Hunting Bill

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Mr. Garnier: The width of paragraph 3 takes it into the realms of imprecision. It catches, wittingly or unwittingly, the innocent people whom the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The canard offered by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) about dogs chasing rabbits when there is no intent to hunt by the person involved has been debated on many occasions. The suggestion misleads those who might read our debates in Hansard. I have made it clear that an intention is required. We will prosecute people, not dogs, and only if they break the criminal law.

Mr. Garnier: The Minister has not dealt with the point raised by my temporary right hon. Friend.

Mr. Beith: I invite the hon. and learned Gentleman to consider a case where the person walking a dog had previously engaged in legal country sports. The presumption could be made that he intended the dog to chase the rabbit. He may then face prosecution. He may be able to prove his innocence in court but he would face the rigours of a prosecution.

Mr. Garnier: The right hon. Gentleman is right. We will discuss those matters again when we debate amendment No. 50, which deals with the burden of proof. It will be no comfort to the innocent defendant that an appeal court in this country, or the European Court of Human Rights, acquits him after he has been fined and has had his vehicle, property or dog confiscated. The dog may even have been destroyed.

The definition of ``dog owner'' in paragraph 23 is so wide that it would catch people who are neither with nor in control of the dog at the time of the alleged offence. It would be an absurdity for such individuals to be prosecuted. The Minister says, in good faith, that such prosecutions will not take place. Indeed they will not under the Crown Prosecution Service; I doubt that the police will want to bring such offences to its attention. However, I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer from the Minister or from any Committee member who takes an interest in the League Against Cruel Sports, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, or any other politico animal welfare rights organisation, about whether individuals or organisations with an agenda would bring prosecutions to test the law, as the Bill will allegedly define it.

The Minister would not be able to do anything to prevent that. Although the Law Officers or the Crown Prosecution Service could take over such private prosecutions and attempt to stop them, that would not prevent the initiating of such prosecutions. To prosecute the sorts of individuals about whom the right hon. Gentleman and I have been talking would be deeply upsetting for them, and an absurdity to the rest of us.

The offences under paragraphs 1 and 3 cover situations in which, in practice, it would be unreasonable to prosecute, but that would not prevent the prosecutions from being brought. Furthermore, the definition covers both the owner and the person in control or charge of the dog, who often might not be the same person. I use the word ``person'' to refer both to human beings and to non-human owners. Paragraph 6(1) states:

    ``This paragraph applies where an offence under paragraph 2, 3 or 4 is committed by a body corporate.''

A body corporate is, of course, a person at law. Would the intention be to prosecute both the owner and the person in charge of the dog when an offence has been committed? Perhaps Members who take a different view from me will be able to answer that question.

My main concern is that, although schedule 3 reflects the intention expressed by the Committee of the whole House a fortnight ago, many of those who voted for option 3 might not have studied the wording with the detailed attention to examination with which the Committee is charged. They were, perhaps, thinking in broad terms, along the lines that they do not like hunting and think it should be brought to a halt, but I suggest that they had not considered some of the problems that will arise as the Committee examines the details.

It is neither here nor there whether the Government take a neutral stance. They are the custodians of the legislation, and they must bring it into law—if it is to become law—in a way that is understandable to those who are liable to be prosecuted and fined and have their dogs taken away and killed. The Act must also be understandable to the courts, so that they can reach finite and sensible judgments; to the prosecuting authorities that will have to sift the evidence and consider whether it is in the public interest that prosecutions brought by public authorities should be pursued; and to the activists who will wish to test the law beyond destruction. Despite the Government's best intentions, the Bill, and in particular paragraphs 3 and 23, do not meet that test. The provisions will allow the prosecution of as many people as possible, without advancing the cause of animal welfare by one jot or tittle.

As the Minister has frequently said, the Bill is supposed to attack people and not dogs. However, by throwing his net over the English and Welsh public—the Bill extends only to England and Wales—he will be, sadly and I hope unwittingly, the author of a draconian and grossly unjust piece of legislation.

Mr. Beith rose—

The Chairman: Order. Before we proceed, I draw the Committee's attention to the fact that the mover of the amendment spoke extensively on paragraph 23. As there are no amendments tabled to it, and as it is relevant to paragraph 3, it is in order that it is mentioned in our discussions. Amendments that are eligible for selection might in future be tabled to paragraph 23, but I may rule that they be moved formally. I advise Committee members that now is their opportunity to debate the terms of paragraph 23, should they wish.

Mr. Beith: I am grateful for that guidance, Mr. O'Hara. I am not sure whether I will table amendments to paragraph 23, because it seems to provide a frighteningly comprehensive definition. It is brought into play by the words that the amendment would remove.

As I understand it, the Minister's task is to ensure that the House has the opportunity to give effect to its decision in choosing schedule 3 over the other schedules: the decision to ban foxhunting and hare coursing. Part of his responsibility must be to ensure that the end result is not a ban on all sorts of other things that the House did not think it was banning. That is why such paragraphs have to be handled with considerable care. They, along with other parts of the Bill, appear to ban lots of activities, sometimes for stated purposes that have nothing to do with the objective of schedule 3. For example, we were told that sending a dog underground is to be banned because it is cruel to the dog. That is nothing to do with hon. Members' intention when they voted for a ban on foxhunting and hare coursing.

The amendment would remove words that are much more general than, for example, those in paragraph 4. Although I have yet to examine that paragraph sufficiently to be sure that it is perfectly drafted, it clearly concerns a hare coursing event. I am not in favour of it, but I understand what it means. The words that we wish to remove are too broad in allowing people to be prosecuted for knowingly permitting something to happen, when they were merely walking or in charge of a dog.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I am a little surprised by my right hon. Friend saying that the use of dogs underground and the welfare implications for animals in general, whether that be of the dog or of the animal that it is chasing, are nothing to do with the reasons why people voted for a ban on hunting. I thought that, in the Committee of the whole House, we were arguing about the totality of the Bill's animal welfare implications. Part of that totality concerns both the animal doing the chasing and the animal being chased underground.

Mr. Beith: I invite my hon. Friend to comb the Hansard report of the Committee of the whole House and find a reference to any hon. Member who thought that the Bill should ban a dog going underground on the basis of the dog's welfare. I look forward to the results of his research. I do not think that the dog's welfare was in anyone's mind. The Bill will ban things that nobody—or only a few—thought that they were banning when they cast their vote for schedule 3.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: As the right hon. Gentleman is pursuing the point about dogs underground, he should know that Deadline 2000 has told us that, as part of its consideration of the policy behind the schedule, it is concerned about that.

Mr. Beith: I am fascinated by that intervention. The Minister is like ``Peake's Commentary on the Bible''—if one wants to know what Deadline 2000 means, he will provide an interpretation. However, I am straying from my purpose. I simply quoted an example of the Committee of the whole House not having in mind some of the bans that would result. I want to give a more concrete example of the problem.

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): How does the right hon. Gentleman come to understand the mind of the House? Is it not rather insulting to assume that hon. Members had either not read the Bill, which is fairly short and clear, or not understood what they read?

Mr. Beith: I will quote an example. One of my hon. Friends has written to another of my hon. Friends to express concerns about the Bill. That hon. Friend was a strong supporter of the ban on foxhunting but is raising questions about the implications of provisions such as that in paragraph 3, which go beyond what my hon. Friend had understood the Bill to mean. I was told that in confidence, so I will not give the names of the hon. Members concerned, but my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury is aware of that correspondence.

10.45 am

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) rose—

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