Wildlife Crime - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

4  Enforcement

Legal consolidation

56.  During our inquiry, the police, NGOs and other witnesses consistently pointed out that most of the powers required to address wildlife crime already exist, but that they are scattered across various statutes and regulations.[130] Some statutes, such as the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 and the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975, relate to individual species, while other legislation, such as the Night Poaching Act 1828 and the Game Act 1831, is archaic. In addition, the principal contemporary legislation, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, has been amended to such a degree that it is difficult for non-specialists to use.[131] The fractured nature of wildlife law hinders enforcement and prosecution, and it may render compliance problematic for companies and individuals engaged in legitimate wildlife-related activities.[132]

57.  An overwhelming majority of our witnesses expressed the view that the various statutes covering wildlife crime should be consolidated. ACPO told us that "conservation legislation is, in our view, badly in need of consolidation."[133] The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) pointed out that wildlife crime legislation "is a bit of a mess, it needs tidying up."[134] Natural England told us that "broadly we do very much favour it … The answer is consolidation".[135] When the Committee put this proposition to the then Home Office Minister Lord Henley, he thought that consolidation would be "relatively smooth and easy."[136]

58.  Consolidation of the various wildlife statutes is not the same as reform. Reform would be a major project, which would require careful consideration in order to preserve the nuances of the law that protect particular species and to reflect the impact of devolution in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The Law Commission is currently considering the reform of wildlife protection legislation, which it plans to complete by mid-2014.[137] In undertaking that work, it might take account of the evidence that we have received in our inquiry. The body of legislation relating to wildlife crime should be consolidated in order to enhance enforcement and establish a coherent framework for the execution of Government policy. The Government should consult the Law Commission, which is currently considering the reform of wildlife law, on the scope for such a consolidation to precede any reform proposals.


59.  We heard that the CPS was ineffective at prosecuting wildlife crime in England and Wales, because its prosecutors lacked specialist knowledge and training on conservation law.[138] TRAFFIC explained that that lack of specialist skills not only undermined enforcement but was inefficient, because relays of CPS prosecutors ended up replicating the same basic learning, which imposed delays and potentially allowed experienced defence lawyers to exploit prosecutors' lack of specialist knowledge.[139] If the CPS were to treat wildlife crime as a specialism, it would not only back up enforcement in the courts, but provide gamekeepers and the exotic animal trade with greater certainty in conducting their activities lawfully.[140] TRAFFIC believed that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland treated the prosecution of wildlife crime as a specialism and consequently handled such cases with greater efficacy than the CPS in England and Wales.[141] The CPS should review its performance on prosecuting wildlife crime in England and Wales with a view to either employing specialist wildlife crime prosecutors or introducing specialist wildlife crime training for its generalist prosecutors.

Penalties and sentencing

60.  Most wildlife crimes committed in the UK carry a maximum sentence of £5,000 and/or a six-month custodial sentence, except where they involve illegally trafficking endangered species, which carry a maximum penalty of seven years' imprisonment under the COTES Regulations.[142] We heard a range of opinion on whether those maximum penalties reflect the environmental impact of wildlife offences and whether they provide a deterrent given the potential rewards for wildlife criminals. ACPO stated that "the penalties that are available for some wildlife crimes appear in some cases not to be dissuasive",[143] whereas the RSPCA commented that the available penalties were "generally fit for purpose."[144] The deterrent effect of the introduction of custodial sentences in 2001 appears to have dissuaded many people from collecting the eggs of wild birds.[145] There are some anomalies in the available penalties: trafficking horn extracted from the last surviving Javan rhinoceros, thus rendering the species extinct, might attract a seven-year prison sentence, whereas shooting the last hen harrier in England would result in a maximum penalty of six months in jail. Similarly, a conviction for unlawfully killing a peregrine falcon under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 would attract a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £5,000, whereas a conviction for unlawfully trading a peregrine falcon internationally would result in a maximum penalty under COTES of five years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.[146]

