Scotland’s Programme for Government announced: grouse moor licensing, SSPCA powers & General Licence review

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has today revealed the 2021 to 2022 Programme for Government, outlining the policies and actions that are expected to take place over the coming year as well as the expected legislative programme for the forthcoming parliamentary year.

This programme for Government is the first one since the historic power-sharing agreement between the SNP and the Scottish Greens and it’s apparent that there has been some influence from the Greens’ policy machine.

The 2021 to 2022 Programme for Government can be downloaded here:

Of obvious interest to this blog is when the Scottish Government is finally going to pull its finger out and deliver the grouse shooting licence it promised in response to the Werritty Review, back in November 2020. We’re fast approaching a year since that commitment was made, which came a full year after the Werritty Review’s recommendations were presented to the Government (Nov 2019), which came more than two years after the Werritty Review was commissioned (May 2017) on the back of a devastating report that showed the extent of ongoing golden eagle persecution and its link to the driven grouse shooting industry. That report had been commissioned by the Government in August 2016 on the back of an RSPB press release about eight young satellite-tagged golden eagles disappearing in highly suspicious circumstances on grouse moors in the Monadhliaths over a period of five years.

As you can see, and as many of you already know, the Government has been promising action on this for a very long time and now having committed to taking that action, it needs to bloody well get on with it.

Since the Government’s announcement in Nov 2020 that it would, finally, introduce a grouse-shooting licence without delay, more birds of prey have turned up illegally killed, including this young golden eagle, found ‘deliberately poisoned’ (according to Police Scotland) on an Invercauld estate grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park, in the heart of Royal Deeside.

We cannot afford to have any further procrastination, navel-gazing or can-kicking.

Here’s what the Programme for Government (p90) says about delivering the Werritty Review recommendations:

As the 2021 grouse-shooting season is already underway, I would want to see progress on this policy before the start of the 2022 season, in August next year. That means Scot Gov needs to get on with its stakeholder and public consultations as soon as possible.

Also featuring in the Programme for Government is a review of the use of General Licences, which are used to permit the widespread killing of millions of birds each year (typically various crow species, and others) without any real oversight or monitoring, ostensibly for quite sensible reasons such as the protection of crops, to protect public safety and to conserve some bird species. Campaign group Wild Justice has been busy challenging the lawfulness of these licences in England, Wales (and currently Northern Ireland), arguing that the current licences are not fit for purpose and that they allow too much ‘casual killing’. The group’s efforts have forced significant review and change by the statutory authorities. It is believed that this proposed review of the General Licence system in Scotland is designed to head off any potential legal challenge that Wild Justice may be considering. That’s smart.

Here’s what the Programme for Government (p90) says about its General Licence review:

Animal welfare issues feature quite strongly in the Programme for Government and many of my colleagues in other organisations will no doubt be pleased that these issues feature, but will probably be less pleased about the ongoing delay beyond this parliamentary year for tackling some of them.

Here’s what the Programme for Government (p89) says about animal welfare issues:

The issue of increased powers for the Scottish SPCA is of significant interest, not just for the benefit it’ll bring to animal welfare but specifically, for the boost these additional powers will provide to wildlife crime investigations in Scotland.

However, this is a subject that the Scottish Government has been procrastinating on for over ten years. Personally, I don’t believe that the new ‘independent taskforce’ (still to be appointed) will ‘report before the end of 2022’. Why don’t I believe it? Because the Scottish Government has failed, repeatedly, to stick to its promises on this subject:

For new blog readers, here’s the timeline of embarrassment:

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 I 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 I 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 this blog’s 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: I published my 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).

I was 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. The latest 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).

December 2020: Mark Ruskell (Scottish Greens) submits two Parliamentary questions asking about the status of the taskforce and who is serving on it (see here).

January 2021: New Environment Minister Ben Macpherson says the taskforce has not yet been appointed but that it is “expected to be established later this year“ (see here).

September 2021: In the 2021 to 2022 Programme for Government it was announced that the ‘independent taskforce [Ed: still to be appointed] will report before the end of 2022’ (see today’s blog, above).

Given the Government’s embarrassing track record on kicking this issue in to the long grass, I fully expect to be writing a blog in a year’s time about how zero progress has been made. I hope I’m proved wrong.

8 thoughts on “Scotland’s Programme for Government announced: grouse moor licensing, SSPCA powers & General Licence review”

  1. The big one, in my opinion, is legislation enabling the SSPCA to investigate wildlife crime. Having an investigative body with no connection to any Government funded entity is what they fear the most. It’s a pity it is not included with the main body of change and I have no doubt at all that this seperation from the main thrust of the changes is deliberate and other attempts will be made to keep it that way. Don’t let them. Keep it as one of the main, if not THE main, priority.

  2. I would be very pleased to see ‘full cost recovery’ of species licenses if that was to come about. SEPA make charges for their ‘authorisations’ and its an anomoly that killing things is subsidised by the taxpayer. The same applies to shotgun licenses and firearm certificates.

    Is it worth looking for cessation of lead shot use in the document? That’s a very, very easy win for the Government.

  3. Many fine words in the Programme for Government – so that’s good – but it is inevitable that the Scottish Greens will be held most responsible for effective progress on these matters. Otherwise, it is their credibility which will be the most diminished… History shows that is so often the role of the minority party in any coalition (whether formal or informal)

  4. You are absolutely right to be highly sceptical about increased powers for SSPCA Ruth – spot on. I think most readers of RPUK will share your view. Let’s hope the Green influence does the trick at long last.

    I know it is slightly outside of the scope of this blog, but the statement “…and introducing further measures such as preventing trail hunting.” is hugely significant. I note that they do not say ‘ban trail hunting’, but if – and it is a very big IF – this is enacted (and more importantly enforced) what the Scottish Government is actually saying is that they will introduce a proper ban on fox hunting. For me that is the stand out policy in all of this. Pity they are not so (potentially) rigorous with DGS.

  5. This is a good point to say Ruth that your refusal to give up is exemplary, as is your research and general stamina in this horrendously drawn out fight. Things would be darker for the rest of us and for birds of prey if it wasn’t for you plugging relentlessly away. Thanks.

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