In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated any time limit to the debate, nor, as the Bill is proceeding via accelerated passage, are there any time limits on individual contributions.
This short Bill aims to provide enhanced welfare protection for Northern Ireland's service animals. Before I speak to its content, I will provide some background.
Animals in Northern Ireland are provided with a range of substantial protections under the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. The Act provides that it is an offence to cause an animal unnecessary suffering. Legislation containing the same offence exists in other parts of the United Kingdom. A common feature of the offence is that a range of factors may be taken into account by a court when deciding whether the suffering caused to an animal was unnecessary. One such factor is where the person who caused harm to an animal did so because they were protecting themselves, another person or animal or property. In Northern Ireland, that factor is contained in subsection (3)(c)(ii) of section 4 of the 2011 Act. Someone charged with harming an animal can rely on that factor to argue that the suffering that they inflicted was necessary and that no offence was therefore committed.
That position came under scrutiny in 2016 when Finn, a police dog in England, was stabbed while on active duty. Finn's attacker could have been prosecuted for causing unnecessary suffering to an animal. Taking into account, however, that the attacker might argue that he had harmed Finn because he was protecting himself, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) considered it better to pursue charges for criminal damage. That decision meant that Finn was treated like a piece of police property. There was considerable public and political disquiet around how Finn had been treated. A high-profile public campaign was launched, and it culminated in 2019 in new legislation known as "Finn's law", which provides service animals in England and Wales with enhanced welfare protection while on active duty. Similar legislation has been in place in Scotland since 2020.
The legislation that applies in the rest of the United Kingdom now provides that, where someone who caused harm to a service animal did so because they were protecting a person, property or another animal is to be disregarded when considering whether the harm was unnecessary. We now have the opportunity to ensure that service animals in Northern Ireland receive the same protection. A public campaign initiated in 2018 called for that protection to be introduced here. At the time, there was no sitting Assembly, and my Department made it clear that it was a matter that needed to be addressed by a Minister and a functioning Assembly. Following the resumption of devolved government in January 2020, Members tabled a motion that called for legislation similar to Finn's law to be introduced here. The motion was debated at length and agreed by the Assembly on 10 February 2020. I am pleased to say that it received unanimous cross-party support.
In Northern Ireland, our service animals are dogs, and they are used by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Prison Service. Some of our service dogs operate in a passive way, while others are used in a more confrontational manner and carry out work that takes them into unpredictable and dangerous situations. For instance, they are used to track suspects and conduct searches for illegal substances, stolen property, money, firearms and explosive substances. The suspects involved in those illegal activities could do anything to avoid arrest, including harming the service dog on duty. Thankfully, no service dogs have died because of injuries that they have sustained during service. Some dogs have, however, sustained injury in the line of duty, and I want to ensure that they are given enhanced legislative protection. Indeed, one such dog was injured just six weeks ago.
To that end, my Department launched a consultation on 17 June 2021 that proposed that added protection should be given to service animals used by the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Prison Service, the Belfast Harbour Police, the Belfast International Airport Constabulary and the Ministry of Defence Police. It is proposed that the added protection should also be given to service animals under the control of persons exercising the power of a police constable or providing a service under the direction of the police. In practice, that would mean that dogs brought in by the PSNI from external organisations would be afforded the same protection during the time that they are carrying out duties to assist the police. For example, that would cover situations in which the PSNI use external search and rescue dogs. The consultation also proposed that my Department should have the power to add to list of the animals that are to be provided with enhanced protection.
I thank all who responded to the consultation. I appreciate the input, which was given much consideration before the finalisation of the proposals in the Bill. A total of 47 responses were received from a range of organisations, including the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Prison Service, the Search and Rescue Dog Association North, animal welfare organisations and councils. I am pleased to say that 98% of respondents were in favour of the proposal to give additional protection to service animals. Most respondents agreed that, where a service dog is injured on duty, there should be no requirement to consider whether the conduct that caused the suffering was carried out in order to protect a person, property or another animal. The vast majority of respondents also supported the proposal for the Department to have power to add to the list of service animals that are to be given enhanced protections. The Bill gives effect to those proposals.
