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Hunting with Dogs

4.19 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Rural Affairs. The Statement is as follows:

And that is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister gave me the job of fulfilling our manifesto promise by designing legislation to command support in Parliament and to make good law—legislation that will stand the test of time.

    "At the request of the Campaign for the Protection of the Hunted Animal and the Countryside Alliance, I took the conclusions of the Burns inquiry as my starting point. His terms of reference required Lord Burns to consider all aspects of hunting with dogs, and the authority of his report is acknowledged on all sides.

    "The key issues emerging from the Burns report were cruelty and utility. Those two principles have run like a golden thread through the consultation

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    process. Everything has been tested against those principles: are we preventing cruelty and are we recognising what farmers and others need to do to eradicate vermin or to protect their livestock or crops or the bio-diversity of an area?

    "My Bill is based on the answers to those two questions. After my Statement in March, I started a wide-ranging consultation process involving all interested parties, Members of Parliament and the public. Initially, the response generated more heat than light. About 7,000 people wrote asking me to leave everything unchanged. That matched about 7,000 who asked me to 'just ban everything'. However, others wrote detailed contributions based on evidence and their personal experience.

    "In May, I asked for detailed evidence to be submitted against a set of questions and criteria based on considering the issues of cruelty and utility and other questions raised by the evidence that I had received by that time. The amount of serious engagement increased greatly. In September, I chaired a series of public hearings in Portcullis House. The three main campaigning groups participated in full. Together, we heard expert witnesses from all sides of the argument who debated the merit of applying the principles of cruelty and utility to the activity of hunting mammals with dogs.

    "I want to pay tribute to the leaders of those groups—the Countryside Alliance, the Campaign for the Protection of the Hunted Animal and the Middle Way Group—who fully engaged in a mature and intelligent manner with an issue on which each of them felt passionately and deeply. During the consultation, both sides have welcomed and praised a process that has been fair, open and transparent.

    "The two principles of cruelty and utility provide the golden thread that runs from the start to the finish of the process and through the drafting of the Bill. That golden thread is strengthened by the integrity of the process, basis of principle and strong focus on evidence that has led me to conclusions that, I hope, will command the support of the House.

    "I will publish a Bill this afternoon, but in advance of that, let me take this opportunity to outline the reasoning behind my conclusions. There has been support from all the organisations involved for the idea of drafting legislation on the basis of evidence and the two principles of cruelty and utility. That in itself is significant and should be noted by Members opposite.

    "On a number of occasions, John Jackson, chairman of the Countryside Alliance, said:

    'If something is cruel, we should not be doing it'.

Animal welfare organisations have acknowledged utility: things that need to be done for such purposes as eradicating vermin or protecting livestock. Indeed, they included a list of exemptions in the

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Deadline 2000 option that we debated in the last Parliament. The Middle Way Group has also acknowledged the validity of those two principles.

    "So the legislation is designed to recognise utility and prevent cruelty. Let me briefly spell out what that means. The utility test involves asking what is necessary to prevent serious damage to livestock, crops and other property or biological diversity. The cruelty test involves asking which effective methods of achieving that purpose cause the least suffering.

    "All activities will be judged on the evidence available as to whether they meet both those tests. Where an activity has no utility and involves cruelty, it will not be allowed to continue. Incontrovertible evidence shows that the activities of hare coursing and deer hunting cannot meet the two tests, so those activities will be banned. Where an activity with dogs has general utility and there is no generally less cruel method, it will be allowed. Again, incontrovertible evidence has shown that the activities of ratting and rabbiting should be allowed to continue and that will be dealt with in the Bill.

    "For some activities the evidence is less clear cut. For these activities, I propose to set up an independent process to consider on a case-by-case basis whether particular activities involving dogs meet the two tests. That is consistent with the Burns findings. The procedure will require an application to an independent registrar to show why there is a need to undertake the proposed activity and that the cruelty test is satisfied. The procedure will then allow a prescribed animal welfare organisation to provide evidence as well.

    "If the registrar is satisfied that both tests are met, he will grant registration. If not, he will refuse. In considering applications, the registrar will also have to consider whether the applicant will be able to comply with standard conditions, such as requiring hunted animals to be killed quickly and humanely when caught. Applicants may also specify conditions to which their hunting will be subject.

