Hunting Bill

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Mr. Rendel rose—

Mr. Beith: I should give way to my hon. Friend because I mentioned him.

Mr. Rendel: I remind my right hon. Friend that that correspondence had nothing to do with dogs underground.

Mr. Beith: I am being led astray. The example was of the Bill going wider than right hon. and hon. Members thought.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Beith: No, I will not give way now because I need to make progress. I am determined to cite my example. It is fatal to give an illustration, because one draws in hon. Members of every persuasion.

As part of his duties, a gamekeeper goes in pursuit of rodents with a dog, as he is permitted to do. If the dog then chases a rabbit, someone might presume that the gamekeeper is willing that his dog should pursue rabbits. As the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) mentioned earlier, someone might bring a private prosecution—the police might even prosecute—in the knowledge that the gamekeeper has an objective of keeping down vermin and controlling the number of foxes. Indeed, the dog might chase a fox, although that is less likely because the gamekeeper would probably have taken with him a small terrier.

The conclusion might be drawn that the gamekeeper had an interest in pursuing wild mammals and not just rodents in order to clear his woodlands of predators or to keep them down to a reasonable number. Therefore, he would be exposed to prosecution. The prosecution would try to show that he had knowingly allowed his dog to pursue wild animals. When he advanced the defence that his dog was properly being used in pursuit of rodents, the argument would be, ``No, that was just a pretext. The gamekeeper was pretending that he was in pursuit of rodents so that he could go after rabbits with his dog.'' In past game prosecutions, people in pursuit of rabbits have been prosecuted. No one was bothered about the loss of one or two rabbits, but there was a fear that the person concerned had taken the dog in pursuit of a prohibited species.

Mr. Michael J. Foster (Worcester): Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the Committee which rodents the gamekeeper is trying to control with his terrier?

Mr. Beith: He might wish to control rats, either for normal gamekeeping purposes or simply because they were a nuisance. What does an estate owner do if he finds that his farm buildings are full of rats? He sends for the gamekeeper and asks him to deal with it, and the gamekeeper takes the dogs out to catch the rats. That is normal estate management practice. However, it would be easy for a prosecuting body—private or public—to presume ill intent and then seek to prove it.

The gamekeeper may get off, if he proves to the satisfaction of the court that his purpose was as he stated, but he will have had to go through the trauma of a prosecution. Some hon. Members, including the Minister, are treating the matter lightly and do not seem to understand what it is like for someone whose job may be at stake to be prosecuted and brought before a court.

Mr. Foster: How likely is it that a dog that a gamekeeper takes to a barn full of rats would pursue a rabbit?

Mr. Beith: It is very likely. It is almost certain that the farm building will be some distance from the gamekeeper's cottage and probably on the other side of the estate. As he walked the dog across the estate, it would be perfectly normal for it to chase a rabbit if it saw one—indeed, difficult to prevent. It would be very odd for a gamekeeper to walk a dog that needed exercise around the estate on a leash.

That is one of many examples of how people could be affected by the legislation and illustrates that the Bill bans more activities than I believe hon. Members thought they were banning when they voted for a ban on foxhunting and hare coursing.

Mr. Garnier rose—

Mr. Lepper: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Beith: I first noticed the hon. and learned Gentleman on the Opposition Front Bench.

Mr. Garnier: The right hon. Gentleman's example of a gamekeeper being required by his employer to deal with a rat problem is made all the worse when considering the totality of schedule 3. An ill motivated prosecutor must merely say that a set of circumstances had occurred for the burden of disproving guilt to rest firmly on the gamekeeper—or his employer, if he owns the dog that is used by the keeper. For example, paragraph 8 states:

    ``(1) It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under paragraph 1 to prove that--(a) the conduct to which the charge relates consisted of hunting rodents''.

Why should the gamekeeper to which the right hon. Gentleman referred have the burden of proving his innocence?

Mr. Beith: Absolutely; I agree entirely with the hon. and learned Gentleman on that point. If the dog had put up a rabbit in the process, the gamekeeper's task of proving his innocence would be even more difficult.

Mr. Lepper: The right hon. Gentleman has referred several times to what might or might not have been in the minds of hon. Members when they voted in the Committee of the whole House two weeks ago. He asked for references from Hansard and I refer him to Second Reading on 20 December at column 423, where my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) referred to terrier work. I suggest that anyone who heard or read his graphic account of terrier work would have had his speech in mind throughout the debate in the Committee of the whole House.

