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House of Commons

Friday 3 March 1995

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Animal Cruelty

9.34 am

Mr. Hugh Bayley (York): On the day when I hope that the House will put the interests of wild mammals in front of those of their tormentors, I rise on behalf of 23,000 people to remind the House of an horrific act of cruelty to a wild mammal in Yorkshire. The petition reads as follows:

To the Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled.

The humble petition of Mrs. Pat Murgatroyd of the Hedgehog haven, 43 Foxwood lane, Acomb, Yorkshire sheweth that on 14 July 1992 a petition was presented to Parliament containing nearly 23,000 signatures drawing attention to four 15 and 16-year-old boys accused of causing unnecessary suffering to a hedgehog by dropping rocks on it, kicking and beating it with a fence post and thereby breaking almost every bone in its body, who walked free from a juvenile court in Pocklington, Humberside in April 1992 because the Protection of Animals Act 1911 covers only cruelty to captive creatures, and it was judged that this hedgehog had not been captive.

Wherefore your petitioner prays that your Honourable House brings about an Act of Parliament which will give hedgehogs and other wild animals legal protection against deliberate acts of cruelty. And your petitioner, as in duty bound, will ever pray, etc. That is signed by my constituent, Mrs. Pat Murgatroyd.

To lie upon the Table.


9.36 am

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): I am duty bound to present a petition to the House which has been signed by more than 1,500 of my constituents who live in the county of Rutland. I should be grateful, under the procedures of the House, if it could be read by the Clerk at the Table.

The Clerk of the House read the petition, which was as follows:

To the House of Commons.

The petition of residents, providers and receivers of services in Rutland declares that while welcoming the proposed return of Rutland's historic County status, they are dismayed at the increased costs and reduced services which would result from the formation of a so-called unitary authority for Rutland. It is their firm belief that the most efficient and cost-effective way to deliver services is as now, and there should be no other changes to the existing structure of local government.

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The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons rejects the recommendations of the Local Government Commission that Rutland become a unitary authority.

And the petitioners remain etc.

To lie upon the Table.

Animal Cruelty

9.38 am

Mr. Colin Pickthall (Lancashire, West): I beg leave to present a petition collected by Renarta Jackson, a student at Greenbank high school among 300 of her fellow students at All Hallow high school, Range high school, Stanley high school and Meols Cop high school and Christ the King school in Southport. The petition sheweth:

We believe that the cruel and barbaric sport of hare coursing has no place in our civilised society.

Wherefore your petitioner prays that your Honourable House do legislate to stop the cruel sport of hare coursing, and as in duty bound, will ever pray, etc.

To lie upon the Table.

9.39 am

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South): I have the honour of presenting to Parliament a petition from the RSPCA's 133 branches, and from 47 branches of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which asks the House that wild mammals should be given the same protection in law as domestic and captive animals have had since 1912.

These petitioners are praying in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), who has secured the Second Reading of the Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill. They wish his measure speedy passage.

To lie upon the Table.


Commonwealth Development Corporation

Mr. Secretary Hurd, supported by Sir George Young, Mr. Richard Needham and Mr. Tony Baldry presented a Bill to alter the limits under sections 9A and 10 of the Commonwealth Development Corporation Act 1978; to make provision in relation to interest on advances to the Commonwealth Development Corporation; and to make provision in relation to the remuneration, pensions and compensation of members of the Corporation: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Monday next, and to be printed. [Bill 66.]

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Orders of the Day

Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wish to raise a matter, of which I have given you and, indeed, the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), notice. I am concerned that the rise of new lobbying practices now requires the House urgently to reconsider the rules that govern the improper influence of hon. Members of the House. In the past fortnight, hon. Members have received hundreds of computer-printed cards and there has appeared in the press nearly £1 million-worth of full-page newspaper advertising, mentioning the name of an hon. Member and his Bill. So extensive now has become the deployment of lobbying resources by interest groups, that it is now clear that whoever wins a private Member's ballot risks being likely to be bid for in a sort of auction by groups that can offer political dividends as the reward.

I seek your guidance, Madam Speaker, on whether that practice can be referred to the appropriate Committees of the House, to the Nolan committee or to both.

Madam Speaker: As the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) and the House will know, the Speaker of the House has no authority whatever about publicity that takes place outside, and anyone is free to write to hon. Members to put a particular point of view to them.

Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker: Just a moment.

The hon. Gentleman must determine for himself whether the terms of reference of the Nolan Committee warrant a submission, and he is perfectly free as a Member of the House, if the procedures are there, to refer the matter to a particular committee. It is for individual Members to determine how they should proceed on that matter.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington): On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: There is no further point of order on that. We are going to proceed with the Bill. The House has been waiting, many hon. Members are here, we are now going to proceed with it.

9.41 am

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am most proud to stand here this morning to present my Bill. I should like first to thank a few people. Mention was made of the public. I have had 5,000 personal letters on the issue, and the latest estimate from the Post Office is that half a million postcards and letters have been sent to Members of Parliament, illustrating just how far up the political agenda the issue of animal welfare and needless cruelty is.

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I congratulate the public on their insight and vigilance. I thank the League Against Cruel Sports and the RSPCA, which have been most helpful and have been at the forefront of campaigning on the issue. I thank my sponsors, and will single out several Conservative Members, who include the hon. Members for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), for Brighton, Kemptown (Sir A. Bowden) and for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale). This is an issue of principle and individual conscience, and I thank them most sincerely for their support.

I see that the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes) is in his place. He is chairman of the British Field Sports Society, and is diametrically opposed to what I am doing this morning, but we have had the utmost respect for each other over the past few weeks; I hope that that will be maintained, so that we have an informed and civilised debate this morning.

The purpose of my Bill is to remove the illogical and ridiculous anomaly in law that makes it a criminal offence to inflict cruelty on a domestic mammal, but which, generally speaking, permits cruelty to be inflicted on wild mammals without penalty. For example, under the Protection of Animals Act 1911, and 1912 in Scotland, it is an offence to kick or beat, or set a snare, or to set a pack of dogs, on a cat, dog or any other domestic animal, but it is not an offence to inflict such pain and suffering on a fox, hare or most other wild mammals.

The RSPCA has been involved in investigating cases of hedgehogs being kicked, beaten, burnt and impaled on sticks, and of live fox cubs being set alight with petrol. Records exist of foxes and squirrels being nailed alive to trees, and the League Against Cruel Sports even has photographic evidence of a live fox being hanged by its ears. It may be argued that such cases are rare, but the fact remains that it is unacceptable that we have no law to penalise such sadistic acts.

Clause 1 seeks to deal with such cases by making it an offence if any person

"cruelly kicks, beats or tortures any wild mammal."

Those are all specific offences under the Protection of Animals Act 1911, which not only could be, but, as I have explained, have been, committed with impunity against wild mammals.

Hon. Members will recall that, three years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) introduced a similar Bill--I congratulate him on his efforts at that time--but it was narrowly defeated on Second Reading. My Bill is similar, except that clause 1 of my hon. Friend's Bill would have made it an offence cruelly to ill-treat or intentionally inflict unnecessary suffering on any wild mammal.

During consultation on the wording of the Bill, it became clear that there were fears in the farming community that the creation of an offence of cruel ill-treatment might lead to frivolous attempts to prosecute farmers for carrying out normal pest-control operations. It was thought that using shotguns or ferrets to control rabbits, or commonly used rodenticides to control rats of mice, might be considered by some animal rights groups to constitute cruel ill-treatment, and that such groups might be prepared to drag farmers

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before the courts to make a point. Whether such fears are justified is not important: I have no wish to interfere with reasonable and widely acceptable methods of pest control. That is why clause 1 is closely drawn, to target deliberate and totally unnecessary acts of brutality.

It is significant that I have not received any representations objecting to clause 1.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the care that he has taken over clause 1, and the constructive way in which he has described it. Does he not recognise that there is such widespread support for that clause that he would get his Bill through if he confined it to that clause, and perhaps to a revised version of clause 3? If he persists in wanting to make established country sports illegal, he will meet a great deal more opposition.

Mr. McFall: I thank the right hon. Member for his support for clause 1, but as the RSPCA stated--it has called this a Bill of principle--there is a continuum of concern over animal welfare. Some people might not see any qualitative difference between kicking a hedgehog about and tearing a fox limb from limb. That is the issue at stake here.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. McFall: Yes, of course.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: It is Liberal party policy, we might remind the Liberal party spokesman, to support my hon. Friend's Bill.

