Pet Theft — [Sir David Amess in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:31 pm on 19th October 2020.

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Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:31 pm, 19th October 2020

I pay tribute to Tom Hunt for introducing the debate with such verve. The Member whom he replaced had a similar verve when it came to animals, so there is clearly something in the way Ipswich elects people that ensures that they are animal friendly.

Like others, I place on the record my thanks to the researchers and other people who have been fighting so hard on this issue for so long. That is an aspect to which I would like to return. As Sir David Amess so ably and politely put it when mentioning it to the Minister, we have been here before. No matter how good the debate has been—this has been a very good debate—it is not the quality of the debate but the pressure on the Minister to act that we need to look at.

We have all heard this stated before, but it is true that the theft of a pet is not a simple matter of theft of an item, nor should it be treated as such by the law. It is the callous and criminal removal of a family member. It is kidnapping. It is something that strikes at the very heart of the family unit. Pet theft is a tragedy that should be measured more in emotional distress than in economic loss.

The debate has touched on not just pet theft but a number of parallel issues relating to animal welfare and protection of animals: microchipping, animal cruelty, criminal breeding, puppy farming and the import and export of animals. I think that we should not just take one item, as a line item, to look at what can be done, but recognise that pet theft plays into a much bigger concern about the future and the welfare of our animals. One of the opportunities, which has not been spoken about in the debate so far, is that of bringing together those bits of outstanding welfare legislation for which we are still waiting. As Jane Stevenson hinted in her remarks, there is enormous cross-party support for many of those items sitting in Ministers’ to-do trays.

I think that the approach that Ministers have adopted, especially since 2015, of parcelling up animal welfare into smaller and smaller Bills, smaller issues, and dealing with them one by one is a fantastic way of gaining headlines, but it does not deal with the comprehensive nature of some of those challenges. I encourage the Minister to look at whether animal sentience and animal welfare sentencing—assuming that there is not enough time for the Bill that was spoken about; it is due to be debated on Friday, and I hope that there will be—as well as cat microchipping and the other issues can be wrapped up together in a flagship animal welfare Bill that could be in the Queen’s Speech. I think that there would be enormous public support not just on this issue but for a whole host of other animal welfare concerns if that were the case.

A number of hon. Members spoke passionately and it is only appropriate that I mention some of them, because it does tell a story about what is going on. Craig Williams, who is no longer in his place, talked about the law being sub-optimal and not working. That is a cross-party concern that was echoed right across the Chamber. The reality of it, mentioned by Peter Gibson, is that only one in five animals are returned, meaning that enormous amounts of families are without their pets each and every year. That figure is important.

Dr Kieran Mullan talked about the importance of the data. I agree with him on that: the stretched police resource and the real pressure on the police mean that in many cases these crimes are not being properly recorded as pet theft. They are recorded as animals going missing, or simply not at all. That is especially true of certain age groups who do not want to be a burden or to bother the authorities. They might sit at home desperately worried about their animal, but will not want to make an appeal or burden the police with it. I say to all those people who have lost or are worried about an animal to report it. Animals in animal shelters up and down the country are waiting to be reunited with people. It is important that we encourage that so that we can get the data, as mentioned by the hon. Member, to make sure that the work is being done properly.

Matt Vickers said that pets are priceless, and indeed a number of Members have spoken today about the economic value of their own animals in this regard. A law based simply on an animal’s economic value will always discount and disregard the emotional value of that animal. A bigger change in animal welfare legislation is a theme we have seen in the past decade or so: we are recognising not just animals as little furry creatures, but their role within our families and within our society, and the values we want to attach to those animals are being reflected in the legislation that governs them. There has been a gap there, and there are opportunities to close that gap. I say to Caroline Nokes that we all wish the village of Wherwell the best of luck with their endeavours in relation to finding Cleo. It is good to see so many people feeling strongly about the issue.

Animal welfare has been mentioned as a topic at the top of our inboxes. When I explain that to people, there is an element of shock and surprise in their first instant reaction, “Is it not Brexit? Is it not covid-19?” Then there is the realisation that people love animals more than they love people sometimes. It is no surprise to me that animal welfare is at the top of our agenda, and that demands that the action follows it.

As a number of Members, including Jim Shannon, have hinted, when we talk about the theft of an animal we need to look at it not just in the moment of its being stolen, not just as regards the use of sophisticated machinery—as mentioned by the hon. Member for Ipswich in reference to the theft of a number of animals—and not just as being about opportunism. We also need to think about happens to the animal afterwards. I know that when someone loses an animal, they do not think about the economic cost, they worry about what is happening to that animal at that point. They worry about whether the animal is trapped somewhere. “Can’t they get out? Are they okay? Is there something I can do to safeguard and protect the animal?” The worry and concern eats away. The SNP spokesperson, Lisa Cameron, spoke about the psychological torture at the moment of loss. That is what is so cruel about this crime, because it is torturous. It is a form of torture when we lose an animal along the way, and that needs to be properly reflected.

These petitions are good petitions. There is an enormous opportunity to do something about the situation. We know that pets are not simply possessions. Labour are sympathetic to the need to do more to tackle pet theft, including considering the possible changes in the law that have been spoken about so passionately across the Chamber today. There is an opportunity for Ministers to work with campaigners, because despite the reasons that have been discussed for the Government refusing to act so far—that sentences already exist and that there are criminal and sentencing guidelines—those measures are not working. This is a moment to look again at not just the words on the page of the guidelines, but how they are being implemented. They are not being implemented in a way that, I believe, carries public confidence in the measures. There is an opportunity to change that.

I hope that the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill that has, like this debate, been seen many times before will get proper attention on Friday as a private Member’s Bill. Indeed, I have called on the Government to adopt it as a Government Bill to ensure that it has enough time, and I encourage the Minister to make sure that is the case.

My neighbour, Mrs Murray spoke passionately about the need to microchip cats. Indeed, just before the last general election some of us, in this same room, debated the need to microchip cats. That was a compelling case then, and it remains a compelling case now.

With the world in crisis, a jobs crisis looming and covid-19 taking up much of the Government’s bandwidth, how can we get animal welfare issues properly on the agenda? I say to the Minister that wrapping them together in a comprehensive animal welfare law is one way to do that, and I encourage her to include puppy smuggling as part of that. When we talk about puppy smuggling, we frequently talk about animals smuggled into the United Kingdom, but there is also the reverse trend. That is especially being used at the moment to satisfy the demand of people seeking to buy an animal during the lockdown.

We have heard a number of times during the debate about how pets offer such important companionship—they are part of the family. We know there has been a real increase in the value of animals during the lockdown, particularly dachshunds, English bulldogs, French bulldogs, pugs and chow chows—prices have been shooting up. The price of a dachshunds has shot up by a whopping 80% since the start of the lockdown. That is a market that criminals will prey on, and I encourage the Minister to ensure that that is taken into account.

Plymouth is no different from many of the places that have been mentioned so far in the debate, and there is enormous public concern that we should not find ourselves here again in six months’ time. When the Minister addresses hon. Members’ valid and well-put concerns, I encourage her to offer reassurance that all the hundreds of thousands of people who signed the petition, including 500 people in Plymouth, will not need to sign the same petition again to get another debate in order to put pressure on a Minister to enact what is a very clear and obvious instruction from the public—indeed, from the House—that we want to see pet theft taken more seriously.