Hunting Bill

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The Chairman: Order. My understanding is that all members of the Committee are here freely to vote freely and are not here as members of the Government or the Opposition.

Mr. Bercow: That is a welcome statement, Mr. O'Hara. I did not think that I was suggesting otherwise; although, perhaps, on the strength of precedent and the reality of the way in which these Committees have tended to operate, I could have been forgiven for doing so.

The Chairman: Order. You are forgiven.

Mr. Bercow: I am forgiven.

Mr. Gordon Prentice indicated dissent.

2.45 pm

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Member for Pendle indicates that I am not. I always listen with interest to what he has to say, but on the whole I am more interested in what you, Mr. O'Hara, decide, and you have muttered that I am—

The Chairman: Order. You are forgiven this once.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful, Mr. O'Hara. In a sense your decision means that I have been let out on a tag.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): Two strikes and my hon. Friend is out.

Mr. Bercow: I have had only one strike, so I am not yet out. I do not wish to tempt fate. I do wish to hear the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and the contributions of other hon. Members, but we all want to know what the Government's justification is for their position. If they have none, will the Parliamentary Secretary—with the good grace that we have come to expect from her—acknowledge that we have a sound argument and agree that the Government should reconsider their position?

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): I return to the subject of mink. If a gamekeeper walks along with his dog, flushing out rabbits, it is fine; if he suddenly flushes out a mink, which darts up a tree and sits there looking down at him, under paragraph (1)(a) he will not be able to do anything about it. He might know that a family of water voles lives close by; they are a protected species, but are declining in number because of the mink's actions. However, he would not be able to shoot the mink.

The gamekeeper would also be caught under paragraph (3)(a), which says that, even if he were allowed to shoot the mink, which he is not, he could do so only

    ``for the purpose of protecting livestock, fowl (including wild fowl), game birds or crops''.

The water vole does not come under any of those species. Why should the gamekeeper be prohibited from shooting the mink to protect an endangered species?

Mr. Beith: That is a good point, and I look forward to the Parliamentary Secretary's answer.

I want to refer to amendment No. 122 and to goats, which are other wild mammals. The amendment echoes the general point about wild mammals, but makes a specific reference to goats. Its significance has been greatly sharpened by the letter that the Parliamentary Secretary helpfully distributed to me and other members of the Committee at the start of the sitting. She has confirmed the interpretation of the Bill that I had formed and put to her. The letter says:

    ``I think the Bill makes it clear that hunting does not necessarily involve killing.''

Indeed, she deploys the same argument that I deployed to her. She goes on:

    ``Two of the exceptions from the primary offence of hunting are for the purposes of recapturing animals and rescuing animals and it must be apparent that in many cases the outcome of hunting undertaken for these purposes will not be the death of the quarry.''

I tabled the amendment to find a way of protecting somebody who was properly and innocently tracking or stalking a wild goat for the purposes of wildlife conservation from the charge of hunting a wild mammal with a dog.

The amendment is not ideal because it brings into play other features of the exceptions in this part of the schedule, including the requirement to kill the animal when it has been flushed out. Further amendments would be required to use this route to achieve my objective. It has become clear during the proceedings of the Bill, as the Parliamentary Secretary has specifically confirmed, that a distinction is not drawn between hunting and tracking or stalking. Tracking or stalking is hunting, unless the circumstances are covered by one of the exceptions that I am trying to augment. That was appreciated neither by the public nor by hon. Members when they voted in earlier proceedings. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary can advise me whether the deer legislation, which somehow exempts the stalking of deer from the general prohibition in the Bill, relates to that point.

Those wild mammals, including goats, which are not covered by deer legislation—there is a corpus of deer legislation—appear to be subject to a general prohibition. Somebody who uses a dog to locate, find, count, check on an animal or, for that matter, to stalk it for the purposes of shooting it with a rifle—which presumes that it is a species that that person is authorised to shoot—will be covered by the schedule because of the use of the dog. That became clear only when I examined both the Bill and the information kindly given to me by the Parliamentary Secretary. I suspect that that also became clear to Ministers and officials only during the course of proceedings. Nevertheless, we must sort it out or we shall prohibit activities ranging from wildlife conservation to stalking as a sport. Once again, the Bill threatens unintentionally to ban a range of activities.

