Hunting Bill

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Mr. Luff: As my hon. Friend knows, I have some reservations about hare coursing. When I inquired about the possibility of muzzling dogs, I learned that because of the weight ratio between a dog and a hare,

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muzzling dogs could lead to hares being seriously injured and escaping. The animal welfare consequences of muzzling dogs could be bad. I do not know the merits of that argument, but I find it inherently credible, and those who advocate the muzzling of dogs should bear it in mind.

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend makes the same point as the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami). They want competitive hare coursing to be banned, but hare coursing in the United Kingdom would be legal under the Bill, which is curious.

Mr. Martlew: I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument with interest. He says that the objective of hare coursing is not to kill the hare. My understanding of the sport, which is not great, is that dogs get points for certain manoeuvres. Can he confirm that they get a point when they kill the hare?

Mr. Gray: On average, in organised coursing events, the hare escapes in about 40 seconds, according to Burns. They have a very short run before they escape. It is correct that points are given, but we are not discussing the purpose behind the activity.

Mr. Martlew rose—

Mr. Gray: No, I am sorry. I cannot keep giving way for not very useful interventions.

There was unanimity in our discussions at Portcullis house that we should discuss not the human reason for taking part in a particular activity but animal welfare only. Therefore, the reason why people bet on running dogs or horses or engage in any other such activity is not of concern to us. The Minister has often said that the purpose of the Bill is animal welfare. We should work out a way to reduce cruelty, if it exists, and seek to ensure the least possible suffering for a species.

My point is that at present 200 hares are killed. In organised coursing, they are killed very efficiently, within 40 seconds of the start of their run.

Mr. Martlew rose—

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman might give me an opportunity to make my point instead of leaping to his feet all the time.

If organised hare coursing were banned, a significantly larger number of hares would be killed, and by a far worse method. The aspects of human determination and dogs getting points, to which the hon. Gentleman seems to object, would no longer apply. None the less, far more hares would be killed.

Mr. Martlew: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Gray: I would rather not. I understand that we will return to the subject of hare coursing in a substantive debate on part 1. [Interruption.] Do not worry—I am not winding up yet.

We are considering whether the tests of utility and cruelty should apply as much to hare coursing as to any other activity. The substantive discussion as to whether hare coursing is a good, bad or indifferent activity is something to which we shall return during discussions on part 1. The important principle of the amendment is that it is not all right for the Minister to

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decide himself, without consulting anyone else, that hare coursing is by definition a bad thing and should be banned.

Alun Michael rose—

Mr. Gray: I will give way in a moment, if the Minister would not mind containing himself.

It is our intention that hare coursing, stag hunting, ratting and rabbiting should be included under the joint tests of utility and cruelty, as the scientists unanimously advised. It is a bizarre exemption and intellectual gap in the Bill that they are not.

Alun Michael: Will the hon. Gentleman withdraw the words ''without consulting anyone''? I have consulted everyone, including the hon. Gentleman. The fact that he did not bother to respond to this part of the questions, which I put to him and every Member of the House in May, does not allow him to make that sort of unjustified comment.

Mr. Gray: My point was not so much that the Minister did not consult anyone. If I offended him by saying that, perhaps I hit a raw nerve. He is very keen to say how much he has consulted everyone.

My point is very important. The Minister has argued consistently that the tribunal and the registrar ought to consider the activity and apply to it the twin tests—the sequential tests, if the Minister prefers—of utility and cruelty. That is the central part of the Bill. It is not about banning, as were previous Bills. The Minister could have come back with a Bill to ban, had he wished, but he decided against that. He chose to say that the activities would be considered by application of the twin tests of cruelty and utility.

It is not the Government who will apply the tests. Instead, they have set up a procedure, which will be discussed later under clause 2. It is a complicated procedure using registrars, tribunals and appeals to the High Court to consider whether the tests should be applied to a variety of different activities involving mink, hare, foxes and the rest.

The Government are setting up complex machinery, as they will not make the decisions. The Minister keeps saying that he does not want a list of things to ban but a procedure under which activities can be considered by using the tests. Despite all that, and after wide consultation, no doubt, with all kinds of people from the League Against Cruel Sports, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and so on, he has decided to ban hare coursing and deer hunting.

We say that there is an intellectual illogicality at the heart of the Bill. We do not believe that the Bill is worth much, but if it is to have any worth at all, it must apply the tests of utility and cruelty to all hunted species.

