Hunting Bill

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Mr. Beith: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the subject of beaters and the possibility that they may be liable to prosecution. Such people are often pensioners—ordinary country people who earn £10 for a day's beating and a meal at the end of the day—and are in no position to cope with prosecution. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will address the failure to take account of their concerns.

Mr. Soames: I wholly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. He represents one of the most sporting parts of the country, where hunting and shooting go well together and there are many shoots in magnificent countryside. Many people choose to earn extra money by spending a lovely day in the countryside with wonderful company, where they have great fun and enjoy it every bit as much as the guns, if not more. Are they to be fined at the levels that the Minister mentioned this morning in his rather bullying speech? How are they to find that astonishing sum of money? Of what are they guilty? They did not set out to hunt the fox, but what is their defence?

All I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to do today is to deal seriously and effectively with the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury and I have raised, which require clarification, so that when the Bill leaves this place, it can be taken seriously. The definition of the word ``cover'' is important. I urge her to consider the characteristically helpful and brilliant suggestion of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough to amend the word ``cover'' to ``covert'', which is a clearer definition. Will she also say how, when one is out walking somewhere which clearly is not cover, even by the most demented judgment, that will be treated for the purpose of a criminal offence?

Several hon. Members rose—

The Chairman: Order. I must advise the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) that an amendment to replace the word ``cover'' with ``covert'' would not be accepted by the Chair.

Mr. Soames: I understand that.

Mr. Beith: I know that the Committee is looking forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire speak on Welsh gun packs, which are a feature of his own constituency and a specific and important subject that is well dealt with in the Burns report, but I want first to clear out of the way some other aspects of the amendments. One of those is the food aspect relating to trading in carcases, which is dealt with in amendment No. 58.

Like the hon. Member for Aylesbury, I am at a loss to understand why the Bill is prejudiced against the country gamedealer's small business and why a rabbit flushed out and shot cannot be traded. It is as if the Government were telling people to get lurchers and terriers and catch their own rabbits, because they will not be able to get them at the market any more. The gamedealer will not accept any rabbits in case they have been flushed out and shot rather than shot without the assistance of a dog. If there is any doubt or any possibility that the rabbit could be traced back to someone who habitually uses a dog, the butcher and the gamekeeper will be very careful about taking rabbits at all. I am very fond of rabbit pie, and hope that some Labour Members are too. We shall have more difficulty getting one in future.

Mr. Lidington: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that point is even more relevant when one considers the suggestion of the Food Standards Agency to people who supply game or on whose land game is hunted that the concept of traceability, with which we are familiar in the context of farmed animals, should be extended to game animals as well?

Mr. Beith: Again, it will only increase the pressure on the country business. We all know how difficult many country businesses find it to survive, with the numerous other pressures on them, which I shall not go into. Under the Bill, they are to be excluded entirely from trade in rabbits and hares that are shot after having been flushed out. I do not understand that. The Parliamentary Secretary must recognise that that was not part of Deadline 2000's original purpose and should be excluded from the Bill.

I want to read a letter that I received from a Mr. Clarke of Sunderland. He wrote:

    ``Would you please read this letter out to Committee members. I am writing to ask for an amendment to the Hunting Bill which would give me and thousands like me a chance to continue catching rabbits with our dogs. Speaking for myself I own two lurchers which I catch rabbits with. I keep the rabbits to eat or feed my dogs. I don't kill what I cannot eat and I do not hunt foxes. If this Bill is passed I will not have anything to catch as rats and rodents are not on the menu.''

That is reassuring. Mr. Clarke is one of many who are concerned about the Bill, but there are others who, unlike him, do not eat all the rabbits they catch. They will trade them. They will supply them, reputably, to the market stall in the Grainger market in Newcastle, for example, where one can buy rabbits readily, or to a small country dealer, so that they can be bought by those who enjoy the delicacy of a rabbit pie or a jugged hare. That is one issue that the Government must address.

