Hunting Bill

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Mr. Garnier: The point about Beatrix Potter is that, while she was the creator of Peter Rabbit and his siblings, she was also the creator of Mr. MacGregor.

Mr. Leigh: Fair enough. I think that we all, in our weaker moments, anthropomorphise. We have a different view, whatever the rationality of the situation with rats and rabbits.

Supporters of a ban will get their way, presumably. Organised hunting will be abolished. However the Bill finishes its life, if it ever becomes law in some shape or form, in this incarnation or in the next—we do not know what will happen—let us achieve just one thing. If the House of Commons wants to abolish organised hunts, it will go ahead and do so, if it has the time. However, the real countryside will carry on. Please, let people get on with their job of controlling the rats, the rabbits and the rest in a way that they and we understand. Do not draft a Bill that tries to limit them in ways that will make nonsense of their job and of the service that they perform so well in the countryside, which they love so much. That is my only appeal as we approach the last quarter of an hour of our proceedings.

I do not think that the last day has been a waste of time. None of our proceedings has been. We have had a good debate. We have perhaps changed a few minds and achieved just a little in our few weeks of deliberation.

Mr. O'Brien: The policy to which the schedule seeks to give effect is that hunting with dogs should be banned, except in limited circumstances. Those Committee members who attended the Committee of the whole House will be in little doubt that it was the wish of the majority of hon. Members to give effect to that policy.

As the Bill is currently drafted, ratting—the hunting of rats—is virtually unrestricted. The only conditions attached to ratting are that it is done with the owner's permission and does not involve the use of dogs below ground. We have discussed both those issues, and I have made a commitment to table an amendment on Report to ensure that there can be no doubt that hunting rats in cellars is lawful.

If amendment No. 73 were accepted, mink hunting would be similarly unrestricted. This is a policy question. It is for Committee members to decide whether they can support such an amendment; some will, and some will not. None of us can be in any doubt about the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, because she told us in no uncertain terms what she thinks of mink. Other Committee members will need to form their own views on the basis of the arguments that they have heard.

9.45 pm

As the Committee must be aware, amendment No. 74 deals with a subject that has occupied a lot of time during our deliberations—the hunting of rabbits. It would place rabbits in the same category as rodents, in that hunting them would be subject to very few restrictions. I shall set the record straight and explain precisely what the Bill does and does not allow in relation to rabbits.

In summary, using dogs to flush rabbits out of cover and shooting them will remain legal. Hunting rabbits with long dogs—lurchers—will be prohibited. The accidental chasing of a rabbit is not an offence. Let me elaborate. Paragraph 1 of the schedule makes it an offence to hunt a wild mammal with a dog. As rabbits are mammals, they are covered by that general prohibition. However, the general prohibition on hunting with dogs is subject to a number of exceptions, that is, circumstances in which it would remain lawful to hunt a wild mammal with dogs. The Committee will see that there is reference to rabbits in two of the exceptions—stalking and flushing out, and retrieval of game—in paragraphs 7 and 9 respectively. In each case, the activity is subject to certain conditions.

I shall deal first with paragraph 7. Stalking and flushing out a rabbit is allowed to protect crops, for the purpose of obtaining food or in connection with falconry. The activity must take place on land and where the person doing the stalking or flushing out has permission to undertake that activity. A dog cannot be used below ground. Perhaps most important, reasonable steps must be taken to ensure that a rabbit is shot dead as soon as possible after being found. I emphasise that the purpose of flushing out is to shoot the rabbit in question and that the dog used must be kept under close control to ensure that there is no impediment to that result. That reflects the view that shooting rabbits is the most humane way in which to control them. No one is suggesting that there is a great moral advantage in ensuring that we protect rabbits. The objective is not to protect rabbits from being killed, but to deal with a particular aspect of the killing of the rabbit.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex has apologised to me for being unable to be present; he has a very good reason. He asked whether Harry Soames should be able to flush out and shoot rabbits with his .22. Of course he should, in particular circumstances. Provided that he complies with the conditions and is not trespassing on someone else's land, he should be able to get his .22, take his dog, flush out rabbits and shoot them. Paragraph 9 provides for the retrieval of a rabbit that has been shot. So much for what the Bill allows. Let me spell out what the schedule will prohibit.

Rabbit hunting will no longer be permissible. By this I mean that using dogs, such as lurchers, to chase rabbits and kill them will become illegal. I am also aware that dogs that are to be used for hare coursing are initially trained using rabbits. That too will be prohibited, as indeed will hare coursing. The Bill will ensure that the hunting of rabbits by dogs does not continue. The exceptions in the Bill provide for rabbits to be dealt with without being chased and killed by dogs.

