I am pleased to have an opportunity to contribute to the debate, and I commend Emma Harper for her commitment and excellent work in bringing the bill to Parliament. I express my thanks, and those of my predecessor, to her for her constructive and collaborative attitude in working to deliver something simple and effective to modernise and improve the legislation on livestock worrying. I also thank the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee for its detailed scrutiny of the bill proposals and its stage 1 report on the bill. As has been mentioned, I have already written to the committee to set out the Scottish Government’s response to that report. I want to highlight key aspects of our position.
As has been said, the bill, as introduced, increases the maximum penalties for, and provides additional powers to investigate and enforce, the offence of attacking and worrying livestock. It proposes a minor but important change to the definition of “worrying livestock” and gives the attack element more prominence, although the scope of the offence remains the same. It also amends the list of animal species to which the offence relates to take account of the species that are commonly farmed in 2021.
I think that those changes are a useful modernisation of the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 and, in support of those principles, I agree with the intention to allow for future amendments to the definition of livestock as farming practices evolve.
The main focus of the bill is to increase the maximum penalties that are available for the offence of livestock worrying, which is a worthwhile aim. However, as Emma Harper indicated, to ensure consistency with the new penalties that are now available for many animal welfare and wildlife crime offences, which the convener of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee mentioned, and to allow the courts to impose appropriate penalties, depending on the particular facts and circumstances of the case, it is my intention to lodge an amendment at stage 2 that will increase the maximum available penalties on imprisonment from six months to 12 months and/or a £40,000 fine.
The vast majority of people in Scotland treat livestock with respect and care, but the small minority who do not must be held accountable through consequences that appropriately reflect the severity of their crime. Increasing the maximum penalties that are available will allow the courts to impose appropriate sentences, once they have considered the facts and circumstances of each case.
Furthermore, I agree that there is merit in the bill’s proposal on disqualification orders, which seeks to give the convicting court the power to prevent people who are convicted of the offence to be disqualified from owning or keeping a dog for such a period as the court thinks fit.
Such orders may be an effective way of dealing with certain offenders, particularly in cases where there appears to be a high probability of reoffending. However, it should be acknowledged that the enforcement and monitoring of such orders might be challenging, and we would not expect them to be appropriate in every case.
Overall, the bill is largely sound across its measures. However, there is scope potentially to simplify and improve some key aspects, which have already been mentioned. The Scottish Government would recommend that elements of the bill regarding inspection bodies and powers of entry be removed, as they are not considered to be necessary or appropriate, given that the relevant authorities already have powers in that regard. I have relayed that to Emma Harper, who is the bill’s sponsor, and I understand from our conversations and the remarks that she made earlier that she has consulted and engaged with the authorities and those with practical experience, who share that view.
The bill includes a power to appoint inspecting bodies other than Police Scotland, but the evidence that was presented to the committee raised many questions about the role of the proposed inspectors and their working relationship with the police. The committee had fundamental concerns about the principle of inspection bodies taking the lead in circumstances in which a criminal offence has taken place.
Scottish ministers agree that responsibility for investigating the criminal offence of livestock worrying should remain with the police, with assistance from local authorities or the Scottish SPCA, as appropriate in the circumstances. The committee, Emma Harper and I, on behalf of the Scottish Government, agree that, should the Parliament agree to the general principles of the bill at stage 1, amendments will need to be lodged at stage 2 to remove the sections that relate to inspecting bodies.
Scottish ministers, in consultation with enforcement organisations including Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, have concluded that the proposed power of entry, search and seizure without a warrant relating to non-domestic premises seems unlikely to be required or used in practice if the police remain the investigating authority. Other speakers have mentioned that. I therefore propose that that power, too, be removed by a stage 2 amendment.