Hunting Bill

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Mr. Garnier: May not another foreseeable, but perhaps unappreciated, consequence of the ban be that, to control and disperse the foxes that will take their flocks, hill farmers will resort to unlawful poisoning? That will have far greater animal welfare disbenefits that any amount of hunting—lawful or unlawful.

Mr. Leigh: I do not want to go too far down that path, but we have pointed that out time and again in hunting debates. This is not primarily an animal welfare issue because farmers view foxes and hares as vermin and will try to control them in other ways. What we have said continually is that any sort of vermin control seriously compromises the welfare of foxes.

Mr. Soames: Essentially, this is not an animal welfare matter. Indeed, it will be grievously deleterious to animal welfare. Will my hon. Friend note the powerful and cogent representations made by the National Gamekeepers Organisation about the invidious position in which its members will find themselves when they control pests, should the Bill be enacted?

Mr. Leigh: Yes. One must understand the view of the countryman. Frankly, people who dislike hunting think that it consists of a group of toffs dressed up in silly uniforms going out in the country to stand in a circle and watch a fox or hare be torn apart. That was originally the public's view, but one advantage of these debates is that their view is maturing. The majority of the public who live in cities do not like hunting, but they are increasingly concerned about the civil liberties aspects of the debate. Although they do not like the idea of hunting, they realise that there other opinions and they are increasingly uneasy about criminalising a large rural minority.

Many people who are against hunting do not realise that we are not discussing a small group of people who occasionally leave the city to pay a great deal of money for the sport of riding on an expensive hunter. We are discussing a large group of people who live and work in the countryside and who view hunting as a necessary and legitimate activity to disperse and control vermin. Criminalising those people would be a serious step.

What is the alternative? I accept that Parliament has decided that it wants to proceed with the Bill, but we could examine the ideas proposed my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury. Labour Members have argued that if one makes hunting a civil rather than criminal offence, people would not take notice, which is a view that I do not accept. If hunting were a civil offence, one could not maintain large hunts such as those in Lincolnshire and Leicestershire, because it would not be economically viable. If the police could impose large fines for hunting, which is an obvious activity that is easily policed, it would become impossible.

In the past, Governments have often resorted to fines when they have not liked, for example, a religious minority. Persecuting a religious minority was obviously an appalling thing to do, but, nevertheless, it happened. In previous centuries, Governments said, ``We shall not criminalise these people directly. Instead, we shall impose civil fines on them, if they do not turn up to the right local church. They will not commit a criminal offence, because we realise that some of them feel strongly about this. We shall fine them for not turning up.'' Fines have been used—quite wrongly—by previous Governments to control activities that were difficult to police because they were carried out by large minorities. I caution the Committee not to dismiss my hon. Friend's argument, because fines would be effective.

We must consider what the Bill is about. If we were discussing a Bill that banned people with—I hate to use the phrase ``mens rea''—mischief in their minds, who went out to cause suffering to animals, we would all accept that that should be a criminal offence, but the Bill is not framed like that. In an earlier intervention, the Minister said that it would be easy to police because there must be criminal intent, but one must examine the face of the Bill. Schedule 3(1) states:

    A person commits an offence if he hunts a wild mammal with a dog.

As argued in an earlier intervention, first, there is no requirement for unnecessary suffering to be caused. Secondly, there is no requirement to show intention to cause unnecessary suffering. Thirdly, there is no requirement to show that the hunting was deliberate. In that sense, it is difficult to prove, difficult to police and therefore wrong to make it a criminal offence.

Mr. Lidington: I draw my hon. Friend's attention to paragraph 21, which defines what hunting a wild mammal means.The schedule contains a definition that refers to hunting a wild mammal where

    a person engages or participates in the pursuit of a wild mammal.

Not only does that phrase appear to be insufficiently defined, but it is prefaced in paragraph 21 by the words:

    A reference to a person hunting a wild mammal with a dog includes, in particular, any case where--

he is engaging or participating in the pursuit. Therefore, paragraph 21(a) is used to illustrate a general principle, but that general principle remains vague in the Bill.

