Meeting date: Thursday, March 12, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament 12 March 2020
Agenda: Business Motion, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Scottish Apprenticeship Week , Portfolio Question Time, Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Covid-19 (Update), Business Motion, Decision Time
- Business Motion
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Scottish Apprenticeship Week
- Portfolio Question Time
- Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Covid-19 (Update)
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
The next item of business is a stage 1 debate on motion S5M-21200, in the name of Mairi Gougeon, on the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill.14:51
I am delighted to present the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill to the chamber and to introduce these important proposals for the stage 1 parliamentary debate.
If the bill is passed, it will modernise and strengthen the implementation of existing legislation impacting on animal welfare, assisting enforcement authorities to ensure that Scotland’s domestic animals and wildlife benefit from the best possible protection.
Bearing in mind the increasingly busy parliamentary schedule, the bill is tightly focused to deliver the changes that are most sought after by front-line enforcement staff and that require amendments to existing primary legislation. The aim is that the changes will come into force this year.
The bill addresses specific priorities, many of which have been highlighted during discussions as part of the close working relationship between officials and key stakeholders—particularly those with practical experience of working with the existing legislation, who recognise that the proposals will make significant improvements to the protection of our animals. Those include Police Scotland, the Scottish SPCA, local authorities and the Animal and Plant Health Agency. All the priorities in the bill received strong support from respondents to the Scottish Government’s consultation.
In short, the bill increases the maximum available penalties for animal cruelty and wildlife crime and removes the six-month time bar for many offences; it introduces a new power to put in place fixed-penalty notice regimes; it improves the procedures for rehoming and makes other arrangements for animals that have been taken into possession by enforcement authorities to protect their welfare; and it improves protections for police dogs and horses by introducing Finn’s law in Scotland, recognising their indispensable role in our society.
Thankfully, the most extreme animal cruelty and animal fighting offences in Scotland, which result in a custodial sentence, are rare. There have been 41 custodial sentences in the past 10 years, and there have been only three custodial sentences longer than 300 days in that time. However, although the most extreme cases are rare, as a society and as a Government, we need to send the strong message that any animal cruelty or wildlife crime shall not be tolerated. I hope that the publicity around the bill will start the necessary behaviour changes to banish that cruelty from our society.
These often traumatic and sadistic offences rightly attract considerable public concern. We are also concerned about links to serious organised crime in some other cases, particularly those to do with the illegal trade in puppies.
We consider—and others agree—that the current maximum penalties are simply not high enough to allow the courts to deal appropriately with such cases.
The bill will also standardise wildlife crime penalties and bring the penalties for 22 of the most serious offences, which involve the illegal killing or injuring of wild birds and animals, into line with the new maximum penalties for animal welfare offences. That recognises that wild animals should be given protection equivalent to that which is given to domestic and farm animals from the worst types of deliberate harm.
I welcome the bill and the Scottish Government’s action to give enhanced protection from harm to animals and wildlife.
The minister mentioned farm animals. Does she share my concern that incidents of livestock worrying are on the increase in Scotland? She will be aware of my proposed protection of livestock (Scotland) bill. Will she agree to meet me to discuss the bill? We are almost at stage 1.
I thank Emma Harper for her intervention and congratulate her on all the work that she has done on tackling that important issue. I am happy to commit to meeting her to discuss the matter further. It is a vital issue, and it is important that we work together to make sure that we are successful in addressing it.
The penalties for 36 other offences, including those that deal with the disturbance of wild animals and their habitats, will be standardised and increased in line with the recommendations of the Poustie report.
An issue that is related to the higher maximum penalties is the availability of trial by indictment, which will directly benefit enforcement agencies such as Police Scotland, the Scottish SPCA and local authorities, as well as the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, by removing the current statutory six-month time limit for commencing criminal proceedings. That will give authorities additional time to gather all the appropriate evidence and to draft complete and considered reports on increasingly complicated cases that often involve serious organised crime elements.
One of the aims of the bill is to emphasise that animal cruelty and wildlife crime will not be tolerated in Scotland, so it will provide courts with the flexibility that is needed to impose sentences that are appropriate for a wide range of offending behaviour. The new maximum penalties will allow courts the flexibility to issue the most appropriate sentence for the worst cases, while the introduction of a new power to develop new fixed-penalty notices will provide an additional enforcement tool for more technical offences.
The bill will also introduce overarching powers that will allow the future introduction of fixed-penalty notice regimes through regulations for animal health and welfare and wildlife crime offences, which will enable bespoke FPN regimes to be designed to deal with a wide range of offences in a proportionate and timely manner. For example, FPNs could be used to deal more effectively with breaches of movement restrictions during an animal disease outbreak or failure to comply with movement and traceability regulations. Although those technical breaches might not impact negatively on individual animals, they can be detrimental to the health and welfare of wider animal populations. It is important to deal with all breaches of our animal regulations effectively in order to improve compliance overall, and I hope that the proposed focused changes to the penalty regime will lead to behaviour change across our communities, reflecting the public concern for animals in Scotland.
The bill also proposes a new and innovative approach to dealing with animals that have been taken into possession in emergency situations to protect their welfare. The new process will allow enforcement authorities to make appropriate permanent arrangements for such animals without the need to apply for a court order. That streamlined process, which is independent of any potential prosecution, will result in significant savings in staff time and resources for all parties, including the courts, and it should speed up the process of resolving often traumatic animal welfare situations.
We know that the neglect and subsequent suffering of animals is often a symptom of another problem, such as financial difficulties, bereavement, mental health issues or other illness. Enforcement authorities are acutely aware of that, and there are already processes in place for referrals to other agencies such as social work, where that is required. The new powers have been specifically designed to balance the property rights of the individual with the need to protect the welfare of animals. The bill recognises that, although animals have a legal status as someone’s property and the owner, too, might be suffering, those animals are sentient beings whose welfare needs must be met.
As the new robust and streamlined process will be implemented by enforcement authorities without any need to go to court, the necessary safeguards to protect human rights have been provided for at the same time as a focus on the welfare of the animals.
I am proud that the bill introduces Finn’s law in Scotland. I have met Finn and his handler, Dave, as well as colleagues in Police Scotland, and I have heard at first hand about the importance of the role of police dogs and horses. I have been touched by Police Scotland’s support for the proposals, which are, along with other elements of the bill, simply the right thing to do. They also keep pace with action that is being taken by other United Kingdom Administrations.
The bill will provide police animals with the same level of protection as other animals that are not routinely used in situations in which attackers could claim to have been acting to defend themselves. The provision will exist alongside the increase in the maximum penalties that are available for crimes against all animals, meaning that all of Scotland’s animals, be they guide dogs, police dogs or police horses, will benefit equally from the bill.
The bill is being delivered alongside a number of other initiatives to improve the welfare of our animals and wildlife that do not require changes to primary legislation. In relation to animal welfare, they include the creation of a modern and flexible licensing framework for pet breeding, animal sanctuaries, rehoming activities and pet sales—proposals that we will bring forward later this year.
Will the Government introduce regulations on performance animals in the current session of Parliament?
I will look at that specific issue and will get back to the member on it.
We also intend the new regulations to give effect to Lucy’s law—a measure to prevent the third-party sale of cats and dogs under six months old as pets—as well as addressing the proposals that Jeremy Balfour has made on modernising the licensing of pet shop sales. The overall aim is to regulate to protect animal welfare in a way that is not unduly burdensome for those who are doing a good job, while being effective in dealing with cases in which welfare is not being sufficiently protected.
Officials are also working to introduce compulsory closed circuit television in abattoirs, and they are undertaking reviews of the use of electronic training collars for dogs as well as gathering evidence on the incidence of dog attacks on livestock. We look forward to Emma Harper’s member’s bill on that subject being introduced in the near future.
On the illegal trade in puppies, we delivered two very successful public awareness campaigns in 2018 and 2019 to encourage responsible dog ownership and help to alert pet buyers to the dangers of buying from illegal puppy dealers posing as home breeders.
Regarding wildlife, we are working on responses to the recommendations that were made by both the grouse moor review group and the deer management review group. We will publish a strategic approach to wildlife management that puts animal welfare at the centre while protecting public health and economic and conservation considerations.
We have established Scotland’s first animal welfare commission, which comprises 12 experts from different disciplines in the field of animal welfare and is chaired by Professor Cathy Dwyer of Scotland’s Rural College and the University of Edinburgh. The commission, which will have its first meeting this month, will provide an independent expert forum to consider how the welfare needs of sentient animals are being met, examine the possible legislative and non-legislative routes to further protect their welfare and identify any research that is required for an evidence base for future policy development. I am confident that that new advisory body will have a real impact in prioritising the action that is required to tackle the wide range of issues regarding all sentient animals in Scotland.
I hope that members appreciate that that package of complementary measures, together with the provisions in the bill, will address a wide range of stakeholder concerns about Scotland’s animals.
There is widespread and strong support for the proposals in the bill, particularly among those with practical involvement in the current legislation, including veterinary staff and the police. I am honoured to be responsible for introducing the refinements that are proposed in the bill, which will make an immediate impact in assisting with enforcement and further protect Scotland’s animals.
I look forward to this afternoon’s debate and to working with parliamentary colleagues to ensure that the important improvements in the bill can be introduced as quickly as possible, without unnecessary delay.
I am proud to move,
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill.
I invite Gillian Martin to speak on behalf of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee.15:03
On behalf of my colleagues on the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, I open by saying that we welcome the bill and support its aim to increase the penalties for crimes of animal harm. We took evidence from many experienced and expert stakeholders, and we published our report in February. I thank the minister for her recent letter to the committee, and for early notice of the matters on which she intends to lodge amendments at stage 2.
The committee particularly welcomes the establishment of the animal welfare commission. We were encouraged to see its very experienced members being announced recently, and we look forward to working with them.
