Hunting Bill

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Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman still cannot escape from my central argument that these views have been expressed by senior police officers. Even before the release of the paper to which I am referring, the assistant chief constable of South Yorkshire, Mr. Hollis, who I believe is the chairman of ACPO's public order sub-committee, said on television on the day of our debate last Wednesday that he believed that a ban would involve significant extra burdens for the police, although he said, as the police have rightly and consistently said, that they would see it as their duty to cope with and implement whatever law Parliament gave them to enforce.

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Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): Is not one potential problem that is being overlooked the fact that the Bill is feeding the appetite of the animal rights lobby, which, having been successful with their often violent demonstrations against foxhunting ,will now turn their attention to shooting and fishing? We have seen the demonstrations outside Huntingdon Life Sciences. These people will become more active and the police will have far greater problems policing demonstrations against shooting and fishing, which millions of people do, than against the 300-odd hunts that they have had to worry about so far.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend is right. I have appeared, as he may have done, on platforms in recent weeks with representatives of some of the animal rights groups. I remember a televised debate that involved a senior representative of the Hunt Saboteurs Association and a senior member of the House who is on the other side of the argument—as he is not a member of the Committee, it would not be right for me to name him without his knowledge. Both made it clear that they regard hunting as the primary target, not least because they believe that the time is ripe, while they have a significant parliamentary majority in support of a statutory ban, but that, once the gain had been achieved it would be pocketed and they would then move on to the next target.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): May I bring my hon. Friend back to the core question of cost? It costs millions and millions of pounds to police football matches. I happen to loathe football, but I do not want to ban it. I respect and understand the need for a substantial police presence to keep the lunatics apart and stop them beating one another to a pulp. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is not the point? It is that the pursuit of liberty by individual minorities taking part in and enjoying their sport or whatever it may be, wherever it is in the land, deserves and requires the whole-hearted and rigorous protection of the police, if the Queen's peace is to be maintained.

Mr. Lidington: I believe, as does my hon. Friend, that when a minority of people—or, for that matter, one individual—are doing something lawful and are being impeded or harassed in that activity by people who wish to stop them doing it, it is the job of the police and the law to ensure that that minority, or that individual, can go about their lawful business. That was, after all, the principle which, to be fair to the Government, the Home Secretary was stalwart in defending in respect of Huntingdon Life Sciences last week.

Mr. Michael J. Foster (Worcester): I refer to the letter that the hon. Gentleman received from the ACPO sub-committee, which claims that the middle way with the regulatory authority would be the preferred solution for ACPO. That creates a criminal offence of hunting with dogs without a licence, so there is still a criminal activity to police. In addition, there are still the on-cost resources for policing the peaceful protests that are bound to take place if hunting is not banned and for maintaining road closure orders for those regulated hunts. Therefore, ACPO has missed the point completely about the Middle Way Group. It will occasion extra police costs on top of what is already spent on policing.

Mr. Lidington: Unlike the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) rightly sees that the interests of those advocating a ban lie in attacking and undermining the arguments presented by ACPO.

Mr. Öpik: The hon. Member for Worcester is correct. The level of offence is similar in schedules 2 and 3. Is the hon. Member for Aylesbury also aware that it is clear from the ACPO statement that the police, who take a neutral line, had resisted making that statement before the debate on Wednesday because they did not want to be accused of political bias? However, they felt obliged to point out that there is

    strong support for the option of having hunting with dogs controlled and regulated by an independent licensing body.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree, therefore, that the position of the police is extremely clear and was not the result of lobbying by the Middle Way Group or anyone else? They looked at the three options and decided which they regarded would be the most workable legislation.

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman has put his arguments well. He will know that during last Wednesday's debate I expressed reservations about some of the details of the so-called middle-way proposals. The police are probably right in saying that the implications for police resources would be significantly less were the hon. Gentleman's proposal to be adopted, than if the view of the majority of the House last week that a complete ban should be enacted were to prevail.

Mr. Michael: Will the hon. Gentleman examine the logic of his own argument? He appears to be saying that the police expect these law-abiding hunters to behave like football hooligans in the event that the Bill as it stands becomes law. That appears to be the expectation of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). Does the hon. Gentleman agree? That seems to be the logic of his position.