The one area in which the Bill does not address the views of most respondents is penalties. Since 2016, the penalty for causing unnecessary suffering has been an unlimited fine and/or up to five years' imprisonment. Those penalties were the toughest in the United Kingdom until 2020, when the rest of the United Kingdom took steps to increase their penalties to bring them in line with what was available here. My Department's consultation made no recommendation to increase the penalties for causing unnecessary suffering to a service animal but sought views on the matter. Most of the organisations that responded supported the current penalties, and that included the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (USPCA), the Northern Ireland Companion Animal Welfare Group (NICAWG), Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club and Focus on Animal Law. While I, too, am satisfied that the penalties for causing unnecessary suffering to an animal are appropriate, I am mindful that members of the public who responded to the consultation were in favour of much tougher penalties.
Members will appreciate that offences and penalties are not matters on which my Department can act alone to make recommendations or set directions; Department of Justice consideration is also required. Initial discussions with that Department indicate that it has reservations about introducing offences and penalties in Northern Ireland that go significantly beyond those in other parts of the United Kingdom. In any event, changes to the animal welfare penalties would require further detailed consideration and a separate public consultation. They could not, therefore, be accommodated in the Bill in the current mandate, given its advanced stage. The focus at this juncture must be on ensuring that service animals are provided with the added protection that they deserve now. If Members wish to see tougher penalties introduced, that can be considered separately at a future date.
On the basis of the responses to the public consultation, I am aware that there is a perception among respondents that the courts rarely apply the maximum penalties in animal welfare cases. It is for the courts to determine the penalty to be applied, on the basis of the circumstances that prevail. Following the outcome of the consultation exercise, I asked the Minister of Justice to highlight to the Lady Chief Justice the breadth of penalties currently available to the courts. I am pleased to note that the Minister of Justice shared a copy of my correspondence to her with the Lady Chief Justice and that her ladyship has also noted the position on penalties.
I turn to the details of the key clauses. Clause 1 inserts new section 51A into the 2011 Act that provides that section 4(3)(c)(ii) of that Act cannot be relied on in certain circumstances. The circumstances are where the animal to which suffering was caused was:
"under the control of a relevant officer at the time of the conduct" that caused the suffering to the animal; that the animal was:
"being used by the officer at the time of the conduct, in the course of the officer’s duties, in a way that was reasonable in all the circumstances"; and that the defendant accused of causing the animal's suffering is someone apart from the officer.
I stress at this point that the Bill does not remove the right to argue self-defence in relation to attacks on service animals. The protection proposed in the Bill applies to an animal only where it is on duty and under the control of a relevant officer and where the animal is being used in a way that is reasonable in all the circumstances. That ensures that defendants are not deprived of critical legal safeguards.
I return to the detail of the Bill. The new section sets out who a "relevant officer" is. This, in turn, determines what a service animal is, as that is an animal used by a relevant officer. A relevant officer is specified as:
"(a) a constable … (b) a person … (i) employed for the purposes of the police, or (ii) engaged to provide services for the purposes of the police, or (c) a prisoner custody officer as defined in Chapter 3 of Part 8 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994."
The term "constable" is defined in section 43A of the Interpretation Act (Northern Ireland) 1954. It includes:
"(a) any police officer; (b) any member of any Harbour or Airport Police; (c) any member of the … Ministry of Defence Police; (d) any other person having for the time being the powers of a constable".
In common with the rest of the UK , the term "constable" does not include members of the naval, military or Royal Air Force police. Prison officers are considered to have the powers of a constable and to be "relevant officers" within the meaning of the new section.
Clause 1 provides my Department with the power to make regulations to amend the definition of a "relevant officer". It expressly provides, however, that:
"Only a person in the public service of the Crown may be included" in the definition.
Clause 2 provides that the Bill will come into force the day after it receives Royal Assent.
In summary, if enacted, the Bill will amend the 2011 Act to provide enhanced welfare protection to service animals while they are on active duty in Northern Ireland. It will give our service animals the recognition that they deserve for the vital role that they fulfil in our society and ensure that the protection that they receive is on a par with that afforded elsewhere in the UK. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.
