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[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair] — Wildlife Crime

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:23 pm on 10th October 2013.

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Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:23 pm, 10th October 2013

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.

I remember that when I was given this job my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park sent me a text message saying that he needed to talk to me about elephants. Now I know what that meant and we are talking about it for the first time here. The Government have been a major contributor to the African Elephant Fund, which funds the African elephant action plan, agreed by all the countries that have African elephants. The first objective of that plan is a reduction in the illegal killing of elephants and illegal trade in their parts or derivatives. There is certainly a commitment on the part of the Government. I welcome and respect the passion that my hon. Friend has brought to that element of the debate.

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 hon. Lady asked specifically about the Association of Chief Police Officers head of the NWCU, wanting to know who has taken on the role. I am told that it is currently in the hands and under the leadership of acting Chief Constable Bernard Lawson from Cumbria, who took on the role temporarily from Chief Constable Hyde. A new head of wildlife crime for ACPO will take on the role permanently, once they are appointed.

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, 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.