Dog thefts: Woman shares her story after pet stolen
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Ministers are to introduce the new offence so judges can impose longer sentences that recognise the animals’ welfare and suffering instead of only their financial value, as happens under current laws on theft. Writing in The Telegraph, Environment Secretary George Eustace said the change would enable courts to apply the full force of the law against pet thieves to “stop the criminals in their tracks and give peace of mind to pet owners”.
“We are a nation of pet lovers. Pets are members of the family in households up and down the country, and reports of a rise in pet theft have been worrying. The new offence will reflect the fact that pets are not just property that can be replaced,” he said.
A Government source said the new offence would allow courts to impose prison sentences of up to seven years, replacing current theft laws where long terms are only possible if a dog is worth £100,000.
“The new offence will mean longer sentences and allows for an animal cruelty element to be incorporated which isn’t possible under theft,” the source added.
It will be introduced in a crime bill now before Parliament as part of a package of measures drawn up by a cross-Government taskforce, including Justice Secretary Robert Buckland and Home Secretary Priti Patel following a surge in dog thefts, some linked to organised crime gangs.
Police will pilot dog DNA databases because of concerns that microchips can make it hard to trace owners, especially if they are removed from the animals by thieves. Forces are trialling specially designed ultra violet (UV) marking of dogs, emulating its use for bicycles.
Ministers are also considering extending dog licences, with a “light touch” registration scheme for owners whose pets have less than three litters a year. At present, only breeders whose animals have three or more litters a year require a local authority licence.
Vets are likely to be required to scan any pets’ microchips on the first consultation to identify stolen dogs or cats and reunite them with their owners. There is, however, concern that this could deter people from bringing ill animals into surgeries.
Ministers want to crack down on the black market in dogs fuelled by the rising values of breeds and organised gangs cashing in.
They are pressing for online sales sites to ban cash sales and require formal ID verification from anyone selling pets.
The review has also proposed rationalising the current 16 different dog microchip databases with a single access point to improve the tracing of stolen animals.
Owners will have to provide more information such as the pets’ lineage to help police investigate thefts and councils keep track of dogs.
In a bid to help find stolen animals, owners could also register their dog with the police including their details and the dog’s microchip number, photograph, DNA reference and UV marking reference.
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This would be allied to tougher requirements to notify transfers of pets to new owners to help local councils keep track of how many litters a dog has.
Police and courts will be expected to better record pet theft offences to establish the scale of the problem.
Police data suggests 2,000 dogs were stolen last year in England and Wales, but this is thought to be a significant underestimate.
Ms Patel said stealing pets was “evil and depraved,” while Mr Buckland said: “These proposals will make sure police can better identify and track down criminals who peddle in this heartless trade, whilst ensuring they are appropriately punished for their actions.”
Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, who has campaigned with MPs for a crackdown, welcomed the plan but said ministers must “move quickly” to pass it into law.
“The gangs have moved into pet theft because it is almost a free crime where you can do it and not get punished,” he added.
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