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.