Hunting Bill

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Mr. Alan Simpson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lidington: I shall continue, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

The Government say in the explanatory notes to the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, which was introduced only last week, that arrangements could be made to enable the police to rely on penalties rather than on a full-scale criminal process to safeguard scarce police resources. Referring to the new proposals to give officers discretion to impose financial penalties for anti-social offences, the explanatory notes state:

    the need to focus police and court resources elsewhere means that much minor offending of this kind escapes sanction or consequence under current arrangements. ... These provisions seek to provide a further means for the police to deal with low level, but disruptive, criminal behaviour.

In other words, what might have been dealt with through the full panoply of criminal law should be treated otherwise because of the resource implications for the police and the courts of going through the normal criminal justice procedure.

Mr. Simpson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lidington: No, I want to bring my remarks to a close, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

I do not claim that a set of amendments drafted by the Opposition rather than by the Government, who have the resources of parliamentary draftsmen, will necessarily be technically perfect, but this group has given us the opportunity to raise some serious concerns about the impact on police resources and on the relationship between the police and the public of the criminal offences that the Government propose to introduce.

I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate in due course he will be able to explain at what stage the Government knew about ACPO's concerns and their response to the disquiet that it has expressed.

Mr. Alan Simpson: I am grateful to you for calling me to speak on this group of amendments, Mrs. Roe. I was perplexed to hear some of the comments and explanations of the hon. Member for Aylesbury, because many of his reservations, although valid, were based on a premise that an act that is legal but is about to become illegal will continue to be practised. In the context of maintaining good police-community relations, one of the most important messages that needs to go from the police to the local community is, ``The relationship is healthy if you do not knowingly commit crimes.'' All the hon. Gentleman's forewarnings appear to be based on a premise that, even when the Bill becomes law, those who are involved in hunting will continue to be involved: they will knowingly break the law.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the recreational pastimes of people in rural communities and I have tried to apply his principle to those of city dwellers. Some young people on inner-city estates are involved in ``TWOCing'', a recreational pastime that consists of taking without consent people's cars or entering their houses and removing their goods. If we want to establish police-community partnerships to reduce crime, it will not help to stop describing crime as such. It is far more effective to say, ``If you knowingly commit a crime, you should expect it to be treated as a crime.'' We need more than a bit of a penalty. I and other hon. Members should not be able tell our constituents, ``You might have a mitigating case to make if you join neighbourhood watch. In fact, if you are an active member of your community, you can get away with whatever you like.''

We have missed the fundamental point, which is that the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Aylesbury seek to confuse. The current provisions clearly define a crime as a crime, not a negotiable offence. If we shift our ground, we will in many ways invite the committing of those crimes in perpetuity. We will be saying to those communities, ``Although the Bill has been enacted, it has been downgraded and there is no serious sanction. So go ahead and do what you like, it will not affect your career. Although such offences will be policed, you can commit them because they will not appear on your record.'' The message that this Committee and the whole House should send instead to those supposedly law-abiding people is that this activity will be a crime and henceforth they ought not to commit it.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I apologise for being a little late this morning, Mrs. Roe, but I had other duties to attend to. May I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his recent engagement and wish him great happiness?

On the point that the hon. Gentleman made a moment ago, paragraphs 1 and 21—which have been retained following consideration by the Committee of the whole House—make no use of an expression such as ``knowingly or with knowledge'', or of anything relating to mens rea. How does he react to that absence, which flies in the face of his—to some—perfectly commonsense remarks?

Mr. Simpson: The Committee dealt with that issue.

Mr. Öpik: We are in danger of returning to matters that were considered on Second Reading. The Middle Way Group made its case on balancing animal welfare with civil liberties and I do not intend to reintroduce that debate today. A clear majority voted in favour of the schedule and we must assess the amendments in that light, tempting though it might be to rehearse old arguments. To that extent, I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Worcester, for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey). Were it not for their initiative in advancing this debate in the past three or four years, we would not be discussing these amendments. I also apologise to the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole for my sharp words last week, which were uttered in a moment of pique.

Mr. Cawsey: I heartily accept that apology.

Mr. Öpik: That has ruined my weekend.

The debate is about schedule 3, not schedules 1 or 2. In a spirit of constructiveness, I shall confine my remarks to schedule 3 without continually repeating that I disagree with it.

On penalties, the schedule involves a grey area—who would be committing a criminal offence and who would not. It could have the unintended consequence of criminalising people whose dogs, when taken for walks, repeatedly chase after and perhaps kill mammals. It is hard to see how the Bill would exempt people who know that their dog has a propensity to do that. I am told that Clive Anderson's dog has such a propensity—do we want to make a criminal out of Clive Anderson? [Interruption.] Some would say yes.

Mr. Michael J. Foster: Given that the schedule proposed by the hon. Gentleman on Second Reading would criminalise unlicensed hunting, would he advocate that every dog owner should buy a hunt licence in case their dog happens to wander off in the park and chase a wild mammal?

Mr. Öpik: I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. We had many debates in the Middle Way Group about what should be done in those circumstances. In my view, the independent licensing authority proposed in the schedule should have to require people whose dogs repeatedly chase and kill mammals to apply for a licence. Although dog owners whose dogs tend regularly to kill mammals may regard that proposal as an imposition, it is a price worth paying to create consistent and enforceable legislation. The hon. Member for Worcester has clearly grasped the nature of the dilemma in schedule 3.

Mrs. Lawrence: The hon. Gentleman missed the point that I made earlier. The Middle Way Group has failed to recognise that we are talking about the owner of the dog or the person controlling the dog, not the dog itself. We cannot criminalise the dog.

Mr. Öpik: That is right. If the independent authority proposed an examination, the licence holder, not the dog, would sit it.

The debate highlights the fact that this issue must be tackled in schedule 3. Otherwise, test cases will eventually be brought to establish what is acceptable and unacceptable. Even more seriously, under the schedule a loophole could develop that would enable hunting to continue and its proponents would not want that to happen.

Mr. Michael: The point of the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) was that as it is the dog owner who must have an intention, the matter is dealt with under the common law. Many times in Committee, on all types of criminal offence, we have heard hon. Members mention intentionality. It is not a new issue—the courts deal with it every day and they are used to dealing with it.

11.45 am

Mr. Mike O'Brien: On that point, the view of parliamentary counsel, who is enormously experienced in such matters, is that a clear mens rea is required, which is explicit on the face of the Bill. To insert words such as ``intention'' or ``being aware'' might complicate the matter. Parliamentary counsel is clear that the drafting creates an unambiguous requirement to prove intent.

Mr. Öpik: The Minister implies that there is not a problem. I understand his argument, but I am not convinced by it. Supposing that he is correct, my concern, in the context of what schedule 3 is designed to achieve, would be that if one must prove intent, it could create a loophole that allows hunting to continue. The onus of proof of intent would be so great that few people would realistically be prosecuted. People could say, for example, ``I was walking my dog with 14 mates, all of whom have dogs. We did not intend them to go hunting, yet they all ran off and killed a fox.'' I am concerned that that could undermine the purpose of schedule 3, which is a total ban on hunting with dogs.

Mr. O'Brien: So that the hon. Gentleman knows the Government's position, anyone seeking to prosecute for a breach of criminal law such as this is required to prove beyond reasonable doubt that intent existed. It is for those who prosecute to prove that intent, as is the case with all criminal offences. The requirement to prove intent is the foundation of our criminal law, not a new addition to it.

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