Thanks to the contributor who sent us the following article that was published in the Police Oracle yesterday:
A spate of raptor poisonings could motivate politicians to hand a charity powers that have traditionally been the sole preserve of police officers.
The Scottish government is consulting on radical plans to give the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) the ability to stray beyond its remit and probe reports of traps and dead wildlife rather than simply investigating the mistreatment of live animals.
The government says a shortage of officers in rural areas means Police Scotland is often unable to deal effectively with incidents in remote locations where there are few or no witnesses – like the mass poisoning of red kites, buzzards and other birds of prey in the Highlands.
Legislative changes would allow SSPCA investigators to enter land other than dwellings or locked premises, examine any object and seize potential evidence without a warrant and without reference to specific animal welfare law.
They would have the ability to search vehicles suspected of carrying illegal carcasses, protected live animals and birds and illegal traps or poisons.
Possible new powers could also include granting the charity’s inspectors the right to enter private homes with a warrant to seize potential evidence.
If you give a charity the same powers as police, they would have to have the same level of accountability and transparency.
The proposed changes are strongly backed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which cited a recent case in which no one was convicted after 16 red kites and six buzzards were illegally poisoned in Ross-shire.
The organisation’s head of investigations in Scotland has suggested that police teams are often too over-stretched to investigate this type of crime with thoroughness.
However, Nevin Hunter, the former head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit, said he had “significant concerns” about the Scottish government’s proposals, adding: “If you give a charity the same powers as police, they would have to have the same level of accountability and transparency. That is the issue, because they are not as accountable.”
Legal experts have raised concerns too, saying the job of investigating wildlife crime should ideally be done by warranted police officers.
Jim Drysdale, a member of the Law Society of Scotland’s rural affairs committee, said: “Wildlife crime, such as the poisoning of birds of prey, is a serious issue and causes substantial public concern, and it is imperative that such incidents are fully investigated and prosecuted when they occur.
“We believe police officers are best placed to deal with such crime, and increasing the presence of uniformed police officers in remote areas where these crimes occur will assure the public that combating wildlife crime is being taken seriously.”
He said that in the absence of increased police resources he supported the proposals, provided SSPCA officers were accompanied by witnesses when exercising their powers.
He added: “We also believe there should be a review in two to five years’ time to ensure powers are being appropriately enforced.”
Conflicts of interest?
The Scottish government’s consultation document outlines advantages and disadvantages of the plans.
Potential benefits include a more robust response to wildlife crime at no extra cost to the public purse.
However, the document points out a potential conflict of interest between SSPCA’s use of broader powers and its political campaigning on issues like snaring, airguns and fireworks.
Under law the SSPCA has “specialist reporting” status, meaning it can make reports to Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, which then decides whether to prosecute.
This contrasts with the situation in England and Wales, where the SSPCA’s equivalent, the RSPCA, has brought private criminal prosecutions that have been criticised by some commentators as overly politicised.
Police Scotland insists it is committed to dealing with wildlife crime, adding: “We are actively engaged in the process around proposed extra powers for the SSPCA and as this is an ongoing consultation it would be inappropriate for us to comment more at this time.”
It’s not clear whether Nevin Hunter’s views are shared by the new head of the NWCU (Hunter retired in July and has been replaced by Martin Sims, due to start in Sept/Oct). Hopefully the new head will be a bit more forward-thinking and a bit more willing to find ways of improving wildlife crime enforcement in Scotland. There’s an obvious problem, and it’s been there for decades, as evidenced by the pathetic wildlife crime conviction rates and the Government’s launch of this consultation. All this guff about ‘conflict of interest’ and ‘unaccountablity’ is, frankly, clutching at straws. As we’ve commented previously, the SSPCA have been investigating some wildlife crimes for a long, long time, resulting in some significant convictions for badger-baiting, illegal snaring etc. Their “political campaigning” about a ban on the use of snares doesn’t seem to have affected their success, nor their investigative professionalism. Have you ever heard anyone question their status when they’ve helped bring those criminals to justice? No, nor have we, so why all of a sudden, when there’s a chance to go after the raptor killers, is it being raised now?
As for police accountability and levels of transparency, the final sentence of the article says it all. Just remove the word ‘consultation’ and insert the word ‘investigation’ and you’ve got the standard response every single time the police and NWCU are asked to explain their actions/inactions. The SSPCA would be hard pressed to be any less transparent and any less accountable than the NWCU and Police Scotland.