Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I apologise for intervening. I have just remembered that I once saw the Quorn Hunt. It met at Stanford Hall which was owned by the Co-operative Movement. In 1950, as a student, I went along to remonstrate but received short shrift. I have never seen a hunt in action.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, I am delighted to hear that explanation. I wish that the noble Lord could see a hunt in action. If he did, his views might change. The noble Lord might understand the motives of those who hunt. It must be clear that the only hunters of the fox are the hounds. The hounds hunt the fox guided by the

9 Mar 2001 : Column 465

huntsmen. Those who hunt follow the hounds; they do not hunt the fox. They do not hunt for cruelty. Nor would any of them hunt if they considered it cruel. I believe that he is wrong on that issue. However, I was glad that he and other noble Lords condemned those extremists who break the law, on whichever side of the issue they stand.

My noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts was concerned about genetic breeding, cloning and the swapping of genes. I share his concerns. I have always been concerned about animal testing on primates. I am never happy about animal testing on other mammals.

The noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, who spoke in the gap, declared his interest in his family firm that tailors hunting clothing. I declare my interest as a client and customer of the noble Lord's family firm. They do a fine job and I hope that I shall continue to go along to Saville Row as one of their customers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, showed clearly how the courts could rule on the different issues involved. She gave the example of hunting in upland areas, which could be shown as the best and most effective way of controlling foxes. Her remarks on what would happen to the deer herd on Exmoor were very interesting. We must consider whether the animals would be better off if hunting did not happen. There is a strong argument for saying that that has not been shown to be the case and that they would be worse off.

The courts rule on many issues. Case law is constantly evolving. The 1911 Act and subsequent Acts and case law clearly show how cruelty or justification for cruelty can be proved or not. I would be disappointed if the Minister said that the Bill was too wide in that regard and that it would be difficult to rule on what would be cruel. That is an unacceptable argument and I hope that the Minister will not use it, because the premise behind it is disingenuous. The courts have clearly shown since 1911 that they are able to decide what is cruel and what is not. The Government must come clean on that. In Standing Committee on the Hunting Bill in another place, the Minister resisted that idea. That was more to do with not wanting to involve the courts in that Bill. The Government should admit that the courts could have a role, because they deal with the point on many other issues.

The Bill would amend the 1996 Act. It would ensure protection for wild mammals from unnecessary suffering. There would be no exceptions for the previously exempt activities. I am happy for hunting to be included, as is the Countryside Alliance. The Bill would make the intentional infliction or causing of unnecessary suffering a criminal offence. The Bill is a model of clarity, certainty and brevity. I hope that the Minister will take those words back to the Home Office draftsmen next time he is considering a Home Office Bill.

9 Mar 2001 : Column 466

The Bill would go a long way towards raising welfare standards for our wild mammals. I hope that the Minister will welcome it as a contribution to the debate. However, we all recognise the limited timetable that it is up against.

12.54 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, before I get to the heart of the issue, I join the general congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, on introducing this important Bill. I also congratulate him on his diligence in and out of government, in championing the welfare of animals. He has focused particularly on striking a balance between the demands of modern agriculture and the needs of the environment, including the welfare of wildlife.

The Government will not oppose the Second Reading of the Bill. That is in accordance with tradition and it is particularly important in this case, because we recognise that the Bill has an important part to play in a wider debate. As the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, said, this is a prelude--and a very well-intentioned one, I think--to our debate on Monday, which will have broader considerations.

There have been too many contributions this morning for me to refer to all of them, but I listened with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, not least because of his report. He set out some important pointers and guides for our other debates. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, gave a clear exposition of her position. The noble Lords, Lord Graham and Lord Tomlinson, and others also gave clear and well made arguments. Both Opposition Front Benches have also made important contributions. I am grateful to all those who have taken part in this well-informed debate, which has been underpinned by a genuine desire on all sides of the House to promote the protection and welfare of wild animals. That does your Lordships' House great credit.

The Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996 is an important Act that has made it easier than ever before for the police to act to protect wild mammals in the countryside. It gives officers more power to prosecute those causing unnecessary and unlawful suffering to wild animals such as hedgehogs, squirrels and foxes. Section 1 of that Act makes it an offence to mutilate, kick, beat, nail or otherwise impale, stab, burn, stone, crush, drown, drag or asphyxiate any wild mammal with intent to inflict unnecessary suffering. Those convicted can be fined up to £5,000 or sent to prison for a period not exceeding six months.

Section 2 contains a number of exceptions to this general provision so that a person is not guilty of an offence if an attempted killing of any such wild mammal is an act of mercy; if the killing is done in a reasonably swift and humane manner and it can be shown that the wild mammal had been injured or taken in the course of lawful shooting, hunting, coursing, or pest control activity; if any act made unlawful under Section 1 of the Act is done by means of any snare, trap, dog or bird lawfully used for the

9 Mar 2001 : Column 467

purpose of killing or taking any wild mammals; or if they have lawfully used any poisonous or noxious substance on any wild mammal.