I turn to the bill and the committee’s consideration of it. It has been said that
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
I certainly agree with that sentiment, and I know that my committee colleagues feel as strongly as I do about it. Disregarding the health and welfare of animals can make it easier for us to disregard the health and welfare of our fellow humans. It can limit our capacity for empathy, and there are often links between animal abuse and other crimes.
It is right that the Government is seeking to increase penalties in line with the grave nature of many of the crimes that are committed against animals, and to give the courts greater flexibility to penalise appropriately. We welcome the proposals to increase the maximum sentences for the most serious offences, and to introduce fixed penalty notices that would allow a sanction short of prosecution.
Given this nation’s affection for animals, it is surprising that we currently have among the lowest penalties in Europe for animal welfare and cruelty offences: a sentence of 12 months for the worst act of animal cruelty compares badly with sentences of five years for crimes such as fly tipping or theft. Many of us here will have seen distressing animal cruelty crimes that warrant much harsher penalties and giving the courts greater flexibility to impose sentences that are more in line with the amount of serious harm that has been done. That view is reflected in public opinion.
As I said, animal cruelty is often a flag for other offences; there is a substantial body of evidence that says that animal cruelty offenders also commit other crimes, including domestic abuse and other violent offences.
Much animal cruelty is about individuals or groups wanting to make money from the sale of animals. Stakeholders expressed concerns about organised crime including illegal puppy farming and dog fighting, in which offenders are often driven by profit and for which current penalties do not provide a sufficient deterrent.
It is also important to say that the committee heard that not all cases of animal suffering are caused by deliberate cruelty. Neglect of animals can happen for various reasons, including an owner being unable to cope because of physical or mental illness. We welcome the flexibility in relation to fixed-penalty notices and appeals procedures to reflect that, so that we do not unnecessarily criminalise people who are in complex situations that might require the involvement of social services and animal welfare services.
The committee understands that there are tiers of penalties for wildlife crimes, which brings me on to one of our key recommendations, which we believe will strengthen the bill and make an even bigger impact on wild animal welfare. We heard evidence about the effects of destruction of habitats. Destroying an animal’s habitat can be as fatal as directly harming or killing an animal. For example, the destruction of badger setts could lead to the destruction of a colony and the deaths of some or all of the animals, particularly during breeding. We believe that wilful destruction of a habitat is as much abuse of an animal as direct abuse is.
The committee is therefore recommending that the Scottish Government reconsider its approach in order to ensure that enhanced protections are extended to resting places and breeding sites, so that sentencing can reflect crimes having equivalent outcomes in terms of harm to the animal. We believe that such an extension will act as a deterrent to the wilful destruction of animal habitats and will strengthen the bill.
I note the minister’s recent assurances in her letter that the penalties in the bill that apply to different types of offences are coherent, proportionate and appropriate, and that they fit the circumstances of each individual case. I invite the minister, in summing up the debate, to reflect further on the committee’s recommendation about habitats. We took strong evidence on that from a range of expert stakeholders.
I want to talk about the proposal for regulations to be made to create a fixed-penalty notice regime. The committee has already flagged up that it is seeking assurances that FPNs will not be used when the severity of the crime is such that prosecution would be the more appropriate action, and we welcome the update from the Scottish Government on the timing of the outcomes of the consultation on FPNs for animal health offences. I note that the minister will seek to amend the bill at stage 2 to allow fixed-penalty notice regulations, and we look forward to receiving more information about the nature and detail of those ahead of stage 2.
I also note the minister’s intention to consider whether it is appropriate to lodge a stage 2 amendment to introduce a power in the bill for Scottish ministers to make provision in future regulations for use of fixed-penalty notice regimes for certain wildlife offences, and we will consider that if we are presented with such an amendment.
The committee made a strong recommendation on impact statements in our report. When we were considering wildlife crime, we heard from experts that impact statements are very helpful for coming to conclusions on the penalty that is required. In the report, we mention our support for the recommendation of the Poustie review to put impact statements on a legislative footing. Stakeholders told the committee that sheriffs and procurators fiscal having impact statements available to them before sentencing is extremely helpful because they provide background information. The committee was convinced that that was an important point and has therefore recommended that it be required by law that impact statements be made available to the court for offences of this nature.
We note the minister’s recent comment that the current system is “working well”. However, the committee has asked
“the Scottish Government why it considers putting impact statements on a legislative footing, as recommended by Professor Poustie, is unnecessary.”
Perhaps the minister can answer that question in her closing statement.
I will move on to what the committee believes to be one of the most significant procedural changes that is presented by the bill. The bill proposes a power to rehome or sell off animals without first obtaining a court order. The committee heard compelling evidence to support the introduction of such a power and is fully supportive of the change. The move will protect the welfare of affected animals by allowing domestic animals to be rehomed quickly, rather than being in limbo in kennels, and by allowing livestock to be quickly sold to new owners. The proposal also means that animal charities or local authorities will not have to provide resources for and bear the enormous cost of caring for animals long term. The committee is supportive of that change, which we consider to be an important step forward in animal welfare.
We also heard about the need to provide additional protection for service animals by way of a Scottish Finn’s law. Thankfully, there have been very few attacks on service animals in Scotland, but it is only right that animals that work to keep us safe should be given the fullest possible protection in return, so the committee fully supports the additional protections in the bill.
I will end by discussing the importance of information sharing. The committee heard that there is no centralised registration system for current penalties such as disqualification orders. We believe that there is a need for relevant agencies to share information on criminal animal cruelty. The committee welcomes the recent confirmation from the minister that Police Scotland is currently discussing a joint working protocol with the Scottish SPCA, and would welcome further information on that collaboration.
I thank the many expert stakeholders who gave such compelling and important evidence, which we hope will strengthen an already very strong bill that will act as a deterrent to people who wish to cause harm to animals. On behalf of all the committee’s members, I thank the committee clerks for all their hard work and assistance.
The committee recognises that the bill is not the end of the work that we have to do to protect Scotland’s animals and its wildlife. However, it is a very positive step, and some elements of it have been described as “groundbreaking”. The committee is therefore pleased to support the general principles of the bill.15:14
I am pleased to lead the debate for the Scottish Conservatives, given that I am a member of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, which is overseeing the bill.
The Scottish Conservatives are supportive of the general principles of the bill. Indeed, three years ago, I had preliminary talks with officials about whether there was an opportunity to address many of the shortcomings that the bill will now address, including: increasing penalties for animal and wildlife crime; introducing new fixed-penalty notices; extending the time allowed for prosecution; giving more powers to authorities when animals are taken into possession to alleviate their suffering; and the very welcome move of increasing the protection of service animals through our own Scottish Finn’s law, which my colleague Liam Kerr has championed.
As the member said, that is an excellent provision, which follows a huge campaign led by PC Wardell and so many others, with more than 56,000 signatures on my petition. However, this is only stage 1 of the bill. Principle and execution are not the same thing and it is crucial that the principles of Finn’s law are fully enshrined in statute through precise amendments.
Therefore, does the member agree that service animals must be given proper protection, to reflect the respect that we have for them, that attackers must be punished appropriately and that we must all work at stage 2 to make sure that the execution matches the principle?
I thank the member for that intervention. I agree, and we look forward to stage 2, when we will make sure that the bill fulfils everybody’s expectations of protecting service dogs.
We must also make it clear that, rightly or wrongly, the bill does not cover many outstanding issues: for example, issues related to the recent Bonomy review, dog control and the licensing of animal breeding, pet sales and animal sanctuaries. We should have undertaken a review of the entire Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 to include some of those issues, but we are where we are.
Although the bill strengthens sentencing for animal cruelty offences and tackles the subject of animal welfare, I refer members to the contribution that I made at the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee at this time last year, on the review of the Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010, which was introduced a decade ago. I put forward the case that a host of members’ bills relate to the subject of animals and there is still the potential for all those separate pieces of legislation to become complicated, particularly in how they interact. Rather than there being a lengthy process for multiple members’ bills, the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill could have gone further and been an overarching piece of legislation on animal cruelty.
It is 14 years since this Parliament passed the previous major piece of legislation on animal welfare and cruelty in 2006. This bill is long overdue, and we need to introduce new penalties for those who continue to cause pain and suffering to animals and wildlife. That is backed up by the fact that 99.4 per cent of respondents to the consultation agreed with the proposals to introduce tougher sentencing.
However, it is important to note that the legislation before us does not create any new offences. The overarching positive of the new legislation is that it allows greater flexibility in punishing offenders, whether that is through lengthier jail sentences or unlimited fines. The fact that the current legislation allows for maximum punishments of only 12 months has done little to deter or adequately punish the offenders who carry out these crimes.
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home’s welcome briefing ahead of today’s debate highlights that, between 2011 and 2016, 522 people were convicted of animal cruelty offences, yet only 45 per cent of those convicted received sentences of more than six months.
The committee raised the issue of sentencing guidelines for wildlife crime. Battersea and the Law Society of Scotland point out that, following the passing of this legislation, it would be helpful if the sentencing guidelines were also updated. That would strengthen our courts systems and enable them to have a uniform approach when it comes to dealing with animal welfare and wildlife crimes.
The Law Society also pointed out that sentencing for wildlife crimes can be different from other crimes when it comes to assessing culpability, harm and other public policy guidelines; again, that strengthens the need to update sentencing guidelines. We need clarity on the way that certain wildlife crimes are viewed. As Gillian Martin mentioned, the likes of destroying a single badger sett needs to be considered in light of the long-term impact on the colony.
The independent Scottish Sentencing Council—and rightly, not politicians—has the responsibility for developing sentencing guidelines but, during the progression of the bill, we welcome further discussions with the Scottish Government on what would be the best way to update those guidelines.
The Scottish Conservatives are also supportive of the principle of fixed-penalty notices, which are outlined in the bill as a further deterrent. As the ECCLR Committee noted, that would give authorities a greater degree of flexibility in determining proportionate penalties. However, those notices should be delivered only for minor and technical offences where no harm has come to animals. I would welcome a commitment from the minister to bring more clarity around the notices and details of the stage 2 amendments that she intends to introduce.
