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Standing Committee F
Thursday 3 July 2003
[Mrs. Marion Roe in the Chair]
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I beg to move amendment No. 75, in
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No. 74, in
schedule 1, page 22, line 35, leave out paragraph 5.
Amendment No. 81, in
schedule 1, page 22, line 36, leave out 'two' and insert '10'.
Amendment No. 82, in
schedule 1, page 22, line 36, leave out 'two' and insert '20'.
Amendment No. 83, in
schedule 1, page 22, line 36, leave out 'two' and insert '35'.
New clause 7—
No. NC7, to move the following Clause:—
'The hunting of a fox which has been shot is exempt if it takes place on land—
(a) which belongs to the hunter, or
(b) which he has been given permission to use for the purpose of hunting foxes by the occupier or, in the case of unoccupied land, by the person to whom it belongs.'.
Lembit Öpik: I shall speak succinctly because I am interested to hear the response of hon. Members who support the changes to the Bill. The Middle Way Group, as ever, bases its arguments on logic and fact, not passion and subjectivity. If right hon. and hon. Members choose not to respond, the conclusion must be that they are not willing to countenance improving the dreadful Bill before us.
Amendment No. 75 would include in the Bill consideration of biodiversity and wildlife management of an area. If damage to biodiversity is a good enough reason to permit the killing of an animal by stalking or flushing out, the same act, if it contributes to biodiversity, should be permitted. We are suggesting that there is a biodiversity benefit in hunting and that it should be recognised.
Before the Bill was changed to remove the registration provisions, the Minister suggested that the test for utility should include conservation and wildlife management, but that was removed from the
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list of criteria. The Minister said in Committee on 21 January 2003:
''The narrowing down of a variety of definitions resulted from listening to the evidence and discussion ''throughout the process.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 21 January 2003; c. 298.]
That discussion presumably included the Portcullis house hearings. However, in a letter to the Countryside Alliance on 6 November 2002, less than a month before the Bill was printed on 3 December, the Minister was still referring to
''balancing the concerns of animal welfare and conservation with farming, land-owning and fishing interests.''
If the Minister was then persuaded of the biodiversity benefits of pest control, why is it missing from the Bill? Even with the hugely truncated, modified Bill before us, it is surely not unreasonable to request the Minister to take on board an amendment that is not controversial and that certainly would not change the spirit of what is wanted by the hon. Members who favour a ban. Our plea is that the Minister accepts in the good faith in which it is intended our contribution to schedule 1 which would reintroduce something that the Minister once said was important—biological diversity and wildlife management of an area.
Amendment No. 74 challenges the meaning of flushing out with dogs. Stalking, which is finding and following an animal unobserved, can certainly be undertaken with two dogs—perhaps with even one—but flushing out cannot be done with just two dogs on the sort of terrain on which gun packs operate, such as mid-Wales. The implication that flushing out can be done with two dogs suggests that the author either totally misunderstands the meaning of flushing out or—I hope that this is not the case—it is a malicious effort to try to curtail the activities of gun packs. The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) acknowledged in past years that gun packs were not a target for prohibition. He sensibly accepted the arguments, which I put forward, that whatever he may think of people on horseback who chase after foxes with dogs, the gun packs that operate in the uplands of mid-Wales and the fells are clearly embarking on pest control.
Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester): I do not want to be discourteous, but the hon. Gentleman said that I adjusted my Bill to deal with flushing out and gun packs as a result of his arguments. I want to make it clear for the record that the exemption was written into my Bill before it went into Committee and before he made his case. Any amendment or exemption in my Bill in 1997 was a result not of his arguments, but of representations made to me by outside bodies.
Lembit Öpik: How disingenuous can the hon. Gentleman get? What was the point of saying that I had nothing to do with influencing his judgment? I do not care whether he wants to attribute his great change of heart to me or to outside bodies. I am happy to acknowledge on the record that he was not even slightly influenced by any of the arguments that he may have heard in Committee, but I am not sure why he is proud of that. The whole point of Committees and the only way in which they work in their intended democratic fashion is if hon. Members listen to each other and are prepared to change their points of view
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on the basis of the arguments that they hear. [Interruption.] Shouting me down is not a great advertisement for those who believe that we should ban hunting with dogs—it would be better if they listened.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Lembit Öpik: I will in a moment but I am on a roll. [Interruption.] A chase, if hon. Members prefer it. For the hon. Member for Worcester to suggest that he was totally uninfluenced by what he heard on this important matter in Committee is a source of great regret. With the benefit of hindsight, he might want to think about the message that that sends out to people who will read this record in future.
Mr. Martlew: Just before the hon. Gentleman had his tantrum, he referred to fell packs. He seemed to indicate that they flush to guns. I hope that he will put the record straight by saying that fell packs do not use guns because the dogs chase and kill.
Lembit Öpik: I am surprised by that and have not been to see the fell packs. Unless other hon. Members can contribute, I am satisfied to take the hon. Gentleman at his word. If other hon. Members can contradict him, they can get up and make their point. In mid-Wales, gun packs are effective and work towards pest control.
I am calming down after my uncharacteristic outburst. In my characteristically generous way, I should like to praise the hon. Member for Worcester for having listened to outside bodies and having been influenced by feedback from outside the Houses of Parliament. If he were to listen even more closely, he would recognise that those outside bodies are hardly likely to have told him that they can flush to guns using two dogs. If just two dogs are used for flushing, there could be a chase round and round the woods, which would extend the chase rather than reducing it. Although I recognise that he will not listen to what I say in Committee, it might be appropriate for me to speak to outside bodies that can phone him up and influence him. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of time. I therefore ask the Minister, who has shown himself able and willing to listen to the Committee as well as to outside bodies, how flushing to guns can work effectively if only two dogs are used.
Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): Can the hon. Gentleman imagine a situation in which a member of the public is arrested and brought to court to face criminal proceedings because it has come to the attention of the constabulary that he has used three rather than two dogs to flush out an animal?
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We discussed enforcement this morning, and one can imagine a situation in which Farmer Jones goes out with two dogs and puts them in the wood but also happens to have his pet collie with him. The collie gets a bit excited, slips its leash and runs into the woods as well, at which point the police, who, no doubt, will be ever present when such activities take place, will say, ''You're nicked, Jonesie.''
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The hon. Gentleman rightly points out the ludicrous challenge to enforcement that this part of the proposed legislation brings upon the unsuspecting rural world. We want workable legislation, and that is fair enough, but it should not prevent the methods that it seeks to regulate from being workable. Depending on how the restriction is interpreted, the Bill could do exactly that.
I am aware that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) wishes to speak on other amendments, so I shall speak briefly about new clause 7. In the light of the Middle Way Group's study on shooting foxes, the new clause, which is linked with amendment No. 72, is all the more important. Without dogs, wounded foxes will escape, and it is not always easy to know whether they have been hit. They can run for quite a distance, so human beings with guns will not be able to finish them off.
On the same principle that applies to retrieving hares that have been shot, the use of dogs is imperative if suffering is to be reduced. New clause 7, which has the heading ''Retrieval of foxes'', would reduce animal suffering under the new regime by enabling the use of dogs when the fox runs off. Hon. Members may say that that would loosen too greatly the incredibly tight and draconian restriction in the Bill, but they should remember what we have said all along, which is that the Bill, compared with what we had even a week ago, will increase animal suffering. I cannot emphasise that point enough. We have the evidence to support it, and we must get that message across to the wider public.
We would do something to ameliorate suffering by including new clause 7. I ask hon. Members who want a total ban on hunting with dogs what response they will give—I hope that they will respond in the debate—to the challenge of the Middle Way Group's findings about shooting; namely, that killing a fox with dogs is instantaneous—no experienced observer would say otherwise—but shooting a fox is a much less reliable way of achieving an outright kill.