Hunting Bill

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Mr. Garnier: My hon. Friend may or may not realise that, in practice, the Bill may put a burden on organised hunts. I think particularly of the Welsh gun packs. I do not know whether he knows, but Forest Enterprise owns quite a lot of land, particularly in north Wales. Foxes breed and live in the wooded areas of its land, and go on to neighbouring land to predate on flocks. Forest Enterprise pays the Welsh gun packs about £8,000 a year to carry out hunting activities in order that it is not sued for compensation by neighbouring farmers, but those farmers often do not give express permission either for Forest Enterprise to set the hunt or for the hunt to go on their land. That is a sensible and acceptable part of the rural economy in that part of the country. The Minister may be able to deal with the matter, but for all its good intentions, the paragraph unamended will cause adverse consequences of which even my hon. Friend has not thought.

Mr. Leigh: That is a good point. It is sad that the Committee does not contain more hon. Members who understand more about the way in which the Welsh gun packs work. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex has come in at just the right moment. How wonderful! I was saying that it is a pity that the Committee does not contain more people who understand how hunts are organised and how permissions are given. I have never risen high in the hunting firmament because I am a hopeless horseman and generally useless at the sport, although I have occasionally attempted it rather badly. Organised hunts now take enormous care to have good relationships with the local farming community. They have their general land and permission is given.

I may be wrong but I do not believe that, a week before the hunt, the master of the hunt responsible for relationships with local farmers and landowners can or does work out where the hunt will go. Therefore, no express permission for hunting can be given in the terms of the Bill; it is a far more general permission. However, I have obviously got it wrong and I would be grateful if my hon. and learned Friend told me.

Mr. Garnier: I do not know whether my hon. Friend has obviously got it wrong, but my understanding is that the field master of the day will, in advance of the day of the hunt, ring up the farmer and the landowner and say, ``We are hunting in your direction next Wednesday'' or next Tuesday or whenever it is. ``Please may we come across your land?'' or ``Would it be all right if we came across your land?'' There would be huge surprise if the farmer said, ``No, you can't'', because hunting takes place in a country where it is accepted. However, good manners, if not legal permission, require that notice be given of the intention to hunt, not least because the farmer can put animals inside who might otherwise be disturbed by the hounds. There is give and take; that everyday understanding of what goes on in the countryside is absent from the Bill.

Mr. Leigh: That is the point that I am trying to make; there is an understanding. Occasionally, the hunt deviates from its normal line, as one cannot predict where the fox will go. I agree that the hunt takes enormous care. It knows where it is going on a certain day and roughly the countryside that it will hunt over, but if an honest mistake is made, there is no question of criminal prosecutions or the constabulary being brought in. Everybody recognises that we are dealing with wild animals and with an activity that we cannot control.

Therefore, as I understand it—my hon. and learned Friend knows far more about it than me—if the amendments were passed, the Bill would be far more in accord with normal practice in the countryside. A landowner is concerned not with somebody involved in a useful pursuit who genuinely makes a mistake but who had intended to do something as described by the amendments and was following a quarry. The amendments are simply concerned with somebody who is deliberately trespassing on land and engaging in an activity that does not benefit land management.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary will say that we need the amendments, because otherwise there will be great loopholes through which people will drive a coach and horses. We will wait and see what arguments he adduces, but I suspect that he will not be able to say that. The evil that supporters of the Bill see in other parts of the Bill is the activity of hunting; the evil in relation to the amendments concerns those who hunt illegally over somebody else's land and know that they are doing it.

