Thank you, Sir David. It is a pleasure to follow Tom Hunt. He and I have many things in common. We might not agree on everything, but one thing that we do agree on is Ipswich football team. They are my son’s team, so whenever I follow the scores on a Saturday, I am able to relate to the hon. Member, as I did when we had a conversation today. He told me that he is actually a Newcastle supporter—I think they are his second team, but that is by the way. It is really nice to speak in the debate.
During my time in self-isolation, my faithful companion was Autumn, a springer spaniel. When I was out in the garden, she faithfully joined me. In fact, she has been faithful her whole life. I think someone had been very bad to her—we rescued the dog from Assisi Animal Sanctuary, and we now keep her in the house. There is a saying that a dog is “man’s best friend”, but you, Sir David, and I both know that the Lord Jesus is our best friend. He sticks closer than a brother. However, my dog Autumn definitely comes a close second.
The matter of dog theft is so pertinent, given that the theft of dogs—particularly gun dogs and shooting dogs—has risen dramatically. I can understand the heartache that comes from losing a faithful friend that loves their owner and is always happy to see them, no matter how burdened and low they feel. I understand that it is hard to put a value on the friendship of a dog, but it is truly a disservice to have a legal principle that restricts judges from imposing a fine greater than the monetary amount paid for a dog. In the eyes of the law currently, dogs are taken like any other form of property, so the punishment for dog theft is determined by the monetary value of the dog. As such, the fines given are mostly paltry.
I put on my record my position in relation to Northern Ireland, which has introduced micro-chipping. I see that that might now move across to the rest of the UK. There are horrific cases of dogs being stolen to participate in dog fights. Someone’s pampered pooch, which has been reared to be so gentle and loving, is thrown into a ring for bets. Even just saying that makes me feel sick to my stomach. We allow fines that say, “There are no papers to prove its pedigree, so it’s worth only about £50.” What is the value of someone’s dog? For me, it is a lot more than £50. It adds insult to stomach-churning injury.
That is why I wholly support the Dogs Trust in its calls for the Sentencing Council to amend existing guidelines to ensure that all cases of companion theft are considered category 1 or category 2 crimes at a minimum, regardless of monetary value. I further support the Dogs Trust’s request to see accurate and consistent recording and reporting of incidences of theft of a companion animal. Dogs Trust has called for increased penalties for animal cruelty offences and strongly supports a Bill that would,
“increase the maximum sentence for animal cruelty offences from 6 months to 5 years”— that is the sort of legislation I want to see in place—
“address the protracted periods some dogs may spend in kennels during a court case and introduce a way of expediating the process or allowing the rehoming of seized animals”,
“introduce an automatic ban on owning animals if a person is convicted of an animal cruelty offence, not only as a preventative measure to ensure that person commits no further offences but to serve as an extra deterrent and better protect animal welfare.”
They say that those who treat animals badly, mischievously, violently or cruelly are on a path to no good.
Let me be clear: sentencing will never bring a beloved animal home to where it was completely loved, but it will allow someone who is grieving to feel that their loss is somewhat understood. It will also act as a deterrent. When people understand, they will not have the thought, “Sure, it’s only an old dog.”; they will know that they will be taken seriously and the consequences of their despicable actions will be heavy indeed.
When I think of so many of our elderly, whose companions provide such love, affection and company, especially in these days of isolation, there should be no doubt in the mind of any criminal that this is a serious matter. We want to ensure that today. It is up to this House and, I must say, up to the Minister as well; we look forward to her response to our request.