Viscount Trenchard (Con)
My Lords, it is my great pleasure to have been asked to sponsor the Bill, which was introduced by my right honourable and learned friend Sir Oliver Heald in another place. I pay tribute to him for his commitment and dedication to this excellent cause. He has efficiently and smoothly guided the Bill through its various stages, and it has been heartening to note that it received unqualified support from all sides in another place. I trust that the Bill will be similarly welcomed and supported in your Lordships’ House. It is surely reassuring and comforting that there are matters relevant to communities up and down the land and on which we all agree, and that by introducing and passing measures such as this, we can make a positive difference. I hope that this will contribute to improving the public perception of what Parliament does to make laws such as this, which are universally supported by the public.
I was asked by my right honourable and learned friend if I would sponsor the Bill because I live only five miles away from Finn, who resides at Buntingford in Hertfordshire—I think even slightly closer than my right honourable and learned friend. I also declare an interest, in that I serve as president of Sir Oliver’s North East Hertfordshire constituency association.
I will briefly apprise your Lordships of the events which motivated those who launched and successfully led the Finn’s law campaign. Finn’s handler, PC Dave Wardell, who has brought Finn here today to hear your Lordships’ deliberation on this matter—they are seated in the Members’ Gallery—was engaged in apprehending a robbery suspect in Stevenage. The suspect attempted to escape by climbing over a fence and Finn, directed by PC Wardell, took hold of his lower leg to restrain him. The suspect lunged at Finn with a 10-inch knife, stabbing him in the chest several times. He then turned his attention to PC Wardell. Finn intervened to protect PC Wardell as the blade was aimed at his face. Finn put himself in the way to save the officer, who suffered a hand wound, but the dog then received serious head wounds as well as the chest injuries. PC Wardell believes that Finn saved his life. Other officers arrived and the suspect was apprehended. Finn was badly injured, with his lungs punctured in four places, yet he was licking his handler’s hand wound. Finn was taken to a vet, and then to a specialist vet. He underwent a four-hour operation to save his life, and subsequently made a remarkable recovery. After 11 weeks’ convalescence, he was able to go back to work with PC Wardell. On his first shift, on 22 December 2016, they arrested a fleeing suspect. Finn is now retired but is still living with PC Wardell, and remains fit and healthy. He is one of the most successful police dogs that Hertfordshire Constabulary has employed. He has won national recognition for his bravery: animal of the year in the IFAW Animal Action awards, Hero Animal of the Year, and the PDSA gold medal, which is known as the animals’ George Cross.
When it came to charging the offender, it became clear that there is a problem with the current law. For the assault on the officer it was a straightforward offence of assault occasioning actual bodily harm. However, there were two potential charges for the injuries to the dog: causing unnecessary suffering to an animal under Section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, or a charge under Section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. In the event, a charge of criminal damage was brought, but this treated Finn as though he was simply a piece of police property that had been damaged, such as a police radio. The penalty for criminal damage is largely determined by the value of the property that is damaged, and a seven year-old police dog who is close to retirement is not worth much money. So it proved in court, when no separate penalty was imposed on the attacker for the attack on Finn.
The offence under Section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act provides an alternative route, but there are two problems with it. First, the maximum penalty is only six months’ imprisonment. Happily, I understand that the Government have committed to increasing that to five years, which has been widely welcomed. I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could confirm to your Lordships when winding up that that remains the Government’s firm intention. Secondly, there is a difficulty with the application of Section 4(3)(c)(ii) of the Animal Welfare Act, which sets out that various factors must be taken into account in determining whether the inflicting of suffering on an animal can be considered unnecessary. Those factors include the protection of a person or property but currently omit any reference to the role of service animals. Clearly, the role of a service animal is to restrain a suspect or to use its physical presence to support the actions of an officer discharging his or her duty, but there is no reference to that in the Act. There is concern that the provision allows defendants to argue that they are justified in using force against a service animal in self-defence, rendering the force necessary.
The failure of the law to provide an adequate means for an officer to obtain redress for injuries sustained by the service animal with which he works led to a high-profile campaign known as the Finn’s law campaign. More than 123,000 people signed an online petition, which resulted in a debate in another place. It also inspired my right honourable friend Sir Oliver Heald to introduce this Bill and, with his customary doggedness, to steer it successfully through all its stages. It is a short Bill and makes only one simple but important change. It amends Section 4 of the 2006 Act to require a court to disregard the consideration in certain circumstances when assessing whether suffering was unnecessary in the context of causing such suffering to a service animal. Its scope is restricted to service animals working with a constable or a person having the powers of a constable. This means that it applies to police officers and prison custody officers, although it allows the Secretary of State to amend the list of relevant officers by regulation, subject to the affirmative procedure.
Police forces employ both dogs and horses, and the Prison Service employs dogs. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, there are currently 1,753 police dogs in the UK. I have recently been advised that the Bill also extends to service animals employed by the police services of the Armed Forces, and would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that is indeed the case. The Bill draws from the Animal Welfare Act 2002 of Western Australia, which contains a similar provision requiring a court to disregard the right of self-defence in the case of service animals where the animal is under the control of a relevant officer and is being used by that officer in a reasonable way.
I earnestly hope that your Lordships will recognise the importance of making this change, and speedily. As I mentioned, it is my right honourable friend Sir Oliver Heald who has worked with the Finn’s law campaign and I pay tribute to him. It is also excellent that the Government decided to support the Bill, and I am grateful to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and my noble friend the Minister. I also pay tribute to Sarah Dixon and Nicola Skelly of the Finn’s law campaign and, of course, to PC Wardell and Finn himself, who looks to me very contented.
The Bill extends to England and Wales because it amends the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which is an England and Wales Act. I understand that the Welsh Assembly has laid a legislative consent Motion to introduce a similar measure. I look forward to hearing from the Minister whether that is indeed the case and about the prospect of a similar measure being introduced in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I look forward to hearing your Lordships contributions, to your support, I hope, and to my noble friend’s winding-up speech. I beg to move.