I welcome the opportunity to outline the Committee's views on the Bill that the Minister has introduced. The Committee supports the proposed legislation, which will ensure that perpetrators who harm animals when they are carrying out their duties cannot rely on the argument of self-defence.
I am sure that all Members will empathise with the story of Finn, a police German shepherd dog that was stabbed in 2016 while apprehending an armed assailant. The attack left Finn with life-threatening wounds to his head and chest. While, thankfully, Finn survived, the incident sparked a campaign to enhance the legal safeguards for service animals, culminating in the passage of Finn's law in 2019 at Westminster. That law largely reflects the Bill before us today. The Committee recognises the strength of feeling across the House in favour of the adoption of the legislation. There was cross-party support during a debate in February 2020 calling for a Bill that would put in place in the North similar provisions to Finn's law. In May 2021, the Department informed the Committee of its intention to consult on legislative proposals in the area and provided a briefing on the outcomes on 7 October 2021. The Committee notes the overwhelmingly positive support for the Bill from stakeholder organisations and members of the public and considers that it likely reflects the opinion of society at large.
The Bill has two clauses and proposes to amend the Welfare of Animals Act 2011 to enhance the protection of service animals if they experience suffering while under the control of a relevant officer. In practical terms, the Committee was advised, the definition of "relevant officer" will extend protection to service animals employed for use by the police, Prison Service and checking authorities at Belfast Harbour and Belfast International Airport. It will also provide a legal safeguard for animals that are not directly owned by any of those organisations but are engaged temporarily under their control for specific purposes. For example, should the PSNI bring in specialist search and rescue dogs for a particular operation, those animals would be afforded protection under the Bill for the course of any activities carried out under the control of a police officer. The Committee agrees with the scope of protection afforded by the Bill in that regard but noted that some stakeholders felt that the protections could be extended further. The Department advised the Committee that it will be able to add to the list of animals that will receive automatic protection in the future via regulations, should evidence emerge of a need to expand protections.
The Committee sought assurances that a defendant would be safeguarded in the scenario of an officer irresponsibly directing a service animal to attack or harass an individual or if the animal did so independently. The Department advised that two tests in the Bill would have to be met in order for the protections to apply. First, the service animal must be under the control of a relevant officer. Therefore, if there is evidence that an animal acted without an officer's direction or the handler neglected to control the animal appropriately, the protection would not be enforced. Secondly, the relevant officer must direct the service animal reasonably when carrying out his or her duty. Should an officer maliciously instruct an animal to attack a person, the test would therefore fail. If one or both those tests were to fail, a defendant would be able to claim self-defence. The Committee was advised that the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) would be responsible for assessing whether the tests would apply in any case brought under the legislation.
Notwithstanding that issue, the Committee supports the Bill, which will strengthen the protections in place locally for service animals carrying out vital work to support the public good. The Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is therefore content to support the passage of the Bill to Consideration Stage.
The SDLP supports the Bill and its accelerated passage. We again acknowledge the huge contribution that service animals make, and we thank the members of the emergency services responsible for them for the selfless work that they do every day.
Members will be aware of the background to the Finn's law proposal and the circumstances of the severe attack on a police dog in the line of duty. I believe that the vast majority of people who hear those details will be shocked that the person responsible could be charged only with criminal damage. Treating those animals as simple property, as if they are a car or mobile phone, demeans their contribution to keeping us all safe and the special bond that exists between them and their handlers.
It is currently an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal, but a lawful defence exists if the actions were for the purpose of protecting a person, property or another animal. As a result of the Finn's law campaign, the legislation has been changed in England, Wales and Scotland so that, in cases involving service animals, those factors no longer apply. It is right that the Assembly addresses the situation that arose because the Assembly was not sitting at the time, which left service animals in the North without the specific welfare protection that is now in place elsewhere.