    "If either side wants to appeal against the decision, they can do so to an independent tribunal. The tribunal will be a national body with a president at its head appointed by the Lord Chancellor. A panel will have a legally qualified chairman, normally sitting with two other members, one with land management experience and the other with animal welfare experience.

    "That is similar to the fair and effective way in which housing and employment law have been dealt with to a high standard for many years. Let me stress that we will not establish local tribunals. At every stage, there will be balance, fairness, clear principles, transparency and an emphasis on evidence within a process based on clear tests that enables hunters and those concerned with animal welfare to present their evidence.

    "The onus is now on those who want to undertake any activity to show that they can meet the tests of utility and cruelty. They may find ways of changing their activity to meet the two tests. That will be a

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    matter for them, and I shall not prejudge the independent registrar. What is clear is that if they cannot meet the tests, the activity cannot continue. It is simple: if the activity cannot meet the tests, the activity will not happen; if it can, it will.

    "A number of commentators have tried to suggest that we intend going beyond the issue of hunting with dogs to other country sports. I want to make clear that there is no such intention. It is spelled out in our manifesto commitment:

    'we have no intention whatsoever of placing restrictions on the sports of angling and shooting'.

    "I am also convinced by the evidence that there is no need to control falconry within the provisions of my Bill. In falconry, dogs are used to flush out quarry, so for the avoidance of doubt the Bill will specify such activities as exempted activities.

    "It may be argued that the two principles of utility and cruelty on which I am basing my proposals do not go wide enough. The social and economic contribution of hunting will be mentioned, or the argument that ancient freedoms should not be interfered with. Those are serious points. I do not take them lightly. But the key point is that nobody has—nor should have—a right to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals. Of course, we want to keep to a minimum the constraints on people's behaviour and activity, but to ask for the liberty to be cruel would be absurd. Parliament has the right to set limits and has done so in the past. That is what this Bill does.

    "The Bill seeks to prevent cruelty associated with hunting with dogs. Even being registered will not allow people to undertake activities in such a way as to cause avoidable or unnecessary suffering. People will be registered to hunt certain species with dogs in a specific area. They will not have licence to be cruel.

    "Let us not forget that we have to address the issue and bring it to a sensible resolution in a way that will stand the test of time rather than being a quick fix or a temporary solution that cannot be implemented. My conclusions are based on evidence and principle, not prejudice on either side of the argument. I hope that Members on both sides will see the merit of the proposals. They are fair and reasonable; they balance principle and evidence; and they can be enforced.

    "Most people want to see cruelty prevented. They also want farmers, gamekeepers and others who have to manage the land to be able to do so. There is no magic wand. There is no quick win. The basis of principle and evidence provides a golden thread that runs through the whole process and provides authority for the proposals themselves. I believe that the proposals will stand the test of time and are right. I commend them to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.29 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place—after, as too often happens, the Government leaked it to the

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press in advance. We shall all have to wait to read the Bill's detail, but I am grateful to the Minister for outlining the Government's thoughts.

Am I alone in finding the Statement an astonishing reflection of the Government's priorities? Nothing is working properly in the country: not the trains; not the roads; not the health service; not, as we shall hear shortly, the examination system; and not, as we heard last week, the Chancellor's management of the economy. There is so much to do—so much that the Government have touched, tinkered and tampered with and made worse.

We have a public pre-occupied with the growth of industrial action. We face a major threat from international terrorism. We have a nation on the verge of being taken to war with Iraq. To cap it all, we have daily reports of strife at the highest levels of government. It is against that background that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, unveils the flagship item of this Session's legislative programme—a Bill to ban hunting.

It will not be in the countryside only that the Government's sense of priorities will be utterly disbelieved. Whatever Bill is presented to us later today we cannot be sure that it will be the same Bill as will be introduced to another place. I state clearly that we on this side have a free vote. It is not a party issue.

In this response I speak for my party in condemning the bizarre sense of legislative priority, but I speak for myself now in expressing my views. I am bitterly disappointed in the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. We heard a lot of fine talk about compromise. But there should be no doubt that the end result of the proposals put forward will mean the end of hunting in most tracts of our countryside; the alienation and criminalisation of law-abiding people; and, ironically, the control of foxes by means far more cruel than those already in place and anything that takes place in a properly conducted hunt.

