Before we begin, I should warn Members that the case mentioned in the petition is currently before the courts. The House of Commons has agreed in its resolution on matters sub judice that cases that are active before the courts should not be referred to in debate. This is to avoid any possibility of what we say prejudicing a fair trial or impeding a successful prosecution. I therefore ask all Members to avoid any reference to that particular case.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 168678 relating to the status of police dogs and horses.
Sadly, it is not unusual to read reports in the press of police animals being seriously injured or killed, or having to be put down as a result of injuries sustained during their duties. Understandably, there is much concern among the public about animal welfare generally, but this issue hits at the very heart of compassion for animals and our responsibility to those we put in harm’s way for the benefit of society.
I should make it clear that this petition relates to a specific case that is currently progressing through the legal system. I shall of course follow your guidance, Mr Crausby, and make no direct reference to that case. In a broader sense, the petition asks that police animals be given enhanced legal protection and refers to legislation that was introduced in the United States. That legislation gives animals the status of police officers, but it is unlikely that that would be considered in this country, so I will concentrate on legal recognition for service animals injured while doing their duty to help to keep us safe.
At present, there is no specific offence or penalty relating to causing harm or death to a police animal.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in the debate. Our police animals—dogs and horses—are an integral part of the police service and contribute significantly to keeping us all safe. Does he agree that it is outrageous that if a police dog or horse is assaulted or injured, this is treated merely as criminal damage?
I am grateful for that intervention and I agree with the hon. Lady. At present, there is no specific offence or penalty relating to causing harm to, or the death of, a police animal. Under current legislation, such offences may be prosecuted under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 or the Criminal Damage Act 1971, which I will come to.
The petition suggests the adoption of legislation along the lines of the US Federal Law Enforcement Animal Protection Act 2000, which was introduced following similar concerns that police animals did not receive adequate protection under the law and were vulnerable to physical harm as a result. Following the Act’s introduction, it is a federal offence in the United States to maliciously harm or conspire to harm a dog or horse being used for law enforcement and carries a penalty of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
The Government point out in their response to the petition that under existing legislation and sentencing guidelines it is technically possible for someone convicted of such an offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to be imprisoned for up to 10 years.
Can we smash this myth that 10 years’ imprisonment is available in almost any circumstance for assaults on police dogs and horses? For the matter to come before the Crown court with its extended sentencing powers would require the damage involved to exceed £5,000. I suggest there has never been such a case and that 10 years’ imprisonment has never been available for any offender convicted of such an offence.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have done some research into sentencing for this sort of act, which proves and backs up what he said. Alongside the 2006 Act is another option, the Criminal Damage Act 1971, which, sadly, likens any attack on an animal to damage to a police car or riot van, and does not reflect the bravery of the animal. That is wrong.
Animals are sentient beings. They are capable of feelings, emotions and pain. The law currently regards animals as mere property that is capable of being destroyed or damaged under the 1971 Act. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this law must be changed so that animals are given the protection they deserve?
I am grateful for that intervention. I do believe the law should be examined and changed or a new law introduced. When looking into the issue in the run-up to this debate, I contacted or was contacted by various organisations, and their views are mixed. Organisations such as the RSPCA believe that the current legislation is adequate, but the Kennel Club feels strongly that such offences should be treated as assault or attempted murder. Clearly, there is a wide range of opinion.
As the petition demonstrates, there is a feeling among the wider public that police animals deserve greater legal protection than they currently enjoy, in recognition of the risks they face in the service of our society. In this respect, the law is definitely at odds with public opinion and that of the police, who care for their animals with exceptional compassion and humanity.
My concern is that although it may be technically possible to secure convictions with up to 10 years’ imprisonment, the failure to prosecute means that has no deterrent effect. There is an argument for enhanced protection for police animals, as we have heard from colleagues here today. I note that the Government’s response states that the maximum penalty for such offences is 10 years, but figures supplied by the House of Commons Library show that in 2015, the average custodial sentence for a prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 Act was just 3.3 months and the average fine just £244. Custodial sentences applied in just 10% of convictions. What sort of message does that send about how we treat and protect animals acting to uphold the law and who work to keep us safe?
The feeling among police officers is that prosecutions are so unlikely that assaults on animals are often not recorded, so it is hard to understand the scale of the issue. A specific offence of causing malicious harm or death to a police or service animal with clear penalties outside the 2006 Act would be a more effective deterrent and would recognise the unique risks these animals face. There is a sound argument for enhancing the current protection, but without suitable changes to the procedures for seeking and securing a prosecution, this would prove ineffective. A new offence would help to empower the police to seek a prosecution and provide clarity for the Crown Prosecution Service.
Understandably, police officers have extremely close bonds with their animals. They help the police to prevent and to fight crime and to secure convictions. The animals are placed in harm’s way daily and, sadly, often suffer physical harm that sometimes results in death. We must not forget their role in protecting police officers and the public and in preventing injury and loss of life. Police officers have told me that on occasions, if it had not been for the animal and its intervention, they fear they would have been killed.
The care with which the police treat their animals and the affection they receive from the public should be echoed in the protection they receive under the law. We have a clear moral and ethical responsibility for the welfare of these animals, and I support the introduction of the sort of measures suggested in the petition. I am grateful to be able to lead this debate today.
The South Wales Police Federation constables branch board chair, Steve Treharne, wrote to me recently about the safety of police officers, but he also talked about the need to give the same protections to police animals, as an extension of what he called the police family. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is time that police animals were given the same status?
The hon. Lady makes a very clear point and is backed up by a message from her constituent. It lends weight to the argument that we have heard already today: that we should be looking to introduce new protections in legislation for police animals.
I think I am right in saying that my hon. Friend does not have the right of reply to this debate, and I would like to hear his comments on this issue. I do not know whether he consulted the British Transport police, but for a brief time I was privileged to hold a warrant as a constable with the BTP, and we regularly worked with police dogs on the London underground on drug interdiction. Drug dealers are not nice people; they are quite prepared to harm anyone and anything to get their way. Is it not time that we recognise that the animal is in effect an extension of the policeman or woman, and give them the protection that they deserve?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I did not speak specifically to the British Transport police, but he makes a very salient point. It is very important that we recognise the vital job that these animals do. If they were not there to help us, the police officers would have a much more difficult job. It is also worth registering the fact that it takes a lot of effort, time and money to train the animals to do their specific jobs. By recognising their status in law, we would also be recognising the contribution they make and how much we as a society have invested in them in the first place, so it is a very credible point, and I am happy to move the motion.
