Hunting Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Öpik: I have made my point for the record and we shall see what happens if the Bill becomes law.

On penalties, the hon. Member for Worcester correctly pointed out that the Middle Way Group and Deadline 2000 proposals have a great deal in common in terms of clauses and severity of penalties. For schedule 3 to achieve its purpose, it probably needs the type of penalties that are included in the Bill. If the penalties for breaking the law are trivial, they will be ignored. My concern is that something that is within the law at present will become a harshly penalised criminal offence. Nevertheless, the House voted for schedule 3, so, to ensure the complete cessation of hunting with dogs, it is inevitable that individuals who choose not to desist will be criminalised—whether I am comfortable with that is irrelevant. Indeed, there is no reason for the Committee to reopen the debate about whether it is reasonable to criminalise such individuals, because the options were comprehensively debated on the Floor of the House.

I would not be inclined to go along with the easing of criminal penalties, because schedule 3 must include a tough sanction if it is to ban hunting with dogs. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) is right to say that schedule 3 must criminalise people who continue to hunt with dogs after it has been banned. The Middle Way Group can campaign outside this Committee to try to persuade the House to think again, but at present there is little case for changing the severity of those offences in the Bill.

Lastly, there are issues of definition. Despite what the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire says about the ``Oxford English Dictionary'', the present definition of hunting needs some clarification. Perhaps I will be allowed to make a brief contribution on that on clause stand part.

Mr. Pickthall: I want briefly to take us back to what I thought the hon. Member for Aylesbury chiefly called in evidence for his amendments—the ACPO document. It is a curious document. It certainly says as its top line that the chief constables would prefer someone else to do the work rather than have to deal with the consequences of penalties themselves. It would have been a surprise for us all if a report from ACPO had said ``We've got plenty of spare policemen and they've got nothing to do. Can you create a few more crimes for us to tackle, because we're getting bored?'' No one can remember it ever saying anything like that.

Nevertheless, the document is curious and does not bear a great deal of textual analysis. It says, first, that there is growing concern about crime in rural areas. I would not dispute that. Then the sentence at the end of the second bullet point says:

    The question of policing priorities would become subject to renewed debate if a total ban was imposed.

Of course it would and what is wrong with that? What is wrong with policing priorities being reviewed constantly, as they are? That is what police authorities and chief police officers are for. Of course priorities would have to be reviewed, in the same way as they are reviewed whenever a new law is passed or new penalties are created to cover new offences, whether it is smuggling cigarettes or anything else. It comes into the agenda: the police have to take care of it and the Government have to provide them with the resources to cope with that extra responsibility.

In the document, ACPO tries to turn both ways. Tim Hollis, of the public order sub-committee, rightly says at the end—and all this is unexceptional stuff—that

    It is for Parliament to determine what legislation meets the needs of the country at the present time.

Exactly right, and that is what we are in the process of doing. He goes on to say:

    We were grateful to be involved in consultation with the Home Office and for the opportunity to outline our concerns on the potential impact on local policing of the three options under consideration.

His last sentence is:

    It goes without saying that the police will do their best to meet the demands of any new legislation, but inevitably hard decisions will have to be made on priorities.

Therefore, while the chief police officers may be clear that they do not want any extra work—which of us ever volunteers for extra—they are also saying that Parliament is going through a perfectly legitimate process: it is responding to the needs and demands of the majority of the people.

In reply to me, the hon. Member for Aylesbury rightly mentioned illegal coursing. I did not quite follow the argument--I shall read it when I see it in Hansard--but he seemed to be saying that it could be called in aid for making the penalty less than is specified in the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole answered that perfectly.

Mr. Cawsey: Thank you.

Mr. Pickthall: That is all right—any time. In my area of West Lancashire we are plagued by illegal coursers. It is a vast, empty area with scattered hamlets and isolated farms and the Waterloo cup takes place in the middle of it. That is a splendid event and every year it brings people—mostly drunks—from all over the country to watch it. It is a spectator not a participant sport, by the way—if sport is the right word.

All year, illegal coursers come from Greater Manchester and Merseyside in white vans. The dogs are in the back. They let them out to kill the hares, which they leave. It is most disturbing for anyone who likes the countryside or animals to see those beautiful large animals when they have been slaughtered by dogs. One could almost understand it if these people took the hares away to eat them, but they are not interested in doing that.

