(2 years ago)Westminster Hall
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered wildlife crime.
May I say what a great pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell? I also thank all those outside the Chamber who have engaged with this debate on social media through the excellent House of Commons digital engagement team. With nearly 4,000 comments, it is clear that there is a real strength of feeling on the issue.
The term “wildlife crime” covers a variety of different offences, but the common thread is simple: cruelty to and the mistreatment of animals and birds. For example, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has told me about the plight of hen harriers, which are being hunted to extinction. In 2018 the RSPB satellite-tagged more than 30 hen harriers in the UK, but in just six months half of them had died. Eleven of them disappeared in suspicious circumstances near shooting moors. It is unclear whether those birds were deliberately targeted by the owners of shooting moors in order to protect the grouse, pheasant or partridge for the shooting season, or whether they were collateral damage during a shoot, but a suspicious sign is that the tags disappear and the scene of the crime is cleaned up. Whoever is shooting the birds knows they have done wrong.
The RSPB identifies weaknesses in the law. Of 68 confirmed kills of birds of prey in 2017, just four prosecutions were brought, with only one conviction. The RSPB is calling for stronger sentences and points to the dramatic decrease in egg collecting offences after sentences were toughened. Such offences went from an average of 167 a year in the period 2010-15, to just 10 in 2017.
The National Farmers Union has expressed concerns to me about hare coursing, which it tells me is having a severe impact on farm businesses and rural communities, not to mention the hares themselves.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has secured this debate, and in particular that he has raised the issue of hare coursing. The feedback I am getting is that hare coursing is becoming more violent and aggressive and that higher sums are being wagered. If that is the case, does he agree that the response needs to be toughened up?
Not only do I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I suspect—I cannot point to any evidence with me right now—that there is an element of organised crime behind some of that hare coursing. That would be damaging to farmers and rural communities, which perhaps have not been exposed to that level of organised crime in the past.
The NFU highlights the lack of resources for tackling wildlife crime, but crucially it has identified how the law can be toughened by extending criminal behaviour orders across a wider area than just the county in which the offence took place and by amending the Game Act 1831 to give police and magistrates the powers to seize dogs and reclaim associated kennelling costs from offenders.
Nowhere is the need for tougher laws more apparent than in the case of foxhunting. Local monitors have witnessed at least six foxes being killed by hunts in my own county of Cheshire this season. There were at least 10 additional reports of foxes being chased in the county and multiple reports of badger setts being blocked in the vicinity of hunts in Cheshire. Over the Christmas period, I and hon. Friends from the county were contacted by many constituents who shared horrific images and videos of foxes being slaughtered in hunts. It was those images and reports that led my hon. Friends and me to seek this debate in the House.
Laws were introduced for Scotland in 2002, and then for England and Wales in 2005 under the Hunting Act 2004, which was passed by the then Labour Government and banned the use of dogs to hunt foxes and wild mammals in England and Wales. Although those were welcome and hard-fought pieces of legislation, over- whelming evidence suggests that they are regularly being ignored or exploited by hunts. The 2004 Act bans the hunting of wild mammals—notably foxes, deer, hares and mink—with dogs in England and Wales. However, the Act does not cover the use of dogs in the process of flushing out a wild animal, nor does it affect trail hunting, where hounds are trained to follow an artificial scent. The Government’s lack of political inclination to enforce or strengthen the laws lies at the heart of the issue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for his comments about the support of the NFU in trying to deal with some of these appalling crimes. Does he agree that part of the challenge faced by many local police services across the country is the effect of austerity? Several hundred officer posts have been cut from Thames Valley police, who cover my area, in the past nine years due to austerity. That has had a serious and damaging effect on a number of aspects of police activity.
I accept that, and the particular consequence is that issues such as wildlife crime, which often requires specifically trained officers, are the first to fall by the wayside. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will refer to that later.
The Prime Minister has openly declared her support for foxhunting, and the Conservative manifesto committed to granting a free vote on the issue, although I welcome the Government confirming that they would not bring forward such a vote during this Session of Parliament. The Hunting Act continues to be abused across the board. There is a sense of a lack of political will from Government Ministers, which means the issue is constantly swept under the carpet. Responsibility is put on the shoulders of crumbling police forces, which are struggling, as my hon. Friend said. They have had £2.7 billion of real-terms cuts in direct Government funding since 2010.