Where a service animal is on active duty under the control of a trained officer and is being used by that officer in the course of their duties and in a way that is reasonable, they should not be subject to attack or assault any more than the officer should. It is also appropriate that the Bill allows someone the opportunity of a lawful defence of their actions if a service dog attacks them unduly. Fortunately, it appears to be relatively rare for either circumstance to occur. However, it is important that our legislation is kept updated and is able to address situations that, we know, could occur and would otherwise cause legal difficulties.
It is our hope that the Bill is followed by the establishment of an all-island animal cruelty register to which anyone found guilty of such crimes would be added. There is an urgent need for a central register of those who commit crimes against animals across these islands to ensure that they are not able to access rehoming services in the future. A number of animal charities would welcome further progress on that issue.
I thank the Minister for moving the Bill's Second Stage.
Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to speak on the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill. Many of our services in Northern Ireland, such as the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Belfast harbour and airport police, are dependent on support and help from specially trained dogs for a variety of tasks, including responding to calls to help to track burglars or prevent prohibited items entering our country or prisons.
As in the rest of the United Kingdom, it is an offence here to cause unnecessary harm and suffering to animals. Unfortunately, service animals have increasingly become the object of deliberate harm or abuse, occasionally being maimed for life in their line of duty. It has therefore become a necessity for those service animals to be afforded the same protection as animals in other parts of the UK. That enhanced protection will apply only when the animals are in active duty under the control of an officer and being used by an officer in the course of their duties.
The Bill is welcome. It has gone through a consultation process, with the overwhelming majority of consultees supporting it. Other dogs, such as those used for search and rescue purposes, are not included in the Bill because they are considered to be working in a passive way and therefore do not need the added protection unless they are working with police. The Bill also provides the power to add to the types of animals that are to be protected, if needed, in the future.
The Ulster Unionist Party will support this uncontroversial Bill, which will give our service animals the necessary protection when carrying out their duties to help people.
As I stated, our brave service animals in Northern Ireland carry out invaluable work. That work can often place them in unpredictable and dangerous situations. It is only appropriate that they are adequately protected by law, as they are in neighbouring jurisdictions.
Given my roles on the Agriculture Committee and the Northern Ireland Policing Board and as chair of the Assembly all-party group on animal welfare, I recently took an opportunity to visit police dogs in my constituency and talk to their handlers. I am grateful to the Antrim and Newtownabbey policing team for setting that up for me. At that visit to the Steeple Road police site in Antrim, I was troubled to discover that a police dog called Daphne had been injured in civil unrest, apparently over the protocol, earlier this year. I am pleased that she is now fully recovered, is back in service as part of the policing team and has even featured in an edition of the BBC Northern Ireland 'Crime NI' television programme.
I recognise the invaluable work carried out by our brave service animals in Northern Ireland such as Daphne. I am encouraged that the Minister and his officials are progressing the legislation at pace to ensure that there is extra protection for those service animals. I am pleased to have supported the accelerated passage of the Bill and to support it at Second Stage in order to ensure that those who harm service animals are held to account and punished for their crimes accordingly.
I support the Bill and its accelerated passage through the House. As has already been indicated, the Bill addresses a legislative anomaly that arose as a result of the absence of a sitting Assembly. The Bill is short, uncontroversial and straightforward in its intent. I am delighted that it commands overwhelming public and political support.
Currently, as in the rest of the UK, it is an offence in NI to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal, under the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. When determining whether the suffering is unnecessary, regard can be given to whether the conduct that caused the suffering was to protect a person, property or another animal. However, the law in other parts of the UK now differs in its application to situations involving service animals. In other regions, legislation has been changed to provide that, in cases involving service animals, those defences can be disregarded.
By now, Members will know the story behind the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019 — Finn's law — and the work undertaken by Finn's handler, Constable Wardell, and various charitable organisations to highlight the lack of protection for service animals. They have had success across the UK in achieving greater legislative protection. Finn sustained terrible injuries to his chest and head while engaged by his handler, but, at that stage, only criminal damage charges could be brought against the dog's attacker. The Bill is, therefore, about protecting Finn and all our service animals as they dedicate their lives to keeping us safe. It is about ensuring that our service animals and their handlers have the legal recognition and protection that they deserve. As they serve our community, those animals do invaluable work in unpredictable and often dangerous environments. As legislators, it is our job to ensure that they are adequately protected in law.
