Hunting Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Gummer: I apologise, Mrs. Roe, to you and to the Committee for not being here this morning. I was at a funeral at a village in Suffolk. While you debated the amendment, I looked round the Baptist chapel at the 130 ordinary people from the village and realised that a high proportion of them would be threatened by the provisions. One must put the matter in those simple terms, because those of us who live and work in the countryside recognise that many people there do highly trained jobs. For example, those who plough today do so with remarkably sophisticated machinery; people who work on the land can no longer be thought of in the same terms as 100 years ago.

There is no skill greater than that of those who try to keep the balance of nature, and man is a necessary part of that predatory chain. I do not think that anyone in this Committee would be capable of doing such jobs. The position in which such people find themselves is very important. That is why I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough whether there were any representatives of those who do such jobs who feel that they could do so properly if the Bill were enacted.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex, I wish that the Bill was not in Committee and that it had not been passed as it has. However, now that it is before us, we owe it not only to our constituents but to all the people of Britain to ensure that it does not, by accident, cover people whom it was not meant to cover. I do not believe that anybody thought that the Bill would apply to people who are clear in their own minds—and have been given advice to that effect—that they are right. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will apply herself to that fundamental issue.

Justice and freedom are indissoluble. Part of justice is clarity on the law and its probity. One does not necessarily have to agree with legislation, but it must be properly enacted and must properly cover the circumstances that it was meant to cover. My concern is that I can find no one involved in keeping the balance in the countryside who feels that the provisions do not impinge on that proper activity.

5.15 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I am slightly confused by the right hon. Gentleman's view that people such as gamekeepers—an honourable profession—are purely to keep the balance of the countryside. I thought that gamekeepers were—at least partly—to ensure that there were more game birds than there otherwise would be.

Mr. Gummer: Of course they are. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right, but I think that he will agree that on a properly run estate and a properly run farm in properly run countryside we do not find the eradication of stoats, weasels and foxes. They are kept under control so that biodiversity--to use a term that nowadays is rightly popular--is protected. That is why I am talking about the balance of nature. It has not been the practice—nor is it now—for gamekeepers to destroy whole species. They seek to protect the birds that they are trying to rear from the depredations of mammals which, left to their own devices, would get out of control and make it impossible for the balance to be maintained. Not only is that true of what gamekeepers do, it is their motto. To think otherwise would be to suggest that not only I but they have misunderstood their role.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): I do not wish to disparage the noble profession of gamekeeping, but the right hon. Gentleman knows very well that there are plenty of reported cases of gamekeepers poisoning birds of prey—and being prosecuted for it—to stop them predating on game birds. He knows that for a fact, so let us not portray the gamekeeper as someone who is concerned only with preserving a balance of nature.

Mr. Gummer: There are plenty of recorded cases of fraudulent Members of Parliament, but that does not mean that every Member of Parliament is fraudulent or, indeed, that in general people become Members of Parliament in order to be fraudulent. The hon. Gentleman's case does not stand up. There are very few recorded cases of gamekeepers who have behaved in such a way. It is utterly against the rules of the fraternity and certainly against any current law. As so often, the hon. Gentleman lifts the cloth over the next item on the agenda. That is the real issue.

We spend time besmirching people in the countryside—if one represents one of the Hams, it is easy to be rude about the countryside; there is not a vote in it for the hon. Gentleman—but we are in fact reminding ourselves of the next battle. One down and four to go is no doubt the theory of those like himself. I suspect that his present willingness to support fishing may weaken when fishing becomes the aim after next.

Those of us on the Opposition Benches, and I hope one or two others elsewhere, recognise that there are many very professional people doing a difficult job that they love and enjoy. Should they become criminals? It would be improper for the House in its enthusiasm to ban hunting with dogs, as it is so ignorantly called, and thereby make criminals of a group of people for whom most of us have enormous respect. It would be good for us to be humble enough to take the advice of those who do the job. I have heard many speeches, especially from Labour Members, which suggest that they have never listened to anybody involved in any of the pursuits of which we speak. As I understand that gamekeeping is not something that Labour Members wish to ban, perhaps we should listen to what the gamekeepers themselves have to say.

