Hunting Bill

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Mrs. Golding: What about the friendly neighbourhood mink? Under normal circumstances, gamekeepers are accompanied by dogs, but if they shoot a mink in such circumstances they will be liable to prosecution.

Jane Kennedy: My hon. Friend has misunderstood, in that I have yet to draw my remarks to a conclusion. I hate to disappoint the Committee, but I have other points to make and they relate to my hon. Friend's intervention.

I invite the Committee to reflect on the amendments in the light of the decision of the Committee of the whole House. We should also consider whether a change that could allow much more hunting with dogs is in keeping with the wishes of the Committee of the whole House.

Members of the Committee who have examined carefully the remaining amendments—Nos. 91 to 93, 95, 101 and 102—might have been rather surprised, because at first sight they seem to narrow the scope of the exceptions. As the Bill is drafted, the exceptions for recapture and rescue apply to any animal. As one or two members of the Committee have pointed out, the amendments appear to refer only to wild mammals, and in doing so restrict the extent of the exceptions.

I hope that I can reassure those members of the Committee who are worried by what appears to be a sudden change of heart on the part of the hon. Member for Aylesbury that the amendments would in fact have no affect. The principal offence in paragraph 1 concerns hunting wild mammals with dogs, so the hunting of anything other than a wild mammal will remain unaffected. If a dog were used to recapture an animal such as an alligator that had escaped from a zoo, or an injured bird, no offence could possibly have been committed under this legislation, and the exception would not come into play. To put the matter starkly, the amendments serve no useful purpose.

Mr. Maples: The amendment is designed to draw attention to an anomaly that the Parliamentary Secretary has yet to explain. For instance, paragraph 10 makes reference to

    ``a defence for a person charged with an offence under paragraph 1''.

Such an offence can therefore relate only to a wild mammal, but the exemption relates to an animal. What is the reason for that distinction? I agree that the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury appears to narrow the scope of the provision, but in fact it does not. The offence can relate only to the hunting of a wild mammal, but the exception refers to a wider category that presumably includes birds and reptiles.

Jane Kennedy: It will be for members of the Committee to decide which of us is right.

Several questions were asked, which I shall try to answer. [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. There is cross-chat going on over the Parliamentary Secretary.

Jane Kennedy: Thank you, Mr. O'Hara.

In response to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, the Bill does not provide an exception for goats. A person who intentionally hunted goats would commit an offence, but a person who tends goats, and does not intend to hunt them, will not commit an offence.

Mr. Beith: As the Parliamentary Secretary said in her letter, hunting does not have to include killing. I am talking about wild goats. The person who tends them does not see them outside his window every morning and go out to distribute food to them, but goes to seek them on the hillside; in other words, to hunt them. I am worried that his occupation will become illegal, because he has to hunt the goats with a dog in order to count them and to consider their general condition.

Jane Kennedy: I honestly believe that the right hon. Gentleman is unnecessarily anxious—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. I am finding it difficult to hear the Parliamentary Secretary because of the undercurrent of chat.

Jane Kennedy: Thank you, Mr. O'Hara.

The right hon. Gentleman is unnecessarily anxious about this definition. If the person is tending the goats—or husbanding them, to use an old phrase—he is not hunting them. That goes back to the intention of the individual. I hope that my explanation will satisfy other members of the Committee, if not the right hon. Gentleman. I am sorry if he is still unhappy with it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme asked why gamekeepers should be prevented from flushing out mink to protect water voles.

Mrs. Golding: I did not say that. I referred to flushing out rabbits and accidentally flushing out mink, which is a different matter.

Jane Kennedy: Again, that comes back to the question of intent. The schedule does not provide for flushing out mink, in accordance with the wishes of those in Deadline 2000 who drafted it. Members of the Committee must decide whether they support that.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole): That is not only the view of Deadline 2000, but of the Environment Agency, which has said that it does not packs of dogs on riverbanks owing to the damage that they do to the habitat and to other species.

Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for coming to my aid.

