The government has introduced legislation to create a new offence of what it calls “dog theft.” If passed it will form one of the weirdest additions to the criminal law since the 1745 Profane Oaths Act.
Profane cursing, which the 1745 Act made a criminal offence was, no doubt, a common problem in 1745. The same cannot be said for dog theft in 2021 which is not a very common crime at all.
The number of dogs in the country is not known, but it has grown in the last 5 years and probably now stands somewhere between nine and twelve and a half million. The number of “dog thefts” reported to the police every year has hovered around 1,500, although as not all police forces record such reports the total is probably closer to 2,000.
Some of those reported “stolen” turn out to have been lost, run away, removed by an estranged partner or, as appears probable in the case of Rory Cellan-Jones 15 year old collie, Cabbage, taken by accident.
The idea that there are organised gangs of criminals cruising the country looking for family dogs to steal is widely believed, widely promulgated by people who should know better and unsupported by the evidence: it is an urban myth. Although puppies and a few adult dogs do have a significant monetary value, the vast majority of family pets have none, which is why thieves hardly ever steal them. That is why so many dogs are abandoned or given to dog shelters.
Even the government’s Dog Theft Task Force, the preposterous quango including two Police and Crime Commissioners chosen despite – or more likely because of – their alarmist political campaigns on the menace of dog theft, grudgingly accepted that “the risk [of theft] to dog owners is low,” and that there was at best only “anecdotal” evidence of “organised” dog thefts
It was for these reasons that some weeks ago I wrote a short piece in the Telegraph suggesting that there was in fact no epidemic of dog theft and that the existing criminal law was more than equal to dealing with any that did occur.
The Prime Minister referred to the article in his Party Conference speech.
“I read a learned article by some lawyer saying we should not bother about pet theft. Well I say to Cruella de Vil QC – if you can steal a dog or a cat then there is frankly no limit to your depravity.”
His message was that the existing law was too soft on dog theft and that dog thieves (and presumably cat thieves too) should be locked up for longer.
Last week the proposed law was published as Section 43 of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. Large numbers of Conservative MPs took to social media in what was obviouslt a coordinated campaign to welcome the new offence of “Dog Theft,” with a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment, 2 years below the existing maximum for theft of anything else.
If sentences for dog theft are too short, creating a law which makes them even shorter is, to put it politely, counter-intuitive.
The explanation is that, despite the misleading publicity, the new offence does not target dog theft at all. It targets dog taking. That is a very different thing.
Let me explain.
For a taking to be a “theft” in English law it must be accompanied by an intention to “permanently deprive” the owner. Without such an intention it is not theft; it is borrowing.
The proposed offence, to be known as “taking a dog without lawful authority,” will be committed if a person “takes or detains a dog in England:
(a) so as to remove it from the lawful control of any person; or
(b) so as to keep it from the lawful control of a person who has the right to have lawful control of it.”
Readers will immediately have spotted that an intention to permanently deprive the rightful owner of the dog is not required for the new crime to be committed.
It is modelled on the offence of taking a conveyance without the owner’s consent, known to police and lawyers as “TWOC.”
Typically, TWOC is committed by joy-riders who borrow someone’s car in order to go for a joy-ride, or perhaps to use in the course of some other offence. It is much less serious than stealing and the maximum sentence is correspondingly far lower – 6 months as opposed to 7 years for theft.
The activity criminalised by the new law, “dog-twoc,” boils down to borrowing a dog without obtaining permission.
There are to be some differences between dog twoc and vehicle twoc. For example “taking” a dog is defined to include “inducing a dog to accompany” someone other than its lawful keeper. One cannot induce a vehicle to accompany you, so this is to cover the villain who uses enticing words or bacon rind to persuade a dog that he is its friend. This offence is not so much dog-twocking as dog-grooming.
Even if the dog resists the inducement, the offeror of bacon rind will be guilty of attempted dog grooming, which will carry the same 5 year maximum sentence.
There are some curious exceptions where taking a dog belonging to some, but not every, member of your family will not be criminal at all. For example you will be legally able to take your half-sister’s dog with impunity, but taking your step-sister’s or your grandfather’s dog will be an offence.
Taking your estranged spouse’s dog without her permission will not be criminal. The aim, presumably, is to prevent the police from being dragged into rows about where a family dog should live after a separation. But this only applies up to the moment of divorce, and it does not apply at all to unmarried couples: taking your divorced spouse’s or ex-long-term partner’s dog, however temporarily, will become a crime. Politicians elected after promising to crack-down on dog theft will need to explain why it is a good idea to involve the police in these canine custody disputes, particularly where these depend on abstruse distinctions of kinship resembling Archbishop Cranmer’s 1662 Table of Kindred and Affinity. Every officer investigating these new crimes will be an officer unable to investigate a burglary, a rape or a murder.
So what is the point? Even if you think there should be longer sentences for dog thieves, this law does nothing to bring them about. If Cruella De Vil were to be charged under this law she would get off far more lightly than if she were charged under the existing law of theft.
S.44 of the Bill hands ministers the alarming power to extend the offence to other animals “capable of forming bonds with people who keep them.” The lonely old lady who kindly feeds a neighbour’s cat – which will certainly be capable of forming a bond with her if she gives it Whiskas – will then find herself investigated on suspicion of “inducing a cat to accompany her.”
Let nobody say that this government has lost its sense of direction. It has recognised that there are simply too few criminal offences. The police don’t have enough to do. They are solving other crimes too quickly. Why take two years to investigate a rape when, if they had more dog crimes to investigate, they could make it three? The Magistrates Courts are of course the perfect forum for deciding where the former matrimonial dog should live, and it is well worth extending the backlog of Crown Court cases by filling the lists with allegations of dog grooming.
Thank goodness that at last we have a government with the courage to crack down on the hitherto unrecognised menace of unauthorised dog borrowing.