Hunting Bill

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Mrs. Golding: What the Minister says is clear, but the brook runs behind 150 houses. It would not be a case of one person or a couple of people objecting. Does he seriously think that if a Bill were put before the House dealing simply with rodent control—preventing people ratting—people would turn up in droves to support it? That would be unbelievable.

Mr. O'Brien: I am sure that people would not turn up in droves to prevent people ratting. That is not the objective. The Bill specifically gives permission for ratting in certain circumstances. Paragraph 8 says that a person may carry out rodent control, or ratting, where there is consent for that to be done on other people's land or where the person is doing it on their land, which is entirely right. However, Deadline 2000, whose policy the House endorsed, believes that the Bill should contain a provision to restrict people from going on to other people's land without their permission to hunt with dogs.

11.45 am

Mrs. Golding: A criminal conviction for removing rats from a brook behind people's houses because one or two people object is nonsensical. When I discussed that proposal with colleagues, several said that of course it would be thrown out in Committee, because we do not want to fine people for ratting.

Mr. O'Brien: If the Bill's objective were merely to do that, it is indeed unlikely that the House would pass it. The Bill contains a whole series of safeguards to prevent the frivolous or unacceptable prosecutions that my hon. Friend fears from becoming a reality. In every such case, before a prosecution can be mounted, there must be evidence that the act has been committed, that there was an intention to break the law and that no permission was granted. Moreover, there must be a public interest in carrying out the prosecution and there must be no defence.

I understand my hon. Friend's worries. However, Parliament has decided that a person should not be obliged—as she would apparently permit—to have someone else hunting with a dog on their land, even if they are hunting only a rat. I accept that there is already the law of trespass. However, given the appropriate level of penalties—I have explained that, and how a court might interpret it—it should be possible for the criminal law to prevent someone from repeatedly going on to my land to hunt rats when I have not given permission for that to occur.

If my hon. Friend accepted that point of view, it would become difficult for her to argue that the provision was unacceptable. I would have strong objections if someone turned up with a dog in my garden—small as it is—to go ratting, and the law should not permit that to happen.

Mrs. Golding: That is not the point that I was making. A stream at the bottom of a garden has two banks. If someone is in the stream ratting, they are not bound to climb into a garden and walk around. Indeed, I have never known anyone who goes ratting to go tramping around people's gardens looking for rats; there are enough rats around already without having to do that.

Mr. O'Brien: I am pleased to hear it. On that basis, no one will need to bring the kind of prosecution that my hon. Friend is talking about. I am grateful to her for making my case for me.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire made a similar point about people being prosecuted in relation to rats. I merely repeat that the Bill contains safeguards in terms of its requirements to prove the act beyond reasonable doubt and the intention to breach the law, that there is no defence and that there is public interest in carrying out the prosecution. The concerns that the hon. Gentleman expressed went too far.

I cannot advise the Committee to accept the amendment, and I hope that the hon. and learned member for Harborough will see fit to withdraw it.

Mr. Garnier: I am most grateful to the Minister for his concluding remarks, which we shall consider in a moment. I am also grateful for his letter of 5 February—copies of which have been sent to the two Chairmen and, perhaps, to other members of the Committee—dealing with my inquiries in the previous sitting about the background to the Bill's drafting. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough referred to at least one passage from it, and I want to thank the Minister for some other comments. He said:

    ``A number of proposals contained in the Deadline 2000 Bill do not feature in the Hunting Bill as introduced. They are as follows:

    Two offences, of owning or possessing a dog intending it to be used to hunt a wild mammal, and possessing an instrument designed or adapted for use in connection with the hunting of wild mammal. We''—

that is, the Government or the Home Office—

    ``took the view that it would be inappropriate and unnecessary to cast the net so widely.''

I agree. According to the Minister, the second proposal was:

    ``Provision for a magistrate to have the power to grant a warrant to a constable to enter and search any premises, including a dwelling house, for the purpose of obtaining evidence of a hunting offence where the court is satisfied from information given on oath that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that such an offence has been committed and that evidence of the offence may be found on the premises.''

