Hunting Bill

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The Chairman: With this we may take the following amendments: No. 51, in page 20, line 22, leave out `stalking' and insert `hunting'.

No. 54, in page 20, line 28, leave out `out of cover'.

No. 55, in page 20, line 30, leave out `stalking or flushing out' and insert `hunting'.

No. 56, in page 20, line 32, after `livestock', insert `fish'.

No. 57, in page 20, line 32, leave out `or crops' and insert

    ``crops, grassland, plants or trees or to manage the population of the quarry species in the interests of that species or other species of animals, birds or fish.''.

No. 58, in page 20, line 34, leave out from `consumption' to `or' in line 35.

No. 59, in page 20, line 36, after `hunt', insert `or kill'.

No. 120, in page 21, line 8, at end insert—

    ``(8) No offence shall have been committed under paragraph 1 where the primary intention of the participants is that game birds are to be flushed to be shot and that either one, some or no species of mammals are to be shot if flushed.''.

No. 90, in page 21, line 28, leave out ``searching for'' and insert `hunting'.

Mr. Bercow: I rise to speak in support of the amendments. At the outset I tender my apologies to you, Mrs. Roe, the Minister and all members of the Committee for the fact, for which I am sure they will be extremely appreciative, that I will not be here this afternoon, as I shall be on the Opposition Front Bench for the Second Reading of the important House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Bill, on which I shall have the responsibility of winding up for the Opposition. I shall interpret my winding-up responsibilities as widely as I can.

It is also right to say at the outset—and I know that the Committee will understand this—that I cannot possibly hope, now or at any time in the future, to match the urbanity and gravitas that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough customarily brings to our proceedings, any more than I can hope to match the combination of intellectual ferocity and quick-wittedness for which my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury is renowned in all parts of the House. However, on the plodding basis on which I ordinarily proceed in these matters, I shall endeavour to make the case and to ensure that the hon. Members for West Ham and for Pendle remain awake for the remaining 14 minutes before lunch.

My hon. and learned Friend is quivering, so I shall give way.

Mr. Garnier: I wanted, with my hon. Friend's consent and your permission, Mrs. Roe, to inform the hon. Member for Pendle, as he has just been mentioned, that I have fortunately been able to get hold of a copy of ``Archbold'', and the word ``connivance'' does not appear in the index.

Mr. Prentice: I knew that—[Laughter.]

Mr. Garnier: I wanted to intervene because I wanted the hon. Gentleman to tell us that he already knew that.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Member for Pendle may have known it, but he will not be surprised to know that I did not, and I shall not lightly recover from the body blow that my hon. and learned Friend has just inflicted on me.

As you will be keenly aware, Mrs. Roe, as an assiduous student of the Bill, and as I think the Committee will know, sub-paragraph (7), if amended by amendment No. 119, would permit hunting where a landowner requested it in the interests of conservation, whether of animals, birds or plants, or in the interests of the management of the quarry population. That would be a much more realistic and practical exception, and we are concerned with exceptions in this debate. It would be an exception that took proper account, in a way that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I believe is not so now, of the issues of pest control, conservation and animal welfare.

The Bill already recognises that it can be acceptable to hunt a fox, a hare or a rabbit in certain circumstances, especially if it is judged necessary by those engaged in the activities to protect livestock, fowl, gamebirds or crops—or indeed for the purpose of obtaining meat for consumption, although, if I remember rightly, not meat that is then passed to a retailer for onward sale. It is also possible for a bird of prey to hunt a particular mammal.

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us in the Committee to draw the line between when hunting in the form of stalking or flushing finishes and hunting otherwise than that commences. Given the need to use dogs for hunting in circumstances that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee admit can—and probably will—arise, it would be sensible to recognise that hunting should be permitted if, and only if, it satisfies the conditions in the amendment.

Of course, I am always happy to invoke Conservative witnesses in support of Conservative amendments. However, it is an infinitely more juicy and salacious prospect to be able to invoke the support, whether partial or total, of Labour witnesses. Justifying the amendment leads me to point to the admirable, well-thumbed tome that is the Labour party home affairs briefing on the Bill, which was circulated in December. I feel sure that its content is well known to all members of the Committee. Indeed, the hon. Member for Worcester can probably recite it verbatim off the top of his head. However, for the edification of the Committee and the enlightenment of those not immediately conscious of that content, I should point out that, interestingly, it acknowledges possible implications for Welsh farmers, and that such issues will be taken into account during the passage of the Bill.

It is now 6 February and the Committee is due to conclude consideration on 8 February, but as yet we have heard nothing from the Government on that subject. When do Ministers intend to raise it? Perhaps entirely appropriately, given the circumstances, the brow of the Under-Secretary is duly furrowed. He is looking at his notes and he has his fountain pen in his hand, but I am afraid that that does not help us—[Interruption.] I was about to say that I am happy to look to the Parliamentary Secretary for enlightenment, but I see that the Under-Secretary wishes to help her and me.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: May I join the hon. Gentleman in apologising to the Committee? I, too, will be dealing with the House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Bill this afternoon, and will therefore be unable to reply to his contribution. However, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be more than able to deal with it.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the Under-Secretary, and I do not doubt that the hon. Lady, who is a dextrous Minister, will be more than capable of dealing with the matter. Indeed, it is she who must therefore explain precisely when the Government plan to deal with it. Amendment No. 119 would enable the Government at least to make a start towards addressing the plethora of problems that will almost assuredly arise in Wales if this pernicious Bill should by chance, and apparently against the Government's own wishes, reach the statute book this side of—I choose the date entirely at random—3 May.