Let me just say that the hon. Gentleman does have the right to reply at the end of the debate, on condition that the Minister gives him time to reply. It has been my experience sometimes that that is not the case.
May I say how pleased I am that you are chairing this important debate, Mr Crausby? I thank the Petitions Committee for allocating time to discuss this issue in Westminster Hall, and in particular the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) for doing such a good job of setting out the principles underpinning the debate.
As we have heard, people all over the country have been struck by the story of police dog Finn and his handler, PC Dave Wardell, with the petition reaching more than 100,000 signatures in just 10 days. I will heed your advice, Mr Crausby, and not say any more about that case, but let me take this opportunity to wish Finn and PC Wardell all the best on their road to recovery. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
I also thank the “Finn’s Law” campaign team, who have harnessed the sense of injustice about what happened to Finn and turned it into positive action, with a view to delivering the change that we would all like to see. I pay tribute to some of the senior officers in West Yorkshire police who have gone over and above what might have been expected to lend their support to the “Finn’s Law” campaign. If people have not already seen the video of Chief Inspector Aidy Waugh and Chief Superintendents Tim Kingsman and Mabs Hussain trying and failing to evade a police dog, all in the name of raising awareness about Finn’s law, I promise them that it is well worth a watch and even a retweet.
Spending time with West Yorkshire police in my constituency over the summer, I have met some incredibly dedicated people, yet the workload of our police forces is becoming increasingly complicated. In West Yorkshire since 2010, we have lost 1,200 police officers—a 20% reduction in the force—and increasingly officers are asked to respond to 999 calls on their own. I witnessed an incident that quickly escalated, leaving an officer surrounded following a routine attempt to stop a vehicle. With the Police Federation, I started the “Protect the Protectors” campaign and began raising police officer safety in the Chamber, but the work of the “Finn’s Law” campaign reminded me that it is not just police officers but our hard-working police horses and dogs that are exposed to risk.
There are 1,900 police dogs in the UK: 781 specialist dogs and 1,119 general purpose dogs carrying out tasks that are often simply beyond their human counterparts. In West Yorkshire fairly recently, two police cars were rammed by a vehicle and the driver ran off, evading arrest. Police dog Tia was able to track the offender and found his discarded hat; from that hat, a DNA sample was obtained and matched and the suspect identified. Police dog Ty tracked and located an elderly lady with dementia who had got lost in freezing weather. Officers were adamant that had Ty not located her, she would not have lasted much longer, exposed to the harsh weather conditions.
Police officers tell us that dogs are one of the most effective ways of managing some very difficult situations, with officers’ only concern being that not enough dogs are available. Police dog Buzz, a firearms support dog, recently detained a distressed male who was threatening the public with a large knife. He was able to bring the incident to a conclusion thanks to the advanced training that police dogs go through, and thankfully with no harm to himself.
Police horses are also invaluable, yet six were injured during last year’s million mask march and an irate football fan was sentenced to a year in prison in 2013 for punching West Yorkshire police horse Bud in the face before being detained by officers.
I praise the hon. Lady for her work on the “Protect the Protectors” campaign. She is giving very good examples. Police dogs and horses are an integral part of the policing team, and introducing exemplary punishments for those who show ill will and cause harm, damage and perhaps even death to police horses and dogs will give confidence to the police officers who are working as a team with their police dogs and horses.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is absolutely right: offering that protection to dogs will lend further support to handlers and to their colleagues more widely.
I did not know until I was made aware by the “Finn’s Law” campaign that the only mechanism for charging someone who assaults or kills a police dog or horse is in section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Conviction carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison. Alternatively, in the most serious cases, an offender can be charged with criminal damage. Kent Police Federation tweeted me yesterday and summed the position up perfectly. It said that
“the Finn’s law campaign isn’t about the law treating Police Dogs the same as cops, but it is about treating them better than a broken window.”
I understand that a constructive meeting has already taken place between the campaign team and the Policing Minister, which is encouraging, but I think the Minister already knows my view: police officers and police animals alike deserve the full backing of the justice system, and tough sentences must play a role in deterring anyone who thinks that it is acceptable to assault either a police officer or a police animal—quite often it is both. That simply must not be tolerated.
Although I welcome the recent progress made, as with assaults on police officers it has been difficult to establish the scale of the problem of assaults on police animals because of a lack of official statistics. That is partly due to the difficulties of getting an offence to court and securing a conviction, as we have heard. The evidence required to secure either an animal welfare or a criminal damage conviction has to clear such a high threshold that offences are, sadly, going unpunished. To prove criminal damage, it has to be shown that property—a dog or horse in this instance—has been deliberately or recklessly broken, permanently or temporarily. Bruises and cuts resulting from kicks or punches are almost impossible to demonstrate under an animal’s fur. Similar challenges apply under the Animal Welfare Act: it would need to be proved that an offender inflicted “unnecessary suffering” on an animal and did so deliberately. If an offender claimed that a kick to a police dog’s head was an involuntary reaction to being scared, for example, a prosecution would be difficult to secure.
The average cost of the initial training of a police dog is about £20,000, and the lifetime cost, including vets’ bills, food and kennelling, is about £50,000. That is a significant investment on the part of a police force, but it makes that investment because police dogs are a highly trained asset and incredibly effective at what they do. However, precisely because of what they do, they are exposed to heightened and very different risks from other animals, and I agree with the “Finn’s Law” campaign that that should be reflected in the laws that protect them.
I salute the hon. Lady on the “Protect the Protectors” campaign. This weekend, I stood among people laying remembrance wreaths. People from all different parts of the services were paying their respects to the people who gave their lives for our country. The work that we are doing today on the safety of police officers is similarly important. I served on the Policing and Crime Bill Committee, and this matter was not raised as an opportunity to support police dogs and horses. Does the hon. Lady think that this debate is an opportunity to ask the Minister whether the protection can be extended?
I thank the hon. Lady very much for that intervention. She is absolutely right, and it perhaps was a missed opportunity that we did not address the matter at that opportune moment, but hopefully not too much time has been lost and we have the ability to correct that mistake today.