61.  It is currently impossible definitively to answer the question whether the available penalties for wildlife crime offences are fit for purpose because of inconsistent sentencing by judges and magistrates, a factor which was repeatedly highlighted by our witnesses.[147] It was argued that this inconsistency is due to the lack of any sentencing guidelines for the judiciary and of specific training for magistrates.[148] It is impossible to assess whether sentences are fit for purpose until they are imposed consistently in line with appropriate sentencing guidelines. We recommend that the Government reviews whether the available penalties provide sufficient deterrent effect and work with the Sentencing Council and the Magistrates' Association to introduce sentencing guidelines for the judiciary and training for magistrates in relation to wildlife crime offences.

Policing wildlife crime

62.  Richard Crompton, the former ACPO lead on wildlife crime, highlighted that in practice effective wildlife crime policing required a degree of specialisation:

Wildlife crime legislation is a labyrinth of fairly old legislation and very complex legislation … the average cop out there has a rudimentary understanding of that at best, probably based upon a half an hour or an hour's lecture that was given many years ago in a classroom somewhere during their initial training … I think it would be probably unrealistic—well, undoubtedly unrealistic—to expect every police officer in the country to have the sort of knowledge of wildlife crime procedure, legislation and so on that the specialists have.[149]

What specialisation in wildlife crime enforcement means in practice is, as the then Home Office Minister Lord Henley pointed out, a matter for individual police forces depending on their local priorities.[150] Most police forces deploy specialist wildlife crime officers, who handle cases involving wildlife crime and advise other officers. In some forces, the wildlife crime officer role has evolved to encompass environmental crime, such as fly-tipping, which appears to make operational sense in rural areas.[151] Another example of tailoring wildlife crime policing to local circumstances is provided by the Metropolitan Police Service, which operates the only force-level wildlife crime unit in the UK in order to address the unique issues raised by London's role as a capital city, transport hub, commercial centre and home to a diverse population.[152]

63.  We discussed the impact of the new elected police and crime commissioners with both the former and the current ACPO leads on wildlife crime, who pointed to the public's obvious concern about wildlife crime, which might lead to greater prioritisation, but also to the risk for funding for wildlife crime posed by future tough decisions on local police resources.[153] The consequences for wildlife crime enforcement of police and crime commissioners are currently unclear, and we recommend that these are carefully monitored by the Government. We hope that this Report highlights this important area for elected police commissioners and their electorates.

National Wildlife Crime Unit

64.  The NWCU is a strategic police unit that sits above force-level wildlife crime enforcement. Its functions are to co-ordinate enforcement activity in relation to cross-border and organised crime both nationally and internationally, to collate intelligence and to produce analytical assessments.[154] Its specialist work was praised by a range of our witnesses, and it is a clear improvement on its predecessor organisation, the National Wildlife Crime Intelligence Unit (NWCIU).[155] Our predecessor Committee's 2004 Report on wildlife crime criticised the former NWCIU for "expending time and resources on developing intelligence packages for police forces who have no intention of devoting any real resources to the crimes themselves".[156] This criticism could not be levelled at the NWCU, which has forged effective working relationships with UK police forces and other national and international enforcement bodies. Recent successful enforcement actions in which it played a key role included Operation Meles, which addressed badger persecution, and Operation Ramp, which was an international operation involving 51 countries against the illegal trade in reptiles, in addition to multi-police force operations to tackle poaching and many other operations.[157] On the value of the NWCU, ACPO concluded, "The development of the National Wildlife Crime Unit has led to better co-ordination of enforcement activity in particular where it involves cross-border and organised crime".[158]

65.  The NWCU is currently funded by a combination of Defra, the Home Office, ACPO, ACPO Scotland, the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.[159] The sums provided to run the NWCU are relatively small—Defra and the Home Office each contributed £144,000 in 2011-12 and £136,000 in 2012-13—and are currently agreed no more than two years ahead.[160] The current head of the NWCU told us:

