Pet Abduction Bill

– in the House of Commons am 11:38 am ar 19 Ionawr 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Second Reading

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Ceidwadwyr, Southend West 11:42, 19 Ionawr 2024

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Britain is a nation of animal lovers. Our pets are part of our families. They comfort us when we are down and give us a huge amount of laughter, energy and joy when we are up—and, in fact, all the time. They make a house a home. That is why it is so heartbreaking when any one of our beloved pets is snatched away from us, and it is also why the taking, abducting or detaining of someone else’s beloved pet is such a sick and cruel crime.

I would be devastated if my own lovely cavapoochon, Lottie—who, I might add, was robbed at the Westminster dog show this year, but she will be back next year, going for the full prize—or one of my two cats, Merlin and Marmalade, were abducted, and I know that my esteemed predecessor Sir David Amess felt exactly the same about his beloved pugs, Lilly and Bo. I want to pause for a moment and remember Sir David, who was the national champion of pets. He not only chaired our last debate on pet reform, in Westminster Hall, but contributed to it. I clearly have a few tricks still to learn. It is always a privilege to build on Sir David’s legacy, and I have chosen to stand in this particular place in the hope that a few Members might just look behind me. Let us hope his light remains as we discuss this Bill.

In my constituency, the wonderful Ann Cushion co-founded a social enterprise called known as Tilly’s Angels, alongside Helene Leader. Tilly’s Angels unites owners with lost dogs and cats. It was started in 2016 and has grown enormously. Ann and Helene now have a team of 18 dedicated volunteers, and their Facebook page is followed by nearly 27,000 people in Southend’s SS postcode area. I am proud that we have seven Tilly’s Angels with us in the Public Gallery today.

In September 2021, a few months before I was elected, Ann was volunteering, helping to locate other people’s missing dogs and cats, when she went on a fly-by visit to her sister. On returning to her van, its door was open and all four of her beautiful rescue dogs—Mandy, Micky, Ruby and Chara—were gone. She still remembers the sinking, sickening feeling of seeing those four empty dog crates. She described it to me as being as if her babies had been taken, “The pain was indescribable.” Of course, it was ironic given the good work that she had been doing for many years to help others in the same situation. Luckily, because of Tilly’s Angels, 20 people were out looking within an hour. Within days an army of volunteers had swung into action, and her dogs were recovered in dribs and drabs.

Of course, the vast majority of these stories are not happy. The data shows that only 12% of stolen pets find their way back to their owners. The vast majority—88%, or over 2,000 dogs and cats every year—are not recovered, which is devastating for those families and owners.

Cat theft, which is included in my Bill, is just as harrowing. Helene from Tilly’s Angels told me of a lady who went into Colchester Hospital for cancer treatment, leaving her four cats in the care of a neighbour, only to find on leaving hospital that not only had the lady moved but she had taken the four cats with her, leaving no forwarding address or contact details.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Ceidwadwyr, Southend West

It is unbelievable, isn’t it? Incredibly, two of the cats later reappeared in Leigh-on-Sea.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Ceidwadwyr, Gainsborough

I support the Bill, especially in memory of my dear friend David Amess. I am a dog owner, but one thing that slightly worries me is that cats are prone to wander, which is why we love them. Kindly old ladies sometimes see a wandering cat, pick them up and take them home, feeling that they are looking after them. Can my hon. Friend assure me that innocent ladies who pick up cats will not be enmeshed in this law?

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Ceidwadwyr, Southend West

I thank my right hon. Friend for making an important point. The two offences are slightly different. The offence of dog abduction will be the taking and detaining of a dog, whereas only the taking, and not the detaining, of a cat will be criminalised, because cats roam. The behaviour of the two animals is different. There is also a defence of reasonable excuse. We do not seek to criminalise the good behaviour and good intentions of old ladies and many other people.

Photo of Natalie Elphicke Natalie Elphicke Ceidwadwyr, Dover

I am hugely supportive of the Bill. The pain, upset and grief of losing a pet in these circumstances is terrible, as has been very well illustrated. Not every cat is a roaming cat. There are some very beautiful breeds—I might say the most special breeds—such as the Ragdoll that blesses my household, that do not roam. They are indoor cats. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend could reassure me that the indoor nature of some cats, which is very similar to that of a dog, has been adequately taken into account by her Bill.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Ceidwadwyr, Southend West

It is absolutely being taken into account; I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. There is no discrimination between cats and dogs when it comes to the penalty—they are being treated equally. It is only the way in which the offences are framed that is different. I absolutely take the point, and hope to illustrate it in more detail later.

Let me complete the story. Two cats reappeared, although one, sadly, reappeared dead on the road, and the other two are still unaccounted for. These tales abound wherever we go. Debbie Matthews, the daughter of the late, great Sir Bruce Forsyth—the only host, in my opinion, of “The Generation Game”—

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Ceidwadwyr, Southend West

We digress.

Debbie Matthews founded SAMPA—the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance—after having a very similar experience, when her two dogs were stolen from a supermarket, as did Toni Clarke, who founded Pet Theft Awareness after her beautiful Siamese cat, Clooney, was stolen. The common thread that runs through all these stories is that the police response was practically non-existent. In Debbie’s case, the police told her that there was no point in them coming because nothing of value had been stolen from her car. Helen, who reported the incident of the cats I mentioned previously, was told by the police that they do not even consider a cat a possession. Of course, the approach varies across police forces—that is one problem that my Bill seeks to address—but that is simply not right and it has to change; and with this Bill, it will.

One reason that this legislation is so important is the sheer scale of these offences now. According to Direct Line, between 2018 and 2022 there were more than 12,000 dog thefts—an average of 2,400 a year, and the equivalent of seven dogs stolen every single day. Those figures are not complete, because not all forces even register such offences. Cat theft, which has been mentioned, is now catching up. According to Pet Theft Awareness, the police recorded that the number of stolen cats had jumped by 40% in 2021 to an all-time high of 560. Cat theft has quadrupled since 2015, and data from the Metropolitan police shows that cat theft as a proportion of total pet theft crimes rose from 6% in 2012 to 31% last year.

Cat theft is very much on the rise, and I am sure it is much connected with the beautiful breeds that some people have. One can only imagine the distress and anguish faced by owners of Siamese or ragdoll cats—these beautiful breeds that are kept inside—whose pets are snatched away from them. In saying that, I am not in any way diminishing the impact on me if Merlin and Marmalade, who are just normal old moggies, were taken; they are immeasurably valuable in my eyes.

I do not want to go any further without saying a huge thank you to some people who have done a lot of work on the Bill over many, many years. Dr Daniel Allen, an animal geographer from Keele University, and Debbie Matthews both campaigned for 10 years to get this far. The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation has also done tremendous work, and is so ably led by Lorraine and Chris Platt, who I am glad are here with us today. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friends the Members for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and for Witham (Priti Patel), and my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for all their work in this area over many years. In particular, the former Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State, my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland, was so instrumental in forming and leading the pet theft taskforce. It was his ingenious idea to move away from the more difficult-to-prove offence of pet theft to the more appropriate offence of pet abduction.

Public interest intensified during the pandemic, when breeders could not breed dogs but the demand for puppies and companionship soared, and we had a paradise for callous criminals who wanted to steal other people’s pets. That perfect storm of callous criminality caused a spike in pet theft, particularly of dogs, which led to the launch of the cross-Government pet theft taskforce in May 2021. It is important to stress that although this is a political issue, it is not, I hope, a party political one. The Bill has huge support from right across the House, for which I am very grateful.

That taskforce gathered evidence to understand the factors that contributed to both the perceived and real rise in pet theft. It heard concerns about the significant price rises for the UK’s most sought-after dog breeds during lockdown. According to the Dogs Trust, the price of some breeds rose by almost 90%. The number of “Buy a puppy” Google searches increased by more than 160% in the months between March and August, as everyone scrambled to buy their pandemic puppies. That led a number of sources, including animal welfare charities and experts, to suggest that those price increases almost certainly triggered the rise in pet thefts.

