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Session 2000-01
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Standing Committee Debates
Hunting Bill

Hunting Bill

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 13 February 2001


[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Hunting Bill

10.30 am

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara, it might help us to know how to use our time on this final day of our deliberations if the Government told us when and how they will respond to the issues concerning the effect of the Bill on stalking and the other matters that they said they were considering. I am sure that it is in your power to allow them to tell us whether they intend to make a statement early in the day so that we know how to proceed.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): Further to that point of order, Mr. O'Hara. It would help all Committee members if the Government told us the way forward. Concerns were raised at our previous sitting about the impact of the Bill on deer stalking. During earlier sittings we discussed at length rabbit control, and there was a suggestion from the Labour Benches that amendments might be tabled on that subject.

A further point arises on which clarification would be helpful. In The Times yesterday, Mr. Philip Webster, its political editor, who has good sources of information inside the Government, suggested that they are about to change their view on hunting in favour of licensed hunting. If that is so, it would be helpful to know in advance so that we do not waste our time.

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman is departing from the original point of order, but he made his point. I am in the hands of the Committee, but a Minister may wish to comment.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): I shall be circulating a letter to the Committee this morning on deer stalking, which states that we are considering tabling amendments, hopefully on Report. We are considering all the issues that were raised during our sittings last week, but I am not yet in a position to say exactly when the amendments will be tabled.

Mr. Beith: I am grateful for the Parliamentary Secretary's comments. I hope that she can ensure that the letter is in the hands of Committee members before we advance too far into this morning's sitting. I am sure that you would also like to see a copy, Mr. O'Hara, because it may affect how we discuss the amendments before us.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The envelopes are ready, and as soon as photocopies can be made of the document, they will be circulated.

Schedule 3

Hunting with Dogs: Prohibition

Amendment proposed [8 February]: No. 62, in page 20, line 40, leave out sub-paragraph (5)--[Mr. Lidington.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following amendments: No. 65, in page 20, line 43, after `dead' insert

    `except where the person charged believed that it would be unsafe to do so'.

No. 117, in page 20, line 43, after `dead', insert `or otherwise killed instantly'.

No. 66, in page 20, line 43, leave out from `dead' to end of line 46.

No. 64, in page 20, line 45, leave out `under sufficiently close' and insert

    `as far as practicable under'.

No. 97, in page 21, line 3, leave out `took' and insert `was intended to take'.

No. 98, in page 21, line 3, leave out `entirely'.

No. 103, in page 21, line 7, after `which' insert `he reasonably believed that'.

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) for tabling the amendments. I am sorry that I was unable to be present for the first part of the discussion at our previous sitting, but I have read Hansard with care.

I am sure that the Committee is familiar with the fact that the exceptions to the offence of hunting with dogs in paragraphs 7 to 11 include some conditions. This group of amendments refers to a condition in the exceptions on stalking and flushing out, recapturing and rescuing animals. In each case, it is the third condition to those activities, as set out in the schedule. The condition has two limbs. First, it is concerned with what happens to an animal once it has been found. Secondly, it requires that any dog used for stalking or seeking to recapture an escaped animal or search for a seriously injured animal is kept under close control.

Amendment No. 62 would remove the condition for the exception relating to stalking and flushing out. I ask the Committee to consider the consequences of doing so. The schedule allows a limited amount of stalking and flushing out for the clearly defined purposes set out in sub-paragraph (3), which we discussed last Thursday: to protect crops or livestock or in relation to food production. Therefore, it is logical that, once the quarry has been found or flushed out, it should be dispatched as quickly as possible. The condition requires that. Anything else would allow hunting to continue longer than necessary and would permit the quarry to be killed by the dog, which would run against the spirit of the schedule and the House's intention.

