Hunting Bill

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Mr. Garnier: I shall do no more than give way to the Minister.

Mr. O'Brien: Deadline 2000 produced a draft schedule. It was examined by parliamentary draftsmen, who made some minor technical amendments. The main issue on which we took a view was that of the penalty.

I appreciate that there may be other pressing matters, but perhaps the hon. and learned Member for Harborough would like to listen to my reply. The penalty was the primary matter on which we took a view. The rest of the schedule is largely the work of Deadline 2000, with the exception of the insertions made, for technical reasons, by parliamentary draftsmen.

Mr. Garnier: That is an extremely helpful answer, but will the Minister clarify it in writing? I appreciate that he cannot answer the questions off the top of his head now, but it is important for us to work out which parts of the Bill are the work of Deadline 2000.

Mr. O'Brien: I am happy to do that.

Mr. Garnier: That is characteristically generous and helpful of the Minister, and I am grateful to him.

I will shortly draw my remarks to a close. However, I want to stress how important it is that paragraph 5 of the schedule is properly thought through and dealt with. I hope that those both who disagree with me and those who agree with me will find it in their hearts to speak their minds, so that those whom we represent and those who are Members of this honourable House but not of the Committee can have some greater understanding of what it is that they have voted for.

Mr. Gummer: Amendment No. 12 could easily appear to be a means of lowering the penalty so as to make the offence appear to be an immaterial action. Conservative Members should consider that interpretation seriously. The penalty has been set at such a high level because those who are proposing the Bill wanted to make it clear that the measure could not easily be ignored. In that sense, I understand the reason for the penalty, but it is necessary for those of us who believe it to be draconian to explain to the Minister why we believe that.

My hon. and learned Friend has pointed out that even in cases when the level of the fine is as high as this, few such fines are imposed. He has also pointed out that there are few offences for which so great a fine is suggested. Level 5 is an unusual level for people to be fined at. The Bill's promoters should explain why they have chosen such a level. There is a joint requirement, and I would like to explain why I think that this is too high a level, and why I do not think that it is necessary to underline the importance of the Bill. The fact that I do not agree with it does not mean that I do not understand that, if the House decides that it should become law, we should ensure that it is obeyed. However, we do not need draconian penalties; we need people to recognise that the law will be enforced and that hunting is a criminal offence. I am sorry that it should be a criminal offence, because that, too, will cause problems. However, I think that the House has decided, at least in principle, that it should be.

I realise that if the fines were set at a lower level, the Minister may at some future date have to say to Parliament that fines had been set at a level that seemed reasonable and comparable with other legislation but that they had not worked, but we are starting at such a high level of fine. Perhaps I should again try to be helpful. Such high fines suggest that, in comparison with a range of other activities, hunting is so heinous that it needs fines to be set at a level that one would expect to be reserved for activities that are universally felt to be much more serious.

Mr. O'Brien: I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman. He should bear in mind the fact that comparable animal welfare provisions carry terms of imprisonment of between three and six months. Contrary to some editorials in The Daily Telegraph, which have stridently suggested that the penalties are draconian, they do not include imprisonment. Although the fines are heavy, the absence of imprisonment makes the penalties in this animal welfare provision somewhat lighter than in comparable provisions.

Mr. Gummer: I thank the Minister for his comments, but I was just about to deal with that point. I think that I know why imprisonment is not included. It is because the Government know very well that if someone were imprisoned, the anger that is already immensely sharp in the countryside would boil over. I remind the Minister of the imprisonment of Father Tooth in the 19th century, which wholly destroyed the then Government's illiberal legislation. That is why such a sentence is not included in the Bill. Instead, heavy, disproportionate fines will be imposed because the Government's advisers do not want anyone to be imprisoned.

The Government are caught in a pincer, but I can suggest a way out. They should admit that Britain is a law-abiding country and that people in the countryside are law-abiding. They should say, ``We recognise that people feel strongly about the matter, but we do not wish to affront them by suggesting that they will not obey the law. Some, however, will break the law, and we want to ensure proper enforcement. That enforcement will be accompanied by a fine that is naturally comparable. We reserve the right to increase the fine if we are wrong, but as a gesture to country people generally, we will admit that we may have been too severe in our approach.'' I doubt whether the Government would say that last part. Behind such a statement, the Government would be able to exclude themselves from the criticism that they did not have the guts to include imprisonment in the Bill, when some of the Bill's supporters think it appropriate.