The Act addresses cases of, for example, hedgehogs being kicked to death or live squirrels being thrown on a bonfire. The Act is not intended to threaten those who, in the course of carrying out their lawful pursuits in the countryside, may cause death or injury to wild mammals.

So much for the present position. Perhaps I may now turn to the effects of the amendments proposed to it by the Bill put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. The noble Lord's amendments to Section 1 would delete all the explicit references to specific acts, such as mutilation, beating or kicking. The effect of this would be that the provision would bite on anyone who unnecessarily caused suffering to a wild mammal.

The changes to Section 2 are equally significant. Three of the exceptions would be removed. Protection would no longer automatically be afforded to those who kill wild mammals as part of hunting, coursing or pest control. Nor would those who lawfully use snares, traps or poisons have the benefit of an exception.

I shall say more about pest control in a moment, but first I shall deal briefly with hunting. We are going to have a lengthy deliberation on the subject on Monday and it would not be right to get into a detailed discourse in advance of that. As I have already explained, the 1996 Act contains exceptions for hunting from the offence in Section 1 of cruelty to wild mammals. Section 2(b) provides an exception in respect of the killing in a reasonably swift and humane manner of any such wild mammal injured or taken in the course of, among other activities, lawful hunting or coursing. Section 2(d) provides a further exception in respect of any act made unlawful by Section 1 if carried out by a dog used lawfully for the killing or taking of a wild mammal.

The Bill before us would remove those exemptions. The effect would be that hunting with dogs would constitute an offence where unnecessary suffering was caused to the mammal being hunted. I can see the attraction of that suggestion as most, although perhaps not all, people who oppose hunting object to it because they believe that it is cruel. If they could be reassured that any unnecessary suffering would be punished in the courts, they might feel more comfortable about the matter.

However, I could present the other side of the coin and suggest that that may not, as some supporters of the Bill would argue, help to resolve the difficult issues of hunting. From the meetings that I and my colleagues in the Home Office have held with various campaign groups involved in the hunting issue, I am well aware that very different views exist. Some, such as Deadline 2000, support a ban and believe that, by its very nature, hunting with dogs inflicts suffering on the quarry. Others, such as the Countryside Alliance, take the contrary position and argue that, in properly organised hunting, no unnecessary suffering is caused.

9 Mar 2001 : Column 468

Both sets of views have been heard in the House during the course of this debate. Both sides choose to interpret in different ways the scientific evidence and, indeed, the report produced so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, so as to support their point of view. This Bill does not seek to resolve the question of whether hunting with dogs causes unnecessary suffering; rather, I believe that it would hand the courts a difficult and, no doubt from time to time, highly controversial problem.

However much some of us would prefer to avoid the issue, I believe that it must be for Parliament to take a view on whether or not hunting is an unnecessarily cruel activity and, therefore, whether it should be permitted to continue in its present form or be regulated. Some will argue that we should not abdicate our responsibilities by placing this essentially political question in the hands of the courts. They may be right, but your Lordships have heard arguments to the contrary. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, spoke in favour of variable sentencing as a potential strength, and I can understand that argument.

As your Lordships well know, on Monday we shall discuss the Bill on hunting. That will give Parliament the opportunity to form a view on what it wishes to do in relation to what we all accept to be a contentious question. I believe that that is the right way to proceed.

Perhaps I may now turn to the pest control aspects of the Bill. Again, I have every confidence that the intentions of those who proposed and support the Bill are entirely honourable. Their motives are to protect wild mammals from unnecessary suffering. I believe that we all applaud that sentiment; I certainly do. On the face of it, it appears that the Bill would have precisely that effect in that it would simply ensure that those who inflicted unnecessary suffering as part of pest control would be liable to prosecution.

However, again, I venture to suggest that the degree of imprecision that that creates may cause problems. I do not believe that anyone could argue seriously that there is not a need to control various pests. It is an important and valuable aspect of the work of gamekeepers and others involved in the management of the countryside. However, there may be disagreement about the best way to do it, and perhaps a concrete example would illustrate the matter.

Mink is a vicious and voracious predator which does great damage to riverbanks and attacks indigenous wildlife, such as water voles. Clearly, mink numbers need to be controlled. There is no argument about that. One way in which to do so is to use traps and snares. We can all form a view as to whether such devices cause unnecessary suffering. The Government's view is that where traps and snares are used properly, they may prove to be more humane than other methods. Of course, strict rules apply to the use of snares, including a requirement for them to be checked every 24 hours. I am conscious that others take a contrary view and regard such devices as little short of barbaric.

9 Mar 2001 : Column 469

There is a danger that if we remove the exemptions for pest control, as the Bill seeks to do, those who quite legitimately and properly use snares and traps in order to control mink numbers could find themselves the subject of private prosecutions and brought before the courts--perhaps even convicted. I could cite similar examples involving other species and other means of control, including poisons, but I hope that the point is made clear to your Lordships.

