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Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I shall speak against the new clause because it significantly weakens clauses 43 to 45. It has been recognised that we need to take assertive action to deal with the problem of poisoned birds and wildlife generally. The deliberate use of pesticides to poison rare and threatened wildlife is a persistent problem and has serious ramifications for the health and safety of people, their pets and their livestock.
There is little evidence that the problem has diminished, hence these clauses. There is a particularly serious threat to birds such as the red kite, one of Britain's most popular birds of prey. It brings valuable tourist income to the country. Between 1989 and 2004, at least 106 red kites were found illegally poisoned, including 16 in 2003 alone. That is only a fraction of the total number of incidents.
English Nature estimates that 31 per cent. of English red kites released or fledged from the wild between 1989 and 1999 were illegally poisoned. It is not only red kites that have been affected. In 2003, 20 buzzards, seven peregrines and one white-tailed eagle were confirmed as poisoned.
Illegal poisoning does not only affect wildlife. Stores of pesticides and baits placed in the countryside are a danger to people, companion animals, working dogs and livestock. Recently, a gamekeeper in Dorset was found to have an arsenal that consisted of a range of agricultural pesticides for which a man in his profession could have no legitimate use.
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): We know and understand that this is a problem. Why does the hon. Lady think that the Opposition's new clauses and amendments weaken the Government's proposals?
Ms Smith: They weaken the Government's proposals because they would impose such restrictions on the operation of the provisions on the inspection of premises as to make them almost meaningless.
Officials from DEFRA estimated that the store that I mentioned contained sufficient pesticides to poison half the population of Dorchester, which is why we need firm, assertive powers in the Bill to ensure that we can take effective action against such people.
Mr. Paice: As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) said, we do not wish to belittle the seriousness of the issue that the provisions try to address. However, if the hon. Lady wishes to criticise our amendments, she should read them and the Bill. Is she happy with clause 44(1)(a), which simply says that an inspector may
"enter any premises for the purposes of ascertaining whether an offence is being committed under section 43"?
What would she say if an inspector knocked on her door and said, "I want to see whether you have committed an offence under section 43."? That is what she is supporting.
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Ms Smith: There is no evidence that such powers in other legislation have been used inappropriately to make a request to enter and inspect premises. The majority of the population accept that action needs to be taken.
The majority of wildlife poisoning incidents involve a relatively small number of persistently abused pesticides. Root crop insecticides such as aldicarb and carbofuran, which are usually used on lowland arable farmland, have repeatedly featured in incidents on upland estates where there was no legitimate reason to use such products. Hence the justification for the provisions in the Bill. I would go further than the Government and require a new offence of possession of a pesticide without a reasonable explanation, but I accept that the Minister might think such an amendment goes too far, as it could be impossible to prove that some chemicals are held without a lawful explanation. I therefore urge him to consider making the list of proscribed chemicals as long and comprehensive as possible to ensure that, once the Bill's provisions become operational, they are as effective as possible.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): We are dealing with three distinct and serious issues. First, there is the poisoning of birds, particularly birds of prey, which, regrettably, still takes place far too often. Indeed, there was a well-known case in the west country recently. Secondly, we are dealing with the possession of pesticides that have become unbelievably potent and dangerous, and can be used in various ways. They are not, however, illegal substances. They have a legitimate use but, sadly, they are sometimes used for illegitimate ends even though they are held legitimately. The third serious issue can be summed up as "My home is my castle" and the problem of a continuing drift towards what is almost a police state. Powers must be qualified so that they focus on the offence that needs to be eradicated. That will not happen by giving extensive powers to the police and others that are open to misuse. I put it no more strongly than that. There have been far too many worrying examples of the over-enthusiastic use of powers given to the police and others in recent times. When we give powers to bodies, we should do so in the full knowledge of how they will be used.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I attended this debate because I wish to make a small point about cyclists and rights of way, but it sounds like a Home Office debate. I am astounded that amendment No. 4, which would insert the words
into clause 44 to justify entry into someone's home or other premises has been rejected in such a cavalier fashion. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is very much like a totalitarian state?
