It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend Tom Hunt for securing the debate. I know he is a passionate supporter of animals.
People across the country bring pets into their households and love and care for them as if they were members of their family. We are a pet-loving nation. Sadly, despite a reported fall in pet thefts in 2019, we have all talked about the strong anecdotal evidence that suggests pet theft shot up during lockdown. At least five dogs are stolen every day in England and Wales; that is five loved family members stolen from their home. To criminals, pets are money-making objects that can often be used and abused to make a profit. As others have mentioned, Dr Allen from Keele University found that in 2018 only 1% of pet thefts resulted in the thief being charged. As he said, sadly, criminals see pet theft as
“a low-risk high-reward crime”.
That should not be the case.
Almost 600 of my constituents have signed one of the two petitions we are debating, asking for change. Pets are loved members of the family who bring us so much joy and happiness, and we need an approach that recognises that they are more than just property. We need to make it crystal clear to criminals that stealing a pet is a risky choice to make. I sympathise with the Government’s reluctance to introduce specific legislation. What counts for me is the outcome, not how we get there. As the Government’s written response to the petition points out:
“The theft of a pet is already a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968 and the maximum penalty is seven years’ imprisonment.”
However, all of us in the Chamber, and the Minister in particular, are in the unfortunate position of not being able to say what is happening on the ground. It is hard for the Government to defend their position and say it is satisfactory when hon. Members who want to understand whether the law is working have tabled written questions asking about average sentences and found we are not recording those statistics. The Government must tackle that first so that, whatever decisions are made today and in the near future, they—and we, as scrutinisers—can judge whether the current approach is working.
If the Government will not move on legislation, they must join us in engaging with the Sentencing Council. Currently, there is an expectation that when a person steals something with a value of less than £500, they should get only a community order. We have heard many examples of pets that would not meet that threshold, so that bar should not exist. It is no surprise, therefore, that people are concerned that custody is not being used when it should be. The Government will point out that, yes, the guidelines do allow for additional weight be given to the emotional impact surrounding an offence, but even when that is the case, the starting point becomes just one year as a category 3 offence, which does not provide a strong enough solution.
We need to make it clear to criminals who snatch pets from loving families that they are committing a serious offence and they will be punished accordingly. We do not know whether that is happening at the moment, and we cannot guarantee that it is. It would be appropriate to have a sentencing guideline specific to pet theft that asks judges to begin by thinking of it as a category 2 offence under current legislation, irrespective of the monetary value of the pet, which currently acts as an important limiting factor. That would leave discretion but make it clear to judges, the public and, importantly, criminals that stealing a pet is serious, causing huge distress to families and something they should think very carefully about doing.