I asked the Police Federation whether it had cases of assaults on police animals and details of whether convictions had been secured following those assaults, and some really troubling stories were passed on to me. In February 2013, police dog Euro was repeatedly punched around the head and kicked in what his handler described as a “violent and unpredicted” attack; Euro sustained bruising and cuts to his mouth and lip. In that instance, the offender was charged and found guilty of the offence of criminal damage to police property, but only received a community order and was ordered to pay court costs. Police dog Buzz, who I mentioned earlier, was attending a large public order incident and was kicked in the head, sustaining injuries to his tongue and the inside of his mouth. On that occasion, the offender was detained and charged under the Animal Welfare Act.
Sam, a nine-year-old German Shepherd police dog, was asked to give chase to a driver who ran from a vehicle. The man climbed on top of another car and began kicking Sam’s head; when Sam managed to pull the offender from the roof of the car, the male then began to twist the police dog’s collar, restricting his airway until he was unconscious. The dog’s handler, PC Ian Head, had to draw his baton in order to get the male to let go of Sam’s collar. Fortunately, Sam slowly began to regain consciousness, and a short time later got back to work assisting with the arrest of the offender. The offender in question was later charged with failing to provide a specimen on suspicion of drink-driving, which was the more serious of the charges against him. Part of the problem that needs to be addressed, which is often the case in prosecuting assaults on police officers as well as on animals, is that the circumstances leading to the assault take precedence, with the most serious charges being pursued at the expense of lesser charges. Too often, animal welfare charges, and even police assault charges, have been sidelined.
Those are some of the assaults that have been recorded and did go to court, but the feedback from dog handlers is that in the vast majority of cases the injuries sustained do not meet the evidence threshold required to secure a prosecution, so much of that information is then lost and not recorded. The “Finn’s Law” team spoke to 71 serving dog handlers, 75.7% of whom said that their dog had been either kicked or punched in the line of duty. Only 8% saw charges brought, with 82% of assaults on police dogs going uncharged. Some 10% of those surveyed said that they had experienced their dogs being stabbed or seriously injured.
Other countries have successfully introduced much tougher deterrents, as the hon. Member for Northampton South said. In America, specific federal laws apply to anyone who harms an animal used in law enforcement. The law states:
“Whoever willfully and maliciously harms any police animal, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be fined under this title and imprisoned not more than 1 year. If the offense permanently disables or disfigures the animal, or causes serious bodily injury to or the death of the animal, the maximum term of imprisonment shall be 10 years.”
In this instance, “police animal” refers to
“a dog or horse employed by a Federal agency… for the principal purpose of aiding in the detection of criminal activity, enforcement of laws, or apprehension of criminal offenders.”
In Canada, Quanto’s law extends similar protections to all service animals used in law enforcement, the military and for individuals with disabilities or specific medical needs. Quanto was a police dog who was fatally stabbed while helping to apprehend a fleeing suspect. The federal law in his name means that jail sentences of up to five years can now be imposed on anyone who intentionally kills a police dog or service animal.
I said that I have had some horrible examples passed to me. I want to share one of the most awful, because to me it shows the risks that both police officers and police animals face and why our justice system must offer the greatest possible protection to them both. It dates back to 1998 and was recounted to me by a Federation representative.
Police officers attended a domestic incident, where dog handler PC Churms arrived with police dog Bryn. Shouting and screaming could be heard from inside the premises, so PC Churms advised other attending officers that he would deploy with Bryn. As he approached the house, a male appeared holding a hunter’s rifle with a silencer to the head of his female partner. The officers with PC Churms backed off, and he and police dog Bryn were left with the offender in the confines of a garden. The officer attempted to negotiate a successful outcome, but as he attempted to quieten Bryn he was shot in the leg causing significant injury. As the offender lifted the gun to shoot the officer again, PC Churms released Bryn in an attempt to bring the male under control and protect himself and the female. Police dog Bryn was killed with a single fatal shot to the head. The female attempted to run off and was shot in the shoulder. The offender dragged the female back and forced the barrel of the gun into the officer’s mouth and said, “I will come back for you,” before dragging the female away. The officer dragged himself into the street and was taken into a neighbour’s house, where they barricaded themselves and the officer was tended to.
The risks faced by our front-line officers and animals alike could not be more serious. I hope that tougher sentences for those who assault police dogs will serve to keep both dogs and handlers that bit safer in the line of duty, as the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) said.
I am reassured that the Minister has met with the “Finn’s Law” campaign team. Once again, I thank the “Finn’s Law” team for the work they have done in putting this issue on the political agenda. For me, the challenge with granting police animals the same protections as police officers is that I am still of the opinion there is much more we should be doing in relation to police officer safety, so I am hoping to keep going with the broader debate about how we protect our protectors and keep front-line officers and animals safe in the line of duty. I hope that the Minister is able to reflect on the examples from other countries, as well as on some of the tales of police animal bravery that we have heard today, and think about what more can be done to offer police animals like Finn the greatest possible protection.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I would like to put on the record my thanks to the Petitions Committee for kindly allowing this debate to take place, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) for leading it and starting us off today. I also thank the “Finn’s Law” campaign team, who have helped to mobilise public opinion behind the petition, and the members of the public who have signed the petition and contacted me to offer their support.
My interest in this subject was stirred by an incident in my constituency involving police dog Finn and his handler PC Dave Wardell. I understand that this matter is now sub judice, and we are not allowed to discuss the case during the debate. That is a pity, as I am sure that if I could share the details of what happened, there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind that our police dogs and horses need far greater protection in law than they currently have.
However, I am sure everyone will be delighted to know that both police dog Finn and his handler Dave Wardell are recovering well from their injuries. Dave is here in the Public Gallery, so I thank him for joining us today. Sadly, Finn cannot be with us but I have teased Dave that all the people who have contacted me have shown sympathy only for Finn and not for him—he is just an afterthought. On a serious note, he is a great person and a fine example of the amazing professionals that we have in Hertfordshire police.
I was privileged to take part in the police parliamentary scheme, and one of the 20 days I did with Hertfordshire police was with the police dogs team. We raced all over Hertfordshire and on that day we tackled everything from individuals who were possibly armed, to illegal immigrants inside a truck. We tackled people who were trying to evade the police and also dealt with a burglary, where they sent the same police dog in to see what was going on in the house.
