Publications on the internet
CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 140-iii
House of commons
TAKEN BEFORE THE
Environmental Audit Committee
Thursday 12 July 2012
Lord Henley, Michael Warren, Richard Benyon MP and
Evidence heard in Public Questions 402 - 451
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.
Taken before the Environmental Audit Committee
on Thursday 12 July 2012
Joan Walley (Chair)
Mr Mark Spencer
Dr Alan Whitehead
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Lord Henley, Minister of State for Crime Prevention and Anti-Social Behaviour Reduction, Home Office, Michael Warren, Head of the Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour Reduction Unit, Home Office, Richard Benyon MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Natural Environment and Fisheries, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Trevor Salmon, Head of International Species Conservation Team, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, gave evidence.
Q402 Chair: It gives me great pleasure to welcome you before our Committee, Under-Secretary, and also Lord Henley, who we know has considerable previous experience in another life in Defra as well. In welcoming you and your colleagues to our session this afternoon, it might be helpful if I tell you that we may be expecting a vote, possibly at 4.34pm which, as you will appreciate, is going to cut our session right down the middle. We will endeavour to see how much progress we can make. Let me also say that we are at an advanced stage of our inquiry, and we have received considerable written evidence and had a good number of oral hearings. We have very specific questions that we wanted to put to you in the hope that that might help both your future work and our recommendations on the Committee so that we have as constructive a report as possible. Bearing that in mind, I will go straight into the questions, if that is acceptable to all of you. Could you share with us where you see wildlife crime sitting in the order of priorities in both Departments-Defra and the Home Office-perhaps starting with you, Under-Secretary?
Richard Benyon: All areas of wildlife crime are absolutely at the core of our priorities. Our strategic objective to enhance the environment and biodiversity and improve the quality of life is right up there. Wildlife crime is one of the pressures facing our biodiversity-our work to combat it is part of our strategy to halt the loss of habitats and restore biodiversity. Internationally, we have a commitment in the Natural Environment White Paper that we published just over a year ago. We will continue to work with CITES and the global enforcement agencies to share expertise and strengthen international capability, and, at home, we will ensure continued co-operation across Government Departments. The National Wildlife Crime Unit fits very much into that programme.
Q403 Chair: That is helpful, thank you. And in respect of the Home Office?
Lord Henley: In respect of the Home Office, first, I think one wants to look at our overarching approach to crime. Let me start at the local level. Obviously, at a local level, wildlife crime should be a matter for each individual police force. My own constabulary, Cumbria, have quite an interest in certain aspects of wildlife crime, whereas I imagine there are some rather urban constabularies that have a lesser interest in it, unless it involves importation, exportation and those sorts of matters. Having said that, how they do things at a local level is a matter for individual police authorities.
At a national level, we appreciate that organised crime can enter the picture a great deal, whether it is dealing in tortoises that are being bred illegally or importation of other animals. There, we think it is important that there should be some overarching approach. That is what we do in our strategic policing requirement, which sets out the national threats and the appropriate national policing capabilities required to counter those particular threats.
There is a local issue, which should be a matter for each local police force. There is a national issue that we should also look at, and it is obviously a matter for the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which I imagine we will come on to and discuss later.
Q404 Chair: But you recognise that there might be some fragmentation or that there may well be some areas where police forces would not perhaps give the same priority on the same basis right the way across the country, so how does one deal with that? The new policy of police commissioners, is that going to further-
Lord Henley: I hope that the police commissioner in Cumbria will take a different approach to this, say from the police commissioner in Merseyside, because they will have different priorities according to what is necessary in their different areas, and that is a very important part of our whole perspective on policing. I do not expect every single police force to give the same priority to wildlife crime. It will depend on what is going on in their areas at a local level. But obviously, as I said, there are national issues involving organised crime that need to be looked at in a different way.
Q405 Chair: In terms of the forthcoming elections in November, does the Home Office envisage that it will be down to local people to make the case to get this further up the agenda as a priority?
Lord Henley: Again, I think this is a matter for the police commissioners themselves to consider once elected-and no doubt this will be part of the election-as to what priority it should have. I will just take two examples-Merseyside and Cumbria are going to be different-that is how we want to look at policing.
Richard Benyon: In the international work that we do at Defra, supporting CITES and making sure that the international capability is strong, we come across frequent cases where wildlife crime, whether it is the export of ivory or rhino horn, or whatever is very much linked with very serious crime as well. So, for international policing organisations, such as Interpol and, of course, in the work that SOCA does, this is a key priority because it is also part of a much wider crime picture.
Q406 Chair: Do you feel that you have the working relationships, at ministerial level, but also for those lower down working on the ground, particularly in relation to CITES and through SOCA, and that there are those channels of communication to get this work carried through?
Richard Benyon: It might be helpful if Trevor gave an indication of how that co-operation works at a lower level. He is the head of the CITES management authority in Defra.
Trevor Salmon: Thank you, Minister. To answer your question, I think it does work very well. We have already mentioned the National Wildlife Crime Unit, and the Ministers have talked about the Wildlife Crime Strategy. CITES is one element of the Wildlife Crime Strategy, as well as obviously tackling domestic crime. The NWCU provides a linkage between UK Border Force-between the Home Office-and the individual police forces to make sure that any issues are tackled from an intelligence point of view. Rather than simply putting people at the ports, checking lots of different imports they will be working with Europol, Interpol and so on to target their activities.
Q407 Chair: But the mechanism for that liaison-does your counterpart in the Home Office wish to comment on how it works at the operational level?