Mr. Leigh: My hon. Friend is right. The more one looks at that paragraph, the more one realises that it is opaque and may be difficult for the courts to interpret.

Large numbers of people may be brought into magistrates courts. There was talk earlier of the exception of flushing--using dogs to flush out game. We must remember that we are talking about a rural situation—the big hunts have gone because hunting on that scale is easy to prove--that is difficult to control and where the population is widely dispersed. All sorts of farmers and game keepers who engage in rural activities and use dogs in various ways will now be dragged into magistrates courts. Although they have clerks to advise them, magistrates courts do not claim to be the High Court. They will try to interpret what my hon. Friend and I consider to be a difficult statutory point.

Mr. Garnier: Does my hon. Friend agree that the position is made worse by paragraphs 7 to 12, in which the burden of proof is placed firmly on the defendant to get himself out of this vague criminal offence?

Mr. Leigh: I hope that we can return to that. Many of us who are concerned about civil liberties are worried about the reversal of the burden of proof. We are dealing with a subject that people find difficult to accept in their own minds. I know that Parliament has a certain view. It believes that hunting with dogs is wrong, but many people who live in country areas may have some difficulty with that. Now, that the burden of proof is being reversed. The traditional offences that Parliament has criminalised are fairly clear. If a person breaks into someone's home and takes things, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that he committed that offence, but he is innocent until proved guilty. For hunting, an activity that is far more difficult to control and police—and, indeed, to understand—which we know huge numbers of people do not accept in the first place, the burden of proof is reversed.

Mr. Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the definition is reasonable as long as one does not find oneself in court dealing with endless test cases? More to the point, although he may be right, we need a more specific definition if we are to make prohibition enforceable and workable. This definition may be as far as we can go, so there is a limit to the extent to which the law can be helped by definition. We may end up simply having endless court cases as people keep bringing test cases to court.

Mr. Leigh: I may have insufficient skill to understand the hon. Gentleman's argument. We are in a Committee, where we are seriously trying to create good law. Surely it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Parliament can create enforceable and understandable legislation that does not go against its traditional view that the state must prove its case. It is not for the individual to prove his innocence; it is for the state to prove its case. If Parliament is concerned not with legitimate countrymen carrying out legitimate vermin control but with people who use it as a sport--I understand that that is its position--surely it can frame legislation in such a way that it bans an activity that is a sport, but does not put the countryman, the gamekeeper or my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex in the dock in the local magistrates court, where he could get a criminal conviction.

Mr. Öpik: I apologise. I expressed myself badly. In simple terms, I was trying to say that we felt that that definition was probably workable in a regulatory environment. Now I am concerned that that might not be a sufficiently well defined definition of a ban.

Mr. Leigh: The hon. Gentleman is a fair person, who thinks deeply about this subject. He has clearly made an honest attempt to find a middle way, if I dare use that phrase--I know that it is not accepted as a middle way. If he thought that, in its original form, the Bill could work, but he now has doubts about that--

Mr. Öpik: Only for prohibition.

Mr. Leigh: That is worrying.

I am concerned about the imposition of a criminal offence.

It being One o'clock, the Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Roe, Mrs. Marion (Chairman)
Baker, Mr.
Banks, Mr.
Beith, Mr.
Cawsey, Mr.
Foster, Mr. Michael
Garnier, Mr.
Gibson, Dr.
Hall, Mr. Mike
Henderson, Mr. Ivan
Kennedy, Jane
Lawrence, Mrs.
Leigh, Mr.
Lepper, Mr.
Lidington, Mr.
Maples, Mr.
Michael, Mr.
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
Öpik, Mr.
Organ, Mrs.
Pickthall, Mr.
Prentice, Ms Bridget
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Shipley, Ms
Simpson, Mr. Alan
Simpson, Mr Keith
Smith, Angela
Soames, Mr.

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Prepared 23 January 2001