Wildlife Crime – Westminster Debate 10 October 2013

Westminster Hall-Debate

Thursday 10 October 2013

Mr Joe Benton in the Chair

Subject- Wildlife Crime

Because the original Westminster debate document is a very lengthy read, and as expected talks about additional subjects other than birds of prey, we have included below only those portions of the discussions which have a bearing upon birds of prey. There is a link below which will take you directly to the complete document should you wish to read it.

Westminster Hall debates are important ways by which Parliament can discuss matters of importance outside the House of Commons chamber.  Earlier this month there was a Westminster Hall debate on Wildlife Crime sought by the members of the Environmental Audit Committee to give the Government a nudge after the EAC published their excellent report on the subject.

The whole debate (it’s a discussion rather than a debate) is worth reading but here are some particularly striking excerpts.  Joan Wally is the Chair of the EAC (and a Labour MP), Simin Hart is a previous Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance (and a Conservative MP), Barry Gardiner is a former Defra Minister and currently a shadow minister (and a Labour MP) and George Eustice is a new Defra Minister (and a Conservative MP).

Joan Walley: I could talk at length about the different views that witnesses who gave evidence to our inquiry had on the cause of the decline in hen harriers. We felt that persecution is a key factor in the decline of the hen harrier. I draw the Minister’s attention to five academic studies, by Redpath, Natural England, Summers, Etheridge, and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. The JNCC found that the most common form of persecution is deliberate nest disturbance, which is why, after a lengthy discussion, we felt that the Government should evaluate the effect of an offence of vicarious liability in relation to the persecution of birds of prey, as the Scottish Government did in 2011, and consider introducing such an offence in England and Wales, to make landowners responsible for the activities of their gamekeepers. The Government said that they would review the matter as soon as statistics were available, and I can tell the Minister that when the Select Committee visited the Green Investment Bank in Edinburgh, we had a brief discussion with MSPs and put that on their agenda. Are the statistics on the impact of the offence of vicarious liability in Scotland available? Will the Government look at the Scottish experience and report back?

Barry Gardiner: On the subject of birds of prey, I want to echo the wise words of the Chair of the Select Committee about raptor persecution and vicarious liability. No one should underestimate the true effect of raptor persecution on some of the UK’s most endangered species. According to the Government-sponsored joint nature conservation committee report on hen harrier conservation, 2013 was the first year in which there was not a single successful breeding pair in the UK. That is extraordinary, and I know that the Minister, although new to his position, will take the matter seriously. There is enough appropriate habitat in the UK to support 324 to 340 breeding pairs of hen harrier. Today, we have zero breeding pairs.

As for the peregrine falcon, the goshawk and other raptors, it is absolutely clear that someone is more likely to see a peregrine falcon from the terrace of the House of Commons than they are on a walk through the north-west Peak district. Why? That is a question that the Minister should ask himself. The Committee was entirely right to focus on vicarious liability, because without vicarious liability we will lack a key piece in the puzzle—highly intensive, driven grouse moors with irresponsible owners. At this point, I will say that there are many grouse moors that are sensibly, properly and responsibly managed. However, we all know that there are also irresponsibly managed moors, and the evidence shows that they are having a devastating effect on the populations of some of Britain’s most iconic birds of prey.

The EAC report shows a clear understanding of that problem. Of those convicted of raptor persecution, 70% are gamekeepers. There is no getting away from that fact and it is something that the Department must address by looking seriously at vicarious liability.

Simon Hart: I take very seriously what the hon. Gentleman says, but I hope that he will also recognise that the population problems—particularly with regard to hen harriers, which he referred to—is not restricted exclusively to areas where there are either amateur or professional gamekeepers. Indeed, I also hope that he will concede that even RSPB reserves have failed to establish any breeding pairs of hen harriers. So, I hope that he is not implying that this problem is purely down to one cause, and when the Minister responds to the debate I hope that he, too, will take that point on board and recognise that the problem is a little more complex than that.

Barry Gardiner: I am very happy to accept what the hon. Gentleman says. He is, of course, right that there are many and complex reasons why a species may become extinct in the UK. However, the fact is that the species that I am talking about is on the brink and is being persecuted by some irresponsible gamekeepers. That is absolutely clear.

I welcome all that the game industry is doing in terms of distraction feeding and so on; it is making serious efforts. However, some irresponsible gamekeepers shoot raptors and they have a vendetta against hen harriers in particular. That must stop and the way to achieve that is through vicarious liability.

