Why it’s right to make animal abduction a specific offence. And here’s what else should be done.

13 Aug

In the last week, new details have emerged about the Government’s plan to tackle pet theft, a crime which has rapidly increased over lockdown.

As demand grew for pets (it’s estimated that 3.2 million households in the UK had acquired one since the beginning of the pandemic), thieves soon spotted an opportunity to intercept the market, particularly with dogs. In March, DogLost reported a 170 per cent rise in theft – and another source suggested it rose by around a fifth in 2020, with 2,438 dogs reported missing.

David Bowles, Head of Public Affairs for the RSPCA, tells me we may not even know the extent of the issue “because [dog theft data is] not recorded that well by police forces”. He says that the thieves involved are a mixture of “opportunists, who’ve thought that they can make a quick buck from stealing somebody’s dogs”, “criminals who would normally steal or burgle people’s houses” and “there probably is some link to criminal gangs.” 

The impact they have goes further than the immediate crime. Jane Stevenson, the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton North East, tells me that there are “people who are too nervous to walk their dogs now, especially older female pet owners… The fear is certainly building”. So with that in mind, the Government has felt pressed to act.

In answer to this growing problem, Robert Buckland set up the pet theft task force earlier this year, which includes government officials, the police and charities to make recommendations on how to deal with the matter. 

Although these recommendations haven’t been revealed yet, newspapers have caught wind of the fact that “pet abduction” could be made into an offence – meaning anyone guilty of it could receive a maximum sentence of around five years. The new offence would most likely be added to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Will this do the trick? My own view is that it will make a substantial difference. The most important thing about the “pet abduction offence” is that it takes into account the emotional impact of a stolen animal.

Currently, sentencing is determined by the monetary value of a pet, which is classed as property (so the punishment for a stray that cost, say £50, would be low indeed). A pet abduction offence would make a clear delineation between inanimate object and beloved family member – and result in higher sentences, which should have a deterrent effect.

Having said that, there are some other things that come up in my conversation with Bowles and Neil Hudson, MP for Penrith and The Border (and the only vet in the House of Commons), that indicate other ways in which the Government can better animal safety. 

One surrounds data collection – and particularly microchipping, which has been compulsory for dogs for the last five years. Bowles tells me that it has been “very effective”, increasing the “rate of reunification between dogs that are stolen or dogs that are straying and their owner”, but there are some problems with how the information is collected. For one, “many people do not update their dog records when they move home” – meaning it’s hard to reunite them with their pet again. 

Two, the number of databases holding information on microchipped pets has grown over the years, with there now being 14 in total. But these tend to act in an uncoordinated, independent manner. As Bowles tells me: “So for instance, if the RSPCA pick up a dog in the street and scan it, at the moment we have to ring 14 different numbers to find out who’s on that database.” The Government is reportedly looking at this. It’s clearly a crucial part of making sure the authorities can respond quickly when a pet is stolen.

When I speak to Hudson, he reminds me that “there are other animals being stolen as well”, which sometimes gets forgotten in the pet theft debate, such as “horses and livestock”. He says of the legislation “we’ve got to get it right and make sure that animals of all forms are protected.” Furthermore, Hudson thinks legislation should be tightened “on the movement of animals”, which poses public health risks at present. “There are dogs being imported that potentially have diseases like brucella canis, which is a zoonotic disease.”

One of the most pertinent points that Hudson brings up is that “education” is essential to ensuring that people do their “due diligence” when buying a pet, which should be from a “creditable source”. With demand for pets reaching such huge levels, it could be the case that people are tempted to overlook troublesome signs about “breeders”. Just as important as sentencing is the ability for the buyer to walk away when something’s not right. Could a new certification system be what’s needed here? 

In summary, the pet abduction offence is an important step, but technological improvements, and better vetting processes (for breeders) are needed too.

Richard Holden: Dogs have been a comfort during lockdown. There’s more we can do to protect them – and other animals.

15 Feb

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Co-Op, Tow Law, Co. Durham

North West Durham is currently quilted by its second blanket of snow in the last month. This week’s constituency surgery visits involved cautious transit along ungritted roads to my hardy constituents.

