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22 Mar 2007 : Column 1057

Miss Widdecombe: I could help the Minister, because I do have them.

I was very careful about the way in which I phrased it. One conviction was for hunting with a pack of hounds, and the others concerned individuals with two dogs.

Joan Ryan: I accept that the right hon. Lady has in-depth knowledge of this matter. Nevertheless, it is important to clarify the point about convictions.

It is not for the Government to direct chief constables on how to deploy their resources to deal with hunting. Chief constables are best placed to decide how to deploy the resources available according to operational priorities and objectives. While we have not made funding available specifically to tackle illegal hunting, the rural policing fund was introduced part way through 2000-01, when some £15 million was made available to enhance the policing service in rural areas at no cost to metropolitan forces. The fund comprised £30 million per annum benefiting 31 shire forces. In 2006-07, Ministers agreed to amalgamate the rural policing fund with three other specific grants—special priority payments, London and south-east allowances and forensic grants—to create a single special formula grant to give police authorities more control over how the grant may be used.

Three individuals have been prosecuted under the Act, and there are, as the right hon. Lady said, other cases in the pipeline. Court proceedings data for 2006 will be available in the autumn of 2007, when we will see the outcome of several ongoing operations. Anyone convicted of offences under the Act will get a criminal record as well as a fine of up to £5,000. Those are appropriate and proportionate sanctions for such an offence.

Let me return to what the right hon. Lady said about the need for evidence and the conversations that she reported hearing, with even hon. Members discussing hunting. Anybody who has any evidence should make it available to the police, who have made it clear, as we see in the ACPO guidance, that they will act upon evidence received. We must make it clear that nobody, inside the House or not, is above the law. In a democratic society, we cannot pick and choose what laws we obey, and hunts must obey the law as it stands. It would come as no surprise to us that hunts want the Act to be repealed. For whatever reason they have remained in business—perhaps to try to outlast the ban and wait for a change—there should be consequences if they do not abide by the law. That will depend on evidence being available and action being taken.

Miss Widdecombe: I think that the Minister will acknowledge that the hunts are carrying on because they are waiting for a change, which they think will take place at the next general election. They hope that the legislation will then be repealed, which is even greater reason to make their lives uncomfortable between now and then.

Joan Ryan: As I said, for whatever reason they are continuing, the law must be obeyed, and nobody is above the law. We also have plenty of evidence that many of those doing drag and trial hunting are getting on well and are unlikely to want to revert to their
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previous practice. The vast majority of the public still support a hunting ban—they were not just supporting it when legislation was before the House and interest in the issue peaked—and any future Government of any party will need to pay attention to that. The legislation is in force and must be adhered to.

Mr. Olner: In the four minutes remaining, I hope that the Minister will address the right hon. Lady’s point that it is important not only to get evidence but to protect the evidence givers and gatherers. Incitement to break the law is also a tremendously important issue, and we should seriously address that on a national basis.

Joan Ryan: As I said, anyone who has evidence should make that available. I acknowledge what the right hon. Lady said about helicopters, and serious concerns have been expressed, including by members of ACPO, that a danger might be posed to both humans and animals. We must pay attention to that. The advantage of having this debate is that all those undertaking the activity, dealing with it or enforcing the law will see that these are important issues that are still being considered by the House and the public.

I am aware that some commentators have suggested that the legislation has loopholes and that that has resulted in limited convictions. That is not the case. The Hunting Act makes it an offence for a person to hunt a wild animal with a dog unless the hunting is exempt. For the purposes of the Act, the word “hunting” has its ordinary English meaning, which includes searching for wild animals, chasing them or pursuing them for the purpose of catching or killing. Hunting requires an intention, on the part of the person rather than the dog—for example, to chase the quarry—so there can be no accidental hunting. We need to be clear about that.

I also acknowledge the point made by the right hon. Lady, and echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner), about hunt monitors. She asked me to consider that point, and I undertake to reflect further on it. In practice, hunting includes a range of activities, from chasing an animal over many miles with the intention of killing it, to deliberately setting one’s dog on to a wild animal with the intention of catching it or frightening it away. It would be for the police and prosecutors to decide whether to pursue individual cases and for the courts to decide whether an offence had been committed.

Inventive individuals can create a large number of theoretical scenarios to call the detail of any legislation into question. In practice, the courts apply common sense to clear legislation. The Hunting Act is clear legislation.

In summary, I must disagree with the right hon. Lady’s contention that the Act is not being properly enforced. ACPO has made it clear on a number of occasions that it will enforce the hunting ban, and I am satisfied that that is being done. Having said that, I welcome the opportunity provided to debate the issue this evening, and am pleased that the concerns have been put on the record. I undertake to reflect further on her points.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine past Six o’clock.

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