Amendments Nos. 66, 98 and 103 would remove the limb of the condition that requires any dogs involved in stalking or flushing out, recapturing or rescuing animals to be kept under close control. Amendment No. 64 would introduce qualifications to the condition in regard to stalking and flushing out. The Bill provides that any dog used in those activities is kept under sufficiently close control to ensure that, once the quarry is found, it is either shot dead as quickly as possible or recaptured, or that action is taken to relieve any suffering. That must be right. The objectives could be hampered if the dogs were not under control.

The use of a dog to stalk, recapture or rescue an animal without impeding those objectives presupposes both proximity to and control of the dog by the handler. For example, the limitation in the exception of the requirement to shoot dead the quarry necessitates that the dog is sufficiently under control and close by so as not to be able to kill or injure the quarry, particularly as there is no limit on the number of dogs that a person may have under his control.

Mr. Beith: For the record, will the Minister make it clear that under control does not mean on a lead? That issue has been raised with us by a number of gamekeeping and other organisations.

Mr. O'Brien: I am happy to make it clear that under control does not necessarily mean on a lead. It may do so in the case of dogs who are not properly trained, but most dogs used for such work are likely to be trained and therefore would not have to be on a lead. However, they must be under control. The control may not be perfect, but it should enable flushing out and other objectives to be achieved without the dog seeking to injure or kill the animal. I accept that, in undertaking the activities to which the exceptions relate, the dog or dogs must be allowed some latitude, but the Bill ensures that the person responsible has them under reasonably tight control.

There has been much debate about how one stops a dog attacking and possibly killing the animal once it has been located. Members of the Committee will have noted that the Bill requires that ``reasonable steps'' are taken to ensure that that does not occur. Where a person has taken reasonable steps, but the dog nevertheless attacks the animal, may be a matter for concern, but no offence may have been committed. The key point is that the person who controls the animal takes reasonable steps, such as ensuring that the animal has been trained, to minimise the chance of that happening. This part of the schedule relies more than any other on the courts applying a degree of common sense.

Amendments Nos. 65, 97 and 117 would alter the sub-paragraphs relating to shooting an animal to the effect that it would not be a requirement to shoot dead the quarry in circumstances where a person believed that it would be unsafe to do so, or if the animal was ``otherwise killed instantly.'' The Bill states that the person invoking the defence is required only to take ``reasonable steps'' to ensure that the animal is shot dead. Clearly, in circumstances where it was unsafe to shoot, it would be unreasonable—and dangerous—to require a person to do so. Much will depend on the circumstances of each case, so I do not see the need to accept the amendments. The phrase ``reasonable steps'' requires reasonability, and we do not envisage that we shall require more than that. However, we do require people to take ``reasonable steps'' to ensure that the animal is shot dead.

Mr. Beith: A moment ago, the Under-Secretary referred to a dog picking up an animal although reasonable steps had been taken to discourage it from doing so. If a dog has an injured animal in its mouth, would it be unsafe to shoot because it would threaten the dog?

Mr. O'Brien: It would certainly be unsafe to try to shoot an injured animal out of a dog's mouth—that is common sense. Indeed, that would also be the case if the dog were in close proximity to the animal. Any person contemplating a prosecution or complaint would have to consider whether ``reasonable steps'' had been taken. I am happy to place it on record that, in exercising these parts of the schedule, we expect the courts, and others who may have to make decisions on whether an offence has been committed, to exercise reasonableness and common sense about the varied and almost unpredictable circumstances that might arise. We do not intend to catch people who, while honestly working towards the objectives set out in the Bill, are responsible for dogs which, for reasons that are unintended, unexpected and not reasonably foreseen, behave in a way that results in injury to the quarry animal. That may happen, but the court and those people who make decisions about prosecutions must bear in mind the need to apply common sense.

There is a level of control that an owner can exercise over a dog, but that is limited because dogs are by their nature sometimes unpredictable. However, that does not mean that dogs cannot be kept under control; they can be controlled, trained and, to some extent, dealt with in a predictable way.


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Prepared 13 February 2001