These animals work constantly and consistently, on a day to day basis, week after week. They do an amazing job to keep my constituents safe, and Hertfordshire police have ensured that Hertfordshire is one of the safest places in the country to live. That is one of the key reasons why so many people relocate to my constituency of Stevenage. The thousands of new arrivals every year make it one of the strongest and most vibrant communities, providing the engine room of Hertfordshire’s economy. That is an amazing feat considering that Stevenage was this country’s first new town and celebrated its 70th birthday last Friday.
Today we need to celebrate the role of the police dogs and horses that are constantly put into some of the most dangerous situations and are attacked on a weekly basis up and down the country. These animals are doing a vital job keeping us safe, and it is only fair that we return their commitment by providing them with the protection they need when they are hurt in the course of their duty.
I know that on an emotional level my constituents and I find it difficult that these animals are treated as property in law. If someone attacks a police dog, they can be charged only with criminal damage or possibly animal cruelty. However, treating a broken window or a broken garden gnome the same as a police dog hurt in the line of duty trying to disable an armed offender, or as a police horse attacked with broken bottles during a riot, seems heartless to me and my constituents.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this typifies the materialistic way in which the law treats animals? We see that with dog theft and with attacks on police dogs. Does he agree that it is time we stopped treating animals like a commodity such as a laptop computer or mobile telephone?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I understand that in 2015, France stopped treating animals as movable property and now refers to them as living beings. Perhaps that is something we can consider going forward.
I understand that there is nervousness about providing police dogs and horses with the same rights as police officers, as the petition states. We need to be talking about simply treating them better than a broken window. This is about recognising that they are not pieces of property, but highly trained and highly intelligent animals; there has got to be somewhere in between. They are also part of a much larger family of working animals that work very hard on a daily basis to keep us safe.
The military police have dog handlers, and we have fire dogs in Hertfordshire. There are customs and excise dogs, guide dogs and hearing dogs. Imagine the impact on a blind person if their guide dog was attacked and injured! Apart from the intense vulnerability they would feel during the incident, they would suffer a loss of freedom and independence as the dog recovered from its injuries, and they might well be housebound as a result.
The Government response to the petition has been underwhelming, to say the least, but I believe we can get them to change their mind. I am delighted that the Policing Minister is with us today, because I know he is a big animal lover. He is not frightened of going up against the system and doing what is right, and I am convinced that together with him, we can get on and make a change through Finn’s law. We are all looking forward to working closely with him to achieve that.
The petition response states:
“An attack on a police dog or other police support animal can be treated as causing unnecessary suffering to an animal under section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The maximum penalty is 6 months’ imprisonment, or an unlimited fine, or both. The financial element of the penalty was raised only last year from a maximum fine of £20,000. An attack on a police animal could be considered by the court as an aggravating factor leading to a higher sentence within the available range. Under some circumstances assaults on support animals could be treated as criminal damage which would allow for penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
An additional offence dealing specifically with attacks on police animals or a move to change their legal status is unnecessary in light of the maximum penalties already in place. An additional and separate offence may not result in more prosecutions, or increased sentences.”
The problem with that response, and the reason why we find it so disappointing, is that it fails to recognise that the vast majority of offences cannot be charged as either criminal damage or under the Animal Welfare Act, simply because of the very high threshold for both offences. In practical terms, there are no charges for the majority of attacks on dogs and, as other Members have said, cases rarely get to the stage of prosecution in the courts.
According to my understanding, for someone to obtain a successful prosecution of an offender under the Animal Welfare Act, they need to show that the suffering was unnecessary and deliberate. If the offender says they were scared and only defending themselves or lost control, the Crown Prosecution Service will not pursue the case. The more likely scenario is that a charge for criminal damage will be pursued, thus treating a highly trained and intelligent animal the same in law as this table or chair.
The prosecution has to show deliberate or reckless damage that is permanent or temporary. Most attacks cannot be shown to be such, because bruises do not show on dogs. The dog’s fur would have to be shaved to see the bruise underneath, meaning that it would be possible to prosecute offenders only when the dog has been stabbed or hurt in a different way. Veterinary evidence would also be needed to show that that action led to that result, and there would be a time lag between the incident, seeing the vet and the veterinary report.
The sad reality is that these animals are being placed in danger every single day of every week and are attacked on a regular basis, but the offenders are not prosecuted. The hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) mentioned the survey that was generated by the “Finn’s Law” campaign. It was only up for 24 hours, so it is not scientific, but it received 71 responses from dog handlers, 75.7% of whom have experienced their dog getting kicked or punched. Of those attacks only 8% saw charges brought—so in 92% of cases the offender got away with it completely—and 10% of handlers have experienced their dogs being seriously stabbed or seriously injured.
I will read the following handlers’ stories, which the Finn’s law campaign has collated:
“On two separate occasions my dog has been kicked at when locating suspect.
Dog got kicked by an individual at a travellers wake; dog put 18 holes in subject’s leg”—
the handler said the individual was not charged with attacking a dog, just “with affray”—
“Experienced 2 separate incidents. 1) detaining a male for dwelling burglary kicked dog in head and chest before making off over railway. 2) Punched and kicked whilst trying to detain male after a serious domestic assault. No charges brought…as not enough evidence.
During a warranted by court eviction in North London, we assisted a team of bailiffs to remove squatters. The male was hiding behind a door and when confronted by the dog he began kicking and punching him. The dog defended himself and me with a full mouth bite to the leg. Thankfully he was a hard headed, strong dog and it didn’t phase him”—
but no charges were brought due to a
“lack of bruising”.
When we are thinking through the thresholds required for evidence to secure prosecutions, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the prevalence of body-worn video for police officers might be part of the package for how we secure more evidence to get convictions when the charges come to court?
I agree with the hon. Lady, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) said, a monetary value is placed on the damage. It has to be shown to be worth £5,000, so even with a police officer’s body camera, it would have to be demonstrated that the kicking and punching caused £5,000-worth of damage for the case to be eligible to go to the Crown court to seek the maximum sentence. To me the situation seems inappropriate, and that is because the dog is treated the same as this table and these chairs. That is unfortunate.
Let me give another quick example from the survey:
“Drink driver decamped following”—
a road traffic collision.
“Dog tracked and located offender in bushes. Offender decided to kick dog numerous times and was duly bitten on the leg and pulled from bushes. Arrested and charged with drink-drive and traffic offences only.”