The findings of the pet theft taskforce showed that the emotional impact of having a pet stolen is high. Not knowing what has happened to a pet or where they are is an agonising situation to be in—one that all pet owners in the Chamber surely sympathise with. That emotional impact does not stop with the owners. The pets, too, can suffer from being taken away from their owners and thrust into an unfamiliar environment. There is also a high level of fear surrounding the victims of pet abduction. In fact, that was demonstrated to me last night when I took part in an hour-long phone-in on Iain Dale’s LBC show to talk about the Bill. Anyone who knows anything about Iain Dale knows what a massive dog lover he is. He has a walled courtyard at his house in which his two dogs, Woody and Dude, are allowed to go out, and it has a gate so that they are safe, but he is still worried and fearful that somebody else might get in. That was reflected in many of the calls, so this is still a real issue.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Ceidwadwyr, Bury North

This is a good Bill and I support it, but my concern is that an offence already covers this type of criminal behaviour. I do not believe that it is the difficulty in proving that offence that is causing the problem here; it is the police not taking allegations and investigations seriously. I hope that the new offence will impact on the police response so that they take the matter seriously. Does my hon. Friend think that it will achieve that?

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Ceidwadwyr, Southend West

I share my hon. Friend’s interest in that area. Of course, those are questions that I have asked myself, and I think the answer is twofold. First, the police will have to assign a unique identifier to this separate offence, so we will finally be able to see the scale of the offence and which police forces are taking it seriously and enforcing the law on it. Of course, it would not be logical to suddenly find that pet theft is happening in only one or two counties but not in others—the degree might vary, but the offence is happening all over the country. Making it compulsory for the police to assign a unique identifier will, in itself, lead to greater enforcement.

The other point, which my hon. Friend does not directly touch on, is the sentencing for this offence. He will know that there have been many attempts to strengthen the sentencing guidelines, but he will also know, as a lawyer himself, about the separation of powers and that that is not a role for this place. However, by having a separate offence, there will be separate sentencing guidelines. I hope he is assured by that.

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman Ceidwadwyr, Mid Norfolk

I strongly support the Bill and hope to catch Madam Deputy Speaker’s eye a little later.

On the point about the obligations and the legalities, I am reminded of a good friend of mine whose dog strayed on Hampstead Heath, was picked up by somebody, tied on a railing with a piece of string, and then stolen. Will my hon. Friend, and/or the Minister remind the House about the current differential obligations for dogs and cats, and what one is bound in law to do if one finds a dog or a cat at the moment, and under this Bill? What are everyone’s responsibilities?

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Ceidwadwyr, Southend West

My hon. Friend raises a very important and interesting point, which we could discuss because there are already obligations on the statute book, as he knows. I will come on to deal with some of the points he has raised.

I want to turn next to the purposes of the Bill. The golden thread running through this Bill is that dogs and cats are sentient beings. They are not mere property; animals and humans can and do form emotional bonds and there is a devastating impact when animal abduction takes place, both on people and on pets. That needs to be properly reflected in our criminal law.

Hon. Members will know that the theft of a cat or dog is already a crime under the Theft Act 1968 and the Theft Act (Northern Ireland) 1969, but under those Acts the sentience and intrinsic value of animals is not recognised. So currently, in sentencing, a stolen rescue labrador is treated as no different from a stolen power tool, mobile phone, or computer—indeed, the theft of a labrador is probably treated as lesser since computers and smartphones are often of high value and considerations of financial value run through the Theft Act.

Pets are of course not mere property; we have heard many examples of that already in this debate. This Bill will create two specific offences of cat abduction and dog abduction in England and Northern Ireland. So if a pet is abducted, that will not be treated in the same way as the theft of a watch or a mobile phone or a power tool, all of which can easily be replaced. They might be worth a lot of money and replacing them might be inconvenient, but the item itself is not affected by the crime, whereas a pet is. The Bill recognises that pets are family, not property, and the trauma suffered by both the owner and the pet when the pet is abducted is very significant, and it is the intention of the Bill to allow the courts to consider this impact on both the owner and the welfare of the animal when deciding on the penalty.

The second issue the Bill addresses is that pet theft and abduction do not currently have a unique identifier in crime datasets. That is why it is so difficult to identify the number of pets stolen every year: it is impossible to distinguish in many police records between the theft of an inanimate object and the theft of an animal. Of course, some dogs and cats will be taken as part of a burglary or a robbery, so the fact that an animal has been involved will not be mentioned at all in police records.

In preparing for this Second Reading debate I issued freedom of information requests to all 45 territorial police forces in the UK asking for the number of pets stolen each year since 2019. The responses I received perfectly articulate the problem we face. As of this morning I had received responses from 30 of the police forces, but 12 of those 30 told me that they are unable to provide the information requested as their records do not distinguish theft of pets from general theft of objects. That means that I have only been able to compile for myself information on the covered areas, making up around 29% of the population of the UK. By introducing this unique identifier, we will help the recording of the crime and see the true extent of it.

The offences themselves will cover the taking of a cat or a dog, but also the detaining of a dog. Cats and dogs are the most commonly kept pets in our country. It is now estimated that over a quarter of all adults own one or both of those pets, so dogs and cats seemed the appropriate place to start, but the species are different, and are treated differently in the Bill. The detaining offence, which we have already talked about, does not apply to cats, as they generally have more freedom to roam without their owners. The Bill is not intended to punish incidents where there has been no malice or ill intent in looking after a cat that has voluntarily come to another person’s home. Many of us will have read the children’s book “Six Dinner Sid”, in which Sid the cat has his dinner at six different houses on the same street.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Ceidwadwyr, Gainsborough

This is a really important point. I am thinking of my wife’s grandmother, who in our family was known as Granny Meow, because she had 14 cats. None of those cats had arrived in her home—she had gone out and picked them up, because she thought they were strays. She was a completely innocent old lady; there was no question of her stealing anything. I just want to be absolutely sure that Policeman Plod cannot knock on her door and take her to court, or could not have knocked on her door—she is long since dead, of course. I want to be absolutely assured of that, because it is important that people have that reassurance.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Ceidwadwyr, Southend West

I can absolutely assure my right hon. Friend that it is specifically stated in the Bill that it is a defence that a person is picking up stray animals, or is involving themselves with someone else’s animal for good, honourable and noble reasons.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

This Bill is really important for a lot of people. Is it not the lesson of both “Six Dinner Sid” and Granny Meow—of course, at the end of “Six Dinner Sid”, Sid also went to the vet six times, which was not what he was looking to do—that we really want to encourage people to get their pets chipped, so that any confusion about ownership can be resolved? That is the same for cats as for dogs.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Ceidwadwyr, Southend West

I thank the hon. Member for her excellent point—in fact, there is another excellent private Member’s Bill on that topic further down the list today. She is absolutely right: we do not seek to criminalise anyone who looks after Sid, George, or any other stray cat.

The Bill includes an enabling power to extend the offences to other species of animal commonly kept as pets. If there is evidence of a significant number or a rise in cases of unlawful taking, the Government will be able to react in a dynamic way. When listening to the radio last night, I was very struck by the number of people who phoned in to talk about birds—in particular, birds of prey—being stolen, so that may well be an area that we look at in the future.

We have heard concerns about the fact that good behaviour should not be criminalised. I want to assure Members that while the Bill proposes offences meant to punish those who purposefully abduct a pet, it also creates exemptions for certain connected persons and subject to certain defences, such as a reasonable excuse for taking or detaining an animal. For example—we have already heard some examples—the offence will not apply in situations where a couple have got a cat or a dog while living together, then have a disagreement about the ownership of that pet and go their separate ways. That could include someone who is fleeing an abusive relationship taking their valued pet with them. Refuge has raised that specific point and is very happy to see that situation exempted in the Bill.

Photo of Jane Stevenson Jane Stevenson Ceidwadwyr, Wolverhampton North East

I will congratulate my hon. Friend again when I make my speech. She is raising such valuable points about the different circumstances that we will see a result of the Bill. Potentially in the future it will encompass a wider range of species than dogs and cats, so does she feel that we may need a widening of microchipping to encompass those pets? It will be difficult to prove ownership of animals that are not microchipped if they do not have distinguishing features.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Ceidwadwyr, Southend West

I thank my hon. Friend for an excellent point. The logic of that is irrefutable, and I agree with it wholeheartedly.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Ceidwadwyr, Bury North

The lawyer in me is coming out here. Does “lawful control” mean ownership?

