Hunting Bill

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The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that I have already ruled such allusions out of order.

Mr. Leigh: I was coming to a peroration, Mr. O'Hara. Paragraph 3 will put an onerous burden on dog owners and we hope that the Minister, when he responds, will tell us that he is prepared to withdraw it.

Mr. Soames: I want to contribute only briefly and strictly within your ruling on the paragraph, Mr. O'Hara. I am sorry to hold up the Minister, but he is here to answer questions, so he can take that supercilious look off his face.

It is on gamekeepers that this onerous burden will descend. We have had extensive discussions in earlier debates, which we will not repeat. It is those who are responsible for keeping the countryside clean, tidy and free from vermin who are most likely to fall into the clutches of the Bill. I urge the Minister to give an absolute undertaking that no keeper going about his ordinary everyday duties with his dog is likely to fall foul of the law, so that when the problems that have been carefully enunciated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough come to pass, the courts will see that Parliament did not intend the clause to catch people in the normal pursuit of their job.

5.15 pm

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I have dealt with courtesy with all comments made in Committee. If the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex wishes to engage in personal comments across the Committee, he should consider whether he is more at risk than I am of getting them come back his way.

I shall deal with some of the points that have been raised in the debate. The Bill as drafted would make it an offence for a dog owner, or a person in charge or control of a dog, knowingly to allow another person to use it to hunt a wild mammal. The amendment would remove the offence. At our last sitting we had a lengthy discussion about what is meant by the terms ``knowingly'' and ``permit''. There is therefore no need for me to go over the same ground again, which I am sure you will appreciate, Mr. O'Hara, as you are not one of those who sleeps with a copy of ``Archbold'' under his pillow.

There is also the question why this provision is necessary, rather than relying on the aiding and abetting provisions of section 44 of the Magistrates'

Court Act 1980, which the hon. Member for Gainsborough helpfully drew to my attention at our previous sitting. Similar questions arose in respect of the previous group of amendments dealing with land. I have attempted to set out the reasons in a letter. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has read it and so I will not go into those issues.

To remove the offence of knowingly allowing one's dog to be used for illegal hunting would, I suggest, significantly weaken this schedule. It would also go against the wishes of Deadline 2000, whose policy was set out in schedule 3 and was endorsed by the Committee of the whole House. If I own a dog and, following the enactment of this Bill, I am asked to lend it for the purposes of hunting, it would be sensible for me to establish that the hunting in question was lawful. If I have been assured that only legal hunting is intended but, in the event, the hunting that takes place is illegal I would not be guilty of an offence as by no stretch of the imagination would I have knowingly permitted my dog to be used for illegal hunting. However, if I am told that the purpose of using the dog is to undertake illegal hunting and I still allow my dog to be used, I see no reason why I should not be guilty of an offence.

Mr. Soames: Will the Minister give way on that point?

Mr. O'Brien: If the hon. Gentleman would allow me to continue a little more, I will give way to him with pleasure.

If I am told that the purpose of using the dog is to undertake illegal hunting and I lend it, I am committing an offence, which the Committee might decide should be covered by the schedule. I have been asked what would happen if I make no inquiries about the nature of hunting for which my dog is to be used. Clearly, if it is a one-off request and the hunting turns out, unknown to me, to be illegal, I have not knowingly given permission for illegal hunting, so I am in the clear. However, if I am aware that the person who is borrowing my dog regularly goes hunting and would use it for illegal hunting and I nevertheless continue to allow him to use the dog without asking any questions, I am putting myself at some risk and I may well in those circumstances be guilty of the offence.

Mr. Soames: The Minister said that the provision was in accord with the wishes of Deadline 2000. Could he explain why he feels under an obligation to Deadline 2000?

Mr. O'Brien: I do not feel under any obligation to Deadline 2000. Let me make that clear. However, I am under an obligation to the Committee of the whole House, which made a decision to endorse a schedule which was the policy of Deadline 2000.

