Hunting Bill

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Mr. Leigh: There is also a suspicion, which we need not go into at any length, that the Bill is a convenient device to placate the parliamentary Labour party's radical tendencies; a harmless measure that will not irritate our vast urban population; a bit of fun that will have a go at people whom the Labour party hates—so what harm will it do? However, I leave that on one side.

Organised hunts, comprising of whatever sort of people, can be dealt with by a civil penalty. I cannot see why a level 5 fine is necessary. Serious offences of burglary of a dwelling, for instance, attract fines up to level 5, although they carry the option of imprisonment as well. Fear of provocation of violence under the Public Order Act 1986 attracts a level 5 fine. It is incumbent on the Minister to tell us why level 5, rather than a civil penalty, has been chosen. Why cannot the Government break up hunts and prevent them from meeting again by imposing civil penalties? The Minister will probably complain that a civil penalty would not do the job, but what about a fine of up to £1,000? People cannot go hunting every Saturday and keep getting penalties of £1,000. Eventually they will be driven out.

A fine of up to £5,000 will infuriate rural people. I very much hope that, especially given that the countryside march is coming up, when up to 500,000 people will be on the streets of London, the Minister will take this opportunity to placate rural people and say that he realises that the issue is difficult, that there are two sides to the argument and that those who go hunting are not committing an offence on a par with theft, burglary or torturing an animal to death.

I cannot bear cruelty to animals. I am a complete wimp when it comes to animals. I can hardly bear to squash a fly. If a bird flies into the house, I want to get it out. If a hare runs out in front of my car when I have the children with me, I do the silly thing and put the brakes on instead of running it over. I am pathetic. Therefore, I agree that those who torture an animal to death—there are those who deliberately do so and take pleasure from it—should attract a level 5 fine.

Just because my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex wants to conduct an ancient sport full of fine traditions, which does not involve him in any cruelty, why must he face a level 5 fine? He is probably such a slow rider—[Interruption.] He is not present at the moment. Most of the time he is probably way behind the hunt anyway, so he is not in the sport for cruelty. Why must he face a fine that is equivalent to that for burglary, theft or imposing cruelty on animals? It does not wash. I hope that the Minister will give a decent summing up at the end of the debate.

11 am

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): I want to take the Committee back to the subject of rats. As we are all aware, the Bill contains tight provisions relating to the control of rodents. A street in my constituency has a brook running along the bottom of it that is frequently infested with rats. The rats go into people's gardens. There is land behind the brook that may belong to the council, although there is a great deal of dispute about who is responsible for it. However, people go ratting in the brook, and everybody down the road is pleased that they do so.

The Bill seems to provide that if somebody wants to rat in the brook, everybody in the street must give permission, because it says that rodent control can take place only on land

    ``(a) which belonged ... to the person doing the hunting, or

    (b) which he had been permitted to use for that purpose by someone to whom the land belonged''.

Does that mean that the person must ask at every house in the street if he can do the ratting, in case somebody objects, even though they all want to get rid of the rats? Does it also mean that the dog cannot go in the brook and that the person must have permission from anybody who owns the land behind the field? If he did not ask permission, but carried out the service for those living in the houses, it would surely be ridiculous that he should then face a fine of £5,000.

None of us wants to see rats in our gardens, unless we are a little odd—I accept that some people like rats. Surely getting rid of rats, which carry the most terrible disease, is a service. Why should somebody who does so have to face a fine of £5,000 for missing out a house, or going into a garden or on to a piece of land without permission? A fine of £5,000 is ridiculous for carrying out the service of ratting.

Mr. Öpik: On the assumption that we are talking about animal welfare—the hon. Member for West Ham reminded us that that is a key driver to this debate—the comments of my friend, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) are absolutely right. The difficulty with a ban is that it is an inflexible tool to achieve the animal welfare objective. I do not want to repeat points, but one realises from them that a ban probably would not deliver even the animal welfare objective that the Bill's supporters want. The level of penalty for breaking the law is out of all proportion to the Bill's intent.