The League Against Cruel Sports has collated at least 282 reports of suspected illegal hunting activity across the UK since the beginning of the foxhunting season on 1 November 2018, and 42 separate reports of foxes being killed. That indicates the scale of continued illegal hunting, although it is clear, when we take into account unreported cases and hunts that are not monitored, that the figures represent merely the tip of the iceberg.
The Hunting Act clearly needs to be strengthened. The evidence of abuse is clear and the required adjustments are straightforward. Weaknesses within the law, as identified by the RSPB and the NFU, are preventing blatant law-breaking by registered hunts from being effectively tackled. All that is needed is for the Government to have the will to act.
Fundamentally, the Hunting Act has no teeth. The deterrence value of penalties under the Hunting Act is significantly lacking. Only fines are available. Ministry of Justice data shows that the average fine for offences under the Hunting Act over the past 10 years was a measly £267, which is a price many hunters are willing to risk. It is certainly one they can afford. Custodial sentences need to be introduced to bring the law at least into line with penalties for other crimes against wild animals, such as badger baiting.
One of the main weaknesses is that the offence is a summary offence only, and an absolute offence. There is no offence, for example, of attempting to kill a fox with a hunt, and prosecutors would have to prove an intent to kill a fox. A hunt can therefore chase a fox across countryside with unmuzzled dogs following its scent. If the fox is killed unintentionally—whatever that might mean in this context—a conviction becomes difficult to obtain, as if chasing a fox with a pack of dogs does not indicate intent to kill it. Let us face it: the dogs do not know any better.
Even if there is video evidence showing the culprit with the dead fox, as happened in Cheshire, that is not sufficient to gain a prosecution, let alone a conviction. Cheshire police were criticised earlier this year when their press office put out a statement suggesting that we cannot believe everything we see on social media. Those press officers were right, but that does not mean we cannot believe anything we see on social media.
Another excuse is trail hunting, which allows for foxes to be accidentally killed by dogs on hunts. It is especially pernicious when the trail is laid using the urine of captive foxes. Why are the dogs not trained to follow a different scent? A gaping hole in the legislation allows hunts to claim that any chasing and killing was merely coincidental and accidental. For those who do not know, trail hunting involves people on foot or horseback following a scent along a pre-determined route with hounds or beagles. The concept of trail hunting is to effectively replicate a hunt without hurting a fox. It has been described by a judge in one case as a “cynical subterfuge”. In that case, the judge dismissed an appeal by two hunt employees who were part of the Harborough-based Fernie hunt and were convicted of breaching hunting laws. They were found guilty of hunting a live fox and digging into an active badger sett.
There is no system to record wildlife crimes in the UK and identify the size and scale of the activity. A recent Wildlife and Countryside Link report noted that 1,283 wildlife crime incidents were recorded by non-governmental organisations in 2017. Shockingly, only nine individuals and businesses were prosecuted.
Many wildlife crimes are currently not recordable or notifiable offences. That means that vital information about crimes that have been reported and investigated is not being collected by police forces across England and Wales. Valuable information about trends in crime and intelligence, which would lead to the allocation of resources, is therefore lost. Without proper information, the Government are also under less pressure to actually do something about such crimes.
The practice of stopping up foxholes and badger setts, and using terriers to chase foxes out of their dens, continues. That surely demonstrates intent. Badgers are killed in the process, too. One Cheshire hunt monitor told me of such activities this year:
“On one occasion this hunt season we checked a large badger sett, it was fine and very active. The next day we discovered the hunt was due in the area…we went to check the sett on the hunt day and it had quad bike tracks leading straight to it and to several other setts in the immediate area, all entrances were filled in, we could see spade marks and boot prints. The hunt rode straight up to the badger sett that day and stopped, they were clearly surprised to see us, we then had to unblock 41 sett entrances or the badgers would have suffocated. We went back over subsequent days to monitor activity and we used thermal imaging technology to check the badgers were still alive. This sett is constantly targeted.”