Perhaps when the hon. Gentleman has been here a little longer, he will realise that this is not something that has happened suddenly. Those of us who sat on the Committee considering the Animal Welfare Bill know that. The Bill immediately followed the foot and mouth outbreak, which, as we all know, was extremely serious. The powers introduced then allowing
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entry to premises initially allowed them to be entered at any time of day, and actually commanded those occupying them to engage in whatever the police wanted them to do. Anything could be killed on siteany animal except, fortunately, a human beingand could be killed immediately.
That provision was at least slightly qualified in Committee, and rightly so, as such powers would have been unreasonable and out of all proportion. We need proportionality. The new clauses and amendments do not exactly drive a coach and horses through what is intended in the Bill, and they constitute a serious attempt to focus on the offence. None of us wants to permit, allow to continue, or encourage the poisoning of any animal deliberately or unnecessarily, but that does not mean that we should grant such broad powers to enter and search premises and remove evidencewhich may well contravene the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984in pursuing people when an offence is being investigated.
Powers are needed, but they need to be qualified. If they prove inadequate, the Minister can return and say that the Government cannot persist with them, but I feel that granting them at the outset is going too far. I support not just the wording of the new clause, but its intention.
Ms Angela C. Smith: Does not clause 44 make it absolutely clear that there must be reasonable grounds for believing that someone has broken the law before premises can be entered? Would not the new clause restrict the number of premises that can be searched to the extent that it would render the original clauses almost meaningless?
Mr. Breed: I do not agree with the last part of that intervention. The problem is that anyone who conceals a pesticide in order to carry out an illegal activity can put it anywhere. We are not talking about people who may occasionally have such substances lying around in their garden sheds or stables. Many of these dangerous substances ought to be locked up, because they can be just as lethal as firearms and can kill accidentally. They ought to be properly controlled. Nevertheless, I cannot bring myself to believe that the wording of the original clause is justified in the pursuit of what we all want, which is why my colleagues and I will support the new clauses and amendments if they are pressed to a vote.
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): When I first saw the new clauses and amendments, I was tempted to speak against them. In the last Parliament, I considered tabling a ten-minute Bill on pesticides and, in particular, the killing of birds of prey. As many Members will know, I have a keen interest in ornithology, and I have looked into this matter.
I do not think that any Member has any time for those who use pesticides illegally to poison birds of prey, other birds, domestic animals or pets. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) said, the reintroduction in my constituency of the red kite has been very successful. As Members travel down the M40, many of them doubtless often see red kites near Stokenchurch, for example. They have spread far and wide and have even been seen in the London borough of Hillingdon in winter. That is wonderful, and the Royal
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Society for the Protection of Birds and all those concerned should be congratulated. Interestingly, awareness of this development has perhaps led some estateswe do not have the very large estates that are to be found elsewhere in the countryto clean up their act. Buzzards, which used to be seen only in the west country, are now to be found much closer to London. I have seen them, for example, in the Wycombe area and among the wonderful beech woods of the Chilterns.
I was therefore dubious about this provision, as I tend to be on the side of the birds in these matters, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) that we must consider the question of proportionality. I do not necessarily have doubts about some inspectors going over the top, but the danger is that we will lose credibility in the eyes of some if they think that the powers given to deal with this offence are greater than those given to deal with many others. Unfortunately, granting these powers is not necessarily going to solve the problem; rather, what is needed is education. We need to tell gamekeepers that these birds are not predating on what they are trying to preserve on their estates, be it for shooting or other purposes.
I somewhat reluctantly point out that there are a couple of minor flaws in the drafting of the new clause. That is inevitable because, as I have noticed over our years in opposition, we do not always have the skills available to make such provisions absolutely watertight. [Interruption.] I do indeed speak for myself, as I do not claim any expertise on these matters. But I have a great deal of sympathy with the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, and the Government should also be congratulated on taking this issue seriously. That said, we need to be sure that we do not go overboard by granting too many powers at once. As the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall said, if the authorities in question say that they need more powers, we should perhaps return to this question.
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