Hunting Bill

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Mr. Leigh: The hon. Gentleman was traducing me when he said that I had argued that because Parliament had passed rights of way legislation, it could go on diminishing property rights. I was complaining about the hypocrisy of those who have framed the Bill. They have said that the public can roam over ever-increasing parts of private land, but more and more onerous burdens have been put on gamekeepers under the Bill. He deliberately ignored my point regarding my doubts about amendment No. 70, which would insert the words

    ``which he had not been forbidden to use.''.

If we were to withdraw that amendment, would the hon. Gentleman be happy with the others, which do not go as far as the one that he is deliberately picking on?

Mr. Rendel: I am happy to acknowledge that the hon. Member for Gainsborough expressed concerns about amendment No. 70. He is right to reject it, and I apologise if I implied that he had not done so. At least one other Conservative Member has agreed with him, and I hope that others will do so as well. However, the hon. Member for Gainsborough was intervened on by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough, and he seemed to accept the arguments that were made in that intervention. I was sorry about that, as his hon. and learned Friend's arguments were feeble compared with his own objections to the amendment.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough said that it was hypocritical to refuse to allow further amendments to land and property rights. I do not believe that it is necessarily hypocritical to draw a line as to how far to extend or diminish property rights. We always have to make a balanced judgment. The House felt that property rights should be diminished to the extent that people should be allowed the right to roam. That was the correct decision, although the hon. Member for Gainsborough may not agree. I believe that it is perfectly fair to decide that property rights should not be further diminished to allow hunting or stalking on land in the way suggested in the amendment.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough was correct to say that amendment No. 70 should go, and he then asked whether I would be happy if just that amendment were dropped. The answer, of course, is that I would not, for reasons that I have already explained. One would still be able to say in one's defence that one was stalking over someone else's land because a small part of the entire operation took place on land that one believed it was permissible to use. It would be a sufficient defence merely to set out to stalk from one's own home. As I said, in practice, one could stalk anywhere one liked and get away with it; even in places where one had been told one should not stalk.

Mr. O'Brien: Several good points have been made in this debate, some of which I want to consider at length because they require further thought. A couple of the issues raised by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal bear particularly serious consideration, and I shall return to them in a moment. However, I should first make it clear that I do rely on the safeguards that exist in relation to any prosecution; proof beyond reasonable doubt that an offence has been committed, a public interest in the prosecution and a reasonable likelihood of conviction. All those safeguards remain in place, and I do not wish to rehearse them.

As I said, some good points have been made, but they do not directly relate to any of the amendments. Nor do the amendments themselves take us much further, and I shall explain why. Historically, the Conservative party has been the party of landed interest and has fought to defend the interests of wealthy landowners. To reverse the point made by the hon. Member for Gainsborough, even in this Parliament we have witnessed that principle in action, as the Opposition have attempted to prevent us from granting the right to roam across millions of acres of heathland. However, the right of those who own land to decide whether they want hunting to take place on it is, to quote the hon. Member for Aylesbury, ``unnecessarily inflexible''. In other words, it is not a principle to which the Conservative party adheres.

As members of the Committee will by now doubtless appreciate, the Bill provides that stalking and flushing out with dogs should remain lawful only if certain conditions are met. The fourth of those conditions is that stalking or flushing out must take place on land belonging to the person carrying out that activity, or that the person concerned has been permitted to use the land for that purpose by the landowner. That seems entirely reasonable. It is surely right that hunting should take place only with the permission of the landowner. Indeed, concern about trespass, of which much has been said—particularly by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough—is referred to in the Burns report. In chapter 9.8, Lord Burns clearly states:

    ``There are too many cases of trespass, disruption and disturbance. These are most common where hunts operate too close to residential areas and interfere with the movement of traffic on roads. We do not want to exaggerate these problems but they can cause distress to the individuals and families involved.''

