10
Feb
16

NGO wildlife crime taskforce expresses ‘disquiet’ about Police Scotland evidence

Natural Injustice 1 Feb 2015 cover - CopyLast month the cross-party Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee (RACCE) took evidence about the Scottish Government’s 2014 Annual Wildlife Crime Report. Three guests from Police Scotland and the Crown Office were invited to the panel to answer the committee’s questions. These were Tom Dysart (Crown Office) and Assistant Chief Constable Malcolm Graham and Detective Chief Superintendent Sean Scott from Police Scotland.

The committee meeting went on for about two hours and covered a range of topics of interest to us, including vicarious liability, the Ross-shire Massacre, the SSPCA consultation, the enforcement of General Licence restriction orders and the Government’s annual wildlife crime report. Rather than write one massively long blog about all of these discussions, we thought we’d do smaller, bite-size blogs on each topic.

This blog is about the committee’s discussions on the LINK Natural Injustice reports, and in particular, on the evidence provided to the committee by Police Scotland about these reports. You might remember, these two reports were published a year ago in February 2015 by Scottish Environment LINK, a consortium of wildlife NGOs who were concerned that recommendations made by the Government’s Natural Justice report, published in 2008, had yet to be fully implemented.

LINK’s first report, Natural Injustice Paper 1 was commissioned with the purpose of providing decision- makers with a succinct overview of the current wildlife crime enforcement picture. The second report, Natural Injustice Paper 2 gave 20 recommendations for improving wildlife crime enforcement measures.

The LINK reports welcomed various improvements taken by government to further strengthen Scotland’s wildlife protection legislation, the establishment of the Crown Office Wildlife & Environmental Crime Unit, and acknowledged recent announcements made by the Minister for the Environment and Climate Change to provide further methods of bearing down on wildlife criminals.

However, despite a seemingly positive background, and while recognising the difficulties in investigating offences that are seldom witnessed and occur in remote areas, the reports presented a picture showing that enforcement measures remain inconsistent and, in many cases, are weak and ineffective. They also highlighted obstructions facing investigations through a lack of resources and obstacles created by a “wall of silence” that greets the police in investigating some crimes.

So, here’s the transcript of the discussions on this topic held during the RACCE committee hearing in January:

Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP): The panel will be aware of Scottish Environment LINK’s report “Natural Injustice”, which was a review of the way in which four types of wildlife crime—the persecution of badgers, bats, freshwater pearl mussels and raptors—were being investigated. The report noted that, of the 148 confirmed wildlife crimes that were reported to the police between 2008 and 2013, 98, or 66.2 per cent, were known to have resulted in a follow-up investigation but only 20, or 13.5 per cent, resulted in a prosecution. In addition, a minimum of at least 111 crimes, or 75 per cent, failed to result in a prosecution. The report went on to make 20 recommendations, some of which were specifically addressed to Police Scotland and to the COPFS. Given those figures, what is your response to the report’s finding that there was an overwhelming lack of confidence among LINK members in the ability of the statutory agencies to adequately investigate wildlife crime and in the willingness of the judiciary to impose meaningful sentences that would act as a deterrent?

Assistant Chief Constable Graham: I am happy to try to cover some of the issues with LINK’s report first. It came out in February last year, almost a year ago. I can remember the day it came out because I did not know that it was coming out before it arrived. I read about it on the news and I thought, “That’s interesting; here’s a whole lot of information about wildlife crime that doesn’t seem to bear any resemblance to my understanding of what’s going on in Scotland. I’m going to have to read this report closely.”

I read both volumes of the report and was horrified when I read what was in there—not because it was an accurate representation of what was happening but because it was so inaccurate. We are here today speaking about the annual wildlife crime report that the Scottish Government is required to produce. We have spoken extensively over the years about the amount of effort that has gone into ensuring the credibility, validity and quality of the data in the annual reports and how we are seeking to improve that, working collectively. A range of organisations contribute to the reports, with a governance structure, and then there is parliamentary scrutiny. None of that applies to the Scottish Environment LINK report, which was done in isolation by the organisations that are part of LINK. I do not subscribe to the accuracy of either the data in the report or the assertions that are made based on the data.

