Hunting Bill

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Mr. Leigh: I must confess that I do not know for certain. I have a photocopy of the document. If the hon. Gentleman says that the current policy of the LACS is not to oppose recreational shooting, I must accept that. However, that does not invalidate my case that many people oppose recreational shooting and the practice of gamekeeping, and they could be relied upon to bring a test case.

I shall now return to the short argument that I had with the Minister earlier. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal, who was out of the Room at the time, is now back in his place, because I am genuinely confused. Is the paragraph designed to deal with the person who allows his dog to be used for hunting, or could it catch the person whose dog goes hunting? The matter turns on the word ``permits''. The Minister advised me to read the explanatory notes, so during the break between sittings, I did so. The notes state:

    ``Schedule 3 makes it an offence to hunt wild mammals with dogs except in certain limited circumstances which are specified in the Schedule.''

It goes on to state that an offence may be committed

    ``under paragraph 3 by the owner, or person in charge or control, of a dog who permits another person to use it to hunt a wild mammal''.

The Minister is nodding. I agree that that is dealt with in the explanatory notes.

I cannot remember the relevant procedure, but as I understand it the courts are primarily concerned with the content of the Bill, rather than the explanatory notes. Perhaps I am wrong—no doubt someone will intervene if I am—but I believe that the explanatory notes are intended to assist not the courts' understanding of the Bill, but ours. The courts rely only on the wording of the legislation itself.

5 pm

The Minister seemed to suggest in his intervention that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal was talking about a person who allows his dog to be used by others, but I believe that that is not correct.

Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend is right—I find it difficult to read the Bill in any way other than the apparent way. According to the explanatory note, if I took out my wife's dog she could be to blame in some way. Does he agree that that is very odd and cannot possibly be right? The explanatory notes surely refer instead to those who are in control of a dog, whether it is theirs or someone else's.

Mr. Leigh: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for clearing up his thinking. We are trying to create clear law and the debate turns on the rather ambiguous phrase ``knowingly permits a dog''. When courts consider that phrase, will they think that it refers only to permitting someone else to use a dog or that it can also mean granting permission to the dog itself? Perhaps I am wrong, but in my view the paragraph is open to either interpretation.

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene again, so that I can clarify matters for him and the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal. I know that the right hon. Gentleman does not hunt, but if he were to use his dog to hunt unlawfully he would be caught by paragraph 1. If he were to use his wife's dog to hunt unlawfully and his wife did not know, she would not be caught by paragraph 3. However, if his wife knew that he proposed to hunt with her dog and allowed him to do so, she might well be caught by paragraph 3.

Mr. Leigh: I respect the Minister, because he makes an honest attempt to engage in the debate. [Laughter.] I mean that seriously. Many Ministers might take refuge in their notes and not seek to intervene. Often, that is the safest approach. He has given his interpretation and the courts will doubtless look at it, but it does not invalidate the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal.

Paragraph 3 is drawn so widely, particularly in the light of the previous intervention, that virtually anyone could be caught if a dog does what is natural by chasing a rabbit and killing it. It is not necessary to set off with the intention of participating in an organised hunt. We have discussed the question of the wife, who is guilty only if she knows if my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal intends to go hunting, which is fair enough. If she does not know, she is not guilty, but he is. Either way, one of them is guilty.

The Minister's defence seems to be that that is nonsense because the Government are simply trying to stop people going on organised hunts and there will never be a prosecution of a gamekeeper or anyone else. My right hon. Friend proved in his speech, and I tried to prove in my interpretation of the law, that the Minister is simply not right. I accept that it is unlikely that the CPS will bring such an action, but it is possible that some other person or persons will.

The Minister kindly wrote to me on 31 January, when I dealt with section 44 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980. His letter shows some of the difficulties that we are labouring under and states:

    ``Firstly, the mens rea required for aiding or abetting is an intention to render assistance to another person in the realisation that that other person may commit the offence of hunting. The offence of knowingly permitting does not require proof of a positive `intention to render assistance'. Rather, it is sufficient that a person knows that hunting is going to take place on his land and permits it (expressly or impliedly) to take place.''

