The Bill presented by Anna Firth MP for Southend West makes new offences of abducting a dog or cat punishable with a maximum sentence of 5 years’ imprisonment. The Bill aims to ensure that the sentient nature of animals is respected and proper sentences passed for such crimes, not just relying on the financial value of the animal to judge the sentence.
In his speech, Oliver said:
“…pet theft is seen as a minor crime with low prosecution rates and relatively lenient sentences, but that ignores the true nature of the crime: pets are loved members of their families—it is often said that they complete their family—so when they are taken, it causes huge suffering to the family and, of course, to the animal companion who loves his or her family. This is a much more substantial crime than the current law allows.”
Oliver’s strong support has been recognised and he will serve on the Committee to consider the bill in detail on 31st January.
Commenting Oliver said:
“Pet theft is a horrible crime but the current law does not treat it as such. I am sure this new law is needed and will enable tougher sentencing and better tracking of offences.”
Sir Oliver’s full speech is below:
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth) on securing the Second Reading of her Bill—an important moment. I am also somebody who came second in dog of the year—not this year, but I was the best in the east with my dog Soda, a lovely mini Schnauzer cross—but anyway, enough of that.
I remember friends having the dreadful experience of having their dog snatched—a lovely Norfolk terrier, and a bit of a character. It was a peculiar incident in a way, because the dog just suddenly yelped and disappeared. The friends put up an advertisement offering a reward, and some rather dodgy individual rang up and said, “Well, if the reward was a bit bigger…” Eventually, the dog was returned, but that gives us an example of some of the terrible behaviour. Of course, what a dreadful experience for the family, in which this dog was much loved. Eventually, the dog was returned, although it was a sad experience for the family.
There has been, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) alluded to, a gap between how the law views and values animals and how the public does. A series of private Members’ Bills have started to change that and build on the work of the landmark Animal Welfare Act 2006. When I was taking through the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019, known at the time as Finn’s law, hon. Members in all parts of the House, as well as the public, were shocked when I explained that the only effective charge when a police dog was stabbed to within an inch of his life by an escaping criminal was criminal damage. No penalty was actually imposed in that case because the police dog was nearing the end of his working life and was not worth much money, so the sentencing was based entirely on the monetary value of the damage.
I was glad to gain strong support from all parties through various hon. Members, but also from the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), who had originally taken through the 2006 Act. Through that private Member’s Bill, we managed to provide an alternative approach, enabling an Animal Welfare Act offence to be used in those sorts of cases. My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) followed that up the next year with the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021, which raised the maximum sentences for animal welfare offences to five years’ imprisonment.
This Bill is in the same tradition, because pet theft is just theft—a criminal offence under the Theft Act. Conviction can result in a fine or a maximum sentence of seven years, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon said. The guidelines do not reflect that, because harm is assessed by reference to the financial loss that results from the theft, so pet theft is seen as a minor crime with low prosecution rates and relatively lenient sentences, but that ignores the true nature of the crime: pets are loved members of their families—it is often said that they complete their family—so when they are taken, it causes huge suffering to the family and, of course, to the animal companion who loves his or her family. This is a much more substantial crime than the current law allows.
There is a body called the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance. It campaigns for stronger penalties and says that
“pets are classified as property, second hand goods, valued under £500, the punishment is usually a measly £250 fine, if the thief is caught!”
Pet theft has been a low-risk, high-reward crime—a gift for dog thieves—so I welcome the specific crime of pet abduction in the Bill with a proper sentence attached. A new specific offence will also give courts access to appropriate custodial sentences because the sentencing guidance will have to reflect the new offence and its
wider ambit in terms of considering sentience. The new offence is right and shows that pets are more than just mere replaceable property; they are sentient beings. It also reflects the worry caused by the uncertainty to the family about the animal’s well-being.
So this would be another animal welfare measure recognising animals as more than mere property, and another successful private Member’s Bill changing law in this area. I would add that I have certainly had a lot of help from the Clerks and the Whips and I hope the same will be true for my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West—I am sure it will be.
We should also recognise that organised crime gangs have been stealing dogs to breed from, so there is a need to ensure that we are not allowing organised crime to fund its activities in this way. The difficulties in monitoring and tracking the criminals have partly been to do with police records, and having a specific offence will mean that we will know where these offences occur and be able to track patterns, which is so important in trying to really stop a crime.
The pet theft taskforce is a very good idea and I think we would all support its recommendation of finding better recording options. The only evidence on this I have seen, apart from the evidence from my hon. Friend, is from the taskforce, which tried to get a handle on whether the number of offences was increasing or not. It found that there had been a 3.5% increase in recorded cases at a time when theft cases generally had gone down by a quarter. So we had a period of declining theft but not in this area, where it was going up. As has been said, these figures are based on an incomplete set of records so they are not conclusive, but I think they would fit in with the impression that most of us have that this is a crime that is on the up, rather than the down, Therefore, this Bill is particularly welcome.
I am not going to detain the House for too long because I have a Bill coming up later, but I welcome this Bill as an opportunity to improve the welfare of animals, show public abhorrence of the crime of abducting a much-loved pet and family member and also bear down on organised crime. Therefore, I am happy to support the Bill.”