Hunting Bill

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Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): What about Lloyd George and Asquith?

Mr. Gummer: They were so unpleasant to each other that I prefer to leave them aside. I move on rapidly, Mr. O'Hara, as I see you stirring in your seat.

The issue before us is whether it is reasonable to use a Bill to abolish hunting as a vehicle for the training of dogs and it is not. We are asking Parliament to do something that is manifestly potty by saying that it should take no cognisance of any of the natural laws. Lord Tennyson has much to teach us:

    ``Nature, red in tooth and claw''

is not a bad phrase. I know that it affronts the sentimental, the suburban and those for whom a walk means a step to the local, but animals kill other animals. That is not only true, but necessary, for without it the natural order cannot continue. We talk about the speed with which we add a billion to the human population, but the animal population is properly kept under control by natural predation. There is a problem in the countryside with rabbits—there are more and more of them; they will therefore become an increasingly easy target for our dogs. I am not prepared to believe that it is necessary for me to defend myself in court by saying that I did not mean my dog to chase a rabbit, but had taken it out for a nice day's ratting. That does not seem to be a proper or logical position for the mother of Parliaments.

The Government have been criticised for spending much time on the subject of hunting when there are many other matters that ought to have occupied the House. I share the sentiment behind that, but I will take the argument against it for granted at the moment. However, what cannot be defended is the idea that Parliament is seriously suggesting that ordinary country people have to plead their defence against malicious prosecution. The Government so far have suggested that no one will find themselves in that position—it will all be perfectly all right. We shall all be quite happy in the countryside and only when it is absolutely obvious and the Director of Public Prosecutions has personally intervened will it be decided that, on that occasion, in those circumstances, the case is so given that none of the defences will stand and some one will be found guilty. That is not how things happen. In most constituencies, a small number of people—happily, they are in the minority in my constituency—feel so passionately about the issue that they will do everything in their power to engender a prosecution.

Let me offer a brief parallel. A farmer in my constituency is being prosecuted because mud on the road that is said to be his led indirectly to a fatality, despite the existence of warning notices. I cannot comment on whether that is true, and I would not dream of doing so, but I wager that when the House discussed whether farmers should be required to ensure that mud is not left on the road when harvesting sugar beet, no one suggested that, as a result of such legislation—

The Chairman: Order. If this case is before the courts it is sub judice and should not be debated in this Committee.

Mr. Gummer: I am not commenting on the nature of that case or referring to it in any way, except to say that because it exists, the debate in which we are engaged is not a flight of fantasy. Had that case not arisen, this debate would indeed have been regarded as such.

The Minister has repeatedly told me not to worry, that I am conjuring phantasms from the skies. The opening words of ``The Tempest'' are clearly close to his lips. However, the truth is that in every constituency there are people who would do their best to ensure as many prosecutions as possible, and for two reasons. First, they hate those who hunt, who might hunt, or who have the potential to hunt. Secondly, such prosecutions are a very good way to secure advertising and money. Constant attempts would be made to prosecute those who would have to defend themselves against such charges because the burden of proof would have shifted under this legislation.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: I have been listening carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman has to say. He wants good law, rather than a Hunting Act through which a coach and horses has been driven. Would he support the Bill if it were amended to exclude rabbits?

Mr. Gummer: As Mr. O'Hara has said on several occasions, we are not here to debate the Bill's basic principle, with which, as the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, I disagree. I think that hunting is perfectly all right. I am in favour of it, I would like it to continue and I am determined that it will continue.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer: I must answer the point made by the hon. Member for Pendle. I would not be in favour of the Bill if it were amended to include rabbits and exclude foxes, for example. I am arguing not about whether hunting is right or wrong, but whether in defence of the principle that hunting must be banned it is necessary or proper to require a person who accompanies a dog on a walk—for most of us, the relationship is that way round—to prevent the dog from chasing rabbits, even though it would be allowed to chase rats on that person's own land. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion would not persuade me to support the Bill, but it would make the Minister's life much easier, because people in the countryside would feel that he had listened to their concerns—and I am prepared to listen to the hon. Member for West Ham.

Mr. Banks: The right hon. Gentleman has now got round to answering the question, after a great deal of verbiage.

