Mr. Cawsey: It was not funny.
Mr. Öpik: I do not laugh, especially with animal welfare considerations in mind. The owner of the pet seems to be the only member of the Committee laughing. He said that the dog had run underground and had been attacked by a rat.
It would be very unfortunate if a gentleman like the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole, for whom I have great respect, were to be criminalised simply because his dog followed its natural instincts. Perhaps the dog was playing a game of hide and seek with the hon. Gentleman. Why any pet should wish to hide from as lovable an owner, I do not know. [Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary should not be the only hon. Member who is flattered from the Opposition Benches. It seems a little unfair.
Mrs. Golding: I thank the hon. and gracious Gentleman for giving way. Rats go in streams and rivers. The Bill does not say ``underground''; it says ``below ground''. Rivers are below ground and on top of the ground. What does that mean?
Mr. Öpik: My hon. Friend makes a good point.
In all seriousness, the example relating to the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole underlines the serious concern that all that would stand between his prosecution and his acquittal would be his ability to prove that he did not intentionally allow his dog to go underground and attack the rat.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and others have underlined, we believe that that is an extremely difficult thing to do. In the light of the amendments that were not carried, it seems that there is no insurance policy for individuals such as the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole that would significantly increase their chances of evading a criminal conviction.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme made an important point. The phrase ``below ground'' is too imprecise to be used as a basis for criminal liability. As she said, what is ``below ground''? A culvert, a woodpile or a dip in the ground could theoretically be argued to be such, as could an old railway tunnel, a pipe or a river. We do not have a sufficiently clear definition at this stage to be able to answer that. Not only that; plenty of above-ground structures are just as constricting as those below ground.
To give another example, if one goes ratting on the first floor of a building, presumably that would be legitimate because it is not a below-ground structure, but if the dog tears off down the steps into the cellar, does that mean that the person who is ratting is committing a criminal offence? We have discussed the matter at some length. Hon. Members will recall those debates, but this is the point at which we might want to deal with it by way of amendment.
The Committee will remember that we ended up in a rather strange debate where the Minister attempted to define what that meant. He implied that one needed to have soil above one's head to be underground. Does that mean that, in a cellar that extends under my garden, I have to draw a line along the ground and affix a lead so that the dog can go only as far as that line? If the rat runs under the extent of my garden and the dog chases it, will I be breaking the law? That sounds a fatuous point, but a judge's responsibility is to apply the law, not to judge its sense. There is insensibility in that part of the Bill, which could cause difficulty.
There is another obvious question. If a dog were to chase a rat underground, would it be acceptable to dig a hole vertically above the rat and to drop a dog into it on the grounds that the soil is not above the rat's head? Those points need to be dealt with. Will the Parliamentary Secretary assure us on the matter? As it stands and given the extent of the previous debates on that point, I remain concerned that merely hoping that legal precedent will resolve the issue is a dangerous way to proceed, not least because we will make criminals out of people acting with good intent, whom a judge simply cannot acquit because, technically, it would be absolutely clear to the judge that, regardless of the intent, the individual had laid themselves open to a criminal prosecution.
Furthermore, the Bill as it stands is illogical because it allows ferrets to be used below ground, but not dogs. Rodent control, for example, is often carried out by ferrets, yet the Bill prohibits only the use of terriers underground. There can be no reason for that contradiction, except perhaps a genuinely innocent oversight by the supporters of the Bill. Again, that issue could be resolved. I would not want to second-guess the intent of Deadline 2000. Between now and Tuesday, the Minister may have to consult the supporters of the Bill to understand what the position is. As it stands, there is no philosophical consistency in allowing the use of ferrets, but not terriers.
The restriction on using terriers underground for rodent control also runs counter to the Home Office's stated recognition of the need to control rodents. I refer hon. Members to a letter from the Minister to the Countryside Alliance on 30 November 2000. It said that
There are also some practical considerations. The National Working Terrier Federation is a professional body that attempts to regulate the use of terriers through a self-disciplining code, to which individual terrier men and women sign up and adhere. The federation states:
It is here that matters become equivocal. Burns expressed some concerns. In fairness, plenty of evidence was submitted to sustain both pro and anti-terrier work positions. I have talked to the likes of Barry Wade, who is one of the more prominent terrier men, and huntsmen such as David Jones, who has done much to inform my understanding of the issue. My suspicion is that a middle groundI use the phrase advisedly, but it does seem appropriateprobably exists. Some terrier men have managed to train their terriers to operate in a professional way. If one thinks about the matter, it will be clear that no one who owns an effective terrier will want it to get torn up in underground fights. One would expect ageing terriers to show signs of damage from such incidents. Indeed, some terriers do, but others that are 10, 11 or 12-years-old do not. My tentative conclusion, therefore, is that some terriers can indeed be trained not to attack adult foxes.
I should be interested and grateful to hear the views of other members of the Committee, particularly of those who support a ban. As I have said, my conclusion is evidential and not based on a priori grounds or a fundamental principle, but are we justified in banning an activity for which there is only equivocal evidence? Moreover, there is fairly strong evidence that, in the right hands, a terrier can be trained not to attack an adult fox underground.
The National Gamekeepers Organisation stated:
The National Farmers Union states:
An even more serious concern is that the welfare of foxes might be compromised if dogs cannot be used underground. Professor Macdonald, who was commissioned by the Burns inquiry to look into population management and control of quarry species, said:
The matter was raised with the Scottish Society for the Protection of Animals, which gave oral evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Rural Affairs Committee in connection with Lord Watson's Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Bill on 21 November 2000. Richard Lochhead MSP asked:
For this reason and in the absence of a close season, the Society was reluctantly obliged to concede the use of terriers to despatch cubs. Even this carries a risk to the terrier encountering a vixen attempting to protect her cubs.''
It is important to recognise that what I am discussing does not contradict the spirit of schedule 3 as it stands now. A phrase that is often quotedI have seen it in the papers again in the past two daysis that we cannot license cruelty. We can debate that, but we can license an activity and that is what we are discussing. It could not be called licensingthere is no regulation to go with itbut the schedule allows the use of falconry, guns and so forth for the control of rats and a number of other activities that inflict suffering on animals. There is no reason in principle why terrier work should necessarily be singled out as an activity that needs to be banned. As such, taking into consideration animal welfare and accepting that there is a balance of evidence on terrier work, some hon. Members may be influenced to think again about the way in which the Bill is laid out on that issue. A balance has to be struck and, leaving aside the civil liberties issues that were discussed on the Floor of the House, animal welfare should be seriously considered.
I look forward to hearing what other hon. Members have to say, but I hope that the arguments that I have advanced, whether one agrees with them or not, are at least internally consistent. If one accepts the assumptions of the SSPCA, terrier men and others, there is no open-and-shut case for banning terrier work. Perhaps some form of regulation would be preferable.
I shall direct my final question to the Parliamentary Secretary. Given the case that I have put forward and on the basis of what others on both sides say, I should be interested to know if she were willing to reflect on whether the Bill goes too far on terrier work and whether the amendments, including the cave amendment, perhaps make it a little more balanced, sensible and workable, but also more fair. As it stands, given the difficulties with the slightly inflexible approach to dogs underground, I am concerned that the schedule will serve neither the interests of animal welfare, nor the interests of pest control.
|©Parliamentary copyright 2001||Prepared 8 February 2001|