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Our approach towards regulation is strict, clear and authoritative. The proposed regulation is probably stricter than any existing regulation to protect agricultural animals. Our approach is not only fair but transparent. The public can see that it is fair and that its welfare provisions are tough and yet respectful to civil liberties.
Under our proposals, the authority would comprise between seven and 11 members, appointed by the Secretary of State. They would cover various interest groups, including animal welfare representatives, hunters, farmers, landowners, conservationists and veterinary practitioners. At least half the members should have no vested interest in the issue. It may be difficult to find such individuals, but Lord Burns proved that that could be done. As long as they perform their tasks professionally, they will be effective. The chair would also be independent. The members would be appointed for not more than five years and would be in charge of our proposals. The authority would cost the taxpayer nothing, because all individuals and organisations that want to hunt would be charged a licence fee, which would cover the entire cost of our proposals.
The licences are tough. They cover coursing, which I shall mention shortly. However, not only groups but any individual who wants to go hunting with a dog must get a hunting licence, which means a personal financial cost. Such individuals must be at least 16 years old, must not be subject to relevant disqualifications involving offences in terms of our proposals, and must be capable of securing compliance. Moreover, they must renew their licences each year. It might be possible to apply specific conditions to specific individuals. The authority will have power to change the licensing procedure if it is seen to be inadequate in maximising the animal welfare considerations that the authority is legally mandated to uphold.
Mr. Simon Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is giving the Middle Way Group's proposals the first in-depth examination that they have been given so far today. Has he had an opportunity to read the amendments tabled by my colleagues and me, and has the Middle Way Group had an opportunity to discuss them in the context of the effectiveness--or, certainly, the principle--of allowing the Welsh Assembly its role in the regulation of hunting in Wales in the event of acceptance of option 2?
Mr. Öpik: Let me respond briefly to my friend and neighbour. Personally, I have considerable sympathy with what he has said, but I cannot speak for the Middle Way Group. We have not adopted a position on the matter because we are primarily concerned with regulation. I suspect that our views are different, but we have not discussed the issue--although I shall be happy to discuss it with him later.
Our proposals contain an entire section relating to limitations on coursing, which was mentioned earlier. I am being as honest now as I tried to be in explaining to the hon. Member for Worcester, who is not here now, why we voted against Second Reading--as was the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff). We have had problems with the coursing issue, and we are not sure about it. It was not included in our initial proposals--some early drafts leaked out--but we included it subsequently, because we felt that we should be consistent, and we feel that it should be discussed further in Committee.
Mr. Cawsey: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Middle Way Group has acknowledged that it is presenting a flawed option, which will have to be discussed in a forum other than this Committee of the whole House?
Mr. Öpik: What kind of debate is taking place when a Member who has admitted that an issue in a schedule for which he or she is responsible could benefit from feedback across the Floor receives nothing but superficial criticism, and suggestions that the option is flawed? Whatever position may be taken in tonight's vote, I should like to think that the quality of debate in the Chamber could be higher than that.
Mr. Thomas: Will the hon. Gentleman remind Labour Members--and, indeed, Members from all parties--that the Government have tabled amendments to their own Bill? They clearly do not consider it to be perfect.
Mr. Öpik: No one questions the suggestion that the Government's position is flawed. The challenge was directed at the Middle Way Group, which has a perfect reputation in the Chamber. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. We want debate. The hon. Gentleman can take that or leave it--but it is sad that, despite the close friendship that we have built up during the past few years, he should choose to disrespect me in such a public forum.
There are tough regulations governing hare coursing. They are there for all to see, and written in plain English. I give credit to the officials who have helped us all to ensure that that is the case. The regulations, however, can be made far tighter if that is required, without even changing the schedule involved.
Our schedule demands extensive third-party insurance cover for anyone who obtains a licence. In other words, if someone messes things up he pays the victim, whether trespass damage, injury or emotional distress is involved. We consider this to be a very important part of the Bill.
The authority will have the power to revoke or suspend a licence, and to add, vary, revoke or suspend terms or conditions. Those are wide-ranging powers which, if the authority acts responsibly and listens to advice, it will use to uphold the quality of regulation over the years.
