HC Deb 13 July 1981 vol 8 cc864-9

If a constable suspects with reasonable cause that any person in committing or has committed any offence under section 2 of the Night Poaching Act 1828, or section 31 of the Game Laws (Amendment) Act 1960 he may seize and detain for the purposes of proceedings under these Acts anything including any vehicle which is evidence of the commission of the offence or has been used in the commission of the offence.'. —[Mr. Beith.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The background to the clause is the reality of larger-scale poaching in the countryside today—not the romantic image of the countryman who slips out from his cottage in the dead of night and gets one for the pot—one that he brings home—but the organised gangs who come out from the towns in vans and cars and obtain large amounts of game reared at someone else's expense, or deer conserved by someone else's efforts, and take it back to the towns to sell commercially by back-door methods, usually for considerable financial gain. This organised commercialised poaching by townsmen on a fairly big scale has caused landowners and gamekeepers many serious problems. The new clause is directed towards that.

8.30 pm

The law as it stands makes a broad distinction. In cases of salmon and deer poaching, once a policeman is involved he can impound the vehicle used by the accused persons in the commission of the offence, as well as any other equipment that they may have been using. In the case of game and rabbits he does not have that power. He can seize certain items, but not the vehicle.

One result of that is that often a group of urban poachers will have some of their equipment seized, will be charged with an offence, and the next night will reappear in the same area in the same vehicle, carrying out the offence all over again and hoping for another night's takings as a means of paying the fines for the previous night's convictions. That kind of organised commercial poaching can take calculated risks.

Under the existing legislation, a police constable may search any person whom he has good cause to suspect of coming from land where he has been unlawfully in search or pursuit of game. The right of search is extensive. The constable may also seize or detain any game or article found. When a constable apprehends someone under the Acts relating to poaching, he may seize and detain any game or rabbits, or any gun, part of a gun or other article of a kind used for the killing or taking of game or rabbits. Disposal of the seized articles is a matter for the court.

But that power does not extend to vehicles, whereas under the Theft Act 1968 the vehicle may be seized where someone is poaching fish, and the Deer Act 1980 provides that the vehicle may be seized when someone is apprehended for poaching deer. It says that a constable may seize and detain for the purposes of proceedings under this Act anything which is evidence of the commission of the offence and any deer, venison, vehicle, animal, weapon or other thing which is liable to be forfeited under section 5". The power concerning vehicles is explicit in the case of poaching fish and deer but not in the case of game or rabbits. People apprehended for poaching deer will often say "We were only out looking for rabbits", and thus hope to evade the greater rigour of the Deer Act.

The matter needs to be examined more closely. It has been brought to my attention by working gamekeepers in my constituency who have the difficult task of enforcing the laws, often dealing with fairly violent and difficult people. They believe that the powers available to the constable whom they summon to the scene are inadequate and that the law is being laughed at, when the same people can return the next night in the vehicle that they used before to commit the same offence.

I have already raised the matter with the Government, and I have received a reply from the Home Office. The Minister of State referred to the Game Laws (Amendment) Act 1960, which was a private Member's measure, and said that it was not clear why, at the time of its passage, vehicles were not specifically included. The hon. Gentleman said that he was advised that while at common law police powers of search and seizure are limited if the vehicle might reasonably be considered to be material evidence of an offence, there is already power to seize it following a lawful arrest. I do not think that that power is known or understood by the police, or that it is sufficiently clearly defined to enable them to make good use of it.

The Home Office view, stated in that letter, included the typical Home Office phrase that legislation ought not to proceed in a piecemeal fashion". It is obvious that all legislation on game has proceeded in a piecemeal fashion. It is a series of Acts built one upon another. The early references to vehicles in it are to carts or conveyances. This is probably as good an opportunity as any to examine the problem, which is causing difficulties to people whose job it is to enforce the law and who are dealing with a different kind of poacher from the one with the traditional image.

I shall be grateful if the Minister will turn his mind to the matter and let me know the Government's present thinking on it.

Mr. Farr

I welcome the new clause moved by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). I was lucky to get the Deer Act 1980 through the House. One of the matters which concerned its supporters was the evidence of the tremendous rewards gained by professional poachers. I am not referring to the person who catches an odd pheasant, rabbit or hare. Until the Deer Act 1980 professional poachers got five or six carcases a night, each worth up to £300 or £400. They did very well indeed.

As the hon. Gentleman said, until the 1980 Act poachers could go out the next night, in the same vehicle, and repeat the crime. It is an anomaly that we prevent deer poachers from using vehicles in a repetitive way but still permit those who make illicit mass killings of pheasants to go out night after night in the same vehicle. Professional gangs make a good living by travelling at fast speeds around the countryside in specially equipped vehicles.

I hope that the Government will consider the new clause sympathetically. I congratulate the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed on the way that he presented it.

Mr. Hardy

I join the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) in congratulating the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on the clause, which I am sure the House will support. It clears up a point that has concerned me for some time. In previous conservation legislation there was a suggestion that that which was used in the carrying out of an offence should be confiscated. During the consideration of the Badgers Act 1973 and the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act [975 I entertained the vain hope that those who used a vehicle to commit an offence would risk losing it. Unfortunately, in no case has a court taken the view that the vehicle was liable to be confiscated.

If a gang of thugs drive their car on to Forestry Commission land, or any other land, to destroy a badger sett, that vehicle is being used to perpetrate an offence and should be forfeited. The lawyers, judges and magistrates have not taken that view. The clause might persuade them to do so. As the hon. Member for Harborough pointed out, offences can be be very profitable. It behoves the House to make them less profitable for those who perpetrate them.