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Ceidwadwyr, Southend West

I am almost certain that it does, but I will have to refer to my notes to be precise. Perhaps I could come back to my hon. Friend on that, but it extends wider than ownership. It is designed to encompass a vet, a dog sitter or somebody else with a role in relation to the animal in question. I hope that helps my hon. Friend.

I hope that many hon. Members in the Chamber will volunteer to be on the Bill Committee—indeed, I consider that they almost have volunteered. It is so important that we do not over-criminalise well-meaning behaviour. The situation in relation to stray dogs, where people have simply meant to provide shelter to an animal for a reasonable period of time if they believe it to be without a home, will not be caught by the Bill. In Northern Ireland, a defence will apply to a person finding an unaccompanied dog.

Most importantly, the Bill will introduce a new offence whereby if someone is found guilty of dog or cat abduction, the offender will be liable to a fine and up to five years in prison. The maximum term of imprisonment is comparable with provisions for animal welfare offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. The Bill lays a marker that the abduction of our beloved pets will not be tolerated. Any distress caused should be taken into account, and the Bill will also give the opportunity for monitoring.

Photo of Natalie Elphicke Natalie Elphicke Ceidwadwyr, Dover

I would like to reflect on cats, particularly the enormously precious indoor cat breeds. In relation to the sentencing provisions, how will the distress to the animal be demonstrated to the court? Does my hon. Friend consider that there might be a victim witness statement from the owner or usual keeper, or a statement from a vet? In what way does she consider that the distress may be evidenced adequately to the court?

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Ceidwadwyr, Southend West

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I cannot be prescriptive today about how that will be demonstrated, but I can assure her that there would have to be evidence. The court could not take distress into account without some reasonable evidence. Sometimes, that evidence will be self-evident. Sometimes, it will be provided by owners or passers-by. I am not suggesting that it would have to be expert evidence, but there should be some evidence for the court to look at.

Finally, I pay tribute to all the organisations that have been involved in getting us to this stage. I have mentioned the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation; I should also like to mention Cats Protection, the Dogs Trust, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, Refuge, Iain Dale and LBC, and of course Southend’s own Tilly’s Angels, and thank them for all their invaluable support and engagement with the Bill.

If the Bill is enacted, we will have better protections for our pets, we will have offences that duly recognise that our pets are sentient beings, we will be better able to record and track pet abduction, we will have a better deterrent, and I hope we will see a prosecution rate greater than 1%, which is what it is now. Pets are valuable and much-loved members of our family. They ask little of us in return for their love and loyalty—

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Ceidwadwyr, Southend West

Except in the case of some cats, pets ask little other than that we keep them safe. They deserve our support and protection. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for their support.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs) 12:15, 19 Ionawr 2024

Can I say first of all that my dog is truly the most amazing small loving creature in the entire universe and that I will not be challenged on that in this Chamber? Can I also say that she was robbed at the Westminster dog of the year show? We had ensured that she would win the online poll by a zillion votes, but Mr Speaker managed to pick up the prize and Cara was completely and utterly ignored. I promised Cara that I would never, ever put her through such an outrageously unfair test of her beauty and her amazingness again.

Cara is truly a member of our family. She is amazing with constituents. She comes to my surgery. If a constituent is upset, she gets off the chair, waddles over and sits there to be stroked. In fact, she has got me in trouble more than once by recognising a constituent in the street and going over to say hello. I have said, “I’m so sorry—she’s very friendly,” and been told, “Yes, we met two weeks ago. She clearly remembers me.”

Photo of Jane Stevenson Jane Stevenson Ceidwadwyr, Wolverhampton North East

It is wonderful to hear about the hon. Lady’s dog, who I enjoyed meeting at the Westminster dog of the year show. In the interests of today’s debate and our cross-party unity on the issue, it is important to realise that when we are talking about the best dog or cat in the world, many things can be the best together. Each Member’s pet could fulfil the role that the hon. Lady describes.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs)

I am not sure that Cara would agree with that, so I am hesitant to agree with the hon. Lady, but I take her point. Cara is truly a member of our family; the entire family would be absolutely devastated if somebody were to take her from me. I would go to pieces, to be honest.

A number of my constituents, particularly through the lockdown period, contacted me about dog theft—both the fear and the actuality of it. Sadly, my constituents did not get their animals back at all. I know that there was a big market for them during lockdown, and because of the cost of living crisis—I make no political point about this—we are sadly seeing many more dogs landing at Dogs Trust and the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home because people can no longer afford to feed them.

I will not keep the House long in addressing the Bill, but I want to speak on behalf of Kim, who has a disability. She absolutely adores her dogs, but she tells me she no longer feels safe in taking them out. She does not feel that she would be able to defend them if somebody should come and try to take them from her.

She was particularly impacted after a friend, who was 84 years of age, had her terrier snatched from her while she was out on a walk. I know how terrifying and how emotionally devastating that must have been, because it would be like witnessing an assault or a kidnap of a member of her family—of such an emotional support for somebody of that age. It would have been just horrific.

I know things are no different for cat owners, and I am genuinely very pleased that this Bill recognises the need to protect cats in the same way. There is clearly very broad agreement that greater legal clarity and strength is needed in this area of law so that our closest animal companions are not treated as property, but rather our relationship with them as a society is reflected in law. The Bill has been a long time coming, and I am genuinely very grateful to Anna Firth for bringing it forward. I am not going to delay the passage of this long-awaited Bill, so will leave it there, but I want to say how delighted I was to see it and how pleased I am to have been able to speak in favour of it today.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 12:20, 19 Ionawr 2024

It is a pleasure to follow Ms Brown, who spoke with passion about her devoted pet. Her story will be repeated millions of times across our country, bearing in mind our reputation—I think, in the main, our justly held reputation—as a nation of animal lovers. I will come on to some of the exceptions that we all know about in a moment.

If it is true that pets take on the characteristics of the people who look after them, then in the case of the cat who lives in my house—I put it that way rather than saying “my cat”—I would say that her propensity to be demanding and voluble may well bear some similarities to me. I leave it for the House to draw its own conclusions. Our cat is, of course, a Cats Protection cat. She is the second cat we have had in our family, both from Cats Protection, and I pay tribute to that wonderful organisation. We need never buy a cat in this country: there are tens of thousands of deserving cats who need a home, and charities such as Cats Protection provide a wonderful source of cats that need love and a home.

Our cat is named after Mrs Landingham—devotees of “The West Wing” will know that she was a great character, the President’s secretary in the first two seasons of that wonderful drama—and she has been with us now for several years. As I say, the relationship between cats and their families can be a complex one, and ours is no exception, but she is well loved, particularly by my daughter, who really enjoys her company. That is another story to add to the millions of others for whom the prospect of losing their pet would be one of real trauma—and we know the cases of trauma that exist.

Back in 2021, when I was in office as Justice Secretary, together with my right hon. Friend Priti Patel, who was then the Home Secretary, and my right hon. Friend George Eustice, who was then the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we set up the pet theft taskforce. The taskforce consisted of not just officials from our three respective Departments but two police and crime commissioners—Katy Bourne, the Sussex PCC, and Chris Nelson, the Gloucestershire PCC—along with police leads and representatives of the Crown Prosecution Service and animal welfare groups.

We took evidence from a wealth of organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Dogs Trust and the Kennel Club, and indeed the Sentencing Council, bearing in mind the need to consider the interrelationship between any sentencing regime and sentencing for existing offences. It had been put very strongly at the time that we had the law of theft to cover the taking of animals and pets, and quite rightly, many lawyers said, “Well, what on earth are we doing? We don’t need another law and another layer of complexity for prosecutors and police to consider.”

