Hunting Bill

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Mr. Gummer: Has my hon. Friend noted that here there is a further inherent class problem? Those with very little land will be able to chase the rat much less far than those with a lot of land. It is unacceptable for the party of equality to put forward this manifestly unfair proposal. It will give the Duke of Buccleuch a great deal more space than me, and I object to that.

Mr. Maples: That might be another basis on which we can invoke the European convention on human rights, but it occurs me that if one found a rat on one's balcony in Belgravia, one could not chase it far. Perhaps the duke will have to choose in which of his properties he is able to exercise that freedom.

The most common way of killing rats is to poison them. I am not an expert on the subject, but surely a rat dies more quickly if it is chomped by a dog than it does if it eats poison. Although setting traps is perceived to be less cruel, it is perfectly obvious that it is more cruel. Yet completely artificial restrictions—from which other animals that are pests, such as rabbits and mink, are excluded—are placed on using a dog to kill rats. The extent of that anomaly was highlighted by the well-educated discussion that took place this morning.

3.30 pm

The amendments are designed to deal with further, and worse, anomalies in the exceptions. For example, under paragraph 7, it is acceptable for someone to use their dog to flush out a fox, hare or rabbit—although not a mink or a rat—if they are going to shoot it, but if the dog gets there first and kills it, that is a criminal offence. I cannot see the morality of that.

It is likely that the Bill will lead more people to want guns. A rabbit or a hare can be shot with a shotgun, but surely a rifle is necessary to shoot a fox cleanly. When a rifle is fired, the ammunition carries for a mile or two, which could be extremely dangerous near a residential area. The Bill will encourage a more dangerous practice that adds nothing to animal welfare.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of the Bill is that it allows a person to shoot an animal for food as long as they do not sell it. Why is it moral to shoot a rabbit, having used a dog to find it, if one is going to eat it oneself, but immoral if one is going to sell it to a neighbour so that he can eat it? That demonstrates the muddle-headedness at the heart of the Bill.

Perhaps the most extraordinary paragraph is the one that says that it is permissible to use a dog to flush out a fox, hare or rabbit for the purpose of enabling a bird of prey to hunt it. A bird of prey would have to be pretty big to pick up a fox, but not so big to pick up a rabbit or a hare—as they frequently do. I cannot imagine a more nasty death, if I were a rabbit or a hare, than being picked up by a great big raptor, hauled up for 200 ft, then dropped on a rock. Yet apparently that is not only all right, but merits a specific exemption in the Bill. The raptor lobby clearly has some weight.

The anomaly is staring us in the face. The exemption is intended to protect game birds, but the creatures that do the most damage to game in Scotland are raptors such as hawks and buzzards. The Bill will lead to gamebirds being damaged in an extremely cruel way, yet it is supposed to protect them and to improve the welfare of animals.

Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend has not yet explained how the raptors, rabbits and rats will know about all this. The rat needs to know that it cannot be chased if it can get off the land quickly enough, and the raptor needs to know that it is not breaking the law by catching rabbits. To propose that we put into law what wild animals can legally do to one another is ridiculous and interferes in the natural and normal process of life; unless, that is, we know how to communicate with them.

Mr. Maples: Not only rats, rabbits and foxes, but everyone who walks in the countryside with a dog or whose dog has a propensity for chasing rats or rabbits in the garden will need a copy of the Bill. Perhaps the Government plan to have it translated into the kind of language that foxes and rabbits can understand. The whole thing is an extraordinary anomaly.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: The hon. Gentleman said that it would be an offence to sell an animal on for food. At present, a farmer can slaughter a farm animal for his or her own consumption, but if that animal is destined for other people, it must be slaughtered in an abattoir. Is that an anomaly or not?

