Hunting Bill

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Mr. Michael: What about hunts that insist on going over the land of people who they know to be unhappy about it?

6.30 pm

Mr. Gummer: I am not discussing that matter, but my view is that people should not ride where they are asked not to ride. People have hunted over my land for a very long time because my predecessors and I have taken the same view.

On one occasion, someone did ask permission to hunt over my land. It was not the normal hunt, but some form of special occasion. I said yes, and I have never contemplated rescinding that answer. If they wanted to hunt again—indeed, I believe that they have—I should be happy for them to do so, and my view is generally known.

If the provision were enacted, would I be deemed to have knowingly allowed hunting over my land—a very small piece of land that is not often hunted over—even though the hunt in question happily operates from our village, and even though I had not specifically said no? That is an important question. Like me, many people are not landowners in the accepted sense of the word; they merely happen to own a bit of land surrounding the house in which they live.

To what lengths should people such as me generally be expected to go? Should I make a telephone call or will I have to write? The assumption has been that matters would continue as before, with hunts with offices and officers. However, if the Bill is enacted, people will not hunt in the properly organised way that has been much to the honour and glory of our countryside. Instead, hunts will take place illegally, and in what the Government will no doubt describe as a shifty manner. I am unsure how I will be supposed to show my displeasure at hunting over my land. I am known to be in favour both of hunting and of supporting the law. Will it suffice for me to be known as a law-abiding citizen who does not himself hunt, or will I be expected to do something positive to prevent the claim that I knowingly allowed hunting on my land?

The Minister has underestimated the degree to which the Bill has caused concern in the countryside. I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury because I wanted to make it clear that what matters is not just what the courts would do, but what people fear they would do. That is why I am unhappy about the lack of prescription in the word ``knowingly''. After a few court cases, case law will develop and we will know where we are. Until then, many people will remain concerned at the prospect of becoming involved.

The comparison made by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) is wrong. I am talking not about people such as retailers, publicans or others who do jobs involving laws that must be obeyed, but about those who happen to live in the countryside, and who join in activities common to many parts of rural England. They are not involved in formal relationships or commercial activities; they act merely as decent countrymen and women have acted down the generations. Now, an outsider is telling them that they must not participate in such activities any longer. That is all right for those who are actively doing something, but not so easy for those who, in many cases, are merely permitting an activity in a rather supine way.

It is important for the Government to express clearly what they mean, and how they expect the courts to take it into account. It is all very well saying that there shall be case law. Yet again, in my usual helpful manner, I am trying to help the Government not to get in more trouble in the countryside. Will it be clear to people that no one need notify anybody merely because his land has been hunted over? Will it be clear that no one should expect to be prosecuted unless they have clearly given permission to somebody to hunt on their land? That permission must be a positive, active statement before it can be said to be ``knowingly.'' Anything less than that would not stand up in court.

Mr. Leigh: I can help my right hon. Friend, because it may be that the Minister has drafted the Bill correctly in this case. As I understand the amendment, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury is worried about the word ``knowingly'' because it may lead to confusion. He wants to insert the word ``deliberately'' because that is plain English; for example, somebody ``deliberately'' allowed a hunt on his land. If the word ``deliberately'' were unacceptable, the landowner would have to give express permission.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury thinks that his version would make it clear that the landowner must have known what was going on. The amended Bill would read:

    ``A person commits an offence if he deliberately permits land which belongs to him''.

My right hon. and hon. Friends are worried because a landowner who allows his land to be used for perfectly lawful activities could be caught under that provision if an offence took place on his land. That is why they are concerned with the word ``knowingly''. Therefore, they are asking the Minister if a landowner would be guilty if he allowed people on to his land, suspecting that an offence might be committed.

My right hon. and hon. Friends are also worried about various practical matters. For example, hare coursing is prevalent in the countryside; it occurs in my constituency, as in others. Landowners have come to me and complained that the police are not doing enough to control illegal hare coursing. The landowners know that hare coursing is happening on their land. I should point out, before someone intervenes, that it is not actually illegal, but once the Bill becomes law, it will be. The landowner knows that hare coursing will not stop, and it might increase. Therefore, is he caught under the provision?

Before the Minister intervenes, I may be able to help him on this. I hope that you will not be angry, Mr. O'Hara, but I shall refer briefly to ``Archbold''. In paragraph 17-49 on page 1574—

Mr. O'Brien: I have an older edition of ``Archbold'' than the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Leigh: The Government are so strapped for cash that they cannot afford the current edition.

Mr. Michael: Surely the hon. Gentleman recognises the personal attention that the Minister is giving to the Committee, and we should be pleased by that.

Mr. Leigh: Under ``knowingly'', ``Archbold'' states:

    ``the Crown has to prove knowledge on the part of the offender of all the material circumstances of the offence.''

The Minister may agree; this is an important point on which I can help my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal. When the Minister sums up—I hesitate to refer to Pepper v. Hart, but we are discussing interpretation law—it is important that he reassures landowners on this point.

Mr. Gummer: Will my hon. Friend take that a stage further? The word ``knowingly'' is connected with the word ``permit''. Does a degree of knowledge demand a degree of action, other than not actually saying that people can? Or must he do more than that?

Mr. Leigh: No. To be guilty of having knowledge, he does not have to permit. If illegal hunting takes place on my right hon. Friend's land, he does not have to permit anyone to fall under the ``knowingly'' provision. If illegal huntsmen are plotting their grievous offence, they do not need to ask my right hon. Friend's permission. However, he will be guilty if the courts find that he had knowledge

    ``of all the material circumstances of the offence.''

I am trying to help the Minister. It is important to reassure all landowners because there is great concern about the matter in the countryside. As I understand it, my right hon. Friend and all landowners should be safe if illegal hunting takes place and they have not given permission, because how could they possibly know or have in their possession

    ``all the material circumstances of the offence''?

That could cover any circumstances. For example, a landowner might know that illegal hare coursing was taking place on his land, but he would not know who was involved; otherwise, he would immediately report them to the police. He would not know at what time they came on to his land and exactly what they did.

Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend said that if a landowner knew about the activity and who was taking part, he would of course report it to the police. Does he say that because everyone in such circumstances would believe that to be his duty, or because, if a landowner did know and did not report it, he might be held liable of knowingly not doing what he needed to do to stop the illegal activity?

Mr. Leigh: That is a fair intervention and I do not know the answer. The Minister should reply to that interesting point. If someone knows that an illegal activity is taking place on his land, how proactive must he be in reporting and stopping it?

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I appreciate that I am speaking to a barrister who is qualified in the law--I am not a lawyer--but to what extent is someone culpable if he or she turns a blind eye to an activity that he or she knows is illegal?

Mr. Leigh: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made that point because it is precisely the point that I was coming to. Again, ``Archbold'' states:

    ``There is some authority for the view that in the criminal law `knowledge' includes `wilfully shutting one's eyes to the truth' ... However, such a proposition must be treated with great caution. The clear view of the courts at present is that this is a matter of evidence, and that nothing short of actual knowledge (or, in the case of dishonest handling, belief) will suffice.''

The jury is out on that interesting point, but I repeat that

    ``There is some authority for the view that in the criminal law `knowledge' includes `wilfully shutting one's eyes to the truth'''.

If the Bill becomes law and my right hon. Friend, who does not like it and will not be involved in illegal hunting because he does not hunt, knows that illegal hunting is taking place on his land, although no one asked his permission--no one will knock on his door to explain what is happening as was done by the resistance during the war--

 
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