Hunting Bill

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The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman might find a more appropriate description.

Mr. Soames: My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) is a smart alec. However, he rightly raised the issue of cover. It is not generally believed that potato patches are cover, but for Tristan da Cunha ratting week they are. I want Government Members to take on board the fact that Tristan da Cunha is a protected territory, which means that it falls under the sovereign law of this country. The Bill may affect ratting week in 2002.

The Chairman: Order. Entertaining though that anecdote was, I advise the hon. Gentleman that the legislation will not apply to Tristan da Cunha.

Mr. Soames: Nevertheless, ratting in Tristan da Cunha involves taking out trained dogs to hunt rats around the hillside and among the stones—that is the cover. Stones, hillside and potato patches are unlikely to be mentioned in some ghastly little provincial court in south-east England. We do not have stones or potato patches in the south-east; it is all woods. In Tristan da Cunha, the cover consists of stones, potato patches and fissures, where the rats hide.

The publication continues:

    ``The second group hunts around the patches in the area of their team name.''

The team names are Old Pieces, Twitty Patch, Second Watron, Coolers and Bills Hill. The teams cut off the tails of the captured mice, and the prizes are for the longest tails and the most tails—[Interruption.] I am sorry; I do not mean to offend the hon. Ladies on the Government Benches. The winner is judged by dividing the total number of tails caught by a group by the number of people in it, which gives the number of tails per man.

There is no doubt that conservation, tidying up the countryside and stewardship of the countryside involve the hunting of such animals with dogs. I want an absolute assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary—if she will be good enough to give it—that no keeper will be arraigned before a court because his dogs coursed a fox entirely in the normal and legitimate course of his duties. That is the first part of amendment No. 119. It should be accepted that, in the interests of conservation and the management of a quarry population, it is inevitable that foxes will be pursued from time to time.

The National Gamekeepers Organisation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury so powerfully noted, is confronted with a Bill that could make gamekeeping impossibly difficult, with dire consequences for the rural economy, conservation and keepers' job. I shall not annoy or irritate you, Mr O'Hara, by getting into the argument of how many jobs will be lost as a result of the Bill because that was discussed on Second Reading. However, you know that we contend that many jobs will be lost.

On falconry, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury made some good points about the moment at which a pointer, for example, comes up to point behind game in cover. The falconer will take the cover off the hawk's head and the hawk will then rise and stoop to the quarry species as it gets up. My hon. Friend asked what would happen if the pointer or other dogs ran in and chopped the quarry species on the ground. Will the handlers of those dogs have committed an offence? The Parliamentary Secretary must explain what would happen if some bossy person driving along in a car saw that and decided to instigate a private prosecution and take the matter to the High Court. Would the defence under the Bill be sufficient to throw the case out? The answer is that it would not. We must have the Parliamentary Secretary's assurance that gamekeepers, falconers and others will be protected in the normal course of their sport or profession.

Mr. Beith: A further and related problem concerning those who train pointers was brought to the attention of one of my hon. Friends at his constituency surgery last weekend. A lady who regularly trains pointers said that she could not do so if they cannot be exposed to the quarry that they are required to leave. In the process of that exercise, she could be subject to the same danger of prosecution.

Mr. Soames: The right hon. Gentleman is completely right. If we had the time and if the Government would give to the Bill the time that such an important piece of legislation deserves, we could go on exploring such serious conundrums. The Parliamentary Secretary must not brush them under the carpet but should deal with them. How can the lady who trains pointers do so if she is unable to expose them to the quarry species that they must leave?

The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire maintains that a dog or a terrier can be trained to distinguish between a rabbit and a hare. That is so, but it takes a long time and some brutal and fierce discipline, as when young foxhounds are trained not to course or hunt deer. They are taught in such a way that they will never again hunt deer. One rarely sees foxhounds chase deer because they learnt that one lesson and will never forget it. The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point and it should be dealt with.

Amendment No. 54 refers to ``cover''. We are all seduced by what the Parliamentary Secretary says--

Mr. Keith Simpson: That is enough.

Mr. Soames: Sorry. We all accept what the Parliamentary Secretary says and I hope that a court will accept that it was never the intention of Parliament to prosecute in such circumstances. However, the magistrates or judge may believe that that was the intention of Parliament and that the Bill is so unclear that they are obliged, because of the overall tenor and context of the legislation, to make a conviction.

