Hunting Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Leigh: On the point of how one defines hunting, can my hon. Friend explain what will happen to someone who is walking their dog when it chases and kills a rabbit? Could they conceivably be prosecuted by the police and be given a criminal record? I know that that is unlikely, but is it conceivable under the provisions of the Bill?

Mr. Lidington: I hope that we shall have the opportunity to explore my hon. Friend's point. My reading of the Bill is that that risk would indeed exist. Having read both the description of the offences in part I and the list of exceptions in part II, I have not seen language to provide an absolute defence against such a prosecution.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is not the dog that would be prosecuted, but the owner? Does he also accept that, according to the definition in the ``Oxford English Dictionary'', the word ``hunt'' is proactive? The synonyms are ``pursue'', ``seek'', ``chase'', ``track'', ``follow'' and ``go after'', and in those terms hunting is defined.

Mr. Lidington: I do not want to stray too far down that path, because subsequent amendments deal with the matter directly, but my observation would be that the terms that the hon. Lady has cited are not precise at all. A dog that did chase, follow, seek or search out—to use another dictionary definition that I have read—would put its owner at risk of prosecution. The risk would be greater because we are not talking simply about an offence that a police officer must observe in order to consider bringing a charge. The Government propose to make the offence arrestable. A complaint could be made to the police that an individual had acted contrary to the law. The police would then have to investigate the allegation, seek evidence and weigh up whether the matter was worth referring to the Crown Prosecution Service, which would then have to take its view. The safeguards are not as straightforward as the hon. Lady wishes to believe, but, as I have said, we shall explore that further later in our proceedings.

Mr. O'Brien: As the matter has been raised, I should say that it is absolute nonsense to suggest that a dog that accidentally chases a squirrel or rabbit while being walked could be prosecuted. The Government intend that only people should be criminalised—we are not in the business of criminalising the intentions of dogs. What matters is the intention of the person, not the dog. The law will make it clear that no offence will have been committed if the person concerned did not intend to break it. However, if the hon. Gentleman intends to substitute a civil for a criminal offence, in doing so, he would lower the threshold of proof and greatly increase the likelihood that some consequence, albeit civil, would have to be faced. The threshold would then be balance of probability, rather than what is beyond reasonable doubt, which applies in criminal cases.

11 am

Mr. Lidington: I am grateful to the Minister for stating the Government's intentions. We will be able to explore whether the language of the Bill matches them when we debate the relevant amendments.

I move on to the practical matters, the first of which concerns criminal records, that I was about to discuss before I gave way to a number of interventions. As I understand it—the Minister may be able to respond to this—under the terms of the Bill any criminal conviction will remain on the record of the person concerned for a number of years. Under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, a conviction for which the punishment is a fine normally remains on the record for five years. Even those who suffer a lesser penalty than the maximum fine for which the schedule provides would have to carry that conviction on their record for a certain length of time. For example, a conditional discharge on conviction of hunting with dogs would still remain on the record of the person concerned for a full 12 months. Even an absolute discharge would remain on the record for six months.

Mr. Michael: I am following the hon. Gentleman's interesting lecture on the way in which the law works. Does he agree that, should Parliament decide that the provision will be the law of the land, it is entirely appropriate that such a conviction should remain on the record of those who knowingly and deliberately break that law? These are supposed to be law-abiding people. Do they intend not to obey the law?

Mr. Lidington: One great evil that the Bill, if enacted, will bring about is that it will criminalise the activities of many thousands of people who regard themselves as—and who in fact are—law abiding. Indeed, in many communities such people are the active eyes and ears of the police service. Many serve as magistrates and give of their time by taking part in neighbourhood watch schemes and other crime prevention activities—a point that I shall discuss in greater detail.

Mr. Banks: The hon. Gentleman wants to portray those who hunt as freedom fighters, but he is wrong to say that the Bill will criminalise their activities. It will criminalise them only if they pursue them after it is enacted. At the moment, they are lawful and will become unlawful only if the Bill reaches the statute book. He ought to get his terminology absolutely correct.

