Hunting Bill

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Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Although I agree with the hon. Gentleman on this issue, I am slightly at variance with his argument. In fact, there are individuals who support the ban in the mistaken belief that it is in the interests of animal welfare. However, he has implied that a ban would most likely not save the life of a single fox. Foxes would probably be killed in more cruel ways, which, on balance, would be more harmful to animal welfare.

10.45 am

Mr. Leigh: We all respect the point of view held by the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks). He cannot understand how my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), whom he describes as a friend, can bring himself to hunt. He thinks that my hon. Friend has been brutalised by a sport that entails inflicting cruelty. At the end of the day, all my hon. Friend is doing when he goes hunting is following an animal—the hound—which is behaving naturally. Animals chase other animals; animals eat other animals; animals die of starvation, old age or are eaten by other animals. I assume that the hon. Member for West Ham is not a softy like the Minister, and that he has the moral courage to want to lock up my hon. Friend and not let him off with a fine.

Mr. Soames: May I make it clear to my hon. Friend that I do not want to lock up my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham because of what he may or may not stick up his nose, which is a matter for him. I do not want him to lock me up for what I may or may not do when I go hunting. I go hunting for fun; he sticks—

Mr. Banks: I do not stick anything up my nose.

Mr. Soames: I am sorry; I thought that he said that he sticks something up his nose. There were people who used to stick ferrets up their noses, which is a wholly unacceptable pastime. I do not want to lock him up for what he does in his home. I assume that he does not want me to be locked up for participating in a recreation that is entirely legal and has been happening for 5,000 years.

Mr. Banks: The hon. Gentleman is wrong there.

Mr. Leigh: The hon. Gentleman wants to lock up my hon. Friend, which rural people find extraordinary.

Leaving aside the issue of imprisonment, the compromise that the Government have concocted—a heavy fine but no imprisonment—is illogical, nonsensical and unrelated to previous legislation. It is disproportionate to punishments inflicted for more serious crimes, and out of step with other laws because it does not require proof of cruelty—yet it is still to be a criminal offence.

One million fines were imposed in 1999, of which only 637 were set at level 5. Incidentally, the Government cannot say, ``Level 5 is the maximum, but there may be lesser penalties for hunting.'' One must assume that a fine set to the maximum will, at least on some occasions, be imposed. A threat of conspiracy to murder merited only level 3 fines in 1999, while only two of the six cases of death by dangerous driving were fined at level 5. Two people were fined for gross indecency with children; one of those fines was set at less than £200, the other at less than £1,000. Meanwhile, sex with a girl aged 13 merited a fine of less than £200. How can those offences be compared to hunting, which involves someone on foot or on horseback following another animal that is behaving naturally by hunting? How can it be said that that activity, which I know some people find reprehensible, is on a par with the offences that I have been reading out?

Of course, a level 5 fine could be justified if clear and unnecessary cruelty were involved, as with badger baiting and offences under the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996. That Act allows for a level 5 fine and six months' imprisonment, but the Bill is different because it does not demand proof of unnecessary cruelty and does not allow for imprisonment. The Government have reached what they consider to be a sensible view: offences under the Bill are not on the same level as those under the Act. The Bill has been dressed up as an animal welfare measure that prevents cruelty, but, as I hope I have shown, it is not. If it is not an anti-cruelty measure, it should not exist. If it does not prevent cruelty to animals, it should not become an Act of Parliament.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend is helpfully explaining the perversity of the provision. Is he saying that a foot follower could be liable to a fine of up to £5,000? If so, is not that an extraordinary reflection of the Government's legislative and penal policy priorities?

Mr. Leigh: I do not quite know what my hon. Friend means by a foot follower. During a foxhunt, supporters and members of the hunt may follow on horseback and, as my hon. Friend knows, foot followers, who are often elderly, follow in cars and on foot at the outskirt of the hunt. I may be wrong, but I understand that elderly country people who follow the hunt in their cars, with their picnics, will be liable to a fine of £5,000.