Mr. Graham

I support the clause on behalf of the Opposition. It was interesting to listen to the hon. Member for Berwich-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) telling the House about the meandering history of the way in which laws are built up. It is clear that when a new principle is established it is not possible to apply it uniformly across the board to take into account every conceivable situation. During the past few years there has been a tremendous increase in the method and nature of offences.

The point that should be impressed upon the Minister is that when the law is made a laughing stock or brought into disrepute—not by ourselves but by the limitations on it—piecemeal or not we should take any opportunity, such as that provided by the Bill, to put it right. I hope that the Minister will recognise that although the provision in the clause could be seen to be almost draconian, because it is heavy and effective, we are in fact looking for an effective deterrent to stop people before they contemplate a crime and to persuade them that the punishment will make the crime not worth while. They will be deterred because the proposed change in the law will cost them a great deal of money.

The provision will give increased stature and satisfaction to the law maker and law enforcer. Nothing can be more infuriating than to know that those who have been caught redhanded can strike a balance by saying that during the night or week they have gained enough to offset their loss. The scales must be tilted heavily against such persons. I hope that the Minister will accept the new clause.

Mr. Monro

This has been another interesting debate. I am sure that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) will agree that he is lucky to have located in his constituency the finest salmon river in Scotland. Incidentally, its source is on the borders of my own constituency of Dumfries, which shows what a long and important river it is for salmon.

The new clause provides that a constable may seize and retain anything, including any vehicle, which is evidence of, or has been used in, the commission of any offence under section 2 of the Night Poaching Act 1828—some while before we had motor vehicles—or under section 31 of what is referred to in the new clause as the Game Laws (Amendment) Act 1960". Of course, the reference is incorrect; it should have been section 31 of the Game Act 1831, as amended by the Game Laws (Amendment) Act 1960. That provides that constables and certain other persons may require any person found in pursuit of game in the daytime to quit the land and to give his name and address and, if he fails to do so, to apprehend him. The consequence is that the new clause is defective.

However, our objection goes wider than that. The new clause may be aimed primarily at the seizure of vehicles used by poachers, but it refers to the seizure of anything, including any vehicle. Provision is already made by virtue of section 4(1) of the Game Laws (Amendment) Act 1960 for a police constable to seize and retain any game or rabbits, or any gun, ammunition or nets, snares or other devices used for poaching game or rabbits and found in the possession of a person apprehended under sections 1, 2 and 9 of the Night Poaching Act 1828, which relate to persons trespassing in pursuit of game at night, and section 31 of the Game Act 1831, which relates to the apprehension of persons found in pursuit of game in the daytime who fail to quit and give their name and address. In other words, the new clause seeks to cover the seizure by a constable of certain things that are already liable to seizure by virtue of the 1960 Act.

The hon. Gentleman quoted the letter from the Minister of State, Home Office, which stated that there was already power to seize a vehicle following a lawful arrest. It would indeed be helpful to the police if a poacher used the same car all the time, because at least they would then know that he was likely to be parked near a river with an offence in mind.

I accept that all hon. Members feel strongly about poaching, be it for game or fish. I also agree that the police should use all the powers at their command, and I have indicated that they have substantial powers to apprehend poachers, seize their equipment and—as my hon. Friend the Minister of State said—to confiscate a car where an arrest has been made. It could be argued that if an arrest had not been made the police would have undue power if the person involved were only being cautioned and not arrested.

I accept that we should be as tough as possible on poachers and ensure that they receive the maximum penalty when brought before a court, but the provision in the new clause to ensure that they forfeit a motor car is already covered by existing legislation when an arrest is made. In those circumstances, this is possibly not the Bill in which to include the new clause.

On another occasion the hon. Gentleman may care to promote a measure of his own if he feels that the assurances that I have given are not adequate. However, I ask him to ask leave to withdraw the new clause. He has had the opportunity to make his case, and I hope that it receives publicity. I feel that there are sufficient powers with the police to take the car into custody along with the poacher if an arrest is made.

8.45 pm
Mr. Beith

I am sure that the Minister's comments about the powers of the police under common law will be widely noted. However, it will be remembered that that power did not seem adequate when the Deer Act 1980 was passing through the House. The hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) was responsible for that legislation and I was one of the sponsors. The hon. Gentleman thought it right to include explicit provisions, and that has resulted in a different practice for deer. The police feel able to take action on deer poaching whereas they feel that the ground is less sure when it comes to game poaching. I hope that the definition that the Minister has presented will make the police feel more confident. One is bound to feel slightly worried when Parliament explicitly includes vehicles in the Deer Act while continuing to omit such references in other legislation.

The Minister talked about taking advantage of other opportunities. He reminded us that all Governments tend to leave game legislation to private Members. It is one of the areas in which Governments do not like to become too closely involved. Wildlife and countryside Bills may be all right, but after the Government's experience with this one they may feel that they do not want to get involved with a similar Bill in future. Game Bills are left almost invariably to private Members. That is not satisfactory. The basic structure of law and penalty should be provided for in Government legislation. Parliament should not have to rely on Bills promoted by Private Members.

Mr. Dalyell

It should be recorded that had the Government offered at an earlier stage what they have now offered the timetable would have been entirely different.

Mr. Beith

I do not think that the new clause is the right vehicle for entering into a major argument on what concessions should have been offered. A Bill of this complexity is bound to take a fair amount of time, with or without arguments on concessions. The Bill would have been an appropriate measure in which to make provision of the kind that the clause seeks. It is desirable that the issue should receive more attention and that more discussion should take place.

I have been encouraged by the comments that I have heard in various parts of the House. A number of hon. Members feel that action should be taken on the lines set out in the clause. I hope that the Government have taken due note of that. This discussion should not be the end of the matter. If I do not proceed with the clause at this stage, it is because I act in the knowledge that there is considerable support in the House for action to be taken at a later stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to