Hunting Bill

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Mr. Garnier: I intend to be brief, because my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury has made the argument elegantly. However, I want to put it in the context of the beginning of paragraph 7, which places the burden firmly on the defendant to prove that the conditions set out in the paragraph are met. Sub-paragraph (7) covers the fourth condition:

    ``that the stalking or flushing out took place entirely on land--

    (a) which belonged . . . to the person doing the stalking or flushing out, or

    (b) which he had been permitted to use for that purpose by someone to whom the land belonged''.

Sub-paragraph (7)(a) and (b) refers to paragraph 22 for the three definitions of an interest in land, which are relevant to our discussion.

The Committee discussed the concept of permission last week when the Minister gave us his understanding of it. I was not entirely satisfied and I wonder whether he has had further thoughts during the intervening period either to reinforce his interpretation last week or to move a little away from that position. I should be interested to hear one way or the other. I am prepared to hear him say that his first thoughts were the best and that he stands by them, but I should be interested to hear his current view. The amendments would add a degree of practicality to the Bill. Its overall purpose is to ban hunting but to permit certain other activities, so long as they are approved. It would be a better Bill with the amendments.

I shall give an example of border country between one farm and another. In shooting country there is often not just a hedge, but a wood dividing one farm or one piece of land from another. That is exactly the sort of territory that is inhabited by rabbits, rodents and other mammals, and exactly the sort of cover--without the ``t''--into which wounded animals will go for sanctuary if they have been injured by a dog or shot. It would be humane and in the interests of animal welfare to agree the amendments of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury. Otherwise, a wounded animal, which should be stalked or flushed so that it may be humanely dispatched, will be confined in its misery to a piece of land just the wrong side of a land boundary. I am sure that that is not what the promoters of the Bill want and it is certainly not what the Government, in the guise of the Home Office or the Lord Chancellor's Department, want. Will the Minister consider carefully whether the amendments make good animal welfare sense, quite apart from common sense, and apply my hon. Friend's arguments to real life?

I do not know whether Labour Members have had the experiences that I have had, and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed may have had, of going out with gamekeepers, for example, to see what they do and to do some of the work that they do. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for West Ham says that he prefers going out with girls. I like to think that the majority of Members of the House, and indeed of the Committee, prefer going out with people of the opposite sex, but it is not compulsory. I warn the hon. Gentleman that the profession of gamekeeping is not restricted to men; plenty of women do it. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman takes either the Shooting Times or The Field, but if he did, he would have seen in a recent issue a young woman receiving an award for her gamekeeping work. I am sure that he would have much enjoyed going out with her, although perhaps not going out gamekeeping with her. However, there may be someone called Mrs. Banks who—

11.45 am

The Chairman: Order. We have had quite enough about the gender of gamekeepers.

Mr. Garnier: Let us assume for the purposes of this argument that the gamekeeper is a hermaphrodite.

Mr. Gummer: I was hoping that my hon. and learned Friend would restrain himself, because if we get into the matter of hermaphrodite gamekeepers we will be led astray to the point of wondering whether anybody would wish to go out with a hermaphrodite gamekeeper.

The Chairman: Order. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will keep off the ambivalent gender of gamekeepers also.

Mr. Garnier: Let me conclude on the serious aspect of my small contribution to this commonsensical group of amendments. The Minister may prefer one amendment to another, but I hope that the germ of the idea that they contain has taken root in his mind. I know that, once it has taken root, it will be his pleasure, if not his duty, to persuade other members of the Committee to agree with him. In doing so, perhaps he will come to the conclusion that the principles behind my hon. Friend's amendments are worthy of a second look.

Mr. Gummer: I support the amendments, save for one. I am not happy about a general need to prohibit people from acting in a certain way on land, as one of the amendments suggests. However, I am concerned about the structure and presentation of this part of the Bill, for many of the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury and others.

First, I am sure that in many country areas the situation is much as it is in mine. I have a small amount of land that is surrounded by the farmland of two other people, one of whom would be happy for any of the activities mentioned in the Bill to take place on his land. The other has a more ambivalent view, if I may use your word, Mr. O'Hara. In the former case, I would not need permission, as it is assumed, both by the landowner and by me, that we can each behave as we would expect the other to behave on his own land. I do not think that I have had such a discussion with him, but we know each other well enough to accept that that is the situation.

In the latter case, if I wished to take advantage of this part of the Bill, I would ask, and I would expect to receive either permission or refusal. Country relationships are not as clear as the Bill suggests, nor should they become so. I prefer the attitude expressed in the Deer Act 1991, which seems to have been framed by someone with a clear understanding of country relationships. It is not the House's intention or purpose to try to change the way in which country people relate one to another, but land that is not easily accessible, or the ownership of which is in doubt, gives rise to certain difficulties.

There has been a particular problem with travellers on some land in my constituency, the root cause of which is that the owner lives abroad and appears unable to answer letters, telephone calls or any other form of communication. In such circumstances, it is not sensible to argue that an animal must not be put out of its distress because the owner of the land has not given express permission. What is true of that land is unfortunately true of land of little value in many parts of the country. In cases where ownership of land is disputed or not known, or where it is in the hands of public authorities, it is not easy to gain permission rapidly. It would be sensible for the Bill to incorporate a phrase that could cover circumstances that even Deadline 2000 agrees constitute exceptions.

If those exceptions are indeed important, it is also important to ensure that they work. Changes are therefore necessary, and like my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, I do not much mind how we make them, although I prefer the approach taken in the Deer Act 1991. Above all, we must tackle the issue of dealing with animals humanely. I know that there is a prejudice on this Committee and elsewhere against rats; people are apparently less concerned about the rat than other of God's creatures. I hesitate to express too much concern about them, but I do think that the killing of any animal should be carried out as humanely and quickly as possible. It is not helpful to establish a system that would restrain someone from killing an injured animal simply because of considerations about ownership of the land on which it has strayed.