David Keane, the police and crime commissioner for Cheshire, undertook a review of the laws relating to hunting and of his force’s implementation of those laws. He, too, found that
“the current legislation in the way it is drafted presents challenges to investigators and prosecutors”,
and that it causes confusion to the public and others.
Issues have been raised with Mr Keane regarding how legislation could be amended to assist. Following his review, he has made three proposals. The first is that recklessness should be applicable, beyond the current requirement to prove intent—a requirement that is not mirrored in all areas of criminal law. The second is for the introduction of an authorised list of scents, excluding fox or other wild mammal urine, for use in trail hunting. Thirdly, he has spoken of the need for a clearer definition of the role of, or restriction associated with, terrier men: those who follow the hunt around and assist.
In the past week, ahead of the debate, I have received countless emails from concerned citizens, appalled at the continued killing of wild animals for pleasure and the seeming inability of the law to bring people to account. Clearly, the laws on foxhunting are being deliberately flouted, by people who either believe that they are above the law, or are not deterred by the threat of the sanctions available under it. I fail to understand how someone can get pleasure from killing animals, and can conclude only that such people are in some way disturbed.
At the very least, the law on hunting with dogs needs to be changed to include recklessness as an offence. We might look at limits on the number of dogs allowed, and there is support across the House for increasing to five years the penalty for convictions for animal cruelty. That might help to deal with the bagging of foxes and the issue of hounds being given fox cubs for training purposes.
If those solutions are not adopted, however, we might have to consider another: banning hunting with dogs altogether. Hunts have had their chance to demonstrate that they are responsible, but they are failing to take it, possibly deliberately. The police are struggling nationally with manpower, and wildlife crime falls well below other priorities. Police are not always trained in the finer points of the detail of wildlife protection laws. To make it easier, we need to give them the tools to do their job, and that means much tougher laws to protect our wildlife.
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.
In Lincolnshire there has been a significant reduction in that terrible crime, as a result of the great work done by Lincolnshire police. One of the difficulties that they face is that once the crime has been committed and successfully prosecuted, the sentences that people receive may be a fine of just £250, which is not a sufficiently significant deterrent.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am glad that our two police forces are making some progress, but it is the implementation of the law, and punishments, that we are particularly concerned about.
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.
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.
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.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I fully support the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson). There is a key role for central Government in tackling wildlife crime. That is why the Labour Government, of which I was a proud member, established the National Wildlife Crime Unit in 2006. It has a central role in examining a whole range of issues on enforcement, guidance and support, such as badger persecution, the illegal ivory trade, poaching, enforcement of the Hunting Act 2004 and hare coursing.
My first question to the Minister is whether she has yet made a decision on what is happening to central funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit post 2020. What assurances can she and the Home Office give for that funding? North Wales Police has an excellent wildlife crime unit. Like the national unit, it tackles a range of issues on the ground, such as livestock theft, livestock crime, environmental crime and enforcement of fox hunting legislation.
I particularly want to raise the issue of sheep worrying, which is of tremendous concern to farmers in my constituency. I hope to put some points on the Minister’s radar for her to respond to in her summing up. Attacks by dogs on sheep in the constituencies of my area of Wales have risen by a massive 113% over the past year, and they cost farmers in Wales and across the country £1.2 million—a tremendous amount of money. It is an absolute disgrace that dogs attack sheep because of, in many cases, irresponsible owners.
The 2017 report of the all-party parliamentary group on animal welfare made a number of recommendations on what the Government could do to give guidance to dog owners and to better enforce and modernise the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953. Will the Minister respond this afternoon to some of the issues raised in that report? Her noble Friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble, who has responsibility for the issue in the Lords, said at the time that he believed the report was a useful contribution and that he was working with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to take into account the APPG’s recommendations, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith).
