Hunting Bill

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The Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that once again we are straying into the subject of the next group of amendments.

Mr. Öpik: That is a fair point, Mr. O'Hara. I shall reserve those points for the next string of amendments. I should be grateful for the Minister's perspective on my earlier points.

Mr. O'Brien: The Bill would make it an offence for an owner or occupier of land, or a person who manages or controls the land, to permit another person to enter the land to hunt a wild mammal with a dog. Amendment No. 37 would remove the offence, which would significantly weaken the schedule. It would also go against the wishes of the House, which voted for the schedule proposed by Deadline 2000. If an owner or occupier of land, or a person who manages or controls the land, knowingly permits another person to use his dog for illegal hunting, why should he not be guilty of an offence? Members of the Committee will wish to consider whether a vote in favour of amendment No. 37 would be within the spirit of the vote of the whole House.

The Bill defines the circumstances in which land belongs to a person, including where a person owns an interest in the land or manages and controls the land. Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 would narrow the definition by requiring the land owner to have a controlling interest or directly to manage or control the land. To do so would weaken the schedule. For example, it may result in more people falling outside the scope of the offence of knowingly permitting land to be used for hunting or coursing than the House, in agreeing the schedule, would wish. For that reason, I do not advise the Committee to accept the amendments.

Let me deal with some of the points raised in the debate—first, in relation to people being at risk of prosecution. From the sound of the debate, that would amount to persecution. The Bill would no more do that than any other piece of criminal legislation. It requires the prosecution to prove the intention and the act beyond reasonable doubt, in the normal way. If there is no evidence, there will be no prosecution. There will not be, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury suggested, reliance on the judgment of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service; there will be reliance on evidence. If there is no evidence, there is no prosecution, whatever anyone's opinions.

What about malicious complaints? Again, it is a matter of whether there is evidence to substantiate them. As in any dispute when one person says one thing, and someone else says another, the legal system can resolve the issue. This Bill is no different from any other type of law that the House introduces. The Crown Prosecution Service must always consider the realistic likelihood of a conviction. If there is no evidence, there is no risk of conviction, so the suggestion that people will be put at risk is irrelevant to the argument. The risk may be so tiny that a prosecution would be a complete aberration. Our legal system can cope with the low level of risk, so the argument is not a realistic one.

The other concern is that a landlord might allow people to use his land for what he thinks is a lawful purpose, but the people end up hunting in a way that is unlawful. Will that landlord be at risk? The answer again is that the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the landlord intended to act in a way that caused him to commit an offence. There must be evidence that he has done so. If there is no evidence, there will be no prosecution. There is no risk if the landlord allows someone to hunt lawfully on his land. He would be wise to ensure that he gives that permission properly and clearly, as anyone ought to do to ensure that they do not breach the criminal law. Even if he does not give clear instructions and those to whom he has given permission to hunt do so in a non-lawful way, the prosecution must show that such permission was given in order to commit a criminal offence.

I turn to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) who asked whether the words ``entered or used'' had a commonsense or a legal, technical meaning. The lawyerly phrase would be that they have a normal meaning. There are clear rules of interpretation and there is case law on the definition of the word ``entered''. I am trying to remember from my criminal law the definition of ``entering'' in the case of a burglar entering premises. Basically, it will be given its normal meaning, such as whether someone went over the boundary and entered the property.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough asked about the use of the provisions on the offences of aiding and abetting. I am advised that summary offences would not normally be covered by these provisions, so we must ensure that the Bill has such provisions if that is the will of the House. Whether we want those offences to be covered is a policy judgment. The House has decided. It is now for the Committee and for me, as a Minister, to decide whether the provision is workable, good law and can be enforced. I am advised that it is and that it makes the schedule stronger than it would otherwise be.

Mr. Leigh: Is the Minister saying that, if the summary offence were not included in the Bill, it would be impossible to prosecute anybody who was aiding and abetting its commission?

5.15 pm

Mr. O'Brien: I am saying that it is a policy option for the Committee to decide. If the Committee decides to accept it, the provisions are required. The hon. Gentleman, as a lawyer, will know that judges have construed, interpreted and developed criminal and common law over the years. To answer the question posed by his hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury about whether there is a risk that someone could be prosecuted for aiding and abetting, I have to say that there would be a small risk, because judges develop the law. The hon. Member for Gainsborough well knows that the common law is always developing, but he is asking me to go too far. I am advised that to ensure that the issue is covered, we need to make the provision explicit in the schedule. The House of Commons has decided to ensure prosecutions so, to answer the hon. Gentleman's question, the provision is necessary.

