Hunting Bill

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Mr. Leigh: If any such organisations support the provisions, no doubt we will hear from them.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole): All hon. Members have received a letter from the rural, agricultural and allied workers trade group of the Transport and General Workers Union, which supports the Bill wholeheartedly.

Mr. Leigh: How many members of that group work in the protection of game, are gamekeepers or are farmers?

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) is saying that we imply that the agricultural workers union counts for nothing. We certainly do not. The hon. Gentleman should learn that, in general, its members are not those who look after game. The issue is not who ploughs the fields, but who looks after the game.

Mr. Leigh: The agricultural trade union under discussion is an effective voice. However, it is primarily a voice for the agricultural worker—the man who does an excellent job driving the tractor and working in the large arable farm. The union is not the voice of gamekeepers or those involved in game conservancy. It is important that hon. Members who support the Bill should treat the views of gamekeepers with respect. Their organisation makes a powerful point, among many others. It states:

    The defence in clause 8 permitting the hunting of rodents (rats and squirrels) makes no sense. Why is it OK to hunt a rat and not a rabbit? Why is it OK to hunt a rat in the open but not if it dives underground? More practically, how is the dog in hot pursuit to be stopped?

We are talking about the criminal conviction of people who are simply trying to do their job in difficult circumstances. It is incumbent on those who support the Bill to recognise that fox control is a serious problem, that the fox population is growing in many parts of the country and that dogs—

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Hounds.

Mr. Leigh: I deliberately did not say hounds, because it often gives the impression of organised packs. I want the Committee to think not of organised hunts but of the working countryside; whether one uses hounds or dogs, everyone then knows what it means. In such a situation, we need our canine friends to cull the fox population humanely and effectively.

If we do not go down the route of introducing criminal sanctions, what can we do? A door is waiting open for the Government. Home Office circular 7/97 states:

    The fixed penalty system is well established and enormously successful in diverting large numbers of criminal offences from the courts.

That is an appropriate response to situations in which it could not be seriously argued that those who break minor laws or who hunt with hounds should be treated as criminals and recidivists. We already have such a system. The Government rightly say that the courts should not be choked up with minor matters and that the fixed penalty systems should be used.

A more recent precedent for civil liberty penalties is the carrier liability legislation extended to lorry drivers under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which provides for a new civil penalty of £2,000 per passenger. The most recent introduction of a new sort of penalty offence is in the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, which would give police officers the discretion to impose on-the-spot financial penalties for a range of anti-social offences associated with disorderly conduct. The explanatory notes to the Bill state that although the conduct in question is already criminal, the need to focus police and court resources elsewhere means that much minor offending of that type escapes sanction or other consequences at present. That Bill would provide a further means for the police to deal with low-level disruptive criminal behaviour. That was the Government's view then, so they cannot argue that alternatives do not exist.

I stress that hunting is an activity conducted in many ways by large numbers of people. It is not only a sport. As I have tried to explain by mentioning the comments of working gamekeepers, it is often a part of traditional working practices and pest control. I accept that Parliament has decided to ban organised hunts, but we should proceed only one step at a time. Before we drag people to court and impose criminal penalties, we should consider the alternatives.

The amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) are germane to the argument. I stress that imposing a civil penalty would achieve what Parliament wants. It would stop the large organised hunts, but it would not result in working farmers, gamekeepers and others being hauled into court. We must remember that the most difficult aspect is that the police will not have to prove anything; it will be for the farmers and gamekeepers to prove their innocence. They will have to go to court and spend money to defend themselves. What happens in the countryside is a complex matter.

Once we have banned hunting, many people will be watching gamekeepers at work or following shoots. A recent paper from the League Against Cruel Sports attacks, in strong language, shooting—it encourages its members to oppose shooting. Its main argument for opposing shooting is not that it considers it to be a sport—I do not share that point of view, but I believe that it is morally wrong to shoot for pleasure—but that gamekeepers use their current practices to control and even to liquidate other wild species because they are a threat to the partridges and the pheasants. One of the league's principal arguments is directed against the National Gamekeepers Organisation.

I accept that that is not the Government's view. The Government have made it clear that they are not opposed to shooting and would not legislate against it, but once the Hunting Bill is enacted a national campaign against shooting will start immediately. It will be well run and well organised because shooting is a sport and because gamekeepers are encouraged to interfere in what is considered to be the natural habitat.

Gamekeepers and working farmers will be reported and brought to court, which will cause them much worry, fear, and expense. At the end of the day, they may not want to take the risk—maybe they will not, or maybe they will. A small working farmer might have to take the risk, as he simply could not afford to allow his livestock to face possible depredations by what he considers to be vermin.

The situation in the countryside will be unbelievably confused. It is incumbent on us, therefore, to tidy up this Bill and to try to make it work. I do not want the Bill in the first place, but let us at least make good law. Let us try to achieve the situation that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury wants, so that, when these gamekeepers land up in court through no fault of their own, they will face a fine and not a criminal conviction that will hang over them for five years.

5 pm

Mr. Soames: I wish briefly, and inevitably not as elegantly, to support my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury in what he said ahead of what I am sure will be the magnificent winding-up speech of the Parliamentary Secretary.

It was Burke who said:

    Whenever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither . . . is safe.

Not only is that separation clearly made in this legislation, but what is even more serious is that there are so many genuine anomalies. I make no criticism of the Minister in this respect or of those who drafted this Bill: it is almost impossible to get right. The anomalies and dangers that exist, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) rightly said, for ordinary working gamekeepers and others as a result of this legislation—in particular, schedule 3—are manifold. It would be wrong and wholly improper of the House of Commons to enact legislation that does not have regard and care for the difficulties that will affect them.

