Hunting Bill

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Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I take issue with the right hon. Gentleman about whether the Bill is badly drafted. My judgment is that it is well drafted but that the difficulties of prohibition are so great that, however well we draft it, we will inevitably end up with the sort of problems that we are discussing.

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Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman may be right. I was trying to be as polite as possible because when a Bill is wrongly passed in principle, as this has been, we have to look at each new issue not to undermine the Bill but to ensure that it does not undermine itself. I am merely suggesting that we must seek a better way of drafting this legislation. If I were to be absolutely honest, my view would have to be close to that of the hon. Gentleman, since I oppose the Bill in principle, although I do not hunt, and because this sort of restraint of liberty is extremely difficult to carry through—we ought not to behave like this in a free society.

In a sense, the drafting difficulties result from the basic wrongness of the Bill. However we have had that debate, I am afraid, and we have lost it—lost it in its entirety, as far as I am concerned, and in the rather moderate way in which the hon. Gentleman has put forward his case. Having done so, we have to assume that it is our job to try to draft it as well as possible.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): Further to the intervention by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. O£pik), my presumption is that the Bill is not badly drafted. I can understand the reservations of principle and the views about liberty and an open society, but I have genuinely struggled to follow the argument about costs and policing. I ask that the right hon. Gentleman at least refers to the information given by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, who said that in Scotland post-1959, following the prohibition of hunting deer with dogs, the policing bill for enforcement has been nil. The evidence of massively reduced costs surely supports a different argument, namely, that the legislation will free resources that are being deployed to police the hunt for use in other issues of rural safety that the police would much prefer to tackle. Ought we not to pursue the argument on the basis of the evidence in front of us, which is that the costs are massively reduced rather than likely to spiral wildly out of control?

Mr. Gummer: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but first, I want to listen to the people who are doing the job. The police have the same severe reservations. They have behaved with perfect propriety and they did not make those statements before the House voted on the Bill. Now that it has voted, they have made clear their views, which are that the Bill will massively increase policing problems.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Alan Simpson) may well have been unavoidably absent during the Committee's proceedings this morning when his hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole was debating that point with me. I think that my right hon. Friend was also unavoidably absent. The point is that the costs of policing hunting are the costs of restraining hunt saboteurs from interfering with what is at present a lawful activity. The reverse does not apply. It seemed to me, therefore—this is the argument that the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole was incapable of understanding—that the banning of hunting does not create a requirement for additional policing, manpower or resources. To argue that it does, is to miss entirely the point of why police have to attend hunts: it is to protect the hunts from the illegal activities of saboteurs.

Mr. Gummer: My hon. and learned Friend is right, but I have to answer the hon. Member for Nottingham, South directly on two issues. The first is that the police tell us that the Bill will cause considerable additional policing—[Hon. Members: ``No.'']—That is not what we have been told. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury will quote in extenso what the police have said.

The second issue is that I want to listen to gamekeepers and the like—the people who do the job. Their professional advisers say—and their understanding is—that they will be criminalised because of the way in which the Bill is drafted. That is not true of the legislation in Scotland, so there is no parallel. The provisions need to be changed to protect people who are lawfully going about their business.

A third reason for the hon. Member for Nottingham, South is that there are large numbers of hunts throughout England. Many are not fashionable but ordinary, and they involve ordinary people. The resultant policing problems will be manifestly difficult, and added to those will be all the problems that arise from the legislation, which contains provisions that do not concern the hunt. That suggests that we must rewrite the Bill so that it excludes the people of whom we speak.

Why should people object to such rewriting? It cannot be because they fear that it would not enable them to ban hunting. The issue is precisely the sort of thing that a Committee ought to put right. The Committee's purpose is to ensure that we do not make bad law even when we have made what is, in my view, a bad decision. I am not arguing about the decision, but let us make good law that does not mean that good people find themselves criminalised. That would be reasonable thing for a Committee to do. To people outside, it would suggest a careful approach from a Parliament that needs to show an understanding of the countryside. We need to show that we have listened to those who work there, instead of having the arrogant view that we know best and that they ought not to be listened to.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): I shall refer briefly to the implications of the amendments for gamekeepers and, by way of introduction, will mention police costs. I still believe that as soon as hunt saboteurs have finished with fox hunting—if the legislation is passed—some or all of them will move on to other country sports. Some already have done so in the case of fishing and the police will have to be deployed to allow other people legally to pursue permitted sports in peace.

Mr. Gummer: Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the Western Daily Press in which the local head of the League Against Cruel Sports made it clear that, once the hunting campaign is over, shooting will be the next battleground?

