Hunting Bill

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Mr. Beith: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I have taken a lot of interventions, so if the right hon. Gentleman would forgive me, I will make some progress.

Mr. Maples: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. [Interruption.] No, it is not a bogus point of order. Since the Minister has just indicated that he may be prepared to accept some amendments, would it be in order for the selection of amendments set down for debate to be altered after discussions with the Minister, to bring forward those which he may be prepared to consider this evening?

The Chairman: The simple answer is no.

Mr. O'Brien: It is, of course, always a matter for Members to decide whether they wish to withdraw amendments or how they wish to deal with them. There are ways in which things can be done. Let me indicate, as I already have done, that there are issues, such as on the hunting of rabbits, on which I have a particular personal view that would not be the same as that of Deadline 2000. That is a matter for me and other Committee members.

Mr. Beith: Will the Minister please allow me to intervene?

Mr. O'Brien: I must make it clear that this is the last intervention I will take. I then want to make substantial progress.

Mr. Beith: I want to return to what the Minister said earlier about issues which he felt may make the Committee decide it wanted to change the Bill. It is not clear to me from what he said whether he feels that any further amendment to the Bill would have to come from supporters of Deadline 2000 who are serving on the Committee or whether he is himself prepared to move or to accept amendments to the Bill in his own name.

Mr. O'Brien: I must make it clear that throughout the debate I am not the advocate for Deadline 2000. I am not someone who is putting forward the policies of Deadline 2000. I am seeking to help the House reach the conclusion it wishes to reach about the law. If hon. Members tabled amendments that the Government felt would improve the schedule, I would say so—whether Deadline 2000 agreed with them or not. However, the Government may not take a view on such issues of policy. Hon. Members would then be free, on a free vote, to decide how they wish to deal with such matters. Let me make the progress that I wish to make.

The way in which the issue has been dealt with was criticised first by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough. He made some criticisms of drafting. The parliamentary draftsmen have experience, skill and ability beyond that of lawyers who practise in the courts, as I used to and he does. However, they are not infallible—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. Several debates are going on, but I am interested only in the Minister's contribution.

5.30 pm

Mr. O'Brien: Bills can certainly be improved, but we should always respect the skills of the parliamentary draftsmen. Some of the comments made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough suggested that he was not displaying his characteristic regard for the draftsmen.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed asked about the House voting for a ban on both foxhunting and hare coursing. A Committee of the whole House voted to ban all hunting with dogs, except in very limited circumstances. At that time, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary clearly outlined the schedule's purpose.

The right hon. Gentleman raised several other issues. He suggested a case in which a gamekeeper went in pursuit of rodents and his dog then went after a rabbit. He said that the gamekeeper might be accused of intending illegally to pursue the rabbit. It depends on the evidence. A person may clearly intend only to pursue rodents and to act lawfully. His employer may tell him to hunt rodents, but rabbits happen to be hunted because of the dog's natural instincts. The gamekeeper is not likely to have committed an offence, because he did not intend to hunt rabbits.

Frivolous prosecutions, perhaps by some animal welfare groups, have often been mentioned. The Crown Prosecution Service can take over and discontinue any frivolous prosecution if it is in the public interest to do so.

An offence would not be committed under paragraph 3 unless the primary offence of hunting under paragraph 1 was committed and the dog's owner knowingly permitted the dog to be used in the commission of the offence. The primary offence would have to be committed, and then the offence set out in paragraph 3. It is not possible to have only one.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal that we must have a law that works and that it is right for those who oppose this law to test the proposals. The cases set out by him and by the hon. Member for Gainsborough are theoretically possible but unlikely. We must bear in mind how we make law and that it is always possible for a lawyer to construct a means whereby it is theoretically possible to reach a bizarre conclusion.

However, the rules of interpretation of statute are clear. A court will consider the ordinary and natural meaning of a word. If that is not clear, it will consider guidance from outside. If the law is still likely to lead to an absurd conclusion, it will be the least absurd conclusion. The rules are well set out, and it is not likely that there will be prosecutions at the extreme end of theoretical possibility. The onus is always on the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. We must consider what is realistically likely to happen.

I say to the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal that we are not legislating against the instincts of dogs or of any other animal. People own dogs. The legislation's objective is to constrain people, restrain their activities and, through them, the animals that they own. The right hon. Gentleman also said that we should not make criminals of those who are not criminals. Each time that we pass a criminal law, we make criminal what was not previously criminal. Therefore, we make criminals of non-criminals most days. To follow his logic, that is a recipe for discontinuing this House altogether. I accept that there is always a debate about the balance between liberty and constraining activity that society may regard as unacceptable. That debate is perfectly legitimate and the right hon. Gentleman is perfectly right to advance the wider arguments. However, it is my submission that he is wrong to say that, as a general rule, we should not make criminals out of those who are not currently criminals.

The right hon. Gentleman then took us into the moral arguments. I do not want follow him too far down that path—at one point, we were in danger of arguing about how many angels can dance on a pinhead. What is clear is that the issue is not the morality of terriers, rats, rabbits or anyone else—nor is it whether people agree with or even understand the morality of a particular law. To comply with a law, a person does not need to understand either the morality of that law or the arguments that were advanced in passing it. We have a law in this country that we should drive on the left-hand side of the road; I do not know what the morality of it is, other than we cannot drive on both sides of the road at the same time. Sometimes laws have a moral basis, sometimes they do not. It is not necessary to understand the moral basis of a law in order to comply with it, but it is an obligation on all of us to comply with the law.

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

Mr. O'Brien: No, I have given way many times and I want to make progress.

The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal also said that we were expecting dogs to know legal boundaries of land. We do not. We expect dog owners to control their dogs reasonably and to have some idea of boundaries. If the Committee will forgive me, I will not indulge in the debate about Winkie and Rufus, interesting though it may be.

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) asked about the offence being committed accidentally. One cannot commit the offence accidentally; there must be an intent to hunt illegally on the part of the human being doing the hunting. The hon. Gentleman also asked for the meaning of the phrase ``to be used'', but that is clear if one reads the rest of the phrase, which continues:

    ``in the course of the commission of an offence under paragraph 1''—

which is, hunting a wild mammal with a dog.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough asked who is prosecuted under paragraph 3. The person prosecuted is the person who

    ``knowingly permits a be used''

in the course of the offence of hunting. Paragraph 23 is broadly drafted so as to catch anyone who might be in a position knowingly to permit such use. I think that I have answered all the points raised.

The provision in paragraph 3, which the amendment would remove, has the merits of some sense. I have listened carefully to the arguments; they rely not so much on that paragraph, but on its impact on other parts of the schedule—hence the argument that developed about whether it would apply to a dog hunting rabbits, for example. There is a legitimate debate, to which I will merely allude, about whether rabbits should be included in the schedule. The arguments advanced on amendment No. 44 about the impact of paragraph 3 in respect of the hunting of rabbits were very persuasive and well put. They were less persuasive when applied to foxes or other animals, but certain elements had an impact on me. I shall carefully examine the way in which the paragraph will affect other parts of the schedule.

However, there is a sensible argument for paragraph 3. It is for the House to decide whether it wants to endorse the policy behind it. I simply say that there is logic to it. To remove the paragraph would weaken the effect of the schedule and run contrary to the spirit of the vote taken in Committee of the whole House on the hunting of foxes. In the light of that, and given my somewhat conciliatory comments in respect of some parts of the schedule, I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough will consider withdrawing the amendment.

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