Mr. McFall: It looks as though the right hon. Gentleman is on his own on this issue.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his speech. I am at one with the point made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), but will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that unspeakable things are also done by a small minority of hooligans at football matches, which we all want to see stopped, but that that does not justify the banning of football? That is the analogy that I draw with his intention, in clause 2, to ban field sports, when we all support what he proposes in clause 1.

Mr. McFall: I agree entirely with that. It is an issue of observing the law and of supporting law and order. We are behind the party of law and order and have been trying to get it to implement decent policies on law and order for 15 years.

I have allowed three interventions on my speech already, and I am not very far through. I will be happy to take half a dozen or so, but there is a limit, because I know that a number of hon. Members wish to speak.

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport): I appreciate that my hon. Friend has said that there is some cross-party support for his Bill, but will he note that, in my party of the country--in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset--there has been an opportunity for local politicians to make a decision about banning hunting on their land, land which the council owns. It is significant that Labour motions to ban hunting have not

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had support from Conservatives, but, significantly, they have also not had support from Liberal Democrats, who have been split down the middle on the issue?

Mr. McFall: I thank my hon. Friend. I know from feedback that 80 per cent. of county councils-- [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): Order. I am determined to ensure that the debate does not get out of hand. The House knows my views on seated interventions. I wish to hear the hon. Gentleman's arguments and those of other Members who catch my eye.

Mr. McFall: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

As I was saying, 80 per cent. of county councils in England have banned hunting, and that is a step in the right direction. Clause 2 of the Bill seeks to outlaw the wilful use of dogs to

"kill, injure, pursue or attack"

wild mammals. It would outlaw the so-called sports of fox, hare and deer hunting, which involve hounding animals to exhaustion and death. It would also ban the use of terriers to attack foxes underground, an activity which has no close season, and which results annually in the deaths of tens of thousands of foxes and an unknown number of terriers which die underground battling with foxes.

The removal of this gruesome sport would dispose of the training ground for badger diggers. Every person convicted in the courts for badger digging has also been an enthusiast of digging for foxes with terriers. It is not widely appreciated that fox hunts also use terriers to attack or flush out foxes which defeat the hounds by going to ground. There was published this week a comprehensive report on fox hunting by Oxford university's wildlife conservation unit.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury): I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I have no doubt that he will quote all sorts of experts and research. In drafting his Bill, which will dramatically alter the status quo in the countryside, what countryside organisations did he consult to try to find the opposite arguments? For example, has he been out hunting to discover the truth?

Mr. McFall: I have not gone badger baiting, that is for sure. We have consulted, and the latest opinion polls on the subject show that, while 93 per cent. of the public wish their Members of Parliament to support my Bill, 60 per cent. of those living in rural areas also wish their Members of Parliament to support it. Therefore, there is a majority right through.

I was dealing with Oxford university's wildlife conservation study. That study was conducted by Dr. David MacDonald and Paul Johnson, with the full co-operation of the Masters of Foxhounds Association and the National Farmers Union. It shows that a third of the 15,000 to 20,000 foxes that are killed by hunting are dug out or bolted from their earths with the aid of terriers, despite the fact that fox hunts employ earth stoppers whose job it is to block every fox earth, badger sett and drain they can find to keep the fox above ground, so as to provide a long chase for the hounds and riders.

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Dr. MacDonald reports that, in some hunts, 75 per cent. of the foxes that are killed are dug out by terriers. It may be a measure of the cruelty that is suffered by both foxes and terriers that, under the codes of practice of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, hunt supporters and members of the public are forbidden to watch the dig- outs.

The facts about foxes and fox hunting are clear. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the damage done by foxes to British farming is insignificant, despite the fact that the UK has a high and steadily growing fox population. For instance, 27 million lambs are born annually and 18 per cent., or 4.8 million, of them die. Of that appalling mortality, abortion and still births account for 40 per cent. Exposure and starvation account for 30 per cent. while infectious diseases account for 20 per cent.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate): The hon. Gentleman quotes a whole range of statistics. The point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is valid. What first-hand experience has the hon. Gentleman had of fox hunting, terrier work or hare coursing?

