HC Deb 22 March 1991 vol 188 cc574-7

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

Order for Third Reading read.

2.6 pm

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This is the first opportunity that we have had to debate the Bill on the Floor of the House, because the Second Reading went through on the nod. The Committee stage a fortnight ago, lasted 34 minutes. On Report, the Bill was unopposed and unamended and I hope that the House will give the Bill an unopposed Third Reading.

I move the Third Reading with a sense of sadness. The Bill was originally presented to the House by the late Donald Coleman, who came 18th in the ballot for Bills last autumn. Donald was elected in 1964 to represent the constituency of Neath. He was a senior and well-respected Member of Parliament and tributes have been paid to him. He died on 14 January on his way back to the House after the Christmas recess. I consulted the other sponsors of the Bill and his widow and we all agreed that he would have wanted us to continue with his Bill.

The Bill was conceived by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Donald was interested not least because the Bill offers considerable protection to the red kite, which is the national bird of Wales. If the Bill reaches the statute book, it will be a fitting tribute to Donald Coleman and his love of our native wildlife and countryside.

The Bill amends the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which is the prime legislation protecting wildlife in Britain. It is designed to strengthen that Act by plugging a loophole and allowing the prosecution of those who direct, or allow others to commit, offences of illegally killing wildlife. Sections 5 and 11 of the 1981 Act prohibit certain methods of killing or taking wild birds or other animals. It is an offence for any person to set in position an article of such a nature, and so place it, as to be calculated to cause bodily injury to any wild bird coming into contact with it. That includes a spring trap, gin, snare, hook and line, any electrical device for killing, stunning or frightening or any poisonous, poisoned or stupefying substance. It also outlaws other methods, including crossbows, any explosives other than ammunition for firearms, automatic and semi-automatic weapons and so on. Those offences are among the most serious that the Act creates and carry special penalties.

The Bill proposes an amendment sections 5 and 11 of the Act by the insertion of another subsection, which provides for the prosecution of any person who knowingly causes or permits those frequently horrific offences. That is necessary because the Act is clearly failing in several areas in its intention to protect Britain's wildlife. For instance, figures collected by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds show that last year alone protected species of birds of prey were involved in more than 530 incidents of poisoning, shooting, destruction or trapping. Those figures represent only the tip of the iceberg because it is difficult to obtain figures on what actually happens in the countryside. The public have limited access to many of the areas in which offences take place, and much of what is done is unreported.

Consideration of a species that we have an international obligation to protect—the red kite—will illustrate the seriousness of what has been happening and continues to happen. In 1989, 13 poisoned red kites were found in Great Britain. As the bird nests only in central Wales and as there are only 60 breeding pairs, the prospects for the viability of the population are seriously undermined by their unlawful destruction. The Bill will ensure that those who direct or permit others to bring about the destruction of such birds will be held responsible.

I offer the House an example of a case in Scotland in 1989. It would not be right to mention the names of those involved, but following investigation by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, a gamekeeper was prosecuted and convicted for laying poisonous substances that brought about the death of legally protected birds of prey. He informed the court that he had been instructed by his employer to lay the poison. He was in fear of his job and he followed instructions. He was found guilty and convicted of the offence, but in the eyes of the law his employer had committed no offence. This Bill will close that loophole and make employers responsible for the acts of those whom they employ.

This is a straightforward, small, but nevertheless important measure. I record my thanks to the RSPB for the ground work that it has done and for the way in which it has raised public interest in the illegal persecution of birds of prey. I also thank the head of the wildlife investigation department of the RSPB, Andy Jones, who has often put himself in peril in his investigations. Thirdly, I thank the sponsors of the Bill from all parties, most of whom attended to ensure that the Bill had an unimpeded passage in Committee. Finally I thank officials in the Department of the Environment, who were most helpful with drafting the Bill and tabling the necessary technical amendments in Committee. I also thank the Under-Secretary of State who has ensured the Bill's swift and unimpeded progress thus far. It has all-party support and I hope that it will continue to make progress today.

2.13 pm
Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

I fully support the Bill, as do the overwhelming majority of our colleagues who are not present today. It is a worthy Bill, but for those of us who knew him well over the years it is sad that Donald Coleman, whose Bill this was, is not here to see its swift passage through the House. He was a much-loved colleague and the passage of this Bill would have been a crowning achievement to a fine and devoted career in the House. As Father of the House, I felt that I should say that on behalf of all right hon. and hon. Members.

2.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert Key)

I must apologise for the absence of the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), who has asked me to stand in for him today. He has taken a long and abiding interest in the passage of the Bill.

I am sure that I echo the views of hon. Members on both sides of the House in giving the Government's wholesale support to the Bill. It is indeed sad that the late hon. Member for Neath, Mr. Coleman, was not able to see the Bill through all its parliamentary stages and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) for picking up the Bill and for his helpful and constructive approach in tabling amendments that will ensure that the Bill harmonises with the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and with other legislation.

The Bill would make it an offence for a person to cause or permit another to contravene the 1981 Act's provisions which prohibit the use of certain means of killing or taking wild birds or protected species. While statutory controls in this area are already very strict, the Bill will be a welcome strengthening of the Act in that it will ensure that those persons who manage or oversee land have a responsibility to ensure that they, or their employees, do not use unlawful means to kill wildlife.

We deplore the illegal killing or taking of wild species, particularly if cruel or indiscriminate methods are used. Although the majority of farmers and landowners act responsibly and within the law, there are those who pay little regard to the consequences of using substances or methods that are inhumane and cause unnecessary suffering. Many of our endangered wild species are at risk from the indiscriminate use of poisons or other illegal methods of killing.

As the hon. Member for Caerphilly recognises, there is a case for bringing the Wildlife and Countryside Act into line with equivalent legislation in Northern Ireland and with other legislation which controls, among other things, the sale, storage and use of pesticides. The Bill will do that and will make a very useful addition to the already stringent controls over the illegal killing of protected species, especially birds of prey, and in particular the red kite.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Caerphilly for his co-operation in tabling amendments to the Bill to reflect the Government's policy on the creation of "causes or permits" offences. It has always been implicit that the successful prosecution of such offences depends on evidence that the accused person had some sort of knowledge of the offence with which he was charged with causing or permitting. It is now normal practice to make that clear on the face of the legislation and it helps to clarify the courts' understanding of the nature of such offences. As amended, the Bill would make it an offence if a person knowingly caused or permitted another to contravene the Act's provisions for the protection of wildlife.

The pressures of modern-day life mean that we have to take particular care of our wildlife if we are to meet our objective of preserving its abundance and diversity. We have one of the best systems in the world in the 1981 Act to ensure that the procedures are in place to give protection where necessary. However good those measures are, they can be undermined by people who are willing to flout the law and ignore the wishes of the great majority of the public in their concern to preserve our natural heritage.

This Bill has identified a chink in our armour which it is right should be closed and it will help us to reinforce the message that we continually try to put across that the Government are determined to take all steps necessary to ensure that our objectives for protection of the national heritage and especially endangered species are met.

Hon. Members will know that the Bill has made speedy progress, thanks largely to the energetic and constructive attitude of the hon. Member for Caerphilly. We are grateful for his co-operation at all stages of the Bill and we share his enthusiasm for amending the legislation to tighten controls to deal with those irresponsible people who persistently flout the law and cause totally unnecessary suffering to our wildlife and the death of species that do no harm. We congratulate him on taking over this very useful measure and give it our full support in its remaining stages.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.