Hunting Bill

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Mr. Gummer: Does not the hon. Gentleman see that it is offensive to teach a dog to skateboard, but not offensive for it to chase a rabbit? It does the one thing naturally, while the other is an unnatural, unacceptable and very suburban activity.

The Chairman: Order. I do not necessarily find it offensive that dogs should be trained to skateboard, but we are debating what dogs should be trained not to do, not what they can be trained to do.

Mr. Pickthall: You are quite right, Mr. O'Hara, as always.

I return to the point towards which the right hon. Gentleman was wandering: that we cannot change nature and that it is natural for dogs to do some things but unnatural for them to do other things. The right hon. Gentleman chooses what is natural to cover his argument. I shall refer to something else that is relevant to the amendment before us, as to all other amendments so far: the constant sneering that Labour Members do not understand rural life.

Mr. Soames: They don't.

Mr. Pickthall: There we go again. Thank you very much.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) said that he is a country boy, the answer came that he is not, because he is Labour and that he cannot be Labour and brought up in the countryside. The two sides of the Committee may disagree and our analyses of the issue may be diametrically opposed, but it is offensive constantly to insult hon. Members by saying that they lack knowledge.

Later in his speech, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal sneered at people who live in suburbs—if he reads Hansard he will see what he said—and people who walk to the pub. It will be nice ammunition in a manifesto to say that people who live in suburbs or walk to pubs are inferior. My hon. Friends the Members for Weaver Vale, for Preseli Pembrokeshire and for Pendle, the Minister and I represent huge rural areas and many rural people.

Mr. Soames: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal and other Opposition Members. We all know good Labour men—as the hon. Gentleman would call them—who are tremendous countrymen and take part in all forms of country sports with great enjoyment. I know lots of good Labour men who are keen coursing fans and hunting people, but we know very few good Labour men who are in favour of abolishing foxhunting. The criticism is not that people do not know about the countryside because they are Labour—that would be nonsense. However, the Minister claims that he knows enough about hunting to pilot through the House a Bill to ban foxhunting on the strength that he has been once to a hunt kennels and met the hunt staff. That is clearly preposterous.

The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman continues, I have a constant problem of confining debate to the subject of the amendments in hand. I am not prepared to accept too much generalised discussion of who understands the countryside and the characteristics that make them understand the countryside or not. I am merely concerned with whether people understand, in relation to the amendment, the feasibility—that is what I understood to be the point made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal—of expecting owners of dogs to prevent them from doing what they do naturally. To discuss in that context whether some people in the countryside understand that and others do not is specific to the amendment and I should prefer our discussion to be specifically confined thus. There should be no discussion of pubs.

Mr. Pickthall: Thank you, Mr. O'Hara, you are quite right. Suffice it to say in response to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) that I also know several, but not too many, good Conservative men on my side of the argument. I have appeared on platforms with Conservative councillors from Sefton and west Lancashire who are on the same side of the argument as me.

A point that was raised by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) should be challenged. He suggested that the House did not know what it was doing when it voted for schedule 3 because it had not specifically examined the issue of terrier work in that context. In evidence, he alluded to a confused correspondence between two Liberal Democrats. As the four Liberal Democrats on the Committee stand for three totally different positions, it is no surprise to learn that there are disagreements and confusion. It is, however, inadmissible to argue that the House did not know what it was doing when it voted by a majority of more than 200. That is an extraordinary suggestion.

For instance, my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) discussed that precise issue in Committee of the whole House. After describing terrier work and giving his thoughts on it, he said—this is perhaps what the Opposition ought to be trying to say—

    ``we must address the need for a precise definition of when one may use one's dog and of how one controls a dog in pursuit of a rat if it goes underground or on to someone else's property. I do not want to make people involuntary criminals by passing this law.''—[Official Report, 17 January 2001; Vol. 361, c.784.]

There we have a Labour Member making it clear that he had a problem in that respect and underlining it in no uncertain terms. Obviously, not everyone was in the House at the time and therefore not everyone heard it or even read it, but one cannot assume that the House did not know what it was doing given that that argument had been made, in addition to the long and graphic speech dedicated to the discussion of terrier work that was made on Second Reading by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg).

Mr. Beith: I am not referring to terrier work in the digging out of foxes at the end of the hunt—which many hon. Members probably assumed was covered by the legislation—but to the use of dogs to deal with rodents and permitting a dog to chase a rabbit. The illustration the hon. Gentleman gives makes my point. His hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire was indicating that it was not his intention that the legislation should extend to the latter sort of activity and that he did not think it would. That, I believe, would be the view of most hon. Members: they thought that they were abolishing foxhunting and hare coursing and probably terrier work associated with foxhunting, but not the use of dogs to pursue rats or to chase rabbits.

Mr. Pickthall: That may be true of some hon. Members, but it was not so in my case when I read the Bill and participated in the debate. I hope that I understood precisely what it meant, but the point is that my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire put a doubt into the mind of the House that the Standing Committee had to examine, as we are at the moment. That is the way the process functions. That the House misunderstood the Bill could be said in connection with any Bill if one considers the attendance during debates and the number of people who read Bills with care.

This amendment seeking to remove paragraph 3, including the important phrase ``knowingly permits'', is simply a wrecker. It would introduce another loophole by which the Bill would be rendered impractical. I hope that the Committee will firmly reject the amendment in the way that it did the previous amendments and for the same reason—because they would weaken the Bill and make it inoperable by being too confused to interpret.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) seems to be arguing that because the proponents of the Bill cannot draw the offence sufficiently precisely and tightly to be clear what it is, they should be allowed to widen the net to include by accident all sorts of other things that it is nobody's intention to include. As I said last week, I accept that the House has voted for a ban on foxhunting, hare coursing and beagling. That is fine. If the Bill did just that, the Committee proceedings would be very short and the general principles would be being argued in another place, but it goes considerably wider than that. We must ask ourselves, first, whether that is right and, secondly, why. I shall discuss first what the schedule does, and then why it and so much else is in the Bill.

3 pm

The hon. Gentleman said that it was right to widen the scope of the offence as otherwise there would be all sorts of loopholes, but the Bill creates all sorts of rather arbitrary loopholes. We shall no doubt come next week to a set of amendments that deals with the premise that it is all right to flush the rabbit out if one shoots it or if a falcon picks it up and kills it, but not if a dog kills it, which seems difficult to argue in terms of morality. Therefore, the Bill creates arbitrary exemptions. If we are to ban something that people are currently free to do, we should define the offence tightly and not, arbitrarily and by accident, include other things that the proponents of the Bill did not intend to include, as the schedule is in serious danger of doing.

First, the schedule states:

    ``A person commits an offence if he knowingly permits a dog which belongs to him''

to be used. ``Belongs'' is then defined in paragraph 23 of the schedule as

    ``if he—

    (a) owns it,

    (b) is in charge of it, or

    (c) has control of it''

Therefore, although one might own the dog but not be with it or anywhere near it when the offence is committed, the schedule creates a strict liability. If someone knows that his dog has a propensity to chase rabbits and he lets it out in his garden, or a farmer lets his dog out in the farmyard or a field, and it chases and kills a rabbit, or if one lends the dog to a farm worker who has it outside and lets it go, one is strictly liable under the schedule if it does what my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal said it is natural for it to do, which is to chase and kill rabbits. Is that the intention of the promoters of the Bill?

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