Michael Warren: I work in the policy area rather than the operational area, but it would be fair to say that the relationship between the two Departments is very good at the policy level and the operational level, both in the enforcement of CITES and the tasking of the National Wildlife Crime Unit. We have a good relationship in terms of jointly engaging the voluntary sector as well. This is one of a number of areas where the Home Office and Defra work very closely on a particular crime issue-bringing different skills and expertise and relationships with the outside partners to bear.
Q408 Chair: Did you want to come back, Mr Salmon?
Trevor Salmon: Yes, I was talking more about the strategic level earlier, but to answer your question about the operational level-at the ground level-under CITES specifically, we have regular meetings with UK Border Force, who are for the most part taking these actions forward-stopping and checking consignments at the port. We have a very good relationship with the Metropolitan Police Force, which is where a lot of CITES products happen to turn up, more in the Greater London area. There are regular meetings and regular discussions about how we should operate.
Q409 Martin Caton: Can we look at the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime? Is this basically a discussion group or does it have a strategic function?
Richard Benyon: It very much has a capacity building strategic function. It is a fantastic drawing together of expertise-I think there are well over 100 NGOs and different organisations involved-from land management groups to animal welfare groups to people who are dealing with wildlife crime issues on a daily basis, like the RSPCA. The knowledge-sharing that exists within that partnership gives an enormous benefit in terms of increased value, and it is a partnership that we value and want to see enhanced.
Q410 Martin Caton: Thinking of strategic leadership of that body, have you looked at what they have done in Scotland, where the Environment Minister that chairs the Scottish PAW? Do you think that clearly sends a signal about how important the Scottish Government regards the problem of wildlife crime? One would imagine that that enhances the strategic leadership. Do you think that is a possibility that you might follow?
Richard Benyon: To be perfectly honest, not at present because we believe that the current arrangements-where Defra and the police co-chair PAW and have shared responsibility-work well. That kind of hands-on chairmanship is better than a Minister, who, through the demands on our day, could not give it the absolute commitment that they can. I have attended meetings of the partnership, I meet the people who form it in various different guises regularly, and our commitment to it is total.
I think the reasons for what happens in Scotland are particular to Scotland, and I respect that. I think that what happens in terms of UK PAW is exactly the right structure at the moment, but whether that changes in future, and we want to send a message, that is fine. I think that commitment from the current chairs is the right one at the moment.
Q411 Chair: Just before we move on, short of a Minister from Defra taking on that chairmanship role, do you think there are any other actions that could enhance the strategic role and importance of that body?
Richard Benyon: That is a very good question and I am open to any suggestions. Other than shouting its virtues from the rooftops and the Dispatch Box and attending the very good meeting we had at Kew some months ago, I cannot think of anything else I can do to big up the advantages of such a partnership, but I am always open to suggestions.
Q412 Sheryll Murray: The police and various NGOs have informed us that the appropriate powers to tackle wildlife crime already exist but they are scattered across different pieces of legislation, which makes enforcement, particularly police training and compliance, problematic. Are you attracted to the concept of consolidating all the existing pieces of legislation into a single Wildlife Act?
Lord Henley: I understand that the Law Commission at the moment is looking at consolidating all this. One always has to remember that consolidation can only be consolidation if we want to get through a Consolidation Bill quickly, that is, you cannot make any substantive changes. It is just bringing everything together.
Having been around for a very long time, I can remember the Wildlife and Countryside Bill going through in 1981, and there have been many since. Obviously, it is going to be quite a big job to bring it all together. No doubt we will have to go back before any of us were born or thought of, or even before our grandparents were thought of, because there is a lot there.
All I can say is that we have asked the Law Commission to look at this. It is part of its programmed work and if they can bring forward something that is purely a Consolidation Bill, obviously that can go through the Consolidation Bill process; that is relatively smooth and easy.
Q413 Sheryll Murray: Can I interrupt and ask you very quickly because you have raised this-is there any possibility of your giving them a steer in the direction of consolidation and asking them to speed up the process?
Lord Henley: We could ask them to speed up the process if they could, but they have an awful lot of work on board. The important point to make is all they can do is consolidate. If you want to make changes, which I think you might want to come to later in terms of rationalising some discrepancies and the fines and other punishments available, that would require proper legislation and, as we all know, it is often very difficult to find the appropriate legislative slot, whether you are the Home Office, Defra, or whoever, to do these things.
Richard Benyon: Would it help if I gave an indication of the timescale? The public consultation is due to run between July and November this year. The Law Commission are due to deliver the final policy paper by March 2013. A draft Bill-if that is deemed to be the way forward-is due to be produced by April 2014 and the project seeks to replace the provisions, including the species protection elements of part 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. The reason we put this to the Law Commission came under various headings that were put to us about the current legislation being inflexible, inconsistent, outdated, as Oliver says, and confusing. There are various examples I could furnish you with, if we had the time, about why we thought the legislation came under those headings.
Some of it is perfectly fit for purpose, let’s face it. There is a plethora of wildlife legislation: some of it is very good, but there are many examples of where it is not.
Q414 Dr Whitehead: I want to just talk for a moment on penalties and sentencing. Lord Henley, you touched on some of those issues. The maximum sentence, I think, at the moment for most wildlife crimes is a £5,000 fine, except for CITES-related crimes. We heard evidence certainly from ACPO that they felt that that level of penalty was not dissuasive. What is your view on that? Do you think the penalty regime at the moment is about right?