Mr. Beith: I did read that speech, but I shall refresh my memory of it. I was particularly interested because people from the Morpeth hunt kennels in my constituency invited the hon. Member for City of Durham to visit them to see how they conduct their work. He declined the invitation. It would have been better if he had informed himself more fully of the way in which hunting is practised in Northumberland. I still hope that he will think again about the invitation because he might find it interesting to talk to people whose livelihood depends on hunting.

We are told that, if the ban takes effect, hounds will be quartered with all sorts of people and found good homes. However, I foresee people trying to take a hound for a walk, as they might a spaniel or labrador. What will happen if that lovely hound, which they took into their home following a ban on hunting, scents a fox and starts to chase it? People who thought that they were assisting the process of banning hunting by taking a hound into their home could end up being prosecuted for being in charge of a hound that chases a fox in the countryside. I hope that that day does not come.

Mr. Gummer: I am concerned because we are asking Parliament to legislate against the natural activities of animals. Animals naturally behave in particular ways. I heard the discussions between the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and Government Members about what the Committee of the whole House thought that it was voting on. It probably does not matter much what we think, but we must recognise that, even though some of us feel that the proposed legislation—which has been passed in principle—is by its nature unworkable and unfair, it is this Committee's job to ensure that it is becomes as workable and fair as possible. We must do our job, and that, Mr. O'Hara, is what you are presiding over.

I have listened on several occasions to the Minister's answers to questions from our side of the argument. We have asked whether certain things will possibly or probably happen if the proposed legislation were enacted unamended, and the Minister has replied, ``Yes, they might, but in the end the court will decide. If the person in question has behaved properly, he will be found innocent. The prosecution must prove its case.'' The problem, however, is that that is not true. Given the way in which the provision is worded, it is the defendant who must prove his case. Because it is difficult to deal with such matters in reality, the Government have had to include a series of defences. Having said that, I begin to wonder whether the provision is the work not of the Government but of an organisation of which I am unaware, but about which I shall soon learn—Stop 2000 or something of that sort. I shall give way to the Minister, because I know that he wants to ensure that I do not say something unrepresentative—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. Only the Minister should be speaking.

Mr. O'Brien: The right hon. Gentleman said that I discussed likelihood and possibility, but in fact I distinguished between the two. Although many things are possible, they remain unlikely. The frivolous example to which he referred might occur, but it is very unlikely. The Crown Prosecution Service must consider all circumstances, including any defence that might be made, because the likelihood of securing a conviction must be established before deciding to prosecute.

Mr. Gummer: I do not think that what I said excluded that point. However, I am perfectly prepared specifically to include it, lest anyone should think that I am arguing about matters that need no discussion.

Whatever the Committee of the whole House may have thought, others in this country who favour a ban on hunting with dogs for the most part do so in a generalised way. Parliament has decided on the matter in principle, and such people look to it to establish legislation that works. However, the Government have discovered that making that legislation work is much more difficult than they thought. They have also discovered that if it is too broad, various people whom they did not have in mind will get caught up. Perfectly sensibly, defences that could be offered in explaining why a dog under one's control appeared to hunt at a particular place and time are therefore taken into account. However, the difficulty is that there is no doubt that the onus would be on the defendant to prove why his terrier, for example, took to its heels in its natural way and chased a rabbit successfully. I find that perfectly acceptable because that is what terriers do and that is the nature of the predatory chain, but I find the following peculiar.

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I did not believe that when elected to Parliament I would ever be asked to discuss a law which, it seems, intends to stop animals from doing what they always do. Terriers chase rabbits; it is one of those things. Perhaps there is some animal welfare reason why they should not do so, but it does not have anything to do with morality, nor with the way that nature intended. With our great attitude to justice in this new century, we are to suggest that they should not do so and that in some way or other we must stop them. So we place the liability on the owner of the terrier, who is to be told that if he goes out with that dog, albeit for a perfectly reasonable purpose such as getting rid of rats, and it mistakes the quarry, he is responsible and must prove to the court that such action was an accident—that he went out to do something else, but the terrier took to its heels and he was unable to stop it.

The Government should take such shifting of the burden of proof seriously because it is fundamental. In the great scheme of things, it cannot be considered the most serious offence to permit a terrier to do what a terrier has always done: chase rabbits. I cannot believe that however much one hates hunting one can find that a terribly serious offence. We would not dream of changing the burden of proof in such a way in any other circumstance. I do not blame the Government for that change. It has occurred because they have been seeking to build around what would otherwise be seen by everyone as an intolerable invasion of human liberty enough protection to ensure that people do not go to the stake over the issue. I am not sure that that works. The change achieves the opposite; it creates a thoroughly unacceptable situation.

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