One of the refreshing features about the way our British parliamentary system works is that the government of the day does not have complete control of the parliamentary agenda. On many so called "sitting Fridays" in parliament, time is set aside for individual Bills, brought by individual MPs, usually to deliver small changes in legislation. Many fall by the wayside but some make to onto the statute book.
Any MP from any party can apply for the opportunity to introduce a Private Members Bill. Sometimes they will cooperate with government to help get their legislation across the line, sometimes they will try their luck and face down opposition from the government. When I was first elected I introduced a Bill to try to reform the law to help strengthen protections for small businesses and entrepreneurs against bank repossessions. It didn't make it that time but it enabled me to design what the clauses for the legislation would look like and I have been promoting it ever since.
Last Friday, in my role as a Defra Minister, I was responsible for helping to support one of these Private Members Bills. The Bill has been introduced by the Hertfordshire MP, Oliver Heald and has been dubbed "Finn’s Law". It has the support of the government and last Friday gained the support of the House of Commons and now moves to the next stages in the House of Lords. The aim of the new legislation is to make it easier to bring prosecutions when police dogs and other service animals are attacked in the course of their duties.
Finn’s law is named after Finn an Alsatian police dog who saved the life of his handler when a robbery suspect they were pursuing turned on them with a knife in 2016. Finn was stabbed in the chest and head but bravely did not let go until reinforcements arrived and was initially thought unlikely to survive. Unfortunately, whilst the suspect was charged with actual bodily harm in relation to wounds to PC Wardell’s hand, he faced only criminal damage charges over the injuries to Finn. I met Finn on Friday and could see that he was a dedicated service dog who would do anything to protect his handler.
The aim of Finn’s law is to amend the Animal Welfare Act 2006 so that the statutory defence of acting through fear does not apply to any service animal that has is under the control of its handler. This includes Police Dogs and Horses, Prison Dogs and Fire and Rescue Dogs. This will mean that were a service animal such as a police fog or horse be harmed whilst carrying out their duties, then the offender would be able to be charged with an offence under this new law.
Supported by the Government, the Mayor of London, The Mayor of Greater Manchester, all Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales, the RSPCA, IFAW and many more, it is clear that there is a lot of support for this change in law. Whilst there is still a little way to go, there is also a fair wind behind this idea and cross party support for what it seeks to achieve.