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(a) any expenditure incurred by a Minister of the Crown by virtue of the Act; and
(b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided under any other enactment.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Contracting Out

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Local Government Finance

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

London Government

Question agreed to.





29 Oct 2001 : Column 727

Illegal Hare Coursing

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

10.15 pm

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage): In bringing before the House the problem of hare coursing, I want first to draw a sharp distinction between legal coursing under National Coursing Club rules and illicit hare coursing with trespass, which is a serious difficulty to which the House and the Government must provide more effective solutions.

Some Members—I see the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) in his place—might think that the way to deal with the problem of hare coursing with trespass is to wait until all hare coursing is banned. I disagree. There is a place for legitimate hare coursing among our country sports, but its continuance should not be used as an excuse for not tackling the serious difficulty of illegitimate hare coursing.

I describe the problem as serious in the light of what I have been told is going on in my constituency and what I have learned is happening in other parts of the country. I have been given vivid accounts by local farmers, and by the police, of what commonly occurs in cases of hare coursing with trespass. Although my local farmers are grateful for the increasing effort being put in by the local police to deal with the problem, the farmers and the police have told me of their frustration at its continuing intractability.

Hare coursing is no longer an exclusively rural pursuit, if it ever was. Hare coursing with trespass has become a favourite weekend occupation of substantial numbers of rough urban dwellers, who will drive hundreds of miles for a day's "sport". They assemble in large numbers, using the motorways and co-ordinating their activities on mobile telephones, and supplement the pleasures of the chase by betting on the performance of the animals. I have heard that there are wins of the order of £20,000 in cash on the day.

The behaviour of such people towards farmers, the police and anybody who might get in their way is distinctly intimidatory. They favour the months when the crops are growing, so that cover for the hares is minimised. Crops are most vulnerable when they are growing, so that choice of season could be calculated to do the maximum economic damage. That contrasts with legitimate hare coursing, in which there is a closed season between March and September, so that the hares are undisturbed during the breeding season.

Let me dwell for a moment on the risk to the hare population. Research at the university of Bristol shows:

in the 20th century. Numbers have fallen to such an extent that the UK biodiversity steering group has put hares on its list of species in decline. Obviously many factors are involved in the decline of the hare population and such coursing is only one, but it adds to the wider concerns about economic damage and damage done to the wider sense of security in the countryside.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): The hon. Gentleman rightly notes the decline in the brown hare population.

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Would not it be better to ban all hare coursing? I cannot understand why he makes a distinction between illegal and legal hare coursing—the hare does not know what is illegal or legal. All it knows is that it gets ripped to pieces by greyhounds. What is the point of hare coursing?

Mr. Jackson: I simply disagree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. I shall continue to make my point about what I regard as illegitimate as opposed to legitimate hare coursing and discuss the legal remedies for the problem as I have defined it. He is perfectly free to define it in whatever way he wishes.

I know from my extensive correspondence with the Home Office, which I suppose will have briefed the Minister, that it believes that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 provides the answer. It is true that the 1994 Act substantially increased the penalties for trespass in pursuit of game, but I believe that it has not solved the problem. It provides for heavy fines in certain circumstances, but despite that legislation hare coursing with trespass continues, and I have the impression that it has been increasing. It is a serious problem in rural areas, and the stiffer penalties under the Act are not acting as a deterrent.

For one thing, the effectiveness of the 1994 Act against aggravated trespass—trespass that intimidates or interferes with the local activity of farmers and landowners—has been undermined by the High Court in its ruling in Tilly v. the DPP. The case involved a genetically modified crops protester, and the High Court ruled that the farmer had to be physically present for the lawful activity of farming to be obstructed. In light of that ruling, the Government should at least review the Act to see whether those provisions are still operational, as a loophole has been created.

The fundamental problem is the fact that, in the case of trespassing hare coursers, the main offence that has to be proved is that of trespass in pursuit of game under the Game Act 1831, and that is a very difficult offence to prove.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jackson: I am afraid that I will not, because there is only a short time for the debate and I want to conclude my remarks and give the Minister reasonable time to reply.

In order successfully to establish the offence of trespass in pursuit of game, the prosecution has to prove, first, that a trespass has taken place, secondly, that a particular individual or individuals being charged actually committed that trespass, and thirdly, that the trespass was done with the intention or purpose of searching for or pursuing game.

It is common for those involved in such activity to hide their identity by wearing balaclavas. By the time that the police have arrived, the offenders have moved on, or they may be apprehended on a public footpath, in which case it is easy for them to claim that they were merely walking their dogs, perfectly legally, and were not in pursuit of game.

What can we do about this lamentable situation? As I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, if Parliament acts as the hon. Member for West Ham wishes and legislates to ban hunting with dogs, all hare coursing, including hare coursing with trespass, will become illegal.

29 Oct 2001 : Column 729

Like many other hon. Members who represent rural areas, I oppose a total ban on hunting with dogs, so I would not recommend that solution. I would be willing to support the middle way option of licensing all hunting with dogs, which would make hare coursing with trespass illegal because it would not have a licence. I put it to the Minister that, in spite of the desires and public activities of the hon. Member for West Ham, general legislation on hunting with dogs is still an uncertain prospect, and that the problem of hare coursing with trespass is a current, live problem that needs to be addressed with urgency in view of the inadequacy of the current law.

That is why I want to put to the Minister two practical suggestions for early action. First, we should legislate to reverse the burden of proof, as was done under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. At that time, there had been a number of cases in which men had been caught digging up the land, and it was suspected that they were involved in the offence of badger baiting. They could get away with it by claiming that their purpose was legitimate pest control. The 1992 Act reversed the burden of proof, so that anyone trespassing on land and having with him the tools or implements for digging out a badger had to prove that he was not committing that offence. I understand that that change in the law has helped to reduce the illegal digging out of badgers, and I think that it would help to reduce trespass for the purpose of hare coursing.

My second suggestion was put to me by members of the local police in my constituency. It is that the law should recognise an element of persistence or continuity of conduct. If a person is given a verbal warning similar to a warning under part V of the Public Order Act 1986 and continues hare coursing on the same day within a 10-mile radius of the place where the warning was issued, he will have committed an offence for which there should be a power of arrest. That would prevent the present run-around that absorbs so many police resources on Sunday mornings between September and May, while safeguarding the rights of dog owners whose dogs genuinely slip the leash and run after rabbits and hares.

During my 20 years as a Member of Parliament, I have raised many different matters on the Adjournment, but I must tell the Minister that I have rarely encountered such interest in a subject. I have been contacted by farmers all over the country, and have been offered briefings by many concerned individuals and groups.

This is a serious matter. If the Government have rural interests at heart—as I believe that they do—they will want to respond positively, and with urgency, to my concerns.

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