We are a nation of animal lovers, but our laws do not really protect all animals when they are put at risk of serious harm in the course of their duty. Our laws are also behind other countries, as the hon. Member for Halifax mentioned. The Bill that became the US Federal Law Enforcement Animal Protection Act 2000 was introduced in response to the fact that eight police dogs were killed in the States between 1998 and 1999. Before that, as in the UK, the animals were regarded as a piece of equipment such as a computer, and offenders were prosecuted for property damage. The Act includes any animal that is employed by a federal agency.
The American law states:
“Whoever willfully and maliciously harms any police animal, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be fined under this title and imprisoned not more than 1 year. If the offense permanently disables or disfigures the animal, or causes serious bodily injury or the death of the animal, the maximum term of imprisonment shall be 10 years…In this section, the term ‘police animal’ means a dog or horse employed by a Federal agency (whether in the executive, legislative, or judicial branch) for the principal purpose of aiding in the detection of criminal activity, enforcement of laws, or apprehension of criminal offenders.”
I am sorry that the incident that inspired the petition took place in my constituency, but I am proud to stand alongside the campaigners to support a change in the law so that these amazing animals are treated as more than a broken window when they are hurt in the course of their duty.
It is very warm in here, so I am happy for Members to remove their jackets if they want to. I call Sir Roger Gale.
I apologise to you, Mr Crausby, for the fact that I did not indicate in advance that I intended to participate; I was moved by the moment.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) on introducing the debate. I want to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) that I am not remotely surprised that public sympathy was overwhelmingly for Finn rather than Finn’s handler. I do not disparage in any way the work of the constabulary, but having worn that uniform myself, I can honestly say that at no time has anybody of either sex come up to me and tickled me behind the ears.
On a more serious note, I know that Finn’s handler will also have expressed his prime concern for the animal. The bond between the police dog handlers—male and female—and their animals is very special indeed, and we should not ever underestimate the service that those animals do for the general public.
I say to the Minister that if there are not 650 Members of Parliament in this place all willing to support a change to the law, then there ought to be. He and I know that every day that the House sits, police dogs go into our Chamber and sweep it—not for drugs, but for bombs. They do that advisedly because, within my living memory, one of our colleagues was blown up and killed in this House, although not in the Chamber. We owe the police a huge debt; if we owe them that debt, we owe their dogs that debt and we should look after them.
I hope and believe that when push comes to shove—and it just has—we will change the law to give precisely the same protection to police animals that we give to the constables themselves. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South, they are an extension of that constable’s right arm and an injury to the animal is an injury to the officer. It should be prosecuted and punished as such.
The one area that we have touched on only lightly is that of police horses, which should not be overlooked either. Those of us who are slightly long in the tooth, who sadly on occasions have found ourselves embroiled in disturbances at football matches, will know only too well the value of those police horses and the officers riding them. The police horse and its rider offer a vantage point and, therefore, an ability to control simply not available to the eyes and ears on the ground, which are too low down.
We have all heard of—and in some cases, sadly, witnessed—instances of police horses being stabbed with knives, punched, kicked and treated vilely, very often by people under the influence of alcohol, but that makes it no better. That is why it is right that we place on the record our appreciation of the service of the police horses, and the men and women who ride them, as well as of our dogs and the people who handle them. I hope very much that when the Minister replies, he will say that the law will be changed as soon as possible.
I suppose I should thank you, Mr Crausby, for your injunction at the beginning not to mention the court case that has triggered the debate. I have now lost a third of my speech because I cannot talk about what went on—but that is entirely my own fault, as I should have thought about it earlier. However, I wish PC Wardell and Finn all the very best for a speedy recovery.
I thank the 120,000 people who signed the petition that triggered the debate, the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) for an excellent introduction, and the Petitions Committee for giving us the opportunity to have this discussion. It is a really good example of the e-petitions system working to concentrate minds here in Parliament and to bring issues the attention that they merit.
I declare an interest. I am not just the shadow Policing Minister; I am an unapologetic animal lover. A membership card for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds sits alongside my party membership card in my purse. As some in the House will know, one of my best friends in the world is my beautiful but rather wilful Yorkie, Cara. She certainly does not think that I own her; in fact, it is quite the other way around. They do rather leave paw prints on our hearts.
I was very upset when I read about the horrendous attack on the police dog, Finn, that sparked the debate. Unfortunately, that attack is not an isolated incident. There is so much to read about on the internet, and the research we did to prepare ourselves for this debate was rather harrowing.
I will just talk about one incident because I am not sure whether this dog has been mentioned. In 2013, Fuzz was struck with a metal bar by a robbery suspect who was wanted for stealing a moped. Despite the attack, Fuzz kept hold of the man until he was arrested. He was then rushed for veterinary treatment on his eye and face. There are so many disturbing stories out there, but I will not repeat some that have been mentioned by my hon. Friends today. I have crossed out more of my speech than I have left.
The sad truth is that some criminals think they can cruelly and brutally attack our police dogs and horses and that there will be few or no repercussions. That simply cannot be right. It is inappropriate for me to comment on the details of Finn’s case, as the legal process is still ongoing, but the charges brought for one such attack have highlighted a wider issue that many have with the legal protection afforded to animals working in the police service.
As we have heard, many charges presented to those who attack a police animal are made under the Criminal Damages Act 1971, but that legislation is designed to deal with people destroying or damaging property that belongs to another, not with animal cruelty. I know of one police and crime commissioner who has said that it is just “astonishing” that attacking a police dog who helps to uphold the law is treated the same as kicking in the door panel of a car.
The “Finn’s Law” campaign has rightly said that police animals
“deserve better protection than property.”
I totally and utterly agree. Charging someone with criminal damage in such instances has the unsatisfactory implication that the victim is the property owner, rather than the animal itself. Finn, Fuzz and Bud, a police horse attacked by a Newcastle football hooligan, are not merely police property. They are not disposable objects as easily replaced as a broken window, but valued public servants and real victims. They are personalities—sentient, beautiful and often loved animals who, just like us, feel real pain when they are subjected to violence. The law should recognise them as such and give them the protection they deserve.
As has been mentioned, those who attack police animals can also be charged under section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which makes it a criminal offence to subject an animal to unnecessary suffering. The Act is an important piece of legislation, but it was not passed with brutal attacks on animals in mind, and the maximum punishment is six months in prison or a fine of up to £20,000. That is much lower than the maximum penalty of 10 years available under the Criminal Damages Act 1971 or the American federal laws mentioned in the petition.
