It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend Tom Hunt on opening the debate and raising many of the points I would have made had I had the opportunity to make a long speech—people will be relieved that I do not.
Over the last few days I have been contacted by many of my constituents, asking me to speak in the debate. Interestingly, the vast majority of those emails came from Wherwell, one of the smallest villages in Test Valley. It struck me as being slightly odd that such a disproportionate number came from one place, but there is a very good reason for that. Although we have heard many heart-breaking stories—of Trigger; of Ruby and Beetle—I would like to add the story of one more dog: a small cocker spaniel called Cleo.
Cleo was four years old when she was taken from her owner, Mr Rudd-Clarke, an 85-year-old gentleman who lives in Wherwell. I hope that he does not mind me mentioning that he is 85. I told him I was going to speak this afternoon, but I did not tell him that I was going to say how old he was. Both Mr Rudd-Clarke and his wife very much enjoyed the company of Cleo. She was the dog that got them out of the house to exercise in the fresh air in Hampshire—interestingly, one of the most dog-friendly counties in the country. She has been their constant companion since she was a puppy, and she is a gorgeous blue roan—perhaps one of the prettiest dogs I have ever seen.
I have seen Cleo because she has her own Facebook page, and on pretty much every telegraph pole and tree in the village of Wherwell is a picture of Cleo. Her owners had done the right thing: they had ensured that she was microchipped, and that the chip was registered to their current address; she was spayed and she wore a collar with her name and address on at all times. None the less, Cleo went missing on
Cleo was the sort of dog that came to a whistle. I really admire anybody who can make a cocker spaniel come to a whistle; I have certainly failed in my attempts with my beloved dog, Alfie. The assumption of those in the village, of the owner and of the police is that Cleo was stolen, and the charity DogLost concurs. What a wicked and despicable crime—to take a companion from an elderly gentleman. She was company, she was exercise and she was part of the family, and she had been spayed, so her monetary value was much less because of course she could not be used for breeding purposes.
We have heard this afternoon that stealing a pet is no different in law from stealing any inanimate object, but pets are not inanimate and the trauma of losing one is horrific. There needs to be a decoupling of sentencing from the animal’s value. I know that the Minister will tell us that dog theft is already a crime under the Theft Act 1968, carrying a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment, but of course that sort of sentence is very rarely handed down. I do not want to dwell on the reasons why a dog might be stolen—other Members have alluded to them—but they are horrific. Stolen dogs do not end up in the arms of a family that is going to love them in the same way that the one they have been ripped from does.
My hon. Friend is a good Minister, who cares passionately about this issue, and I know that she has the power to do something today. She can give us a steer that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will seek to amend the Theft Act, which is over 50 years old, and bring it into line with how 21st-century Britain, and the village of Wherwell, feel about their pets.