Lord Henley: I need to be fairly careful here because these are largely matters for the Ministry of Justice, but as a former Home Secretary once said before these things were taken away, prison sometimes works and one example of that is that there is now a maximum penalty of up to six months in the case of egg collecting. As a result, we have seen a dramatic decline in the amount of active illegal egg collectors around. So, yes, one could say prison does work, and I think some work possibly ought to be done on looking at this, and this obviously will have to be across Government. In the end, it is for Parliament to get it right. I cannot promise that this will be a result of any Consolidation Bill because the Consolidation Bill obviously cannot change things and we might have to look at things later to make sure that we get it all right, but I accept that there are some strange anomalies there.
Q415 Dr Whitehead: There is an issue that does not impact on consolidation of legislation to any extent, and that is what sentencing guidelines might look like.
Lord Henley: In the end, these matters have to be for the courts, but we are more than happy to talk to the Sentencing Council and make sure that they are aware of concerns. As I said, I think there are some anomalies there, some of which obviously would need in the end to be addressed by Government and Parliament.
Q416 Dr Whitehead: Have you had any discussions with the Sentencing Council on these issues?
Lord Henley: There are relatively few cases that ever come to court. They probably have other priorities at the moment in the grand scheme of things. As I said earlier, bringing in the possibility of imprisonment for people taking eggs has made a difference.
Q417 Dr Whitehead: I think the problem is perhaps rather more that there are no sentencing guidelines than that the guidelines may not be entirely appropriate. Would just having a sentencing guideline regime produce much greater consistency in sentencing, whether or not one thought the sentencing regime as a whole was appropriate? Would that be a way forward? I appreciate the Sentencing Council’s difficulties.
Lord Henley: They have to operate within the sentences that Parliament has made available and offer guidelines only within that. It is up to the Government and Parliament to get that right, then after that, it is a matter for the Sentencing Council to look at. I am more than happy to have discussions with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to see what they would say. As I said, there are relatively few wildlife offences that come before the courts at the moment. I think it is not quite their top priority.
Chair: Just for the record, that was a key recommendation of an earlier report of this Select Committee. Also linked to that is training for magistrates-that is an important issue for us.
Q418 Mr Spencer: I wonder if we could move on to raptors and the persecution of raptors. Since 2006, there has been primary legislation to criminalise the possession of certain poisons but, unlike Scotland, we have not introduced an order that specifically makes the possession of those poisons a criminal offence. Have we any plans to look at that again?
Richard Benyon: The intentional use of poisoned bait to kill wildlife is already prohibited under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and the abuse or misuse of pesticides is also an offence under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985. Pesticides most commonly occurring in wildlife poisoning incidents are not, or never have been, approved for use in the UK, so people should not have them in their possession. They would be committing an offence if they do. In view of the legislation already in place, an order under section 43 of NERC will not be pursued at this time.
Q419 Mr Spencer: Just looking at our commitment to end all human-formed, if you like, extinctions. We have agreed that we are going to do that by 2020, as I understand it, and the hen harrier is particularly under threat at this moment in time. Are we looking to do anything specific to protect the hen harrier?
Richard Benyon: Yes, we are. I have frequent conversations with a variety of different stakeholders on this, and I am determined that we should see this bird increasing numbers in England. Its number of breeding pairs is dangerously low. I hear varying reports of between one and three pairs. It is a migratory bird, and more pass through or visit England, but we want to see it much more established.
As things stand, I am looking at a possibility of a project that might work. I do not want to go into too much detail because it is at a very conceptual stage, but in terms of its natural breeding habitat, there is plenty of space in England and Wales for it to thrive, as there is in Scotland. I want to make sure that everything has been done to make that possible. The illegal killing of this, or indeed any other raptor is, of course, a criminal offence and people should be held to account if that is happening.
Q420 Mr Spencer: The Scots have looked at the vicarious liability of landowners, whereby if something is poisoned on your land, you are liable as the landowner, are we looking at doing that?
Chair: There is the Division, and I know members will want to go and vote. Perhaps this is an opportune time for us to go and vote and return to vicarious liability when we have done that.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Q421 Chair: We will resume on the merry subject of vicarious liability.
Richard Benyon: We watch with interest what the impact of this will be in Scotland. It is a fairly major change, and this is not a Government that wants to legislate unless we absolutely know that it would make a quantum difference to enforcement of wildlife crime prevention. We do not have plans to introduce vicarious liability, but we will be watching the impact of it north of the border.
Q422 Mr Spencer: Some people, I suppose, will be critical and say that that is because the Scottish Government take wildlife crime more seriously than we do in England. What would be your answer to that?
Richard Benyon: I would reject that, and I think the record speaks for itself. We have wildlife crime measures that are making a difference. We are seeing an increased number of birds of prey in particular, but other species as well that were in almost catastrophic decline a decade or two ago, and there are some good news stories to tell out there. We are not, by any means, complacent. We think there is adequate provision in the law to prosecute those who are committing crimes. We have an absolute commitment right across the ministerial team in Defra to see a reversal in the decline of biodiversity, and one of the key indicators of that is birdlife. We want to see restoring bird numbers, raptors as well as the farmland bird index, and we see this all as part of the same commitment.
Q423 Mr Spencer: If I could just change tack a little bit there. I suppose that one of those success stories has been buzzards. Recently Defra has dropped its research team to look at controlling buzzards. Why did you drop that? I hear talk about looking at other schemes to control them. Can you just update us on where we are at with that?
