'Cruel' pet thieves deserve tougher punishment, says Ipswich MP

New regulations on dog control and fouling could be introduced in Ipswich

Pet theft has risen during the coronavirus pandemic - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Some of you may have seen the recent announcement from the Lord Chancellor that a new abduction law could be coming to tackle pet thefts - a cruel crime that has become a low risk with high rewards.

Most of us know that, during the pandemic, the pet industry boomed. It was great to see how animal companionship played such an important part in helping many get through several tough and difficult periods.

Unfortunately, this also resulted in a significant rise in pet thefts earlier in the year and it struck a chord with me.

I know how important the family pet is, so to see such a rise in targeted dognapping within such a short period must be reflected in tougher stances within the law.

I was one of the most active campaigners on this issue and I am glad that we might now see much tougher sentences for these criminals.

I know that even as the second lockdown was easing in April, police have continued to rescue stolen dogs across Suffolk.

I know that pet thefts doubled in more than a year and I have not stopped in my efforts to see that new legislation is brought in to combat this.

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I have frequently been in contact with leading pet campaigners such as Battersea Dogs Home, learning about the challenges they have faced throughout the country as cases have spiked.

I have heard first-hand stories of how these crimes have affected so many families. Whilst many dogs are found and returned, too many are never reunited.

Following these discussions with several campaigner groups, I met with the Lord Chancellor to raise this issue and make clear the impact that this surge in crime was having.

I wanted to echo the sentiments of many, including myself, that the law as it stands doesn’t reflect our attitude towards pets in our society or the place they have in many families.

I wanted to explain how reform was needed to end the present situation, where many stolen pets are currently classed as low value objects like mobile phones - with the punishments in practice often receiving only a slap on the wrist and pitiful fines of £250.

I was encouraged by his response to this conversation. I know that since this initial conversation, further Members of Parliament have highlighted how their constituencies are also facing similar spikes in pet theft.

As an animal lover, and as this issue initially surged, I led a Westminster Hall debate on the topic of sentencing those convicted of pet theft.

I chaired the debate with the campaigners behind the Pet Theft Reform Petition, which secured more than 117,000 signatures.

Their petition called for pet theft to be made a specific offence, making prison sentences of up to two years more readily available to judges.

I wanted to be at the front of this campaign as I, and many people believed, that the current laws do not represent justice in the minds of the vast majority of the public and myself.

It was a privilege to be able to speak on behalf of so many families who have been affected by this crime. It brought this issue to the attention of many in government and was a key stepping-stone to the reform we will hopefully soon see.

As part of my efforts to see a change in legislation, I wrote to the Sentencing Council on this issue.

In particular, I wanted to highlight that the current system of punishments for pet theft 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.

I also used the traction built through earlier campaigning efforts to work closely with the Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP to seek changes within the Second Reading of the Police and Crime Bill earlier this year.

Together, we drafted several amendments seeking both better pet protection to make it much harder to commit these crimes, as well as firmer sentences to ensure that when they are committed, justice can be handed down swiftly.

We then co-ordinated like-minded Conservative MPs to support these amendments, before presenting them to government.

I was incredibly proud to have my name on the top of the amendments and to be part of something that was stopping these cruel crimes from taking place.

After further discussions with government, we then withdrew our amendments on the understanding that the Lord Chancellor would intend to resolve this damaging issue. After recent news, it looks like this has happened.

With this extensive campaign starting through small conversations and now backed by many of my colleagues in Parliament, I am pleased and very encouraged to see that the Lord Chancellor is embracing the recommendations set by the Pet Theft Reform Task Force to make pet theft a specific offence in law.

I am hopeful that the result of this legal change will be much tougher punishments for those found guilty of pet theft. In this difficult, saddening and often frustrating campaign, which has been full of testaments of tragic cases where cherished pets have been taken away from their families, it is pleasing to see that at long last change is coming that will make a difference.

Part of the importance of a backbench MP is their position to see issues that the government may not have identified and bring them to their attention.

This is often done through backbench campaigning, drafting amendments and colleague discussions that important changes to the law are driven through. There are many issues and these backbench campaigns often have no, or only some, success.

This has been a long road, but I am pleased that all my efforts have hopefully resulted in making it a fruitful one with a positive result as part of a successful campaign.

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