Hunting Bill

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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I am puzzled by the logic of the Minister's argument. Does he agree that hare coursing is one of only two things that may not be tested using the cruelty and utility tests? As drafted, the Bill says that that may not be considered by the registrar, but the Minister says that it will be.

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman misses the point. Applying the principles, as I will show in more detail in a moment, makes it clear that coursing cannot pass the tests in clause 8. Therefore, it would be futile to put the issue to the registrar or tribunal.

Mr. Gray: Will the Minister give way?

Alun Michael: It might be better if the hon. Gentleman waits to comment on the logic until after I have set it out.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire correctly described coursing in his contribution, and the definitions used by coursing organisations support my view. I have looked again at the way in which Lord Burns summarised the evidence that he heard. As I have said, I have met a number of hare coursing organisations, which have not provided me with any information challenging or contradicting Lord Burns.

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The Countryside Alliance asked me to take the conclusions of the Burns report as my starting point and not to reopen or restart the Burns inquiry. On hare coursing, paragraph 2.54 of the Burns report states:

    ''Coursing by registered clubs takes place from 15 September to 10 March. The object is to test the skills of two greyhounds in a knock-out competition. Typically, a day's coursing will involve some 32 dogs competing against each other in a series of rounds, with the final two dogs challenging for a cup and a cash prize. A mounted judge awards dogs points for their speed and skill in making the hare turn. A maximum of one point is awarded in the event of a dog catching a hare.''

Lord Burns also touches on illegal hare coursing in paragraph 2.57:

    ''Illegal coursing is sometimes accompanied by threats or physical violence to landowners, leading some farmers and landowners to 'shoot out' hares in order to deter illegal coursers and poachers.''

A number of hon. Members have mentioned the activities associated with illegal hare coursing.

Mr. Swire: Will the Minister give way?

Alun Michael: Let me continue to set out what Lord Burns said and then I will happily give way.

Paragraphs 6.67 to 6.69 of the Burns report state:

    ''There is a lack of firm scientific evidence about the effect on the welfare of a hare of being closely pursued, caught and killed by hounds during hunting. We are satisfied, nevertheless, that although death and insensibility will normally follow within a matter of seconds, this experience seriously compromises the welfare of the hare.

    We are similarly satisfied that being pursued, caught and killed by dogs during coursing seriously compromises the welfare of the hare. It is clear, moreover, that, if the dog or dogs catch the hare, they do not always kill it quickly. There can also sometimes be a significant delay, in 'driven' coursing, before the 'picker up' reaches the hare and dispatches it (if it is not already dead). In the case of 'walked up' coursing, the delay is likely to be even longer.

    In the event of a ban on hunting and coursing hares, it seems likely that a few more would be shot than at present. There are concerns about the welfare implications of shooting hares because of wounding rates.''

I have set out what Lord Burns said about coursing, but before I develop the argument I shall give way to the hon. Member for East Devon.

Mr. Swire: In a previous sitting, I referred to a gamekeeper who was obliged to come to a private arrangement with poachers because, in the rural area in which he was trying to operate his business, he was unable to deal with poaching and coursers due to the lack of rural police. Once, he called the police but they were not interested in coming.

Interestingly, between February and December 2001, there was a de facto ban on coursing of any sort under the animal health regulations introduced due to foot and mouth disease. People who believe that a ban on coursing would lead to more convictions always mention that ban. Can the Minister tell us now or in a later sitting whether there was an increase in arrests and convictions for poaching during that period?

Alun Michael: I said that I would respond separately on the issues raised by hon. Members on illegal hare coursing, which is a subject that I want coherently to approach. I am trying to deal with the form of hare coursing that is legal. On foot and mouth

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disease, one of the concerns was that, whereas law-abiding organisations were not undertaking activities, there were people who disregarded the law and in some cases continued their activities. It is a mixed picture. Part of the problem is that there were few arrests, because of the weakness of the police powers. I shall come to that point when I have dealt with the hare coursing that is legal at present.