Richard Benyon: I rejoice with others at the restoration of the numbers of buzzards in this country. We now have somewhere between 55,000 and 90,000 breeding pairs, more with juveniles and other birds, so it is a success story and we want to see that continue. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, there is a provision whereby a business owner of whatever sort, or land manager or other individuals can apply for a licence to control a protected species. What I wanted right from the start was to make sure that the Defra agency-in this case, Natural England-is making a decision, if such an application is made, on the basis of the best possible evidence. I want at all stages to avoid any form of lethal control. The only way to do that, I felt, was to instigate, in this case, a piece of research and to do so in a non-lethal way, which had a minimal impact on this particular bird of prey. I recognise that it hit a wall of credibility because of the large number of people who protested against it. Indeed, some did so on the basis of believing that the research was going to do things that it simply was not going to do.
But that is the world in which we live, and I have now retreated and I want to engage with all interested parties: nature conservation NGOs, businesses, representatives, such as the NGO-National Gamekeepers Organisation-and others, to make sure that we are back to what I wanted to achieve, which is all pulling in the same direction, all being concerned about biodiversity, and to ensure that research and decisions that are made by Ministers or by agencies are made on the basis of the best possible evidence.
Q424 Mr Spencer: What sort of evidence led to the original decision to even consider it because we have been told that only 1% or 2% of pheasants are taken by birds of prey. I am just thinking that, if they are not eating pheasants and partridges, maybe they are eating leverets, coots, moorhens, cygnets, plovers and goodness knows what else. I just wonder if it is worth analysing what those buzzards are consuming and the impact that they are having on our natural environment.
Richard Benyon: I consider myself a countryman, and I see a lot of buzzards and I know that they are pretty idle feeders-they will feed on a carcass of a bit of road kill before they would go through the more exertive activity of trying to despatch something in order to eat it. I also believe that the countryside needs managing and we have to have a balanced approach. Sometimes that requires organisations and Governments to consider things that are unsatisfactory and unwelcome. None of us wants to control badgers, but we feel that, in order to stem the rise in TB, we have to make that very tough decision. I do not ever want to be in a position where any Minister or any arm of Government has to make a decision without the basis of full knowledge.
So I want the raptor group to produce a good level of understanding about where we think there are gaps in evidence, and to work across the board to make sure that Defra-we have a large scientific research budget, which we have defended in the spending review-use it in a thoughtful and intelligent way. We have to recognise that the Wildlife and Countryside Act provisions that caused this furore have not gone away. I just want to make sure that we can find all the evidence we need to ensure sure that, only in the last possible case, there ever needs to be the lethal control of one of these birds; they are beautiful. We want to see more of them, but it has to be done on the basis of the best evidence.
Q425 Mr Spencer: My understanding is that the cash put aside for that was around £375,000; is that still in a pot somewhere for similar projects? What has happened to that money?
Richard Benyon: It is £125,000 a year for three years, so that would be right. That is still earmarked for research, but I have no intention of spending it in the same way as the research project that we were originally looking at. We want to make sure that it is spent in a way that provides the evidence that we in Natural England need, and other applications may or may not come forward. I don’t want us to be in a position of having to say, "Well, we have to organise a piece of research to fit that request." We want to do it now so that Natural England is as well informed as it needs to be in order to make decisions in the future.
Q426 Mr Spencer: Would you consider recommendations from this Committee for possible research projects to which to allocate that money?
Richard Benyon: Certainly, yes. None of us has a sum total of all the knowledge on these matters. I recognise the sensitivity of this, and I know the Committee does as well, but we want to ensure that the recommendations that we take forward, as well as being mindful of that sensitivity, push Government to make the right decision for biodiversity. Sometimes that is the tough decision. We are prepared to be tough if we have to, but I want to make sure that it is right.
Q427 Mr Spencer: Finally, I just wonder if you recognise that, in some communities, there is a feeling that there are too many buzzards and that causes a negative feeling towards birds of prey in general. Do you recognise that there needs to be some form of control of those species? Are they successful in order to make sure that the others are not dragged into this negative feeling?
Richard Benyon: It comes down to a subjective view for some people. Some animals that prey on others are more attractive to a wider population than others. That is in our human nature, coupled with the fact that this bird was persecuted very severely in the past and its numbers were very reduced, and that affects how people think. I sometimes think that people are not prepared to look at the wider complexity of biodiversity and the way it inter-reacts. There are extreme views on both sides. Maybe it is possible to get a consensus view around the middle about proper management control. There are thousands of crows and magpies in this country, but they are not as attractive and do not excite so much high feeling as birds of prey. Crows and magpies are controlled in large numbers every year by land managers. I think that birds of prey have some special status for us and I want them to continue to have that, and I want their numbers continue to increase. However, I also want to do it on the basis of evidence and a clear understanding that wildlife and wildlife habitats need to be managed, and we spend hundreds of millions of pounds on agri-environmental schemes. The taxpayer needs to be absolutely rewarded for spending that money by seeing a reversal in the decline of biodiversity. I do not want future generations of Ministers sitting here while my children or grandchildren, if I ever have any, are not able to see the birds and the species that I have been able to see; and that requires, at times, difficult decisions.
Q428 Chair: Backtracking on buzzard control is the operative phase for now.
Before we move on to policing, may I just go back? I want to check if I may, Mr Benyon, for clarity, whether, when we were talking about raptor persecution, you said that it was an offence to possess poisons such as carbofuran. I raise this because it relates to section 43 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, and my understanding was that there is a distinction between possession and use. I just wondered if, for the record, you could clarify the position for me.
