Hunting Bill

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Mr. O'Brien: If the hon. and learned Gentleman will forgive me, I want to deal with these issues in a logical order. I shall come on to what he would describe as frivolous prosecutions, but others would describe as campaign group prosecutions. However, I should give way to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Mr. Beith: Before the hon. Gentleman moves to the next subject, I must say that I am glad that he will re-examine the possible effect of a dog crossing a boundary. His interpretation of the issue is optimistic, but we welcome his re-examination of it. However, why is the boundary issue part of Parliament's intention? Indeed, is it part of Parliament's intention?

The purpose of the Bill is to stop organised foxhunts, deer hunts and hare coursing. It is not intended to deal with neighbour disputes concerning someone who, while dealing with rats in his outhouse, allowed his dog to stray into next door's garden. There are civil remedies for such cases. Why must we get bogged down in that matter? Why must the legislation restrict rodent operations that use dogs? The proper place to deal with someone who recklessly allows his dogs to go on someone else's property is the civil court.

Mr. O'Brien: The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that trespass can be dealt with in the civil court. We are simply seeking to deliver the will of the House to ban certain types of hunting, which is the Government's role in this Committee. Given that the House has voted for the Bill, it is for hon. Members to decide whether they want to include or exclude other animals.

My job is to ensure that we deliver workable legislation, as the House intended. The House said that a criminal offence should be created for a person who hunts a wild mammal with a dog. However, in the case of rodent control, there may be a defence if that person can prove, on the balance of probabilities, that permission was given to hunt rodents on that land. That was the will of the House, and it is my job to ensure that the Bill is workable. That is why I have addressed it in this way. Whether the right hon. Gentleman wants to allow the hunting of rodents is entirely a matter for him, as it is for other hon. Members.

Mr. Leigh: A responsibility is placed on the Government. The Under-Secretary cannot wash his hands of this like Pontius Pilate and say, ``It is up to Deadline 2000 to write the Bill for me.'' That will not work. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has said, the House wants to abolish organised hunts of foxes, hares and mink; that is fair enough. However, the Under-Secretary has to accept that the 650 Members of the House of Commons are not fully seized of the points that we have been discussing. He must know that and there is an obligation on the Committee to try to look at the serious points that have been made about the detail of pest control of rats and rabbits. I hope that the Under-Secretary will not shuffle all this off into one corner and say, ``It is up to Deadline 2000. They drafted the Bill.'' That is not right. He has to make the Bill into a good law.

Mr. O'Brien: I accept that it is the Government's responsibility to do what we can to ensure that this is a good, deliverable and workable law. That is what we intend to do. Nor do I seek to pretend that we are not concerned about the way in which it will operate. We want whatever the House has decided to be made into a law that the police, courts and other responsible authorities can enforce. I was merely making the point that I have given a commitment to the House to present the Bill in as neutral a way as I can. That is what I seek to do. There are genuine moral issues involved that have been discussed during this debate; it is right that they should be.

I need to deal with the issues that have been presented to me about whether the Bill will become workable law.

4.11 pm

Sitting suspended.

4.28 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I was about to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Mrs. Golding: Will the Under-Secretary explain what is meant by

    land belongs to a person if he owns an interest in it?

If someone is paying council tax and it is council land, does that mean he has an interest in it?

Mr. O'Brien: I do not know whether I can respond to that as there are various different ways of owning land. There is legal ownership and equitable ownership. For example, a husband and wife might own a house both in freehold and in equity. Up to four people—but no more—can own the legal interest in a piece of land. Therefore, if there are more than four persons with a legal interest—including companies—the land is normally owned in equity. That is an interest in land.

There are other interests in land, such as leases. Essentially, we are not talking about merely having a right of way, but about having the right to occupy or to go onto and remain on land, and to be able to give others permission to be on it. This is not a new area of law; it is well established. The objective here is to recognise that there is both a legal interest and an equitable right to land and that where those rights exist, an interest in land may be available. A person with an interest in land may give permission for someone else to come onto it or may exercise certain rights on it themselves.