Although Deadline 2000 wanted the Bill to deal with that matter, the Minister stated:

    ``We did not consider the offences sufficiently serious to justify enabling the police to gain entry to domestic premises without the consent of the owner. No such power exists in relation to related animal welfare legislation.''

Deadline 2000 also proposed the following:

    ``A person found guilty of a hunting offence should be liable to imprisonment (for a maximum term of six months). As you''—

in other words, me—

    ``know, when the Committee was suspended on Thursday we were debating penalties in the context of amendments 12 to 15. I''—

that is, the Minister—

    ``indicated to the Committee that the policy of the Government differed from Deadline 2000 in that we believe a fine is proportionate to the offences in question.''

It was useful for the Minister to spell out those points in his letter, and I hope that it has been useful to spell them out again.

Unfortunately, I am not sure that the Minister has satisfied the Committee in respect of the arguments advanced in this morning's useful debate. Interesting forays have been made down highways and byways that, although they do not strictly relate to levels 1 to 5, have enabled the Committee and the public as a whole better to understand how the Bill came to be constructed.

The Minister's response to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham on foot followers and followers in general has perhaps led to more questions than answers, but I am nevertheless glad that his pronouncements on the subject have been put on the record. In response to a question from the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, he interpreted paragraph 8(3)(b), and I listened with care to his definition of the word ``permitted'' and the concept of permission. Perhaps I misunderstood, but I am not sure that that definition sits comfortably with the paragraph, and on more mature reflection the Minister might agree that he should reconsider it. Perhaps he will return to that point, but in any event—and notwithstanding his own opinion—a court is perfectly entitled to reach its own conclusion about the meaning of the word ``permitted'' under that paragraph.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme took us on an expedition down the brook in her constituency, and told us of the activities of those who go ratting. The Minister correctly pointed out that the law of trespass already exists to prevent entry on to other people's land without permission. Indeed, organised hunts today do not enter other people's land without the owner's permission. That is the whole point about hunting; it is done with the consent of the farmer, owner or occupier of the land in question.

It would be silly not to accept that, from time to time, a pack of hounds or a hound will trespass, in so far as animals are capable of trespass. They unfortunately get on to railway lines or the highway, or they overshoot and get on to land belonging to someone who does not want the hunt on his land. I am aware that that happens. It is regrettable, but it is something for which the master should immediately apologise and, if any damage has been done to the land, he should ensure that it is repaired and that, if necessary, compensation is offered.

The civil law of trespass already seems to cover the matter. I am sorry that the Government are taking a Bill through the House that turns what can be dealt with now under civil law into a criminal law matter. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme cogently expressed her concerns and those of her constituents about that.

There have been extremely helpful contributions to the debate from the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Sussex, for Buckingham and for Gainsborough. There have also been some useful interventions from the hon. Members for West Ham and for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), thus demonstrating that they are interested in the issues and in engaging in the debate. I am grateful to them for doing so.

Despite the Minister's best endeavours, I have yet to be convinced that the arguments put by those on this side of the argument have been adequately dealt with. In tabling this group of amendments, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury has done us a signal service, but I regret that the Committee has not yet had a chance to give a verdict on them. I invite it to do precisely that.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 17.

Division No. 6]

Bercow, Mr. John
Garnier, Mr. Edward
Golding, Mrs. Llin
Leigh, Mr. Edward
Lidington, Mr. David
Maples, Mr. John
—pik, Mr. Lembit
Simpson, Mr. Keith
Soames, Mr. Nicholas

Banks, Mr. Tony
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Foster, Mr. Michael
Gordon, Mrs. Eileen
Hall, Mr. Mike
Henderson, Mr. Ivan
Kennedy, Jane
Lawrence, Mrs. Jackie
Lepper, Mr. David
Michael, Mr. Alun
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
Pickthall, Mr. Colin
Prentice, Bridget
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Rendel, Mr. David
Simpson, Mr. Alan
Smith, Angela

Question accordingly negatived.

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