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House of Commons
Session 2000-01
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Standing Committee Debates
Hunting Bill

Hunting Bill

Standing Committee B

Thursday 1 February 2001(Afternoon)

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Hunting Bill

Schedule 3

Hunting with Dogs: Prohibition

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 44, in page 19, line 32, leave out paragraph 3.

2 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): When we adjourned, the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) had just entered the Room, heard a few of my sentences and said that they were rubbish. I shall not repeat them, because I would be in difficulty with you, Mr. O'Hara, if I were to explain to her the gravamen of the argument.

I was arguing that we are discussing the natural activities of dogs. The hon. Lady did not hear—I am sure that she would have been surprised if she had been here so to do—that one of her hon. Friends had suggested that it was incumbent on the owners of dogs to ensure that their dogs were able to distinguish between rats and rabbits and to run after the one but not the other. I was led into that germane discussion in response to her hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence), with whom she can speak later. If it is rubbish, the hon. Lady must argue with her hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, who suggested, oddly, that the Bill is concerned not with hunting but with the training of dogs.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich): Recently in my constituency, there was an incident involving a swan and some cygnets on a pond—the right hon. Gentleman knows about ponds. A dog, whose owner did not have it on a lead, went after one of the cygnets and killed it. Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that dog owners have no responsibility when walking their dogs in public for their dogs chasing, attacking and killing?

Mr. Gummer: First, the hon. Gentleman referred to walking dogs in public. We are talking specifically about walking dogs on our own and neighbouring land, but particularly on our own land. I do not know the hon. Gentleman's constituency intimately, but I suspect that the person concerned was walking the dog in public and was not on his own land. Secondly, it sounds as though the incident was in a park where responsibility for a dog is different from that in open countryside that is owned by oneself or someone else. Dogs chase rabbits in a way that they do not chase cygnets. However, the hon. Gentleman has reminded the Committee that nature is red in tooth and claw. No decision by the House will change the nature of nature.

During the break, Mr. O'Hara, you will be pleased to know that I was reconsidering some of my comments this morning. I have become even more convinced of their validity and I shall explain precisely why to the Minister. The Minister need not smile, because I can deal with a serious issue in a reasonably light-hearted way—it would be boring to do otherwise—without diminishing the seriousness of it.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gummer: I want to remain in my serious mode for a moment; my hon. and learned Friend sometimes tempts me to levity.

We are discussing a serious issue: the nature of our moral responsibility.

Human beings are moral creatures and should be driven by moral considerations. Animals are not moral creatures and cannot be driven by moral considerations. We are dealing with the interrelationship between a moral creature and a creature that cannot be moral. It is proper to lay on moral creatures moral requirements, but it is also necessary to recognise how far those requirements—echoing your impartial comments, Mr. O'Hara—can practically be carried out in the circumstances that we are discussing. The issue is not whether we think that it is a good idea for dogs to chase rabbits, or whether we try to make a moral distinction between dogs chasing rabbits and rats, but the position in which the human being finds himself in such circumstances.

I admit to the Committee that I have a problem with the human moral distinction between rats and rabbits. The following example is taken, not from the expert advice that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) is so often able to quote, but from the more familiar ``Just William'' stories. William, you will remember, is a man of considerable sagacity—aged about 12 years—of whom I am particularly fond as a mentor. He discusses the problem of why the lady down the road is a bird fancier and not a rat fancier. You will see immediately the relevance to what we are discussing, Mr. O'Hara.

William is fed up with bird baths, bird fanciers' clubs and so on and sets up a rat sanctuary with a rat bath and a rat table, and defends them. He does so in order to argue that it is difficult to make a moral distinction between rats and birds. I find the same problem in distinguishing between rats and rabbits. It is difficult to see why it is morally acceptable for a terrier to chase rats and morally unacceptable for it to chase rabbits. For a human being to allow—or indeed encourage—a terrier to chase a rat is evidently perfectly all right, as long as it is on one's own land and not underground. Those are two other issues that leave me with a problem. Why morality should be restricted to one's own land and above ground is not something that Holy Church has so far considered. I am thinking of asking the new cardinal whether he could instigate a consideration of the morality of chasing a rat above but not below ground. What biblical, theological or ecclesiological reason is there for that?

