Hunting Bill

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Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, which will be acknowledged by the many hon. Members who have spoken to tenant farmers in their constituencies.

5.39 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.57 pm

On resuming--

Mr. Lidington: The Minister in his response made a number of points--

Mr. Leigh: Unfortunately, the Minister is not here. Should we adjourn until he returns?

The Chairman: Order. That is a decision for the Chair, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for his suggestion.

Mr. Leigh: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. I have never known a Standing Committee to proceed without a Minister present. We are here to question the Government, so what is the point of continuing if the Minister is somewhere else?

The Chairman: Order. We are quorate and we may proceed without the Minister. It is desirable that the Minister should be present if responses are required from him, but I rule that we proceed.

Mr. Lidington: The Minister, in his response to the debate--

THE CHAIRMAN'S attention having been called to the fact that ten Members were not present, he suspended the proceedings; and other Members having come into the room and ten Members being present, the proceedings were resumed.

Mr. O'Brien: I apologise for arriving late. I was waylaid, because I had to deal with a person—[Interruption.] I note that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) keeps making sedentary interventions. His constituents might prefer him to speak for them rather than speaking in that way, if he has something to say.

I confirm for the hon. Member for Gainsborough that I have had the opportunity to examine my copy of ``Archbold'', which I had downstairs, and that his interpretation of section 44(1) of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 appears to be accurate. However, that does not cause any problem in terms of the schedule, because it is a policy decision whether we clarify the matter in the schedule and make it certain in a way that it might not be if we relied on the interpretation of the common law issue of aiding and abetting.

6 pm

Mr. Lidington: I sensed, during our brief previous adjournment, that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) had a lightness of step, as he felt that his moment of glory on the Front Bench was about to dawn.

I am glad to be able to respond to the arguments that the Minister proposed as reasons for not accepting our amendments. His least plausible argument was that, by accepting any of the amendments, he would be challenging the will of the House as expressed on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House. That amounts to an argument for this Committee to leave the schedule untouched and unamended, whatever flaws or faults we find in it. It is our job, however, to discover exactly what impact the legislation is likely to have on the people that we represent, whatever view we take of the principle of the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough drew attention to the fact that the Bill will create new criminal offences. Hon. Members should tease out the meaning of those offences and the extent of criminal liability in as great a detail as possible during our proceedings, so that people can understand how the law is changing and how behaviour that is at present lawful may become unlawful if the Bill is enacted.

Much time was spent on a learned exchange of views over the relationship between common law principles of aiding and abetting and the supposed need for a statutory offence of allowing land to be used for hunting with dogs. The exegesis of ``Archbold'' that we have heard during the proceedings has not, to my mind, cleared up the ambiguity that has surrounded the subject. The Minister's previous intervention seemed to suggest that those common law principles might enable a prosecution to be brought against a landowner who allowed land to be used, but that one could not be certain whether that was the case, and that as an aid to certainty, a new criminal offence is being created, in paragraph 2 of the schedule. I remain uncertain whether the ambiguity has been cleared up altogether.

Then we heard the argument that one could rely on the evidence of the need to prove guilt beyond all reasonable doubt. We all accept that police officers and the Crown Prosecution Service act in good faith. However, as one hon. Member said in a previous debate, it is also true that we all have experience of daft decisions being taken to pursue a prosecution. It is important that the law should be crafted to avoid that risk. For someone who is innocent and has a completely unblemished record simply to be arrested, taken to the police station and charged is stigma enough—even if the Crown Prosecution Service finally rules that there is insufficient evidence to justify bringing formal court proceedings.

We were then told that there was no risk that people could be caught if they allowed their dog to go after rats and found that the dog chased a fox instead, in an area in which they had been given permission to hunt. I was reassured by what the Minister said—at least, as regards the intentions behind the schedule in that respect. However, a certain amount was left unclear, and there seemed to be a grey area in the Bill.

Finally, the Minister made the argument, on a subject to which the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) also alluded, that one of the amendments might have a perverse effect. It was said that it might make life more difficult for those tenant farmers who wanted to stop hunting taking place on their land but were under moral pressure from their freeholder. That is a reasonable criticism, and I will think about it further.

As I said during my introductory remarks, I intended that the amendments should be treated as probing amendments. I did not intend to press them to a Division, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Lidington: I beg to move amendment No. 35, in page 19, line 29, leave out `knowingly' and insert `deliberately'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 36, in page 19, line 29, leave out `knowingly permits' and insert 'gives express permission for'.

No. 38, in page 19, line 32, leave out `knowingly' and insert `deliberately'.

No. 39, in page 19, line 32, leave out `knowingly permits' and insert `gives express permission for'.

Mr. Lidington: This group of amendments deals with the meaning of the word ``knowingly''. Amendment No. 35 would replace ``knowingly'' with ``deliberately'' in respect of the offence of allowing someone to hunt on one's land. Amendment No. 36 would tackle the same issue in a slightly different way. Amendments Nos. 38 and 39 form a pair and make the same changes in wording to that paragraph of the schedule that makes it a criminal offence for one to use or make available a dog for the purpose of hunting with hounds. These are probing amendments, rather than ones over which I intend to seek a pitched battle. What concerns me is the question of what someone has to know for an offence to be committed.

Let us take some examples. What happens if a man knowingly permits a dog to be used for flushing out animals that are allowed to be so treated under part II, but then an offence is inadvertently committed? Let us suppose that a landowner lets people use his land for lawful activities, perhaps for the limited hunting with dogs that would be allowed under the exceptions listed under part II, but an offence is then committed by those whom the landowner allowed. What does ``knowingly permit'' mean in such circumstances? For an offence to have been committed, does permission to hunt have to be given positively or is there liability in a man's failure to prevent the criminal act from taking place when he has the power to prevent it? If he omits to take certain action, will he be criminally liable?

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): I am intrigued at the hon. Gentleman's line of thinking. I understand from earlier revelations that he is not a lawyer. Well, neither am I, so between us we may be able to cast greater illumination on the debate. He asked what a person had to know, as if it was a matter concerning the knowledge of a fact. That was an interesting philosophical speculation, but in common parlance, are we not concerned about a person knowing what he is doing rather than knowing facts? Surely courts are well used to setting such tests in respect of human behaviour. They have to judge what is, or is not, an offence on the basis of the evidence before them.

Mr. Lidington: The right hon. Gentleman may be correct, but the schedule's phrasing is uncertain. From my reading of it, I am not sure what a person has to do to demonstrate that he did not knowingly give permission. To prove an offence, the key question is whether it is enough for the landowner or the dog owner to state that he had given permission for hunting to take place illegally, or whether it would be acceptable for the prosecution to say, ``You claim, o landowner, that you did not give permission for people to use your land for hunting, but we have witnesses to show that you gave a nod and a wink or were aware that something was happening, but took no action to prevent it.'' Guilt could arise from an act of omission.

Mr. Michael: The hon. Gentleman is again extending his argument into a philosophical discussion rather than a legal debate. When dealing with children, we must judge whether they understood what they were doing—along the lines of, ``That was naughty. You knew it was naughty.'' All of us have to deal with such matters. A good philosopher can make a real meal, several lectures and even a contribution to a Standing Committee on the basis of that question, but in practice the position is simple, and it is one that lawyers and the courts are used to dealing with in a sensible manner.

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