The National Wildlife Crime Unit is funded from a number of different agencies, and a lot of the challenge that I have is to constantly look at securing the future funding, which takes me away from that day-to-day role of trying to address wildlife crime.[161]

The NWCU's hand-to-mouth financing is reflected in its fractured administrative arrangements, where its staff are managed by North Wales Police, its website is maintained by Lincolnshire Police and its headquarters is a building owned by a Scottish police force.[162]

66.  The lack of certainty about its longer-term funding makes it difficult for the NWCU to recruit, retain and develop specialist staff and has hampered its capacity to monitor the illegal trade in wildlife on the internet by investing in staff and equipment.[163] Our predecessor Committee's 2004 Report identified wildlife crime involving the internet as an emerging threat, which has crystallised into an active hazard to biodiversity in the past eight years.[164] ACPO commented:

The internet is a "crime enabler" allowing unlawful trading, much of which can be considered to deliver high levels of profit with little or no risk of prosecution. If such illegal trading is to be addressed then dedicated resources are required. In 2010 the NWCU received funding to appoint a wildlife crime internet researcher for a period of 12 months. Unfortunately the period of funding is such that it has, to date, been found to be impossible to recruit anybody to the role. A very recent recruitment process led to the post being offered to a well-qualified individual who declined to accept it having been offered a position elsewhere providing greater job security.[165]

67.  In addition to the general trade in illegal wildlife, the internet has enabled two specific facets of wildlife crime since our predecessors last scrutinised the subject in 2004. First, online plant sales are facilitating the entry of invasive non-native species into the UK (paragraph 51), which imposes high financial and environmental costs. Secondly, a spike in demand for rhino horn and elephant ivory in Asia has driven illegal online trading in antiques such as carved libation cups and billiard balls, which are exported to Asia (paragraph 13).

68.  As ACPO pointed out, the NWCU punches well above the weight of its funding both nationally and internationally, and its strategic, intelligence-led approach is an efficient means of targeting limited funding for wildlife crime enforcement.[166] We recommend that the Government reinforces the success of the National Wildlife Crime Unit by implementing long-term funding arrangements to allow it to plan for being even more effective in the future, including enhanced long-term funding to enable it effectively to monitor wildlife crime on the internet.

69.  The Metropolitan Police Service Wildlife Crime Unit has developed an innovative partnership funding arrangement with the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). The Metropolitan Police Service told us:

In 2011, WSPA provided £100,000 to increase the strength of the unit by one police officer and one member of police staff. This should not be seen as taking away the responsibility of funding from Government but as enhancing policing in the short to medium term, particularly at a time of financial constraint. We hope to negotiate further funding to allow this increase in staff to be maintained.[167]

None of our witnesses identified conflicts of interest created by such arrangements, provided that adequate governance arrangements were in place.[168] Partnerships between the police and NGOs can effectively increase funding for wildlife crime enforcement, and the Home Office should encourage all police forces to consider implementing them. This model might usefully be extended to fund other facets of wildlife crime enforcement, such as the NWCU.

Recording wildlife crime

70.  The Committee's 2004 Report on Wildlife Crime recommended that

a centrally managed, national database which records all incidents of wildlife crime, as well as the details of all successful and unsuccessful prosecutions mounted, be established as a matter of priority.[169]

This practical recommendation has not been implemented, although the NWCU currently holds a partial record of some offences. A comprehensive wildlife crime database would allow the NWCU to identify emerging trends and efficiently target resources with greater accuracy. Additionally, a record of prosecutions—both successful and unsuccessful—drawn from the courts could be used to inform the introduction of sentencing guidelines (paragraph 62), the reform of available penalties (paragraph 61) and the ongoing development of wildlife law.

71.  If finances for the NWCU database are tight, one possible source of funding might be the unused £375,000 from the abortive Defra research project on buzzards (paragraph 43).[170] Such a reallocation would send an important signal about Defra's priorities. The NWCU should be directed and funded to develop a wildlife crime database to encompass all available information on incidents reported to the police and on prosecutions in the courts in the UK.

