Gareth Johnson: We must overhaul the way animal cruelty is investigated and prosecuted

20 May

Gareth Johnson is the MP for Dartford.

We have all seen our way of life change over the past 12 months, and many people have been able to own the pet they have always wanted. Estimates suggest 3.2 million households have purchased a pet in the last year, with puppy sales increasing by over 100 per cent.

As demand has soared, so have the opportunities for criminals who have long sought to profit from the possessions that society most demands. It is with this rise in mind that Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, announced in April a taskforce to combat increasing rates of dog theft, recognising this is no longer a crime of opportunity, but one often carefully planned by organised criminal gangs.

Whilst many dogs are stolen to be sold, a large number are stolen specifically to be bred in puppy farms, often in the most appalling of conditions. It is here that the link between dog theft and animal cruelty is so apparent. Reports of illegal puppy farming have risen five-fold in England in the last ten years, and the RSPCA report they have uncovered large criminal gangs making millions of pounds from puppy farming.

I have campaigned for many years for tougher sentencing for dog theft. At present, the guidelines that courts follow when sentencing people for dog theft require them to consider the financial value of the ‘item’ stolen; if the item is of low value, custody is not within the consideration of the court. This part of the problem can be easily solved through the Sentencing Guidelines Council reviewing the guidelines to ensure that where the theft of a family pet is involved, its monetary value is irrelevant to the sentence.

Whilst we need to ensure those that steal dogs are sent to prison, we need to ensure that the link between dog theft and animal cruelty is not only properly investigated, but also prosecuted.

As with any offence of theft, offences of dog theft are investigated by the police and then taken to court and prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). However, offences of animal cruelty are currently investigated and prosecuted by the RSPCA.

The RSPCA have indicated that they are exploring transferring prosecutions to the CPS and I believe this would be a very welcome move.

The role of the RSPCA presently is both one of investigator and prosecutor. Whilst the relationship between the CPS and the Police can at times be difficult, the separation of the two means that there is more scope for review and oversight as to the type of cases being prosecuted.

Prior to becoming an MP, I worked in the Court Service for many years. It was routine for the RSPCA to instruct local solicitors to prosecute cases for them. Not only is this expensive, but the majority of cases, whilst wholly worthwhile, tended to focus on isolated cases of mistreatment or neglect rather than looking at the more sophisticated organised networks of criminals that we know commit these offences.

With the Government committed to increasing prison sentences for serious perpetrators of animal cruelty from six months to five years, we have a real opportunity to get to grips with those who routinely farm pets for profit.

Chris Sherwood, Chief Executive of the RSPCA, has spoken of the huge responsibility the change in the law places on the charity’s shoulders. The route the RSPCA wish to take is that the CPS will deal with the legal processes and the RSPCA, with their knowledge of animals, will be responsible for the investigative work. This is the relationship the CPS currently have with the police and it would be the best option to ensure a less fragmented approach and fewer missed opportunities to stop these criminal gangs.

Gareth Johnson: An Outer London Congestion Charge would be catastrophic for Dartford

29 Apr

Gareth Johnson is the MP for Dartford.

Since the announcement that an Outer London Congestion Charge for London is being investigated by the London Mayor, I have been inundated with messages from Dartford residents opposed to the idea.

The proposed border tax, dubbed Labour’s Dartford car tax, would charge all vehicles registered outside of London, £3.50 every time they cross the boundary into any London borough.

This charge would be catastrophic for Dartfordians, as well as the hundreds of thousands of motorists who cross the border into London every day for work, leisure, or simply to go to the supermarket.  It would have an impact on pubs, takeaways, shops, hairdressers, and many more of the same businesses hardest hit during the pandemic.

The Mayor of London’s financial stability plan, published in January, proposes a seven-days-a-week charge of £3.50 for all motorists using a vehicle registered outside Greater London, rising to £5.50 for the most polluting vehicles.

As many of us know, the border around London does not run along major routes. Instead, it straddles residential roads. In Dartford, for example, there are residential roads located in Kent where it isn’t possible to drive out of the road, without entering the London Borough of Bexley. With this seven-days-a week charge, hundreds of my constituents will pay over £1,200 a year just to be able to drive out of their road each day. It would create a financial wall around London and set Londoners against their neighbours.

The people who will pay this charge have no say over who the London Mayor is; it is a form of taxation without representation or accountability. It is for this reason that I have introduced a Bill in the House of Commons to stop this charge.

My Ten-Minute Rule Bill ‘Road User Charging (Outer London) Bill: A Bill to provide that the Mayor of London may not impose charges for driving in Outer London; and for connected purposes’ is unlikely to make it into law; these Bills rarely do. Yet it will help to highlight what is a form of blackmail by the London Mayor. He is showing how hard he can hit people outside of London unless the Government gives in to his demands for even more subsidies.

To date, more than 26,500 people have signed a petition opposed to this idea and I hope my Bill will send a strong message that the London Mayor cannot impose rules affecting people outside of the capital’s jurisdiction.

The London Mayor knows that the ring of seats around London, with the exception of Slough, are Conservative. He also knows that, generally speaking, outer London areas are more likely to vote Conservative than inner London seats. He knows who he is hitting with this idea.  It is the most divisive issue ever conceived by a London Mayor and it needs to be stopped. It will have a profound impact, not just on the counties around London, but on the outer London boroughs. It is an abuse of power and it needs to end.

During a debate on the issue in Westminster Hall last month, Rachel Maclean, the Transport Minister, confirmed the proposal is not supported by the Government. She described it as “a border tax levied on people outside London by a Mayor they were not able to vote for or, indeed, vote out.”

I fully understand why Sadiq Khan wants to raise more finances. But even if you accept that transport in London is under-funded, there are other ways of raising money or spending less. With this proposal, he is saying to people outside of London, I will charge you to visit loved ones, to use the station, or even for just driving out of your road.

This proposed tax would be devastating for people living both outside and inside of London. It will create a barrier around London, and it needs to be stopped.