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Column 115regarding Scotland ? His reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) was a little misleading. The Minister suggested that it was a matter for Scotland as to whether the provisions on disruptive trespass would apply in Scotland. As I understand it, the Government have tabled an amendment to delete the application of the measures to Scotland--amendment No. 28, which will be considered later.
Mr. Maclean : It is a matter for the Secretary of State for Scotland whether or not he wishes the powers to apply in Scotland. He does not consider it necessary for the confiscation power to apply in Scotland at present. If a time comes when he considers it to be necessary, no doubt he will introduce the relevant Scottish legislation.
Clause 58 is a sensible, balanced measure that will be of help to all those who wish to participate lawfully in any activity in the countryside and do not wish to have it disrupted by people of whatever nature or persuasion who want to disrupt it. The Government amendments introduce proposals to deal with the mischief of illegal hare coursing which I believe will be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I commend the amendments to the House.
Mr. Heald : Farmers in north Hertfordshire have been frightened by gangs of men coming up to bet on illegal hare coursing, who threatened the farmers and their wives. Gangs come up for the weekend and drive their four -wheel drive vehicles on to the land, often with shotguns hanging out of the windows. They shoot out of the windows of their vehicles, shout and scream. When they are approached by farmers or the local police, they mouth abuse and make threats. On occasions, haystacks have mysteriously burnt down a few days after a farmer has intervened, windscreens have been smashed and so on. It is a public order issue.
In Committee, I tabled a large number of amendments designed to increase the penalties for what are basically poaching offences and to allow the courts to confiscate the motor vehicles used to commit such offences. In Committee, my hon. Friend the Minister said that he would consider my amendments and, true to his word, he has returned on Report with Government amendments which I am perfectly satisfied deal with a major problem. I thank my hon. Friend for the seriousness with which he has dealt with the matter and for the result that he has produced.
I thank also the Police Federation, the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union for all the support that they gave me in tabling my amendments in Committee. I just want to say thank you very much to them all.
Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown) : I support new clauses 21 and 22. I make it clear that I totally condemn violence and intimidation by a minority of animal extremists and huntsmen. Both activities are totally unacceptable. It is on record that more huntsmen have been found guilty of acts of violence while involved in hunts than animal extremists, but both must be clearly and roundly condemned.
In dispute is our rule of law, which the House surely accepts must be fair and equitable. On 21 January, my noble Friend the Minister of State, Lord Ferrers, stated in a letter to the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) :
Column 116"The new powers would protect anyone whose lawful activity was disrupted by trespassers whoever they might be."
In the House, my hon. Friend the Minister said that the powers apply to everyone equally. In practice, that is not true. For an offence to be committed, it will have to be proved that the person was trespassing and that he intended--that is the key word--to obstruct, disrupt or intimidate.
In recent years, there have been scores of cases in which hounds and huntsmen invaded private gardens, property and farmland. To prove such cases is virtually impossible. I shall illustrate that with a specific example, given in a letter from a lady living in Petersfield :
"In October 1992, we had foxhounds riot through our garden . . . When a hunt official finally arrived, he was rude and arrogant and even appeared to think that the incident was funny . . . I dread to think what could have happened had my animals been free and dozing in the autumn sunshine as they usually do . . . There is no excuse for them to trespass, and claiming that they cannot control their dogs is a weak excuse and not acceptable. The law requires me to keep my dog under control, which is quite right . . . Especially in areas such as ours, where there are many sheep, beef and dairy farms and their animals are extremely vulnerable to a pack of rioting dogs . . . For at least six months of the year, I live in fear when I let my domestic animals outside, I do not suppose you could possibly imagine what that feels like."
Some hon. Members could not give a damn what those people feel like anyway. But the fact is that, under the proposed legislation, it would be impossible for that lady to take action to protect herself. That is why the law as proposed is not equitable and fair. Every year, some 11,000 hunts meet. When chasing a defenceless wild animal, the hounds will attempt to follow their quarry wherever it runs, whether to railway lines, roads, private gardens, village streets or nature reserves. Some hon. Members have intervened on colleagues and pretended that hunting or controlling foxes in that way makes a difference to the total fox population. As they and the House know, that is sheer undiluted rubbish. At any one time, there could be anything between 300,000 and 500,000 foxes in this country. The hunts kill at the most 20,000 a year. Hunting makes no difference to the fox population whatever.
I regard blood sports as a cowardly and loathsome activity, but this debate is about justice and fairness. I hope that the House will support the new clauses.
Mr. Paice : I shall comment quickly on Government amendments Nos. 186 and 187, and follow on from what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald). I echo what the Minister said about my hon. Friend's amendments, to which I have added my name although I was not a member of the Standing Committee.
