Blue Fox Patrons Sir David Amess MP and Sir Roger Gale MP Spoke in the Westminster Hall debate on wildlife crime, 20 March 2019

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On the 20th of March Blue Fox Patrons Sir David Amess MP and Sir Roger Gale MP spoke in the Westminster Hall debate on wildlife crime.

The debate, secured by Chris Matheson MP focused on whether the Hunting Act 2004 needs to be strengthened and questioned if the police have enough resources to adequately tackle wildlife crime.

Sir David Amess MP

For over 35 years Sir David has been one of Parliament’s most vocal animal welfare supporters. In 1988 Sir David successfully guided the Protection Against Cruel Tethering Act (1988) on to the statute book, protecting horses, ponies and donkeys from being cruelly tethered.

In 2002, along with Anne Widdecombe, he introduced the Endangered Species (Illegal Trade) Bill.

He supported the Hunting Act (2004) and last month joined the campaign to ensure that animal rights are protected after Brexit and that the sentience of animals is recognised in law.

Sir David works closely with Conservatives Against Fox Hunting (The Blue Fox Group). The group campaigns against a return of hunting with hounds and introduced the campaign for a close season for nursing hares in Westminster in 2011. The group also campaigns alongside leading animal welfare organisations to protect badgers from the badger cull. The latest Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation campaign aims to advance farm animal welfare.

In his speech at the debate Sir David said:

“I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on his splendid speech, and on attracting so many colleagues to support his point of view. We could not have anyone better to chair proceedings than yourself, Mr Rosindell, given your track record on the issue.

In the early years, when I was first elected to Parliament, only four or five colleagues on the Conservative Benches were against foxhunting—I am delighted that two of them are present this afternoon. A wonderful lady called Lorraine Platt, who founded the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, changed all that, and I think that now in excess of 60 Conservative Members of Parliament would be very much against foxhunting.

Throughout my parliamentary life, I have done everything I can to improve the welfare of animals and the environment in which we live. In so many ways, the quality of a nation should be judged by how it treats animals. To give a taster, I got on to the statute book the Protection against Cruel Tethering Act 1988, to protect horses, ponies and donkeys from being cruelly tethered. Together with Ann Widdecombe, in 2002 I introduced the Endangered Species (Illegal Trade) Bill. We led campaigns against live animal exports, the badger cull, animal experimentation, dog meat, the fur trade, netting and the killing of songbirds throughout the Mediterranean.

Legislation is all very well, but it is the enforcement that I am particularly concerned about. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) mentioned hare coursing. I was appalled that in Essex more than 500 cases of illegal hare coursing were reported in 2017. However, I am glad that, with consistent action from rural police forces across the country that are taking the crime seriously, there has been an impressive reduction in offences”.

Sir David further commented:

“I represent a little urban area; we do not have any foxhunts in Southend West. However, I drive along at night and see the odd fox or badger that sadly has been flattened by a car. I am very concerned about how people seem to have got around the 2004 Act. I would very much welcome an increase in penalties and more custodial sentences for illegal hunting. Average fines of £250 are a paltry punishment, frankly, for such cruelty, whatever a person thinks about foxes. Those Members who have kept chickens will know that it is not a lot of fun to find that they have been killed and played with—indeed, it can be very upsetting because they are pets. However, it beggars belief that anyone would set dogs on foxes and think that it is acceptable to have them physically torn apart. I think that most civilised people, and I would hope most Members of Parliament, would find that repugnant.

The law needs strengthening to stop deceitful trail hunting, and to protect our wildlife from the cruel sport of hunting with dogs. Nobody should be above the law, and those who continue in the inhumane killing of foxes and stags under the cover of trail hunting should be prosecuted.”

 Sir David concluded:

“My right hon. Friend has succeeded in shortening my speech, because that is exactly what I was about to say. I entirely agree with that point.

As I said, nobody should be above the law, and those who continue in the inhumane killing of foxes and stags under the cover of trail hunting should be prosecuted. We will never end wildlife crime in this country unless our laws are robust enough to deal with those who willingly allow such unnecessary cruelty.