The Scottish Government’s consultation on fixed-penalty notices received a positive response; 61.4 per cent of respondents agreed that they should be brought in, and the 32 local authorities were in unanimous agreement. However, we need to ensure that people face the consequences of their criminality, and I would like the Government to reflect on how many of these notices it estimates will be served and how many will, potentially, go unpaid.
On notices, I would like to raise concerns about how the information will be held and shared between relevant authorities. Currently, there is no one central register in which to hold the information, and the committee recognises that there needs to be more joined-up thinking when it comes to intelligence sharing. That information sharing would help to track patterns of animal abuse. As a member for a rural constituency—Galloway and West Dumfries—it is clear to me that animal welfare and wildlife crimes are linked to other crimes, including domestic abuse and other criminal activity. That strengthens the need for sophisticated intelligence gathering.
I agree with Battersea’s position on the issue. Information on convictions, sentences, disqualifications and so on should be held in a database and shared with the relevant authorities. We will seek to strengthen the bill with amendments at stage 2 to give clarity and reassurance around who is party to that sensitive information. Having access to information in order to identify convicted offenders is a vital part of the bill, but it must be done in the right way.
Although there has been some increase in police resources, I still have concerns because in order to ensure that the increased penalties act as a deterrent, we must also ensure that the chances of being caught and convicted are increased. We can do that by giving more resources and support to wildlife crime officers to catch those offenders. I am open to the SSPCA’s suggestion that a taskforce should be set up to review the extension of wildlife powers and overall enforcement when it comes to tackling wildlife crime in Scotland. I would also welcome further discussions with the Scottish Government in order to increase the resources that are available to those who support the tackling of wildlife crime.
In England and Wales, we have already seen the welcome introduction of Finn’s law to protect police dogs and horses who serve alongside our officers. As we heard earlier, my colleague Liam Kerr has done a tremendous amount of work to ensure that that law will be extended to Scotland by its becoming part of the bill. I pay tribute to his efforts alongside those of many other campaigning groups and individuals, such as PC Dave Wardell.
The bill is long overdue. It will ensure that those who continue to commit painful and cruel crimes against animals know that they will be dealt with by the full force of the law. It is welcome to see the Scottish Government deliver on its commitment to that, ensuring that all parts of the United Kingdom have legislation that cracks down on wildlife crime. Although there is scope to bring forward amendments to the bill at stage 2, in principle, the Scottish Conservatives welcome the legislation.15:22
Scottish Labour robustly welcomes heavier sentences—of up to five years in prison and unlimited fines—for serious animal and wildlife crimes. We are supportive of all the recommendations of the ECCLR Committee, of which I am a member. I note for the record that its report was agreed unanimously. We agree with the general principles of the bill, and Scottish Labour recognises animal sentience.
As our convener, Gillian Martin, highlighted, there is strong public interest in ensuring the protection of animals and wildlife. I thank the minister for her response to the committee’s recommendations, which was received in reasonable time to consider—which was most welcome.
Although we recognise the complexities of some of the issues, my colleague Colin Smyth and I will today highlight parts of the bill on which it is our view that the Scottish Government’s response is somewhat disappointing.
As our convener has already outlined, in relation to the destruction of habitats:
“The Committee recommends that the Scottish Government reconsiders its approach to ensure enhanced protections are extended to resting places and breeding sites therefore sentencing can reflect where crimes in effect have equivalent outcomes i.e. in terms of harm to the animal.”
In that respect, the minister’s response is disappointing in relation to badger setts and other habitats, and I would ask her to reconsider it before stage 2. As I understand it, that relates to the law—to legislation—and not to sentencing guidelines. The use of illegal pesticides also does not seem to carry a sentence, although it is likely that would act as a deterrent. The minister’s response to the committee on that is also disappointing.
My colleague Colin Smyth will cover other offences that we agree should be considered as serious crimes.
In January, I attended a meeting organised by Fisheries Management Scotland and Scottish Land & Estates at which there was wide recognition that Atlantic salmon are reaching crisis point and that salmon conservation should become a national priority. Fisheries Management Scotland has indicated its concern that some of the offences in the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 2003 are not included in the bill, despite fish crime being included in the wildlife crime penalties review group, which was led by Professor Poustie and which reported in November 2015. I ask the minister to confirm what action the Scottish Government intends to take to ensure that our iconic salmon and freshwater fish are better protected and that penalties are commensurate with the potential for damage to those species and to the habitats on which they depend.
Sadly, there have been few prosecutions and convictions for vicarious liability. Some would argue that the introduction of vicarious liability has raised awareness of owner responsibility higher up the agendas of owners. However, the committee has called for
“increased transparency around Crown Office decision-making”,
which in our view is in the public interest. In response to our recommendation that
“the Committee would welcome the concept of vicarious liability being extended to further wildlife offences”,
the minister is interested in hearing what other crimes could be considered. I welcome that, and I therefore ask that the crimes listed could be the same as those that any alleged perpetrator has committed, on the basis of evidence.
I turn to the detection of wildlife crime. The committee argued that we should
“enhance detection and prosecution by expanding the powers of the SSPCA ... as an approach to better resourcing wildlife crime enforcement.”
We are all keenly aware that such crimes happen in remote and hard-to-reach areas of the country and we know only too well that resources are stretched. The combination of poor weather and delayed forensic examination at potential crime sites can compromise prosecution. The Scottish Government argues that the bill should not be delayed to enable further consultation on the extension of those powers.
I recognise that there are complex issues to clarify, but I understand that the SSPCA is working with ministers, officials and Police Scotland to find a suitable solution away from the bill. As Finlay Carson highlighted, the SSPCA has said:
“Now is the right time to establish a taskforce to review enforcement when it comes to tackling wildlife crime in Scotland and allow for the potential of extension of wildlife powers to be discussed in more detail. We believe this group could be established within the next three months.”
The issue was live in the previous session of Parliament, and Scottish Labour asks for a resolution in the current one.
On the issue of enforcement, the bill proposes allowing animals to be rehomed without a court order, but does Claudia Beamish agree that one positive measure that a number of animal welfare charities are proposing is that there should be a time limit for dealing with appeals so that animals are not held for protracted periods while the court makes a decision on the appeal?
I absolutely agree. The SSPCA has highlighted that animals can have to wait for a decision on their fate for weeks, months or sometimes years, so that is of fundamental importance.
In recommendation 51, the committee raised the issue of video surveillance relating to wildlife crime. That is a valuable detection tool and evidence opportunity, although it has long thrown up challenges. Following the recognition that such crimes are serious, I expect that Police Scotland will be able to make use of that method more widely, and I hope that that will be the case. The principles governing the admissibility of evidence are not specific to video or closed-circuit television evidence, which is often used in criminal trials in Scotland, so I hope that that will be a possibility.
As I will make further remarks in my closing speech, I will leave it at that for the moment.15:29
I welcome the introduction of the bill to Parliament. The Greens will of course back its general principles at stage 1. As the convener of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee has pointed out, the way in which we as a society treat animals is a true measure of our wider values. Those who abuse and cause suffering to animals often go on to direct their sadism towards vulnerable people. By protecting animals, we protect everyone in society.
The bill introduces welcome and urgently needed increases to penalties, including for wildlife crime, but alone those are not enough. Much more needs to be done to address the wider barriers to successful convictions. As the 2015 wildlife penalties review group concluded, raising penalties is just part of the package that is needed to address wildlife crime and animal cruelty. There have been only two successful convictions under the vicarious liability provision in the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 since it was introduced seven years ago. In one high-profile case this year, a gamekeeper was convicted of multiple accounts of wildlife crime, including killing protected birds of prey, but the Crown Office did not proceed with a vicarious liability prosecution. There is still time for the bill to introduce wider reforms, including extending vicarious liability to cover crimes against mammals and ensuring that it can be applied to all forms of landowners.
As I am sure the minister knows, wildlife crime is prolific in areas such as the Angus glens. I had hoped that the Government’s special constable pilot in the Cairngorms would have proved to be the model for enhancing the detection of wildlife crime, but it has proved to be largely ineffective and has not resulted in any successful prosecutions whatsoever. Meanwhile, the Parliament has been incredibly patient while the Government has pondered extending the role of the SSPCA, so that its powers can cover wildlife crime. That was first proposed more than a decade ago by Peter Peacock MSP and since then the SSPCA has repeatedly offered to extend its role. In the intervening years, while we have been waiting, we have seen sustained persecution of birds of prey; every year we celebrate as fledgling sea eagles, golden eagles or hen harriers are tracked leaving their nests, but every year the same birds are found dead, poisoned and shot. That is Scotland’s national shame and we need to take decisive action. As part of the approach, we need a force with eyes and ears on the ground assisting the police. The SSPCA would be able to bring its professionalism and know-how to investigating and protecting wildlife crime evidence.
Why is it that an SSPCA officer can visit an illegal trap with a live animal caught in it, but a trap a few metres away with a dead animal is beyond its legal responsibility? Why is it that someone beating a dog at home is a matter for its investigation but someone beating a wild animal on the other side of the garden fence is not? The Scottish Government has the chance with this bill to do what it should have done years ago and make a logical extension to SSPCA powers while the statute book is still open.
On other aspects of the bill, the introduction of fixed-penalty notices is a welcome addition to tackle the most minor of offences in a speedy fashion. I am sure that there will also be further debate on extending maximum sentences to more welfare offences and on automatic bans on owning animals.
In a modern justice system, rehabilitation and restorative programmes as well as criminal sentencing, are vital. We discussed empathy training in the committee—indeed, it was a recommendation of the Poustie review that there should be such an option available at sentencing. We are, however, currently stuck in a chicken-and-egg scenario, where the lack of availability of appropriate empathy courses means that judges are unable to choose that route for an offender.