Richard Benyon: In view of the legislation already in place, an order under section 43 of the NERC Act is not deemed to be required to be pursued at this time. Pesticides are most commonly-
Q429 Chair: Sorry, may I just interrupt? It is not going to be required to be used; does that mean that it is currently an offence to possess poisons, such as the one that I just described?
Richard Benyon: Can I confirm this in writing to you because I want to get this absolutely right?
Chair: This is not in any way intended to catch you out, but my understanding is that there is legislation on the statute book that would require an order to come in to make possession an offence, as opposed to use. My understanding is that Scots law has recognised the difference between use and possession, and for the purposes of our current inquiry, we want to try to get to the bottom of whether that particular power would need to be brought in. That is the reason why I am asking for clarification, and I would very much welcome, if you wish to do so, your providing the Committee with absolute clarity on that.
Richard Benyon: I will seek to provide that in writing. What I do know is that the international use of poisoned bait to kill wildlife is already prohibited under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and the abuse or misuse of pesticides is also an offence under the Food and Environmental Protect Act, but I will get details to you on that specific point.
Chair: That is most helpful. Thank you very much indeed.
Q430 Simon Wright: On policing, the National Wildlife Crime Unit has been widely praised by many of the people giving evidence to us. However, there have also been some concerns about the possible implications that arise as a result of its short-term funding arrangements. ACPO, for example, spoke of difficulties potentially of recruiting, retention and development of staff. Have you considered reinforcing the success of the National Wildlife Crime Unit by setting out a long-term financial plan?
Lord Henley: I agree with you, I think it does a very good job. We fund it in part, Defra fund it in part and then there is funding from the Scottish Executive, from ACPO and one or two others. I appreciate that they would like longer-term funding, rather than just moving from year to year. At the moment all I can say, and I apologise for this, is that both ourselves and colleagues in Defra will consider the case for continuing funding in the current spending review, and I hope that we will be able to come to a positive conclusion, but I cannot make any positive guarantee.
Q431 Simon Wright: Is that currently under consideration? You said "will consider."
Lord Henley: As part of the spending review that all Departments are going through at the moment. I am not going to make any promises at this stage, but I agree with you that it has done a very good job. Remember, overall, we are putting a very large sum of money into policing, and so even if, in the end, we cease to fund the National Wildlife Crime Unit there are still other funds going into policing and dealing with these matters. This is only one part of it.
All I can say at the moment is that we will consider these matters, and I think the same is true of ACPO which, as I said, provide funds, and the Scottish Executive.
Q432 Simon Wright: Are you in a position to resolve the uncertainty about the relationship between the proposed National Crime Agency and the National Wildlife Crime Unit?
Lord Henley: The NCA is currently being set up. It has been set up by statute because the Crime and Courts Bill has started its progress through Parliament. Rather unusually, it started its progress in the Lords because I think you have some other matters that you want to discuss in the Commons at the moment. I cannot think what they are.
Chair: I do not think that is our Committee.
Lord Henley: The National Crime Agency is in the process of being set up. There is already a shadow of it and in the Bill-what will become, I hope, the Act-there will be a power to take things like wildlife crime into the NCA in the future. I have to say I do not think that is likely in the immediate future because the NCA will need to settle down and will have other things on its page. Similarly, as you probably know, there is a power to bring counterterrorism into the NCA, but we have made a firm commitment that we will not do anything about that until after the Olympics are over, and then we will consider it. Again, these are big issues that require some thought, but I think wildlife crime is something that will possibly come in later on.
What I can say is that I have had some discussions with, fortuitously, my own Chief Constable, Stuart Hyde, of Cumbria who is also the ACPO lead on wildlife crime about these matters, so I am hoping to have further discussions with him just about the future of the Unit as a whole. I would like to repeat what you said: I think it does a very good job and I hope we can find means to ensure that it continues to do that job.
Q433 Simon Wright: We heard that the work of the Metropolitan Police Wildlife Crime Unit is part-funded by the World Society for the Protection of Animals. What are your thoughts on the part-funded schemes? Can you see the potential for more of these to be developed in future, or have you some concerns about those sorts of setups?
Lord Henley: We always welcome any outside body offering support to tackle crime. That starts with things like Crimestoppers, and a whole many others. We have to pay due regard to the appropriate governance arrangements to ensure the propriety of any funding arrangement. I am sure what the WSPA is offering comes within that. It is all dealt with, I am told, by section 93 of the Police Act 1996, which sets out exactly what are the appropriate terms and conditions. I do not think from what I know and what the Department knows that we have any particular concerns about the WSPA and their part-funding of the Met’s unit.
Q434 Simon Wright: But you would be alert to the fact that there could, in future, be a possible conflict of interest?
Lord Henley: I think one should always be aware of it and that is why section 93, which deals with acceptance of gifts and loans, sets out the appropriate nature of those. But, as I said, I think we should encourage people who want to assist in the fight against crime; I cite Crimestoppers as a classic example of that.
Q435 Simon Wright: Can I turn to civil enforcement matters? To what extent are you satisfied that Natural England is making sufficient use of its civil enforcement powers in relation to SSSIs? How do you measure Natural England’s performance in protecting those sites?
Richard Benyon: With the relatively low number of offences that are reported, we would not expect a large number of opportunities for civil sanctions to be used. It is more important that the powers are used correctly and appropriately than quickly, but we will look at any suggestions that are being made. We have a very clear commitment in Defra to see the number of SSSIs that are in good or recovering status increase. All, with the exception of very few cases, are done through good working relationships between Natural England and land managers. Where sanctions are required, there are the means which they can use against land managers.