Mr. McFall: The hon. Gentleman has occasionally spoken about unemployment and prisons. I dare say he has never been in prison and has never been unemployed. Conservative Members have no inhibitions about speaking on anything that they do not know about.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point): The hon. Gentleman was asked about statistics. Is he aware that the National Federation of Badger Groups found that 178 incidents of illegal sett blocking and 148 incidents of sett digging had damaged the badger population? The hon. Gentleman is coming to clause 3, which will make illegal the setting of free-running snares which mutilate and kill badgers. I represent a constituency with one of the largest badger populations in the country, and my constituents are delighted that I am here to support the Bill.

Mr. McFall: The hon. Gentleman is sufficiently eloquent to need no addition by me. I have taken about half a dozen interventions, and I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak. I should now like to get on with my speech, so as to be fair to everyone.

I was speaking about the 27 million lambs that are born annually, of which 4.8 million die, and I gave the statistics on that appalling mortality rate. The Ministry of Agriculture states that misadventure and all forms of predation, including lambs killed by foxes, predatory birds and dogs, account for only 5 per cent. of the total mortality. Therefore, it is clear that foxes have nothing whatever to do with 98 per cent. of lamb deaths.

Dr. MacDonald's new report included the results of a questionnaire sent to sheep farmers. Only 53.8 per cent. of those farmers claimed to have ever lost a lamb to foxes, and even they admitted that such losses did not exceed 1 per cent. of their lambs.

Of course fox hunters might claim that hunting keeps fox numbers down, thereby keeping lamb losses low, but Dr. MacDonald's Oxford university report reveals

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that the 15,000 to 20,000 foxes that are killed by hunts represent less than 10 per cent. of the number of foxes killed by man. We also know from scientific research that fox populations can withstand an annual mortality rate of up to 65 per cent. without reduction. That is because the survivors quickly make up the losses by increased reproduction. All that happens when foxes are killed is that the places are immediately taken by other foxes looking for various territories.

I have received letters of support from sheep farmers. One wrote to me from mid-Devon stating that he had never known a fox to take a living lamb, despite having many foxes living or travelling near his land. His letter states:

"The claim that foxes prey upon newly-born lambs is yet another spurious claim posted by the hunting lobby. We as farmers, horse owners and country- lovers fully support your Bill and wish you every success."

One of the reasons for such a high fox population is that fox hunters commonly provide cosy artificial breeding dens for foxes, and even provide them with food in the form of dead chickens and sheep. I congratulate Today and the Mail on Sunday on their work in this issue. On Wednesday, Today gave details of how unnaturally high fox populations are encouraged in the Thurlow hunt country, even on the estate of Edmund Vestey, the chairman of the Masters of Foxhounds Association and master of the Thurlow hunt. A total of 20 artificial fox shelters were found in the area, and there were four sites on which dead chickens were piled up to provide food for the foxes.

Dr. MacDonald's report proves that point. In reply to his questionnaire, hunt masters were unanimous in the opinion that, without fox hunting, there would be fewer foxes.

On the one hand, hunters claim that hunting is necessary to keep foxes down, while on the other hand they are doing their best to create large numbers of foxes. Perhaps the people who complain about fox damage should now take their complaint to the local hunt master. Clause 2 would also outlaw hare coursing.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West): I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, who is arguing his case extremely well. May I ask one question before he moves on to hares? Does he agree that there will have to be some form of control of foxes, which are classified as vermin?

Mr. McFall: I have nothing against shooting, and that is not included in the Bill. I know that the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) loves to go to Scotland for his holidays, and he will know of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1959, which allows for the culling of deer.

Clause 2 deals with hare coursing, which the House voted overwhelmingly to ban 20 years ago. Had it not been for the hunting lobby in another place-- which diverted that measure into the backwaters of a Select Committee to await a general election--we would not have to consider hare coursing today.

According to the Government's Joint Nature Conservation Committee, the hare population has fallen by 80 per cent. since the beginning of the century. Ways must be found to reverse that trend. Hare coursers

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and hunters are known not only to kill thousands of hares in the course of their sports, but to arrange for hares to be trapped in other parts of the country and transported to the killing fields to replace those which have been killed.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill): May I assure the hon. Gentleman that many people will support his Bill, not least because of the provisions for hare coursing which it contains? Anyone who has followed what takes place at the Waterloo cup every year in the name of sport--it is just an act of barbarism--will be compelled to be in the Lobby supporting the hon. Gentleman today.