The problems to which my hon. Friend referred are widespread throughout East Anglia. They are not unique to north Hertfordshire. In my constituency every Sunday, gangs of people are illegally coursing. It is necessary for us to come to the House and persuade the Government to increase the penalties because, every week, there are people out coursing who the previous week were in court and fined a pathetic £150, or something of that order, which compares unfavourably with the bets that are laid on their dogs every Sunday morning. It is quite commonplace for bets of £1,000, £2,000 or £3,000 to be wagered, which makes the small fines insignificant and simply part of the occupational hazard.
Column 117The proposed measures will be welcomed by magistrates, because they wanted the power to confiscate vehicles-- something which the magistrates in Cambridgeshire asked for--and by the police, because it will improve the morale of the police who go out and try to arrest those individuals or gangs, when they are coursing illegally, and find it demoralising to arrest them week after week knowing full well that any prosecution will end up with a derisory fine. Most important, the new measures will be welcomed by the many farm owners, landowners and their employees, who suffer intimidation, victimisation and, sometimes, violence at the hands of those gangs. I, too, express my thanks on behalf of my constituents for the fact that the Government have introduced the amendments.
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North) : It gives me no pleasure to have to oppose our own Ministers. I am, as is well known, opposed to the hunt. I voted against it in the past and will do so at every opportunity that I am afforded in future. But, equally, I hold no brief for those who indulge in illegal activity, violence and intimidation.
I welcome the Government's proposals in so far as they go, but they do not go as far as my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary claim. They afford considerable protection to those who seek to hunt. They afford no protection whatever in real terms to those people who wish to enjoy their land without the hunt trampling over it.
I shall have to detain the House for a few moments because I want to place on record details of one or two more cases of people who have written to me. They are the type of cases that I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) will be proud to endorse.
From Badger cottage in Hampshire, Eric Ashby, who won the MBE for his services to wildlife, wrote to me on 22 March :
"We have a 10 acre wildlife sanctuary here in the New Forest and have banned the hunts from trespassing for very many years. Eventually, after many incursions, some years ago we obtained a Court Injunction against the New Forest Hounds, but as the Masters have all been changed we no longer have the advantage of the Injunction. We have a badger sett on our boundary and several hound visits have reduced numbers and since the Injunction expired we had within a few weeks three serious invasions of hounds. Now the once thriving badger sett has declined so much that the sett is no longer occupied.
But even worse, our seven rescued foxes in their grass pens, have been so traumatised that even people talking loudly on the road outside of our boundary frightens them, reminding them that a possible hunt visit might be starting.
This year we already have over 50 families hoping to see and stroke at least one or two of the foxes as they used to be able to do. Now great care has to be taken to persuade them to come to strangers, this is a great strain on us as we do want each visit to be a success.
In the past all our foxes would welcome visitors, coming running to meet them with tails wagging. All that has gone. It really is a terrible situation we now find ourselves in.
If hounds are making their way towards our property, hunt followers line our boundary, and the sound of shouting, cracking whips and galloping horses and hounds added together drives our poor foxes frantic . . . The situation has become quite unacceptable and we dread the thought that we shall have to undergo another season." That was this year. In 1992, Eric Ashby wrote :
"Our foxes were even more panic stricken than when the buckhounds invaded eight days ago, they were climbing the fences, tearing at the wire, running around as if demented. This evening they appear completely exhausted--and so are we."
This has been going on for a long time. In 1991, he wrote :
Column 118"It is not right and fair that we should be subject to the stress and worry of it all, plus the shyness of our badgers and our foxes being now so wary and fearful of strangers owing to hunt disturbance. This is real damage to our way of life and to our animals. Four breeding seasons . . . have now gone by without any badger cubs being born in our natural badger sett."
A letter from Essendon Hill in Hertfordshire states :
"I have a 10 acre small holding in the village with 3 sheep, 2 goats, 2 pigs, a Shetland pony, pigmy donkey, 40 chickens and six doves. The whole affair is run for the benefit of David, a profoundly handicapped Down's syndrome 7 year old boy."
The writer says that he is the boy's custodian and father. The letter states in respect of an incident :
"I raced to the scene shouting and hollering--the dogs had ripped the backside out of the deer but it was still very much alive. I let the dogs finish the job--the poor animal screaming."
From Eyton, Leominster in Herefordshire, a letter about the Ludlow hunt states :
"I could see my own animals just fleeing in terror . . . and many more were chased in pure terror down my long drive . . . We were met with what I can only describe as arrogant indifference from the Master of the hounds--we were barely acknowledged when I told him how undisciplined I thought the hounds were as not one had obeyed the horn or the calling of the whipper- in' . . . Some of my animals were stuck . . . in hedges and had to be pulled out backwards". The letter continues in a similar vein.
A letter from Pett Bottom in Canterbury states :
"To my knowledge our land has been invaded by the East Kent Hunt on at least six separate occasions."