Mr. Soames: In my brief remarks and my desire to spare the Committee, I did not go into the economic aspects, especially of the uplands, which my right hon. Friend knows well, where a ban on the use of terriers working foxes would be devastating to the grouse moors and all ground-nesting game. My right hon. Friend will want to include them when discussing the keepers' lot, which will be made so much harder.

Mr. Gummer: That is true. I had hoped that Labour Members would care about gamekeepers as much as they claim to care about similar types of people who live in towns. If we were discussing an issue involving a town, every Labour Member would be saying that we should talk to the people on the shop floor, or to those who drive the vans, who would tell us x, y and z—and we ought to listen to such comments. [Interruption.] I am saddened that some Labour Members find it funny that one should congratulate the people who do jobs such as gamekeeping with such care and skill. Somehow, what happens in the countryside appears to so many to be quaint rather than real.

I have listened to the Minister's speeches, but I have never heard a throb of support for the countryside in his remarks. He is credible when he talks about towns, but it is difficult to believe him when he talks about the countryside.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): It is extremely unfortunate that the right hon. Gentleman has attempted to make this a partisan issue, when clearly it is not. It is also worth pointing out that he has not referred to the fact that, although some Conservative Members disapprove of hunting, none is a member of the Committee. I wonder whether it will demolish the right hon. Gentleman's argument when I mention a farmer in my area, who is one of the largest landowners in Pembrokeshire. He has said clearly that he is totally opposed to hunting. He is a working farmer with a great interest in the countryside. He is also an extremely prominent Conservative in Preseli Pembrokeshire.

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Lady misses two points. We are not discussing hunting at the moment. We are debating an amendment that relates to people who are not hunting. She should listen to the debate. [Interruption.] She will get no help from her hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, who clearly does not understand the issue at all. She intervened on my speech, and I am happy to reply to her, but she could at least listen to my answer.

I am arguing not about whether hunting should exist, but whether, if hunting is to be banned, we should criminalise those who have nothing to do with the hunt. I should be very surprised if the farmer to which the hon. Lady referred did not understand what I am saying. The wording in the Bill needs to be changed if people such as gamekeepers are to be protected. I am sure that the hon. Lady is very close to her constituents. If she asked them not about hunting but whether they wanted to ensure that gamekeepers could go about their business without fear of becoming criminals, they would almost without exception agree. They would expect her to take great care to ensure that the Bill does not criminalise such people.

5.25 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.40 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Gummer: One ought also to accept that, in addition to those who are organised in their concern for looking after wildlife, many others in the countryside could easily prove subject to the provisions. I realise that that is not the intention, but such circumstances could easily arise for the many who, for example, regularly walk with dogs in the countryside. For them, there is no voice. They have no equivalent of, say, the National Gamekeepers Organisation. Because the clauses are badly drafted, they will be extremely exposed. However, there is a way out of the problem and I hope that the Minister will take it.

If the burden of proof were made more sensible and were couched in terms that could be readily understood by those in the countryside, the criminal law need not apply in such circumstances. The problem is that we are contemplating making criminals of people who are essentially law abiding, and on whom the countryside depends for law and order.

I want to express my final point carefully, because I do not want to suggest in any way that I am one of those who would encourage people to break laws, even where I disagree with those laws. However, there is a deep concern in the countryside that the current laws are not properly kept, and certainly not properly enforced. If we add to the burdens of the police the ill phrased criminalities that are before us, we will criminalise many country people who clearly are not criminals.

Moreover, the majority will feel that an already thinly stretched police force will be expected to enforce badly drafted legislation, and will thereby be able to do less of the very little that is already done to protect people's lives and property. It is no good kidding ourselves: there is a universal feeling throughout the countryside that the level of policing is already far too low. This is not the place to argue whether that feeling is justified or to debate the reasons why; I am merely stating the fact that such a feeling exists. The Parliamentary Secretary may believe that feeling to be wrong, and I would agree that the argument is sometimes overstated, but she will agree that it exists.

When asked, most people in my significantly rural constituency—it has 74 miles of coastline extending through Suffolk—say that the police are not sufficiently well manned or resourced to ensure that laws are obeyed. People do not feel that their property or person is being properly protected. Were this badly drafted Bill to pass into law, even those who were not directly affected by it would feel as if they were. They would say, ``People whom we know to be perfectly decent are being sought by the police, yet I am unable to protect myself or my property.''

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