Although there are rumours every time we have an election, I am confident that foxhunting will never become legal again in this country. I have no doubt about that, and think that any such rumours are absolute nonsense. However, I do not feel that the law is acting in the way that most people would want it to. It seems to me that people have got around it in all sorts of ways. I look to the Minister, who has taken over from my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who was particularly wonderful on such issues, to give a positive response to all the points that parliamentary colleagues will make on this very important issue.”

Sir Roger Gale MP

Sir Roger Gale is a powerful voice against the repeal of the Hunting Act 2004 and has campaigned to ensure the legislation remained in place whilst it was under the serious threat of repeal from 2010 until the free vote on repeal was ditched in January 2018 by the Conservative leadership. At the wildlife crime debate Sir Roger said:

“My hon. Friend and I both bear the scars of the legislation, and I do not think that anybody would claim that it was anything other than imperfect. However, does he agree that the one measure that would help most in this context, rather than reopening the entire argument, would be to make it unlawful to use animal scent for trails? That would be relatively easy to enforce, and it would create a clear divide between drag hunting, which is lawful and proper, and trail hunting, which is effectively unlawful and a disguise for the hunting of foxes.”

The Minister Dr Therese Coffey concluded at the end of the debate:

I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on securing this important debate on wildlife crime. I know that he is particularly concerned about the events that took place over Christmas in his constituency and nearby. Following his parliamentary question in January, DEFRA officials contacted the Cheshire Constabulary, which has confirmed that an investigation into the five fox deaths is ongoing. We will be informed when or if the Cheshire Constabulary decides to refer a file to the Crown Prosecution Service. As he will appreciate, I cannot comment further on that specific matter, but I assure him that I am confident that the police will ascertain whether a crime has been committed and, if so, will take appropriate action.

The Government recognise the importance of tackling all wildlife crimes, which is why DEFRA, together with the Home Office, directly funds the National Wildlife Crime Unit to support its work to investigate these crimes. The National Police Chiefs’ Council, the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Government also contribute to that funding. The National Wildlife Crime Unit is ably led by Chief Inspector Louise Hubble, who I have met. It helps prevent and detect wildlife crime by obtaining and disseminating intelligence, undertaking analysis that highlights local or national threats, and directly assisting law enforcers in their investigations.

Across the UK, more than 500 specially trained wildlife officers across most forces support investigations in their local areas. DEFRA provided additional funding for the unit to carry out a project on internet-related wildlife crime. The unit has subsequently identified wildlife-related online criminality as a thematic threat area. I will bring to its attention the points made by the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans).

The unit’s funding structure will continue until the end of the comprehensive spending review cycle. Decisions on funding beyond 2020 will be taken at the next review, which is due to start this summer, as right hon. and hon. Members will know. I cannot say any more at this stage, but as the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) noted, my right. hon Friend the Secretary of State is very committed to this important unit. I am pleased that wildlife crime seems to be an increasing priority for many of our police and crime commissioners across England and Wales.

There are six UK wildlife crime priorities: badger persecution, bat persecution, the illegal trade in species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, freshwater pearl mussels, poaching and raptor persecution. Wildlife crime priorities are set by the UK wildlife crime tasking and co-ordination group, which is chaired by the chief constable wildlife crime lead. Priority areas are either those that are assessed as posing the greatest threat to the conservation status of a species, or that show a high volume of crime and require a UK-wide tactical response. Each priority has an implementation plan—with plan owners identified—to prevent wildlife crime, improve intelligence gathering and strengthen enforcement of the law.

Raptor persecution is one of the UK’s wildlife crime priorities. All wild birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and there are strong penalties for those committing offences. In the five years up to 2017—the latest year for which data is available—there were 107 prosecutions for crimes against wild birds and 75 convictions. The police are leading efforts to prevent the persecution of birds of prey. I praise the work done by North Yorkshire police, particularly on Operation Owl, and I commend police and crime commissioner Julie Milligan in particular. She has been fundamental not only in that work, but in chairing the rural group of police and crime commissioners, she has also made hare coursing a key priority for work across a number of forces.

In addition to activity to disrupt and deter criminality, officers of the North Yorkshire police have worked to raise awareness about raptor persecution among local landowners and members of the public. Only through working in partnership with those living and working in rural communities can raptor persecution be combated. Despite instances of poisoning and killing of birds of prey, populations of many species, such as the peregrine, red kite and buzzard have increased. I fully recognise, however, that some species continue to cause concern.

