Hunting Bill

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Mr. Beith: The right hon. Gentleman is reading my mind on the possibility of a police officer or an RSPCA inspector using a dog to locate a wounded animal, or one that has escaped from a zoo. They could face prosecution by allowing the dog to go on to neighbouring land without obtaining permission in pursuit of a wild and possibly dangerous, animal, when they are merely trying to protect the animal or the public. Clearly, the Government will have to sort that out when they recognise the problem.

I want to speak briefly to amendment No. 105, the agreement to which, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury said, is the least that we can ask for. We are seeking protection for someone who is lawfully going about his business of pest control and whose dog strays on to neighbouring land in pursuit of the quarry. That is such a likely circumstance that I cannot understand why no provision was made for it by those who drafted the Bill. They must surely recognise that they now need to do so.

It is not the Bill's purpose to replace trespass legislation; we already have legislation on that subject. It is not for this Bill to decide in what circumstances someone may go on to another's land; that is a whole other area of law. There is proper redress for improper trespass, which could be brought to bear in some of the circumstances that I have just described. We do not require the Bill to make a criminal offence of the basic activity in which an individual is engaged when his dog crosses the boundary line. In ratting, for example, it is extremely likely that a pursued rat will be scrabbling about at the bottom of a hedge and will disappear on to neighbouring land. It will be rather difficult for the person who is in charge of the dog to be sure that the dog is on the right side of the line as the rat tries to make its escape.

I do not know how many members of the Committee heard the radio programme this morning about the substantial increase in the number of rats in this country, which is probably the result of milder winters. That increase is particularly large in the countryside. We are accustomed to thinking of rats in cities, but the rat population is large in the countryside. As has been pointed out in previous debates, landowners have a legal responsibility to deal with rat infestations, which regularly spill over on to neighbours' properties. The basis of their legal obligation is that their rats go on to other people's property, so it is ludicrous beyond belief to imagine that someone should be prosecuted because his dog, in pursuit of a rat, strayed over the boundary.

The other amendments in the group offer a variety of ways of addressing that and closely related problems. I do not want to go to the stake for any particular version, especially as mine is the most modest of all the amendments. If the Government cannot accept my amendment, they will not have come to terms with something for which they have shown some sympathy. Ministers have indicated that, owing to the need for pest control, and the control of rats in particular, parts of the Bill should be reconsidered—for example, in relation to underground spaces and cellars. The aspect addressed by the amendments is another one that they should reconsider.

It seems curiously obsessive to import principles of trespass law into the Bill. I am glad that the hon. Member for Aylesbury and others have drawn attention to the fact that the Deer Act specifically envisaged the problem and made appropriate provision for it. We must surely do that in the Bill, and I have suggested a modest way of doing so. A number of other ways are on the amendment paper. If the Minister cannot pick and mix from that selection, perhaps he can table an amendment himself.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): I warmly welcome what my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed have said. Anybody listening to them, on whatever side of the hunting argument, must realise that they have made eminently reasonable points in a moderate way. It is hard to see—although no doubt in a moment we shall—how anybody could resist them. We do not expect all the amendments to be agreed and no doubt the drafting could be improved, but one has only to look at the Bill to realise that the amendments could only improve it and make it less heavy handed, while still enabling it to fulfil its objectives, as we all accept it should.

What harm would it do if the words ``took place'' and ``entirely'' were left out of sub-paragraph (7)? It would then read:

    ``The fourth condition is that the stalking or flushing out''

was intended to take place on land. What is wrong with that? Criminal law is concerned with two things. First, it is concerned with the outcome, which can be bad for society. However, nobody is seriously suggesting that ordinary pest control operations are bad for society. Secondly, it is concerned with the alleged criminal's mind. The Government could accept the amendments and simply say that the person would not be prosecuted if his action was ``intended to take place''; I do not see the harm in that.

A similar argument can be made for sub-paragraph (7)(b). The words in the Bill are:

    ``which he had been permitted to use''.

It is proposed to simply add the phrase ``which he reasonably believed''. We are not talking about an earth-shattering and important activity in the sum of human endeavour. We are simply talking about a bloke out on the land trying to do his job or to carry out pest control. What possible harm could it do to insert the phrase ``which he reasonably believed''?

Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend is right that hunting is not one of the great activities of mankind but, given the considerable increase in rats, to which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred, and the responsibility of landowners to deal with that, it is none the less an important activity that has a direct effect on people's health and safety, particularly when the land on which it is done is close to other dwellings.

Mr. Leigh: Yes. What objection can there be to continuing an activity that the Bill recognises as a desirable objective: ratting and pest control?