As I have said, the difficulty with the Bill is that it seeks, as it must, to restrain the normal activities of animals. I realise that the restraint will be placed on the human being rather than the animal but, in effect, the human being should become the surrogate for the animal. It is important to remember that animals do not understand the concept of boundaries and naturally stray over them, so we ought to ensure that the Bill is not so heavy-handed that it makes it impossible to deal with the very exceptions that even Deadline 2000 has acknowledged.

The same is true of land where obtaining permission is almost impossible. The land that I referred to earlier is in close proximity to a home and garden. Those are the circumstances in which the exceptions would be most likely to be used. What is the owner of the neighbouring land to do if the owner refuses to answer a letter? In that case, permission has not been refused, there has never been a complaint and there have never been circumstances in which one should say that the owner is unlikely to give permission. However, under this wording the owner of the neighbouring property would be unlawful in acting without the express permission of the neighbouring landowner. If such permission were implied, it would have to be to a degree that would be difficult to achieve.

The Under-Secretary has suggested that people ought to be sure that permission has been granted. He also suggested that my colleagues and I ought to be surer than others. That is perfectly reasonable for people whose public position might make that necessary, but we are discussing people who are merely trying to live their lives normally. It is difficult to accept that Parliament should put those people in the position of feeling that they are in breach of the law. Even if nobody prosecutes them, it is not a position that ordinary people want to be in. That is why it would be helpful if he accepted the amendments or discovered a mechanism that is better.

The humane point is vital for the peace of mind of the landowner. As I stated in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, I like the alternative suggested by the Deer Act. If we receive an answer of the sort that has been given before, we shall put the weight of prosecution on somebody who feels that his ownership and views have been transgressed. If not, we open ourselves up to those who want to use the schedule as a means of seeking prosecution. I hope that the Under Secretary will apply his mind to that point.

I generally accept the Under-Secretary's argument that it will take something serious to get people in court, but in this area the proposal could get us into difficulty. Let us say that I am member—this will be difficult to imagine—of the Animal Liberation Front. Therefore, I am opposed to all exceptions and am totally uninterested in any activity that treats animals as less than human. Indeed, I prefer hunting humans to hunting animals. I target somebody whom I have angst about—I live close to one establishment of Huntingdon Life Sciences, so I have immediate experience of this—and give notice to the police that that person has engaged in certain activities without the landowner's permission. The police get on to the owner and say, ``Have you given permission to Mr. Smith to use your land for this purpose?'' The owner, being a truthful person, says, ``I do not mind Mr. Smith doing it, but I have not given him permission.'' What do the police do? Clearly, it is something that could be proven in court to be true. It would be hard for the police not act in those circumstances. That is not what the Bill means, nor is it the intention of the House of Commons. We should try to guard against vexatious prosecutions, which are likely to occur in this area.

The Minister has had to deal with difficult issues in the past few weeks, and he has done so extraordinarily well. There is a common view that blackmail should not be used as a means of achieving ends in a democratic society, but yesterday's activities show that significant numbers of people are willing to take very direct action.

12 noon

The idea that we are producing a chimera—something that is unlikely to happen—is not true. We are dealing in an area where there is a huge strength of feeling among those for whom animals are clearly the most important thing in life. I hope that the Minister will accept that it would be better to go down the tried and trusted way of the Deer Act. As far as I know, in the nine or 10 years since that Act was passed, there have been no complaints that its wording has led to an inability to carry out its purposes. In those circumstances, it seems much simpler to adopt the successful approach, rather than to invent a new one.

I return to the question of humaneness. I am concerned that in earlier debates, including the debate that I could not attend because I was in the United States, the Committee has sometimes lost sight of what we are told is the purpose of the Bill. Those who promote it espouse the humane treatment of animals, which is why they feel so strongly about it. The Opposition do not believe that the Bill advances the humane treatment of animals. We are all committed to humane treatment, which is why some of us took an active part in the debate about badgers. Humane treatment of animals ought to be in our minds at all times in our debates on the Bill. We must take seriously the admonition of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury about the schedule and the matter of a wounded animal. Is this the sort of legislation that the House or the Committee wants to pass into law?

The humane treatment of animals should be at the top of the list, but this bit of the Bill does not achieve it. We need a different mechanism so that a decent countryman going about his duties can trespass on another's land, without specific permission, to ensure that a wounded animal will die. He must not be made to draw back saying, ``If I do that, I shall be acting illegally.''

I know that some people will say that nobody would prosecute the man in the circumstances, but if there were an attempt to prosecute him, he could put his case and he would be let off. What will we be doing to people if, in such circumstances, they feel that they have to choose between illegal acts and inhumanity? We should be united in our determination to ensure that we do not put beyond the law people whose activities deserve approval rather than condemnation.

I hope that the Minister will not answer our points by saying that it would be unlikely that anybody would go to court in those circumstances, or that if they did, they would have a perfectly good argument and would be let off. I am not sure that that is entirely true, but even if it were, our job is to ensure that we make criminals only of those who deserve it. We need to ensure that law-abiding people who behave properly do not have to think about whether they are breaking a law that appears to be footling and unnecessary. Let us make sure that our legislation is never seen as that, even though it may be based on a wrong principle. We are discussing a Bill, the principle of which I deeply dislike. However, in accepting that we are trying to make it work, we must not do so in a footling, irrelevant or heavy-handed way.

 
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