Hunting Bill

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Mr. Öpik: That is exactly what I am saying, and the hon. Gentleman is right to summarise it in that way. I should also reiterate that it is a matter of judgment as to whether the Middle Way Group is right to endorse that level of fine. In our view, if there is to be a regulatory system, there must be tough sanctions to ensure that people do not flaunt it.

In conclusion, given the views of certain members of the Committee, why does the Minister think that this level of sanction is acceptable? It is easy to foresee scenarios in which basically innocent people who are not the target of this Bill will pay hefty fines because of the behaviour of their dogs, or because—quite reasonably—they did not consider every way in which they might fall foul of the ban.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The amendments are interesting in the sense that they appear to assume that the penalties imposed are exceptionally onerous for this type of offence, and I am grateful for the opportunity to set the record straight.

The simple fact is that the penalties in the Bill are less severe than those in comparable animal welfare legislation. For example, under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, the maximum penalty for illegal badger baiting is a level 5 fine and up to six months' imprisonment. Under the Deer Act 1991, there is a maximum penalty of a level 4 fine and up to three months' imprisonment. The maximum penalty under the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996 is a level 5 fine and six months' imprisonment. All three Acts provide the possibility of imprisonment. I remind the Committee of the years in which they were enacted: 1991, 1992 and 1996. I am sure that I need not remind Opposition Members of the political colour of the Government at that time. In this instance, we have taken the view that custodial penalties are not necessary. A fine will be sufficient to deter most illegal hunting and will cause organised hunts to disband.

11.15 am

The hon. Member for Gainsborough, in one of the most interesting contributions on Second Reading, said that most hunts are medium businesses, which was something that I had not fully grasped until he set it out. Therefore, they cannot operate surreptitiously. Most people who hunt tend to be law-abiding; that is certainly true of the people who hunt in my constituency. It is likely that foxhunting will disappear as a result of the Bill, but it is important and right to debate the issue.

Those in the hunting community always assure us that they are law-abiding, and that they will continue to abide by the law. We need to bear that in mind when considering appropriate penalties. It would not be appropriate to have a maximum fine of less than level 5—currently £5,000—not least because we do not want to stray too far from the provisions of other legislation.

Mrs. Golding: How can my hon. Friend describe ratting as a legalised business? It usually involves a couple of blokes going out with a terrier, hunting rats. That is not a legalised business; it is rodent control.

Mr. O'Brien: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall deal with one or two other issues before coming to the point that she made.

The first group of amendments dealt with the question of creating criminal offences, or whether there should be a fixed, civil penalty. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) mentioned the Protection of Animals (Amendment) Act 1954 and the Animals (Cruel Poisons) Act 1962. He suggested that the penalty for poisoning under those Acts was a level 3 fine, while the Bill proposes a level 5 fine for hunting with dogs. He asked why hunting with dogs attracted a much heavier penalty.

One fact that the hon. and learned Gentleman omitted to share was that in both Acts to which he referred, the maximum penalty is a level 3 fine and up to three months' imprisonment. A custodial penalty is always more severe than a financial one. I am sure that his failure to mention that was entirely inadvertent, so I am glad to have the opportunity to set the record straight.

Mr. Bercow rose—

Mr. O'Brien: I was just coming to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful; perhaps the Minister and I are developing a symbiotic relationship, whereby I anticipate what he is about to say.

If the Minister is preoccupied with the cause of consistency with other legislation, he should be properly concerned not only with other animal welfare legislation, but with all other legislation that spews forth at a rate of knots from his own Department. Is the Minister aware that the Vehicles (Crime) Bill has just been in Committee, attended to most ably by his hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke)? That is important legislation, designed to tackle a serious evil, but most of the offences merit only a level 3 fine. Does the Minister not talk to his hon. Friend?

Mr. O'Brien: I wish that the hon. Gentleman would listen to me. I have already said that the consistency that we wanted to achieve was with other animal legislation on badgers, deer and so on. Our aim was to be consistent, not only with other animal legislation, but with good legislation, some of which was passed by the previous Government. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to endorse the decision of a Government, the colour of which he now supports, that a level 5 fine was appropriate for such offences.

On the issue of why a civil penalty would not be appropriate, Opposition Members—especially the hon. Member for Gainsborough—need to think the matter through a little more. If there were a fixed civil penalty, the court would be prevented from taking into account various mitigating factors, such as whether rats or foxes were being hunted, and then assessing an appropriate fine if a criminal offence had occurred. It would be a matter for the court to decide the level of fine. The maximum is only for the worst types of offences. If there were evidence of deliberate, premeditated and persistent acts of foxhunting, we could get to the higher levels of fine.

If someone had been ratting and had failed to seek permission, the fine might be very small indeed. It would be a criminal conviction, but the fixed-penalty system would prevent recognition of the different level of offence. We believe that it is appropriate to stick with the approach used in other animal welfare legislation that imposes criminal penalties similar to those in the schedule.

Mrs. Golding: How can the Minister justify making ratting a criminal offence? He said in Committee last week that he was bothered about including rabbits. Surely, someone who is ratting is doing the community a service.

Mr. O'Brien: With the greatest respect, I am still dealing with the points made by hon. Member for Gainsborough, whom I hope to convince that the level of fine that we want is appropriate.

Deadline 2000 sought six months' imprisonment as the maximum penalty. We needed to consider what was proportionate and required to achieve our objective, which is to ensure that an act that Parliament has decided to forbid would cease to occur. We felt that such a penalty was proportionate, which would give discretion to the court to deal with the most serious and flagrant examples of breach. As the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said, if someone breached an order of the court to pay a penalty, the court would have to impose a term of imprisonment. That would be only for breach of the court order, which is the case across a range of criminal issues that are dealt with by way of fine.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough meandered somewhat; at one point he wittily suggested that we ought to have the courage of our convictions and imprison people. His argument would seem to be that imprisonment is the logical consequence of making hunting a criminal offence. However, there are many criminal offences that do not lead to imprisonment. For example, would he want us to imprison someone for driving through a red light or committing a similar traffic offence? Of course not.

The hon. Gentleman went on to say that hunting would be a criminal offence that hurts no one. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham replied that the Bill is about protecting animals, which is the objective of the legislation. Indeed, the hon. Member for Gainsborough has previously supported legislation that hurts no one, such as the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, which I suspect, although I have not checked, he will have endorsed as a Member of Parliament.

Mr. Öpik: On that point, the Minister will remember that the Burns report expressed the view that, under certain circumstances, killing a fox with dogs was not necessarily more cruel than some of the techniques that would still be allowed. The Minister's logic suggests that he is comfortable with criminalising something that the most authoritative report in many years described as no crueller than the practices that he would allow to continue.

Mr. O'Brien: My objective as a Minister is to ensure a proportionate penalty that is capable of preventing the conduct that Parliament has judged it wishes to prevent. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not discuss the moral merits of particular types of cruelty, because the Government seek to take a neutral position in relation to that issue, although, as members of the Committee will know, each of us has a personal view.

The hon. Member for Buckingham raised an important point concerning foot followers: would they be subject to the legislation and therefore liable to a level 5 penalty? The Bill is not intended to catch spectators, since their presence at a hunt is normally passive. The legislation would catch those who participate in hunting, such as the master of the hunt, the whippers-in, the hunt staff and the mounted followers. However, where some or all of the hunt staff were on foot, the followers would be convicted of an offence because they could be participating and there might be evidence that they intended to do so. That would not be an issue with foxhunting, especially in the case of a mounted hunt, because foot followers are merely passive spectators. However, if people followed the hunt, engaged in the process of hunting and intended to do so, they would place themselves at risk.

 
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