The Government take the decline in the hen harrier population in England particularly seriously, and we are committed to securing the future of that iconic species. That is why we took the lead on the hen harrier action plan, which sets out what will be done to increase hen harrier numbers in England, including the trialling of brood management. In the recent judicial review into the lawfulness of Natural England’s decision to grant a licence for trials of hen harrier brood management, the claimants’ claims were dismissed. The proposed brood management scheme will continue. It seeks to manage the conflict between the conservation of hen harriers and the grouse shooting industry. That decision means the important work to protect and conserve the hen harrier can continue.

The hon. Member for Workington referred to an article that was published in a journal yesterday; I take that issue very seriously and will be seeking to meet the chair of the raptor persecution group, Superintendent Lyall, to go through it in detail. Although it is not for the Government to tell the police or the Crown Prosecution Service who they should be investigating and charging, we should take a proactive approach, particularly to stamp out the persecution of birds of prey.

The Government also support work to combat hare coursing, which is pursued under the poaching national wildlife crime priority. Police action against hare coursing is supported by the poaching priority delivery group, which brings together law enforcement and NGOs to improve the intelligence gathering, enforcement and prevention of those crimes.

The Government recognise the distress that hare coursing causes for rural communities. I know that it is a priority of my own police and crime commissioner, Tim Passmore. Concerns are not just about the activity itself, but are increasingly about the associated violence between those involved or damage to property suffered by those whose land is blighted by the activity. There is also increasing concern about the involvement of organised crime in that particular venture. That is why I welcome the ongoing work done by police forces under Operation Galileo, which has contributed to a 30% reduction in hare coursing incidents in Lincolnshire last year. I also commend the work of the six forces across the east of England, which come together to share intelligence so that they can try to stamp out that particularly heinous activity. The Hunting Act 2004 bans all hare coursing in England and Wales. Anyone found guilty of hare coursing or illegal hunting under that Act can receive an unlimited fine.

That brings me to hunting and the concerns raised by the hon. Member for City of Chester. The 2004 Act has been in force since 2005 and has fundamentally changed hunting with dogs in this country. Before that Act, between 21,000 and 25,000 foxes were killed each year by organised hunts, which accounted for only 5 to 6% of all annual fox deaths annually. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) pointed out, further culling of foxes is often undertaken for predator control.

The introduction of the 2004 Act made it an offence to hunt wild mammals with dogs or to knowingly allow land to be used for fox hunting. Since the Act came into effect, many hunts have turned to trail hunting as an alternative to live quarry hunting. Clearly, trail hunting is a huge improvement on live fox hunting, while still allowing hunting groups to undertake an activity important to them and much of the rural community.

I recognise it is possible that dogs used for trail hunting may on occasion pick up and follow the scent of live foxes during a trail hunt. If that occurs, it is the responsibility of the huntsman and other members of hunt staff to control their hounds and, if necessary, stop the hounds as soon as they are made aware that the hounds are no longer following the trail that has been laid. The Act has been used to successfully prosecute those who break the law. Between 2005 and 2017, a total of 778 individuals were prosecuted under the Act and 469 individuals were found guilty. The Government have no plans to amend the Hunting Act, but I have heard what hon. Members have said on that, and I will address sentencing guidelines. I recognise that the Labour party has changed its stance since the 2004 Act was introduced, but at the time, Parliament decided that the offence would not carry a custodial punishment. The Act allows for fines of up to £5,000. Sentencing is a matter for judges and sentencing guidelines. We would look to the independent Sentencing Council to consider that particular matter—based on correspondence that I have had with it, it absolutely and strongly defends its independence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) referred to the illegal wildlife trade. I am proud of the Government’s record on making changes, including the groundbreaking Ivory Act 2018. The Government recognise that wildlife criminals do not respect international borders, which is why the UK is committed to its global leadership in tackling the illegal wildlife trade. As has been said, we started a series of groundbreaking London conferences in 2014, the first of which secured ambitious agreements from more than 40 Governments to take urgent co-ordinated action. It was hailed as a turning point in global efforts to tackle those damaging activities, in particular in generating a response from China on its role in tackling the heinous trade. In October 2018 the conference returned to London.

