Wildlife Crime — [Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:19 pm on 20th March 2019.

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Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy) 3:19 pm, 20th March 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I commend you for your ability to get eight Back-Bench contributions into a 90-minute debate. I congratulate Christian Matheson on bringing forward the debate. It is clearly a popular subject, given the attendance and the number of speeches—that says a lot, given all that is going on in the main Chamber.

The hon. Member for City of Chester began by highlighting the serious crime of killing birds of prey, and the fact that the RSPB wants tougher sentences. I think that most of us present would concur. His main focus was on foxhunting, the weaknesses in the current legislation and what he perceives as lack of political will from the UK Government to tackle those weaknesses. I am sure that he will be pleased to hear that in Scotland the SNP Government have recognised the weaknesses in the law there, which will be tackled. A new measure will flush out weaknesses—such as the fact that dogs can be used to flush out foxes. That is certainly something that the UK Government should co-operate on.

The hon. Member for City of Chester noted that the average fine is only £267. I think it is fair to say, without stereotyping, that many people involved in such hunts would see that expenditure as merely the cost of doing business and a drop in the ocean. He highlighted issues with trail hunting and so-called accidental kills. That reminds us that there are still many hunt groups that somehow see their barbaric hunting as their right and tradition, with respect to both foxes and badgers. That is something we need to stamp out. He recommended improvements in legislation, including an offence of recklessness, and the addition to the law of further exclusions, such as on the use of animal scents. It would be good to hear what the Minister says about that.

I pay tribute to the work that Sir David Amess has done over the years on animal rights and protections. If I picked him up correctly, he was extolling the virtues of the fact that 60 Tories are now, he believes, against foxhunting. Sadly, that shows how out of date his party still is, because it is less than a fifth of it. It shows that there is a long way to go. I know that he is fighting the fight, and I urge him to keep doing it and to educate his colleagues.

David Hanson paid tribute to the North Wales Police wildlife crime unit and highlighted the serious issue of sheep worrying, which is something I am aware of; it is certainly an issue for farmers in my area. I was interested in his call for statistics to improve the Government’s understanding, and for a review of sentencing. Once again, I will be interested in what the Minister says. Police Scotland is working with the National Farmers Union of Scotland to raise awareness of the issue among dog owners. A recent case highlighted the fact that in addition to the sad fact of the killing of sheep the farmer, who lost a lot of livestock, was not adequately compensated. The farmer’s livelihood was therefore put at risk too.

John Howell widened the debate by talking about elephants, noting that the trade in wildlife is the fourth largest trade in the world, which is a real eye-opener. Laura Smith bravely battled an infection to put forward her points against foxhunting and, like the hon. Member for City of Chester, highlighted a point raised by her constituents about video footage apparently showing foxhunting carrying on unabated, although it is against the law, while that footage is not used for prosecutions or follow-up investigations. That certainly needs to be looked at. The “toy soldier” jibe about the way people dress up for hunts perhaps sums up its absurdity in this day and age.

I was privileged to hear a rare contribution by Jim Shannon, who seldom ventures into Westminster Hall. It was good to hear him say that he does what he preaches in relation to outdoor conservation. He has been actively involved in that work and I pay tribute to that. He also highlighted the global nature of wildlife crime and trade.

Simon Hart talked about the need to protect raptors, and about the prosecution of crimes. He was the only Member today to argue that there is a need for upland management and shooting. I suppose many people might not share that view, but it is good to hear someone put it forward as a matter that needs to be looked at.

Chris Evans introduced a new subject to the debate: egg theft and the egg trade. He pointed out that unfortunately the people involved are naturally drawn to endangered species as they build their collections, creating a vicious cycle that could wipe them out, and that makes them even more attractive to other people involved in the illicit trade. That is another crime that should be stamped out.

Justin Madders also highlighted concerns about foxhunting and his lack of confidence in the law as it stands. His point that all should be equal under the law is pertinent, and the Minister should address the matter of how the law works in the UK at present.

Scotland’s wildlife is precious and a huge part of our national identity. It is also a valuable resource, because it attracts visitors and tourists who come to see dolphins or birds, for example. Not only is it humane to protect wildlife; it also makes economic sense. For that reason, the Scottish Government have been active in ensuring that Scotland’s iconic and world-renowned great outdoors is protected, and they have undertaken species management where required. Wildlife crime is being tackled in Scotland through robust legislation, the management of species reintroductions, including the return of beavers, and work with a range of partners to minimise the risks and impacts of invasive non-native species. In their programme for government, the Scottish Government committed to establishing an animal welfare commission to provide expert advice on the welfare of domesticated and wild animals in Scotland, and work is now under way to establish that.

We all have a responsibility to protect our natural environment and the wildlife that lives in it. The SNP supports any reasonable measures to ensure that bird habitats are not poisoned by man-made chemicals and that firearms and ammunition are used and stored responsibly and legally. The Scottish Government are determined to crack down on those who commit crime against wildlife. As part of that commitment they have recruited special police constables across three divisions between the highlands, Aberdeenshire and Perthshire. The additional officers will be a valuable resource in tackling rural and wildlife crime.

In a similar vein, I pay tribute to the work of Graeme Gordon, a dedicated rural police officer who is a wildlife crime officer and Rural Watch Scotland administrator in my area of Ayrshire. I can vouch for his dedication to his job. He does a tremendous amount of liaison work with NFUS and the rural community. His work varies from investigating crimes to giving people a heads-up on issues and providing valuable advice. He also provides valuable updates to elected Members, including me. It is to Police Scotland’s credit that the post is maintained while austerity is imposed on Scotland and the UK Government steadfastly refuse to backdate the £175 million in VAT owed to Police Scotland and the Scottish fire and rescue service. That is in stark contrast to the cuts to the police that, as other hon. Members have said, the UK Government have been making. It is no coincidence that crime increases when there are cuts to the police service. Another initiative in Scotland in recent years is the investment of more than £6 million in new forensic capability, including DNA24, robotics and powerful software to obtain DNA profiles successfully, in support of the Scottish justice system.

Clearly, we would all love wildlife crime to be eradicated. I long for the day when there is an end to fly-tipping and littering, not only because it creates eyesores, but because it endangers wildlife. I cannot for the life of me understand those who seem to go to extreme efforts to get rid of rubbish that could be uplifted, or that they could deposit at nearby council facilities. They work harder to fly-tip in the countryside than they would need to drive their rubbish down the road. Similarly, I go out on walks with my wife, Cyndi, and our black Labrador, Coby, and we get frustrated when we see people who profess to enjoy the great outdoors but who cannot be bothered to take their juice cans, bottles or crisp packets home with them. I cannot understand that. We have a long way to go to eradicate wildlife crime completely, and I look forward to that day.