Secondly, I want to support some of the comments that have been made about game shooting. At every turn the gamekeeper's task is complicated by the Bill in ways that are not central to the purpose of banning foxhunting. I know some gamekeepers who are not all that keen on foxhunting, because they think that it does not kill enough foxes. In some areas, too many foxes survive for the good of the other species that it is the gamekeepers' job to look after. Gamekeepers' interests are related but different. If the Bill is passed in anything like its present form, their everyday work will be made much more difficult, in ways that I described in earlier debates on amendments.

5.30 pm

The Government have a responsibility to look at the Bill from the point of view of those who are not carrying out the activity that it is intended to stop. It is the Home Office's job to ensure that legislation does not sweep into its orbit people whom it was never intended to affect. I do not see the evidence that officials in the Home Office have been told by Ministers to comb through the schedule and make sure that it does not do that. Had they done so, I would have expected some of the amendments to have the Minister's name appended to them.

It is quite a common practice for the Government to discover that an amendment is coincident with something that they would favour. I find that strange, because I remember a private Member's Bill to which the Government tabled 250 amendments in Committee on matters even more technical than those before us. The Government must act to preserve the work and rights of gamekeepers.

I want to draw the Parliamentary Secretary's attention to another matter that arises from our previous debate, but is brought into focus and would be helped by some of the amendments in this group. We have a choice: either we accept some of the amendments or we accept at face value the Minister's words in the previous debate. I know that he is now busy with the Church of England debate in the Chamber. He said that the Bill contains a distinction between hunting and tracking. I have looked through it several times since this morning; I find no distinction in it between hunting and tracking, except in certain specific ways. Flushing out is provided for, as long as the rabbit or hare is to be shot as soon as it is flushed out. Some tracking appears to be provided for in search of an injured animal—a case that I raised this morning—but only if the animal is not hiding in a cave or a quarry. If it is hiding in a cave, it is underground.

I take the example of the goat warden and his duties. Unless he has the protection provided by some of the amendments, the goat warden in the Cheviots, using his dog in search of an injured animal, will be at risk of prosecution if the goat is hiding in a cave. There are caves in the Cheviots that, by definition, are underground, and therefore affected.

Another example that has been quoted under this group of amendments is that a kind of flushing or tracking is allowed in association with falconry and other use of raptors or birds of prey. However, they are all specific; there is no general exemption for tracking. One is at risk of prosecution if one pursues an animal with a dog with any intention other than to shoot it instantaneously when the dog flushes it out. If one's purpose is different, such as checking the condition of a herd of wild animals, checking to see whether there is an injured animal among them or controlling the overall number of animals in an area, one is at risk of prosecution.

Unless the Parliamentary Secretary can point me to a paragraph in the Bill that makes the amendments unnecessary, she must find another way of explaining what the Minister meant when he said that there was a distinction between hunting and tracking and that I was talking about tracking.

Mr. Soames: The right hon. Gentleman quoted Mr. Clarke from Sunderland, who had written to him. He will agree that there are thousands of Mr. Clarkes all over Britain, particularly in the north and possibly in Wales, who will be caught in such a trap. It may be interesting for the right hon. Gentleman to know that the Northumberland and Durham Lurcher Club is sending a coach-full of its own supporters to the countryside march on 18 March. That is from just one place near his constituency.

Mr. Beith: The hon. Gentleman may be aware that some of my constituents and others from Northumberland are chartering a ship to come down to the march. The issue has aroused a great deal of passion.

Again, a category of people who, as I understand it, were not intended to be the subject of restriction by the Bill—many of them live in constituencies represented by Labour Members—would be restricted, and they are extremely worried about it. This is an unusually disparate group of amendments, but several of them would help to reassure those people. Unless the Parliamentary Secretary can give some other form of reassurance or put some substance to the distinction between tracking and hunting to which I referred, we shall have to accept some of them.

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Prepared 6 February 2001