Hunting Bill

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Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The provision does not affect only those who choose to go hunting. I am told that Graham Sirl, who works for the League Against Cruel Sports in the west country, has two terriers called Winkie and Rufus, which he allows to run about unsupervised in the manner described by the right hon. Gentleman. If Winkie and Rufus were found to have killed rabbits, their owner would be in breach of the law. The paragraph could make a criminal of a man simply because he was not following his dogs around the countryside.

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman, with whom I do not always agree, has raised an issue of great importance. Winkie and Rufus, who are technically under the control of the gentleman to whom he referred, are not unique. There are many Winkies and Rufuses throughout the country; dogs that are not taken out for a walk, but are allowed—usually quite reasonably, depending on where one lives—to roam around the countryside.

The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire—who has been even more assiduous in her attendance of the Committee than I have—referred to her own terrier and to the question of sheepdogs. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stourbridge knows who I am talking about. In fact, she was not here when the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire asked about sheepdogs.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Lady has spent more time on interventions than on anything else in Committee— [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order.

Mr. Gummer: As long as one can ensure that a terrier, or any dog, does not chase sheep, it can wander around on its own in the countryside most of the time, and will quite happily do so. The schedule raises a serious question. If the local chairman or paid organiser of the League Against Cruel Sports, with Winkie and Rufus in mind, allows those two terriers to wander about, and they do what terriers always do—chase rabbits and, from time to time, to catch them—we come back to the point raised by the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire. Evidently, he should have taught them, infallibly, never to chase, and certainly never to catch, a rabbit. If he knows that they do chase and do catch rabbits, is he then knowingly helping the hunt? He has to prove that he was not doing so. That is the nature of the Bill.

I know that that is embarrassing for Labour Members, because that is not what they mean. They do not want us to be in this position; they want us to be in another position. They want to be able to ban hunting without having to face awkward and difficult questions about how we put a ban into operation. Conservative Members have accepted that that is what the House has decided, but we must challenge it to find a way that does not bring the law into disrepute. They think that it is a necessary and moral law; we happen to think the opposite, but the majority agreed with the other side. How do we stop the House bringing the law into disrepute? It is a serious and central issue.

Of course I am concerned about Winkie and Rufus, but I am less concerned about the Winkies and Rufuses who wander about the countryside than about those properly under control but which do what Winkies and Rufuses do naturally. Anybody who calls a dog Winkie deserves to be imprisoned on that basis alone. Rufus is a better name, although I am not sure that I would call a dog that is manifestly not that colour Rufus.

The issue is serious. I shall put the point carefully, because I have clearly upset the hon. Member for Pendle and other hon. Members. Now that the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) is with us, I am anxious not to upset him again. I shall put the point this way round. I am tempted to tell the Committee what my taxi driver said about the hon. Gentleman and the pigeons on his head in Trafalgar square, but I shall not do that, because I would be in trouble with you, Mr. O'Hara. [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order.

Mr. Gummer: I am sorry, Mr. O'Hara. That interruption was probably my fault. I apologise; I must take responsibility.

Even though I know the depth and the authenticity of the view of the hon. Member for West Ham and even though many of those who are opposed to hunting have detailed knowledge of the countryside, in general, country people are worried that those who promote the Bill appear not to understand how it will affect those who live in rural areas. That is a widely expressed comment by those whom we represent, and we cannot ignore it.

I know that the Minister does not believe it when I say this, but I am trying to help him. If he removed from the Bill the provisions that gratuitously frighten people in the countryside, many rural people may be able to say, ``We don't agree with him on hunting. We think that he is all wrong about it. But at least he has tried to make it work in a way that does not impinge on those who do not want to hunt.''

Walking with dogs in the countryside involves the occasional foray against a rabbit; dogs cannot do otherwise. The Bill cannot be used as a dog-training exercise, and it must be accepted that that will happen. We must find a different way of presenting the issue; we certainly must not reverse the burden of proof.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): The right hon. Gentleman is concerned that many people in the countryside believe that those who are against hunting are in some way ignorant of what happens in the countryside and of how they might be affected by the Bill. I accept that point entirely. Is not the main reason why so many who are in favour of hunting have such an impression of those of us who are against it simply that those in this House in favour of hunting have argued that that is the case? In practice, that is not so, but those in favour of hunting and against the ban have often argued that it is, which has given a false impression.

Mr. Gummer: I shall be careful what I say about the hon. Gentleman because I have difficulty with his views in general. They do not seem to hang together on any ground whatever. The hon. Gentleman is a Liberal, but some Liberals are more logical than him; it is difficult to be less logical. I do not want to have it out with him. The words ``trahison des clercs'' apply to him more than to almost anyone else in this House. While we still have him with us, which will not be for long, I am pleased to answer his question.

The reason for the view of country people has nothing to do with what we say. If the hon. Gentleman had sat through this debate, he would have found that those opposed to hunting do not even know what the language means; they ask questions about whether one is likely to find rabbits and rats together when looking for rats in a barn. When that happens, it is difficult to take seriously the country claims of those opposed to hunting. I know that the hon. Gentleman has country roots and I know that he will argue that point, but he is extremely rare among those whom I hear discuss the issue.

We tend to find ourselves in a curious moral maze when debating these issues. Because we wish to make a stand on a matter that we believe to be of moral importance, we introduce other issues that should cause significantly greater moral offence and indignation. I find great offence and indignation among my constituents when they are told that they now cannot go for a carefree walk in the countryside allowing their dogs to do what dogs do naturally in the countryside, but that they must now take careful note of whether the dog has chosen a rat or a rabbit for its quarry.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) is, though not for much longer, the Member of Parliament for the lurcher capital of the world? Does he agree that despite the hon. Gentleman's somewhat ambiguous stand on field sports—with, for example, the all-party racing group and his own constituents—this paragraph will cause real damage to his constituents?

Mr. Gummer: My experience of the hon. Gentleman's inability to make up his mind on planning matters in his own constituency leads me to believe that perhaps he was not aware of that point, or else we would have had the ``on the one side and on the other'' speech, which is of course the normal Liberal approach to any issue. Members will recall that a constituent of mine said of the Liberals that if God had been a Liberal, we would have had the ten suggestions. There is a fundamental truth in that. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would have told us that there was much to be said on both sides of the argument if he had realised the importance of the issue to lurchers. I had not realised that his constituency was a lurcher capital. However, if I get onto lurchers I may well excite your concern, Mr O'Hara.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Notwithstanding the perverse position of the hon. Member for Newbury, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that we should not understate the scale of the support for amendment No. 44? Will he accept that one person who gives it enthusiastic backing is Mr. Richard Benyon, the admirable prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for the Newbury constituency?

2.30 pm

Mr. Gummer: I am not prepared to accept that intervention because we have seen that large numbers of people beyond the bounds of any political party realise that the issue is of such importance that they are prepared not to raise those matters. I am a bit ashamed of my hon. Friend for having raised it at all. The hon. Member for Newbury stands or falls by his own record—and that is why he will fall, but that is a different matter altogether. Because he is illiberal on this issue, people will not vote for him. His aim is to force people to train their dogs not to chase rabbits—that is not very liberal. Gladstone would never have done that, and he was the last person of any importance in that party.

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