Environment Minister urged to get off the fence re: SSPCA consultation

sspca logoBack to the cross-party Rural Affairs, Climate Change & Environment (RACCE) committee hearing in January….

One of the topics up for discussion between MSPs, Police Scotland and the Crown Office was the consultation on increasing the investigatory powers of the SSPCA to allow them to investigate a wider suite of wildlife crimes than they already do. As many of you will know, this issue has now dragged on for five years, ever since increased powers for the SSPCA was first suggested in February 2011 by former MSP Peter Peacock during the passage of the WANE bill through Parliament. For a potted history of this long drawn out fiasco, please see here.

So, the discussion started like this:

Alex Fergusson MSP (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con): My question follows on quite well from the point about the steps that can be taken to further identify and prosecute wildlife crime. The issue goes back almost two years, to March 2014, when the Government produced a consultation document that looked at further powers for the SSPCA. As everyone will be well aware, various viewpoints were submitted. After its discussion of the 2013 report, the committee wrote to the Government to express sympathy with Police Scotland’s view that accountability issues could arise if the SSPCA were to be given greater powers. We concluded that letter by saying: “The Committee looks forward to the Scottish Government’s forthcoming decision”. We still look forward to that decision, because we have not had one yet. Are you aware of any further discussions that have taken place in the intervening time about the further involvement of the SSPCA? Are the discussions still live or has the proposal died in the water?

Assistant Chief Constable Graham: There have been on-going discussions, and I have spoken to the Government about the matter. We, too, still look forward to hearing about the decision. There is perhaps not a huge amount more substance to be added to the debate. I do not think that anything has changed in relation to our view or the context in which that view was placed when it was given.

Alex Fergusson: An interesting statistic in table 11 of the 2014 wildlife crime report is that the number of cases investigated solely by the SSPCA and reported to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has reduced year on year. In 2009-10 the figure was 36; in 2013-14, it had halved. Is there a rationale for that reduction?

Tom Dysart (Crown Office): Before Mr Graham comments, I should mention that I have reviewed the figure in that period against the number of cases that COPFS received. According to the reports that we received, the number of cases was 10.

Alex Fergusson: What period were those 10 cases received in?

Tom Dysart: In the period 2013-14.

Alex Fergusson: You received 10 rather than 18 cases.

Tom Dysart: Yes.

Alex Fergusson: So the reduction is even greater.

Tom Dysart: It is.

Alex Fergusson: What is the reason for the reduction?

Tom Dysart: I simply observe that we received 10 reports, not 18. I found that out when I tried to reconcile our figures against those in the report more generally.

Alex Fergusson: Can anyone else comment on that?

Assistant Chief Constable Graham: The figures come from the SSPCA via the Government report, so I cannot add value, I am afraid.

Alex Fergusson: Has that difference, if you like, been made up for in other ways? In other words, does it leave a black hole in wildlife crime reporting or is the differential being taken up by people such as the police?

Assistant Chief Constable Graham: I suppose that the number is very small when we look at the difference, even if it is the difference between 18 and 10, across a year.

Alex Fergusson: It is between 36 and 10 cases over a five-year period.

Assistant Chief Constable Graham: Yes, but in relation to the cases that Police Scotland deals with, 26 cases will not put a significant resource burden on our approach, even in the context of 255 or 300 reports, as those are spread over a large number of officers. I am not aware that there has been any perception of an impact, or any reporting of one.

Alex Fergusson: To be fair, the question is probably more for the SSPCA than for you. It may have been a little unfair to have put that to you. The committee might want to follow up the issue in writing.


This sounds to us like a subtle but concerted effort to diminish the perceived extent of the SSPCA’s role in relation to wildlife crime investigations. We may be wrong, but that’s the impression we got, especially when you consider the above discussion in context with Police Scotland’s claim that they are pretty much on top of investigating raptor persecution crimes (see here) and thus implying that there’s no need for the SSPCA to get any increased powers.

