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Scottish government could extend charity’s crime-fighting remit

The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals could be given powers to enter land, examine objects and seize evidence without a warrant

scottish spca

The Scottish government is proposing to extend the legal powers of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) to allow the charity to investigate wildlife crime.

These plans would give SSPCA investigators the legal power – without a warrant or reference to specific offences – to enter land other than homes or locked premises, examine any object and seize potential evidence. The Scottish government is also considering allowing SSPCA investigators to enter homes and locked premises if they have a warrant.

The Scottish government says the police doesn’t have enough officers in rural areas to effectively police incidents in remote locations without witnesses and wants to hand some of this work over to the charity.

Investigators from the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are already being used by the police to help prosecute wildlife crimes: between 2007 and 2012 they were involved in 188 wildlife crime cases. Two thirds of the cases that resulted in a conviction were handled solely by the SSPCA.

This is legally allowed because the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 gives ministers and local authorities the power to appoint inspectors.

What this proposal wants to change is to give SSPCA investigators more statutory right to probe crimes relating to wild birds, protected animals, snaring, poaching and non-native species. The investigators would be allowed to access land and premises to search for evidence and seize anything they find.

“If you give a charity the same powers as police, they would have to have the same level of accountability and transparency,” said Nevin Hunter, former head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit. “That is the issue, because they are not as accountable.”

The answer lies in increasing police presence in rural areas to fight wildlife crime and not in extending the legal powers of a charity, the Law Society argues. “We believe police officers are best placed to deal with such crime, and increasing the presence of uniformed police officers in remote areas where these crimes occur will assure the public that combating wildlife crime is being taken seriously,” said Jim Drysdale, member of the Law Society’s Rural Affairs committee.

However, the Law Society supports the proposal – providing the powers are not applied to any other charity – and has called for a review in two to five years’ time to ensure the powers are appropriately enforced.

The consultation is not seeking to hand SSPCA investigators the power to decide which cases to prosecute. They also won’t be given the right to stop and search people or arrest someone.

This is different to how the RSPCA works in England and Wales, where it doesn’t have the same statutory powers. Despite being required to work alongside police, they have become the second biggest prosecutor in the country thanks to their dogged pursuit of private prosecutions. A spokesperson for the RSPCA said they would not be seeking a similar arrangement to the one enjoyed by the SSPCA.