Hunting Bill

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Mr. Bercow: I do not see any meaningful distinction. To that extent, not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman and I are in agreement. He made the point that the situation is worse than that which I described. I know that I tend to understate the case—it is an abiding failing of mine—and I am sorry if I did not make the point with the force and vigour that he is entitled to expect. Nevertheless, the advantage in that arrangement is that he makes me seem—as, of course, I am—very moderate.

It should also be pointed out that, arguably, hares do not rest in cover. Therefore, the Bill is inadequate in allowing them only to be flushed from cover. Several of my constituents who are members of one or other of the various hunts in my patch made that point in correspondence.

2.15 pm

We have discussed ``Archbold'' a great deal, but I want to refer to the third edition of the ``Handbook of British Mammals'', which is edited by those well known and celebrated figures G.B. Corbet and S. Harris. Hon. Members will almost certainly have copies of the third edition, which was published in 1991. It emphasises:

    ``hares are most abundant in arable areas where cereal growing pre-dominates.''

How do the Government define cover? I do not know whether the Parliamentary Secretary would care to provide a definition—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. We extensively debated the definition of cover and flushing when I last chaired the Committee. The burden of the amendment is the categorisation, but not the specification, of ``mammals'', which is the generic term, that may be flushed. The hon. Gentleman is in danger of returning to a previous debate.

Mr. Bercow: There was nothing remotely sloppy about my point, despite the rather silly sedentary intervention from the hon. Member for Pendle.

The Chairman: Order. I was so preoccupied by my pontification that I did not notice the Division in the House.

2.16 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

2.31 pm

On resuming--

The Chairman: Before the Division, the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) was advising us not about flushing and stalking, but about categories of mammals.

Mr. Bercow: Categories of mammals, as you poignantly observe, Mr. O'Hara--

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara, I did not hear what you said and wonder whether you would be kind enough to repeat it.

The Chairman: I was repeating what I said prior to the suspension for the Division. The debate on definitions of stalking and flushing is over and the subject of the amendment before us is whether to specify particular mammals--fox, hare, rabbit--or to use the generic term ``wild mammal''.

Mr. Bercow: I am very grateful to you, Mr. O'Hara. It is a particular pleasure to address this packed Standing Committee.

As you rightly specify, Mr. O'Hara, we are not here to discuss definitions of stalking or flushing. However, you will recall--you were in the Chair at the time--that we had a helpful exchange last week on the difference between referring to and dilating on something. I suggested during a point of order that it would be exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, for my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) properly to develop his argument if he were unable to refer to relevant terms.

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point and of course I should judge whether a reference was mere reference or excessive dilation.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful, Mr. O'Hara. I do not want to discuss the definitions of flushing or stalking. Although your autonomy on the particulars is absolute, I was merely seeking your assent to the general proposition that, in order to explain why the exception should apply more broadly and incorporate both mink and deer, as I am suggesting, a modest and brief reference to the activities of flushing and stalking and their relevance to deer and mink is not only desirable but essential for comprehensibility. I am grateful for your helpful nod of the head.

Hares and rabbits are frequently flushed in the open, typically across arable fields, towards guns, but under the Bill that practice will become illegal and those who take part in it, not least beaters, will be liable to a fine of £5,000. Likewise, the exemption on flushing and stalking does not extend to mink. The Burns report noted that mink are predators—we have been consistently and informatively advised on that by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding). They attack poultry, gamebirds, fish, wild birds and wild animals. The Wildlife Trust has noted:

    ``There are very good conservation reasons for controlling mink.''

I have not discussed this subject with the Parliamentary Secretary; still less can it be said that I have dilated on it in her presence. However, I assume that she agrees with the proposition that there is a case—indeed, a compelling one—for controlling mink. Even members of the International Fund for Animal Welfare—those friends of the Labour party whom we know and regularly cite—have had something interesting to say on the subject. Their submission to the Burns inquiry noted that

    ``mink control may be required in specific areas''.

That really is progress. Notwithstanding its general ideological purity in respect of such matters, IFAW—the authentic representative of political correctness in the field of animal welfare—has acknowledged that the practicalities of the countryside might require mink control. Of course, I am making the point in an understated way.

Before being shot, mink are flushed from cover on moors by gamekeepers with dogs. What will happen if, during the stalking and flushing of foxes, hares or rabbits, another wild mammal—you rightly directed me to the subject of mammals, rather than the specific activities of flushing and stalking, Mr. O'Hara—is inadvertently disturbed? After all, it is a natural instinct for dogs to hunt animals, as has been pointed out in many previous debates. One need only watch a pet dog chasing squirrels in the park to see that fact clearly.

