HL Deb 26 July 1976 vol 373 cc1139-45

7.49 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This very short amending Bill passed through all its stages on the nod in another place on 16th July. That was something which I think was most unusual and, in my experience at any rate, unique. But it showed three things: first, that this amending Bill is not controversial; secondly, that it has the Government's blessing; and, thirdly, that there is a need for it. As Parliament has had no explanation whatsoever of the need for this amendment of the Protection of Birds Act 1954, as amended in 1967, because there was no opportunity in another place, may I please say a few words, in spite of the hour being latish, because I think it is important that there should be something—even something brief—on the record?

The fines for any person guilty of an offence against the Protection of Birds Act 1954 have not been changed since that Act was put on the Statute Book. Clause 12(2)(a) of the Act laid down a maximum fine of £25 for especially serious offences. Those offences fell into two main categories: first, excessively cruel methods of killing or taking wild birds, such as the use of gin traps, or the use of blinded decoy birds, or the use of bird lime. Those are three examples which spring to mind and they were described in detail, together with other excessively cruel methods of taking wild birds, in Section 5 of the 1954 Act.

The second category of specially serious offences which are subject to a maximum fine of £25 involve the taking of rare or very rare birds which are listed in the First Schedule to the Act. Incidentally, the very first bird in that Schedule is the avocet, because the Schedule is alphabetical. This bird is the symbol of the RSPB. At the moment I am wearing the tie of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, whose President is the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, who sits opposite. For many years this society has done splendid work for the protection of wild birds and it is extremely anxious to see that this measure reaches the Statute Book.

Section 12(2)(b) of the 1954 Act laid down a maximum fine of £5 for all other offences under the Act. It is sad but true that the purchasing power of the pound since 1954 has fallen so steeply that to impose the same penalty in real terms today the fines would need to be, in round figures, £90 and £18 instead of £25 and £5. Thus this Bill introduces no more than an increase that offsets the inflation since 1954. In addition, the fines under the Protection of Birds Acts are now seriously out of line with the most recent legislation in the conservation field. The Badgers Act 1973 laid down a maximum fine of £100. The Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975 laid down the same maximum fine of £100. The really important reason, however, for this short amending Bill must be the ever increasing demand for, and hence the pressure on, rare species of birds, in particular birds of prey, and the extraordinarily high price that these species fetch on the black market.

Already this year your Lordships will be shocked to know that some 30 pairs of peregrine falcon, the only bird that we have breeding in Britain which is listed in the Endangered Species Bill, have failed to rear their young because either their eggs or their young have been taken illegally. The peregrine falcon is a Schedule 1 bird and offences involving it are subject, naturally, to the £25 maximum fine. It is reasonable to assume that by the end of the breeding season rather more than 40 pairs of peregrine falcon will have been robbed of either their young or their eggs. Acts such as the Protection of Birds Acts are notoriously difficult to enforce. But enforcement must be made more difficult, surely, in that £25 fines, even when costs have to be paid as well, represent a small risk when speaking about a bird such as the peregrine falcon. which has a value, believe it or not, of £500 or more for a mature bird. So, for that matter, does the golden eagle. Those are the prices at which these birds are changing hands on the black market.

The number of prosecutions under the Protection of Birds Acts gives, unhappily, only an inkling of the widespread and numerous infringements of them. I have a long, sad list of successful prosecutions during the last 12 months or so under the Acts and I am sure that they are only the tip of the iceberg. Rare birds' eggs—for example, the osprey's or the snowy owl's eggs—fetch very high prices from egg collectors, as do the birds themselves, alive or dead, from so-called bird fanciers or taxidermists. In my view, the 1954 Act needs several important amendments to make it more effective. Incidentally, this Act was introduced by my noble friend Lady Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie in another place and amended in 1967 by the late Lord Hurcomb in your Lordships' House. The two Acts together need further amendment in the light of experience.

I hope to have an opportunity to introduce another amending Bill to the 1954 Act in the next Session of Parliament. Meanwhile, Mr. Peter Hardy's Bill which, brought from another place, we have before us now will, if it commends itself to your Lordships, go some way, although in my view not far enough, towards deterring law breakers who seek to profit from the suffering of wild birds and the senseless greed of the collector.

When considering the maximum fines which should be imposed under the Acts, it is reasonable to bear in mind that the prison sentences provided for in the 1954 Act are no longer regarded as an appropriate form of punishment for offences committed under these Acts. Surely this clearly points to the need for stiffer fines. At present, the fines are derisory and are taken in their stride by unscrupulous people. We can do something to make the law more effective if today we give this modest Bill a Second Reading and if it passes its remaining stages on Thursday of this week.

I am exceptionally grateful to my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton for being kind enough to come to listen to this very short Second Reading speech and, I hope, to lend me his support. In fact, I feel sure of his support. I am also very grateful indeed to the noble Lord the Minister for being on the Front Bench opposite, and I hope to hear from him that this small measure has the Government's blessing. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Chelwood.)