I have spoken warmly about the amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury has tabled but, unusually, there is one that I am not so sure about.

Amendment No. 70 would insert the phrase

    ``, or

    (c) which he had not been forbidden to use.''.

When my hon. Friend sums up the debate, he will doubtless explain the purpose of the phrase. I do not like it very much—

12.15 pm

Mr. Gummer: It is no good.

Mr. Leigh: My right hon. Friend has similar objections. Those of us who live in the countryside and represent rural constituencies know that people from the city visit the countryside at night and engage in extremely unpleasant activities such as hare coursing, but how can one expressly forbid their entering one's land, given that one has no idea who they are?

Mr. Garnier: My hon. Friend should bear in mind the distinction between civil law and criminal law. We are making criminal law; more importantly, we are creating an aspect of criminal law that will require the defendant to prove—admittedly, to civil standards—that he falls within one of the conditions. The example of poachers is already dealt with under criminal law, and although I realise that, sadly, night coursing is a problem in Lincolnshire, it is already a criminal act. Night coursers do not course in the accepted sense of the sport; they steal landowners' game, which is a criminal offence. There is a huge distinction, therefore, in principle and concept between the activities that we are discussing.

Mr. Leigh: That is fair enough. I do not possess the legal skills of my hon. and learned Friend, who puts his argument well. I remain rather confused as to why the ordinary laws of trespass—which deal with poaching and other offences, and which we in the countryside have known and understood for many years—are not sufficient for the activity. The Minister can doubtless explain that important point.

I accept that my objections to amendment No. 70 might not amount to much, and I should point out that the other amendments are perfectly sensible. If amendment No. 87 were accepted, paragraph (3)(b) would refer to hunting taking place on land

    ``which he believed that he had been permitted to use''.

Given that the criminal law is designed to deal with criminal intent, the amendment would constitute a good safeguard for civil liberties. Amendment No. 105, which would insert the phrase

    ``onto which the quarry had escaped'',

is eminently sensible. Amendment No. 71, which deals with public land, is a good one and I shall return to it. It would be absurd if one could not engage in pest control of quarry that strays on to public land. I may be wrong, and the Minister will doubtless advance some cogent arguments, but the amendments appear eminently sensible. If he has any objections to them, perhaps he could explain them in a moment.

The open countryside in constituencies such as mine and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal is not suburbia. As he said, not everything in the countryside is done with express permission. People do not argue vigorously about tiny parcels of land. We often read of disputes between neighbours about hedges that are grown too high, or roots, plants and trees that overhang adjoining properties. Such matters are very important to millions of our fellow countrymen, and it is probably true that the overwhelming majority of people live in suburbia or urban areas. However, the countryside is a much looser place. Landowners are indeed worried about people who trespass on their land for no particular reason, and one can only assume that the Bill is designed to protect them. However, landowners are not worried about a neighbour, farmer or gamekeeper wandering on to their land to control pests without their express permission. If a hunt is allowed only on land owned either by the person who is doing the flushing out or by someone who has given express permission, one must assume that pest control will be seriously compromised.

I make no apology for returning again and again to the issue of pest control. Although I do not like the House's decision, I accept that hon. Members have made up their minds about organised hunting. However, now we are concerned with effective pest control. I hope that the Under-Secretary will not say, ``Deadline 2000 has drafted this because the House has made up its mind.'' The House has not decided whether we should leave in words such as ``entirely'' or ``he honestly believed that''. It is incumbent on him to tell us why he disagrees with the amendments and thinks that pest control will not be seriously comprised.

The Bill will compromise the control of foxes and rabbits on footpaths, country roads and rights of way. When a dog flushes out a rabbit or fox, how is it to know that it has wandered on to a footpath? The dog will not be prosecuted, but its owner could be. Should the dog immediately stop chasing its quarry if it gets to common land, a neighbours land, a footpath or a country road? The Bill is absurd, ludicrous and ridiculous, and that must be explained because we need to allow for serious practicalities on the ground.

The Bill smacks of hypocrisy and double standards. The Government have enormously extended the scope for ordinary people to roam over vast swathes of private land, but if the Bill is not amended gamekeepers and ordinary country dwellers will not be allowed to do their proper country jobs. I love country walking and sympathise with people who want to roam the countryside. The Government have given them that right, but say that a country dweller or gamekeeper who deviates slightly from their land or land over which they have been given express permission to pursue game is liable to criminal prosecution, to a £5,000 fine, to the destruction of their dog and perhaps to the loss of their means of earning a living. I hope that the Under-Secretary, who has sadly left the Room but no doubt has good reason to do so, will return in a moment. Nevertheless, careful notes can be made of my remarks. Indeed, I am glad to see the Parliamentary Secretary making notes because I am making a good point that must be answered.