In the briefing for Members of Parliament, the Farmers Union of Wales explained its position clearly, and we are duty bound to take account of it. Although it remains neutral on hunting as a sport, believing it to be a matter of individual conscience, it firmly supports the right of farm owners and landowners to hunt and destroy vermin to contain livestock losses that would otherwise inevitably transpire as a result of predation. The FUW represents a substantial number of sheep farmers in Wales, for whom fox predation is a particular, and perhaps growing, problem. Given the nature of Welsh terrain, it is virtually impossible to control foxes without the use of dogs. Many agricultural areas adjoin large tracts of forest with substantial and often dense undergrowth. If fox populations are not controlled in those areas, farms adjoining forestry land will be severely affected by fox predation.

One of the conclusions reached in the Burns report, as the FUW helpfully reminds us, is that the fox population causes more damage to sheep-rearing and game-management interests in the upland areas, where there is a perceived need for control, and where fewer alternatives are available to the use of dogs, either to flush out the guns or, indeed, in digging out.

On 27 June last year, the National Assembly voted to call on the United Kingdom Government to give it the right to decide on a hunting ban in Wales. That vote was carried by 28 votes to 27. Given the impact that a ban on hunting would have on the upland areas in Wales, the FUW will continue its pressure to devolve responsibility to the Assembly.

The FUW recognises that there are circumstances in Wales, which are distinct from, and possibly more serious and demanding, than those applying in other parts of the UK. The advocates of devolution can hardly disavow the rights of the National Assembly on a matter in which one can demonstrably see that there are local and regional differences, or the Assembly's entitlement to legislate to take account of those differences.

The FUW believes that farmers need a range of methods to control pests, depending on individual circumstances. Although much debate surrounds the advantages and disadvantages of fox control, the union has noted that previous independent inquiries have inevitably concluded that foxhunting involves less cruelty than most other methods of control. It is peculiarly unfortunate, although entirely coincidental I am sure, that the hon. Member for West Ham has absented himself from the Committee. As I make the point, the hon. Gentleman has just returned to the bosom of the Committee.

I shall not repeat my point, as I may fall into disfavour with you, Mrs. Roe. I shall say, simply, that the FUW's view is that hunting can be less cruel than other methods of pest control. It believes that the practice of the sport should be retained for the purpose of management of the population—an issue which should neither be lost on, or lightly disregarded by, the hon. Member for West Ham. The FUW said that in the past 50 years there had been no significant advances in the development of alternative control methods that are acceptable to all sides in the hunting debate. It emphasised that the use of dogs remains an important pest control method for many farmers.

That is a brief encapsulation of the case for amendment No. 119. I should like briefly to cover amendments Nos. 51 and 55, which would remove inappropriate references to stalking and flushing out. There is no definition of either of those terms in the Bill. In any case, references to stalking foxes, hare and rabbits is nonsense—stalking applies to deer. It is not entirely clear what the term is supposed to denote in the context in which it is liberally and rather inexplicably used by the Government's draftsmen. It is not clear either what conduct constitutes flushing out. For example, Welsh gun packs use dogs to flush foxes from woods, but sometimes foxes can be hunted in the woods before they are flushed. Will that aspect be covered by the exception? If not, the exception will be unworkable for what is considered to be an important pest control method in Wales. Stalking and flushing do not fall within the definition of hunting in paragraph 21. Given that they are not part of the offence, there should be no need for them to be listed as exceptions to it.

Amendment No. 54 would remove the words ``out of cover'', which is not a clear term. What does ``cover'' mean? Does it mean in a hollow tree or a bush? Does it include a mammal that is lying in a ditch? Does it incorporate the concept of lying in long grass, or in a wood, but not inside a tree, bush or undergrowth? If such terms are to have legal force and if they are to be the subject of proceedings, Ministers must be responsible for clarifying the meaning of the terms used.

It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Roe, Mrs. Marion (Chairman)
Banks, Mr.
Beith, Mr.
Bercow, Mr.
Cawsey, Mr.
Foster, Mr. Michael J.
Garnier, Mr.
Golding, Mrs.
Gordon, Mrs.
Hall, Mr. Mike
Henderson, Mr. Ivan
Kennedy, Jane
Lawrence, Mrs.
Leigh, Mr.
Lepper, Mr.
Lidington, Mr.
Maples, Mr.
Michael, Mr.
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
Öpik, Mr.
Pickthall, Mr.
Prentice, Ms. Bridget
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Rendel, Mr.
Simpson, Mr. Alan
Simpson, Mr. Keith
Smith, Angela
Soames, Mr.

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Prepared 6 February 2001