We recommended that the Home Office should collect statistics on sheep attacks by dogs across the country to see the scale of the problem—a point already made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester. Has that been done, or is it planned? The Ministry of Justice was charged by the report to look at sentencing under the 1953 Act, and the Agriculture Minister agreed to look at that in principle. Currently, there is a £1,000 fine, which was set in 1953. That is slightly out of date, in considering the ownership of a dog that attacks sheep and causes tremendous damage. There is no current power in the Act for an owner to be banned from owning another dog in the future, following a conviction for worrying sheep. No action can be taken to seize a dog if the same dog is responsible for multiple attacks. The Sentencing Council was supposed to review the legislation. Can the Minister tell us whether it has? This is an issue of major concern, and North Wales Police has again raised it only this week with the National Farmers Union in Wales and the National Farmers Union.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very good point. Does he agree that in some cases—perhaps the majority of cases—the irresponsible owner is irresponsible through ignorance? It is an urban owner who takes a dog into the countryside and perhaps does not realise that the dog needs to be on the lead when in the proximity of sheep.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very valuable point. It is important to have a structure in place to raise awareness of the irresponsibility of letting dogs run wild. It is a wildlife crime. It will destroy flocks of sheep. Farmers in my constituency have had sheep and lambs killed overnight. It is distressing. It costs money. It cannot be insured against in a proper and effective way. It is an issue that North Wales Police and the farmers are working on in tandem through its wildlife crime unit, to make sure that action is taken.
My plea to the Minister is simple. Will she give an update on the review of the 1953 Act? Will she give an update on whether the Home Office records statistics? Will she ensure that the promises made by her noble Friend Lord Gardiner in response to the report are kept, because this is vital? Finally, I welcome everything that my hon. Friend the Member for the City of Chester said about the enforcement of the Hunting Act, which I was proud to vote for.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson). I agree with everything he said. I want to widen the debate on to an international stage.
I hold a programme in my constituency called “Conversations in the street”, where I go around the villages and people tell me what is on their mind. One lady came up to me and said, “I want to discuss elephants with you.” I posted the issues that were raised on my Twitter account, and what was said about that topic on my Twitter feed was utterly pathetic. The lady had genuinely raised a question about what we were doing to protect elephants and wanted an answer. Our attitude towards elephants and elephant crime is shaming for our generation. Illegal trafficking of both live and dead animals is the fourth largest illegal international trade, after those in drugs, people smuggling and counterfeiting, and it is worth something like £15 billion a year.
The Government have done a tremendous amount to ban the sale of ivory, which I very much welcome, and to protect elephants, but there is a growing threat from the illegal trade in live animals. That trade occurs for a number of reasons, but principally to try to improve tourism and to make entertainment better. The UK has been working through a number of organisations to prevent the trade—many aspects of it are illegal—but it presents a growing threat, particularly to the Asian elephant.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) mentioned birds in the Mediterranean. I highlight the enormous difficulty we have in trying to control the killing of birds, particularly in Malta. We ought to concentrate on the annual spring hunt in Malta—it is still legal—which leads to the deaths of an enormous number of birds. We ought to do all we can to stamp that out.
We had a very successful international conference in the UK on this subject in 2014 and another, I think, in 2018. I commend the Government for their stance. Members have spoken about the crimes that take place in the UK, but we should not forget the global nature of such crimes. If we are protecting animals—our hearts go out to everyone who protects animals—we need to look at that from an international perspective. I hope the hon. Member for City of Chester will accept my remarks in the spirit that I give them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, in this important debate. I apologise for the fact that I am full of some sort of bug, so please excuse my voice. I thank my good and hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson)—a wonderful city—for bringing the debate forward.
I am very lucky to have grown up in my constituency of Crewe and Nantwich, which is a mixture of towns and villages surrounded by beautiful countryside. We greatly value our farming community in the area, with regular farmers markets, many excellent walks and, I bet, some of the very best farm shops in the country. However, representing a constituency that is surrounded by such glorious countryside means that, like my hon. Friend, I am regularly contacted by constituents who have concerns about wildlife crime.
Over the winter period, that concern seemed to intensify. Constituents were upset and infuriated that video footage taken each week seemed to show that foxes are being hunted and regularly killed by dogs. My constituents’ anger came from the fact that despite it being against the law to hunt with dogs, the loopholes in the Hunting Act 2004 make it almost impossible to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. I have raised this matter in the Chamber, and we desperately need the Act to be strengthened to ensure that the will of Parliament, and that of the overwhelming majority of the public, is respected. The Government should do the right thing and strengthen the Act by adding a recklessness clause, in order to end the ridiculous situation where hunt participants can avoid prosecution simply by claiming that the chasing and killing of a fox by their dogs was an accident.