For the sake of completeness, let me place one more thing on the record, although I am conscious that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and I have emphasised it on numerous occasions. There have been various mischievous suggestions that if a person is walking his or her dog in the park and the dog takes it upon itself to chase a rabbit, the human will be guilty of an offence, because rabbit hunting will be illegal. That is simply not the case. To hunt an animal is to follow it with the intention of capturing or harming it. Any member of the Committee who is minded to disagree should check the ``Oxford English Dictionary'' definition of hunt. This is not something that can be done inadvertently, accidentally or recklessly. If the human involved did not have the intention to hunt, he or she is not guilty of any offence, whatever the dog may intend or have done.

The Bill in its current form does not allow for unrestricted rabbit hunting, but does allow for the flushing out of rabbits for the purposes of shooting them and for the retrieval of the rabbits. Those who do not intend to hunt have nothing to fear from these provisions. The effect of the amendment would be that rabbit hunting in general would be legal as long as the dogs did not go below ground and the owner had consented. It would then be possible to use long dogs, such as lurchers, to chase and to kill rabbits. It would also be possible to course rabbits.

There is another important consequence. Under this schedule, participation in organised hare coursing will become illegal. Similarly, an individual who engages in hare coursing outside a structured competition will be caught by the general prohibition on hare hunting. There must be a danger that if virtually no restrictions are placed on rabbit hunters, anyone who is accused of hare hunting will simply claim that they were in fact after rabbits and, given the similarities between the two species, would be likely in certain circumstances to be able to mount a successful defence, because of course they would argue that although they may know the difference between a rabbit and a hare, the dog does not.

It is for the members of the Committee to decide whether they wish to preserve the policy to which the Bill currently gives effect, or whether they want to allow for much greater rabbit hunting. In doing so, I am sure that members of the Committee will want to bear in mind the concerns that have been expressed about the position of gamekeepers. I stress that it is entirely proper for the Committee to discuss the question and, if it chooses, to make the amendment. I have sought to explain why the Bill was drafted in a particular way, but that does not prevent the Committee from amending it if it believes that those amendments would improve it.

Members of the Committee are by now familiar with the arguments surrounding the hunting of rabbits, so I do not need to say much more on that question. It is for Members to decide how they wish to vote on these amendments. However, we would need to look at the Bill to ensure that the consequences of these amendments were given proper effect, and there may well be consequential amendments.

These arguments do need to be considered with great care. We have not fully explored all the implications. There is an issue in relation to hares and rabbits that means that I, for one, will not support the amendments. The arguments that have been put in favour of removing rabbits at this point do not convince me that such a step will deal with the problem that people who hunt with lurcher dogs will simply continue to train the dogs for hunting by training them on rabbits, and may then continue the sport of hunting rabbits with lurcher dogs. Perhaps I need to explore some background issues before deciding whether I find that acceptable. As I still have some concerns about the matter, I cannot support the amendment.

Opposition Members have raised a number of good points, which have certainly led me to think about the issues. My hon. Friends and I would like to take on board some of the points that have been made and consider whether it would be appropriate to introduce amendments on Report. However, that will be a matter for members of the Committee. The Government are neutral on the issues of policy. Our aim is to make good law, although individual members of the Committee are entitled to deal with policy issues as they think fit.

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon raised the distinction between rats, rabbits and mink. We have already considered rats, and the broad circumstances in which they may be hunted. The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the fact that the Bill draws a distinction between rabbits and mink. There is a simple, practical reason for that distinction. Rabbits can be flushed out, but not hunted by dogs. They can be flushed out and then shot. There are perfectly good reasons for that, which we have already discussed, so I will not repeat them.

Mink, on the other hand, are treated somewhat differently. Although they may be shot or trapped and then killed, flushing out is not encouraged. One of the concerns in relation to mink has been the damage to the river environment caused by the process of hunting. Hon. Members will have to make up their own mind about trapping and how much damage it might do. However, there is concern that the process of hunting may cause some damage. Indeed, in some circumstances, the process of hunting may not be much different to the process of flushing out, so there is likely to be some damage to the riverbank environment and the habitat of the water vole. So there are practical considerations.

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon asked me for some moral distinctions and I am not sure whether I can find those so easily, but are practical reasons for saying that mink should be treated differently from rabbits and rats.

We have had a good debate and some important points have been raised which have made me think. I would like to work through certain issues during the next week or so before we consider the Bill on Report. Opposition Members have sought to put arguments and in the past hour we have had one of the better debates of the whole Committee as hon. Members have put their arguments in a more cohesive, concise and coherent way. That may have been the case in respect of other issues had we made greater progress during our consideration of the Bill.

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Prepared 13 February 2001