Just two people have been prosecuted out of 1,500 cases of pet smuggling, figures reveal, as a committee of MPs demanded tougher punishments.
The Commons environment committee said the penalties and prosecution rates for pet smuggling were too low for a trade that involved organised crime gangs and was worth an estimated £520 million a year.
Criminals could buy dogs in Romania for as little as £30 but sell them in the UK for £1,000, while in-demand breeds could command prices of up to £5,000, according to the MPs’ investigation.
The maximum penalty for illegal importation was a year in jail, because it is not classified as an animal welfare offence. This means pet smuggling is not covered by this year’s Animal Welfare Act, which will increase the maximum sentence for such crimes to five years in prison.
At the same time, the committee was told that out of more than 1,500 dogs smuggled into the UK and taken into care by the Dogs Trust since 2015, there had been just two prosecutions.
Of 41 referrals from ferry and train companies about pet smuggling between November 2020 and June 2021, only three were investigated by local authorities.
Even when there were prosecutions, the RSPCA said puppy dealers who had been earning more than £2 million a year had ended up with less than three months in jail.
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“They are puppy dealing in prison and, when they come out, they immediately start up again,” said David Bowles, the head of public affairs at the RSPCA. “We have to get that balance of deterrence right.”
The committee recommended that the sentences for pet smuggling should be increased to act as a deterrent against a trade that had become “a low-risk and high reward crime”.
It said: “Increasing prosecution rates must also be a priority, as prosecution rates are proportionately low given the estimated size of the trade.”
The MPs said the Government should also use its “full suite of investigatory and enforcement powers” to seize the criminals’ assets.
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The MPs also called for tougher border checks and the closure of loopholes that were exploited by the smugglers.
There is no requirement for visual checks on animals. Instead, only the pets’ papers and microchips are checked, which the criminals exploit by putting fraudulent microchips into the collar or carry case of an animal to pass the inspection.
“It is a bit like you or I walking through an airport with a paper bag over your head,” said Paula Boyden, the veterinary director at the Dogs Trust.
Lord Goldsmith, the Environment minister, admitted no funding was provided specifically for Border Force checks on pet smuggling, while one senior officer from the force admitted it was subject to “massive competing priorities in various areas.”
“Whichever of Border Force or Animal Plant and Health Authority (APHA) takes responsibility for checking pets must be properly resourced, and Defra should set out what steps it is taking within Government to ensure that this work is appropriately prioritised and resourced,” said the MPs.
The MP recommended an immediate ban on the import of animals younger than six months, heavily pregnant animals, and animals which have been subject to poor welfare practices.
They also called for the introduction of pre-import screening for non-endemic diseases which threaten the UK pet population.