Hunting Bill

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Mr. Bercow: This was an issue on which I was momentarily cogitating and I wondered whether we would have an answer to the dilemma. My hon. and learned Friend appears to be providing it. Does he share my sense of stupefaction, if not of distaste, that the Government should propose a penalty for a breach of the Bill greater than that likely to be meted out to someone who commits the offence of dangerous driving which, unlike this offence, could imperil human safety?

Mr. Garnier: I am always delighted when my hon. Friend cogitates. It is good for all hon. Members to cogitate, because it suggests that they exist.

I shall not wholly answer my hon. Friend's question because he may want to elaborate on it later. However, it is fair to say that simply because the level 5 fine is in the Bill does not mean that the courts will fine up to £5,000 in every case. My hon. Friend is right and given that a whole host of serious offences has attracted fines in the past and certainly in 1999 not at level 5, level 4, level 3 or level 2, but only at level 1, why do the Government—or Deadline 2000, whose policy seems to be wrapped up in the Government's Bill—believe it appropriate to set the level of fine in paragraph 5 at level 5?

Other examples may help us reach an understanding of the proper level of fine under the Bill. The table supplied by the Minister records 34 cases involving wounding or other acts endangering life, but none of those offences incurred a fine exceeding £500. In 25 of those 34 cases, the fine was at the level of £200 or less. That is another example of serious offences against the person—wounding or acts endangering life—for which the courts thought it appropriate to issue a fine at level 1 or level 2.

Mr. Bercow: Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that in assessing the appropriateness of otherwise of the level 5 fine on the standard scale, it behoves the Committee to think ahead to the consequences of non-payment of that fine? Does it seem likely to my hon. and learned Friend that someone who is subject to that fine but unable to pay it and obliged therefore to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure, would or would not be eligible for the early release scheme?

Mr. Garnier: My hon. Friend is ingenious and has clearly been doing some more cogitation. If he will allow me relief from that intervention, I would be happy to take it because I do not want to take that line for the moment, not least because I see you, Mr O'Hara, beginning to look interested.

The Chairman: The hon. and learned Gentleman is very perceptive.

Mr. Garnier: Could I have that in writing, please?

I want to turn to another category of offences, which touches on the person but does not endanger life. There were 4,369 cases of wounding not endangering life and, of those, only one was fined at level 2, which is between £250 and £500; 3,496 cases were fined at £200 or less. Again, we see that the huge proportion of serious offences against the person attracts fines at a very low level.

Turning to a different aspect of the criminal calendar, the Minister suggested that only two people were fined for gross indecency with children. Of those, one was fined less than £200 and the other between £500 and £1,000. Nine people were fined for cruelty to or neglect of children. Of those, eight were fined less than £200 and only one was fined between £500 and £1,000. Seven people were fined for unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 16 and all were fined less than £500. One case of unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 13 attracted a fine of less than £200. Taking that example alone and forgetting the cases of malicious and unlawful wounding of people, endangering life and so on, a policy that decides that it is appropriate to fine someone only £200 or less for unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 13 does not sit well with a policy that requires a person guilty of an offence under the schedule to be fined at a level not exceeding level 5. Something is out of kilter and disproportionate.

Turning to another aspect of the criminal code, seven people were fined for criminal damage endangering life, of whom six were fined less than £200 and one was fined less than £500. In 505 cases, cruelty to an animal was involved, which is perhaps the nearest we can get to anything in the schedule. Of those 505 cases, only 332 attracted a fine of less than £200 and a measly six attracted a fine at level 5. Only six of the 505 cases that came before summary courts in 1999 attracted a level 5 fine. A huge number of summary motoring offences are dealt with in the Minister's answer—565,258. Only 62 of more than half a million motoring offences attracted a fine at level 5 or between £2,500 and £5,000.

I am not surprised that there are a number of cases under poaching and game legislation, but I am surprised that of the 300 or so fines imposed, all were less than £200 save for 34 cases in which the fines were between £200 and £500. Even in the world of gamekeeping, poaching and protection of country sports, fines are very low.