In Committee we attempt to amend a Bill to make it workable. We are listening carefully to the argument regarding rabbits. I do not expect the right hon. Gentleman to support a Bill with whose principle he does not agree, but if an amendment were tabled that excluded rabbits, would that make the Bill more palatable and acceptable to him, so that he would get more support for it?

Mr. Gummer: I want to be careful in my answer. I am attacking the provision not because it is germane to the central issue but because I am trying to make the Bill work—that is our job—and the provision will make it more difficult to make the Bill work.

If the hon. Gentleman is asking, ``Would more people find the legislation acceptable?'' the answer is yes, I am sure that they would, because they would say, ``At least we have not been caught up in this whole weft of nonsense. At least I don't have to think about it. I take my dog for a walk, he chases rabbits and I do not find myself embarrassed by it.'' Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will table, or support, an amendment that would enable us to make that clear.

Mr. Soames: Called the Winkie amendment.

Mr. Gummer: I shall not be led astray by my hon. Friend's suggestion that it should be called the Winkie amendment. For the hon. Member for West Ham to claim that I had spoken for some time on that answer was, I thought, a bit rich, given that his interventions in the Chamber, although amusing, have certainly been prolix.

I return to the central issue on which I wish to end. People in the countryside find the provision unacceptable not only because they are opposed to the principle of the Bill, but because they see that it will not work. I hope that the Minister will recognise that it will not help. Why does he not concentrate the public's mind on the single issue on which those who believe that hunting should be banned want us to concentrate, which is that although it is acceptable for animals to chase animals, it is reprehensible for human beings to join in or enjoy it?

There is an argument along those lines, although it is not one that I endorse. There is no argument for saying that I should be at risk of criminal prosecution because the dog that I take for a walk, unlike that of the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, is not so highly trained that it can distinguish at all times, in all seasons and all circumstances between the rabbit and the rat. I see no moral difference, and if there is no moral difference, there is no difference. Animals can see no moral difference, and therefore there cannot be a difference. I see no moral difference between what happens on my land and what happens on someone else's land. Animals can see no moral difference, so animals cannot make that difference. We are demanding of human beings something that, in practical terms, they have no hope of carrying through.

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): I wish to refer briefly to a couple of the issues raised by Conservative Members. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said—it feels like three hours ago—that we cannot change the nature of nature. Perhaps unfortunately, we can. We do it all the time and it has been done for thousands of years. Animals and plants have been changed by forced, manoeuvred or engineered evolution. Hunting depends entirely on changing nature, interfering with nature, changing the nature of dogs—training them, breeding them to different sizes, breeding them specially for speed, stamina or some other quality. Of course nature is changed by us—in the present context, specifically to enable hunting to take place. When the right hon. Gentleman scoffed in his Obadiah Slope fashion at my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, he said that one cannot train dogs to differentiate between mammals such as rats and rabbits. Later, he qualified that statement by saying that one cannot train them to do it on all occasions.

2.45 pm

Mr. Gummer: What I said was that it is not acceptable for a Bill to force on people the duty to do that, which is entirely different.

Mr. Pickthall: I was coming to that. My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire did not suggest that the Bill will force people to train their dogs in a particular way. It manifestly will not do so and there is no intention that it should.

Most breeds of dogs are trainable: that is why they are popular pets and work animals. To give an illustration, I once had occasion to visit the home of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall). I knocked on the door, and when it opened I was greeted by a fast and violent dog that had the manifest intention of removing my reproductive parts. I expect that my hon. Friend would like the name of the dog to appear in Hansard, which he probably reads to it at night: it is Jett, which is short for suffragette. Fortunately for me, the dog was on a leash and was restrained just in time. As my hon. Friend knows the dog's nature, he should perhaps train it not to relish that activity so much—or feed it better. He should at least train it to differentiate between a caller who is a Labour man and one who is a Tory.

I shall offer another illustration. On Monday I attended a meeting of the Good Dog campaign, which commends and awards prizes to local authorities that have the best record on dog control. I am pleased to say that West Lancashire, my local district council, came second. Cuthbert Jackson, its chief dog warden, has trained his two dogs—a border collie and a German shepherd—to skateboard, and he takes them into schools to get children talking about the amazing things that dogs can do. If someone proposes an amendment to the effect that all hunting must take place on skateboards, I will support it.

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