My own personal view is that there needs to be a review of the Animal Welfare Act, as I am not sure that that law is as robust as many of us would like. There are concerns from handlers that charges are not brought in most cases. There are no reliable national statistics about attacks on police animals, and I would like the Ministers to look into that. As we have heard, a survey by the “Finn’s Law” campaign found that 75.7% of handlers have experienced their dog being punched or kicked, but charges were brought in only 8% of those attacks.
The Government have produced an official response to the petition, arguing that
“An additional offence dealing specifically with attacks on police animals or a move to change their legal status is unnecessary in light of the maximum penalties already in place. An additional and separate offence may not result in more prosecutions, or increased sentences.”
I get that and I respect the Government’s position; I also recognise that it is good practice to avoid duplicating laws on the statute book. However, I would like the Minister to address some of the concerns we have raised today.
Can the Minister assure us that he will write to the Sentencing Council and express the view of this House that police animals suffer greatly from some attacks and are valued members of our law enforcement teams? Attacks on them should not be treated the same as attacks on property and should carry an appropriately severe penalty. Although the Criminal Damages Act 1971 carries potentially severe penalties, it has the unsatisfactory implication of treating police animals as property and, as we have heard, it is not fit for purpose when dealing with crimes against our serving animals—or, indeed, animals per se. Will the Minister, who has received very warm plaudits from his hon. Friends, commit to working with his phalanx of civil servants to bring forward an alternative proposal that would not treat such attacks as we treat the kicking of a door panel on a police car?
Today we can make a difference to these loyal and brave animals. It is not too late for the Government to amend the Policing and Crime Bill in the Lords to that effect. I am sure that if the Minister did so, he would receive cross-party support, and I might even join in with some of those warm plaudits. Will he commit to reviewing how often charges are brought when police animals are punched or kicked? In order for the Government to do that, they will have to start collecting proper statistics on the number of attacks on police animals, just as we argued they need to with regard to attacks on police officers a fortnight ago. It is not beyond the Government’s ken to do so. With the IT available, it should not be a burden and would take a matter of moments.
Police animals such as Finn, Fuzz and Bud work tirelessly to help our police tackle crime. When they are attacked, they feel real pain and suffering, which in turn breaks the hearts of their handlers such as PC Dave Wardell. They deserve the full protection of the law. The Minister needs to recognise that many of those who work with police animals think the law is currently failing to offer that protection. They and I would like to know what he will do to address those serious and warranted concerns.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) for sponsoring the debate, and I thank all Members who have contributed on an issue that is close to many of our hearts.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) said, I am a dog lover. I have two dogs, and I never thought I would see the names of Oz and Buzz in Hansard, but they will be in there now—my followers on Instagram and Twitter will know who Oz and Buzz are. The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) is right that our pets are part of our family. I am a hardcore dog lover. My current dogs are both Labradors, but I have also experienced the joy of being a basset hound owner, which got a lot easier when I realised that bassets do not have owners—they have staff. Life got a lot easier after Bertie and I worked that out.
I will slightly reverse how these debates normally work. I will address some of the issues, but I will outline the journey of travel as I see it and what I think we can and should be doing, before touching on the challenge of doing that and outlining where we are. As we have a couple of hours, I will leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South to respond, should he wish.
The petition response outlines the current position. As I will outline over the next few minutes, this afternoon’s conversation has highlighted some of the challenges in how we address the situation and just how far we want to go. I have huge sympathy for those who are trying to do something, but this is not the simplest thing in the world. I will explain exactly why in a moment.
Before I come to that, I congratulate and thank the campaigners, whom I met last week to discuss some of the issues. They have been conducting the “Finn’s Law” campaign in a positive, constructive way to get to a result, and they understand the mechanisms within which we work. They also appreciate, as do a large number of people in the police force—I met the Hertfordshire police and crime commissioner this morning to discuss this issue, as Finn is a member of that force—that the available sentencing powers, if used correctly, are as severe as we see elsewhere. The powers are not as severe as we would like, but it is about how they come across, whether they are used and the context in which they are used. I will return to that point.
I express my horror and disgust at the attack on PC Wardell and police dog Finn in Stevenage in October. Without touching on the case, I will say that the photographs taken of Finn after the operation are deeply distressing. I understand the public outrage that has followed the media coverage of the attack and its aftermath. That response is entirely human and expectable. The extent of the public support not just for Finn but more widely is clear.
Order. I ask the Minister not to refer to the court case, as I indicated at the beginning.
Absolutely. I have been very careful not to do that.
You are getting quite close. I want to help you.
I appreciate that. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), I have received a huge amount of emails and correspondence on this issue, none of which, I am sorry to say, asked about the welfare of PC Wardell—it was all concerned about Finn, which highlights just how much the public and we care about animals. I am pleased that both are recovering well.
As I said earlier this month, when we twice debated officer safety at length, any kind of assault on a police officer, or on the animals and people who work with them, is completely unacceptable, so I am grateful for this opportunity not only to reiterate that message but to restate my personal commitment to moving forward on this issue.
The particular abilities of dogs make them a vital part of the police team, and indeed the police family. Part of the complication, as one of my hon. Friends mentioned, is that the issue is wider than police dogs. We also have police horses and fire dogs—I met Reqs from Hertfordshire, and he is a fine specimen of a Labrador—and there are other service dogs too. Anyone who thinks it is appropriate, excusable or acceptable to mistreat, abuse or attack a guide dog or a hearing dog also needs to understand the severity of the crime they are committing. If we move forward on this issue, it is important that we encapsulate the kinds of dogs that serve our community and are extensions of the community that they serve.
Dogs provide important support in many areas of our public services. I have met Reqs, a fire and rescue dog, but there are other dogs working within our military or working to keep our borders safe. We often ask such animals to take on dangerous roles that we either would not ask humans to do or that it would simply not be practical for humans to do. These animals play a hugely important part in ensuring our safety and security.
Police dogs, for example, make a fantastic contribution in searches for suspects, vulnerable people and evidence, in specialist searches for drugs, explosives, firearms and bodies, in crime scene work and, of course, in tracking suspects. The pictures of Finn after the attack remind us of the specific dangers faced more widely by police dogs that are working in pursuit and public order situations. They and their handlers show incredible bravery and go about their work with dedication and courage to keep us safe and fight crime. They show remarkable courage and discipline.
