Hunting Bill

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Mr. Cawsey: Oh, it is Mr. Nasty again. I served on the Standing Committee considering the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester, where I felt that the better the points we made, the nastier and more personal the right hon. Gentleman became. I am pleased to see that that characteristic has not changed, because it is a useful barometer of our progress.

Mr. Michael J. Foster: The right hon. Gentleman has been promoted since then.

Mr. Cawsey: No doubt I played a role in that. If there is a specious argument kicking around the Room, it is that made by those who say on one hand, ``If hunting with dogs is banned, we shall shoot all the dogs,'' but on the other, ``There will be tremendous implications for the police, because we shall hunt illegally.'' Although not all Opposition members of the Committee adhere to such an argument, many do.

Mr. Pickthall: On the need to police hunts and protests, does my hon. Friend agree that hare coursing would be excluded? To my knowledge, the only arrests ever made at Altcar Downholland involved coursing supporters, who were usually drunk, always abusive and sometimes violent. A few years ago in my constituency, the coursing fraternity stabbed to death a young man in the Scarisbrick Arms. The event has to be policed because of the violence of those who support it. The demonstrators are kept hundreds of yards away, on a public road. They shout and make a lot of noise, but as far as I am aware, they have never behaved violently or committed any offence.

12.30 pm

Mr. Cawsey: Wherever crimes are committed, it is the police's job to deal with them, and we should condemn crime regardless of which side of the argument commits it. When Robert Mead of the Maldon and Burnham Standard wrote his article on the Woodham Walter hunt—which, I remind members of the Committee, was supposed to take place at Howe Green—I doubt whether he realised that it would be discussed in Parliament three times. According to the article, the hunt refused to talk to the villagers, even though they made it clear that they did not want a hunt in their village. It subsequently emerged that the police had not been informed that the hunt was in fact to take place in a different village. In discussing the hunt's aftermath, the article states:

    A 51-year-old woman has been reported for dangerous driving after an incident at the hunt. A man from Southend, who was not involved with the hunt, also later reported that he was assaulted by a huntsman.

Unfortunately, there are those on both sides of the argument who let their emotions get out of control. As a result, the police have to get involved and many hundreds of thousands of pounds of police resources are spent each year on policing hunts.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich): My hon. Friend will have heard that policing hunts in Essex costs some £117,000. Is he arguing that, if hunting were banned, the money could be spent on better resources for police throughout Essex? That would certainly benefit my constituents.

Mr. Cawsey: What is absolutely certain is that money allocated to any police authority will be spent on dealing with crime and civil disobedience wherever it appears. Inevitably, if the hundreds of thousands of pounds that are being spent are saved, they will be spent elsewhere.

I want to conclude my remarks—[Interruption.] I am a populist at heart. I want to conclude by discussing the difference between what we now know and what may happen as a result. There is no question but that hunting with dogs places a burden on the police—no one will argue against that. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire said, the fact that an event is sometimes legal and sometimes illegal also creates problems for the police. How can the police be expected to know whether the event to which they are called is legal or illegal? Either they do not bother to turn up because it might prove entirely legal, or they put resources into policing it, only to discover that it is bona fide. That is the central flaw in the middle-way argument. Allowing hunting through licence only will prove more confusing and expensive for the police than a straightforward ban.

Mr. Öpik: The hon. Gentleman will remember that the police are fairly sympathetic to the Middle Way Group's proposed system of inspectors, in part because the inspectors—although they would have nothing to do with the police, and assuming that they were doing their job well—would be able to tip off the police about particular offences and breaches of licence.

Mr. Cawsey: I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument, but I refer him to that of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire. The assumption is that, through licensing, when activity is reported in place X, it will be easy, quick and efficient for the police to have access to the database, make a rapid decision and then deal with it. Given the pressures on the police, that is not likely to happen. Licensing may make matters even worse than they are now.

Mr. Michael J. Foster: There is also a tendency, of which my hon. Friend will be aware, for the pursued animal to wander a considerable distance from where the activity was scheduled. The police would then have to assess whether this was the hunt that was to take place in, say, Crowle, that has now moved to Tibberton, or whether it was illegal activity in Tibberton that needed to be dealt with.

Mr. Cawsey: My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester is right. In my speech to the Committee of the Whole House I pointed out that one cannot license the activities of a pack of dogs. That is not possible—they will follow their live quarry. We all know of many events where hunts have trespassed because they are following animals that are following another wild animal. That is why they sometimes end up on railway tracks and roads.

Mrs. Lawrence: Does my hon. Friend agree that whatever the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said, the middle way would not deal with issues such as that quoted to me by a clergyman living in my constituency. He has lived in several rural areas throughout the United Kingdom. He writes of an instance where

    a misbehaving horse kicked a hole in my parked car. When I went out to remonstrate, the rider gave me a mouthful of abuse and rode off saying ``Sue me, if you can find out who I am.''.

He goes on to point out that these were not locals whose jobs, it is alleged, will be threatened. They were mainly people from Manchester who like to pretend to be from the country.

Mr. Cawsey: My hon. Friend makes a telling point that I am sure members of the Committee will bear in mind. Let me complete this little contribution. What do we know? That hunting with dogs puts an enormous burden on the police and that licensing could make that more complex.

Hunting with dogs is, of course, banned in certain parts of the United Kingdom. One has not been able to hunt deer with dogs in Scotland since 1959. We must ask how much money the police in Scotland are spending as a result of that ban. The answer is a round figure—a large, single figure. It is zero. Nye Bevan said in the House that we do not have to look into a crystal when we can read the book. In this case, we read that the burden on the police is hunting with dogs. That would be worse with licensing. It would go with a ban and that is why we should reject the amendments.

