Hunting Bill

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Mr. Banks: No, it is not the intention of the promoters of the Bill. The big difference between the two sides is that we want to make the Bill work, but I cannot be certain that Opposition Members want to make it work. What the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said yesterday in an intervention is correct. The majority of hon. Members who voted for the Bill and the majority of those who support the Bill in the country think that it is a Bill banning foxhunting, hare coursing, mink hunting and deer hunting. They do not think that it is a Bill, nor did they propose it to be one, about dogs chasing rabbits and rats. I hope that both sides of the Committee listened to that. We are listening. We want to make the Bill work. I hope that Opposition Members will join us in that.

Mr. Maples: I do not disguise my view that I hope that the Bill never becomes law but, if it does, I want it to be what people intended it to be, with no grey areas where people may accidentally commit criminal offences which they did not know about and which it was never the intention of the Government or the promoters of the Bill to make into criminal offences.

We tabled amendments to clause 1, which would have exempted rats, rabbits and, I think, mink. All the Government Members voted against those amendments, which would have solved much of the problem, certainly in relation to rabbits and rats, which is what most of the argument has been about. If the schedule simply said ``If you let your dog go and it chases a mink'', I would not have had so much of a problem with it, but it says ``If you let it go and it chases anything''—rabbit, rat or any kind of mammal. That imposes a strict liability on people if they simply let their dog outside.

The schedule provides that a person commits an offence if he:

    ``permits a dog ... to be used in the course of the commission of an offence''.

It is not clear what that means. Does it mean used by people who are hunting? If the schedule said that, it would be clearer, but it simply says ``used'' in the passive tense. The dog is being ``used'' if one simply lets it go. If, however, the schedule means a dog that is being used by somebody who is hunting—pursuing a wild mammal with dogs, which is the definition of hunting—it should say that, but it does not.

Therefore, I have two specific criticisms about the drafting of the schedule, which I hope the Minister will be able to deal with when he replies. The first is that one could commit the offence accidentally, and the second is that nobody knows what the word ``used'' means.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal dwelt on the morality or lack of it of the Bill. It has seemed to me from the start that if the Bill is not about improving animal welfare or morality, it is about nothing. It is interesting to note that the paragraph deals solely with dogs. The Burns report made it clear that organised hunting kills some 14,000 foxes a year.

Mr. Leigh: Ten thousand.

Mr. Maples: In any event, we are talking about thousands of foxes. However, according to an article in today's edition of The Times, cats kill 233 million mammals and birds. I am aware of the distinction that the Bill draws in that regard, but I should point out that I would far rather that my cats killed shrews than robins. Cats have decimated the starlings, sparrows and—I am sad to say—robins in our garden. We have two cats and I know that the hon. Member for West Ham also has one. Perhaps his is the Macavity of London and does not kill too many animals, or kills them in secret at least so it will not be found out.

Why does the Bill exclude the single biggest killer, while protecting 10,000 foxes that are vermin? Cats kill 233 million mammals and birds that are, on the whole, fairly harmless creatures. In some cases, cats do serious damage to the populations of such species. What is the moral distinction that paragraph 3 attempts to draw between letting my dog out of the back door, knowing that it has a propensity to chase and kill rabbits, and letting my cat out of the back door, knowing that it has a propensity to eat shrews, mice and birds? There is no moral difference.

The Chairman: Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to make his point, but he should be aware that we have already debated the inclusion or exclusion of categories of animals that hunt or are hunted.

Mr. Maples: I accept your admonition, Mr. O'Hara. However, I am trying to understand why the paragraph is included in the Bill. The amendment would remove the paragraph which has no place in the Bill. It achieves no moral aim and I am merely trying to illustrate why that is so. It is of a piece with other exemptions in paragraph 7, which also seem rather arbitrary. The cat point is perhaps slightly out of order, but it illustrates the enormous damage that is done to wildlife by pets that we own, keep, feed and let outside.

