An offence of “pet abduction” is to be created so the courts can hand out stiffer sentences for dognapping after the soaring cost of pedigree animals led to a spate of distressing thefts.
Under legislation being drawn up by Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, the new offence will reflect the fact that stealing a family pet is not just a simple theft but can also be cruel to the animal, as well as traumatic for its owner.
Dog thefts in the UK increased by almost a fifth during lockdown — with up to seven pets a day being reported stolen last year, according to police figures. DogLost, which helps victims, recorded a 170 per cent rise in reported thefts compared with 2019.
Figures last week showed that in London, regarded as a hotspot for dognapping, charges were brought in less than 10 per cent of cases. In about half of them a suspect had never been identified.
The proposal to beef up the law is contained in a report being finalised by the government’s pet theft taskforce, which will be published within weeks.
The taskforce has heard evidence that as the value of stolen dogs has increased, it has attracted the interest of organised crime groups
Pets4Home reported that the average asking price for a puppy last year was £1,875, compared with £808 in 2019.
The Dogs Trust charity said that one of the most expensive breeds, English bulldogs, were advertised for up to £2,140 in June 2020 compared with an average of £1,637 in March that year, when the first lockdown was announced.
Ministers have rejected proposals to introduce a pet theft offence because of fears that it could unravel parts of the Theft Act, complicate charging decisions for prosecutors and fail to deliver increased sentences.
A government source said: “Instead of making a tokenistic change to the law, we have been listening to charities, breeders and the police to get a better understanding of what we need to do to tackle this awful crime.
“Part of the package will be a new offence to better reflect the fact that for most people, pets are not just property and having one stolen is traumatic for both the owner and the pet.
“A purpose-made new offence will do this and mean that those who steal pets will face tougher sentences than they do at the moment.”
Boris Johnson, who has a Jack Russell cross called Dilyn, has said that dog theft can “cause huge pain and grief to the victims”.
Cabinet ministers who own dogs include Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, who bought Nova, a labrador, this summer and Michael Gove, who owns a bichon frise called Snowy.
Only last week three pets, including a therapy dog were stolen from kennels at Brookfield Farm in Spondon, Derbyshire, while their owners were on holiday.
The therapy dog, a cockapoo called Elvis, was the pet of a five-year-old boy with attention deficit disorder and autism.
Natallie Cobden said she bought Elvis for her son, Oscar. “He’s a huge part of the wellbeing and mental health of our son,” she said.
The new offence is likely to be added to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is going through parliament and is expected to become law in the first quarter of next year.
This morning the Lord Chancellor made this announcement: