Taskforce review on extra powers for SSPCA ‘will be published within weeks’

The taskforce established by the Scottish Government earlier this year to consider whether the Scottish SPCA should be granted additional powers to help investigate raptor persecution and other wildlife crime has completed its review, which ‘will be published within weeks’, according to an article in yesterday’s Scotsman.

As a quick recap, the SSPCA’s current powers (under animal welfare legislation) limits their investigations to cases that involve a live animal in distress (including some wildlife crimes). The proposed new powers would allow them to also investigate wildlife crimes under the Wildlife & Countryside Act legislation, e.g. where the victim is already dead, and also incidents where a victim may not be present (e.g. if an illegally-set pole trap or a poisoned bait was discovered). See here for further detail.

Golden eagle on the Isle of Mull. Photo: Alamy

The taskforce, chaired by Susan Davies FRSB, includes members from the Scottish Government (civil servants), Police Scotland and the Crown Office. Importantly, it doesn’t include anybody from the shooting/landowner brigade, thus thwarting any attempts to disrupt, delay, or water-down the taskforce’s recommendations, in the way the Werritty Review was bastardised three years ago.

This taskforce was established after 11 long years of political can-kicking only because the Scottish Greens insisted on its inclusion in the historic Bute House Agreement, the power-sharing policy document published by the two parties in 2021:

The independent taskforce to consider whether the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Scottish SPCA) should be given extra powers to investigate wildlife crime will be asked to report back in a timeframe that will allow any changes to the Scottish SPCA powers to be delivered by legislation implementing changes to grouse and other wildlife management in the course of this parliamentary session‘.

The taskforce’s findings will feed into the current draft legislation on grouse moor licensing (the Wildlife Management (Grouse) Bill) that is expected to progress to Stage 1 of parliamentary scrutiny in the new year now that the Government’s consultation on it has just closed. Indeed, the consultation document contained the following statement:

The taskforce’s report is expected to be published later this year. Depending on the recommendations of the review we may include provisions relating to the powers of Scottish SPCA in the Wildlife Management (Grouse) Bill, in which case a separate consultation with interested parties will be undertaken‘.

I look forward to reading the taskforce’s report ‘within weeks’ and trust that the Scottish Government won’t delay its publication, or its response to it, in the same way it has previously dragged its feet (for 11 years!) on this important issue. I think it’s probably crucial that because the commitment was made in the Bute House Agreement, any further delays by the SNP won’t be tolerated or accepted by the Scottish Greens.

Journalist Alistair Grant ‘s article in The Scotsman yesterday includes quotes from me and also from Scottish Greens MSP Mark Ruskell, who has been instrumental in keeping this issue to the fore of the political agenda.

The article is reproduced as follows:

The Scottish Government said a taskforce set up to consider the issue has completed its work and its findings will be published within weeks.

Campaigners have previously highlighted the “extraordinary” timeline of delays over the proposals, with the idea first mooted more than a decade ago.

There are ongoing concerns over the illegal killing of birds of prey in Scotland. Expanding the Scottish SPCA’s current powers would allow it to investigate cases involving animal deaths and illegal traps.

Conservationist Dr Ruth Tingay, author of the Raptor Persecution UK blog, said she had been tracking the debate for 11 years, “watching a succession of eight environment ministers kick it into the long grass“.

She said: “I hope the recommendation of the taskforce brings this excruciatingly embarrassing saga to an end and that the Scottish SPCA is given increased powers to enable its officers to work in partnership with the police and other agencies to finally get a grip on the illegal killing of birds of prey.

These disgraceful wildlife crimes continue because the perpetrators know fine well the chance of being caught and prosecuted is minuscule. There is no deterrent.

The involvement of experienced officers and investigators from the SSPCA will, I’m certain, have a significant impact on bringing those responsible to justice“.

Green MSP Mark Ruskell said the move would be a “crucial step forward“. He proposed new powers for the Scottish SPCA as part of legislation in 2020, but the Scottish Government instead committed to setting up an independently-chaired taskforce to consider the issue. This was then delayed.

Last year, the Government said the group would report before the end of 2022. The taskforce formed part of the co-operation agreement between the SNP and the Greens.

Mr Ruskell said: “The present system is not working, and the only ones benefiting from it are the criminals.

The reality is that wildlife crime has been rife for years, but overstretched police have been unable to take the action that is needed. This has only allowed it to continue unabated.

Every other option that has been tried to improve the detection of wildlife crime has failed. At a time when policing budgets are under increasing strain this is the only practical way forward.

For far too long, Scotland has had to endure persecution of birds of prey and other iconic species.

We have been calling for the SSPCA to have additional powers for a long time and pushed for it in Bute House [co-operation] agreement negotiations. After years of delays, I hope that we can finally make it a reality“.

Scottish SPCA Chief Superintendent Mike Flynn said: “We are pleased that the consideration to award powers to the Scottish SPCA under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 have come to a conclusion. We have committed to help the Scottish Government combat wildlife crime following a suggestion made in 2010 by Peter Peacock MSP. We look forward to reading the findings of the plans over the coming weeks.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We take animal welfare very seriously and in recent years have introduced a variety of measures to combat wildlife crime.

We committed to set up a taskforce that was to consider whether the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals should be given extra legislative powers to investigate wildlife crime. The taskforce has completed its work and its report will be published in due course.”

ENDS

For those new to this subject, here’s the political timeline that has led to the current position:

February 2011: Increased powers for the SSPCA was first suggested by 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 here).

May 3 2022: In an interview with Max Wiszniewski of the REVIVE coalition for grouse moor reform, new Environment Minister Mairi McAllan said: “It’s imminent and I wish I could tell you today but we are just finalising the last few points for the membership but I’m hoping to be able to make an announcement about that in the next few weeks“ (see here).

1 July 2022: Scottish Government announces Susan Davies has been appointed to lead the taskforce review and will ‘publish a report later this year’ (see here).

December 2022: A Scottish Government spokesperson tells Scotsman journalist the taskforce has completed its review and its findings will be published ‘within weeks’.

6 thoughts on “Taskforce review on extra powers for SSPCA ‘will be published within weeks’”

  1. Well, how do we translate “within weeks” in the recent historic record, beautifully summarised here? Let’s cross our fingers one more time!

  2. Allowing the SSPCA to undertake investigations in these areas would allay suspicions that all is not above board in terms of decision making in this extremely sensitive field. Having a presence independant of Government active here would help restore trust in the process which has been sorely tested by many of the seemingly inexplicable judgements made in the journey to prosecution. This might also place pressure on the powers that be for an increased level of clarity to be introduced to help the public understand. what is to them, decisions that are becoming increasingly difficult to fathom.
    The Status Quo is no longer fit for the job and is now unacceptable from the point of view of many who are thoroughly disillusioned by the never ending trail of illegally killed birds of prey
    — and those found in extremely suspicious circumstances — that do not lead to a prosecution, never mind a conviction.
    Lets see what you are made of Holyrood.

  3. Massive thanks are due here to Mark Ruskell MSP for his persistence and to you, Ruth, for your excellent summary of the lengthy background to this issue and your nudges along the way. Let’s hope it’s been worth the wait.

  4. Will be very interesting to see how the police scotland respond.

    Given the their clear difficulties and poor results in this area you would hope that they would be open to additional support and resources.

    As is the approach adopted in many other areas of policing where budget cuts are affecting them.

    If wildlife crime truly is a priority for police i would hope they will support this proposal.

    Their has been much criticism levelled at police scotland for many years this has to be a golden opportunity for them.

    I for one will be eagerly watching.

  5. If this is intended to be included in Grouse Moor legislation, is there a risk of the whole being kicked into the long grass, once more?

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