The Scottish Government’s Environment Minister, Mairi Gougeon, has announced a commitment to establish an independent taskforce to consider an extension of powers for the SSPCA which could lead to them being allowed to investigate a wider remit of wildlife crime than at present, including raptor persecution.
This announcement is a result of yet another strong amendment made by the Scottish Greens on the Animals and Wildlife Bill currently passing through Parliament. Mark Ruskell MSP proposed further powers for the SSPCA at Stage 2 during an evidence session of the Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform (ECCLR) Committee on 26 May 2020. Mairi Gougeon persuaded him to withdraw the proposed amendment on the basis that she’d consider establishing a taskforce. You can read their discussion here: ECCLR 26 May 2020_discussion SSPCA increased powers_Ruskell_Gougeon
Mairi Gougeon has now confirmed her commitment to establishing an ‘independent’ taskforce this summer, with a view to seeing it report in the New Year as long as Covid19 and Brexit shenanigans don’t disrupt. You can read her confirmation letter to the ECCLR (and her correspondence with a seemingly very grateful SSPCA) here: Gougeon correspondence to ECCLR SSPCA on proposed taskforce
[The Scottish Government published this on social media last night]
Sounds good, right? We’re all sick of the raptor killing criminals getting away with it so announcing a taskforce to consider extending the SSPCA’s powers so that its officers can investigate a wider remit of wildlife crime (instead of being restricted to investigating crimes that only include live animals, as at present) must be brilliant news, surely.
But is it, really?
For those of you with long memories, you’ll know that the issue of increased powers for the SSPCA to tackle more wildlife crime has been around for many, many years. Since 2011, in fact. It has been debated and consulted to death and yet has gone absolutely nowhere, despite six (yes, six) Environment Ministers presiding over it (Roseanna Cunningham, Stewart Stevenson, Paul Wheelhouse, Aileen McLeod, Roseanna Cunningham [again, but this time as Cabinet Secretary] and now Mairi Gougeon).
For those new to this, here’s a quick recap of how the Scottish Government has dealt with this issue so far:
February 2011: Increased powers for the SSPCA was first suggested by former MSP Peter Peacock as an amendment during the Wildlife & Natural Environment (Scotland) Bill debates. The then Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham rejected it as an amendment but suggested a public consultation was in order.
September 2011: Seven months later Elaine Murray MSP (Scottish Labour) lodged a parliamentary motion that further powers for the SSPCA should be considered.
November 2011: Elaine Murray MSP (Scottish Labour) formalised the question in a P&Q session and the next Environment Minister, Stewart Stevenson MSP, then promised that the consultation would happen ‘in the first half of 2012’.
September 2012: Nine months later and nothing had happened so we asked Paul Wheelhouse MSP, as the new Environment Minister, when the consultation would take place. The response, in October 2012, was:
“The consultation has been delayed by resource pressures but will be brought forward in the near future”.
July 2013: Ten months later and still no sign so we asked the Environment Minister (still Paul Wheelhouse) again. In August 2013, this was the response:
“We regret that resource pressures did further delay the public consultation on the extension of SSPCA powers. However, I can confirm that the consultation document will be published later this year”.
September 2013: At a meeting of the PAW Executive Group, Minister Wheelhouse said this:
“The consultation on new powers for the SSPCA will be published in October 2013“.
January 2014: In response to one of our blog readers who wrote to the Minister (still Paul Wheelhouse) to ask why the consultation had not yet been published:
“We very much regret that resource pressures have caused further delays to the consultation to gain views on the extension of SSPCA powers. It will be published in the near future“.
31 March 2014: Public consultation launched.
1 September 2014: Consultation closed.
26 October 2014: We published our analysis of the consultation responses here.
22 January 2015: Analysis of consultation responses published by Scottish Government. 233 responses (although 7,256 responses if online petition included – see here).
We were told a decision would come from the new Environment Minister, Dr Aileen McLeod MSP, “in due course”.
1 September 2015: One year after the consultation closed and still nothing.
25 February 2016: In response to a question posed by the Rural Affairs, Climate Change & Environment Committee, Environment Minister Dr Aileen McLeod said: “I have some further matters to clarify with the SSPCA, however I do hope to be able to report on the Scottish Government’s position on this issue shortly“.
May 2016: Dr Aileen McLeod fails to get re-elected and loses her position as Environment Minister. Roseanna Cunningham is promoted to a newly-created position of Cabinet Secretary for the Environment.
12 May 2016: Mark Ruskell MSP (Scottish Greens) submits the following Parliamentary question:
Question S5W-00030 – To ask the Scottish Government when it will announce its decision regarding extending the powers of the Scottish SPCA to tackle wildlife crime.
26 May 2016: Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham responds with this:
A decision on whether to extend the investigatory powers of the Scottish SPCA will be announced in due course.
1 September 2016: Two years after the consultation closed and still nothing.
9 January 2017: Mark Ruskell MSP (Scottish Greens) submits the following Parliamentary question:
Question S5W-05982 – To ask the Scottish Government by what date it will publish its response to the consultation on the extension of wildlife crime investigative powers for inspectors in the Scottish SPCA.
17 January 2017: Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham responds:
A decision on whether to extend the investigatory powers of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will be announced in the first half of 2017.
31 May 2017: Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham rejects an extension of powers for the SSPCA ‘based on legal advice’ and instead announces, as an alternative, a pilot scheme of Special Constables for the Cairngorms National Park (here). It later emerged in 2018 that this pilot scheme was also an alternative to the Government’s 2016 manifesto pledge to establish a Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit as part of Police Scotland – a pledge on which it had now reneged (see here).
November 2019: The pilot scheme of Special Constables in the Cairngorms National Park was an absolute failure as a grand total of zero wildlife crimes were recorded by the Special Constables but plenty were reported by others (see here).
So here we are again, nine years on and the latest Environment Minister has announced a taskforce. Given the unimpressive history, it’s really difficult to be excited by this announcement. That’s no reflection on Mairi Gougeon’s commitment to the issue – her integrity is not in doubt – but this Government’s appalling track record of constant can-kicking on SSPCA powers, on tackling wildlife crime and particularly on raptor persecution within the game-shooting industry, is wearing very thin indeed.
Perhaps a more optimistic perspective would be to say that even after all these years of debate, delays, parliamentary questions, delays, reviews, delays, consultation, delays, alternative schemes, delays, this issue simply refuses to go away, as do those of us determined to hold this Government to account and insist that everything possible is done to bring the raptor killing criminals to justice.
Kudos to the Scottish Greens and especially to Mark Ruskell MSP who has maintained the pressure on this particular issue for all these years.