Hunting Bill

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The Chairman: Order. I remind hon. Members to return to the amendment.

Mr. Soames: I hope that that was helpful. [Laughter.]

Mr. Leigh: I have served for a long time with the hon. Member for Stourbridge on the Select Committee on Social Security, and it is a great pleasure to be led astray by her. It has not happened before, but it is very pleasurable. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) has replied to her.

I will try for the third time to get back to the central argument. We all accept that we need to use dogs for the control of rats, so why not use them for rabbits? The argument against it seems to be that adduced by the hon. Member for West Lancashire—that we seek to create a loophole in the law. If we allow people to flush out rabbits with their dogs, and then for the dogs to give chase and dispatch the rabbits, that will provide a loophole in the Bill. It will enable people to have an excuse. They can be out walking and if the local police see them out with their dog, they can always say that they are looking for rabbits.

I believe that that argument is overstated. I do not believe for a moment that those who are promoting the Bill are concerned with a single farmer or gamekeeper out with a single dog on his land on a rainy winter afternoon, trying to control local pests. They are concerned with organised hunts, in which people are partaking for sport. I do not believe that the provision would be a tremendous loophole and that hundreds or thousands of people around the country would deliberately try to frustrate the Bill, by setting out on a Saturday afternoon and saying ``I want to use my dog to engage in a sport now. I know that in the Bill there is a little loophole about rabbits. I can always claim that as an excuse.'' The members of the Cottesmore will not go out undercover and, when they are caught on a Saturday afternoon with 20 people on horses, say ``We were chasing after a rabbit, Mr. Policeman''.

3.15 pm

Mr. Garnier: As I subscribe to the Cottesmore hunt, I would be the first to defend it. If the Bill is passed into law, it is highly unlikely that any responsible members of the Cottesmore hunt will carry on doing what they have been doing perfectly lawfully up to now.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): On a point of order, Mrs. Roe. I have been sitting here quietly doing my best to listen to the debate. I do not want to mention what was said before, but the hon. and learned Gentleman is extremely difficult to hear. The point has been made by hon. Members behind me and I am sure that members of the public are also finding it difficult.

The Chairman: The hon. and learned Gentleman has heard what has been said and will do his best to raise his voice, so that not only members of the Committee but others will be able to hear him.

Mr. Garnier: I would not want to be accused of shouting at you, Mrs. Roe. It would be too impolite.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) thought that he had bowled my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough middle stump by asking why the Isle of Wight hunt had imported foxes on to the island. The Isle of Wight hunt was founded in 1845, which is quite a long time ago. Whatever the standards may have been in 1845, they do not concern modern, organised hunts.

Mr. Leigh: I explained that what the hon. Gentleman said was currently against the rules.

As I have said, I do not understand the point that Labour Members are making. They seem to accept that rabbits are a pest. They are; everybody knows that. The hon. Member for West Lancashire even claimed that they ruined his garden, and he is clearly worried about it. The measure will not be a massive loophole.

Again we are indebted to Mrs. Wood, who has been referred to on a couple of occasions by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex. I am not sure that the Committee has adequately discussed the point that she makes in the middle of her letter. In the Wild Mammals (Hunting With Dogs) Bill, a private Member's Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), now Mayor of London, the rabbit—a pest species, albeit a mammal—was aligned with rodents. The Bill, which was introduced in Parliament last year, stated:

    A person does not commit an offence under section 1(1) if he hunts rabbits or rodents.

That exception was made by the hon. Member for Brent, East when he introduced his Bill last year. Why did he frame his Bill in that way last year? I am sure that he received drafting help, presumably from a reputable and serious organisation that intended his Bill to become law, or hoped that it would. Why did he specifically exempt rabbits? The Under-Secretary has, in a generally impartial way, sought to give advice to his draftsmen. Why has he gone down a different route from his hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East? Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury can help me on this point.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I am afraid that I can give my hon. Friend no explanation for the difference between the two Bills, but what makes the contrast even more curious is the fact that the hon. Member for Brent, East was undoubtedly assisted in preparing his Bill by some of the organisations that have been campaigning for the abolition of hunting with hounds. It is a matter of public record that the particular option that we are now discussing in schedule 3 to this Bill was drafted by the Government together with the umbrella group Deadline 2000, which I presume includes within its ranks the same organisations—and probably some of the same individuals—who were assisting the hon. Member for Brent, East. I, like my hon. Friend, find this difference between the two Bills difficult to explain and even perplexing.

Mr. Leigh: This is a serious matter and I urge the Under-Secretary to look into it. Nobody is accusing the hon. Member for Brent, East of being soft on this issue. He is not an undercover agent for the Countryside Alliance. I will not say that he is fully lined up with the extreme faction, because it would be discourteous of me to describe him in those terms, but he is not a softy on such matters. It is a pity that he is not serving on this Committee. I hope that an hon. Member who supports the Bill will intervene, because there must be an answer on this point.

