In October 2016 a police dog called Finn was stabbed in the head and chest while chasing a suspect. For many people the charges brought in this awful case have highlighted a wider issue with the protections available in law for police animals.
People who attack a police animal can be charged under the Criminal Damages Act 1971. This legislation is designed to deal with destruction or damage to property, not animal cruelty. 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 maximum punishment is six months in prison or a fine of up to £20,000, lower than the maximum penalty of 10 years available under the Criminal Damages Act.
The ‘Finn’s Law’ campaign has argued that police animals deserve better protection than property and I agree. Many of those who work with police animals think the law is currently failing to offer that protection. Police dogs and horses are not merely police property; they are sentient beings who bravely and loyally serve the public. I believe the law should recognise them as such and give them the protection they undeniably deserve.
The Government has said 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 recognise that it is good practice to avoid duplicating laws on the statute book. Nevertheless, I believe Ministers need to address the serious concerns about the legal protection afforded to animals working in the police service.
It is welcome that the Sentencing Council has recently updated sentencing guidelines on animal cruelty. From 24 April 2017, guidelines include a new aggravating factor of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal being used in public service or as an assistance dog.
I hope the debate on introducing Finn’s Law to protect police animals is successful, and will be attending the debate tomorrow. We rightly treat attacks on police officers seriously, and it’s only right that the animals who serve alongside them should receive similar protections in law.