What evidence did the committee see that empathy training has any impact? The evidence seemed to be ambiguous.
That is the nature of the chicken-and-egg scenario that we are in. We have been unable to roll out empathy training in relation to animal cruelty despite the fact that judges have wanted to use it as a route. The restorative and rehabilitative approach works with other areas of criminality. There is good evidence from other countries on how the approach is starting to be used with wildlife crime and other forms of animal cruelty. It is an area that the minister is interested in and I ask her whether a reasoned amendment to the bill would help move us on at stage 2.
I warmly welcome Finn’s law in relation to service animals, which removes the defence that some may use to excuse violence against them. I ask the Government to review whether that provision could be broadened further.
The Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 was a landmark piece of legislation. It was broad in scope, and I remember that the committee at the time had to work hard to scrutinise a wide range of issues, from the definition of an animal through to tail docking. With our exit from the European Union, the fresh bill could have been the opportunity to fully update the 2006 act, including consideration of more fundamental issues such as how the sentience of animals should be embedded across Government policy.
I recognise that a range of secondary legislation is in preparation for dealing with animal sanctuaries, breeding and sales, but there are still significant reforms that will now be delayed until the next session of Parliament, including—I am guessing, on the basis of the minister’s answer to my question earlier—the regulation of performance animals.
I hope that the minister can see that further opportunities still exist in the bill for the Government to take a progressive lead in the UK on animal welfare issues, and I hope that at stage 2 she will remain open to changes coming from Opposition parties as well as from the Government.14:35
I am pleased to take part in this debate on the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill on behalf of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. I start by commending Gillian Martin and colleagues on the ECCLR Committee for their scrutiny work, and I thank all those who have supported their efforts, particularly those who have provided written and oral evidence at stage 1.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats strongly back the principles of the bill, and many of the measures that it proposes, not least the introduction of what has become known as Finn’s law.
As Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and others have reminded us, Scotland has one of the lowest tariffs of sentence in Europe for animal cruelty. Twelve months in prison, plus a fine and a ban on keeping animals, for the worst act of animal cruelty compares badly with five years for crimes such as fly-tipping. The comparison does not reflect well on our justice system, nor does it reflect public attitudes towards crimes of animal and wildlife cruelty. The case for reform is therefore compelling. The bill seeks to bring in such reform by increasing the maximum available penalties for cruelty and causing unnecessary suffering to wild or domestic animals.
As OneKind has pointed out, establishing the principle of penalising wildlife offences at the same level as offences against domestic animals is both significant and very welcome. So too, I think, is the point that has been made by OneKind about the need to make a distinction between those acting perhaps out of ignorance, or a lack of capacity, and those who, as OneKind suggests, should know better. It is not unreasonable for courts to take a particularly dim view of individuals who perpetrate acts of cruelty or cause unnecessary suffering of animals in the course of their employment or business. Breeders, farmers, and gamekeepers can rarely argue with any credibility that they are somehow ignorant of the law.
In supporting an increase to up to five years’ imprisonment for the most serious cases of cruelty and abuse, the Law Society of Scotland helpfully clarified that the benefit is in the extent to which that broadens the range of prosecutorial options. That will allow certain offences to be tried on indictment, where circumstances merit it, and will potentially also increase police powers in the detection of certain more serious crimes.
As well as allowing for more appropriate sentencing in some instances, I hope and expect that the measures in the bill will act as a more effective deterrent. Obviously, the ambition is to see a reduction in cases overall, including a reduction in the number of individuals who reoffend. In that context, I was particularly struck by OneKind’s comments about the potential for alternative approaches. At a time when our prisons are full to bursting, when all the evidence tells us that short prison sentences are less effective in reducing rates of reoffending than community-based measures, this area seems ripe for making use of alternative and more effective approaches.
Community payback orders are already used widely to deal with animal welfare cases, but perhaps not enough attention is given to using them to deliver lasting behavioural change. That is in line with the Poustie review, which recommended
“That wildlife crime offenders should be required to attend retraining courses, including courses on empathy where appropriate”.
However, Poustie went on to warn that
“This would require establishing that such courses are available and raising awareness of such courses amongst the judiciary.”
As the Justice Committee has heard repeatedly over recent years, that is a common refrain when it comes to community-based measures.
The investment that is needed to increase capacity and raise awareness is far less costly than continuing with custodial sentences and high rates of reoffending. I hope the ECCLR Committee will look at how the bill might be amended at stage 2 to broaden sentencing options further, including, for the reasons that Mark Ruskell laid out, by using restorative justice.
I note the committee’s support for an extension of vicarious liability provisions. I was a member of the committee that considered the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Bill, which first brought in vicarious liability provisions. The previous convener of that committee swung effortlessly into the role of minister before bringing forward the proposals that the committee was scrutinising. Those proposals were intended to respond to the persistent and egregious persecution of raptors and birds of prey.
Notwithstanding Mark Ruskell’s concerns about the lack of prosecutions, I believe that the measure has had some success as a deterrent. However, the painful truth is that the illegal poisoning and persecution of many of our iconic species continues at shameful levels. That helps to explain the conclusions that Professor Werritty reached in his report on the case for licensing. I think there is an argument for looking at how vicarious liability might sensibly be extended to other types of wildlife crime.
I am not yet persuaded on the argument for extending the powers of the SSPCA. That was another debate that we had at the time of the WANE bill’s passage through Parliament. I was sympathetic to the frustrations and difficulties in gathering evidence, and indeed about the capacity of police officers to cover the ground in a timely fashion. I also recognise the apparent anomalies in the powers that SSPCA officers have in responding to complaints of cruelty towards domestic animals compared to reports of wildlife crime incidents.
Nevertheless, I remain uneasy about an extension of SSPCA powers. My mind is not closed to the idea, but the implications—and knock-on consequences—of going down that route need very careful consideration. I believe a task force would be well placed to give that consideration.
Will the member accept an intervention?
Do I have time to take an intervention?
Oh, why not?
Could the member explain why he is uneasy about the alteration of powers, especially in view of what Mark Ruskell said and of the fact that the SSPCA has said that it already has powers in relation to animals?
Claudia Beamish raises a legitimate question. I sympathise with some of the anomalies that Mark Ruskell has outlined, but I recall from the debates that we had about the WANE bill that the consequences of extending the SSPCA’s powers, as has been suggested, are not without challenges. The task force seems to be a suitable framework for further consideration before we bring forward any proposals about that.
That is just one of the issues that I am sure that ECCLR Committee members will wrestle with during stage 2. Another is the question of whether the Finn’s law provisions should be extended to cover other working animals, including assistance animals. I look forward to seeing how the debate on that and many other issues unfolds at stage 2.
Meantime, I welcome the bill and the additional protection that it will provide to animals and wildlife in Scotland. As the minister reminded us, its provisions enjoy overwhelming public support and Scottish Liberal Democrats will be happy to vote in favour of the principles of the bill at decision time.
We move to the open debate. Please keep speeches to six minutes. I have a tiny bit of time in hand, but do not go overboard.15:43
I am pleased that the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill has been brought to the chamber. I thank OneKind, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, Dogs Trust and a range of other animal charities for the briefings that they have provided.
The bill is another step in the Scottish Government’s strategy of improving animal welfare across Scotland. In 2016 the SNP Government improved responsible dog ownership through compulsory microchipping, which helps make it easier for dogs to be recognised and reunited with their owners if lost or stolen.
In February, the SNP Government appointed members of the Scottish animal welfare commission to advise on the welfare of sentient animals, in line with the 2019-20 programme for government. The Government has also consulted on introducing compulsory video recordings of slaughter in abattoirs to make sure that that is carried out humanely, and will bring forward secondary legislation on that next year. In that regard, the Government supports industry introduction of closed-circuit television in abattoirs before it becomes compulsory and is committed to exploring the potential for new systems of calf rearing in the dairy sector.
Animals are defenceless and might need human help when it comes to their safety, wellbeing and protection—particularly when they are threatened by other humans. Legislation provides a framework for that, and we should pay tribute to those who work, often as volunteers, on the front line.
In my constituency of Cunninghame North, such work is done at Hessilhead Wildlife Rescue near Beith. Dedicated staff who are mostly volunteers do all that they can on a daily basis to rescue animals, treat them and nurse them back to health. Once rehabilitated, the animals are released back into the wild when it is deemed safe. Facilities at Hessilhead include an intensive care unit, a swan and seal hospital with indoor pool, a hedgehog unit, a surgery with X-ray equipment and more than 60 outdoor aviaries, enclosures and release pens. Hessilhead is a busy rescue centre, known for carrying out its work with the utmost care and to the highest standards.
Sadly, not all rescue centres live up to that and there are still upsetting cases in which those we entrust with responsibility for our pets and other animals turn out to be the worst perpetrators. Colleagues may remember the 2017 case of the Ayrshire ark, a rescue home in Patna that was exposed for the mistreatment and neglect of animals after a police raid resulted in the discovery of the emaciated and mutilated corpses of 15 dogs and one cat. The photos of the frozen remains of once-loved pets paint terrible pictures of the suffering inflicted on them that stay with anyone who sees them.
The perpetrator received a pitiful seven-month jail sentence for causing the animals unnecessary suffering, with a concurrent four-month sentence for failing to ensure their welfare and a lifelong ban on owning or keeping animals. That was after the offender had pled guilty to nine charges, including causing unnecessary suffering, exposing dogs to unsatisfactory conditions and failure to provide the necessary nutrition and veterinary treatment.
Dee McIntosh, who was then the communications director of Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, said:
“Had this woman been convicted of fly tipping”—
which is another issue that members have raised today—
“she could have been jailed for up to five years. Instead, she escaped with just a few months.”