As I have said, if this Bill is not about morality and animal welfare, it is about nothing. If there were genuine proof that the welfare of foxes—which must be killed—would be improved by abolishing hunting, I would find it difficult to continue to support hunting. I do not hunt—I oppose the Bill simply on the ground that it would remove an existing liberty that people should be free to enjoy, unless an overwhelming case can be made that hunting is unnecessarily cruel to animals.

Most people outside this place—and inside it, for that matter—probably thought that the Bill was confined to foxhunting. On discovering that it also deals with hare coursing, beagling and deer hunting, some might have said, ``Okay, that's fine. I accept that you want to prevent people on horseback from chasing an animal with a pack of hounds.'' However, they did not imagine that the Bill would deal with dogs that, on being let out the back door, chase rabbits.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: I have been persuaded by contributions such as the hon. Gentleman's and I am fearful that the Bill will be ridiculed as totally unworkable. I am giving serious consideration to tabling an amendment to exclude rabbits.

Mr. Maples: We are making some progress, Mr. O'Hara. Our efforts are not all in vain.

The Chairman: Order. We have had that debate.

Mr. Maples: You are quite right, Mr. O'Hara, in saying that that debate is over, in that our amendment to paragraph 1 was defeated. However, if amendment No. 44 were accepted and paragraph 3 were consequently deleted, the objective that the hon. Gentleman is considering proposing would be achieved.

The Bill is so widely drawn that it is difficult to believe that it is concerned with animal welfare. It has been introduced by those who, although they may dislike beagling, hare coursing and stag hunting, object primarily to foxhunting. It has been dressed up with a lot of other bits and pieces around the edges to make it look like a piece of animal welfare legislation, which it palpably is not. One must ask how that came about.

It is interesting that throughout our debates, whenever we have advanced a technical argument about why a word is or is not in the Bill, the Minister has said, ``You'll have to ask Deadline 2000: it's their schedule.'' When I said, ``But hang on, this is a Government Bill'', he said, ``Well, the first schedule came from the hunting lobby, the second schedule came from the Middle Way Group''—supported by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), who is not here, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff)—``and this schedule came from Deadline 2000.'' That is a strange way for a Government to proceed with legislation. In effect, they have accepted a Bill wholesale from outside lobbying organisations.

Mr. Beith: It was not necessarily unreasonable for the Government to present to the House the proposals of three different groups, and I do not criticise them for doing so. What is puzzling is the absence of any Government amendments to the schedule, as it is now becoming necessary for them to ensure that the Bill is workable and can achieve the objectives for which the House voted.

Mr. Maples: The right hon. Gentleman puts it correctly. It was reasonable for the Government to give the House the choice and to accept the alternatives that were proposed by the various bodies involved in the argument. However, as soon as the House had opted for one of the schedules, it became the Government's schedule. This is a Government Bill in the name of the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and, among others, the Minister. They cannot cop out by saying that it is somebody else's.

The Minister's argument that the schedule came from elsewhere would be more acceptable if some Government amendments had been tabled, because I have never heard of a Bill coming into the House from outside in respect of which the Minister does not say that it is technically unworkable.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I must make it clear that the Government did not simply accept a schedule drafted by someone from outside, but had parliamentary draftsmen work through it to consider the policy issues put forward by Deadline 2000. This is a Government Bill, and I have stressed since we began debating the schedule that it is our obligation to ensure that it is workable. It is for the Committee to consider the policy issues involved. For example, removing rabbits has been suggested. I might have some personal sympathy with that, but my objective is to ensure that the Bill becomes workable law. It traduces me for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the Government seek to introduce unworkable law. We want workable law, but there are some policy issues involved that the House has already taken a view on.

Mr. Maples: I accept that that is the position: the Minister has made it clear before. I am simply saying that this is the Minister's Bill and he cannot get away with saying, when he is asked about dogs working underground or rats being chased on to a neighbour's land, that we will have to ask Deadline 2000. He cannot claim that he is playing a neutral role and that this is someone else's proposal that we are at liberty to amend. The amendments that we have tabled have been perfectly sensible, and do not appear to be out of tune with the House's decision two weeks ago, yet he has whipped his party to vote against them. He cannot have it both ways: either it is a Government Bill or it is not.

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Prepared 1 February 2001