George Eustice: Given the strength of feeling on this issue—there are Members who have already made that point—we will indeed look at that and we will get back, in detail, on it.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North talked about problems of raptor persecution. A number of hon. Members mentioned hen harriers in particular and problems relating to those. The persecution of birds of prey is of grave concern. Although many of our birds of prey are doing well, their persecution is not acceptable. We remain committed to addressing the illegal killing of birds of prey. Persecution can take many forms, such as poisoning, shooting and deliberate destruction of nests, and it is totally unacceptable.

Bird of prey persecution remains one of the UK’s wildlife crime priorities and we will continue to work to ensure that we take the right steps to take enforcement action in respect of any offences being committed. DEFRA is working with the police and other stakeholders who are best placed to help facilitate a reduction in bird of prey persecution. The group working on this has been looking at types of offence that occur and, earlier this year, established maps that show where incidents of bird of prey poisoning have taken place. This will help detect to trends and inform decisions on where action might be targeted.

A main focus of our efforts will be the hen harrier, populations of which in England are critically low. No nests appear to have been successful this year. Hon. Members commented on the number of hen harriers. There are some breeding pairs in Scotland. Although full details are not available, there are apparently 12 breeding pairs in England and many more in Scotland and Wales. Persecution is regularly cited as a reason for failure for the hen harrier population to grow, so considering how enforcement tools can be best used to protect it is an important strand of work in assisting its recovery in England. Let me assure hon. Members that there is a robust legal framework for protecting birds of prey in England, with penalties including imprisonment for offenders.

There is almost universal agreement—the Committee’s report contained a strong recommendation for it—on recognition for the important work of the national wildlife crime unit. I recognise and appreciate the huge contribution that the unit makes to wildlife law enforcement, both in the UK and internationally. The unit is small, but its impact is big. It has helped raise awareness of wildlife crime and provided professional expertise and support for wildlife law enforcers across the UK, enhancing their ability to identify and tackle wildlife crime. It has also played an important part in a number of Interpol initiatives targeting particular species groups and has lent its expertise to and assisted in global efforts to conserve those species most at threat from illegal international trade. It clearly has strengths and expertise that would contribute to the UK’s response, which is another reason why we need to reach a decision on the future of the unit as soon as possible.

The Committee recommended that long-term funding for the unit should be secured and the Government have confirmed that funding will be provided until the end of March next year. Many hon. Members agree strongly with the Committee—I have listened carefully to the points made, including by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner)—about the importance of securing funding for it. I understand the frustration with the fact that it has not been possible to do that so far.

The funding is not as straightforward as it might appear. Hon. Members will be aware that the unit is currently co-funded by DEFRA, the Home Office, the Scottish Government, the Northern Ireland Government, ACPO and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland. All these bodies are considering their position on the future of the unit and recognise how important it is that we come to a decision as soon as we can. We will advise the House as soon as a decision has been made.

The shadow Minister mentioned possession of pesticides, particularly in the context of harrier populations. The Committee raised this concern in its report. Specifically, there is concern about possession of carbofuran and other pesticide ingredients and whether we should follow the Scottish example and the approach taken there. The Committee recommended that possession of such chemicals should be an offence. I am grateful to hon. Members for raising this today, as it gives me an opportunity to clear up this matter.

The hon. Gentleman says that it is legal to store these chemicals, but not to use them. However, the advice that I have been given is that approvals for the use of pesticide containing carbofuran were revoked in 2001, which means that the advertisement, sale, supply, storage or use of carbofuran is already a criminal offence under existing UK legislation. Therefore we do not need to change the law. We simply need to recognise that it is already illegal to store it.

Barry Gardiner: Of course, this is not only about carbofuran, but about a range of other chemicals that can be used to poison wildlife, not just hen harriers. I agree that it is not necessary to change the law. There is a perfectly sensible provision, under the NERC Act, that would allow a list of chemicals to be drawn up that can be, and are being, used in this way. The Scottish experience shows that by putting chemicals on that list and applying the law, and then successfully enforcing it and prosecuting people, it is possible to target the criminals who are doing this.

George Eustice: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point—I probed it when looking into this issue—but approval for the majority of pesticides linked to wildlife poisoning cases has been revoked, or they have never

been approved for use. Carbofuran tends to be, as it were, the weapon of choice for those who want to poison these birds. It is already illegal under existing pesticides legislation. This legislation, together with the use of amnesty initiatives in place in some areas, already addresses this issue. Therefore there is no need to create a new offence.

Barry Gardiner: I appreciate the Minister’s engaging in a dialogue on this point. If prosecutions were taking place under the existing proscription of these chemicals, we would be more confident that the law was effective in stopping their being used for poisoning wildlife. Given that that is not so, and that the Minister will accept that they are still being used to poison wildlife—not just carbofuran, but the other ones I listed—perhaps it does make sense to put them on the list under NERC.