Increasing penalties, including a maximum custodial sentence of five years for animal cruelty, and introducing fixed penalties are, in my view, most welcome. However, as other members have pointed out, more needs to be done to secure successful prosecution; Mark Ruskell’s comments in that regard were particularly compelling. Such penalties are particularly important for wildlife crimes, which are just as serious as domestic animal crime. Cruelty is cruelty, and it should be treated as such by the authorities.
I pay tribute to the brave dogs and horses working for Police Scotland. I am not on Twitter, I am pleased to say, but I am told that I am truly missing out on the Scottish police dogs and Scottish police horses accounts. I understand that day in, day out the dogs and horses display the greatest valour and sometimes suffer vicious attacks in the line of duty, occasionally resulting in injury or death. That is why section 3 of the bill, which seeks to improve the protection of such service animals, is most welcome. Police dogs and horses are an extension of their handlers and when an alleged perpetrator attacks them it is an attack on the police. There should be no mitigating circumstances for that, and I agree that the self-defence argument should be removed.
I believe that to achieve maximum protection, the terminology that is used in section 3 could be reconsidered to clarify what a “service animal” is. I would not necessarily look for a definition along the lines of animal species, as limiting it to species that are currently in harness may not be enough in the future. It would be better to define more clearly which services the animals are involved in. It would also be good to clarify whether the definition includes guide dogs, which even more than rescue and armed forces service animals are an extension of the person who handles them. I am sure that such matters can be thrashed out as the bill is considered at stage 2.
I am delighted to support the principles of the bill and I look forward to it soon becoming law.15:48
I have spent several years campaigning to improve animal welfare in Scotland, and there is much to welcome in the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill, not the least of which is toughening up punishments for animal cruelty.
The Scottish Conservatives are clear on this: those who inflict pain and suffering on animals should always feel the full force of the law. However, that has not been the case. In almost 800 animal cruelty convictions over the past decade, most perpetrators avoided prison. Only 41 custodial sentences were handed out. The public will understandably be outraged by that lack of justice. We saw that in the bill consultation, to which 99.4 per cent of respondents agreed that punishments should be strengthened. It is right that the bill should increase the maximum sentence for animal cruelty offences to five years or an unlimited fine. However, we should go further by introducing measures such as automatic bans on keeping animals for those who are convicted of the worst animal cruelty offences, and life bans for the worst offenders. That position is supported by a number of welfare organisations, including the Dogs Trust and the SSPCA.
I welcome the introduction of fixed-penalty notices for the most minor offences, which will give local authorities more flexibility to deal with more minor cases and help free up courts to deal with the more serious ones. Given the support for that across the Parliament, I hope that we can correct an omission from the bill: the lack of provision for a central register to track those fixed penalties, or animal cruelty cases in general. Such a register would help to make investigations more efficient, monitor risk factors and spot when low-level incidents might escalate. The Scottish Conservatives believe that that is too important an advantage to throw away, and we will look to amend the bill at stage 2 to make better provision for data sharing. I look forward to working with the minister where there is common agreement.
I am also pleased to see that the bill will introduce Finn’s law; Liam Kerr has already had an outing today. Service animals risk their lives to protect us, so it is only right that we give them protection in return. That is long overdue. PC Dave Wardell, along with the aforementioned Liam Kerr, has fought hard to introduce that.
On the other hand, I was disappointed to see the bill do nothing to address electric shock collars. I campaigned for an end to those cruel devices and over 20,000 people signed my petition in agreement. A prompt and effective ban was promised, but ineffective guidance was delivered. That is not good enough, and the welfare organisations agree. The Kennel Club and the Dogs Trust have said that they were disappointed. The Edinburgh Dog and Cat Home has called for an outright ban, and that was echoed by OneKind, which says that the Scottish Government should follow the Welsh example with a real ban. The minister should listen to the experts. The current guidance does not protect dogs. It is time to ban the use of electric shock collars in Scotland—once and for all.
Long overdue, too, is making pet theft a specific offence. As the law currently stands, pets are classified as objects. Stealing a dog is treated the same way as stealing a phone. Anyone who has a pet knows that they are not objects; they are part of the family and they deserve better protection in law.
In tandem, there is a need to improve how pet theft and animal cruelty incidents are recorded by the police. The Dogs Trust and SSPCA are actively looking at that. With five pet thefts each day across the UK, we need action. In Scotland, residents in Fife worry that gangs target specific homes, and, in one terrifying incident, an Arbroath lady was held at knife-point while trying to rescue her dog.
There is good will across the Parliament to see the bill succeed, and we should use that good will to ensure that Scotland has the highest animal welfare standards. I stand ready to work with the minister and with members across the Parliament to deliver the bill.
I have a wee bit more time in hand now. If any members would like to offer or take interventions, I can allow time for that.15:53
I declare an interest, as I am a member of the League Against Cruel Sports, the deputy convener of the cross-party group on animal welfare and Scottish Environment LINK’s member of the Scottish Parliament species champion for badgers.
Mahatma Gandhi once said:
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
From baiting and fighting to mass puppy farming and the illegal shooting of birds of prey, there is nothing great about the heartbreaking stories of cruelty that we hear of taking place in Scotland every day. This Parliament has a moral duty to ensure that our laws help tackle that cruelty and deliver the highest standards of welfare for every animal in Scotland.
It is clear that the current sentencing options for animal welfare and wildlife crimes do not reflect the severity of the crimes that we hear about, so I welcome the decision to correct that in the bill and I congratulate all the campaigners who have fought so hard for that change in the law.
The penalties that are proposed in the bill for animal welfare and wildlife crime will act as a stronger deterrent and will give courts the flexibility that they need to deliver fairer sentences. In particular, the decision to set the maximum sentence for the most serious wildlife crimes at the same level as that for domestic animal welfare crimes at long last reflects the sentience of wild animals.
However, as well as increasing the penalties for those crimes, we need to look at whether the law’s coverage of crimes and animals is adequate. In their joint briefing on the bill, Blue Cross, Cats Protection, the Edinburgh Dog and Cat Home, PDSA and the Dogs Trust highlighted the significant number of animal offences that are not covered by legislation. Offences such as mutilation, cruel operations, poisons, failure-to-ensure-welfare offences, licensing activities involving animals and abandonment are not covered by the changes to be made by the bill, despite the serious harm that such crimes can clearly cause. As it stands, any such offences would be punishable only by a maximum of six months’ imprisonment or a £5,000 fine. If the aim of the bill is to properly punish, act as a deterrent and give the courts more flexibility to deal with animal welfare crimes, it does not go far enough and there is a clear case for expanding the number of offences that are covered by increased sentences.
Likewise, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee’s positive report, on which I congratulate the committee, highlights problems with how wildlife crimes are categorised. The committee calls for
“a consistency of approach for categorising and prosecuting different types of wildlife offence.”
In their evidence to the committee, Scottish Badgers and Scottish Environment LINK specifically highlighted the need for stronger protection for habitats and badger setts, which was reflected in the committee’s conclusion that
“the destruction of a habitat could be as fatal as directly harming or killing an animal.”
The committee rightly recommends that the Government
“reconsiders its approach to ensure enhanced protections are extended to resting places and breeding sites”.
I was deeply disappointed that the Scottish Government dismissed that suggestion and I urge it to reconsider.
Scottish Badgers has suggested that a minimum fine is introduced for the most serious wildlife crimes, as recommended in the Poustie review. I hope that the Scottish Government will also give due consideration to that suggestion.
We need to review which animals are covered under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. It is becoming increasingly clear that cephalopods and decapod crustaceans should be protected animals, as more and more evidence points to the fact that they are intelligent, sentient animals that are capable of experiencing pain.
Although the longer custodial sentences and higher fines that are proposed in the bill are welcome, they must not be the only action that is available. In its evidence to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, OneKind highlighted the need for alternative solutions
“to help an individual develop empathy and regard for animals and learn to treat them humanely”,
and suggested that community payback orders can be better utilised
“to effect behavioural change and provide long term protection for animals.”
It is vital that our response to such crimes is constructive and not purely punitive. Although non-custodial interventions, such as restorative justice processes and rehabilitation programmes, are not currently prohibited, there is no dedicated option for animal welfare, and little clarity on how and when such an approach should be taken. The bill is an opportunity to address that, so I am disappointed that the Government’s response to the committee fails to acknowledge the value that such a scheme could have, dismissing it as not “proportionate or cost effective”.
The introduction of fixed-penalty notices is a useful proposal, but it must be limited to minor offences, and I urge that consideration be given to Scottish Badgers’ suggestion that where FPNs are issued, they should be combined with behaviour orders specifying restrictions or goals for future behaviour.
We should also use the bill as an opportunity to discuss the possibility of automatic bans on owning animals for those who are convicted of serious animal cruelty offences.
On the subject of enforcement, although the strengthened penalties are welcome, they are meaningless if we do not improve the detection and prosecution of such crimes. That means backing up the bill with properly resourced specialist enforcement. I echo the committee’s recommendation that
“the Scottish Government explores in detail the options to enhance detection and prosecution by expanding the powers of the SSPCA”.
I hope that we do not look back on the bill as a missed opportunity to do so, given the SSPCA’s significant expertise and skills in this area. We should make the most of such skills in our fight against animal cruelty.15:59
I welcome the bill and the stage 1 report by our colleagues in the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. I thought that the report was extremely helpful for someone who is not a member of the committee and that it set out a lot of the issues in the bill. I recommend that anyone outside the Parliament who is interested in the bill and the subject that it deals with look at the report. I also thank the minister for our dialogue last year, when we had a meeting regarding a particular local issue that I will come to in a few moments.
I will focus my comments on that local issue, but I will first touch on a couple of issues in the bill and the stage 1 report. I thank my committee colleagues for their report and their clear analysis of the bill. The graphic information on page 2 of the report sets out clearly what the bill will do. It is important that people recognise that the bill
“Increases penalties for animal and wildlife crime ... Introduces fixed penalty notices ... Extends the time allowed for prosecution ... Increases the protection for service animals ... Gives new powers to ‘authorised persons’”.
