The coronavirus lockdown has underlined the need for tougher sentences for pet theft
The Government still has no plans to make pet theft a specific offence, writes MP Tom Hunt (PA)
The current law treats pets — a lifeline against loneliness during the lockdown — as inanimate objects when they are stolen. It’s time we made pet theft a specific offence
Covid-19 has had an impact on many workplaces and Parliament has been no exception. One of the consequences of this has been fewer opportunities to debate public petitions which reach over 100,000 signatures. These petitions are a crucial way for members of the public to draw law-makers’ attention to an issue and engage with our democratic process, and it’s important that these debates can happen again as soon as it’s safe to do so.
While these debates couldn’t be held, on the Petitions Committee we decided to do what we could to ensure these petitions had something like their day in Parliament. And we organised a series of virtual meetings where one member of the Committee would lead a discussion with the members of the public who started one of the petitions.
As an animal lover myself, I chaired the discussion with the campaigners behind the Pet Theft Reform petition which secured over 117,000 signatures. Their petition calls for pet theft to be made a specific offence, making prison sentences of up to 2 years more readily available to judges sentencing pet thieves.
This reform would end the present situation where many stolen pets are classed in the same way under the Theft Act 1968 as low value inanimate objects, like laptops and mobile phones, with the punishments for pet theft largely determined by pets’ monetary value. In practice, this often means pet thieves only receive a slap on the wrist and pitiful fines of no more than £250 for what is a deeply cruel crime.
Many victims will not give up the search for years and have spoken about how the loss of their pet has taken its toll on their work and social lives
The emphasis in the law on pets’ monetary value simply fails to take into account that, unlike computers and phones, pets are unique, invaluable and irreplaceable. That’s why in many cases, victims of pet theft will offer the highest reward they possibly can for the safe return of their pet, many times higher than its nominal monetary value. They do this even in the knowledge that the person who may ‘find’ their pet and wish to claim the reward may well be the person who stole it from them in the first place. All they want is to bring their pet home.
The current system of punishments for pet theft also doesn’t take into account the emotional harm done to pet owners and the impact on their mental health of losing a much-loved source of companionship. Many victims will not give up the search for years and have spoken about how the loss of their pet has taken its toll on their work and social lives.
A large part of this comes from the fear and worry about the welfare of the pet they care so much about and whether they are encountering abuse or are being used for inhumane breeding practices or cruel and illegal fighting in the case of dogs. The damage to the welfare of the pet itself is another factor which isn’t reflected in the law when pets aren’t considered differently from laptops.
While for all these reasons, the paltry fines which are the norm for those found guilty of pet theft are scant justice for victims, in the vast majority of pet theft cases, there is no justice at all. According to research by Dr Daniel Allen, the Pet Theft Reform petition’s founder who I met with during our discussion in June, just 1% of dog thefts resulted in a person being charged in 2018. Pet theft is often a difficult crime to solve but with the prospect of such meagre punishments being awarded if a conviction is ultimately secured, the incentives on the police to put already limited time and resources into solving pet theft cases are greatly diminished.
The fact that Dr Allen has had to take it upon himself to conduct this research through Freedom of Information Requests is also telling because without a specific offence for pet theft, cases aren’t specifically included in crime statistics. This makes it difficult to see the true scale of the issue and typifies how this crime isn’t given the profile it deserves and the public expects under the current law.
The need to change this status quo has only become more pressing during the Covid-19 outbreak with the charity DogLost reporting that dog thefts went up by 65% between March 23rd and June 1st compared to the same time last year. Lockdown has left many feeling lonely and isolated but more pets are being snatched away from people just when their companionship is needed most. The recent surge in pet theft cases underlines why it was so important my discussion with campaigners went ahead in June.
Last week, the Government set out in response to our petition that it still has no plans to make pet theft a specific offence. The campaign for reform doesn’t end there however. I’ll use my position on the Petitions Committee to push for pet theft reform to get the debate in Parliament it deserves as soon as possible. And I’ve also reached out to Ministers to meet with me directly. I’ll keep working with campaigners and other MPs to secure this important change and justice for all those this cruel crime affects.
Tom Hunt MP is the Member of Parliament for Ipswich and a member of the House of Commons Petitions Committee