Hunting Bill

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Mr. O'Brien: The ECHR is indeed now justiciable in our courts and our judges may take a view on it, but they too would be subject to appeal even up to the Strasbourg court if the Strasbourg conventions and precedents were contravened. The hon. and learned Gentleman will be as aware of that as I am.

I move on to the issues raised about mink. I do not want to go into them in too much detail, but simply to set out what I understand to be the basic policy position of Deadline 2000 in relation to mink. It takes the view that while mink are indeed vicious and in many ways pests that damage the environment, it is right to prevent them being hunted with dogs, even though trapping might be expensive, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme.

The view of Deadline 2000 is that substantial damage to the river bank is caused by the hunting of mink, putting at risk the otters that we are seeking to encourage. I have been looking with interest at the evidence to the Burns inquiry of Mr. Desmond Hobson, who represented the Masters of Minkhounds Association. He made it clear that up to 150 people were able to hunt at any one time. Quoting from the text of evidence given to the Burns inquiry, Dr Victoria Edwards said to Mr. Hobson:

    You cite quite a lot of followers and I think your own submission cites up to 150 people supporting the mink hounds. This sounds like an awful lot of people running up and down the river bed when most of us recognise that

it is fairly fragile and likely to be damaged by humans. Mr. Hobson answered that the Masters of Minkhounds Association had tried to prevent damage, adding that the rules of the association were that the bank should be restored to its normal condition. Deadline 2000 has taken that as a suggestion that the association accepts that damage occurs. It has therefore put forward the view that the damage to the river bank and otter habitats caused by the hunting of mink with dogs is environmentally damaging and ought not to take place.

Mrs. Golding: I am sure that if we looked at the many hundreds of people who follow foxhunting, not all of them will be on horseback, riding across the countryside. Many are viewers and do not chase the fox. I know that people do not go to chase mink. Mink tend to be in or near water and the hunt often follows them into the stream and upstream. There are, occasionally, problems with river banks, but one would also have problems with traps. Somebody has to go to a hidden and secluded part of the river bank to place the trap. He or she then has to bait the trap and examine it every day. The river bank would be disturbed not only on the day of the hunt, but every day if there were traps all the way up the river. To suggest that that would be better than one or two sweeps of a river bank by a hunt is absolute nonsense.

Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend can express her view, and members of the Committee will consider it. As I understand it, Deadline 2000 is of the view that hunting mink with dogs is environmentally damaging, especially to the habitat of otters. I am simply relaying that organisation's view to the Committee. Members of the Committee must take their own view on that.

Mr. Soames: One danger in this Committee is of people talking about matters about which they know absolutely nothing. I have no idea what Deadline 2000 is, but let me tell the Minister that it is talking nonsense. Mink hunting causes no damage to otter habitat. No master of mink hounds would knowingly take a pack of mink hounds anywhere near an otter's holt. The number of people on the river bank at any one time is very few—perhaps the huntsmen, or the masters, or one or two followers. The idea that that causes mass damage is fatuous nonsense. It is a jumped-up reason for trying to ban mink hunting.All hunts probably cause damage, and all hunts see to it that all such damage is made good within 24 or 48 hours. If huntsmen break a fence, people will be back there the following morning, or even on the same day, to repair it.

Mr. O'Brien: No doubt members of the Committee will be interested by the observations of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex.

Mr. Cawsey: I accept that members of the Committee may not have heard of Deadline 2000, but I hope that all of us have heard of the Environment Agency. Back in 1996, it stated:

    Mink hunting is an ineffective method of control and there is concern that it causes indiscriminate disturbance to river habitats, especially significant where otters are beginning to recolonise. The Environment Agency wishes to discourage mink hunting where otters and other wildlife may be disturbed.

Mr. O'Brien: That quote is accurate.

Mrs. Golding: In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, when there are otters on a river bank, the mink disperse and move away. There is no need for mink hunting where there are otters. There is no need for the packs to go there. We do not know why, but that is what happens. When otters recolonise a river, the mink suddenly move up river and disappear. Those who hunt mink know where the otters are and where the mink are, because they are countrymen and specialise in such things. I agree that there is no need for mink hunting where there are otters, because where there are otters the mink move away.

