Where’s the Scottish Government’s promised taskforce on increasing powers for SSPCA?

Ten years ago the Scottish Government was asked to consider extending the powers of the Scottish SPCA, to allow them to investigate a much wider remit of wildlife crime than at present, including raptor persecution.

Since then this issue has been kicked in to the long grass more times than is credible by a long line of six (yes, six!) Environment Ministers. For new blog readers please see the extraordinary timeline of events at the end of this blog.

[Buzzard caught inside a crow cage trap. It’s not illegal to trap buzzards in these traps but it becomes illegal if the trap isn’t checked by the operator at least once every 24hrs and the buzzard released immediately upon discovery. Under current legislation, if the buzzard is injured but still alive then the SSPCA can investigate. If the buzzard is dead (as a result of being caught and held illegally) the SSPCA do not currently have the power to investigate and would have to call the police. It’s simply bonkers. Photo by RSPB]

In June 2020, Environment Minister #6, Mairi Gougeon, committed to establishing a new ‘independent’ taskforce to consider, again, increased powers for the SSPCA (see here). This was in response to Mark Ruskell MSP withdrawing an amendment for increased SSPCA powers from the Animals & Wildlife Bill.

Mairi Gougeon stated that she expected the taskforce to convene in the summer (of 2020) and to ‘be in a position to conclude their review and submit a report of their recommendations before the end of the current Parliamentary session‘, as long as Covid and Brexit didn’t impact on this plan. [The dissolution of Parliament is scheduled for the 5th May 2021].

Since that announcement in June, nothing else has been heard on this issue.

Many thanks to Mark Ruskell MSP for submitting the following Parliamentary questions to find out the status of this taskforce, if it even exists:

For those new to this blog, here’s a quick recap of the timeline of events:

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).

June 2020: Mark Ruskell (Scottish Greens) proposed further powers for the SSPCA at Stage 2 of the Animals and Wildlife Bill. Environment Minister Mairi Gougeon persuaded him to withdraw the proposed amendment on the basis that she’d consider establishing a taskforce to convene ‘this summer’ to consider increased powers (see here).

18 thoughts on “Where’s the Scottish Government’s promised taskforce on increasing powers for SSPCA?”

  1. To withdraw the amendment, something must have made Mark Ruskell take Gougeon at her word. Can’t imagine what though, has there not been enough evidence in the past that the SNP will never do what they say on this issue.

  2. It must seem like déjà vu, or rather it is. How long will they continue with the same old rhetoric I wonder?
    Surely they must understand, with their environmental hats on, that it is not just the environment but the wildlife that lives there that has to be protected equally? It is beyond belief how long these issues last before being, hopefully, resolved.
    It is one thing for the Scottish parliament to claim to be green, another to actually act on it purposefully.
    Obviously they can’t it would seem. Sad to say.

    1. What a silly, uninformed comment.
      While I have been very critical of the SNP (in government)’s behaviour in dealing with the long-standing problem of wildlife crime/raptor persecution, their actions on other issues such as opposing (and mitigating as far as their limited fiscal powers allow) the effects of ‘austerity’ pushed on us by the Tories and LibDems – and accepted by Labour – set them a long way away the Tories in your trite slander.
      Interestingly, on the subject of “accents”: in the discussions in Holy Rood on the proposed licensing of grouse estates the recurring accents heard speaking AGAINST the SNP’s intentions were… English! There are quite a substantial number of Tory MSPs who have originated in England but have chosen to bring their Thatcherite, ‘free-market’, anti-social attitudes up here.

  3. It seems nothing will be done, as is the norm. However even the Scots’ could increase the powers of the SPCA, you would have thought.

  4. SSPCA have a track record and have shown that they can successfully investigate the most serious crimes involving animals including, dog fighting, badger baiting and puppy farming.

    They have statutory powers and are already a specialist reporting agency to the crown.