Mr. Garnier: The Bishop of Leicester has let it be known that if the Bill arrives in the other place, he will vote against the total ban. He will be able to speak for himself, but as I understand it, he sees no moral basis for the Bill at all. He also identifies a huge potential for causing dissension and problems between his congregation in the city of Leicester and those who live in the surrounding rural areas.

Mr. Gummer: I have, from time to time, had some hard things to say about bishops of the Church of England, but it sounds as though this bishop is making a significant point. Nevertheless, it is odd that we are making moral statements that no church professionally concerned with such matters has so far made. The moral distinction between chasing rabbits and rats is one I find difficult, and that between chasing rats on one's own land as against on someone else's evades me.

We are imposing on human beings a morality that all indigenous moral judges do not support. No church in Britain teaches that it is wrong to hunt as a matter of faith and morals. There is certainly no church that teaches that it is wrong to allow an animal to behave naturally. We therefore confront the huge problem of the House of Commons deciding on morality. I have always disliked such situations, and it is a matter of public record that, on a number of issues of morality, I have voted for what is known as the liberal side. It might surprise some of my hon. Friends to discover that I believe there to be a distinction between morality and crime. We are proposing to criminalise an action that we are claiming is immoral when neither the Catholic Church nor the Church of England agrees. I have some difficulty with that.

As I understand the argument of the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, there would be an implied need for me to teach my dog the difference between chasing a rat and chasing a rabbit; that would be problematic, given that I do not know the difference myself. One cannot impart morality to children unless one believes in it. Although I know the difference between a rat and a rabbit, I do not understand the moral distinction between chasing the two. That is an important point, given that some people appear not to know the difference between the two species. Understanding that difference does not imply acceptance of a moral distinction between chasing the two species, however. What is the moral difference between allowing a terrier to chase a rat and to chase a rabbit? I certainly do not know the moral difference between allowing a terrier to chase such an animal on one's own land and on someone else's.

I do not want to repeat an earlier point, but I must return to the egalitarian issue. My terrier is a deprived terrier because the land over which it would be allowed to hunt is significantly smaller than that belonging to the Duke of Buccleuch. One curious immorality of a Bill presented by this egalitarian Government is that, if it is enacted, the Duke's terriers will be clearly advantaged.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): It is clear that rabbits and foxes are not moral creatures and that human beings are. While wearing his ecclesiastical hat, will the right hon. Gentleman pronounce on the morality of the master of the Holcombe hunt, in east Lancashire? He said that if the Bill is enacted, he will shoot his hounds. Where is the morality in that?

The Chairman: Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman proceeds, I should point out that, although I have complimented him on his treading of the narrow line of relevance, he is perhaps being led astray by interventions such as that. He is now discussing matters that are beyond the bounds of paragraph 3 and the amendment that would remove it. Given that he is perfectly capable of coming back into order, I ask him to do so.

Mr. Gummer: Thank you, Mr. O'Hara. I shall try to keep to order without giving the impression that I am avoiding interventions.

The schedule would require us to control the dogs with which we walk in such a way that they choose their game carefully and know the boundaries of ownership of the land over which we walk. We would also have to defend our actions in court by proving that we were about something other than hunting. As I have said—you have made it clear, Mr. O'Hara, that this is entirely germane—we are dealing with the animal's propensity to chase.

The morality lies in the human being, not the animal, for it has no moral being, but is merely the creature of nature. That is the major distinction between man and animals. We are all animals, but we are a different kind because we have a moral propensity, which, many would say, is the most important element in our make-up.

2.15 pm

Given that we must accept the moral position of man, it is perfectly proper to tell him that he may not do certain things. However, it is not proper to impute that morality to the animals over which—both in this sense and in the biblical sense—he has dominion. I am not in a position to pronounce on the morality of any individual man, in respect of shooting hounds or anything else, because, generally speaking, it has nothing to do with me. In terms of the amendment, however, I will be led astray. The proposition involves two kinds of villain; those who think that it is proper to shoot hounds and those who would deprive hounds of the ability to do what they have always done for reasons of ignorance, not understanding. The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) can decide which of those villains he is, because I assure him that he is one of them.

We are asked to require human beings to restrain the natural instincts of animals, not in some specified or carefully arranged circumstances such as badger chasing, as the Minister suggested, but in a normal activity that most of us carry out if we live in the country and which is one of the reasons why we are countrymen—walking with our dogs across the fields, some of which we or our neighbours may own.


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