This debate about the extent of penalties should cause us to think twice about what we want to do to people who breach the ban if it becomes law. Most people tend to accept a law once it has been passed and act in good faith, but the provisions will be easy to breach without meaning to do so. Consequently, people could be fined to a serious degree in respect of acts that, although they were not technically beyond the law, were not intended to breach the spirit of a ban on hunting with dogs. Will the Minister provide a perspective on why it is reasonable to impose such heavy penalties on people who do not celebrate the killing of a mammal with dogs, but kill mammals for pest control purposes?

When I think about how packs in Montgomeryshire pursue the activity of killing a fox with dogs, I am reminded that many people do not see the kill or actively participate in the dispatch of the fox, but simply regard hunting as an effective means of controlling the fox population. They therefore find such a serious set of penalties strange.

Mr. Michael J. Foster (Worcester): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the schedule that was drafted for the Middle Way Group contains exactly the same punishment—level 5—as that drafted for Deadline 2000? Is he not appearing to say one thing and do another?

Mr. Öpik: I believe that 14 of the 24 paragraphs—about 60 per cent. of the schedule—are included in the Middle Way Group proposals, so Deadline 2000 could get most of what it wants by supporting the Middle Way Group. As the hon. Gentleman said, one of those proposals concerns the system of fines. If Deadline 2000 wants to enhance animal welfare, but not at the cost of creating an unreasonable infringement of civil liberties, it might wish to consider reintroducing, perhaps on Report, the regulatory approach, which achieves a more equitable solution.

To answer the hon. Gentleman's question directly, the Middle Way Group's formulation of the schedule was influenced by our concern about what could reasonably be managed by the courts and what could be seen as just in the eyes of the public. We felt that the more flexible enforcement solution achieved by regulation meant that we could specify a tough upper limit for the sanction on breaching those regulations. The Middle Way Group proposal on regulation is reasonable, enforceable and easy to understand, so people who breached it could expect to be treated severely. The Deadline 2000 proposals are comparatively inflexible, and, with the best will in the world, the foot packs and gun packs in Montgomeryshire would be likely to breach them and, inadvertently, become criminals.

It is a matter of judgment. Some may believe that the Middle Way Group proposal should not have such a severe system of fines, regardless of the flexibility that we built into it. However, we feel that it is balanced and enforceable and that people could expect to be treated harshly if they did not conform to its reasonable system of regulation.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I am intrigued by the Middle Way Group's view of what constitutes an appropriate penalty. Does it consider appropriate the maximum penalty for killing a bird of prey, which is a level 5 fine of £5,000?

Mr. Öpik: As the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) rightly pointed out, our proposed penalty structure is exactly the same as that proposed by Deadline 2000. Perhaps the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) has slightly missed the point of my argument.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): I do not think so.

Mr. Öpik: The right hon. Gentleman is sceptical, so perhaps I should underline the crucial aspect of my point.

Mr. Michael: I am sceptical because the hon. Gentleman was asked a clear question.

Mr. Öpik: I am concerned that we are beginning to debate matters that are wider than the issue before us.

Mr. Prentice: I thought that the Committee was discussing level 5 and the setting of appropriate penalties. I intervened on the hon. Gentleman to remind him that although magistrates ordinarily impose a fine of only £1,500 to £2,000, the maximum penalty for killing a bird of prey is level 5—a maximum of £5,000. I was asking the hon. Gentleman whether the Middle Way Group thinks that that is an appropriate penalty for killing a bird of prey.

Mr. Öpik: I apologise for misunderstanding the hon. Gentleman. The Middle Way Group does not have a formal policy in that regard, but I can give my own point of view. I would speculate that it is probably a hell of a lot easier to enforce that legislation than the provision that we are discussing.

Mr. Bercow: Whether deliberately or inadvertently, the hon. Member for Worcester has stirred up a hornet's nest. I am not attracted to the Middle Way Group's proposal, although I respect the integrity and good intentions of those who advocate it. In a nutshell, is the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. O£pik) arguing that, under his proposals, the regulatory regime would be so reasonable that transgressing it would be especially unreasonable, thereby warranting the level 5 fine that he envisages?

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