72.  We took evidence from the current and former ACPO wildlife crime leads, the Metropolitan Police Service Wildlife Crime Unit, the NWCU and NGOs on how police forces record and report wildlife crime. Several NGOs suggested that more wildlife crimes should be made "notifiable" for Home Office purposes in order to obtain a more accurate picture of its nature and extent.[171] Notifiable offences are serious offences that the police must report to the Home Office for statistical purposes. Defra told us that "With the exception of certain offences set out in the Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations 1997 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981"—the most serious offences relating to trafficking endangered species—"most wildlife offences are not required to be notified to the Home Office".[172]

73.  In response to the proposition that more data should be collected, the police stressed the importance of not increasing bureaucracy in a quest to obtain more data, because this would compromise operational efficiency, and highlighted the police National Standard for Incident Reporting, which has improved data richness.[173] The former ACPO wildlife crime lead told us:

When the NWCU came into existence in 2006 … the National Standard for Incident Recording, NSIR, was introduced, and that is the standard that we have used since … to populate the database, basically. That has taken us much further forward than we were a few years ago … For every additional crime that is made recordable, there is an additional level of bureaucracy that goes with it, and strategically across the wider environment, there has been an effort to reduce the number of recordable categories of crime as opposed to increase it.[174]

74.  We heard about other, less bureaucratic ways to improve data management. First, a consolidation of existing wildlife crime legislation (paragraph 59) could simplify the data collection process, because offences that were recorded against a range of statutes would fall into a single category. Secondly, while most police forces submit data on wildlife crime to the NWCU, a minority fail to do so, which means that the NWCU statistics are incomplete.[175] Given that most police forces manage to submit such data, the bureaucratic cost of making such submissions does not seem to be excessive. The Home Office should instruct all police forces to submit the data on wildlife crime required by the NWCU.

75.  CITES offences are one of the few notifiable wildlife crimes and are therefore reported to the Home Office for statistical purposes. However, the Home Office has not allocated such offences a specific code, and they are recorded under the general Home Office code "999/99 Other crime or record only entry not catered for elsewhere", which is almost meaningless in terms of data management.[176] The Home Office should immediately allocate notifiable CITES offences a specific wildlife crime code, which would provide useful statistics on the trafficking of endangered species.

National Crime Agency

76.  In June 2010, the Home Secretary announced the creation of the National Crime Agency (NCA), which will become operational in 2013. The NCA is intended to spearhead the UK's fight against serious and organised crime, strengthen policing at the border and ensure that local policing effectively links to the work of national agencies and action overseas.[177] The Home Office has not decided whether or how the NCA will be involved in wildlife crime enforcement, which might entail the NCA subsuming some or all of the functions of the NWCU. When the Committee explored this issue with the then Home Officer Minister Lord Henley, he stated:

There will be a power to take things like wildlife crime into the NCA in the future. I have to say I do not think that is likely in the immediate future because the NCA will need to settle down … I think wildlife crime is something that will possibly come in later on.[178]

77.  Serious and organised criminals are clearly involved in wildlife crime, to which they are attracted by the large potential profits, so the NCA will, at the very least, have an interest in wildlife crime.[179] Some witnesses raised the possibility that incorporating the NWCU within the NCA would enhance wildlife crime enforcement, because the NCA would provide a guaranteed funding stream and administrative certainty.[180] Equally, several witnesses pointed out the danger that if the NCA were to take responsibility for wildlife crime, the NWCU's focus on important but niche environmental subjects, such as freshwater pearl mussels or bat roosts, and its ability to tackle lower-level crimes, which incur significant environmental costs and raise public concern, might be diluted or even lost.[181] The former ACPO wildlife crime lead told us:

Although [the NWCU] is very small and at some levels quite poorly resourced, [it] has nonetheless been able to become the focal point, absolutely focusing upon wildlife crime as opposed to perhaps a very small unit in a much bigger organisation that perhaps was not able to give that same degree of focus and attention.[182]

