After a frankly unbelievable 12 months or so, I can confidently say that there are only two things that have kept me going through the madness that coronavirus has bestowed upon us all. The natural response here would ordinarily be: 1) my wonderful husband, and 2) my hilarious son Sulley. No offence to my family – who I utterly love but who are also regularly the source of most of my migraines – but I’m afraid the true heroes of the pandemic, at least in my household, are my two other loves of the four-legged variety: Dotty and Dora.
Along with possibly every other pet owner across the UK, I am utterly obsessed with my two gorgeous Jack Russells. I got Dotty and Dora when they were just a few weeks old and in September they’ll both be turning nine. They’ve truly seen me through thick and thin. They were there for me throughout my cervical cancer scare and subsequent treatment. They’ve been at my side through many tearful evenings when I first learnt that my chances of getting pregnant without medical intervention were low.
They’ve been there for the good times, too. They were patiently waiting for me when I returned home from the hospital having given birth to my son, and were extremely excited by the number of placards, posters and rosettes that took over our home throughout the general election.
That’s why, as part of pet theft awareness week, I’m speaking out on an issue that I know really does cut across the political divide: the love of our pets. After all, they are the ones who ordinarily would be sat waiting for us to get home after a late night in the Commons.
More recently, and I know this to be true having spoken with colleagues of all political persuasions, they often secretly occupy our laps as we wait to speak in the virtual chamber and provide that extra bit of unwavering support on the especially difficult days. We are a proud nation of animal lovers, and it is about time that our legislation truly reflected the strength of feeling that I know people across the country feel around the protection of animals.
Last week in parliament, despite the best efforts of a number of Conservative colleagues to talk out the bill, the animal welfare (sentencing) bill finally cleared the Commons and will now make its way to the House of Lords. This legislation, if passed in time, will mean that animal abusers could face up to five years in prison if convicted. It is widely supported by politicians, stakeholders and animal charities alike.
The bill passed without amendments in the House of Commons – that means our job as MPs is done, right? Sadly, we’re still far from a positive, comprehensive solution to dealing with the abhorrent crimes against animals that are regularly hitting the headlines. This week, I’m leading on a debate in Westminster Hall to properly get some answers.
A quick online search brings up some harrowing images and headlines involving abuse against animals. The last few weeks have raised some serious questions about how abuse in all forms in this country is both policed and regulated, and the focus has quite rightly been on the horrendous circumstances around Sarah Everard’s death. It feels wrong to speak about abuse to animals without recognising the abuse that women across the country are subject to every day, and I want to make it clear that I will always do all that I can to end abuse in all contexts.
In speaking out on domestic animal welfare, I know that this abuse is often not limited to our four-legged friends. There is little research out there that connects domestic violence with animal abuse, but thankfully this is an area of growing academic interest. We now know that pet dogs and cats are at a high risk in abusive households as perpetrators direct their anger at them and use them to manipulate and control their human victims. One recent survey even found that 71% of women with pets seeking refuge in a shelter reported that their partner had threatened and/or physically hurt or killed one of their pets. This violence and suffering must end now.
Of course, coronavirus has hugely impacted the number of crimes against animal welfare, only this time abuse in all forms is often going on unreported, behind closed doors so numbers may sadly not reflect the reality of the situation. I’m grateful that charities such as Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and the RSPCA are doing their best in difficult circumstances to get a grip on the level of the crisis, but really leadership should begin at the top.
Battersea Dogs and Cats Homes’ research has found that 87% of rescue centres across the UK have reported a drop in income, with a third losing over half their income. This is happening at a time where more and more people are impulsively purchasing domestic pets. Indeed, their research has suggested that 31% of people who acquired a dog or cat during the first lockdown had not considered becoming pet owners before. I fear with the easing of lockdown restrictions we could soon be heading for a period of pet abandoning – and it must be that legislation exists to protect animals in these circumstances, too.
It is undeniably welcome that a bill is making its way through parliament to increase sentencing for those who commit abusive crimes against animals, but we must be in a position to properly regulate and police abuse in all forms. We’re now more than a decade into Tory cuts and I fear abuse and cuts to day-to-day spending on police services are inextricably linked.
Since 2010, the number of police offers in our forces across England and Wales has fallen by more than 14%. We also now find ourselves with one of the lowest ratios of police officers per 100,000 inhabitants when compared to our friends in the EU. There are, put bluntly, more crimes being reported than the police have capacity to investigate. I’m grateful for the regulatory role that organisations such as the RSPCA and local authorities often take, but coronavirus has clearly also stretched their resources.
The situation can, and should, be different. I know that animal welfare is an issue that was passionately fought for by some incredible Labour colleagues in the last parliament, and I know that we wouldn’t be in the position that we are without them driving the political agenda early on. The Home Office, along with the Ministry of Justice and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has the unique power to make forceful, decisive change that shows their commitment to ending animal abuse. I sincerely hope that they are listening.