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‘Pitiful’ punishment for cruel pet thieves should be ramped up, says Ipswich MP

PUBLISHED: 07:43 31 July 2020

Melissa Murfet and Darren Neal's daughter Beau, three, with the cocker spaniel Annie who was among the canine haul of 17 dogs and puppies stolen from the Fiveways kennels at Barton Mills, Suffolk. Picture: 


MELISSA MURFET

Melissa Murfet and Darren Neal's daughter Beau, three, with the cocker spaniel Annie who was among the canine haul of 17 dogs and puppies stolen from the Fiveways kennels at Barton Mills, Suffolk. Picture: MELISSA MURFET

East Anglia News Service

Our response to Covid-19 has been a national effort where we have all been asked to make sacrifices to defeat the virus. One of the most difficult of these has been the restrictions on seeing friends and family, and our ability to engage with the wider community. Ultimately we are social beings and I know many have felt lonely and isolated without that contact with their loved-ones and also the simple interactions we have with others as part of day-to-day life.

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt wants to see tougher punishment for thieves who steal dogs. Picture: HOUSE OF COMMONSIpswich MP Tom Hunt wants to see tougher punishment for thieves who steal dogs. Picture: HOUSE OF COMMONS

I tried to help address this during the height of lockdown with a service I set up called ‘Talks with Tom’ where anyone in Ipswich could have a conversation on the phone with me if they needed a bit of company. Through Talks with Tom I had hundreds of conversations with Ipswich residents and one of the things that often came through was how important pets had been as a source of companionship when contact with others has been limited.

One Talks with Tom that sticks out in my mind was with an older gentleman living alone who told me how his cat had helped keep him company during the lockdown. Originally the cat had very much been his wife’s cat and it had paid much more attention to her. But after his wife sadly passed away, he and the cat grew much closer and now they are inseparable.

As an animal lover myself, I know why so many pet owners consider their pets to be part of the family. But just while the lockdown has reinforced all the reasons why we are so attached to our pets, sadly the number of cases of pets being stolen has increased in recent months.

The charity DogLost has reported that dog thefts went up by 65% between March 23 and June 1 compared to the same time last year. And we have seen how this has come right to our doorstep in Suffolk recently, including with the theft of 17 dogs and puppies from a boarding kennels in Barton Mills earlier this month.

Suffolk Police are also looking into suspicious chalk markings which have been left outside people’s houses which could have been made by criminals casing homes with dogs inside.

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Part of the reason behind the rise in this cruel crime may well be that more people are looking for pets to keep them company during Covid-19 and criminals are taking the opportunity to exploit the demand. But equally important is the sad truth that criminals are becoming increasingly aware that pet theft is a crime which pays with only minimal repercussions.

In many cases, those found guilty of pet theft are given a slap on the wrist and ordered to pay paltry fines of no more than £250. The Government maintains that the maximum possible sentence for the theft of a pet is seven years’ imprisonment although I’m not aware of any instance of pet theft where the maximum sentence has been handed out. And I also want to know how many of those found guilty of pet theft are actually sent to prison at all. When I tabled a Written Parliamentary Question to ask exactly this question, I was told that the necessary information isn’t 
held.

The pitiful punishments currently being awarded for pet theft were one of the key reasons why I chose to chair a virtual meeting last month with the campaigners behind the Pet Theft Reform petition. Their petition received more than 117,000 signatures, well over the 100,000 needed for a debate in Parliament, but because of Covid-19 measures a debate was not possible and a virtual discussion was the next best thing we could do to bring this issue to Parliament and the public’s attention.

We discussed the call in their petition for a crucial change to the law which would make pet theft a specific offence and in turn make prison sentences of up to two years more readily available to judges. This change 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.

The current punishments for pet theft also don’t take into account the emotional harm that’s done to pet owners when their pet is stolen and the mental health impact of losing an important and much-loved source of companionship.

Making pet theft a specific offence would bring punishments closer in line with what I believe the vast majority of pet owners, and the wider public, consider justice to be. But, just as importantly, it would also raise the profile of pet theft in our society and provide a greater deterrent against this crime.

The Government has now responded to my discussion with pet theft reform campaigners last month and has set out that it still has no plans to make pet theft a specific offence. This is disappointing but the campaign for pet theft reform doesn’t end here. I’ve reached out to ministers to meet with me so the case for reform can be put directly, and 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. The Covid-19 outbreak has made the need for pet theft reform more pressing not less, and I’m determined to work with campaigners to secure this important change and justice for all those this cruel crime affects.


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