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Session 2000-01
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Standing Committee Debates
Hunting Bill

Hunting Bill

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 6 February 2001


[Mrs. Marion Roe in the Chair]

Hunting Bill

10.30 am

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): On a point of order, Mrs. Roe. I do not know whether it has come to your attention, but the business has been set for the next two weeks, and the Bill cannot go back before the House of Commons until after the week's recess—the end of February. It is clear not only that the Bill will not complete all its parliamentary stages by a May election, but that, if the Government have no intention of allowing it to complete its proceedings, they are playing with the Committee's time by introducing it at all. I seek your advice on two points. First, has the Minister approached you about abandoning these proceedings, which are clearly a waste of everyone's time? Secondly, is there a remedy for members of the Committee whose time is being abused by a Government who have no intention of completing the legislation?

The Chairman: That is not a point of order for me. The Minister has not approached me, and the House has already decided on the procedure.

Schedule 3

Hunting with dogs: prohibition

Amendment proposed [1 February]: No. 12, in page 20, line 5, to leave out the words `level 5' and insert the words `level 1'.—[Mr. Garnier.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 13, in page 20, line 5, leave out `level 5' and insert `level 2'.

No. 14, in page 20, line 5, leave out `level 5' and insert `level 3'.

No. 15, in page 20, line 5, leave out `level 5' and insert `level 4'.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): This important area of the Bill relates to the penalties that will be imposed if someone is found guilty of hunting. We are grateful to the Minister for writing to members of the Committee, saying that some Deadline 2000 proposals do not feature in the Hunting Bill.

The letter, which was sent on 5 February to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, refers to the proposal of Deadline 2000 that someone found guilty of a hunting offence should be liable to imprisonment for a maximum of six months. When the Committee adjourned on Thursday, we were debating penalties in the context of amendments Nos. 12 to 15. The Government's policy differs from that of Deadline 2000. The letter said that the Government believe that a fine is proportionate to the offences in question. We now know the background to this important debate: Deadline 2000 wanted to impose a penalty of imprisonment, but the Government deliberately took the decision that imprisonment should not be part of the Bill and that a fine was proportionate.

There are some interesting points to consider. The Minister has repeatedly claimed that although he accepts that the Bill is his, the essence of it—schedule 3—comes from Deadline 2000. However, he has made a decision on a vital part of the Bill. Of course, he can decide on any matter, so he has decided to impose his point of view. We must press him on why he believes that imprisonment is not an appropriate penalty.

If we are creating a criminal offence, we must have the courage of our convictions. If we believe that someone is acting criminally, surely we must believe in our heart of hearts that he should go to prison. During Home Office questions yesterday, and in the context of a debate about another penalty, I listed a series of serious offences, such as wounding, robbery, murder, assault, drug dealing, grievous bodily harm and actual bodily harm. Society takes the view that people who commit such offences should be put in prison—either as a punishment, because they have done something wrong, as a deterrent, so that they do not do it again, or because they have caused harm to people and need to be kept out of circulation.

Why have not the Government the courage of their convictions? If they believe that hunting should be a criminal offence, why not put people in prison for doing it? Perhaps the Government are being hypocritical. They realise that they simply cannot make imprisonment wash, neither with the rural population nor with the population as a whole. They lack moral courage in the matter.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will my hon. Friend consider the possibility that eventual imprisonment of offenders is indeed what the Government have in mind? Their Machiavellian calculation may be that wealthy people will go abroad to hunt, but relatively poor people will stay here to do so, thus—wrongly, of course—breaking the law. They will then find themselves unable to pay the fines and end up in prison.

Mr. Leigh: It is indeed true that if one does not pay one's fine, one ends up in prison. I have no doubt that because people feel strongly about the matter, someone will deliberately make himself a martyr by refusing to pay the fine and going to prison. However, that does not let the Government off the hook. All other offences that incur a penalty as high as a level 5 fine offer the alternative of imprisonment. A fine of £5,000 is a serious matter.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Two ladies in my constituency regularly go to prison because they refuse to pay fines for their disruptive protests at United States bases. They feel strongly that it is a matter of principle. Does the hon. Gentleman envisage that happening to people with strong views about hunting?