Even if we had 100 per cent. more police officers, such activity could only be policed with public co-operation. Those who live in the farms and villages—Altcar, Downholland, Haskayne—have to be prepared to alert the police. They are the eyes and ears of the police, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury said. Why should they do so? What is the logic of that when at Altcar hundreds of hares are slaughtered, not only at the Waterloo cup, but in regular hare coursing throughout the season? There is no closed season for hares, so that could be at any time. They say to themselves, ``Hundreds of hares are being killed there. Why should I go out of my way and possibly get into trouble to try to stop an illegal courser, who is only illegal because he happens to live in Oldham or somewhere and not in Altcar?''

The argument about illegal coursing, which is a nasty activity, is another in favour of keeping the penalties as they are and outlawing an activity that is legal at present. In some ways that is one of the most powerful arguments associated with the Bill. Hare coursing, which is a spectator sport, is even more foul than the other forms of hunting that we hope to ban.

Mr. Baker: May I return to the important remark made by the hon. Member for Aylesbury, which merits a response. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South has already responded and I should like to build on that.

I was concerned by the remarks of the hon. Member for Aylesbury. First, he described those who hunt at present as fully law-abiding citizens, pillars of society, the eyes and ears of the police, bastions of neighbourhood watch and so on. From my knowledge of those who hunt in my constituency, as many do, they are often people who would be described as pillars of society—justices of the peace and so forth. I do not dissent from his definition, but I fail to understand why he suggests that were hunting to become a criminal offence, those pillars of society—the people whom one is supposed to respect and who are the eyes and ears of the police—would immediately break the law and carry on hunting to such a degree that they would incur even more police expenditure than is spent policing hunts at present. That is entirely illogical. Is he saying that such people are only law abiding while the law is on their side and would become law breakers when it is not? The only safe position for Members of Parliament is that people should respect the law.

I—and no doubt everyone in the Room—condemn those who undertake criminal activity to disrupt hunts. Equally, I hope that the hon. Member for Aylesbury and the Conservative party would condemn anyone who hunted if Parliament introduced a law to ban it. He cannot condone law breaking and I hope that if the Bill becomes law he will say, ``Well, chaps, we did our best for you, but the law is the law and I now ask you to stop hunting.''

Mr. Lidington: First, I inadvertently talked about the Conservative party. Obviously, my various honourable and right honourable Friends have their own views on the subject and there is a free vote throughout the proceedings of the Bill.

Secondly, I have said publicly on more than one occasion that the law should be obeyed once it has been enacted by Parliament. It would be improper for me to take a different attitude.

12 noon

Mr. Baker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I accept that there is a free vote, and in mentioning the Conservative party I was conscious that—as I pointed out last week to some amusement—three strands, if not four, of Liberal Democrat opinion are represented on this Committee. Indeed, several strands of Labour party opinion are also represented. For example, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) is clearly in favour of hunting's continuation. As far as I know, none of the Conservatives who voted in favour of a ban has been included on this Committee, although the hon. Member for Aylesbury will correct me if I am wrong. It seems that only those Conservatives who supported schedules 1 and 2 alone have been selected, which is a pity. I would have liked the hon. Members for Cheadle (Mr. Day) and for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), for example, to have participated in this Committee.

If the hon. Member for Aylesbury is accurate in representing those who currently hunt as law-abiding people, and if he and his colleagues are advocating that such people should always respect the law, I cannot understand why he argues that a ban on hunting will put ``a severe strain'' on police resources. From where will the severe strain come? Will it come from those who call for the abolition of hunting? Will they carry on parading through fields, taking up police time for no apparent reason? I think not, because they will have won. The implication of the hon. Gentleman's comment is that those who currently hunt will continue to do so, but given that he says that he would condemn such action, I see no reason why police resources should be stretched—even to the Home Secretary's current estimate.

I have mentioned the huge levels of current expenditure. According to my figures, a minority of police forces spent more than half a billion pounds—£542,000—per annum on policing hunts. I cannot see how that figure can do other than go down, given that those concerned will respect the law and no illegal activities will take place.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 23 January 2001