Mr. O'Brien: No doubt again hon. Members will be interested in the points made by my hon. Friend. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole said, mink hunting causes considerable disturbance if practised on rivers that also harbour otters. I suppose that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme would reply that mink hunting would not be practised along such rivers. Again, hon. Members will have to take their own view on that. I have outlined the argument. I have been asked why the provision has been included in the Bill, and I am simply stating the reasons with which I have been supplied.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme said that the Bill would encourage shooting. Obviously, some foxes that would previously have been hunted may well be shot rather than hunted with dogs. Therefore, more shooting may take place. The Prime Minister has given assurances to all who shoot and all who fish that, so long as he is in No. 10 Downing street, they will be protected. That is clear and is Government policy. The Prime Minister has said that he will hold to that view, which I strongly support also.

5.15 pm

Mrs. Golding: I do not deny that; it is absolutely right. The problem is, however, that if one has permission to go rabbiting, one has to take a gun. At the moment, it is usual to take just a ferret and a terrier to go rabbiting. In future, one will also have to carry a gun. It seems far more dangerous for more and more people to be wandering around the countryside with guns than to allow a dog to run after a rabbit.

Mr. O'Brien: No doubt hon. Members will wish to take that into account. Is the concern that there is a distinction between those who hunt with dogs for entertainment and those who may accidentally hurt an animal while shooting? There is a moral distinction there. If that moral distinction weighs against being cruel for the sake of entertainment, it is right to ban such activity. There may well be a risk that more people will go shooting and hon. Members will have to balance that risk. Some will conclude that it is right to ban what they feel to be morally objectionable, even though there may be a consequence. It is right that my hon. Friend should set that out clearly.

This is very much a question of weighing the matter in the balance. The law is about setting the moral baseline of society, and that differs from time to time. It may well move in one way, then another and then back again over a period of time. As a Parliament, we have to decide at any one time where that moral baseline should be and set it in law. That is what we seek to discuss in this Bill and it is right that we weigh all the consequences of setting that moral baseline in one way rather than in another.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough asked about the difference between the Livingstone Bill, as it has been called colloquially, and the Bill that is currently before us. The content of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East is entirely a matter for him. No doubt he had discussions with various groups and took a view as to how they would set out that Bill. We discussed with Deadline 2000 what it wanted to put in the Bill and it provided us with the policy options that were before the House and on which the House voted. It is possible that Deadline 2000 has changed its mind on this matter. Again, that is a matter for it to justify, not me. The law as set out in the schedule appears to the parliamentary counsel and to the Government, on the face of it, to be workable. The policy options are for hon. Members.

Mr. Leigh: That is a very disappointing reply, and I have patiently waited a long time for it. I thought that the reply would be rather fuller and that the Minister would not just say that it was all up to Deadline 2000. Were there discussions, for instance, with civil servants, who may have pointed out that some of the points were in the other Bill? Surely Deadline 2000 was also behind the Livingstone Bill. This is an important point and we cannot just flick it away. We want to know what is going on. Could the Minister give us some of the background?

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman asks a perfectly reasonable question. I undertake to write to Deadline 2000 and find out, in writing, whether it advised my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East on the drafting of his Bill, and if so why its view has changed. It was a legitimate question, and my officials will have noted my undertaking.

I shall deal with some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex. It is right that we should not seek to mislead the Committee, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not do so. He said that while otters were being hunted, there were always many otters, but that when hunting otters was abolished, the number of otters declined. That may well true, but the hon. Gentleman was trying to make out that the two facts were linked. Unfortunately, his point is as tenuous as that made by the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon about animal rights groups and the Labour Government. It may be a coincidence, but it is not necessarily a link.

The Burns report is clear about why it is believed otters reduced in numbers. It was not because hunting had ceased, any more than the Bill is the result of people making donations to the Labour party. It seems that numbers of otters reduced after 1955 because organochloride insecticides were being used in sheep dip and seed dressings. It was a coincidence, but not a consequence. The link between hunting and otters is not proven; indeed, it is contradicted by the Burns report at paragraph 5.107.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex is putting forward a wider argument, saying that sometimes hunters seek not only to remove pests, but to conserve. In some cases, that is a valid argument; not only do hunts chase and seek to kill foxes because they are pests, they also seek to conserve the pests because they are quarry. The truth for the hon. Gentleman appears to be that hunting is about entertainment rather than pest control. Perhaps he would disagree.

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