The schedule also deals with inspection, and here I can answer some of the questions about how the system will be regulated. Part of the licence fee will be used to pay for a team of inspectors who will be able to drop in unannounced on licensed hunts anywhere in England or Wales, to check on how individuals are treating dogs or conducting the hunt, or to check on any other aspect of hunting procedures. We expect that to alleviate the enormous burden that would otherwise fall on the police, who would be required to be trained as experts in what they do not currently regard as their field. The schedule also covers the inspection of premises and events and anything else related to hunting with dogs.
There is also a provision on training and examinations. We have not made it mandatory, but we propose that the authority should be able to provide instruction and examination in connection with the obtaining of a licence--although the applicant would have to pay for it. I think that the provision should be implemented, although that too will be a matter for debate. In any event, no other proposed provision on hunting has suggested such a comprehensive requirement for personal qualification.
We would expect some of those activities to be banned by the authority for animal welfare reasons. I remind the Committee that the authority's crucial role is maintaining animal welfare. We will not proscribe them here, however, because we think that if the authority has the right membership it will do its job effectively.
Our provision on offences covers prohibited hunting, unlicensed regulated hunting, hare coursing and the giving of false information. The penalties are severe: in some instances, a fine of £5,000 may be imposed--level 5 on the standard scale. There is also provision on search and seizure. The police can become involved here if they are required to, perhaps on the request of an inspector. A constable may stop and search a
The provision on disqualification is equally strict. Page 15 contains the strongest disqualification of all: an order can specify the duration of a prohibition, which could last for the length of someone's life. We consider ours to be a powerful and robust set of proposals, although that is for other Members to judge.
I want to end by responding to some of the key objections that we have heard. One is, "You cannot compromise on cruelty". Option 3, however, allows rats to be hunted with dogs, which is clearly a compromise. It is not possible to be absolutist: there must be a balance, even in option 3.
Some say that our proposals are unworkable, but we regulate activities ranging from fishing to the use of laboratory and food animals, and from that to the treatment of household pets. People do breach the code, but by and large it works. Others say that our proposals would not get rid of the cruelty. Is anyone seriously suggesting that the alternatives are not cruel? Something that kills us will certainly compromise our welfare. As Deadline 2000 has said, shooting with a rifle is the best way, if it is done correctly, but often a shotgun will be used and may merely wound the fox. The death would be a much more painful death than under the Middle Way Group proposals.
What is barbaric? Again, that is a judgment call. It goes back to the cruelty debate. Fishing could be regarded as barbaric. I have never understood why reptiles are excluded when mammals are included in the ban. Why not protect cold-blooded organisms as well, not least because some in the Chamber would probably benefit?
The accusation is often made that we are funded by the Countryside Alliance and that we are a stooge for the other group. Yesterday, in The Guardian, there was an advert which we found out would cost £16,275 under normal prices. That one advert, which criticised the Middle Way Group, cost more than twice the group's entire budget in the past three years. We have achieved resonance with the public not by buying it, but by talking to people and trying to win the arguments, as we have here.
I have tried to put forward the case as the Middle Way Group sees it. Just because it does not go as far as a ban does not mean that all its supporters are pro-hunting. That point seems to have been lost in the debate. The real aim should be to improve animal welfare, not ban hunting and substitute it with methods which in some cases are worse.
None of the options is perfect. We may have some way to go on hare coursing, for example, but we believe that the Middle Way Group option is the most workable. It keeps landowners onside and does not criminalise individuals who sincerely believe that they are doing nothing wrong.
The debate on Second Reading caused us to vote no, for reasons that we described earlier. We are concerned that some people still feel that it is all or nothing. Today's debate is a chance for us to think about our responsibilities to animals and to people. Whether we do well will be a test of the quality of the House and its ability to listen.
I used to support a ban, but I have found a better way, even though the League Against Cruel Sports has told me many times that it is not a vote winner in my constituency. Perhaps others can, too. Doing the right thing is not always the easy option, but in the name of common sense and liberty I ask hon. Members to choose the right route, not the easy one. In our judgment, the best way to resolve the matter is through the middle way.