Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:05 pm on 10th July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire 2:05 pm, 10th July 2019

It is a great pleasure to follow Sue Hayman. I agree with many of her comments about the importance of the sentencing increase applying generally to cases of animal cruelty and various other offences under the Animal Welfare Act, and how there should be no distinction between particular offences. I welcome the Bill because as well as increasing sentences for animal welfare offences in respect of all animals, it has a special relevance for me and those of us who supported Finn’s law, the Bill that became the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019.

When I first met my constituent PC Dave Wardell and Finn, who live in Buntingford, and heard their story, I knew we had to try to change the law. Finn had been badly injured in October 2016, saving Dave’s life in an attack from a knife-wielding suspect, yet there was no separate penalty at court for the attack on this service animal, and the charge was criminal damage, treating Finn as though he was just a piece of kit. Because a seven-year-old police dog is not worth much money and criminal damage is judged by the value of the damage, no separate penalty was imposed at court for the harm done to Finn, despite the fact that the dog was almost killed in the attack, faced a four-hour operation, and had saved his handler’s life. Solicitor Sarah Dixon started a national campaign for Finn’s law that has united press, public and politicians. Both the Daily Mirror and The Sun have supported Finn’s law, and a petition raised over 125,000 signatures.

I first drafted a Bill based on Qanto’s law—a Canadian law named after another brave dog—and was given permission by the House to bring it in as a ten-minute rule Bill in December 2017. I discovered that Ministers had reservations. After many discussions and lots of pressure from supporters, I decided that a different approach was needed—one based on measures in Western Australia. Ministers were worried that, were we to have only an offence of attacking a police dog carry a sentence of five years’ imprisonment, it would not reflect properly the point made by the hon. Member for Workington that the same maximum sentence should be available for ill treatment of all animals. Ministers agreed to go with the Western Australian approach and I presented the replacement Bill, which became the 2019 Act.

The original Bill was drafted with a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment for an attack on a service animal, but Ministers made it clear to me that my new Bill should make it straightforward to prosecute under the Animal Welfare Act for causing unnecessary suffering to a service animal and they would bring in this Bill to increase the sentence for Animal Welfare Act offences against any animal. I have therefore always regarded this measure as Finn’s law part two—putting in a proper maximum sentence.

I had great support for my Bill from Members of all political parties, including the author of the original Animal Welfare Act, Mr Bradshaw. It took many months, but we made progress. Lord Trenchard took the Bill through the House of Lords, and Royal Assent was given on 8 April, as has been mentioned. The Act is now in force. Importantly, Finn attended Parliament on all occasions and helped to get the support we needed. When the Bill finally got through in the other place, Finn let out a loud bark in the Public Gallery, to the amusement of many noble Lords and Baronesses. Very few ten-minute-rule Bills become law, so it was a great moment.

The Finn’s law campaign has maintained the social media pressure, and holds a twice-weekly twitterstorm called “Finn hour” which has been directed very effectively to help change the law. Every mayor and all the police and crime commissioners in our country have supported Finn’s campaign. It has been a privilege to work with the team and to see the part two Bill introduced.

Let me just read out some of the comments I have received from Finn’s law campaigners about this Bill. I have received hundreds of messages of support during “Finn hour”. People have said things such as:

“There are far too many instances of animal cruelty reported every day. The increased sentences are needed urgently”;

“Here’s wishing the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill a speedy and successful passage”; and:

“Hopefully, a speedy passage. Finn ‘barks’
for…the country”.

It is also important that, in time, this should cover Scotland and Northern Ireland. My colleague Liam Kerr MSP has been pressing in Scotland, and we have met Nicola Sturgeon, with Dave and Finn, and there is now a consultation in Scotland. That shows that Finn is a very effective dog. We are also in touch with Northern Ireland MPs.

Finally, the House may be interested to hear that since the passing of the Bill, Finn, already the most decorated police dog, has continued to collect awards: he won at Crufts; he has been given the freedom of the town of Buntingford; and he was recently a finalist on “Britain’s Got Talent”, where his story and Dave’s pitch for this Bill to become law brought the great Simon Cowell to tears. So, I welcome the Bill; Finn’s law part two takes a big step forward today.