Mr. Leigh: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole. I mean that as a compliment. His speaking style is similar to that of a former colleague, Mr. Michael Brown, who was also represented Brigg. He had a marvellous and charming ability to fill inordinate lengths of time. It is a great skill, for which my lawyer's training does not equip me. I shall try to be brief. [Interruption.] That was not meant to be a joke.

This is a famous Committee Room. We are sitting beneath a painting of the five Members fleeing. So often, debates in this Room have been about freedom and how much Parliament can impose its will on people. We are talking now about creating a new criminal offence. It is recognised that the criminal law, policing and every other aspect of the matter that we are discussing depend on consent. There is a great deal of consent in society for the criminal law that has built up over many centuries. Criminal law bans activities that society in general views with repugnance or distaste—usually, acts that involve dishonesty, violence against people or the misuse of drugs.

The Bill deals with a completely different matter. In the past, Governments who tried to criminalise an activity that was hitherto lawful and practised by large numbers of people often found the law extremely difficult to enforce. Criminal law itself was sometimes brought into disrepute as a result. The most famous example is the American Government's attempt to introduce prohibition in the 1920s, which caused them enormous problems and simply did not work. Although the Bill is of a different order of magnitude, it still means that 250,000 people are taking part in an activity that will be criminal.

Labour Members seem to be arguing that such people are not being criminalised because all they have to do is obey the law. However, there is no doubt that an activity that people have carried out until the present day is being criminalised. A criminal penalty is an extremely serious matter. I doubt that anyone in the Room—whether on the Benches, in the Public Gallery or anywhere else—has a criminal record. It is an extremely unpleasant thing to have around one's neck. It debars one from all sorts of jobs and positions and remains in force for five years under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.

There appears to be a degree of confusion about what will happen as a result of the Bill. Some Labour Members take the view that there is no need to make a fuss: people will stop hunting, the problem will stop dead and there will be a nil policing cost. However, it is not as simple as that. In my view, the big lowland hunts—such as the Brocklesbury, which the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole mentioned, the Burton in my constituency and several in Leicestershire—will go. That is an expensive sport requiring a great deal of commitment and involving large businesses, which typically cost £50,000 to £100,000 a year to run—it will simply not be possible to sustain them. The people who participate are pillars of society. Those hunts will go and the hounds will have to be put down. Probably all that will remain is one drag hunt in every county.

To that extent, the argument advanced by Labour Members is right. There will not be enormous policing costs as a result of existing hunts going underground, with men—no longer dressed in scarlet coats, but perhaps in Barbours—on their large, expensive hunters following hounds across the open countryside of Lincolnshire and Leicestershire. That is not going to happen.

However, life is not as simple as that. Considerable policing costs may arise in hill and more marginal areas. There have already been reports that people in Cumbria feel that Parliament is imposing too many burdens on them—the right to roam and now this Bill. Many people in such areas who are closely tied to the countryside through their livelihoods will feel compelled to pursue hunting in some form. That could be extremely difficult to police. As we have heard, illegal coursing—which is especially prevalent in the northern part of Lincolnshire that I represent and in Humberside—continues to be a problem.

Throughout the countryside, enormous difficulties will result from this activity being pushed underground. It will not be the sport that it was in the past. It will involve two sorts of people. There will be those from the cities who believe that they have a right to conduct their sport, which involves some sort of illegal coursing. We can all deprecate that as an unpleasant activity. Such people are often naturally violent and take pleasure in being cruel to animals. None of us would have any difficulty in rendering such activities illegal. However, we all know that it is virtually impossible for the police to control them.

Labour Members say that when the activity is made illegal throughout the countryside—when there is no Waterloo cup and coursing is, ipso facto, a criminal offence—it will be much easier to police it. I do not believe that. The police have a problem policing illegal coursing not because it is legal in some respects and illegal in others, but because of the nature of the countryside. The times of the day when such activities are carried out and the enormous spaces involved are important factors. Those are the problems with policing large rural areas and they are different from the problems encountered in policing cities.

That is the issue that lies behind the paper from ACPO, which has been referred to so often. It has been phrased diplomatically. The police are naturally incredibly sensitive about not being seen to take sides, especially on party politics. On this issue, they are desperate not to take sides. We can all admire how they have tried to police difficult situations in hunts, when passions have run extremely high. We sense a cry about the difficulties involved from senior police officers who are attempting to police rural areas, where car crime, burglary and other problems are on the increase. They are worried about how to police hunts and the implication for police resources, about which we should be worried.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made a good point. We must accept that many genuine people have strong views about animal welfare and feel passionately that hunting is wrong. They will achieve their way, and the big hunts will go. Those people will not be able to turn their attention to illegal coursing. They will be unable to find it or see it, but it will exist. They will not turn their attention to the farmer in Cumbria who is plagued by what he considers to be vermin and who uses his dogs in a way that will run foul of the Bill. I agree that the problem is not with the little old lady walking her dog along the downs at Eastbourne and the dog decides to chase a rabbit. The chief constable of Sussex will not prosecute her, but there is a problem with farmers in the more marginal areas who may use their dogs to hunt. They will not be part of an organised hunt, but they may believe that it is a lawful and legitimate activity. It may not be lawful under this Bill, but they will believe it to be so.

12.45 pm

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