Anyway, after the above discussion the RACCE committee did indeed write to the SSPCA to ask about the confusion over their submitted figures – here is the committee’s letter.

The SSPCA responded quickly with its own letter (here), which explains the confusion – the SSPCA figures were based on a calendar year whereas the figures to which Dysart was referring were based on a financial year. Simple.

The SSPCA’s letter also went on to explain that although the figures it submitted to the Crown Office were relatively low, they don’t reflect the full extent of the SSPCA’s wildlife crime caseload. Only a small percentage of the crimes investigated by the SSPCA (as with wildlife crimes investigated by the police) will actually reach the stage of being submitted to the Crown Office simply due to the well-known difficulties of finding sufficient evidence to be able to report a named individual for that crime. In other words, the extent of the SSPCA’s involvement cannot be judged just on the number of cases that are reported to the Crown Office – let’s hope the RACCE committee was not misled by this.

Malcolm Graham 2The RACCE committee’s discussion about the SSPCA continued as follows:

Claudia Beamish MSP (South Scotland) (Lab): I appreciate that the Scottish Government has not announced its response to the consultation, but can any of you comment on the possibility of further powers? I am a deputy convener of the cross-party group on animal welfare. We have had discussions, and I am aware that it has been highlighted that there could be a conflict of interests in relation to the SSPCA. So many challenges in relation to detection and prosecutions have been highlighted today, in your report last year—I was on the committee then— and over the years that I would have thought that an organisation as experienced as the SSPCA would be a valid partner to work with you on the issues. Do you have any comments on that?

Assistant Chief Constable Graham: To be clear, we are absolutely not saying that it is not a valid partner.

Claudia Beamish: I am not implying that in any way.

Assistant Chief Constable Graham: We are saying that it is a valid partner, and we work with it every day. We have an extremely good relationship with it, and I would not wish it to be characterised that our view on the additional powers suggested otherwise.

Claudia Beamish: I am certainly not implying that in any way.

Assistant Chief Constable Graham: If there is any room for an additional contribution to the combined effort to increase the detection of wildlife crime, we would do everything that we could to support that. However, that does not mean that that end will always justify the means of achieving it. I went into that in some depth last year and in our written responses to the SSPCA. We have to be very careful that, in going down that route, we do not undermine the validity, ethics and credibility of the end results because of the foundation on which they are based. Those are essentially the concerns that we have raised about the additional powers. We work with the SSPCA in lots of ways, and we would be very happy to look at other ways in which we could work with it. We have a good relationship with it, but that does not necessarily extend to our supporting the full extension to the powers that it sought, as members are aware.

Claudia Beamish: For the record, can you clarify for us what the concerns are about the possible additional powers?

Assistant Chief Constable Graham: Our open response to the consultation is already on the record.

Claudia Beamish: Can you clarify your concerns for the committee?

Assistant Chief Constable Graham: We felt that the checks and balances in governance were potentially not in place for an organisation such as the SSPCA, and that its role and purpose did not necessarily lend to its being given the powers that would allow it to progress investigations in the way that it sought without some additional governance being in place in the same way that it would be in place over everything that the police would do. We had concerns that there could be conflicts of interest. That is not to say that the SSPCA is not a really important part of what we do collectively. However, the effort and potential increased capacity that it could add to dealing with wildlife crime were overstated in its original submission, so the benefit certainly did not outweigh our concerns.

Claudia Beamish: Thank you. Could the governance issue be resolved if it were looked at? You are talking about a different level of governance for the consideration of additional powers to be possible.

Assistant Chief Constable Graham: We did not look into that in any great depth, but a superficial assessment is, I think, that it would be very challenging for a body that is constituted as a charity, in the way that the SSPCA is.


