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[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair] — Wildlife Crime

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 10th October 2013.

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Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Chair, Environmental Audit Committee 1:30 pm, 10th October 2013

As always, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. What President Obama has done, and what has been happening in the United Nations in the intervening time since our Committee reported, is making a huge difference. It shows that we must be able to lead internationally, nationally and locally. I keep returning to this point. If the Minister takes away one message from this debate, it should be that the national wildlife crime unit must be supported properly. I will come to those issues later in my report.

I welcomed the May 2013 UN commission on crime prevention and criminal justice agreement, which called on the nations of the world to consider wildlife and forest crime a serious form of organised crime. As we have just heard, that report to the UN Security Council highlighted the potential link between poaching and other organised criminal behaviour, including terrorism.

All that is happening on the world stage, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has prioritised it internationally. Meanwhile, we have many local organisations and non-governmental organisations doing the same thing nationally, operating here as Wildlife and Countryside Link agencies to press the Government to implement in full the recommendations in our report. It is worth putting on record the names of those participating agencies: the Bat Conservation Trust, the Environmental Investigation Agency, Humane Society International UK, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals and WWF UK. They are all saying exactly what my hon. Friend said: what we do on the world stage must be matched by what we do here. That is important.

All those organisations have been very vocal and robust in their work, and supportive of the UK Government’s leadership bid to tackle the illegal wildlife trade by hosting a high-level meeting on 12 and 13 February 2014. An action plan will be developed, which will work alongside the Duke of Cambridge’s United for Wildlife foundation. There has been a huge amount of action since we produced our report, which leads me to say that our debate today is perfect timing. I hope the new Minister will lead by showing best practice at home, and the best way he can do that is by revisiting each and every recommendation in our report. That way, he will have total integrity, based on a sound track record at home, at the high-level meeting that the Government are organising. He has everything to gain from reviewing the work in detail, because, with the new wave of activity, some of the Government responses in March are out of date. There would be nothing wrong with the Government saying, “We have revisited it and we’re thinking about things differently.” I hope he will be able to do that cross-cutting and revisit our recommendations.

The first recommendation relates to the national wildlife crime unit. All the evidence told us that it is strategic and co-ordinates wildlife crime enforcement. No one had a bad word to say about it; it was universally praised, which is unusual in a Select Committee inquiry. It obviously has good relationships with UK police forces, Interpol and international enforcement agencies. It has a lot of expertise and is doing a good job in respect of the trade in endangered species, illegal taxidermy and auction sales, bat and badger-related offences, marine species, reptile smuggling, wild bird netting and egg collecting. I cannot get my head around the fact that the sums involved in the unit are very small. DEFRA and the Home Office each contributed £144,000 in 2011-12, £136,000 in 2012-13—the amount is going down—and £136,000 in 2013-14. Those are very small amounts of money, which are making a huge difference.

Given the range and effectiveness of the NWCU’s work, the Committee concluded that it is excellent value for money and punches above its weight, but how can such an agency be run on an ad hoc, year-on-year basis? It cannot plan future expansion, it cannot keep good staff, and every year it spends all its time making the case to DEFRA and the Home Office for the funding to be agreed in the comprehensive spending review, because the money is not in the baseline budget. Why not? It should be. The Committee recommended that the Government reinforce success by implementing long-term funding arrangements for the NWCU. The previous Minister did well to get a one-year extension, but we need permanent funding.

Another issue of a little concern relates to the then newly appointed Association of Chief Police Officers lead on wildlife crime, Chief Constable Stuart Hyde. He gave evidence to the Committee, and we were looking forward to seeing how his ideas on wildlife crime enforcement would pan out in practice. He was suspended from duty in September 2012 following allegations of misconduct, unrelated to the wildlife crime brief, I hasten to add. How has the work that he was to do been taken up and carried on in his absence?

Staying with enforcement issues, we identified the need for reviews of Crown Prosecution Service wildlife crime prosecutions and the penalties for wildlife crime, the introduction of sentencing guidelines for the judiciary and training for magistrates. Most of those featured in our 2004 report. Despite the Government saying in their response to the report that they would not follow those recommendation, the time for the Government to give them a fresh look is long overdue. There are also issues with invasive species, which some of my colleagues took a great interest in, which we must return to and keep under the scrutiny of the Committee.

Moving on from enforcement, I want to discuss the hen harrier briefly. It is arguably the species most at risk of extinction in England and Wales. I notice that DEFRA has a target in its business plan of no extinctions in England and Wales. It is important that Departments do what departmental business plans say they are going to do. We are looking at a range of departmental business plans, but DEFRA has the target in its business plan, so what is it doing?

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?

All international wildlife crime is serious. We heard that the tiger, the elephant and the rhinoceros all face extinction in their natural habitats due to demand for illegal wildlife products derived from their body parts. Most troublingly, we heard that those body parts are not, as some had previously assumed, mostly used in traditional Asian medicine, but being traded as investments for their scarcity value. My hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith has done a great deal to publicise that. As those species draw closer to extinction, the value of their body parts increases. We even heard about a Chinese bank that runs an investment fund based on elephant ivory.

In their response to our report, the Government agreed that “investment and conspicuous consumption” are emerging as significant drivers of demand. We were encouraged to hear how the UK is combating such trends domestically by strictly applying the criteria for the re-export of antique animal products, such as ivory billiard balls of all things, but we could question why those criteria were not applied strictly in the first place.

We can make significant inroads only through international co-operation. We therefore recommended that at the March 2013 CITES—convention on international trade in endangered species—conference of the parties, the Government take the lead in encouraging all CITES member states to enforce wildlife law. In particular, we urged the Government to focus attention on the damaging effect of one-off sales of impounded illegal wildlife products, such as elephant ivory, which serve only to stimulate the market and ultimately drive poaching, and we urged the Government to make the case for an unequivocal ban on all forms of international ivory trade. Will the Minister set out the negotiating position adopted by the Government at the CITES conference earlier this year, and the extent to which it was successful?

Will the Minister comment on decision 16.55, which directs that a decision-making mechanism—sorry to be technical—for a process of trade in ivory be adopted at the next conference of the parties? Why does he not call for an unequivocal international ban on all forms of ivory now? As part of the CITES working group, of which the UK is a member, will he call for the suspension of discussions on the decision-making mechanism? As was suggested in the earlier intervention, the agenda has moved on fast, even since we took evidence. We were heartened by the destruction in the US of stockpiles of ivory, which demonstrates that President Obama and others are taking a serious stance on the matter. We are talking about something that might have been considered impossible last May; the question now is not whether it will happen, but how it will. I do not think there is any harm in reviewing the Government’s position.