Hunting Bill

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Mr. Lidington: I hope that the Minister can give me an answer that is as reassuring as the right hon. Gentleman's interventions. We are not discussing an issue that is a problem in the abstract and a matter of debate between philosophers, but what steps ordinary men and women, working in the countryside, have to take to ensure that they do not face the possibility of a criminal prosecution in certain circumstances.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Does my hon. Friend agree that such questions are not always about what might happen in the courts? They relate to how people perceive their position vis-a-vis the courts and the criminal law in their normal daily lives. The issue is surely whether people feel that they understand what ``knowingly'' in such circumstances might reasonably mean. I hope that we will not expect everyone to read the Bill, but in so far as they might—or might obtain information about it—they should understand what it means. It is hard to describe to people going about their ordinary lives exactly what the phrase means.

6.15 pm

Mr. Lidington: My right hon. Friend is right. I do not want to stray from the amendments, but his point is especially well made because we are discussing people who are carrying out activities that have been lawful for generations. Customs and practices have developed, and arrangements for hunting on someone's land or allowing another person's dogs to hunt on someone's land are often informal. That fits rather badly with notions of formal permission. It is not a way of life whereby people rely on filling in forms and having formal legal agreements to prove that permission has or has not been given in particular circumstances. I believe that it is important for people to know as far as possible, as my right hon. Friend said, the precautions that they will be expected to take if the Bill becomes law.

Mr. Michael: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lidington: If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall refer to a further example.

Let us consider a farmer who allows his land to be used for shooting. Someone who shoots might commit an offence if he uses a dog to rouse game, unless the circumstances defined in paragraph 7—the list of exceptions—apply. Many such ambiguities seem to pervade the schedule. The word ``knowingly'' is one of them.

I do not want to press the amendments to a Division. However, we might benefit from an explanation from the Government of precisely what they intend the phrases to mean and of the steps in practical everyday life that rural people will be expected to undertake to show that the permission provided for in the Bill has or has not been given.

Mr. Michael: I am grateful for the opportunity to comment briefly on this philosophical discussion. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who has recently joined us, may comment from a legal standpoint, but the moving of the amendment seems to have been based entirely on philosophy. It is theoretical in the extreme, and it does not relate to the practicalities of the law.

In a sense, it is difficult for us to follow the hon. Member for Aylesbury in depth, because if we were to do so we would find that it is philosophically difficult to understand what has been decided only if we were to decide a different option from the one on which the House of Commons decided. If the middle way option had been decided, it would be incredibly difficult for people to know what had been decided. They would therefore face risk such as the hon. Member for Aylesbury suggests, and we would be debating arguments such as the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal advances from the Back Benches.

However, that is not what the House of Commons decided. The House of Commons decided that there should be an end to hunting with dogs, and that decision has been expressed in the main elements of the Bill. Therefore, the consequences are clear for people who knowingly support and encourage the activities set out in the Bill. Although there is an interesting philosophical discussion to be had, we need clarity in terms of the law. We have left behind vague philosophical discussion, except when it informs the nature and quality of the law that we seek to make. The hon. Member for Aylesbury did not satisfy that requirement in his introduction.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): I am glad that my right hon. Friend is not a lawyer, because I am more convinced by my point than I was before he spoke.

The landowner gives permission for a hunt because, in most cases, his tenant does not have the power to give that permission. However, the tenant is obligated to the landowner to keep his land free of rodents and other animals, such as rabbits, that could damage his property. If the landowner deliberately says—and this is where the problem comes—that his tenant must allow a hunt to take place, the tenant is knowingly participating in it. However, the tenant is also obliged to keep the land free of rodents. Perhaps my right hon. Friend can explain that contradiction?

