Hunting Bill

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Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon should not try to engender more self-righteous indignation than he can conveniently contain. He trotted out what he seemed to think was an insightful argument. It was really a string of sound bites, which added up to little or nothing. However, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aylesbury, who tabled some amendments that have allowed us to debate the extent of the basic offences contained in the schedule.

I want to deal with a number of the issues raised by hon. Members, including the giving of permission by landlords, the banning of hunting underground and what might be called silly prosecutions, which were raised by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough. I shall also deal with the question of whether it is better to exclude certain areas, or to create defences—the burden of proof issue. I shall refer also to mink, which we can discuss more broadly. I shall deal with the encouragement of people to carry rifles and to shoot, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire. Finally, the hon. Member for Gainsborough asked me to comment on the conflict between the Bill presented by my hon. Friend—I suppose that he used to be my hon. Friend—the Member for Brent, East, and the Bill which is now before the House.

First, to make a general comment, the Government's objective is to place, in a neutral way, the three schedules before the House. The three have now been debated and reduced to one. The Government will reintroduce the two schedules that have been removed when the Bill goes to the other place. It is not for me to defend a schedule that was put forward by Deadline 2000 and that sets out their policy. It is for me to show that this law is workable and deliverable, and that the House ought to be able to pass it. The Government have that responsibility.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. O'Brien: I will happily give way in a moment. Some of the moral arguments are important to the debate. As our vote is free to some extent, hon. Members should listen to the debate and come to their own view. Various issues have been raised on each of the clauses, and I should deal with some of them to show that we are passing workable legislation.

Mr. Beith: Surely it is part of the Government's job to ensure that the Bill is not only workable, but that its effects are confined to those whose activities the House has decided to end. It should not have effects, unintended or otherwise, on people who are not engaged in those activities.

Mr. O'Brien: Yes. The right hon. Gentleman has a point, and we want to be careful about that. Whenever we make legislation, we need to be careful to contain unintended consequences, so far as we can. It is the Committee's job to think carefully about the way in which the schedule is drafted to ensure that it delivers what we all want. We have two roles. The first is to ask whether it is right to deliver the legislation, and the second is to consider whether it will achieve what the House of Commons as a whole intends.

Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 3 would allow unrestricted hunting with dogs of rodents, rabbits and mink respectively. As I said, Deadline 2000 set out the policy and suggested paragraph 8 of the schedule, which relates specifically to the circumstances in which rodent hunting is permissible, while paragraphs 7 and 9 refer specifically to rabbits. I understand that, in the case of rabbits, Deadline 2000 is anxious to remove the concept of the chase. No particular provision is made for mink, again reflecting Deadline 2000's policy.

Let me deal with some of the drafting issues. An important point was raised about having the permission of a landlord. It is clear that we will create an overall offence that will be subject to a defence. If people can show that they have complied with the terms of that defence, including that they have the permission of the owners of the property, they will not be affected by the provisions on rodent control in paragraph 8. There was concern that a person may hunt a rodent with a dog on his land, or land on which he has permission to hunt, but that the dog might cross a boundary and hunt on land for which no permission has been given. That is a legitimate issue for us to debate.

Intention to hunt is required to be shown. If people show that they intended to hunt only in a certain area and crossed a boundary, it would be questionable whether they intended to hunt in that other area. If it could be clearly shown that people had no intention to hunt on other people's land without permission, it would be difficult to show that they had the full intent required for the full terms of the criminal offence. That is an arguable point, but we may have to consider it with great care.

Mr. Maples rose—

Mr. O'Brien: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will continue for a moment. I am happy to say that I will ensure that the wording of this part of the schedule is clear enough. There should be clarity about the requirement for an intention. At all stages—if it is the will of the House—we will seek to prosecute only people who hunt, not their dogs. If it is clear that the person concerned does not intend to hunt on another's land, intent cannot be proved. Therefore, it would be difficult to establish that an offence had been committed. That said, it is always the responsibility of a person walking a dog to keep it under control. It is also the responsibility of those who seek to hunt to know where the relevant boundaries lie.

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Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman said that proof of an intention not to hunt on another's land would constitute a defence. Why must the burden of proof fall on the defendant? Why should not the prosecution be required to prove intent?

Mr. O'Brien: The prosecution will always have to prove not only that the offence was committed, but that there was intent. Under paragraph 1, an offence will be committed if a person

    hunts a wild mammal with a dog.

It is implicit in the paragraph that the person must intend to hunt. The hon. and learned Gentleman is therefore wrong to say that the prosecution will not need to demonstrate an intention to hunt. The prosecution must demonstrate that intent in the normal way—beyond reasonable doubt.

I want to consider the hon. and learned Gentleman's point in relation to a slightly different issue. We are talking about a person who intends to hunt within a certain boundary, and the question was raised as to what will happen if that boundary is crossed. On the face of it, it would seem that the person concerned did not intend to hunt beyond that boundary, so the prosecution could not prove intention beyond reasonable doubt. It would be clear that he intended to hunt, but only in a particular area. If he could demonstrate that, he would have a good way of ensuring that he would not be prosecuted.

I can further reassure the hon. and learned Gentleman in respect of the argument about silly prosecutions. The Crown Prosecution Service would undertake a prosecution only if there were likelihood of a conviction, and only if there were a public interest in securing one. It would seem difficult to justify the public interest in prosecuting someone who unintentionally crossed a boundary. We should remember that it does not matter what the dog did—we are prosecuting people, not dogs. All that matters is what the person did, and the prosecution must prove intent beyond reasonable doubt.

Mr. Garnier: The Minister has raised two points. First, the prosecution will have to prove that an offence took place under the terms of paragraph 1, but why should it not also be obliged to fulfil those terms in respect of hunting on another's land? Secondly, why should the burden of proof fall on the defendant? Those points have yet to be fully answered.

Mr. O'Brien: The prosecution is obliged to prove an intention to hunt. The hon. and learned Gentleman has asked whether the Bill should refer to an offence plus defences, or whether the offence itself should be constrained. That is a technical issue to which we shall return, but it may have a practical effect on the way in which boundaries affect a prosecution. That is a technical issue to which we shall return, but it may have a practical effect on the way in which the boundaries issue affects a prosecution.

It is always the prosecution's job to prove its case. If it were clear that a person had no intention of hunting in a particular area, it would be unlikely that the CPS would pursue a prosecution or that a conviction would be the likely result. The hon. and learned Gentleman could say, ``All right, it is not likely that any of that would happen, but we should pass a law that would prevent it happening.'' My response would be that our law must be as clear as possible. A lawyer can always examine a particular form of words and draft various arguments to show how it might be applied; that is what lawyers are paid for. None the less, it is our responsibility to make clear law that can be interpreted effectively by the courts.

The Bill's drafting clearly sets out Parliament's intention, and a magistrate or judge will see that when they examine it. Clearly, Parliament's intention is not to prosecute someone whose dog accidentally crosses a boundary, so such a prosecution would be unlikely. Having said that, I am happy to examine the Bill and to discuss it with parliamentary draftsmen to ensure that my understanding is correct, because a valid point has been raised.

Mr. Garnier: The Minister has dealt with one point, and we shall await further developments. Whether he has satisfied the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed is another matter. The second point that he addressed concerned frivolous prosecutions. He said that the CPS will not prosecute, but I must be sure that there will be no frivolous private prosecutions. Will the responsible Ministers issue a nolle prosequi if they are of the opinion that a frivolous prosecution is being taken out by a private organisation or individual?

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