So not much new there really. Police Scotland continues to assert that there are issues of ‘accountability’ that should, in its opinion, preclude the SSPCA receiving greater investigatory powers. It’s a strange view, and one which we’ve explored before (see here). Why is it that the SSPCA can investigate a whole range of crimes, including some wildlife crimes, and report those cases to the Crown Office for the Crown to consider the evidence and proceed with a prosecution (or not), and those cases are not challenged on the grounds of a ‘lack of accountability’, and yet any suggestion that the SSPCA might be allowed to investigate wildlife crimes associated with the game-shooting industry and all of a sudden they have ‘accountability’ issues?

After this hearing, in early February the RACCE committee wrote to Environment Minister Aileen McLeod with their thoughts on what they had heard during the meeting. Their letter can be read here. In it, the committee writes the following about the SSPCA consultation:

In your response to the Committee’s letter on the Annual Report 2013, you indicated you would keep the Committee updated on developments with regard to a response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the extension of powers in wildlife crime investigation to the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA). To date, the Committee has not received an update and the Scottish Government has not published its conclusions resulting from the consultation. The Committee requests details of when your analysis and conclusions from the consultation will be published, and expects this to be in good time for the Committee to include this in its legacy report to its successor committee(s)“.

That’s a pretty clear message to the Minister. Get off the fence and make a decision, preferably before 23 March when Parliament is dissolved. The consultation closed in September 2014, it’s now February 2016. How much thinking time does she need?

The RACCE committee’s letter also asks the Minister about her decision on the Wildlife Crime Penalties Review report. It says:

Upon publication of the report of the Wildlife Crime Penalties Review Group, you wrote to the Committee indicating you would be considering the recommendations in detail. The Committee requests an indication of when your response to the report will be published and whether you are in a position to provide a view on the issue of penalties at this stage. This information will inform the Committee’s legacy report to its successor committee(s)“.

Again, another clear message to the Minister to get off the fence and make a decision.

The RACCE committee members are not the only ones asking the Minister to get on with making long overdue decisions. It recently emerged in a BBC article, ‘Pregnant beavers shot by landowners in Tayside‘ that the Minister has yet to make a decision on whether beavers should receive legal protection. The decision is now four years overdue and if the current Environment Minister continues to prevaricate, this year’s breeding season will result in more pregnant beavers being shot. Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone has called for Ministers to get off the fence.

Come on, Aileen, get a grip and do your job and earn that £86K salary!

24 thoughts on “Environment Minister urged to get off the fence re: SSPCA consultation”

  1. An outstanding report.Thank you RPS.Those of us on the sidelines in England can only admire your tenacity on this subject. Kicking and screaming Scottish wildlife will get the protection it deserves thanks very much to you.

  2. My suspicious nature wonders is their a conflict of interest or back handers from high places (e.g. grouse moors???). That allows Aileen a comfy fence to sit upon.

  3. Low people in high places. The SNP has not a chance of getting my votes in May. This just another example of them kow towing to a corrupt form of power, as was evident in the Land Reform Act which, thankfully, the rank and file sent “homewards, to think again.”

  4. Aileen McLeod is in my opinion the very worst environment minister in the 19 years of the Scottish Parliament. The SNP has shown what side it is on by removing Paul Wheelhouse (no doubt through pressure from the landed gentry) and replacing him with this current, game-shoot loving, useless person. The SNP will not be getting my vote in May.

  5. I too applaud RPS’s tenacity in this and other matters relating to raptor persecution. However although I understand the desire to see greater investigative powers handed to SSPCA, I still have niggling doubts about that organisation’s ability to do the job to a satisfactory degree. I can foresee a future where we end up criticising SSPCA for falling below our expected standards, only to be told by the Scottish Government “well, we gave you what you wanted.” In no way do I have doubts about the dedication and determination of the SSPCA’s front line troops, but I do have concern about the ability of their senior management to live up to the task. We’re told that they would not be taking over police duties, and that their services would be free. But nothing is free in this world, and I continue to be uncomfortable about the ethics of a charity being given investigatory powers, especially when that charity’s role is primarily one of animal welfare. The people who kill protected raptors are serious criminals. However my nitty gritty concern is where is the SSPCA going to obtain the funds to extend its remit so widely and intensively? This worry worsens when we hear that in 2013-14 they dealt with only ten cases of wildlife crime. To deal with the ongoing problem effectively suggests that they would require at least twenty times the currently dedicated resources, and that arbitrary figure may well be a considerable under-estimate. In the meantime the police may reduce their own efforts accordingly. Have we really thought this through?