However, it became abundantly clear that the treatment of animals as chattels, goods or property just does not meet the way in which society regards our pets. They are sentient beings—sentient creatures. They are much more than mere property, and therefore the definitions in the Theft Act start to become strained to breaking point. More than that, the Theft Act requires a test of dishonesty, defining theft as the dishonest appropriation of property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving that person of it. Those elements all have to be proved in order to prove theft. It is not just dishonesty, but an intention to permanently deprive. Herein comes the obvious line that many perpetrators would deploy, which is, “I was not intending to take this animal. I was taking it in for its welfare, and I was not going to permanently keep it.”

You can already see, Mr Deputy Speaker, some of the evidential challenges that might present themselves in proving the offence of theft, which is why the analogy with abduction seemed to me to be much more sensible. The law of child abduction has been part of our law for many decades and was last revised in the Child Abduction Act 1984. Those of us who are criminal practitioners—I see my hon. Friend James Daly in the Chamber—will be familiar with it. No doubt he has done cases involving child abduction, and I certainly have. It is nothing to do with dishonesty, and nothing to do with the dishonest state of mind of a person. It is all about the taking of a child from a family situation, sometimes out of the country. The consent of the child, when the child is under a certain age, is immaterial.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Ceidwadwyr, Gainsborough

I am getting a bit confused now. The whole point about the Theft Act is that intent has to be proved—mens rea. What happens when somebody takes a cat or a dog—this is precisely the point that my right hon. and learned Friend was making—and says, “I thought he was a stray so I was doing it for his welfare”? We are not going to have a great court case about the state of mind of that person, are we?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

No, we are not, because the provisions of the Bill give the defence of reasonable excuse or lawful authority and, in any sensible analysis of a case, a police officer or a prosecutor will, of course, bear that very much in mind when weighing up the evidence. Clearly, in the cases that my right hon. Friend envisages, cat lovers and people who are clearly interested in the welfare of animals and pets will be covered by reasonable excuse or lawful authority.

We have to acknowledge, sadly, that contrary to what happened with Granny Meow—I nearly called her Granny Pussy, but I am sure that Hansard will deal with that—there are groups out there that are unscrupulous, particularly regarding dogs. They profit out of the illegal and underground breeding of animals and the passing off of dogs, in particular, as pedigree breeds when in fact they are nothing of the sort. When I was Solicitor General, I had to deal with an unduly lenient sentence reference case to the Court of Appeal relating to a conspiracy involving a veterinary surgeon and people who were in effect importing greyhounds, I think, from Ireland that were sadly not pedigree breeds, and who were then profiting from selling the dogs on. That sort of trade is abusive. It involves poor welfare standards. Frankly, it involves the abuse of animals and quite rightly horrifies right-thinking people across our country.

Some might naively think that the theft of dogs in particular is an ad hoc thing done on the spur of the moment, but I am afraid that is not the case. There is evidence of organised criminality and the taking of animals that are seen to have a value. That was uncovered during the work of the taskforce. Policymakers, including me, contemplated introducing legislation to criminalise dog abduction with a power in the proposed Bill to extend it to other types of animal. I am glad that we have gone further today in having a specific offence of cat abduction. Although such behaviour seems less prevalent, there is no doubt that it happens. There are cats of very high value and people see potential money to be made. There are examples of that happening, sadly. Rather than waiting to do something, it is right that we take action to protect cats as well. The provision in the Bill to extend the type of offence to other animals is welcome. It gives lawmakers the flexibility to do that through secondary legislation.

Keeping it simple is the way forward. In previous iterations—we saw elements of this Bill in the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill that was withdrawn— there was talk about bringing in a test of dishonesty, which was a departure from the policy intent set out in the pet theft taskforce report and a complication of the situation. Sticking to dog and cat is good sense. There is a temptation to try to create a general offence about sentient mammals, but I think that is too clever by half. The Bill should commend itself to the House on the basis that it uses familiar, well-known definitions and keeps things as clear as possible.

As my hon. Friend the Minister will remember, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021 dramatically changed the way we deal with welfare offences. It upped the maximum sentence to five years, which was a big moment in animal welfare law reform, and it is right that the offence of abduction matches that maximum. That is welcomed by Blue Cross and by me, and it creates consistency. Some would say it is two years less than the maximum for theft, but we are looking at a different regime.

If and when offences are brought to court, and people either plead guilty or are convicted, we want sentencers to look at that offence not only from the point of view of the keeper or the owner but with regard to the welfare effect on the animal and the condition of the dog or cat that has been abducted or taken. Therefore, we need to understand the offence from a welfare point of view. There have been some horrendous cases in which dogs that have been taken have been treated very badly and have been returned to their owners in a terrible state. We want that to be reflected in any sentence passed by a magistrates court or, indeed, a Crown court.

The sentences are either-way offences and, bearing in mind the maximum sentence of five years, they can go to the Crown court for trial or sentencing if the magistrates think their powers of sentencing are inadequate. Sadly, there will be cases in which that will happen and where the welfare of the dog or cat in question has been abused. In developing sentencing guidelines, which the independent Sentencing Council will do as a result of the new offences, it is important that the welfare of the animal will be a consideration at the heart of the way in which courts approach the sentencing exercise in these cases.

It is right that we are moving away from a rather Victorian view of animals as goods and chattels. In using the term “abduction” we are striking the right balance between the need not to complicate the law but to reflect the reality of how we view our cats, dogs and much-loved pets and the effect on their welfare of their unlawful or criminal taking. I commend my hon. Friend Anna Firth for her work in this area. I should put on the record that she and I were at Bar school together some years ago—I will not say how many. She is a lawyer of some distinction and experience, and a former practitioner, so it is appropriate for her to bring forward this Bill. I am delighted to support it wholeheartedly—progress, at last.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow 12:33, 19 Ionawr 2024

It is a genuine pleasure to contribute to the debate and to follow the comprehensive report by Anna Firth, the passion of my hon. Friend Ms Brown, the expertise of Sir Robert Buckland and, of course, Granny Meow. should declare that I have often voted in the Westminster dog of the year competition—I have obviously voted for everybody’s beautiful dog, if anybody asks—but I have never participated. I still own a rather elderly cat, who would probably not win any awards, except from me. She is not of any particular breed, apart from loved. But we recognise that pet ownership is an intrinsic part of many people’s lives, and for good reasons. There is a lot of evidence that owning a pet can help with stress. Perhaps that is why they should be mandatory in Parliament. I always thought we should be able to have them in our offices. Maybe that would help some of our conversations. They lower blood pressure and they are good for loneliness. As a nation, half of us own a pet. In fact, the quarter of people who own a cat own more than one. We might have more people owning dogs, but we have more people being owned by multiple cats—those Six Dinner Sids.

The message the Bill sends is that this is not an insignificant matter. That answers the question from James Daly about the need for additional legislation. One reason to legislate in this place is when we see widespread patterns of harm. There was an explosion in the number of cases of pets being stolen during the pandemic, and the response people received from the police tells us that there is something wrong with the way things are being dealt with. By legislating, we are sending a very clear message that we want that to be different.

This is a long-overdue change and I pay tribute to the pet theft taskforce—one can only imagine what its meetings were like and whether they took place in dog or cat cafés around the country. The way in which things have been slightly re-jigged for cats and dogs is also right. As Granny Meow, Six Dinner Sid and most of us know, cats are different creatures, whether they act like their owners or their owners become like them. More seriously, it is a worry to me that the experience of my constituents who have sadly experienced this challenge—one reason why I wanted to speak and support the Bill—has been so difficult with the police. The emotional impact or, frankly, the financial consequences are not being taken into account. In my short contribution, I want us to be clear that, yes absolutely, we recognise the emotional distress when somebody’s cat or dog is taken, but the trade behind that is also why legislating for this specific offence and addressing it is very worth doing.

I want to share some of the experiences of my constituents. One constituent had a Bengal cat stolen. Bengal cats can go for up to £5,000 if it is a particular type of breed. There are no other items under theft legislation of such value that we would then expect the police to say, “Well, it’s a civil matter. Sorry about the loss of your cat, but we are not going to investigate.” It is actually a very valuable item, in addition to the emotional distress. Another constituent’s son’s ex-girlfriend stole their dog. The dog was microchipped, so it was very clearly owned by the family, but the police told her that it was a civil matter and therefore they would not assist.