Another police dog, PD Ghost of Merseyside police, lost his life last week while carrying out his duties. He was hit by a car in a tragic accident. The media coverage of his illustrious career—chasing and holding dangerous criminals to keep the local community safe—shows just how much we have lost with his passing. I offer my condolences to his handler, PC Dave Bartley, too.
Much of today’s debate has understandably focused on dogs, but it is important to remember that horses are also an important part of the police family. As well as making a contribution to local policing in our rural communities, police horses are often called on to perform their duties in the face of danger, including in serious public order situations. It is hugely upsetting to read stories such as those reported in the media following the million-mask march in London last year, when people looked to bring down a police horse and its rider, which is a cowardly and dangerous act. The images are still clear in my mind of a football match that I attended when I was young: police horses were brought in to ensure safety and security, and some fans decided to throw darts at the police horses. That is simply not acceptable.
On Friday afternoon I saw the preparation for the safety and security of the visitors and spectators at the England-Scotland football match. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet said, the vision of a police horse rider goes beyond anything that somebody at ground level can see. They therefore play an important role in ensuring that the policing is conducted and structured in the right way. More generally, we should all seek to encourage the Police Federation to consider adding a category at the police bravery awards to recognise the bravery shown by police animals.
The language used to describe attacks on police assault animals goes to the core of how we move this debate forward. I absolutely understand that the language used in the charging of assaults can be completely unpalatable. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) made that point directly. We do not simply see these brave and important members of our policing family as property. They are more than property. They are a living, breathing thing, but a charge of criminal damage can suggest that they are nothing more than property. I appreciate how that can be upsetting and can seem wrong. I see how for many it can be the crux of the issue, and I agree with them.
The issue is complicated, because it goes more widely than police dogs. None of us thinks of police animals as just equipment. They are an important part of the job, but they are not just equipment. That does not seem to me to convey properly the respect and gratitude that we rightly feel for those animals, for their contribution to law enforcement and public safety more widely. That is why I have written to my ministerial colleagues at the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to explore whether we can do more in law to offer appropriate protection to working animals.
I appreciate Members’ earlier calls about the Policing and Crime Bill, but I think it unlikely that we will do something in that Bill, partly because the Bill is at Report stage in the House of Lords and is likely to receive Royal Assent at the turn of the year. We need to do some work with the Sentencing Council. I will come to penalties in a moment; the point made about them was fair. There is work to do on ensuring that the penalties—which are severe and match those elsewhere in the world—that are linked to the Criminal Damage Act 1971 apply to animals in a way that is appropriate and correct in language, as well as on ensuring the ability to prosecute.
We must also consider using the law not just for police dogs and horses, but more widely for service and working dogs—that might cover guide dogs and potentially those used by the fire and rescue service and others. It is important that we do that piece of work. Other work is going on—I will come to it in a moment; it touches on some of the points the hon. Member for West Ham made about assessing—that means that we might not be able to put something in the Policing and Crime Bill, but if there is a need for legislative change, I will consider opportunities to do so in 2017.
I am grateful to the Minister for that assurance. I think he is an honourable man who will keep his word, and I accept that sometimes when we legislate in haste, we legislate badly, and it would be better to do this well. Has he thought of any forthcoming Bills from the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice or DEFRA that he might be able to tag this on to? I always think that a date is a better way to hold the Government to account. It is something tangible and concrete to hang it on.
I thank the hon. Lady for ensuring that she does her best to hold me to account, as well as to tempt me into pre-judging what Bills might be introduced in the next Session. I hope she will understand if I resist, but I will say that if we see while working through the issue that a legislative change is required—Sentencing Council changes might not require it—I will seek to do something in 2017, which is not that far away.
We expect a huge amount from our police support animals, in terms of their training, temperament and performance in their various roles and the dangerous situations in which we ask them to perform. The scale of support for the petition shows that the public hugely appreciate their work. It is only fair that police dogs and horses receive the best possible protection as they go about their duties.
As has been outlined in this debate by Members and in the response to the petition, significant penalties are already in place that can be issued to those who attack animals that support the police. I recognise that this e-petition debate is about more than just penalties. I hope I have covered some of that already, but I will go further. I am glad that the penalties currently available reflect the seriousness of the offence; the issue is how and where they are used to prosecute successfully. As has been said, an attack on a police dog or other police support animal can be treated as causing unnecessary suffering to an animal under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The maximum penalty is six months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both. An attack on a police animal can be considered by the court as an aggravating factor, leading to a higher sentence within the range of six months’ custody.
Under some circumstances, assaults on support animals can be treated as criminal damage. I appreciate that that use of language can seem inappropriate, but it is important to note that that charge carries a much wider sentencing range, allowing for penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment. I appreciate the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford made about the valuations required, but we must also bear in mind that the valuation of a police dog, with its training, would be well in excess of the figures involved. Finn’s attacker has been charged with this offence, given the seriousness of the assault.
The petition calls for protection in line with that afforded to police support animals by the US Federal Law Enforcement Animal Protection Act 2000, as the hon. Member for West Ham said. Under that legislation, causing harm to a police animal in the US carries a maximum tariff of one year in prison. Where the offence is more serious, the maximum penalty can be as high as 10 years, so the maximum penalties available there, if used, are about the same as the maximum penalties here in England and Wales. The issue is whether they are being used and presented in the right way. I agree that the framework within which the offence is held, prosecuted and used is crucial; at the moment, many people feel that it is not ideal. That is why I have outlined that I will work with colleagues from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Ministry of Justice, as well as campaigners and colleagues throughout this House, to consider how we can take the issue forward in a positive way.
I ask the Minister to take on board the fact that this is not really a DEFRA issue; it is a criminal justice issue. We are talking about police officers, albeit four-legged ones, who give great service, as do the dogs of the armed forces. They are not the same as assistance dogs, however highly assistance dogs are also held in esteem. It is time that the Ministry of Justice is compelled to understand that we are dealing with law enforcement personnel, and to treat them accordingly.
My hon. Friend highlights the complication. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 is part of DEFRA’s portfolio, but as I said, I will also be working with colleagues at the Ministry of Justice. There is a wider issue, which people have raised with me, about how we define this. Is it an issue involving police animals, police and military animals, animals in the fire service and guide dogs? That is why I say that it is not as straightforward as we might like. I want to ensure that we get it absolutely right, so that we cover the right animals in the right way and get any legislation right. As I have said, the penalties elsewhere in the world that people want to be applied are available here; it is about whether they are in the right context and framework. I am determined that we will do what we can to ensure that we get it right. I take my hon. Friend’s point absolutely on board.
