Did UK Government Announce Plans to Criminalize Pet Abduction?

Animal rights groups have long lobbied for a change to legislation across the U.K. to acknowledge the sentience of animals.

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Claim

In September 2021, the U.K. government announced its intention to create a new criminal offense of pet abduction.

Origin

In September 2021, several news outlets and websites reported that the U.K. government had announced its intention to create a new criminal offense of “pet abduction,” in response to a government taskforce report.

On Sept. 3, for example, Unilad.co.uk published an article with the headline “Pet Abduction to Be Made a Criminal Offence in England,” which stated that: “The UK government is to impose harsher penalties for pet theft, as plans are introduced to make pet abduction a criminal offence.”

Similarly, the Independent’s headline read, “Dognapping to be made criminal offence with prison sentence after surge in pet thefts,” and BBC News reported that: “Pet abduction is to be made a criminal offence in England after a rise in reported thefts during Covid lockdowns.”

Those reports were accurate. On Sept. 3, the Conservative government of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced its intention to introduce legislation to create a new, separate criminal offense for “pet abduction.” A government news release stated that:

A new criminal offence for pet abduction is set to be introduced under government plans to crack down on pet theft following a reported rise in pets being stolen during the pandemic. The new law will recognise the welfare of animals and that pets are valued as more than property.

It is already illegal to steal pets in the U.K. In England and Wales, such acts are forbidden under the Theft Act. However, animal rights groups have long lobbied for the creation of a new offense, because the Theft Act treats pets as personal property, on a par with any inanimate object, and the use of that legislation does not recognize the fact that animals are sentient beings.

Historically, theft offenses were categorized largely on the basis of the monetary value of the item stolen. Stealing an item valued under £500 ($693) was treated as a Category 4 theft offense, which did not yield a prison sentence.

However, in 2016 the Sentencing Council of England and Wales revised their guidelines for theft, meaning “emotional distress” was considered a “significant additional harm” and an aggravating factor that could elevate the theft of a pet to a Category 3 offense, which could bring a prison sentence of up to two years.

Even so, calls for a separate offense continued, and in 2018 and 2020, public petitions forced the U.K. parliament to debate the possibility of reforming the existing laws around pet theft. 

In May 2021, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs introduced a bill that would formally recognize that animals are sentient beings — a definition that would have substantive legal implications.

During the same month, the government set up a “Pet Theft Taskforce,” in response to reports that pet thefts had become more prevalent in the U.K. during COVID-19 lockdowns, as an increased interest in buying and adopting domestic animals prompted a sharp rise in their monetary value. The group was made up of officials from the departments of environment and justice, as well as the Home Office (roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Justice Department).

On Sept. 3, that task force issued its final report, which can be read in full here, with one of its primary recommendations being the introduction of a new criminal offense of “pet abduction.” The report stated that:

We recommend the development of legislative options at pace for a new ‘pet abduction’ offence to acknowledge the welfare of sentient animals. The policy development of the proposed new “pet abduction” offence has just begun and the details of the offence are to be determined. The scope of the offence should include dogs, and the applicability to other types of animal should be explored during the development of the policy.

The U.K. government has, evidently, accepted that recommendation, among others, and now plans to introduce legislation in the Westminster parliament, to that effect.

It’s important to note that the new “pet abduction” offense announced by the U.K. government on Sept. 3 would only apply to England, though the U.K. government is likely to pursue parallel legislation in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

Under the U.K.’s somewhat complicated system of devolution, matters relating to crime and justice are typically devolved, meaning that the U.K. government in London legislates for England and Wales, while the Northern Ireland Assembly and Scottish parliament make criminal law for Northern Ireland and Scotland, respectively. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told Snopes the pet abduction legislation would be limited to England for the time being, but said the government planned to work with devolved governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales “to see where we can align and collaborate on all of the recommendations.”