Fifteen years on from the Hunting Act 2004, foxes are still being ripped apart by packs of dogs and killed brazenly by hunt participants, who know that they can escape prosecution. I find it a strange hobby to dress up like a toy soldier to chase a much smaller and vulnerable animal, and I also find it strange that policymakers appear to take such a contrasting approach to this so-called sport, compared with other examples of animal cruelty.
It is clear that along with changes to the Hunting Act 2004, we need to see stronger deterrents put in place. It is worth pointing out that the average fine for offences over the last 10 years has been just £267. Killing a fox carries a maximum penalty of £5,000, yet killing a badger can carry a six-month custodial sentence. Following a successful prosecution under the Hunting Act 2004, those responsible should face forfeiture of their dogs. As a dog owner myself, I have huge concerns about the way that those dogs are treated.
I have sat in the home of friends of mine when the sound of a horn has blared and, all of a sudden, their property has had a swarm of huntsmen and dogs tearing through it. That was quite an unnerving experience on a Sunday afternoon, and my friends’ animals and children were left terrified. Again, there seems to be an attitude of being above the law among people who partake in this so-called sport. I would like to see more clarity on the role of terrier men, who can operate independently but still frequently follow hunts. Their only known function is to block badger setts and escape holes to prevent foxes from escaping underground, and to use dogs to flush out any creature that tries to hide.
I am sure that it is blatantly obvious that I am not from a background where this kind of tradition ever took place. I am proud to be a member of the Labour party—an organisation that has consistently placed the welfare of animals high on the policy agenda and has committed to strengthening the Hunting Act 2004.
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on raising this issue today. I agree with many things that he said; as he will know, there are some things with which I am not in total agreement.
It is no secret that I am an avid country sports enthusiast, and I am also very keen on conservation and animal protection, which is important to me. There is no reason why those two pursuits cannot be married together; I believe they can. As proof, we very clearly retained the habitat for such purposes on the land that I own and have access to. In recent times—having planted 3,500 trees, dug out two ponds and retained the hedgerows—we have seen an increase in insect life, birdlife and bee life, and in the number of songbirds and birds of prey, to which the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) referred. All of those are protected.
There are many people who enthuse about conservation. I say gently that others who have the opportunity should practise it in a very real way, which I like to think I do. The hon. Member for Henley, who spoke before me, would probably say the same things that I am saying. I believe that one cannot be involved in country sports without knowing the importance of conserving the wonderful countryside, which is why I was delighted that the PSNI in Northern Ireland appointed an officer who is designated solely to wildlife crime. It just so happens that that wee girl was a flower girl at my wedding 32 years ago, so I have an interest in her progression through the PSNI.
We have the issues of badger baiting and dogfighting, which I absolutely condemn, and the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) referred to attacks on livestock and sheep—they are all very important issues. The wildlife liaison officer is the central point of contact in the PSNI for police officers and staff who require advice, support and assistance in relation to all animal welfare or wildlife crime, with particular links to suspected breaches of the legislation or associated queries. The Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 was amended by the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, and the police liaison officer offers advice, support and assistance to the police service across the whole of Northern Ireland. She does a really incredible job—she is one of my constituents and also a good friend of mine.
In the very short time I have, I want to discuss what the hon. Member for Henley referred to: it is important to look at wildlife crime elsewhere in the world. I have done the bit back home, where it is very important that we can actively discourage and legislate against those who blatantly break the law. It is said that across the world
“illegal wildlife trade is now the fourth most lucrative transnational crime after drugs, arms and human trafficking”.
It is worth some £17 billion a year. The money generated from the global trade in wildlife has been linked to funding terrorist activities: the people who are involved operate as cartels, with multiple organised crime groups working to a common purpose. The exploitation of wildlife is a low-risk yet high-reward form of crime. The 2016 “World Wildlife Crime Report” by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime shows the extensive involvement of transnational organised crime groups. The Minister does not have responsibility for that, but I would like some direction from Government on what they are doing about it.