Again, I would just point out that there are other examples of those kinds of disputes where items have been taken and the police have clearly recognised it as theft. After all, often breaking and entering is facilitating the seizure and abduction of a pet. That is partly because some of the breeds we are talking about are incredibly valuable. A siamese cat can cost between £300 and £400 to buy. An English bulldog is £2,000 for a puppy. A dachshund is £1,500, and even a cocker spaniel is £300 to £600. It is not, therefore, a surprise that there is a trade in stealing animals and pets to re-sell. When the police response is simply to dismiss that and not even investigate, we are giving a green light for that to continue.

I fully support the Bill and the message we are sending by the clarity of having specific pet abduction legislation. It is important to have data from police forces about the scale of the crime. As we know with other crimes, data is the start of the investigation. If we do not know where these crimes are taking place, we cannot then look for the patterns that help us identify the people behind them. I also recognise the distress that this crime causes. The constituents who come to me are devastated when their pets have been stolen and they feel that nobody else cares. The message we are sending from Parliament today is that we do think somebody should care and we do think it is a serious matter.

Finally, I join others in congratulating all the brilliant voluntary organisations that help us as a nation of pet lovers. The hon. Member for Southend West talked about Tilly’s Angels. We have Waltham Forest for Cats and Waltham Forest 4 Dogs. They are two separate groups, obviously—like Sharks and Jets, never the twain shall meet. Those organisations rightly reflect that love and affection.

There is a lot going on in the world and, obviously, some very serious matters are facing us, but there is such a level of agreement across the Chamber that it is right to clarify things and have this legislation. We have had the frustration and disappointment of having done all the work, looked at the law and found a way through the challenges that people have identified, only to see the legislation dropped, I hope that Minister will recognise that there is full support in the House for the Bill. We just need to get this done, put the protection in place and help ensure that the 54% of us who have one can take our pet out to the park—we will try to shut our doors to prevent our cats from leaving the house and becoming the Six Dinner Sids. In that way, we will generally be confident that our pet welfare is one of the best things that we can look forward to.

Photo of Jane Stevenson Jane Stevenson Ceidwadwyr, Wolverhampton North East 12:40, 19 Ionawr 2024

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is lovely to see an animal lover in the Chair for this important debate on pet abduction. First, I wish to commend my hon. Friend Anna Firth for introducing this Bill, which is one that she and I have campaigned to see brought forward for some time. It is so important to so many of our constituents. Everywhere in my constituency, I meet people who campaign on behalf of pets, proud pet lovers and fantastic volunteers. A few weeks ago, I met people from Ashmore Rescue for Cats, who do such amazing work. Its volunteers give up so much time to protect and rescue local cats. I have also met local Cats Protection officers and volunteers in Wolverhampton, all of whom have pushed for this Bill, and I am proud to mention them in the Chamber today.

It would be remiss of me not also to mention my hon. Friend’s predecessor, Sir David Amess, who is much missed today. I share with her that pride of being a new patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, so I look forward to pushing for other animal causes with her in the future.

The value of our pets to us is why this Bill is so important. Stella Creasy mentioned her ageing cat, who may no longer be in the prime of her years. My two Cavalier spaniels, Cromwell and Bertie, are about to be 12. They have very few teeth left and look a bit ragged around the edges, but to me they are the most valuable thing in my household, in my possession. If someone stole my dogs, they would face little or no punishment, because the financial value of my dogs is nothing—if anything, they are a liability, because of ever-growing vets’ bills and the endless treatments that they need. They have no financial value, but this Bill will reflect the distress that my family and I would feel, and certainly my two dogs would feel, if they were to be abducted. Our fantastic Whips are not able to speak, but I did mention to my hon. Friend Suzanne Webb that her dog, Sidney Pickles, is also in strong support of this Bill, so it is good to put Sidney’s support on the record, even though my hon. Friend is not currently in her place.

The whole House can unite around this important piece of new legislation. In my intervention, I made points about ownership and proof. I am pleased that the Bill is future-proofed and it is applicable to a variety of pets, because it is difficult to set a dividing line of what pet has a value and what pet is just a standard extra piece of fur that someone buys at the pet shop. For all of us, our pet, whatever its type, is important and has that emotional value. To children in families, learning how to care for pets is an important part of growing up, and learning responsibility and compassion for other people, as well as for animals.

I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West will forgive me for not talking at length, because I am being sponsored by tissues and Lemsip today, but I did not want to return to my constituency without her showing my full support. It is unusual to get volunteers to serve on Bill Committees, but she knows that I am very happy to support her in this Bill in any way I can. I can see my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland is also indicating that it will not be difficult to put together a Bill Committee. I know that Members on both sides of the Chamber care passionately about animals.

I briefly say to the Minister that it would be good to hear where the Government stand on the issue of ownership if the Bill is widened to include other breeds of animal. If there are not enough distinguishing features of guinea pigs, hamsters or whatever—ferrets have been mentioned a fair few times—that proof of ownership point is important if we want the Bill to do what it says on the tin.

On behalf of all animals, I want to lay my sincere thanks to the Government on the record. We have had meetings about this matter over many months and years, and it is fantastic to see the Government support the Bill. I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West every success.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Ceidwadwyr, North East Hertfordshire 12:45, 19 Ionawr 2024

I congratulate my hon. Friend 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 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 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 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.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Ceidwadwyr, Bury North 12:52, 19 Ionawr 2024

I have to say this now, having listened to the other contributions: as I walk into my front room there is a picture of me sitting with my dog Bertie with his rosette. Bertie came third in the dog of the year competition this year, but I have to add that, although my hon. Friend Rebecca Harris is not her place, even I have to accept that her dog was robbed, because that dog is one of the most talented animals I have ever seen in my life and how it did not get in the top three I do not know. But that is a completely different story.

I rise to support this Bill for all the reasons that have been given. I am a member of the Home Affairs Committee and the Justice Committee and have been a criminal lawyer for the best part of two decades and I am always interested in how we can encourage the police to take seriously all types of offending, and certainly offending in this area. I agree with Stella Creasy that passing this Bill would be a strong statement from Parliament and I genuinely hope the police will take up the challenge of investigating these offences properly and giving them the degree of time and seriousness they deserve.

I hope my hon. Friend Anna Firth will forgive me for talking now about my private Member’s Bill, which is No. 7 in today’s list. I hope it is appropriate to raise it and I only do so in the context of general animal welfare legislation and because it is relevant to our discussion of her Bill. What this Bill is addressing—and what we have very articulately and movingly been talking about—is the impact of the loss of a cat or dog on the owner. Sadly, sometimes when someone loses a cat in particular it is not always when it is alive; sometimes it is when it has passed. There are many instances of this. The campaign for Gizmo’s law, which originates in my constituency, is a nationwide campaign that provides a basis for my private Member’s Bill. It has highlighted that if a cat is found deceased on the public highway and is picked up by a local authority, it is almost certainly disposed of in landfill; no care or thought is given to the owner of the cat, who does not know where it is.

Gizmo’s law is proposed through my Pets (Microchips) Bill, which I bring to the Minister’s attention as it is a complementary piece of legislation. If a cat is found in such circumstances, that law would require the local authority, without cost apart from time, to make arrangements for the cat’s microchip to be scanned and to make efforts—through various websites or the details that will hopefully come from the microchip; legislation on the mandatory microchipping of cats is now coming into force—to tell the owner of the cat what has happened. The loss of a cat, not only through theft but through such tragic circumstances, is an important matter that is complementary to this debate and part of the discussion about how we treat our pets.

The other part of my Bill also addresses the nuanced circumstances of how we treat our animals—in this case, dogs. I simply could not believe it when I was told about this case. Tuk’s law is a campaign run from the constituency of my hon. Friend Rebecca Harris, on which Sue and Dawn have worked over many years. Although the number of cases is reducing, there are sadly circumstances where individuals take healthy dogs to the vet, and veterinary surgeons will euthanise the dog. No explanation needs to be given; in those circumstances, there is no requirement on the veterinary profession to scan the microchip or to make any inquiries to identify the rescue back-up—the rescue back-up being the original breeder or someone other than the owner.