An interesting point has emerged from the Minister's comments. He has said repeatedly, ``Let us be sensible about the Bill. Much of the debate on the Opposition Benches has been ridiculous because the Crown Prosecution Service will never fine someone for walking his dog.'' Presumably, therefore, a gamekeeper will also never be fined. The Minister's argument is that the Opposition are raising more and more pointless arguments because the Bill has been designed to catch large, organised hunts. For the moment and for the purposes of argument, I shall take it at face value that the Minister is telling the truth: that the Crown Prosecution Service will not prosecute anyone who is out walking a dog that chases a rabbit—although I maintain that there will be private prosecutions. If the Minister—as well as Deadline 2000—has done a U-turn and the CPS will not prosecute rabbit hunters, what does he hope to achieve? He is creating a new criminal offence punishable not with imprisonment but with a large fine simply to catch organised hunts. Why has that fine been set at level 5? Presumably someone in Deadline 2000's offices dreamt that up.

Let us say that the purpose of the provision is to deal with the mischief of organised hunts. They will be easy to find; an organised hunt cannot be easily hidden. It is not like a private shoot. A large number of people tramp across the countryside. A hunt will be easy to find and easy to prosecute. If it persists in what the Minister and his supporters describe as antisocial behaviour, fines will continue to be imposed and the hunt will not be sustained.

The sort of people who go hunting are eminently law-abiding, substantial citizens who have to be able to afford their sport--[Laughter.] I do not know why Labour Members are laughing. They believe that hunting is reprehensible, but I am sure that they will agree that people who follow hunts are substantial citizens who spend a lot of money on their sport. That is one reason why they are held in such bad odour and create resentment. If the problem is to deal with the mischief of organised hunts, it would be relatively easy for a court to do so with smaller fines—or is the motivation a hatred of people who ride around on horses, dressed up in what Labour Members consider to be a uniform? The Government have decided that, because the people concerned are well off, a fine of £500 or £1,000 is not sufficient and such people should be hit with a fine of £5,000.

Mr. Banks: The hon. Gentleman should not whip himself into a frenzy. It is easy to let such comments pass because we hope that he will resume his seat soon, but they must be challenged. What he has just said is nonsense. We are not having a go at people because they ride around the countryside on horses and dress themselves up, as he said. They can do that if they go drag hunting; that has nothing to do with the Bill. He must dismiss from his mind the thought that this is a class issue. It is not. He keeps talking about foxhunting, but he could equally apply himself to hare coursing, for which the arguments that he is lathering himself up about do not apply in class terms. He must get away from the idea that this is a class issue; Labour Members do not see it as such.

Mr. Leigh: I accept the hon. Gentleman's point of view, which he clearly believes.

Mr. Soames: My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham's description of my hon. Friend lathering himself up when he is making an exceptionally cool and calm speech under the most difficult circumstances is extremely unfair and unkind.

In all humility, I want to clarify one point. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) is making a little too much of the wealth of those who go hunting. I imagine that some people who go hunting are very well off, but 80 or 90 per cent. of them make considerable personal sacrifices to do so. They are not dressed up in pink coats. They probably have hand-me-down coats, horses, breeches, boots—the lot—[Interruption.] It is a caricature presented by Labour Members, who are making absurd animal noises, to portray hunting as a rich man's sport. It is not. The reason why the countryside march has such astonishing support is because hunting touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who are not well off.

Mr. Leigh: Of course I accept that. I do not want to convey such an impression. Certainly on the few times that I have been hunting I have found an extraordinary cross-section of people. It is wrong to typify them as wealthy, and so on.

Mr. Soames: They could not afford to pay the fines.

Mr. Leigh: As my hon. Friend says, they could not afford to pay the fines. I am afraid that there is a slight suspicion in our hearts that if hunts were composed of small groups of farmers on foot in Cumbria, dressed up in old Barbours and doing a bit of pest control, the Bill would never have seen the light of day.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend has been characteristically generous—I am always disinclined to be—towards the hon. Member for West Ham, who may be accurate about the present, but is guilty of revisionism as regards the past. Does my hon. Friend recall, for example, that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) made it clear that he found debate on the so-called Foster Bill on 28 November 1997 ``exciting'' because he detected the whiff of class struggle in the air?

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