    Why would the Scottish Government not want to take take advantage of the expert resource which is free…

  5. Behind the Scenes Obstructions by powerful Landowners and their Networks perhaps? They tend to fear any non Government investigaters as their hegemonic influences might not stretch that far to skew conclusions and responses that do not meet. their demands

    1. George M..I think the problem is nearer to home – the Police and certain members of the justiciary are likely to be blocking this by whispering in the ears of some MSPs..traditionally the “powerful landowners” dont dirty their hands with this kind of close quarter political nobbling.

    2. You are probably not far from the truth. I understand that the RSPCA (England’s equivalent of the SSPCA) has been criticised by those who engage in animal abuse or illegal hunting activities as “overstepping the mark” and using their status as a charity to pursue “political ends” rather than simply rescue and care for animals in need.
      Following the RSPCA successfully prosecuting the Heythrop Hunt for illegally hunting foxes, the RSPCA was accused of prosecuting the Hunt for political purposes- which it denied. There were also accusations of misspending the charities funds on expensive prosecutions. It was later accepted that the costs were justified.
      Since then the RSPCA and other proactive animal charities which concentrate on cruelty issues have increasingly come under attack by organisations and groups who wish to maintain the status quo in regard to using and abusing animals. There appears to be a smear campaign from those with vested interests in activities a such as hunting or shooting.
      The resources of the police are limited, and despite all the wildlife crime which occurs we see few successful prosecutions.
      It could be that those who don’t want their activities investigated are fearful that should organisations like the SSPCA be given additional powers then that could result in a more realistic chance of them facing justice if their activities are found to be illegal.
      So it could well be that those with “vested interests” are using their political influence to delay or thwart giving the SSPCA additional powers?
      If more wildlife crimes are detected and successfully prosecuted on grouse moors then this could have a massive impact on the proposed licensing scheme, as it would mean licenses to shoot would have to be withdrawn from those found guilty.

  6. Inaction by the SNP government …………. 100% foreseeable (and they have the record to prove it) …charlatans !!

  7. I presume the SSPCA would be happy with the increased powers and would either get funding from the Scottish government or access them in some other way to help with any extra work.
    To have a body of highly trained professionals who are motivated to stop all animal cruelty and crime would surely be a huge step forward compared to where we are just now.

  8. Just bear in mind those who are active in tackling blood sports and other cruel practises are targeted by the police, Special Branch, etc. Anyone who belongs to the Hunt Saboteurs is considered to be a terrorist. This is the establishment attitude that prevails. Cruelty is endemic in the upper echelons of the UK. Do they learn in the the public schools, or is it inbred?

    1. Hi Frances,

      I’m not sure I’d agree that animal cruelty is a class issue.

      I also think your comment about being targeted by the police and Special Branch isn’t relevant on here – on the contrary, I and others who contribute here have excellent working relationships with many police officers who are committed to tackling the illegal killing of birds of prey.

    2. In September 2020 – Action Against Foxhunting produced a report entitled “Counting- the crimes”.
      The reports summary is outlined below-

      “Many anti blood sports groups and individuals believe police do not act impartially when
      dealing with foxhunt related incidents and that the crime of illegal hunting is ignored.”

      “Police response to hunt-related incidents is highly variable. It varies between police forces, and
      between police officers. There is no consistency.
      ▪ Most police, even in rural areas, have received no training whatsoever in relation to illegal
      ▪ Some officers and some forces are biased towards the hunt and against Frontline Wildlife
      Guardians (FWGs).
      ▪ There is evidence that, as an organisation, the police are prepared to allow the crime of illegal
      hunting to go unpunished.
      ▪ Pro hunting groups are satisfied with the way the police respond to hunt-related calls; but anti
      blood sports groups are not.
      ▪ Some police choose to disregard their code of ethics and act without “fairness and impartiality”
      when dealing with FWGs.
      ▪ The relationship between the police and the FWGs has broken down completely in some areas,
      leading to a failure to report possible crimes. ”

      There has over the years been many reports in the media of police under cover officers infiltrating anti- hunting groups in order to gain intelligence and evidence on those suspected of being political activists or being involved in extreme animal rights activities.
      Certainly if there are animal rights extremists who are members of anti hunting groups, then their activities will be monitored by the police and special branch, just like members of the far right or other individuals who pose a potential risk to national security.
      Some of these extremists will commit acts which are considered acts of terrorism.

