Hunting Bill

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Mr. Garnier: Does the hon. Lady consider that the unlawful poisoning of animals is a serious offence? Under the Protection of Animals (Amendment) Act 1954 and the Animals (Cruel Poisons) Act 1962, such offences merit a level 3 fine. Can she explain why it is appropriate that someone who inadvertently commits an offence should be stung at level 5, whereas someone who goes around indiscriminately poisoning animals should be penalised only at level 3?

6.45 pm

Jane Kennedy: Again, I invite the hon. and learned Gentleman to consider my point about allowing the courts to judge such matters and to apply the penalty that is appropriate to the offence that has been committed. The House considered whether the offence should be criminal or civil, and made its determination. It is for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I to present the arguments in response to the amendments in the light of whether they undermine or strengthen the House's decision on criminality.

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Lady has not quite answered my point. Why should a nasty piece of indiscriminate poisoning incur only a level 3 fine—that is, a maximum of £1,000? The legislation will allow for a level 5, or £5,000, fine. I accept that magistrates may not wish to impose the maximum fine. Those dealing with a case of indiscriminate poisoning have no discretion to go beyond a fine of £1,000, but those dealing with a hunting case may go as high as £5,000. The reason for that large discrepancy has not been satisfactorily explained to me.

Jane Kennedy: I am aware that several members of the Committee feel strongly that the pursuit of hunting should be allowed to continue, and that there is almost no answer that I can give the hon. and learned Gentleman that will satisfy him. I simply repeat that penalties should be proportionate to achieving the objectives of the law concerned, and that the penalty in the schedule has been judged to be thus proportionate.

Mr. Garnier: The House decided that a fine of £1,000 was sufficient to deal with cases of indiscriminate and cruel poisoning. Why, therefore, should it not consider that £1,000 is sufficient to deal with what some would consider to be a less culpable offence?

Jane Kennedy: The objective of the schedule is that it should be proportionate to the offence and deter people from pursuing the pastime after the Bill is enacted. The Human Rights Act 1998 requires penalties to be proportionate and the House, having considered the matter, is satisfied that that is so.

Mr. Michael: Virtually every criminal justice Act that passes through this House has to try to achieve the right balance in terms of a variety of different offences, and hon. Members always argue about how to do that. One could argue, for instance, that the penalty should be greater to make it commensurate with the penalty for pursuing badgers. We should not allow ourselves to be led down the blind alley of seeing particular cases as being overly significant.

Jane Kennedy: My right hon. Friend makes a good point.

I do not intend to labour the point any further. The proportionality of the penalties is intended to deter, and we have accepted the view of the House that they will achieve the Bill's objective.

Mr. Garnier rose—

Jane Kennedy: I shall not give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman on this point. He may wish to raise other matters, but I am not encouraging him to do so.

I move on to the point that was raised by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal, who argued strongly that the drafting of the amendments was at fault. Not every member of the Committee agreed with that. I would not suggest that the wording of the Bill is perfect. Could it be improved? The intention of the amendments is not to tinker with the drafting, but to deal with one of the most fundamental decisions and principles of the Bill, so the argument he advanced does not bear scrutiny when we are considering the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Aylesbury.

Mr. Gummer: I was proposing that it was clear from the drafting that it was difficult to get the kind of balance that the Committee would want, and that therefore it was better to make sure that we did not criminalise people by using the form that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury suggested. I do not criticise the Minister, but it is difficult to put this in a way that does not cause the sort of argument that we have just heard about why it is more cruel to hunt, for example, than to poison. I thought that this was a good way out.

Jane Kennedy: The right hon. Gentleman has made his case, but the effect of the amendments is not simply to tinker with the drafting of the Bill. Therefore my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I invite the Committee to resist the amendments.

