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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I am humbled by the eminence in so many fields of the noble Lords who put their names to this amendment and by the credentials of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. I do not claim any credentials and nor am I a lawyer.
What weighs heavily with me is that in 999 cases out of a 1,000 the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, will be correct. It would be regrettable if a gamekeeper, acting on instructions, is sent to prison. However, it is for the courts to make judgments as to whether wildlife crimes are truly serious or not. I have very carefully considered the case put by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, who has a very long and reputable record in countryside issues. I take particular note that the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime spent a great deal of time debating this issue, along with many others, and made specific recommendations. It was composed
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I support my noble friend's amendment. We are almost at the end, but not quite. Throughout 11 days this Bill has basically involved argument and debate where intellect, experience and commitment have won the day. The Bill is considerably better than it was when it came to this House. The Government and their team have done a huge amount to help to improve it, with the aid of criticism from around the House. There have been positive and objective amendments which have been well thought out.
The Minister's theme throughout has been justice and balance. We have taken that on board on this side of the House. It has been about creating a Bill which is good for everyone and in which everything is fair and emotion does not run. When I spoke to this amendment at Report stage I supported the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I understand her position. I told the Minister that I believed that on this occasion the balance was not right and that the Government should re-tune it.
We have heard again tonight of the need for increased sanctions against criminal acts where Schedule 1 species and floral and fauna are concerned. We have had some amusing anecdotal evidence, but I am being serious. All of us who are involved know that we are at a critical time for conservation. I hope that the new Act will have an enormous impact. There are huge risks involved in opening up vast tracts of the countryside to many people who have not been used to having access. It is right that they should have it. I hope that they will learn quickly to enjoy it, appreciate it and look after it.
But people in the countryside, conservationists and all those who are guardians of our environment, are on edge at the moment. They are on a tightrope. It is a very emotive act proposed by the Government tonight; namely, introducing a custodial sentence for the offences which have been outlined. My case is that it is unbalanced; it is edging on dogma. I say "edging" because I accept that sanctions need to be increased. But a custodial sentence is an emotional process to those involved.
This provision creates a serious risk of injustice. It puts a huge onus on the judiciary. It may well be magistrates in the magistrates' courts in the first instance. Then there are the costs of defence and legal aid, and all that goes with that, and the publicity that will surround the first person who is sent to gaol for killing a hawk.
The Government are putting a lot of the goodwill and good parts of this Bill at risk if they stick to their determination to force a custodial sentence on the judiciary. I am a believer in the Bill. Last time I spoke I said that up until now the Bill has gone well; at times
The timing of this sanction, coming as it does at the end of the Bill when it is about to hit the country and the headlines, is wrong. It has not been proved to be necessary. My noble friend Lord Buxton told us of the success of the protection scheme for many of the raptors and other species. That is another story. I am afraid that on this occasion--I say "I am afraid" because I see the problems and I share them--the case is not made for a custodial sentence for this crime. In the light of that, the timing is terrible and the Government are taking a very serious risk.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I suppose I should have been grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for accepting the logic of the first part of my argument last time, in that we cannot differentiate a crime by the perpetrator of the crime and the seriousness of the crime, and the second part of my argument that the seriousness of the crime within the penalties prescribed by Parliament is a matter for the courts. However, in accepting that logic he has now widened his case to taking out of the Bill a custodial sentence in all circumstances.
I make two points. First, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and my noble friend Lady Young said, this recommendation on custodial sentences arises not from some splinter group of jack-booted ecologists, but from a wide-ranging consultation involving conservation areas, local authorities, land-owning elements, the judiciary and the police. They recognise the kind of case we had a few weeks ago where somebody was found with several hundred birds' eggs, 70 dead wild birds, many of them endangered species, and the magistrate directly criticised Parliament for not providing for a custodial sentence in those circumstances. The man was let off with a conditional discharge and a £300 fine.
If we are serious about wildlife protection then we have to put on our statute books a deterrent which means something to such people. In the vast majority of cases, the custodial sentence will not be used. Many of the crimes, and many of the instances alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and others, will clearly attract a lower range of fines. That is a matter for the courts.
However, the wilful and serious attack on an endangered species or the destruction of a wildlife site is a grave matter and I believe that Parliament should now provide a custodial sentence for that. That view is backed by a wide-ranging recommendation. Indeed, I
I am a little surprised that the multi-party support which the proposal received in another place has not been reflected here today. Nevertheless, I understand the strength of feeling on the issue and the possible effects on the countryside. I believe that if we explain it properly, country people will understand that the worst thing that can happen to the countryside is its destruction by wilful people, whether they live there or travel out from the towns. In order to deal with that, we need the deterrent of a custodial sentence. As always, the seriousness of the crime will be decided by the courts. I hope that the noble Lord will not pursue his amendment.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, when the 1981 Act was before Parliament as a Bill, great care and trouble was taken in drawing up the various schedules of creatures and plants to be protected. I know that because I was then a member of the Countryside Commission. The awful fact and truth is that, in applying a blanket custodial sentence to everything in those schedules, including the budgerigars and the fat voles, no trouble was taken to make a differentiation. I suspect that the Minister did not know that budgerigars were on the list--I had to do some digging to find out!
I fear that this is an example of sloppy legislation. It is a great pity that the Bill, which in general I support and which has so much good in it in terms of access and AONBs, should be spoilt by such a provision. Whatever the Minister says, the message will go out to people in the countryside and elsewhere that Parliament is unthinkingly, casually and carelessly proposing custodial sentences for a wide range of offences when that is clearly inappropriate.
I should be failing in my duty if I did not give every noble Lord the opportunity to decide in his or her heart whether it is right to have such a blanket and wide-ranging provision for severe custodial sentences. I am sure that few noble Lords realised that the Bill contained such a proposal. I should therefore like to test the opinion of the House.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.