Land ownership is clear in suburban and urban areas where land boundaries are obvious. It is different in the open countryside where there may not be a wall or fence to denote a change of ownership. Indeed, there may be a meandering stream, a boundary line in the middle of a field or nothing at all. It is ludicrous to convict someone of a criminal offence for a small deviation across a theoretical border in open countryside. Furthermore, legal ownership may change but the terrain may not. We are discussing not a back garden, but perhaps hundreds of acres of open fell and moor where there may be no boundary lines. How can it be a criminal offence to deviate? Would it not be better to say that a person would be committing a criminal offence if someone knows that he is deviating, trespassing or carrying out an activity that a neighbouring landowner would not want to take place? I do not understand the point of view of those who drafted the provisions on legal ownership.

Stalking and flushing out should be allowed on public and common land because it is unfair to allow some people the right to use that land but not others, and there could be a serious side effect on land adjoining common land. Rabbits and foxes do not care about legal ownership and will be able to foray on to adjoining land, cause considerable damage and then return to their earths in common land. They have no idea where they are. There is no point the Minister saying, ``Oh well, there won't be prosecutions. Don't worry, the Crown Prosecution will never prosecute.'' If a gamekeeper's livestock, crop or game is affected by foxes living on common land, he will be unable to deal with the problem.

Hon. Members must accept that, in order to control pests, there will be more snares and traps, which are a greater risk to domestic animals than to wild animals, as pets are less wary of them. Therefore, I am not sure what will be achieved from an animal welfare point of view. The banning of hunting on public land will have an adverse effect on wild mammals and domestic animals, because more will be trapped, snared and poisoned. The arguments continue and it is incumbent on the Minister to explain his intentions and why the Bill was drafted as it was.

No one should be guilty of criminal behaviour if he reasonably believed that he had permission to carry out the act constituting the alleged offence. The Bill makes no allowance for genuine mistakes about the extent of a landowner's consent for a completely irreprehensible activity, which does social good--that is, pest control.

The law of trespass is not a powerful weapon, but it is well understood in the countryside. As I understand it, someone who wanders on to someone else's land is not guilty of criminal behaviour, but the landowner may ask him to leave and to desist from the activities in which he is engaged. That is a perfectly good English compromise. If someone is walking in the countryside and deviates on to a farmer's land—even if he knows that there is no footpath across that land—he is not committing a criminal offence. The farmer may ask him to leave and that is an entirely sensible compromise which is not too burdensome on the general public but meets the needs of landowners and others to protect their land if necessary--for example, if the walker is causing a problem. I do not know why it is necessary to include a requirement for permission to enter land.

The Minister is in receipt of better legal advice than I, but I understand that no human activity would be a crime only if it is committed by a trespasser. Even the offence of burglary requires the prosecution to prove that the person has entered private property and committed theft. Burglary is uniquely different. The Minister is good at saying, ``This is not a unique provision. There is this Act and that Act'', and we have heard about the Deer Act. However, I am not sure that such a stipulation is not unique—nor do I know why it has been made, because the activity complained of is not like burglary. Theft is bad, wherever it is committed. Burglary is even worse if it is committed by entering a private dwelling. However, pest control is not theft but an activity that society wants to be carried out.

12.30 pm

The question of animal welfare is interesting. The requirement that flushing out takes place entirely on permitted land is too restrictive. Those who want to promote Deadline 2000 are worried about animal welfare. Let us forget about landowners for a moment. Those who framed the Bill are presumably not primarily concerned with them; I suspect that many of them have a pretty dubious opinion of landowners. They are concerned about animal welfare. How can anybody argue with the proposition that it makes no difference in animal welfare terms whether the flushing out is on one piece of land or another? It makes no difference to the animal. I should have thought that the provision was sufficient, in animal welfare terms, if the defendant was using land that he had not been forbidden to use. We have had that debate and no doubt the Minister can return to it.

Similarly, it makes no sense in animal welfare terms to restrict the rodent exception to a limited area of land, as paragraph 8(3) does. What objection can there be to continuing a pursuit, which the Bill recognises as a desirable objective, if the quarry escapes from one piece of land to another?

To sum up, we are trying to make the Bill work. We recognise that the countryside is an open place where express permission is not always given for desirable activities. We are trying to impose the standards and practices of the city on the open countryside. We are putting a severe burden not on organised hunts or landowners, but on—

 
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Prepared 13 February 2001