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman is dancing on the head of the pin. To ``criminalise'' something is, to my mind, to make it criminal. The Bill makes criminal a recreational activity that has been lawfully enjoyed by thousands of citizens for many years.

Anyone who is convicted of an offence under the Bill will have a criminal record that will be declarable if they apply for a job, insurance policy or credit. There will be other implications—some countries do not admit as visitors foreign citizens who have any type of criminal conviction. Under British law, there are occupations and professions where, for reasons of child protection, we rightly insist that the normal provisions of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act do not apply. Are we going to say that someone who is convicted of hunting with dogs should have to declare—perhaps for the rest of their life if they are in teaching or social work, for example—that they have a criminal conviction? That illustrates the disproportionate nature of the Bill.

The implications of the Bill for the police service are one reason why I tabled this group of amendments. The introduction of a new set of criminal penalties is likely to impose significant additional burdens on the service, which is why we should consider replacing the criminal penalty with a civil penalty. When the matter was raised with the Minister in the Committee of the whole House last week, he was careful to confine his remarks to the expenditure of resources. He stated that the view of the Association of Chief Police Officers, as it was communicated to Home Office officials

    is that, by and large, the expenditure of resources on dealing with hunts and protests against hunts now is probably very similar to any costs that the police are likely to face if a ban is imposed.—[Official Report, 17 January 2001; Vol. 361, c. 367.]

That view is reflected in the Government's regulatory impact assessment on page 11 at paragraph 4.21. However, within 24 hours of the Minister's comments, ACPO released a statement setting out the arguments that members of its public order sub-committee put to the Home Office before the introduction of the Bill. That document made it clear that its reservations went a good deal further than those that the Minister was prepared to acknowledge during last Wednesday's debate. The paper stated:

    for practical policing reasons, there was strong support—

that is, among members of ACPO—

    for the option of having hunting with dogs controlled and regulated by an independent licensing body which—

this is the key phrase—

    did not involve the police.

The police expressed great concern to Ministers about the potential impact on police resources of a complete ban on hunting.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): During our discussions last week, I pointed out that my survey of police forces throughout the country—to which fewer than half responded—revealed that the bill for monitoring hunting is £542 million. Is the Opposition spokesman suggesting that if hunting is banned in this Parliament, the cost of policing all these law-abiding citizens—who are the eyes and ears of the police in the shires—will be more than that? Will there be mass demonstrations and, if so, will he endorse them?

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman is missing the point that ACPO is saying that a complete ban will impose significant additional burdens. The hon. Gentleman said that about half the police forces responded to his survey. I suspect that ACPO would be able to draw satisfactorily on responses from all the police forces in England and Wales, which would be more prepared to speak their minds to ACPO than to any politician.

Mr. Michael: May I help the hon. Gentleman? In opposition and in government, I spoke frequently to individual chief police officers and to ACPO. One matter that arose time and again was the cost of policing the conflict that results from hunting. ACPO, like other police bodies, has been careful to try to stay out of the political argument and to maintain order. That is probably why it was misled into thinking that the Middle Way Group represents a middle way, not another means of promoting the continuation of hunting. I urge the hon. Gentleman not to draw ACPO into a political debate, given that it has taken such care in that respect over the years.

Mr. Lidington: The right hon. Gentleman is trying hard. However, he cannot simply wipe away the fact that we have a statement from ACPO—which it released after Parliament had taken its decision in principle last week—making clear its reservations.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that an important distinction should be drawn between reservations and evidence? To return to the earlier discussion of cross-border issues, evidence from Scotland shows that since deer hunting with hounds was banned in 1959, there has been no significant problem with policing costs. Why? It is because the activity no longer exists.

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that recidivist hunters will cause a residual problem, does he nevertheless accept that the question of the application of the law is completely different from that of whether, in principle, we should recognise the views of the House in deciding that it wishes to make this an illegal and criminal activity?

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 23 January 2001