Hunting Bill

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Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I have been told that it is sometimes hard to shoot a wounded animal because it is impossible to locate. Currently, gamekeepers and huntsmen would tend to use a dog to dispatch the animal in that situation. Accepting the limitations of the Bill, does the Under-Secretary agree that in a spirit of reasonableness there may be circumstances where it would be in the interests of animal welfare to allow a huntsman to use a dog to finish off the mammal?

Mr. O'Brien: I am reluctant to go quite as far as the hon. Gentleman suggests. This part of the schedule is reasonably clear. The Bill says ``shot dead'', and that is how we would prefer an animal to be quickly dispatched—as I suspect would most others—which is probably the best approach. I see that the hon. Gentleman is nodding in agreement.

10.45 am

The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that the prosecution will be obliged to consider not only whether a conviction is likely, given the facts, but whether there is public interest in prosecuting the person involved. I would rather stick with the wording in the schedule than follow the hon. Gentleman down the route that he is trying to open up for me, but I reassure him that there are safeguards. A magistrates court would have to consider the person's intention. The person may not have intended that the animal should be finished off by the dogs when he began flushing out or stalking it, but it might be the safest approach in the circumstances. All those issues would have to be considered, so I shall stick with the wording in the schedule. When animals are dealt with in that way, and are to be killed, our intention is that they should be shot.

Mr. Öpik: I was merely suggesting that a huntsman might genuinely think that it was in the interests of animal welfare to use a dog to finish off a wounded fox, but the schedule will prohibit that. Will the Minister consider an exemption, in clearly defined circumstances, if, say, the huntsman genuinely believed and could reasonably show that a fox would have had a more agonising death had he been unable to use a dog? For example, the fox may have crawled into a hole or gone somewhere and could not be finished off. I stress that I am not expecting the Minister to respond now, as we have covered the matter in our debate.

Mr. O'Brien: I would not want the dog to be encouraged to pursue a fox down a hole. That is contrary to the schedule and the policy of Deadline 2000, which has been endorsed by the House of Commons. Again, I am reluctant to follow the rest of the route proposed by the hon. Gentleman. The better approach is to consider the safeguards, which mean that there will be no prosecution if the person has behaved in an honest and straightforward way, and if he did not intend to breach the legislation and had intended to look after the welfare of animals. All that must be considered. The safeguards are there, and the wording of the schedule does not compromise them. I understand the hon. Gentleman's fears, but they are unnecessary. My remarks, as well as the policy of the Crown Prosecution Service, can be taken into account when deciding whether a prosecution is in the public interest and whether the person clearly intended to breach the legislation.

In the light of those remarks, I invite the hon. Member for Aylesbury to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Beith: Before the hon. Member for Aylesbury considers whether he should withdraw the amendment, I should like to state that I did not seek to catch your eye, Mr. O'Hara, because I had not read the letter. The letter proves to be extraordinarily relevant to the amendments before us. On Thursday, I said that the Bill could ban deer stalking, but not even all my hon. Friends and colleagues on the Opposition Benches were convinced that I was right—nor, indeed, were certain country sports organisations. The Parliamentary Secretary duly discovered that I was right. If Committee members such as the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) have not read the letter, they should do so. In it, the Parliamentary Secretary states:

    ``I am advised that the effect of the Bill is that the stalking and flushing out of deer would be prohibited since the exception for stalking and flushing out in paragraph 7 covers only foxes, hares and rabbits.

    I believe that it would not have been the intention of the House to prevent the stalking and flushing out of deer, and it is my impression that the majority of the members of the Committee are sympathetic to this position.''

However, the view of the majority of members of the Committee is so far unclear.

Those who are critical of the Bill have suggested that it contains provisions for which the House did not in fact vote, but that suggestion has been dismissed on the basis that the Bill reflects Deadline 2000's proposals and covers its standpoint—a standpoint for which the House voted. We have produced a number of examples of activities that, in our view, hon. Members did not intend to ban, but our arguments have been dismissed. None the less, it is becoming clear that an entire major sport—one that is incredibly important to the economy of upland and forest areas, and which is based on flushing out—is not covered by the paragraphs to which the amendments relate. I therefore welcome the Government's assurance in that letter that they

    ``will be bringing forward Government amendments at Report Stage to add deer to the list of species to which the stalking and flushing out exception in paragraph 7 may apply.''

Of course, I do not yet know whether hon. Members who support Deadline 2000 would accept such amendments, or whether the vote would be whipped or free. That point needs clarification, but it underlines the fact that apparently slight items of drafting have a profound effect, and can extend the Bill's scope far beyond the matters on which hon. Members thought they were voting. They can extend the Bill beyond hunting to the normal professional activities of gamekeepers and countryside and wildlife wardens, and to sports other than those that the Bill set out to ban.

In the light of this experience, I hope that Ministers and hon. Members who strongly support an unamended schedule 3 will be more sympathetic to amendments such as those in this group. If one of them is not accepted, a person who, for example, kills a mammal in the most welfare-conscious and humane manner but does not shoot it, might be liable to prosecution.

