Hunting Bill

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Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): I am sorry to say by way of preface that I believe this to be have been largely, although not entirely, a wasted day. It was hoped that, by adding an extra day's proceedings, we could examine the most pressing and newest amendments. That has not happened. We have proceeded in exactly the same fashion: the same arguments and the same issues have been repeated over and over again. That is not a criticism of your chairmanship, Mr. O'Hara, or that of your Co-Chairman. We are discussing the schedule as a whole. The amendments lead us through the schedule and it is difficult for hon. Members to keep them exactly in order. It is also difficult to chair our proceedings. Nevertheless, it should have been possible to get through new matters; that clearly will not now happen. We have got through one new set of amendments and we are not quite at the end of that yet.

Mr. Beith: Would the hon. Gentleman at least acknowledge that had we not had today's sitting, members of the Committee would not have heard the announcement from the Parliamentary Secretary that deerstalking is banned by the Bill? We would not have heard her assurance that the Government intend to move amendments to this part of the Bill and the Minister could not have responded to my query about whether those amendments would achieve the objective of getting deerstalking out of the Bill again.

Mr. Pickthall: We could have received a letter expressing my hon. Friend's intentions about that. Certainly the interchange between the right hon. Gentleman and the Minister would not have been possible had today not happened. I said that today was not entirely wasted. Some important issues have been raised. Unfortunately, they have been raised many, many times in slightly different language and at enormous length by several hon. Members.

8.59 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

9.28 pm

On resuming—

I was in the process of saying—I will change the wording to suit the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed—that today has not been wisely or sensibly used for the most part. We have had time wasted as well by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

I want to come directly to the issue of rabbits, which is the subject of one of these amendments. I want to invoke ``the Banks line'' on this, if I may call it that. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said earlier in our proceedings that there were difficulties—moral difficulties, difficulties in comparing different species of mammals and so forth—but that, at some point, one has to draw a line. He was keen to tell us what his line was. Perhaps the line that we would each draw would be different.

I carry no brief for rabbits. In the two parts of the world that I know best, Lancashire and Cumbria, they are a considerable pest and a nuisance. They wiped out my garden twice. I can tell the hon. and learned Member for Harborough that on one of those occasions they came from the railway embankment, but as it is extremely steep, I cannot imagine anyone chasing them down there with dogs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme has said all there is to say about mink, and has said it many times. I have no personal knowledge of mink. There are none in my area that I know of, and I have not come across them as a pest, but I hear what she says.

The nub of the matter is that we are wrestling with is what is and what is not a pest. Every mammal is a pest at certain times and in certain places if there are too many of them. For all I know, if mink were eradicated the water vole might become a pest. If there were billions of water vole crawling all over Newcastle-under-Lyme, my hon. Friend would no doubt want them wiped out. All animals have to be controlled or culled if they cause economic damage to farmland, or if they present possible health dangers, as with badgers. Badgers are not included in this Bill, but a very serious and awkward debate about badgers and TB has been taking place in the countryside for some time. We must decide when and where a mammal becomes a pest, and take action to deal with that problem.

Mr. Öpik: I beg to differ with the hon. Gentleman. The debate is not about whether these animals are pests, but about the methods used to kill them. Why does he find it acceptable that rodents may be killed by dogs but not rabbits or mink?

Mr. Pickthall: That is precisely the burden of my argument. I do not wish to be rude, but it is disingenuous to say that the debate is not about when animals are pests. The substance of most of the comments that have been made on these amendments is that mink are pests, and, as the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex said, that rabbits are pests, and that that justifies a particular method of destroying such animals. If we have decided when a mammal is a pest, and where—because it will be a pest in one area and not in another—we must also decide what is the most humane way of dealing with it. I think that that was what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire was getting at, and I agree with him.

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon said that we must have moral reasons so that our arguments hold together and are consistent. If we try to decide what the most humane method of dealing with these animals is, we get embroiled in arguments about cruelty. Cruelty has two facets. There is the cruelty involved in killing the animal. I am far from anthropomorphic in my view of animals--I did not even like reading stories to my children about talking animals. I do not have a clue about what goes on in an animal's mind. Is the killing unnecessarily brutal, cruel or painful? There is also the cruelty and intention of the human act in disposing of an animal in a certain way. Is it for fun? I do not believe that huntsman who get dogs to kill an animal are not involved in cruelty, whether consciously or subconsciously. Many question revolve around that. Can that be avoided? What should we do about it? Should the Bill allow an animal to be killed with dogs or should it be killed by another means if it has to be disposed of?

