Hunting Bill

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Mr. Soames: I should like to respond to that point. First, as I have said before, the deeply disappointing thing to me is the Minister's astonishing ignorance. He knows nothing at all about hunting; absolutely nothing. There is undoubtedly a link. It is perfectly true that environmental pollution had a serious effect on the otter population. I should have mentioned that, and the Minister was right to draw it to the Committee's attention. It is also true that where there was otter hunting, there were always otters. However, the banning of otter hunting did nothing to conserve the otter population. By far the greatest factor in preserving the otter population was the improvement of the water, and organisations such as the Otter Trust have done a great deal to repopulate the rivers.

On the question of the quarried species and its conservation, the point that I was making is not that it is entertainment or sport. It is well known that I hunt. It is not entertainment, like going to the theatre. But the Minister does not know anything about it. He does not know that all hunts try to conserve fox populations, because otherwise there would be nothing to hunt. That is sensible and prudent; all hunting is about conservation. An important part of the ethos of foxhunting is that the good management of covers and fox populations is essential if the sport of hunting is to be allowed.

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman seems to think that I contradicted him, but I was seeking to set out precisely the point that I thought that he was making; he has merely confirmed that I was right.

Mr. Soames: I think that we are coming at the point from totally different directions. Nevertheless, I beg the Minister to understand that the work done by hunts in terms of conservation is valuable and important. Should the Bill ever pass into law, which I hope it will not, there will be side effects.

Mr. Öpik: The more I think about our debate, the more I think that it is necessary for us to have a proper and rational discussion about terrier work, as there are two sides to the debate. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that if we have a sensible conversation on the subject, even if we do not necessarily agree, we can clarify some of the issues to which the Minister sought to respond, and some of those that were rightly raised in the Chamber.

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The point that I wanted to make to the Minister was that the Government, in their desire to pass this law, will alter the face of hunting country. There will not be the same attention to hedges, fields and covers and to the balanced stewardship of the countryside. Also, it was through otter hunts that we first became aware of the reduction in otter numbers. Otter hunting ceased voluntarily before any law was passed.

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman makes several good points; basically, those that I suggested that he was making. He informs us that where there was otter hunting, there were otters. I hope that there were, or the hunters would have been wasting their time. He says that I do not know much about hunting. I have certainly not hunted, but I have talked to many hunters, visited kennels in my constituency, read the Burns report and considered the issues as much as I can. The arguments on both sides deserve a great deal of respect, and the Government have introduced this Bill to allow people to debate them.

Amendments Nos. 41 and 42 would give the Secretary of State an order-making power to remove whole species of animals from the controls on hunting. The amendments are unnecessary. Paragraph 13 shows that the Secretary of State has power to make an order, subject to the affirmative procedure, to alter defences and to change the circumstances in which it is permissible to hunt with dogs. If there is a problem with a specific species and it becomes necessary to hunt it with dogs to control it, the facility to permit that will already exist. Therefore, I see no need to advise the Committee to accept the amendment, and I invite the hon. Member for Aylesbury to withdraw it.

Mr. Lidington: I say at the start that I genuinely appreciate the dispassionate way in which the Minister, whom I know has strong personal feelings on the matter, has entered the debate and engaged with all the arguments. I must also register my concern that, at times during the debate, the Government have sounded as though they were acting as the sub-contractor for Deadline 2000.

All of us who have opposed the Bill and supported various amendments to it accept that the remit of the Committee is to consider the Bill in the light of the decision taken in principle by the Committee of the whole House. Nevertheless, that puts us under no obligation whatever to regard the text drafted by Deadline 2000 as having some pristine, perfect quality with which we dare not tamper. Our duty as a Committee, if the Committee stage is to mean anything at all, is surely to assess, consider and debate that schedule to the Bill drafted by Deadline 2000 in the light of the evidence found in the Burns report and elsewhere, in the light of the representations made to us by people and organisations outside this place and in the light, ultimately, of our own judgment.

5.30 pm

We have had a long debate, so I shall deal briefly with the main points to which the Minister alluded. I will deal first with the question of permission to go on land. We will have opportunities to discuss this in greater detail in future groups of amendments, so I will not dwell on it at length, but I was not persuaded by the Minister's explanation. I concede that in the light of the Pepper v. Hart judgment, the courts could draw upon the words that he has used to the Committee if this Bill became law as an aid to their interpretation of the statute. I am far from persuaded, however, that the language of the schedule is as free of ambiguity as the Minister apparently believes.

He talked about the case of somebody whose dog went onto neighbouring property as ``arguable''. There are questions still outstanding that we might explore in future debates. For example, what should be expected of someone whose dog is hunting a rodent within that person's own property but which then goes onto an adjacent property? How can it be shown that it was not intended for the dog to breach the terms of the exception in the schedule? Does the owner have to show, for example, that he was trying to put the dog on a leash at a certain distance from the boundary between the two properties? There is still uncertainty and ambiguity over that question.

We then move on to the question of dogs killing rodents underground. I agree with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire that we will need to explore this issue in greater detail in later amendments. However, the Burns report concluded in paragraphs 6.82 and 6.84 that the welfare of terriers was in danger of being compromised; not because a tunnel might fall in upon them, but because they might get into a fight with a fox. Although the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole told us an anecdote from his own experience, that should not lead us to conclude that legislation to prohibit owners from allowing their dogs to corner rats should be allowed onto the statute book. I am also not persuaded that the arguments put forward so eloquently by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed have been countered by any of the speeches that we have heard from the other side of the Committee.

If we are considering the killing of rodents underground in terms of animal welfare, I find it peculiar that Deadline 2000, the author of this schedule, clearly regards the killing of a rodent underground by a dog as inimical to animal welfare but the killing of an animal underground by a ferret as something that should continue to be permitted. If this Bill should pass onto the statute book, I wonder whether it would be a good time to buy shares in ferret-breeding companies. One reaction of many gamekeepers and farmers might be to employ ferrets for tasks previously done by terriers.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 deal with rabbits and rodents. We have not had any satisfactory explanation during this debate of the exclusion of rabbits from the exception that is provided in part II in respect of rodent control. When we come to rodents, I have no persuasive argument as to why the detailed, complex and ambiguous terms of the exception provided for in part II are somehow preferable to the general exception provided for in my amendment. The only argument that I felt carried force, and which I understood and respected, was that of the hon. Member for West Lancashire. He said that if the amendment were carried, people would be allowed to continue hunting and foxes and stags because they could claim that they were riding to hunt rats.

If we are to have the confidence in the prosecuting authorities that the Minister and every other Labour Member who has spoken assures us that we ought to have, it is farcical to imagine that people will seek to evade the law in that way. However, a general exception of the sort that I propose would provide certainty to gamekeepers, farmers and others. They are not the targets of the majority who voted in the Chamber last week for a ban on hunting with hounds, but they would be at risk of prosecution if the schedule were to proceed unamended. I therefore intend to press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 15.

Division No. 2]

Golding, Mrs. Llin
Gummer, Mr. John
Leigh, Mr. Edward
Lidington, Mr. David
Maples, Mr. John
—pik, Mr. Lembit
Simpson, Mr. Keith
Soames, Mr. Nicholas

Banks, Mr. Tony
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Hall, Mr. Mike
Henderson, Mr. Ivan
Kennedy, Jane
Lawrence, Mrs. Jackie
Lepper, Mr. David
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
Organ, Mrs. Diana
Pickthall, Mr. Colin
Prentice, Ms. Bridget
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Shipley, Ms Debra
Simpson, Mr. Alan
Smith, Angela

Question accordingly negatived.

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Prepared 25 January 2001