    1. But they already have investigatory powers! The new powers, if they ever come, will simply allow them to investigate a wider suite of wildlife crimes instead of being limited to those that involve an animal in distress. Instead, they’d be able to investigate, for eg, the discovery of a poisoned bait and a (dead) poisoned raptor lying next to it. Currently, they can only investigate if the poisoned raptor is still alive. It is utterly ludicrous!

      We’ve been over this time and time again.

      They already do deal with serious criminals (think badger baiters).

      Please read the blog post again. They didn’t investigate ‘only ten cases of wildlife crime in 2013-2014’. That’s exactly what Police Scotland/COPFS want you to believe!

      1. Okay RPS, I’ve taken your point previously and accept it again, but I did not say that SSPCA did not already have investigative powers, hence my reference to “greater” investigative powers. I have read the post again and as far as I can see the SSPCA did not deny that they investigated only ten wildlife crimes in 2013-14; the alternative figure of 18 cases was a calendar rather than financial year total. Please elucidate if I’ve misunderstood. Even based on 18 investigations in the year in question, it still appears to me to beg the question… where are the SSPCA going to acquire the additional staff and financial resources to extend their investigative remit to its realistic potential? I suppose the point I’m really trying to make is not to regard this particular objective as coming up with anything resembling a solution to the problem. It may be a step in the right direction, and I’m not opposed to it in principle (your responses to date seem to suggest you might think otherwise), but it could be less productive than being anticipated. I sincerely hope I am proved wrong.

        1. The number of cases (10 or 18, depending on the method used – calendar year or financial year) is misleading. What the SSPCA says in its letter of response to the RACCE is that those figures represent the cases where sufficient evidence allowed them to report the case to the Crown. They investigated far more than that in reality, but the evidence was insufficient to pin the crime on a named individual (and thus it couldn’t be reported to the Crown).

          The SSPCA can’t win either way if this is the basis of the argument against them receiving additional powers. If they’d reported 500 cases, people would say ‘Oh, well how will they cope with investigating any more?’

          The SSPCA has stated, quite clearly, that is has the resources, and experience, to cope. Nobody else can judge that better than they can. They should be given the powers and let’s see how they get on.

          Nobody is suggesting that by giving them increased powers, they’ll be able to stop all raptor persecution crimes. What we’re saying is they’ll make a much better job of it than the Police are currently managing. The only reason to object to increased powers is the fear of them (SSPCA) being successful. That is why the game-shooting industry has objected so strongly to the proposal.

          1. Don’t know why you are still arguing, as I’ve said I have accepted your point. You seem to be inferring some hostility in my concerns which is not intended. I’m slightly insulted that you imply I’d use the same argument even if the SSPCA had reported 500 cases! That’s just ridiculous. I’ve got to admit I was unaware that the game-shooting industry had objected strongly to the proposal; that fact has passed me by somewhere. It would also be interesting to see the SSPCA’s rationale in claiming it has the resources and experience, to cope with what should amount to considerable extra work for them. Their word alone might be good enough for you, but I remain sceptical. As I said, I’m all in favour of the SSPCA being granted the additional powers, but let’s wait and see whether it turns out to be a partial solution or merely an experiment. I’m also worried that we seem to be giving up on the police being a credible crime fighting force. That does not mean I believe they’re doing a great job at present!