Notwithstanding that, we work closely with the organisations that are part of LINK so, although I was grossly disappointed about the nature of LINK’s approach and made that clear publicly at the time—as did a number of organisations, including SNH, which issued a strong public statement rebuking the way in which that report had been produced and indeed the quality of the data and the recommendations in it—I met the key members of LINK a short time afterwards. During that meeting, they acknowledged that how they had gone about producing the report and attempting to launch it publicly was not helpful to our collective partnership approach to tackling wildlife crime. Although we were happy to address some of the issues that they had raised through on-going work, which we continue to do, I did not feel that it was helpful to put inaccurate data into the public domain and then expect to hold organisations to account through media reporting; indeed, that has not happened.

Tom Dysart: At the time, the Lord Advocate issued a robust—and, I think, unprecedented— rejection of the report’s findings and commented that it was ill informed and based on flawed methodology. I think that that is as much as I can say.

Angus MacDonald: Ill-informed or not, the report came up with 20 recommendations. Sean Scott has already touched on the one on probationer training, which is now being given, although that could well have happened anyway— it probably did. Are there any other recommendations in the report that have been taken on board?

Detective Chief Superintendent Scott: To build on what Mr Graham and Tom Dysart have said, one of the recommendations was for poaching offences to be removed from the wildlife crime category, which was criticised by the nongovernmental organisations and other partners in PAWC. On the subject of the recommendations, which obviously predate when I assumed this particular role, all the work that we currently do with our partners against wildlife crime, including all the work that we do on prevention and investigation, is as robust and as co-ordinated as it can be. We will take criticism where it is due and try to improve at every turn, but I have nothing to say on that report other than what I have just said and what Mr Graham and Tom Dysart have mentioned.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab): Following the report, did you discuss all the points of criticism that had been made by LINK? The kind of suggestions in the report that we have in front of us were about delays in addressing initial incident reports, the disappearance of evidence, the failure to conduct covert searches, and the premature disposal of evidence prior to toxicology examinations. Those are just a few examples. Did you work through all those different criticisms and identify the extent to which people had valid concerns, and whether approaches had been taken towards future consultation and liaison?

Assistant Chief Constable Graham: Yes. To repeat myself, those were the assertions in the report and, to echo DCS Scott’s point, as the national police service, we are open to and accustomed to receiving constructive criticism, as you are aware. We have grown towards responding in an appropriate, open, transparent and engaging way because that is how we build a better service. It is not that we are saying, “Wait a minute. People are saying that the police haven’t done a good job and we don’t want to hear that.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

I met Eddie Palmer from Scottish Badgers and Ian Thomson from RSPB investigations, who were at the heart of producing that report. They were somewhat less critical at that meeting than they were in the report. They were full of praise for the changes that have been brought about during the Police Scotland era. They acknowledged that the quality of evidence in the report was, at best, ad hoc and anecdotal, and they were not able to bring forward any instances that the recommendations were based on that I could pursue to establish whether changes needed to be made. We worked through all the recommendations and, at the end of the meeting, I was satisfied that they were reassured that we were happy to work with them and listen to their complaints, that they understood that producing an ill-informed report was not the most effective way of doing things, and that we would not expect to see another report like that produced in the future because we will be working together to make sure that, if any one-off issues arise from time to time, they have a link to us and can pick up the phone and speak to us and we will get it sorted.

END

In response to the evidence given by Police Scotland, Scottish Environment LINK has written to the RACCE committee, basically refuting most of Police Scotland’s evidence. Here is an excerpt from their letter, dated 26 January 2016:

“I write to you as Chair of the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, on behalf of the Scottish Environment LINK Wildlife Crime Task Force.

We wish to convey our surprise at some of the evidence given to the RACCE Committee at its hearing last week to consider the Scottish Government’s Wildlife Crime Report for 2014. Appearing in front of the Committee were Police Scotland ACC Malcolm Graham & Ch. Supt. Sean Scott, and Tom Dysart from COPFS.

………….Secondly, later in the hearing, Angus MacDonald MSP and Sarah Boyack MSP asked a series of questions about the Natural Injustice reports into wildlife crime investigation and prosecution published by LINK in early 2015. We listened to the comments made by ACC Graham with some disquiet. While we acknowledge the ACC’s disappointment that the LINK reports were not shared with Police Scotland prior to publication, we wholeheartedly dispute his assertion that the findings of the reports were inaccurate. It is important to state that these reports were based on the experiences of those partner agencies involved as part of the investigations process. As such we defend the statistics in the reports unreservedly.

As ACC Graham mentioned I, along with the Wildlife Crime Task Force Vice convenor, Ian Thomson, attended a meeting with Police Scotland, following publication of the reports, to discuss our concerns. In our opinion, this was a very helpful and constructive meeting, and few of the reports’ findings were challenged – in fact, there was clear recognition and acknowledgement of many of the issues they raised.

While LINK members have acknowledged that there have been a number of improvements to wildlife crime policing and investigation following the formation of Police Scotland, there are still a number of significant issues such as resourcing & deployment of wildlife crime officers and rapidity of response to reported incidents that require addressing. LINK members’ interests extend across all protected species.

At the hearing, Tom Dysart simply restated the Lord Advocate’s position relating to the LINK reports. We remain disappointed that the Crown Office has refused to meet with Task Force members or to engage in any discussion relating to the findings of the reports. Similarly, none of the issues raised in LINK’s reports with regard to the Crown Office were explored by the Committee.

We feel that the LINK reports have been publicly criticised, with no right of reply given to LINK or its members. We are also extremely frustrated that no-one from the Scottish Government has sought to engage with LINK over the very significant concerns identified by LINK members, many of which were also raised by RACCE Committee members at a similar hearing in late 2014.  Having identified the Committee as an important conduit last autumn, we would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to further discuss these ongoing concerns with you and/or your fellow committee members at your earliest convenience. We also feel it would be of benefit to RACCE Committee members if more of the partner agencies involved in assisting in wildlife crime investigations and/or recording offences were engaged in reviews of future Scottish Government wildlife crime reports. It is important that the RACCE committee gets a wider picture of wildlife crime, in terms of the full evidence base, rather than simply what is recorded by the police.

We would be grateful if you could take these comments into account when formulating your response to the Scottish Government”. Eddie Palmer, Scottish Environment Link

The full letter from LINK can be downloaded from the Scottish Parliament website here

The current cross-party RACCE committee (and indeed, previous committees) have shown themselves to be a pretty well-informed bunch and not much gets past them. It’ll be interesting to see whether the committee invites LINK or some of its members to present evidence on wildlife crime at future committee hearings, to provide a more balanced view than just that of Police Scotland and the Crown Office. Unfortunately the current session of Parliament will end at midnight on 23rd March so if it is going to happen, an evidence session from LINK and its members will be somewhat delayed.

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3 Responses to “NGO wildlife crime taskforce expresses ‘disquiet’ about Police Scotland evidence”


  1. February 10, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    Same old same old… a refusal to accept valid criticism by those in authority – this blog has shown many shocking cases of mishandling of evidence and wildlife crime situations. While it is obvious, or at least it is to myself who has been directly involved in such situations, that the investigating authorities cannot tell the public everything that is being done during delicate investigations that rely on careful timing of action…there can be no excuse for lack of action and lengthy delays over public reporting of crimes when there has been a “negative” result of such investigation.

    I would have had more respect for police and prosecutors if they had just said we havent got the resources and/or knowledge, to deal with these problems, thus allowing for more input by NGOs. Instead they carry out the usual “shoot the messenger” line. Which can only help the criminals. A true partnership should be one where it is possible to criticise fellow partners if they are not pulling their weight.

  2. 2 Adam
    February 10, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    ‘We feel that the LINK reports have been publicly criticised, with no right of reply given to LINK or its members.’

    Interesting statement considering that they have published their report without giving an opportunity to the organistations they critcise to reply.

    • February 10, 2016 at 7:24 pm

      The report collated the facts and went to the committee why would the police have the chance to comment prior to publication…. the police had their right to cover up their short-comings in front of the committee, however the link orgs have not had the chance to reply to that political spin.


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