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I was not expecting to be called to speak so soon, so it falls to me to say what an enormous debt of gratitude this House owes to Finn—I understand that he is not here at the moment, but he will be later—[Interruption.] Oh, Finn is here. Super! I look forward to meeting him later. Look, he is standing up, so we can see him—marvellous! I am sorry that those on the Opposition Benches probably cannot quite see him, but I hope that you can, Mr Speaker.
As I think we will hear from Members from all corners of the House, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Finn, to PC Dave Wardell and to my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Oliver Heald. The Bill has not had an easy passage through this House, and I fail to see how someone without my right hon. and learned Friend’s many years of experience in a wide range of judicial and barristerial posts could have got it this far. Many congratulations to him.
It is a genuine honour to speak in support of the Bill. I am sure we all agree that service animals, from the police to the prison service, do a very important job. There are 1,200 police dogs in service, and more often than not their role is to help in unpredictable and very dangerous situations. Between April 2017 and March 2018, they were used in nearly 2,000 incidents, including 557 occasions when the suspect had a weapon. In just 99 of those incidents, the suspect escaped. I suspect that that is rather better than the statistics for humans who try to apprehend suspects.
As we know from the case of PC Dave Wardell and Finn, however, the result is not always a happy one for the dogs in the line of duty. Finn is just one of hundreds of dogs to sustain an injury while they are doing their jobs. My own local neighbourhood inspector in Cherwell, John Batty, told me about an incident that he witnessed. He says:
“I will always remember an incident in Slough when I was on firearms a number of years ago. A suspect made off from us and the dog, Tyke”— he is, perhaps, not known to Finn—
“was released to catch him. The suspect had a knife on him and he stabbed Tyke causing him to lose an eye and although he eventually recovered he had to be retired. It was very traumatic, especially for the dog handler, so anything we can do to evidence the need for such a law is well worth the effort.”
I could not agree more.
Today’s Bill brings in long-overdue changes to provide proper recognition in law of service animals’ vital role. Service animals are used widely across the prison service; police dogs are bred and trained to be brave, and, where necessary, aggressive; and sniffer dogs also have specific characteristics. Those characteristics may make life after service very difficult for such animals, and it is not always easy to rehome them. We know from well publicised cases that the retirement of military dogs can be difficult, and it may require sensitive handling. Now that we recognise that these dogs exist and we can talk about military service—at an earlier point in my career, we certainly were not permitted to do that—it is important that we talk about the needs of those dogs and their handlers. They really are a fourth or fifth emergency service. They play an essential part in keeping the brave men and women who protect us safer than they would otherwise be, and it is important that we recognise that.
I am glad to see the Minister here. I hope that he will remind us later of the Government’s commitment to increase the maximum penalty for animal welfare offences from six months to five years. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has spoken of her desire to make sure that the United Kingdom is a world leader in the care and protection of animals. This Bill takes us one step closer to achieving that aim. This Bill is for Finn, who is sitting very quietly in the Gallery; for Tyke, who I hope is still enjoying his retirement; and for all of our brave service animals.