It would be unacceptable to remove the exemptions for pest control without defining clearly what such control is and is not. There would be a risk that those who undertake proper and necessary pest control activities would be exposed to private prosecution by those who may take a less reasonable attitude in relation to animal welfare. I believe that we are all aware of people, particularly on the extreme wing of the argument, who can be quite unreasonable in that regard.

I want to make a further point. If farmers and gamekeepers consider that they are at risk from the threat of prosecution, there is a possibility that that could encourage the use of more dangerous and illegal alternatives, such as uncontrolled poisoning. Clearly, the cause of animal welfare would not be served if that were to happen.

The 1996 Act is aimed at preventing mindless cruelty against wild mammals. I believe that it has been an important tool in preventing such activity. My fear is that the Bill before the House may confuse such mindless cruelty with the proper and legitimate work undertaken by farmers and landowners to control pests in the countryside. I am also concerned that the proposed amendments, if passed, may make the 1996 Act more difficult to enforce because they would remove the clear tests as to what does or does not constitute cruelty. My noble friend Lady Mallalieu was right to suggest that, even with the Bill as it is--she suggested a measure of support for it--there would need to be important clarification. I believe that that comes close to the heart of our concerns about the Bill.

I would not want anyone to imply that the existing tests are inadequate or that areas of cruelty to wild mammals are not being tackled. I do not accept that that would be a valid view of the tremendous amount of work carried out in recent years by animal welfare experts and legislators to improve the welfare of our wildlife.

One or two important points were made, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, in relation to scientific experiments. It may be worth placing on the record that such experiments are regulated by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. They fall outside the scope of this Bill. All animals used in experiments are captive and not wild, and the Bill will have no effect on animal experimentation. It may be worth reminding the noble Lord that a Motion to be moved, I believe, next Tuesday will seek to establish a committee of the House to report on the working of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. Perhaps that will

9 Mar 2001 : Column 470

provide a better opportunity for a more scientific debate in considering the issues that the noble Lord raised.

In conclusion, again, I want to express my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Donoughue for having introduced the Bill. I believe that we all agree that it has provided us with an all too rare opportunity to discuss important questions. Questions in relation to pest control, in particular, are rarely debated in your Lordships' House. I hope that my noble friend has not found my remarks too discouraging, not least because, having discussed the Bill with him privately and also publicly, I am in absolutely no doubt about his genuine desire to improve animal welfare.

Although I could not suggest that the Bill in its present form should be passed into law, I hope that, by highlighting what I consider to be some of the areas of concern, I have given my noble friend and other noble Lords food for thought. My noble friend may wish to reflect on that as the Bill progresses.

This has been a most valuable debate. I am sure that it will be seen as an important contribution to the debates that follow. I certainly recognise the validity and importance of all the contributions made by noble Lords during the course of the debate.

1.9 p.m.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who contributed to what I considered to be an excellent discussion. I welcome the support which the Bill received. That support was not universal but came from all sides of the House: from my own, from the Cross Benches and from the Front Benches of the Liberal Democrat and Conservative sides. I particularly appreciated the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and the weighty support that he gave. I also thank my noble friend Lord Hardy, who has a deep knowledge of and commitment to wildlife and rural affairs.

I say to my noble friends Lord Tomlinson and Lord Graham that although I respect their views, of which I was already aware, we continue to differ. I do not accept what my noble friend said about there being an unbridgeable gap on the broader hunting issue. There is an unbridgeable gap with regard to the two minority positions but I believe that a bridge can be found with regard to the majority position. My noble friend Lord Graham made a fine speech, which would be more appropriate for next Monday's debate than today's debate. If only he had consulted his diary! I have difficulties with my noble friend's statement that my Bill will not reduce cruelty. It is clear that regardless of one's views on hunting, the Bill will reduce cruelty. I stress that. I should be puzzled if any individuals or, especially, institutions that claim to be committed to the reduction of cruelty tried to oppose the Bill. I would not know whether they had other agendas.

The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, made an impressive contribution but I believe that his concerns are covered by the 1986 Act, to which my Bill does not relate.

9 Mar 2001 : Column 471

I thank my noble friend the Minister for not opposing the Bill's Second Reading and for his friendly words, which were warmer than I was expecting in view of the stable from which he comes. I really appreciated that. I was a little disappointed but not surprised by one of his reservations-- predictably, the "Pandora's box" of court decisions was wheeled out. I welcome that aspect of the Bill, as have some other noble Lords. I support the role of the courts in clarifying what cruelty is. I support the courts in this country and I was surprised that the Home Office does not; it may know things that I do not. In fact, it already lies with the courts to interpret existing legislation. Case law does establish positions; that is normal in our polity. However, that does not mean that there is a permanent ratchet of court cases endlessly going on. Case law would be established, and I should accept whatever was decided.

I hope that the Minister will press his department to adopt an open approach on this issue. He and other noble Lords--in particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, who made a very good contribution--raised genuine points that I hope to address as the Bill progresses through the House. I am aware of the question of test controls. I am confident that we can get more clarity on that, which will be done as the Bill progresses through the House. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page