Hunting Bill

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Mr. Öpik: We have had a useful debate on the amendments, which was their purpose. I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for clarifying the true nature of the Countryside Alliance exchange. How I deplore the despicable antics of those who are sympathetic to the Countryside Alliance who have the nerve and cheek to take advantage of my good nature, which leads me naÖvely to trust what is said to me. I shall be more wary in future, and I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for that guidance. Realising that irony does not translate too well in Hansard, I stress that I am only joking; although not about the hon. Lady.

The Parliamentary Secretary made an interesting point about her understanding of the issue that was championed primarily by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed concerning man-made structures, cellars and so forth. It is encouraging that she has committed herself to returning to that matter on Report. That is common sense, and I encourage her to give thought not just to cellars but to pipes and other places where rats may hide. I do not expect her to find a formulation here and now, but I am sure that the Ministers and officials, in consultation with Deadline 2000, will deliver a good result. I praise her willingness to do that.

That solves half of the problem; the other half of it concerns the activity itself. There we continue to differ. The hill packs of Montgomeryshire and elsewhere regard terrier work as an important element of their fox control work. As the hon. Member for Gainsborough said, there is an animal welfare consideration that cuts both ways, and Burns pointed that out too. Burns suggested that one possibility would be to acknowledge the need for the control method in limited areas. I am not sure that we should use geographical variation, because all kinds of arguments will proceed and the debate is not closed.

There are tentative differences in the area. The Parliamentary Secretary differs from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which also regards terrier work as a regrettable need. The SSPCA and the Burns report pretty much come out at the same place on the issue. Burns was not commissioned to make a political judgment, so only the SSPCA says that although it does not like terrier work, there may be a case for allowing its limited use because of the welfare issues that I have highlighted.

The position is equivocal, and the Parliamentary Secretary has clearly come to the conclusion that the animal welfare case is insufficiently compelling to allow the use of terriers. Although Burns had serious concern about terrier work, many of us have serious concern about other activities that will be permitted, such as angling, which serves no purpose other than to cause enjoyment from the capture and implicit torture of animals. In falconry, an animal is lifted 80ft into the air and dropped to the ground. I feel for those animals, because I have tried that myself, and it hurts—a lot.

I remind the Parliamentary Secretary about the question of the burden of proof. We have debated amendments in that regard, but the Bill was not changed, so there is a heavy burden of proof to prove one's innocence. Therefore, when Winkie and Rufus run around in the south-west of England, the burden of proof is on the manager or the officer of the League Against Cruel Sports to show that he genuinely could not have thought that those animals were running underground. That is pretty difficult.

The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole, who is unfortunately not present, may be faced with a choice. Knowing that his animal has a tendency to run under ground and get into a spat with other animals, and fearing that hunting may not necessarily mean the killing of an animal, he could be liable for criminal prosecution. Short of going round stopping up every hole in his garden, he must think hard about how to manage his pet outside. We have heard that some dogs have been trained to ride skateboards. Perhaps that will be sufficient distraction from going down holes. Short of such a dramatic change in an animal's natural behaviour, people such as the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole may fall foul of the Bill for the reasons that I describe.

If the hon. Member for Pendle, whom I envisage living in a cave with his goats somewhere in the Cheviots, had a dog—which would be necessary to apply for the job—and if that dog became bored because there was nothing on the telly and attacked a single rat, he might technically be in breach of the Bill. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed highlighted, other issues exist that would not be addressed simply by consideration of man-made structures—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. There are too many debates in the Room at the moment. I am interested only in that being led by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire.

Mr. Öpik: Do not be too hard on them, Mr. O'Hara. I seem to have prompted debate at long last, which was the intention of the Middle Way Group. If hon. Members are reconsidering their position, that is to be welcomed.

My final point is about welfare implications. To be honest, and to face the facts, Deadline 2000 has come to one conclusion with regard to terrier work, while the Middle Way Group and others have taken a different view. Although there are many legal problems, which I have highlighted, it is not a question of principle. It is a question of judgment about whether the welfare implications of banning terrier work are so positive that the negative welfare implications are outbalanced. Is having cubs starving to death less of an evil than use of a terrier? No doubt the debate will continue, but this is Deadline 2000's Bill. Although I have a different view, I can understand why the Parliamentary Secretary came to hers.

Given that the Parliamentary Secretary has made a commitment to revisiting the question of man-made structures, cellars and other related subterranean environments, and given that the sponsors of the Bill have a clear view on the matter, I do not wish to press the amendment to a vote. I want to reconsider, with my colleagues in the Middle Way Group, where we want to take the debate on terrier work. Clearly, there will be an opportunity to revisit the matter on Report.

