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Session 2000-01
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Standing Committee Debates
Hunting Bill

Hunting Bill

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 13 February 2001


[Part II]

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Hunting Bill

[Continuation from column 548]

8.45 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Maples: I shall take away some abiding impressions from this Committee—for example, I shall never think of water voles or lurchers in quite the same way again—and two important ones. The first is that there are some people serving on this Committee, very few, and I do not include myself among them, who really know what they are talking about. When my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire and the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme talk about the countryside, and the issues that they know about and understand, one realises how misconceived are some of the subsidiary provisions of the Bill. The second is that, leaving aside the issue of fox hunting, clause 3 shows how irrational are some of the subsidiary provisions of the Bill.

Hon. Members who voted for the Bill thought that they were voting to ban organised hunting, not voting for a moral distinction between a rat, a mink and a rabbit, which is what the Bill creates. It is nonsense to do that. I do not know what it is that allows a moral distinction to be created between which kind of animal can be killed by a dog, and which kind of animal can be flushed out by a dog, to be shot. Under this paragraph as it stands, it is all right for a dog to kill a rat, or rodent—which includes a few other species as well—but not to kill a rabbit. It is all right for a dog to flush out a rabbit, which is then shot, or as we have said before, in the case of a small animal, to allow a bird of prey to pick it up and drop it. In the case of mink—which for some reason has attracted the attentions of the Government, or Deadline 2000, or whoever is responsible for this nonsense—we are not allowed to flush them out and shoot them. Where are the moral distinctions?

The Bill attempts to draw distinctions between the kind of animals that can be killed in different ways, and the different methods that can be used to kill particular animals. There is no logic, no morality to those distinctions. That brings me back to the people who know what they are talking about in this debate. One realises that the balance of nature in the countryside has been managed for hundreds of years by people who live in the countryside, and who understand it. It may be that standards about cruelty to animals change over time. All, except one, of the Labour Members on this Committee recognise that our only responsibility is to make sure that unnecessary cruelty to animals does not occur. I wholly agree with that. If we begin to interfere in the management of the countryside, and the delicate balance of nature that occurs there, we cannot know where it will end.

Mink are not a natural species to this country, they escaped from captivity in the 1950s and have now overrun the place and are destroying water voles. When we begin to interfere, we do not know what the consequences will be. We have seen this in two other areas recently, where we became sentimental about badgers, so we made them a protected species. Badgers are now rampant over the countryside, they do enormous damage to fields and banks and hedgerows. They cause danger, as fields can collapse under tractors or people riding horses. They also probably spread tuberculosis. Now the time has come to control them again. Perhaps we should have left management of badgers to the people who understood the countryside, who never would have eliminated badgers as a species, but would have kept them at manageable proportions.

We have seen the same with the protection of birds of prey, to the point now where birds of prey have overrun large areas of Scottish moorland and are doing immense damage to the young grouse population on those hillsides. Grouse-shooting is a big industry in Scotland that attracts wealthy people paying enormous sums of money. We should be careful when we interfere in the balance of nature and the management of the countryside. Let us ban hunting, if that is what the House wants to do. I do not want that and shall fight it all the way, but I understand the issues. However, why all the subsidiaries? Why is a mink treated differently from a rat or a rabbit?

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex seems to have had the same briefing note as me, as I was going to say much of what he said. Rabbits and mink are quite clearly pests. They need to be controlled and need various methods of controlling them. Killing them with dogs is one of those methods. It is difficult to shoot a mink, which is a small animal. The most efficient way of killing a mink is with a dog. Why are we not prepared to allow that to be done to rabbits? Rabbits are a pest; they eat crops and multiply at enormous numbers. Every farmer has tried to control the rabbits on their land, and yet we are prohibiting them from using one of the methods of control that they have hitherto used. Farmers say that they want all those methods available to them.

Why are we drawing those distinctions? It makes no moral sense. I suggest to the Minister that it makes no practical sense, and to pre-empt his customary excuse, which is to say that that is nothing to do with him but concerns Deadline 2000, let me say that the Minister and his Department will be responsible for the administration of the Bill. If the Bill produces a complete nonsense in the countryside, with ridiculous prosecutions, or elimination of the population of water voles, or rabbits running riot, it will be the Minister and his Department who will have to answer for that and do something about it. It is in the interests of the Minister, his Department, the country, and particularly of the countryside to address the issues now, and not simply to resist every amendment that the Opposition comes up with.

Mrs. Golding: There are many articles these days about saving the water vole. I have one here that says:

    ``Look out for water voles and report sightings to your local Trust and lobby your MP to press for improved wildlife legislation.''

Ha, ha, ha.

Mr. Maples: My knowledge of the water vole has been expanded by another dimension by the hon. Lady's intervention. My notes say that the water vole has declined by an estimated 88 per cent. of its total population over the past 10 to 12 years, presumably almost entirely due to mink. At one time, after they had first escaped from captivity, it was Government policy to eradicate mink, not just to control them. Mink are a pest, they are not native, and we have survived for hundreds of years until the 1950s without mink. Yet now they are getting the protected status that is not even due to the little fluffy bunnies about which everyone anthropomorphises. It is still Government policy to eliminate them in certain areas of Scotland.

Mr. Garnier: My hon. Friend has been a Treasury Minister and therefore has had an overview of most other Government Departments. Does he not anticipate, as a direct consequence of the legislation, an unholy row developing between the Home Office and the Ministry of Agriculture?

Mr. Maples: It would be interesting to be privy to some of the discussions that are going on. However, I hope that the two Ministers who are dealing with the Bill have started to understand that there are some difficulties with it, and that it goes way beyond the abolition of organised hunting. We all know what we mean by organised hunting—it is a few dogs with several people following them. However, the Bill goes much further than that. It bans the activities of one dog, for instance, hunting rabbits and, as I have said, draws distinctions that seem to make no sense. The Bill will land us in trouble. It will land the Government in difficulties when it comes to administering it and it will land the countryside and farmers in trouble over how they control animals that, under any definition, are clearly pests. It draws arbitrary distinctions between methods of killing categories of animals.

Mr. Öpik: The hon. Gentleman correctly describes the target for prohibition. He would of course agree that there are many times when a number of individuals with a number of dogs would merely be carrying out pest control. That highlights the complexities caused by the Bill because of its totally inflexible approach to prohibition.

Mr. Maples: As I say, I hope that the Ministers will take this on board. If they will not make concessions here, I hope that they will think about the matter again. The real question that we must ask about all legislation is whether we are creating unintended consequences. Will we regret doing this? Every Government should ask themselves weekly, ``What are we doing that is wrong and will create more problem than it solves?''. Governments do not get everything right. The Ministers should look at some of the consequences of the Bill and not simply hide behind Deadline 2000.

I understand that the Government and the House want a ban on what I would call organised hunting, but I do not believe that hon. Members who voted for this Bill or those who support it outside the House realise that it creates a system in which it is legal for a dog to hunt and kill a rat, but not a rabbit. It is legal to flush out a rabbit with a dog and shoot it, but not a mink. Those are serious anomalies that will create tremendous problems for the management of the wildlife and countryside and the control of pests. They are justified on neither practical nor moral grounds. If the Bill does not have a moral dimension and if there is not an overwhelming moral reason for stopping people doing what they want to do, it has no place on our statute book.

Labour Members and many outside this place believe that there is an overwhelming moral reason for banning organised hunting, but they have not thought about these subsidiary issues. The more one examines the Bill, the more one realises that not only are the anomalies not justified on either practical or moral grounds, but they are laying up considerable problems for pest control and countryside management in the future.


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Prepared 13 February 2001