Hunting Bill

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Mr. Beith: Like me, the hon. Gentleman is fortunate in receiving his salary from the Fees Office at the end of every month and in knowing perfectly well that he can carry on doing his job. If he were a small pest control contractor, he would not be able to afford the luxury of assuming that the CPS, which is always sensible about such matters, never takes unwise prosecutions or uses maliciously provided and false evidence to generate a prosecution that may ultimately fail and land the individual in court.

Mr. Soames: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Beith: I want to answer the hon. Member for West Ham before I give way.

It will not do for the hon. Gentleman to say to people who are often much less well paid than us or whose job has the insecurity of a small rural business, ``I can assure you it's all right. Don't worry. Nobody will take a risky prosecution.'' Life is not like that, and some people know it. I come back to the point about the employed gamekeeper. If he lands in court too often, his employer will not want to keep him on the books. So, every day that the gamekeeper goes about his work, in fair weather or foul, he must watch for the whole time that he not only does not engage in animal cruelty, which is rightly punishable by law, but does not stray over the extraordinary boundaries of law that will be created by many provisions in the Bill.

Mr. Garnier rose—

Mr. Soames rose—

Mr. Maples rose—

Mr. Beith: I am spoilt for choice; too many hon. Members want me to give way. I shall give way to the first applicant.

Mr. Garnier: One problem with the intervention of the hon. Member for West Ham is that he is relying on the prosecutor's restraint. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that that is particularly inappropriate in the case of hunting, because cases will be investigated and prosecuted by organisations and individuals other than the police and the CPS. Nothing in the Bill prohibits the laying of an information in the local court; nothing in the Bill prevents private prosecutions. I am sure that it is those that the right hon. Gentleman has in mind.

Mr. Beith: Yes, and those who want to ensure that the Bill is enforced. I do not complain about them doing so. Indeed, over the years, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has done valuable work in rightly bringing matters to court and drawing attention to cruelty when it occurs. However, if we create a law that criminalises the genuine activity of people working in the countryside to control pests and vermin or simply to keep animal numbers at a sustainable level, we will allow prosecutions to be prompted by organisations seeking to enforce such general legislation, which adds further to the risk.

No assurance can be given in Committee on which anyone in any of the jobs to which I have referred can safely or confidently rely. Even a ministerial assurance, which would be helpful, is not good enough if the genuine fear of prosecution exists.

Mr. Maples: Surely another problem for gamekeepers or farmers is that, under the exemptions in paragraph 7, they must prove their innocence. The Bill reverses the burden of proof: the person charged must prove that their activity falls under one of the exemptions. That is an unreasonable way of loading the question. The amendments in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), which I understand the right hon. Gentleman supports, would remove that problem and make it clear that, in some instances, such activity was not an offence under the Bill.

Mr. Beith: Absolutely; that saves me having to make that point. The general character of the exemptions and the tabling of other amendments to shift the burden of proof are all reasonable attempts to enable people to go about their work without fear of prosecution. I underline the fact that the work of such people is already covered by a great deal of law and there are many restrictions by which they have to abide—some thoroughly justified—in order to protect the public or animal welfare.

Within the last month, a gamekeeper who used poison, which is rightly illegal, was prosecuted and convicted in my constituency. That process must take place. Gamekeepers must ensure that they abide by the law all the time, but we are imposing on them what they will regard unreasonable burdens that are not consistent with doing the job properly.

We shall attempt later to deal with the anomalies that we have so far discovered. More are referred to in the letter to hon. Members from the National Gamekeepers Organisation, and more will come to light on the basis of experience when the Bill has completed its stages in the Commons. That is why it is valuable to try to achieve a more general change in the character of the Bill—so that those engaged in legitimate pursuits are fully protected.

Mr. Soames: I warmly support the right hon. Gentleman. I do not know whether he was present during our sitting on Tuesday afternoon when I raised with the Minister the question of a lady from Essex, who had written to me. With farmers, she uses her lurchers to control rabbits in Maldon, and earns her living doing so. Her position would be unclear and she would be wrongly liable to criminal prosecution.

Mr. Beith: I heard that example raised and, when I got back to my office, I found a copy of the same letter waiting on my desk. The hon. Gentleman was quicker then me to read his mail that day.

Certainly in my constituency, many small businesses are involved in activities such as pest control. It is a long-established practice; the mole catcher is a well known feature of the countryside. In other areas of pest control, small businesses employ people to control pests. They do not deserve to have to live under the constant fear of prosecution from badly drafted law or legislation which, if unamended, will impinge on their legitimate activities, to which dogs are central. We must remember that such people work with animals all the time and that their best friend and constant working companion is one or more dogs, whose breed and characteristics are crucial to the work.

Many of those activities have been supported and encouraged by Governments over the years. I remember when the Government supported rabbit clearance societies in order to deal with the constant problem of rabbits in the countryside. That assistance is no longer available. Nobody will ever exterminate rabbits from the countryside or would want to do so, but the countryside cannot sustain the rabbit population that arises if there is no control. The rabbit population must be controlled, and dogs are one means of achieving that.

Squirrels have been introduced into the proceedings slightly irrelevantly. I do not know of anybody who would attempt to hunt squirrels with dogs. Not many dogs have the squirrel's tree-climbing capacity. My constituency, alas, has become one of the battlegrounds between the red and the grey squirrels. In my early days as a Member of Parliament, I never saw a grey squirrel in my constituency—only red ones. I now see both, but I point out to the hon. Member for West Ham that I have never seen the two species in the same tree at the same time. We are seeking to address the problem by selective feeding devices, using feeders that the red squirrel can use but the grey squirrel cannot. That is one delicate issue of countryside management. The Bill probably has relatively little bearing on it, as dogs are not used, but it illustrates the difficulty and delicacy of such work, and to that extent it is relevant to consideration of the use of dogs.

I welcome the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Aylesbury because they would provide a broader exemption. Without them, the Bill—I do not believe that it will be enacted—would cast a shadow and pose a threat to many people engaged in legitimate work in the countryside.

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed rightly referred to the need to tackle badly drafted legislation, as he called it, and the anomalies and weaknesses that he detects in the Bill. However, in supporting the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Aylesbury, he is in effect seeking to introduce other weaknesses.

I agree with much of what has been said about the need to tackle the rabbit problem. My garden has been completely wiped out twice by rabbits, so I have no reason to be particularly fond of them, even if they do keep the lawn cut. Nor do I have a quarrel with what was said about rodents or mink. However, the amendments would enable those who wish to hunt animals that are set apart from hunting to find a cover. Amendments to paragraph 1 would allow people to argue that, in hunting rabbits to control them, the dogs mistakenly pursued a hare or fox while temporarily out of sight. The countryside in which such activities take place is not like a bowling green, where one can see everything that is going on. It is complex territory, full of holes, rocks and so on.

The amendments would provide a built-in excuse for hunters who wish to hunt in a way that is proscribed. They would be able to pretend that, in catching something else, they were in fact hunting rats. In a subsequent court case, their position would be relatively simple to defend. In the case of mink, they could say, ``Sorry, your honour, we set out to hunt mink but in fact we caught an otter. It was one of those things—we couldn't prevent the dogs from turning at the last moment.''

I do not underestimate the seriousness of what right hon. and hon. Members are saying about the problems caused by rodents and rabbits, but excepting such animals from the Bill would only weaken it. I know that some oppose the Bill lock, stock and barrel, but it is the will of the House to legislate for a ban, and it is our duty to make that ban operable. The amendments would prevent that.

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Prepared 25 January 2001