What does ``cover'' mean? In Tristan da Cunha, it consists of potato patches, stones and rocks. In fell country, it consists of the high ground of the Cumberland fells. In Sussex, it consists of enormous oak woods, spinneys and small plantations. In the area around Gainsborough in high Lincolnshire where people are lucky to be represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), the cover is totally different. In Norfolk, it consists of acres of sugar beet. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) has mounted a stout defence in support of sugar beet farmers who have been put at such a gross disadvantage by this wicked Government.

What does the Parliamentary Secretary intend ``cover'' to mean? What will a magistrate who may know nothing about hunting and who may be a chemist--[Interruption.] We will not go into that, because the lady in question may not be an hon. Member for much longer and may return to being a magistrate. A magistrate may know nothing about hunting and the prosecutor may refer to ``out of cover''. To me, cover is wood or spinney. Cover means cover over the area where the hunted animal is lying.

If I am walking through the thousands of acres of sugar beet in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk and up springs Charlie the fox, my two lurchers will be off like lamplighters.

The Parliamentary Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): The hon. Gentleman has lurchers?

Mr. Soames: I have everything—at least, everything that hunts.

I may not have set out to hunt that fox. He may not have been in cover. He may have been lying on the sugar beet in the sun like the great, indolent, sleek beast he is, probably having just eaten someone's pheasant. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary has seen sugar beet—I am sure that she has—because there are great fields of it. It is a marvellous crop, and the only one that has kept East Anglia going in the past few years—we know what happened to pigs. The fox may be lying on sugar beet, which is not cover, and my dogs may flush him and perhaps roll him over and chop him. I did not go out hunting with my local pack of hounds to enjoy a lovely day in the open air and the company of friends who share the common bond of the thrill and love of the hunt, which has nothing to do with killing anything, but would I be guilty of having deliberately flushed the quarry species out of cover? I would be up in front of the beaks, who would say that I am guilty as charged of a serious offence.

Mr. Garnier: May I help my hon. Friend? Is it possible that the parliamentary draftsmen left the ``t'' off the word ``cover''?

Mr. Soames: The Bill's draftsmen and women did a jolly good job considering that the schedule was subcontracted to Deadline 2000, but perhaps it could be improved by accepting that amendment. My hon. and learned Friend makes a very good point. Covert would imply proper cover, such as fox cover, where hunts draw for a fox, as opposed to general cover, which means bush, brush and so on.

The point that I want the Parliament Secretary to deal with is a serious one. In Pembrokeshire, the gun packs have to push foxes out of dense forestry, which was so badly planted in vast blocks over the years by the baboons in the Forestry Commission that no one can control the vermin that live inside—to the huge disadvantage of those who live nearby and try to keep an orderly countryside. The Sussex woods, the Norfolk sugar beet fields, the lovely open country in Gainsborough, the wooded coppices of Stratford-on-Avon, the vale of Aylesbury and the Cottesmore country are all totally different.

How is ``cover'' to be defined in the High Court? I may have to hire my hon. and learned Friend, at the exorbitant and outrageous rates that he is well known for charging, to defend me in court because of an inaccurate and unclear decision taken by the Parliamentary Secretary, who I hope wishes me no great harm, at least not in this regard. Will she explain how she envisages that the word ``cover'' will be clear to the people who will have to pass judgment on the matter?

Amendment No. 120 would provide protection against the unintended commission of an offence in relation to game shooting, which is an entirely different matter. Let us imagine that I have just had a splendid Sunday lunch with an hon. Friend, his beautiful wife and his son George, and we go out into the fields with my lurchers, which fall on a fox and do their business in the effective and efficient manner for which they have never been trained, but do naturally. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), as I have reminded the Committee before, represents the lurcher capital of the world—Lambourn—which has the greatest collection of the fastest hunting dogs in Europe.

In contrast to that, I can envisage a situation in which many rich people, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, are lined out on a shoot in Lincolnshire. They have arrived at their pegs and are standing in keen expectation, the horn sounds and the beaters go in at the far end of the wood that is being covered. In an orderly manner, they advance at no more than 40 paces to the minute—which, incidentally, is that of a guards battalion marching in slow time—and go slowly through the wood with their dogs. Those dogs are not hounds, but Labradors, terriers and so on—people bring all sorts of splendid dogs of various types. A fox will jump up—in a properly keepered place there will always be one or two foxes to the hunt—and off some of the less disciplined dogs will set, and perhaps bowl the fox over. That is the normal pursuit of a shoot. What will happen in such circumstances? Will there be an onus on people who are out on such occasions to have their dogs on leads? What will be their defence?

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Prepared 6 February 2001