It is clear that there is a real need for focused, targeted and strategised UK-wide policing of wildlife crime, and for officers to understand the importance of this. I know that the police in the UK and the PSNI in Northern Ireland do a wonderful job, but it must be coordinated. I believe that we could do this better if we took a UK-wide approach, and that the Department must take the lead in putting this strategy into place. We always get a good response from the Minister, and I look forward to it today.
Like a few others present in the Chamber, I bear the scars of the 700 hours it took, in one capacity or another, to pass the Hunting Act 2004, which was introduced by the former Labour Government and described by the League Against Cruel Sports as the most successful wild mammal legislation in England and Wales. It seems that a lot has changed since then, as the organisation has discovered what it considers to be the Act’s flaws, and I want to touch on that briefly.
There was a reason why the Hunting Act 2004 ended up as it did: the then Labour Government and the Ministers responsible for it recognised that it was not as simple as it seemed. Considerations relating to management control and humane control—wildlife management considerations—needed to be incorporated into the Act. The Labour Government completely understood that the idea that the legislation was ever going to be a blanket ban on the killing and control of foxes was unfeasible. Now, 15 years on, we are talking about what seem to the outside world to be various anomalies. I refer hon. Members back to the reasons we ended up in that place the first time—because of the complex way in which rural Britain interacts with wild, unhusbanded animals.
As a former employee of the Countryside Alliance and its current chairman, I should declare an interest and say that I am not here to try to justify the unjustifiable, or to try to promote or excuse lawlessness in any way. I absolutely share the concerns of the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) about things such as illegal hare coursing and how that can be dealt with. I am realistic and hope that the organisation I have been involved with for many years is very keen to play a positive role in dealing with these issues in a proportionate and evidence-based way.
I want to touch on a few things that were mentioned earlier. On the question of raptors, I hope I can persuade Opposition Members that, as the Labour party has indeed recognised over many years, shooting plays a really important part in the upland management of the UK. That applies not only to biodiversity—that is not contested in any way—but to economic benefits and the benefits of the production of good quality, healthy food in the food chain. Before we write off everybody involved in upland management as a raptor persecutor, we must note that the vast majority recognise that that is a crime that needs to stop and they will co-operate with anybody who wishes to address that problem.
I should point out one of the complexities. The problems are just as apparent in areas that are not managed for shooting, such as the Isle of Man and the Isle of Skye—where huge attempts have been made to get hen harriers to breed again—as on managed uplands on the mainland where shooting does occur. We should treat with caution the assumption that the problem happens only on managed grouse moors.
Finally, as far as hunting is concerned, I could go on for a great deal more than the 42 seconds I have left, but I will simply say this. The idea that all of the so-called problems can be cured simply by adjusting the hunting techniques, which was recommended by the Labour party and the League Against Cruel Sports when the Hunting Act went through, is a naive approach to an exaggerated problem. Trail hunting takes place on more than 25,000 occasions a year. The evidence, which might be good evidence, suggesting that there is a widespread problem exaggerates the problem. Whether it is raptor control or hunting, the best approach is a co-operative one involving the governing bodies of the organisations in question.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on his insightful and sometimes passionate speech. Like others, I want to set out my opposition to foxhunting. The general election might not have decided which way the public felt, but when the Prime Minister announced she was pro-foxhunting my postbag was inundated with correspondence from people who were against bringing back foxhunting. I hope and pray that this country will never again see the foxhunting of the past.
Foxhunting and hare coursing have been covered very well in the debate. I want to focus my attention on the illegal theft of bird eggs. Although the introduction in 2000 of custodial sentences for the offences of egg theft and possession appear to have had a positive effect on reducing egg-collecting activity in the UK, there is no indication that the sentences have had an impact on the illegal egg trade. Why am I talking about the egg trade? Many egg collectors and egg thieves are attracted to endangered species, particularly endangered birds. Collecting bird eggs has been illegal in the UK since the Protection of Birds Act 1954 was passed, making it illegal to take the eggs of most wild birds. The law was further bolstered by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which provides stipulations for the protection of wild birds and their eggs and nests. Magistrates are able to hand down a range of punishments, from fines to six months in prison per egg.