In its written evidence, ACPO commented on how the NWCU might work operationally with the NCA:

The National Wildlife Crime Unit should remain as a standalone unit with the ability to feed serious and organised wildlife crime threats into any National Crime Agency.[183]

78.  The ongoing uncertainty around the relationship between the NWCU and NCA may have a negative effect on long-term planning for wildlife crime enforcement, but any such uncertainty would be dissipated by the implementation of the Committee's earlier recommendation on setting out guaranteed funding for the NWCU (paragraph 69), which would make it clear that the NWCU has a long-term future outside the NCA. The NWCU's specialist skills are a cost-effective asset that should be protected and developed.

Civil enforcement

79.  Natural England, the Environment Agency and the United Kingdom Border Force have statutory wildlife crime regulation and enforcement responsibilities, which they discharge by exercising civil powers. In order to ensure that an overall view of wildlife crime is retained and that enforcement is consistent, ACPO pointed out the desirability of all enforcement agencies working in close partnership with each other and with the police.[184] We found significant differences in the way in which those three agencies implemented their wildlife crime enforcement responsibilities and exercised their powers.

80.  UK Border Force provided evidence of its robust attitude to enforcement by submitting comprehensive statistics on the hundreds of seizures that it made between 2008 and 2011 and on the nine prosecutions that the CPS conducted as a consequence of its work over that period.[185] Similarly, the Environment Agency told us:

Over the eight years since the Committee last looked at this area … we have had a steady increase in overall fisheries prosecutions … One, we are catching more people; two, potentially there is more wildlife crime going on in this area; three, awareness is significantly higher.[186]

It added, "We try and maximise the deterrent effect of fines … We are able to spread that effect by publicising, for instance, the prosecutions that we achieve".[187]

81.  Natural England adopts a notably different approach to enforcement from the Environment Agency and UK Border Force. For example, it is responsible for addressing offences committed on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), which comprise a representative sample of England's most important flora, fauna and geology. The offences that it detected were capable of being tried in both magistrates courts, where penalties were restricted to £20,000, and Crown courts, where financial penalties were unlimited.[188] In 2010-11, Natural England recorded 100 offences committed on SSSIs. Of those 100 cases, 92 were sanctioned through warning letters and the remaining eight resulted in cautions, meaning that there were no prosecutions relating to SSSIs in 2010-11.[189] Overall, 10 prosecutions relating to offences committed on SSSIs have been conducted since 2006.[190] A police officer was seconded to work with Natural England for 12 months, but the arrangement lapsed at the conclusion of that period.[191] Natural England commented that its "focus is on helping our customers to comply, so it is often more important to stop offending and repair the damage than impose a penalty".[192] "Customers" seems an unusual choice of language to describe those who perpetrate environmental offences. Natural England commits about £5.6 million of spending and about 120 staff to fulfilling its range of responsibilities in relation to wildlife crime, so it seems unlikely that resources are the defining factor in its approach.[193]

82.  Effective enforcement entails striking a balance between persuasion and prosecution in order to alter behaviour. It may be that Natural England's collaborative approach is particularly suited to the nature of its enforcement responsibilities—we did not receive compelling evidence one way or the other on that point—but it is clearly inconsistent with the approach taken by the police, the Environment Agency and UK Border Force. ACPO pointed out that the further devolution of civil enforcement powers away from the police was one option in the ongoing development of wildlife crime enforcement, which made the way in which Natural England exercised its powers of civil enforcement an important test case.[194] The Government should research the impact of how Natural England exercised its civil powers and consider the different approaches to enforcement adopted by Natural England and the Environment Agency in its ongoing review of those two agencies.

Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime

83.  PAW is a multi-agency representative body through which statutory and non-governmental organisations involved in wildlife law enforcement in the UK can work together to combat wildlife crime. Its current membership of 140 organisations includes all significant UK sporting, conservation and trade bodies with an interest in combating wildlife crime. PAW-affiliated bodies include some of the largest membership organisations in the UK, such as the RSPB, which has more than 1 million members and is the largest conservation body in Europe, and the Angling Trust. PAW also includes wildlife organisations with international links, such as WWF-UK, and bodies focused on specific species or leisure pursuits. Defra Minister Richard Benyon MP acknowledged PAW's value and potential:

It is a fantastic drawing together of expertise … The knowledge-sharing that exists within that partnership gives an enormous benefit in terms of increased value, and it is a partnership that we value and want to see enhanced.[195]

84.  PAW is currently co-chaired by a Defra official and the ACPO wildlife crime lead. We received no evidence criticising its performance, but it does not have a high public profile. PAW's position and influence could be more fully exploited by active ministerial involvement and visible strategic political direction. The PAW Scotland Executive Group is currently chaired by the Scottish Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, an arrangement which appears to have worked well in practice, and a similar arrangement would send an important signal about the UK Government's commitment to tackling wildlife crime.[196] When we asked the Minister whether he was attracted to the notion of taking the Chair of the PAW Steering Group, he replied:

To be perfectly honest, not at present because we believe that the current arrangements—where Defra and the police co-chair PAW and have shared responsibility—work well. That kind of hands-on chairmanship is better than a Minister, who, through the demands on our day, could not give it the absolute commitment that they can.[197]

We recommend that a Defra Minister takes the Chair of the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime Steering Group to signal the Government's commitment to addressing wildlife crime and to provide strategic direction and political leadership in order to harness the extensive skills, experience and resources represented in this forum. In our view, such ministerial involvement need not be an excessive burden, if the police and Defra maintain their current level of involvement.

130   Qq 3, 143, 154; Ev 95 Back

131   Law Commission, Press Release, 17 August 2012. Back

132   Qq 184, 348; Ev 95 Back

133   Ev 92 Back

134   Q 3 Back

135   Q 263 Back

136   Q 412 Back

137   Q 413 Back

138   Q 105 Back

139   Q107 Back

140   Ev w75 Back

141   Q 108 Back

142   Ev 92 Back

143   Ev 93 Back

144   Q 5 Back

145   Qq 5, 414 Back

146   Ev 154 Back

147   Qq 5, 14, 99 Back

148   Q 100 Back

149   Q 184 Back

150   Q 403 Back

151   Qq 185, 310 Back

152   Ev 155 Back

153   Qq 187, 315 Back

154   Ev 96 Back

155   Qq 141, 158, 318 Back

156   Environmental Audit Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2003-04, Environmental Crime: Wildlife Crime, HC 605, recommendation 29. Back

157   Ev 97 Back

158   Ev 96 Back

159   Qq 322-327; Ev 97 Back

160   Ev 119 Back

161   Q 309 Back

162   Q 304 Back

163   Ev 97-98 Back

164   Environmental Audit Committee, Environmental Crime: Wildlife Crime, recommendation 8. Back

165   Ev 97 Back

166   Qq 189, 318 Back

167   Ev 153 Back

168   Qq 282, 283 Back

169   Environmental Audit Committee, Environmental Crime: Wildlife Crime, recommendation 6. Back

170   Q 426 Back

171   Ev w15, w8 Back

172   Ev 116 Back

173   Q 194 Back

174   ibid. Back

175   Qq 194, 360 Back

176   Ev 154 Back

177   Home Office, The National Crime Agency: A plan for the creation of a national crime-fighting capability, June 2010. Back

178   Q 432 Back

179   Qq 186, 403 Back

180   Q 191 Back

181   Qq 191, 285 Back

182   Q 189 Back

183   Ev 92 Back

184   Ev 96 Back

185   Ev 150 Back

186   Q 207 Back

187   Q 210 Back

188   Ev 160 Back

189   Ev 116 Back

190   Ev 160 Back

191   Ev 96 Back

192   Ev 160 Back

193   Q 239 Back

194   Ev 96 Back

195   Q 409 Back

196   Q 19 Back

197   Q 410 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 18 October 2012