Those are extremely important provisions. I welcome the recommendations on page 5 of the report to increase “maximum penalties” to “five years in prison” and that “further discussion” take place with the Scottish Government on the issue of “sentencing guidelines”.
Page 7 highlights the issue of “empathy training”. I welcome such training, but I believe that some individuals have no empathy whatsoever and that any empathy training would be totally wasted on them. Sadly, that is just a fact of life in society.
I welcome the recommendations on page 8 regarding the sharing of information, and I note the reply from the Government on that matter. For me, the issue here is that it does not matter where some individuals live, because the issue of local authority boundaries will make absolutely no difference to them. It is therefore important that we get it right on the issue of information sharing.
I turn now to the local issue that I referred to, which I have spoken to the minister about previously and raised in the previous parliamentary session as well. There was an incident in Gourock in 2011 at the Pets Corner animal shelter in Darroch Park. It was reported in the local newspaper, the Greenock Telegraph, that someone had entered the park and killed a number of the animals in the shelter. It was thought that the animals were killed by a golf club and by a dog. The article in the newspaper stated:
“The animal attackers went on a sickening rampage at the popular family attraction which left six animals dead, 12 missing and another two needing urgent treatment at a vet surgery. It’s thought a golf club and a large dog were used as lethal weapons in the frenzy.”
Local vet, Neil McIntosh, of the Abbey Group, who was involved in the treatment of the animals, said:
“The four guinea pigs were gripped and killed by the dog, and the rabbit had a badly broken jaw, probably caused by the golf club that was left lying at the scene.”
That crime shocked the whole community, and the local newspaper undertook a justice for pets campaign. The campaign received over 5,400 signatures for its petition, which was handed to the then cabinet secretary, Richard Lochhead, at a meeting. The ex-MSP Duncan McNeil and I attended that meeting and we were fully supportive of the Greenock Telegraph’s campaign. The campaign’s two asks were increased sentencing and removal of the time bar for prosecutions. The latter ask is important, because the crime took place in 2011 and local police found DNA evidence in 2013—two years later—that directly linked an individual to the offence. The police therefore arrested him. Sadly, as the arrest happened after the six-month period that was allowed at that point for arrests after an offence, the individual went free.
The bill seeks to safeguard domestic, farm and wild animals, and the various penalties highlighted are very welcome. Each of the penalties will involve trials under either solemn or summary procedure, and time bars for bringing prosecutions will not apply after the bill has been enacted. I would be grateful if the minister could clarify whether the bill achieves the goal set out in the Greenock Telegraph’s campaign. If there are any issues in that area, I will continue to have dialogue with the minister.
The minister wrote to me in March 2019 about the campaign. She said that the Scottish Government
“intends that the most serious animal welfare offences could, in future, be prosecuted under solemn procedure, removing the statutory time limits for prosecution. Those proposed changes would appear to meet the concerns of those supporting the Greenock Telegraph’s petition.”
However, I am very much aware that section 10 of the bill says:
“But no such proceedings may be brought more than 3 years”
after in certain cases. I would be grateful for a wee bit of clarification on that aspect.
I am genuinely delighted that this long-overdue bill has been introduced to Parliament. I thank the minister for her hard work on, and her determination in progressing, the bill. I know that animals across Scotland will be a lot safer as a consequence of the bill, and I am quite sure that many of my constituents will be delighted with it.16:05
I thank the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee and its convener for all their hard work in putting together the recommendations that are set out in its report.
The bill will amend the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, several pieces of wildlife legislation and the Animal Health Act 1981 for the purposes of further protecting the health and welfare of animals and wildlife in Scotland.
It is important to remember that the bill does not create offences; rather, it is concerned with increasing the range of sentencing options for existing animal and wildlife offences.
Individuals who cause pain and suffering to animals should be met with the full force of the law. The Scottish Conservatives welcome this long-overdue bill, which will toughen sentences for animal cruelty.
Some 99.4 per cent of respondents to the Scottish Government’s consultation agreed that penalties are too low and that increasing the maximum penalties would increase sentencing options, which would ultimately act as a deterrent.
We have all heard about many shocking animal cruelty cases in which the maximum sentence available to the court was not sufficient. The bill amends the 2006 act to increase the maximum available penalties for causing unnecessary suffering, and it increases the penalty for animal fighting offences from the current 12 months’ imprisonment and/or a £25,000 fine to five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.
Battersea Dogs & Cats Home has said that there needs to be a change because, no matter the circumstances in which an animal has suffered, the courts in Scotland can punish only the most serious acts of animal cruelty with up to 12 months in prison, a fine of up to £20,000 and a ban on keeping animals. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation submitted that
“BASC fully accept and recognise that the current penalties for animal welfare offences do not reflect the seriousness of the crimes in question.”
The proposed penalties of up to a five-year custodial sentence and/or an unlimited fine reflect the abhorrent nature of the offences, as detailed in sections 19 and 23 of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. The severity of the sentences will likely be a strong deterrent factor, which will effectively reduce the prevalence of animal welfare offences across Scotland.
I turn to some of the changes that the bill will bring. The bill introduces powers to enable the Scottish ministers to make regulations for the issuing of fixed-penalty notices in respect of certain animal health and welfare offences. There is broad cross-party support for providing authorities with flexibility to determine the appropriate means for the range of enforcement tools that are needed to provide a deterrent for minor offences. It would be useful to hear the results of the consultation and how the Government intends to introduce fixed-penalty notices.
The Law Society of Scotland is concerned that the operation of fixed-penalty notices lacks detail, and it would have expected consultations to have been concluded before the introduction of the bill. For example, we do not know how the Scottish Government will ensure that fines do not go unpaid. The Scottish Conservatives hope to have the details about that ironed out as the bill progresses.
The Scottish Conservatives have vigorously campaigned to increase the protection for service animals. We consider that increasing such protection for police dogs and horses makes it easier to convict people of causing unnecessary suffering, and the bill will include the Scottish version of Finn’s law. Currently, when determining whether a person has committed such an offence, the court must have regard to whether the conduct was for
“the purpose of protecting a person, property or another animal”.
The bill will require a court to disregard that defence when the offence is committed against a service animal in the course of its duty.
Giving new powers to authorised persons is important, and the bill amends the 2006 act to introduce a new procedure to allow enforcement agencies to transfer, treat or destroy animals that are taken into their possession for welfare reasons without needing to obtain a court order. At the moment, enforcement agencies must obtain a court order to take such action. The new procedure will surely help in those circumstances.
With regard to wildlife crimes, the committee wants a consistent approach to be taken to the categorisation and prosecution of different types of wildlife offence, and it has asked the Scottish Government to consider taking such an approach. The committee understands that there are different tiers of penalties and is unclear about the logic for those differences. The effect of the destruction of a habitat could be as fatal as directly harming or killing an animal. For example, as we have heard, the destruction of setts could lead to the destruction of a colony and the deaths of the animals.
Given that Police Scotland played a full part in the wildlife crimes penalty review group, which was chaired by Professor Poustie, the organisation’s views were considered as part of his final report. As that appears to form the basis of a significant part of the bill, Police Scotland supports the bill in principle, as it will give the organisation additional options for investigating wildlife crime offences, such as the use of covert surveillance. However, it should be reiterated that the utilisation of such police tactics will always be considered on a case-by-case basis.
We support tougher sentencing for animal cruelty. It is long overdue for the most serious cases of animal cruelty to be dealt with much more severely by our courts. We campaigned for Finn’s law, and we thank PC Dave Wardell and Liam Kerr for their hard work in that regard. We believe that service animals such as police dogs play a vital role in the detection and prevention of crime, but, at the moment, the criminals who harm them are let off the hook. Anyone who causes pain and suffering to animals should be met with the full force of the law, and we support harsher sentences for animal cruelty.
Would Ms Hamilton support legislation to tackle the cruelty of foxes being ripped apart by dogs?
As I have said numerous times, I think that it is important that anyone who inflicts cruelty on animals is punished in accordance with the law. I agree with many of the recommendations from the Bonomy review, including those on the code of practice and the monitoring.
The Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee—of which I am no longer a member, as I have moved to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee—will strengthen the bill through amendments to ensure that agencies can share information on animal cruelty, which will make it easier to investigate abusers.
I would have liked to talk about the impact statements, which I think will be extremely important, and the committee’s recommendation to the Scottish Government about an amnesty on pesticides, but I must stop there.16:13
I declare an interest as convener of the cross-party group on animal welfare and as a member of the SSPCA and RSPB Scotland. I congratulate the ECCLR Committee on its report. I almost—only almost—miss being on a committee. I thank the organisations that sent briefings in time for the debate.
Because I am speaking at the tail end of the debate—not that I mind being at the tail end—I will retread some of what has been said, starting with the purpose of the bill, which will amend the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. In particular, it will increase the maximum penalties for cruelty, introduce powers for the Scottish ministers to issue fixed-penalty notices, increase protection for service animals and provide for a new procedure to allow agents including the SSPCA to transfer, treat or destroy animals that are taken into their possession for welfare reasons without first having to obtain a court order.
On the number of animals that we know are in need, the SSPCA has told us that there were 82,000 reports in 2019, the majority of which related to injured wildlife. As we know, that is probably just the tip of the iceberg, because tracking and tracing animal welfare and wildlife crime is extremely difficult. It is difficult to locate it in the first place, and thereafter it is difficult to identify the culprits and to get sufficient evidence to pursue a prosecution. Such events, by their nature, take place covertly—one might say that they are perpetrated in a cowardly manner—and often in remote and rural areas.
As others do, I deplore every instance of animal cruelty, whether it is domestic or involves wildlife. To be frank, although I welcome the proposed increase in the penalties, I could support the maximum being raised even further.
