Pet Theft — [Sir David Amess in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:57 pm on 19th October 2020.

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Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford 4:57 pm, 19th October 2020

I think everyone in this room would agree that pet theft is a particularly nasty offence. It is incredibly stressful for the owner and for the dog itself when it is stolen. I think the problem emanates from the Sentencing Council guidelines. Much has been mentioned about that. My hon. Friend Tom Hunt and other speakers spoke about how Sentencing Council guidelines are insufficient.

In 2016, I wrote to the Sentencing Council to ask it to change the guidelines so that there was less emphasis placed on the value of the piece of property that was stolen: in this case an animal. It came back to me and said that the current guidelines were perfectly acceptable, and even mentioned the fact that pedigree dogs are very often worth more than £500, and therefore it was not necessary to change the guidelines, but that misses the whole point of this particular crime. I have a golden retriever that is worth probably less than 50p: a 12-year-old golden retriever called Fred that is definitely not worth stealing. However, that misses the point. It is a member of the family that is being stolen, which is why we see so many tears from people who have gone through this awful experience. The animals are stolen simply because the crime is low risk with a high reward. If someone knows they are not likely to be sent to prison because the value of the dog is less than £500, that is a very attractive crime to commit. That is why unfortunately we are seeing an increasing number of people carrying out the offence. It was happening before lockdown, and the numbers have shot up since because the value of dogs has gone up and there is an even greater reward, but with the same low risk for people carrying out these dastardly offences.

If the Sentencing Council is so stubborn that it will not change its guidelines, Parliament could step in and make it a specific offence to steal an animal, which the petition alludes to. If we did that, it would give the courts separate powers to impose the sentences that we all want to see for such a crime. Unfortunately, we do not have a specific offence for that. We have a specific offence of stealing a pedal cycle, but not of stealing a member of the family. That cannot be right, and the Sentencing Council needs to reconsider that.

I pay tribute to the work of the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance, which has done some tremendous things in highlighting the crime, particularly Debbie Matthews, who has worked tirelessly to try and bring about a change in the rules. I also pay tribute to Kent police, one of the forces that takes the matter seriously. In many parts of the country, when the police are called to investigate the stealing of a dog, it is simply recorded as missing when the owner knows it has been stolen. Consequently, we are seeing lower official figures for the theft of a dog than is actually the case. In addition, when a dog is recorded as stolen, it is put in as theft of a chattel, which means it is difficult to get facts and figures on how courts are sentencing people for those offences. We have to go on anecdotal and experience-based examples to try to get to the bottom of what is taking place.

There are some good things going on out there, but more needs to be done about the matter. I urge the Minister to use her good offices to persuade the Sentencing Council on that, if that is possible can. I am pleased that this is a cross-party interest and that we are at one on the issue. Hopefully, collectively, we can either get the Sentencing Council to see sense or this place needs to take action and bring in a specific offence of dog theft.