Mr. Soames: May I clarify that?

Mr. O'Brien: If the hon. Gentleman lets me finish, I will give way to him again. My position is quite clear. My obligation is to the House and this Committee, to ensure that we produce workable legislation. If the Members decide that they disagree entirely with particular aspects of the policy of Deadline 2000, then my obligation is to the House and in no way to Deadline 2000. I personally feel—speaking not as a Minister ex cathedra, but as a Member of the House—that there are aspects of this schedule with which I have some disagreements.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Spell them out.

Mr. O'Brien: I may well, if the hon. Gentleman wishes me to, but the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex wished me to give way.

Mr. Soames: The hon. Gentleman has not made it plain that this is not a Government Bill; it is a Deadline 2000 Bill. We are debating—[Interruption.]

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has to take orders from the Members sitting behind him. This is not a Government Bill; it is a Bill which has been drafted by Deadline 2000 and amended by excellent parliamentary draftsmen.

Mr. O'Brien: The Bill is a Government Bill. Let us be quite clear about that. The Government put three schedules before the House. It was and it remains a Government Bill. The policy set out in each of those schedules—as the hon. Gentleman knows well—reflected the interests of the Countryside Alliance, the Middle Way group and Deadline 2000. We offered the House an opportunity to consider which of those schedules it wished to endorse and it chose that of Deadline 2000. Therefore, until the House takes a different view, my obligation is to make sure that this schedule is passed such that it is workable and good law. That is the way in which I am approaching this.

Mr. Gummer: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I will give way once more and then I intend to make substantial progress.

Mr. Gummer: I accept his comment and do not disagree. If, in the course of debate, the way in which the schedule operates is seen to be not what Deadline 2000 or anybody else intended, is it not perfectly open to this Committee to try to find a different way through? There appears to be sufficient concern about the way in which the provision would operate for us at least to look for a different wording and phraseology. I am not even pushing as far as the amendments. We could avoid what appears to be an unintended situation—for which the House did not vote. The House voted to give proper effect to the decision to ban hunting.

Mr. O'Brien: I do not agree with all that the right hon. Gentleman said, although I can accept some of it. It is the case that the House voted to ban certain forms of hunting. It is the case that during the course of this debate other issues have quite properly been raised. In due course, members of the Committee may feel that parts of the schedule merit amendment. That is a matter for them.

Let me also say—and I say this gently—that I realise what tactics Opposition Members are using: trying through a whole series of Bills, not just this one, to spend a lot of time debating. We have spent two sittings debating one amendment on one paragraph of the schedule. It is an enormously important schedule, which will have an impact on the countryside, those who live in the countryside and those who pursue hunting. We have already spent a long time debating it. We have 12 sittings in all, owing to the way the Committee is operating, and we have spent almost two of them discussing amendment No. 44. All that is in order, it is perfectly proper and this is an important area of the law. However, some hon. Members seem to be pursuing a wider agenda.

There is concern about the way in which Parliament has decided to timetable proceedings. As a result, the amendment has been used to discuss at great length issues that, to some extent, have become repetitive. Hon. Members on the Opposition Benches who have real concerns about the issues—it is right that they should raise them under the amendment—need to bear in mind that there are other amendments to be debated. I hope that we have time to discuss them. I want hon. Members to be able to persuade me to move on such matters.

Those who want the law at least to be workable should consider whether the tactics pursued are the right ones. If we make reasonable progress, Committee members who do not want a ban on certain forms of hunting may well find areas on which the Government, and indeed other Committee members, could agree. Therefore, I gently ask Opposition Members to consider the matter, and I hope that those who are advising them will consider whether their tactics are more about party politics than the wider issue of timetable motions—[Interruption.] I say that gently. There are issues on timetable motions that are genuine and we can debate them in the right context. However, we are considering some of the issues that might affect the countryside and I am not sure that the tactics being deployed are in the best interests of those who seek to support those who hunt in the countryside.

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