Alun Michael: I wish the hon. Gentleman would stop replying to every comment from a Government Member that he has said something untrue by saying that he has touched a raw nerve. His approach is offensive, and I wish that he would listen to the interventions.

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Can the hon. Gentleman help the Committee by giving an example of coursing that has utility under clause 8(1)? I would be very interested if he could, because the tests in the Bill are straightforward. They have been known throughout the long-drawn-out and transparent process in which everyone, including the hon. Gentleman, had an opportunity to comment. Let us have one example from him of utility through coursing.

Mr. Gray: The Minister challenges me to give an example of utility through coursing. If it were not the case that there could be utility through coursing, why would ordinary coursing, leaving aside competition coursing, come under this part of the Bill? Although the Minister has laid down that the registrar and tribunal should decide whether there is utility in coursing, he has decided that there is not.

4 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.15 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Gray: I apologise for being in the wrong place at the wrong moment. Before winding up my remarks, I want to make a couple of quick points correcting some things that were discussed earlier. First, I am informed that no points are awarded for kills under rules for organised hare coursing in England. Secondly, the difference between hare coursing as a sport in England and hare coursing as a sport in Northern Ireland, where muzzles are used, is that in Northern Ireland it is a closed course and dogs and hares cannot escape, whereas in England it is an open sport and dogs and hares can escape and run wherever they like. Therefore using muzzles in England would be inappropriate and, in some circumstances, rather cruel.

Alun Michael: I am interested by the remark that the hon. Gentleman made about points not being awarded in the event of a dog catching a hare. Lord Burns, working with the information that was given to him, was under the impression that they are awarded. Paragraph 2.54 of his report states:

    ''A maximum of one point is awarded in the event of a dog catching a hare.''

Mr. Gray: All I can suggest is that Lord Burns might like to consult the chairman of the coursing associations in England and Wales, who told me earlier, during the break, that that is incorrect.

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne) rose—

Mr. Gray: If the hon. Lady will sit down for a second, I might give way to her in a moment. The chairman told me that no points are awarded for killing.

Alun Michael rose—

Ms Atherton rose—

Mr. Gray: I will give way to the Minister first. I do not want to leave the hon. Lady out, so I will return to her. The Minister should go first, as he is a right hon. Member.

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Alun Michael: There is a list of all the organisations that Lord Burns consulted, and I understood that the coursing associations were included. It may be that things have changed.

Mr. Gray: There is no purpose in arguing about what is a straightforward, verifiable fact.

Ms Atherton: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray: If the hon. Lady will hang on for a jiffy, I will give way to her in a moment. There is no point in arguing about what is an entirely straightforward and verifiable fact. Anyone who drops into Altcar can find out whether points are awarded for a kill. I am reliably informed that that is not the case. If there has been an error, I am sure that we can easily put it to rest. The hon. Lady is keen to tell me all about it.

Ms Atherton: According to a national coursing organisation, not more than one point is awarded only if the dog achieves the kill through superior dash and skill and without the help of the other runner.

Mr. Gray: Perhaps this is not the occasion to go into too much detail about the nature of coursing—[Laughter.] I do not know why Labour Members like to laugh all the time; I was just about to say that the hon. Lady may well have a good point. I am not an expert on the rules of coursing, and for all I know it may well be that a point is awarded for speed. However, the point is not awarded for making the kill. It is not that a dog gets a point if it kills and does not get a point if it does not kill; points are awarded for speed.

The important point about the amendment is not that it enables us to discuss the rights, wrongs and indifferences of hare coursing in general. We will have the opportunity to do that in what I hope will be a reasonably substantial debate under part 1 of the Bill.

The purpose of the amendment is not to argue about whether hare coursing is good, bad or indifferent. It has two aims. First, it seeks to highlight a fundamental misunderstanding of the word ''coursing'', which has been exposed by the Government's drafting of the long title of the Bill. Secondly, it allows us to question the Minister about why coursing—the chasing of hares using long dogs, to define it precisely—will be allowed by registration under part 2 of the Bill but coursing using long dogs to chase hares in organised competitions will not be allowed under part 1. The Minister has sought to explain that by saying that he, in his wisdom, believes that there is no utility and some cruelty in the latter, but not in the former. That argument seems to me to be devoid of any intellectual coherence, and I am sure that we shall return to it.

 
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