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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.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned the rather technical issue of the proposed changes to the COTES regulations and asked specifically when that is likely to be concluded. There is an ongoing consultation, and the tweaks to the COTES regulations are quite technical. We had initially hoped to conclude at some point this year, but since then there have been additional EU directives that the consultation must take into account. As a result, we expect the consultation to be published some time in 2014. The consultation, nevertheless, is under way, which I hope reassures her.
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.