          2. There could be many reasons to object to this proposal (or at least remain cautious) not only “the fear of them (SSPCA) being successful”, indeed, several conservation charities also expressed unease in their comments to the consultation.

    2. If I understand SSPCA’s position correctly they say that SSPCA (just like the police) can act only when someone reports a crime; however, as presently their powers are related to animal cruelty crimes (i.e. incidents when the animal is still alive), when one reports an alleged crime, where the animal is dead, their ability to investigate these reports is unreasonably restricted (e.g. they cannot apply for a warrant, enter and search non-domestic premises, or seize evidence), thus the overall quality and consistency of (wildlife crime) enforcement is somewhat diminished.

      SSPCA inspectors are authorised to enforce Part 2 of the Animal Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, which relates to animal welfare (i.e. living animals, which means ‘a vertebrate other than man’), therefore SSPCA inspectors already have powers to in relation to some wildlife crimes. The consultation proposed that the powers of “wildlife inspectors” should be available to SSPCA inspectors. “Wildlife inspectors” are authorised by Scottish Ministers under Section 19ZC of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. These powers would be used by SSPCA inspectors when encountering incidents which might look like offences under Part 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (e.g. wild birds, poaching, hares, snares, etc.).

      I don’t think that SSPCA is proposing to hire dozens of inspectors, or will start patrolling the countryside to investigate wildlife crime, rather, if and when Part 1 offences are reported to them (or if during an investigation it turns out that the alleged crime might be a Part 1 offence) they would be able to effectively investigate the incident. Without knowing how often they presently refer potential Part 1 cases to other bodies (such as Police Scotland) it’s impossible to estimate the resource implications, but – as they are obviously not against the extension of powers of their inspectors – it might be the case that the extra resources they would potentially need are not as significant as you seem to imply.

  6. I think that there is little doubt that Mr Wheelhouse was removed because he was getting near to dealing with the problem. So just like in England, the Government appoints someone who will keep the vested interests happy. It is really disappointing from the tartan tories! Keep up the fight!

    1. Or very convincing depending on your viewpoint. Many folk are convinced they are not trying to apprehend the crooks.

  7. SSPCA reported 10 cases for prosecution last year……to me that’s nearly 1 per month. I wonder how many investigations they did that fell short of the necessary level of evidence for prosecution, I suspect it was considerably more.

    I wonder how many were hindered by them not having the increased powers.

    To me its simple;
    SSPCA have a proven track record in this field and giving them extra powers will help the fight against wildlife crime and the its FREE.

    It is plain to see the police have serious difficulty in this area and suddenly an organisation that is usually so vocal about the benefits of partnership working, suddenly they don’t want help! Something smells with this.

    A clue may be that at a senior level the police are attempting to convince the public and politicians that the levels of wildlife crime are far less than everyone thinks, ‘there is no tip of an iceberg, etc etc. We all know this is complete rubbish but ask who benefits from this type of claim?

    If SSPCA were given increased powers this would take absolutely nothing away from the police and on the contrary it would provide assistance, resources and expertise where it is badly needed. Perhaps it would take some of the control away from the police and show that the claims that they (police) have made about reduction in wildlife crime is simply not true.

    Why on earth would the police take this view? I would have expected it from some in the sporting or land owning fraternity.

    I suspect that people in high places, with vested interests are pulling the strings of the police and if this correct then shame on the police. The public and in particular those with an interest in protecting Scotland’s valuable wildlife are not stupid.

  8. “Why is it that the SSPCA can investigate a whole range of crimes, (…) and yet any suggestion that the SSPCA might be allowed to investigate wildlife crimes associated with the game-shooting industry and all of a sudden they have ‘accountability’ issues?”

    I think you are correct in implying that the proposal would not raise any new issues as the powers would be quite similar to the existing ones; therefore, the issue of the perceived lack of accountability is either already present – and therefore it should be addressed – or it’s non-existent (or unimportant) and extended powers should be granted to SSPCA inspectors.