A well balanced, well managed countryside requires effective stewardship. Stewardship costs money. We can argue across the Chamber, as I have on many occasions with the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks). We disagree about hunting but, as he is a keen student of history and art, he will understand when looking at paintings and literature on the history of foxhunting that, whether or not one approves of it, vast tracts of the countryside that we love so much were laid out specifically for it. Much of the stewardship, and the basis on which the countryside was and is kept, has been dependent on foxhunting.

Since the invention of a more effective gun in the late 19th century, much of the countryside has also been laid out for the shooting of game. A substantial number of people are employed as gamekeepers in this country and it is to them in particular that I address these words.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough has set out the position clearly from the admirable brief sent by Charles Nodder of the National Gamekeepers Organisation, whose motto is ``Keeping the balance''. The organisation takes its duties seriously and encourages its members to take seriously the stewardship and conservation of the countryside. For all gamekeepers the main battle with vermin is probably with that splendid and wonderful animal, Mr. Fox, whose interests we are here to defend—on both sides of the House, although each probably has a different idea of how his interests are best defended. For the gamekeeper, the fox is a real enemy.

The most difficult task for a keeper is probably to find the fox. To do so, he will use dogs—in this case dogs and not hounds. It is a source of deep hurt to me that people will insist on referring to hounds as dogs. They are not. A hound has been built and bred for generations to be precisely what he is: a splendid and tough animal of great stamina and courage. A dog, although agreeable, is an altogether inferior animal.

The cur dogs—terriers and others—are used to find the fox. When the keeper sees the fox, he might shoot it—hopefully, not with a shotgun. If he can, he will probably shoot it at night with a rifle. When keepers deal with foxes, they often have lurchers standing by, in case the fox should get out of an unattended earth or, in his cunning and clever manner, delude those who seek to get him. A good lurcher will hunt a bolting fox by sight and will probably roll him over in 100 yards. Clearly, under the Bill, that would be an illegal act, although I accept the argument of the Minister this morning that that is not the intention.

In 1998, the university of Bristol surveyed 215 keepers from the National Gamekeepers Organisation. The survey principally concerned stoat and weasel, those equally troublesome vermin. I do not know whether you know the difference between a weasel and a stoat, Mrs. Roe. They are difficult to tell apart, but I always remember that a weasel is easily identified, but that a stoat is ``stoatily'' different. Of the gamekeepers who responded, 90 per cent. said that foxes were either common or very common on their beat, 68 per cent. said that fox numbers had increased on their beat in the past 20 years, and none said that they had declined.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough pointed out that the fox is a brilliant coloniser. Incidentally, I saw a dead fox in an underpass on my way into the City the other day. Foxes have even adapted to living in bomb sites. I am told that Brixton and somewhere called Clapham, which is outside London, are infested with foxes. One could take a pack of hounds to Brixton any time and have a cracking good day.

Of the gamekeepers who responded, 100 per cent. controlled foxes in some way: 48 per cent. had visits from packs of hounds, 46 per cent. used terriers, 98 per cent. used shooting and, although they were not asked, the vast majority would have used dogs to hunt as part of their efforts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough was right to draw to the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary—I am sure that she will have the most convincing arguments in response—the fact that the Bill will criminalise the jobs of responsible people whose lives have already been made difficult. Everyone welcomes the legislation on rights of way, which increases access to the countryside, but it will make keepers' lives harder as they try to maintain game in an orderly and sensible way. It will be much harder for them to deal with the vermin that prey on game. It is expensive to rear game. People may become bored with not having sufficient game because of vermin. They may also become bored with untidy and dirty countryside, as the countryside will increasingly fall into disrepair, to the great disadvantage of all. I am sure that that is not the Parliamentary Secretary's intention. It is essential that the Bill does not upset the balance that is required for the proper stewardship of the countryside.

If the Hunting Bill proceeds as drafted, it will have a disastrous effect on gamekeepers and make it difficult for them to do their jobs. It will threaten their livelihoods and render keepers, beaters and gundog handlers, all of whom are utterly essential to shooting, liable to prosecution for everyday occurrences in the shooting field.

In its note to the Committee, the National Gamekeepers Organisation points out that terriers are the only legal means of dealing with foxes that have taken refuge underground since poisoning and gassing have—I am glad to say—already been banned. Clause 1 would outlaw the use of terriers completely. There is no relevant exception in the Bill and we look forward to hearing from the Parliamentary Secretary exactly how she proposes the matter should be dealt with.

Finally, I read a letter that I have received today from a lady who lives in Essex and who works for farmers in her area controlling rabbits and using two lurchers. She says:

    I own and work lurchers independently. I provide a service to farmers in so much as I help in the control of the rabbit . . . a pest species . . . My dogs do not course for sport. I do not consider pest control a sport yet under the new Bill I will no longer legally be able to work with my highly trained hounds.

In fact she is wrong to call her lurchers hounds, because they are not.

This is not some specious argument got up to try to oppose the Bill. The House, to my great disappointment, gave an enormous, resounding vote in favour of banning foxhunting. I hope very much that the Bill will be held up for as long as it can be in the House of Lords and dealt with properly. I do not want it to become law, but given that we are in Committee, it is our duty to see to it that it at least emerges in a workable form that will not criminalise the everyday, legitimate and essential pursuits of keepers and others who work in the countryside in the ordinary course of their business. This is not an attempt to prolong proceedings—these are serious arguments.

Whereas the general precept of the Bill touches on the fundamental liberties of ordinary people, this piece of law would turn into criminals gamekeepers and others whose job it is to control vermin. When the Parliamentary Secretary replies, will she give some serious thought to how such people can possibly be protected from an over-draconian clause?

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Prepared 23 January 2001