      However, it must also be remembered that the vast majority of anti hunting groups go about their business in a perfectly peaceful way within the confines of the law to gather evidence of illegal hunting. These people aren’t extremists, but only want to see the law upheld, and wildlife criminals brought to justice. Is the police perception of these groups tainted by association to animal rights?

      The law itself is also biased, in that illegal hunting activity often takes place on private land, away from public rights of way, and where those who want to gather evidence of criminal activity are by definition trespassing. This creates conflict.

      I am not aware of any reports in the media of police organised activity where under cover officers have been placed in Hunts to monitor the Hunts activities for illegal hunting activity.
      However, it is well reported that some police officers are members of local hunts and do ride with the hunt. This will no doubt create bias in how those officers perceive hunting and those opposed to it.
      It will probably also lead to a perception of police bias in favour of hunting by hunt monitoring groups.

      It is probably a realistic conclusion that all of this has led to mistrust between the police and Hunt saboteurs/monitors?

      Hopefully police chiefs will take AAF concerns on board, so that the police become truly unbiased in how they deal with any allegations of illegal hunting.

      Whether there is police bias towards land owners and grouse shoot owners is open to debate.
      Raptor persecution is a national wildlife crime policing priority.
      However, the failure to bring many of those responsible for raptor crimes to justice is concerning.
      There appears to be a huge variation in how different police constabularies respond to raptor persecution incidents.
      Certainly, some of the reports on this blog concerning raptor persecution incidents, suggest that at times the police response seems to lack conviction.
      The legislation itself may also play a part in this woeful lack of prosecutions; as it no doubt hinders some of the investigative tactics which the police could use if raptor crimes were indictable.
      However, whether the police would actually use these tactics if available is another matter.

      It would be interesting to compare the number of prosecutions for poaching or hare coursing against the number of prosecutions for raptor persecution.
      Do the police respond differently to reports of hare coursing or poaching compared to how they respond to a raptor persecution incident?
      Do the police respond differently to a report of hare coursing compared to how they respond to illegal fox hunting?
      What about incidents where other wild birds have been killed?
      Do the police ever investigate to ensure that the conditions of the General Licence have been met?
      If it transpired the conditions weren’t met, would a prosecution follow?
      How many gamekeepers have been prosecuted for causing unnecessary suffering to an animal or bird caught in one of their traps, or used as a lure, when the conditions for use of that trap haven’t been met?
      Last year there was a report of one police force simply warning an estate about the use of the old style Fenn trap to kill stoats. Had this been someone from a different social class, poaching rabbits using nets would they simply have been given a warning?

      Whilst certain officers may be very dedicated to eradicating raptor crimes, is there “institutional bias” in the way the police respond and deal with wildlife crime?

      Certainly there appears to be bias in society in favour of the “privileged landed class”. This is historic. The way parliament operates, and the way legislation is made, would suggest this isn’t something which will change in the foreseeable future. There is an ingrained view that “a landowner can do what he likes on his land”, and that the natural world, and its wildlife is something to be exploited, commodified and consumed.
      It will take a fundamental shift in the way humans perceive their place in this world to change this.

      Apologies for the long response, but Francis may have a valid point regarding the “establishment attitude”, and how this manifests itself in the way the police deal with wildlife crimes.

  9. Thank you for that response, John L. I have some knowledge of the establishment attitude to animal rights groups and the Hunt Saboteurs in particular. The Sabs were put under surveillance, monitored and had phones tapped. This was the case as far back as the 1980s. This was without justification as they were acting lawfully being intent on obtaining information on the hunts and the illegal activities they engaged in regularly. When there was clear evidence of crimes on the part of the hunting fraternity it was inevitable that no action was taken by Police. Whilst the Sabs were persecuted, the hunting set were free to commit criminal acts. The worst case by far was when a Sab was murdered by the hunt followers in Cheshire some years ago. They got off scot free despite plentiful evidence and witnesses.

    I think we can draw parallels with the killing of birds of prey over the years. How many people have been prosecuted for their crimes in relation to this?

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