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Session 2000-01
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Standing Committee Debates
Hunting Bill

Hunting Bill

Standing Committee B

Thursday 25 January 2001


[Mrs. Marion Roe in the Chair]

Hunting Bill

Schedule 3

Hunting with dogs: prohibition

10.15 am

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 19, line 28, after `mammal', insert `other than a rodent'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 2, in page 19, line 28, after `mammal', insert `other than a rabbit'.

No. 3, in page 19, line 28, after `mammal', insert `other than a mink'.

No. 41, in page 19, line 28, after `mammal', insert

    `other than one of a species designated in paragraph 2'.

No. 42, in page 19, line 28, at end insert—

    `2.—(1) The Secretary of State may be order designate species of wild animal to which paragraph 1 does not apply.

    (2) An order under this paragraph

    (a) shall be made by statutory instrument, and

    (b) shall not be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by each House of Parliament.'.

Mr. Lidington: The purpose of each amendment is to provide a general exception to the offence of hunting a wild mammal with a dog, as defined in paragraph 1. Amendment No. 1 would make an exception for hunting rodents with dogs, amendment No. 2 for hunting rabbits and amendment No. 3 for hunting mink. Amendments Nos. 41 and 42 are slightly different, although they address the same issue. They would provide for the Secretary of State to designate a particular species as an exception to the general ban on hunting with dogs and for those exceptions to be approved by statutory instrument after debate in both Houses of Parliament.

I shall deal fairly briefly with the species that are mentioned in the amendments. The amendments raise questions that not only Committee members but many people outside the House have about the Government's intentions in the schedule and its practical impact on farmers and gamekeepers. I shall deal first with amendment No. 1, which would provide an exception in the case of rodents.

Everybody accepts that rodents—rats, mice, grey squirrels, for example—are pests. Even the average householder or gardener would accept that; certainly any farmer or gamekeeper will know that they are species that have to be controlled. I do not think that there is any difference between the Minister and myself on a point that successive Governments have regarded as important. Indeed, Government correspondence with the Countryside Alliance and others makes it clear that the Government accept that there is, and will remain, a need to control rodents. Even as ardent a defender of animal welfare as the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) has said in previous debates that he accepts fully the need to control an animal such as the brown rat.

People on the other side of the debate might ask why the exception in paragraph 8 is insufficient to protect people who need to control rodent populations by using dogs. I believe that paragraph 8 is inadequate for that purpose, which is why I propose a more general exception in amendment No. 1. The exception provided for in paragraph 8 applies only if hunting takes place without the dog going underground, and if the land on which the hunting takes place belongs to the defendant or to a person who has given the defendant permission to use it. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) mentioned on Tuesday, that creates ambiguities in the law about the interplay between the exception in paragraph 8 and the general offence in paragraph 1 and about how that would affect the work of farmers and gamekeepers who must control rodents as part of their business.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed asked what would happen if a dog were to pursue and kill a rat in a cellar, which is underground in the terms of paragraph 8 and would appear to be outside the exception. What would happen if a farmer or gamekeeper had a dog that pursued a rat into a culvert or burrow, perhaps excavated by a larger mammal, and killed it? Would that dog owner be liable, at least in theory, to criminal prosecution because the dog had gone underground?

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): Obviously, one must indulge in these wild flights of fancy regarding what might happen, assuming that everyone outside the House is totally unreasonable in their approach to the law. However, in the event that a terrier went for a rat, who would prosecute?

Mr. Lidington: The prosecution would be handled by the prosecuting authorities in the normal way.

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

Mr. Lidington: I would like to answer the hon. Gentleman's first intervention before taking the next one.

The prosecuting authorities would handle the matter in the usual way. One problem is that the schedule assumes that the police and, by extension, the Crown Prosecution Service, will act, not simply in response to offences observed by a constable, but in response to a complaint about an alleged offence put before the police. One reason why the Bill includes a power of arrest is so that the police can follow up an allegation of an offence.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): I have sought to deal with that point and others in later amendments. The issue is not about the certainty that the police will prosecute, but about the possibility that they might. To give an analogy, the gentleman in Sunderland who is being prosecuted for giving his customers what they want in terms of weights and measures has chosen the uncomfortable role of martyr. Many others would not want to go to court and risk prosecution if the law said that they could not control pests in this way. Their activities would be circumscribed by the fear of prosecution.

Mr. Lidington: The right hon. Gentleman makes his point very well.

Mr. Banks: The hon. Gentleman knows very well that the CPS always estimates how likely it is to succeed in having a charge upheld. I might add that, in many cases where we have complained, the CPS has decided that insufficient evidence is available to make a successful case. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that everyone has gone completely mad. That may apply to his arguments, but it cannot apply to the CPS. He must know that a police officer has to intervene and that the CPS must be involved. Does he seriously suggest that they will all go down the lunatic road that he is describing?

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman is mistaken if he believes that the Bill requires a police officer to be on the scene of the alleged crime and to be involved in the prosecution. When dealing with criminal justice Bills, Labour Members are often chary of leaving the safety of the citizen from prosecution to the goodwill and discretion of the police officers and crown prosecutors.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill is full of anomalies, of which he has identified one and will shortly identify others? It is not good enough for the Government and their supporters to say that people will not do this or that; we are here to enact criminal law. Malicious neighbours could allege an offence. The hon. Member for West Ham has a touching faith in the prosecuting authorities if he thinks that they do not bring ridiculous cases. The current case in Sunderland, and the prosecution of some people who have sought to defend themselves against burglars, fully justify our wariness of anomalies.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend puts the point forcefully.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): As I understand the hon. Member for West Ham, he is saying that the Bill would make such action a criminal offence; individuals would be breaking the law if they were to handle rats, but it was unlikely that anyone would prosecute. It is dangerous to say that a certain activity constitutes an offence, but that we hope that nobody will take an individual who commits it to court. We cannot run the country like that.

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman is right. In moving these amendments, I am asking the Government why they have chosen to approach the need for rodent control—which they acknowledge exists—through the convoluted and ambiguous means of paragraph 8 of the schedule, rather than simply by including an overall exception for hunting rodents with dogs. That would make things much clearer and easier to understand, both for those affected and for the police and prosecuting authorities.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): My hon. Friend has a good point, and he should pursue it. However, there is a problem in his use of the word rodent, because he lumbered squirrels in with the rest. Of course, the grey squirrel is a terrible animal, which should be hunted down and rooted out wherever it exists, but the red squirrel is altogether different; a noble and splendid animal that is not persecuted by gamekeepers. We need clarification of the squirrel policy as well as of everything else.

Mr. Lidington: I bow to my hon. Friend's expert knowledge of rodents. Ministers may wish to let us into the secrets of Government squirrel policy in due course. It is partly for reasons such as those to which my hon. Friend has alluded that I have offered the Government the alternative mechanism provided in amendments Nos. 41 and 42, so that they could make a distinction between the two species of squirrel found in these islands in terms of any exception to the general offence in paragraph 1.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): The red squirrel and the grey squirrel are rodents. The red squirrel is already protected. It is a different—

Mr. Lidington: Yes, it is a different species. As I have explained to the Committee—I shall repeat the argument so that the hon. Member for Pendle understands—this group of amendments offers the Government alternative ways out of the hole into which they have dug themselves. They could either accept the blanket exemptions in amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 3 or the mechanism provided for in amendments Nos. 41 and 42, which would allow the Secretary of State to say that a particular species should be exempt from the ban on hunting with dogs. They could then bring forward a statutory instrument for the approval of Parliament to give effect to that designation.


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