I have a stack of such letters which go on and on. Each one is from a person who wanted to enjoy his own property in peace, without having a hunt trample all over it.
When the measure was first mooted, long before the Bill was published, I wrote to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary because I and the all-party animal welfare group, which I have the privilege to chair, were concerned about whether the measure would be even handed. I wrote on 8 November last year. On 29 November my right hon. and learned Friend replied :
"The proposals do not apply solely to any specific group of people. The purpose of the proposed legislation is to provide protection for those engaging in lawful activities, whoever and whatever they may be, from trespassers using disruptive behaviour." Let us keep that letter on one side for the moment.
On 24 January this year, my right hon. and learned Friend wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security : "We therefore also take the view that it is for landowners, including local authorities, to choose whether or not to allow hunting on their land".
Are local authorities to be given the right under the Bill to choose whether to allow huntsmen to cross their land ? The letter continues :
"It is quite unacceptable for hunters or hunt saboteurs--or anyone else--to assume that they have the right to enter private land without the occupier's permission. The new powers, outlined in my earlier reply, would protect anyone whose lawful activity was disrupted by trespassers, whoever they may be."
It is clear that my right hon. and learned Friend believes that the clauses in the Bill as it stands afford protection to all, not only to some. Indeed, to be fair, my hon. Friend the Minister reaffirmed that tonight.
A letter to the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) on 11 February stated :
"Where hunters commit other offences, such as criminal damage, the general criminal law applies."
My hon. Friend the Minister wrote to me on 21 March and said that aggravated trespass will deal with
Column 119"the activities of those who deliberately try and disrupt or obstruct a perfectly lawful activity or intimidate those involved in that activity".
However, for hunters, like hunt protesters, the letter said : "unless they enter that land with the intent to obstruct or disrupt a lawful activity, then they will not have committed the offence of aggravated trespass."
All that is absolutely clear and, indeed, that is precisely what my hon. Friend the Minister has said tonight.
I shall return to the letter of 29 November from my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. It said :
"The proposals do not apply solely to any specific group of people. The purpose of the proposed legislation is to provide protection for those engaging in lawful activities whoever and whatever they may be".
In other words, my right hon. and learned Friend and my hon. Friend the Minister believe that the Bill is even-handed.
I have taken counsel's opinion. I am not at liberty to name him, but I am at liberty to say-- [Hon. Members :-- "Name him."] I shall not, only because I have not sought the man's permission to name him. [Hon. Members :-- "You should have."] Perhaps I should have, but let me quote what he says ; if, in due course, he reads the report of the debate and chooses to make his name known, it would seem to be entirely proper. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster is a very learned silk. I went to the Queen's Counsel and sought his advice, because my right hon. and learned Friend is also a learned silk, I am not a lawyer and I wanted to match legal brain power with legal brain power. The counsel's opinion was :
"You ask three questions :
Does the Bill at present reflect the stated intentions of the Home Secretary ?
Answer : Yes, and no."-- [Interruption.]
Fortunately, I was not paying the bill
"The clause will, so far as the criminal law can be effective,"
"The clause will, so far as the criminal law can be effective, protect landowners and others lawfully on the land from trespassers using disruptive behaviour.
The draftsman has chosen to make the offence, not one of strict liability but requiring the prosecution to prove mens rea. This obviously makes it more difficult to bring home a conviction. It will obviously be easier to persuade a Court that hunt saboteurs intend the necessary consequences of their actions, than it will be to demonstrate an intent by the hunts to do so. Indeed I think it would be difficult to obtain a conviction against a hunt which is trespassing.
Would the suggested new clause reflect the stated intentions of the Home Secretary ?
Answer : No. It would not be evenhanded. It is focused almost exclusively on the hunts."
Mr. Alex Carlile : I do not want to enter into a contest of lawyers, but does the hon. Gentleman really believe that it is right to render people liable to punishment even by imprisonment if they commit an act inadvertently ?
Mr. Gale : I shall answer the question. I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for placing in order a comment that I might otherwise not have been able to make. I do not propose to support the new clause tonight. [Hon. Members :-- "Why not ?"] I shall not support it because I have tabled two amendments to a later part of the Bill, which I intend to move tomorrow night, if necessary, and to press to a vote, unless I can secure some form of undertaking from my hon. Friend.
My amendments are based on the counsel's opinion, which said : "Q.3 Is there a reasonably simple way of amending clause 52, to reflect the intentions of the Home Secretary or otherwise ? A.3 Yes. A person commits the offence of aggravated trespass if he trespasses on land in the open air, and in relation to any lawful activity which persons are engaging in or about to engage in on that or adjoining land in the open air which has the effect of '" doing various things. That would remove the mens rea, so that is an answer to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile). The counsel continued :
"Since the wording would lessen the degree of criminality, in that it would become a strict"
"Since the wording would lessen the degree of criminality, in that it would become a strict liability offence, I would amend sub-clause 3 to make the penalty non-imprisonable. The benefit of making the offence one of strict liability will be more nearly to equate the level of criminal responsibility between the huntsman and hunt saboteur."