One route would be to agree amendment No. 122 and subsequent amendments that would reduce the number of conditions that must apply. For example, an appointment has been advertised for a warden for the Cheviot wild goats that I mentioned earlier. There have been 200 applicants for the post, despite a salary of £10,000 to £12,000 a year. The appointment is in an extremely remote place and the warden must provide his own dog to locate and keep an eye on the goats. I have only seen the goats twice because their habits are so secretive; they move around the hills in the area close to the border.

Incidentally, one of the warden's duties is to prevent the goats straying across the border into Scotland. In some cases, crossing the border from my constituency involves moving south, which is confusing, but that is the way the border runs. There is a fence along much of the border, but the goats can get through it, which means that they will be in an area that the warden does not cover. How will the warden do his job? Of course, he will use a dog because it will assist in locating the goats. However, he might be subject to a malicious prosecution on the basis that he is hunting a wild mammal that is not in one of the exempted categories with a dog. That would place him in a difficult position, so we must carefully consider the question of wild goats.

I echoed the requirement to extend the exemption to wild mammals generally, which is something that appears in the other amendments in the group, because we do not know what will come up next. Several examples, such as stoats, weasels, ferrets and mink, have been quoted today, but the Committee may have overlooked a wild mammal that someone will have reason to stalk with a dog. Perhaps before the proceedings are over in this House or the other place, if the Bill ever gets there, we shall receive letters from someone whose legitimate activities involve them in stalking another wild mammal—whatever it might be—not with the intention of killing. Unless we make a list of all the wild mammals known to be resident in England and Wales, it would be better to express the exemption in general terms.

Those problems are quite serious and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give us some answers. The solution to some of the problems may be to create a general exemption for stalking or tracking that is not intended to bring about the killing of the mammal concerned. If that is not included, we will have to use amendments such as this. If it is included, the Government will have to tell us how they intend procedurally to go about the matter. Are they prepared to table an amendment later in our proceedings in Committee—on Tuesday for example? That might be difficult because of the way in which the schedule is structured. Will they table an amendment on Report? If we do not solve the problem, another large group of law-abiding people will be criminalized when that was not understood to be the intention of the Bill.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): I am looking forward to the Parliamentary Secretary's speech in reply to the amendments because I am genuinely at a loss to understand why the Bill has been framed as it has. After all, one would expect this part of the Bill to be in tune with the earlier parts, and we all know that in paragraph 1 there is a clear prohibition:

    ``A person commits an offence if he hunts a wild mammal with a dog.''

It does not say there that a person commits an offence if he hunts a hare, a fox or a rabbit with a dog. It uses the expression ``wild mammal''. In other words, it is very comprehensive. Presumably the framers of the Bill felt that to limit it to fox, hare or rabbit was not right. They were obviously worried that, for instance, mink hunts would continue. If they framed it so widely in paragraph 1, why in the exceptions in paragraph 7 do they limit it to fox, hare or rabbit? I do not see the logic of that, unless they are trying to have their cake and eat it. It would be unfair to have a prohibition in one sense, where the Bill refers to wild mammals in general, but limiting exceptions to fox, hare or rabbit. There must be some logic and the Parliamentary Secretary must deal with that.

The excellent points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) have created a powerful argument. Why do the framers of the schedule not recognise that it would be a defence for a person charged with an offence under paragraph 1 to prove that he was stalking not only fox, hare or rabbit, but mink and deer? What is it about mink and deer? Apparently they are such special species that they are excluded from these exceptions. Is there some evidence that is available to Deadline 2000 that suggests that mink and deer, which are stalked and then shot, suffer more than foxes, hares or rabbits? Explanation there is none and we do not have a spokesman here for Deadline 2000. Will the Parliamentary Secretary please tell us the answer? I would have thought that anyone concerned with the control of mink and deer to manage the countryside—as they would have to be—would be extremely concerned about this part of the Bill and would hope that it could be amended.

I must confess that, owing to the nature of the countryside that I represent, I am not a great expert on deer or mink. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham said—and as we know from our own common sense—we need not rely on the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the British Deer Society to tell us that deer sometimes take shelter in heavy woodland. We can work that out for ourselves. It is sometimes sensible to use dogs to move deer into more open countryside where they can be shot. They cannot be shot in woodland.

I presume that the Government will not accept the amendment because none of our amendments has been accepted so far. The Parliamentary Secretary is shrugging her shoulders. If the amendment is not accepted--I live in hope that on this occasion she will accept that it has some merit--those who try to control deer in that way will not be allowed to do so. I am at a complete loss as to why the provision is drafted in this way.

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