The line drawn by my hon. Friend and Member for West Ham is very important, but I readily confess that it may be different for each person. An Act of Parliament is a very difficult mechanism to use to draw millions of different lines that suit every person.

We have no problem with rats. We have to dispose of rats, although if there were some version of mixamatosis that wiped out 99 per cent. of all the rats in this country, we might have a different attitude even towards rats. An hon. Friend carries rats around in a cage, so she has a different attitude towards them.

Mr. Öpik rose—

Mr. Pickthall: I shall not give way, because we are close to time and the Minister has to wind up the debate.

I have said what I think about rabbits. It is difficult to draw the line and to decide whether to allow rabbits to be chased and killed by dogs. I would probably allow that, given my experiences as a country boy. Despite what the Opposition say, as far as I know I have never been to Islington in my life.

Mr. Leigh: The hon. Gentleman is not in the Government though.

Mr. Pickthall: And I probably never will be.

I have a life-long experience of rabbits and the depredations and methods of catching them, some of which may involve cruelty. It is difficult to know where to draw the line, but my view is that it is legitimate to kill rabbits with dogs because they are such a wide spread pest. I will not pass a view on mink because I do not know enough about them. I have seen the figures, but they do not tell me whether the mink is a pest on the same scale as rabbits.

It is quite clear where we are going with this amendment. Rats are accepted as pests, so we get rid of them by whatever means. We may do the same with rabbits, and perhaps with mink. The next one on the list is the fox. It has been argued for years--although not in the Committee--that the fox is a pest. To be consistent, therefore, we should perhaps say that the fox is a pest, just like the rabbit--although the two interact with each another--and go for that.

These amendments drive a coach and horses through the intention of the Bill because they open up the argument of moral consistency and logic. The argument is that any mammal is a pest in particular circumstances, so they should come under the same strictures as rabbits and mink, which are dealt with in the amendments. Deer are a terrible pest in parts of the country. So we are left with hares, which are easily confused with rabbits by some people.

These amendments, although interesting, are problematic because they require consistency and rationality, so they would invert the intention of the Bill. To that extent they are negative amendments.

Mr. Leigh: I shall be brief, because the shadow of the guillotine looms above us, and the tumbrils are approaching us.

You, Mr. O'Hara, will know, as a noted classicist, that Julius Caesar wrote:

    ``Gallis in tres partes divisa est'',

which a—

The Chairman: Order.

    ``Gallis est omnis divisa in partes tres.'' [Laughter.]

Mr. Leigh: I am put to shame, Mr. O' Hara.

A wag once loosely translated that as, ``Gaul is divided into three halves.'' My speech will be divided into three parts. The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), for whom we all have a lot of affection, was doing well until the last part of his speech. He was making a brilliant speech in support of the amendments until he realised which alley he was travelling up. He then had quickly to turn round.

I do not know what the solution is on mink, but we all know that there are only 20 mink hunts. The number of mink that they kill in relation to the total number is tiny. Therefore, apparently, they are not an effective pest control. I will not go through all the arguments that they are a terrible pest and have to be eradicated, and that there are all sorts of difficulties in getting rid of them with traps and shooting. I think that it comes down to the fact that mink hunting is being abolished because of concern not about pest control, but about people following mink hunts and enjoying it as a sport. That is why it must be abolished and mink are included in the Bill.

Many arguments have been advanced by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. The purport of those arguments is that, when we have such an effective means to deal with such a difficult pest, which everyone agrees has to be eradicated, why are we getting rid of it—one of the most environmentally friendly, effective means of dealing with the problem—destroying that bit of activity for no reason.

There has been much discussion about lurchers hunting rabbits. More rabbits are killed by dogs than by any other means. Committee members all agree on the question of rabbits. If the Bill ever sees the light of day after the election is called, I suspect that rabbits will not figure. If ``Watership Down'' by Richard Adams had never been written, rabbits would never have been dealt with in the way that they have been in the Bill.

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Prepared 13 February 2001