Mr. Beith: Based on what I have seen of hunt saboteur activity, I certainly believe that some people have a firm conviction that, in the pursuit of their view of what constitutes animal welfare, they are justified in taking action that is against the law and in depriving others of their freedom. They will apply those techniques to other sports that they want banned. That is not a comment on the views of Labour Members, but on what will happen, which will affect police resources.

Many people in my constituency are employed as gamekeepers and many more are employed in other aspects of countryside management. My son attended Kirkley hall, which has a widely respected gamekeeping course that trains people to a high level. The profession is now demanding and requires high levels of training.

Gamekeepers are apprehensive about the enactment of the Bill. Much as I have sought to reassure them that there is no likelihood that it will be enacted in this Session, they are still worried lest it should be. They are particularly worried about its implications for their legal activities: maintaining the balance and supporting game shooting activities, which is what they are employed to do. They are also apprehensive, as I said, about becoming the targets of protest if foxhunting is abolished and its active opponents seek a new cause.

I have not dwelt on that matter because I do not feel that we can solve the problems that the Bill will cause gamekeepers through these amendments. The argument that a civil rather than a criminal penalty should be used is seductive and I understand why it was advanced. It is clearly based on the justified belief that we should not make criminals of people who set out to obey the law as best they can and get on with their job. However, for various reasons—not least for that advanced by the Minister on the problem of the level of proof required under civil proceedings—the only way to deal with the problems faced by gamekeepers under the Bill is to recast those parts of it that will impact adversely upon them. We will have to pay a lot of attention to amendments later in our proceedings.

As I understand it, if a gamekeeper sends his dog down into a coal cellar to chase a rat, he will be guilty of an offence under the Bill. Many such manifest absurdities emerge when someone who does the job of gamekeeper in the course of his ordinary life is shown the legislation. We will have to alter those sections of the Bill, if we are not to expose gamekeepers to the risk of criminal prosecution. Perhaps such a prosecution would fail, but that is not much consolation to a gamekeeper who has had to appear in the magistrates court, with all the emotional trauma that that causes for a law-abiding citizen. He will lose days of work. If he finishes up in court, his employer may begin to wonder about his future. All those possibilities are extremely worrying to gamekeepers. We will not solve their problems with the group of amendments that we are considering. We must return to the problems at a later stage in our discussion of the schedule.

Mr. Garnier: I shall elaborate briefly on a point made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). I do not know whether he has read the newspaper article that was published last week when the Bill was in a Committee of the whole House. An article by Mr. Chris Rundle in the Western Daily Press states:

    Animal rights campaigners last night declared war on the multi-million pound gamebird shooting industry. The League Against Cruel Sports vowed that it would make the sport its next target if it was successful in winning a ban on hunting with dogs. Coming just a day before politicians vote on banning hunting with hounds, the League's war cry could lay the foundation for years of unrest in the countryside. It also sent shockwaves through the West's pheasant shooting industry, which is worth around £90 million. The new battle lines were drawn up last night as hundreds of hunt supporters gathered outside Parliament in a round-the-clock vigil to save their sport. The Government has always said that the issue of hunting with dogs is not linked to any other countryside pursuit, but it is clear now that the issue of blood sports will not end with tomorrow's hunting bill. The new attack on hunting was revealed by the League's Head of West Country Operations, Graham Sirl, who helps to run 2,000 acres of animal refuges on Exmoor.

The right hon. Gentleman is right, as are others who have drawn attention to the incremental battle that is to be waged.

I shall draw on two arguments advanced earlier in the debate: first, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and, secondly, that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough made a point that is frequently forgotten in debates such as this, but it is important and needs reiteration. The criminal law and our criminal justice system are based on consent: the consent of the electorate to the majority party's programme, upon which it forms the Government, the consent of the legislators to each piece of legislation that affects the criminal justice system, and the consent of the electorate that the legislation should be binding upon them. Following that, we have the consent of the electorate that the police should enforce the law. This may seem strange to those who do not—as I do—practice in the courts or sit as a Crown court recorder, but the system is also based on the consent of the defendant—the consent to be arrested on a specific charge, to be brought before the courts and to be sentenced.

I sit as a part-time Crown court judge at Middlesex Crown court, which is situated on the other side of Parliament square from the Houses of Parliament. Only rarely do security staff have to guard the defendant or, what is more to the point, the judge or others in the court from the defendant—usually a man. That is because everyone involved in the making of the law, its enforcement and its administration—and those of our fellow citizens caught up in the system who are brought before the courts—understands that there is a proper way of creating law, administering it and policing it. The defendants who are found guilty in face of a not-guilty plea all believe that the law is legitimate and that the process by which they are brought to justice is legitimate. They, too, consent.

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Prepared 23 January 2001