Hunting Bill

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Mr. Banks: My apologies to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough are munificent and plentiful. I suddenly realise that I confused him with the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), and given my earlier comments, I doubt whether I could have dug a deeper trap for myself than to have made such an insulting mistake. I apologise to the hon. and learned Gentleman.

The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to a statement by Graham Sirl, an employee of the west country branch of the League Against Cruel Sports. It was an ex cathedra, personal statement. [Hon. Members: ``Ah!''] On being asked a question, the hon. and learned Gentleman said that in replying he spoke not for the Conservative party but for himself. Although that is good enough for him, Graham Sirl is deemed to speak not only for the League Against Cruel Sports but, it would appear, for the entire animal welfare movement.

Mr. Garnier: That would be a good point if it were true. When employees of the League Against Cruel Sports speak to the press, they speak on its behalf. I do not speak on behalf of the Conservative party.

Mr. Banks: That is a very interesting suggestion. We know full well that even though the newspapers like to represent us as speaking for our party—or for the Government or the Opposition—in many cases we speak for ourselves. The hon. and learned Gentleman's argument may well be compatible with the lurid headlines of newspapers such as the Western Daily Press, but it certainly does not accord with the truth. As far as I am aware, the League Against Cruel Sports has no intention of moving on to fishing or shooting. Doubtless, there are individuals in the organisation, and many people in this country, who feel that fishing and shooting should be banned. However, as I have said, there is no majority in this place, or in the population as a whole, in favour of such a ban. Nor does a ban form part of a hidden agenda on our part.

Finally, I want to respond to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who said that if a gamekeeper were to allow his dog to chase a rat in a cellar, he would have committed an offence. I do not see how that accords with part II exceptions, given that paragraph 8 makes it clear that rodent control is excepted. If such a circumstance were to arise, the gamekeeper would have a perfect defence. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman should consider that and respond if he wishes.

Mr. Beith: The circumstance that I described is governed by the condition in paragraph 8 that a dog must not be worked below ground.

Mr. Banks: The right hon. Gentleman's example referred to a cellar.

Mr. Beith: A cellar is underground.

Mr. Banks: I take it that the right hon. Gentleman is referring to a cellar in a house; if so, the suggestion is lurid and extravagant. His definition does not accord with my understanding of the schedule. Is he suggesting that the courts will take leave of their senses, that there will be no use of reason? The point that he is making is just a further scare tactic.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): As the hon. Gentleman knows from the debate in the House, the anomalies in the Bill about animal welfare are what concern me. Is he suggesting that it would be perfectly all right for the gamekeeper's dog to chase and kill a rat in a cellar, but not if it did it underground outside his house?

Mr. Banks: The hon. Gentleman is correct. The whole point of the Committee is to clear up any ambiguities—that is what we need to address. If there are genuine points to be clarified, we must do so. In the end, we must assume that the courts will act reasonably. Although there might be differences between their interpretation of the law and the Act that we think that we have passed—this is why it is incumbent on us to ensure that the Bill is as perfect as possible when it reaches the statute book—we must still apply the rule of reasonable behaviour. What the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed suggested would not come under the definition of reasonable behaviour.

Mr. Gummer: Will the hon. Gentleman help me on one point? As they are both mammals, why does he make a distinction between the rat and the fox? I think that that is an important issue.

Mr. Banks: I do not. The right hon. Gentleman and I could no doubt have an interesting discussion about the issue—although I do not see how, given the point that he just made—but he knows that I have already put on record my feelings about rats. I would not kill them, but that is another matter. Such a comparison is not helpful to us or the debate; it does not seem worth pursuing. There will be points in the Bill that require attention, because we do not want to create faulty legislation.

Mr. Öpik: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Banks: No; we will run out of time. We shall have many happy hours together over the days to come.

I wish that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal would not talk about us criminalising individuals. We are not; we are seeking to criminalise an activity. The individuals will criminalise themselves if they then decide to pursue what we have criminalised as an activity. I am sure that when we pass the law to criminalise hunting with dogs, the law-abiding folk in the countryside will keep it. I have more faith in their law-abiding intentions than in those of some Opposition Members.

