Hunting Bill

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Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman has made a few contributions to the Committee's proceedings, but he has not often been here to represent the interests of his constituents. If he had been, he might have understood that the kind of whipping to which he referred has not occurred, and he might have heard the hon. and learned Member for Harborough praise the neutral way in which I have presented the Bill. I have sought, on behalf of the Government, to preserve that neutrality throughout. The hon. Gentleman must not traduce me in this way.

Mr. Maples: We shall see in a few weeks' time who is better at representing his constituents on the issue. I think that I have been here for every vote bar one, when I was in bed with flu. I have certainly been here much more frequently than many Labour Members who have voted in Divisions but are not here now.

The Chairman: Order. I must intervene. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal made a long speech, but I was able to compliment him on the fact that his central concern—albeit with more lapses as he went on—was whether the wording of the schedule was workable. That was a legitimate question to ask and to debate. I am waiting for the hon. Gentleman to address himself specifically to the schedule.

3.15 pm

Mr. Maples: I was led astray by the intervention.

The amendment would remove paragraph 3 from the Bill. We must try to explain why the paragraph is unworkable and ask why it is in the Bill, because it does not seem necessary to the primary purpose of the Bill. I am trying—it may be a vain attempt—to persuade some right hon. and hon. Members opposite to ask themselves why paragraph 3 is in the Bill and to vote for the amendment.

The Government did not come up with the provision. Deadline 2000 came up with it, as the Minister said repeatedly last week. Deadline 2000 turns out to be an umbrella group for the RSPCA, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the League Against Cruel Sports, all of which have lobbied long and hard against foxhunting, but not, as far as I know, against dogs in the garden going off and chasing a rabbit. Why is the scope of the Bill being widened so much? The provision before us, and several other provisions, seem to be in the Bill to make an anti-foxhunting measure look like an animal welfare measure.

Mr. O'Brien: If I may, I shall deal with that point. Paragraph 6 of the letter from Bill Swann of Deadline 2000, which has been circulated to all Committee members, explains the proposal in terms of policy and the reasons for it. The hon. Gentleman should have received that letter this afternoon.

Mr. Maples: I did receive the letter and I thought that it was a little thin. In many ways it supports my argument that an anti-foxhunting measure is being dressed up to look like an animal welfare measure. The Government have accepted the provision wholesale and, apparently, no amendments will be allowed to that proposal from an outside group. That makes one wonder what their motives are. They are responsible for the provision being in the Bill and I believe that it is there to broaden the scope of the Bill. Such provisions were not in previous private Member's Bills.

One of the parties to Deadline 2000 is the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which indirectly gave £1.1 million to the Labour party through the political animal lobby.

The Chairman: Order. I must rule that out of order. The origin of the Bill and its relationship with any political party is irrelevant to our debate, which is whether paragraph 3 should be removed from the Bill on its merits. I ask the hon. Gentleman to confine his comments to that.

Mr. Maples: May I seek your guidance, Mr. O'Hara? We are trying to understand the motive for paragraph 3. The Minister said that it was in the Bill because it was proposed by a group outside the House called Deadline 2000. Members opposite are speaking against the removal of the paragraph from the Bill and I am trying to understand the motive for that. If, as it seems to me, there is a clear financial link between those who are proposing the provision and the Government, who oppose the amendment, the Minister must explain that.

The Chairman: Order. I understand that there was a free vote on the Bill in the House. Any financial links, whether they exist of not, are irrelevant to our debate on the amendment.

Mr. Banks: It may well be that the motive of those who proposed the provision is to prevent loopholes and that is not relevant to any payment of money. Heavy clues have been given on this side of the argument that in trying to shut the loopholes, the Bill may be becoming faulty and may fail in terms of establishing the principle—namely, to abolish foxhunting, hare coursing, deer hunting and mink hunting. I hope that at an appropriate stage an appropriate amendment will be tabled.

Before the hon. Gentleman talks about money given to political parties by supporters of the Bill, he should remember that the International Fund for Animal Welfare gave money to the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats, and I have the photographs to prove that to him.

Mr. Maples: I hesitate to allow myself to be drawn down that cul-de-sac. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman's point, but I think that IFAW gave £100,000 to the Conservative party and the Liberals, and £1.1 million to the Labour party. That is the kind of cover that is being created in the Bill. Those were token gestures to allow it to say, ``We're an all-party group'', which it is not.