    However, contrary to what you seem to suggest, the process of authorising SSPCA inspectors as animal cruelty inspectors did not go down without objections. Country sport organisations in their comments to the Draft Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Bill suggested that the powers available when dealing with animals in distress should be exercised under the advice of a veterinarian. They said that there should be a statutory right of appeal in each case. Regarding the appointment of inspectors they raised that “the Bill delegates an unlimited power to Scottish Ministers and local authorities to decide who may act as an inspector. It does not specifically state the character of the inspectors”. They disagreed that inspectors would not incur civil or criminal liability: “No one was above the law, not even the police. Everyone should be responsible for their actions”. There were concerns regarding the training of newly appointed inspectors: “Inspectors should be suitably qualified and have suitable experience”. Impartiality was also mentioned: “There was a need to ensure the character of the inspectors. For example, it was important to ensure that they were not an animal rights zealot (…).” (Analysis of Responses to the Draft Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Bill Consultation)

    Even SSPCA acknowledged in their ‘Supplementary Submission on the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Bill’ that “it is an unusual step to give statutory authority to individuals of a non-statutory body”. (Somewhat strangely they then stated that “because any proceedings taken forward under the new Bill will be taken forward by the Crown Office – a department of the Scottish Executive – the necessary accountability will lie with that body”. They appear reluctant to accept any responsibility for their investigations undertaken under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 – not exactly the best way of building trust, one might say.)

    Clearly, specific comments regarding SSPCA’s accountability could not be raised back then, as its inspectors had no powers under any legislation, but as I quoted above the issue of impartiality, accountability and training was raised (in general terms). Nevertheless, it’s difficult to ascertain as to why there were no further objections. Perhaps because SSPCA has been investigating and reporting animal cruelty offences (at least) since the 19th century and certainly since the passing of the Protection of Animals (Scotland) Act 1912; therefore, it had more experience and expertise in such matters than any other organisation in Scotland (and apparently it was greatly involved in the legislative process). Or maybe because local authorities were strongly supportive of the idea to pawn off their responsibilities – and the not insubstantial costs attached to the enforcement of animal cruelty law – to a private organisation. Or perhaps whatever misgivings the shooting industry had regarding the proposed powers of SSPCA inspectors they thought that SSPCA will restrict itself to investigation incidents involving companion animals.

    The debate of Peter Peacock’s amendment 91 during the passing of the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Bill (which proposed extended powers, similar to those in the SSPCA Consultation), makes an interesting read, although it does not answer your question. In fact, I think it’s apparent that Peacock’s reasoning is not without merit, but his amendment also involved stop and search powers, which seems to be the main reason why ACPOS, and ultimately Roseanne Cunningham, was against it. (http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=6053&mode=html)

  9. Adam.

    Are you saying that the current proposal includes SSPCA Inspectors being given powers to stop and search because I do not think this is the case.

    It is my understanding the powers would only extend to entering land and the seizing of evidence. There is no request to stop and search either persons, vehicles or premises (non dwellings)

    1. No, stop-and-search powers are explicitly outwith the scope of the current proposal, but I believe they were included in Peter Peacock’s amendment 91 back in 2011 when MSPs debated the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Bill, and I was speculating that might have been one of the reasons the amendmend failed.

      Premises (non-domestic) in the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 include “any land or building, (b) any other place, in particular (i) a vehicle or vessel, (ii) a tent or moveable structure.” (s 50(1))

      Which means that inspectors already have powers to search vehicles in relation to relevant offences (and they can also apply for a warrant to enter and search domestic premises).

      The consultation document seems to be inaccurate in parts, but it does give a good overview of the presently available and the proposed powers: http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0044/00447381.pdf

      It’s somewhat vague regarding the possible new powers, but they could be similar to those of “wildlife inspectors” (under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981): http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1981/69/section/19ZC and http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1981/69/section/19ZD

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