My hon. Friend still looks confused, so I give way to her.

Mrs. Golding: I thought I was getting it, but I am still confused. The schedule says that land belongs to a person if he

    owns an interest in it

Can someone own an interest in council land? Does someone own an interest in a main road in his council tax area?

4.30 pm

Mr. O'Brien: A person may own an interest in council land if he rents a council house. A tenancy is an interest. Public land is usually owned either by the person who has a legal right to the property—property law usually extends legal rights to half way across a road—or by the council. It may be that the council owns a road. A landlord may own a road and give permission for others to use it. More than one person can own an interest in land, so there may be a legal interest whereby someone owns land, but leases it to someone else. The person to whom it is leased has a legal interest and may sublet it or have what is called a life interest in it. Various different legal interests enable people to give permission for others to hunt on their land. Those are the circumstances to which the provisions will apply.

The Bill does not create a new concept in law. Although I suspect that it will be difficult for non-lawyers readily to understand the concept of a legal interest in land, it should be straightforward for a judge, a court or lawyer. It simply means that someone who has an interest in a piece of land and can give permission as to its use. I hope that at least to some extent I have dealt with my hon. Friend's point.

Mrs. Golding: No.

Mr. O'Brien: I warn my hon. Friend, if she persists in this, that I used to teach land law. I could expand on it at great length, but she probably would not wish me to do that. It is a complicated subject that requires several hour-long lectures. However, we can probably skip the detail.

I now move on to the provision about hunting with dogs underground. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed was concerned about hunting in cellars. Underground means below ground; it means with ground above. A cellar has a floor not ground above, therefore a cellar is below ground level but not underground. Hunting underground means digging a hole and then putting a terrier down it to dig out the fox.

To deal with a point made by the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon, the primary reason why there is concern about hunting underground relates to the effect on the dogs: putting them down into a tunnel to kill might put them in considerable danger—

Mr. Maples: By a rat?

Mr. O'Brien: Yes. They could be put in danger if they were chased down into a tunnel after a rat and the tunnel collapsed on them. The hon. Gentleman expresses concern about the rats. I can understand why. No doubt he is familiar with quite a lot of them. However, Deadline 2000 believes that there is a policy issue relating to the welfare of dogs that may be sent underground and the possibility that the tunnel may collapse on them.

Mr. Beith: The Minister's answer on cellars, which we can return to in relation to a later amendment, is not conclusive. I have an example of a place where I have seen rats. The house has been demolished, but the cellar is still there and that is where the rats are. The cellar is no longer underneath a building, so it is underground in the terms of the Bill. There are also all the other underground places where rats tend to nest, such as drains, culverts and cundies.

I had not understood it to be the object of the Bill and I do not know what the House thought it was doing when it banned the use of dogs in such spaces. Nor do I remember any speeches on the subject. Once again the Minister is in danger of allowing the importation into the Bill of a prohibition that has difficult implications for pest control and was not in hon. Members' minds when they voted for the ban.

Mr. O'Brien: I do not accept that it necessarily has profound implications for pest control. Nothing in the Bill prevents the poisoning or other killing of rodents. That is not its objective and it does not do that. The provision deals with hunting with dogs underground. The concern is that dogs should not be put in unnecessary danger by being sent underground to hunt. Therefore, as I understand it from Deadline 2000, there is a welfare concern about the dogs.

There is a policy issue here concerning moral values and it is for hon. Members to decide how they wish to deal with it. I am simply setting out, for the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and other members of the Committee, the impact of the provision and the policy reason for it. No doubt Deadline 2000 can brief the Committee further, if that is necessary, but it is for hon. Members to decide whether they agree with that policy position. However, Deadline 2000 wants to prevent underground hunting of that kind.

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Prepared 25 January 2001