Mr. Michael: I am happy to do so. First, that muddle would have arisen only if the House had gone along with the muddled Middle Way Group. Its proposals did not offer clarity, so the type of muddle that my hon. Friend describes could have occurred. However, the House took a view on the mater. On the frequent occasions when there will be competing pressures—some of which will be in the law if the type of hunting forbidden by the Bill, as it is now proposed, is taking place—it will be clear what one is not supposed to do, support or encourage. The hon. Member for Aylesbury sought, rather unsuccessfully, to develop that muddle in his speech. However, the situation is clear; the House of Commons has decided what it believes is right for the future. Legislation must reflect that and people must behave in accordance with the decision of both Houses of Parliament.

Mrs. Golding: The landowner knowingly says to his tenant, ``You must keep my land free of rodents and other pests.'' That is something that the tenant must do, but the landowner has not said that he can do it by any means. However, the landowner has knowingly said that the land must be kept free of pests. How can the landowner take responsibility for the consequences?

Mr. Michael: Let us consider a couple of other examples. A shopkeeper is enjoined by law not to sell tobacco to children under the age of 16. The landlord of a club is enjoined not to allow underage drinkers in it. Those are examples where the tenant is responsible for carrying out his trade or business in a way that respects the overall law. The law is clear; do not sell tobacco to youngsters under the age of 16 or, alternatively, do not hunt. Of course, there will be complexities in maintaining civil obligations to a landowner. Life is complex, but the principle is straightforward and clear.

The philosophical difficulties or obstacles that the hon. Member for Aylesbury suggested in opening the debate do not exist. If they did, that would complicate every aspect of the law, and terminally complicate more complex matters than the relatively simple one that we have before us today. It is just as well that we did not select the middle way as the option to be debated in Committee, because we would have been dragged into a morass of philosophical difficulties. That did not happen because the House of Commons took a clear and sensible decision, and we should not allow the matter to be unduly complicated here.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will clearly explain the legal position. As far as my lay experience of administering the law as a magistrate over the years is concerned, I foresee that the courts will have no difficulty, with the wise guidance of their clerks, in interpreting the Bill and dealing with such issues.

Mr. Gummer: I fear that the right hon. Gentleman's contribution makes the situation even less easy to understand. In responding to the intervention by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), he used the parallel of a shopkeeper selling cigarettes or a publican selling alcohol. In both those situations, a person presents himself at a place and requests a product. At that point, the person concerned is clear about his role. His responsibility is absolute and his opportunity is unhindered. There is no question about whether he will drink the beer or buy the cigarettes; that is part of the transaction.

The complication arises not because the House of Commons made a certain decision, but simply because it is in the nature of such legislation to create much more complex situations than those which obtain in a retail transaction. I am not a lawyer, but I care about the people who will be affected by the Bill; they are not lawyers either. The word ``knowingly'' may apply to somebody who is not necessarily there when the action takes place, nor is he necessarily the only person for whom permission would need to be given.

As the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme pointed out—on the basis of her great experience—relationships between tenants and landlords must be thought through to determine who is deemed to be acting ``knowingly'' in such circumstances. For example, if the tenant does not have a legal right in contract law to give permission for the action to take place, but is nevertheless in a position to point out that it should not take place, and does not do so, can he be said to be ``knowingly'' involved? I hope not, because he should be able to prove that he would not have the right to give permission, and therefore has not given it.

Mr. O'Brien: The question is not only whether he can be said to be involved, but whether whoever seeks to prosecute him can prove beyond reasonable doubt that he knowingly permitted it. That is a safeguard, not a risk or a danger, for anyone who might be accused.

Mr. Gummer: I am glad that the Minister sees it that way.

I turn to the point on which I wanted to intervene on my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury. Land ownership is much more complicated than is sometimes recognised. Many people have pieces of land that are hunted over. I have a few such fields around my house. I do not hunt, but I am perfectly happy for people in the local hunt to use the land for that purpose. They know that, although I have never formally told them so. They recognise that I am an enthusiastic supporter of country sports. I appreciate the contribution that they make, and I have many friends and relations, including children, who take part in them.

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