Q436 Simon Wright: Their approach to enforcement is clearly more collaborative and perhaps more tolerant than a lot of other enforcement agencies, such as perhaps the police or UK Border Force. Is there a potential or real danger that Natural England is seen as being too close to landowners sometimes?
Richard Benyon: I get a lot of positive comments about Natural England, but negative comments come pretty evenly from those in the land managing community who think that they are being too rigorous and overbearing in how they operate, and those NGOs who think that they are not being rigorous or overbearing enough. So perhaps we are getting it just about right.
It is very hard to talk about these situations in general. It is also very important that Natural England is an arm’s length body with the necessary statutory basis that they have, and that they are able to operate the laws and sanctions that they have freely and unencumbered. I make that distinction and space between what I do and what Natural England does very clear. I think they do a good job.
Q437 Chair: Lord Henley, can I just come back to the comments that you made in response to the question from Simon Wright about policing? It was just to ask about the future, whatever the outcome is going to be from the National Crime Agency and the National Wildlife Crime Unit. On that, I was not quite clear from your response what you were favouring or, given what you said about priorities at the start of the session, just how much of a priority this is. I wondered whether you had had discussions with SOCA, whether there had been a kind of detailed exploration with SOCA about how the new arrangements might fit into the new body that is going to be set up? Could you just give us a little bit more about the detail of how you have been seeking to bring forward active proposals?
Lord Henley: Put very simply, the NCA will come into effect with the passage of the Bill. There are no current plans to bring wildlife crime within the NCA. The NCA is going to have a big enough job as it is. But there is the power to bring all sorts of matters within the NCA.
Q438 Chair: But the power will only come about if it is driven, won’t it?
Lord Henley: One has to decide whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. An awful lot of wildlife crime is very much a local issue, it is not involved with organised crime and things of that sort and therefore it is probably, at that level, best left with the individual constabularies to deal with themselves. But we have a power to bring such things within the NCA in due course. What I am saying is there are no current plans to do so, and I think it is unlikely that it would come within the NCA in the near future.
Q439 Chair: I have to admit, I was a little surprised, if I put it that way, to learn that there have not been detailed discussions with SOCA. I wonder, Mr Benyon- obviously we mentioned at the outset the importance of priorities and the liaison with policing-whether this is a matter that you have concerns about and whether you are, in a cross-cutting governmental way, putting pressure on the Home Office to come up with ideas before it just takes its time and comes up with them perhaps more often by accident than by design.
Richard Benyon: There are considerable overlaps of understanding on this. Lord Henley was a Minister in Defra; Nick Herbert, who is the Policing Minister, was my line manager, if you want to use that phrase, when we were thinking up our approach to these matters in opposition. With those regular discussions at that level and certainly I think that the model is built around a core whereby, backing up what Lord Henley said, local police constabularies can call on a real centre of expertise. When they have a local problem of crime, they can call on the National Wildlife Crime Unit and get good information, and information through the partnership. There are frequent discussions-I cannot be more specific than that. We feel involved in decision-taking of this nature but I cannot be more precise than that.
Q440 Chair: Mr Salmon, do you wish to come in?
Trevor Salmon: If I can just help out, just to reassure the Committee. I am Defra’s link into the Home Office in preparing the National Crime Agency. I sit on the Tasking Co-ordination Group for the Border Police Command and that gives Defra a link in, so again there is co-ordination and, indeed, the NWCU has been talking to SOCA and the various tasking co-ordination groups, so it is not something that has been left to one side. It is part of the puzzle but, as the Minister said, there is quite a lot on the plate already to deal with, so this is not at the top of the list. That is not to say that it is being overlooked; it is part of the consideration and Defra is feeding into those considerations through myself and others.
Q441 Chair: I want to move on to international wildlife crime because that has exercised us quite a lot. I also want to refer to the sentiments that were expressed to me by many people from different African countries who were, throughout the process of the Rio+20 conference, concerned about the whole issue of wildlife crime and the way in which that again had an implication, if you like, for people’s understanding of the biodiversity and natural resources as well. We have taken quite troubling evidence about the price of iconic species such as the tiger, rhinoceros and elephants, and heard how, in some cases, they face extinction due to poaching. Given that this is not something the UK has direct responsibility for, but nonetheless given that we all need to be concerned about biodiversity internationally, I wonder what your views are from both Departments about what active part the UK could play through whatever channels in helping to combat this and to raise awareness about it.
Richard Benyon: We are active on these issues through our role in CITES and other fora. We also give sums of money. In some cases not large but in the case of the Darwin Fund a very large amount indeed. But we give smaller sums of money to, for example, an operation called MIKE-Monitoring of the Illegal Killing of Elephants-and there is another one called ETIS, which monitors the trade in ivory. We see this as very much part of our international role and it fits in with what we are spending on habitat and making sure that local people see an endangered species as a potential source of revenue and something they can feel supportive of rather than threatened by, which they have felt initially until now. That is why the Darwin Fund is so important.
But we take our responsibilities internationally very seriously. We absolutely connect with the sentiments that were put to you around Rio on these matters. Trevor might want to add some information on CITES and opposition on the committee.