Mr. Leigh: Yes. People enjoy being martyrs, and I am sure that somebody will deliberately have themselves apprehended, refuse to pay the fine and go to prison in order to draw attention to what they consider to be an attack on their civil liberties. The Government will have to face that problem when it arises.

Do the people who are creating the offence believe that such activity is criminal behaviour, in that it brutalises the person who commits it or harms other people? That is why most criminal offences are created and why we lock up people who wound, rob, burgle or drive dangerously. Is someone who is hunting in the middle of Lincolnshire harming an urban dweller living in Scunthorpe, Doncaster, Brigg, Goole, Lincoln or Grimsby? There have been occasional well publicised stories of unfortunate incidents in which hunters have gone into villages and frightened schoolchildren, but in 99 per cent. of cases hunting does not harm any human being. Nobody else needs to worry about it or be involved in it.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that anti-hunting supporters create far more trouble than anyone else during hunts? They cause terrible damage, terrify foot followers with their appalling behaviour and leave a trail of rubbish and destruction behind them.

Mr. Leigh: My hon. Friend makes his point.

Could any member of the Committee seriously suggest that this new criminal offence harms other people? It does not. Does it brutalise or harm the person who does it? There is no evidence of that. Are people who go hunting particularly unpleasant people who enjoy inflicting cruelty on animals?

Mr. Bercow: I very much agree with my hon. Friend: hunting is a victimless crime, or what Mill would have described as a ``self-regarding act''. However, further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), having attended a meet of the Bicester hunt last Saturday morning, I can confirm that the behaviour of Mr. Rupert Soames was impeccable.

Mr. Leigh: I am sure that it was.

Even those who want to abolish hunting are not arguing that it harms the wider population. Over the centuries, Parliament in its wisdom—or unwisdom—has made offences of many activities that do not harm people. For instance, until relatively recently—compared with the lifetimes of those in this Room—Parliament took the view that it was an offence to commit a homosexual act, even though such an act harmed nobody. Every member of this Committee will agree that Parliament was right to decide to change that law. We can argue about whether the age of homosexual consent should be 16, 18 or 21, but because homosexual acts harm no one, the law has been changed.

Similarly, the law was changed in respect of attempted suicide—which used also to be a criminal offence—because it harms no one else. Substantial criminal liabilities, fines and so on used also to be attached to the carrying out of abortions. Although abortion is still a subject of great debate, Parliament has moved on. Even those who, like me, strongly oppose abortion realise that it is very difficult to imprison women who want to destroy beings that can have no life outside their bodies.

Given that Parliament has moved on from making criminal offences of activities that do not harm someone else, I am unsure why we are criminalising hunting with dogs. When creating a criminal offence, one must have the moral courage to say that it is not a civil tort that can be remedied by a fine, but an offence that has a serious impact on others. Those who impose the penalty should have the moral courage to impose imprisonment. In that respect, Deadline 2000 is more logical than the Minister.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting argument, but it can be taken only so far because we are not talking about an activity that involves solely the individuals concerned. The important point is that Parliament has decided that it is wrong to harm not only someone else but something else. I am personally in favour of legalising cannabis, because its use does not affect other people and I see no reason why the Government should tell us what we should stick up our noses or take into our lungs. However, it is another matter when a given activity affects other people or other things, and in this case the activity in question affects mammals.

Mr. Leigh: That is a fair point. We can take it as read, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman accepts that we are making a criminal offence of the activity not because the human being who carries it out harms other human beings or himself, but because he harms mammals. In other words, this is an animal welfare measure that should, by definition, further the welfare of animals—but no one seriously contends that it will. Hunts kill some 10,000 foxes a year, but about 200,000 a year are killed by all other means. Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) pointed out that cats kill some 200 million animals of various species each year. Even if there are those who pretend that the Bill is concerned with animal welfare, they surely do not believe that it will give the fox population of this country a longer, happier or better life. The number of foxes and hares killed in hunts is very small compared to the total number killed by other means, so the Bill will not make a serious difference.


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Prepared 6 February 2001