If the amendments were accepted, an innocent farmer going about the business of legitimate species management would be protected from prosecution on the ground of the natural reaction of his dog to, for example, a deer hiding in cover. It would be extraordinarily unfair and perverse to hold a farmer responsible for an activity that he could not reasonably be expected to prevent, particularly in circumstances where that activity is likely to take place.

With those brief—perhaps too brief—remarks—

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): Hear, hear.

Mr. Bercow: I am receiving some encouragement from my hon. Friend. I can only imagine that he is itching to contribute to the debate. I know that he will take us through matters in proper detail and in his customarily sophisticated fashion.

Amendment No. 88 would allow dogs to be used to retrieve any wild mammal—not merely hares and rabbits—that has been shot. Paragraph 9, which provides for the retrieval of shot game, would be laughable if the matter were not so serious. Given that paragraph 11 provides for the use of dogs to search for any seriously injured animal, why does paragraph 9 refer to the retrieval of only a rabbit or a hare, and not a mink, a fox or a weasel? In such circumstances, we should surely be in favour of retrieving weasels whenever the opportunity arises. What is the reasoning on animal welfare grounds for that distinction?

I am very much in the dark on the point. I am genuinely awaiting, and thirsting, for enlightenment. If the Parliamentary Secretary can provide some rationale for what otherwise seems an arbitrary and intellectually indefensible distinction, I should be a happy man. If she can show that our fears are misplaced, that would be a good thing—but I think it unlikely.

Paragraph 9 provides that it is a defence for a person charged with hunting a wild mammal with a dog to prove that he was using the dog to retrieve a rabbit or a hare. Again, there is a problem. A requirement seems to be imposed on the person charged to prove one thing, but we would have thought, and English law would suggest, that the prosecuting authorities should be obliged to prove the other. That is disturbing.

Leaving that aside for a moment, I emphasise that for the defendant to have been accused of the offence, the dog must have retrieved the rabbit or hare while it was still alive. Paragraph 9 does not require—as paragraph 10, for example, does—that the animal be recaptured or shot dead in order for the offence to apply. The paragraph therefore implicitly allows for the rabbit or hare to be killed by the dog. The Government clearly recognise the role that dogs play in the retrieval of shot game, and are content for the dog to kill the animal if it is wounded rather than shot dead.

Two points arise from that interpretation of the paragraph. First, the welfare parameters that it sets make it acceptable for a dog to kill a rabbit or a hare in certain circumstances. Why, then, cannot that method of killing apply in other circumstances? Secondly, if it is acceptable for a rabbit or a hare to be killed by a dog, having been wounded by a gun, why cannot other mammals be retrieved and killed in that way? How will the Government justify to farmers and gamekeepers the fact that they may not allow their dog to retrieve a shot fox, weasel or mink, but must walk—or, as is more likely in the countryside, climb over—frequently difficult and hazardous terrain to collect and dispatch the animal themselves? That apparently rejects the straightforward, commonsensical and manageable option in pursuit of the difficult, not obviously sensible and much less desirable option, which will often be impracticable.

Amendments Nos. 91 to 93, 95, 101 and 102 would replace the term ``animal'' with ``wild mammal''. As drafted, the exception for recapturing or rescuing animals applies in respect of ``searching'' for animals. However, as the primary offence relates to hunting wild mammals, it makes sense for the exception to deploy the same terminology. All that we are requesting is symmetry between the Government's own description of the Bill and the terms that are used in the exceptions that currently apply and those which we would prefer to add. The amendments would narrow the definition of animals that may be searched for by dogs to be recaptured or rescued in the case of serious injury, restricting the practice to wild mammals. They underline the absurdity of the Bill's drafting, which takes a pick-and-mix approach to the circumstances in which dogs can be used, with no identifiable welfare justification.

So far, it has been interesting to note that members of the Committee have not felt inclined to dispute the terms of the amendments—albeit that we are in the immediate after-lunch period, and they may not have got going yet. I am of course happy to apply an exemption from that statement to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, who is surely champing at the bit and will have much to offer. She is right to get excited about mink; she has every reason to do so, and is the greatest authority on the subject in our House. She need not think for a moment that I shall try to prevent her from addressing the Committee. Indeed, I am looking forward with eager anticipation, bated breath and beads of sweat on my brow to hear precisely what she has to say for our edification.

I imagine that other hon. Members will want to contribute to the debate, too. However, it is interesting that, so far, Government Back Benchers have not felt inclined to dispute our central case that the provisions are poorly drafted and that, intellectually, the distinctions do not hold water.

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