Trevor Salmon: We have taken very much a leading role in my time. We were elected to the standing committee of CITES about five years ago and since then, bearing in mind that CITES is a matter of EU competence, we have had to work with our EU colleagues to make sure that they agree with us, and we take a very strong line. We have been engaging in a number of elephant-related working groups-as the Minister said, on MIKE and ETIS, and review of the resolutions they have there. We currently chair the Rhino Working Group that was established last year in light of the alarming decline in rhinos in the wild. On tigers, just to pick the examples you mentioned, we have been the one country continuously supporting the Global Tiger Forum and we have given $500,000 to the Global Tiger Initiative. All that is aimed at improving both habitat and persecution of those species. But those are just the iconic ones; there is a vast range of other species like pangolins and sea urchins that are also traded illegally. We take those seriously.
Q442 Mark Lazarowicz: As you pointed out, one of the driving forces behind the need for such measures is of course the international illegal trade. Clearly, all of these species are not native to the UK, and equally there is a relatively limited demand in the UK. It would appear that the demand is mainly in Asia, as I understand it. But there is some evidence that London, by the kind of place it is, is quite a major source of the actual trade, even if it is only a virtual trade at times. I wonder how far that is something you are trying to take a more aggressive attitude on, given there is evidence that London is certainly important in the trading arrangements, if not the actual production and sale of the species.
Lord Henley: Obviously, the Home Office’s role here is that policing role, and it is one that particularly the Met takes very seriously. It is deeply depressing. I was just looking at this press release from the BBC News that underlined the fact that rhino horn now can be sold for as much as £60,000 a kilo. That is twice the value of gold. It is a very serious, expensive commodity. It is one that a lot of organised crime gangs are going to be interested in. Yes, there will be a lot in London and obviously we, through the Met or other police forces, through Border Force, Border Agency, have an interest in that and take it very seriously indeed, if for no other reason than where you find organised criminals getting into one bit of crime, you normally find they are often involved in another bit. I suspect that you might find that people who are involved in illegal dealing in rhino horn are involved in a lot of other things that are equally distasteful, whether it is drugs or whatever. We have an interest and take it very seriously.
Q443 Chair: But it is a trade issue, isn’t it? These are being sold on the internet in the UK. We have them being illegally shipped to Southeast Asia. It is a matter of trade. Again, where is the enforcement, where is the rule of law and what further action could be taken if we were absolutely determined to do more to deal with this issue?
Mark Lazarowicz: Could I come in on that point? One can see how the National Wildlife Crime Agency is going to co-operate in terms of the domestic, UK-based climate. A relatively small constabulary does not have the status and base that London has. Do we need a co-ordinated approach at UK level to control this type of activity that comes into, say, a smaller port or a smaller community outside the main cities?
Lord Henley: I think the Unit performs that function very well and you are quite right to say that, let us take that relatively small constabulary-my own in Cumbria-yes, obviously it is not going to have the resources to deal with this, but I do not think importation into Cumbria is a major problem and that is why the Met takes a lead on these matters and that is probably appropriate.
I think that is why I said this is a matter that can be considered for the NCA in the future. But let us get the NCA set up and let it settle down before we move on that.
Q444 Chair: I am just trying to understand what the position of the Home Office is. You observe that organised crime is involved in wildlife crime, yet when we were talking just now about the new body that is going to be set up, it seemed to me you were saying that there is no wildlife crime role for the National Crime Agency.
Lord Henley: No, I think you misunderstood me. I acknowledge that there is organised crime in wildlife crime but I also made it quite clear that I think an awful lot of wildlife crime is at a very local level and is not organised crime.
Q445 Chair: That part that is organised crime, how is the Government dealing with it?
Lord Henley: There is organised crime, and we have the Unit that we have been discussing, and I said that we will be making decisions about its funding in the future. That is right and proper, and it will be a joint decision by ourselves and Defra. Just as we have not made any final decision about whether, say, counterterrorism-which is obviously a very serious problem and a lot of that can be organised crime-should come into the NCA, we have not made a decision about whether wildlife crime should come in. I think, as I was saying to Mark Lazarowicz, that that is one of those things where we prefer to see the NCA settle down before we make any final decision.
Q446 Chair: Our concern is that there seems to be this limbo. What are we waiting for? I think what we want to know is what the mechanism is and what process there is. If you like, what machinery is working between your Department and Defra, and possibly BIS, and even the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, about the way in which we are not planning service at the very first opportunity of the new agency being set up, when we know that there is a direct continuation and follow-on from where the responsibilities are at the moment?
Richard Benyon: One visit to the Animal Rescue Centre at Heathrow will reveal how the UK has become a centre of real knowledge and understanding about the trade in endangered species-that is not just picking people up at Heathrow carrying rhino horn, it is about understanding the whole dynamic of crime that goes right to organised gangs in other parts of the world.
I have just come back from Central America, and the meeting of the International Whaling Commission. In the SOCA operation there on illegal logging, they are tracing very rare species of timber, just as they are networked in on wildlife crime through ivory and rhino horn trading. There is a huge amount going on, a huge amount of expertise, and I think there is a co-ordinated sense of the importance of this from our international role, from our national role, and through our cross-cutting work.
Q447 Chair: Finally on this, going back to CITES and the run-up to that. I wonder what the most ambitious position that could come out of the EC in the run-up to the conference of the parties in Thailand, March 2013, might be?
Richard Benyon: You will have heard from Trevor that the UK is a proactive member of CITES and will continue to be so. It is one of three biodiversity conventions, along with the CBD and the Convention on Migratory Species. CITES, as has been said, is a matter of EU competence and we work very closely to make sure that there is a strong and clear line coming from all European countries, I think we are the leading edge of that and we want to see a stronger voice on this from the European Union. The UK is actively working with the EU to ensure that our lines are supported, and much of this will commence after the forthcoming standing committee, which is due to take place in Geneva later this month. The UK, as one of the standing committee’s 16 members, has taken a leading role in developing orientation lines that will represent on behalf of the EU at the Geneva meeting, and the UK currently chairs three CITES working groups, as Trevor said, on rhino, internet trade and on reporting.
