Hunting Bill

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Mr. Maples: I want to question the Minister on a point of principle. He keeps referring to Deadline 2000, which is presumably a lobby group that supports a ban on hunting and various other activities covered by the Bill, but this is a Government Bill. It has the names of the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary himself on it. The Under-Secretary cannot say, ``I do not understand where this policy comes from. It came from Deadline 2000.'' He and his colleagues are proposing the Bill. It should be fully understood, and the fact that it is not convinces me—

Mr. O'Brien: It is.

Mr. Maples: Clearly it is not, because the Under-Secretary keeps saying that he understands that the reason for the provision is that Deadline 2000 wants it and that it has something to do with the welfare of the dogs. I am fascinated by the idea of a dog being savaged by rats in a hole under the ground, which is what he seems to be saying.

I understand that the rabbit and the mink may be different, but in the case of rodents, why does the Under-Secretary not simply accept the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, and then the paragraph and this discussion would be unnecessary? If he cannot accept it, can he say in what circumstances he envisages the hunting of a rat by a dog being a criminal offence, which would not be a criminal offence if the amendment were accepted? In other words, what does the clause make a criminal offence that would not be a criminal offence if rodents were exempted from the Bill?

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon has raised a series of issues. Let me first set out for him, as I have done on several occasions, the Government's policy in relation to the Bill. Our policy is neutrally to introduce a Bill that will enable right hon. and hon. Members to make a decision about the future of hunting with dogs. We set out that ambition out from the start. Throughout our discussions on the Bill, I have made it clear that, so far as I can, I will maintain a neutral position on the moral values.

The Conservative Government, of whom the hon. Gentleman was a member, introduced legislation on Sunday trading that we debated in a neutral way. The present Government seek to be similarly neutral on this Bill. However, that means that we have had to include three schedules to the Bill. They were devised by the interest groups—the Countryside Alliance, the Middle Way Group and Deadline 2000—so the Government did not primarily frame the policy issues. The policy issues set out in the schedule that the House finally decided to approve were framed by Deadline 2000. The Government seek neutrally to facilitate the will of Parliament in introducing the legislation. Therefore, it is not for the Government to decide whether we will advocate each issue. However, we should say whether we can defend a provision as good or workable law, and I will seek to do so. That is in accordance with the will of the House, as we understand it. I am in a position not to advocate or promote the schedule, but to defend the idea that it can be good law.

Mr. Öpik: I would like to return to the Minister's points about why it would be reasonable to prevent the killing of a rodent underground by a dog. I heard him clearly say that it was to protect the dog from danger. Am I therefore to deduce that the provision is not related to any consideration of how the rodent would be killed underground by a dog, but that it is entirely related to a consideration of the dog and its welfare?

Mr. O'Brien: To some extent, I shall have to defer to Deadline 2000 on the matter, as it may have a different view, but that is my understanding of the provision.

Mr. Cawsey: I want to make two brief points. First, for people who have campaigned on the subject and taken part in the many debates in the House, terrier work and digging out with dogs have been integral issues. In some cases when dogs have been sent underground, the RSCPA has prosecuted on cruelty to those dogs. I have made the point before, but not in this debate, that for people interested in animal welfare, there is an issue about all the animals involved, not only the quarry.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon asked whether it was necessary to protect the dog against a rat. I know that it is slightly anecdotal, but I ought to point out to the Committee that my own dog, a springer spaniel, once went after a rat, and the rat bit him and attached itself to its nose. We then had to chase it round the garden trying to get the rat off. It sounds funny—it is, on reflection—but it was an unpleasant experience for the dog, which we had to take to the vet for treatment.

In reality, those who advocate animal welfare issues on the subject have always spoken about the need to look after all the animals, not only the quarry, and that is why the provision should be included in the schedule. Hon. Members will have read the Bill when they voted for the schedule, and they chose the right one.

Mr. O'Brien: The policy aim is to prevent injury to the dog and to deal with issues such as the digging out of the fox, which many view as a very unpleasant activity. There is a concern to prevent that happening because of the disruption that it causes to the countryside.