Mrs. Golding: I challenge my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) on that point. In fact, the Environment Agency has no policy on hunting mink. If he can prove otherwise, I shall be surprised.

Mr. Cawsey: I referred to a well reported statement by the Environment Agency in 1996 that is available in the House of Commons Library and other places. That may not prove the matter to my hon. Friend's satisfaction, but I can only quote fact.

Jane Kennedy: I am sure that we are all grateful for the point that my hon. Friend has drawn to our attention.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough asked why paragraph 9 on the use of dogs for the retrieval of game is limited to rabbits and hares. Such retrieval does not necessarily involve the dog killing the shot game. In many cases, the purpose of retrieval is to bring the shot game back to the handler in a state fit for human consumption, so that it can be killed by the handler.

The hon. Member for Buckingham asked why shot mink or deer cannot be retrieved with dogs. The answer is that if the animals are seriously injured, they can be rescued using dogs under the provisions of paragraph 11.

This has been an interesting and heated debate, which has raised questions that I will undertake to answer only when I have received further advice.

Mr. Leigh: I shall try one more time. The Parliamentary Secretary says that under paragraph 1, a person will commit an offence only if he hunts a wild mammal. Therefore, he will not be guilty of an offence if he hunts something other than a wild mammal; for example, a snake or bird. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon asked why, given those circumstances, paragraphs 10 and 11 are phrased in terms of recapturing animals. There is no need. Why are those paragraphs not framed in terms of a defence for a person charged with an offence under paragraph 1 to prove that the activity consisted of searching for a wild mammal? That is a simple question that the Parliamentary Secretary must answer before she finishes her speech.

Jane Kennedy: I felt that I had answered the question. However, my answer has clearly not satisfied the hon. Gentleman, but it will be for members of the Committee to decide whether it is sufficient.

Mr. Bercow: We acknowledge and appreciate that the Parliamentary Secretary has striven to respond to the concerns expressed by Opposition Members. However, she will be aware, not least from the number and frequency of the interventions during her response, that there is still considerable disquiet among members of the Committee about the status of the schedule. I was especially concerned, as I suspect the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme will have been, by the Parliamentary Secretary's comments in relation to mink, which I did not find satisfactory or reassuring. Although, after a while, she tried to respond, she did not reassure the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and she did not reassure us.

Mrs. Golding: I have an Environment Agency quote from 1997 stating that it does not have an official policy on mink hunting; my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole quoted a document dated 1996. Having said that, the agency does have a policy on the protection of water voles.

Mr. Bercow: I am exceptionally grateful to the hon. Lady. All I can say in response to that helpful intervention is that the words ``check mate'' readily spring to mind. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, whose constituency I shall have the pleasure of visiting tomorrow, will take that to heart. He quoted a document from 1996 that I felt sure he had read from cover to cover. Indeed, he assured us that copies were available in the Library. However, I know that he will happily defer to the hon. Lady's reference from 1997. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is obviously sensitive on the point, so I shall indulge him.

Mr. Cawsey: Not at all. I hope that the hon. Gentleman enjoys his visit to my constituency, which he will find is a lovely part of the country.

The Environment Agency's statement that I used earlier in the debate—which has not previously been challenged—sets out its view that mink damage riverbanks, habitats and species. The agency has never said that it has a policy one way or the other. Policy is a matter for hon. Members; the agency has given us its advice, and I hope that we shall listen.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is doing his best to climb out of the hole, and I applaud him for making the attempt. However, what he said does not gainsay the remarks of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. The debate is becoming a particularly stimulating game of ping-pong.

Mrs. Golding: Does what my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole says mean that the Environment Agency is against fishing because people walk up and down the riverbank?

Mr. Bercow: Uncharacteristically, the hon. Lady seeks to divert me down a path that would not be virtuous. As you will know, Mr. O'Hara, I do not normally require much temptation, but I shall resist all blandishments on this occasion. Therefore, I shall not dilate; I know that you are as fond of that word as I am, Mr. O'Hara. Although I do not want to rehearse old arguments, I have two specific concerns.

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