6.45 pm

Mr. O'Brien: I will come to the reasons why we took the view that the fine was proportionate and that imprisonment was unnecessary. When the right hon. Gentleman supported—as I assume he did—the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, he would have taken the view that a level 5 fine was appropriate. Also, even though it was a private Member's Bill, the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996 uses a level 5 fine. Therefore, even though the Government have taken the view that a fine rather than imprisonment is proportional, there is some comparability across legislation. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that that is a reasoned case?

Mr. Gummer: We are in difficulty because, as I understand the case against hunting, it does not rely on the issue of cruelty to animals. It relies on a full range of other things. I have listened carefully to the debate on hunting and the issue of cruelty is not what most people cite. They have argued the case from all points of view. Many admitted that the alternative methods might not be any less cruel, but said that the barbaric—that is often the word used—way in which hunting is enjoyed is wrong. It is perfectly possible to disagree with hunting and to want it to be banned, but the Minister cannot put it in the same category as the activity against badgers, which I—and he in spirit—voted to ban.

Mr. Garnier: It is clear that the difference between the two pieces of legislation mentioned by the Minister and this Bill have been spelled out by my right hon. Friend: the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996 and the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 have ingredients of deliberate infliction of cruelty on a defenceless animal. That is not what we are talking about in the Hunting Bill.

Mr. Gummer: My hon. and learned Friend reminds me that those who supported those two Bills made a clear distinction between their arguments for banning such activity and hunting. Neither Bill proposed a reference to hunting because their subjects were seen as a wholly different argument and a matter of animal cruelty with which we could deal discretely.That leads me to the second of my three points.

By confusing matters in such a way, the Government are giving out a false signal. They have asked the nation—they have asked Parliament and therefore the nation—to accept one or other of the possibilities. Parliament has decided to accept a total ban, which the Government are presenting to the country as the whole picture. Of course they want to say that, because Parliament has agreed the ban, the country should obey it. It would be wrong, however, for the Government to believe either that the country is as united on the matter as it is on many other Bills, or that people see the subject in the same light as cruelty to animals in general. Therefore, they ought to think seriously about the signals that they send. It is suggested that we accept the ban for all sorts of reasons, only one of which is cruelty—and that is not supported by many people who are opposed to hunting. The Government should be consistent.

The last point that I want to make is that I abhor cruelty to animals and have voted and campaigned against it in many circumstances. I am at the moment very supportive of banning the practice of bears being made to dance, which I find very offensive. I draw a distinction between that clearly unnatural activity and what happens as part of nature. I find it difficult to accept that we should suggest that the deliberate infliction of pain on an animal in artificial circumstances when it is defenceless is the same as something that many of us have supported or done over generations and which is seen by many of us as the best available means of keeping the balance of the population.

The predatory animal, in most cases, kills, but not in order to inflict cruelty. I say in most cases, because man is the one animal capable of doing so, but I think that few people believe that that is what the huntsman is about. I, therefore, hope that the Minister will recognise again that one thing that he could do to help in his campaign to win support for the Bill in the countryside would be if he said, ``Right, I do see that this is not in the same category as these other Bills, so we will have a lower level of maximum fine. I warn people, however, that if that turns out not to have the effect we believe it will have, but to have the effect that other campaigners think that it will have, we will increase the tariff.'' That would not be unreasonable. If he would go that far, we could give way on this amendment and allow him to make the change in some other manner.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Mike Hall.]

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Seven o'clock till Tuesday 6 February at half-past Ten o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
O'Hara, Mr. Edward (Chairman)
Baker, Mr.
Banks, Mr.
Beith, Mr.
Bercow, Mr.
Foster, Mr. Michael J.
Garnier, Mr.
Gordon, Mrs.
Gummer, Mr.
Hall, Mr. Mike
Henderson, Mr. Ivan
Kennedy, Jane
Lawrence, Mrs.
Leigh, Mr.
Lepper, Mr.
Lidington, Mr.
Maples, Mr.
Michael, Mr.
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
—pik, Mr.
Organ, Mrs.
Pickthall, Mr.
Prentice, Ms Bridget
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Rendel, Mr.
Shipley, Ms
Simpson, Mr. Keith
Smith, Angela
Soames, Mr.

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