9.15 am

We discovered during the hearings at Portcullis house that there are varied uses of the word ''coursing'', which may be where some of the confusion arises. I clarified that as far as I could during those the hearings and I refer hon. Members to the record. I also spoke to a number of people in the margins. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire employed the colloquial use of ''coursing'' found in some parts of the country when speaking to his amendment. In that colloquial expression there may be a difference between whether the dog is hunting or coursing, but the person using the dog is hunting the animal being chased. In a competition, the person is not hunting, although the dog is. What the hon. Gentleman at one stage described as coursing with long dogs is hunting, which would need to be registered under the Bill to continue as an activity. The definitions in the Bill are clear, and I invite Opposition Members to look at them.

As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire has taken a keen interest in the correspondence that I have sent out and I set out the questions on coursing clearly in it. In the letter that I sent out in May, I said that the legal advice was that coursing was not hunting and I asked the questions:

    ''Do you consider that there is a utility case for hare coursing for conservation reasons, or pest control purposes, or in order to deter poaching? What conditions should apply and what evidence do you have to support your view?''

I asked people whether there was a necessity for the activity. I went out of my way to give everyone the opportunity to make their case before I came to conclusions. I thought it important to do so.

The consistent application of the two principles of utility and cruelty is as follows. Coursing cannot satisfy the utility test because, as the hon. Member for North Wiltshire said, the intention of coursing is not to kill or to catch animals—not to have utility. If people call other activities coursing that are hunting within the definition of the Bill, that is covered by the Bill, but it is hare hunting, not hare coursing. The Bill makes that clear.

Mr. Luff: I invite the Minister to reflect on the possibility that his utility definition may be amended, if not in the Committee, certainly in another place, and then hare coursing might pass the new utility test. The Minister is debating his definition of utility, which could be challenged on a later group of amendments.

Alun Michael: I am working with the definition of cruelty in the Bill. [Hon. Members: ''Utility.''] Utility and comparative suffering. I argue that the definitions in the Bill are the right ones. I have been prepared to discuss with colleagues whether there is scope for fine tuning, but I believe that in general those tests are right

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and fair and that, against those tests, coursing cannot succeed.

Mr. Gray: We shall come back to whether coursing would fulfil the term ''utility'', as drafted in the Bill. I suspect that it can be demonstrated that hares damage crops, so there may be a utility argument there. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire said, we will return to the question of sport or recreation. My question is more direct and important.

The Minister appears not to understand—I want to know whether he does—the difference between what he described a moment ago as coursing using long dogs, which would still be registrable and allowable under the Bill, and hare hunting. What is the difference between the two?

Alun Michael: I referred to the phrase that the hon. Gentleman used. It was not my choice of words. Coursing with long dogs was the hon. Gentleman's usage in his earlier contribution. I was pointing out to him that in the Bill that is hunting, not coursing. That is the point that the hon. Gentleman does not seem to have understood. If he examines the definitions on websites and in contributions from coursing organisations, he will see that the activity is defined in terms consistent with those used in the Bill, which I am using in my contribution.

Mr. Gray: Does not the right hon. Gentleman understand that two entirely different activities are being described as hare hunting? There is the use of long dogs by sight, and the use of beagles, which is actually hare hunting. Both activities involve the hunting of hares and are registrable, but they are different. Hare hunting using beagles is proper hunting, but coursing involving long dogs to catch hares is a different activity.

Alun Michael: The point is that legally, both are hunting. Therefore, the question is, are they necessary? Do they satisfy the test of utility? If they do, do they provide the method of achieving that utility that involves the least suffering? In other words, do they satisfy the test of not being cruel? If they satisfy those tests, those who wish to eradicate cruelty would regard them as acceptable. If they do not satisfy those tests, they are cruel and logically would be turned down on the basis of the evidence. The process is simple. The Bill is designed to deal with cruelty and activities that have no utility cannot satisfy the utility test.

I invite the hon. Gentleman to examine the definition of coursing. He will see that it is consistent with the definition of coursing given by coursing organisations. It follows the definition provided in the Burns report, which those in favour of hunting have asked me to take as the starting point. Therefore, the way that we are dealing with the matter is consistent, as is the way that we apply the two tests to coursing. That is why it appears where it does in the Bill. It should appear at that point. It would be nonsense to admit it to the clause in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

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