That means that there is an extraordinary situation whereby, for perhaps a whole variety of reasons—perhaps a dog is barking—a neighbour, say, could decide, “I’m going to take that dog to the vet and ask for it to be put down.” That genuinely happens. There have been ongoing discussions on the issue; I have been talking about it for three or four years, since I have been in the House. The veterinary profession has put a voluntary code of conduct in place, but it is not stopping these cases from happening. That example could fall within the legislation that we are talking about today.

I ask that the Minister give consideration to the widest possible scope. If we are to introduce good legislation like this, it should cover all circumstances, so that members of the public can know what has happened to their pets, and so that healthy dogs are protected. If I were to lose Bertie in any circumstances, it would be the end of the world. If he were in an accident, the impact on me and my family would be just as great as if he were stolen. I hope the Minister will give some consideration to the Pets (Microchips) Bill—No. 7 on the Order Paper—which we will not reach today, as a complementary piece of legislation to address many of the issues we have been talking about today.

Photo of Jo Gideon Jo Gideon Ceidwadwyr, Stoke-on-Trent Central 12:58, 19 Ionawr 2024

I support this incredibly important Bill, brought forward by my hon. Friend Anna Firth. By passing this legislation, we will take action to address the growing problem of pet theft and recognise it as a specific offence. In doing so, we are honouring an important part of DEFRA’s action plan for animal welfare and delivering a measure that will have a huge impact on our constituents.

For my family, as for many, pets are family members and the thought of having them stolen is incredibly distressing. Liesl von Cat and Cavalier spaniels Horatio and Arthur are truly family members, although Horatio and Arthur live in Spain, so I am not sure that they will be afforded the same protections as those we hope to deliver through the Bill.

Pets provide a lifeline, a source of companionship and a comfort in good times and bad. I know that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends feel exactly the same way about their own cats and dogs, and we have already heard many stories about them today. Unfortunately I do not have a dog, so I did not enter the Westminster dog of the year competition. I am sure that I would otherwise have won.

I have received reports of dogs being stolen from gardens in my constituency, vanishing after being let out in the evening. Thanks to the support of amazing charities such as Beauty’s Legacy which work to reunite lost and stolen pets with their owners, and the Staffordshire police service that tracks down dogs, there have been local success stories with perpetrators being arrested, yet at present the theft of a treasured family pet is no more serious under the law than the theft of a phone or wallet. Pets are currently treated as mere replaceable property, akin to an inanimate object. That is not just an oversight but an insult, failing to acknowledge the emotional trauma experienced by the victims of pet abduction.

Currently, there is little under the law to deter criminals who seek to profit from the sale of stolen pets or use them as leverage in personal disputes. The penalties for pet theft are often minimal, and do not reflect the severity of the emotional turmoil inflicted on the pet and its family. This really does need to change, and the Bill seeks to address precisely that need. By making pet abduction a specific offence, we are sending the clear message that our society values the unique role that pets play in our lives, and providing a deterrent to those who might consider pet abduction a low-risk, high-reward crime. Indeed, by imposing stiffer penalties, we can dissuade potential offenders and protect our beloved animals. This is not just about punishment; it is also about prevention and protection.

We must also address the important role that the Bill will play in the improvement of tracking and data collection on pet abduction cases. That will give us insights into the scale of the problem, and help to tailor future preventive measures. Data is power, and in this case it is the power to protect our furry friends. We are indeed a nation of animal lovers, and by passing this important Bill we can continue that proud tradition. We will honour our Government’s commitments, and set an example in the way we treat our animals.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West for introducing the Bill. As the successor to Sir David Amess, she constantly strives to continue his legacy as a champion for animal welfare, and to propose important measures to improve the lives of our animals. I know that Members on both sides of the political divide will support this legislation. Animal welfare unites our parties, and together we can send that clear message that pet abduction will not be tolerated, and that pets are worth far more than mere personal property.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Ceidwadwyr, Suffolk Coastal 1:02, 19 Ionawr 2024

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. People who steal, or abduct, pets are despicable, and I am delighted that the legislation that my hon. Friend Anna Firth has taken up, with the support of the Government, will make it far more straightforward to put the people who do this in jail, because that is what they deserve.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her good fortune in gaining her place in the ballot, and commend her for her wisdom in choosing this particular Bill. As she will know, the legislation was originally in the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, and I am also delighted that she and the Government are honouring the commitment to legislate for these elements. I am confident that the Bill will fly through the House, although I am sure that both the Government and my hon. Friend will be listening to what is said about some of the finer points.

During the time when the kept animals Bill was paused, there was a significant public outcry about what should be done in respect of cats. As my hon. Friend put it so articulately in her speech, there is a slight difference between the natural instinctive attributes of different pets, but I am pleased that Government lawyers and DEFRA officials have worked hard to establish how cats can be included in the Bill.

My right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland mentioned the taskforce. People may not realise this, but for a conviction for theft there is quite a high bar to prove that someone has been permanently deprived of a particular item. That is especially true of a living item. I am pleased that we are taking this forward. The offence of pet abduction, and the potential criminal sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment, will provide an effective deterrent.

There has been discussion about a number of different police forces. I commend Suffolk police. There has been a significant increase in pet theft in the last few years, as people seek to steal much-valued pets that can be sold. My right hon. and learned Friend Sir Oliver Heald—he is not in his place, but I am sure he will be back—was right to mention the impact of organised crime. It is perhaps not on the scale of national organised crime, but certainly local crime gangs are taking pets and then transporting them right around the country. I pay tribute to Sussex police, who found Willow, a dog that had been stolen in Suffolk, eight months later in Surrey—thanks to their activities, she was reunited with her owner.

People have talked about the Westminster dog show and others. My beloved Rizzo finally got a “highly commended” award in the Westminster dog of the year show a few years ago—just for perseverance, I think; she was old and blind. Sadly, she passed away not long after. We know—that is why we are here—that the British people care extensively about the value of their pets. That is why I think it wise to add to the legislation a power to react, through regulation, to what is happening with criminal gangs, giving us the opportunity to have more pets later. The precise details of the issues that hon. Members have raised may need further consideration.

I am glad that this consideration has been given to the issue. I recall a stray dog in the village where I used to live in Hampshire. It was just wandering around, and we took it in. Like a responsible person, I wanted to find out where the dog had come from. I made an initial inquiry at the village shop, but they did not know, and I then went to the vet. I was a bit surprised when the vet said that they were not allowed to tell me who the owner was. I understand in a wider sense, but I found it rather frustrating that I was limited in how I could connect with the owner to reunite them with their pet—I was not even allowed to know whether the dog was registered to somebody in my village. An officer from the council came and took the dog.

I wish that I had known the full details of section 150 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, under which I could have kept the dog—at the time, I was told, “Absolutely not.” I was concerned, of course, that if the owner was not found after seven days, the dog could be euthanised. I felt that I could probably have had more effect. In that regard—having now read the legislation in detail as a Member of Parliament—I would probably have wanted to hold on to the dog, perhaps for 24 hours, just to take it to the pub or whatever. It turned out that somebody at the pub that night had lost their dog, and I was able to refer them and they were reunited the following morning. I am grateful that the Bill considers the genuine kindness of people who want to try to reunite dogs with their owners.

I have given notice to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West and the Government that I will table one amendment. I want to change the commencement date in clause 6(1). At the moment, the Bill relies on more regulations coming through to bring it into effect. I understand that officials might want time to get guidance and so on, but I do not think that necessary. I strongly recommend that my hon. Friend changes that in Committee—I do not want to wait until Report to change it—and that some deal be done, whether for two or three months. That would be perfectly reasonable in order to ensure that once we have passed the Bill, it is passed in the Lords without many amendments.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that issue. Of course, the normal convention is that the Bill would come into force two months after Royal Assent, which is a reasonable period of time. We could delete that clause or add something to allow a slightly longer period, but she makes a powerful point.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Ceidwadwyr, Suffolk Coastal

My right hon. and learned Friend, having been a recorder and Solicitor General, is well established in the operation of the law, and I agree. Why not make it two months after Royal Assent?