We end this, the last day of our proceedings—which we might not have had, and for which we are grateful—in some difficulty. We have discovered that the Bill is vastly—yes, vastly—wider in scope than its promoters apparently intended, and that should sound an awful warning. I am convinced that further difficulties will come to light on Report, if not before, and that this Bill will abolish not just hunting, but an unspecified list of country sports.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): The letter of 13 February to which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred is of huge significance, and it is important to reinforce the points that he has made. Not so very long ago—in the previous sitting or the one before that—I said that the most often-passed law is the law of the unforeseen consequence, and this is yet another example of such a law.

The letter, which was copied to all Committee members but sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, opens a can of worms. I draw attention to its consequences, because it relates to something that should have been apparent not only at the Bill's gestation in the autumn, but to those who profess an interest in the subject of banning hunting.

A warning bell was rung by the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), when he drew the Minister's attention to the difficulties over the issue of rabbits. Yet another class of animal has been brought within the Bill's ambit, but the Government were not aware of that until my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury moved his amendments at our last sitting.

I appreciate the Minister's mantra that the schedule belongs to Deadline 2000 and, to that extent, the Government can wash their hands of it and maintain their neutral stance. However, that only works so far, because the Government have at their disposal all the expertise—of Home Office lawyers and parliamentary counsel—that they might wish to get hold of. Yet, on the last day of proceedings in Committee, the Parliamentary Secretary points out, candidly and perfectly fairly, that there is a huge hole in the Bill.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham)): I apologise, Mr. O'Hara, for my tardiness in arriving in Committee.

Let me correct the hon. and learned Gentleman: the Bill belongs to the House and to the Committee. I know its genesis and the process involved, as do we all, but he should not keep saying, as other Opposition Members have, that the Bill belongs to an outside organisation. It belongs to the House and in the end it is up to us to decide how we want to amend it. We may refer to people outside the House, but the Bill is ours and we should amend it to make it work.

Mr. Garnier: I do not want to have an uninteresting, semantic discussion with the hon. Gentleman. Of course he is right: the Bill belongs to the House. Every Bill belongs to the House, but as a rule they are steered through the House by the Government—the party with the majority. This is a different sort of Bill, because it is, effectively, a private Member's Bill for which the Government, who control everything in this Palace, have provided time.

Had the hon. Gentleman introduced the schedule as his own private Member's Bill to ban hunting, I would not have launched at him the criticisms that I have launched at the Government for the drafting holes, because I could not expect him by himself, without Government assistance, to be able to produce a Bill that meets the normal requirements of criminal legislation. None the less, the hon. Members for Worcester (Mr. Foster) and for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), among others, have over the years introduced private Member's Bills dealing with hunting and, with the assistance of outside organisations, have done their best. Here we can do better than that. The entire resources of the Home Office have been made available to the Committee so that the Bill, which is in the ownership of the Committee, can go on the statute book in a sensible and enforceable way.

What concerns me is that, at the 59th minute of the 11th hour of this Committee, the Parliamentary Secretary, of whom I am hugely fond, writes me a billet-doux, the day before Valentine's day, saying:

    ``I am advised that the effect of the Bill is that the stalking and flushing out of deer would be prohibited since the exception for stalking and flushing out in paragraph 7 only covers foxes, hare and rabbits.''

It is not my Bill; it is not my job to get it into the correct shape, but it does not take a rocket scientist, let alone a Member of Parliament, to reach that conclusion. It is regrettable that the Committee has been disadvantaged by receiving this letter on 13 February as opposed, for example, to 26 October, in the seven or eight days immediately prior to Second Reading—or even during the period immediately following new year and before the Committee of the whole House discussed the three options.

The Parliamentary Secretary makes a well intentioned guess--but it is a guess--in the second paragraph, which states:

    ``I believe that it would not have been the intention of the House to prevent the stalking and flushing out of deer, and it is my impression that the majority of the members of the Committee are sympathetic to this position.''

I cannot speak for the hon. Member for West Ham, but I suspect that he finds any destruction of a wild mammal deeply reprehensible. I do not know whether he represents a majority in the House on that matter and I do not know how the Parliamentary Secretary knows of that majority—unless she has spoken to every hon. Member who voted for the Bill's Second Reading or for schedule 3 as its guts. I presume that the Minister is merely guessing that

    ``it would not have been the intention of the House to prevent the stalking and flushing out of deer''.

11 am

I suspect that the intention of the majority of those who support schedule 3 and certainly of those who support the banning of hunting is to ban all forms of activity involving humans and other animals--dogs or hounds--in the culling of wild mammals, particularly deer. Most of the correspondence that we receive on the subject probably concerns hares and deer because those animals have the greatest history of anthropomorphic literature. The number of Christmas cards that we receive showing deer and hares is rather greater than those showing foxes.

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Prepared 13 February 2001