The United Kingdom Government are investing more than £36 million between 2014 and 2021 to take action to counter the illegal wildlife trade, including work to reduce demand, to strengthen enforcement, to ensure effective legal frameworks and to develop sustainable livelihoods. A good example of that is building on the successful ranger training deployments that we have already done in Gabon and Malawi. The UK is committing a further £900,000 of new funding to develop a British military counter-poaching taskforce. Its members will train park rangers to use more effective and safer counter-poaching techniques as they seek to disrupt such criminality.

I assure hon. Members of our expertise and of the way in which we work with other countries. For example, I have made several trips to African countries, and at the 2018 conference, with a particular focus on birds, for the first time we brought in people from the Americas. I am pleased that we will support one of those regional conferences this year, with that particular focus.

One of my hon. Friends referred to bird trapping in Cyprus. The Government take our responsibility to combat wildlife crime in Britain’s overseas territories seriously, which is why we have supported the sovereign base areas administration on the island of Cyprus in its work to counter illegal bird trapping. In particular, I thank the Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), who made it a personal pledge when he visited the bases to ensure that it was happening, and the Minister for the Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster).

That work is being done through a combination of enhanced police action, eradication of non-native habitats and enforcement of regulations. The SBA administration works closely with Birdlife, the RSPB and other NGOs. The administration is confident that the enhanced measures are delivering meaningful results. I therefore welcome the report released this month by the RSPB and Birdlife which shows a continued decline in the number of birds being illegally killed on the bases.

On enforcement, it is important to remember that the enforcement of all offences, including wildlife offences, is an operational matter for the police. It is not only for individual chief constables to determine how their resources are deployed, but for locally elected police and crime commissioners to hold their forces to account and to set priorities, including on how they tackle the crimes that matter most to residents and businesses in rural and urban areas alike. However, the Government are taking steps to ensure that the enforcement of wildlife protection legislation achieves the best possible outcomes for wildlife through the expertise hosted by the National Wildlife Crime Unit and the involvement of the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

Several people talked about notifiable offences. DEFRA has supported work led by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Home Office to explore widening the range of notifiable wildlife offences, including some of those relating to foxhunting. Other offences put forward for consideration include those relevant to raptor and badger persecution, crimes against deer, and the criminal damage of protected habitats. The benefit of an offence becoming notifiable is that there is a national standard for the recording and counting of such offences by police forces in England and Wales, and reports produced by the Home Office provide a measure of demand on the police and inform the public of the scale, scope and evidence of crime in their local communities.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council is now considering stakeholder feedback, and a formal submission will be made to the Home Office this spring. The decision on which, if any, offences might become notifiable does not sit with my Department, but will be taken by the Home Office. I am conscious of growing interest, as is the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who is taking a particular interest in the issue, including sentencing.

In response to the point made by the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), livestock is not wildlife so it is outside the scope of today’s debate, strictly speaking. However, I will ask my noble Friend the Minister in the other place to write to him about the questions he asked. I will ensure that that happens.

I also have an extra point to make to the hon. Member for Islwyn. I was pleased that only a couple of months ago a particularly strong sentence—more than three years—was given to someone convicted of smuggling birds’ eggs, so important changes are being made in that regard.

On sentencing, I have already tried to make the point about the maximum fine, in particular under the Hunting Act. I will work with other Ministers, and I have raised illegal wildlife trade issues before with a previous Minister for Justice. We have an opportunity, and there is interest across Government to see what more we can do, but I stress to the House that we might have to change the law specifically. There are indications about how we extend the maximum sentence for animal cruelty from six months to five years. I commit to work with fellow Ministers to see what we can do. It is down to the independent Sentencing Council to change any guidelines under existing law.

In conclusion, the Government will continue to support work to protect our wildlife from criminal activity, to deter people from breaking the law and to punish those who do. We are equally committed to leading international efforts to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. I believe that there has been a change in behaviour, brought in by the Hunting Act. I fully recognise the concerns expressed by hon. Members who do not believe that the Act goes far enough but, as I said, the Government do not intend to reopen it in this Parliament. I again thank the hon. Member for City of Chester for securing this important debate, and all those who contributed to it.”

 

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