Mr. Carlile : Does the hon. Gentleman realise that one consequence of his proposal would be that if, for example, I happened to lose control of my car because it burst a tyre, and it went through his hedge into his garden, I would be guilty of his suggested criminal offence ? Surely that is an absurd proposition of law. Yet it follows clearly from the words that he read out, to which I listened with extreme care.
I realise that there are many hon. Members who will choose to rubbish any suggestion made tonight or in future to try to make the measure--half of which most of us support--more even-handed. However, I must tell the Home Secretary and the Minister that I entirely accept the possibility that the new clause may be flawed. I am also prepared to accept that there are likely to be differences of opinion between lawyers and that my amendments, which may or may not be debated tomorrow night, may not be perfect either.
However, I am certain that the Home Secretary has given a clear undertaking that he intended to introduce even-handed legislation, and that the Minister of State has expressed his belief that the legislation is even- handed. I am equally certain that not one animal welfare organisation
Column 121believes that it is even handed. Many people believe that the measure as it stands is likely to prove a legal dog's breakfast that will make the Dangerous Dogs Act 1989 pale into insignificance--we heard some intimation of that a few moments ago.
I seek from the Minister, and hope to obtain, a clear confirmation that he will take the idea away and consider it with the Home Secretary, and if necessary introduce an amendment in another place that will make the Bill the even-handed legislation that we all believe is necessary.
Mr. Michael : I commend the courage of some Conservative Members, such as the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), who have sought to inject balance into an ill-considered part of the Bill. There may be deficiencies in the new clauses or in the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Thanet, North, but there are also certainly failings in the Bill as it stands.
Unlike some of his Back Benchers, the Minister has not sought to condemn or to deal with hunts that disrupt lawful activities, as he has sought to tackle those who seek to disrupt hunts. The lack of balance lies in the fact that opponents of hunting can be arrested because a police officer thinks that they intend to do something. They can be banned from returning to an area for three months. That is more draconian than what happens to those who offend by rape, violence or other serious offences.
In Committee, hon. Members who support hunting said that the code of conduct for masters of hunts would prevent the irresponsibility that has been well documented by hon. Members on both sides of the House, the League against Cruel Sports and others. All we seek is balance. Those matters are not being dealt with by the Bill, whereas the disruption of hunting is. If the code of conduct is so stringent, no responsible hunt would be at risk from the new clause. With regard to the new clause relating to badgers, the Minister ridiculed the real problem and ignored the fact that people have been able to use a gap in the law to dig for badgers and pretend that they have been doing other things. Those are two gaps in the law which need to be addressed. They are addressed by new clauses 21 and 22 and that is why we should support both of them.
Sir Nicholas Bonsor : I had not intended to speak, but I have been provoked into doing so by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale). There are three short points that need to be put on the record. First, those who support the new clause, which proposes to attack hunting, are clearly not capable of distinguishing between an inadvertent act of trespass and a deliberate act of trespass to disrupt the lawful pursuit of someone else. It is only the latter that the new clause seeks to address. In addressing the problem, the new clause is even-handed in its treatment of those who participate in such activities, and any argument to the contrary is ill-founded. Secondly, it was alleged that much of the violence has come from the hunting side. I certainly accept that some people have been successfully prosecuted for violence in those circumstances. However, there is a clear distinction, which fair hon. Members will accept, between those who are pursuing a lawful pursuit, who are being harried, chased and attacked by others and who retaliate in a way which is not allowed under the law but which is the result of extreme provocation, and those who pursue others and attack them deliberately in order to make it impossible for
Column 122them to carry out their lawful activities. The latter is indulged in by hunt saboteurs, and members of the hunt who have been convicted of violence are convicted only in circumstances in which there has been extreme provocation. I am not saying that that is an excuse. It is not an excuse in law, but it is a distinction.
Thirdly, I come to the Queen's Counsel's opinion that my hon. Friend said he had received--I have no doubt that he received it. It would be interesting to know who that QC was. It would also be interesting to know who paid for the opinion, as my hon. Friend told us that he did not. I do not think that there is any value in the opinion because, as any lawyer knows, the value that comes out of an opinion depends on the brief that has gone in to instruct it. If the brief went in from an organisation such as the League against Cruel Sports, it would be a case of rubbish in, rubbish out.
Question put , That the clause be read a Second time :
The House divided : Ayes 248, Noes 303.
Division No. 196] 9.53 pm Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, Andrew F.
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Corston, Ms Jean
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Donohoe, Brian H.
Eagle, Ms Angela
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Golding, Mrs Llin
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Hendron, Dr Joe
Hill, Keith (Streatham)