Section 68 will amend and add further to section 74 of the principal Act which sets out the penalties in the case of a conviction under either the principal Act or the amendment Act. I will explain the reasons this revision is required.
In the first instance, the financial penalties which were laid down in 1976 need to be increased. A person convicted of what might be termed an ordinary offence under the Act, for example, would have been liable to a fine of up to £50. The amending legislation increases this potential fine for a first time offence to £500. There are similar level increases in respect of second or third offences and the maximum penalty in respect of a conviction for an ordinary offence under the Wildlife Acts will now be £1,500 and or imprisonment for 12 months.
For what might be termed more serious offences including, for example, damage to NHAs, the penalties proposed are obviously stiffer. The penalty for a summary conviction in respect of an offence of this type is a fine of £1,500 and or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months. The penalty for a conviction on indictment is a possible fine of up to £50,000 and-or a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years. The maximum penalty for a similar offence under the 1976 Act was a possible fine of £500. For the first time there is provision in this legislation for a term of imprisonment on conviction of an offence. This combined with the heavy financial penalties now being put in place will, with the other measures introduced in the Bill, serve to enhance greatly the protection and conservation of our important habitats and our wildlife generally.
Deputy O'Shea's amendment would do away with the current graduated system of penalties for ordinary offences under the legislation. My proposal to maintain the graduated system of penalties for ordinary offences, as has been the case under the principal Act, is based on the advice of the Attorney General's office. This advice was that it would generally be inappropriate to have the same level of penalties for first offences as for repeat offences. This is a view with which I concur.
There are potentially many circumstances arising under the wildlife legislation where an individual, through an oversight or a lack of knowledge of the legislation, might commit a relatively minor offence. If this happens on one occasion, it would be unreasonable to impose on that individual a significant fine, possibly £1,500, and-or 12 months imprisonment as would be the case under the Deputy's proposal. A £500 fine and-or a three month term of imprisonment, as proposed in my amendment, represents an appropriate punishment. If the same individual were to commit a further offence under this subsection, under the graduated system the offender would be potentially liable to increased fines when a defence based upon ignorance of the legislation would not carry as much weight. On the third conviction the fine would be equivalent to that imposed on summary conviction of a more serious offence under the Acts.
Under the Deputy's proposed amendment such an offender on conviction following a first offence would be immediately liable to a fine of up to £1,500. While I believe a penalty of this level is appropriate for more serious offences, such as a breach of a NHA order or an offence involving protected species, I do not see how this can be treated the same as a comparatively insignificant offence. Hence my acceptance of the advice of the Attorney General to retain the graduated system that is already in place.