I am reluctant to do so, but I return to the points made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough. He said that we should not be dismissive of the arguments and that the Government must justify and explain the reasons why the Bill is being pursued. There have been lengthy debates on this recently. I can recall many occasions on Fridays when the issue has been the subject of private Member's Bill debates. We are now seeking to enact the will of Parliament, and it is that will that the Government will protect during the Bill's passage through both Houses.

Mr. Garnier: The problem with that answer is that is almost imperious and I know that the hon. Lady does not behave like that. The message seems to be ``I have said what I have said and that is the answer.'' The hon. Member for Pendle made a good point about the poll tax during an intervention. I translate that point to this Bill. Those who want to ban hunting have a majority, but that is merely a numerical response. There are other arguments. For the poll tax to be an acceptable way of raising local government revenue, it needed more than parliamentary consent. It had to have popular consent. It had the one, but not the other, and the Government and their friends are in the same position. I hope that the hon. Lady will do us the favour of explaining, rather than simply repeating.

Jane Kennedy: The hon. and learned Gentleman is inviting me to go down the path of debating the principle here and the House has already decided that. A number of hon. Members from both sides contributed to the debate and I will not respond to all the points that were advanced.

Mr. Cawsey: I was not a Member of Parliament at the time of the poll tax, but one of the important differences is that on that legislation the votes would have been whipped, and hon. Members would have been marshalled through the Lobbies. This Bill was the subject of a free vote and the House has determined the matter on a cross-party basis.

Jane Kennedy: For precisely the reasons that I have just given, I do not intend to respond to the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument or the question of whether individuals should be allowed to continue to enjoy their sport.

Let me turn quickly to the important views expressed by Association of Chief Police Officers. It clearly has an interest in the Bill, as in any legislation that might affect the police. Accordingly, we have made a point of consulting it about the options. Its position is clear. It properly takes the view that it is for Parliament to make the law and for the police to enforce it. It does not wish to become embroiled in what is essentially a political decision. When ACPO representatives were shown an early draft of the Bill they argued strongly that the police needed to be given an explicit power of arrest. We listened to those representations and included what is now paragraph 14 of the schedule. It is perhaps ironic that the hon. Member for Aylesbury seeks to remove that power with amendment No. 24, but I shall deal with that later.

A clear statement of ACPO's views can be found in an article that appeared in The Times--no particular friend to the Government on this matter--on 18 January. Headed ``Police ready to enforce ban'', it is the record of a discussion with Alastair McWhirter, the assistant chief constable of the Wiltshire constabulary. As chairman of ACPO's public order sub-committee legal affairs group, he has been leading for ACPO on this issue. Mr. McWhirter is quoted as saying:

    I really would like to dispel the myth being put about that the police think a ban is unenforceable--they do not.

This morning, various hon. Members quoted from a statement issued last week by Tim Hollis, the assistant chief constable of South Yorkshire. Members from all parts of the Committee have quoted from it selectively today to support their point of view, which suggests some ambiguity on ACPO's part.

Home Office Ministers have been engaged in discussions with Tony Burden, who, as I am sure members of the Committee are aware, is the president of ACPO as well as chief constable of South Wales. Mr. Burden has acknowledged that senior officers have expressed their personal views on this issue. That is an entirely proper contribution for them to make to the current debate. Mr. Burden has confirmed, however, that it is too early to reach a final, definitive view on the resource implications of any of the three options in the Bill. [Interruption.] This is important, if hon. Members would care to listen. However, if hunting is banned, ACPO does not expect a significant additional burden on the service beyond its current commitment. I thought it important to put that view from ACPO on the record.

Clearly it will be for the hon. Member for Aylesbury to make his final pitch in favour of the amendments, but I urge members of the Committee to bear in mind the decision in the House and to resist the amendments.

Mr. Beith: On a point of order, Mrs. Roe. The Parliamentary Secretary has prayed in aid a document from, I think, the president of ACPO. Would it not be usual for that document to be laid on the Table so that we can see whether it was quoted from selectively or completely?

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Prepared 23 January 2001