Chair: Lord Henley, I am mindful of the fact that you need to leave at 5.30pm, and we will excuse you at 5.30pm, but we have one final question from Dr Whitehead.
Lord Henley: Fine. That is marvellous, thanks.
Q448 Dr Whitehead: This really is the final question. We have taken a lot of evidence on the huge financial and environmental cost that arises in the UK from non-native invasive species. Certainly as far as plants are concerned, most of it would appear to be concentrated at the bottom of my garden. Various agencies have said that they have limited responsibility in this area, and nobody takes overall responsibility for it. For example, there appears to be no unified financial strategy relating to those species. Is there an understanding of that and a willingness by the Government to get a grip on this issue?
Richard Benyon: There is a very urgent need to get a grip. We are getting a grip on this issue because there is a very big financial cost. It has been estimated it is going to cost us £1.3 billion to deal with invasive non-native species. Two weeks ago, I was down in Bristol launching a programme to make people aware, which leads on from other partnership working that we have done in terms of dealing with, for example, the killer shrimp, which is a very serious threat to our waterways. and a number of different plant species, which are having a huge impact on, for example, clogging up some of our internal drainage board waterways. We are starting to see a picture, whereby, because of the free-flow of people-and frankly the ignorance of some people-we are seeing plant and animal species brought into this country. Because of that and also because of climate change, there is an absolute imperative and that is why we are trying to draw together our actions to make sure that Government is doing its bit, recognising that Government cannot do it all. There is an onus on not just enforcement agencies but also business organisations, land management groups, the CLA, NFU, the Horticultural Trades Association and others, to make sure that everything is done to keep people aware, firstly, to identify, secondly, to know what they can do to mitigate and, thirdly, to understand that if we do not deal with these now, an irritant and a minor cost problem to a business will infringe on its ability to work in the future, just as we do with animal disease, and so this is absolutely a top priority.
Q449 Chair: Lord Henley, do you have a perspective that you wish to add?
Lord Henley: I do not think I want to add anything to that. I remember from my days in Defra problems with all those things I could not pronounce, such as phytopthora ramorum and such things, Southern Oak disease and Southern Oak decline, and all that. It is a very serious problem. I do not think it is one that the Home Office has any view on. If I could just go back to one particular Home Office point and that was what we were saying about the National Wildlife Crime Unit and its relationship with the NCA. Even if it is not within the NCA, do remember that the expertise of the NCA-particularly when it relates to organised crime as a successor to SOCA-will still be available to that Unit. It is not as if not taking it in means it loses out on that. All these things work together and we certainly very much hope that the NCA will be offering that help and advice.
Chair: I will allow Dr Whitehead to finish his questioning of Mr Benyon, but please feel free to leave and thank you very much indeed.
Q450 Dr Whitehead: I appreciate the commitment of Defra particularly and observe that in its activities on non-native invasive species. What might be the substance of a more joined-up invasive species strategy between Departments, particularly conjoining what Defra is doing in dealing with species that are already here, with Departments which could perhaps make a much better effort in ensuring that that problem does not arise?
Richard Benyon: I think it is right that an environmental Department takes the lead on this, but we have responsibility for cross-Government. First, you have resources beyond Government-the idea that one can just sit back and say we are an island nation and these problems are not going to occur is very short-sighted. That is why we are working at EU level-that is an important point-to make sure that we are sharing intelligence and developing a cross-Europe strategy and beyond, and why we are working across Government. It is important, for example, in our programme for better regulation that Defra makes a strong case. We want less burden on business and better regulation at every level. But there may be an occasion-I cannot think of one-this is absolutely off the top of my head but where, for example, there may be a deregulatory drive in a certain area and it is Defra’s job to say, "Well, hang on, that may cause a problem in terms of the spread of an invasive species of some sort", and so we would be very forceful in making that point and there are the necessary cross-cutting arrangements, which would allow us to do that.
There is also the point I made earlier about recognising this is going to have a major impact, if it has not already, on businesses as well as people’s quality of life. If they are paying more for water because a lot has been spent on clearing it of particularly pernicious weed that is blocking the outflows of a reservoir, it is in everybody’s interests that we are dealing with these things now and that is why we have what we hope is a coherent cross-Government approach.
Q451 Dr Whitehead: Does Defra need more money to pursue this?
Richard Benyon: No, I think it is a question of sharing expertise. We would always like more money but I do not think that the lack of money is impeding us in making real inroads. I cited the killer shrimp, and when I say it to some people, they smile, but it is a serious problem. If it gets into our water courses in any greater degree than it is now, it will cause serious biodiversity issues. The partnership we did with the Angling Trust, with canoeing organisations, rowers and other boaters-Check, Clean, Dry campaign it was called-was about checking, cleaning and drying equipment, whether fishermen’s waders or your boat. That is precisely the kind of partnership working we want to see. I want to see more business-related organisations-the CBI, CLA and a few others-understanding that we all have a part to play in this, and they would say very clearly that they do, but we have to increase this to make sure the Government is playing its part as a partner in tackling some of these problems.
Chair: I think we have come to an end and I sincerely thank you for the time, both of yourself and your colleagues, and Lord Henley. We hope to have a report out in the not too distant future. Thank you, once again, very much indeed.