I strongly support the Bill. I appreciate that there have been many private Members’ Bills that latch on to an issue without really changing the law, on which there might have been questions today. There is no doubt that the change from “permanent deprivation” to “abduction” makes this a powerful Bill, and I look forward to it becoming law before the summer.

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman Ceidwadwyr, Mid Norfolk 1:10, 19 Ionawr 2024

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. I pay tribute to you for your long-standing work on animal welfare issues in this House over the years. I will be brief, as I know there are a number of very good private Members’ Bills waiting to be heard today.

I want to speak on behalf of the people of Mid Norfolk, and on behalf of Tosca, our 14-year-old cat, and Jassy, our two-year-old fox red Labrador. It is a joy to have their names in the Official Report. The pets of this country need us to act on their behalf, just like the many people who, in a civilised society, need parliamentarians to speak for them, including the children who cannot vote and all those who need us to take their interests seriously.

More importantly, for all those who have suffered the appalling trauma of pet abduction, it is not a victimless crime. For many people in this country, the abduction or theft of their pet is every bit as serious, if not more serious and traumatic, than the loss of a wallet or the other things that the police generally think of as more serious crimes. I pay tribute to my great friend, Anna Firth, for introducing this Bill and securing Government support. I also thank the Minister for her support. This enlightened Government are working with Back Benchers on both sides of the House to put in place good legislation that the people of this country want.

Our late, great friend, the former hon. Member for Southend West, David Amess—whose shield stands proudly behind his successor—would have been to the fore on this Bill. He was a great champion, as the current hon. Member for Southend West is, of pets and animal welfare.

My dear friend Marika had a beautiful miniature pinscher, which is just about the smallest dog possible. The dog became lost in the undergrowth on Hampstead Heath and somebody found him. Strangely, rather than take this tiny dog—a puppy—to someone or look for the person who had obviously lost him, this person decided, in their haste, to tie the puppy to a railing with a piece of string and abandon him. After an hour of searching, when Marika was told that the dog had been seen, she rushed to the railing to find him stolen, and the puppy’s body was found just off the North Circular 24 hours later.

Five years later, the trauma is ongoing. Marika will be distressed to be reminded of it, but I know she wants me to raise the case, which she has also raised with her local MP. She is delighted that the Bill is being debated on the Floor of the House and that the Government are supporting it.

I am conscious of time, so I will not rehearse the excellent arguments about the legalities. I simply want to take this opportunity to invite the Minister to remind those listening that the Environmental Protection Act 1990—I defer to my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland, the former Lord Chancellor and Solicitor General—made it clear that anyone who finds a stray dog has a duty in law to make sure it is returned to a person in office or to the police. The person who decided they were too busy to take Marika’s dog to the park wardens at Hampstead Heath, or to anybody, and tied it up and abandoned it actually committed an offence. It is really important that people understand that as citizens, we all have a duty to dogs. Today’s Bill strengthens that obligation, as well as the criminal sanctions against those who do not exercise their responsibilities and who commit this appalling crime—against pets, but every bit as appallingly, against the people who love their pets and suffer the trauma.

I want to briefly highlight some excellent work going on in Mid Norfolk, and some of the terrible stories that I have seen in my work. Cats Protection in Longham—the Opposition Front Bencher, Daniel Zeichner, will know it well as a former candidate in Mid Norfolk—does brilliant work on rehoming and microchipping. I am really delighted to see the microchipping framework extended in this Bill. I also want to highlight DogLost in Norfolk and Suffolk, which does great work. My right hon. Friend Dr Coffey supports that organisation; it has 25,000 members, which speaks to the importance of this issue across our part of the world and across the country.

Personally, I want to highlight Alex Dann of Dann’s Ice Cream in North Tuddenham, who had his dog Patch stolen from beside his ice cream van. He had not lost him, neglected him or left him: while he was serving customers ice cream, somebody stole his dog, and it was reported in the excellent Eastern Daily Press. Rita and Philip Potter also had their Labrador Daisy stolen—I could go on. This is not a victimless crime: it is a crime that causes huge trauma. Pets are doing a huge social service for us all; many people rely on their pets, not just for the glories that they bring to daily life but to help them with mental health conditions, loneliness and a whole raft of conditions that cause huge pain. I am not suggesting that pets should be brought under the provisions of the Department of Health and Social Care, or funded for those purposes, but we should at least acknowledge that they are doing hugely important and good work, which makes the crime of pet theft all the more appalling.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I will not test your or the House’s patience any further. I just want to put on record my support for this Bill and for my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West, and my joy at seeing all parties in this House come together in support of something that the public will be delighted to see Parliament putting in place.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 1:17, 19 Ionawr 2024

It is always a pleasure to follow George Freeman. I congratulate Anna Firth on her success in the ballot, on introducing this Bill, and also on her very comprehensive introduction to the debate. We have heard excellent speeches on both sides of the House—I thoroughly enjoyed the contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for West Ham (Ms Brown), and I listened closely to Sir Robert Buckland and commend him for his expertise and good work on this issue. Of course, I also listened closely to my near neighbour Sir Oliver Heald, who is not in his place at the moment.

I would also like to associate myself with the hon. Member for Southend West’s warm words about her predecessor and our former colleague, the late Sir David Amess. Sir David’s office was close to mine over in 1 Parliament Street, and we often chatted in the lift, sometimes conspiring together to try to expedite or improve legislation relating to animal welfare. He remains very much missed.

Indeed, I rather suspect Sir David would have approved even more if the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill had been proceeded with. While it is once again a pleasure to be debating the Minister today, she will no doubt be expecting me to berate her for the delays, and I hope I will not disappoint. It was actually the Minister’s former colleague at DEFRA, Victoria Prentis—now the Attorney General—who led for the Government on that Bill.We spent many days in Committee. Yes, there were amendments and suggestions, but there was also very strong support from the Opposition for what the Government were trying to do, because we were addressing

“the very real problems of the day: the suffering of caged primates;
the worrying by dogs of farm animals;
puppy smuggling;
cruel mutilation such as ear and tail cropping;
and the pain of pet theft. All that and more has been happening every day since. For almost 1,000 days, the Government have allowed those abuses to continue.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2023;
Vol. 742, c. 1201.]

If that rant sounds familiar, it is because I said the same when we debated the Animal Welfare (Live Exports) Bill. The same question arises, and I hope that one day a Minister will address it: why was the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill pulled after all that work, when it had such strong cross-party support? Why did a change in the ministerial team mean that Conservative manifesto promises were dumped time and again? Yes, we understand that bits of the Bill are being brought forward in dribs and drabs, but that is subject to all the uncertainties and vagaries of the private Member’s Bill process, without the expert evidence sessions that helpfully inform our discussions. I do not expect to get an answer, but the question remains and we will keep putting it—not least because of the strength of public feeling on these matters, as evidenced by the range of petitions linked to the Bill.

The Opposition welcome the Pet Abduction Bill. We support it and will try to improve it, but we want it done swiftly. We all know that dog and cat abduction can happen for a range of reasons, which sadly include resale, extortion, breeding and dog fighting. All those are devastating for owners and can involve distress and sometimes cruelty to the animals involved. I am grateful to Battersea Dogs & Cats Home for sharing its thoughts ahead of the debate. Data analysis from Scotland has found that in 32% of instances of dog theft investigated in 2019-20 and 2020-21, the offence was related to domestic issues or ownership disputes regarding the dog. That shows how complex dog and cat abduction is, and how far the crime is tied to deliberately creating distress for the human victim.

Dogs and cats are now sentient beings under the law, and owners view them as part of the family, yet if a pet is stolen, the offence is treated as akin to stealing an inanimate object. Currently, although sentencing can take into account the emotional impact on the human victim, the dog or cat’s financial worth is the biggest factor. That means that the punishment does not come close to fitting the crime or to acting as a deterrent.

The Opposition have been seeking action for years. Some 32 months ago, on 22 June 2021—this was before the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill—my Labour colleagues tabled amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to tackle pet theft. I urge interested Members to look up the very good discussion that took place. The Government batted away our efforts, and it took until the penultimate day of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill for the Government to table what was, I have to say, a panicky and poorly drafted amendment. That amendment was debated on 18 November 2021; again, I urge interested Members to read the debate. Interestingly, that was after the pet theft taskforce had reported.