I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for listening to my argument. If we act in a constructive and co-operative way and listen to each other, we can significantly improve the Bill and make it workable. We fear that the Bill will need quite a lot of amendments of the type suggested by the Parliamentary Secretary to make it workable and just. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Lidington: I beg to move amendment No. 62, in page 20, line 40, leave out sub-paragraph (5).

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 65, in page 20, line 43, after `dead' insert

    `except where the person charged believed that it would be unsafe to do so'.

No. 117, in page 20, line 43, after `dead', insert `or otherwise killed instantly'.

No. 66, in page 20, line 43, leave out from `dead' to end of line 46.

No. 64, in page 20, line 45, leave out `under sufficiently close' and insert

    `as far as practicable under'.

No. 97, in page 21, line 36, after `dead', insert

    `except where the person charged believed that it would be unsafe to do so'.

No. 98, in page 21, line 36, leave out from `dead' to end of line 39.

No. 103, in page 22, line 9, leave out from `suffering' to end of line 12.

Mr. Lidington: The amendments deal with the current requirements in the Bill for a stalked, flushed or recaptured mammal to be shot, and with those provisions in the schedule for the person who does the stalking, flushing, recapturing or rescuing to take reasonable steps to ensure that the mammal would be shot dead as soon as possible.

The amendments fall into three categories. Amendments Nos. 62 and 117 would omit from the schedule the requirement that a mammal that is being stalked, flushed or has escaped should be shot dead or—to paraphrase the schedule—that the person doing the hunting makes an attempt to shoot the mammal dead as soon as possible.

I put it to the Parliamentary Secretary that it is often quicker for an animal to be killed by dogs after it has been flushed out or stalked than to be dispatched by a shotgun or rifle. The use of dogs might, in some circumstances, enable a kill to be completed without the risk of that animal being wounded. One can think of various examples of such circumstances. An animal might be tracked down through a wooded area or an area covered in thick bracken where it proved to be a difficult target for the man with the gun, even when he got the animal in his sights. It might take two or more shots to dispatch the animal, and the animal might be left wounded and able to get away from the hunter's view so that it lingered on in pain for a long time afterwards.

That is an example of a circumstance in which the use of dogs would hasten the death of the animal. It is not a question of whether the animal dies; the animal is to be killed and the only question is by what method it should be dispatched. In such a circumstance, when there is thick cover or woodland, the balance of the argument on animal welfare grounds may come down in favour of using dogs rather than a gun, especially if the person with the gun is not a trained marksman and the animal is a fast-moving beast.

There are other circumstances in which the requirement to shoot to kill and to do so as quickly as possible may be the less attractive option. Amendments Nos. 65 and 97 are designed to deal with the possibility that it might be unsafe for the person doing the hunting to shoot at the animal once it has been tracked down. The amendments would retain the obligation to shoot the animal as quickly as possible, but provide a let-out when the hunter believed that it would be unsafe for him to shoot.

The obvious example of that is when someone is tracking an animal through woodland or open countryside where other people are present; exercising their right to roam, perhaps. The person with the gun must either shoot and risk inadvertently injuring another human being, or run the risk of breaching his obligation to dispatch the animal with a gun as quickly as possible. I find it difficult to understand the objection to amendments Nos. 65 and 97, because they would keep the general obligation to shoot the animal as quickly as possible but would provide for an exception to that rule in particular circumstances in which shooting would be unsafe.

The remaining amendments, Nos. 66, 64, 98 and 103, all deal with the requirement to keep a dog under sufficiently close control to ensure that it does not obstruct the objective of the shooting dead of an animal. The amendments would substitute for that requirement in the schedule as drafted a requirement for the dog owner or handler to keep his dog under control so far as is practicable.

6.45 pm

Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary can assure the Committee that the idea of practicality is implicit in the wording of the schedule as drafted. However, it is not explicit. As I understand the current phrasing of the Bill, it proposes that the obligation should be unconditional. The obligation will be on the dog owner or handler to keep his dog under sufficiently close control to ensure that the dog does not obstruct shooting, even when it is not practicable for the owner or handler to do so. Again the Bill seems ambiguous, and I tabled the amendments to probe the exact meaning of the Bill's present text and to suggest to the Government a way in which they can deal with some of the difficulties that seem to arise under the current drafting.

 
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Prepared 8 February 2001