Hunting Bill

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Mr. Soames: That is entirely true, but the point is not singular; it applies to the control of all vermin.

4.45 pm

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend is right, and there are several reasons why this group of amendments is particularly important. For example, unless the schedule is amended so that there is much greater clarity, the Bill might not simply outlaw organised hunting with hounds—for which the House has voted—but seriously compromise the ability of gamekeepers, farmers and fishery managers to carry out their essential responsibilities in controlling various species of vermin.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): One of my local fishery managers estimates that he has lost £1,000-worth of fish to mink in two years. He also said that, on the whole, mink do not eat the fish; they simply bite them and leave them maimed on the riverbank. Their natural instinct is to kill.

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Lady puts the point forcefully. This is a further hole in the Bill that the Government need to fill with sensible amendments.

In tabling amendment No. 90, which would allow the use of dogs to track down animals that have escaped from captivity, I had mink in mind. We have referred to the scandalous behaviour of animal rights extremists who have freed mink from cages and thereby allowed them to devastate local wild mammal populations. Although the Burns report states that hunting mink with dogs is not the only solution to mink control, it also makes it clear that that method is extremely useful in controlling large local populations of mink. Amendment No. 90 would bring about a real improvement to the Bill by establishing a safeguard. It would allow the use of dogs in respect of mink that have been freed from captivity and need to be caught and controlled quickly, so that other wild mammals can be protected. If we do not establish such an arrangement, there will be further damage to indigenous fauna.

Amendment No. 58 would alter sub-paragraph (3)(b), which currently allows a person to stalk or flush out hares or rabbits to obtain meat for human or animal consumption only if the carcase is neither sold nor otherwise dealt with in the way of trade. In other words, sub-paragraph (3)(b) would allow me to use dogs to stalk and flush out hares or rabbits that are then shot, so that I and other members of the hunting party and their families can eat them for Sunday lunch. However, it expressly forbids me to supply the carcases to my local butcher for him to sell on to my neighbours. The reference to ``trade'' in sub-paragraph (3)(b) would apparently even stop somebody offering surplus game, such as a brace of rabbits, as a raffle prize at a country show.

I cannot understand why the schedule contains that limitation. Why is it wrong for somebody who has used dogs to help him to shoot a few rabbits to sell the carcases on to the local butcher or to trade them informally in the local area? I cannot see the sense of the provision. Amendment No. 58 would delete that limitation so that the exception should apply whenever the purpose of the stalking or flushing out was to obtain meat for animal or human consumption. The provision will clearly apply only to rabbits and hares. I have not detected, even from one of the fashionable television chefs, any appetite for dishes involving foxes. Therefore, I cannot see the objection to the change that I propose.

Mr. Maples: I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend again. Am I reading the paragraph correctly? My reading is that if I were out with my dog and a gun and I happened to see a rabbit without the assistance of the dog and I shot it, I would be free to deal with it by way of trade, but if the dog saw it first and flushed it out, and, as a result of that, I shot it, I would not be free to do so.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. The Minister reassured us in earlier sittings that people going out with a dog did not have to worry, because it is the intention that matters. However, in the circumstances described by my hon. Friend, there is considerable ambiguity about whether one would be allowed to sell the rabbit or hare to one's local butcher. His point reinforces the absurdity of sub-paragraph (3)(c).

Mr. Soames: In view of the very good point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), does my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) see, in the ambiguities that he has so cogently raised, the need for a new arrangement for game licensing and for butchers, so that they will know that, if they accept the game, they will not be an accessory? I do not know whether we need to consult ``Archbold'' on the matter, but there is clearly a conundrum, which my hon. Friend has exposed with lethal accuracy.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend is cogent, as always. We are all told that game is one of the healthiest forms of meat that we can eat.

Mr. Soames: It is delicious.

Mr. Lidington: It is also, as my hon. Friend says, delicious. Yet the provision would, in many circumstances, make it a criminal offence for people to sell the carcases of rabbits or hares or even to supply them to their butcher or dealer free of charge. That seems a grave mistake. Amendment No. 58 would put it right.

Amendment No. 120 provides protection against the unintended commission of an offence in the context of game shooting. Dogs are often used to flush out game on commercial shoots. During such shoots, it is inevitable that the dog will start hunting or searching for other wild mammals while the gamebirds are being flushed out. It would appear that, under the Bill, such activity would be a criminal offence. Amendment No. 120 would write into the Bill that no offence would be committed if the prime intention of the person or persons hunting was to flush out gamebirds.

Ministers may argue that such an amendment is not necessary and that we can rely on the Bill's drafting by parliamentary counsel. However, I repeat the scepticism that I have expressed before. Even the most talented, skilful and most learned of parliamentary draftsmen in the Home Office have been known to nod. There have been occasions when Ministers, in all good faith, have assured us that there was certainty in a piece of Home Office legislation, but when such legislation reached the judiciary, a different slant was placed on it.

Amendment No. 120 offers no threat to the central purpose of the Bill. I cannot see how it could be used to provide an excuse for people to dress up in red coats and ride on horses, chasing foxes or deer. It would make it clear to those who organise or take part in shoots of gamebirds that they have nothing to fear from the Bill and that they have an unambiguous defence if anyone tries to stir up trouble against them.

