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Jim Knight: I begin by reiterating what the hon. Members for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) said: we are all agreed in our opposition to the use of pesticides to poison birds, and nothing that I am about to say should be interpreted as my believing that any Member of this House thinks such use an acceptable practice. I hope that we also agree that wildlife inspectors behave reasonably and according to a code of practice, and that none of us wants to argue otherwise in debating these important matters.
I turn first to amendment No. 4. Clause 44 provides entry powers for inspectors who are investigating the illegal poisoning of birds or animals, and who need to enter premises to find out whether pesticides prohibited by order are on those premises. As it stands, inspectors may enter any premises, excluding dwellings, for this purpose. That is an important distinction to make for the sake of clarity. These are not carte blanche powers to ride roughshod through people's living rooms; there is a difference between premises and dwellings. Where an inspector wishes to enter dwellings, a warrant must first be obtained.
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In Committee, we had an interesting debate on whether this provision would allow inspectors to conduct what I will now call "speculative inspections". I agreed to consider whether a form of words could be found that would meet concerns about reasonableness, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire reminded us through his use of quotations.
Over the recess, my policy officials, departmental lawyers and I have been considering a suitable form of words that we would like to introduce in the Lords. Clearly the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire has been doing the same, and we have his form of words to debate now. The proposed amendment goes some way to fitting the bill. It restricts an inspector's entry powers to those premises that he or she believes may be relevant for the purpose of ascertaining whether a possession offence is being committed. However, I am not convinced that the wording strikes the correct balance between the protection of landowners and the need to be able effectively to enforce this important new offence.
It should be remembered that any inspectors who investigate a suspected pesticide offence will be operating according to a publicly available code of practice, setting out how inspectors should conduct themselves and giving details of how to complain should anyone be unhappy with the way in which they conduct themselves; effectively, this sketches out "reasonableness." I hope that this will reassure hon. Members who are anxious about the possibility that landowners may be subject to harassment or unsubstantiated random visits.
There are also good grounds for having a test of reasonable suspicion rather than the stronger test of reasonable belief that is used in the amendments. The latter is unusual in law and requires a degree of prior evidence that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to obtain in these circumstances. For these reasons, I am not convinced that the amendments are the right way to go. I urge hon. Members on both sides not to support them this evening.
We recognise that this is a persistent concern and have said that my officials will look at it; they are doing so. We will consider tabling a suitably worded amendment in the other place which we hope will please all concerned. I hope that Members on both sides will agree that the other place is a good place to deal with the issue.
It makes sense for me to deal with amendments Nos. 8, 9 and 10 and new clauses 1 and 2 together, as they all seek to remove clause 44 from the Bill in one way or another. As I have said in relation to amendment No. 4, which also deals with the issue, I accept that there are fears that inspectors will seek to gain entry when they have insufficient grounds to do so, and I want to look at that matter again.
I have to strike a balance between the intense detail with which I would wish to rebut all of the things that have been said and the desire to address matters more constructively, so I will attempt to summarise. Obviously if more clarification is needed, I will attempt to deal with those matters by intervention.
I believe that the amendments are flawed in respect of applying inappropriate powers, in that they go beyond the powers currently proposed in the Bill by applying
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powers equally to police officers and inspectors, which we think would be inappropriate. I know there is an issue around the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, but the important distinction to makeI wrote to all Committee Members on thisis that as far as inspectors are concerned PACE applies when they are investigating and have suspicions about an individual person. It does not apply in respect of a place.
In respect of offences where pesticides have been used to poison birds, in almost every case the measure would apply to suspicions about a place. One would find the poisoned bird, which could have come from anywhere. It would be very difficult to have reasonable suspicion in respect of an individual. Therefore I would argue that we should not apply the same powers to police officers and inspectors because of the confusion that that could create.
Mr. Paice: I appreciate the Minister's efforts at brevity, but is he saying that if the inspector found some pesticides on a premises and took it away as described under clause 44(1)(c) but did not do so under PACE, that would still be admissible as evidence in court?
Jim Knight: This is where we get into the interesting territory of the application of PACE. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a direct answer with absolute confidence, but if he accepts my request to deal with the issue in the other place, we can continue to discuss it through correspondence.
If inspectors find the insecticide and the poisoned bird on the premises, all manner of individualsan occupier of the land, an owner of the land or someone who works on itcould be implicated. In those circumstances, the first priority is to remove the poison so that it cannot be used to poison birds of prey again. Evidence could then be taken. I will respond to the question whether it could then be used for a prosecution, but it is important to distinguish between when PACE can and cannot be used.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise for coming late into the debate, but I want to ask the Minister for an assurance. The Bill deals with wildlife, but are we not going to accord the same rights to human beings who are affected by pesticides? Will the Minister give an absolute assurance that if a human being were affected by the inappropriate use of pesticides, appropriate action could be taken against the propagator?
Jim Knight: It was said earlier that this feels like a Home Office debate. The purpose of these particular provisions is to list the pesticides that are used to poison wildlife and to make it an offence to possess them. Clearly, if they are being used to poison people as well as animals and if they are on the list, an offence has been committed. The provisions would apply equally, which I hope helps my hon. Friend.
I want to express my other concerns about the amendments and new clauses. The issue of "reasonable belief" as opposed to a "suspicion" is important, and
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I believe that Conservative Members have understood the point even if they do not agree with it. Similar problems also apply to the amending provisions that deal with the circumstances in which a justice of the peace can issue a warrant. Before doing so, a justice must be satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that a relevant offence is being or has been committed on any premises and that evidence of such an offence is to be found on the premises. In addition, the amending provisions contain a precondition that the occupier of the premises must have been made aware of the decision to apply for a warrant. Effectively, a serious offence has been committed in respect of killing wildlife, which we all agree is precious, yet we are warning someone that we are going to serve a warrant, which might then allow them to remove the evidence. To my mind, that is flawed.
Mr. Paice: I repeat the point that the new clause provisions are directly lifted from the Minister's own Department's draft animal welfare Bill. Precisely the same warning, which the Minister is now criticising, would apply to someone who is torturing their dog at the very time of torturing, unlike with the bird of prey, which is already dead. If the provision makes sense in one DEFRA Bill, why does it not make sense in another?
Jim Knight: Let me deal with that point. There are three broad reasons why wider powers for dealing with pesticide offences are needed in the current Bill than are needed in the animal welfare Bill. We wait to see whether the wording in the final Bill will have changed from the draft that the hon. Gentleman has seen.
The first reason concerns the severity of the offence. As I said, the animal welfare Bill will prevent animal suffering but the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill can prevent the death of wildlife, companion animals and, indeed, people. The second point is that the same powers apply for entry into a dwelling and a warrant is needed in both cases, so a false distinction has been drawn there. Thirdly, evidence is more apparent in respect of animal welfare issues. It is pretty straightforward for an inspector to see evidence of the mistreatment of animals and it is much harder for an offender to destroy evidence of such mistreatment. However, with respect to the current Bill, pesticides are easier to hide and much easier to dispose of, so we strongly believe that wider powers are needed.
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