Mr. McFall: That is a true Liberal speaking.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) rose --

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has made it clear that he is not taking any more interventions.

Mr. McFall: I have given way on nine occasions so far, and I know that the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) has an honourable tradition of talking out Bills.

The police and the National Farmers Union have both expressed alarm about gangs of men who are raiding farms and estates to course hares with greyhounds and lurchers. Farmers and gamekeepers who intervene risk violence from the gangs, which are intent on killing hares and gambling large amounts of money on the prowess of their dogs. The gangs seem undeterred by the fines meted out under archaic poaching laws, and my Bill would provide for those people to be prosecuted for cruelty, with heavy fines, custodial sentences and confiscation of equipment, vehicles and dogs as extra penalties.

On the grounds of cruelty, conservation and the protection of private property, it is time that hares were properly protected. It is true that the main reason for the decline in the number of hares from 4 million to 800,000 is the advent of modern farming methods and herbicides, but, with more enlightened practices and a ban on the hunting and coursing of hares, we shall perhaps see their numbers revive.

Clause 3 seeks to prohibit the use of snares, which, as hon. Members have said, are undoubtedly both cruel and indiscriminate. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has evidence that domestic animals, badgers and even livestock have been maimed and killed by wire snares which have been set for foxes. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 prohibits self-locking snares, but permits the use of free-running snares which--we are told by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and by the Game Conservancy--are supposed merely to restrain the target animal until it can be humanely killed.

A video entitled "The A to Z of Fox Control" is advertised in country sports magazines, such as The Countryman's Weekly , which is a trade member of the British Field Sports Society and is approved by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. The video recommends that snares are set using what is described as a "killing stick", which is a post driven into the ground next to the snare so that, as the captured animal thrashes around in panic, it becomes entangled

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with the pole and is strangled to death. The device effectively turns a free-running snare into a lethal instrument, which operates in the same way as the illegal self-locking snare.

A great deal of double-speak is emerging from the British Field Sports Society. When defending fox hunting, it condemns snares as cruel. In the BFSS hunting video, there is an horrific clip of a fox in a terrible state that has been caught around its stomach by a snare. The BFSS admitted that the snare had been legally set by a gamekeeper.

In its booklet "The Case for Hunting", the BFSS says:

"Indiscriminate snaring causes suffering to foxes and other mammals. Both snares and traps cause unavoidable stress for wild animals".

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation would have us believe that gamekeepers adhere to a code of conduct in the use of snares, but the League Against Cruel Sports has successfully prosecuted gamekeepers for using illegal self-locking snares. Badger protection groups all over Britain have frequently complained that badgers have been caught in snares.

I have received letters from pet owners and people with personal experience of this subject. An individual from Morpeth in Northumberland wrote to me to say:

"My beautiful red setter, Sam, went missing. We searched, advertised, did everything we could think of to no avail. One week later . . . he arrived home. He was emaciated, a horror to behold. He had chewed off his own paw to free himself from one of the snares you are now trying to abolish."

That is graphic support, which comes from the heart.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the British Field Sports Society and the Game Conservancy all oppose the abolition of snares, and have made it clear that they cannot accept the licensing scheme allowed for in clause 8. I have to say that the League Against Cruel Sports is also not all that happy with licensing, given the fact that Departments have already issued well over 1,500 licences for interference with badger setts under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation has a code of practice for the use of snares which, if universally adopted, would certainly reduce much of the suffering and unnecessary deaths caused by snares. I would be more than happy to consider an amendment in Committee which would allow the proper use of snares under a code of practice similar to that promoted by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation.

I also believe that snaring is such a potentially cruel way to capture an animal that it should be considered very much as a last resort. According to Doctor McDonald's Oxford university report, only around one quarter to one third of all foxes killed by gamekeepers are captured by snares. According to the report, nowadays most are shot with rifles using lamps at night.

I urge the game bird shooting lobby to become actively involved in attempts to move to less cruel and indiscriminate methods of wild mammal control. It would be wise to take note of the MORI poll published in The Mail on Sunday last week, which revealed that 53 per cent. of the British people would like to see the shooting of game birds banned by law.

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