It might be argued that, whether or not there is a ban, attention should be drawn to

    ``requiring permission to be obtained in writing on a regular basis from farmers and landowners; penalising trespass, or repeated trespass, over land where permission has not been given; and improving means of seeking and obtaining redress.''

Landowners and others are concerned because the legislation on trespass does not provide good protection. Remedies include compensation if damage has occurred or an injunction if someone persistently crosses their land, but that will not deal adequately with people who hunt on the land only once or twice and do not establish sufficient repetition of the act to enable an injunction to be obtained or people who have not caused damage to the property that is sufficiently substantial to provide a case for compensation. The law covering trespass is not an adequate safeguard; that is the view of Deadline 2000, endorsed by the House of Commons.

Let me deal with amendment No. 68. Under the Bill, the stalking or flushing out must take place on land on which the hunter has permission to be. The amendment would provide that the condition would be met and the stalking or flushing out would be legal if it were intended to take place on land where the hunter had permission to be. That may be designed to cover the position when the hunter inadvertently strays on to land where he does not have permission to be.

I offer two observations. First, if I go rambling in the countryside, it is my responsibility to ensure that at all times I am on land where I have a right to be. I do not understand why the same principle should not apply to any hunting that is allowed to continue, not least because hunting is a much more intrusive activity than rambling.

Mr. Leigh: Am I right in saying that if I ramble along a footpath on someone's land but then decide deliberately to go off the footpath, I am not committing a criminal offence?

Mr. O'Brien: That would depend what the hon. Gentleman is doing in the process, but he is probably committing civil trespass, not a criminal offence. The remedy open to the landowner would be limited; precisely the point that Conservative Members made when we discussed the right to roam proposals. They said then that protection for landowners was inadequate, but now that we are discussing hunting, protection and safeguards are not required for landowners.

Mr. Garnier: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: In a moment, perhaps.

Anyone who is found to have been stalking or flushing out on land where he did not have permission to be would doubtless claim that he had inadvertently strayed on to the land and the purpose of the condition would be lost.

Amendments Nos. 69 and 87 are similar to amendment No. 68. We know from a leaked e-mail that their purpose is to introduce increased ambiguity into the Bill. We are always pleased to be joined by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and if he could join us in Committee, he would be able to explain his intention to introduce as much ambiguity as possible into the Bill. However, the Government's objective is to ensure that we have good law that is not ambiguous and does blur the force of the provisions. We need clarity, so rather than a stalker or flusher-out having been permitted by a landowner, he would have to satisfy the condition to be safe from prosecution.

Mr. Soames: Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I have said that I shall give way to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough in due course and I shall do so when I am ready. I welcome the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex to the Committee. I understand that it was his birthday yesterday and we congratulate him. We are pleased that he has recovered from the exertions of the night before to join us. I note that he requires copious drinks of water, so I conclude that he had a good evening, which he well deserved.

Mr. Soames: The Under-Secretary should be aware that I give up drinking from the end of the shooting season until Easter, without even the exception of my birthday. Like the Queen, I have two birthdays, one being after the end of my drinking abstinence.

May I ask the Under-Secretary to define a stalker and a flusher-out? Hunters do not stalk. The meaning of stalking and what is being stalked is utterly unclear in the Bill.

It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
O'Hara, Mr. Edward (Chairman)
Banks, Mr.
Beith, Mr.
Cawsey, Mr.
Foster, Mr. Michael J.
Garnier, Mr.
Gibson, Dr.
Golding, Mrs.
Gummer, Mr.
Hall, Mr. Mike
Henderson, Mr. Ivan
Kennedy, Jane
Leigh, Mr.
Lepper, Mr.
Lidington, Mr.
Michael, Mr.
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
—pik, Mr.
Pickthall, Mr.
Prentice, Ms Bridget
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Rendel, Mr. David
Simpson, Mr. Alan
Simpson, Mr. Keith
Smith, Angela
Soames, Mr.

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Prepared 13 February 2001