At the time, I expressed some surprise that pet theft had been smuggled in “through the back door”, as I put it, but I and others agreed that urgent action was needed. Indeed, the right hon. and learned Member for Banbury said:

“This is being done quickly;
I am not apologising for that because I think the situation is one that we need to resolve quickly.”––[Official Report, Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Public Bill Committee, 18 November 2021;
c. 172.]

I agree, but that was over two years ago. Actually, I find myself agreeing with the right hon. and learned Lady rather frequently these days. At the time, she was rather unkindly derided by Quentin Letts in a distinctly catty but quite funny column in The Times for being the Minister for cats. Frankly, in her current role she must often feel like she is herding cats. However, she was right that it was urgent then. It remains urgent now.

I argued at the time that the Government’s formulations “connected persons” and “animals capable of forming bonds” were problematic, and I suspect the Minister rather agreed. I am pleased that the present Bill uses a different form of words, as has been discussed, but I am not sure that the new formulation is without problems of its own. As has been explored today, the question of ownership within households is hard to define. I suspect we will wish to explore that further in Committee. For example, if Larry the Downing Street cat were to go AWOL—I am sure that that would not happen under the current occupant, but I am not sure about some of his predecessors—I wonder quite how the current wording would work.

I also have to wonder quite how the legislation will work when a much-loved cat is taken by an out-of-control pack of foxhounds, a situation that sadly still occurs. Again, that is something to be explored further. Although I welcome the protection of cats in the Bill and the regulations allowing the powers to extend the regulations to protect other species commonly kept as pets, there is an irony here, is there not, because the Government appear to be creating a probably unintended route to protect those who keep primates as pets from the abduction of their animals, yet they are failing to ban the keeping of primates as pets, as promised in a Conservative manifesto in 2019—something that was at least attempted in the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill.

I finish where I began: Labour strongly supports these measures to tackle pet theft and pet abduction. We will support the Bill, but we want it strengthened, and we want it done speedily.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 1:24, 19 Ionawr 2024

First I must congratulate my hon. Friend Anna Firth, and thank her for bringing forward this incredibly important Bill. It really shows the best of us as parliamentarians when we can have a debate like this; it brings us all together.

It is something of a challenge on a Friday to see whether we can get in as many pet names as possible, and I think we have excelled ourselves today with the naming of pets, including, of course, the 14 cats that Granny Meow looked after. We have also had many mentions of that wonderful event, Westminster dog of the year; I have come second in that competition a number of times, and not even with my own dog. I am a bit of a fraud because I borrowed one from one of the amazing charities, but it was to help to highlight that great and useful event. I also want to add my comments on the wonderful Sir David Amess, who did so much on animal welfare in this House. I am so pleased that my hon. Friend is following in his footsteps.

The Bill seeks to recognise the inherent difference between pets as sentient beings and pets as inanimate objects, as they would be seen under the criminal law on theft. I am really proud to say that it was this Government who introduced the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022, which cemented the legal recognition that vertebrate animals are sentient beings. The critical thing about this Bill is, of course, that it recognises that the sorts of stolen pets we are talking about are basically family—that is how I think my hon. Friend so ably put it—and all the emotions surrounding our pets.

At the outset, I pay tribute to all colleagues who took part in the debate, which has been tremendous, showing so much knowledge, expertise and love of our pets. We have had cross-party support, with the hon. Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for West Ham (Ms Brown) joining in. I thank them for their support.

I also thank all our colleagues for their support: my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland, who did such a great job on the pet theft taskforce; my hon. Friend Jane Stevenson, who raised that issue of widening this legislation to other animals in the future—she knows that is an option in the Bill; my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Oliver Heald, who has great knowledge and expertise, having taken through Finn’s Law, which we have heard about; and my hon. Friend James Daly. I know his Pets (Microchips) Bill is coming up, but I want to say that the microchipping reform we plan to take forward will contribute to addressing some of his Bill’s aims, so I hope that gives him some assurance.

We heard from my hon. Friend Jo Gideon and, of course, my right hon. Friend Dr Coffey, who did so much on animal welfare when she was Secretary of State in the Department. Since she raised the question of commencing this legislation as soon as possible, I should put on the record that it will indeed be commenced as soon as possible, within three months of the Bill’s receiving Royal Assent. I hope that gives her some reassurance about our absolute intention to get speeding on with the Bill.

I do not have much time, but I was not surprised that the shadow Minister, Daniel Zeichner, raised the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, and that gives me the opportunity to talk about it. We are aware of how important animal welfare is to the people in this nation, which is why it is such a priority for the Government. That Bill was a huge priority in our manifesto 2019, as he will know, and although the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill as such is not being taken forward, it is far from the case that we are dealing with items from that Bill in drips and drabs.

We have introduced a wave of legislation on animal welfare. To name just a few, we have increased the penalties for those convicted of animal cruelty; we have announced the extension to the Ivory Act 2018, with more species added; we have passed the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021; we brought in legislation on the microchipping of cats, which I was here for on a Friday; we made our action plan for animal welfare in 2021; we banned glue traps and tackled hare coursing; we banned the trade in shark fins; we modernised licensing for dog breeding and pets; we passed Finn’s law, which I referred to; and there is much more. I genuinely think we are the party for animal welfare.

The unlawful taking of pets is a callous crime and it is right that perpetrators are brought to justice. The Bill focuses on the impact on the welfare of stolen cats and dogs, not just their financial value. That is so important. I have to name my cats, because everyone else has named their pets. I have to put Raffa and Mr Tipps on the record. We have had so many references to what pets mean to us, but since my husband died and my three children left home, my cats have taken on an even more important role in my life. They are there to welcome me when I get home. We all have stories like that, as we have heard. Those are the things we can share. Our pets are so important to us, and so is the Bill.

I welcome the Bill’s intention to improve the recording and monitoring of pet abduction offences, which is really important. I welcome the work of the pet theft taskforce, because so many of its recommendations are being taken up, including bringing in the option of other animals if that is proven to be the right thing to do.

Another of the taskforce’s recommendations was to strengthen the process of the transfer of keepers recorded on a microchip record. We want all database operators to have robust processes in place to ensure that the existing keeper has a chance to object when someone else tries to change the keepership details on the microchip record. That will ensure that stolen pets cannot simply be transferred to a new keeper.

We have consulted on other changes to the microchipping regime that will make it easier for pets to be reunited with their keepers, and we will publish details of that very soon. We have already announced the requirement for all owners of cats over 20 weeks to get their cats microchipped by 10 June 2024, so people need to get a move on if they have not managed to do that yet.

I could say a lot more because there is so much in the Bill. As a Government and as a Department we are looking at more things relating to the important issue of animal welfare. I hope I have demonstrated that we are right behind the Bill. We wish it well on its swift progress. There is no shortage of people offering to serve on the Bill Committee, which is tremendous. I reiterate that once the Bill becomes an Act it will be commenced within three months of Royal Assent, if not before, in England. I will leave that there, Mr Deputy Speaker—I know you are an ardent campaigner for animal welfare. On that happy note, we can all join together and be happy with our day’s work.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Ceidwadwyr, Southend West 1:33, 19 Ionawr 2024

With the leave of the House, I thank all hon. Members on all sides of the House for coming to this debate. We had a fantastic debate in which we all recognised the importance of animal welfare not just to us but to our constituents and the whole country.

I particularly thank the shadow Minister, Daniel Zeichner, for his support. As we heard from the Minister, we have the support of the Government. I was particularly pleased to hear her comments about commencement. All eight speeches were fantastic, and I have taken very detailed notes. I thank everybody for all their points—the legal points made, the information we had about the journey and the taskforce, the data, the other possibilities for strengthening the Bill, the possible loopholes, and all the wonderful stories about people’s dogs and animals.

I finish by saying how grateful I am that we can use this debate to acknowledge the hard work of so many Members over so many years. I hope we can pass this legislation for our constituents who are animal lovers, and show the nation that we value our animals and we will work together for the reputation of our nation as a world leader in animal welfare. I thank Members.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).