There are a variety of motivations behind egg theft. Recent arrests have shown that many collectors find themselves addicted to the process of tracking birds and capturing their eggs. The individuals who take part in those horrendous activities take pride in their ability to steal eggs from nests that lie in purposely secluded and difficult to reach areas. That is a blatant violation of the various Acts in place to protect the birds and it also eradicates the lives of very rare birds.
In one sickening case in 2011, someone stole seven golden eagle eggs that were so close to hatching that he likely removed a live chick from the shell just to have something nice to look at. After admitting to 10 charges of theft and illegal possession of bird eggs, he was given only a six-month sentence—a slap on the wrist for someone who clearly has a problem. Weak penalties for wildlife crime mean that offenders have little to fear. Those who collect the eggs currently face very short prison sentences, so there is no incentive for them to cease collecting.
The situation is made worse by an illegal bird egg trade available on eBay. A search for “bird egg collection” provides potential buyers with the option to purchase a red grouse egg. The RSPB has given the bird an amber status, which denotes an unfavourable conservation status as well as a decline in UK breeding populations. What is more, the red grouse species is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
In recent weeks the Government have done very good work in terms of social media, self-harm and suicide, but where there is a violation of the law it is up to them to say to eBay, “Why are you listing these eggs? Why are you encouraging a decline in our rare bird species?” It is up to the Government to talk to eBay, Gumtree and the other sites that sell bird eggs and fuel the trade. Very few people talk about it, but we must protect the valuable bird species in this country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), on his excellent introduction. Like him, I have been contacted by many constituents concerned about the same incidents where foxes have been slaughtered in hunts. It has led me to question how well the Hunting Act is working because, despite outlawing that horrific practice, the images tell me there are people out there openly flouting the law, making a mockery of the police, Parliament and the vast majority of people in this country who rightly recoil from such barbaric practices. As we have heard, there are very real concerns that across the country foxes are being targeted and killed by illegal hunts, and grave concerns that the various exemptions within the Act are being used to legitimise the indiscriminate killing of foxes.
The Library briefing paper tells us that the successful conviction rate for offences under the Hunting Act over the previous five years is about 50% as opposed to a rate of about 80% for all criminal offences. That tells me that the Act is not working in the way that it should, and those figures are just for actual prosecutions.
Many constituents ask me why the widely available images that we have all seen do not result in more prosecutions. If the Government’s position is that the law should be observed, whatever that law is, they should ask themselves some serious questions about whether the Act is working in practice. They should ask whether the police and Crown Prosecution Service have the knowledge base and resources to deal successfully with the Act as it is, and what changes might be made to increase the number of successful prosecutions. If their view is, “We don’t like the Hunting Act. We don’t really believe in what it is trying to do, but we are content to allow things to trundle along as they are with a half-hearted adherence to the law because we are scared of a public backlash”, they should be honest and say so.
It is clear that there is little confidence in the law as it stands and the capacity of the state to enforce it, so we need a thorough review of the Hunting Act and how it works. Once that is done, let us have a debate and a vote in Parliament on what should happen next. If we did that, hunting with dogs, which has no place in a modem society, would be outlawed. Let us ensure it is banned: no ifs, no buts, no exceptions under the legislation, and no more excuses.
As my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester said, there needs to be a review of the high threshold. Perhaps using the word “recklessness” would give people more confidence in a law that the majority in this country want to adhere to. I appreciate that a review might take time, but I hope the Minister will respond positively when she winds up the debate. In the meantime, I have some practical suggestions. The first concerns knowledge of the law by the police and Crown Prosecution Service. It is clear that some people are not experts in what is a specialist area.
Secondly, and this is perhaps the single most important action that can be taken to restore trust and confidence, the police must be seen to investigate and take action on any potential criminal offences that occur during the hunts. I am talking mainly about wider public order offences. We have seen lots of examples of threatening and intimidating behaviour, firearms being let off and vehicles being rammed into monitors and so on, giving the impression that some people are above the law and some are not. Everyone should be equal before law. At the moment some people seem to be able to get away with actions that in any other context would see them up before the magistrate, and that adds to the impression, sad though it is, that the authorities are not being even-handed in their approach.