George Eustice: If, as the hon. Gentleman says, there is a low conviction rate for the illegal use of these chemicals, that suggests a difficulty in or lack of enforcement, not that the law is falling short in allowing prosecution. There is no material difference between being able to find that somebody is storing a chemical or having it hidden away in the garage or a farm shed and their having possession of it. Therefore that would not change the ability to get convictions on this front.

The Committee recommended that the Government introduce a new offence in England of vicarious liability—mentioned by the shadow Minister and other hon. Members—following the Scottish Government’s decision to introduce the offence in January 2012. The Law Commission has been considering the issue further as part of its wildlife law project. I understand that the commission will publish a report shortly setting out its conclusions following consultation, which will include its views on whether to introduce an offence of vicarious liability. It would probably be prudent to await that report before commenting further.

The Committee also recommended that the national wildlife crime unit be directed and funded to develop a wildlife crime database of incidents reported to the police and of prosecutions. Although I can see why the Committee made that recommendation, recording that information alone is not the answer. To better understand the nature of wildlife crime being committed across the UK, the unit works with Government Departments, police force intelligence bureaux and scientific and other organisations to produce an intelligence-based assessment of current, emerging and future wildlife crime threats, with recommendations for action. That approach ensures the best use of the unit’s time and resources and focuses attention firmly on intelligence, which is consistent with modern policing procedures and practices. I am concerned that if we diverted the unit’s efforts into developing a database, it might take effort and resources away from intelligence and the pursuit of leads.

The unit launched a new website in June 2013 that contains lots of useful information and background, and it is already proving to be a useful resource and source of information. I hope that hon. Members who take an interest in wildlife crime will look at that website, because it helps to share information.

As I draw to a close, I once again thank the hon. Lady for introducing this debate. I also thank all the hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions. Wildlife law enforcement is of course a wide-ranging issue. The law is sometimes complex and overlapping, arising as it does from international, European and domestic legislation. There will always be a balance to be struck, for example, between what we can achieve and where best to focus our combined energies and commitment to deliver the greatest benefit, and I suspect we will never all agree on where our activity should focus. I am absolutely convinced, however, that this is an area where we cannot reduce our effort and where we must continue to work together in partnership.

The UK has a good story to tell on its approach to wildlife law enforcement, and our general approach is widely respected across Europe and internationally. We absolutely cannot be complacent, however, and although the Government cannot accept all the Committee’s recommendations, we welcome the Committee’s interest and engagement in this matter.

Joan Walley: I would briefly like to say how valuable this debate has been. I am grateful to everyone, not just to members of the Environmental Audit Committee but to other Members, for contributing. The debate shows that Parliament has a role in dragging up the Minister’s trouser legs to push the agenda further forward. That was the original intention when the Environmental Audit Committee was set up, in the words of my noble Friend Lord Prescott. The strength of feeling this afternoon shows that this debate is not simply a question of there being a Select Committee report and a Government response—that is it, the matter is closed. What we want to get across is that the agenda is fast changing, and we would welcome the Minister, perhaps in informal discussions with us, reconsidering not just the Government’s response but where we might make further progress. I hope that that can happen.

I welcome the contribution of my colleague on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner). He rightly raised the issue of carbofuran, to which the Committee gave a lot of attention. The Government’s response has been to dismiss the issue out of hand, and they have been unwilling to consider introducing an order under section 43 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. As in Scotland, we believe there should be an order of possession. Is it all right for a gamekeeper to have carbofuran in his pocket? Will that protect raptors? That is worth revisiting.

I welcome many of the Minister’s responses to our recommendations, but the Government have not considered the matter in the cross-cutting way that is now needed given the urgent threat to endangered species. I wonder whether there is a small opportunity prior to the 2014 summit for the Minister, once he is into his new role, to bring together Ministers from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office to thrash out how the Government are to show true leadership.

I understand that funding for the national wildlife crime unit is contributed by many different parties, but should it not just be in the basic line of Government spending? The funding should be automatic. Perhaps that needs to be revisited.

This debate has been useful, and I say to everyone who has contributed that the Environmental Audit Committee will not just leave the matter here. We will keep following up. The sooner we start working together on those issues, with Parliament having a say and having influence, the better.

2 comments to Wildlife Crime – Westminster Debate 10 October 2013

  • Grouseman

    No harrier nests in the whole of the uk in 2013!? At least that Mr Gardiner is like most Westminster MP’s and doesn’t realise the UK doesn’t stop at hadrians wall! I think he will find there was many successful harrier nests in Scotland this year!

  • paul williams

    Harriers did well in Scotland ….Yes…away from driven grouse moors!