That is the Minister's interpretation of ``knowingly permitting'', but is fairly widely drawn, because he said:

    ``it is sufficient that a person knows that hunting is going to take place''.

To return to the point made by my right hon. Friend and others, we are not dealing with a third person and in our discussion during the past few minutes we proved that a third person does not need to be involved. I believe that it would be possible for the courts to prove that an individual who was out walking knowingly permitted his dog to go hunting. Again, the Minister may want to return to that in his winding-up speech.

I want to deal lastly with the letter from Bill Swann of Deadline 2000, to which the Minister referred earlier and which contains an extraordinary admission. Paragraph 7 of the letter states:

    ``Deadline 2000's position on rodent control is clear. There is a genuine need here, with no obvious sporting component. Terriers are effective in locating, catching and killing rats in areas where other methods of control, such as shooting, are impractical. Terriers can enter the sub-floor space of hen-houses for example. Furthermore, there are serious welfare concerns surrounding the use of poisons. Although our preferred method of control is shooting where possible, we have very little evidence of the suffering that a rat caught by a terrier may or may not experience. In the light of present knowledge and given the unarguable need to control rodents, we accept that an exception to allow terriers to hunt rodents above ground is unavoidable.''

Deadline 2000 accepts that it does not have sufficient evidence on the sentient nature of rats, but it says of rabbits:

    ``the use of long-dogs, such as greyhounds and lurchers, to pursue and kill rabbits contains elements of sport and pest control. The pursuit is not a chase in the sporting sense: rabbits bolt from cover when disturbed and are rapidly overtaken by the dogs. However, we consider that the use of dogs in this way is wrong because the Burns Inquiry showed that dogs of this type do not kill their quarry effectively. We scrutinised the hare post-mortem reports and those of a previous study, representing more than 60 examinations. Our conclusion was, given the low body weight of some hares and thus their similarity to rabbits, that a rabbit caught and killed by a long-dog would suffer unacceptably.''

I do not understand why Deadline 2000 is so clear that despatching a rabbit is cruel and causes unacceptable pain, but that that is not so for rats. I thought that rats were one of the most intelligent creatures and capable of feeling pain equal to that of rabbits.

The Chairman: Order. I am not sure what relevance this part of the hon. Gentleman's contribution has to the substance of the amendment and paragraph 3.

Mr. Leigh: It has very little relevance, Mr. O'Hara, but I was trying my luck because I thought that it was an important point to make. I hope that we may have another opportunity to deal with it.

Mr. Gummer: I do not want to suggest that my hon. Friend is wrong, but because it is difficult to follow the logic of those who are presenting this case, one cannot explain to country people why the schedule is written as it is. We, therefore, come back to an issue that is relevant to the matter we are discussing: the schedule will be seen to be an unacceptable and unenforceable way of achieving an end on which Parliament has decided. It is that to which my hon. Friend is drawing the attention of the Committee.

Mr. Leigh: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. We have had today a useful discussion of the issues in relation to paragraph 3. We have built up a case, which I believe has been acknowledged by those supporting the Bill, who have suggested that amendments will be tabled later. We have established that paragraph 3 could put an onerous burden on ordinary country people or those who are using the countryside for legitimate recreation.

I know that you do not want us to have a debate over rats and rabbits, Mr. O'Hara, but it is relevant to the extent that the dog, hound or lurcher makes no distinction between a rat and a rabbit. It is very hard on the gamekeeper to be placed in a situation where he is guilty of an offence in one set of circumstances but not in another when he has no control over how his own dog or lurcher hunts.

In a previous intervention, it was suggested that it was possible to control hounds and dogs in these circumstances. That may be true in certain circumstances, but not in these. My right hon. Friend made the point most effectively that it is wrong to prosecute someone for the behaviour of an animal that is not his own because he happens to be in control of it. The Minister says, ``We are not prosecuting the dog; we are prosecuting the owner'', but that does not get him out of trouble. Potentially, the owner can be successfully prosecuted and receive a £5,000 fine, and the dog can be destroyed for doing something that is entirely natural.

It is apparently not against the law to teach your dog to dance, ride a skateboard and all sorts of unnatural things.

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