek the opinion of the House in relation to it.

On the broader point, I am absolutely amazed that the Minister thought that killing off the tribunal when one your friends had been found guilty by it was not a breach of the rule of law. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 125 withdrawn.

Amendments 126 to 128 not moved.