Mrs. Golding: Send a letter by pigeon post.

Mr. Leigh: Exactly. Hitherto, hon. Members have been keen to make interventions. It would be very useful if the hon. Member for West Ham could help me now.

Mr. Banks: Why should I help you?

Mr. Leigh: He is not leaping to his feet because he does not know the answer. We know that he will not help the Mayor of London because they are involved in a bitter dispute over pigeons. We have seen a recent photograph of a pigeon standing on his head, which improved his looks no end.

Mr. Banks: It makes a change from politicians standing on their heads.

Mr. Leigh: No one is yet prepared to give me an answer. This important matter goes to the heart of the Bill. It drives home the message with which I was trying to deal on Tuesday; that the problem with the Bill, if it ever becomes law, will not be with the large, organised hunts, which will end. That is sad for all sorts of reasons that we do not need to go into now. The problem with implementing the Bill will come when gamekeepers, individuals and working farmers genuinely engaged in controlling rats, rabbits and other species harmful to their game or farms become involved.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Does my hon. Friend think that the hon. Member for Brent, East, now Mayor of London, took more seriously the needs of these groups within the population? In those circumstances, would it not be appropriate for the Government to think again? It would be a pity if it looked as though the hon. Member for Brent, East was more concerned about such people than the Government. This might be an opportunity for them to say that that is not so.

Mr. Leigh: Many of us are warming to the Mayor because in the past couple of years he has been trying to turn over a new leaf, become more moderate and listen to his natural opponents. He is more moderate, mainstream and middle-way than the Under-Secretary. The Under-Secretary needs to justify himself. Why has he drafted a Bill that is more extreme than that of his colleague, the hon. Member for Brent, East, who apparently was so extreme that he had to be excluded from becoming a Labour candidate last year? These are interesting points that need further discussion.

Mr. Garnier: I remind my hon. Friend that the hon. Member for West Ham now has other interests. He is not interested in foxhunting or hunting with dogs; he is about to become the president of the society for the protection of the jellied eel. His entire line of interest has moved in a different direction.

Mr. Leigh: The hon. Member for West Ham is a versatile politician and I wish him well in his efforts to protect jellied eels.

Mr. Banks: It is too late for them!

Mr. Leigh: Yes, but it is not too late for the rabbits, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will respond to my point.

Mr. Maples: My hon. Friend has made an extremely good point. What have rabbits done for the Under-Secretary or the Government in the past three years to achieve this privileged status? It seems extraordinary that they were exempted in the Bill of the hon. Member for Brent, East. Perhaps I am wrong, but I think that the hon. Member for West Ham, who is now taking a rather different view, was a sponsor of that Bill. That helps to illustrate the many anomalies in this Bill.

There are two issues that proponents of the Bill seem not to be dealing with, but they must deal with them. First, if one wants to improve animal welfare by stopping people exercising a freedom that they have enjoyed for a very long time, one must show that the gains will be substantial, significant and clear. If those in favour of a ban can demonstrate a serious benefit to animal welfare, there is a case for discarding personal liberties. Otherwise, there is no case.

Secondly, the Bill is full of anomalies that, I suspect, have nothing to do with animal welfare. They are included to dress it up in the light of the tremendous campaign to abolish foxhunting, hare coursing and hare hunting. In taking apart that dressing, we find serious problems relating to rabbits, rodents and mink. I do not know why the hon. Member for West Ham has become the friend of mink, or whether his Bill dealt with them. He said that mink are good only for coats for the bourgeoisie, and pointed to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex. My hon. Friend would be insulted to learn that an expert on the English class system such as the hon. Member for West Ham thinks that he is a member of the bourgeoisie. Bourgeoisie is not only a foreign word but a French word, and we must be careful about using it over here. By freeing mink from the threat of the control to which rats will be subject, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman was trying to increase their numbers, lower their value and therefore make mink coats available at a more reasonable price to a wider section of the population.

If we consider the provisions in the context of rats, the anomaly becomes clear. Rats are of course a pest; under statute law, farmers and others are obliged to control them. If they appear on a property, the local authority can be asked to help control them. Given that, under the Bill, a dog will be permitted to catch and kill a rat on one's own property, why will a criminal offence have been committed if it chases it into a neighbour's field or garden and kills it there? The Bill is obsessed, moreover, with dogs underground and singles them out. It is clear that, just as rabbits have done something nice for the Government, dogs underground have done something nasty. Why is it immoral, cruel or contrary to the interests of animal welfare to kill a rat underground if it is perfectly all right to kill it above ground? That is an extraordinary anomaly.

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