In a similar if unrelated field of criminal activity, there were 109 offences under protection of wild birds legislation, of which 46 attracted fines at level 1, 56 at level 2, five at level 3, two at level 4, but not one at level 5.

I have selected only a few of the examples most relevant to my case. Of a whole host of offences, ranging through failing to surrender to bail, perjury, abstracting electricity, theft of pedal cycles, offences concerning hand carts and miscellaneous licensing offences, those that have attracted fines at level 5 when they are available can be counted on the fingers of a few hands. We must analyse the evidence of how level 5, level, 4, level 3, level 2 and level 1 fines have been treated in the past and use it sensibly so as not to overload a draconian Bill with draconian penalties. If we can do anything to mitigate the worst effects of the Bill as it progresses through this House, let alone the other place, we shall have done the public a service.

6.30 pm

It may be germane to draw the Committee's attention to one or two other pieces of legislation, so that it has some idea of how levels of fine have been drawn up in the past. The Protection of Animals (Amendment) Act 1954 and the Animals (Cruel Poisons) Act 1962 both have fines at level 3, and the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968 attracts fines at level 4. Section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 gives careless driving a level 4 fine; it is not until dangerous driving under section 2 of the 1988 Act that there are level 5 fines. Both careless and dangerous driving could lead to death or maiming and serious injury of members of the public.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: In the Hansard report of the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill—colloquially known as the Foster Bill—the hon. and learned Gentleman said:

    ``I shall be brief. If one cannot make one's point in a few moments, there is probably no point in making it.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 28 January 1998; c. 132.]

Do the comments that he is making at great length have a point?

Mr. Garnier: That is extremely witty, but the point was made earlier by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster). Repeating a fair point does not make it any better. It is a pity that the Minister has lowered himself to take part in such an exercise, but if he wants to, fair enough. No doubt he will have the opportunity to let the Committee know if he does not think that my points are serious. I am sorry that he has taken the view that he has, as he is normally a patient and careful man. He will have listened—he may even have read—the document that one of his colleagues at the Home Office supplied to the House. It contains further information that adds weight to my point.

We are dealing with several amendments to paragraph 5. My points are not out of order. They may be boring, but listening to other people's arguments can be boring—

The Chairman: Order. The Chair has been listening with fascination, finding that all the comments are in order and that they are building up—albeit at some length and in detail—a coherent case.

Mr. Garnier: We are lucky, Mr. O'Hara, that you, the Minister and I are highly unlikely to be caught by the provisions of the Bill were it to become an Act. However, some people will want to know why Deadline 2000, the policy of which is represented in the schedule, think them appropriate. The only people who can speak on its behalf are Labour Members.

Mr. O'Brien: I do not want the hon. and learned Gentleman to be misled in any way. The penalty inserted into the schedule was inserted at the behest of the Government, not Deadline 2000. The original proposal was for six months imprisonment. The Government took the view that a more proportionate penalty was needed.

Mr. Garnier: That is quite an interesting intervention. If the Minister will not tell us which amendments he is prepared to accept during the next three sittings, I would be grateful if he would tell us which paragraphs of the schedule are wholly and exclusively the work of Deadline 2000 and which have had some additional work by the Government or Home Office lawyers. He says that the level of fine in paragraph 5 is the Government's decision. Some of the provisions are the Government's, some are Deadline 2000's, and we are entitled to know which are which.

Mr. Soames: This is a difficult matter for the Minister to give a detailed answer on off the top of his head, but he has most helpfully written to us on several occasions, that correspondence including an epic and completely unintelligible letter from a Mr. Swann. Would it not, therefore, be appropriate if he were to allow his officials the time to sort out the differences that my hon. and learned Friend has brought to the Committee's attention? He should let us know the full extent of Deadline 2000's influence on the drafting of the Bill.

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