It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend Christian Matheson on securing this important debate. He spoke passionately, and I know that he feels passionately about this issue. I am aware that there is great strength of feeling in Cheshire about it.
We have heard excellent contributions from Members across the House. My right hon. Friend David Hanson spoke about the excellent report that the all-party group for animal welfare has produced on sheep worrying. I hope that the Minister will take note of its important recommendations. John Howell talked about the international trade and the importance of working globally. My hon. Friend Chris Evans raised the issue of bird eggs, which is very important as their theft causes huge damage. Jim Shannon highlighted the importance of conservation and raised his particular concerns. It was interesting to hear the response from Alan Brown, who talked about the approach to these issues being taken in Scotland.
People from across the country frequently contact me to tell me their concerns about the appalling wildlife crime in Britain today. Many have been mentioned already, including hunting with dogs, which is clearly a huge concern, hare coursing, badger baiting and raptor persecution. Last year, when I was serving on the Public Bill Committee for the Ivory Act 2018, we heard that the National Wildlife Crime Unit has only 12 members of staff to cover the entirety of its operations across the UK, and that includes administrative staff as well as enforcement officers. That level of resourcing is a great cause of concern. How can we expect wildlife crime to be tackled in our country if we do not put in place the means by which we can stamp it out? The unit’s financial future has been uncertain for many years, so will the Minister commit to guaranteeing funding for it beyond 2020?
“we will be looking not just to ensure that we can continue to staff and support the officers who work in this field adequately, but to ensure that we go even further.”—[Official Report,
Nine months later, we are still no clearer on the funding issue. There cannot be a repeat of the threat to the unit’s future, as happened in 2016, so we need clarity.
The six national wildlife crime priorities in Britain include poaching, the illegal wildlife trade and the persecution of badgers, bats and raptors. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester mentioned the persecution of raptors, and a new scientific study shows that hen harriers are disappearing on English grouse moors due to illegal killing. Natural England says that the analysis confirms
“what has long been suspected—that illegal persecution is having a major impact on the conservation status of this bird”.
I take the point, made by Simon Hart, that raptor persecution is not limited to grouse moors. It is important that wildlife crime is dealt with adequately, wherever it takes place. Labour has committed to carrying out a review in government of the environmental and wildlife impact of grouse shooting. What is the Government’s position on that, now that we have seen the new analysis?
We have heard that unfortunately no database is kept of reported wildlife crime in England and Wales, although the RSPB keeps a record of bird crimes. Crimes are recorded in Scotland, and figures released last week show that the number of wildlife crimes north of the border has fallen by 11% to the lowest recorded level in five years. At the same time, Scotland has a conviction rate of 96% for those found to have committed wildlife offences, which is the highest rate since 2012.
I believe that even those figures are likely to be wildly unrepresentative of the true number of wildlife crimes committed across Britain. We know that such crimes often take place in remote, rural areas and are likely to go undetected. There is simply not enough specialist knowledge and training in our overstretched police forces, which pushes the burden of covering all UK wildlife crime on to the overstretched few staff at the National Wildlife Crime Unit.
My hon. Friend Sir David Amess and my hon. Friends the Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) talked extensively about the concerns about the Hunting Act 2004. The fact that so many hon. Members focused on it shows that there are serious concerns about it, which the Minister must take very seriously.