That is why the amendments have been framed as they are. They are eminently sensible and I hope that the Under-Secretary will be prepared, on this one occasion, to be positive about them and to intimate that he will come back to them on Report.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): Two strange things seem to be happening during this debate, which I want to comment on briefly. The first is that the exceptions in the Bill are clearly laid out in several parts and are for different purposes. There is an exception for stalking and flushing out, which is mainly for sporting purposes and to protect gamebirds from being attacked by foxes. There is a separate exception for rodent control. There is a different purpose, in that one is trying to keep down pests, which has nothing to do with sport. There are also exceptions for retrieving game, recapturing lost animals and rescuing animals. Clearly, those latter exceptions have a much more animal welfare-type purpose. Many of the arguments have been based on animal welfare—which has nothing to do with the stalking and flushing out exception—to which most of the amendments refer. Similarly, what has been said about being able to chase wounded animals on other people's land has nothing to do with the amendments, which relate to the provisions dealing with stalking and flushing out; a sporting purpose.

Much of what Conservative Members have said is pretty irrelevant. We are talking about where stalking and flushing out should be possible. Stalking and flushing out are for sporting purposes mainly, or for the protection of livestock or game. Therefore, the arguments for restricting the land on which that can be done have to be very strong. I have some sympathy for the arguments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who talked specifically about the purpose of keeping down rodents. There are much stronger arguments for opening out the land for which that sort of exception should be allowed than stalking and flushing out, which are for sporting purposes.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Will the hon. Gentleman tell me what he means by stalking?

Mr. Rendel: The hon. Gentleman will, I hope, have read the Bill, where the purposes for which stalking is allowed are specified. The schedule states:

    ``The first condition is that the stalking or flushing out was undertaken . . . for the purpose of protecting livestock, fowl (including wild fowl), game birds or crops''.

I do not need to read out the whole Bill, as it is clear what stalking is for and how it works. That is one reason why the arguments of Opposition Members have been rather mistaken. They have not addressed the part of the Bill to which the amendments refer.

It is rather strange that Conservative Members have been arguing for a considerable reduction in property rights. It is unusual for them to do that. A moment ago, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) said that because property rights under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 were diminished—I fully accept that property rights were deliberately diminished by Parliament—further diminution of property rights must automatically be the way to go. I do not accept that because Parliament diminished property rights regarding where people could walk, such rights should be further diminished as to where they can stalk and flush out with dogs.

Mr. Garnier: We are asking for something far more conservative than what we are being attacked for by the hon. Gentleman. We want the status quo to be maintained. Property rights are preserved through the civil law of trespass; the blessing of the criminal law is not needed to enforce it.

Mr. Rendel: I accept that civil law on trespass exists, but the amendments would change property rights in a way that is not at all conservative. If all the amendments were accepted, it would be a defence to stalking on other people's land for someone to say that a small part of the stalking had taken place on land that he believed he had not been expressly forbidden to use. Someone need only walk out of his front door with his dog, assuming that he owned the land, to say that a small part of the stalking operation had taken place on land that he knew he had not been forbidden to use, let alone that he believed that to be so. Such an exception would be extraordinarily wide. If the amendments were accepted, a person could go stalking absolutely anywhere.

12.45 pm

Mr. Lidington: To follow the logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument, presumably he also believes that the broader exception provided for in the Deer Act 1991 is much too wide in scope and should be narrowed on the lines of the schedules to this Bill.

Mr. Rendel: My knowledge of that Act is not sufficient to answer that question. I am sure that the Under-Secretary knows a lot more about it than I do, so he may be able to help the hon. Member for Aylesbury. The amendment would mean that stalking and flushing out could take place on anybody's land. The only way to stop that happening would be if a landowner in the highlands knew that the land next door was owned by a consortium that had sold out the stalking rights—

Mr. Garnier: The Bill does not apply to Scotland.

Mr. Rendel: Indeed. If a landowner in any part of England and Wales, where the Bill will apply, knew that the next-door land was owned by a consortium and that the rights to stalk and flush out might be sold to someone, he would have to find all the potential clients and forbid each one of them to stalk and flush out on the land. That is impossible. If the amendments were accepted, anybody could stalk and flush out anywhere in the country. That is the absurdity of the amendments.

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