I note that, according to the Scottish Government, there are more than 200 wildlife offences scattered across many pieces of legislation. I think that what Finlay Carson is calling for is a consolidation act. For the public, let alone for people who practice law, it is not handy to have 200 offences across many pieces of legislation: it would be handy to have them all in one place. That said, I welcome the proposed increase in the maximum penalty for offences from one year to five years, and I particularly welcome the removal of the time bar. With a time bar, if we do not prosecute soon enough, we cannot prosecute at all.
Fixed-penalty notices, which are a work in progress, are a good idea for minor and technical offences. I am not, however, so convinced about so-called empathy training, which I raised with Mark Ruskell. The Scottish Government said in its reply to the committee:
“There have been a number of recent studies on the efficacy of rehabilitation/empathy training on sexual/violent offenders, with mixed results being reported ... While it is possible that empathy training might benefit some offenders, it would be very difficult to come up with training that would effectively prevent/reduce re-offending in all offenders.”
I am not saying that such training is a bad thing; I just think that the jury is out.
When we discussed empathy training in the committee, concern was expressed that there would be issues related to resources and time.
We should investigate whether it is worth putting resources into things before we put resources into them—that is my point. The jury is out on whether empathy training is working where it is used at present.
The ability for agencies such as the SSPCA to rehome animals without the need to apply for a court order is long overdue. There is a cost to animals’ wellbeing. The average period for which animals are kept in custody, as it were, is currently 203 days, which is usually because they are being used in evidence in a case. Between 2016 and 2018, that cost the SSPCA some £1.5 million, which could perfectly well have been used for other things.
While I am talking about the SSPCA, I note that increased powers of investigation—which Mark Ruskell mentioned in passing—and even of enforcement are a really good idea. We are stretched in terms of policing wildlife crime. I note that special constables are being trialled—I think, in parts of the Cairngorms. That is a good idea. The more boots on the ground for finding out where wildlife crime is taking place, and for gathering evidence at the right time, the better.
Does Christine Grahame agree that one of the issues is confusion about the powers of the RSPCA and SSPCA? The RSCPA can pursue its own prosecutions, whereas the SSPCA does more evidence-gathering work that supplements and supports the work of the police. That is the extension of powers that we want to focus on, rather than necessarily giving the SSPCA the full powers to prosecute that the RSPCA has in England.
When I mentioned enforcement, I did not mean prosecution. I agree that the problem of the distinction between the RSPCA and the SSPCA is long standing. People leave money in their wills to the wrong animal welfare organisation by mistake.
On the idea of a central register, it would be hugely difficult to get on one register all the information about written warnings, animal welfare cruelty and wildlife cruelty, but it is worth pursuing. I will plug my member’s bill—if Emma Harper can do it, I can do it. I have proposed the responsible breeding and ownership of dogs (Scotland) bill, which would provide for a central register of all puppies that are born in Scotland, to match the fact that all licensed breeders must register puppies. That is so that we would know who has dogs and where they have come from. That is nothing to do with the debate, but I mention it anyway.
The one recommendation that I could not quite follow is on absolute removal of the defence of self-defence in relation to attacks on service animals. I do not want anybody to get me wrong; I deplore attacks on service animals. However, if someone who is in charge of a horse or a dog weaponises it, or if an animal is out of control when it should be under its handler’s control, and someone—the victim—has to respond by inflicting a physical injury on the animal in order to protect themselves, that would be self-defence. In those examples, the handler would be using their animal almost as a weapon, either accidentally or deliberately.
When the committee asked the Government whether it was aware of any cases in which a working animal had been attacked and the attacker successfully used the defence of self-defence under the relevant section 19, the Government replied that it had no examples whatsoever. I do not see why we are taking away a defence that is so rarely used—even in the criminal courts when a person is attacked by another person. There might well be examples when it is perfectly legitimate for a person to say that they responded to the actions of an animal as an act of self-defence. I will leave that there for consideration. Other than that, I fully support the bill.16:21
In closing for Scottish Labour, I will highlight more committee and party issues, and respond to some of the comments that have been made during the debate.
I start with the impact statement and the value in sentencing, which was compellingly argued for and was highlighted by the committee’s convener today. I would value a response from the minister on that.
Members have talked about empathy training in some detail. It is disappointing that the Scottish Government response rules out taking responsibility for its development. I appreciate that it would have costs, but the minister’s response states:
“Those animal welfare offences most likely to involve a significant lack of empathy and that result in custodial sentences are those involving deliberate abuse. Given that there are so few custodial sentences, it does not seem proportionate or cost effective to develop and deliver bespoke training for them.”
Some animal charities, including OneKind, with which my colleague Colin Smyth and I have had careful discussions, and which has experience and good judgment, have supported the proposal for empathy training. OneKind stated that the bill should be amended
“to require the courts to consider restorative justice processes and rehabilitation programmes for all people convicted of offences against animals, where these are available.”
I echo that. There should be funding for that crucial part of the range of sentencing opportunities.
I will therefore consider lodging an amendment to require the Scottish Government to develop a bespoke animal welfare empathy training programme to be delivered as part of community payback orders, where appropriate, and to set out guidance clarifying how and when that should be used in sentencing, as has been called for by some charities. As Colin Smyth said, it is important to be constructive and not only punitive.
I welcome the minister’s commitment to look at the detail of fixed-penalty notices before stage 2. In view of her comments about their use and the fees, I hope that it might be possible for local authorities to be responsible for them, and for them to use the fee money appropriately and relevantly. The minister’s letter to the committee today spoke about the FPN consultation process and highlighted a positive response.
The Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee recommended robust information sharing. I hope that the minister will consider, in addition to the arrangements that she talked about, the committee’s suggestion about sharing information with social work departments, as appropriate, as is done in some countries. There is evidence of a link between a range of challenging crimes, some against animals, and others—equally sadly and worryingly—against humans.
I welcome the complementary measures in the bill, which were also highlighted by the minister. When I was a deputy convener of the animal welfare cross-party group, with Christine Grahame, closed-circuit television in abattoirs was explored in some detail. Will the minister say whether there will be support for smaller abattoirs if the proposal goes forward, because they might be challenged by installation costs?
Because they are connected with the bill, I feel an obligation to highlight the challenges that are faced in relation to some driven grouse moors and wildlife crime. Scottish Labour is clear that the Scottish Government should move urgently to introduce licensing of driven grouse moors, and with robust criteria. It is not acceptable to wait out the five-year pause that was recommended in the Werritty report on a range of issues that have gone on for far too many years.
Committee questions on suspension of general licences and appeal arrangements received a detailed response from the minister. The civil balance of probabilities test on whether wildlife crime has been committed
“can be an effective enforcement tool”,
but, of course, it in no way implies that criminal prosecution is not possible, or that criminal prosecution as a separate process should be delayed.
Finally, I commend all those who have supported the development of this vital bill, and I look forward to working with colleagues on the ECCLR Committee and with the minster and stakeholders as we progress to stage 2.16:26
I welcome the chance to speak about this long-overdue bill. One of the biggest perks of my new role as environment spokesperson is the chance to speak about animals and to ensure that they get the protection that they deserve.
I thank the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee for all the work that it has done so far. I welcome Gillian Martin’s contribution on behalf of the committee, and I look forward to working with her and fellow committee members throughout the progress of the bill.
As the owner of two dogs, Albert and Faith, I know how I would feel if they came to any harm, so it is right that we take the steps to make sure that sentences are appropriate and that justice is done. As Claudia Beamish said,
“there is strong public interest in ensuring the protection of animals”.
I totally agree with that. We can all readily agree that individuals who cause pain and suffering to animals should meet the full force of the law.
It is right that we increase the maximum penalties and make sure that there is an appropriate deterrent. Twelve months for animal cruelty, in the most severe cases, is just not enough. The justice system needs the flexibility to treat the most shocking acts more seriously than it does at the moment. Maurice Golden made a good point regarding a lifelong ban for those who commit the most serious of crimes, and I look forward to seeing amendments at stage 2 in that regard.
As Liam McArthur reminded us, Scotland has one of the lowest rates of sentencing in Europe, with only 41 custodial sentences in the past 10 years. The increase to a maximum of five years will bring us into line with the current penalties elsewhere, and there was unanimous agreement on those measures in the Scottish Government consultation. As we have heard, 99 per cent of respondents were in agreement; I do not think that I can remember that happening in any other consultation.
The Scottish SPCA’s briefing summed it up well when it said:
“Everything proposed in the Bill will make Scotland a better place for animals.”
I know that that is what we all want.
Blue Cross also made an interesting point in its briefing for today’s debate when it highlighted that it is not only the animal that suffers horribly from cruelty, because there is a huge amount of emotional and mental distress for the staff who have to deal with the aftermath. There is more that we can do to help those workers to get the support that they need. The bill is probably not the place for doing so, but I would like us to explore how we can better help those workers deal with trauma. Specific training for workers could perhaps be provided in the meantime.
Of all the measures in the bill, I am especially delighted to welcome the inclusion of Finn’s law. Last year, the UK Government passed its own bill, which is known as Finn’s law. As we know, my colleague Liam Kerr has fought hard to ensure that we get the right level of legal protection for service animals such as Finn. Some people do not realise how hard Liam has fought for the bill. He visited a police dog training centre, where he was fitted with protective gear, and a dog was encouraged to bite his arm. Needless to say, the dog went for it. Some of the photos did not see the light of day but the look on Liam’s face was something to behold. He has gone above and beyond to make sure that Finn’s law happens in Scotland, as it has in the rest of the UK. Therefore, I am glad to see recognition today for my colleague and everyone who has campaigned for Finn’s law.
On the suggestion that the provisions of Finn’s law should be extended to other working animals, it is important that we do not unnecessarily dilute that part of the bill. The committee found no firm evidence to support the idea that existing legislation cannot protect working animals. Attacks against other types of animal can be prosecuted under existing offences in the 2006 act, such as causing “unnecessary suffering”. I note the committee’s point that, regardless of the type of animal involved, the bill will increase the maximum penalties for those offences.