Who do the Government think that will please? It will not please the fanatics who want a total ban on all country sports, or the abolitionists on Labour's Back Benches in another place who have already made clear that they will try to amend the Bill. The Government have not only lost their sense of priorities, they seem to be losing their political touch, too.

What is it with this Government and the countryside? We are living through the greatest collapse of farm incomes and the gravest rural economic crisis in living memory. We have endured the agony of foot and mouth and the government-driven cruelty of the slaughter of millions of animals. And now we have this proposal. However it is dressed, it will be seen as an erosion of ancient freedoms and a passport to the destruction of a large part of our country life.

The Government would be unwise to anticipate an easy ride. I fear that the Bill is a divisive Bill that cannot be driven either through another place or through your Lordships' House without impacting on

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other parts of the Government's legislative programme. And no so-called "modernisation" of procedure will change that.

We shall look carefully at the Bill when it is published, but I shall ask questions immediately. There is to be rabbiting, ratting and falconry; a little bit of hunting in some places; and no hunting in other places. Where is the logic in that? Where is the principle? Where is the "golden thread", mentioned repeatedly by the Minister, running through the proposed legislation? I fear that it is a pretty slender thread.

What is the case for placing the onus on country people to prove their innocence? Is not that one more example of the changing of the onus of proof to the accused, as we have seen in too many Bills recently from the Government? For how long will the proposed licences be granted? Will they be permanent licences, or time limited? On what grounds will the so-called "independent registrar"—an unelected official—be given life and death powers over hunting? Is not the so-called "independent tribunal" a beast on which the views of one member and another will inevitably disagree, with the casting vote perhaps going to the president appointed by the Lord Chancellor? That looks suspiciously like a right of appeal from one government department being given to an appointee of another. Who will those people be? Will conservation and employment be a criteria that affect their judgment on utility?

Finally, I do not want to turn to individual activities. There will be ample scope for that in Committee. Does the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, have any idea of the scale of damage that a ban on stag hunting will have on the fragile economy of Exmoor and the West Country?

However one looks at it, it is an anti-hunting Bill. Hunting and country people have gone a long way to meet the Government. They consulted and they talked to the Government. They proposed constructive ways to move the debate forward. I am sure that spirit still remains. I hope that the Government will not pursue a divisive and damaging course that may play well with their Back-Benchers at a time of growing difficulty for the Government.

The Minister's right honourable friend was right when he said that few people will regard this as the most important issue facing Parliament. Does the Minister have any influence? Is it too late for him to persuade his right honourable friend to draw the logical conclusions of his own Statement and set this Bill on one side to allow for further discussion?

I fear that what is proposed will divide the country even further and that the real priorities of the public will yet again be neglected.

4.36 p.m.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, I, too, on behalf of these Benches, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. For a long time the Liberal Democrats' official policy has been to support a ban on hunting with dogs. I hope that the

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Government, too, will have a free vote on the issue. We recognise that a whole range of views are held with deep conscience on this matter. Both in another place and here, if and when we vote on the matter, we shall no doubt find ourselves in different Lobbies.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said, one of the difficulties of responding to the Statement and questioning the Minister today is that we do not know what will be in the Bill when it is published this afternoon. We have no idea what the other place will do to it on a free vote before it arrives here. Therefore, the discussion is difficult. I must add that it is unusual to have a Statement announcing that a Bill will be starting its progress through Parliament. That is not a normal procedure. In my view we should be discussing other issues rather than discussing this matter yet again in your Lordships' House.

If the Bill arrives and if your Lordships are prepared to return it in some form, it should be done expeditiously and that should be the end of parliamentary debate. Indeed, the Statement repeatedly says that it is important that the proposals stand the test of time.

The first major question I have is whether the proposals are likely to do that. The mechanism being set up seems designed to result in a series of continuing arguments, area by area, hunt by hunt, before the tribunals. Rather than settling the argument, there must be at least a strong possibility that it will merely keep it rumbling on month after month, year after year. Sooner or later it will no doubt end up back in Parliament.

My personal view is that hunting with dogs should not be allowed. People can judge anything else that I say in the light of that, although I am trying to take an objective view.

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