In conclusion, the Hunting Act is not working. Let us reform it so that the cruel and vindictive practice of hunting with dogs is outlawed once and for all.
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 the hon. Member for City of Chester (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 the hon. Member for Southend West (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.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (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.
The hon. Member for Henley (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. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (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 the hon. Member for Strangford (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.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (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.
The hon. Member for Islwyn (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.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (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.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (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 the Member for Delyn (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. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) talked about the international trade and the importance of working globally. My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) raised the issue of bird eggs, which is very important as their theft causes huge damage. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted the importance of conservation and raised his particular concerns. It was interesting to hear the response from the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (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?
I remind the Minister that, on Second Reading of the Ivory Bill in June last year, the Secretary of State said that, by October 2018
“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, 4 June 2018; Vol. 642, c. 98.]
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 the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (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 the Member for City of Chester, the hon. Member for Southend West (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.
On the National Wildlife Crime Unit, does my hon. Friend agree that, unless something is done about wild birds and birds of prey, their very existence may be threatened? Some species may become extinct if nothing is done.
We have just heard the new figures for hen harriers. It is incredibly important that these issues are taken seriously, recorded properly and acted upon if we are to stop that kind of wildlife crime.
I want to reiterate the commitment that Labour made on Boxing day: in government, we will strengthen the Hunting Act by closing the loopholes through a number of key measures. We will consult on: reviewing sentencing to ensure that effective deterrence includes the use of custodial sentencing, in line with other wildlife crimes; strengthening the criteria for issuing research licences; removing the exemption on the use of dogs below ground to protect birds for shooting, as it risks appalling fights between dogs and wild mammals; and introducing a recklessness clause—hon. Members have talked about that today—to prevent trail hunting being used as a cover for the illegal hunting of wild animals.
The constituents of Weaver Vale and Chester would welcome that. People are tired of evidence being presented to the Crown Prosecution Service, and the current law is just not effective enough. I thank my hon. Friend for that.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. When the Labour party consulted on the animal welfare plan last year, that was one of the main issues that came up over and over again.
Labour’s Hunting Act 2004 was a key milestone in banning that blood sport, but we have heard today about new practices that have developed to exploit loopholes in the legislation. We want to call time on those who defy the law and tighten up the Hunting Act to ensure that it does what it was intended to do. As we have heard, a poll commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports found that only one in six rural residents believe that hunting with dogs reflects countryside values. More than nine in 10 think that countryside values are really about observing nature.
The Law Commission’s 2015 report on wildlife law states that the current legislation governing the control, exploitation, welfare and conservation of wild animals has turned into a complex patchwork of overlapping and sometimes conflicting provisions. It has recommended reforming wildlife law in England and Wales to reduce its complexity. In 2015 it produced an excellent report and a draft Bill that deals with many of the issues we have discussed today. I want to ask the Minister why the Government have not taken the recommendations of the extensive piece of work that they commissioned any further.
I urge the Minister seriously to consider drafting a database of wildlife crime for England and Wales so that we can have a much better idea of the scale of the problem, set out the plans for the future of the National Wildlife Crime Unit, as its funding is due to run out in 2020, and really listen to the concerns that Members have expressed today so that wildlife crime in this country can be tackled once and for all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I know that you are passionate about animals and wildlife, so I am sure that you have enjoyed 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.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. The term “wildlife crime” has been given quite a wide exposition. I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who gave us the international dimension, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson), who gave us the rural farming dimension. I particularly welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), from the soon-to-be city of Southend, simply on the basis that he, the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), and indeed you, Mr Rosindell, were pioneers of the cause of animal rights in the Conservative party when—if Government Members will forgive me—it was not always a fashionable cause in that party. Those hon. Members led the way, and I am grateful for that.
I am most grateful to the Minister and the shadow Minister for their expositions. My only concern about much of what the Minister said is that, although we are now out of the foxhunting season this year, when it begins again next year and the foxes continue to be killed in that dreadful way, the calls for further reviews and tightening of the law will continue and grow louder. I thank all hon. Members from across the Chamber for their contributions.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered wildlife crime.