As far as improvements are concerned, the bill could be made better in two areas. First, the Law Society of Scotland made a worthwhile point when it suggested that there is a need for guidelines to help inform, guide and ensure consistency of sentencing. Anecdotally, I accept the Law Society’s point that we could have more firm evidence on that. The sentencing of people who have committed horrific acts on animals can be inconsistent. In her response to the committee, the minister raised the fact that the Scottish Sentencing Council has responsibility for guidelines. In May 2019, it said that it would defer the creation of those guidelines so that it could focus on sexual offences. Although I support that decision and the independence of the Sentencing Council, there is a need for guidelines to be introduced as soon as is practically possible. The minister said that she would write to the Sentencing Council to draw attention to those discussions; I hope that that happens and that the Sentencing Council receives the support that it needs to draw up those guidelines imminently.
Secondly, and as my colleague Finlay Carson set out in his speech, there appears to be a desire to share information between authorities but the committee heard that that does not happen in practice. That can act as a significant barrier to animal protection and can make investigations inefficient.
The committee took evidence and realised that sharing information about disqualification orders and fixed-penalty notices might help to track patterns of offending, such as domestic abuse and criminal activity. Given that the committee convener and members have raised that point today, I hope that we can strengthen the bill with amendments on information sharing. The minister’s response to the committee on that point was welcome; she said that the Government is open to considering
“how we can support any possible improvements to information sharing and databases”.
The Scottish Conservatives look forward to working with other parties to make sure that that happens and that the necessary improvements are made, so that the bill is as strong as possible.
As the minister stated in her opening remarks, any animal cruelty or wildlife crime will not be tolerated.
I call Mairi Gougeon to wind up the debate. Minister, I would be obliged if you could take us up to 4.45 pm.16:34
I have about a million pages here, so I will happily oblige you with that. I have been frantically taking notes throughout the debate, because a lot of points have been raised today.
As we have heard, we all take animal welfare and wildlife crime seriously in Scotland and across the chamber. People are rightly passionate about the subject, so I am proud to introduce this important bill to strengthen and modernise the enforcement of our world-leading legislation, because we have some of the best animal welfare standards in the world. This important and focused bill will have real impact on the ground, as soon as it comes into force later this year. It will send a strong message that animal cruelty and wildlife crime of any kind will not be tolerated.
Kenny Gibson best highlighted the contrast that we currently have when he pointed out that, right now, someone can receive a harsher penalty for fly-tipping than for some of the most unthinkable acts that are carried out against animals, which he outlined in his speech.
Given the restricted nature of what we are dealing with in this bill and the long list of other bills, including members’ bills, that are coming forward, does the minister agree that a fuller review of the 2006 act should have been considered? Does she agree that, as Christine Grahame mentioned, there was the potential to consolidate the legislation to make it slightly simpler to navigate?
I know that Finlay Carson raised that point in his contribution earlier. However, I hope that I outlined in my opening speech all the other complementary measures that we need to take. The measures that we are introducing today require primary legislation; others require secondary legislation. A number of different areas need to be looked at, but we are doing this in the most streamlined and consistent way we can.
We heard from Stuart McMillan about the truly horrific crimes that have taken place, which emphasises again why these proposals are so important and why the penalties need to better reflect the seriousness of the crimes. I am happy to reiterate what I stated in my letter to him, which is that, because the crimes will be considered to be serious, the time bar will not apply. That is a vital measure that we are introducing.
The bill will reduce the burden on the court system, enforcement officials and the police. However, more importantly, it will better protect the vulnerable people and animals that are involved in these often troubling animal welfare situations. The bill is welcomed by stakeholders and has strong support from the public, and I hope that its provisions will lead to behaviour changes that further reduce the incidence of animal cruelty and wildlife crime.
Members highlighted a number of issues in relation to the bill. In closing, I will try to cover them, as well as some of the issues that came out of the stage 1 report, as best I can. I will start by picking up on a few of the points that Gillian Martin raised on behalf of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. She highlighted the penalties that we have outlined for wildlife crimes, as did Claudia Beamish, Colin Smyth and a few others in the chamber. I will explain a bit more about the rationale for the position that we reached in determining the penalties for wildlife offences.
There are more than 200 wildlife offences across many pieces of legislation. The approach to increasing penalties for this area of crime was to offer a proportionate maximum level for crimes that involve direct unnecessary suffering, which would be similar to offences under sections 19 and 23 of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. The penalties for the offences that we identified as having the most severe welfare impact, such as the killing or harming of a wild animal, have been increased to a maximum of five years’ imprisonment, or an unlimited fine, or both, under solemn conviction, as recommended by Professor Poustie in his review of wildlife crime.
We then considered a range of offences that may indirectly cause harm to a wild animal, such as the disturbance of, or damage to, habitats. For those offences, we have proposed that the maximum penalty be raised to 12 months’ imprisonment, or a £40,000 fine, or both, under summary conviction. When it comes to those kinds of offences, it is also important to remember that, if a person commits an offence in respect of more than one animal, egg and/or nest, there is currently provision in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 for the court to consider each animal, egg, or nest separately when sentencing. It would therefore be possible for a fine to be imposed up to the new maximum of £40,000 in respect of each animal, egg and/or nest.
What we have proposed is proportionate, it is similar to some of the higher penalties that are found elsewhere in the world and it is in line with what was recommended as part of the Poustie review. If members have particular proposals that they want to raise with me, I am more than happy to discuss those with them. As I said, I know that the issue was highlighted by a few members around the chamber today.
The minister may well be going to touch on this, but is she able to respond to Fisheries Management Scotland’s concerns about the iconic salmon species, either today or in the near future before stage 2?
That issue is covered in my copious notes, and I will give a direct response to Claudia Beamish on it, should I have time.
Rachael Hamilton, Christine Grahame and others touched on fixed-penalty notices. I assure members that those valuable additional and proportionate enforcement tools will be used for technical and minor offences only. The bill limits their use to offences with a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, so they will not be used for the more serious animal welfare and wildlife offences that attract higher maximum penalties. I emphasise that we are not creating those fixed-penalty notice regimes as part of the bill. The bill will establish the powers to create those regimes but, as they progress, they will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny through the affirmative process. When I attended the committee, I stated that I will work with it on developing the regulations, and I remain more than happy to do that, because I want us to work together and get them right.
Finlay Carson and a few other members raised the issue of Scottish sentencing guidelines. As Mr Carson mentioned, the sentencing guidelines are, rightly, the responsibility of the Scottish Sentencing Council. Annie Wells touched on the fact that, in May 2019, the SSC announced that guidelines on wildlife and environmental crimes were being deferred to allow the council to deal with sexual offences. The council also highlighted that a delay would be needed anyway, because guidelines cannot be prepared while penalties are being changed. I am happy to reiterate what I said in response to the committee’s report. I will write to the SSC to draw its attention to the discussion that we have had today, which will help to inform its considerations of its future work programme.
On vicarious liability, after careful consideration and discussions with stakeholders, my officials and I have not been able to identify any further offences to which we think it would be useful or appropriate to extend the offence of vicarious liability. However, as I said, I would welcome suggestions on other particular offences that warrant that, and I will happily consider the matter further. Claudia Beamish might have made a suggestion earlier—[Interruption.]
Excuse me, minister, but there is a terribly irritating low murmur going round the chamber. The minister has only a couple of minutes left in responding to the debate, so I ask members to listen to her, please.
Rachael Hamilton mentioned the potential for a pesticide amnesty, which I believe is an issue that she raised in the committee. There have been two previous pesticide amnesties in Scotland, so we think that it is unlikely that a further scheme would be effective, because those who wished to dispose of their stock have had ample opportunity to do so. We have sought the views of Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture, the rural payments and inspections division, Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service on the need for and effectiveness of undertaking another disposal scheme, and it was felt that there would be little merit in that. A point was raised about considering increasing the penalties for holding illegal pesticides. Again, I am open to having a conversation on that with members.
Will the minister take an intervention?
I am sorry, but I do not have enough time.
Almost every member who spoke raised the issue of additional powers for the SSPCA relating to wildlife crime. To consider that as part of the bill would mean pausing the process to investigate the issues fully and gather more evidence before coming back to Parliament. It is not simply a case of granting more powers. Doing so could mean changes to the SSPCA as an organisation, which obviously needs to have the time to consider that. Given the amount of work that has to be done, my fear is that that approach could significantly delay the bill to the extent that there might not be sufficient time to complete its passage in the current parliamentary session. I want to ensure that the issue gets the time and detailed consideration that it deserves, so I have already given a commitment, which I am happy to reiterate today, that it will be investigated. I hope that members will be content with that assurance.
I hoped to be able to touch on a number of other points, one of which was the point that Claudia Beamish raised about wild salmon. I will respond to her about that.
One important final point that I want to touch on is the issue that Colin Smyth raised in an intervention on Claudia Beamish about the appeal process when animals are seized. It is important to highlight that the decision to appeal will have to be made within three weeks, and that the onus will lie with the owner to make the appeal and to pay the court fee for lodging it. That is a complete change from the current process. Also, the decision on the appeal will be final, and there will be no further appeal beyond that. Therefore, the process will be much more expedited—infinitely more so than it is at the moment. Further, compensation will be considered entirely separately, so that will not hold up any proceedings.
I thank all members for their contributions. The strength of feeling on the issue is clear, as is the passion that we all have for the welfare of animals and wildlife in Scotland. I am pleased that the bill has attracted wide support from stakeholders and from members. I emphasise that, although I could not get through all the points that I wanted to, my door is always open. I am happy to meet members to discuss potential amendments prior to stage 2 to consider how we can improve the bill. That offer stands for those who raised issues that I did not get the chance to cover and which they wish to discuss further.
I hope that members will join me in supporting the general principles of the bill.
That concludes the stage 1 debate on the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill.