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22 Mar 2007 : Column 1050

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North made an impassioned speech about education. In particular, she seemed to be concerned about specialist schools and whether there is really any evidence that they work. Specialist schools make up about 85 per cent. of the school system now. The percentage of good GCSEs gained generally within the system is about 58 per cent. In specialist schools, it is 3 per cent. higher, at 61 per cent.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham gave us a clear exposition of the state of the health service. [ Laughter. ] Well, he talked about the reduction in waiting lists, the increase in staff and the introduction of new technologies. He is absolutely right. He also mentioned that, in a deprived and disadvantaged area of his constituency, there was school that was nevertheless in the top 10—among the most improved schools in the country. I congratulate Janet Bridges, who is the head of Stanley school of technology, her staff and the students on that.

I promised to come back to the hon. Member for Billericay. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden was also concerned about the NHS. Their cry was, “Where has the money gone?” First, there are over 1 million more operations in the NHS than there were in 1997. Secondly, in 1997 the number of people who waited more than 13 weeks for an out-patient appointment was over 330,000. In January this year, it was 103. In 1997, the number of people who waited for in-patient operations for more than six months was over 280,000. In January this year, it was 299.

Mr. Baron rose—

John Healey: I will not give way.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) was concerned about the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Although I appreciate his frustration and that of those who are connected with this matter, I know that he appreciates the complexity better than anyone. It is true that, since 1997, we have made substantial changes to the regulatory regime for banks with the establishment of the Financial Services Authority.

My right hon. Friend said that this is the best Budget that he has seen in 21 Budgets in this House. He said quite rightly that the test of the Tories will be how they vote. Will they support our package of personal tax changes? Will they support the 2p cut in the basic rate? Will they support the environmental tax changes? Will they support the business corporation tax reforms? Will they support our spending totals for the comprehensive spending review in the future? Or will they stick to their third fiscal rule? Will they stick to what the Leader of the Opposition said? He said that, when the money comes in, it should be shared between taxes and public spending. That is a dramatic difference. By taking an inflexible, ideological approach, it is not just a dramatic difference over an economic cycle; it is a dramatic difference each and every year. It would mean £21 billion of spending cuts, which is the amount that we spend on transport or the total amount we spend on housing—

It being Six o’clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Monday 26 March.


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DELEGATED LEGISLATION

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With the leave of the House, I will put motions 3 to 7 together.

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


Representation of the People


Local Government


Pensions

Question agreed to.


22 Mar 2007 : Column 1052

Hunting Act 2004

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

6 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise before the House the issue of the enforcement of the Hunting Act 2004.

As has often been said, hundreds of hours were taken up in this Chamber debating whether or not there should be a ban on hunting with packs of hounds. Parliament voted for that ban on numerous occasions, and finally the ban became law. It is axiomatic that when the Chamber passes law, we expect it to be enforced. It is quite wrong if a group of people believe that they are uniquely above the law and, furthermore, that their breaches of the law may be blatant and rejoiced in. I hate to say it, but I have even heard hon. Members boasting that they have been hunting since the passing of the ban. We need to ask why the ban is not being properly enforced.

To date, there has been only one successful prosecution for hunting with packs of hounds. The huntsman of the Exmoor Foxhounds was convicted of illegal hunting, although an appeal is outstanding. The interesting thing is that the judge, when summing up, said explicitly that there are

and thus, in his opinion, that

Yet, I have not heard that the Exmoor Foxhounds has been disbanded. I have not heard that hunting on Exmoor has ceased. Indeed, all that I have heard is that a public meeting was laid on by the hunt to protest that the law dared to take its course and that a conviction had actually been secured. The sad thing is that that prosecution was not brought by the police or sanctioned by the Crown Prosecution Service. It was actually brought by the League Against Cruel Sports.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am not well enough informed about all the details of the case to which the right hon. Lady is referring, but she knows the way in which we approach such things in the House. I trust that the matters that she is discussing are not, at the moment, sub judice.

Miss Widdecombe: As I said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, an appeal is outstanding. However, what the judge said has been put in the public domain and is well known. I merely cite it and point out that the prosecution—again, this is a matter of public fact—was not undertaken by the police or sanctioned by the CPS, but brought by the League Against Cruel Sports.

An impending prosecution—I shall give no details at all in case I fall foul of your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker—is being brought by the Avon and Somerset police. It is generally believed that the source of encouragement for the police to take action on that occasion was the success of the Exmoor prosecution—or, at any rate, its success hitherto, pending the outcome of the appeal. We have to ask why the Act is not being enforced, even though the ban is broken
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blatantly day after day in the fox hunting season, and we have to ask what the Government intend to do to ensure that it is enforced.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): Most of the hunts have moved on to drag hunting, lure hunting and so on. An awful lot of the hunts talk of disobeying the law but are actually obeying it, and that worries me considerably.

Miss Widdecombe: Some hunts, but only a very small number, have registered as drag hunts. Only a small number have done so because once they register they are bound by drag-hunt rules and are subject to the discipline of drag hunting. Rather than convert to drag hunting, most of them say that they are not chasing live quarry but are flushing, following a trail or doing something else, because they do not want that discipline. The hon. Gentleman raises a most important point: there is a mechanism by which they can say that they are doing one thing but, in effect, do another. I will come on to one of the ways in which that has been monitored.

Of course, we have known for a long time—we knew it long before hunting was made illegal—that hunts cause tremendous problems. They disrupt traffic, block roads, kill domestic animals, and let hounds get on to railway lines, sometimes with horrible consequences. If any other group in society regularly caused that amount of disruption, grief and trouble, and carried on doing so when a law had been passed to try to stop their activities, there would be an outcry, but that one group in society seriously thinks that it is above the law.

I was asking why enforcement is not as effective as it should be, and and the answer partly because there is a lack of understanding on the part of the police. In one hilarious conversation that took place between the police and a hunt monitor who had called them, the policeman said, “But, madam, as long as they’re not killing the fox, they’re not committing an offence.” There is an absence of understanding generally throughout the police force, and an absence of willingness but greater understanding among the senior part of the police force. Let me say, as any reasonable person would, that we know very well that the police are completely overburdened and overworked; they have plenty of things to worry about, and one can understand the temptation for them to say that the issue does not matter, but it does matter if the message is going out that the law may be broken, blatantly and deliberately, and that nothing will be done about it.

I turn to the activity of hunt monitors. I stress that I am talking about monitors and not saboteurs. Monitors are generally elderly, inoffensive ladies—I have met a lot of them—who go to hunts with cameras and who film what is happening. They have to do that because the police are not doing it. If we leave it to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the League Against Cruel Sports and other such bodies to gather the evidence to mount prosecutions, which the police take over only at the last minute, if at all, we must have people who gather the evidence. At the moment, that is done by hunt monitors, and I pay tribute to them, because some of
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them are extremely brave. They are inoffensive, modest people whose motivation is simply to try to ensure that the law is upheld.

There have been assaults on hunt monitors. There is a film in my possession that I intend to make available to Members of the House later this year—after the decision on Exmoor has been confirmed, so that I do not risk having my film pulled half way through. It shows a large number of incidents involving hunt monitors, including direct assaults and damage to cars. Hunt monitors call the police, but the police do not always arrive. Although they sometimes do, I cannot show that on my film. In one instance, a lady in her car was hemmed in by two hunt vehicles, or vehicles belonging to people supporting the hunt. She was unable to move and was being threatened—a man was actually bashing on the window of the car—but there was not a policeman in sight. That is simply not acceptable.

If the police are rather torpid on the issue, the Crown Prosecution Service is even worse. Its default position is that if there is a doubt, and if it is a bit difficult to try to work it out, the benefit of the doubt is given to the hunt. That attitude must be challenged, as it is crucial that the CPS understands the law on hunting. It should not be the case, as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals put it to me today, that those cases should arrive in the in-tray of some junior person in the CPS who finds it all a bit difficult, so the cases sit there for five and a half months and, under statutory limitations, run out. The CPS must get a grip on the problem.

The Under-Secretary is nodding—I am grateful that she is doing so—and I hope that she turns that nod into verbal reassurance when she replies. I have seen that film and the detail that it provides, and I have to say that I was shocked. Even though I knew that hunting was going on, I did not quite realise the risk that hunt monitors ran. We saw the hunting brigade’s contempt for the law when some of its members entered the Chamber, believing that they had the right to do so and to defy the law. Because they have been doing that for several centuries, they believe that they have a God-given right to be above the law.

I mentioned one way to monitor hunting. It is very expensive, but it has been done successfully. People can go up above the hunt in a helicopter that has monitoring equipment. When that happens, the hunt suddenly obeys the law, so no one sets off after a fox and no one encourages the hounds—they sit there. That would be a very good solution if only there were a billionaire benefactor in the animal welfare lobby who would enable us to put helicopters up over every hunt. Very soon, people would be bored, because all that they could do would be to sit there, obeying the law. They would not follow the hunts, which would not have any supporters and would go broke. Failing a billionaire benefactor, may I suggest to the Minister that the occasional police helicopter over a hunt—I am not saying that we should divert huge resources—would act as a dampener on its very unlawful activities?

I have a final suggestion to make. I do not expect the Minister to respond on the hoof tonight, but I hope that she will contemplate it seriously. As I said, if the police are not going to go out and collect the evidence, someone has to do so. I believe that we should license
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hunt monitors—they would be checked to ensure that they did not have a criminal record, and would be respectable people, not “sabs”—and it should be made an offence to obstruct a licensed hunt monitor, in the same way that it is an offence to obstruct a policeman.

One thing that will be shown on that film, apart from the shocking assaults on hunt monitors, is the way in which the hunt deliberately sets out to make sure that those people cannot film. Its members stand in front of them, put horses in front of them, and hem in their vehicles so that they cannot move. If it were an offence to do so, and if the hunt monitors were licensed to film, we might have more law-abiding hunts—if there is such a thing and it is not a contradiction in terms. I look forward to the Minister at least telling me that she will have give that proposal serious consideration, and to hearing any suggestions from the Government to make sure, first, that illegal hunting is monitored and, secondly, that monitors are given better protection.

6.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Joan Ryan): May I start by congratulating the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) on securing this Adjournment debate? I acknowledge her longstanding and ongoing commitment to the hunting legislation and, indeed, the whole issue. It is a timely point at which to discuss the enforcement of the legislation. There is plenty to say in the debate, and she is right that there is still a great deal of activity. However, we contend that that activity centres on drag hunting, and I hope to be able to unravel some of the issues this evening. It is an interesting debate and the matter should be scrutinised.

Before dealing with enforcement of the Hunting Act 2004, it is important to clarify what exactly the legislation does and does not ban. The Act came into force on 18 February 2005. It bans all hunting with dogs of wild mammals in England and Wales, apart from a few tightly drawn exemptions set out in the Act, which allow for pest control and other essential activities to be undertaken, subject to strict conditions. The ban covers the hunting of all wild mammals, including hare, deer, fox and mink. It also completely bans hare coursing.

The Act does not prevent hunts from meeting up and riding with their dogs, provided they stay within the law. It does not prevent legal equestrian activities, such as trail or drag hunting.

Mr. Olner: One of the major problems is that there is incitement by some hunts to break the law. I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) about monitors and that they need protection, but there is incitement to break the law, and I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will deal severely with that.

Joan Ryan: If my hon. Friend bears with me, I shall come to some of those issues shortly.

The Act does not prevent hunts from meeting and it does not prevent activities such as trail or drag hunting. We would have no difficulty with those activities, and I noticed that the right hon. Lady feels the same way.
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The Act does not prevent farmers and others from undertaking legal pest control activities, such as using up to two dogs to stalk and flush out foxes and other wild mammals, providing they are shot as soon as possible after being found or flushed out. All the other activities that hunts have traditionally engaged in, such as dog walking, puppy shows, hunt balls and point-to-point racing, are equally unaffected. Those are perfectly acceptable social activities.

The criminal offences created by the Hunting Act 2004 are punishable by a fine of up to £5,000, the maximum that magistrates courts may impose. The Act gives the police powers to search and seize vehicles, animals or other articles used for illegal hunting, with a related power of entry to land, but not to private houses. The Act also allows the courts to order the forfeiture of vehicles, dogs or hunting articles and gives the court the discretion to order their disposal or destruction.

Operational decisions on the arrest and prosecution of those taking part in illegal hunting activity are a matter for the police and prosecuting authorities. The police have made it clear that they will enforce the hunting ban, and the Association of Chief Police Officers has issued guidance for police forces on the practical aspects of enforcing the Act. The police are treating offences in the same way as other wildlife offences with similar penalties. The police also have obligations under the Director of Public Prosecution’s guidance on charging, which ensures that all offences under the Hunting Act are referred to a Crown prosecutor for early consultation and charging decision. That is in line with the procedure for all other crimes.

I hear what the right hon. Lady says about the case to which she referred, which is in the public domain—she is right, although it is as well that we are wary of crossing that line. The individual to whom she referred was one of the first people to be convicted under the Hunting Act. His case was brought privately by the League Against Cruel Sports and later taken over by the Crown Prosecution Service.

The case led anti-hunting groups to question whether the police were acting properly before cases reached the CPS. Following a meeting with anti-hunt groups on 20 October 2006, Assistant Chief Constable John Sampson, the ACPO lead on the issue, sent a reminder to ACPO colleagues about their obligations under the DPP’s guidance on charging to ensure that all offences under the Act are referred to a Crown prosecutor for early consultation, which is a crucial point. I heard what the right hon. Lady said about how these matters are dealt with by the CPS, which will, I am sure, pay attention.

Early consultation and charging decisions are in line with the procedure for all other crime. Lessons have been learned from that. The right hon. Lady referred to one conviction. In fact, there were three convictions in 2005. Figures are not yet available for 2006.

Miss Widdecombe rose—

Joan Ryan: If the right hon. Lady is going to ask me for further details of those convictions, I do not have them with me.


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