Mr. Öpik: I will not pursue that now. The implication of what the hon. Gentleman is saying is that the Bill makes the assumption that the dog is in greater danger in the underground rodent-catching environment than it would be on the surface. I assume that the spaniel of the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) was not underground at the time.

Mr. Cawsey: It was.

Mr. Öpik: It was? That is interesting. Let me check this and come back to it later. We would probably benefit from debating the assumptions that underlie this part of the Bill when we discuss the matter later. I will simply put on record now that I have a concern about the assumptions that underlie the prohibition of killing a rodent underground.

4.45 pm

Mr. O'Brien: It is entirely up to the hon. Gentleman whether he has those concerns; we will debate the matter in due course. The key point that I want to make in relation to the policy is that if the amendment were not made, any relevant hunting would have to satisfy the conditions in paragraphs 8(2) and 8(3), reflecting Deadline 2000's policy. If the amendment were made, there would be no restrictions on rodent hunting, which could then take place. It is up to Members as to what view they take on that, but it is clearly the intention of Deadline 2000, whose schedule was accepted by the House of Commons, that that should be the policy. Therefore, I would recommend not accepting the amendments.

Mr. Garnier: The Minister continually separates himself from the policies of Deadline 2000. On an earlier occasion, he mentioned that either he or his Department had the sensitive advice of parliamentary counsel or that the Bill was drafted by parliamentary draftsmen. Is he saying that parliamentary counsel drafted schedule 3, or did Deadline 2000 draft it? Did parliamentary counsel draft the Bill itself; that is to say, clauses 1 to 6?

Mr. O'Brien: I can make that clear—I hope. Parliamentary counsel approved the Bill as a whole and did a lot of the drafting. The policy issues raised by the Middle Way Group, for example, were set out in general terms as, no doubt, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire could confirm. The measure was not set out in the terms of a draft, and parliamentary counsel drafted the schedule for the group.

In relation to schedule 3, there was of course a draft already in existence from the organisations that support Deadline 2000—primarily the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster). Parliamentary counsel went through the Bill carefully. There were a couple of policy issues that the Government wished to amend—we will come to those later—in relation to the issue of a fine or imprisonment, for example. It is the Government's view that in terms of proportionality, a fine was acceptable. We then put that Bill before the House with the approval of Deadline 2000. There was not necessarily agreement on every single policy point: we had to take a view on a couple.

As far as the Bill is concerned, it is all approved and, in so far as we can argue it, it is drafted by parliamentary counsel. Parliamentary counsel has accepted the Bill as good law. Parliamentary counsel made any changes that had to be made to the Bill colloquially called the Foster Bill.

I shall now deal with silly prosecutions, a point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. I have already said that in order to prosecute, the CPS requires a likelihood of success and a public interest in prosecuting. That does not provide a guarantee, but it does safeguard against absurd or silly prosecutions.

Mr. Garnier: By the CPS?

Mr. O'Brien: By the CPS. All that we can do, however, is draft good laws and give as good guidance to the CPS as reasonably possible. It is then for the CPS to use its good judgment. Given that we are dealing with human beings, no one can guarantee that an absurd or silly prosecution will never be made. We cannot guarantee that about any law. We can only provide a reasonable level of safeguard. I suggest that we have that level of safeguard for state prosecutions.

The hon. and learned Member for Harborough was concerned about campaigning groups seeking private prosecutions. Under most criminal law, people are able to bring private prosecutions. In many areas of criminal law, interest groups seek further to foster a particular area of policy. However, we do not see many campaign groups funding large-scale prosecutions, which are often expensive, in order to do what the hon. and learned Gentleman is worried about, which is to bring marginal cases to widen the scope of prohibition. That does not happen often. I do not say that it would not be a problem, but it is not a major problem now and there is no reason why it should become one. It is possible that it might happen, but I suggest that it is unlikely. That is an important distinction.

 
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Prepared 25 January 2001