Last Wednesday, the Scottish Government’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee (RACCE) met to hear evidence on wildlife crime from two senior Police Scotland cops and a senior Fiscal from the Crown Office.
We’ve already blogged about what was said during the meeting about that ludicrous Police Scotland press statement on the Ross-shire Massacre (here). Needless to say, we were unimpressed.
But the discussion on that press statement was only a small part of a two-hour hearing. There was plenty of other discussion about various aspects of wildlife crime enforcement in Scotland and we learned a lot. For those of you who were unable to watch the video, the official transcript of the meeting has now been published in full: HERE.
So what did we learn? For a start, we learned that the RACCE Committee is full of very well-informed MSPs. They asked a lot of good questions and in some cases were quite dogged about pushing the Police for a proper answer. What was less impressive was their sometimes ready acceptance of what can only be described as weak and unsubstantiated responses from the Police and the Crown Office. Nevertheless, it was good to see both the Police and COPFS being asked to be accountable for a change – let’s hope we see more of that.
If you haven’t watched the video, we thoroughly recommend you take some time to read the minutes. Here are a few things that caught our attention:
1. In future years, the Government’s annual wildlife crime report will use data from calendar years instead of a mish mash of calendar and financial years, which makes any sort of analysis near impossible. That’s good.
2. Police Scotland are of the view that the wildlife crime figures are “not the tip of the iceberg“. Their view is apparently based on a “feeling” as opposed to hard evidence. Assistant Chief Constable Graham said:
“I do not have the sense that we are dealing with the tip of the iceberg, but I do have a sense that there are undoubtedly crimes that are not reported to the police and therefore go unrecorded. I could not judge what level that is at, but it does not feel as if we are getting only the tip of the iceberg“.
Detective Chief Superintendent Robbie Allan said: “I agree that the numbers are not the tip of the iceberg“.
Unfortunately, the Committee did not question them further on their “feelings” – it would have been interesting to have asked them how they account for the absence of breeding golden eagles and hen harriers on most land that is managed for driven grouse shooting, how they account for entire populations of raptors being constrained from their full distribution potential in prime breeding habitat that just happens to be managed for driven grouse shooting, how they account for all the unoccupied historical breeding sites, many of which just happen to be on driven grouse moors, why the majority of ‘missing’ satellite-tagged raptors are just happening to ‘disappear’ on driven grouse moors, and why most academics who publish on national and international wildlife crime enforcement widely accept that under-reporting is one of the main obstacles in the way of tackling wildlife crime.
Apparently under-reporting is not an issue in Scotland, because “it doesn’t feel that way” to Police Scotland.
3. The Police and SNH will meet monthly, starting in early November, to share information that could lead to the restriction of General Licences on land where wildlife crime is suspected. That’s very good. Although we still maintain that the General Licence restriction is not a restriction at all – it can easily be circumvented by the landowner/sporting agent/gamekeeper by them simply applying for an individual licence – we blogged about this here. The withdrawal of the General Licence is not a restriction at all; its simply a minor inconvenience which will mean the landowner/sporting agent/gamekeeper having to fill in an extra form. That’s it.
4. The admissibility of video evidence was discussed. Apparently it’s all about “proportionality and necessity” and “Police Scotland will not be routinely deploying these tactics“. In other words, The Untouchables are free to carry on as usual.
5. There was some discussion about the training of police wildlife crime officers. We’ll leave this one for now because we intend to examine this subject in greater detail in the near future.
6. Patrick Hughes from COPFS claimed: “The majority of animal welfare cases that we see are reported to us by Police Scotland, although some come from the SSPCA“. Really? That would be staggering. Unfortunately, Mr Hughes was not asked to substantiate this claim with any data. This would be a ripe topic for anyone with a mind to submit an FoI to the Crown Office: _EnquiryPoint@copfs.gsi.gov.uk (take note of the underscore at the start of this email address).
7. The subject of water bailiffs was discussed (pleased to see that some of those MSPs, and/or their advisors, are reading this blog!). We recently blogged about the substantial powers that water bailiffs have, including the power of arrest (see here). These bailiffs are appointed by landowners, to act in the landowners interests, they are not publicly accountable and have only the merest hint of any ‘training’. Why then, is there such opposition to extending the investigatory powers of the SSPCA, which wouldn’t even include the power of arrest, and whose inspectors already use wide powers when investigating animal welfare crimes? Well, according to Police Scotland (who, you’ll remember, objected to the proposed increase of powers to the SSPCA), the water bailiffs’ powers “are not used routinely” and “We do not have experience of water bailiffs who think that they are in a position to apprehend people“. Strange, then, that to ‘qualify’ (term used loosely) as a water bailiff, the candidate is encouraged to sit a test on the contents of the water bailiff training manual, which includes a considerable amount of detail about their powers of search and arrest.
8. Patrick Hughes of the Crown Office confirmed that currently two cases are proceeding under the vicarious liability legislation. According to him, the VL provision is “effective”….because the landowners have told him it is. On that basis, he’ll no doubt believe that raptor poisoning has stopped because Alex Hogg said the SGA had ‘stamped it out’ (see here).
Tomorrow, the Environment Minister will be giving evidence on wildlife crime to the RACCE Committee. You can watch live from 10am HERE.