Over the summer, the Department carried out a consultation on the Bill. The responses showed that 98% of respondents were in favour of the policy proposals set out in the consultation. The AERA Committee has been happy to add its backing to the Bill. I am pleased to see the support that it has received, particularly among service organisations such as the PSNI and others that train and use service dogs daily. The support that has been shown underlines how keen everyone is to see the new law in place. The Bill, should it be passed — I have every faith that it will — will principally amend sections 4(1) and 4(3) of the 2011 Act, thereby mirroring the changes that are now in place and working effectively in other parts of the UK.
For our part, the DUP is dedicated to ensuring that animals in our society are cared for, that those who abuse animals are punished and that those with legal responsibility for animal care have the support and resources that they need. As a result of this and other recent legislation, the UK as a whole will have one of the toughest sentencing regimes against animal cruelty in the world. I am pleased that the House has played an active role on that journey.
Our ambitions, of course, should not end with the passage of this legislation. There is much more that we can do to prevent, deter, detect and prosecute crime against animals. There is a strong case to increase funding for local animal welfare services, and a further review of sentencing provisions would also be beneficial. We must exhaust all avenues and efforts to make progress on the wider issue of animal cruelty, inclusive of the creation of an offenders' register, complex though that may be. I am pleased that Finn's law is before the House, and I very much hope that we shall soon see it on the statute book. I thank the Minister for his commitment to the legislation. I support the Bill.
I am extremely delighted to speak on the Bill today. It is not long since I tabled a motion that asked for this very legislation to be introduced. Therefore, I will begin my speech by briefly recapping on how we got here.
Finn, a police Alsatian dog, was stabbed in October 2016 during an arrest. In the incident, he protected his handler and ensured that the individual who harmed him did not get away. Finn was lucky to be alive afterwards, and he required four and a half hours of life-saving surgery and 11 weeks of recovery. Finn is clearly an incredibly brave service dog. He has since retired and has rightly been recognised in a variety of ways. He received a People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) gold medal and was named as the International Fund for Animal Welfare's (IFAW) animal of the year in 2017 in the House of Lords, and he got an award at the annual Crufts dog show.
Due to the lack of a specific offence of causing harm to service dogs, the individual who attacked Finn was charged with the offence of criminal damage. Everyone here will know that the life of their beloved pet means far more than a broken window. Finn and other service animals like him are brave animals, not merely property. That is why I am extremely pleased to stand here today to discuss Finn's law and the Bill.
The legislation will bring us in line with the rest of the United Kingdom. In 2019, Finn's law received Royal Assent in England and Wales. Scotland has also introduced its own laws on the issue. As a nation of animal lovers, it is only right that we join countries such as Austria, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands and Switzerland in protecting our brave service animals. It is fair to say that the law is somewhat overdue. It is also the right thing to do. At times, these animals put their life on the line to keep us safe. They are loyal, dedicated and brave. So much time, effort and love is put into their training. It is only right that we repay them with the Bill.
My main hope for the Bill is that it will lead to an increased number of convictions for this offence in our courts. I believe that that will happen, as the Bill creates a specific offence that can be used to charge people. Crucially, it removes the fear and self-defence argument that is so often used to get away with cruelty to animals. That defence was used in Finn's case to argue that the person had not caused unnecessary suffering to an animal and that it was for the purpose of protecting themselves. The Bill removes the ability to use that argument. It amends the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 to remove that defence if the animal that suffered was under the control of an officer at the time that the cruelty occurred, the animal was performing reasonable duties in line with its role as a service dog, and the defendant accused of the harm is not the officer in charge of the animal. I am also pleased that the Bill does not apply only to dogs but to any service animal. While I believe that dogs are the only animal to be used for that purpose in Northern Ireland at present, it is good that that is left open to other types of animals, if there were ever to be a change in the future.