The Parliamentary Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): What a pleasure it is to be serving under your chairmanship, Mrs. Roe. I recall the many occasions on which we served together on the Administration Committee. As Chairman, you engendered in me great respect for your ability to deal with difficult issues and to arrive at a conclusion, despite the problems of the case before you. I know that we will require all of those skills if we are to steer our way through this Standing Committee.

I shall attempt to bring the attention of Committee members back to the amendments, which we began debating this morning. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aylesbury on tabling amendments that have generated a stimulating, interesting and wide-ranging debate. This is my first ever opportunity to contribute to a debate on the subject. Although I may not be the only member of the Committee to say that I regretted my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary having to leave this morning's sitting to attend to other matters, it gave me an opportunity to enter the debate and to put the Government's position on these important and serious matters.

Under the Bill as drafted, a person commits an offence if they hunt a wild mammal with a dog, knowingly permits land, or a dog that belongs to them, to be used for hunting , or is involved in various ways in hare coursing events. As the hon. Member for Aylesbury said, if amendments Nos. 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 were agreed, all those activities would no longer be regarded as an offence subject to a criminal conviction determined by the courts. Instead, by virtue of amendment No. 11, they would all be subject to a penalty to be determined by the Secretary of State. The remaining amendments are consequential on that policy. There are a number of reasons why I believe that the amendments should not be made. To begin with, they would completely undermine the decision taken last week by the whole House to make hunting with dogs a criminal offence. I turn for a moment to the arguments advanced during the debate.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury and, to an extent, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal argued that the law should be clear. The hon. Gentleman argued that ignorance of the law was no defence, but that the Bill's meaning should be clear. The Bill is one of the simplest to read and understand of any that I have had the privilege to accord line-by-line scrutiny in all the time that I have served in the House and on Standing Committees. Normally, one needs the extensive legal expertise with which the hon. and learned Member for Harborough kindly but wrongly credited me on Thursday, when we began our debates in Committee. The Bill seems to me to be fairly straightforward.

Close to my home there is a beautiful footpath that follows the route of an old railway line along a raised embankment. That embankment teems with rabbits and hares. Hon. Members who represent rural constituencies may like to know that urban ones such as mine have extensive wildlife. I hesitate to introduce my two Belgian shepherd dogs to the debate, given the aversion of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex to dogs. They are slightly overweight dogs and out of condition, like me. [Hon. Members: ``Nonsense.''] When I exercised my dogs, they used to chase rabbits, and on many occasions since I was elected I have asked myself whether, if they caught a rabbit by mistake, as it would have been, I would be left in breach of a law such as this legislation.

I often met a neighbour who used to exercise three very fine greyhounds. He always exercised them on a leash, as he was developing their role as professional athletes. If that neighbour of mine met four or five of his friends who shared a similar interest in racing greyhounds and arranged to loose them after hares with the intention of catching the hares, they would be in breach of this Bill and would be committing a criminal offence.

The criminal penalties in the Bill accord with all other animal welfare legislation, such as the Protection of Animals Act 1911 and the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996. On a practical level, a fixed-penalty system for offences would remove any element of discretion from the courts. The courts can consider mitigating or aggravating circumstances in each case and reach a judgment on the appropriate level of penalty. For example, a minor breach of the law could be accorded a lesser fine. A fixed-penalty system makes good sense for minor matters, such as parking offences, as one hon. Gentleman said, where the facts are not usually in doubt, but for more serious matters punishable by fines of up to £5,000, the courts should be involved and should be allowed to exercise their discretion.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough came closest to enunciating that point in this wide-ranging debate. He made a serious contribution and invited us to consider seriously—and we have done so—whether we should invoke a criminal conviction. The House considered that at length and not lightly. The hon. Gentleman made a number of other points.

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Prepared 23 January 2001