Hunting Bill

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Mr. Mike O'Brien: The right hon. Gentleman is advancing an argument which I suspect conflicts with one that he may have advanced on a previous occasion. I believe that he was a member of the Government who supported the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, which protected badgers from, among other things, terriers. He is concerned about legislating against the instincts of animals. How does this Bill differ from the legislation that he supported as a member of the Government?

Mr. Gummer: I thank the Minister for so eloquently reading out the note passed to him to remind us of the Protection of Badgers Bill. In case people do not recognise what happens in such circumstances, I shall speak about the Protection of Badgers Bill—[Interruption.] It is all very well for the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary to speak on the issue from a sedentary position. Let me put the matter clearly.

The Protection of Badgers Bill reminds us that many on this side of the House have a long record of fighting hard on animal welfare issues. I have always believed that the way in which badgers were dug out and the other things that happened to them were totally unacceptable. Not only was I a member of the Government at the time; I supported the Bill with enthusiasm. The circumstances envisaged in that Act are sufficiently clearly defined, and the other arrangements are so placed, that it would be almost impossible for someone who was not bent on badger baiting to be found in such circumstances. That is the difference.

It is all very well for members of the Committee to look up such references. We are not talking not about people going out at night with lights and the like, but about me, or any other member of the Committee, going for a walk with a dog and the dog chasing a rabbit—something perfectly normal that ordinary people do. No one can mistake my going out with a dog for my desiring to dig up badgers. The Minister's point, although eloquently put and well researched, is wrong. Large numbers of people who would never have been concerned with the Bill that related to badgers are being drawn into a situation into which they have no need to be drawn. Why is that? I believe that the Government have acted with the best of intentions, but they have shown that they depend far too much on the advice of people who are not unbiased viewers of the issue.

When the Government gave the House a series of possibilities on how to handle the issue of hunting, it was perfectly right for them to ensure that those possibilities commended themselves to, as it were, the Bill's promoters. However, in seeking to implement one of those possibilities, it is the Government's duty to be guided not by those whose single-minded intention is to deliver one particular result, but by the wider public interest of ensuring that, in passing a Bill to ban hunting, they do not inadvertently stretch it beyond what they ever intended.

I hope that the Government will no longer quote in aid outside organisations to the effect that they introduced the Bill because those organisations thought that it would be a good idea. It is perfectly reasonable to say that the basic proposal that has been decided is one that such an organisation supports, but making the Bill work is the responsibility of the Government, not of Deadline 2000 or any other organisation.

The Government should not make criminals of people who clearly are not criminals. In the previous debate, it was suggested that I was in grave danger of being brought up in court if I did not put up a notice saying that I banned hunting on my land. It seems that I will also be in such danger when I walk my dog. I do not understand why the Government do not see how ridiculous they make themselves by trying to legislate against things that animals do naturally.

Interestingly, during a previous sitting, that long-standing opponent of hunting, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), intervened on the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed to ask whether it is likely that rabbits would be present in areas where rats might be chased. The fact that he had to ask that question brings me back to my problem with the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Foster: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer: I will finish the allegation so that the hon. Gentleman may make his riposte with greater knowledge.

The fact that he does not know that the circumstance about which he asked is not only likely to arise, but likely to arise on many occasions, leads many Conservative Members to believe that many of his views are entirely theoretical and unconnected with the countryside. What annoys us is the inability to understand that we are talking about people's livelihoods.

Mr. Foster: It would be useful for the right hon. Gentleman to clarify his remarks. My intervention on the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed specifically concerned hunting rats in a barn. As for the question of whether I know about the countryside, does the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) know for how many years I lived in the countryside, having been born and brought up there?

Mr. Gummer: I am talking not about being born and brought up in the countryside, but about knowing about it, and I shall judge that on the evidence of the hon. Gentleman's speeches. It is difficult to believe that someone knows much about the countryside if he has to ask whether there might be rabbits near barns containing rats.

Mr. Foster: In the barn?

Mr. Gummer: In the barn. The hon. Gentleman shows a lack of understanding of large areas of the countryside.

The Chairman: Order. I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman, who is treading a thin line. If he is talking about behaviour that comes naturally to animals such as dogs, he is within the terms of paragraph 3, but if he talks about knowledge of the countryside, he is in danger of making a Second Reading speech on the Bill in general.

Mr. Gummer: I have, indeed, been led astray, although delightfully and pleasantly, by the hon. Member for Worcester, and I apologise. I return to the behaviour that is natural to dogs, if not to human beings.

The natural behaviour of dogs is to chase other animals. Human beings have organised that natural behaviour; that is what hunting is. The Bill will prevent them from doing so in an organised way. I cannot believe that it is sensible or workable not only to stop that organised behaviour, but to impose upon people the duty of ensuring that their dogs do not hunt, except those species and in those circumstances that the law allows. That will impose an intolerable burden on the owner of a dog. To do so in a schedule that makes it necessary for the owner of the dog to prove that he did not intend to hunt is a fundamental invasion of liberty and is wholly different from the Government's position. The Government came to power with many high-sounding phrases about extending people's freedom, not restricting it.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): In terms of natural behaviour, does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that sheepdogs have a natural inclination to chase sheep? It is incumbent on people who own sheepdogs as pets to train their animals or take measures to prevent them from chasing sheep. Does not the same apply to terriers, which are highly trainable dogs? If they can be trained to go after specific species when they are hunting, they can be similarly trained to ignore specific species if it is an offence to chase them.

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Lady is now suggesting that the Bill covers the compulsory training of terriers not to chase some animals, but to chase other animals. That is certainly not something that the Committee of the whole House decided on.

Mrs. Lawrence: I own a terrier. I recognise that terriers are sparky, intelligent dogs with natural tendencies, but part of my duty as a responsible owner is to ensure that my terrier does nothing that is a nuisance to society as a whole or that causes cruelty.

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Lady referred to a nuisance to society and causing cruelty. She must understand that when animals kill or chase other animals, they do not cause cruelty. That is what animals do. We cannot impose on animals the moral standards of human beings. That is like arguing that animals love their owners. They do not; love is an emotion that only human beings can feel. We must be sensible about this.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Has my right hon. Friend seen reports in the public prints in the past few days about the outrageous behaviour of cats? What is he going to do about organised gangs of cats that roam the countryside, killing at will? Can they, like the poor unfortunate terrier in the possession of the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence), be disciplined not to hunt?

The Chairman: Order. The agents of these heinous offences are specifically defined as dogs, not cats.

11.15 am

Mr. Gummer: I will resist the temptation that was so elegantly dangled before me by my hon. Friend, but I think that it is within the rules of the debate to make my point by drawing a brief parallel. In effect, the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire is suggesting that we should legislate to insist that owners prevent their cats from chasing birds. I am not discussing her suggestion; I am merely drawing an exact parallel that has exactly the same faults. It imputes to animals human morality and is in that sense anthropomorphic; it suggests that animals can be treated as humans; and it places an unacceptable demand on human beings. I am not prepared to tell my Aunt Maude—again, I am drawing a parallel—that she must not keep a cat unless she can prevent it from chasing birds.

Mr. Beith: I think that I can see a way forward, Mr. O'Hara. Could the Committee observe a test in which the terrier of the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire must distinguish between a weasel and a stoat, or a rabbit and a rat, and avoid attacking the prohibited species?

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