The group of amendments is wide-ranging. Part II exceptions, although certainly well intentioned, leave us with considerable ambiguity and uncertainty about the Bill's impact on the working and recreational lives of the many people in rural areas who do not take part in organised hunting. At the very least, we expect a thorough examination of the detailed points that the amendments address, and I hope that, for the first time, we might elicit from the Government a spirit of open-mindedness and readiness to address those points, which have been repeated many times.

Mr. Soames: I support my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury in some of the points that he has made so cogently. I want to speak to amendments Nos. 119, 57 and 120. A conundrum has cropped up, which is inevitable in such proposed legislation, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with it. We are trying to make the Bill workable, and I look forward with bated breath and great interest to hearing what the Parliamentary Secretary has to say. I am sure that she will deal with the matter expeditiously.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): That is enough.

Mr. Soames: Sorry.

Paragraph 7, as amended by amendment No. 49, would permit hunting if a landowner requested it in the interests of conservation, or particularly in the interests of management of the quarry population. Will the Parliamentary Secretary turn her brilliant mind to that this afternoon?

5 pm

My point is again about the invidious position in which gamekeepers will find themselves. We have been through this issue, and I am sorry to have to raise it again, but we have not had a satisfactory answer. If the countryside is to be kept orderly, sensible and clean, under proper stewardship, and if conservation is to be managed, the quarry population will have to be managed. If hunting is banned, a significant number of foxes will remain to be dealt with. Throughout the debate, no one on the Government Benches has produced an argument--or even attempted to do so, because there is not one--to suggest that the Bill will improve the lot of the fox, mink or any other animal. Whichever way the hunted quarry is dealt with, it will be a great deal more disagreeable for the hunted animal than it was previously.

Gamekeepers--if they are allowed to continue to do the job without over-zealous policing by those whom I believe are laughingly called wildlife protection officers--will have to deal with the fox population. They will have to use dogs to flush out the fox. The word ``stalking'' is not a good word to use in that context; anyone who has tried to stalk a fox will have had a pretty lean time of it. We are talking essentially of dogs, or perhaps hounds, that have been decommissioned from hunting and have appeared as down-gunned, down-armoured foxhounds.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): I wonder whether the hounds that have been specially bred to hunt in a pack will be useful to the keepers. I am not making a debating point; I simply do not know the answer. Does my hon. Friend have any expertise on that?

Mr. Soames: I have a lot of expertise, but I do not wish to stray, Mr. O'Hara, otherwise you will pull me up sharply. I do not know whether hon. Members saw in the newspaper that 47 Wye beagles were stolen from their kennels by anti-hunt people. One of the beagles was found in the west country yesterday. It had been castrated and the thieves had tried to remove the tattoo of the hunt--the hunt mark--from its ear. I imagine that all the other beagles had been put down, as they are not suitable to be transmogrified into pets and kept in the charming way in which Labour Members seem to believe they can. To answer my hon. Friend's question, it would be very difficult.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) referred this morning to gun packs. It will come as a dreadful shock to Labour Members to learn that gun packs consist of exactly the same hounds as other hunts, albeit possibly rather slower ones because of the demanding territory over which they hunt. They will draw for a fox, push up a fox and pursue him by his scent. Quite often, that awful thing happens, and he is killed by the hounds. I do not mean to inject the realities of nature into the debate, but that is what happens.

On other occasions, the fox will be forced into the open where it will suffer a cowardly death by shooting, which will be carried out by a Welsh farmer who rightly wants to keep the fox population down because of the damage that foxes do to lambs. Such hounds will kill foxes, so keepers, in the normal course of their duties, might be unable to shoot a fox that their dogs—perhaps a couple of lurchers and a terrier—have put up. The Parliamentary Secretary must deal with that point. It may not be safe to shoot the fox, which the Committee never considers.

I do not know whether you read my distinguished contributions to debate on the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, Mr O'Hara. Many of them concerned the use of high-powered rifles on moors. It is all very well opening up the moors to every Tom, Dick and Harry who wants to tramp across them, but one does not then want a keeper with a .275 rifle arbitrarily pumping off rounds at a fox when people wearing what I believe are called cagoules might be lurking on the moors. It would not be safe for them. Talk about the foxes' welfare being compromised; I would not fancy being a hiker on a moor in Yorkshire during the nesting season, especially if I was wearing a cagoule—[Interruption.] That is an absolutely marvellous idea.

In the interests of conservation of the quarry species, in addition to the conservation of the countryside, foxes must be dealt with. Contrary to the view expressed by the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence), who rabbited on about how her terrier can distinguish between a rabbit and a rat, when a keeper with two lurchers puts up a fox, the dogs will pursue it.

Incidentally, Mr. O'Hara, have you had the chance to read the exert from a Tristan da Cunha publication entitled ``Ratting Day 2000''? It states:

    ``The first Ratting Day in the year 2000 was a much looked forward to event. This is when the islanders split up into several teams''—

this concerns conservation—

    ``named after the areas around the potato patches.''

I want the Parliamentary Secretary to concentrate because it may be that when we come to the law some smart-arsed lawyer will say that ``cover'' is not a potato patch—

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