Mr. Maples: I should be interested to know whether the hon. Gentleman will propose a schedule to the Bill showing us how we will shepherd game birds and rabbits into abattoirs so that they can be killed in accordance with an EC regulation. That is not the distinction. The distinction, presumably, is to try to restrict the occasions on which that can be done, but it has nothing to do with morality. If the Bill is not about morality, it is about nothing at all. It is simply about the interference in personal freedom by people who do not like what other people do. The Bill must be about morality; otherwise there is no justification for it. These anomalies demonstrate that there is no morality behind the distinctions made in the Bill.

I want to give some other examples. At present, the Government are changing the law to protect Huntingdon Life Sciences from the demonstrations that are going on outside—rightly, because we impose obligations on the pharmaceutical industry to test drugs on animals. What an extraordinary contradiction that is. The Government are introducing a Bill to make something illegal on animal welfare grounds, and at the same time they are reinforcing the law in an area where cruelty to animals clearly is taking place. It may be necessary cruelty, but it is still cruelty.

I said on Second Reading that much had been made of ritual methods of animal slaughter by certain religious groups. I shall not mention them, because I got into a little trouble with one of them for mentioning it in isolation before, but there are several. To many of us, these methods of slaughter seem particularly cruel and unnecessary. Ministers who have had responsibility for such Bills in the past—one Labour and two Conservative, of whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) was one—said that they had considered the issue and decided that the sensibilities of those religious minorities outweighed other considerations.

Thousands of animals are slaughtered each year by having their throats cut when they are alive and being allowed to bleed to death, and yet we are doing nothing about that. They are much more sentient animals than the mink and the rabbits, to which the Bill gives a great deal of protection. Where is the morality in this? Where is the principle? Where is the focus on improving animal welfare? I do not believe that they are there.

We have talked about fishing and shooting, and there has been quite a lot of argument as to whether the Bill will lead on to those sports. The RSPCA has come to the conclusion that fishing is cruel and the League Against Cruel Sports has said that shooting is next on its agenda. Labour Members may say that that is not so, but I shall try hard on Report to table a new clause that forces them to vote on it, so that they have to vote against making shooting and fishing illegal; that will be on the record for the future.

It is almost impossible to argue that it is cruel for a hound to kill a fox— which it does extremely quickly—but that it is all right to put a metal hook in a fish, which it may swallow and get down into its gut, and then, when the fish is hauled up on the bank, to knock it on the head with a stone. What has put me off fishing is the process of killing the fish, which is particularly unpleasant. Anybody who has been shooting will know that even the best shot only wounds birds, which then end up fluttering away until they are probably eaten by a fox, which there may or may not be more of after the Bill is passed.

Mr. Soames: No.

Mr. Maples: Perhaps my hon. Friend never misses, but I have been on shoots where people have missed and the birds flutter away into woods and die an extremely unpleasant death. If we are talking about improving animal welfare, let us focus on that, but that is not what the Bill is about. If the Bill's supporters were people who did not eat meat, wore plastic shoes and would not kill insects, I could understand that. They would then be at liberty to say that we should not kill animals for any reason at all; whether it was for pest control, sport or food, we should not do it. But people are at different points on the scale of how strongly they hold those principles, and the Bill demonstrates the anomalies.

You may or may not know, Mrs. Roe, that there is a Buddhist sect in India called the Jaines. Its members do not believe in killing animals, to the extent that they wear a cloth mask over their mouths and noses to stop them by accident breathing in an insect. That seems to me an extreme but logical position, and it is apparently a widespread practice in India. India brings me to somebody who has not been mentioned today, Mr. Hinduja. I think that there is an explanation for him.

Mr. Banks: We should not make light of Jainism. I am a great admirer of Jainism—I have two Janes in my office. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that it is a religion with millions of followers; they are vegetarian and they do not believe in violence. Indeed, members of the Digambera sect spend all their lives naked. If we can agree on nothing else, we can agree that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex should not become interested in Jainism. We should respect that religion, which is extensive and follows good practices. While we try to get our minds round the thought of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex becoming a member of the Jaine sect, I remind the Committee that it believes that one should limit one's wealth and content oneself with one's own wife, which would rule out many Conservative Members.

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Prepared 25 January 2001