Mr. Lidington: The police reservations about a complete ban seem from the ACPO document to centre on two points, one of which is resources. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Government have said, in statements by the Minister to the House and in their impact assessment, that they would expect the costs of policing hunts today and of policing a ban, if it were to be enacted, to balance out. The Government therefore expect significant expenditure as a consequence of a ban. If the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) is correct, we are talking about upwards of £500,000 during an average year simply to meet what the Government are admitting to in the impact assessment.

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): Does not the ACPO document go some way to support the hon. Member for Lewes when it says:

    police experience of dealing with protest at hunts leaves us with no doubt as to the passion related to this issue, on both sides, and the practical difficulties involved in policing such events?

The police say that there is a considerable problem at the moment, even within that context.

The document of the hon. Member for Lewes underestimates the cost significantly. It says that there is no need to police hunt meetings in Lancashire. That is absolute rubbish—they police the Waterloo cup heavily and they do not like doing it.

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman mentioned coursing. One of the problems of implementing the law that is already besetting the police relates to coursing. They find it difficult to respond to unlicensed coursing—the sort that takes place in many of the eastern counties of England. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the men who engage in that activity are often linked to organised crime and in some cases may be armed—certainly they are not shy of violence. Local people feel intimidated about interrupting such unlawful coursing events. The police, because of the many other pressures that they have on their time and resources, cannot always respond quickly or in sufficient strength to deal with the problems. That is one illustration of how the police, in the context of illegal hunting, have to make difficult decisions on how to balance finite resources with their duty to enforce the law.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole): I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about illegal coursing, but it is legal in some forms. It would be simpler for the police if the whole practice were banned completely. The issue is complex now because coursing is legal in some forms, but illegal in others.

Mr. Lidington: I do not accept that at all. If a coursing event or hunt is legal, the police know that they do not have to go along and arrest the organisers. The balancing act that the police have to perform is not between legal and illegal coursing, but between reports of illegal coursing and offences of burglary, robbery and criminal disorder, with which they have to deal, especially in rural areas. I was delighted to hear the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Secretary, endorsing an ACPO document, saying that strong views were recorded at the potential impact of a ban on police resources. ACPO states:

    Forces policing rural areas are already under enormous pressure to deal with crimes such as burglary, vehicle crime and drugs related offences. Without additional resources, hard decisions will have to be made on policing priorities and how thinly stretched resources are deployed.

The impact on resources of a complete ban on hunting with dogs is a matter of concern to the police service. The other matter causing the police significant disquiet is the impact that a ban would have on their relationship with the communities which they serve and whose support and partnership they need if they are to do their job well and effectively. That is especially important because of the stress that the Government have placed—rightly—on the partnership between the police, other voluntary and statutory agencies and the public.

The centrepiece of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was that in each part of the country there should be a crime reduction plan, drawn up by the basic command unit—superintendent or chief inspector—and the local authority, which, in most cases, would be the district council, or the borough council in a metropolitan area. That plan to contain and reduce crime was to be drawn up in consultation with local people. The Home Secretary and his ministerial team have stressed that proposal almost from the day that they took up their present offices. Clearly, such a plan requires a spirit of partnership, co-operation, mutual trust and confidence between the police and the communities that they serve. ACPO states:

    concern was expressed at the potential impact of a total ban on relationships between the police and the community in rural areas. The concerns of such communities at increasing crime in the countryside has been widely reported. The question of policing priorities would become subject to renewed debate if a total ban was imposed.

It goes on to say:

    under crime and disorder legislation, police and local communities are working in close partnership to identify and tackle issues of concern to local people.

Then, in a diplomatically worded sentence, ACPO says:

    The extent to which hunting with dogs will feature in this process is, at this stage, unclear.

Therefore, schedule 3 contains a proposal that will place a severe strain on police resources and will threaten the relationship of trust between the police and the communities that they serve, especially in rural areas—a relationship that the Government see as central to any successful policy to prevent or reduce crime. For those reasons, the Government should think again about their decision to impose new criminal offences on those who hunt with dogs.

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Prepared 23 January 2001