I am very embarrassed, Mr Robertson, that at the start of the debate I prevailed on colleagues to make short speeches; they have been so brief, there will now be very long wind-ups, but I will leave that to your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend Tom Hunt on the way he presented the petitions, and I commend him for the passion that he displayed right at the end of his speech—absolutely splendid.
We are, of course, a nation of animal lovers, and this debate in Westminster Hall has displayed that we are a House of Commons full of animal lovers, and I certainly commend that. I agree with all the points that colleagues have made. I am very appreciative of Mrs Debbie Matthews, the constituent of my hon. Friend Gareth Johnson and the daughter of Bruce Forsyth, my favourite comedian, for her briefing on this subject.
I very much agree that animals are sentient beings; science has proved that they can experience pain, suffering, joy and comfort, but by equating them to property we are denying them the right to be considered sentient beings. The Theft Act 1968 does just that, and I say to the Minister that it is old legislation. Pet theft was a problem before coronavirus; it has escalated during the lockdown period, and it may continue to do so unless the Government take harsher action against the criminals colleagues have been talking about today.
I put it to the Minister that the public are sending the Government a strong message. Let us not forget that this is the second pet theft debate and that there have been three consecutive successful pet theft reform petitions. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is currently reviewing the compulsory dog microchipping regulations. I agree with my hon. Friend Mrs Murray about microchipping cats. As well as reporting pet thefts, microchipping also helps to return stolen pets. Several colleagues have said how much their animals are worth. We often look after one of my daughter’s French bulldogs, which is worth an absolute fortune—we tend to cover up her European association.
I am delighted to be sponsoring the Dogs and Domestic Animals (Accommodation and Protection) Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend Andrew Rosindell, which, among all other things, recognises the importance of microchipping pets. However, there needs to be a single, complete database of microchipped cats and dogs, as there is for horses, and microchips must be compulsory, so that they can be checked against that database at every first vet appointment.
Debbie Matthews, who started Vets Get Scanning, has been a champion in this area for many years and I congratulate her. Pet theft is seldom investigated and usually the only thefts that result in an investigation are those where dogs are stolen for puppy farming. That is quite wrong. We have reports of the ridiculous sentences: where there has been horrendous cruelty, criminals just get suspended sentences, whereas for metal theft people are sent to prison for 12 years. It is absolutely ridiculous.
The Government must amend the Theft Act 1968 and make pet theft a specific offence with custodial sentences. Pets’ monetary value is, as other colleagues have said, relatively small compared with luxury items, which carry a sentence of seven years as a category 1 crime. The punishment does not fit the crime as the loss of an inanimate object compared to that of a pet is very different. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said, the Sentencing Council needs to amend the existing guidelines, to ensure that all cases of companion animal theft are considered a category 1 or 2 crime as a minimum, regardless of monetary value.