19 January 2024

Pet abduction law won’t criminalise ‘old ladies helping strays’, MPs hear

19 January 2024

Pensioners and others who believe they are providing a home for stray cats will not be criminalised under proposed pet abduction laws, MPs have heard.

Two new criminal offences of dog abduction and cat abduction would be created under proposals tabled in the Commons, with offenders facing a maximum prison sentence of five years.

The Pet Abduction Bill, which will apply in England and Northern Ireland, revives measures previously outlined in Government legislation but dropped in June 2023.

Animals are regarded as property under existing theft legislation, with campaigners arguing for the emotional value of pets to be recognised and the distress caused if they are stolen.

The Bill, which received an unopposed second reading and has Government backing, would make it an offence to take a cat or dog from the lawful control of another person.

We do not seek to over criminalise the good behaviour and good intentions of old ladies and many other people

No 10 said it was backing the legislation out of recognition that “dogs and cats are part of our family”.

A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has a family dog, Nova, that lives in Downing Street, told reporters: “Putting the maximum term at five years is about recognising the impact that pet thefts have on families and the emotional impact and distress that this can cause people.

“It recognises that these thefts should not be treated as thefts of inanimate objects, as dogs and cats are part of our family.

“These cases where they happen are obviously extremely distressing.”

Concerns in the Commons were expressed that “kindly old ladies” and others who seek to help cats and dogs that they believe are homeless could be unfairly penalised under the proposals.

But Conservative MP Anna Firth (Southend West), the Bill’s sponsor, and others played down this prospect.

Conservative former minister Sir Edward Leigh said he supported the Bill, but noted: “One thing that slightly worries me – I’m a dog owner but cats are prone to wander, that’s why we love them.

“And there are these sometimes very kindly old ladies who see a wandering cat and they pick them up, take them home and feel they’re looking after them.

“I just want (Ms Firth) to assure me that there won’t be sort of innocent ladies who pick up cats who will now be enmeshed in the law.”

Ms Firth said dog abduction means the taking or detaining of a dog while the detention aspect is not applicable in the offence of cat abduction “because cats roam” and their behaviour is different.

She added: “There’s also a defence of reasonable excuse – we do not seek to over criminalise the good behaviour and good intentions of old ladies and many other people.”

Ms Firth later said her Bill would not punish cases where there has been “no malice or ill intent” for looking after a cat that has “voluntarily come to another person’s home”.

She added: “Many of us will have read the children’s book Six Dinner Sid, in which Sid the cat has his dinner at six different houses on the same street.”

Sir Edward intervened again to say: “I’m just thinking of my wife’s grandmother, who in our family was known as Granny Meow because she had 14 cats.

“And every single cat … they hadn’t arrived in her home, she had gone and picked them up because she thought they were strays, she was a completely innocent old lady and no question of stealing.

“I want to be absolutely sure that in no way could policeman plod knock on her door – she’s dead, of course – couldn’t have knocked on her door and taken her to court.”

Ms Firth offered assurances that the Bill offers a defence where people are picking up stray cats and dogs, or involving themselves with someone’s else animal for “good and honourable and noble reasons”.

Conservative former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland also said those genuinely trying to help cats and dogs would be protected under the Bill.

He triggered laughter in the chamber when he said he almost called Sir Edward’s relative “Granny Pussy” before correcting to “Granny Meow”.

Earlier in the debate, Ms Firth said figures showed there were more than 12,000 dog thefts between 2018 and 2022 and warned the true number is likely to be higher.

She added cat theft is “now catching up” with an increase in recent years.

Ms Firth said the new offences would not apply to someone fleeing an abusive relationship who takes their cat or dog.

On the Bill as a whole, she said: “If this Bill is enacted we will have better protections for our pets, we will have offences that duly recognise that they are sentient beings, we will be able to better record and track pet abduction, we will have a better deterrent and I hope we will see a greater prosecution rate than 1%.”

Environment minister Rebecca Pow said the Government intends to get “speeding on” with the Bill if it becomes law.

She said: “This legislation will be commenced as soon as possible indeed within the three months from this Bill receiving royal assent.”

The Bill will undergo further scrutiny in the Commons at a later date.

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