7.58 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say straight away that I am most grateful that my noble friend Lord Chelwood has seen fit to bring this measure before your Lordships' House. Needless to say, as he anticipated, I can assure my noble friend of the full support not only of myself but, I suspect, of every member of the Party for which I stand. As my noble friend has said, regrettably the pound has fallen in value since 1954 and accordingly the value of collectors' items, he they alive or dead, has gone up far more than one would ever have wished.

The noble Lord mentioned the peregrine falcon. When one considers that each young peregrine falcon commands £250 and each adult £500, one wonders how £25 can be considered an adequate fine. My noble friend said that 30 pairs of young peregrine falcon have already gone and that possibly 40 pairs will have gone by the end of the year. That is at £250 each—not for a pair but £250 for each young bird and £500 for each adult. It is a lot of money, and £25 is not much of a deterrent.

May I say that my noble friend Lord Craigton, whose influence in this field is so great and whose knowledge is so enormous, has asked me to say how sorry he is that he is not able to be in the House tonight to add his views. I told him that on his behalf I would inform your Lordships that the World Wildlife Fund's allocations committee had come unanimously to the conclusion that in their view even the suggested £100 fine was inadequate for the elimination of these racketeers.

May I ask the noble Lord the Minister who is to reply one question which is in no way derogatory of the Bill. I understand that the Government are favourably disposed towards this Bill, for which, like my noble friend, I am most grateful. I merely want to ask, in a spirit of genuine inquiry and making no Party political points, a question about the Endangered Species Bill which was recently before us. We asked then whether the fines were adequate, and I seem to remember the noble Baroness who answered for the Government saying that the James Committee was recommending increased fines in the case of all Acts of Parliament of this sort which would bring fines up to a level to make them adequate to the rate of inflation as compared to the time when they were introduced. Therefore, at that moment we were asked not to insist on Amendments in Committee and on Report stages because the Government wished them to be dealt with across the broad spectrum in all Acts of Parliament. I merely ask this question. If, as I understand, the Government are favourable to this measure—for which I again say that I am most grateful—ought one's honourable friends in another place now consider increasing the fines which we were advised not to increase in such cases as the Endangered Species Bill? I am slightly puzzled, because that seems to be a parallel to this measure. Having injected that slightly carping note into what is otherwise a happy occasion, I wish to support my noble friend Lord Chelwood.

8.2 p.m.


My Lords, this is the second time within recent weeks that the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, has taken up cudgels on behalf of the animal world and, I am happy to say, this is the second time that on behalf of the Government I have been able to nod rather approvingly in his direction. Your Lordships will remember that the noble Lord piloted through this House the Dangerous Wild Animals Bill which received Royal Assent last Thursday. Your Lordships wholeheartedly approved of the Bill, as did those in another place. If I understood the noble Lord correctly, I believe he is hoping to introduce yet a third Bill in the not too distant future. He has struck lucky on this occasion and I hope, if the Bill is suitable, he will complete a hat trick.

As the noble Lord explained, the Bill before us increases the financial penalties under the Protection of Birds Act 1954, to take account of changes in the value of money over the last 22 years, and to bring them into line with those provided in recent comparable legislation. Let me say here and now that the Bill has the support of the Government. Indeed I am giving away no secret when I say that these penalties, along with many others, are currently under review by the Home Office. We are indeed well aware that many Statutes provide for financial penalties which over the years have simply lost all or a great deal of whatever power they may have had to deter people or to punish them. As your Lordships know, we have been studying the recommendations of the report of the James Committee on the distribution of criminal business among the courts. As may be imagined, this is quite a lengthy exercise, but I can say that one aspect of our consideration will be the revision of the maximum fines imposable on summary conviction for particular offences. That study will inevitably embrace the fines we are talking about today, and the end product would almost certainly be a Government measure which inter alia would take account of the fall in the value of money since 1954.

The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, was right in his recollection about various things that were said during the passage of the Endangered Species Bill, when I think he may well have been given to understand that this was a matter that we hoped to deal with. The reason why it is being done on this occasion—and I do not want to go all over the ground already covered by the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood—is simply that Mr. Peter Hardy took the initiative to do something in that direction in this Bill.

Whether it would be worth the noble Lord's while to talk to his friends in another place, I do not know. I think probably that if the Bill has not yet been through another place it might not succeed in getting through there this session. However, I will certainly convey what the noble Lord has said this evening to the appropriate Department because, as he will know, it is not the Department for which I am speaking here this evening. I will convey his remarks to my right honourable friend in that Department. To that extent it can be said that this Bill will do for a very small area what a Government Bill in a future Session of Parliament is likely to do over a much greater area of the criminal law. We shall try to do that as soon as we possibly can.

I wish to repeat that the report of the James Committee covers a wide area, and a good deal of thought and consideration as to the kind of action that is to be taken would have to he given to it. Meanwhile, the Government give their approval and support the Bill now before your Lordships' House.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.