That is why it is important that we ensure that the right sentences are handed down when such offences come to light. The Sentencing Council recently consulted on revised guidelines for sentencing in the magistrates courts, including for animal cruelty offences. Throughout the development of the guidelines, the council has worked closely with the RSPCA. It is now reviewing consultation responses and developing definitive new guidelines, which it intends to implement in May next year. I am writing to raise the issue of attacks on police animals to ensure that it can be considered as part of the council’s consultation review.
I want us to do everything we can to ensure that assaults on police animals are taken seriously: that they are reported, that the police respond effectively and that the right sentences are handed down to those who think they can commit such crimes. My officials have been consulting police leads in the area, who are best placed to advise on this issue, and they agree that the penalties for attacking police animals are severe enough; it is the framework and how and when prosecutions are brought that we need to consider.
I know that police leaders are committed to the ethical and effective management, training and handling of police dogs. The current national police lead for dogs, Chief Constable Wilson of Suffolk police, chairs the police dog working group. To respond to one of the specific points raised in this debate, I am pleased to be able to tell the House that, with the support of the College of Policing, the working group is currently updating practice guidance addressing the deployment, safety and welfare of police dogs to further professionalise the discipline. At the heart of the guidance is the welfare of all police dogs. The House may wish to note that both dogs and mounted policing will be brought together soon under one national police lead, Deputy Chief Constable Rod Hansen of Gloucestershire police, who currently holds the lead on mounted policing.
National statistics on the number of assaults on police animals are not collated, as was rightly said earlier, but I can inform the House that the national working group will consult police forces on the issue over the next few months to get a better idea of the extent, so that we can get the reporting correct. I am confident that police and crime commissioners will also play their part in saying quite clearly on behalf of local communities that attacks on police animals are abhorrent and unacceptable. The day after the attack, the PCC for Hertfordshire, David Lloyd, praised PC Wardell and PD Finn for their quick thinking and bravery. He subsequently issued a statement applauding the petition’s success. I met David this morning to discuss the issue; I welcome his helpful intervention and his positive contributions, which highlight how PCCs can play a lead role in expressing the public’s view on how we should see police animals.
We must strive to protect all members of the policing family: police dogs and their handlers, police horses and their riders, police officers, staff and volunteers. I know that chief constables are signing up to a pledge to support officers and staff who are victims of assault. For our part, the Government could not be clearer about the great value and respect in which we hold the police and the need to support them in their work. To enable chief officers to understand the scale of the issue, it is important that we have accurate data to capture the number of assaults, so we have sought to improve the collection of such data. As I outlined to the House in an Opposition day debate in October, we will ask all forces to include the number of assaults with injury on a police officer as part of their recorded crime data from April next year. Combined with the measures that I have announced today to address assaults on animals, that represents a significant step towards building a much better picture of assaults against the police family, so that local police leaders are in a better position to fully support their workforce of all types.
I thank again those who launched and signed the petition for the way in which they have conducted their campaign, which has allowed people throughout the country to get their voices heard. Those voices are being heard very clearly; all the Members who spoke today highlighted that. The Government and our police partners will work together to look at assaults on the police family—I use that word carefully—in the round and to send the firmest possible message that such assaults cannot, should not and must not be tolerated.
I welcome all the speeches and interventions from the right hon. and hon. Members who took part in this wide-ranging debate, which has covered a number of issues.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for her input. She gave some real, specific examples, particularly of brave police dogs, reminding us that they help not only to fight crime but to protect vulnerable people and catch criminals. We also heard from her that the legal threshold is too high, so it is hard to bring about prosecutions. Given her work with the commendable “Protect the Protectors” campaign, she is well qualified to point that out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) suggested an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill, which the Minister dealt with in his response and which I will come back to. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) reminded us that the attack on police dog Finn prompted this petition and that we should wish him and his handler, PC Dave Wardell, all the best. We treat these brave dogs and horses like a broken window. We need to do much better than that. My hon. Friend referred to a survey of handlers that indicated that after 92% of incidents, no charge was brought; only 8% of incidents resulted in a charge.
The hon. Member for Halifax suggested that the use of body cameras could help to bring about better prosecutions in the future. I ask the Minister to look at that. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage referred to laws in other countries, and I hope the Government will seriously look at those. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) reminded us that as MPs we all owe a personal debt of gratitude to the police dogs that sweep the Palace of Westminster daily. He also reminded us that police horses should not be forgotten.
The shadow Policing Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), rightly thanked the 120,000 people who signed the petition and she reminded us that the attack on police dog Finn and PC Wardell was not an isolated incident. She asked the Minister to write to the Sentencing Council, to make it aware of the views of the House. I commend that suggestion; we must ensure it happens. She also pointed out that legislation does not adequately recognise the bravery of police animals.
In his response, the Policing Minister told us that he is a dog lover, which I am sure we all welcome. He also discussed the direction of travel and the challenges involved in looking at this issue. He questioned whether sentencing is being used effectively. He said that the guidelines are adequate but we are not sure whether they are being effectively implemented. I am pleased that he recognises why the term “criminal damage” is so inappropriate and why it affects so many people when it is used. I am also pleased to hear that he has written to the Ministry of Justice and to DEFRA to see what extra legislative support we can put in place to help service animals. I welcome that; I will also write to those Departments and to the Minister after the debate, and I hope we will see something about this in the Queen’s Speech next year.
The Minister also said that he had written to the Sentencing Council. The cost of training and investing in service animals amounts to more than the £5,000 threshold required by law. I hope he will ensure that that is pointed out to the Sentencing Council and to the Crown Prosecution Service.
I welcome the Minister’s comment about collecting data. If we improve data collection, we will be better able to identify the issue and have more accurate statistics. I ask that that point is passed on and filtered down to the individual dog handlers, many of whom feel that the threshold is so high that they do not report any attack because they do not feel the report will go anywhere.
I am grateful that the Government have pledged to look at the issue, which I will be following up with the Minister and other members of the Government. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who spoke in this debate and I thank you, Mr Crausby, for chairing it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 168678 relating to the status of police dogs and horses.