Mr. Gummer: Will my hon. Friend take up the point made by the hon. Member for West Ham? I happen to believe that the hon. Gentleman holds these views, but I happen to disagree with him. I think that they are irrational and take strong exception to them, but he holds them decidedly, emphatically and honourably. He suggests, however, that in seeking to block loopholes, the paragraph may have gone too far. At least he is indicating that we may reach a consensus and find something that does not cause trouble. Would my hon. Friend say, at least to the hon. Member for West Ham, that if we could find a way through, Opposition Members would be happy to try to accomplish that? It would make the Bill's operation much better. Even though we still disagreed with the Bill, it would be much easier to defend its operation in the countryside.

Mr. Maples: I am interested in the tone of the interventions from the hon. Members for West Ham and for Pendle. My right hon. Friend puts his finger on it. I would love to see the Government or a Labour Member table an amendment that tightened the definition of the offence.

Paragraph 1 states:

    ``A person commits an offence if he hunts a wild mammal with a dog''.

The schedule then defines hunt, wild mammal and dog. That is clear and I understand that, but other unnecessary offences are then created in paragraphs 2 and 3. The hon. Member for West Ham suggested that perhaps they block loopholes. I can see that there is a possibility of that, although perhaps we would have to define hunting more precisely. The danger of proceeding in that way is that one may widen the offence to make all sorts of things criminal offences which, presumably, the hon. Member for West Ham does not intend so to make. We would welcome an amendment that sought to deal with that. I am waiting for such an amendment from the Government or for them to accept an Opposition amendment. As I have said, in all the time that I have been in this place, the Government have rejected all private Members' Bills and all clauses drafted by outside bodies that I have supported in Finance Bills on the ground that they are technically deficient, saying, ``We will look at it and table something better''. Yet here we have pages of legislation from an outside body that are perfectly drafted.

While maintaining what the House has decided—it wants a ban on hunting—we can improve the Bill by defining the schedule more narrowly than simply a provision on letting one's dog out of the back door and it killing a rat or a rabbit. I would welcome that, as I expect would many of my right hon. and hon. Friends. At present the schedule goes too far and its origins are muddied in two respects. First, an anti-foxhunting Bill has been dressed up to look like a piece of animal welfare legislation, which is why we are getting into all these difficulties; and, secondly, the financial nexus between the drafters and proponents of the schedule and the Government needs some explanation from the Minister.

Mr. Leigh: In an earlier intervention the Minister said that it was not his purpose to prosecute the dog; it was his purpose to prosecute the owner. He therefore said that if somebody was walking his dog and the dog got out of control and caught a rabbit, there were no circumstances in which the Crown Prosecution Service would institute a prosecution. That is fine as far as it goes, but it leaves aside the question of private prosecutions. If there is no way in which the CPS would institute a prosecution in such cases—we have now received fairly heavy hints from Members the Government Benches on that—the question arises of why paragraph 3 is included in the Bill. If we are to believe the hints of the hon. Members for Pendle and for West Ham, we must assume that it is possible that at a later stage those who support the Bill will remove the paragraph—or perhaps not. Perhaps it is their intention only to extend the dispensation to rabbits that already exists for rats. If that is a future intention, it is all up in the air; we have to debate the paragraph as we now see it.

We propose that paragraph 3 should be deleted. If that were done, those who wish to abolish organised hunting as everybody understands it—beagling, foxhunting, deer hunting—could achieve that by relying on paragraph 1. I believe that to be the case, but I presume that that is not the view of Deadline 2000 and those who have drawn up the Bill. They obviously believe that paragraph 1, which states:

    ``A person commits an offence if he hunts a wild mammal with a dog'',

could be circumvented and that people could carry on hunting, so paragraph 3 is necessary:

    ``A person commits an offence if he knowingly permits a dog which belongs to him (within the meaning of paragraph 23) to be used in the course of the commission of an offence under paragraph 1.''

I do not know why they believe that that paragraph is necessary and why paragraph 1 cannot stand on its own. Will the Minister explain that to the Committee? It is important that he does so. He has been fair and has told us that he comes as a neutral arbiter to our proceedings—although he personally opposes hunting—and simply wants to carry out the clear will of the House. Apparently hon. Members want to abolish hunting. However, we have not yet heard any arguments to justify legally the inclusion of paragraph 3. Will the Minister tell us whether he is now giving a commitment on behalf of the CPS—which, by the way, I do not think he is entitled to do?

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