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16 Dec 2002 : Column 585—continued

Sir Patrick Cormack: If the Minister were to be truly fair, would not he allow the tests to be applied to the rural community, and to the hounds and the horses?

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend is right. It is striking that the Bill's definition of utility is narrower than that of the Minister in a letter to various interested organisations in April. The letter stated:

Even that list was inadequate because it failed to take account either of the point of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) or of the importance of hunting as a direct and indirect provider of employment in rural areas where other employment is not easy to find. Yet the Minister's description of only a few months ago was winnowed significantly before it reached the Bill.

Dr. Whitehead: Is the hon. Gentleman making a case against a specific tribunal or tribunals in general? Surely the principle behind any tribunal is the need to make a positive case before it on the basis of law. The hon. Gentleman appears to suggest that the tribunal, if established, would be different from any other in the land and should therefore be opposed.

Mr. Lidington: My argument is that if the Government want to criminalise people, they should define in law the activity that they believe should be outlawed. The burden of proof should rest with the prosecution. It should have to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt in court, as happens with other criminal offences.

Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman recall that at the hearings in September, witnesses for all sides

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accepted that recreational activity should be considered a utility? Indeed, that is the only way one can make a consistent case for maintaining fishing and shooting.

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. As he said, all sides, not only the Countryside Alliance, accepted that in the hearings in Westminster Hall over which the Minister presided.

Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman referred to employment earlier. I have never understood why people cannot go drag hunting and thus provide employment.

Mr. Lidington: If the hon. Gentleman has not yet done so, he should study the detailed analysis of the Burns report, because it concluded that the impact on employment of banning hunting would be especially severe in remote rural areas, where it remains an important generator of work. I ask the hon. Gentleman to take it into account that drag hunting cannot easily substitute for foxhunting or mink hunting, and that it is not easy for people who are employed directly by hunts in specific specialist roles to transfer to other forms of employment, even if they can find them in areas such as Exmoor.

Clause 8 tilts the balance still further against hunting. The applicant has to prove to the registrar not only that hunting would help in controlling vermin, but that it would

Those words will further weight the scales against those who wish to apply for registration under the Minister's scheme.

The cruelty test shows that the definitions have again been rigged to place applicants for hunting registration at a disadvantage. The normal requirement in animal welfare law is for the prosecution to prove that a defendant has caused unnecessary suffering to an animal. However, under the Bill, the applicant must prove his case, and that no other method of pest control would have caused Xsignificantly" less pain, suffering or distress. Again, the qualifying adverb is important.

If one relies on common sense or the evidence of the Burns report, all methods of killing a wild animal will involve some risk of causing pain, suffering or distress. As Lord Burns said in the House of Lords debate in March last year:

He argued that the scientific evidence that would justify firm conclusions about the cruelty of hunting was not available. Yet the Bill provides that the applicant has to prove his case that hunting is not cruel.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton): I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that the Minister believes that the welfare evidence against stag hunting is incontrovertible. However, does he know that, according to the evidence of Professor R. C. Harris and Dr. Douglas Wise on the second day of the September hearings, such an interpretation cannot be justified? Does he agree that several vets, such as Douglas Wise and R. C. Harris,

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say that the Government should not dismantle one of Xthe few and best" existing systems for looking after the deer on Exmoor?

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend makes the point well. When one considers stag hunting, the veterinary evidence about the experience of the deer is divided. The evidence that Professor Bateson originally presented has been challenged by other veterinary surgeons. There is also a powerful argument, which was most notably made by my constituent Baroness Mallalieu, that deer hunting on Exmoor contributes to the overall health and conservation of the red deer herd in that part of the country.

The Bill provides plenty of further examples of the way in which the terms of trade are systematically rigged against the continuation of hunting, especially in lowland regions. The Minister will have the power to designate animal welfare groups. Those prescribed groups will have the right to make representations to the registrar about any application. No equivalent right is granted to farmers, land managers or national park authorities, despite the strong views that they hold, as shown by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning).

Under the Bill, the taxpayer will reimburse the animal welfare groups for their costs in making representations. We could therefore be in a position whereby the hunt has to pay for legal advice and any other expenses to do with its application and giving evidence to the registrar, whereas the animal welfare groups—one must assume that they are designated to present the case against an application—will stand to have their legal fees or other expenses reimbursed from taxpayers' money. That is indefensible.

Let me give a further example. The Minister said that someone whose application for a licence was rejected by the registrar or tribunal must wait a minimum of six months before making a fresh application. However, no such limit applies to an application from one of the prescribed animal welfare bodies or anyone else to deregister a hunt that has been registered. So even if the hunts overcome the hurdles that the Minister is seeking to place in their way, they could be subjected to a continuous campaign of applications for deregistration, subsidised by the taxpayer, without any certainty that their registration, once granted, would be allowed to continue.

Mr. Garnier: At the front of the Bill, the Secretary of State has made the declaration in relation to section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998. As my hon. Friend proceeds with his speech, however, he exposes breaches of human rights line by line. Has he been advised by the Minister of how the Secretary of State came to issue that declaration?

Mr. Lidington: I hope that this matter can be explored in Committee in due course. The Minister will have to explain whether that certification can stand up, in the light of the criticisms that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) advances.

The central argument of those who support the Bill and those who have long campaigned for a ban on hunting is that a ban is necessary on the ground of

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animal welfare, yet it is clear that the Bill is based on no consistent ethical principle whatever. Foxhunting, beagling and mink hunting are to be subject to a registration scheme. Stag hunting and hare coursing are to be outlawed completely. If the Minister has the confidence that he expressed today in the principles of utility and cruelty, he should leave it to the registrar and the tribunal to decide the fate of those activities as well. Falconry is explicitly protected under the terms of the Bill. Shooting and angling are, at least for the time being, not mentioned. The argument that the killing of a wild animal should be prohibited unless someone can prove that the Minister's two tests can be passed could logically apply as much to those two sports as to hunting with hounds.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): My hon. Friend is making a most important point. In one of the weakest speeches that I have ever heard from the Government Front Bench, the Minister founded his argument on the principles of utility and least suffering, but if those principles are applied to other sports, notably coarse fishing, those sports will obviously and inevitably be banned in turn. Does my hon. Friend agree that we are, therefore, opposing the Bill on behalf of millions of other sportsmen whose activities are condemned by Ministers, even if they are not outlawed by the Bill?

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