I had concerns about what types of service animals would be protected in the Bill. Search and rescue dogs perform a vital function and deserve to be protected. That is especially true in Northern Ireland. I believe that they are at a greater risk here than in other parts of the United Kingdom, given the people whom they may be searching for. I therefore had initial concerns regarding the omission of search and rescue dogs that are used by private companies and volunteer organisations. However, I am reassured that search and rescue dogs that are engaged for police purposes will benefit from the added protections in the Bill and that that is in line with the laws in the rest of the UK.
One issue that I take with the Bill is that it does not make provision for increased penalties for those found guilty of the offence. I want that to be pursued. Sentences given to offenders for cruelty to animals are, in my view, generally too lenient. For example, the individual who attacked Finn and his handler was given only an eight-month sentence. That is just wrong. I thank the Minister, who explained the sentencing, and we might be able to pursue that down the line, hopefully. I would like more detailed consideration by the Department of Justice of toughening the sentences. I believe that a public consultation would demonstrate the strength of feeling about this issue. Ideally, I would like a sentence of up to five years in prison for those who are cruel to our animals. This is now called Finn's law part two, and I will personally continue to campaign for that. An animal cruelty register is another idea that has been raised in the course of the debates, and I believe that that should be explored in more detail.
Before I conclude my remarks, I will thank some people who got us to where we are today and who have had real influence in bringing Finn's law to Northern Ireland. We would not be here today without Bernadette Kelly from Northern Ireland Finn's law, who has worked tirelessly and often on her own to make this happen. I also thank those who responded to the public consultation and gave their views on the issues, notably the PSNI, the Prison Service and the National Search and Rescue Dog Association. Further to that, many other organisations gave their backing to Finn's law. They include the USPCA, Assisi Animal Sanctuary, the Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club, K9 Search and Rescue NI, IFAW, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Mid Antrim Animal Sanctuary and many other small charities, organisations and rescue centres throughout Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. I also thank the over 44,000 members of the public who signed the petition calling for the law to be enacted in Northern Ireland.
Finally, I thank the Minister, who has kept his word to me that he would bring the Bill to the Assembly. The use of accelerated passage is welcome. I am eternally grateful to him on the issue, and I really mean that. I am so pleased that the campaign has been successful. Although I will continue to campaign for stronger sentences for those who are cruel to animals, the Bill is a step in the right direction, and I am delighted to be able to support it today.
I thank all the Members who participated in the debate. It was heart-warming to hear all the contributions and their strong support for the law. We are a nation of animal lovers, which is to our credit. The desire to have protections for animals is therefore a reasonable position for us to adopt. Sometimes, those things can be a bit conflicted, because, by protecting one animal, you may cause harm to another. In this case, however, it is very clear and easy to identify that the Bill gives added protection to animals that are put in circumstances to protect society, such as in riot situations, drug searches, illegal money-laundering searches and all sorts of other activities. It will also protect animals that look for missing persons. It is therefore important that we do this and that we recognise that those animals are being put on the front line for our benefit. The actions that we take today will enhance and support the work that those animals do.
A couple of Members raised the issue of the animal offenders' register. I have previously engaged with the Minister of Justice on the topic, and my officials have been liaising with their counterparts in the Department of Justice. Significant progress has been made on identifying the key issues that need to be addressed in order to implement and maintain a register in a way that reduces the risk of reoffending but that also secures and protects access to sensitive information. Significant progress has also been made on a review of the effectiveness and impact of similar types of registers that are already operating elsewhere. My officials are developing proposals on potential next steps.
On the question of sentencing, we pointed out that there will be other opportunities. The Assembly took the lead in the United Kingdom by increasing sentences for those who cause harm to animals. We have sought to encourage the courts on that matter through my letter to the Department of Justice, which was passed to the Lady Chief Justice. It is something that we take extremely seriously, and I am sure that, if it believes that we are falling short on that front and on providing further protections, a new Assembly will revisit the legislation.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That the Second Stage of the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill [NIA 45/17-22] be agreed.
That concludes the Second Stage of the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill. The Bill is proceeding via accelerated passage, so there will be no Committee Stage. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments before the next item of business.