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Schedule 5 - Enforcement powers in connection with wildlife

Part of Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:00 pm on 28th June 2005.

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Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:00 pm, 28th June 2005

The debate has been presaged by earlier debates. Amendment No. 115 would introduce wording about qualifications again, and amendments Nos. 117 and 118 would require the inspector to have reasonable grounds to enter and inspect any premises. The argument that I made earlier remains, because schedule 5 involves huge change to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 as it applies to wildlife inspectors, all the different offences, the examination of specimens, the taking of samples, the powers of constables and the powers of wildlife inspectors, as extended to other Acts. It is a massive schedule, which will change a lot. I accept the Minister’s comments about my earlier point on qualifications, when he said that it could be open to legal challenge if an inspector was not appropriately qualified. Nevertheless, there is an important point at stake—namely, that someone needs to have confidence that the inspector knows what he is doing. The Minister made the same argument as the hon. Member for Bridgend, who spoke from her own experience, which is that the qualification is effectively a combination of experience, knowledge and background.

Despite having been an Education Minister, I certainly do not believe that a piece of paper automatically proves that someone is qualified. Background, knowledge and experience are just as, if not more, valuable. My interpretation of the word “qualification” would not be so narrow as to mean a particular piece of paper—a certificate or whatever—but would refer to the broader context of the word. It would not refer to someone who did not know very much about the subject.

As for the “reasonable grounds” amendments—that is, amendments Nos. 117 and 118—my arguments stand. In the schedule, under the group 1 offences in proposed new section 18B and the group 2 offences under proposed new section 18D, the inspector cannot enter and inspect premises unless he has a reasonable suspicion that a crime is being or has been committed. It clearly states that a purpose of entering is to ascertain

“whether a Group 1 offence is being or has been committed”.

That takes us back to fishing expeditions, to which the Minister referred. If we are to prevent fishing expeditions, something needs to be included to ensure that justification is necessary before people use the powers. I look forward to the Minister’s reflections on that, alongside the reflections that he promised earlier.

Amendment No. 116 relates to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which we have discussed. The Minister promised to write to the Committee regarding the role of the inspectors as far as pesticides are concerned. Obviously, that is in a different context, but the same argument applies. The amendment would add the stipulation that

“A wildlife inspector exercising powers under this or any enactment shall comply with any Code of Practice issued under sections 60 and 66 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.”

That is a perfectly reasonable position to adopt. We are talking about evidence, including all sorts of things like the collection and examination of specimens and taking samples. These are clearly issues about evidence that may be used in a criminal prosecution. I do not understand how those functions can be carried out other than in the context of PACE.

I listened with interest to the experiences of the hon. Member for Bridgend, who said that when she was wearing one hat she would sometimes use PACE, but that when she was wearing another she would not. She would momentarily stop and change hats and say, “Now I’ll start using PACE.” That is a recipe for confusion, particularly among people who are to be inspected or investigated under the Bill. It would be clearer if, up front, everything was done under the auspices of PACE. If the Minister decides that the best way to deal with the problem—as well as the problem of the other aspect of the involvement of PACE—is to address it in correspondence, I shall be content. However, there is a case to be answered as to how an inspector can operate and gather evidence that may be used in a criminal prosecution, and how he can ensure that it is not disallowed in that prosecution, other than by following a code of practice under PACE.

All four amendments are appropriate. They are, to a degree, a rerun of previous amendments, but I look forward to the Minister’s response.