Mr. Leigh: I have a second question for the Minister. Is he advising the Committee that, in previous legislation creating summary offences, Parliament has deemed it necessary to include similar paragraphs to those in the schedule, rather than relying on common law interpretation?

Mr. O'Brien: Parliament may do so in certain circumstances and not others, as it is not always felt necessary to include such provisions in legislation. Parliament has to make a policy judgment and, in this case, the House of Commons has decided to include the provisions. It does not need to do so; it could make a policy judgment that it does not wish to prosecute people in such circumstances. In that sense, the hon. Gentleman's question concerns not a legal or technical matter, but a policy judgment. The House of Commons has decided that it wishes to deal with those sorts of offences.

Mr. Öpik: I wanted to ask the Minister about coercion, but he may be coming to that.

Mr. O'Brien: There are a number of issues that I have not yet dealt with, but I shall do so.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) raised a number of points. He asked about people who may plead guilty because they do not have the resources to fight a case. That is not a reason to fail to create an offence. If there were a potential mischief, we would consider legal aid issues. It is possible to imagine a defendant pleading guilty for all sorts of reasons. Is that just? No. Does it happen? Yes. I have been aware of people whom I suspected had not committed offences, but may have wanted to get the matter over and done with, so pleaded guilty. I may suspect that, but as long as a defendant does not tell me so, I can represent him as a lawyer. Is that more likely to happen under these provisions than any others? There is no reason to believe that it would.

Mr. Öpik: I do not quibble with what the Minister said about amendment No. 37; he is probably right that paragraph 2 is in the spirit of what the House of Commons wants. Such sensitive issues are more likely to arise in close-knit environments. Will he consider the need to address the issue, perhaps through legal aid or some support mechanism, that would enable those who feel most intimidated in the coercive environment that I have described to be represented in order to get justice? I am quibbling not with his underlying concern about the spirit of the House's wishes, but with the legal situation that might occur in the countryside.

Mr. O'Brien: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. He is asking me to be sympathetic on an issue of policy. The House of Commons has agreed that the schedule should come into force. The hon. Gentleman suggests that we insert a new view of policy into it. The proper way in which to debate that is for him to table an amendment at the appropriate time. I would then be happy to discuss the problem with him.

One of my key concerns about the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Aylesbury is that to which I referred on amendment No. 33: a risk of creating a problem. Not only would we have unclear law. A tenant farmer on a short tenancy could not be obliged by a landlord who wanted hunting on the land to agree—under the terms of the lease, the landlord might be at risk of committing a criminal offence—but he might be subjected to oral persuasion. If, after becoming the legal tenant of the land, the farmer is persuaded that he must oblige the landowner and allow hunting, he could be criminally liable. Under the proposals of the hon. Member for Aylesbury, the landlord might be able to get away with that.

In my area and many others across the country, there are people who own a large amount of land that is sub-let to tenant farmers who exercise a great deal of influence in the countryside. I am sure that none of the substantial landowners in my area would seek to breach the law or put their tenants under undue pressure, but it is conceivable that someone somewhere might seek to exercise such influence on a tenant with a short tenancy in order to get them to give permission. The tenant may feel obliged to do so. That would be a worrying turn of events and could end with the tenant farmer being prosecuted and the landowner getting away with it, which would be very regrettable.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire also asked about a defence for tenant farmers who are pressurised. There is a defence of duress in the criminal law, but it is defined as, for instance, having a gun put to one's head. However, there is the issue of the level of undue influence or putting people under a lot of pressure. We have to ask whether that is a sufficient defence. The hon. Gentleman might have to consider how he wishes the matter to develop as one of policy. It would, of course, always be open to a tenant farmer or anyone else to place in mitigation before a court that the circumstances in which he was pressurised by a landlord were such that he had little choice in what he did. In that situation, the court might feel able to grant an absolute discharge. The danger of that is that the tenant would then have a criminal conviction, albeit one from which he had an absolute discharge. I know of cases where a court has made it clear that although someone technically committed an offence, they did so reasonably and that others might have done the same in similar circumstances. It therefore grants an absolute discharge and lets the person go away.

The problem raised by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is a wider issue to do with criminal law. If someone feels that they are obliged to steal or do anything else unlawful, the same issues will always arise. There is no specific problem in this Bill that does not occur in other areas of the criminal law. There is no reason, therefore, why we should treat it differently.

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