Even the sheep, usually scattered across fells, or grazing their own patch of fields, were huddled round hayracks – the animals themselves barely offset from the off-white landscape about them. Temperatures have averaged below freezing for five weeks now and, chatting with constituents, outside homes and businesses, in the villages and towns that fill the upper reaches of the Wear and Derwent catchments, I was glad I’d suitably layered up.

I mention the environment because it and the animals that we share it with are both important to my constituents. Necessarily removed from human contact, people have lent much more on ‘man’s best friend’ as a substitute. Animals have provided companionship, especially to the most vulnerable, and a necessary breathing-space for so many families that have otherwise been largely stuck indoors.

Despite all this, though, my constituents wouldn’t view themselves as ‘animal rights activists’.  Nonetheless, they are animal lovers, and are deeply concerned about animal welfare.

With so many stuck at home and unable to see friends, pets have become more prized and demand for them, especially dogs, has jumped. Sadly, reports of dog-thefts have surged in the UK and now litter many local Facebook groups.

Last year, I met with the Royal Veterinary College, Dogs Trust and other animal charities, including Farplace Animal Rescue based in North West Durham, and they also raised concern about another issue that’s on the rise and has been more acute during lockdown: so-called ‘puppy smuggling’ by organised crime gangs from Eastern Europe. Animals illegally being carted across the continent, with many dying in transit and others, without the proper vaccinations or paperwork, susceptible to bringing diseases, such as rabies, into the UK.

In constituencies like North West Durham, with working dogs and animals on farms and on the moors; pit ponies in the mines within the last few decades, and with pet ownership well above the national average, these issues matter to local people – even if often they are seen as low priority for policymakers.

What’s vitally important is that we do not allow the extremists to grab hold of the debate in this area. We need to be leading the way on reasonable measures to protect people and their animals and here are a few suggestions:

1) Pet Theft

My colleague Tom Hunt is already leading the charge on better legislation to tackle dog theft. Too often, it’s treated the same as a stolen bicycle but, as the pandemic has emphasised, our pets are far more than that.

Our animals are part of our families, and those targeting animals know that the worth that they have is far more than their supposed monetary value. It’s vital that this particularly nasty crime gets the proper sentencing it deserves.

While there is a good theoretical top-end sentence at present, all too often perpetrators get away with fines. It’s clear that the guidelines on sentencing need to be toughened up, and the Home Secretary may be able to act in this area without further recourse to brand new primary legislation.

2) Puppy Smuggling

It’s not always that national charities such as the Royal Veterinary College and the Dogs Trust are aligned, but they are in this instance – and we should make the most of this.

Our new freedom from the EU makes checks in this area much easier, in order to tackle the organised crime gangs behind this. It’s likely that if they’re involved in smuggling one thing then they’re involved in smuggling another.

It’s clear that we must step up measures in this area – not just in terms of people smuggling dogs but also people. We already have compulsory microchipping of dogs since 2016, so checking that dogs have been chipped must be an easy step forward in this area. The current fine of up to £500 could be increased, too, to help ensure compliance and make it easier to deal with illegally smuggled animals.

3) Horse Tethering

Several constituents have raised this issue with me recently and, with people less willing to leave their houses, it seems to be a growing issue locally, and one I’m looking at leading a campaign on.

It’s clearly wholly unnecessary that horses in an enclosed field should be tethered to a post for any period beyond that necessary for their own welfare (such as for shoeing to take place).

We rightly have some of the highest standards in the world in terms of animals being bred for food production, and those being kept as pets should have similar protection. Issues such as this could be managed by the Government supporting various Private Members’ Bills during the coming years.

4) Banning the export of live animals

Further measures like banning the live export of animals is a massive step in the right direction, and the Government has already indicated its willingness to move forward in this area. Again, often changes to regulations rather than primary legislation could achieve this objective.

Let one of the consequences of lock-down be that we deal with some of these issues, which have been bubbling away on the backburner for too long. Better animal welfare is clearly one of them.

Addressing it also allows us as Conservatives to ensure that the whole environmental agenda isn’t left in the hands of extremists, and delivers something that connects on a visceral level – more than ever because of Coronavirus, with our animal-loving constituents and their pets.

Targeted action with short and snappy campaigns can really help make a difference, rather than sweeping reviews and consultations. We know what the issues are. Let’s tackle them – and give a bit of extra protection to ‘mans’ best friend’ and his pals who, for so many, have really earned that title during the last year.